Douglas & McIntyre
All That We Say Is Ours

Book details:

October 2009
ISBN 978-1-55365-186-4
6" x 9"
316 pages
Social Science / Anthropology
$34.95 CAD


Douglas & McIntyre

All That We Say Is Ours

Guujaaw and the Reawakening of the Haida Nation

Excerpt / Additional Content


Chapter 7: They Say

One of the most notorious confrontations in the frontier history of British Columbia was the Chilcotin War of 1864. The word Chilcotin is an anglicization of the name for a nation of people, the Tsilhqot’in, who then and now inhabit a gorgeous, mountain-ringed plateau of forests, grasslands, pristine lakes and clear-running rivers on the B.C. mainland, about 450 kilometres southeast from Haida Gwaii as the raven flies. As ever, this particular set-to arose over access to resources — in this case, the building of a wagon road to shorten the route to the Cariboo goldfields, through remote, steep, hitherto impenetrable country. Native packers assigned to white road crews were said to have realized how the road would affect their land and culture; they were harshly treated by the work party, and they blamed the European labourers for outbreaks of smallpox, writes Alan D. McMillan in Native Peoples and Cultures of Canada. Whatever actually happened to turn the Tsilhqot’in on the white intruders, in a short spasm of gunfire in the spring of 1864, nineteen white men were killed. Governor Frederick Seymour, a mere month into his term and fearing an “Indian War,” ordered two different armed parties of men into the area to quell the insurrection, which cost another white life before chiefs of the Tsilhqot’in were finally run to ground and allegedly assured immunity if they cooperated with the authorities. Instead, five of them were arrested, charged with murder and transported to court, where in September of that year they came before Judge Matthew Baillie Begbie. There is considerable doubt as to whether all the men in the dock Begbie looked down upon were even present when the road crews were slaughtered, but such was the panic in Vancouver and Victoria that native scalps were much in demand. All five men were convicted and hanged.

Judge Begbie, the first chief justice of British Columbia, went on to be awarded a knighthood. Sir Matthew is memorialized in statuary and historical markers in Vancouver and on a tombstone in Victoria — not far from that marking the grave of British Columbia’s first governor, James Douglas. Begbie is popularly remembered — albeit not by the Tsilhqot’in — as British Columbia’s “hanging judge.” He was tough, at a time when the colony was crawling with unsavoury frontier types hell-bent on finding gold, running roughshod over everything and everyone who stood between them and their personal El Dorado. Begbie’s defenders submit that since murder was a capital offence at the time, the judge was just doing his job when he sent convicted killers to the gallows. In fact, the judge was known to admire native peoples, becoming fluent in the Shuswap and Chilcotin languages, earning the name “Big Chief” and even advocating with Governor Douglas for recognition of aboriginal land rights. Begbie was often lenient towards natives, though in the case of the Chilcotin War, he observed convention by hanging the men convicted of the murders. But he didn’t accept conventional wisdom as to their motives. The murders were not, in his judgement, crimes of “plunder or revenge.” Rather, he concluded somewhat presciently, the real issue for the Tsilhqot’in was rights and title to their land. For the Tsilhqot’in, as for the Haida, it still is.

The intended road, from the head of Bute Inlet up the Homathko River valley, never did get built. Nor was a proposed railroad ever punched through Tsilhqot’in territory, which remains some of the most inaccessible and unspoiled country in all of British Columbia. The area remained out of reach to all but the hardiest white settlers for more than a century, and those who survived did so in part because they learned to live in unusual harmony with the local First Nations. The region, with its affecting admixture of cowboys and Indians, was made famous by Paul St. Pierre, one-time federal Member of Parliament, sometime newspaper columnist and author of a number of books. ( St. Pierre’s novella Breaking Smith’s Quarter Horse, set in the Chilcotin, was adapted into a feature film starring Glenn Ford and Chief Dan George. ) People got around the Chilcotin on horseback more than in cars and trucks, ranchers and natives living a sympathetic blend of coexistence and co-dependency. Logging roads penetrated the plateau in the mid-1970s, however, and by the mid-1980s ranch hand and guide outfitter Mike McDonough was quoted in the Vancouver Sun as saying, “The future of the whole Chilcotin country is at stake. The logging will be the end of the Chilcotin, and there will never be another Chilcotin. The whole thing is going to be changed forever and it’s never going to recover.” McDonough was a member of a coalition formed to oppose plans to log an area about half the size of Vancouver Island. The same weekend that boatloads of Haida warriors were girding for confrontation on Lyell Island, a headline in the Vancouver Sun read, “Chilcotin anger stalls logging.” A “rare coalition of Indians, trappers, homesteaders, ranchers and hunters,” the story said, was standing firm against further logging in the region. Of the six Tsilhqot’in communities that would go on to form the Tsilhqot’in National Government, the Xeni Gwet’in First Nation would emerge over the next quarter century as one of the most resolute advocates for indigenous rights and title. As the Haida had done with Duu Guusd, the Tsilhqot’in People of Xeni, also known as the Nemiah Valley Indian Band, would famously and unilaterally declare the Nemiah Valley to be an aboriginal wilderness preserve. They would go on to protect the valley from industrial logging, in some instances throwing up blockades of logging roads. In 1989, they launched what would become a series of legal actions. These culminated in a title and rights case, the William case, that matched the Haida’s for the sheer breadth of the claim.

