Saving Haida Gwaii

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It’s just after 7 a.m. at the Masset harbour when a bright red pickup slowly makes its way to the dock where three Haida guardians are chatting. In the driver’s seat is a father, beaming with pride, as his 16-year-old son climbs out of the passenger seat, ready for a bit of work on the waters of Haida Gwaii.

Haida Gwaii is the home of the Haida Nation off the coast of British Columbia. It’s an archipelago where warm offshore currents, combined with inlets and hundreds of islands, have birthed a landscape teeming with life. Haida Gwaii is sometimes called the Galápagos of the North for its rich biodiversity, and for thousands of years, these waters have sustained life and provided the foundation for a thriving Haida society and culture.

But Haida Gwaii has been under attack. Before European contact, tens of thousands of people lived across these islands. As the colonial machine advanced, disease, over-extraction, the residential school system and more were inflicted on the Haida Nation, reducing the population to about 600 from an estimated 20,000.

This near-annihilation was met with passionate efforts to reassert the nation’s right to steward the earth, sea and sky of Haida Gwaii according to Haida values. Today, the population has rebounded to about 2,500 on Haida Gwaii (and another 2,000 living away), and cultural expressions, like weaving cedar bark and spruce root, hosting feasts, and singing and dancing, are resurging. Grounding it all, as has always been the case, are respectful relationships with the ocean.

The guardians gathered on the dock are the front line of the Haida Nation’s marine conservation efforts. Indigenous guardian programs are contemporary expressions of traditional work to steward the land, water and air, and today, over 100 exist across the country. The work varies tremendously depending on the territory, from monitoring pipeline repairs, to water quality, to wildlife.

With deep knowledge of Haida Gwaii, the guardians are chosen by the nation to help monitor the health of the ecosystem, the way Haidas did for thousands of years before Europeans arrived. They collect data on things like fish harvesting and habitat health, providing the information to both the Council of the Haida Nation, Haida Gwaii’s governing body, and the federal government’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO). In practice, Haida guardians are there to enforce the rules in line with Haida values.

On the dock, the guardians begin loading up the boat, checking the motors and gathering life-jackets. Today, the team is heading out to harvest seaweed.

The boat feels crowded with only a handful on board as it zips through the inlet connecting the docks in Masset to the Pacific Ocean, where life begins and ends.

Chapter 1

When the tide is out, the table is set

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Piloting the boat is 16-year-old Gidxyaalax (Ryder Bell). The quiet kid handles it confidently, as Barney Edgars, the senior ranking guardian, points out the window, coaching him on how to read the waves and spot the rocks. As he approaches a good spot to pick seaweed, Edgars takes over, powering the motors down to safely drift to a place to dock. The boat bobs up and down and side to side before eventually nestling into the rocks. The group climbs ashore.

With bright green mesh bags in hand, the guardians split up, walking up and down the shore, ripping handfuls of seaweed off the rocks and tossing it into the bags. Picking the seaweed feels like grabbing a fistful of over-cooked noodles, wet and squishy in your hand.

Gidxyaalax (Ryder Bell) picks seaweed. Photo by Brandi Morin/Canada's National Observer

With the cool wind whipping the shore, Bell says he’s not entirely sure why he likes doing this work so much. “Just the way I grew up here,” he says, nodding to the 11 years of harvesting he already has under his belt.

“It’s one of the best things I can imagine,” he said. “Can’t imagine doing anything else.”

When picking seaweed, don’t use scissors because cut seaweed won’t grow back. Instead, use your hands to pluck it from the rock and leave a bit behind. Never take more than you need to ensure there’s enough for others, says Haida guardian G_aayhldaa 'la'aaygaa (Robert Brown). That lesson was taught to him by his chinni (grandfather) when Brown moved back to Haida Gwaii years ago, he says. Now that Brown is a chinni himself, the words resonate even more strongly.

“My granddaughter is two now. Having the ability when she’s older (to) take her out here, and she can harvest where I’m harvesting” is why this matters, he says.

Today, the seaweed is just a taste of the ocean’s offerings. Across this shore are mussel beds, and in shallow pools of water, hidden in crevices, are sea urchins, starfish and, on a good day, octopus — locally called naw/nuu or “devil fish.” It’s no wonder the phrase heard most often is “when the tide is out, the table is set.”

