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Life and Breath on the Skeena River

The raising of a totem pole and a memorial for an environmental fighter show that resistance is possible and beautiful.

Ian Gill 25 Oct

Ian Gill lives and writes in Vancouver and works on social innovation initiatives. He is currently president of Discourse Media. Find his previous pieces in The Tyee here.

There are times in human history — and this is surely one of them — when there comes a sort of collective holding of the breath, an unwilling suspension of belief (to mangle Coleridge) in our leaders, our institutions, and the very idea that we might have some sort of shared purpose in this mess-making we call living.

On a global scale, how is in that in a few short months a lunatic occupying that very darkest of white houses has vaulted us to the precipice of a nuclear war? There is a sharp intake of breath whenever the president tweets, and then we exhale when, for another day at least, Twitter turns out to be the most damaging button he pushes — if you discount his wholesale assault on values of basic common decency in America that is so reckless as to possibly be unrecoverable.

Closer to home, two years in, our breath is still bated when it comes to what the Trudeau government will do, I mean really do, when it comes to energy policy, and to honouring its obligations to Indigenous peoples, while at the same time meeting its commitments to making Canada a global leader in the fight against climate change. Is there a single original thought in Ottawa about how to decolonize our governing systems and, in doing so, decouple our economy from its outmoded and ultimately doomed dependency on natural resource extraction?

In British Columbia, who isn’t holding their breath to find out what the Horgan/Weaver fandango is actually going to mean when the opening music stops and they make actual decisions on such hugely consequential issues as the future of the Site C dam, the expansion of Kinder Morgan’s oil pipeline from the tarsands to the coast, or the further industrialization of the province’s north — especially when and if oil prices spike upwards again, or the demand for liquefied natural gas makes that pipedream puff back to life?

But now and then, it’s OK to exhale — because wherever you are in the world, there remain victories to savour, as was the case these past few days in Skeena country in B.C.’s northwest.

“It’s a small pole, but the wolf is here,” Gwishawaal Ken Lawson, a house leader of the Gitwilgyoots tribe, tells me on Friday moments before some 150 people aid and cheer the raising of a totem pole on Lelu Island, which — like Lyell Island and Moresby Island and Meares Island before it — now commands iconic status in the pantheon of B.C. places where David and Goliath battles have been fought, and have been won by the little guy.

Here, where the Skeena River meets the ocean just south of Prince Rupert, and indeed throughout the Skeena watershed, First Nations and non-Indigenous peoples alike have lived these past few years under the spirit-sapping and community-fracturing pall of a proposed industrial development — the $36-billion Malaysian-sponsored Pacific NorthWest LNG project — that was notable mostly as an abuse of process championed by the Harper government and, infuriatingly, given grandfathered approval by Trudeau’s. In the end, the project died at its own hand on that sharpest of points — its economic illogic.

“I am the wolf,” says Lawson, who shares stewardship rights and responsibilities on Lelu Island with Simoyget Yahaan, Don Wesley. “To me it feels great, to know it’s protected, protected in our way,” Lawson says. Across the channel, a Prince Rupert Port Authority boat rides the tide, carrying observers who from a safe distance witness another exercise of trespass on what the authority considers to be its land and over which, in its view, the Gitwilgyoots have no authority at all.

After the pole is blessed by being brushed with cedar fronds by Tsimshian ladies of high ranking, it is raised to raucous cheers and piercing wolf cries from people whose collective sigh of relief breathes life into a Tsimshian culture that is shared not just by those present, but by a long line of people who came before, “the Simoygets who put their blood on this land,” as Wesley refers to his ancestors later that evening at a feast in the Fishermen’s Hall in Prince Rupert. “The spirits are moving a lot more freely today,” Lawson says. “I could feel the ancestors, I could feel their awe,” says his wife, Patty Dudoward.

