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From Queen Charlotte to Haida Gwaii

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Issue: 69 Section: Ideas Geography: West Haida Gwaii Topics: Indigenous, Haida

March 29, 2010

From Queen Charlotte to Haida Gwaii

The ascent of the Haida and the struggle with Canada

by Martin Lukacs

All that We Say is Ours: Guujaaw and the Reawakening of the Haida Nation
Ian Gill
Douglas & McIntyre: Vancouver, 2009.

MONTREAL—Metaphors greet you everywhere in Haida Gwaii. Visiting the storied archipelago cradled by northwest British Columbia last summer, I walked into the office housing the Haida’s renewable energy project—a bold plan to build Canada’s first offshore wind farm. The Haida aim to install more than a hundred 50-metre turbines on their coastline, in partnership with the province and a private energy company. At a price tag of $2 billion, of which the Haida would cover $240 million, it is projected to power 130,000 homes on Haida Gwaii and throughout BC. Despite criticism about the costs and the technological uncertainties of gigantic turbines, the Indigenous nation’s leadership has forged ahead confidently.

As I sat down to peruse some pamphlets, I was disturbed by a screeching noise. The secretary insisted it was construction outside. But as I looked around the office, I located its real source: a replica wind-turbine, barely a half-metre in height, was grinding and whining on its gears, struggling to achieve its purpose as window decoration.

Fanciful towers, a floundering toy—the irony of the episode was inescapable, and a poignant reminder of the tension between the Haida nation’s enormous ambitions and the mundane obstacles they must still overcome. The obstacles are those faced by Indigenous communities across this country: poverty and economic dependency, cultural and linguistic dislocation, low education rates and poor health—the constellation of problems spawned by decades of dispossession and debilitating government policies. The Haida, however, have refused to be hindered as they unwind the past and remake their future, a story well told in Ian Gill's recently published All That We Say is Ours.

Haida Gwaii (or the Queen Charlotte Islands) has long been celebrated for its natural splendour and cultural heritage. Its 150 islands, often called the Galapagos of the north, have a biological diversity rivaled by few places in the world. Magnificent cedars, spruce and hemlock and unique species of plants and wildlife flourish in old-growth forests many thousands of years old. These have supported and inspired the Haida's carvings, totem-poles, and the ornate clothes worn during potlatch ceremonies. The dramatic red and black lines of their crest designs—Eagle, Raven, Killer Whale—are immediately recognizable. It is a delightful surprise to discover the Haida's language does not in fact have a word for "art." It's as if its creation were second-nature to them. Today, Haida art graces Canada's paper money; a massive bronze sculpture of a canoe sculpted by Bill Reid sits in front of the Canadian Embassy in Washington, DC.

But if Canada has embraced the culture of Indigenous peoples, especially the Haida, it has been a great deal more resistant to their political claims. The provincial and federal governments jealously guard their exclusive reign over the land. The outcome for First Nations' traditional territories has usually been straightforward: its undisturbed apportioning-off to private industry. In Haida Gwaii, the old growth treasures proved irresistable to timber barons, who brought industrial logging to the islands in the early 1900s. Enormous, tough spruce trees became the favoured material for WW2 fighter planes. As part of British Columbia's "resource industrial complex," Gill writes, forestry operations were guaranteed deep support from politicians, in exchange for healthy contributions to government coffers. All the big corporate names— MacMillan, Rayonier, Brascan—eventually took part in the lucrative island industry. They laid bare hillsides with mechanized savagery, moving assuredly to take more and more, from one island to the next.

The Haida began to mount a challenge in the 1970s. One of the most famous wilderness battles anywhere was launched by an act of “kitchen table cartography,” as Gill puts it. Over a late night in a hamlet, Gary Edenshaw—soon to be known as Guujaaw—and an American adventurer named Thom Henley drew a line on a Haida Gwaii map, imagining that all the southern islands below it would be spared full-scale liquidation. The Islands Protection Committee, a meeting of minds between Haida and non-Native island sympathizers, was born that morning. By 1985, pictures of dozens of Haida—including elders on the front line—being arrested during marathon logging blockages were beaming across the country and the world.