Native protests were becoming almost epidemic in the mid-1980s: aboriginal groups opposed logging on Meares Island and herbicide spraying alongside the Skeena River, fought a railroad expansion plan along the Thompson River, laid claim to the Stein Valley. They were “fighting for rights and land as never before,” as one headline put it. The Chilcotin story was on page A1 of the Vancouver Sun that fateful October weekend in 1985, while a piece on the threat of a Haida protest on Lyell Island was consigned to page A16. But soon the South Moresby fight would come to dominate the news. By standing up to Frank Beban’s contract logging outfit, the Haida were calling into question the entire political and economic system that had allowed Beban onto their lands in the first place. That did not go unnoticed in Vancouver, and a furious attack on the Haida and environmentalists was frothed up each night on BCTV by notoriously acerbic Scots broadcaster Jack Webster — the Tartan Torpedo — whose bully pit often set the news agenda in the province. With his glaringly one-sided support for the loggers, Webster helped make Lyell Island a much bigger story than it otherwise might have been. It was clear that, on Lyell Island, a classic morality play was about to be staged. Eventually, the confrontation would lead to the courts, in the form of Guujaaw v. Her Majesty. But first, because the Haida didn’t care for Her Majesty’s laws, the planned to disobey them.

The Haida got to Sedgwick Bay in their boats, based on Guujaaw’s helicopter reconnaissance. They quickly built plywood bunkhouses and a cookhouse, then lit a fire in the middle of the logging road. T.S. Eliot famously wrote that April is the cruellest month, but he had never been to the northwest coast of British Columbia in October, where it can be cruelly cold, windy and wet all at once. So it was when the Haida set up camp and were confronted by Frank Beban and his crewmen. “You’re blocking the highway, you’re breaking the law,” the loggers told the Haida. “This is Haida land, and there’ll be no more logging,” Miles Richardson replied. Guujaaw, his face painted black, drummed. So did Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas, who painted the faces of other young Haida resisters. “If, any time in a person’s life, you wanted to display your colours,” he later told a documentary filmmaker, “this was the time to do it.” The warriors were excited, bouncing about in the cookhouse, full of banter that concealed their anxiety. “There was a huge sense of risk,” Miles Richardson recalls. “When we first went to the blockade on Lyell Island, we didn’t know if the logging trucks or logging equipment were going to run us over, whether we were going to get into physical battles defending ourselves.” In an interview seven years later on the CBC Radio show Ideas, Guujaaw revealed something that had otherwise gone unreported: “We looked at all the different options, including armed confrontation . . . We knew that we would be beat. We were outgunned. We knew that, and we knew that probably there were a lot of people in government [ who ] would like nothing better than for us to have made an armed blockade — and just done away with us.”

Richardson remembers his own role as being that of the “linear guy” whose job it was to keep everyone organized and focussed. Guujaaw’s contribution, he believes, was in “the trust that he had then, and still has, for our culture.” That, and his resolve, Richardson says. “Our commitment was tested every day through that battle, and Guujaaw never wavered.” For his part, Guujaaw remembers distinctly what the Haida were trying to achieve at Athlii Gwaii, or Lyell Island. “We wanted to make it real clear that our culture is our relationship to the land. That’s where our songs come from, that’s where our language comes from, and the dances are all about the creatures that we share this land with. And so we brought the songs back to the land to express exactly who we are in relation to the land.”

