By Nat Hab Expedition Leader Eddy Savage
The Misty Isles, Islands at the Edge, Canada’s Galapagos, the Queen Charlotte Islands (briefly) or what is properly known as Haida Gwaii (meaning Islands of the People in the Haida language), is an archipelago comprised of more than 2,000 islands. It lies 34 to 78 miles off the northern Pacific coast of Canada. The surrounding waters teem with life as the mixture of cool Pacific Ocean upwelling and tidal currents.
This climate is the ideal recipe for an abundance of marine life, birds, mammals, mosses and vascular plants. The year-round climate brings an annual rainfall of around 6 to 10 feet and allows for old-growth trees of Sitka spruce, red cedar and western hemlock to reach some of the largest sizes ever recorded.
Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve (meaning Islands of Beauty in the Haida language), National Marine Conservation Area Reserve and Haida Heritage Site, collectively referred to as Gwaii Haanas, are located on the southern portion of Haida Gwaii. Conservation efforts began in the 1980s, and today, Gwaii Haanas is one of Canada’s most prized protected areas.
The region preserves thousands of acres of old-growth forests and the culturally significant Haida Heritage Sites. It is a feeding ground for over 20 marine mammal species and home to millions of seabirds and species like the Haida Gwaii black bear. This pristine and culturally rich region was slated to have its lush forests completely logged by 1996 if the Haida Nation had not intervened.
The Haida are the original inhabitants of Haida Gwaii, with cultural sites dating back more than 12,000 years, and have countless villages and culturally significant sites throughout the intricate network of islands, inlets, coves and bays. Pre-European arrival, the Haida Nation population was estimated to be in the tens of thousands.
Between 1870 and 1880, multiple waves of European diseases, such as smallpox, typhoid and measles, arrived in Haida Gwaii. In less than 10 years, the horrendous diseases killed over 90% of the Haida population, and only 600 Haida survived. The last Southern Haida village in Gwaii Haanas, SGang Gwaay on Anthony Island, was abandoned in the early 1880s when the remaining Haida opted to move from their traditional village sites throughout the archipelago to larger, more central communities on the north island (Graham Island).
Without the Haida living throughout these rugged and remote lands, the following 100 years brought an onslaught of extractive industries from the mainland. Whaling, mining, commercial fishing and logging operations took what they wanted without much resistance. Before too long, whaling had run its course, mining tapered off, commercial fish stocks were dwindling and clear-cut industrial logging was the last major industry left.
The British Columbia government encouraged clear-cut logging throughout Haida Gwaii, and permits were quickly granted to logging companies. The logging rapidly removed the lush old-growth forests of spruce, cedar and hemlock that characterized Haida Gwaii.
In less than 50 years of logging, over 20% of Haida Gwaii’s available forests were slated to be logged, and it was forecast that by 1996, all of Gwaii Haanas would be devoid of any old-growth rain forest. The Haida began to push the provincial and federal governments to restore their rightful claim to Gwaii Haanas before these forests were lost forever.
Pushing for Protection
In 1974, seeking to halt logging and gain more control over their traditional territories, the Haida began pursuing protection for Gwaii Haanas. The Council of the Haida Nation formed to pursue their rights over their traditional territory in the courts with the Government of British Columbia and the Government of Canada.
Close to the same time, a Haida man called Captain Gold set out in his 16-foot canoe and paddled over 125 miles from Moresby Camp (central Haida Gwaii) to the remote village of SGang Gwaay. He lived here for a time, greeting visitors and protecting the irreplaceable cultural heritage sites of the Haida.
Encouraged by Captain Gold’s initiative, Haida citizens began volunteering time to live at the abandoned southern village sites—providing eyes and ears in the remote reaches of Gwaii Haanas. This action founded the modern-day Haida Guardian Watchmen Program. One of these sites, Windy Bay on Lyell Island (Athlii Gwaii), became the focal point of building tensions between federal and provincial governments and the Haida Nation.
An Act of Aggression
In 1985, the Haida Nation had multiple meetings with the Government of British Columbia and reached agreements that logging would stop in the Gwaii Haanas region within 40 days. No new logging permits were to be issued until the Haida land title claims were settled. Breaching this agreement would be perceived as an act of aggression from the government toward the Haida.
