The fight for Gwaii Haanas

Save South Moresby

Nonnie Emma Matthews with granddaughter Traci Bedard and Dan Helmer, Vancouver, January 15, 1986,

Perhaps no single act of public resistance in modern British Columbia history has done more to affect the course of environmental campaigns and aboriginal land rights than the events that unfolded beginning in the winter of 1985 on Athlii Gwaii (Lyell Island) in the archipelago of Haida Gwaii, formerly known as the Queen Charlotte Islands.

Over a two week period in November, 72 people were arrested at a logging blockade on Athlii Gwaii, beginning with elders Ada Yovanovich, Ethel Jones, and Watson Price. The renowned Haida artist Bill Reid, 86 at the time, was present but not arrested.

A dozen arrestees were charged and convicted of contempt and handed probationary sentences.

The Islands Protection Society, dedicated to protection of Haida Gwai’s natural legacy, was formed early in the decade by environmental activist Thom Henley and Haida leader Guujaaw, who now sits on the board that manages Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve.

Islands at the Edge: Preserving the Queen Charlotte Islands Wilderness¹, co-edited by IPS, was published in 1984. The luxuriously illustrated coffee table book, with a forward by Jacques Cousteau, reached a wide audience.

But the Athlii Gwaii confrontation drew world attention almost overnight. Articles in high profile newspapers and magazines such as National Geographic, Macleans, the New York Times, New Yorker, National Geographic, and Nature Canada put the remote islands on the map. A widely-distributed poster featuring a photograph of Burnaby Narrows’ colourful tide pools was a powerful visual reminder of what was a stake. The Save South Moresby Committee grew into an international lobby.

The Canadian Nature Federation (publishers of Nature Canada)² helped to organize the South Moresby Caravan, travelling by train across Canada.

The arrival of the caravan back in Vancouver, at the Canadian National Rail Station on January 15, 1986, coincided with the resignation of the ruling Social Credit Party’s forest minister Tom Waterland, whose enthusiasm for logging in South Moresby included $20,000 in tax shelter investments tied to a government-owned pulp mill that benefitted from timber harvested in the area.³

These revelations — Energy Minister Stephen Rogers was forced to resign 3-months later when it was revealed he had sunk $100,000 into the same company — didn’t seem to square with the party’s frequent remonstrations against the threat of the opposition New Democratic Party’s “socialist hordes.”

In 1987, continuing pressure forced the governments of Canada and BC to sign a memorandum to halt logging, followed a year later by the South Moresby Agreement that created 1,495-square-kilometre Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve and Haida Heritage Site. The agreement included a historic co-management agreement between the Haida Nation and the Government of Canada. The 1993 Gwaii Haanas Agreement cemented the cooperative management pact between the federal government and the Haida Nation. To the Haida, the Government of Canada and provincial authorities had finally brought their laws in accordance with those asserted by the Haida for generations.⁴

With New Democrats back in power in BC, following this May’s election, aided by a tentative coalition with the Green Party, the struggle for environmental conservation and First Nations’ governance is back on the radar. Big time.

The NDP/Green coalition has pledged, as one of its electoral platforms and conditions of cooperation, to halt development of the contentious Trans Mountain oil pipeline, which would transport diluted Alberta tar sands bitumen (“dilbit”) across BC to tidewater at Burnaby. This promise reverses the support of the previous Liberal government (direct descendants of Social Credit) and opposes the position of the federal government, which steadfastly supports the pipeline, on the heels of its November 29, 2016 approval.

The provincial NDP/Green coalition have several options to hinder development, including denial of related permits. Texas-based Kinder Morgan have announced construction will commence in September 2017. Should that occur, opponents — both aboriginal and non-native — promise they will resist at all costs.

¹Full disclosure: I used to write for Nature Canada.
²Douglas & McIntyre, Vancouver, 160 pp. (1984)
³This was by no means the first time a Social Credit forest minister had gotten into a pickle. In 1952, as the newly-formed party under Premier W.A.C. Bennet stretched its wings, Robert E. Sommers became the first cabinet minister in the Commonwealth jailed for a crime of office. Somewhat like the more recent Duffy-Wright case, in which senator Mike Duffy faced bribery charges for accepting a $90,000 payoff from federal Conservative Party PMO chief of staff Nigel Wright, those who proffered the bribes that sunk Sommers — presumably principals of nascent British Columbia Forest Products, owned by Toronto industrial titan E.P. Taylor — got off scot-free.
The larger question of sovereignty, ownership and title remains unsettled.

Technical: Camera: Nikon FM | Lens: Nikkor 24mm 2.8 | Film: Ilford FP4 | Another image, the next frame on this roll of film, was included in the group show Vancouver’s Vancouver, 1991. I now prefer this frame. I didn’t know the names of the subjects until earlier this year when a Facebook friend who lives on Haida Gwaii helped to identify them. More social media synchronicity.

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