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William and Kate get education in sustainability in trip to Haida Gwaii

The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge paddle with a group in a traditional Haida canoe in the waters of Haida Gwaii on Sept. 30, 2016.


The Haida Gwaii black bear is distinct from its mainland cousins, with a massive skull and large molars adapted to forage for mussels and rock crab along the beach.

The largest subspecies of black bear in North America, they have been part of the transformation of the local economy since the Haida Nation and the province signed a pact in 2009 to co-manage their resources.

Prince William might recognize the lustrous black coat of the Haida bear – the iconic hats worn by the Foot Guards back home have traditionally been made with the fur of Canadian black bears.

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But the Haida Nation is shaping a new economy, one that is based on sustainability. That's the story the Haida shared on Friday with the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge as they visited the archipelago that once was named for British royalty. (The Queen Charlotte Islands were renamed in 2010 as part of a reconciliation agreement between British Columbia and the Haida.)

As the royal couple arrived at Skidegate, paddling a replica of artist Bill Reid's 50-foot Haida war canoe, they provided the world, through their international media following, a glimpse of Haida Gwaii's rich indigenous culture and wild beauty.

They were met by cheering residents next to modern longhouses, anchored by weathered totem poles, after a 20-minute canoe trip on calm waters under sunny skies.

At a cultural celebration, Haida dancers performed a dance to honour Taan the bear.

Peter Lantin, president of the Council of the Haida Nation, said his people want Prince William and his wife, Kate, to appreciate what the Haida have preserved. "They have chosen to visit Haida Gwaii because of the beauty. And that is because we have protected our islands."

The industry of killing bears was rich enough to sustain commercial guide outfitters and a stand-alone lodge devoted to trophy hunters. Today, trophy hunting of bears has all but ended on Haida Gwaii. The Haida council has bought the licences along with the hunting lodge, now renamed the Haida House and transformed into a high-end restaurant and lodge.

Beyond tourism, the Haida also depend on the staples of forestry and fishing, but under the stewardship of the Haida Enterprise Corporation, the focus is not just on revenue but on improving the quality of life "for the collective benefit of the Haida people."

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The Haida have reduced the annual allowable cut of timber from 2.2 million cubic metres each year to 900,000 cubic metres. The fishery is no longer focused on maximum harvest, but on ensuring the maximum value.

"It is about ounces, not pounds" Mr. Lantin said. "We know that we have to have an economic presence, we have to show the world we can do economics a different way."

But ending the bear hunt was about Haida values, not profit.

In the culture of the coastal First Nations, trophy hunting is offensive, and killing bears for sport is especially egregious.

"It's ingrained in our culture that you do not take an animal unless you need it for sustenance. You don't take it and hang on the wall. It's one of the most vile things you can do in our culture," said Art Sterritt, a Gitga'at elder and tribal spokesman who has pursued tactics to stop trophy hunting in the Great Bear Rainforest.

The royal couple visited the Great Bear Rainforest earlier in the week, flying into Bella Bella, where the airport displays a sign that states: "Trophy hunting is closed. In the Great Bear Rainforest respect our traditional laws."

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Despite efforts by the Gitga'at and other coastal communities to buy up commercial bear-hunting licences, a dozen grizzlies and an unknown number of black bears are hunted each year in the Great Bear Rainforest. The Haida have been more successful, but continue to press the province to stop the recreational hunt, which allows four bears to be killed each year.

Mr. Sterritt said the coastal First Nations will continue to purchase commercial bear-hunting licences when they can, and to disrupt the hunt when the opportunity arises.

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