All-in: Heiltsuk leader Jess Housty is building her community for resilience

Just after winning its battle against Northern Gateway, Bella Bella was devastated by the Nathan E. Stewart disaster. Now Housty is trying to bring up a generation that's ready for the next fight.

By Andrew Findlay
February 19, 2021

All-in: Heiltsuk leader Jess Housty is building her community for resilience

Just after winning its battle against Northern Gateway, Bella Bella was devastated by the Nathan E. Stewart disaster. Now Housty is trying to bring up a generation that's ready for the next fight.

By Andrew Findlay
Feb 19, 2021
Simon Kreitem / Submitted
Simon Kreitem / Submitted

All-in: Heiltsuk leader Jess Housty is building her community for resilience

Just after winning its battle against Northern Gateway, Bella Bella was devastated by the Nathan E. Stewart disaster. Now Housty is trying to bring up a generation that's ready for the next fight.

By Andrew Findlay
February 19, 2021
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All-in: Heiltsuk leader Jess Housty is building her community for resilience

Shortly after 1am on Oct. 13, 2016, the American-owned tugboat Nathan E. Stewart was towing a fuel barge through Seaforth Channel, 10 nautical miles west of Bella Bella. A light drizzle dimpled the sea, and the weather was calm, when suddenly the tug struck a reef. Hung up on rocks, the tug’s hull was breached. Eventually the boat separated from the barge, sank, and spilled 110,000 litres of diesel and lubricants into the surrounding pristine marine environment.

Jess Housty vividly remembers the gut-wrenching feeling when she first got the call. The reality sunk deep a few days later when she saw the awful metallic sheen of diesel lapping the shore, coating the beach, and clogging the pores of an intertidal and marine ecosystem that for generations had fed Heiltsuk families with clams, oysters, cod, and other seafood. True to character, Housty, then serving her first term as a Heiltsuk tribal councillor and still nursing her first-born, took on the role of incident commander. While liaising with Fisheries and Oceans Canada and the tug owners on spill response, she also helped her people address and ultimately come to terms with the defiling of the marine ecosystem in Bella Bella’s backyard. 

“We knew that there were barge loads of fuel being towed through our territories. I still find it hard to put into words the impact this has had on me. I feel a sense of responsibility, that I allowed this to happen on my watch,” Housty told Capital Daily.

When Housty says she suffers from a form of PTSD because of the Nathan E. Stewart disaster, she means it. After all, to this 34-year-old mother of two young boys, it was much more than a diesel spill; it was like an assault on what it means to be Heiltsuk, to be the stewards of the natural environment on BC’s Central Coast that has sustained her nation for thousands of years. 

Incident commander to an ecological disaster is just one of many hats worn by this soft-spoken activist. She is also a poet, naturalist, community and environmental organizer, and executive director of the Qqs Project Society, a Heiltsuk non-profit started by her father that runs Koeye Camp and its youth-focused cultural and environmental programs. Add to that list, scholar of medieval literature and founder of the Thistalalh Memorial Library (the first library on the coast, north of Port Hardy and south of Prince Rupert), and sometimes it seems there is nothing this remarkable woman cannot do. With her nose piercings and tattoos, she could blend in well at an urban skate park. However, there’s a depth and thoughtfulness that is apparent the moment you meet her.

‘No other way’

Housty was born into a family deeply grounded in Heiltsuk culture. Both her mother Marge and grandmother Peggy are prominent matriarchs. Her father, Larry Jorgenson, a white man from southern Ontario, came to Bella Bella in the 1970s as a mental health counselor at a time when the community was crippled with high rates of suicide and addiction. From the moment Housty could walk she was out on the land, learning about medicinal plants from her elders and following streamside trails trodden by bears every fall on a quest for salmon. Though her father came to Bella Bella as a white bureaucrat from a different world, he recognized early on the transformative and healing power of being out in the territory; what non-Indigenous people might call nature but for the Heiltsuk people is simply home. Social and environmental justice were part of the family conversation, and it had a profound impact on the young Housty.

“For me there was just no other way for my life to be,” Housty says.

Though her sense of purpose and identity was inseparable from Bella Bella and the Heiltsuk, life would take her, at least temporarily, away from the territory. After homeschooling in Bella Bella, she moved to Victoria to complete high school. As a natural writer and storyteller, she enrolled at UVic and earned an English degree. While immersed in academia, she always returned to Bella Bella, a community of roughly 1,400, to partake in the seasonal harvest of salmon, herring roe on kelp, berries, and other Heiltsuk staples that mark the changing of the seasons. 

Housty stayed in Victoria to pursue a master’s degree in medieval literature because, she says with a laugh, “those were the profs that seemed the most excited and passionate about what they were doing.” Her focus of study was a 13th century text, The Travels of Sir John Mandeville, a fanciful account of an English knight’s travels to lands populated with all kinds of outlandish creatures, characters, and characteristics. Though at the time, the book was widely accepted as fact, it was in truth a compelling tale that blended memoir and fiction. According to Housty, the story appealed to her out of a fascination “with what people were willing to believe.”

Housty outside the Big House in Bella Bella. Photo: Heiltsuk Tribal Council / Submitted

Shifting balance

In 2010, while living in a Victoria apartment, another narrative was being sold to Canadians, one that struck to the heart of the Heiltsuk Nation: the promise of economic prosperity that would result from Northern Gateway. The proposed twin pipeline linking Alberta’s oilsands with the Kitimat port would have seen ocean-going tankers loaded with heavy bitumen plying the tight channels between islands on BC’s North Coast. 

