SpruceRoots - Stories
by Ian Lordon


The first time I remember reading SpruceRoots was when Simon interviewed Dale Lore—around the time the Islands Community Stability Initiative was really gathering steam. Nearly ten years ago now. I was a rookie reporter working for the Observer and just getting a sense of the social and political scene on Haida Gwaii. It was a great read. Dale went on a few good rants which bordered on the messianic and raised questions in my young mind about his mental health. Many years later these questions remain.

It also raised questions about the medium itself: What the hell was this quirky-looking off-white newsletter? What kind of a cheesy name is SpruceRoots? It’s free, no ads, who was paying to publish this odious interview with Lore? Gowgaia? A name even stranger than SpruceRoots. John Broadhead was rumoured to be behind it all, a man I’d never met nor even heard of until then. Someone told me I could find out a little bit about him if I read Paradise Won. I should have trusted my instincts after hearing the title. The book offered vague, starstruck information about JB. Mostly, I learned Elizabeth May was a sentimental writer.

Determined to get to the bottom of it myself, not long afterwards I called JB with a mind to put his feet to the fire. I saw it as my duty to expose this mysterious figure. Clearly he was up to something, and if he preferred to operate in obscurity, it must be no good.

JB was mostly amused. He stonewalled in a very friendly, somewhat patronizing manner. I felt like he was chuckling at the antics of a child, and when our brief conversation concluded, I was no better off. Maybe a little. I knew JB was real, he had a phone, and he lived in QCC. These facts put an end to the mystique, but not the mystery.

A little later when I first met him in person, smoking on the deck of the small hall in Skidegate, I asked him about Paradise Won.

“How accurate is it?”

He laughed.

“Not very.”

I was employed by Gowgaia for over five years and I can’t really tell you much about JB. He has refined taste and an appreciation for detail. He’s a man of faith. He’s curious. He answers questions with questions. As for Gowgaia, if you asked me what it does or how I couldn’t come any closer to nailing down a definitive answer than May did when she tried to sum up the fight for Gwaii Hanaas. Sometimes, it just happens. This was a constant source of consternation for me. I prefer absolutes.

SpruceRoots, I would later discover, was JB’s name and Simon’s baby. Simon recruited me at exactly the same time CBC in Rupert did. I was definitely leaving the Observer, and given my suspicions about JB personally and SpruceRoots as a local purveyor of information, it was no surprise I accepted a three-month contract to write interview scripts at the respectable Mother Corp. I only needed one month to realize it was a mistake.

Rupert, I’m sorry, is hell. No matter what the tourist guide tells you, a week is much too long. Bear in mind I moved there from Tlell. I’m sure someone from, I don’t know - Toronto, would find comfort in its decayed commercial-industrial appeal. But after one disappointing trip to the cinema, a plate of sushi, and a drunken spree the novelty wears thin. So three months later I was back on the Islands working for Gowgaia and writing for SpruceRoots. My coarser friends in eastern Canada got quite a kick when I’d say that. I rarely bothered to explain.

So it began.

Today, going on two years since I left, my time at SpruceRoots is embedded in and inseparable from my Haida Gwaii experience. From where I sit writing among the weathered foothills of the oldest mountains on the planet, it’s a whole with many facets. Time and space lends perspective but there’s an immediacy and familiarity to the memories that persists. Sometimes, when I open the door in the morning for my semi-conscious commute to work, I can hear the waves breaking on Tlell beach. I see Willy and Lewis on the trampoline. I see Bob heading for the river. Then reality strikes. I wake to the present and the tall pines towering over the farmhouse where I live, the hardwoods cluttering the hills, and tall grass swaying in the fields. It’s a new day in a different world.

Looking back through what I wrote I’m struck by what the stories represent. A series of personal epiphanies interspersed with humdrum. Perhaps epiphany is too strong. Realizations? Call it progress.

