My life has been shaped by Gwaii Haanas: celebrating 20 years of cooperative management

  • Aug. 7, 2013 6:00 a.m.

by Ernie Gladstone, Gwaai Haanas SuperintendentNext week we are celebrating the 20th anniversary of the Gwaii Haanas Agreement with several events – the pole raising, the Livestream event and the community feast. Before that all gets underway, I wanted to give islanders some context for these celebrations. Today, Gwaii Haanas is equally renowned for its spectacular wilderness and its vibrant culture. Designated as a Haida Heritage Site, a National Park Reserve and a National Marine Conservation Area Reserve, Gwaii Haanas is home to temperate rain forests, rich and abundant sea life and the Haida Gwaii Watchmen Program. It includes SGang Gwaay, a UNESCO World Heritage Site where carved monumental poles and Haida architecture provide a glimpse into the living Haida culture and our historic Haida way of life. Gwaii Haanas, which means Islands of Beauty in the Haida language, has also come to represent the strong relationship built between the Government of Canada and the Haida Nation. While born out of conflict, the relationship that exists in Gwaii Haanas today is regarded internationally as an outstanding example of cooperative management. My own life has been shaped by Gwaii Haanas. When I was twelve years old, my family travelled in the area for more than a week on a small inflatable boat, camping on a different beach every night. This experience is one of the reasons I’ve returned to visit this special place every year. In my lifetime, efforts to protect Gwaii Haanas – or South Moresby as it was known at the time – were set in motion as I went into Kindergarten. An organisation called the Islands Protection Society, which eventually had about 1,200 members, was getting involved in all manner of environmental issues on Haida Gwaii. In 1974, the society joined the Skidegate Band Council and other Haida leaders in opposing plans to log Burnaby Island in South Moresby. Before I entered high school, many visitors had travelled to South Moresby thanks to the work of early tour operators, some of whom still operate in the area today. Around that time, in 1981, the Skidegate Band Council established the Haida Gwaii Watchmen Program and volunteers (staying in canvas tent camps), acted as guardians of important cultural sites. The watchmen got started well before Parks Canada became involved but it is difficult to imagine a program that delivers the mandate of protection, education and visitor experience more effectively. Visitors who meet the Watchmen often say that this encounter is the most memorable part of their trip. In the 1980s, concern about unsustainable logging activity began gaining momentum. Moresby and smaller islands were slated to be cut, but in 1985 the Haida Nation designated all the lands and waters surrounding Gwaii Haanas as a Haida Heritage Site. Plans were made to prevent the Windy Bay watershed on Athlii Gwaii (Lyell Island) from being clear cut. Volunteers built a camp in Sedgwick Bay near the logging road. Seventy-two people, including elders, were arrested there. Their efforts to protect Gwaii Haanas quickly gained local, national, and international support and attention. Finally, the logging was stopped and along came a new beginning -a fundamental change in how the people of Haida Gwaii would live and work together to care for the Islands. In 1988 the Governments of Canada and British Columbia signed the South Moresby Agreement, where both agreed to take the necessary steps to ensure the lands and waters of Gwaii Haanas would be set aside as a protected area. The agreement included commitments to create new economic opportunities and compensate for the reduction in forestry activities in Gwaii Haanas. These funds, which now support programs and infrastructure in every island community, are now managed by the Gwaii Trust and Gwaii Forest societies and are run by representatives from each community on Haida Gwaii. The agreement also included the necessary resources to construct two visitor centres, a harbour in Sandspit and a boat launch at Moresby Camp. I graduated from high school in 1988 and my passion for Gwaii Haanas grew. I spent some of that summer as an assistant guide operating tours on a fibre glass replica of Bill Reid’s famous canoe – the Loo Taas. We visited and camped in many spectacular places and gathered seafood to feed our guests. It was amazing to watch the first Haida canoe in over 100 years enter the bay lined with monumental poles at SGang Gwaay. At the end of this summer, I decided that Gwaii Haanas was my future and I planned to start a tour business. I returned home from college during the summer months and back to