Haida Gwaii needs new ideas: forum

  • Nov. 7, 2014 8:00 p.m.

Islanders from all communities gathered at the Kaay Centre Saturday for a full day of discussion about the economic future of Haida Gwaii.Organized by the Gwaii Trust Society, the economic development forum gave islanders the opportunity to work together and share ideas – and to hear from another remote community that has created its own economic success story.Gwaii Trust director Berry Wijdeven told those attending that Haida Gwaii has seen huge events over the past 10 years, including the Islands Spirit Rising protest, a dramatic reduction in the annual allowable cut, and a name change.These events have had lots of positive impacts, he said, but the islands have not emerged unscathed.”In 2001, the school district had 1,011 students. This year there are 570,” he said. “We need to reverse this trend, keep people on island, attract people back home.”The forum, he continued, would be a place to talk about possibilities.”We live in an amazing place which can provide us with a quality of life second to none,” he said. “Let’s put our mind to this, let’s get some amazing things done.”Islanders then heard from Pauline Frost and Ron Daub of the Vuntut Development Corporation, and their partner Ben Ryan of Air North. The Vuntut Development Corporation is based in Old Crow in the Yukon, population 260.Ms. Frost, president of the Vuntut Development Corporation, said her community is a self-governing First Nation with complete control and jurisdiction over its land and waters, including the subsurface rights. The community owns an investment fund much like the Gwaii Trust. Many years ago, the community started a conversation about what it wanted to do, she said, and this led to an investment and partnership with Air North. Old Crow is isolated and can only be reached by air, so the airline plays a particularly important role in the lives of residents, Ms. Frost said, and the investment made a lot of sense. The partnership with Air North allowed the VDC to own part of the airline business, without having to actually run the airline.The Air North investment was just the first of many partnerships that the VDC has pursued, including a small construction company and an eco-tourism company. All have created jobs and opportunities for Old Crow residents.In fact, Air North has expanded its operations to include ground handling at the Vancouver International Airport, with 225 employees there.Air North’s Ben Ryan said the partnership with Vuntut has created opportunities for both parties. As well as ground handling, Air North has gotten into the aircraft leasing business and the fuel business, he said. New ideas keep coming – the company is now looking into whether it would make sense to start barging fuel to various spots in the Pacific northwest, perhaps including Haida Gwaii.But the best thing about working with VDC, he said, has been hearing from Old Crow residents about how the business has had positive impacts on their lives. He was in the community just a few months ago for the annual general meeting.”It’s not just about business, it’s not just about profit,” he said – it’s also about witnessing a small community’s growth and success. “It’s a fulfilling thing to be a part of.”After hearing from the Yukon trio, islanders broke into smaller groups to talk about opportunities, then spent the afternoon coming up with themes and actions.At the end of the day, representatives from each of the smaller groups shared their top ideas with the whole forum. Many of the ideas focused on the need for local training and mentoring, the need for better internet service, and the need for more cooperation and partnerships on island. Inspired by the Air North story, the transportation group suggested that the islands need to have local control of the ferry service and of an airline.Mr. Wijdeven said the Gwaii Trust will be taking all the ideas produced at the forum and creating a report that should get some ideas rolling.

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