By Heidi Bevington-The Haida constitution sums up generations of tradition to create a road map for the future, said Arnie Bellis, vice president of the Council of the Haida Nation, at a presentation Thursday (April 22).
The constitution “represents all of who we are,” said April Churchill, executive assistant with the CHN. It describes “principles of how to take the gifts of the earthÂ… and to walk your own path.”
Mr. Bellis and Ms Churchill spoke at the Gowgaia Institute’s fifth and final speaker series event, titled The Haida Constitution, Business and the Environment.
After 15 years of debate, the Haida constitution was adopted in principle in1985, Mr. Bellis said. Uniting two systems – traditional Haida society and modern democracy – hasn’t been easy, he said. The constitution is a tool to guide decisions, but more fundamentally, it declares the Haida people to be sovereign and self-sufficient.
After smallpox decimated the Haida population, said Mr. Bellis, only 650 people remained alive. “I can’t imagine what it was like to wake up one morning and realize your whole world was gone.”
“The easiest thing in the world to do is quit, but we didn’t,” said Mr. Bellis. “The islands must remain part of who we are, not taken away from upcoming generations.”
“People say, ‘what’s going to happen when you take over?'” said Mr. Bellis. “People deserve an answer and need to be included out of respect.”
“We have to conduct ourselves in a certain fashion,” continued Mr. Bellis. “As stewards of the islands, we can only take what nature can provide. Businesses have to adhere to that basic law of nature.” Corporate philosophies violate the laws of nature, he said, and they have to become better aligned.
The guiding philosophy of the constitution is respect for nature and for neighbors, said Mr. Bellis. Resources must be used to create jobs, but used respectfully. “I never want to sit across a table from a man and say, ‘you can’t work’ because that means devastation for his family.”
The conversation is starting with islanders, said Mr. Bellis. “It’s not about exclusion – not about us and them.”
The recent protocol agreement between the CHN, New Masset and Port Clements is an example of the growing cooperation between islands communities, said Mr. Bellis. When asked about the absence of Sandspit and Queen Charlotte from the agreement, Mr. Bellis said he believed the two towns didn’t sign because they are not incorporated. However, he doesn’t see the need for incorporation. Mr. Bellis said “the door is always open. I would encourage the people of these areas to look at it [the protocol agreement].”
As well as describing the guiding principles of the Haida Constitution, Mr. Bellis and Ms Churchill also explained the Haida community’s governance structure. A House of Assembly meets at least once a year, while the Council of the Haida Nation meets quarterly. An executive committee meets once a month and the president and vice-president take care of daily business.
As well, the hereditary chiefs have their own council, which is responsible for the preservation of the land and culture, said Ms Churchill.
Skidegate Band Council and Old Massett Village Council manage the affairs of the respective villages, and the two village councils meet with the CHN regularly, she said.
Decisions are made by consensus. “It takes longer, but it means people are on board. They know what the issues are,” said Ms Churchill.
The constitution is an evolving document, said Mr. Bellis. As it is refined by policies and procedures, there will be more clarity on decisions and better accountability, he predicts.
Anyone who wants to read the constitution can contact the CHN at 626-5252 or 559-4468.
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