SpruceRoots Magazine - December 2004

The message to convey is...

by Amanda Bedard

I write this as a Haida woman, with the views of other Haida who have helped me in relaying the information about climate change and its effects on us and the Islands.

The Haida are responsible for the land and waters, that makes us who we are. The salmon: chiin, halibut:haguu, other fish including shellfish like crab: kustaan, mussels: d’a, clams: gabay; also devilfish: nuu, row on kelp: g’aaw, seaweed: skew, as well as the cedar tree: t’uu, the spruce tree: k’iid, and our traditional plant medicines, these things are part of Haida Gwaii, and are therefore a part of us. We have continued to gather, harvest, and fish for these things since our beginning, and they have shaped us as people as well as nurtured us to grow into the Nation.

We recognize the importance of the land and water — they give us life. The current threats to the land and waters are linked significantly to corporate and governmental confusion, ignorance and even greed. Environmental dangers such as climate change increase the risk of harm to all of us.

Over the millennia of our history we have accounts of great floods, one covered one-third of the archipelago and there was the ice age some 10,000 years before our current date, which covered parts of Haida Gwaii.
These environmental changes were similar to climate change however the context surrounding the change is different; in one instance, a natural phenomena occurred over a long timeline so that the biology had a chance to adapt, and with the other, a change is being brought about by humans in an extremely short period of time.

This article has been adapted from Snowscapes, Dreamscapes a book published by the Snowchange Project of Tampere Polytechnic, Finland.

The book was published as the result of a 2003 conference held in Tampere, Finland attended by indigenous peoples from the northern hemisphere around the world. The stories, observations and research about climate change are from an indigenous perspective that has been built on countless generations of knowledge.

Observations in climate change documented by indigenous people includes melting permafrost in Arctic Canada reported by Inuit hunters and Gwitch’in Elders, severe extreme weather events in the Russian North, loss of winter ice in hunting territories in Unalakleet, Alaska, ice rain that freezes the ground in Sapmi, Sami homeland of the European North, arrival of new species to the north and warming of the cold ocean waters. These local impacts have economic, cultural and social ramifications.

Indigenous knowledge of the local people offers important insight into climate data and observations. Traditional Ecological Knowledge is a system of knowledge that builds on generations of people living in close relationship with nature.

The paper was presented by Amanda Bedard at the conference on behalf of the Haida Nation.


For more information on
SNOWCHANGE - Northern Indigenous Views on Climate Change and Ecology click here.

With the changing climate there has been an increase in dinoflagetlates, or, red tide. Red tide occurs when the dinoflagetlates bloom because of explosive growth which is usually associated with a change in water temperature. When this happens, the dinoflagetlates produce toxins which affect invertebrates and can be deadly to humans if we ingest them. As we dig for razor clams, butter clams, cockles and collect mussels and other shellfish, an increase in red tide is of great concern.

A second concern is, of course, temperature change. Haida Gwaii has not yet felt a major change, but a recent study shows that in the last 100 years, our temperature has rose an average of 0.6 degrees Celsius. With this change will come erratic weather and more frequent storms that will erode the coast.

The effect of climate change on the waters and the life within it is a third concern. Salmonid stocks are on the decrease, and although over-fishing seems to be the major culprit, climate change is listed as a reason for a number of salmonid stock extinction. Also, it is observed that predators that are usually southern fish are moving up to Haida Gwaii.

My late naanii, (great-grandmother,) Saanlaanee, Emma Matthews, spoke of the importance of the land and how we utilized our surroundings.

Everybody goes up the Inlet to get their fish, even the young ones. The whole village goes up there and they eat from that river.

She explained the importance of the Yakoun River, the major salmon-producing river on Haida Gwaii, and how the Haida rely on that river for a supply of fish.

Another account is from Kwiaans, Kenneth C. Bedard, who tells of his experience both as a Haida man and as the Aboriginal Liaison officer for the Department of Fisheries and Oceans in the North :

"I used to fish commercially back in 1966 for about five to six years, and back then it was more abundant than now. I food fished for a number of years on the Yakoun River, and I noticed a change there. The Yakoun is the last system on Haida Gwaii where there are five species of salmon: Sockeye, Pink, Chums, Coho, and Chinook. It is the only system where you get that, but you don’t see anything but Sockeye now. You also get steelhead, or trout as well. But the system is affected by other things; like experimental mining that happened on Haida Gwaii, for things like gold. A lot of accidents happened, there were lots of leaks. The Yakoun naturally had a high level of mercury, but from the mines the level was up. Another major effect was when they were building [roads] for logging, and they went to the [stream] beds and dug them up to build the roads. People used to be able to “smell the roads” from the rotting eggs, some people working on the roads said that the directive from the companies was to dig up the gravel where the salmon were spawning.

