Seals, sand, and Suzuki: McKenna’s islands trip

Environment Minister Catherine McKenna met several Haida leaders and paddled with Captain Gold and Clara Hughes on her Haida Gwaii holiday.

Catherine McKenna

Catherine McKenna lucked into good company last week when she paddled the replica Loo Taas canoe out from Kay Llnagaay.

Captain Gold, the original Haida Watchman, was steersman.

At McKenna’s right was another power paddler with a golden touch—Clara Hughes, the Olympic cyclist and speed skater, just happened to be visiting the Haida Heritage Centre at the same time.

To cheer everyone on, young Cohen Isberg sat in the middle of the canoe, drumming and singing a Haida song.

“It was really incredible,” says McKenna, Canada’s minister of environment and climate change, who was visiting Haida Gwaii with her family for a week’s vacation.

“I love paddling, and it was an amazing way to learn about Haida heritage and history, and also to get out in the water.”

As Environment Minister, McKenna has big tasks ahead—a national plan to uphold the Paris agreement on limiting global warming, and a phase-out of subsidies for fossil fuels.

McKenna also has a large role to play this September, when she and the rest of the federal cabinet decide whether to approve or reject the Pacific NorthWest LNG plant near Prince Rupert.

But when asked what she hopes to do as minister that will directly affect Haida Gwaii, McKenna said her top goal is a better relationship between Canada and indigenous peoples.

“It’s the piece on reconciliation, and how we move forward as a country,” McKenna said.

“It’s about having a real, nation-to-nation relationship that’s built on trust and respect.”

During her time on island, McKenna met Peter Lantin, president of the Council of the Haida Nation, and together they announced $650,000 for new pools at Hotspring Island and a new boardwalk at SGang Gwaay.

Among other issues, McKenna learned how the CHN is reviewing options for getting Haida Gwaii off diesel power—something her government has promised to help remote communities to do.

“Diesel is very polluting, and has an impact on our climate,” she said.

“New solutions are certainly welcome.”

McKenna also met Guujaaw and Miles Richardson, former Haida Nation leaders, and spoke with Richardson about how the Haida Watchmen program might serve as a model for other parts of Canada.

Before she visited, McKenna read a biography on Guujaaw and Green Party leader Elizabeth May’s Paradise Won, her account of the efforts to establish Gwaii Haanas as a Haida Heritage Site and National Park Reserve.

Even Nathan Cullen, the local NDP MP and McKenna’s critic in the House of Commons, gave her some vacation pointers.

“He gave me some good tips, and Elizabeth May handed me her book when Obama came to speak in parliament—she ran across the floor to give me a copy,” she said.

“I think there’s a lot more collaboration than people think.”

From seeing sea lions in Gwaii Haanas to digging clams and paddleboarding along North Beach, McKenna said her family had a great visit, and she hopes to come back, next time to kayak or go diving.

“Our day in Gwaii Haanas yesterday was incredible,” she said, and not only because of their tour of Skedans, Windy Bay, and Hotsprings Island.

McKenna said another boat was coming in to Windy Bay just as McKenna’s was heading out, and David Suzuki was on board—the two had a quick chat across the water.

“You never know who you’re going to see—Clara Hughes or David Suzuki,” she said.