Islanders discuss successes, failures, hopes and dreams

  • Mar. 14, 2003 2:00 p.m.

A monumental gathering of islanders took place over the weekend, reviving the “symposium” tradition which thrived here in the late 1970s and early 80s.
Almost 300 islanders took in all or part of the symposium, held last Friday, Saturday and Sunday (March 7,8 and 9). Obviously, we don’t have room to cover what everyone said in detail. The following is simply a few highlights of the weekend, designed to give people who couldn’t attend a tiny taste of what happened.
The event started Friday night in Port Clements with a prayer by Peter Hamel, followed by welcomes from Margaret Edgars on behalf of the Council of the Haida Nation and Gerry Johnson, the deputy mayor of Port. Masset resident David Phillips, one of the organizers of past symposiums, brought an eagle feather from the 1981 gathering and presented it to MC Gilbert Parnell.
The audience, seated in a spiral, then heard from the local government of each community on the islands except Sandspit.
First to speak was Old Massett councillor Arnie Bellis, who talked about his community’s drastic population growth, its historically close relationships with Masset and with Skidegate, and the growing new relationship with Port Clements. Old Massett is working hard on these connections, Mr. Bellis said, and is willing to sit down and talk with any other communities that are interested.
Masset mayor Barry Pages listed his village’s successes over the past 15 years, which include the opening of the maritime museum, the Delkatla bridge, the sale of the former military houses, joint sewer and water projects with Old Massett, maintenance of the recreation centre, and a thriving dogfish processing industry. He also touched on failures, including competition between communities instead of cooperation, the constant threat of the hospital closing, and unresolved land claims.
“We also can’t control the weather,” he said. “We need to work on this one!”
Deputy mayor Gerry Johnson spoke on behalf of Port Clements, calling on all communities to sign the protocol agreement with the Haida Nation and work on a model for an islands government.
“To sum up, I was here 21 years ago for the last symposium,” Mr. Johnson said. “Some of the issues were the impacts of the large ferry coming to the islands, community stability, land claims, overcutting our forests, lack of jobs, environmental degradation, and reductions in health and education services. I am willing to make a guess that except for the impacts of the ferry, all the rest are still very important to us all.”
Ian Lordon, the regional district director for Area D, talked about the challenges of representing islanders from the north, middle and south of Graham Island, and from both Haida and non-Haida communities. However, he said, he appreciates the fact that the job forces him to look at issues from the perspective of every community, not just one.
Mr. Lordon also made a strong call for islanders to do what they can do resolve the issue of Haida title to Haida Gwaii. The CHN’s recently-launched title case is the first of its kind in Canada and will take an estimated 10 years to get through the court system, he noted.
“While the significance of this is exciting, I also find it embarrassing,” he said. “We might as well spend the money and time trying to prove the world is round.”
Skidegate band manager Babs Stevens spoke about her community’s success in maintaining culture, running a successful Haida language school, working in partnership with Parks Canada, planning for the new Qay’llnagaay Heritage Centre, and repatriation, among other achievements. Skidegate has quadrupled in size over the past 15 years, she added. The village advocates strongly for healing, and has its own group, the Ngystle Society, offering services to all islanders.
“In order to heal the earth, we must first heal ourselves,” she said.
Queen Charlotte regional district director Carol Kulesha told the audience that her community faces challenges with declining population, crumbling roads, an insufficient water system, and a need for more recreational activities.
“Most of the problems we face are larger than a community of 1,100 can resolve,” she said.
Guujaaw, president of the Council of the Haida Nation, spoke about a trip he made to the territory of the Hopi Tribal Council. The Hopi, he said, administer vast territories including mines, and maintain their traditions and villages. He contrasted this with the situation on Haida Gwaii.
“Here, the politics of the Haida Nation is built around fighting government and industry, that’s our whole reason for being. In fact, we got pretty good at it,” he said.
The Haida Nation has made efforts over the years to work with other people, Guujaaw said, and it’s usually not difficult.
“Race will always be an issue on this island but it doesn’t always have to be an issue of racism,” he said.
