Occupied lands? During the recent controversial protest of Israel at the Toronto International Film Festival, the issue of Israel's so-called occupation of Palestinian land was chief among the complaints. Perhaps the complainants should have looked no further than their own home and native land. As former Vancouver Sun writer Ian Gill points out in his necessary and timely All That We Say is Ours: Guujaaw and the Reawakening of the Haida Nation, the land question goes to our very origins of Canada as a confederation.
"An issue," writes Gill, who has been visiting Haida Gwaii for 25 years, "that remains perhaps the most profound failing of Canada as a nation, a deep stain on our claim to value fairness for all people in everything from our daily lives to our constitution."
Haida Gwaii ("Island of the People"), according to Haida legend, emerged from a cockle shell at Rose Spit, off the coast of British Columbia, more than 10,000 years ago. A land of great abundance and beauty, it was inhabited by tens of thousands of Haida for more than 6,000 years. On a clear day, Alaska to the north is visible, but mainland Canada is never in sight.
In 1787, the islands were surveyed by Captain George Dixon and named by him after one of his ships, the Queen Charlotte (it later became known as Haida Gwaii).
At the time of colonial contact, the population was roughly 10,000 to 60,000. Ninety per cent of the population died during the 1800s from smallpox; other diseases arrived as well, including typhoid, measles and syphilis, affecting many more inhabitants. By 1900, only 350 people remained.
Industrial logging arrived on Haida Gwaii in the early 1900s. The Gowgaia Institute estimates that 170,000 hectares were logged over the next century - enough wood to circle the Earth with a six-foot diameter log worth about $20-billion. The land in Haida Gwaii was ruined, as what was once forest was laid bare.
"From an aboriginal perspective, ownership of the land was never in question until someone arrived to contest it," Gill writes. Beginning with Sir James Douglas and the Hudson's Bay Company, there was no real distinction between the goals of government and those of business. The land question was never settled by successive B.C. governments, which preferred not to acknowledge that there was a "question" at all. Native people were herded onto reserves and left to their misery.
Gary Edenshaw, later known as the visionary artist, drummer and orator Giindajin Haawasti Guujaaw, was born in 1953 into a family of nine children in the town of Masset on Haida Gwaii. A young tough working at the Dragon Bowling Alley, rowing, signing and drumming, he became known as Giindajin, full of questions.
Giindajin did not go to residential school, however, avoiding it by "the narrowest of threads," dancing at the feet of his great grandmother and demonstrating a keenness for listening to the stories of his elders, connected him to the Haida's vast culture. His mother died when he was a teenager; he learned carpentry as a trade, leaving the island for a few years before returning to his hometown in the early 1970s, when Haida Gwaii had begun to attract some counter-culture types. Jenny Nelson, a flower child from Ontario, became his wife and mother of his children.
By the 1960s, Masset served as part of the Canadian Forces supplementary radio system. On June 3, 1978 - 12 years before the Oka crisis - Giindajin and a small gaggle of protesters came to protest the presence of the military base. Reaction from members of the community was mixed, but one thing was clear: Giindajin and the concerns he represented were not going away.
In 1974, Thom (Huck) Henley, an American setting up in Haida Gwaii, arrived at Masset. At a stay in a cabin, he literally bumped into Giindajin in the middle of the night. They struck up a conversation and sat down and drew a line on a map of South Moresby that author Ian Gill describes as an "incredible act of kitchen table cartography." The line wasn't arrived at through any type of research. "It was just a couple of guys in the middle of the night with the hare-brained notion that everything below that line should be spared from industrial logging."
Today that line is the northern boundary of Gwaii Haanas, now a protected area.
During a potlatch in 1981 to celebrate the completion of a longhouse, Giindajin was given another name: Guujaaw. Guujaaw graduated from being Giindajin, full of questions, to someone who was now a respected Haida spokesman.
As the issue of logging grew, it became imperative to "restore what had become an environmental issue into a Haida issue." As a result, only Haida would man the blockades; it was "an environmental issue, but a Haida responsibility," Gill writes. The blockade was a significant new chapter in Haida mythology, and it gave rise to a song that today is a kind of national anthem for the Haida Gwaii.
On July 7, 1987, nearly 13 years after the battle lines had been drawn, a deal was struck to establish a national park. An elder was overheard at the signing saying it was "far more significant than the signing of the South Moresby agreement. It marked the rebirth of a nation." It was also a milestone in the ascendancy of Guujaaw.
Travelling among indigenous peoples all over the world enabled Guujaaw to appreciate more deeply that the Haida aren't alone in their struggles. He also became interested in the teachings of the Essenes, a tribe that lived on the shores of the Dead Sea for two or three centuries before the Christian era.
Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas, a Masset neighbour and friend of Guujaaw, blends the oral traditions of Haida narratives with Japanese graphic novels. Yahgulanaas talks of a "Haida blood connection to the Jewish peoples," and as Gill notes, it could be said that the Haida's concern for the land bears a strong resemblance to the Jewish concept of tikkun olam , or "repair of the world."
As 2010 and the Winter Olympics approach, a new battleground for the Haida - every bit as significant as the South Moresby protest - may well be next: the Enbridge pipeline, which is to cross from the Alberta Tar Sands to the Pacific Ocean and through Haida marine territory.
With All That We Say is Ours: Guujaaw and the Reawakening of the Haida Nation, Ian Gill gives voice to the struggles of the Haida people and their fight for self-determination, while at the same time raising troubling questions about Canada's political will and values.
Grant Shilling is the author of The Cedar Surf: An Informal History of Surfing in British Columbia (www.cedarsurf.com).