The Tla-o-qui-aht People and Climate Change: Chapter 8

“If you’re not afraid, you can learn anything,” says Eli Enns. “This is part of the teachings about our roles and responsibilities in the community to each other and other living beings. For all of us are the upholders of the Natural Law, accountable to future ancestors.” Photo: © Gleb Raygorodetsky.

Like other indigenous First Nation communities throughout Canada, the Tla-o-qui-aht people are survivors. Over a century of cultural genocide, Christianisation, forced assimilation, land alienation and re-settlement reduced their numbers tenfold and pushed them to the brink of extinction. But despite environmental, social and cultural upheavals, the Tla-o-qui-aht are slowly but surely strengthening their ability to cope with social and environmental challenges, including climate change.

In previous chapters of this eight-part series, Adjunct Research Fellow Gleb Raygorodetsky of the United Nations University Traditional Knowledge Initiative sets about visiting the traditional territory of the Tla-o-qui-aht — widely known as Clayoquot Sound, British Columbia — to understand the challenges and triumphs their people have faced. In this final instalment, Raygorodetsky learns in depth from Tla-o-qui-aht political scientist Eli Ens about his people’s unique and carefully thought out community development plans that are designed to address many environmental and social challenges, including climate change.

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Conservation economy

A pair of short wooden stakes protrude from the ground at the edge of a gravel pad — a new house lot on the corner of Wickaninnish Road. “Here’s where the geothermal heating will get hooked up to a new house when it’s built,” Eli Enns says pointing at the stakes, painted light blue and red, uneven black lettering “GEO-SER” scribbled in black sharpie along the broad side of each. We are taking a quick tour around Eli’s neighborhood in Ty-histanis — a new community that is an expansion of Esowista, the second of two Tla-o-qui-aht reserves, just 10 miles south of Tofino.

When Canada created the Pacific Rim National Park Reserve in the 1970s, the government did not consult with the Tla-o-qui-aht people and other Nuu-chah-nulth First Nations, whose traditional territories it subsumed. Among many other negative consequences for Tla-o-qui-aht people, the park’s establishment erased any future options for their community to grow — just a fraction of the original Tla-o-qui-aht land, the Esowista reserve was completely surrounded.

Eli by the road

Ty-histanis was designed and built to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through the use of more efficient heating, electrical, and mechanical systems. At an empty house lot, Eli Enns is showing outlets from the central geothermal station that makes it possible for each house to have in-floor radiant heating, an important feature in the wet climate of Clayoquot Sound. Photo: © Gleb Raygorodetsky.

The relationship between the Park and the local Nuu-chah-nulth groups had been challenging for years. But the War in the Woods (see Chapter 5 — Ancient Woods for more about this important event) shifted the balance in favour of First Nations rights and the relationship has been gradually improving. Now the Pacific Rim National Park even occasionally hires First Nations’ people as staff. Recently, a deal was brokered between the Park and the Nation to allow for an 84-hectare expansion of the reservation. This gives Esowista some room to breathe and, more importantly, allows people to relocate to safer ground on higher land, up from the Esowista shoreline, which is increasingly being eroded by stronger and more frequent winter storms — another sign of changing climate.

After a few years of construction, a new Tla-o-qui-aht community, Ty-Histanis, is springing to life, with over 170 single-family houses, more than 30 duplexes and a dozen or so elders’ units being planned, along with a school, health clinic, pharmacy, recreation center, and a bus hub. Most of it is yet to come, but the main infrastructure has been built, several houses raised, and some families moved in.

“As with everything the Tla-o-qui-aht people do,” explains Eli, “we have tried to apply our traditional teaching to achieve sustainable community development in Ty-Histanis, paying particular attention to climate change.” A political scientist with expertise in constitutional law, Eli is the great-grandson of Nah-wah-suhm, a public speaker and historian for Wickaninnish, the Grand Chief of the Tla-o qui-aht Nation. Just as his great ancestor likely did at gift-giving potlatch ceremonies, Eli enunciates each word deliberately with unhurried tempo of a practiced public speaker who cares a great deal about being understood and getting his points across precisely. His short black Van Dyke beard frames a broad, handsome face, drawing you in like the sun-crest of the totem pole.