“The balance shifted for me. It felt unconscionable for me to be sitting in an apartment in Victoria surrounded by textbooks instead of back home fighting this pipeline,” Housty says.

It was the closest to a crisis of consciousness that Housty would ever experience. She quit school, returned to Bella Bella, and dove full time into activism. Soon after returning home, Housty was elected to Heiltsuk council at the age of 24.

“I was nominated. I didn’t think I would get elected. I was a baby and had no experience,” she says. “If you had asked me before if I was interested in council I would have laughed in your face.”

But she also realized that if she was going to fight pipelines and tankers, she had to be all in; band council was another platform from which to organize and mobilize the community. First proposed in the mid-2000s, Northern Gateway got approval in 2014 from Stephen Harper’s Conservative government, subject to 209 conditions. The following year, the newly elected Justin Trudeau Liberals imposed a ban on tanker traffic along BC’s north coast. Then in November 2016, Trudeau’s government officially killed the project. The Northern Gateway battle is now a footnote in history; Housty remembers the victory as a “beautiful experience.”

“It was such a gift to see the momentum build around fighting this project. We saw it as a continuum of our stewardship,” she says. “When the Heiltsuk people show up, they stay until the job is done.”

Housty is counting the days until her second—and final—term on council is complete this spring. After, she will devote her time to her position as executive director of Qqs Project Society. Though she has no plans—nor spare time—to complete her MA thesis on medieval literature, she maintains a loose affiliation with UVic. She is a former recipient of the university’s Provost’s Award for Advocacy and Activism, and for the past six years has co-taught a geography field course with prominent wolf researcher and UVic conservation scientist Chris Darimont, based at Koeye Camp.

But Darimont has known Housty since she was a teenager, dating back to his first visit to Bella Bella in 2000 as a young idealistic biologist with a plan to study coastal wolves. Housty’s father brought Darimont to the village to meet with Heiltsuk hereditary chiefs and ask for their blessing to embark on the Rainforest Wolf Project. It would not only be his defining work as a scientist, but was also the genesis of life-changing relationships with the Heiltsuk and other coastal Indigenous communities.

“It was intimidating for a young guy who had basically never set foot in a First Nations community before,” Darimont recalls.

Early in the wolf project, a 15-year-old Housty joined Darimont in the field. Immediately, he recognized an exceptional young woman, precocious and confident but not cocky, vulnerable and transparent but strong.  She had a level of ease and intuitive comfort on the land and water that seemed beyond her years. She could handle a knife better than most hunters Darimont knew, and could already skin a beaver and tan its hide.

“Jess was culturally very aware, and I remember her always having a big book under her arm,” Darimont says.

Not long after meeting Darimont, Housty joined a couple of his researchers on a 20-minute boat ride from Bella Bella to investigate a spot where wolves had previously been spotted. Soon after landing the tender on a rocky beach, they followed a well-defined wolf trail into the rainforest that eventually led down into a protected gully. That’s when they inadvertently walked into a pack of sleeping wolves.

“It’s incredible and highly unlikely for something like that to happen,” says Darimont, who in two decades of wolf research has never had the same fortune. 

Strong women, strong communities

Darimont views it as somehow symbolic, even prescient of the quiet strength and wisdom he now witnesses in the field with Housty more than 15 years later as a co-teacher.

“The students want time with Jess and they will follow her around. It’s almost Socratic,” Darimont says. “She has a natural authority and can go deep very quickly. The first few days can be heavy, but the transformational learning is so impactful. The students learn in a way that would never be possible in a traditional university setting.”

They should be prepared to go deep with someone like Housty, who lists decolonial philanthropy as one of her missions. But underlying Housty’s tireless community activism, which during the pandemic included starting a backyard Bella Bella food security initiative called Granny Gardens, is a basic humanity and compassion. That’s what stands out most for Darimont.     

“Jess brings a very visible, high-profile reminder of the power and positive influence of strong women,” Darimont says.

In the case of Bella Bella, strong women like Housty build strong communities.

In 2013, Bella Bella’s grocery store burned down. The Qqs Project Society office and library, located downstairs, were lost to smoke and water damage, along with a collection of 1,500 books and irreplaceable masks, drums, and other cultural items. The library has since been restocked thanks to support from Granville Island’s Upstart & Crow bookstore and the Indigenous-owned Massy Books in East Van. Later that same day, despite the trauma of the accidental blaze, Housty made time to call Darimont to tell him that the silver bracelets she had recently made for his two young daughters survived the fire. The memory causes Darimont to choke up momentarily: Housty doesn’t forget. 

It’s the reason, five years later, she still wonders if she could have done more to prevent the Nathan E. Stewart diesel spill. She knows it’s irrational to personalize this burden but also accepts it in the same way she accepts that life is not always easy in Bella Bella. Housty is only one generation removed from Heiltsuk who were forcibly removed from their homes. The wounds of the residential school system are still raw for many. Decolonization is ongoing, and so is the healing.     

And for Housty, healing comes in many forms, from literacy and food security, to getting Bella Bella kids back into the territory, onto the land and sea that forms the heart of the Heiltsuk Nation.

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