About 700 people witnessed the Qay’llnagaay Heritage Centre groundbreaking at Second Beach last Thursday afternoon, then gathered for a sumptuous feast at the George Brown Recreation Centre.
“Today was the start of a dream come true,” said Chief Skidegate, Dempsey Collinson. “A place for our Haida voice to be heard. A place to teach and learn what Haida Gwaii means to us.”
The celebrations began with a procession of hereditary chiefs, led by Chief Skidegate.
After Chief Skidegate welcomed everyone, Diane Brown blessed the spirit house and its builder Trevor Valentinsen. In her prayer to the ancestors, Ms Brown asked forgiveness for disturbing their resting places. “Before we start, we apologize, but know that we do it with the greatest respect.” Ancestral remains discovered during construction will be laid in the spirit house.
After the prayers, dancers from the Hlgaagilda and Hl Taaxuulang Guud Ad K’aaju dance groups performed a spirit dance.
Masters of Ceremony Ron Williams and Gilbert Parnell, assisted by band manager Babs Stevens, called forward 10 dignitaries to receive carved Haida paddles for the groundbreaking itself: Dempsey Collinson-Chief Skidegate, Watson Price-Chief Ts’aahl, Robert Nault-Minister of Indian Affairs, Gaby Fortin-Parks Canada, Ernie Gladstone-Gwaii Haanas Superintendent, Tanu Lusignan-Gwaii Trust administrator, George Abbott-Minister of Community, Aboriginal and Women’s Services, Gary Russ-Council of the Haida Nation, Willard Wilson-Chief Councillor, Skidegate band, Amanda Reid-Stevens-Qay’llnagaay Heritage Centre Society and Tom Holmes-Weyerhaueser.
Together they dug their paddles into the ground, completing the long planning process and beginning the building phase of the Qay’llnagaay Heritage Centre.
Shortly after the groundbreaking, people gathered at the George Brown recreation centre for a traditional Haida feast of seafood, stews and desserts, followed by speeches and dancing.
The hereditary chiefs and other Haida leaders spoke of the cultural and economic importance of Qay’llnagaay for the Haida people.
Chief T;anuu, Johnnie Williams, said “We have seen our village grow from about 300 people to over 800 and our young people are finally taking an interest in education. Even without higher learning, they can think for themselves and make their own decisions.” He then remembered Lyell Island, and what a turning point that was for the Haida people. “We look to the future with confidence. Always remember that when we speak with one voice, people listen.”
Chief T;anuu, Roy Jones Jr., one of the younger hereditary chiefs, remembered hearing elders dream of a cultural centre when he was a boy. Qay’llnagaay will be a place where a new generation can learn the Haida language, he said, but as well as the cultural revival the centre brings, it will also be an economic benefit for the village.
Council of the Haida Nation president Guujaaw said that Haida culture is more than songs and crafts. “The land is our culture. The land provides for us.” He spoke of the peculiar nature of the dispute between the Haida people and the governments of BC and Canada. “I feel good about the fact that we can do this, that we can sit down and share a meal,” despite political differences, he said.
Miles Richardson, chair of the Gwaii Trust Society, also reflected on conflict and reconciliation in his speech. “Fifteen years ago, we were on the verge of civil war on these islands. We were at each other’s throats,” he said. The economy of the islands needs to diversify and become globally integrated, he said. Investment in projects like Qay’llnagaay can help make that happen, but the land question needs to be settled before the economy can really expand. “Why can’t we reach the point in the world that we are at in this room?” he asked.
Minister of Indian Affairs Robert Nault spoke on behalf of the federal government. He thanked everyone for the invitation to attend the groundbreaking. “I want to congratulate you on the way you showed respect for your ancestors. I want to thank you for letting me be a part of that,” he said. He then gave a check for $500,000 to Skidegate Chief Councillor Willard Wilson. Parks Canada will commit $6 million for the project.
“Innovative projects like the Qay’llnagaay Heritage Centre contribute to increased understanding of aboriginal culture, at the same time as they contribute to building a strong local economy. Through this initiative, the Government of Canada is working in partnership with aboriginal people to help improve their quality of life,” he said.
The Minister of Community, Aboriginal and Women’s services, George Abbott, and MLA Bill Belsey attended on behalf of the province. The province has provided a small amount of capital for the project, but its main contribution will be funding for the Bladerunner program to provide entry level construction trade training for aboriginal youth who will be hired to build the heritage centre.
“Tourism will be generated for Skidegate and the entire islands. The scale and quality of what they [the Haida] are proposing will attract provincial, national and international visitors,” said Mr. Abbott.
The Qay’llnagaay Heritage Centre will cost about $19.2 million dollars with funding coming from the federal government, Gwaii Trust Society, Skidegate Band Council, and the Haida Gwaii Museum Society. As well as an expansion to the existing museum, the cultural centre will include teaching space, a theatre, and interpretive garden. Construction should be completed by the summer of 2005.
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