Legacy Part 16 – Lisa & Christian White – Brother & Sister – Haida – For Culture, Community & Ecology
By Jason Murphy, Founder & Creative Director
If you want some perspective on the point of view of the Haida – the indigenous peoples of Haida Gwaii – you could do a lot worse than attempting to understand how they feel about red cedar. It stands at the center of their art, their architecture, their boat building and their civic life.
It is also one of the best examples of the astounding natural wealth of these islands, how that wealth has been seized-upon by European colonists, and how, despite recognition of the Haida’s aboriginal status – and recognition by the Supreme Court of Canada of at least some of the rights that accrue to that – the extraction of that wealth happens in a way that not only renders it irreplaceable but also bypasses many of the locals.
The Complete Ecosystem
It may seem odd to begin a post for a project focused on ocean health by talking about trees, but my experiences in Haida Gwaii have shown me that just as ecological and socio-economic issues are deeply intertwined when it comes to coastal communities, the same is true when it comes to the extraction of natural resources.
Haida Gwaii – the archipelago known as the Queen Charlotte Islands to much of the outside world since European colonists arrived in 1774 – is a wonder of natural biodiversity, beauty, and abundance.
Located off BC’c North Coast Haida Gwaii means “Land of the Haida,” “Haida” meaning “People.” Prior to the colonials arriving it was called “Xhaaidlagha Gwaayaai” meaning “Islands at the Boundary of the World.”
Forestry has negatively impacted Salmon spawning grounds. Black Tail Deer... have become invasive... and the super-abundant fishery that used to be here has been overfished to near collapse with regard to some species...
From space, the archipelago resembles a broken arrowhead with the tip pointing south and is split into two main islands – Graham to the north and Moresby to the south, with a handful of major islands and a multitude of smaller ones located along Moresby’s eastern edge as it narrows to its southern extremity. There are roughly 150 islands in total. The coastline of Moresby is so convoluted that it seems like more.
Since the arrival of the Europeans, the resources of this place have been exploited to a degree that equals any of the great resource extraction disasters of historical times.
Two-thirds of the old growth forest is gone, replaced in the main by second growth forest that looks impressive to the untrained eye but is, in fact, a pale shadow of the splendor that pre-existed it.
Salmon is recognized as a Keystone Species wherever they are found – a species whose entire lifecycle supports the life around it in multiple essential ways. Forestry has negatively impacted Salmon spawning grounds. Black Tail Deer – introduced in multiple waves since 1880 in a calamitous move by the BC Game Commission – have become invasive, chewing away essential new growth including new cedar saplings, and the super-abundant fishery that used to be here has been overfished to near collapse with regard to some species, particularly Salmon, Herring and multiple species of rockfish. That this ecosystem is still so abundant despite all of these pressures is a testament to the power of nature to recover if you let it.
Protections are now in place on land and in the sea, including quotas and no-take rules for specific fish species and, significantly, Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve and Haida Heritage Site, established via an arduous process between 1985 and 1993 that covers most of the archipelago south of Louise Island is a bold move in favour of both conservation and indigenous rights.
There are many positive things to report regarding Haida Gwaii then, but the future is still extremely uncertain and, if you talk to the locals, it is unclear that current measures are enough from either an ecological or socio-economic standpoint.
The People and the Environment – A Profound Connection
For at least 13,000 years this place has been the home of an indigenous coastal-dwelling people who built a civilization 30,000 strong at its height. A coastal community that lived by the cedar, the salmon, and the other native species and that developed its own sophisticated method of governance and art and craftsmanship of exquisite quality.
The Haida system of governance is matriarchal. Men are chosen to speak for the community, but the real power in traditional Haida society resides with the councils of elder women within each band who discuss community direction, strategy, and action.
Lisa White and her brother Christian live in the town of Old Massett on the northern coast of Graham Island and are proud descendants of those people.
Lisa is an ardent conservationist who is deeply troubled by the loss of the forests, and the impact that logging has had on the archipelago’s ecosystem. But she is also a business owner who wants to see more opportunity and more of the wealth that Haida Gwaii generates flow to Old Massett.
It doesn’t take much to see that Old Massett is a community in need of investment. Anyone with ears can hear how friendly and welcoming the locals are. Anyone with eyes can see that the community is struggling to thrive from an economic perspective.
Like many coastal towns, the fishery provided much of any wealth that was ever experienced here but that is now gone. Also, for many years the Canadian armed forces had a big presence nearby. An early warning monitoring station is located just down the road that at its peak supported around 300 military and civilian personnel. The monitoring station is still active, but it is now operated remotely, so any money that used to flow to the community from the facility has all but dried-up.
That leaves forestry.
Christian White is an artist and craftsman. He is one of the fifteen or so Haida artists on Haida Gwaii who practice the highest quality totem pole and canoe carving that are vital to the Haida tradition and link the present day Haida to their cultural past.
