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The Struggle for Haida Gwaii

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Issue: 23 Section: Original Peoples Geography: West Haida Gwaii Topics: Indigenous, forestry

November 6, 2004

The Struggle for Haida Gwaii

Sovereignty, resources and culture at stake, say Haida

by Kim Petersen

Long-term tenure by the Haida has been legally established. Justice Douglas Halfyard concluded that the Haida people have inhabited Haida Gwaii without interruption since 1776. The Crown first claimed sovereignty in 1846. The Haida were never conquered and have never relinquished their title. The Haida have decided to forego protracted territorial negotiations and go the legal route to establish their sovereignty.

In the 1997 Delgamuukw decision, the Supreme Court of Canada recognized the importance of dealing with aboriginal title, and prodded provincial governments to get on with negotiating treaties with First Nations in order to unburden the court system with legal proceedings on the matter.

The Haida already have one major legal victory. Up against the BC government and US corporate timber conglomerate Weyerhaeuser, the Council of the Haida Nation secured a ruling from the BC Court of Appeal that tied the hands of the province over direct disposal of Crown land where aboriginal title might exist since it would be a legal "encumbrance" upon the First Nation. Establishment of the Haida Nation's proof of aboriginal title on Haida Gwaii is still pending. Even though title is as yet legally unproven, the BC government must consult with the Haida Nation on land utilization.

A satellite view of Haida Gwaii (center). Vancouver Island is in the lower right-hand corner.
Weyerhaeuser had sought to cut a stand of old growth cedar trees that hold great cultural importance for the Haida. For a people as bound to nature as the Haida, there is much concern that the current rate of logging is unsustainable and would threaten the existence of the large trees for future generations. The Haida have used the towering cedar trees on Haida Gwaii for canoe building and erection of their elaborately carved totem poles. Old growth cedar plays a vital part in Haida culture.

The lawyer for the Council of the Haida Nation, Lousie Mandell, said that the case raises the question of "the province's capacity to infringe on aboriginal title and rights, and where that line should be drawn."

"If Weyerhaeuser's tenure is so complete that aboriginal title cannot be accommodated, then they have crossed that line."

The legal battle boils down to the question of sovereignty. The BC government refuses recognition of any territorial claim by the Haida. Justice Halfyard, however, has said that he considers it very likely that the Haida will be able to establish aboriginal title to at least some areas of Haida Gwaii.

A recalcitrant province insists it won't play the odds when deciding how to dispose of Crown land in British Columbia. It contends that aboriginal title must be proven in court before it will be acknowledged. The Haida demand the odds have to be taken into account, and argue that to do otherwise would be a violation of their charter rights.

The federal government, for its part, jointly recognizes the Haida Nation in administration of the large park on Gwaii Haanas, also known as South Moresby Island.

A new threat looms on the horizon for the Haida Nation. BC has had a decades-old moratorium on offshore drilling. Under Gordon Campbell, the current Liberal government has been agitating to lift this moratorium. Some estimates point to $300 billion worth of oil and gas lying in the seabed near Haida Gwaii.

Haida leader Guujaaw, however, supports a continued moratorium. He says, "You cannot buy the lifestyle we have with money."

The Haida have reason to be skeptical about the possibility of revenues "trickling down" to them. Of the timber wealth on Haida Gwaii, Guujaaw lamented, "We've been watching the logging barges leaving for years and years. And we have seen practically nothing for Haida."

The Haidas' greatest concern is for the environment. They have already witnessed the devastation left behind by resource extraction. Clearcutting around the Ain River has left the landscape blighted and saw the salmon runs--a food staple for the Haida--disappear.

There is an ongoing contest over the resources in Haida Gwaii, particularly timber. That the outcome of the struggle will have ramifications for the archipelago is adduced by the destructiveness of unsound corporate resource management in contrast with the successful record of Haida conservation. Guujaaw said of the Haida Nation: "We have so far successfully protected approximately 50% of the islands as intact old growth forests."

On March 6, 2002 the Haida Nation began legal action in the Supreme Court of British Columbia. The Haida are seeking an unprecedented sovereignty over the land, seabed, and surrounding waters of Haida Gwaii. Guujaaw stated, "The Haida Nation É has no treaties and on that basis has challenged Canada's claims to Haida waters and the validity of all licenses issued by the Crown. The Haida Territorial waters include halfway to the mainland and Vancouver Island, all the way to Alaska (where Haidas also reside) and westward into the abyssal depths."

This sovereignty is sought within Canada and is not absolute sovereignty.

"We don't believe offshore oil and gas can be safely obtained, the technology doesn't exist, and we are not prepared to see offshore oil and gas drilling in any waters within a 200-mile limit surrounding Haida Gwaii," stated Guujaaw -- an opinion shared by some environmentalists.

"They've come and wiped out one resource after another," said Guujaaw.

The Council of the Haida Nation believes that it can provide better stewardship over Haida Gwaii in a spirit of cooperation. Said Guujaaw, "Today the Haida people are engaged in every variety of occupations and careers, [and we] still maintain a strong relationship to the land. The population of Haida Gwaii [is] about half Haida, [and we] enjoy a good relationship with our neighbors. Last year, the municipalities signed a Protocol with our neighbors who recognize Haida Aboriginal Title, and who will represent themselves in any negotiations to reconciliation."

Guujaaw remarked, "What we're doing today is taking charge of our lives. We're going to design our own future, and we're going to make sure there is a future for the following generations."

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