Downslope from the pole, now standing sentinel on a knoll that would have been cleared and flattened, like the rest of Lelu, if Malaysia and Canada and Christy Clark’s version of British Columbia had gotten their way, stands Guujaaw, legendary leader of the Haida Nation through decades of their pitched battles with industry and governments of all stripes. Pledging solidarity, Guujaaw presents Yahaan with a copper shield. It is a gift of incomparable value, certainly worth a high multiple on the $1.15 billion that Petronas, the Malaysian state oil company, offered in 2015 as an inducement that the Tsimshian at first rejected, and then fought over bitterly amongst themselves. Families and friends and whole communities have been effectively fracked by the promise of “benefits” for “selling out our land,” said Wesley, who has been publicly vilified — on the streets and the docks of his home village, on the fishing grounds, in the media, in the courts — for taking such an uncompromising stand on Lelu.

Wesley is visibly stunned by the gift of the copper from Haida Gwaii. Guujaaw, no slouch when it comes to the warrioring business, says that “everyone gets inspired by everyone else’s little fight... and you showed us again this thing can be beaten.” Ah yes, this thing.

Deep breath in. Ken Lawson looks across the channel at the Port Authority boat and shakes his head. “This pole means something to us that they will never understand.” “No matter what it takes,” Patty Dudoward says, “we are here to stay.”

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The blessing of the pole. Photo by Ian Gill.

News from a foreign country comes. Another sharp intake of breath. In northern Australia, as in Canada, the gasmen are always on the prowl. About 700 kilometres south of Darwin is the tiny hamlet of Elliott, Northern Territory (pop. 348 in the 2011 census, or about 800 if you ask the locals who live in chronically overcrowded houses). Elliott — its traditional name is Kulumindini, but it was renamed for an Australian army captain — had a visit in August from a consultant working on a social impact report commissioned by a purportedly independent fracking inquiry. The 36-minute consultation was audio recorded by local Aboriginal residents, who were repeatedly advised to yield their opposition to fracking and to ask for benefits because, according to the consultant, a gas extraction industry was coming whether they wanted it or not. The Australian Broadcasting Corporation obtained a copy of the recording and reported on it earlier this month.

“Start to think, how do we benefit? How do we build culture? Do we get a cultural centre built at Elliott?” asked the ironically named Philip Elsegood, senior consultant with the ironically named Cross Cultural Consultants. Note the use of the word “we” there. Indeed, how do “we” build culture in a town most notable for a 2015 report that said it had missed out on federal housing money for 15 years, people lived in squalor, 16 to a house in one case, 80 per cent of the houses were beyond repair, and residents were only allowed to drink legally in the town’s pub or in a fenced paddock watched over by the night patrol. (Note to the editor: This is not fiction.) None of the billions that the energy and mining giants have made in Australia seem to have trickled down to Elliott, but if the residents there capitulate to the gas industry, they can ask (nothing has been promised) for a supermarket, and who knows, says Elsegood, “it’s not inconceivable, it might be possible for [the government] to say: ‘Look, we’ll set up a [cattle] station somewhere here.’”

Or they, sorry, “we,” can “build culture” by asking for a cultural centre in Elliott. No guarantees, but as Elsegood says, “I mean, if you mob lose the battle and they’re going to do it anyway, how do you get benefit from it?”

As reported by the ABC, one resident, Raymond Dixon, told Elsegood, “Every tree, every rock, every river, water that you damage, you damage the blackfella life.” His daughter Eleanor said, “The land can’t speak for itself. And that’s what we have to do. We can’t just say benefit is important... I don’t want to take money to the grave. Because my body and my spirit has come out of this ground, and I’ve got to go back into it just the same way I came out of it. I don’t need to go back into the ground with having anything to do with money.”

On Lelu Island, itself a cultural centre created without gas money about 14,000 kilometres northeast of Elliott, Wesley says “the money (Petronas) talked about, it was not real money.” And it turns out the Tsimshian don’t need outside help to “build culture.” They already have one apparently, and it’s been around for a while, just like it has in northern Australia.

A few hours after the pole raising, speech after speech to about 300 feast-goers in Prince Rupert celebrates Lawson and Wesley’s leadership, honours the support they have received from around the world, if not always in their own community, and heralds more big battles to come. “We don’t know what the future of the Skeena River holds, but it’s still up to us to defend it,” says Wesley. Says Guujaaw, “They wanna wreck this Earth. Why? I cannot understand. Nature has got to be the standard, and it never has been. All these places count for us.” The thing was beaten this time, Guujaaw says, “but there’ll be another one coming up. Enjoy the fight.”

