On small islands off Canada’s coast, a big shift in power

Jason Alsop, the president of the Council of the Haida Nation, in Skidegate on Haida Gwaii’s main island in British Columbia, Canada, May 23, 2024. British Columbia recognized the Haida’s aboriginal title to their islands decades after the Indigenous group launched a battle on the ground and in the courts. (Amber Bracken/The New York Times)

Guujaaw, a Haida leader who goes by his Haida name, at his home in Skidegate on Haida Gwaii in British Columbia, Canada, May 24, 2024. British Columbia recognized the Haida’s aboriginal title to their islands decades after the Indigenous group launched a battle on the ground and in the courts. (Amber Bracken/The New York Times)

Dale Lore, a former mayor of Port Clements who became an ally of the Haida Nation in their quest for the title to their land, outside of Port Clements on Haida Gwaii in British Columbia, Canada, May 23, 2024. British Columbia recognized the Haida’s aboriginal title to their islands decades after the Indigenous group launched a battle on the ground and in the courts. (Amber Bracken/The New York Times)

HAIDA GWAII, British Columbia — The Raven, the story goes, alighted on the beach and heard sounds coming from a giant clamshell. He found creatures cowering inside, but, ever the trickster, he cajoled them out into the world. Liberated, they became the first people of the islands of Haida Gwaii.

The Haida people have lived for thousands of years on Haida Gwaii, a remote archipelago in the Pacific Ocean off Canada’s western coast, just south of Alaska.

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Nearly wiped out by smallpox after the arrival of Europeans, the Haida clung to their land — so rich in wildlife it is sometimes called Canada’s Galápagos, coveted by loggers for its old-growth forests of giant cedars and spruce.

For decades, despite their geographic isolation, the Haida’s unwavering fight to regain control over their land drew outsize attention in Canada, raising questions about the country’s long unacknowledged, brutal colonial history.

The Haida opposed clear-cut logging, building ties with environmentalists. They forged alliances with non-Haida communities at home and found common cause with other Indigenous groups across the world.

They sued British Columbia for title to their land in 2002 and supported their claims of ancient ties to the archipelago with a museum that showcased their art, artifacts and foundation myths, like the story of the Raven.

Their methodical and painstaking quest came to fruition in May when the government of British Columbia passed a law — the first of its kind in Canada — recognizing the Haida’s aboriginal title throughout Haida Gwaii. No provincial or federal government in Canada had ever willingly recognized an Indigenous people’s title to their land.

Over the next few years, the provincial government’s authority over the land and resources is expected to be handed over to the Council of the Haida Nation, the Haida people’s government.

“On our side, we knew exactly what we wanted, who we were and why we were doing what we did,” said Frank Collison, 89, a hereditary chief who recalled facing unresponsive provincial and federal governments for decades. “They just weren’t interested in doing anything and quite satisfied to keep us under their thumb.”

British Columbia’s premier, David Eby, said title recognition meant the province was “moving beyond a place where the Haida Nation’s rights were denied to a place where they are recognized and upheld.”

Exactly how power shifts to the Haida still needs to be negotiated with British Columbia, even as the province continues to provide services like health care and maintain infrastructure like highways.

Some legal experts say the provincial law leaves some critical issues unclear, including the impact of aboriginal title on private land owned by non-Haida people.

Others question whether the province can recognize aboriginal title — an Indigenous group’s inherent right to land it occupied and used before colonization — without the federal government.

Haida leaders say they are optimistic that they will reach an agreement with the federal government, which has also been moving toward recognition of aboriginal title.

Still, on Haida Gwaii, with a population of 5,000 divided evenly between Haida and non-Haida, the development is seen as a watershed.

The Indigenous community spoke of colonial liberation and of reclaiming its natural resources.

Among the non-Haida — referred to as “settlers” on the archipelago — many expressed support for the change, though some said they feared a future dominated by the Haida.

Court decisions over the years had indicated that the Haida would eventually win their claim. So British Columbia’s government, led by the left-leaning New Democratic Party, decided instead to negotiate an agreement that led to the legislation.

“It showed a basic amount of respect, which was welcome,” said Jason Alsop, the president of the Council of the Haida Nation.

Alsop spoke from the council’s headquarters overlooking Skidegate, a village on the archipelago’s main island where smallpox survivors gathered in the 19th century.

Benefiting from an usually rich land and sea, the Haida had developed a prosperous society as traders, seafarers, artists and owners of enslaved people from their wars with other Indigenous groups. Haida Gwaii means Islands of the People in the Haida language.

Diseases introduced by Europeans decimated their population of 20,000 to 600 by the late 1800s. In the 20th century, the Haida were further marginalized because of Canadian government policies and wide-scale logging.

It was in the 1970s that the Haida, along with some other Indigenous groups in Canada, started reaffirming themselves.

“We began putting ourselves back together,” said Nika Collison, executive director of the Haida Gwaii Museum in Skidegate.

Leaders established the Council of the Haida Nation, an elected body that spoke on the community’s behalf in negotiations with the provincial and federal governments. They built the museum, which shored up their claim to aboriginal title by not only exhibiting their culture but also repatriating human remains and art objects from museums across the world.

They revived traditional knowledge that had been nearly lost. For the first time in 75 years, they built a canoe from a cedar tree, “back-engineering” surviving ones, recalled Guujaaw, a former council president who goes by his Haida name.

Leaders framed their campaign as part of global independence and environmental movements.

Not everyone, though, was happy with the change in the balance of power.

Randy and Gloria O’Brien own one of the biggest independent logging companies on Haida Gwaii, a firm that has also long had a provincial contract to service the region’s highways.

Over the years, as Haida leaders and environmentalists waged battle against clear-cutting, the overall supply of timber has decreased and hurt their business, the O’Briens said. They had been forced three years ago, they said, to log cedars from half of a 320-acre property they had planned to pass on to their children and grandchildren.

As power began shifting toward the Haida, the O’Briens said that elected officials had grown indifferent to their complaints.

“They won’t return phone calls, and Victoria, we can’t even get in there to see anybody,” said Gloria O’Brien, 73, referring to the provincial capital. The couple said they feared for their company’s future after doing business on Haida Gwaii since the mid-1970s.

“When we first came here, we met a lot of Natives, and they became our friends,” said Randy O’Brien, 76. “We partied with them, went fishing, went hunting, everything.

“But all of a sudden, now they’re — ” he said, with a laugh. “They’re going to be our overlords.”

Alsop, the council president, said the Haida wanted to move away from “a volume-based model” of logging.

Christian White, 62, a well-known Haida artist, said that for years, he had watched barges leave Haida Gwaii with loads of cedar logs — even as the Haida themselves were limited by forestry rules in acquiring trees central to their culture.

In his studio, where one of his sculptures depicted people coming out of the clamshell upon which sat the Raven, White said, “We are a sharing people, but the others, they’ve gotten more than their fair share for way too long.”

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