SpruceRoots Magazine - September, 1999

IRONS IN THE FIRE

by Ian Lordon

Ever since the first ship appeared off the coast of Haida Gwaii, the first mission established itself to "educate the savages," and the first settlers arrived to cultivate and subdue the wild landscape of these islands, the question of ownership and accommodation between two cultures has been a source of contention, confusion, and often anger.

Today, the first peoples on these islands, the Haida, are in the process of reclaiming the things they've lost in the wash of western culture which once declared Haida Gwaii the property of a crown that had never seen these shores. The Haida are reclaiming their language after generations were systematically shipped off to school to learn English, to adopt Western ways, and to be assimilated. The Haida are reclaiming their culture and artistic traditions, celebrating its resurgence at potlatches once outlawed by Canadian government. The Haida are reclaiming their dead and their heritage from museums where they were taken without consent. And now, finally, the Haida are preparing to reclaim the land, their home, Haida Gwaii.

But it isn't easy in a society where money is often worth more than justice, where doing the right thing is only possible if it doesn't compromise the economy or come at the expense of shareholders. The people, customs, and laws, which arrived here in the wake of those first ships, cannot be easily displaced, and they may never be, although they all can certainly be changed.

If that change were here today, real and alive, if Haida title were recognized under Canadian law, would anything be different? How would the islands change? I put these questions, and a few others, to a handful of people from both cultures who make their lives here. The first thing I found was that the Haida people I spoke to were eager and willing to discuss it, that it was something they had all thought of and that they weren't reluctant to share their feelings on the subject. Non-natives, however, were much less inclined to address the question. Person after person refused to go on record and the reasons for avoiding the issue were almost as numerous as my attempts to press it.

I know some refusals can be attributed to the feelings of apprehension conjured by the thought of having one's name in print. But for the most part, I think the refusals were fueled by fear. We live in a small place and many non-natives are afraid to deal with this subject publicly because if they address it honestly they may be labeled racist. It's a legitimate fear. I've only lived here a short while and I've seen it happen many times already. Sometimes with good reason, sometimes without.
But there has to be room for open debate. One thing everyone I spoke to agreed upon was that once the title question is resolved, Haidas and non-Haidas are still going to have to live and work together here. The only way that relationship can ever be healthy and productive is if we can all talk to one another freely and raise our concerns without fear of recrimination. Words are only tools, and sometimes you've gotta forgive the fellow who shows up with an axe to grind when the job called for a scalpel. After all, you never know when you might need him around to split wood instead of hairs...

Nick Grosse has lived on Haida Gwaii for about a quarter of a century. He's seen many changes during his time here, it's his home and he expects it's where he will end his days. He's married to a native, so he has firsthand experience of how two cultures can understand each other and work together for the common good. And the idea of Haida title doesn't frighten him because he doesn't think his life will change all that dramatically.

"If the settlement is such that the Haida get their title and get some of their demands met, the overall effect on the rest of the people wouldn't be all that great." Whether or not things actually improve with recognition is the issue Grosse is more concerned with. "I think the effort to make it better will be there; how much can actually be achieved is another question."

Grosse believes the way to make the most of the situation is if Haida and non-Haida people can learn to work together. "The two groups will be forced to get along because that's the only way to survive," he says. "In the end everybody has to be able to live on the island. If the cooperation isn't there you aren't going to have an island that is productive. It's a catastrophe if that happens."

But Grosse has faith in the ability of islanders to make that cooperation a reality. In the north the people of Masset and Old Massett have been working together through the Greater Massett Development Corporation to serve the interests of both communities, and Grosse's faith is based in part upon his work within that organization."Based on our experience up here it's possible, it's excellent, and it's the only solution that will work."

 

"The opportunity to make our own choices isn't there. If we could run our little island we'd all be better off." So says Lavina White, longtime advocate for native rights and resident of Old Massett. "I know our people are capable, they just never had the opportunity to use their talents." White says the Haida had things figured out pretty well before contact, but since then the quality of life for her people has gone steadily downhill. But she believes if title were recognized things would start to turn around.

"We've been here from the beginning of time and we had direction from our creator. We understood our environment completely," she says. "Now I see the fish is almost all gone, the trees are almost all gone. It would change, it would be better. As long as money is the driving force the destruction will continue."
White is convinced that under Haida control, priorities here would change. Those changes might prompt some people to pull up stakes and leave, but for the most part she thinks people would stay.

"I think the only ones who would leave are those who want to make profits," she says. "Those that are greedy may be losers. Those that want to control would probably be miffed."

But she could easily stand to see them go if it meant an end to the Haida struggle for greater rights in deciding how their lives and their lands are managed.
"The dependency should go. I'm old enough to remember what it was like to be free," and White says she'd like to taste that freedom again. "Basically, I'm a nice person. I'm tired of being angry, I'm tired of the pain."

 

In Skidegate, Gary Russ has come up with a simple four-point plan he says could settle the whole debate if it were implemented. His demands are simple. He wants Haida title recognized by the federal and provincial governments, he wants a larger land base for the Haida and money to develop it, he wants a say in the utilization of all other lands on Haida Gwaii, and he wants taxes eliminated for all natives on- and off-reserve.

"The lands and resources wouldn't be raped the way they are now," Russ says. "Everything would be done on a sustainable level because no extraction would be done that would be unhealthy for the land and the environment."