Those invited into his workshop are treated to a magical sight – a huge totem pole under construction – it's carving all but complete and sections already painted.
Two of Christian’s family were working with him on the day I was there.
Against the far wall – you can discover hand-carved canoes, decorated in the classic, evocative Haida style – evoking the ocean and a people deeply connected to it. Also, under wraps – a new large-scale canoe in progress?
And, of course, the place is full of the aroma of cedar – so rich you can almost taste it.
Ask Christian White what he wants and he says it very clearly: “I want my land back.”
Christian is a quiet-spoken dignified presence befitting his ability as an artist, but when it comes to cedar, he does not equivocate. For him, it is the lifeblood of his culture. Lifeblood from which his people have been cruelly severed by aggressive forces acting with less civility and honor than he ever would. Cut off from it and the land that it grows on. Land that has always and will always be land that his people belong to.
Old growth cedar is strong and densely packed but soft and carves well. It is used in the construction of traditional Haida dwellings designed over thousands of years to withstand the frequent earthquakes experienced in this part of the world and is the perfect medium from which to shape canoes and totem poles.
Second growth stuff grows much more quickly because it does so in sunlight. As a result, the rings are less tightly packed and its timber is much less dense.
That access to cedar for his people has been restricted to only those trees that the logging companies (one of which is now Haida owned,) allow them to have is an extreme injustice in his eyes. An insult added to the injury of over two hundred years of exploitation.
Ask Christian White what he wants and he says it very clearly: “I want my land back.” And the barges of raw timber that he has seen leaving the islands are a reminder of how bad things have been.
Raw Material Exports – A Recipe for Economic Decay
The term “raw timber” refers to trees that have been felled and stripped of branches but have not yet been milled into lumber.
The fact that timber leaves the island in its raw state is significant because it means that the wealth of the island is being taken off island without it being made available to the Haida to use for cultural benefit or for the economic benefit of all but a few. It is a cultural issue, but like everything when it comes to indigenous rights, it is an economic issue as well.
Why? Because felling one tree for raw export creates the minimum amount of labor on-island.
If the value of that labor is the only thing that the local community recoups it's not much for a resource that took 800 years or more to grow and – according to those I have spoken with – under current management schemes will never genuinely be replaced.
The maximum value that accrues to cut timber is gained when it is sold for processing to a sawmill, then again when it is milled into building materials and then again when it is sold to the end user.
This is why the Crown’s historical practice of selling logging rights to large outside concerns is of so little long-term value to the communities where it takes place.
Waste wood is a significant problem in Haida Gwaii because the logging companies are picky when it comes to what they ship – when the best timber is of such high quality the tendency is to maximize the value of each shipment by exporting only the very best. It is like the practice of shark finning, where only the fin is kept and the rest of the animal is thrown back into the water to die. When transportation is a big part of your cost and a small part of what you reap is much more valuable than the rest, profits are maximized by throwing everything but the most valuable part away at source. This practice can also be compared to international fisheries where huge bycatch rates are tolerated because the target species is so valuable.
It is not clear that anyone has calculated the value of timber that is simply left to grow. What it would be worth to humankind for the forest to be left alone for a thousand years or so in order for it to return to something like its natural state. Maybe someone should.
Environmental and Social Progress – And Lessons Learned
Some of the inequity has been redressed. Beginning in 1974, the Council of Haida Nations (CHN) – the western style governance body that the Haida created in a calculated strategic move to assert self-governance and represent their interests to the outside world – began pursuing Haida land title claims.
In 1985 anti-logging protests on Lyell Island began led by the Haida but with participation from members of the white community including some from the logging industry.
There is a lot at stake here. The fate of some of the last remaining old growth forest anywhere, the potential future impact of logging activity on the west coast fishery, and the viability of an ancient indigenous community, and all this despite that landmark Supreme Court ruling.
After 12 years of conflict, this civic action resulted in progress that culminated in a 1997 Canadian Supreme Court ruling that recognized the Haida’s indigenous status.
This was without question a landmark victory for the Haida and indigenous people’s everywhere. It was a victory for the environment too. But it was far from a complete victory in either case.
A further wave of protests in 2005, with the name “Island Spirit Rising” resulted in even more progress. Including the move to recognize Gwaii Haanas – previously designated a Heritage Site by the CHN – internationally, and as an entity jointly run by the Haida, the Crown and one independent adjudicator, and the return of roughly half of the logging rights on Haida Gwaii to the Haida people in the form of licenses divided equally between the communities of Skidegate and Old Masset which eventually all came under the control of the CHN.
The lessons learned? – That progress is not complete unless care is taken that all social and environmental angles are covered.
Logging by non-Haida companies is now more limited in scope but, according to Lisa and Christian is still as rapacious as ever. And now that the Haida have the benefit of at least some of their own resources returned to them, many say that the logging concerns controlled by the CHN operate in the same old way – maximizing profits by exporting raw logs, operating with the same disregard to the environment and cutting less well-off Haida out of the picture.