He added that he was happy to see a good turnout, and recalled the last symposium, 22 years ago.
Since then, the Gwaii Haanas area has been protected, and the Haida Nation has so far succeeded in preventing logging in Duu Guusd, the northwestern part of Graham Island.
“Young people will have the same opportunity we did to go into these places,” he said. “I think we’re doing good… With you people working with us it will be all that much better.”
The start of Saturday’s sessions was slightly delayed due to snow, but the morning started with a welcome from John Williams, Chief Tanu, speaking on behalf of Chief Skidegate. The focus of the day was on community groups, and 16 of them were on hand to present their experiences and talk about their hopes for the future.
Diane Brown, teacher at the Skidegate Haida Immersion Program, spoke about the importance of the Haida language and the success of the program, despite uncertain funding and a lack of interest from younger people.
“The people that are fluent in the language are truly the treasures of Haida Gwaii, the nation,” she said, adding that the great concern of the elders is that the language will be lost if it is not taught to the next generation. “The fastest way you can lose your identity is to lose your language.”
The 14 elders who attend the program during the day have developed a Haida alphabet, recorded CDs, and written a glossary of 8,000 words, Ms Brown said. Ten other students are studying the language at evening classes.
Next up was Peter Hamel speaking for the Delkatla Sanctuary Society (“we have the largest bird database on the islands”), and Jacques Morin, talking about the community energy plan he is working on. Anna Gajda told the audience the story of the islands recycling program, started up by volunteers in spite of warnings that recycling couldn’t be done here because of high costs, the low population and remote location. The volunteers proved it could be done, and the program has now been taken over by the regional district.
Carolyn Hesseltine and Vince Collison presented the recently completed “heritage tourism strategy”, and Nika Collison spoke on behalf of the Haida Gwaii Museum. The museum’s archives are now a world-class facility, she said. It also has an excellent collection of Haida materials, and an art gallery which regularly shows local peoples’ works. The museum, which has many partnerships with other groups and facilities, is learning that working together is hard work yet crucial to success.
“We need to continue learning about each other,” Ms Collison said. “We need to learn to say what we are really feeling to each other and not behind each others’ back.”
Vonnie Hutchingson, speaking on behalf of the Skidegate Band Council and Old Massett Village Council, talked about recent achievements in the area of Haida education. These include a local education agreement between the bands and the school district defining what Haida people want delivered for their childrens’ education, and increasing the Haida voice within the school system.
Evelyn von Almassy talked about the Transition House’s vision for the future, which is that the transition house will no longer be needed. Delina Myles spoke for the Haida Gwaii Tourism Association and Eliza Shane told everyone about the local Toastmasters Club, currently the number one toastmasters club in northern BC.
Youth was a major theme of the weekend, and David Loewen spoke about the newly-formed Haida Gwaii Youth Society, which has recently received interim funding from the Gwaii Trust to run the two teen centres, which had been threatened by government cutbacks. Mr. Loewen called on islanders to come forward and get involved in youth services and programs, and for every board and council to include a youth representative, elected by the youth themselves.
The Haida Repatriation Committee spoke about its success in bringing home more than 270 ancestors to rest. Marnie Younger of the Queen Charlotte City Community Club then spoke about that group’s challenges in offering affordable space to groups that need it, and how this service is connected to a healthy and vibrant community. She noted that volunteering used to be a real way to socialize on the islands, but now many groups have trouble attracting volunteers.
Darrell Oike of the Hands and Feet Performing Arts Company said his group’s goal is to encourage artistic expression both in themselves and others, and welcomed any islanders to join the theatrical extravaganza the company is currently working on. The company has already had two successful shows here.
Amanda Reid-Stevens and LaVerne Davies spoke for the Qay’llnagaay Heritage Centre Society, which has been working for the past eight years on a heritage centre and is now close to reaching the $19-million fundraising goal. Successes are evident all over the islands, Ms Reid Stevens said, from Old Massett and Masset saving their hospital to the countless volunteers who work long hours, to the Gwaii Trust. Obstacles are the same for many groups here: lack of communication, making assumptions, and a lack of funding.
