Home News The Great Shift in Power on a Small Island off Canada’s Coast

The Great Shift in Power on a Small Island off Canada’s Coast


In the story, Crow landed on the beach and heard a huge shell making a sound. He found animals cowering inside, but he was a trickster and tricked them into coming into the world. After being liberated, they became the first inhabitants of the Haida Gwaii Islands.

The Haida have lived for thousands of years on Haida Gwaii, a remote archipelago in the Pacific Ocean off the west coast of Canada, south of Alaska.

After the arrival of Europeans, the Haida were nearly wiped out by smallpox, but they held on to their land—so rich in wildlife that it’s sometimes called Canada’s Galapagos Islands, and its old-growth forests of giant cedars and spruce trees are coveted by loggers.

For decades, the Haida’s relentless fight to regain control of their land has captured widespread attention in Canada, despite their remote location, and raised questions about the country’s long-unacknowledged, brutal colonial history.

The Haida fought deforestation and forged ties with environmentalists. They formed alliances with non-Haida communities at home and reached out to other indigenous groups around the world to share common goals.

In 2002, they sued British Columbia for title to their lands and established a museum showcasing their art, artifacts and founding myths, such as “The Raven’s Tale,” to prove their ancient connection to the islands.

Their methodical and painstaking exploration finally bore fruit in May. Government of British Columbia A law, the first of its kind in Canada, was passed recognizing Haida Aboriginal title to all of Haida Gwaii. No provincial or federal government in Canada had ever been willing to recognize Aboriginal title to their lands.

In the coming years, the provincial government’s land and resource management powers are expected to be transferred to the Haida National Council, the government of the Haida people.

“We on our side knew exactly what we wanted, who we were and why we were doing this,” recalled Frank Collison, 89, a hereditary chief who for decades faced an indifferent response from provincial and federal governments. “They just weren’t interested in doing anything and were quite content to keep us under their thumb.”

British Columbia Premier David Eby explain Recognition of title means the province is “no longer a place where Haida national rights are denied, but rather one where they are increasingly recognised and upheld”.

While British Columbia will continue to provide services like health care and maintain infrastructure like highways, how power will be transferred to the Haida will still need to be negotiated with the province.

Some legal experts say provincial law fails to clearly address key issues, including the impact of Aboriginal title on private lands not owned by the Haida.

Others question whether the province can recognize Native title, the inherent rights of First Nations groups to lands they occupied and used before colonization, without a federal government.

Haida leaders say they are optimistic about reaching an agreement with the federal government, which has also been working to recognize Aboriginal title.

However, in Haida Gwaii, where the population is 5,000 and is evenly split between Haida and non-Haida, the development is seen as a watershed moment.

Indigenous communities spoke of colonial liberation and the recovery of their natural resources.

Among the non-Haida people, or “settlers” on the islands, many expressed support for the change, but others said they feared a future dominated by the Haida.

After years of court decisions indicating that the Haida would eventually win their case, the British Columbia government, led by the left-wing New Democratic Party, decided to negotiate a deal that led to the passage of the legislation.

“It shows basic respect and that is to be welcomed,” Haida National Council.

Mr Alsop spoke at the committee’s headquarters, which overlooks Skidegate, a village on the archipelago’s main island where 19th-century smallpox survivors gathered.

Thanks to the fertile land and sea, the Haida developed a prosperous society that engaged in trade, navigation, artists, and owned slaves captured in wars with other indigenous groups. Haida Gwaii means “Island of the People” in the Haida language.

Diseases brought by Europeans made their population By the end of the 19th century, the Haida population had dropped from 20,000 to 600. In the 20th century, the Haida were further marginalized by Canadian government policies and large-scale logging.

In the 1970s, the Haida and some other Aboriginal groups in Canada began to reassert themselves.

"We are starting to get back on our feet," Haida Gwaii Museum At Skidegate.

Leaders formed the Haida National Council, an elected body that represented the community in negotiations with provincial and federal governments. They built museums that showcased their culture and repatriated human remains and artwork from museums around the world, solidifying their claim to Aboriginal ownership.

They revived a nearly lost traditional knowledge. For the first time in 75 years, they built a canoe from cedar trees, recalling that they had “reverse engineered” the surviving trees. Gudjoa former parliamentary president known by the surname Haida.

They also carved totem poles out of cedar and erected them for the first time in decades. In Skidegate, they turned to a matriarch, who in matrilineal societies is responsible for preserving cultural knowledge.

“She’s the only one who remembers how to put up a totem pole,” said Diane Brown, 76, also a matriarch who can recite the founding story in the Haida language.

Leaders frame their movement as part of a global independence and environmental movement.

Guujaaw said they have Exchange strategies with indigenous groups in the Amazon, New Zealand, Australia, Chile, and Myanmar.

Goojo also gained unlikely allies, such as Dale Lower, the former mayor of Port Clements, a logging village north of Skidegate. Lower said it took him 14 years to transform from a fervent defender of logging to an opponent and supporter of Haida self-government, and explained that Goojo contributed to that transformation.

“The Haida didn’t try to win the battle all at once,” he said. “They took one bite at a time, swallowed it, digested it, and then took another bite.”

In 1995, Mr. Lowrey, who specializes in cutting logging roads through the forest, stumbled upon a number of canoes covered in lichen and moss on the forest floor — they had been carved from giant cedars but abandoned by the Haida who had died of smallpox in the 19th century.

“It makes me sick,” Mr. Lohr said, pointing to a canoe during a recent visit to the forest.

After becoming mayor of Port Clements, Mr. Lower signed an agreement with the Haida Nation Council in 2004 that recognized Haida ownership and private lands in the village.

However, not everyone is happy about the change in the balance of power.

Randy and Gloria O’Brien own one of the largest independent logging companies in Haida Gwaii, which has a long-standing contract with the provincial government to maintain highways in the area.

The O’Briens say their business has been hurt over the years by a decline in the overall supply of timber as Haida leaders and environmentalists fought logging. They say they were forced three years ago to cut down half the cedar on their 320 acres, which they had planned to pass on to future generations.

The O’Briens said as power began to shift toward the Haida, elected officials became indifferent to their complaints.

“They won’t return our calls, and in Victoria we can’t even go in to see anybody,” Ms. O’Brien, 73, said of the provincial capital. The couple said they have been doing business on Haida Gwaii since the mid-1970s and they are worried about the future of their company.

“When we first got here, we met a lot of the locals and they became our friends,” said Mr. O’Brien, 76. “We got together with them, fished, hunted, did everything.”

“But all of a sudden, they’re now—” he said with a smile. “They’re going to be our overlords.”

Council President Alsop said the Haida Nation wants to move away from a “number-based logging model.”

Christian White, 62, a renowned Haida artist, said he has seen barges loaded with cedar logs leave Haida Gwaii for years, while the Haida themselves have been restricted by forestry regulations from accessing trees vital to their culture.

In his studio, there is a sculpture depicting people emerging from a shell where a crow is perched. “We are a people who like to share, but other people, they have been getting more than their fair share and it has been going on for too long,” said Mr White.

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