So there is a lot at stake here. The fate of some of the last remaining old growth forest anywhere, the potential future impact of logging activity on the west coast fishery, and the viability of an ancient indigenous community, and all this despite that landmark Supreme Court ruling.
Unsurprisingly, these are issues that Lisa, Christian and others that live in Old Massett are agreed upon. Their view is that the environment is still in great jeopardy, that the inequities of the past are still in place and their own government is helping to perpetuate these problems in the name of profits for the few. And once again they are resolved to fight and are doing so using a strategy that has served the Haida well in the past – protest in the form of a logging blockade.
The lessons learned? – That progress is not complete unless care is taken that all social and environmental angles are covered.
“How can hundreds of years of destruction be put right without hundreds of years of repair?”
Respect For the Land – A Prerequisite for Reconciliation
Lisa and Christian invited me to join them, Christian’s son Vernon and family friend Ralph Stoecker on a boat run to the protest camp location in Massett Inlet.
On the way, Lisa told me her view that Reconciliation – with a capital “R” – the Canadian government’s commitment to building a bridge to Indigenous peoples – will not be possible without, as she puts it “respect for the land.” And her desire for Haida Gwaii to finally become, in her words, the “shining example that some already tout it to be.”
And make no mistake, by “respect for the land” she means respect for each individual tree and living creature on Haida Gwaii.
In her view, the Land Use Vision (much like the Gwaii Haanas reserve project) has been effective in that at least it has brought the major parties – Haida, Crown and Industry to the table, but it does an inadequate job of protection and does not in itself ensure the economic security of all of the Haida peoples.
And, she asks, “how can hundreds of years of destruction be put right without hundreds of years of repair?”
I ask Lisa if logging should play any part in the future of Haida Gwaii. She thinks about this carefully before answering. She says that it might – perhaps in the form of selective harvesting, but only if the data allows it.
When I ask her what a brighter future would look like, her vision is one of biosphere management – a continuing audit, and system of monitoring and stewardship led by the Haida, and more proactive management of waste wood.
I ask Lisa if logging should play any part in the future of Haida Gwaii. She thinks about this carefully before answering. She says that it might – perhaps in the form of selective harvesting (a concept I will return to in future posts,) but only if the data allows it. Data that starts with a commitment to auditing what is actually there.
The willingness to rely on data and science is to become a feature of most of the conversations that I have with individuals of all backgrounds on this my first visit to Haida Gwaii.
No matter who I spoke to – including people who take pride in showing me the expertise required to fell an old growth cedar, or how quickly you can cut, strip and log a second growth tree using a feller-buncher or cutter-stripper – admit that what has happened here in the past is nothing short of an environmental disaster.
Whether you talk to environmentalists, ex-commercial fishers or loggers, white or indigenous, when pressed, almost all seem to agree that data, science, and monitoring must be emphasized and allowed to govern what is and is not possible with regard to the exploitation of natural resources for economic gain. The other two puzzle pieces that they see as important? Education and economic opportunity that doesn’t necessarily depend on resource extraction.
In my experience so far these are near universal areas of agreement – an unexpected but welcome find. Some say “you can make data say whatever you want” but so far this has been a minority point-of-view.
It’s also true that no matter who I spoke to – including people who take pride in showing me the expertise required to fell an old growth cedar, or how quickly you can cut, strip and log a second growth tree using a feller-buncher or cutter-stripper – admit that what has happened here in the past is nothing short of an environmental disaster.
Community Resilience – The Platform of the Future
The spectacular new totem pole that Christian White is working on right now is not a commission – a work for the community or some wealthy patron – it is a personal project to reaffirm his own cultural roots and give something back to his ancestral community.
His plan is that once complete, the pole will stand in a remote part of the island, accessible only by water, like so many of the old monumental poles and abandoned villages that dot Haida Gwaii’s coastlines.
Old Massett is a community on the edge, in more ways than one.
Stand on North Beach and on a clear day you can see Alaska, only 70 kilometers away. Stand on Raven Road in the center of town and you have to wonder if the community will still be viable in half as many years.
What is certain is that the people of Old Massett continue to fight for their future, against the colonial past, and the inequities of the local resource-based supply chain that seem to persist no matter who is in charge. There is energy and optimism and a willingness to find solutions. Progress has been made but is far from complete, and begs the question of how much further ahead everyone could be without so much time and effort wasted in conflict.
I am looking forward to returning to Haida Gwaii – there is much at stake and much in play here, ecologically, culturally and economically. Many things have been done right, many historic mistakes still need to be corrected and new problems have emerged as a by-product of social progress made by some but not all of the Haida. Much that is crucial to those who call Haida Gwaii home, and much that is important to Canada and to the world.