In Haida Gwaii, BC, culture evolves with the ocean

The details matter.
There are cedar boughs lining the tables in the gymnasium where the Joint Review Panel hearings are being held in Old Massett.  Plates of snacks line the dozens of tables surrounding the speaker’s table, which faces the panel members who are listening and taking notes.  The issue: Oil tankers through the Great Bear Sea.

The Joint Review Panel hearings, being held in Old Massett, BC.

(C) Mike Ambach WWF-Canada

Some 50 people occupy the seats at this end of the gymnasium – hereditary chiefs, elected leaders, witnesses, and elders, all of them observing the events.  The remainder of the space is row seating and bleachers, where 400+ islanders also listen attentively, as speakers share their stories with the panel – how they learned to fish, to harvest seaweed, to hunt.  How these activities are essential to who they are, to their survival.  Songs and stories are shared, detailing how Haida culture has continuously evolved along with the ocean for millennia.
Food security is again essential, but not just as a matter of feeding one’s family.  Potlatch feasts – outlawed in Canada until the 1970s – are regularly held on Haida Gwaii. Like elsewhere on BC’s coast, these celebrations are held to share the bounty of the sea, build relationships with neighbours, and demonstrate a simple yet powerful symbol of solidarity among people and the environment that sustains them.
As is the lunch provided for the entire room – a delicious seafood chowder made from locally caught sockeye and spring salmon, halibut, butter clams, and scallops, with locally grown vegetables.  As lunchtime approaches and the sweet odour of the chowder fills the room, scores of young volunteers are hurrying to prepare.  Elders and chiefs are served first.  The Panel members, too, are offered bowls.  I hope they get the message:  hospitality and the natural wealth of the ocean go hand in hand.
During the break, I take a walk out in front of Old Massett, down to the inlet.  Signs are everywhere – every other house it seems! – saying no to tankers and yes to a healthy ocean instead.  The tide is low and it’s immediately apparent from the strewn shells that Old Massett has a clam bed on its doorstep!  Out beyond the inlet, salmon will soon be returning from feeding in the North Pacific.  Some will spawn in the islands here, some will continue down to Vancouver Island, others to the Fraser River.  Some may find their way to your local market!   On Haida Gwaii there is a pride in the reliance on a healthy ocean for food. While not everyone can be as directly connected to the ocean, we can still be mindful of that connection, and stand up to protect it against a risk that is both unacceptable and unnecessary.
Back in the gymnasium, the hearings begin again.  It must take a tremendous deal of perseverance for speakers to share these stories.  As with other First Nations, time and again the Haida have had to stand up to unsustainable and irresponsible development that has profited at the expense of the environment.  Time and again, they have won.  This time, the three-member panel seated before the room holds a considerable deal of power to affect a decision as serious and threatening as anything these islands have faced.
The cedar boughs on the tables, the seafood that is served, the hospitality, the signage throughout the community; these details are all reminders of that.  I hope the panel takes note.
On the outside, this process is about judging the merits of a development project.  But as these proceedings unfold across Northern BC, it strikes me that it is the panel members, and the process that they represent, that is really being judged.   Maybe that’s as it should be.  It’s not just the room in Old Massett on Haida Gwaii that has its eyes on the process – concerned Canadians across the country are watching.