EDITOR’S NOTE: This article is an excerpt from Mark Dowie’s The Haida Gwaii Lesson: A Strategic Playbook for Indigenous Sovereignty, published by Inkshares in August 2017.
On June 17, 2010, the Haida people gave something to Canada… actually, gave something back. Gordon Campbell, then-premier of British Columbia, was invited to the Haida’s remote homeland, an archipelago of over 200 islands located roughly 400 miles northwest of Vancouver. Awaiting the premier were many of the most powerful and respected members of the Haida nation, dressed in full ceremonial garb and prepared for a totem raising, one of their most sacred ceremonies. The president of the Haida nation at the time, a singer and wood carver named Guujaaw, explained to premier Campbell that the Haida were giving back the name “Queen Charlotte Islands,” which a British explorer had bestowed upon the islands 230 years earlier. Henceforth, the archipelago would bear the name it had carried for thousands of years: “Haida Gwaii.”
“What we are really doing here is unwinding colonialism,” President Guujaaw added. Premier Campbell, according to onlookers, was visibly shaken. Guujaaw continued: “After a hundred years of conflict, we are setting the ground for a more productive era of peace. The interesting part is yet to come. How do we make this work? I think we can do it. And the world needs these little places to start turning the tide. I think we have a good chance to set an example.”
The Haida have indeed set an example, an example that could help indigenous people throughout the world achieve self-determination—and in so doing reverse environmental perils that threaten all people everywhere. This is not sentimentality speaking. The 370 million self-described “indigenous people” on earth today occupy roughly 20 percent of the planet’s land surface but are stewards of 80 percent of its remaining biological diversity—the plants, animals, and other organisms without which human societies would quickly collapse. Indigenous people know from ancient experience how to manage this biological diversity in an equitable and sustainable manner, if they are allowed to do so. Too often, though, their practices have been overridden by outside interests: foreign governments that colonized them and foreign companies that logged, mined, drilled, and otherwise extracted natural resources like there was no tomorrow.
The story of the Haida’s victory over foreign domination, fully told here for the first time, offers concrete lessons that indigenous peoples everywhere can use to regain their sovereignty and halt destructive environmental practices. Over the past 40 years, the Haida have conducted one of the most brilliant campaigns for self-determination ever mounted. This book describes how the Haida did it, and how other native peoples can replicate their example.
Here, in three words, is the secret of the Haida’s success: Timing is everything. By creatively using the courts, human blockades, public testimony, and the news media, and by applying each tactic at precisely the right time, the Haida won the support of enough Canadian citizens, government officials, and judges to triumph. As a consequence of their legal petitions, the Supreme Court of Canada confirmed aboriginal title to their land. The southern part of their archipelago is now a national park, co-managed by the Haida and Canada. Logging has been severely reduced and is controlled by the Haida, not by outside companies. And “Queen Charlotte Islands,” the name given to a place that the Queen of England never set foot upon, has been tossed in the dustbin of history.
While the almost 5,000 First Nations of the world differ in many ways, they all share the same essential problem: the assumption carried by almost every European-based explorer that discovery meant ownership, that whoever planted their flag on a shoreline first owned pretty much everything in sight, and that the discoverer was free to control anyone living there. This notion became an internationally recognized legal doctrine, the “Doctrine of Discovery.” It was cited for centuries, without authority or precedent, by lawyers and judges, including US Supreme Court Justice John Marshall.
In the case of the Haida, it was dense stands of old-growth cedar, spruce, and hemlock that attracted foreign companies to their islands in the 1850s. As they had on the Canadian mainland, these companies and their government sponsors simply ignored the native peoples who had occupied the land for millennia. They brought in their industrial tools and mindset and commenced one of the Pacific Coast’s most monstrous land rapes. The Haida received only a few logging jobs and a pittance of revenue. The net consequence of the excessive logging was economic and cultural devastation for a proud, essentially wealthy First Nation.
After almost a century of nonstop exploitation, the Haida people said “enough.” Like most indigenous peoples in western Canada, they began to resist. But while few of their indigenous neighbors prevailed against national racism, corrupt provincial governments, unsympathetic courts, and rapacious industries, the Haida were a notable exception in their overwhelming success.
Most colonial governments, when they hear the words “title” or “sovereignty” or “self-determination,” think that they are really hearing “secession.” But throughout their 40-year conflict, the Haida made it very clear that they did not wish to secede from either Canada or British Columbia. Using carefully selected tactics and democratically decided long-term strategies, they won exactly what they wanted: aboriginal title to their land and jurisdictional sovereignty over what happened on it. They remain Canadians and residents of British Columbia.
In retrospect, it might appear that the Haida were natural strategists who knew innately how and when to apply each of the basic tactics they used—litigation, media manipulation, petitioning, direct confrontation (blockades), negotiation, surrender (temporary of course), and creation of a Constitution and viable self-government. But the truth is that their victory required years of debate and deliberation among Haida chiefs and the “women of high esteem” behind them to determine the right course and sequence of action. The timeline is the lesson.
In 1974, the Haida quietly formed a governing body they called the “Council of the Haida Nation.” The Council is like the government of any democratic state, only on a smaller scale. In 1980 the council began drafting a Constitution. Its most essential order was that the council strive for “full independence, sovereignty and self-sufficiency.” Toward that end, immediately after creating the council the Haida submitted a land claim to the Canadian government, demanding aboriginal title to all of the land on the Haida’s 138 islands. The council went on to call for a 50 percent reduction of logging on the islands. In the late 1970s, Haida people began moving into abandoned village sites on the southern part of the archipelago to protect the surrounding forests.
