South Moresby at 25

  • Jul. 13, 2012 6:00 p.m.

By Jeff King–Twenty-five years ago this week, islanders were electrified by the news that what was then called South Moresby was going to be protected.The fight against logging there had taken 14 years. It was waged by the Haida on the ground of Lyell Island in the fall of 1985, in the provincial and national media (and in the Observer) and in the House of Commons, as well as in numerous political back rooms where lobbyists, both for and against, made their cases.But on Saturday July 11, 1987 it all came together when BC and Canada signed a memorandum of understanding to create a national park reserve, marking the end of a long campaign and making history for Haida Gwaii and for Canada.Also that day, Loo Taas, Bill Reid’s magnificent canoe returned to Skidegate, after having been paddled from Vancouver, and the air was tingling with news of its arrival and of the signing.Federal environment minister Tom McMillan flew up to Skidegate that evening for a huge potlatch celebrating both, hours after he and Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and Premier Bill Vander Zalm had signed the agreement in Victoria.Important players in protecting the area included Miles Richardson, then President of the Council of the Haida Nation, Guujaaw (who 14 years earlier thought the deal would take six months), John Broadhead, Elizabeth May, assistant to Tom McMillan, David Suzuki, whose Nature of Things programs on South Moresby made the issue national, and Vicky Husband of the Sierra Club.This past week, we have talked to as many of these activists as we could, to hear what they think of South Moresby/Gwaii Haanas 25 years later. We also talked to a couple of people who opposed the creation of the park, to hear what they think these many years later.Miles Richardson was president of the Council of the Haida Nation in 1987. He reached us on Monday afternoon by Skype from Lima, Peru, and said that July 11, 1987 was important for two reasons. First, the South Moresby memorandum of understanding and second, it was the day Loo Taas came home to Skidegate.”When Loo Taas left Vancouver, her crew was charged with the mission of peace, with two possible destinations,” Mr. Richardson said. “One was that Loo Taas would go back to Athlii Gwaii (Lyell Island) to continue to defend Gwaii Haanas, or if an agreement had been reached with Canada and BC on protecting the area, Loo Taas would return home to Skidegate to celebrate that.””I am grateful to the many Canadians and to all the people who supported the Haida Nation that it was the latter that occurred,” Mr. Richardson said.He also said the agreement was important for the Haida Nation as it marked the end of the ground conflict in Gwaii Haanas, “and it brought Canada and BC close enough in line with Haida objectives to bring an end to the conflict.”Mr. Richardson reminded us that the Haida never asked for a national park.”The Haida objectives were very simple and very clear. The first.was to protect Gwaii Haanas in its natural state in perpetuity.the second was to bring about recognition and respect for Haida Title to Gwaii Haanas.”He said the agreements with the governments were seen as interim steps by the Haida Nation to see Haida jurisdiction recognized over the area.”Our second objective continues to be a work in progress,” he said.Mr. Richardson also said the agreement showed him that “Canada can work for us” and that Canada has begun the process of reconciling with Haida objectives “in a very strong way”.”That was the first recognition by Canada of the Haida Nation, on a nation-to-nation basis, and the beginning of negotiations on that basis. So we have come a long way,” Mr. Richardson said.Today, Elizabeth May is the leader of the Green Party of Canada and its only MP, but in 1987 she was senior policy advisor to environment minister Tom McMillan. She calls the agreement “a peak life experience”, and describes her state on July 11, 1987 as “elated” and “blissed-out”.”It started from the moment Dalton Camp phoned me and told me ‘you’ve got your park’,” she said.”I look back on lots and lots of campaigns. There is nothing before or since that has been more significant in terms of overcoming obstacles,” Ms May said, “to even play a small part, it was the happiest and most wonderful thing that has ever happened to me. The other thing that comes to mind was having my daughter.”The story of the protection of Gwaii Haanas was written by Ms May in her 1990 book ‘Paradise Won’. Today, she says it needs to be told again.”It’s important for activists to know the story, because the only way you move immoveable objects is to be quite confident that you can,” she said.The decision to protect, which was strongly opposed by logging interests both on the islands and off, came about through a combination of elements.”It had to do with the unwillingness of the Haida Nation and environmental groups to give up. The fact (is) that we didn’t. I wish we had brought that resolute commitment to change to other campaigns and other issues across Canada,” she said.Ms May praised the leadership of the individuals involved, and said that extraordinary levels of inspiration came from the land itself, the spiritual connection, the sense of connection of the Haida Nation.””As I look at the issue of establishing Gwaii Haanas, I have to look at what the Haida Nation has done since. It has just gone from strength to strength. I continue to look to the Haida Nation for leadership on loads of issues,” Ms May said.She also called the decision a high-water mark” in political leadership