Gwaii Haanas for work. I spent much of the next two summers on Lyell Island planting trees and helping with a slope stability assessment to determine what rehabilitation work was required after the logging activity had stopped. We used the blockade camp at Sedgwick Bay as our base. It was a privilege to have lived there for a time. Each day, we walked the same trail and used the same road as those who stood on the line. I joined Parks Canada in 1992 and planned to work until I launched my tour business. I began working as a deckhand for the late Tucker Brown, captain of the MV Gwaii Haanas. Tucker inspired me every day, bringing me to and teaching me something different in every bay and inlet in Gwaii Haanas. He encouraged me to continue with Parks Canada. A year later in 1993, the Government of Canada and the Haida Nation signed the unprecedented Gwaii Haanas Agreement. Twenty years after its signing, it is still referred to as an agreement before its time. At the core of the Gwaii Haanas Agreement is the agreement to disagree. Both the Haida Nation and the Government of Canada assert ‘title’ over Gwaii Haanas. However, both parties respect each other’s views and maintain their respective authorities under Haida and Canadian laws. The Gwaii Haanas Agreement created a structure to manage Gwaii Haanas, called the Archipelago Management Board (AMB). This board is made up of equal representation from the Government of Canada and the Haida Nation and is responsible for all issues related to planning, management and operations in Gwaii Haanas. After a number of different roles with Parks Canada, I became the Superintendant of Gwaii Haanas in 2001. Being Haida and representing the Government of Canada on Haida Gwaii is sometimes a difficult position to be in. But I believe in this partnership and I’ve been honoured to have experienced all the opportunities and challenges that go along with the incredible role I have in this special place. Another groundbreaking milestone occurred in 2010. Government of Canada and Haida Nation representatives came together once again to sign the Gwaii Haanas Marine Agreement. The Marine Agreement provides an opportunity for Parks Canada and Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) to work with the Haida Nation to cooperatively manage the surrounding waters. From the shores of Gwaii Haanas to the deep seas below, this remote wilderness is home to over 3,500 marine species. Sustainable use activities, including commercial fishing and tourism, will continue to support local and coastal communities and will be managed to ensure healthy and productive ecosystems will exist in the future, just as they do today. To help support this added responsibility, the AMB has recently been expanded from four to six and now includes a representative from DFO and another Haida. As the years go by, changes that reflect newer visions are implemented. The Haida Gwaii Watchmen continue to share stories with visitors but they now stay in solar-powered Haida longhouses with composting toilets during visitor season. Haida individuals continue to carry out traditional activities including food gathering and have access to cedar for poles or canoes. Youth now have the opportunity to participate in programs at Swan Bay Rediscovery where they learn about the environment, Haida culture, and life skills. Islanders and visitors continue to be encouraged to experience the variety that Gwaii Haanas has to offer. A marine management planning process is being initiated and commercial fishermen will continue to sustainably harvest seafood into the future. Tour operators continue to organise trips and showcase Gwaii Haanas in different ways for their clients. Gwaii Haanas also continues to serve as a unique benchmark for science and is a place where our staff and researchers have the opportunity to study and learn. I am one whose life has been shaped by these Islands of Beauty. It is a place where I’ve had my most formative experiences. Gwaii Haanas supports me and my family as well as the livelihoods of many others who benefit from or provide necessary services that support activities in this region. Children are growing up with no experience of the conflict that resulted in the protection of Gwaii Haanas. Those times are now a story that they may be told or read. Now is a time of cooperation. In establishing and managing Gwaii Haanas there have been sacrifices and investments made by many individuals, communities, and governments and it’s important that everyone understands what has happened in the past and why Gwaii Haanas exists today. The pole, which will stand in Windy Bay for years to come, will help tell this story to youth and visitors today and for generations to come.