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Hartley Bay and the human cost of the pipeline

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Hartley Bay

Hartley Bay

We have heard plenty about the damage that an oil spill can inflict on the environment, whether from a sinking tanker or a ruptured pipeline.  But what about the impact on human health?  To find out more, I asked Theresa Martin, who recently returned from a stint in Hartley Bay.  Theresa, a member of Sierra Club, was working there as a community nurse.

Hartley Bay is a small village of the Gitga’at Nation nestled at one end of Douglas Channel.  If you have heard about it at all, it’s probably because of the help and warm hospitality the villagers offered to the shipwrecked passengers of the ill-fated Queen of the North ferry.  And, of course, the village has been mentioned recently in the context of the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline: it is located right smack in the middle of the proposed tanker path.oil-spill-hartley-bay-2012-map

“Mental health”, Theresa responded without hesitation when I asked about her main concerns in regards to the project and affects on health.  “Mental health is a significant public health issue in most First Nations communities”,  she said. Depression, anxiety, and suicide are key problems, far more common than the Canadian average.  The mental scars that resulted from the residential schools are still very present – most elders have lived through them.  And the pain crosses the generations: as the stories are passed down, so is the pain, the hopelessness, and the depression.  Larger health issues can stem from these emotions such as increased rates of stress-reducing habits including cigarette smoking, alcoholism, and substance abuse. These habits lead to further chronic health issues, and can contribute to violence related injuries. Not to mention increased reliance on anti-depressants and anxiolytics.

Theresa explains it is often a problem of disconnectedness, of disempowerment. With Harley Bay being one of the communities at highest risk and one who has fought hard in opposition, approval of the project alone could lead them to feel disheartened; their sense of hope would be broken. In a community where connection to the land and sea is still so strong and cultural practices remain engrained, this could have detrimental affects. The Gitga’at have developed an intimate relationship with their environment.  But for generations now, they have been told that this is of no value, they have been scolded for speaking the language of their elders.

But while this situation is slowly improving, there is now the specter of environmental pollution.  First Nation members are well aware of the environmental injustice that many of them have been victims of.  Tales of unexplained disease clusters are well known, from Sarnia, where Theresa grew up, to the Athabasca downstream of the tar sands.  She recounts her own experience at another First Nations village she worked at,  “the community was concerned about mines and mining exploration in the surrounding area. They believed there were increasing cases of their members being diagnosed with cancer and respiratory problems. Maybe it was due to the mines and maybe not. The village is remote; it’s very difficult, and no one bothers, to carry out long-term studies and follow-up, so we just don’t know.  But this is certainly a factor in generating anxiety.”

P1010119Hartley Bay is still quite pristine.  Food is difficult to purchase; there is no grocery store. The locals stock up on staples whenever they travel to Kitimat or Rupert, but the surrounding ocean and river is the main providerSalmon, crab, and halibut make up a large part of the diet.  There is a small garden for vegetables (no mean feat in this boggy landscape), and folks gather wild berries such as salal to eat.  Not an easy life, but the locals are proud of their ability to feed themselves.  Theresa received fresh crab as a gift, on a particularly stormy day.  “You went out in this weather?”, she said.  “Well, yeah, got to feed my family”, said her generous donor. “I know these waters, they’re my home.  I needed to get the traps in and I know where to go.  It’s just a bit of choppy water.” P1010105

Obviously the potential of a spill could create a lot of anxiety here. If there is a spill, what happens to the water?  Crucially, what happens to the food it provides? When Theresa asked a community member about her opinion of the project, she said: “I’ll tell you one thing. They better have a place ready for us in Ottawa, because when there’s a spill, they’ll be nowhere else for us to go.”  A disruption in the food supply, even if temporary, would be nothing short of catastrophic.        

And we know, if the project goes ahead, it’s only a matter of time before this happens.  And this is generating fear, a real fear, a fear palpable enough to contribute to anxiety and depression, a fear important enough to cause Theresa to consider it a professional obligation to speak, as a nurse, at the Enbridge hearings.

So, forget about the air quality problems that would result from the tankers belching smoke in the narrow inlet.   Forget about the potential impacts to drinking water.  These may be very real concerns, but they don’t even begin to touch upon the overlooked issue of mental health and all the other issues that stem from it.

For the people of Hartley Bay, the sinking of the Queen of the North is not some abstract statistic.  For them, it was real breathing humans in distress, soaking wet, hungry, disoriented, and scared.  The help that the villagers provided was exemplary.  But the villagers know all too well how the sinking is an apt metaphor for what may befall their community should the project go ahead.

But this, paradoxically, may well point to the solution.  From Attawapiskat to Idle No More, First Nations are making it clear that they’re no longer passive victims.  They’re taking charge.  Maybe in this awakening is the solution to the chronic health issues?  Let’s hope it is, for all of our sakes.


Photos courtesy of Theresa Martin.


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