“To envision and create Ty-histanis in a way that takes climate change into account,” explains Eli, “we managed to get some additional funding on top of the regular government construction budget.”

As a result, the community was designed and built to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through the use of more efficient heating, electrical, and mechanical systems. A central geothermal station makes it possible for each house to have in-floor radiant heating, an important feature in the wet climate of Clayoquot Sound, especially now, when winter precipitation is expected to increase. Each household will also save money because they won’t need to rely on buying electricity for heat.


In partnership with Vancouver-based Ecotrust Canada, Tla-o-qui-aht people have developed and built a model house incorporating Nuu-chah-nulth traditional long-house designs and local building materials as part of the “Standing Tree to Standing Home” program. Photo: © Gleb Raygorodetsky.

In addition, as part of climate change adaptation design to deal with increasingly intense rains, over 40 percent of the land in and around the community has been left undisturbed, several storm water retention ponds constructed, and new pavements made of porous material installed to allow water to seep through them, down into the soil, instead of letting runoff overflow the community storm sewage system.

The Tla-o-qui-aht people and their long-term partner, Vancouver-based Ecotrust Canada also looked for ways to reduce “carbon footprint”, or the amount of fossil fuel used in construction and transportation of building materials. They have designed and built a model house incorporating Nuu-chah-nulth traditional long-house designs and local building materials as part of the “Standing Tree to Standing Home” program. Their hope is that this more energy-efficient traditional house model will become a preferred option for the new families moving to Ty-histanis from Esowista or Opitsaht, or even families returning to their traditional territory from other parts of British Columbia or the rest of Canada.

We walk past several new houses and empty lots to Eli’s apartment, which he now shares with his uncle, Joe Martin. Joe grew up with Eli’s late father and has always been a mentor and a friend to Eli, especially after his father’s untimely passing. At the apartment, Eli rolls up his sleeves and fills up the sink with hot water, tidying up the kitchen before Joe returns from a fishing trip, hopefully with some fresh salmon for dinner.

Eli was raised by his mother’s family in Brandon, Manitoba, a prairie town in interior Canada — a much more uniform landscape than Clayoquot and as far from any ocean as one can get in Canada. Growing up there, Eli looked up to the establishment and particularly its representatives, the police, as a symbol of justice and authority. But that respect was broken when as a twelve-year-old boy he was grabbed by a cop and booked for being out on the street too late in the day. Sworn at and handcuffed by the policeman, Eli cried out in disbelief to the crowd milling around, “Call the police!”

Eli understood then that the cops hated him just for being a native kid and, following the arrest, he resolved to hate them back, and, as a youth, carried a loaded gun with him at all times. Becoming a father — he had his daughter, at the age of fourteen, not by accident, he says, but as a deliberate act of procreation — moderated his anger against the establishment. But his discontent with the way the dominant western society had treated him and his First Nations brothers and sisters in Canada has grown over the years.

He visited his father’s homeland, Clayoquot Sound, many times since his childhood until finally settling there at the age of twenty-five. During one of these visits, Joe took him to the place where Eli’s great-grandfather had built a house and lived for many years. Seeing the place gave Eli an overwhelming sense of belonging and connectedness to the landscape, something that has guided his life and work ever since. His heart and mind were firmly set on changing the status quo and creating an independent Tla-o-qui-aht nation on Vancouver Island. His Tla-o-qui-aht relatives and elders recognized his passion for change but felt that he needed guidance. They introduced him to Ha-ho-pa, Tla-o-qui-aht traditional education.

“I did traditional water ceremonies and practices for three years,” says Eli after the dishes are cleaned and dried. A couple of cold bottles of local ale in hand, we sit down on a couch in the living room to talk about Tribal Parks that he co-founded and their role in Tla-o-qui-aht people’s future.

“Several things came out of that experience for me,” Eli continues. “The first thing was — ‘live under the heavens and up on the earth’. And what that meant to me was to be aware of the sun and the moon cycles that govern our lives every day and every year, and act appropriately. Simple. ‘Find strength in change’ was the next thing that came out of the ceremonies.”

