Ship-based oil spill compensation reform needed for Indigenous communities


Indigenous communities face many barriers to receiving compensation for oil spills from ships in their territories — in fact, only one relatively small claim has ever been paid directly to an Indigenous group — according to a new WWF-Canada-commissioned report.

When an oil spill from a ship occurs, any person, organization, company, community or government can file a claim against the Ship-Source Oil Pollution Fund (SOPF) to mitigate or clean up the spill. Claimants can also seek compensation for property damages or losses to fishing, tourism and other sectors, as well as subsistence harvesting. While spills have occurred near Indigenous communities in the past, the burden of evidence to prove a subsistence claim may be very difficult to meet because of complexities with valuing non-economic losses, uncertainty over what is covered, cultural or language barriers, and concerns over sharing sensitive information.

Commissioned in response to Transport Canada’s upcoming review of the Marine Liability Act this spring, WWF-Canada’s report has found that modernizing Canada’s liability and compensation regime to make it more equitable will require consideration of the specific laws, customs, and practices of Indigenous communities as potential claimants. Additionally, legislated changes must be followed by guidance on how to submit claims for non-economic losses to the SOPF.

For example, Indigenous communities might seek compensation for: subsistence and non-commercial harvest losses; cultural losses such as intergenerational sharing of hunting and fishing practices and celebrations; recreational losses; reinstatement or restoration of the environment; ecological damages, ecosystem impacts and pure environmental loss; and human health impacts.

The report also highlights the need to address prevention and response, and to include restoration, which would include short- and long-term rehabilitation and renewal of habitats and species, in Canada’s spill liability regime. Providing funding for preparedness, pre-impact studies, and capacity-building — both within Indigenous communities and more broadly across both government and industry — could mitigate damages and ultimately reduce the severity and number of post-spill claims.


Diana Chan, Natural Resource Manager with Heiltsuk Nation’s Heiltsuk Integrated Resource Management Department, said: 

“Heiltsuk Nation welcomes this WWF-Canada report, which highlights the significant barriers Indigenous Nations face when seeking compensation from the SOPF for ship-source oil spills in their traditional territories, including compensation for cultural losses, a central type of loss that many Indigenous peoples suffer from oil spills. Significant legislative and policy reforms are needed to make the marine liability regime inclusive of and accessible to Indigenous communities, and this report is a step in the right direction. Further pressing issues with the marine liability and compensation regime — such as the archaic polluter-favouring limitation fund system, and the failure of federal and provincial legislation to require the polluter to pay for post incident environmental impact assessments — must also be addressed.”

Andrew Dumbrille, WWF-Canada’s lead specialist in marine shipping and conservation, said:

“In addition to making it possible for Indigenous claimants to request funding to clean up oil spills on their territories, the SOPF needs to divert more funds into spill prevention and preparedness. One of the best ways to avoid claims in the first place is to put resources into training, modernized equipment and replacing the use of dirty fuels with cleaner alternatives.”

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For more information contact: Tina Knezevic, communications specialist, [email protected]