Initial results were discouraging. In 1980, the Haida’s land claim was denied by a federal court in Ottawa. The following year, the council created a Tribal Park on the west coast of the main island and petitioned the province of British Columbia to cease all resource extraction in the Park. The province refused; logging continued.
After protracted internal discussions, the Haida decided that they had to intensify their resistance. In 1985, they staged their first logging blockade. The Haida informed the provincial government that if logging did not stop on Lyell Island, which had already been intensively logged, within 30 days, the Haida would consider it “an act of aggression.” More Haida came from other islands to join the blockade on Lyell. On November 16, Canadian authorities arrested 17 Haida elders and charged them with contempt; the British Columbia Supreme Court later gave 10 of the Haida five-month suspended sentences and ordered them removed from the island.
The Haida briefly discussed escalating to armed struggle, but decided against it. They realized that employing violence would hand a conservative, heavily armed government that was in the pocket of a wealthy industry the very opportunity it sought—to annihilate the people who stood between the outsiders and the resource they coveted, timber.
Instead of taking up arms, the Haida in 1986 began a nationwide series of high-profile public protests against both the provincial and the federal governments. A contingent of Haidas set out from the Atlantic coast of Canada on a 7,500 kilometer cross-country caravan to raise awareness among ordinary Canadians about the Haida’s struggle. A gigantic, 60-paddle Haida canoe left Vancouver on a treacherous 600-mile crossing to the islands, again to encourage public support. When national media arrived on the islands to cover the blockades, President Guujaaw renounced his Canadian citizenship.
Meanwhile, the Haida also continued to pursue legal remedies—which were met with greater success, now that they had built some support on the mainland. Taking the long view, Haida elders years before had helped to send one of the Haida’s most promising young people, a woman named Terri-Lynn Williams-Davidson, to law school in Canada. Williams-Davidson eventually passed the British Columbia bar, positioning her to argue the Haida’s cases in court. In 2001, Haida Nation filed a Title and Rights case in the Court of Appeal of British Columbia. Remarkably, the court found in the Haida’s favor, ordering both the provincial government and the timber industry to consult with and accommodate the Haida Nation.
In 2002, with Terri-Lynn Williams-Davidson again arguing the case, the Haida filed suit for aboriginal title to their lands. British Columbia countered by offering the Haida 20 percent of the Haida Gwaii land base in return for withdrawing their suit and “restarting treaty negotiations.” The Council of the Haida Nation rejected the offer as “posturing” and “mischief.” Why, the council asked, “should we give up 80 percent of our land?” The federal and provincial governments filed counter-suits, but the Canadian Supreme Court ruled in the Haida’s favor. Further, the Court forbade the province from issuing any logging or other extractive licenses without the Haida’s formal consent.
Hemmed in by the courts, the government of British Columbia in 2003 agreed to the Haida Nation’s proposal for a co-chaired process to plan land use on the islands. The process would be guided by a land management protocol they entitled “ecosystem-based management.” The two governments would negotiate head to head to establish goals and procedures for how land in Haida Nation would be used.
Again the provincial government in Vancouver dragged its feet, and again Canadian courts ruled in favor of the Haida. In 2004, the Supreme Court of Canada concluded in Haida Nation v. BC Minister of Forests that the province had failed to meet its duties to consult and accommodate the Haida before it issued a timber license. Recognizing the futility of further resistance, the provincial government in 2007 joined the Haida Nation in signing the proposed Strategic Land Use Agreement, which subjected half of the archipelago to ecosystem-based management by the Haida government.
It was time to celebrate, and how better to celebrate than to carve and raise a totem pole, a sacred celebration the Haida had practiced for thousands of years? And who better to invite than Premier Campbell, the closest representative of the British colony that had tried but, in the end, failed to conquer the Haida?
The lessons of the Haida Nation’s struggle are more available to other indigenous peoples today than ever before. That is partly due to the spread of modern communication methods, but it also reflects how indigenous peoples have deliberately banded together in recent years. Generally defined as people whose community preexisted a nation-state that enveloped them, indigenous peoples straddle the borders of 75 of the United Nations’ 193 recognized countries. For most of their histories, these small nations knew little of one another’s existence. But over the past century they have somehow cobbled together one of the most remarkable social movements in the history of mankind.
Many of these communities have used one or more of the Haida’s tactics in their individual struggles for title and sovereignty. But most of them have failed, at least so far. Some used too few tactics. Others used the right tactics but at the wrong time or in the wrong order.
The example of the Haida could change that, and the Haida are trying to do their part. Since the Canadian Supreme Court ruling in 2005 that affirmed the Haida’s sovereignty, former Haida president Guujaaw has traveled the world providing free consultation to other indigenous peoples struggling for self-determination. He has shared the lessons of the Haida with occupants of another Pacific archipelago, Rapa Nui (also known as Easter Island), where natives have been oppressed and at times shot by the armed forces of Chile, which asserts its legal authority over Rapa Nui. He has crossed to the other side of the world to advise several tribes in Africa. And when Guujaaw goes abroad, he travels whenever possible on a Haida passport.