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Ian Gill Explains His Relationship to His New Book All That We Say Is Ours

Ian Gill Explains His Relationship to His New Book All That We Say Is Ours

October 2009

My relationship to the story, the people, the place: I’ve been travelling to Haida Gwaii almost since I first arrived in Canada more than 25 years ago, and it was the first place that I ever experienced true wilderness on the coast. Later, as a reporter with the Vancouver Sun, I actually wrote the front-page story in July 1987 that an agreement to create Gwaii Haanas had been struck between the Haida and Ottawa and Victoria. I kept going back to Haida Gwaii, and indeed my second book was an account of my travels there. In getting to know more and more people on the islands who had played a role in Gwaii Haanas and in many other important developments in conservation and community development, it became increasingly obvious to me that theirs wasn’t just a Haida story or a BC story, but what was and is transpiring there is of international significance.

The Haida, and indeed many of the non-Haida people who live on Haida Gwaii, are writing a new chapter in Canada’s history that has profound implications for the country’s understanding of its history, and for how we repair our relationship with people who are occupying a bigger role in our culture and economy. I simply don’t know of any other First Nation that is prepared to offer such a provocative challenge to the status quo, and to do so in a way that is constructive but utterly unyielding at the same time.

Why Guujaaw? He is first and foremost an activist, but he doesn’t really fit with many of the clichéd images of what an activist is. His activism arises not out of campus radicalism but from his connection to the land and his culture. His leadership isn’t contingent on how popular he is. It is about an unwavering commitment to people and place. It doesn’t hurt that he is a talented singer, carver and drummer and that he has enormous charisma. But its his willingness to put that in service of his people that is what makes him a leader with few equals. Actually, that’s something you find among a lot of First Nations leaders – and is something sorely lacking in the mainstream Canadian political discourse.

Focussing on Guujaaw was not without risk. He insists that the real story is about the efforts of all the people, and he was concerned about not being singled out for special praise. That said, he in some ways perfectly reflects the generational shift that has occurred in many First Nations communities and will only become more pronounced – as someone who didn’t go to residential school, someone who learned environmentalism by being radicalized by what industry was doing to his homeland, and found strength in his culture that most people don’t even dare dream about.

What have the Haida achieved? More than 50 per cent of their territory protected, logging curtailed by two-thirds, much more control over their resource base (something that will grow further over time), and all without signing away title. They might achieve all their goals without ever going to court, but I doubt it.

Coming threats? The Enbridge proposal to build a pipeline to Kitimat from Alberta is something the Haida are implacably opposed to. Increased shipping traffic is something Guujaaw has spoken out against, and if he is rallying First Nations against the proposal, well, I sure wouldn’t bet on it happening. Climate change is another big threat to the Haida and all island communities.

Can they build a new economy on Haida Gwaii? Opportunities like the NaiKun wind farm offer a potentially a huge economic boost to the islands. Securing logging tenures for the Haida, likewise. Getting control of the fishery is another opportunity. Certainly, a “natural economy” has more appeal locally – an economy designed at home is what many communities yearn for.

Recognition and Reconciliation Act. The province has shelved it and many BC chiefs have vetoed the idea anyway. The Haida way may well be the way of the future – as vexing as that will be for governments.

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