Haida Gwaii’s one-of-a-kind educational experience

Every year university exchange students come to Haida Gwaii for a one-of-a-kind educational experience.

Every year university exchange students come to Haida Gwaii for a one-of-a-kind educational experience. This, many islanders know. But what are the lessons they’re learning, and who are the students learning from? The Observer takes a closer look.


On a bright Thursday morning at the Kay Centre, semester students Danika Hammond and Connor Cepella were in a class called Diversifying Resource-Dependent Communities.

Down the hall, the Council of the Haida Nation happened to be hosting its Winter Sessions, setting the agenda for the new year.

It’s no coincidence that one of the big lessons taught in Hammond and Cepella’s class that morning was about how today’s community leaders help small places thrive.

“It’s not a question of who has coal or lumber or fish — it used to be, we used to speak of ‘comparative advantage’ in only those terms,” says David Douglas, a professor of rural planning and development who was teaching the students’ class.

“Increasingly, we’re seeing that it’s ‘This community’s got the vision, got the leadership, got the champions.’”

Douglas’ class is one of five natural resource studies courses the Haida Gwaii Higher Education Society is offering to visiting third-year university students this winter.

But speaking with Hammond and Cepella, it seems they learn as much or more outside the classroom.

“A huge part of the value of this program is living somewhere remote and new,” said Cepella, who came to Haida Gwaii from Halifax, where he studies sustainability and environmental science at Dalhousie University.

At 20, Cepella has spent time in small northern Ontario and Arctic towns as a tree planter and canoe guide, but this winter marks the Ottawa-born student’s first chance to really connect with people in a small place.

“I’ve had that rural experience, but it’s mostly been romanticized and I wasn’t really immersed in the community,” he said.

A day before they spoke with the Observer, Cepella and Hammond had a fish-soup lunch with elders in the Skidegate  Haida Immersion Program, or SHIP.

Both volunteer as part of the semester program, Cepella at the Hecate Strait Stream Keepers hatchery and Hammond at Sk’aadgaa Naay Elementary.

They meet several local guest speakers in their classes, some of which are taught by local instructors such as Chief Satsan (Herb George).

At home, thanks to their landlady in Skidegate, the two are nearly done weaving their first cedar baskets.

Hammond has joined a ‘Ukul-ladies’ music group (Cepella wants to start the ‘Ukul-laddies’), and both made it up to Masset to take in this year’s Valentino Cabaret (“A pretty crazy event,” says Hammond).

Compared with her life at UBC — a campus of 60,000 students that feels like a small city full of young people — Hammond said she is struck by how easy it is on Haida Gwaii to connect with people older or younger than her.

It’s one of the reasons Hammond hopes to find a career that will return her to a place like New Denver/Silverton — the twin West Kootenay towns on Slocan Lake where she grew up.

Haida Gwaii, where she actually lived for a year at age seven, is the first place besides the Kootenays where she can imagine her future.

In class, Hammond said she learns a lot about the economic struggles faced by small places like Haida Gwaii — resource dependence, lack of services, an ageing population and youth who move away.

But there is a flip side, too.

“When I’m in a small town, all I see is the strength that comes from it — organizing strength and how committed, how involved people are.”

Asked what makes Haida Gwaii stand out from other small B.C. communities, Hammond was quick to answer.

“The Haida,” she said. “I think in other communities I’ve been in, the First Nations presence is just not as strong.”

“There’s so much more cross-cultural sharing, more respect and willingness here,” she said.

Part of that shows in the formal links Hammond and Cepella learned about in Chief Satsan’s class on First Nations governance — things like the Gwaii Haanas agreement, or the Kunst’aa guu–Kunst’aayah protocol — but it also shows in day-to-day life.

“I kept thinking, ‘This is not happening anywhere else,’” said Hammond.

“I think there’s a better relationship than I’ve ever seen.”

David Douglas agrees.

“The future in what we call the Canadian federation is changing,” he said, speaking of the many successes achieved here by island communities and the Council of the Haida Nation.

Now in his third year of teaching courses for the Haida Gwaii Semester in Natural Resource Studies, Douglas said despite its size, Haida Gwaii is increasingly looked to as a role model.

“It’s not well known,” he said. “But through conferences, through newsletters and websites and so on, it is increasingly being known.”

“I’m hoping that Haida Gwaii itself will be increasingly involved in international conversations about development.”

To learn more about HGHES, drop by their offices at the Haida Heritage Centre, the shared office at Community Futures in Masset, or visit www.hghes.ca.