Expecting a text message from a friend, Eli checks his Blackberry. “The reception here still sucks — Ty-histanis being a new community and all. Hang on, there is one spot that usually works.” He gets up and walks back into the kitchen past a traditional Nuu-chah-nulth wooden mask hanging by the kitchen door. Carved by a relative, the mask’s mother-of-pearl eyes stare into space from under a mop of stringy cedar bark hair. A mottled feather pierces the septum connecting the blood-red nostrils with the lipstick-red lips. Under the mask, a canoe paddle, one of Joe’s carved creations, leans against the wall. Eli places his phone on top of the kitchen cabinet against the flue of a range hood.

“There, got one bar now,” he announces. “Do you want me to put yours up here too? No? OK then, where were we?” He sinks back into the soft folds of the sofa and continues the story of Tribal Parks.

In early 2000s, Eli and a couple of his Tla-o-qui-aht friends, up and coming leaders who had been putting their college education to good use to advance the causes of Tla-o-qui-aht people, realized that since the court injunction, nobody but tour operators had done much with the Meares Island Tribal Park. That became the beginning of the second stage of the development of Tribal Parks. In 2007, Eli and his partners launched the Tribal Parks Establishment Project. The authority to create Tribal Parks came from Hawiih — the Tla-o-qui-aht hereditary chiefs — supported by Section 35 of Canada’s 1982 Constitution Act, which protects the rights of aboriginal peoples in Canada.

“Part of our tradition of self-governance is to look after our traditional territory for the benefit of future ancestors,” explains Eli Ens. “Now we have to find thoughtful, creative, and innovative ways of reapplying those traditional concepts and values in a modern context of natural resource management.”

“The Act doesn’t go into detail as to what is an Aboriginal right or what is a treaty right,” expounds Eli, “it just acknowledges and affirms those things and then entrenches them in the constitution, which is the supreme law of Canada. So, we have a constitutionally recognized aboriginal right to be self-governing. And a part of our tradition of self-governance is to look after our traditional territory for the benefit of future ancestors. Now we have to find thoughtful, creative, and innovative ways of reapplying those traditional concepts and values in a modern context of natural resource management, and this is what we are working on with the Tribal Parks.

By establishing Meares Island Tribal Park in 1984, Tla-o-qui-aht people began to manage their lands according to their traditional values rather than following those of the dominant Canadian society — which imposed logging onto their land. The Tla-o-qui-aht elders, however, were always unsatisfied with focusing solely on Meares Island without bearing in mind their entire traditional territory, because of their understanding of Hishuk Ish Tsa’walk — everything is one, everything is connected.

“You can’t disconnect the Island from mudflats, and inlets, and rivers, and salmon,” says Eli. “It’s all connected. So we always knew that we would need to go back to managing our whole traditional territory. But, we had to do it incrementally. Since Meares Island was safe because of the court injunction, we focused on the next watershed that was threatened the most. That was the Ha’uukmin, the Kennedy Lake watershed, which became our first attempt to figure out Tribal Parks management based on our traditional principles.”

Tofino from Meares Island

Visible through the branches of the Meares Island’s old growth rainforest, the municipality of Tofino is fully dependent on the Island’s fresh water supply. Photo: © Gleb Raygorodetsky.

The project team developed a Ha’uukmin Tribal Park management and land use plan, that, among other things, informs proponents of development projects about what kind of activities are allowed in the Park before the developers would even think about coming to the Tla-o-qui-aht traditional territory. Following traditional practices and laws of their people, the project team set aside the areas least disrupted by logging and other development activities as traditional qwa siin hap, or ‘leave as is’, areas, similar to what scientists would call a ‘conservation’ or ‘protected’ area. But, other parts of the Tribal Park that had been logged or affected in some other way, like the Kennedy Flats, are called uuya thluk nish, or ‘we take care of’. This is where certain types of economic development and ecosystem healing take place, like salmon habitat restoration.