from the federal government.”We are now in a trough,” she said, “we haven’t had a Prime Minister (like Stephen Harper) with so little regard for nature.”At the end of our conversation, Ms May called the decision “in some ways miraculous”.”There were also more than a handful of key players who had such clarity of vision that compromise wasn’t and option. That was a key element in the success.”Guujaaw, now president of the Haida Nation, was an activist on the issue for 14 years when the agreement was signed. He was intimately involved from the beginning in 1974. He’s not as ecstatic as Ms May, saying that there was nothing formal until the Gwaii Haanas Agreement was finalized six years later.”As far as we were concerned, it was all the Crown interacting and sorting out their issue. In fact, we had already decided it wasn’t going to be logged and it was good of them to concur,” he said.Guujaaw said the more important document came in 1993. “(That) was the Gwaii Haanas Agreement. Because that was what determined whether or not there was going to be a deal in management. We really kept them out of there up until that point”, he said.But he says it did work out.”In the end, in the agreement all of the rights to the land are still intact, and the management process, the recognition of the two separate authorities was contentious at the time, to the Crown anyway, and to our people.”The agreement, he said, has advantages. It protects the land, which is becoming more valuable as time goes on.”They become more important to us, more important to the world really.”Guujaaw also cites the agreement, which is based on the July 11 memorandum, as a model for other areas in the world.”It’s quite a different approach,” he said, “there have been Australian aborigines, Maoris, people from Northern Canada, the States, even China (come) to look at (it) and to see what they could learn from it.”Coincidentally, Guujaaw is in Gwaii Haanas this week as the 25th anniversary of the signing is marked.John Broadhead played a vital role as activist and strategist in the years before the agreement was signed. He learned the news that the area was to be protected by telephone from an incoherent Elizabeth May.”I remember Elizabeth called me in Vancouver on the 10th and she was incoherent. She was just snuffling, crying for joy, she couldn’t speak. I said ‘if is this good news, can you just snuffle twice'”.Mr. Broadhead says he had a mixture of feelings, because many islanders were going to be affected by bringing logging in the area to an end, but “the biggest word was relief.”He says the outcome of the campaign is the best possible, with the area co-managed by Ottawa and the Haida, and that has and will set more precedents.”It was a ground-breaking event that happened and it is still reverberating. It’s very much at play in the title case. Because it’s an instance where Canada and the Haida decided to work together and jointly manage something for their mutual benefit,” Mr. Broadhead said, adding that it was a first, mirrored more recently with the province’s co-management stance with all of Haida Gwaii.”The issue that remains, the third step remains with Canada on the co-management of other federal interests,” Mr. Broadhead said, noting “it certainly is going to be front and centre as a legal precedent in front of the court for a workable solution”.In thinking about the agreement 25 years ago, Mr. Broadhead says the millions of Canadians who supported the campaign should not be forgotten.”This was when those 3-million people from Canada put down their marker and said ‘OK this place is going to be protected’. It was more than people locally here, it was more than the Haida. It was Canadians and Canada’s relations that went beyond Canada’s borders,” he said.”The massive scale of that effort.gets forgotten in local celebrations. The outcome of what the Haida accomplished, the seriousness with which it was taken in Ottawa, then in Victoria was leveraged by how much support and dialogue was in place in the rest of Canada. It was big issue for all Canadians, not just the Haida.”Vicky Husband of the Sierra Club worked for protecting Gwaii Haanas for about three years. She told the Observer she was “beyond exhilarated” with the decision because “it was such a major victory against all odds.””We had what we don’t see today. We had people from all parties working on this, we had the communities behind us with the South Moresby Caravan, that built up that momentum. When the Haida stood on the line on Lyell Island, we were saying ‘the world was watching’. And the world was watching,” she said.”It was the whole native culture and their connection to the land. It was about Haida rights, that I think really moved the world,” Ms Husband added.She says the park reserve/heritage site has lived up to her expectations.”We protected one of the most special places on the planet. It’s an extraordinary place,” she said, “those forests could have all been cut down, and for what? This is a benefit for all.”Ms Husband also said the decision became “almost magical” in the end, adding that “we haven’t seen the like of that again”.”Ottawa is so different today with so much partisanship. South Moresby was such a major achievement and it’s for all the future generations, we were not doing it for ourselves.”Patrick Armstrong was a heavy-duty mechanic working in Sandspit in the 1980s when he got involved in the issue. He was a founding member of Moresby Island Concerned Citizens, which opposed the national park idea and spoke for ‘multi-use’, which included protected lands as well as lands available