SpruceRoots Magazine - December 2000



"Today the people of Haida Gwaii walked together."

Chief Iiljuwaas

- story by Gerry Morigeau

- the Unity Statement (here)

- photos from the rally (speakers) (marchers) (the vote) (more, 1, 2, 3,4)

Four hundred people stood before a small government office in the cool late afternoon light and announced their ownership of a shared past and future. Ada Yovanovitch, Watson Price, and Ethel Jones sat side by side again as they had 15 years ago on Lyell Island. The District Manager, Rory Annett insisted responsibility for our dissatisfaction could not be found within the offices behind him. The elders had heard it all many times before.

At the Vote of Non-Confidence Rally it became clear that it is easy to pick a target to hang responsibility upon. The difficulty is in understanding that the power does not lie with those who hide behind position and transience, it lies with us. On December 8, people of all communities assumed ownership of the past, and announced a conviction to tie their destiny to these Islands and to each other. The elders have generously led us beyond the shadowy cynical world of blame, and together we have stood in the bright light of our Island spirit power.

When Watson, Ada, and Ethel were arrested on Lyell Island it resonated in a way that we must still come to terms with. The image of the arrest and trial of elderly Haida people shook up all of us. In the images of Lyell Island we saw a place where great change was happening, where a shift of attitudes was allowing us all to reconnect to the source of all of our harmony - the land. Lyell Island emerged as a moment took us out of the pettiness we are mired in and represented a ginger step forward from our colonial past.

Coming here to Haida Gwaii, some time after the struggle for Lyell Island, I have had to search far and wide for the spirit that conjured that initial feeling in me. The reality of living here is not utopian. Lyell Island, and the creation of Gwaii Haanas, may have been a boon to a world-wide environmental movement, but here, many painful rifts have festered through the years. The park is viewed by some with bitterness and suspicion. Some feel that their role in creating the park has not been acknowledged, while others are distrustful of what they see as exclusionary policies in the protected area.

In the meantime the fishing industry on Haida Gwaii has been decimated. Summers here have become much quieter. Without the troll fleet filling the wharves, many businesses have felt the squeeze. People have observed the destruction of the fisheries here with a sort of numbness. Instead of a general uprising of support for our fishermen we have been largely silent as this enormously important industry is mismanaged and then sold out to off Island lodge owners. Almost everyone here agrees that the situation is not just. Fishing lodges have control over our resource and the benefits are shipped out of here.

I was hitchhiking once when I was still very new here. A bus-load of drunken fish-lodge workers were driving down to catch their flight back to the city at the end of the season when they stopped for me. As we drove down coast from Masset, they laughed and shouted out insults at the towns, towns they had never stepped foot in. This performance was topped off by a mass pee-break in St. Mary's Spring.
I know many of us have stories similar to this one. We know there are many people who care little for this place. They come here to take what they can get, and then get the hell out. How is it we allow such disrespect and injustice to happen to the land we love? We don't like it, but for some reason we feel it is out of our control.

Perhaps Lyell Island's divisive legacy paralyzed our ability to act collectively. It is difficult to live in a small isolated place and voice your convictions strongly without feeling the tensions you have stirred reflecting back. Many of us have attempted to participate in "co-operative processes". These seem to involve arbitrary, circular, jargon-filled discussions, so abstract that all passion is sucked out of issues. There is an endless procession of "options" to the same distasteful, inflexible end result, and so it goes - it's called the game.

These processes achieve no local control, and exhaust the Islands most vigorous advocates by subjecting them to fluorescent lights, too many cookies and too little exercise. The intent of these government-sponsored forums are highly suspect. They make us come hat-in-hand to them for the slightest scrap, which we then are encouraged to fight over. Meanwhile distant lobbyists have the ears of senior bureaucrats and together they carve this place up.

As the three elders took their place before the crowd on December 8, someone called out "Lyell Island Warriors". The remainder of the day and the speeches from the Chief's in the hall that evening seemed to represent a long overdue cry of ownership for what happened at Lyell. The future of all the communities on Haida Gwaii are severely threatened and yet two million cubic meters per year continue to leave. The old growth is our future, and yet it continues to be liquidated so that those distant shareholders can maintain their lifestyles. Each year our options grow fewer. Ninety-eight percent of the trees cut on Haida Gwaii leave whole, on barges, which parade by our suffering towns.

We are being forced into a desperate situation and our communities' face a very real risk of extinction. The time to act is not when the crisis is upon us, but while there is something left to preserve.
Think hard of Chief Watson Price. In his lifetime, a century on these Islands, he has seen all of the industrial logging that has occurred here, he has seen fish stocks dwindle away from over-fishing and habitat destruction, he has watched his culture and language undermined by colonial policies, and he was arrested, when he was in his eighties at Lyell Island in the battle to save Gwaii Haanas. His sacrifice protected a magical place. Now fifteen years later he sits before us with Ethel and Ada, at the MoF office. Nearby the reigning district manager, (here for a mere two years, his transfer is already assured,) gives his patented "we're listening" spiel. A short while earlier, this same District Manager approved cut blocks in the last unlogged watershed in Chief Watson Price's hereditary area. When someone here for only two years has the power to tell a one-hundred year old Chief he is listening, after ignoring his wishes and demands, there is something sadly wrong with all of us. We the people of Haida Gwaii must become the listeners. Listening to our hearts, to our youths and elders, and ever listening to the rhythms and life force of this land.

It is not just Haida people seeking justice for this land. We newcomers to Haida Gwaii also recognize the beauty and rarity of this bountiful place. I feel fortunate that I have found myself growing strong roots, here at the edge of the world. At one time, not long ago most of the world was covered by forests, as or even more spectacular than the great stands of Haida Gwaii. Here too we can see the clear-cutting and fragmentation occur that reduces a primeval wilderness into a road-laced, broken down artifact of the past. The people of Haida Gwaii do realize that a large part of our economy is based on logging, but we also value the spiritual, nurturing power of the wilderness. That day we stood up and demanded survival, not just for our communities, but survival of the values which make our home just that - A home - both sustainable and self-sustaining.

At the feast, Chief liljewas said, "Today the people of Haida Gwaii walked together." These seemingly simple words rang through the hearts of all those in the hall as if he announced the end of a famine. The Chiefs honored us with many amazing words, coming from deep in their hearts.

Unity on its own, is a simple word, it's meaning and significance easily dissolved. The Unity Feast was more than a demonstration of unity among Islanders, it was a healing, a gateway. For myself it was a liberating moment taking action against policies that are decimating our communities. Living here for just nine years, I have felt the need to swallow my opinions for much of the time. This has caused the cynicism in me to fester. A hopelessness and urgency weighs heavily on my conscience as I've looked to the destructive logging plans being made for the future of this beautiful place. The speakers at the feast relayed a confident hope for a new understanding of what we can accomplish together. The evening was a clear stride away from what has divided us in the past. There was a feeling that many such feasts will occur in the future. As Christian White said "The food tastes better when it's shared."

Reconciliation is happening on Haida Gwaii. The people who feasted on Dec. 8th felt the power that comes when heed is paid to what one's heart is saying. Harmony in our actions can only happen when we are all standing up and acknowledging each other, our homes, and ourselves - this is unity. At the feast Babs Stevens said, "When two people join - great healing. When many people join, it affects the conscience of the world." 

SpruceRoots Magazine - December 2000