And Russ is certain that giving the Haida a greater say in how the land is managed wouldn't mean that there is no place left on the islands for non-Haidas."We've reached a point where we cannot make do without non-Haida people," he says. "We need that expertise, but that expertise would be doing the bidding of the Council of the Haida Nation rather than government and corporations. They have to become more receptive to the Haida having a greater say."

 

However, in Queen Charlotte Bill Ellis has concerns over how non-Haida residents would have their say if the Haida won the control they seek. Ellis points to the recent Council of the Haida Nation (CHN) elections as an example of the problems non-Haida residents might face if the Haida were granted title tomorrow.

"This organization [CHN] is the most powerful organization on the islands by far. It is critical to us all, so I wanted to hear what Guujaaw's platform was. I wanted to hear what the other candidates' platforms were," he says. "Haida ideas and Haida ambitions have to be recognized, openly debated, and democratically implemented."

But Ellis believes Haida title isn't something that is going to be recognized overnight, and if it were, there would still be years of work ahead of everyone before all the issues could be resolved.

"I think we're in for forty or fifty years of turmoil as a result of self-government, and that's fine as long as we maintain goodwill throughout," he says. "Let the lawyers look after it no matter how much they cost as long as we can keep from shooting each other."

But negotiations to settle the issue can't move quickly enough for Vince Collison. Collison is a band councilor in Old Massett and has spent enough time at the bargaining table to become somewhat frustrated by the entire process. He complains that the Haida position has remained largely unaltered over decades only to be reiterated again and again as the faces negotiating for the other side have changed forcing the process back to the beginning each time.

"We're not saying things that are very new at that table," he says. "It really bothers me to sit around and justify my existence on the islands to them, they've never justified their existence on these islands to us."

And why should he have to justify his existence here? After all, Collison is only one in a generation of Haidas that have occupied these islands for thousands and thousands of years.

"It's all in the way that you look at it. We have a reverence and respect for the history that has come before us. We have the respect of the land, we come from these lands, and we go back to these lands. History has to be respected a lot more than it is."

For that reason, if title were recognized, Collison believes it will put an end to an energy consuming distraction and allow Haida traditions and culture to flourish.
"It's never going to go away, but it will be stronger when we aren't constantly defending it."

And he feels much the same way about the land. "People are just taking advantage of a grand opportunity here," he says, adding if the Haida had title "there would be better stewardship; we'd be maintaining rather than raping the land."

 

Charles Gee's tenure on the school board has provided him with some insight and confidence into the interaction between Haida and non-Haida communities on the Islands. Like Collison, Gee recognizes how diverging perspectives and values between the two cultures can be an impediment to successful negotiations on the title front.

"We are looking at two systems," he explains. "We're looking at a system that's time-honoured, negotiating with a democratic system represented by a government that changes every four years and its priorities along with it." Gee predicts the most important accomplishment associated with resolving the title issue will be the end of the uncertainty everyone is forced to grapple with under the status quo.

"The problem at the moment is we have this tremendous uncertainty," he says. "We non-native folk are a little nervous about the situation. If it were settled, all that uncertainty would disappear."

But in order for Haida title to work, Gee says every resident has to support its legitimacy. And Haidas will have to demonstrate that they are wiser stewards of these islands by providing room for non-Haidas to contribute under the new arrangement, and avoid replacing one discontented segment of society with another.

"We must all recognize that the Haida have a clear claim to title. If people have control of their own destiny, they look after their destiny a little better," he says, before adding everyone's destiny will be better looked after if "they tolerate our continued participation, and we have some sort of democratic representation."

 

 

Guujaaw is just settling into his new job as president of the Council of the Haida Nation, and perhaps the most challenging issue he will face during his tenure will be the title question. Guujaaw is comfortably familiar with the Delgamuuk decision where the Supreme Court of Canada laid out the rules for proving title and defined what rights a First Nation which succeeds in doing so is entitled to. And he seems to consider the court's judgement reasonable under the circumstances.

"Short of war, it's the only workable solution," he deadpans. But proving title in court may not be enough. "It doesn't mean there's no need for treaty or agreements."

Guujaaw believes the exploitation of the islands would be curtailed significantly if Haida title were recognized because of the restrictions on development the court mapped out in Delgamuuk. "Right now regulations have been dropped so badly there are no checks and balances," he says. "The court said the nature of aboriginal title puts an inherent limit on our rights. That limit is real important because it's a good benchmark for judging any activity. If that limit is applied across the board it would apply to all users. And we have other interests other than just turning trees into money."

Because of this, Guujaaw is wagering a victory for the Haida will be a victory for the land as well. "The main winner would be the land. Any relief to the land will improve life for all people and other living things," he says. "The culture is the relationship to the land and changing the land is not unlike removing the people from the land. Some of it has to remain the way our people knew it, it has to be shared intergenerationally."

And Guujaaw is convinced the needs of islanders would not require the same level of exploitation currently required to provide for off-island interests. And the rewards from whatever development occurs would be spread more equitably than they are today. "I think the benefits would go way further than the few pockets they go to now. If we wanted all the Haida to live comfortably it wouldn't take any where near the plunder that's happening now." But he cautions Haidas not to expect any handouts. "The last thing you would want is a check in the mail because that would destroy people."

If the Haida can prove title, Guujaaw says it isn't going to mean the Haida can sit back and relax, but rather that they will be returning to a job that was theirs to begin with. "Title will come with tremendous amounts of responsibilities," he says. "But those responsibilities are there anyway."

 

SpruceRoots Magazine - September, 1999