“Then the goldmine proposal came,” says Eli. “So we said, ‘No, you can’t do that’, and created the Tranquil Creek Tribal Park and the Esowista Tribal Park to protect our territory from mining. Now we have pretty much the entire traditional territory covered. But our salmon go out into the open ocean. Our responsibilities follow salmon, because what happens in international waters is going to affect what happens here. We haven’t really attacked that one yet. But that is where we’re trying to get indigenous voices into discussions about international waters and the management of the Pacific Ocean.”

Eli stresses that the Clayoquot is truly an epicenter for social and economic innovation for aboriginal rights and title, which began with the Meares Island court case. In partnership with groups like the Wilderness Committee, Ecotrust Canada, and Parks Canada, the Tribal Parks have chosen a path toward developing a conservation economy, which is meant not to destroy, but support the natural and social systems making up Clayoquot Sound. In this, the Tribal Parks serve as a foundation for ensuring that Tla-o-qui-aht people’s well-being.

In the past, such a model of conservation economy already existed, when the resources that the lands and sea of Clayoquot Sound provided at different seasons supported thousands of people over multiple generations. Though some traditional subsistence practices, like whaling, are no longer viable, the Tla-o-qui-aht people are hoping to strengthen local traditional subsistence, trade, and exchange models with newer elements of conservation economy.

“We still have access to the whole territory,” says Eli, “But the issue is, the territory needs to heal. It can’t bear the burden, because it’s been degraded and damaged. So we need a crutch to get us through, to help out with the healing, and let the territory restore.”

Initially, he tried to develop ways to restore the traditional territory, the way it was during the time of his ancestors. And quickly realized that this would not work. Climate change makes it particularly challenging now because, among other things, for example, the environmental conditions that had enabled the temperate rainforests to mature for millennia are simply no longer there. There is also not enough salmon today to bring the necessary nutrients into the system to sustain the growth of ancient trees. Moreover, the increasing air and water temperatures undermine the future of those wild salmon species, like sockeye, that depend on cold water to successfully reproduce and grow.

This realization brought Eli back to the lesson he had learned during his water healing ceremonies years ago—‘Find strength in change’. This kind of thinking is what now informs all of his work in Tla-o-qui-aht Tribal Parks.

“I think about it from Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs type perspective,” Eli explains. “What are the basic things that we need? We need water, food, shelter and energy. The most fundamental thing is water. We need clean drinking water sources for ourselves and for the future generations, and it is one of the key resources that we have in our traditional territory in abundance. So, we intend to keep it that way.

At the economic level, we are planning on developing a business that could make money. We’d make glass water bottles that can double as mementos. Something along the lines of ‘Meares Island Tribal Park Water’, ‘Tribal Park Water’ or ‘Rainforest Water’, or whatever. Politically, the timing is right to work with the town of Tofino to ban the import of plastic water bottles so that tourists would buy our local water when they come to our territory anyway.

“We have also initiated discussions with Creative Salmon, a local fish farming outfit that, unlike the Norwegian-owned Atlantic Salmon farms, raises Pacific salmon. There may be a good opportunity to develop an aquaponics system — a closed containment fish farming — at Ty-histanis. It would be an aquaculture-agriculture system, where you have some on-land closed containment fish farming operations instead of open water fish farming. The effluent from this would feed into the greenhouse and community garden system, and the energy for it would come from our geothermal station.

Totem pole

The top crest of the totem pole always represents either the sun or the moon. We must be aware of the sun and the moon cycles that govern our lives every day and every year, and act appropriately. Photo: © Gleb Raygorodetsky.

“Finally, we are working hard on ensuring our energy security. We’ve got our Canoe Creek run-of-the-river power project that is environmentally friendly because it doesn’t require us to damn the river. It is seventy-five percent owned by us, and twenty-five percent by two people we’ve known for twenty plus years in our territory. We have a twenty-five-year power purchase agreement with BC Hydro and have easy access to their transmission lines. The Canoe Creek is a 5.5-megawatt project that can provide electricity to several hundred homes. We have a couple more such hydropower projects around our territory in different phases of development.

