The opportunity to visit the Gitga’ at, First Nation in the Great Bear Rainforest community of Hartley Bay in British Columbia. Canada was too good to pass up.
So after a morning spent catching chinook salmon I hopped into another boat and took the trip to the village of 160 people. Every member of the nation which totals around 1,000 is registered in the village and can call it home.
Arriving at the village, the high breakwater is the first sign any community is there at all. According to our guide Darryl it was not there when he was a child, now however it provides protection from the worst conditions of the channel and a marina for the town boats.
All the homes are wooden and built by the villagers, there are not any prefabricated buildings as they are unable to withstand the weather. Many of them painted in pretty pastel colours, and an extremely long boardwalk weaves its way between them, there are not any roads. Those that cannot be bothered to walk use bicycles, quad bikes and golf carts to get around.
The focal point of the community is the tribal hall, which is a sort of traditional community centre. It is being refurbished but it was still possible to take a look around. There is a very small museum with a few artefacts including some stone carvings which have recently been returned to the people from a museum in Victoria.
The walls are adorned with beautiful murals of the spirit bear and Gitga’ at culture, including traditional, brush painted symbols around walls and light fittings. It is relatively modern but entering the grand hall upstairs changes that perception. Four hand carved pillars representing the raven, eagle and wolf, all animals of importance to the nation, stand like sentries in the room. Fantastic tribal artwork, a central fire and a wooden carved sharing bowl make the room a spectacular place for village gatherings.
It is easy to imagine the community sitting around discussing local affairs and sharing a chowder of salmon and crab gathered straight from the channel. The Gitga’ ga are very welcoming, however and any visitors to the village present when the gatherings occur will be invited to take part.
The gymnasium and church are other community hubs, the gym has three totem poles outside the front door and the church has the Canadian flag flying. The Gitga’ at are a Canadian First Nation and guessing they are equally proud of both sides of their heritage.
Known as the ‘people of the cane’, preservation of the land, culture and traditions of the people is important to the Gitga’ ga. By caring about the welfare of each person they make sure all the nation is cared for. The land is equally important, recognising their own welfare is connected to the environment and the sustainable use of resources.
The village has a small salmon hatchery, caring for the young fish before being released into the wild once they reach a certain size, this marginally improves their chances of survival. The hatchery started out as a school project sponsored by the Fisheries Commission, it is a small operation but even so an impressive achievement.
Apart from collaboration with King Pacific Lodge, there isn’t any real aboriginal tourism, but there is potential for more in the area. First Nation people know the land and waterways of the Great Bear Rainforest better than anybody and have many traditional skills to share along with their culture.
Currently there is some guiding done either for fishing or bear tracking, there is obviously scope for this more. As small business initiatives begin to materialise ideally they will collaborate, possibly forming a co-operative, providing central control and marketing. This will enable the village to become slightly more commercial but still retain their cultural identity.
The Gitga’ at along with other First Nations are also a large and important segment of Canadian society with a strong political presence and voice in political matters. Ultimately it will almost certainly be them that have the final say in deciding whether the controversial proposed Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline becomes a reality. In common with most people who live and work within this pristine area of British Columbia they are fervently opposed to the pipeline. Having experienced the amazing fishing, chased orca pods, witnessed feeding humpback whales, wolverine, otters, many bald eagles and paddled an open canoe through the clear waters it would be a travesty if this happens.
It is subject I intend to investigate further as from what I witnessed, purely from a logistical and practical point of view it seems to make little sense. The effects of a possible spillage however would be catastrophic for the people, wildlife, eco-systems and landscape. Recovery from an environmental disaster like this would be slow to impossible.
The community is completely dry, there are not any bars and it is forbidden to take alcohol into the village, this was tribal decision when they first settled here. In recent years the arrival of satellite television and more recently the internet have had a ‘diluting’ effect on the culture. Younger generations are now influenced by MTV and YouTube, with less interest in the traditions of the Gitga’ at and other First Nations.
Fortunately, there is little drain on the community youth, just a few leaving attracted by the bright lights of the city, those that do often return, the culture shock simply too much for them.
During my visit there wasn’t a great deal happening, we did not see too many of the inhabitants. There was an open canoe festival taking place, with several canoes from communities as far afield as Prince Rupert arriving but there seemed little interest and only a handful of people were waiting to welcome them.
Meeting people from another culture and experiencing just a little of their way of life is one of the great pleasures of travelling. Hopefully this community will continue to thrive long after the threat of a pipeline and supertankers has ceased to exist. Maybe some of you will be able to visit in the future and experience their way of life unchanged apart from some newly developed aboriginal tourism initiatives.