In a huge, hushed courtroom in downtown Ottawa Thursday (March 25), the Supreme Court of Canada heard the story of the Haida people and the red cedar which has sustained their culture for thousands of years, Alex Rinfret writes from the national capital.
Dozens of lawyers and more than 100 spectators (some watching on television in an overflow room) listened intently as lawyer Terri-Lynn Williams-Davidson outlined the Haida case to seven Supreme Court judges.
Ms Williams-Davidson began by introducing the Haida chiefs who had traveled to Ottawa for the hearing - Ernie Wilson, Allan Wilson, Reynold Russ and John Williams - as well as Haida Nations president Guujaaw and vice-president Arnie Bellis.
She referred to a huge photo of Skidegate taken in 1878 to show the Supreme Court how almost every structure in the village was built of red cedar - from houses, canoes and totem poles to the clothing people wore.
The Haida people consider the cedar tree their sister and it permeates every aspect of their lives, she said. They used cedar carefully, speaking to the tree before taking bark, and testing 500 to 800-year-old trees to see if they were suitable for canoes or houses before cutting them down.
"This perspective gives a holistic and respectful view of the forest," she said.
She next referred to a large map of Haida Gwaii, showing the judges the area known as Block 6 of Tree Farm Licence 39, where the provincial government has given Weyerhaeuser Co. Ltd. the exclusive right to harvest timber, including old-growth cedar. Block 6 covers approximately one-quarter of the land base and accounts for half the logging on the islands, Ms Williams-Davidson said. Between 1977 and 1999, the company cut down 22.5-million cubic metres of timber. If this amount of wood were turned into telephone poles placed end to end, it would circumnavigate the globe 24 times, she said. Unlike other trees on the islands, cedar is not growing back after harvesting.
"Monumental cedar is now rare on Haida Gwaii, she said.
The Haida Nation recognizes that logging supports Haida and non-Haida families who make their homes on the islands, she said. It does not seek to end all logging, but a reduction to a sustainable level.
"The Haida vision is to construct is new economic house," she said, which would make better use of the island highly-valuable old-growth timber instead of destroying it and relying on the mush less valuable second-growth timber for the future.
The Supreme Court is being asked to decide whether the provincial government and Weyerhaeuser must accommodate the Haida interest, even though the Haida Nation has not yet proved its title in court. The BC Court of Appeal ruled two years ago that they do have a duty to consult and accommodate, but the government and the company appealed that decision to the Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court also heard Thursday from several other First Nations as well as the village of Port Clements, which all want the BC Court of Appeal decision to stand.
The people of Port Clements are among those most affected by the issues raised in this case, Port lawyer Stuart Rush said. Port Clements relies on sustainable logging for its existence, and believes the Haida Nation is more likely to ensure sustainability than the provincial government, he said.
"There cannot be a more important issue for this village," Mr. Rush said. "The order fashioned by the Court of Appeal is the only hope for settlement."
The Haida case, which was twinned with a similar case involving the Taku River Tlingit, took two days of court time. At the conclusion of the hearing, jubilant Haida citizens spilled into the large lobby of the courthouse and started singing.
Guujaaw said he was confident that the Haida would win the case, pointing to the powerful submission make by Ms Williams-Davidson and her colleague Louise Mandell.
"We won't lose," he said after the hearing. "We got Louise and Terri-Lynn on our side.
It will be several months before the court makes its decision.