The DFO are now starting to realize the effects of El Nino. What El Nino has done is warm up the water and brought other predators, and this has affected salmon food. The salmon have had to share their food with mackerel that have come back with abundance. Other warm water fish that normally fed off the California coast and south of there are now coming up. All sorts of warm water fish, like sunfish have come up [here to Haida Gwaii] and become predators to what has traditionally been salmon food.

The DFO has claimed that it has been a natural warming of water, but there has been nothing natural about it. Currently, there is basically no sockeye fishery up here, and we are already hurting from last year. Another major factor to this is the sport fishing industry, which is basically commercial fishing. It is a major industry. The warming weather conditions have affected them as well.

What warm water does now is drive fish down to deeper waters. It has affected all fisheries; ground fisheries used to go outside Haida Gwaii, and are now moving inside Haida Gwaii affecting our fisheries. Unregulated deep-sea fishery is affected as well by global warming. The factory ships that usually operate outside the Canadian 200 mile limit now are driven inside the border. Proof of the effect are the dolphin and other warm water fish and mammals that are forced further north. A couple of years ago someone caught a big sunfish in their nets. Also Tuna used to stop at the West Coast of Vancouver Island, and they have come quite far north now.

People have been affected by red tide, and DFO have had closures on shellfish for quite a number of years because of it. There are some areas they’ve closed for twenty years; the whole North Coast is closed- including Haida Gwaii - for any shellfish harvesting. We [the Haida] are allowed to harvest razor clams. There is a management plan the Haida put together with Fisheries. All other species of clams Fisheries claim they don’t allow, but most First Nations go out and get butter clams, cockles. First Nations know when to go out; certain times during the year they know not to go, they’ve understood for years the natural high level of toxin and when that occurs. We have been pretty careful.

Global warming is because of factors such as the depletion of the ozone, and the government has to take action. We have to work with other agencies to control toxins that go into our air and into our water.

The earth warmed before, and that’s what caused the floods. The Haida have stories about two floods. We survived those."

Guujuuw is the current President of the Haida Nation. Here he gives the following views towards climate change and its cultural implications.

The reason [climate change] has happened is because European culture isn’t built around relationship to the land, it is built around economics. They [North Americans - descendants of the European newcomers] don’t consider the land when they factor in economic things. In the end, they too are affected by the changes to the land, but the difference is that they go to the store and not to the beach. There will be other things for us, but the core of our culture will be gone. Where [will] that leave us?

It is predicted that through the 21st Century, global temperatures could rise as much as 5.8 degrees Celsius. Also, that rising sea levels could result in erosion of shores and associated habitat, and some coastal flooding. Even more disturbing is the data that shows that with temperature increases water availability becomes a concern. Therefore, forests in temperate and northern latitudes would suffer major changes and linked to this is the threat of invasion by new pests and diseases from warmer regions. Also, there are studies showing that because of climate change, commercial yields of softwood lumber will decline.

It is also suggested that the migration of fish stocks will be at risk as a result of increased temperatures and reduced flows in rivers and streams. This observation supports the views of Haida fishermen and citizens as noted above.

Another huge concern regarding climate change is the possibility of oil and gas exploration and production in Hecate Strait. Not only are the risks of the oil and gas industry immense (and preposterous) but the increased emissions from such an operation are ridiculous.

Immediate action needs to be taken against the threat of climate change on Haida Gwaii. Locally, we need a concerted effort to reduce or eliminate all fossil fuel emissions and to stop oil and gas exploration in the earthquake prone Hecate Strait. The Haida and other Aboriginal groups do not take the threat of climate change to habitat lightly and we need to ensure that the current governments of Canada and British Columbia are aware of the harmful effects to the land and our culture.

The Haida Constitution states that we are responsible to the land and to future generations. That means responsible action for positive change is the message to get out now — this is the message to convey to the world about climate change.