Though intertwined with its famous cultural revival, the story of the Haida’s political renaissance is not widely known. Gill, a veteran journalist who has been travelling to Haida Gwaii for a quarter century and made it the subject of two previous books, is well placed to tell it. At the centre of the story is Guujaaw, the President of the Council of the Haida Nation, who has become a kind of reluctant symbol of the Haida's cultural and political transformation.

Gill chronicles Guujaaw's younger exploits, as he drifts from one end of the archipelago to the other, defying the stormy Pacific Ocean on paddling adventures, mapping cultural landmarks in the old-growth forests, and collecting the oral stories and songs of Haida elders. His peers meanwhile scoured the museums of the world to rediscover the artistic techniques of their forebears. As they pieced together their culture and traditions, the Haida began to emerge from the long shadow cast by government bureaucrats, white missionaries and disease. These forces had parceled off Haida lands, asphyxiated their culture and decimated their population, which plummeted from tens of thousands before contact to a mere 350 by 1900. As I visited workshops and studios across the islands, I saw the fruits of the Haida labour in the confident gazes of skilled young artists—sculptors, carvers, or jewelry makers—who have overcome the despair and aimlessness that are all too common symptoms of teenage life on reservations.

I met Guujaaw at his favourite cafe in Skidegate, one of the islands' two reserves. It is within view of a magnificent $26 million art centre and museum, composed of five longhouses, a canoe and carving studio and a hall for traditional ceremonies, which opened for business in the summer of 2009. (In keeping with noted obstacles hindering Haida ambition, the staff complained to me that it was already suffering financially.)

A woman seated next to us offered to buy "Mr. President" his coffee, with a playful servility reserved for a statesman who is also a master carver, poet, drummer, paddler, and everyday trickster. Guujaaw's mischievousness is legendary. He has tried to use a Haida passport to slip into Hungary; declaims about Haida history paralleling that of the the ancient Middle eastern Essene tribe; and writes endless streams of missives, including one to Weyerhauser, the multinational company whose logging has devastated Haida Gwaii, nominating himself to serve as their director. Like the conniving and waggish Raven of Haida mythology, Guujaaw's mischief has always been in the service of serious ends. Guujaaw helped spearhead the first wave of activism in Haida Gwaii in the 1970s and 1980s, which culminated in a 1987 agreement with Canada and BC to create the 147,000-hectare South Moresby national park "reserve,” known also as Gwaii Haanas. Buoyed by their success, the Haida have kept up their protest. Through court challenges and blockades, they have won protection over an even greater territory, via a land-use planning process that will see them share co-management with outside governments. Today, Gwaii Haanas' northern boundaries almost perfectly match the far-fetched line originally drawn by Guujaaw years ago.

The Raven and First Men, sculpture by Haida Artist Bill Reid. [CC] Photo: Juan Barrios

"We've gone from having no say over the resources, to now having half of the landscape under protection, all of it to be eco-managed," Guujaaw told me. "We have knocked down the logging to one-third of what it once was." The Haida have also recently negotiated management plans for wildlife and marine life, extending to the waters surrounding Haida Gwaii.

But the Haida's goal is more profound than environmental protection of their territories. They are staking claim to its fundamental ownership. The Haida's challenge—embodied most explicitly in a court writ that asserts their Title to the entirety of the archipelago—hinges on a "gaping hole in the colonizer's paperwork," Gill writes. During early colonization in British Columbia, the business and political elites of the day refused to adhere to the 1763 Royal Proclamation, binding to this day, which required them to sign formal land surrender treaties with Indigenous nations before proceeding with settlement. This has left the overwhelming majority of lands in the province legally unsettled, undermining the "certainty"—a euphemism for unchallenged sovereign control—that government and industry rely on for secure and profitable investment and development.

The government's preferred method for dealing with this jurisdictional headache has been to pick up where other provinces left off in the early 20th century: extinguishment by treaty. Taking advantage of First Nations' poverty, the government presses them to legally relinquish all their traditional lands in exchange for some cash and the right to call five per cent of it their own. The Haida have shunned these "modern treaty" negotiations, using other means to chip away at the edifice of outside control over their islands.

"It has taken a combination of courts, blockades, building alliances, planning and general artful strategems against the trickery and deceit of successive provincial governments," says Guujaaw.