Chapter 2

“It’s arguably the most important part of what we do.”

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The foundation of today’s guardian programs was laid in 1981, when the Haida Gwaii Watchmen were established.

The idea was that in order to build a foundation for cultural resurgence, Haidas needed a renewed physical presence on the land and water. That need led to the creation of the Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve and Haida Heritage Site in 1993. As of 2010, a marine conservation area was also added to the region, which spans the south of Haida Gwaii. Gwaii Haanas covers more than 1,800 islands and inlets, is home to more than 20 separate species of whales and dolphins, and is jointly managed by the Council of the Haida Nation and the federal government.

Haida guardians are trained experts in protecting the natural world, but the job goes beyond scientific conservation work. They connect youth with elders to prepare younger generations for this work, their input helps inform land- and marine-use plans, and they patrol waterways with DFO officers to enforce laws.

They are cultural ambassadors who help people understand what the expectations are on Haida Gwaii to behave respectfully in these territories, says Gaagwiis (Jason Alsop), president of the Council of the Haida Nation (CHN). At the political level, a lot of what CHN does is to work with other governments on governance and management plans, “but ultimately, compliance and jurisdiction happens on the territory.”

“It’s arguably the most important part of what we do,” he said, adding the council recognizes it needs to invest more in its guardian programs to build up resources and pass knowledge down to the next generation.

Haida Gwaii is a big region to cover, and the nation needs to have a presence across the territory’s land and water, says Gaagwiis. Being able to create good careers for people that prioritize “that connection to place, that connection to culture, and to uphold Haida values and look after Haida Gwaii” is exciting, he added.

Ocean comes to shore on the north end of Haida Gwaii. Photo by Brandi Morin/Canada's National Observer

It’s important work, but paying for it opens up challenging questions.

Since 2017, the federal government has put just under $200 million on the table specifically for Indigenous guardian programs. However, those aren’t the only Indigenous conservation programs to receive funding in recent years.

In 2021, Ottawa announced $166 million to support Indigenous Protected and Conserved Areas, and in December, during the United Nations biodiversity conference in Montreal, where Canada committed to protect 30 per cent of land and water by 2030, it also pledged $800 million for four Indigenous-led conservation projects. One project aims to protect the Great Bear Sea, and is inspired by a fund to protect the Great Bear Rainforest that pooled money from government and philanthropic foundations in a program called Project Finance for Permanence (PFP).

The Haida Nation, along with 16 other nations across the North Pacific Coast, will be able to tap the new Great Bear Sea PFP fund to increase the number of marine protected areas.

Discussions on how the funding will work are still underway, and Gaagwiis says it will have to satisfy the nation’s concerns, but ultimately, Canada has made international commitments to conserve land and water, and the timeline to do so is shrinking, he said.

“The only way to truly meet (those targets) is working in partnership with Indigenous nations, and so there's an opportunity for everybody there, and I think the proof will be what those conditions look like.”

Reliable, long-term funding that doesn’t jeopardize the nation’s authority over Haida Gwaii is crucial to support the work of looking after the ocean, says Gaagwiis. “Piecemeal approaches of a little grant here, or a contribution here, doesn't really do justice to the amount of work that's needed, and the flexibility that's needed to truly look after the ocean the way it should be,” he said.

There is tension between the government Gaagwiis leads and the settler governments he works with. He speaks of “a constant ebb and flow” between standing up and asserting yourself on the ground, while trying to create reliable governance and management structures that achieve good results for Haida Gwaii.

“In some ways, the term ‘conservation’ is a response to exploitation,” he said. For thousands of years, Haidas took care of Haida Gwaii. They’d move with seasons, change village sites to let areas rest and, above all, strive to live in balance with the world around them, he said.

“One of the tensions, or conflicts, is the different perspectives and viewpoints when it comes to looking at land and water management. Commercial or industry or government perspective at times is about, how much can we take?” he said, adding the impact on the broader ecosystem is often ignored.

“In terms of the Haida Nation and the work we do, (conservation) is a way of ensuring that our ability to exercise our rights is maintained.”

