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Rediscovery co-founder Thom Henley returns to Haida Gwaii with new memoir

Henley to speak in Old Massett Thursday night and in Queen Charlotte on Friday
Harbour Publishing photo Author and activist Thom Henley recently published a book about his involvement in establishing the Gwaii Haanas National Park on Haida Gwaii.

Thom Henley, known for co-founding Rediscovery and his key role in the 14-year mission to establish Gwaii Haanas, says begrudgingly that the system works if grassroots groups are willing to make it work.

Henley is back in Haida Gwaii to talk about his autobiographical book, Raven Walks Around the World. On Thursday, he will give a 7 p.m. reading at the Tluu Xaada Naay Longhouse in Old Massett, and on Friday he will give a 7 p.m. reading at the Queen Charlotte community hall.

In 1970, a 22-year-old Thom Henley left Michigan and drifted around the northwest coast, getting by on odd jobs and advice from even odder characters.

He rode the rails, built a squatter shack on a beach, came to be known as “Huckleberry” and embarked on adventures along the West Coast.

Eventually, a hippie named Stormy directed him to Haida Gwaii.

While kayaking the remote area around South Moresby Island, Henley was struck by the clear-cut logging and desecration of ancient Haida village sites. Henley collaborated with the Haida for the next 14 years to spearhead the largest environmental campaign in Canadian history and the creation of Gwaii Haanas.

He was formally adopted by the Haida and bestowed with the new name, “Yaahl Hlaagaay Gwii Kaas” (Raven Walks Around the World).

“You know the chances of that happening were so slim,” said Henley about Gwaii Haanas, adding that a tree farm licence is sacrosanct.

“So if the Haida, especially Percy Williams hadn’t deferred logging for Burnaby Island, if it wasn’t for the citizen effort, that world class intertidal zone, all intertidal life, would be buried under three to five feet of dead trees and yet Parks Canada puts it on its poster.”

Henley said Parks Canada now takes credit for Gwaii Haanas, and while it kind of acknowledges the Haida blockade, at no point did Parks Canada support the fight for Gwaii Haanas because it didn’t want to take on the forest industry.

“The nation should be proud of it,” he said, about the fight for Gwaii Haanas.

“That’s where it should begin: at the grassroots local level, not environmentalist groups coming in from the big city.”

Canadians are incredibly fortunate compared to other countries in the world where the same thing is virtually impossible, said Henley.

Everywhere in the world sees people facing the same issues of big development projects that might be needed but the people also have concerns and don’t feel they have a voice, and in almost every case they’re losing their fight, he said.

The only place citizens are actually turning things around is from Vancouver Island up to Haida Gwaii and inland to about Smithers, he added.

“You have to have meaningful input from citizens whenever they feel they’re being dissed from discussions, you have pushback,” said Henley. “I think you would see a lot more cooperation if people felt their voices were being heard. It shouldn’t have to be this constant competition.”

The underlying question is what direction do we want to be going as a nation? Are we going to hang onto LNG or go in new directions?

“I’ve got a friend who lives near Kispiox. He plugs his car in. It’s a solar powered car. He can go from Kispiox to Burns Lake or Prince Rupert and back,” said Henley.

“This is a guy living in the bush. Where’s the auto industry?”

Resource industry jobs aren’t the only jobs, he added.

Just because we have a lot of gas resources and fish doesn’t mean we take it all out to make an economy, said Henley.

“We need jobs but the boom-bust mentality is not a healthy one,” he said.

A Haida elder in Sandspit was told by a logger that the environment in the hands of the Haida ruined his livelihood and community.

The elder said there was nothing across the inlet from Sandspit and then there was a logging camp.

“She said ‘if you are a community, where is your graveyard?’” said Henley about what the elder said to the logger.

“If you don’t care for a place enough to be buried there or have your loved ones buried there, you don’t care for it. It does not speak well for stewardship. Get the money and run, that’s the attitude.”

To build a sustainable real community, people have to love it enough to want to be buried there, he added.

And he is glad there’s opportunity for change in Canada.

“I don’t know of a better country. There’s no place I’d rather live,” said Henley.

“We do have a process which we can work within the system and eventually bring about change.”