Logging had ceased at Lyell Island, as discussed, but blindsiding the nation, British Columbia’s Ministry of Forests issued three more logging permits during the summer for the south side of Lyell Island (Athlii Gwaii). Logging was set to resume on Lyell Island (Athlii Gwaii) in October.
The Haida Nation and supporters, frustrated with the deception, moved to set up a permanent camp near the proposed cut-blocks and the logging access road. Initial protests began in late October, and by mid-November of 1985, the Haida and their supporters were in the position to blockade the loggers in what would become a nationally and globally recognized precedent-setting Indigenous land claims protest.
Lyell Island Blockade
The government anticipated action on behalf of the Haida Nation and stationed 25 RCMP (Royal Canadian Mounted Police) at the logger’s camp. Windy Bay became the staging area for the Haida protest. The Haida began protests on the logging access roads and effectively blocked the transfer of vehicles and machinery, temporarily preventing further destruction of their forests.
The protesters were quickly taken to court, and the loggers were granted an injunction—meaning a road blockade could lead to detainment by the RCMP and potential criminal charges. With news of the injunction against them, the Haida let the loggers pass on the first day in respect of the court system. However, by November 16, 1985, the blockades resumed. This time, Haida Elders insisted on being on the front lines and continued blocking the road. The elders became the first of 72 Haida arrested over the next year.
During the blockades, the issue of Aboriginal rights and titles was discussed in the House of Commons (Federal Government), and the Council of the Haida Nation declared the entire region of Gwaii Haanas a Haida Heritage Site. In March of 1986, the South Moresby Caravan began its journey 4,700 miles from coast to coast across Canada and garnered national support for the issues at hand.
Loo Taas: A Legacy
During the same period, renowned Haida carver Bill Reid was asked to build a 50-foot-long red cedar dugout canoe for the Vancouver Expo in 1986. Named Loo Taas (Wave Eater), the canoe was the first to be built on Haida Gwaii in nearly 100 years. Following the Expo, Haida paddled the Loo Taas for 19 days from Vancouver, along the British Columbia coastline and across the Hecate Strait to the town of Skidegate, Haida Gwaii.
Upon its arrival, hundreds of Haida watched the first Haida canoe touch the beaches of Skidegate in nearly 100 years, and a potlatch was hosted. Canada’s Minister of Environment was in attendance and announced that both the Province of British Columbia and the Government of Canada would designate Gwaii Haanas as a National Park Reserve.
Discussions between Canada and the Haida Nation continued through the 80s and 90s, and by 1993, the Gwaii Haanas Agreement was signed, laying the groundwork for the region’s future. The Gwaii Haanas Archipelago Management Board was established, where a panel of two Haida Nation representatives and two Parks Canada representatives made all decisions regarding the protected area jointly.
Shortly after the agreement, Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve and Haida Heritage Site came to be, and the Haida Guardian Watchman became official protectors of the Haida Heritage Sites.
In 2010, after many years of cooperative management and through means made possible by the Gwaii Haanas Agreement, the two governments agreed to protect the marine portion of Gwaii Haanas, adding additional protections to nearly 2,000 square miles of marine habitat.
Conserving Gwaii Haanas
Nearly 40 years after the Lyell Island (Athlii Gwaii) Protests, Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve, National Marine Conservation Area Reserve and Haida Heritage Site protect 570 square miles of terrestrial habitat, 1,930 square miles of marine habitat and numerous Haida village sites, which have immeasurable cultural value to the Haida people.
The conservation of Gwaii Haanas was a pivotal and precedent-setting success for Indigenous land title rights throughout Canada. In 2013 at Windy Bay on Lyell Island (Athlii Gwaii) with a crowd of 400 onlookers, a 42-foot monumental pole called the Gwaii Haanas Legacy Pole was raised. Carved by Haida carver Jaalen Edenshaw, this pole celebrated 20 years of successful partnership and co-management of Gwaii Haanas by Parks Canada and the Haida Nation. This partnership is renowned globally as a model for successful cultural and natural resource governance.
Experience Gwaii Haanas on our Haida Gwaii: Islands at the Edge of the World adventure!