December 10, 2023

On summer days, Haley and Samantha Garvie hop barefoot between barnacle-crusted black rocks, scouting for tiny crabs and periwinkle shells. Depending on the tides, they might even spot colourful glass fishing floats – a rare treat carried by ocean currents to the southern tip of Haida Gwaii all the way from Japan, more than 4,000 miles away. In the evenings, they join their mother, Grace, and older sister, Joey, treading the paths their ancestors once walked, gathering the same berries and listening to the same birds.

“There’s always so much to learn here, like the path of the kingfisher or the way the oystercatchers chase off hawks,” says Grace, a member of the Haida Watchmen programme, tasked with guarding a string of historic sites.

After the last of the tour groups have departed the remains of SG̱ang Gwaay Llnaagay, the family sits in the grass, eating under the gaze of the cedar mortuary poles. Eventually, these weatherbeaten poles – which stood as the final resting place of notable Haida people – will fall back into the land. Then they will nourish the towering trees in turn.

Grace Garvie sits with her daughter Haley at the Watchman cabin on SG̱ang Gwaay in the Gwaii Haanas reserve
Grace Garvie sits with her daughter Haley at the Watchman cabin on SG̱ang Gwaay in the Gwaii Haanas reserve.

“That’s their natural journey. And it’s a beautiful thing,” says Grace. “It’s just a reminder that, when left alone, nature finds a balance.”

This thinking – protecting the ecosystem here from external threats while also preserving the pulses and rhythms of its internal harmony – was the foundation for a landmark agreement here 30 years ago, when the Haida Nation and Canada’s federal government came together to sign the Gwaii Haanas agreement.

The deal, which stemmed from Haida-led blockades of logging roads, was hard won. Much friction remains, including tensions over economic development, conservation and Indigenous sovereignty. Three decades on, however, the agreement is widely seen as a resounding success – not only as a globally recognised template for cooperatively managing a contested territory, but for restoring to Indigenous nations the ability to guide key conservation decisions.

Map of Gwaii Hanaas

Delegations of Indigenous groups, both from abroad and from within Canada – including the Kitasoo/Xai’xais nation, which recently created a similar conservation plan of its own up the British Columbia coast – have visited the region to study the Haida’s triumph, aiming to replicate the model at home. The vast Great Bear Sea, a recently announced marine protected area, was also heavily influenced by the Gwaii Haanas agreement.

Meanwhile, the legacy of the logging blockades that led to its creation lives on in current events such as the protests against old-growth logging on nearby Vancouver Island.

Amid widespread global biodiversity loss and last-ditch international meetings to protect what remains, many now wonder if the triumphs – and stumbles – of Gwaii Hanaas could be a model for how Indigenous stewardship of lands and waters could act as a safety rail on a planet dangerously out of control.

Plunder and pillage

Mortuary poles carved from cedar mark the burial places of notable Haida people. Surviving poles are seen here at SG̱ang Gwaay.
Mortuary poles carved from cedar mark the burial places of notable Haida people. Surviving poles are seen here at SG̱ang Gwaay.

Yet the success of Gwaii Hanaas, the protected area that encompasses nearly half of Haida Gwaii, was by no means a foregone conclusion. Haida Gwaii is an ecosystem set apart: the string of islands, more than 60 miles from the mainland, erupt in a rocky spine with a hilly, thickly forested eastern flank. The frigid waters are among the liveliest in the world. Some of the trees are more than 1,000 years old and there are pockets of hidden forest that might never have felt a human footstep.

For centuries, the Haida thrived on Xhaaidlagha Gwaayaai – “the islands at the boundary of the world”. They were seafaring people, harvesting salmon, kelps, herring and clams. They traded with – and raided – other coastal nations, amassing significant wealth. Near the end of the 18th century, they were nearly 30,000 strong, scattered through more than 100 villages.

Within a few years, however, smallpox outbreaks brought the Haida’s total population to fewer than 600. Many of those that remained were sent to residential schools as far as 500 miles away and stripped of their language.

Today, only 20 fluent Haida speakers remain, the youngest of them in her 70s. The potlatch, a ceremony that had long underpinned relations between clans and neighbouring nations, was banned by the Canadian government in 1884 – a prohibition only lifted in 1951.

Throughout the early 20th century, the provincial and federal governments treated the lands as a colony to be plundered. The mountains were mined for copper and trawlers harvested the oceans for the largest fish. At the same time, the Haida suffered the widespread pillaging of ancient village sites under the guise of archaeological preservation: in 1957, a federally appointed “Indian Agent” requested that 12 cedar poles be removed from SG̱ang Gwaay to be “properly preserved for posterity” in museums rather than on the land, where the carvers intended.

With mines running dry and fish stocks depleted from over-harvesting, industry turned its focus in the mid-20th century to clearcut logging – with plans to fully clear the archipelago of old-growth trees by 1996.

The Haida pushed back. In 1985, dozens gathered on Athlii Gwaii (Lyell Island) to block the heavy logging machinery.