In recent years the Council of the Haida Nation has even managed to win the support of the islands' municipalities, who have pledged "common cause" with the Haida title case. It is an almost unheard of alliance between First Nations and rural, resource-dependent non-Native communities. There is more than a little clear-eyed self-interest at play—loggers figure they may soon be working under Haida watch—but it is still surprising given the Haida leadership's refusal to give an inch on their title.

"Our people would rather hold onto the notion that this is Haida land, even if this means having no real authority over it, than to have to surrender and end up with just a little authority," says Guujaaw.

"All over the land people have hunted and died. There they remain at rest. No part of that can be surrendered."

Famed Indian fighter Geoff Plant, who the government has dispatched to deal with especially tenacious First Nations, was forced to up the ante with the Haida, dangling 20 per cent of their land as an exchange for their title. This is well beyond what any other Indigenous community has been offered, but Guujaaw dismisses it as "mere mischief." Considering the strength of the Haida's position, his is probably an apt description.

The Haida have already won a landmark decision in the Supreme Court in 2004, when the top judges ruled that governments must consult and accommodate First Nations when they are asserting unextinguished Aboriginal rights. (This in part led to the land-use planning process.) The Title case, which is currently in abeyance, will likely soon restart its long, meandering but inevitable course to Ottawa’s highest court chambers. It will be met there with the unyielding response of the government's own legal rejoinder: "British Columbia does not admit the existence of the 'Haida Nation'."

But if the steady, incremental concessions from the Supreme Court are any indication, it is only a matter of time before a First Nation, likely in BC, wins a full declaration of title. The Haida stand a good chance of being the first. When or if this happens, it may radically reshape relations between governments and Indigenous peoples in Canada and beyond.

Though Gill gives a riveting account of the passage of these events, Guujaaw is no fan of the book, especially what he considers its fixation on the trivial private details of Haida life. He recoils at the thought of becoming the hero of the Haida story. As quoted by Gill, Guujaaw believes himself “fairly normal. Everybody should be fighting for the land, everybody should have a relationship with the land, everybody should be doing something cultural.”

Gill’s book remains an informed and articulate plea to heed the example of the Haida—who are energetically and creatively fusing ancient and modern ways of organizing cultural and economic life. As Gill points out, Indigenous peoples may very well hold the planet’s riches in their hands: they occupy 20 per cent of the world’s land surface; comprise 90 per cent of its cultural diversity; and steward 80 per cent of its biological diversity. If the Haida cannot figure out a sustainable form of relation with the 21st century world, we may have nowhere else to turn.

Gill doesn’t shy away from addressing the difficult issues, such as what the new economies Guujaaw and the Haida leadership talk about building will actually look like. The Haida now have their own forest tenure and are looking to buy the largest Tree Farm License on the islands. But just about every non-Native resource industry labourer with whom I hitched rides hee-hawed about the Haida's dismal early logging efforts. The Naikun wind farm has also recently bogged down in divisive debates, and even more basic economic strains present themselves. Some local Haida criticize Guujaaw and the Council of the Haida Nation for draining millions in the court cases while neglecting programs that would support communities mired in poverty: in Skidegate the unemployment rate is near 40 per cent; in Old Massett, the reserve on the island's northern end, it is in excess of 60 per cent.

Whatever the challenges, the Haida seem on an unrelenting path to reconstitute their nation—raising totem poles, relearning their Indigenous tongue, repatriating their ancestors’ human remains, and defending their lands by the many means necessary. These are the Haida ways of "creating magic," in the words of Haida lawyer Terri-Lynn Williams-Davidson.

This past December, Guujaaw signed an agreement with premier Gordon Campbell to officially rename their homeland from "Queen Charlotte Island" to "Haida Gwaii," a long-time wish of the Haida. When Campbell visits the islands later in 2010 he will symbolically return the colonial name to the mainland during his flight home. A name may only be a name, but this ceremonious gesture is a telling sign of the Haida's reawakening as a nation. They know who they are, and they are ready to claim what is theirs. Time will tell if Canada is willing to reckon with such a people.

Martin Lukacs is a writer and activist in Montreal. He hitchhiked to Haida Gwaii in July, 2009.

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