September 22, 2010

Our experience on Haida Gwaii is already three weeks behind us, and retrospection has begun to crystallize my memories into nuggets of tinted understanding.  I look back and feel like I have left some place unusual, someplace special.  Many others have agreed as indicated by the almost cliché story of how people went to Haida Gwaii for two weeks and stayed for twenty years.  In fact, we watched it happen right in front of us, as a whole cadre of hitchhikers and students from Vancouver passed through and stayed.   It might seem peculiar for a place that is not even known to all Canadians (“You’re going where?”).  But to anyone that has visited, it makes perfect sense.  You simply don’t feel that magnetism on the mainland, and you find yourself not only not wanting to leave, but failing to understand why anyone ever would.

Those that have visited and those that live there know that the identity of Haida Gwaii is distinct.  Not BC’s or Canada’s, the islands are their own.  A comment shared by a local contact and friend on this blog shed some light on what part of that unique magnetism might be about: “In the interest of all of us together building a post colonial world… kicker on the blog title ‘Exploring British Columbia’s Haida Gwaii,’ not too many people here think HG is BC’s and in fact when we go off island most people refer to it as ‘going to Canada.’”  For some, this post-colonial world was one with a Haida Nation.  Others envisioned it including the province of Haida Gwaii or even a new addition to the ring of fire’s family of tiny independent island nations, Haida Gwaii the country.

The form of the vision varied, but the sentiment was common.  Distinct geographically and culturally, everyone knows that the islands are their own.  There is an ideological bent to the sentiment.  But there is also hard logic to it.  Their remote locale means that islanders have always been fairly self-reliant, which is to say, reliant on each other and the land.  Of course, they also have a capitalist economic base that ties them to the mainland, a base that used to be defined by that neocolonial power, the logging industry.  But as logging slows to a permanent halt after years of resistance by locals who have long since realized that the wood would run out and Haida court battles fought and won, the islands are on the verge.  Now, in pursuit of their post-colonialist vision, they must face some difficult questions, such as what will fill the hole that logging inevitably leaves behind.  Many people have proposed alternatives such as value-added wood products like guitars or selectively logged premium timber.  Good ol’ tourism is another oft-discussed possibility.  Or is the answer a move towards away from new forms of dependency on “foreign” (read: “off-island) markets in favor of increased independence?  Some people think so, pointing to the localization of the economy through increased food security and protection of resources that may be relied upon for food and craft supplies in the future.

People will not give up their rich weaving tradition that requires easy and consistent access to spruce roots or fresh and then canned salmon that sustains everyone year round.  But no one is talking about giving up their electricity or their paved roads, either.  So, as another friend aptly described it, Haida Gwaii finds itself bobbing on a slack-tide, the time of relatively still water between the ebb and the flow of the ocean’s tides.

One might also say that neighboring Canada and many nations like it are floating on the slack tide as mainlander begrudgingly face down similar questions surrounding resource finitude and our collective economic future.  A dwindling supply of easily accessible oil has led Canada to seek more energy intensive sources in the form of the Alberta Tar Sands.  But their intention to build yet another pipeline to the coast of British Columbia to be loaded onto supertankers en route to China has met with overwhelming resistance from Haida Gwaii residents, most mainland communities along the proposed pipeline and all coastal First Nations.  They may still be dependant on oil, but the public’s favor of extractive industry is ebbing.

Haida Gwaii emerges as a microcosm of the globe.  The analogy might be a bit blunt, but I use it only to make the point that the islands are facing important questions about their economic and cultural futures and that these questions and their answers also matter tremendously to the rest of the world because at the moment, we are dumbfounded.

As Haida Gwaii bobs, I wonder where they will go and remember that the Haida were facing a like deficit of role models in the world when they undertook the fight to win their land back.  Finding nowhere to look, they made it up as they went along, instead.  Today, the Nation draws indigenous leaders from all over the world eagerly seeking the same success that the Haida made for themselves.

The only thing that could be more post-colonial than land taken back by its rightful and ancient owners would be land taken back by rightful and ancient owners that manage it in a whole new way.  It’s tempting to call the latter a pipe dream, but remember that the former was utterly impossible thirty years ago.

Lest I get too romantic remember the water and the rubbarb and the roots, I try to keep in mind that retrospection also has a kaleidoscopic effect, turning those crystallized memories made of anecdotes, moments, and the odd hard fact over on themselves to make certain stories come true.

We shall just have to see.  Or rather, we should watch because, with their toes hanging over the continental shelf and the with their vision of the post-colonial world placing them on the cutting edge, these small islands truly are on the edge of our world.

Yes, we will see.  No, go and see.  Just be warned: you might have to come back.


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