The first and most resounding for me came while researching aboriginal title. When I read the Delgamuukw decision it sparked a fundamental change in my world view. It started when I recognized the courts had conceded the Crown was in the wrong. The dominos continued to fall until I accepted I personally was in the wrong as long as I was complacent. Complicit.

The land question, as it’s ambiguously referred to, is really no question at all. The colonists broke their own laws and we, their progeny, bear responsibility. We can make excuses all we want. The prosperity and comfort we enjoy was ill-gotten. It’s Nazi gold.

We can’t go back in time and we can’t leave. It’s now cliché but we’re all here to stay. We can change the way we live together. I understand the arguments from the defenders of the status quo who claim granting special rights to aboriginals makes second-class citizens of the rest of us. Self-proclaimed egalitarians, they object even to the reserves and the support First Nations receive from government. I don’t buy it. Those are merely lousy compromises.

I’ll tell you a story.

I was lying on the couch watching the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network the other day… Stop laughing, TV is still fresh for me.

Anyway, Ravens and Eagles was on. Or is it Eagles and Ravens? Whatever, I saw scenes from Haida Gwaii and I stopped surfing. There was a barefoot Margaret Edgars on North Beach showing some tall, goofy mainland Indian how to dig for clams. The show was taped in 2001 and Margaret, her pants rolled up above her calves, was getting down and dirty in the fine sand and coming up with clam after clam. Then the big guy would give it a go and come up empty. It was beautiful.

At least it was until the pessimist in me started imagining oil rigs parked off shore and tankers cruising back and forth through Dixon Entrance. Oil washing up on the beach. A big sign warning people not to eat the shellfish.

To me that image of Margaret digging clams sums up the sort of ‘special rights’ aboriginals deserve. You can’t put a price on it. You could dig up every clam on North Beach and sell them and the money wouldn’t buy a single tanker full of oil. You could cut the kidneys out of every person on Haida Gwaii and that might buy a tanker’s worth, but the law protects people from that kind of exploitation. First Nations need rights to protect their traditions from greed. If that makes them special, too bad. That’s how you make amends for the past. That’s how you give back some of that Nazi gold. You make sure Haidas never have to eat oily clams. You make sure they can harvest monumental cedar, or wild salmon. And so on. If you want to be an egalitarian about it, make sure there’s enough to go around for everyone. That’s when you become an environmentalist.

My awakening to the native reality was one of the most important discoveries I made while on Haida Gwaii. For most natives I imagine this ‘discovery’ doesn’t merit applause, maybe a ‘Gee… ya think?’ Kind of like discovering your toes. But for a guy who shot imaginary Indians with his cap gun as a child, it was a pretty major feat of deprogramming. There’s still a ways to go.

One of my greatest regrets is that I never took any trouble to learn Haida. Eight years on the Islands and all I can say is ‘Howa.’ I’m not even sure how to spell it.

Living in Quebec I’m now waking up to the importance of language. I know I’m going to alienate people when I admit I’m sympathetic to the separatists here. I don’t support separation, I think it will do francophones more harm than good, but I understand where they’re coming from. Language is culture.

I’m speaking French again. Every day I talk to French people to get the scoop for the paper I work for. It was hard at first. I hadn’t spoken much French for a decade. I was as rusty as one of those old car wrecks you sometimes find rotting in the woods on Haida Gwaii. It’s easier now.

I’ve observed that when I speak French I adopt a somewhat different character. I use more hand gestures, even on the phone. The pitch of my voice changes more often and more dramatically than it does when I speak English. I even think differently.

I didn’t regret not learning Haida until I noticed this. I now know I would have understood Haida people and culture much, much better if I spent some time trying to learn the language. I realize how important the Haida language program is. It’s fantastic that Haida is taught in school.

I remember interviewing Lavina White once at her home in Old Massett. She’s an impressive woman and she was tolerant, even kind towards me. The only time she really got bent out of shape was when I related what I thought was a harmless little anecdote while we were on the subject of racism.