Roberta Olson toured the clearcuts with her husband, a logger. “I remember feeling sick, seeing all the trees that were cut,” she says. “I asked to join the team and be the cook, just to be there. Once you start something you believe in, you can’t quit.”

Roberta Olson prepares a meal of traditional Haida foods in her kitchen in Skidegate, Haida Gwaii
Roberta Olson prepares a meal of traditional Haida foods in her kitchen in Skidegate, Haida Gwaii.

Olson, whose Haida name is Keenawaii, was arrested and charged for her role in the blockades. Images of elders in button blankets being led off by police prompted international outrage, eventually forcing the government to concede to the Haida demands to halt clearcut logging of old-growth forests.

“Back in those days, nobody stopped loggers,” said Olson. “It was just unheard of.”

The exceptional result led to years of tense negotiations between the Haida nation and the Canadian government, culminating in the Gwaii Haanas agreement in 1993. The landmark deal formalised protections for nearly 570 sq miles of land. Seventeen years later, Canada and the Haida protected another 1,300 sq miles of ocean, bringing the total to nearly 2,000 sq miles.

Among the victories: 42 at-risk species are protected, including humpback whales, Steller sea lions and ancient murrelets. So, too, are unique subspecies that exist only in the region, including the world’s largest black bears and the saw-whet owl. Even the sea otter, hunted until there were none left in these waters in the late 1800s, has started returning, as have valuable kelp forests.

Nearly 1.5 million seabirds nest here, and the waters are home to 5,000 marine species.

Almost 40 years after the blockades, the Gwaii Haanas agreement still protects one of the only places on the planet where “ocean floor to mountain top” is seen as a single, interconnected ecosystem – part of the Haida philosophy of Gina ’Waadluan Kiluhla, or “talking about everything”.

It is a remarkable divergence from how conserved spaces are typically managed in Canada. So, too, are the other values that underpin the decisions and strategies of Gwaii Haanas, including Yahguudang (respect for the lands and waters), ’Laa guu ga kanhllns (a responsibility of stewardship for future generations) and Gina k’aadang.nga gii uu tl’ k’anguudang (seeking wise counsel from elders who can draw on traditional knowledge of the region).

Louise Narrows are seen in Haida Gwaii, B.C.
Haida Gwaii is now recognised as a ‘must-see’ tourist spot. The Louise Narrows, pictured here, are among the breathtaking vistas.

“If you look at these guiding principles, none are that radical … western sciences and ecosystem-based management have values that align with this,” says Brady Yu, acting Gwaii Haanas field unit superintendent for Parks Canada. “But to have known how to take care of this place, in balance with nature with people as part of the ecosystem [for so long] – maybe western science is just catching up to that.”

Yu is also co-chair of the Archipelago Management Board. All decisions concerning the protected area (formally named Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve, National Marine Conservation Area and Haida Heritage Site) are made by the board, which operates by consensus, and has an equal division of representatives from the federal government and Haida nation.

The word “reserve” in the formal title reflects the fact that the Haida never ceded their lands to Canada; as for the word that precedes it, the message to outsiders is frequently made clear: despite the heavy presence of Parks Canada, don’t call it a park.

Watchmen such as Grace Garvie, whose Haida name is Damx̱an Jaad, are the official protectors of key sites: they guide tourists through the remnants of villages, and ensure the sites are treated with respect.

Started in 1981 by volunteers, the Watchmen initiative reflects a long history of sentinels posted at strategic positions around a village to guard against enemies. The programme, funded by Parks Canada, has been one of the Gwaii Hanaas successes and has inspired other coastal First Nations communities to develop similar “guardian” programmes.

“There’s a connection to the space that runs deep,” says Garvie. “I get to share my knowledge with the visitors that come to my shores, but I also get to share what my mother taught me with my daughters.”

Grace Garvie shows new growth in the forest while patrolling a boardwalk that has been built at SG̱ang Gwaay
Grace Garvie shows new growth in the forest while patrolling a boardwalk that has been built at SG̱ang Gwaay.

The classic non-Indigenous model of conservation, which tends to forbid hunting, fishing and otherwise harvesting the land and water, jars with Indigenous philosophies of coexisting with an ecosystem. Another key Gwaii Haanas innovation is helping pioneer a protected area where Indigenous peoples did not require permission to harvest in their traditional territory.

“The Haida understanding of people as part of the environment is something that we, as non-Indigenous people, often struggle with,” says Yu. “Protected areas have often been very exclusive and meant to maintain a level of ‘pristineness’. Which, of course, we now know, isn’t reflective of both the natural and cultural history of much of this region.”

In recent years, the success of Gwaii Haanas and a broader recognition of the importance of Indigenous-led conservation has led to more than C$1.2bn (£730m) in funding to establish a network of protected and conserved areas across the country.

‘We came back to fight’

The unspoilt beauty of Haida Gwaii hasn’t escaped worldwide notice, often topping “must see” lists of travel publications. Condé Nast Traveller suggested the “storm-battered” archipelago was one of the reasons to visit British Columbia, and in 2020 the New York Times listed Haida Gwaii as one of the top places in the world to visit.