The Haida Nation takes its cue of how much to take from nature’s ability to produce, Gaagwiis said. “That's our challenge as a government and as a people, and clans and families today, is to maintain that balance.”

More money will be needed to reach Canada’s international commitments, and even more will be required to bring new lands and waters into formal protection. But just under the surface is a revealing question. Is the goal to carve the natural world into protected and unprotected areas, or to find ways to live sustainably with the world around us?

Chapter 3

Restoring balance

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In Skidegate, Haida Gwaii’s other major town, there’s a boulder called Balance Rock on the beach. This giant rock is so heavy, and its centre of gravity so perfectly aligned with the rock underneath it, that it can’t easily be knocked over. As kids, Haida marine biologist Gwiisihlgaa (Dan McNeill) says they certainly tried.

As the Council of the Haida Nation’s marine stewardship director, McNeill says a lot of his work to protect against marine threats is about finding balance. The health of this ecosystem is being pushed over a cliff by overfishing, pollution and human-induced climate change. If the Haida Nation had been given control over its territory decades ago, many of these problems could’ve been avoided, McNeill says.

McNeill points to abalone as a “prime example.” Abalone are molluscs found in shallow waters across the coast from Alaska to California. Today, they’re considered a delicacy, although they were once a plentiful mainstay for Haidas. When sea otters were largely killed off for their pelts in the early 1800s, an abalone predator was removed from the environment, leading to a boom in abalone stocks. New technologies like scuba tanks introduced in the mid-20th century made harvesting more efficient and ramped up extraction. By 1990, roughly 75 per cent of abalone were wiped out, and DFO imposed a harvesting ban. It remains in effect to this day.

“These guys screwed it up, and we had to live with the consequences,” McNeill said, adding anyone under 40 basically doesn’t have an attachment to the species anymore because they’ve been prohibited. At the same time, he said, the Haida Nation has “elders on their deathbed just wishing for one last taste.”

“You don't know how troubling it is for our people that work with our elders to be like, ‘I'm sorry, I can't get you that feed,’” he said. “And that's all they're asking for, is that one last time to have a taste, because in the eyes of Canada, the moment we touch one it's illegal.”

The balance has been lost. As species collapse, people just seem to move onto the next animal down the food chain without thinking about what went wrong, McNeill said.

McNeill knows infusing Haida values into stewardship is key to finding that balance. “Haidas come from the ocean,” he said.

Western science can only tell you so much, he said. But “when you take something and give thanks, you go process it, you smoke it, you give it away, there's so much more there of a connection.

“It feels good doing it. You feel Haida. I never really felt Haida when I measured shellfish as part of my old job — don't get me wrong, I enjoyed that work — but there's a deeper, richer connection you have by being Haida.”

These days, Haida values are increasingly reflected in marine management. Before a community’s salmon season is opened to the public, guardians will literally watch a river with clickers in hand, counting the fish that make their way upstream to ensure the whole ecosystem is fed and stocks remain healthy before people are allowed to harvest. The community decides when to close the season, too.

Typically, elders and those with close experience in the fishery will attend the community meetings to decide when to open and close the season, and it’s always a powerful moment when an elder will say enough has been taken and the season should be shut down, McNeill said.

“Everybody is just like, ‘I'm not arguing with this, shut 'er down!’ So I think that's the power in the people's hands,” he said.

McNeill also pointed to the nation’s development of management plans for sea otters as a way to infuse Haida values and long-term perspectives.

Sea otters are returning, he said. “Let's get ahead of the curve, otherwise we're going to have stock collapses once these things start hammering certain shellfish.”

Sea otters eat species like urchin, which eat kelp, so more otters means kelp forests are expected to grow and provide habitat for other species like herring, salmon and rockfish. At the same time, the reintroduction of a predator could pose challenges for recovering abalone stocks.

In other words, it’s not yet clear what the impact will be. But no matter what, the Haida Nation asserting its inherent right to manage the changes to Haida Gwaii, in line with its values, is showing how stewarding the sea is a way to advance true sovereignty.

Reporting for this article was made possible by the support of the Institute for Journalism and Natural Resources, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, Real Estate Foundation of BC and the McConnell Foundation.