New book chronicles Haida quest for title

  • Oct. 16, 2009 1:00 p.m.

By Heather Ramsay-“For leaders like Guujaaw, laying claim to Haida Gwaii is like breathing,” writes author Ian Gill in his new book chronicling the Haida fight to regain control of the islands’ land and resources. “To him every single act by every Haida citizen breathes life into the Haida assertion of rights and title,” Mr. Gill continues in All that We Say is Ours: Guujaaw and the Reawakening of the Haida Nation, a 300-page hardcover book just released by Douglas and McIntyre. Mr. Gill, a former journalist and currently the president of EcoTrust Canada, has written about the islands before in Haida Gwaii: Journeys through the Queen Charlotte Islands, published in 1997. But he decided to turn his pen to the topic again because of what he called a dawning realization that the Haida quest for rights and title is a uniquely important tale. “It’s a story that in some ways hasn’t been told that should be told,” he said. Mr. Gill has been coming back to Haida Gwaii for 25 years and for the last five he’s been working on putting all these thoughts on paper. The book, whose publication date was pushed back several times, has been seen as a biography of the artist, drummer and orator who is now the president of the Council of the Haida Nation, but Mr. Gill says it is much more than that. “It’s important that it not be seen as a biography of Guujaaw. I’m not a biographer and he resisted the notion of a biography,” says Mr. Gill, adding that the top Haida political leader did not seek out the writer’s attention either. What has happened over the years on Haida Gwaii is not just one heroic lonely person saving the planet, says Mr. Gill. “It is the work of all the Haida people.” But that said, Mr. Gill maintains that he couldn’t have written a book about the gains the Haida have made over the last 40 years without mentioning Guujaaw, because he’s been involved in it all. Nor does Mr. Gill wish to present this book as the last word on events that led to the creation of Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve, the Haida court cases or the signing of the strategic land use plan. But he does hope to add some context to these events. As the Haida were blockading Lyell Island, the Xeni Gwet’in in the Chilcotin were also asserting rights to their traditional territory, as were the Nuu-chah-nulth on Meares Island, Mr. Gill says. Internationally, Australian aborigines have also been involved in similar fights for territory and rights, as have the Maori of New Zealand and many more. “I was able to offer context for the things the Haida have done. It’s not just a Haida story. It’s of international importance,” says Mr. Gill. “If the Haida title and rights goes ahead, you can be certain it will be talked about around the world.” He says that indigenous people still occupy a quarter of the world’s land surface and they represent 90 percent of the cultural diversity of the planet. Furthermore, they steward 80 percent of the biodiversity of the planet “What happens in places like Haida Gwaii is the difference between succeeding and failing,” he says. A different society is within our grasp, he says, and it’s exemplified by what the Haida propose for the islands. He recognizes the tricky position he is in, being neither an indigenous person, nor someone who lives on Haida Gwaii, but he suggests that perhaps an outsider can best tell the tale. Of course, he’s aware of the potential downfalls. His previous book caused a commotion (and was even banned in some stores), not among the Haida community, but from residents of Port Clements who felt he’d taken an unfair swipe at their town. This swirled amidst controversy about another book written by an outsider – Robert Bringhurst’s Story as Sharp as a Knife, which was not well-received by many Haida people. Mr. Gill said he tried to take a lot of care with this book and even had it vetted by anonymous readers on the islands. “I got feedback that was sometimes quite hostile. [Local readers] were not happy with the way I characterized things. I heard and responded to that feedback.” Will it please everyone? “I hope not,” he says. “My role is not to travel the globe and apply soothing oils to everyone and everything. What the Haida are doing is extremely provocative and some people will find it provocative.” Mr. Gill also points out that the non-native people of Haida Gwaii have played an important role in the work that’s gone on. He says that non-Haida islanders have supported the Haida in ways that are quite unusual in other parts of rural Canada, noting the Protocol Agreement and the support Port Clements and Masset offered to the Supreme Court case (known as the TFL 39 case). “That’s not a common thing in Canada – rural resource people siding with indigenous people. Signing on to the court case was a singular act of courage,” he says. “Not to brush over the fact that there are still plenty of skeptics and rightly so.” Now that more than half the islands are protected and the strategic land use agreement has been signed, Mr. Gill says what happens next is the hard part and people around the world are watching Haida Gwaii with interest. “It’s not like there is a recipe book with ingredients and society emerges at the end as a perfectly baked pie. There will be mistakes and it will be messy because these kinds of things are always messy,” he says. All in all, he hopes islanders will find something of themselves in the book. He also hopes the book is read Canada-wide because he believes it tells a story that more people need to be aware of. “I hope it helps [Canadians] understand just how dishonest our government has been with indigenous people,” he says. “It’s an important story.”