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First responder Russel Windsor at Gale Creek, Bella Bella, the location of the 2016 diesel spill.

Jackie Dives

Russell Windsor remembers the day, one year ago, that he watched from his herring skiff as a tugboat, grounded on the reefs off Athlone Island, sank. The Nathan E. Stewart's massive propellers cracked on the rocks as they spun uselessly, and the stench of diesel hit him as brown, oily water bubbled up from the hull of the ship.

"I felt a lot of anger," he said as he visited the site this week.

Mr. Windsor was one of the first responders from the Heiltsuk community of Bella Bella, about 20 minutes away by boat. The crew of the stranded articulated tug barge unit initially resisted offers of assistance. But the tide was dropping, increasing the pressure on the tug's hull.

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"We knew what was going to happen," Mr. Windsor said.

The tug's crew of seven eventually accepted a rescue from the Canadian Coast Guard, but an estimated 110,000 litres of fuel, as well as engine lubricants, were lost as the hull was breached on the rocks, and the tug sank.

Today, the site looks pristine. Mr. Windsor accompanied visitors – members of the Canada C3 expedition that is circumnavigating Canada on the icebreaker Polar Prince – to the reef where the Nathan E. Stewart sank. Last October, cleanup crews battled storms that tore up their containment booms. But on this visit, the water was calm and clear enough to see the eel grass and kelp on the seabed around the reef.

Despite the appearance of renewal, the community remains disrupted.

"When I was younger, I was brought out here to learn to hunt, to fish, to clam dig," Mr. Windsor explained. "There is nowhere else in our territory like this."

His voice cracked with emotion as he explained how he would have brought his daughter, now 14 years old, out this year to teach her these traditional skills that put food on the table. But the fisheries in Gale Passage remain closed because of concerns about contamination from the lost fuel.

"This is the learning ground for the Heiltsuk people. This area could feed all of Bella Bella right now – if we could harvest," he said.

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The community relies on commercial fisheries for income, but also harvests a long grocery list from these waters and shores – halibut, salmon, crab, geese, ducks, seals, clams.

Today, the Heiltsuk nation is shouldering the cost of environmental monitoring, saying the tug's owners and the provincial government have refused to answer their questions about how the accident occurred, or the details of the environmental impact of the resulting fuel spill.

In the aftermath of the sinking, the Heiltsuk worked with government agencies and the tug's owners, Kirby Offshore Marine, in managing the cleanup. But just before Christmas, the Heiltsuk say their partners disappeared. They were told the levels of contamination found in tests were acceptable.

In a statement, a spokesperson for Kirby said the company has sought meetings with the Heiltsuk leadership, but its invitations have been rebuffed. "Kirby would prefer to work to find pragmatic solutions without engaging in media battles and litigation," said Matt Woodruff. But he said the company is confident it will successfully defend its actions in court.

The community's own environmental monitoring reached a different conclusion: "Gale Creek is off limits," said Kelly Brown, director of the Heiltsuk integrated resource management department. As a result, harvesting in other areas are increasing, and he worries that won't be sustainable.

"Our people are afraid to go there. We are told, 'You are overreacting.' But they aren't the people who have to eat those foods."

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He estimates the cost of continued environmental monitoring will reach $500,000, a bill that is being picked up by the community.

The testing will continue, he said, until sampling shows that vegetation and marine life have returned to normal levels.

George Heyman, B.C. Minister of Environment, said in a statement his government is in the process of finalizing new regulations to impose tougher rules for polluters – but he noted that funding for ship-source spills is a federal responsibility.

"We certainly acknowledge improvements in spill prevention, response and recovery are needed, and this includes ensuring Indigenous peoples and First Nation groups are fully engaged," he said.

Although the scale of the spill could have been worse had the barge been loaded, the incident highlighted gaps in Canada's oil-spill response.

Now, the Heiltsuk say they will look to the courts for compensation for the loss of commercial harvesting of marine resources, as well as infringement of their aboriginal rights to harvest for food and ceremonial purposes.

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The spill occurred just as the federal government was preparing to announce its plans for a "world class oil spill response" regime, which was timed to roll out just ahead of the approval of the expansion of Kinder Morgan's Trans Mountain pipeline which will dramatically increase oil tanker traffic off of B.C.'s coast.

The Heiltsuk hosted the C3 expedition members for several days, sharing stories and songs of their territories. The 150-day trip from Toronto to Victoria, via the Northwest Passage, is highlighting reconciliation as it marks Canada's 150th birthday.

Mr. Windsor, as he led his visitors on a tour of the spill site, said he isn't convinced that Canada's promised new spill-response capacity will fix the problem that was exposed last October. "If and when another incident happens like this in Heiltsuk territory, I would like us to take charge. Maybe that won't happen in my lifetime, but maybe in my daughter's lifetime."

He said the spill has put a spark under the Heiltsuk's leadership – elected and hereditary – to assert control over these waters.

"Today, it hurts to be where we are." But he envisions the sinking will lead to a change, and one day a commercial fuel barge will require consent and monitoring from his nation to travel through these waters off British Columbia's north coast.

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