At the time I was listening to an album called Mermaid Avenue by Billy Bragg and Wilco. They took lyrics written by American folk legend Woody Guthrie, wrote music for them, and recorded the result. In one song Guthrie wrote something like “all creeds, and kinds, and colours of us are blending ‘til I suppose ten million years from now we’ll all be just alike. Same colour, same size, working together.”

Living in the sometimes racially tense environment that is Haida Gwaii I found this a comforting thought. After all, if we all looked the same then we’d have one less reason to hate each other.

When I shared this vision of the future with Lavina she was aghast. Angry even. She wouldn’t explain why but it was patently clear this idea held no appeal to her. Thinking it over later I decided that as a woman who dedicated much of her life to preserving Haida culture, to celebrating and maintaining its difference and uniqueness, she probably wouldn’t be too keen on Guthrie’s sea of sameness. Even if it meant we’d have one less reason to hate each other.

Lavina’s a separatist.

I could go on and on. There were many stories, many memories from my time at SpruceRoots and in Tlell. I think my favourite Gowgaia period was when we worked over Rainbows. John Farrell in his corner office, the ‘public’ rolling in off the street to distract us, my first internet connection, the unflappable Simon keeping us on course, beers fueling animated yaks with Erica at Howlers. Year round the ceaseless sound of carols from Jack’s bloody Christmas lights along the stairs.

It won’t do any good to drag it out reminiscing though. This is the last issue. I was always notorious for missing my deadlines and this was no exception. If anything it was exceptional because I stalled longer than ever before hoping to avoid the end. The first time I sat down to write this piece there was snow on the ground and it wasn’t melting. Now it’s sweltering summer hot.

I was pretty sad when Simon broke the news to me. I expected SpruceRoots would live on long after I left. I imagined Gowgaia would hire some other idealistic punk new to Haida Gwaii and let her run with it. SpruceRoots was a unique opportunity to develop a different style of writing before an audience only too willing to share their opinion of what you produced. Where else can you get away with writing a 2,000 word monologue? Now my editor is constantly telling me “no one reads more than 500 words, I don’t care if it’s good.” Such is the world that doesn’t keep Island-time.

When I left I swore I wouldn’t write from the mainland. Spruceroots, I felt, was by locals for locals. Reflections of Haida Gwaii. You can’t hold the mirror straight out here, it isn’t authentic. The last story I wrote was from Ottawa when the Haida stormed the Supreme Court with the TFL 39 case. I broke my own vow then because the event didn’t occur at home and I was there. The decision was a disappointment.

In spite of the letdown I still believe the best hope for a solution to the ‘land question’ lies in the courts with the title case. I know it’s big, that it’s expensive, and the prospects aren’t necessarily promising, but it has to be done. There isn’t a better place to see it through than at the edge of the world. If the court doesn’t render an honorable decision then First Nations have their answer. They can respond accordingly.

I try to keep up with Haida Gwaii happenings. The odd phone call, emails, the Observer online. It’s tough because it makes me homesick and I don’t enjoy learning about the changes I’m missing. Islands Spirit Rising was a kick and it made me green with envy. I made a few cracks earlier at Dale Lore’s expense but I was proud to hear that Port was standing with the Haida, especially given the dissention from some quarters. I loved the stories chronicling the Islands community rallying behind the effort. That growing spirit of cooperation gives me hope for the future. I like to think that SpruceRoots might have had something to do with nurturing it.

I can’t thank Simon, JB, Leslie, Cindy, John, Erica, and Dave enough for being great friends and colleagues. I’m grateful to Gowgaia for giving me such a fantastic job for so many years. I’m grateful to those who helped me out with quotes, thoughts, and information for the stories I wrote. Most of all, I’m grateful to everyone who took the time and trouble to read them and tell me exactly what they thought. I miss you all and think of you often.

With that I’ll say rest in peace Spruceroots, may your sap run forever sweet. I’ll save the only Haida word I know for last — Howa. •