First Nations leaders and environmental groups across the coast have expressed “cautious optimism” at Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s recent announcement of a $1.5B ocean protection plan for B.C.’s coast.
In Vancouver last week for the announcement, Trudeau said the funding over five years will include creating a marine safety system, restoring marine ecosystems and research into oil spill cleanup methods. He called it “the most significant investment ever made to protect our oceans and coastlines.”
The recent diesel spill in the remote community of Bella Bella highlighted significant gaps in the response capabilities of some of B.C.’s most rugged and isolated coastline. Members of the Heiltsuk First Nation, who were first on the scene, responded with whatever equipment was available to them, and it certainly wasn’t adequate.
Jess Housty, a councillor with the Heiltsuk Nation, called the first 72 hours of the spill “totally uncoordinated” as responders struggled with bad weather, lack of resources, and a fragmented command system.
“The ongoing incident at Bella Bella is unacceptable,” said Trudeau, referring to the spill. “It’s time for a change.”
Trudeau said the funding includes increased coast guard capacity, new rescue stations, tougher rules for businesses that pollute on the coasts, and Indigenous community response teams. The tanker ban promised by the Liberal government in their 2015 election platform has yet to be announced.
Chief of the Heiltsuk First Nation, Marilyn Slett, says they were pleased to see the plan includes developing community response teams with Indigenous communities.
The government’s commitment includes the formation of new Indigenous Community Response Teams in British Columbia, which will offer training for search and rescue, environmental response, and incident command. This approach will enable them to play a greater role in marine safety in their community, involvement of Indigenous groups in new response requirements planning, and creating a new chapter of the CCG Auxiliary in British Columbia to support Indigenous communities.
“As always, we hope that the National Oceans Protection Plan becomes law and is implemented as quickly as possible, along with the Trudeau government’s promised tanker ban,” said Kelly Brown, Director of Heiltsuk Integrated Resource Management Department (HIRMD). “All the response teams in the world couldn’t reasonably hope to contain more than 15 percent of a major oil spill, and ensuring that these vessels are never given the opportunity to transit Heiltsuk waters is a major focus for our Nation.”
The Western Canada Marine Response Corporation listed a statement on their website stating it “fully supports the new federal plan.” The corporation said it “believes the plan addresses the main areas of concern on the West Coast, namely lack of towing capacity, outdated response requirements, derelict vessels and Indigenous involvement in marine response.”
The announcement of the new Oceans Protection Plan did not reference an anticipated tanker moratorium for the north coast, but federal Transport Minister Marc Garneau has indicated that this will be announced before year’s end.
The Heiltsuk have issued an invitation to both Prime Minister Trudeau to make the announcement on the tanker ban in Bella Bella.
“We believe that it’s time for the Prime Minister to come out and visit,” said Heiltsuk chief councillor Marilyn Slett. “On behalf of the Heiltsuk people, on behalf of the Heiltsuk Nation, we invite Justin Trudeau, our prime minister, out here to Bella Bella.”
Environmental groups and concerned citizens expressed fears that this announcement is paving the way for the Liberal’s approval of Kinder Morgan’s controversial Trans Mountain pipeline, a project that is strongly opposed by the City of Vancouver and its mayor, Gregor Robertson.
“There is no question from our analysis it’s not worth the risk. In fact, it’s not in Canada’s interest,” said Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson, at the first of three days of hearings held by a federal panel reviewing the project last August. “People and the environment are at risk, but there is very significant risk to Vancouver’s economy and the region’s economy.”
Trudeau was questioned on his government’s support for the project multiple times but refused to give a direct answer. He also did not comment on the government’s promised tanker ban, but Transport Minister Marc Garneau did say it was coming by the end of the year.
NDP MP Nathan Cullen said he has “some concerns” over the announcement, saying he was hoping for more.
“It gives me some concern … that they’re getting the ground ready to have something maybe not as strong as what they promised in the election,” said Nathan Cullen. “If a house kept setting on fire and the government’s response was to put more fire alarms in there, well, maybe we could look at why the house is catching on fire in the first place.”