Ban the tankers — and keep the Coast alive
Bill C-48, the Oil Tanker Moratorium Act, is a welcome piece of legislation catalyzed by the work of Indigenous nations and northern communities over many decades to secure an oil tanker ban on B.C.’s north coast.
Bill C-48 would prohibit tankers carrying more than 12,500 tonnes of crude or persistent oil from docking, loading or unloading at ports in Hecate Strait, Queen Charlotte Sound and Dixon Entrance.
Some opponents of the Bill have argued recently that, because oil tankers frequent waters elsewhere in Canada, we must permit them to ply the north Pacific coast, lest we be guilty of hypocrisy. Others have argued that the bill goes against the government’s commitment to reconciliation.
These arguments turn a blind eye to the circumstances of B.C.’s north coast, the strong support for an oil tanker ban and the need to place some areas off-limits to protect ecological, economic and cultural values.
It is not an accident that there are currently no oil supertankers in the waters of northern B.C.; it is the result of nearly a half-century of impassioned work by those who live there. In 1978, for example, the commissioner of the federal West Coast Oil Ports Inquiry noted that the opposition of coastal residents to introducing oil tankers was “universal” and “determined.” Over the subsequent decades, northerners have demonstrated this time and again, for good reason.
Oil supertankers would pose unacceptable risks to the region’s unique ecosystems, culture and economy.
The waters of Hecate Strait, Queen Charlotte Sound and Dixon Entrance are an ecological treasure. Almost half of the region is classified as “Ecologically or Biologically Significant Areas” according to criteria adopted by the Convention on Biological Diversity. The waters contain natural wonders such as prehistoric glass sponge reefs.
Communities on B.C.’s north coast have worked tirelessly to build economies closely connected to healthy ecosystems, from sustainable fisheries to responsible forestry to ecotourism. According to UBC’s Fisheries Centre, each year ocean-based industries on B.C.’s north coast generate about $1.2 billion, provide employment for more than 9,000 people and contribute approximately $700 million to GDP.
The cultural importance of the region has been reflected in unique initiatives such as marine spatial plans developed collaboratively between 17 First Nations and the B.C. government, and the Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve and Haida Heritage Site.
The Haida Nation has been working with the federal and provincial governments for decades to design an economy founded on a healthy environment. The agreements the Nation has in place support a transition from an economy that extracted resources to one which maintains natural abundance in perpetuity.
For the Haida Nation, Bill C-48 is a good start — and the Haida people fully support it. The Bill recognizes the fragility of the environment and addresses the need to design an economy based on respect for the place we live in. What will surely kill the Haida’s dreams and economy is an oil spill.
Transport Minister Marc Garneau himself has noted that B.C.’s north coast is very remote and particularly challenging for spill response.
One need only look to last year’s sinking of the Nathan E. Stewart tug near Bella Bella for an example of how the response to a relatively “small” fuel spill in the region was made extremely difficult and ineffective by a remote location, rough weather, dangerous waters, and a relative lack of response capacity.
Fisheries closures by both the federal government and the Heiltsuk Nation remain in place today as a result of that spill. This is not the only recent example of marine disasters in the region. The Queen of the North ferry, for instance, still sits at the bottom of Wright Sound, at risk of leaking fuel.
B.C.’s north coast waters are deeply connected to the land and to the people. A serious oil tanker spill would tear into the very fabric of northern communities.
In this context, it is not surprising that there is so much support for Bill C-48. Coastal First Nations, the Yinka Dene Alliance and the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs all publicly support legislating an oil tanker ban on B.C.’s north coast. So does the Union of B.C. Municipalities.
Affected local governments such as the City of Prince Rupert, the District of Kitimat and the Skeena Queen Charlotte Regional District have sent letters supporting Bill C-48. Over thirty community and environmental groups across northern B.C. and throughout Canada have applauded the bill, as have multiple labour organizations such as the United Fishermen and Allied Workers’ Union – Unifor.
The Oil Tanker Moratorium Act will finally recognize the prolonged, dedicated efforts of people on B.C.’s north coast to protect and sustain their environment and economy. It’s about time.
kil tlaats ‘gaa, Peter Lantin, is President of the Haida Nation. Marilyn Slett is Chief Councillor of the Heiltsuk Tribal Council. Des Nobels is Chair of Friends of Wild Salmon, a coalition of north coast residents including First Nations, recreation groups, commercial fishermen, sports anglers and community organizations. Gavin Smith is a staff lawyer at West Coast Environmental Law Association.