Chief Ernie George remembers what is was like when the adults could still harvest clams. The Tsleil-Waututh elder was just a boy of seven or eight, when the grownups would set up a tent for the kids on a beige stretch of beach in North Vancouver.
The children were supposed to be sleeping while the adults dug for clams. But Ernie would stay up late, watching them fill countless 100-pound sacks with shellfish.
"The last time I dug clams down in front of my place was in 1978," he says. "My kids know how to dig for clams. My grandkids don't know how."
Tsleil-Waututh means "people of the inlet," and the Burrard waters is where they lived, hunted and fished for centuries - or since "time out of mind," as they say.
The Tsleil-Waututh have a well-worn expression: "When the tide was out, the table was set." The surrounding environment provided everything they needed to live sustainably. There were salmon, trout, sea bass, red snapper, oolichan, herring, clams, lingcod, rock cod, oysters, sea urchins, mussels and cockles - everything.
Many species are still there in the Burrard Inlet, but after decades of pollution, no one eats shellfish, apart from crab.
"People are getting sick on it," Ernie says. "The birds and the crows, those are the only ones eating the clams now." Ernie, known as "Iggy" to most, is an elder and the nation's hereditary chief, and he's agreed to share some of his nation's history and concerns about the environment and Kinder Morgan's pipeline expansion plan. We meet in Port Moody, at the Rocky Point Park dock, on a sunny Wednesday, the first of August. Ernie is 72. He wears two thin silver braids over his ears and a baseball cap with a Louis Bull 439 golf insignia.
Accompanying us are Mike George (of no relation), a cultural and technical advisor to the nation's treaty, lands and resources department, and Dave Thomas, our pilot.
The aluminum boat departs over glassy green water, and the exhaust overpowers the scent of brine, sun-baked seaweed and fresh cedar chips from a nearby mill. Everything around us - trees, ocean and rocky shore - is Tsleil-Waututh traditional territory.
"Most of these places were permanent fishing villages," Ernie says. Their traditional territory, approximately 4,000square kilometres, stretches east to west, from Coquitlam Lake to the Howe Sound, and north to south, from Mt. Garibaldi to the 49th parallel. The dock we departed from was a site used by the Tsleil-Waututh to park their canoes and head south to the Fraser to fish for salmon.
Because the nation has problems with "pot-hunters," (people illegally digging for artifacts), they don't want the locations of their traditional sites described in detail.
Ernie points out a sandy stretch on the Burnaby shore, which used to be the second-biggest clam bed for the nation.
"There were permanent houses there," Ernie says.
The Tsleil-Waututh used to be about 10,000 strong - that was before the smallpox hit, decimating their numbers to 100.
"We got hit twice with smallpox; one before contact and one after," Ernie says.
("Contact" is a reference to 1792, when European explorers first arrived in the Burrard Inlet. Smallpox travelled along trade routes with other First Nations who had been exposed to foreigners. The disease arrived in the Burrard Inlet years ahead of the European explorers, who brought a second bout.)
Now, there are roughly 500 Tsleil-Waututh people left, one-twentieth of their original numbers.
They were relegated to Burrard Indian Reserve No. 3 on the
North Shore, just across the water from Burnaby's Chevron refinery. Around the corner is a small cove, site of the nation's historic main village, the largest gathering area for the Tsleil-Waututh.
"This is 'the biggest place for the people,'" Ernie says, casting his arm over the shore. "This is where all the big houses were."
Now, there's a public park and private waterfront homes.
"The last time I hunted up here, would have been '71," he says.
Ernie points out a small, rocky island where his great, great, great grandfather was buried. According to Ernie, as development increased in the area, the bones were exhumed and moved to the reserve by boat, while a pair of orcas trailed behind. The orcas - or "black fish" as he calls them - beached themselves and stayed ashore till his great, great, great grandfather's bones were back in the
"Then they left," he says.
At the Chevron refinery site, there used to be a Tsleil-Waututh lookout with views to Stanley Park. If those on watch saw people coming in the inlet, they'd light a fire, so people further east would be alerted.
"The Salish Sea area, you'll find most of the First Nations in this area are not a warring people," Ernie says. "We had all the clams we needed, we had all the fish we needed."
The surrounding land provided everything for the Tsleil-Waututh - food, medicine, housing, clothing - and they, in turn, felt a sacred duty to protect it.
That sacred trust is something they've always felt, says Mike, a burly bespectacled man with a wry sense of humour.
"These feelings could have been lost with assimilation," he says. "It's always been a feeling in our heart, being people of the inlet. It's our responsibility."
The Tsleil-Waututh have seen firsthand the environmental damage to their land.
"The amount of spills and industry that goes on here, nobody's too sure how much pollution there is. Nobody's studying it," Mike says. "Right up in here, there are remnants of an earlier oil spill that wasn't cleaned up," he says, gesturing to the shore.