to log. Today, he’s a consultant in Nanaimo, and says the fight for South Moresby not only changed his life, but improved how such decisions are made in BC as well.”There is absolutely no doubt that the business we have been running for the past 25 years was founded on our experience with South Moresby. That’s where it all started,” Mr. Armstrong said. He called the years in the mid-1980s challenging and interesting and said “it certainly changed my life and changed it for the better. It created the ability to move forward in doing things in BC in a better way than we would have done otherwise. The war in the woods is over. You might say (South Moresby) was where it started,” he said.He also said his big issue then was not a park-he would have preferred a provincial park-but with the size of the area to be protected, as well as with off-island environmental groups, which “spent their time in Ottawa advancing the issue, with no mechanism for the (local) people to affect the decision”.There were “no tears shed after the fact,” Mr. Armstrong said, “it became a park. It is a park. Let’s make it work for everybody.Duane Gould of Sandspit spoke out against the park in the years before 1987, and today, he’s still no big supporter.”It’s mismanaged, I guess,” he said, “they are not getting nearly the people they wanted down there. But it’s not all bad news for Sandspit. There are businesses, like Moresby Explorers, that are holding their own.”Mr. Gould says Gwaii Haanas has “pretty-well killed logging” and remembers when there were 125 loggers in his community.”There should be a happy medium somewhere and there isn’t,” he said, “I think (Premier) Vander Zalm made a mistake when he didn’t make it a provincial park”.Mr. Gould said there was never any over-cutting in South Moresby and characterized the area now as being over-protected.”When you start overprotecting, when you cut one (tree) down, that’s overcutting,” he said.He ended our interview on a slightly upbeat note.”I don’t begrudge them. I’m getting to old to start worrying about all that crap. I like to see the people enjoying it,” he said.July 11, 1987. A day that’s hard to forget. The sun shone, Loo Taas glided into Skidegate and the drums pounded long into the night. A celebration of preserving the land, not for 25 years but forever.Editorial ran July 12 2012It made a differenceTwenty-five years ago this week, an agreement was signed that forever changed the political shape of the islands. It also altered the shape of land-use planning in Canada and in BC. The agreement was the memorandum of understanding of the South Moresby Moresby Agreement, which resulted, years later, in the Gwaii Haanas Agreement.It happened on July 11, 1987 in Victoria when Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and Premier Bill Vander Zalm signed the document. That was the same day that Loo Taas arrived home in Skidegate after being paddled from Vancouver, and to say the atmosphere on Haida Gwaii was charged would be an understatement. The signing was neither an end nor a beginning. The beginning, if there was one, was in 1974 when Guujaaw and Thom Henley drew a boundary on a map and pledged to work to preserve what is now known as Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve/Haida Heritage Site. The signing wasn’t an end either, as it was only a memorandum of understanding. Other agreements would follow, with the fully-fleshed out Gwaii Haanas Agreement, which created the first jointly-managed protected area in Canada, not coming for a full six years. But it was an important milestone nonetheless. It was the end of the hardest fought wilderness/conservation battle in Canadian history, and it showed all involved that Canadians in great numbers could be motivated to protect the environment. And it taught the provincial government that it had to find a better way to resolve land use conflicts, which it did through the Land Use Planning process, which has successfully resolved many conflicts that could have been as hard-fought as South Moresby, had not an alternative process been developed. As John Broadhead wrote in the book ‘Endangered Spaces’ two years later, the campaign to save South Moresby “shook the national tree”. That Gwaii Haanas was saved is something of a miracle, given the opposition at the time. That it was is a testimony to the Haida who were resolutely committed to stopping the logging, so committed that 72 Haida, including elders, were arrested in the fall of 1985 for standing on a road on Lyell Island and stopping the loggers. It’s a testimony to those who wanted the area protected as well, for they never took their eyes off the ball, not even when the situation looked bleak, as it was far from a sure thing that protection would come. Now, twenty-five years later, the park is a fact and even those who strongly opposed it have accepted it. Duane Gould of Sandspit told us “I like to see people enjoying it,” and Patrick Armstrong, formerly of Moresby Island Concerned Citizens, said the fight here created the ability in BC to do things better than we would have done otherwise. Those on the other side of the dispute in the 1980s continue to be proud. “We protected one of the most special places on the planet,” Vicky Husband told us, while Elizabeth May called it a high-water mark in leadership from Ottawa. And through all this, there is Gwaii Haanas. Burnaby Narrows never became a log dump as was planned. Logging stopped on Lyell Island. Windy Bay is Windy Bay. Take a moment to reflect, this quarter century later, how different life has been here because of this decision.