Canadian First Nation paddlers, who took a symbolic chain of crochet out into the bay. Photo published on the Facebook page "Chain of Hope".

Distraught at the idea of oil tankers passing right next to their land, women from Canada's Gitga’at Nation in British Columbia decided to use their talent for crochet to stage a symbolic protest. For months, they worked on a multi-colored crochet chain no less than seven kilometres long. On Friday, they stretched it across the channel where tankers may soon navigate.

Hartley Bay, where most of the Gitga’at live, is accessible only by boat or plane. About 200 people live in this quiet community. However, they fear that it may soon become much less peaceful. Last week, the Canadian government approved a massive pipeline project that would carry bitumen from Alberta to British Columbia’s coast, where it would be shipped off in tankers. These ships would pass by coastal land inhabited by several different First Nations communities, all of whom have protested the move, along with many environmental activists.

Paddlers stretching the crochet line (visible to the right of the photo) across the channel. Photo published on the Facebook page "Chain of Hope".

The crotchet chain measured 7 kilometres long. Photo published on the Facebook page "Chain of Hope".

“It would only be a matter of time until a spill happened”

Lynne Hill, 70, is a schoolteacher and a member of the Gitga’at Nation. She came up with the idea for the crochet protest.

We had already done just about everything we could do – rallies, posters, etc. Because our community is the closest one to the tankers’ route, I was looking for something new we could do that was totally our own, something that would make a statement in a strong but quiet way. I looked at our women’s beautiful crochet work, and thought, hey, this is an idea that’s so crazy it just could work.

A crochet session. Photo published on Flickr by Andrew Frank.

We started working on the crochet line about four months ago. More than 50 women joined in, from little girls to a 92-year-old. I crocheted every minute of my free time. We attached floating fishing corks, too, that people decorated with messages to the tankers, as well as mementos. One woman put photos of her baby, who she wants to raise to enjoy the same beautiful land she and her ancestors did. My daughter decorated hers with a killer whale, because our family belongs to the Clan of the Killer Whales.

A fishing cork with a message. Photo published on Flickr by Andrew Frank.

Our biggest fear is an oil spill. We fish in the sea, and ecotourism is a major source of livelihood for us nowadays. But beyond that, our land is our culture. The end of this place would be the end of us. The company that will run the pipeline says there will be all sorts of safeguards in place. But once a spill happens, you can’t truly clean it up. Just look at Exxon Valdez – years later, the ecosystem is still in terrible shape.

A Gitga'at woman teaching a younger one how to crochet. Photo published on Flickr by Andrew Frank.

We’ve already witnessed what could happen here on a smaller scale: in 2006, a ferry called the Queen of the North ran aground on a nearby island and sank. [Members of the Gitga’at community helped rescue the passengers.]There’s still some fuel burping up from that wreck, and the clam beds we harvested over there never recovered. There’s another wreck that dates back to 1946, a munitions ship that’s been leaking oil for years [Editor’s Note: a cleanup began last year]. So you can imagine how afraid we are of giant tankers full of bitumen... We know it would only be a matter of time until a spill happened.

A Gitga'at woman showing off two spools of the crochet chain, also known as the Chain of Hope.  Photo published on Flickr by Andrew Frank.
“Tankers would scare away the whales”

But even without a spill, the tankers will disturb our wildlife. In the past decade, more and more whales have been coming to our bay, including killer whales and humpback whales. I recently went out on a sailboat with some of my students, and a humpback whale and her calf came up to us. The mother pushed her calf towards the boat. They stayed with us for about two hours. Sailboats are quiet; tankers would scare the whales away.

Killer whales near Hartley Bay. Photo published on Flickr by Andrew Frank.

On Monday, we pulled our crochet back in from the water; we had made our point, and didn’t want it to break and risk animals getting tangled up in it. We saved a portion as a memento, and burned the rest in a ceremony to show our ancestors that we are trying to protect our land. And we won’t stop. If the tankers come, we’ll be out there too, in our small boats, sitting in their way.