And he's not talking about the 2007 Kinder Morgan spill, when 224,000 litres of crude escaped, leaking into the Burrard Inlet. Mike's referring to something from the early 1950s that has left large patches of dried black sludge on the northern shore.
Ernie recalls another childhood memory. When he was 10 or 11, his dad and other adults had to use bear grease to clean the oil off their legs and canoes.
Dave steers us across the water towards Burnaby, heading east past Kinder Morgan's Westridge Marine Terminal, where tankers fill up with crude.
Kinder Morgan would like to twin the existing pipeline, which runs oil from Alberta to Burnaby, increasing capacity from 300,000 barrels a day to 750,000.
The company also wants to expand the marine terminal to make space for more tankers. The terminal and a portion of the pipeline are already in Tsleil-Waututh territory.
"We're opposed to the expansion. They are going to put a new dock in. They have to dredge it," Mike says.
The Tsleil-Waututh came out against the expansion back in fall 2011. They've since reaffirmed their stance by signing a declaration to save the Fraser this July. For the nation, the risks are just too high and there's no amount of money that can compensate for that.
Back on the boat, the men rattle off sources of pollution over the years: the region's raw sewage that used to flow into the inlet, the combined sewage outfall that is still released into their waters, the ongoing oil seep from the Chevron refinery.
"It's been two years," Mike says, as we pass the seepage site and the bright orange boom lying slack at low tide.
"The boats are a problem," Ernie adds, "pulling their tanks" and emptying sewage into the water.
"There's been years and years of build-up of that stuff."
One of Ernie's "pet projects" is getting the land back to the way it was.
"We're not antidevelopment," Mike chimes in. "If you can do it in an environmentally friendly way, we're for it."
Improving the health of the inlet involves holding government jurisdictions to their word, when they say they'll hold polluters accountable.
"It's hard to find a group of people who want to hold onto the environment the way we do," Mike says.
With Kinder Morgan hoping to twin the pipeline, environmentalists estimate the inlet could see more than 300 tankers a year, and Ernie is trepidatious about the potential for more oil spills.
"With how much assurance can they say nothing's going to happen?" Ernie asks.
But can the Tsleil-Waututh Nation, all 500 of them, stand between the inlet and a massive $100billion energy company, the third largest in North America?
Mike takes a long pause. "For me, I'd say yes. - I think if we get enough people on our side, - we're going to have leverage sooner or later."
In 1982, the Constitution of Canada was changed, guaranteeing protection of existing aboriginal and treaty rights. Subsequent court decisions have shown that aboriginal title applies to traditional activities on the land and the land itself and that governments have a duty to consult first nations and accommodate aboriginal interests when appropriate, even if title has not been proven.
All of this is relatively new, and the nation has never dealt with a project as monumental as Kinder Morgan's. The existing pipeline was built in the 1950s, before aboriginal people were even allowed to vote in Canada.
"Thirty years ago, before I learned about my rights and title, all this was just normal, - it wasn't affecting me one bit," Mike says. Then he learned he had a right to gather, to hunt to access the land, and his outlook changed.
There are also concerns about the quality of aboriginal rights. Sure, there's the right to fish in traditional territory, but no one can eat the polluted shellfish.
Ernie and Mike talk about bullheads and sole with lesions on their fins, gills, eyes and lips.
"You tell me that's clean to a standard of usability," Mike says.
The existing Trans Mountain pipeline crosses 15 reserves and 82 traditional territories, but it's too early to say where they all stand. Kinder Morgan has yet to file an application for project approval with the National Energy Board, which will likely trigger the government's duty to consult.
Kinder Morgan has reached out to the Tsleil-Waututh but was advised they weren't ready to meet yet. The nation maintains that meaningful consultation is supposed to happen government-to-government, not through Kinder Morgan.
Ernie wants to see the environment rehabilitated and hopes his great, great grandkids will know how the nation once lived. But will it ever be the same?
"Not the way it used to be. It will never go back again," Ernie says.
You could get it to a point where it's better maintained, where it's not overlooked all the time," Mike adds.
"What we want is a state that's pre-contact, and we know that can't happen if we try to do that ourselves."
In the meantime, the Tsleil-Waututh and the Squamish nations are cohosting a historic canoe journey on Sept. 1 to save the Salish Sea.
Roughly a dozen canoes are participating, many of which will carry representatives from other first nations.
They will leave Swaywi (Ambleside Park in West Vancouver) at 1 p.m. and paddle to WheyahWichen (Cates Park in North Vancouver), arriving at 4 p.m. There will be a drumming, songs, dancing, a feast and a celebration. On
the way, they will stop in front of Kinder Morgan's Westridge Marine Terminal, where they'll hold a special ceremony that reaffirms the importance of their connection to the water. For the Tsleil-Waututh, the journey is historic, not just because of the number of nations involved, but because they are working together with the Squamish nation, using their traditions to come together to protect the sea.
For a full gallery of photos of the NOW's tour of the Burrard Inlet, see www.burn abynow.com.