“Now I’m supposed to tell you what I’ve learned, but I’m not going to, because it’s a big ass secret,” she said to laughter. Instead she summed up with a quote from Guujaaw, which she called one of the most powerful quotes in the world: “There should be no reason for our children to grow up bitter, as some of us have done.”
Leslie Johnson spoke for the Gowgaia Institute, one of the groups which organized the symposium. Their goal, she said, is to promote sustainability on Haida Gwaii – to make sure that people in years to come can enjoy the resources that are here today. Their biggest accomplishment has been signing a protocol agreement with the CHN in December, and she urged the communities to formally recognize Haida title by signing the protocol agreement the CHN has offered them.
Another organizer, Art Lew of Haida Gwaii Community Futures, wrapped up Saturday’s session with a brief history of his organization: created five years ago with help from Gwaii Trust, it has helped 67 businesses start up or expand and provided financing to 38 of them.
“These are not big businesses,” she said. “These are the small businesses that are the heartbeat of this island.”
Sunday morning the proceedings were once again delayed by snow, but eventually began with a prayer by John Williams. MC Gilbert Parnell noted that many of the previous day’s speakers had referred to the protocol agreement between the Haida Nation and the non-Haida communities, which remains unsigned more than a year after it was first presented.
“Just because we didn’t get the protocol signed doesn’t mean we’re not working to achieve that,” Mr. Parnell said.
Sunday morning was set aside for people to respond to what they had learned and felt during the symposium. Sherri Dick said she had listened with respect and kindness to the speakers, but had been hurt by a public rebuke for writing letters to the Observer stating her opinion about the Haida Nation’s right to the islands. The letters were written to enlighten the people who live here, she said.
Many non-Haida islanders seem to want to be Haida, she said, especially now that the Haida are gaining more power and it could be advantageous. And she said she was disturbed by a remark that it would be great if everyone on the islands someday spoke Haida.
“Well, no, it would not be nice,” Ms Dick said. “Don’t go changing just for us. Keep your identity and we will try to keep ours.”
The continuing logging of the islands, the idea of wind farms and oil and gas extraction in Hecate Strait are all devastating, she said, and are not acceptable to her as a Haida citizen.
“The only way I can see islanders gaining control here is through the Haida Nation,” she added. “If you do understand the sacredness of this place I hope you will support the Haida in our quest for our homeland, for you may find it beneficial to you.”
Cindy Davies of the Gowgaia Institute, one of the symposium’s organizers, said she would like to honour Sherri Dick for standing up and sharing her opinion. She also honoured Ms Dick’s mother, Lavina White, who has been attending meetings and expressing her opinion for many years. Ms Davies said she has often felt uncomfortable with what Ms White had to say: “There have been times when I’ve thought, maybe I shouldn’t be here, and I should be on the first boat out of here.” But she came to feel that it is better to be here and share the responsibility of looking after the islands. Ms Davies thanked Ms White for her example, and the entire audience stood and applauded.
Ms White then stood up to speak. She thanked Ms Davies.
“Those of you who support the Haida Nation are free to stay,” she said. “I enjoyed your celebration but I need to tell you some things that need to happen before we can celebrate.”
The Haida Nation is capable of running its own government, although the newcomers seemed to think that First Nations were not smart enough to run their own systems, Ms White said. The Haida Nation is also able to look after its own children, even though the government continues to take them away. The sea is the Haida people’s lifeline and now the province is talking about exploiting it for oil and gas. And no one seems to mind how Haida people and others have been confined to small reserves.
“You don’t realize how it’s been for us,” she said. “I really don’t find the silence from the good people acceptable.”
She asked islanders to work together to get rid of the military circle in Masset (receiving applause for this suggestion) and also asked that if there is any form of islands government, that it be made up entirely of Haida citizens.
“It’s not because you are bad people,” she said. “I really feel that we need to make our own mistakes in self-government… We belong to the land, and the land belongs to us.”
Ms White said she is always surprised by the fact that non-Haida people have left wherever they were living and settled here. Why didn’t they stay in their homelands and work to make things better there instead of leaving, she asked.