When Jess Housty was coming of age in Bella Bella, the coastal B.C. town was experiencing a cultural resurgence. The community was emerging from decades of chaos following the attempted cultural erasure of Indigenous Peoples and the devastation caused by residential schools. Kids in Housty’s generation were taught by elders who were determined to instill in them a sense of honour in their Indigenous identity.
Heiltsuk are mariners who depend on generations-old knowledge to preserve and steward life-giving ecosystems. Their territory is a coastal archipelago that is home to humpback whales, wild salmon, and tangled rainforests roamed by iconic white Kermode or ‘spirit bears’.
“Our culture and our identity as a community is rooted in respect, reciprocity and taking care of each other and the land and waters,” Housty explains. “One of the really beautiful things that’s starting to coalesce now is relationships pulling together in a way that’s really giving traction to the goals and ideas that are rooted in those strong Heiltsuk values.”
RAVEN is an organization dedicated to fostering such relationships. By providing ways Canadians can stand together with Indigenous Peoples, RAVEN offers a substantial pathway for people to put reconciliation into meaningful action.
As a student at the University of Victoria, Housty learned of a project that would put all of that at risk. The Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline project would export bitumen from Alberta and open up a corridor for fossil fuel exports in one of the most richly biodiverse areas on the planet.
The Heiltsuk joined an alliance of seven First Nations who took to the courts, fought the project — and against all odds — won. The legal victory empowered communities who had not been properly consulted by project proponents: the case set an important legal precedent that guides policymakers today.
The victory was achieved thanks in large part to thousands of people who donated, fundraised, and organized to raise nearly a million dollars for legal costs. The mass fundraising campaign was run by RAVEN (Respecting Aboriginal Values and Environmental Needs) in collaboration with Sierra Club BC. The Nations’ resounding victory in court has reshaped the legal – and ecological – landscape.
“Working together, we’ve raised millions of dollars over the last decade to back some of the most groundbreaking legal challenges of our time,” says Indigenous lawyer and RAVEN Board President Jeffrey Nicholls. “Supporting the assertion of the inherent and constitutionally protected rights of Indigenous people is a powerful pathway towards reconciliation and environmental justice.”
The Heiltsuk’s struggle to protect their homeland continues. In 2016, a devastating oil spill in their fishing grounds triggered another legal battle. This time, the case seeks recognition of Aboriginal title to the foreshore — the marine breadbasket that has sustained the Heiltsuk since time immemorial. With support from RAVEN, the Heiltsuk have pledged to fight for justice on behalf of all communities that could face the consequences of an oil spill.
Housty appreciates that Nations need allies who are willing to donate, fundraise, and organize on behalf of communities like hers which simply don’t have the resources to pursue strategic legal challenges on their own. “We understand in a really intimate way what we love. But we often feel really remote. So, to have people, citizens, just standing up and saying ‘we trust your position on these issues, and we’re going to put our money where our mouth is’ really expanded our sense of community nationwide and globally, as we saw those donations coming in. It was so empowering.”
Ready to stand with Indigenous peoples to protect land, air, and water for future generations? Join RAVEN: raventrust.com
RAVEN’s vision is a country that embraces the ancestral laws of Indigenous Peoples and their equitable access to the justice system within a thriving natural habitat.