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Haida Gwaii: reckoning with the past and striving for a better future

According to Haida mythology, ravens are sacred and represent essential virtues

According to Haida mythology, ravens are sacred and represent essential virtues

As I was waiting to embark on a boat tour to Gwaii Haanas, the national park protecting over half of Haida Gwaii, a raven circled overhead, chattering down at me and my fellow passengers. The Haida guide helping us onto the boat looked up at the bird, laughed and said to me, “he knows that we’re eagles.”

The Haida are a First Nation located on a remote set of islands off the west coast of Canada called Haida Gwaii (which translates to “the islands of the Haida people”). Haida are split into two clans, the eagles and the ravens. Each clan associates their historical virtues and affinities to the birds; the eagles are wise, noble, and powerful –rulers of the sky; the ravens are clever, creative, and playful –change-makers. As the raven circled overhead that day, under a bright blue sky, my eagle boat guide was watching carefully. “Protect your cameras and watches,” he said. “Ravens will try to take anything that shines or sparkles in the sun.”

Glassy waters in Skidegate Inlet

Glassy waters in Skidegate Inlet

 

Our boat tour started out without problems. The water was smooth and glassy; the sun was thinly laced in fragments of cirrus clouds. Tree covered mountains surrounded us on three sides on our way out of Skidegate inlet. Sea birds –Guillemots and Cormorants –flapped out of the water when we approached them. As we tore through the water in our bright red zodiac, a light sea spray cooled my face, and I couldn’t stop laughing with excitement. Leaving the safety of the inlet, the water reflected in the sky in 100 shades of blue.

Unfortunately, on our way down the coast, the weather turned, 6-foot white caps daunted our little boat, and the mission to Gwaii Haanas was canceled. We turned around after 2 hours of fighting the waves and the wind pushed us swiftly back into the inlet to the town of Queen Charlotte. Before we docked back at port, the captain drove us over to a massive log barge on the water which was transporting thousands of tonnes of wood from the Haida Gwaii forests.

Log barge moving though Skidegate Inlet transporting thousands of tonnes of wood from Haida Gwaii

Log barge moving though Skidegate Inlet transporting thousands of tonnes of wood from Haida Gwaii

 

The captain said to us, “We hate to see that here.”

I tried to imagine the clear cuts that resulted in those piles of logs, but what the captain said next surprised me……he pointed to the barge and said, “Those are jobs leaving the island”.

Haida Gwaii has yet to develop the ability to process or mill the timber extracted from their forests. Without mills or processing plants, they cannot add value to their natural resource and grow their economy past the extraction phase. The captain explained that the problem is the fact that wood mills are energy intensive, and on Haida Gwaii, energy is imported as diesel and expensive.

 

Cut blocks of Haida Gwaii old growth forest, about an hour drive inland from the town of Queen Charlotte

Cut blocks of Haida Gwaii old growth forest, about an hour drive inland from the town of Queen Charlotte

 

The Haida people know that the forestry industry is not going to support them into the future. Sixty-five percent of the old growth forests are gone; increased mechanization has decreased the number of job opportunities associated with logging; and the log barge drifting away from shore represents profits leaving the island.

But the captain perked up, “We’re thinking of new ways to generate energy on the island. Wind turbines have been discussed; tidal hydro power could be a good candidate.” If Haida Gwaii could generate more of its own power, the Haida could run mills and make more profits off of less trees. Slower rates of extraction could put less pressure on the forests.

 

 

Signs protesting coastal pipeline development in Old Massett, Haida Gwaii

Signs protesting coastal pipeline development in Old Massett, Haida Gwaii

In the last 40 years, the Haida people have had an unprecedented number of successful campaigns to reclaim the rights over their land. As the forestry industry tore down stand after stand of old growth forests without consent, the Haida people decided to act to defend their land and their future. Actions included negotiations, court cases, and blockades. By the late-1980s, the Haida people successfully signed an agreement with the federal and provincial governments to formally protect the southern half of the islands and form the Gwaii Haanas national park reserve.

Today, 53 percent of Haida Gwaii is conserved land, and some people are fighting to protect more. A Haida-owned company, TAAN forest, now controls more than half of the lumber rights in Haida Gwaii. TAAN forest works to balance extraction with ecological integrity and long term land management. Stands with culturally important yew trees and yellow cedars are conserved, and fragile ecosystems and key animal habitats are protected.

 

Old growth forest in Naikoon Provincial Park

Old growth forest in Naikoon Provincial Park

 

As we sat there, on our little boat, watching a forest-worth of logs float by, the captain acknowledged that the Haida must turn away from forestry to conserve the future.  “We’re going to have to find another way to support the economy here on Haida Gwaii.” He spoke with hope about the potential of small-scale shell fisheries: cold-tolerant oysters found in Alaska, clams, and mussels. He explained his vision so vividly, of family-owned shellfish farms up the coast, I could almost see it.

Haida Gwaii is not a perfect place. It is not free of poverty, addiction, illness or injustice. However, it is a place where land stewardship prevailed as a central leverage point for environmental and social justice. It’s a place where a group of people stood up for their land and won. It’s also a place that proves that we can conserve over half of the land and the waters and still find space for human well-being and appropriate development.

 

Totem Pole at The Haida Heritage Centre at Ḵay Llnagaay

Totem Pole at The Haida Heritage Centre at Ḵay Llnagaay

 

The resilience of Haida people is apparent to anyone who spends time on these islands. Their love of their land, their sense of justice and their collective willpower have allowed them to do two important things: simultaneously reckon with the injustices of the past and look — with hope — towards the future.

 

 

 

 

Anna Kusmer is an E4A fellow at McGill University, interested in sustainability, resilience, agriculture and bridging the human-nature divide. Follow her on Twitter @ASKusmer

 

References:
Documentary “Haida Gwaii: On the Edge of the World”, produced by British Columbia’s Knowledge Network.

Gowgaia Institute. Forest Economy Trends and Economic Conditions on Haida Gwaii. 2007.

Hamilton, Gordon. Taan Forest rising as the new face of logging industry on Haida Gwaii. February 17, 2012. Vancouver Sun.

Lee, Lynn. People, Land & Sea: Environmental Governance in Haida Gwaii. 2012. Paper Prepared for The Action Canada Northern Conference, Haida Gwaii, Canada.

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