Bringing songs back to the land is, for the Haida, as much an expression of ownership as is building a house or putting up a fence for non-native people. But the Haida didn’t just bring songs back to Athlii Gwaii. The blockade there was a significant new chapter in Haida mythology, and it gave rise to a song that today is a kind of national anthem for Haida Gwaii. An old paddle song adapted for the blockade, it is called simply the Lyell Island song, and at major public events on the islands it is almost always performed, as a seminal expression of who the Haida are and how they connect to their land. That first day on the logging road, while Guujaaw drummed and the Lyell Island song fledged in the damp air, the Haida held cedar boughs and shook wooden rattles as a process server’s voice boomed out a roll call of their names, among them “Miles Richardson . . . Gary Edenshaw, John Doe and Jane Doe and persons unknown, defendants . . .” While the Haida had been setting up camp and establishing their blockade, company lawyers for Western Forest Products had been presenting their request for an injunction in British Columbia’s Supreme Court. Now, armed with a judge’s order, the company was determined to remove the protesters from the road. “The island was crawling with RCMP,” Richardson remembers. Six officers came to confront the Haida, and two dozen more had been spotted around a corner in the road. “We knew they meant business — so did we.” But as the young Haida steeled themselves against inevitable arrest, a helicopter could suddenly be heard. “The sound of helicopters meant a lot of things to us,” says Guujaaw. “It could have meant that they had come to challenge our buildings on what they were saying was Crown land, and what we were saying was Haida land. It could have been more media coming to see if they could muster up a story. So when the elders came out, it was just like, it was just a little moment for celebration — surprise and celebration.”

The elders. On a cold, miserable grey day, they had come — Ethel Jones, Watson Pryce, Ada Yovanovich, Adolphus Mark, then in their sixties and seventies, faces etched with the experiences of a century that had been cruel to their people and their land — stepping unsteadily out of the helicopter and, in their own quiet way, taking charge of the blockade. “Blockades are interesting,” writes Ted Chamberlin in If This Is Your Land, Where Are Your Stories? “They function like the threshold of a church, or the beginning of a story; and they need to be acknowledged if proper respect is to be paid to those for whom the place is sacred or appropriate contempt shown to those who are polluting it.” In coming to Athlii Gwaii, to the threshold of the blockade that the Haida had constructed, the elders consecrated their protest. Guujaaw had spent his youth learning from the elders, recognizing their authority and, most of all, listening. In turn, as Guujaaw and an increasing number of younger Haida had put protection of the land at the top of the political agenda on Haida Gwaii, the elders had listened — and by coming to the blockade, they were recognizing Guujaaw, Richardson and the other young leaders, and they were validating their stand. Miles Richardson: “They basically told us, we’ve heard what you have to say. We’ve been silent about this most of our lives. We’ve wanted to make this stand, and today”— Richardson fights back tears when he recalls what the elders said that day — “and today, we ask you to respect that.” The elders had come to assert their right not just to support the blockade but to become its front line — to take charge of the rituals. The warriors were asked to melt away to the sidelines, to quiet their bravado in favour of the gentle but persuasive voices of the elders.

Film footage from the blockade captures their determination. Ethel Jones says: “This is our land and, you know, we definitely aren’t afraid of going to jail. Maybe that’ll open our government’s eyes. Look at this little old lady sitting in jail. For what? For protecting their land? We’ve slept long enough.”

Ada Yovanovich: “We’re here to protect our land, and if that’s a crime, I’m willing to go [ to jail ] . . . I’m over sixty. It doesn’t really matter as long as I have some fancywork to do. No, I don’t mind at all.”

Adolphus Mark: “Well, I’m here to support my younger generation that’s here now. And we have good reason to be here. When you ride around and you see the mountains all gone, all the trees stripped clean, and it’s not only for us, but for white man’s generation to come, too. What are they going to make money from when you’ve stripped the islands?” And, in an echo of his ancestors seventy years earlier in front of the McKenna-McBride Commission: “We’re protecting our island. It’s our island, before white man come only 200 years ago. And how come the government want to make a claim on it, I want to know if the government made this island, or the good Lord? I’d like an answer to that . . . Did the government make this island, now they claim it? We’re fighting for our rights . . . The government didn’t make this island, no way.”

As Guujaaw puts it, “The elders clearly represented our linkage to all our history. These are people who had a lot of living behind them and were not just a radical fringe element going out to raise heck with the government for the sake of doing that.” Diane Brown, Ada Yovanovich’s daughter, was one of the few young women on the line at Lyell Island, and she remembers the importance of the elders joining the blockade. “They brought dignity to what we were doing. They brought validation, they brought history and they brought the future.”