Months after fatal boat capsizing, First Nation feels forgotten by province
Nearly five months after a fatal whale-watching accident off the coast of Tofino made international headlines, members of a B.C. First Nation lauded for rescue efforts say they feel forgotten by the provincial government.
Leviathan II was carrying 27 people in October when it was slammed by a powerful wave, capsizing the boat and tossing passengers into frigid ocean waters.
Five Britons and one Australian died in the incident, but 21 peple were saved because of the heroic actions of Ahousaht First Nation members, Tofino residents and fellow whale-watching operators.
The act of bravery garnered much praise – and a promise to bolster emergency response training for marine First Nations made by B.C. Premier Christy Clark and Minister of State for Emergency Preparedness Naomi Yamomoto.
“They need more help, they want more training. We will be there to help them do that. It’s part of the program we have set up with Minister Yamamoto,” Clark said at the time.
But months have passed since the tragic incident, and Ahousaht Chief Greg Louie said the government has yet to even pick up the phone.
“The people in Ahousaht are feeling still unsettled with the lack of commitment from the province” he said. “I haven’t heard from Premier Clark, I haven’t heard from Minister Yamamoto. No phone call, no email, no correspondence from either about Premier Clark’s promises or commitments to Ahousaht, and the direction given to Minister Yamamoto to communicate and improve resources here with Ahousaht. There hasn’t been any of that.”
Louie said it feels like the First Nation has been “forgotten” by the government, “especially after the spotlight that was put on Ahousaht around Oct. 25 with this accident.”
The NDP’s aboriginal relations critic called the government’s failure to follow through on its promises so far “an utter failure.”
“Those promises were mere props for a photo op,” said Scott Fraser. “It’s the start of whale-watching season now, so the marine traffic here will increase geometrically. This is the time when we need those resources, this is the time when Ahousaht needs those resources.”
But funding for training sea-based First Nations must come from the federal government, and that has yet to be approved, according to Yamamoto.
“We absolutely want to support First Nations to ensure that they have training that they have to be a first responder on the water,” she said. “It is a federal government issue with respect to emergency response.”
She also noted that rescuers including Ahousaht members were honoured for their bravery in a Governor’s Gold award ceremony in Vancouver last week.
Many chose to stay home, saying the waters off Vancouver’s Island coast are theirs, and what they did Oct. 25 doesn’t make them heroes – it makes them members of a coastal community.
“I don’t know that we’ll ever forget that day, but it’s how they deal with it on a day-to-day basis,” said Louie. “The wounds are still there, they’re still fresh.”
Tofino companies prepare for new season
Meanwhile in Tofino, operators of Jamie’s Whaling Station are doing their best to move forward.
This weekend marks the first time the company will launch whale-watching tours since the fatal incident.
“We’ve taken out hundreds of thousands of people, probably close to a million,” said director of operations Corene Inouye. “We’re still operating in a very safe, comfortable manner for our guests.”
The Transportation Safety Board has yet to make any recommendations as they continue their investigation, but other tour companies say they’ve already started adopting their own changes.
“Without a doubt there’s an impact to everybody, it was a tragic experience and we all felt it whether we were involved on the water, which I was that day, or not,” said John Forde, owner of The Whale Centre. “Most of us have decided to use a manual self-inflating lifejacket on our covered vessels, which was in the works prior to that happening, as well as carrying all the required Transport Canada lifejackets on board all our vessels.”
The people of Tofino are also trying to move forward, and Mayor Josie Osbourne said there’s a mix of nervousness and anticipation prior to the start of the season.
Wildlife tours are a huge draw to the coastal community, accounting for more than $6-million annually.
With reports from CTV Vancouver Island's Scott Cunningham and Gord Kurbis