Interview: Jess Housty

Grantee partner Jess Housty of Qqs Projects Society shares her thoughts on leadership, indigenous stewardship, and how philanthropy can support First Nations.


Jess Housty. Photo: Melissa Groo

Jess Housty is soft-spoken yet direct and eloquent. She is a storyteller and a poet with an academic background in medieval literature. She traces her cultural identity and family roots to the lands and waters of Heiltsuk territory, where hundreds of generations came before her. She is also a proud mother.

In addition to these descriptions, many people refer to her as a young, emerging leader. “It always catches me off guard. I think there are a lot of cultural differences when it comes to conceptions of leadership if you’re an Indigenous person. I remember my grandfather chiding me that we don’t choose when we’re called to lead; we take direction from the people who identify leadership potential in us, or respond to the situations that call us to become leaders,” says Housty.

The Heiltsuk First Nation is located on the remote Central Coast of British Columbia, in the heart of the Great Bear Rainforest. The town of Bella Bella sits near the centre of Heiltsuk territory, home to most of the community and Qqs Projects Society, an innovative non-governmental organization that Jess works with as Director of Traditional Ecological Knowledge.

Qqs is a Heiltsuk word meaning “eyes”; with a mandate to open the eyes of young Heiltsuk people to their responsibility as stewards of their environment and culture, the name for the non-profit is well suited. Among their many initiatives, Qqs runs Koeye Camp, which integrates science and cultural rediscovery into a fun and challenging education program for kids. They also lead Coastwatch, which gathers data and develops models and tools to help the Heiltsuk Nation’s stewardship office to best manage Heiltsuk lands and waters.

Qqs Camp by Rory Housty

Qqs’ Koeye camp. Photo: Rory Housty.

Tides Canada has been partnering with Qqs since 2010 on a range of initiatives that include; bear research; salmon monitoring and traditional salmon weir; youth science outreach; an educational wild foods garden; the community library; and research of new social enterprise models.

We asked Jess to share her views on the role of philanthropy in supporting First Nations and for feedback on her work with Tides Canada.

How did you begin your work with Qqs?

I grew up within Qqs and its birth and growth as an organization really ran parallel to mine. My father is the Executive Director (and my hero). I started my first project within the organization when I was in my mid-teens, and I’ve been involved with Qqs in some form since then.

In your experience, how are effects of colonization apparent in the environmental movement?

Old-school conservationists have told me that real conservation looks like vast tracts of untouched wilderness that are protected from human impact. I am an Indigenous woman from a place-based culture. We perform stewardship through the exercise of our rights and the practice of our culture out on the territory. We are intimate with our lands and waters. We don’t thrive unless our lands and waters thrive. It’s a matter of survival. Nothing is untouched; we are actively nurturing and defending the whole of our territory, and in turn, our Heiltsuk identity is nurtured and protected.

In my mind, you cannot have environmental justice without social justice. Environmental values have to intersect with social and cultural values, because if they don’t, you’re almost certainly disenfranchising someone.

What needs to happen to do this work better? I think we need to focus on relationship-building and developing decolonized and values-driven approaches to our work. I don’t identify as an environmentalist or a conservationist; I identify as Heiltsuk.

I admire conservation partners who are open to letting Indigenous people tell their own stories, define their own success metrics, and scope out timelines and values-based approaches that work for our communities.

What is the role of philanthropy in supporting First Nations?

I think it’s important to start with the principle that we build from the ground up and not from the top down. Philanthropy can have a catalytic effect, but the ideas and projects are strongest when they emerge from communities. Start with the goal of elevating strong leaders and compelling stories, and helping to build on the successes that are already unfolding. Trust is essential.

Sometimes, well-intentioned philanthropic partners actually hamper our ability to accomplish the goals that they are supporting us to accomplish. This happens when the scope of our ideas or solutions is limited, when our methods are prescribed from outside, and when our success metrics are defined by someone else.

Why did you decide to work with Tides Canada?

We were curious to find out what Tides Canada was all about. That first conversation involved lots of laughter and the rapid realization that our goals and values in our work were very similar. As the relationship has grown, we really appreciate how our partners at Tides Canada trust that even if our ideas sometimes seem unconventional, that we are the best people to envision solutions on the ground where we live.

I think that Tides Canada has functioned as a portal into a bigger world that’s given us a lot more confidence and perspective. Some initiatives, like the INGO report, made us realize that we’re not alone in the little niche we fill, and it’s nice to feel like less of an anomaly! But it’s also been wonderful to become connected to a wider and very diverse network through Tides Canada.

Koeye River weir by Bryant Deroy

The Koeye River weir enables the Heiltsuk First Nation and Qqs Projects Society to responsibly manage local salmon stocks. Photo: Bryant DeRoy.

In a more concrete sense, Tides Canada has helped us to nudge forward so many initiatives, from enriching our community library, to helping us launch a new food security initiative and monitor the salmon that are the lifeblood of our people, to empowering us to be a voice for bears in the fight against trophy hunting. We operate with a very open mandate, and Tides Canada is rare amongst its peers for being responsive across the board.

What would you tell someone considering partnering with Tides Canada?

People need to know that Tides Canada is nothing like any philanthropic organization they’ve worked with before. Ditch your assumptions and prepare to innovate!

One of the most rewarding things for me is how reciprocal the relationship is. I can be bold with my ideas and I am prepared for our partners at Tides Canada to be bold in response. We’re in it together. In talking through an idea with partners at Tides Canada, I have always found that my thoughts are clearer and my excitement is stoked even further. Tides Canada represents the gold standard, in my mind, for engaged philanthropy.

What are the goals you hope to achieve in your work and life moving forward?

As an organization, I think Qqs must continue to uplift our youth, families, and community, and create opportunities for them to engage in land-based practises so that their cultural identity is a source of pride and they feel empowered as stewards of their homelands. I hope we always remain nimble in how we execute that.

I am eager to see my community thrive. I want my baby to grow up with strong cultural roots, a love of our lands and waters, and a drive to defend them. I hope I can always remain nimble too, because there’s no one path to creating the conditions for a Nation to flourish. But the seeds are there, and I look forward to spending my life helping them grow.

Since the beginning of our work in BC’s Great Bear Rainforest in 2000, Tides Canada has been committed to building human capacity for conservation in the Pacific region of Canada and beyond. We believe that environmental conservation outcomes will only be achieved and sustained if the people and communities that depend on the ecological health have the capacity to steward and manage their environment. Learn more and support this work here.