“I personally feel that the western economic system is fundamentally flawed and is bound to ultimately fail because it is not following the Earth Law. What we are doing in our climate change adaptation work now is, basically, preparing for the big crash, when the global markets unravel under increasing impacts of climate change. And you know what? If the crash never happens, then that’s fine. Because these are still things that need to be done — people need local jobs, they need local food security, they need access to healthier foods. So we may be just creating a better way of doing things in the long run.”

At the end of my visit of Clayoquot Sound, Eli takes me to the top of the Wah-nah-jus, or the Lone Cone Mountain. In the days long past, Tla-o-qui-aht whalers would spend days or weeks at the top of the mountain, fasting and seeking spiritual fortitude and guidance for their whaling expeditions.

Today, an eco-tourism trail runs from the Opitsaht dock to the top of the Lone Cone Mountain. After meandering through the thickets of undergrowth along the Meares Island lowlands, the marked trail begins a gradual climb up the steepening flank of the Lone Cone, zigzagging from a giant cedar to a towering hemlock. It is a precipitous three-hour slog, but Eli climbs the Lone Cone a few times every year, and his practiced gait is light, his step wide. The last quarter of the climb is almost vertical and in several places, weighed down by my heavy camera backpack, I have to scramble on all fours, dropping far behind Eli, as he easily scales large rocks and fallen trees. Earlier in the day, we had had several meetings in Tofino and didn’t get to catch our water-taxi ride from the dock to Opitsaht until later in the afternoon. By the time I catch up with Eli on the small rocky clearing at the top of the Wah-nah-jus, the entire landscape is infused in amber light of the setting sun.

We stand at the edge of the precipice overlooking Clayoquot Sound. There is no wind, no movement of tree branches, just the buzz of mosquitos gaining in strength as the evening shadows sluggishly flood the land and seascape below. We pull out water bottles to quench our thirst and pause for a few minutes before heading down the slope to make it to the Opitsaht dock by nightfall, when the water taxis stop running. Eli gazes down on his ancestral domain. Far below us, wakes of motorboats crisscrossing the waterway between Opitsaht and Tofino look like the golden feathers of a firebird floating on the surface amongst the small islands scattered around the Clayoquot Sound.

“One of the most important teachings that every Nuu-chah-nulth person would receive,” Eli says without taking his eyes off the Ha-huulthii, aglow in the setting sun, “was about fear. Because, as my uncle Joe reminds us over and over again, if you’re afraid and you want to learn something, you might learn this much.” Eli lifts his hands to the shoulder width. “But if you’re not afraid, you can learn anything!” He spreads his arms wide, embracing the entire Ha’huulthii in front of him. “This is part of the teachings about our roles and responsibilities in the community to each other and other living beings. For all of us are the upholders of the Natural Law, accountable to future ancestors.”

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This article is part of the Healing the Earth project of the Conversations with the Earth (CWE) initiative, a multimedia platform that brings indigenous voices on climate change to the global audience. It is supported by Land is Life. Follow CWE on Facebook or Twitter @ConversEarth.

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The Tla-o-qui-aht People and Climate Change: Chapter 8 by Gleb Raygorodetsky is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. Photos: © Gleb Raygorodetsky.


Dr. Gleb Raygorodetsky is an Adjunct Research Fellow with the Traditional Knowledge Initiative of the United Nations University Institute of Advanced Studies (UNU-IAS) and a Research Affiliate with the POLIS Project on Ecological Governance at the Centre for Global Studies, University of Victoria, Canada. Gleb is a conservation biologist with expertise in resource co-management and traditional knowledge systems. Prior to joining UNU-IAS, Gleb led the development of a new global grant-making strategy for the Christensen Fund on biocultural diversity and resilience. Gleb works in the field of biocultural diversity with a focus on participatory research and communication, indigenous rights, climate change mitigation and adaptation, and sacred natural sites. Gleb co-chairs the Ethics Program for the International Society of Ethnobiology (ISE) and is an active member of the IUCN Specialist Group on Cultural and Spiritual Values of Protected Areas (CSVPA). Gleb has contributed to such magazines as Cultural Survival, Alternatives, Wildlife Conservation, and National Geographic, writing about climate change, traditional knowledge, and Indigenous peoples.