Roberta Aiken, a Haida Watchman at the T’aanuu Llnagaay site, worries that the eco-tourism underpinning much of the region’s economy is fickle; it disappeared, for example, when Haida Gwaii was closed to outsiders during the coronavirus pandemic. “Tourism isn’t year-round. We need an economy here. Protecting things is good, but what are we going to put in place to keep the people here?” she asks. “That’s the question I pose to leadership, and something that I never get answers for.”

Northern parts of British Columbia are expecting to see a surge in marine traffic, with northern ports on the mainland taking on a greater share of wood pellet and liquid natural gas shipments. And the promise of wealth from oil and gas companies has already left fissures in the community.

In 2016, two hereditary chiefs, Carmen Goertzen and Francis Ingram, were stripped of their titles after allegations they misrepresented community views by lending support to a controversial pipeline on the mainland in return for promised financial benefits to the community. “Representation is everything. And they misrepresented the Haida,” says Aiken, whose Haida name is Taawa Ḵ’awas.

Roberta Aiken, a watchman at the T’aanuu Llnagaay village site on Tanu Island in Gwaii Haanas. She wears an abalone pendant holding the ashes of her father
Roberta Aiken, a watchman at the T’aanuu Llnagaay village site on Tanu Island in Gwaii Haanas. She wears an abalone pendant holding the ashes of her father.

Shawn Cowpar, who owns a guiding company with his twin brother, says: “We push because Haida have a high standard for what’s possible, and we know what’s worth fighting for. We’re strategic people. We know how to win.”

The success of the Gwaii Haanas agreement, which effectively forced the federal government to concede to most of the Haida demands, has pushed the Haida to become fierce advocates for their sovereignty and rights. Today, nearly half of the land base of Haida Gwaii is within a protected area, with many of the protections announced in the years since the 1993 agreement.

“Athlii Gwaii was a rallying cry for the Haida and has become instrumental in everything we do,” says Tyler Bellis, a forester and former member of the Haida council. His father, Arnie, was arrested and charged during the blockades. “When you think about the repression of First Nations people across the country, about how at one point there was just 600 Haida left, we came back. Everything was stacked against us and we came back to fight.”

Clearcut logging in other parts of Haida Gwaii is still permitted, and there are growing concerns that the practice isn’t sustainable, with more than 2,000 hectares (nearly 5,000 acres) of forest still clearcut each year.

A clearcut site in the forest on Moresby Island in Haida Gwaii
‘The scar tissue of industrial logging’ … a clearcut site on Moresby Island, Haida Gwaii.

Bellis points to a 2018 policy change, which the Haida fought for, that grants the Haida nation – not the province – the right to determine how much is logged in areas of the Haida Gwaii where harvesting is still permitted. It makes the Haida the only group, other than the province, with that power.

“We know the lands and waters better than anyone else. When it comes to protections, British Columbia won’t do it, and neither will Canada. We have to be the ones that protect our islands,” he says.

Decades after the blockades, Colin Richardson, whose Haida name is Laadaa, spends his summer days at Hlk’yah G̱awG̱a, a Watchman site also known as Windy Bay. As the name suggests, the rough swells near to the former village restrict the number of tourists that visit.

He likes to show them around, guiding the curious through the history and future of the space. But he also enjoys the peaceful moments when a sweetness hangs in the air and the forest, though teeming with life, goes quiet.

In the 1980s, Richardson was one of the first to be led away in handcuffs by police, only miles from where the Watchmen cabin stands. The anger and frustration that put him on the frontline, watching the looming destruction of his ancestral lands after successive governments attempts to dismantle his culture, still lingers.

North of the bay, the scar tissue of industrial logging is cut into the landscape. Entire mountainsides have the characteristic shades of second growth, and landslides from clearcuts have cleaved the earth.

Colin Richardson in a longhouse on Lyell Island, Haida Gwaii
Colin Richardson in a longhouse that was built on Lyell Island during the Athlii Gwaii logging protests. Now he is a Haida watchman there.

There is a clear division showing where decades of destruction came to an end. Less than a kilometre from where Richardson sits, a Sitka spruce, probably more than 1,000 years old, towers above the canopy. That tree, and thousands more ancient giants, would have been devoured by the grind of forestry equipment if the blockade had failed.

“Like the forests, the roots of our people are intertwined such that the greatest troubles cannot overcome us,” says the preamble to the Haida constitution. “We owe our existence to Haida Gwaii.”

On a summer afternoon, Richardson finishes a lunch of roast potatoes and a lingcod, pulled from the nearby waters. “Everything I stood for [on the frontline] has been accomplished. I don’t care about anything else. I just wanted it protected. And it’s protected,” he says.

“I look around, I realise we’re in the beginning. As humans, we haven’t had a chance to really screw this place up yet. That’s powerful. And that’s beautiful. That’s success as far as I’m concerned.”

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