Athlii Gwaii, plus twenty-five

  • Oct. 27, 2010 6:00 a.m.

By Jeff King–Twenty-five years ago this week, the Haida community came together in an unprecedented way, at least in modern times, to assert its rights over the land and to protect Lyell Island-Athlii Gwaii from industrial-scale logging. The Haida blockade of Frank Beban’s logging show on Lyell Island demonstrated to the world the depth of the Haida community’s feeling for the land. It resulted, a few years later, in the creation of Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve/Haida Heritage Site, protecting the entire area from logging and giving the Haida a co-management position. It also resulted in the creation of the Gwaii Trust, which has since played an important role here.To mark the anniversary of the blockade, which began the week of October 28, 1985, we called several of those who stood on the muddy logging road on Lyell Island, challenging the loggers, challenging British Columbia, challenging Canada, and ultimately changing their corner of the world.”I was there right from the start, right to the finish of that,” Arnie Bellis of Old Massett said. “I was arrested. That was kind of my first big political thing in my life.”Mr. Bellis pointed out that the blockade had deep roots in the community.”There are so many people who volunteered and sacrificed, if you say one name you miss ten,” he said. “You had the captain of the boats, the carpenters, the people who worked in the hall feeding people,” he said, “you had the people who drove people down from Masset. To say that one person or a smaller group of people did this is not giving it justice. It was a total effort.” Mr. Bellis also remembers “the total commitment and sacrifice from people who (didn’t) have a lot of money but (did) have a lot of will.” And he says the blockade achieved the objective of stopping that type of logging.”…We the Haida, as a collective, demonstrated to the world that you can stand up and say something and do it in an open respectful way. It’s about the whole nation,” he said.Mr. Bellis also noted the Gwaii Trust is a direct result of Lyell Island. “Never forget where it came from and what it took.” “The whole village got together. It was pretty emotional when Dempsey’s boats were leaving for Windy Bay,” Diane Brown of Skidegate told us Monday morning.”I feel pretty good about what we did. I mean, it’s Gwaii Haanas park reserve. It’s protected, which is what we wanted. I feel pretty good about what the Nation did 25 years ago,” she said.Ms Brown described the night before the four elders flew down by helicopter, saying the meeting, which lasted until 4 am, was one of the longest she had attended. She said the young people didn’t want the elders to go first, but the elders insisted. “.The elders wouldn’t budge”, she said.The four elders were Ethel Jones, Adolphus Marks, Ada Yovanovich and Watson Pryce. “So I had two parents disobeying the law there,” Ms Brown said.Three elders were the first to be arrested. Ms Brown said the possibility of going to jail deterred no one.”They got served with papers. We went back down and read them. We understood it to mean we would stand to go to jail for anywhere from 6 months to two years. But nobody left,” Ms Brown said.”The morning the elders did get arrested was a very emotional time for everybody. I begged my dad not to. I said, ‘you are 80, what if you don’t have two years’. He didn’t care,” she said.Ms Brown says the heritage site/park reserve seems to be working OK, and the co-management model is drawing interest from elsewhere in the world, including Australia and New Zealand. Willard Wilson of Skidegate was among those arrested then charged and convicted of criminal contempt of court. He told us he was afraid as he was arrested, but that he was involved to support the Haida Nation. “Not many places like this, at that time 25 years ago, did what we were doing. But our Nation decided we figured out what we were going to do and we went and did it,” he said. He spent a few hours in jail in Queen Charlotte before being released to appear later in court in Vancouver. “We just had to do what we had to do because our Nation called on us to do it,” he said. Mr. Wilson notes that the protection of the land and the Gwaii Trust are two important outcomes of the blockade. He said the Gwaii Trust has achieved a real dialogue between neighbours. “It made me more aware as an individual Haida about what is important to our island,” he said. Twenty-five years ago this week, the Lyell Island blockade was just getting underway. It resulted in 72 people being arrested, and 12 convicted of criminal contempt of court (all were put on probation). It also marked the beginning of an era where Haida rights have been taken more seriously by the federal and provincial governments, and resulted in the protection of Gwaii Haanas and, eventually, the creation of the Gwaii Trust.On Saturday November 13, the Haida are holding a private celebration in Skidegate (invitation only) to mark the 25th anniversary of the Athlii Gwaii-Lyell Island. More- see our editorial.