Patty Dudoward and Ken Lawson. Photo by Ian Gill.

Sharp intake of breath. On Facebook on Sept. 18, the following post from Aaron Hill.

Dear family, friends and fans of Bruce,

As many of you know, Bruce has been valiantly and gracefully dealing with cancer for the past 18 months. Early this morning, he succumbed to the disease. He passed away at home, surrounded by family and showered with love. He wasn't in any pain at the end and went very peacefully in a cloud of love.

Bruce was Aaron’s father, and Julia’s father, and Anne’s husband, and Zosha and Will’s grandfather, and his work was warmly acknowledged at the feast in Prince Rupert Friday night, and rousingly remembered at another feast upriver in his hometown of Terrace the day after.

On Saturday afternoon, a four-hour meeting of the disorderly Loyal Order of the Masters of Mischief was convened, to both give and take account of its maestro, Bruce Hill. About 200 members were in attendance and no minutes were taken, except for the 240 or so taken up with eulogizing, roasting and wildly embellishing the reputation of a man whose like we will not see again for a very long time, if ever. “At different times, a Haight-Ashbury hippie, logger, millwright, commercial fisherman, salmon guide, shit disturber, river rat and boat junky, and putative conservationist... committed to wild salmon, wild places of the heart, home waters, big old trees, and fighting bad shit,” as he was described in Tools for Grassroots Activists, published by Patagonia.

Bruce’s exaltation in a Terrace school hall Saturday felt like an exhalation of sorts, a warm Chinook breeze not just of affection for a man who raised a huge family of activists around his kitchen table, on the deck of a floating armada of one called the Suncrest, around campfires, in town halls, at blockades, or wherever there was “bad shit” that needed to be turned into good shit — no, not just affection for Bruce, but for a vein of thinking that is common to the people of Elliott, N.T. and Lelu Island, B.C. and many points in between, and that is embodied in the idea, if not the practice, of seeking their “free, prior and informed consent” before a corporation, “authorized” by a government of any stripe, can “develop” lands or waters that either don’t belong to them, or whose ownership is in doubt.

Canada has said, and then restated, that it is committed to honouring the “free, prior and informed consent” of Indigenous peoples when it comes to development on their lands. British Columbia’s new government has made the same commitment. Bruce Hill, along with his Haisla First Nation brother mischief maker Gerald Amos, worked tirelessly to protect first the Kitlope watershed from logging, and the north coast from fish farms, and the Sacred Headwaters from coalbed methane extraction, and the Skeena corridor from Enbridge’s Northern Gateway pipeline and yes, the mouth of the Skeena at Lelu Island from Petronas’s LNG thing, and at the bottom of it all was an unwavering belief in the wisdom of people and place.

“We people in the north here, we have done some pretty damned incredible stuff,” Gerald told the crowd Saturday night to roaring approval. Justin Trudeau and John Horgan could learn a lot about how to start reconciling with Indigenous people in Canada by paying careful attention to how and if their pretty gestures about “free, prior and informed consent” hit the ground in places like the Skeena. And if they want real reconciliation? Well, you don’t begin by dividing tribes with bribes.

Bruce and Gerald have been saying that forever, and they’ve been winning. “The most thoughtful environmental strategist of his generation,” one eulogist said of Bruce. “He may not have been perfect,” said another, “but he was magnificent.” Or as Art Sterritt, a legendary leader in his own right said, Bruce Hill personified the Tsimshian concept of ama diya, which is to lead in the right way. “He led in the proper way, he said the right things, and he got you to do the right things and that’s the legacy he left.”

As for that trespassing totem pole out at Lelu Island, “that is a sacred piece of art and no one’s going to touch that,” Sterritt observed, or maybe warned.

As for the people who Bruce Hill inspired and left behind to fight more bad shit?

Well, take a deep breath. Take stock. Demand better of our leaders and our institutions, and demand more of yourselves. Don’t be afraid to admit you’re not perfect, as none of us are. But don’t be afraid to be magnificent, either. Wherever you are in the world, you’ll be in good company.

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The totem pole on Lelu Island: ‘that is a sacred piece of art and no one’s going to touch that.’ Photo by Ian Gill.

Read more: Indigenous, Environment

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