Director Mirjam Leuze’s hauntingly beautiful documentary, The Whale and The Raven, illuminates the divergent interests and issues that have focused so much unwanted attention on the town of Kitimat, British Columbia, and the whales that thrive in its fjords. At the heart of the struggle is the survival of orca, humpback, and fin whale communities that not only flourish together, but cohabitate and share the coastline equitably and peacefully. Unfortunately, their very survival is threatened by a proposed tanker route through their oceanic home.
Kitimat, a coastal community with a population of 8,131, is situated on traditional Haisla territory. First Nations like the Gitga’at have lived in this area for over 1,000 years. According to Leuze, “They have struggled since colonization to maintain sovereignty over their territories, which they still steward today.”
In 2006, Enbridge proposed transporting crude oil via super tankers through the Kitimat fjord system. A diverse alliance of Canadian settlers, the Gitga’at and other First Nations people launched a legal challenge. After a 10-year court battle, the project was defeated, but the Gitga’at First Nation found itself in a precarious financial position as a result.
During that decade, other multinational corporations discovered the tanker route and set about making plans to export liquified natural gas (LNG) to Asian markets through this pristine waterway. Unfortunately, these companies had studied Enbridge’s mistakes and learned how to navigate the legal system.
On October 1, 2018, LNG Canada, a consortium led by Shell, announced the start of construction on a new LNG exporting plant in Kitimat. This project will be the largest private investment in Canadian history.
Whale researcher, Hermann Meuter, describes the first time he saw whales in the wild this way, “Something inside of me decided I would wrap my life around them.” The haunting and otherworldliness of whale songs also changed researcher Janie Wray’s life forever. And, the two scientists have dedicated their lives and careers to saving the Kitimat whales.
Jonny Clifton, former chief of the Gitga’at First Nation, and his wife, Helen Clifton, matriarch of the Gispudwada/Blackfish Clan in Hartley Bay, introduced Wray and Meuter to Gil Island, an isolated, uninhabited outpost where they established the Cetacea Lab.
Wray and Meuter’s research predicts the impact construction of an LNG plant will have on the area. Of particular concern are the detrimental effects increased tanker traffic and the resulting noise will have on the sonar of the large aquatic mammals.
A network of hydrophones brings the sounds of the whales’ underwater world to those who live on shore. But between the soothing sound of waves lapping against the rocks and the intermittent cawing of ravens in the trees, the natural silence of the ocean is jarred awake by the thudding roar of a ship’s engine. Meuter angrily declares, “That’s just one [ship]… only one.” Meaning, it’s not even a tanker. let alone a fleet of them.
Leuze’s film is also an exploration of relationships based on love, mutual respect, acceptance and interconnectedness. Wray and Meuter know every whale by sight and mannerism. The whales and the Gitga’at First Nation people share an undeniable bond. The Gitga’at and the researchers share intimate moments and goals. And ultimately, all of them love the primeval environment they all call home.
Leuze notes, “An agreement between the government of British Columbia and First Nations people along the proposed tanker route promises financial support to affected communities.” However, “If a signatory spoke out against the LNG industry, the government of British Columbia reserved the right to suspend payments.”
When asked in a phone interview to comment on what the world would lose if these whales were to disappear, Wary said, “It would be a really lonely ocean without the sounds of whales. It would be a really lonely, lonely planet without them.”
Editor’s note, March 5, 2020: A previous version of this article stated “a network of loudspeakers brings the sounds of the whales’ underwater world to those who live on shore.” The story has been changed to read: “A network of hydrophones brings the sounds of the whales’ underwater world to those who live on shore.”
The Whale and The Raven is screening at the Playhouse Cinema in Hamilton, Ontario on March 22, 24 and 25. It will also be shown at the Original Princess Cinema in Waterloo, Ontario on March 20, 21, 22 and 23.
Doreen Nicoll is a freelance writer, teacher, social activist and member of several community organizations working diligently to end poverty, hunger and gendered violence. A different version of this article first appeared in NOW Toronto.
Image: Mirjam Leuze/Facebook