The Haida Gwaii: Triumphs and challenges

07/12/2017

“The Haida Gwaii: A Strategic Playbook for Indigenous Sovereignty,” the latest book by investigative journalist and historian Mark Dowie, is a remarkable story about the struggle and victory of an indigenous group to obtain—or rather, preserve—its sovereignty. It is also a playbook for those looking to secure indigenous rights, with a number of significant documents included as appendices that will assist both lawyers and activists. 

The book goes further, placing the Haida Gwaii struggle within an international context as an example of the challenges confronting more than 370 million indigenous people throughout the world. It is written for the general public, without getting bogged down in details, but also to help those who want to know more find the answers they’re seeking. 

What is Haidi Gwaii, where is it located and what makes it so special? The archipelago consists of 158 islands dotting the straits off the western coast of mainland British Columbia. Not long ago, it was identified as the Queen Charlotte Islands, a name that Haida leaders ceremoniously returned to the Canadian government in 2010. Because it contains so many ancient plant and animal species, Haida Gwaii has been called the Galapagos of the North. The area is important for its biological diversity, but is also known for a highly prized indigenous art form: ceremonial poles, examples of which illustrate Dowie’s book. The Haida Nation is also rare in that it has never surrendered to an occupying government, including Russia, the United States and, most recently, Canada.

In 2009, Dowie, a resident of Inverness, published “Conservation Refugees: The Hundred-Year Conflict Between Global Conservation and Native Peoples.” In it he exposed the tragic consequences of environmental successes in preserving large swaths of imperiled ecosystems throughout the world. Over and over, preservation efforts have resulted in the expulsion of aboriginals. In limited instances, native peoples have been allowed to stay in preserves but, for the most part, they are the unwitting victims of high-minded efforts to protect nature that ignore the fact that people, too, are a part of the environment. In some ways, Dowie’s new book is an answer to the abuses he exposed in “Conservation Refugees.” 

The Haida safeguarded their survival by carefully crafting strategies to gain recognition by the province of British Columbia and Canada. Around the world, such struggles for sovereignty often involve armed conflict but, with minor exceptions, the Haida employed peaceful means. They relied on Canadian and international law, and carefully timed their approach to appeal to favorable Canadian leaders when they were in power. Their patience made a difference.

Among the islands’ resources are invaluable timber forests that major logging companies were denuding. Haida elders launched blockades. Elders, some in their 90s, manned the picket lines and were arrested, including at least one woman who was over 100. (Groups of elderly women are considered “wisdom keepers and often are key advisers to Haida leaders.) Indigenous protesters were joined by nonnative loggers who lived on the islands after the Haida convinced them that they were heading toward the extinction of the forests. 

A turning point in the Haida’s campaign for sovereignty was a 2004 decision by the Supreme Court of Canada. The unanimous decision, written by Chief Justice Beverly McLachlan, declared: “Put simply, Canada’s people were here when Europeans came and they were never conquered…Honorable negotiations implies a duty to consult with Aboriginal claimants and conclude an honorable agreement reflecting claimants’ rights… Where the government has knowledge of an asserted Aboriginal right or title it must consult the Aboriginal peoples on how the exploitation of the land shall proceed.” 

Justice McLachlan had harsh words for British Columbia, which challenged the Haida’s claims. She described the province’s argument as an “impoverished vision of the Crown. The Crown cannot cavalierly run roughshod over Aboriginal interest.”

The ruling did not end the struggle for sovereignty, however. Haida Gwaii has a 70 percent unemployment rate, leading many to leave the islands. Dowie describes the many subsequent battles successfully fought by the Haida—struggles that continue today, not only for control of their land and resources, but also to preserve their language.

A front-page article published in June in the New York Times details an internal crisis for the Haida Nation: the near disappearance of native speakers. The loss of their language, which has been transmitted orally from time immemorial, is not only a matter of assimilation. Until recently, youngsters were regularly shipped off to residential schools, where they were routinely punished for speaking their native tongue. The article describes a case in which a child’s fingernails were torn out after she was caught saying banned words. 

It is both surprising and impressive that this population has maintained its commitment to establish an independent nation and culture, despite such personal suffering. But like Dowie’s book, the Times article describes the clever ways through which the Haida have sought to revive and disseminate their language.

Dowie’s book is a wakeup call for those who want to understand what it takes for indigenous people to survive. The struggles of the Haida have not ended, but as Dowie carefully explains, their example offers lessons for similar struggles throughout the world.

 

Herb Kutchins, a retired college professor and Inverness Park resident, has been a frequent visitor to First Nation people in various parts of Canada, though never to the Haida Gwaii. It’s a shortcoming he intends to remedy as soon as possible.