The Ahousaht Spirit

Let’s make Canada ocean-strong

The recent sinking during a whale watching expedition has hit home. Canadian-certified passenger vessel MV Leviathan II sank off to Tofino British Columbia last Sunday. The ensuing rescue of 21 passengers and crew, and the death of five British nationals (one Australian passenger is still missing), highlights the importance of Canada having a robust search and rescue capacity and marine response infrastructure. The First Nations community of Ahousaht responded in an incredible way that has surprised many. It should not. The waters around Clatyquot Sound, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is their home. The Ahousaht people welcome and assist all that come into these incredibly beautiful, pristine, and sacred waters. Their actions speak volumes. The village of Ahousaht and many other First Nations communities are a critical component of Canada’s national search and rescue plan. The reality is, they have never been formally brought into the process. That has to change.

First Nations communities and coastal communities have a key role to play in marine response along Canada's coastline. Unlike the United States, which has a Coast Guard base or air stationsapproximately every 200 nautical miles, Canada does not have that capacity. Ahousaht and many other communities along the 28,000 kilometres of the BC coast, make their living from sustainable economic activities and resource development.

They are off the grid and often don’t have a lot of green infrastructure. These communities, and the economies they generate, create incredible opportunities for Canada. For example, whale watching brings 1 million visitors to the community of the Tofino. Revenues in the billions of dollars are generated from ecotourism along the British Columbia coast, but what is often overlooked is the critical infrastructure to support marine response and search and rescue. The Ahousahts, along with other First Nations communities, are critically important in Canada’s ocean governance and management, but they have been left out of the process. The same can also be said for both provincial and local input.

We need to celebrate what occurred off Plover Reef in the traditional territory and waters of the Ahousaht people Ken "EagleEyes" Lucas and Clarence "Smitty" Smith spotted a the flare late on a Sunday afternoon from a life raft that had self deployed from the overturned whale watching vessel while halibut fishing. They immediately transited to the breaking reef (a nasty piece of water) and tried to make VHF radio contact with the Canadian Coast Guard. However, they could not be heard on marine emergency VHF radio frequency. Quickly. they relayed the MayDay call to their local working channel, VHF 68. This triggered a community response that brought the community together with over half the village participating and supporting rescue and recovery operations. They had developed their own village emergency response plan, without question and without funding, “so others may live”. They are true SAR professionals.  They are true heroes.

After the rescue was completed, the Ahousaht, under the direction of the RCMP Marine Unit, continued to search for the missing Australian passenger. It is part of their culture not to leave anybody at sea. This was an emotional and difficult situation for the communities of both Tofino and Ahousaht, and spotlighted a powerful community spirit.

These strong coastal communities are underappreciated by much of this country, and that has to change. The world has seen their capability and ability under a global media spotlight. We need to celebrate that community spirit and build and enhance it.

Similar results have occurred in the past along the British Columbia coastline, such as when the M/V Queen of the North BC ferry sank on the evening of March 11, 1996 near the First Nations community of Hartley Bay, Gitga’at Nation. This community has never really been properly recognized for the rescue of the crew and passengers aboard the vessel. It’s time to recognize that now.  

We must take Traditional Ocean Knowledge (TKO), integrated with the latest in technology, and make Canada "OceanStrong". An earlier FrontLine article entitled Guardians of the Coast looked at Canada’s powerful maritime air capabilities. The concept of Guardians of the Coast can take many forms. We need to integrate local knowledge with technology, and then fuse this capability with local national and international marine response capability.

While much of Canada’s marine response is federally-led, we saw clearly last Sunday that all marine response is local. It is dependent on communities like the Ahousaht, and the fast thinking actions of people like Ken Lucas and Clarence Smith. We need to recognize their incredible actions in a lasting legacy – one way to do this is to have the First Nations name the next Canadian Coast Guard vessel. More importantly, Canada needs to take positive action to bring First Nations into the national marine response discussion. Establishing meaningful dialogue and providing additional training and exercises will go a long way towards making Canada OceanStrong. This will require leadership at all levels of government. The Ahousaht people gave true meaning to the term of Guardians of the Coast, and their sacred relationship with these waters will be the catalyst for change.