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Proposed Northern Gateway pipeline threatens Haida Gwaii's reliance on food from the sea

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Todd described how the people of Old Massett want to work, but there aren’t jobs available. In addition, there’s a dilemma between full time employment and traditional harvesting: it’s hard to get days off a regular job to take advantage of seasonal abundances.

 “That’s why food gathering is so important,” Todd explained. “If it wasn’t for that, we wouldn’t have anything to pull out of our deep freezes this time of year. We wouldn’t have any jars of fish to open or things like berries and sea weed that we look forward to every year. Gathering is a continual process. There’s almost always something that’s coming up.”

The Southern Route

Gwaii Haanas National Park and the surrounding Marine Conservation Area are the result of a long, passionate battle that commenced in 1985 when the Haida Nation designated the southern third of its archipelago as a Haida Heritage Site and then blockaded Lyell Island to protect it. Gwaii Haanas is now operated jointly by the Haida Nation and Parks Canada. At its southern tip, the Cape St. James weather station has recorded the strongest winds in Canada.

The 138 island archipelago is one of the most productive protected ecosystems on Earth and under consideration as a World Heritage Site. Over 750,000 sea birds nest there and salmon spawn in one hundred streams. Four killer whale pods ply its waters. Humpback and Gray Whales come through on their migrations; one person recounts seeing at least 50 Humpbacks feeding in a bay along with thousands of sooty shearwaters (a gull-like bird).  Other marine mammals in abundance include Harbor Seals, Pacific White-sided Dolphin, and Dall’s and Harbor porpoise. One visitor recounts, “On both my trips we encountered over 100 Pacific White-sided Dolphin moving together in what seemed like an exuberant celebration of life.”  

A tourism website describes snorkeling at Burnaby Narrows: “The bottom is coloured with a cornucopia of sea life: starfish, sea urchins, moon snails, clams, needlefish, sea cucumbers, sea blubbers, red crab … the list goes on and on. Because of the high nutrient content in the water, the aquatic life is almost impossibly large and vibrant.”

The time beyond battles on Haida Gwaii

I visited Gwaii and Jaalene Edenshaw, sons of Guujaaw, where they were carving a yellow cedar pole in a shop off a back alley in Kitsilano. When I asked them about the pipeline, there was a long silence. Finally I asked, “Do you think about it much?”

“Yeah,” said Jaalene, “We think about it pretty much night and day.”

“If it happened that would be the end of our way of living up there, really, one way or the other,” he continued. “A tanker going down would be immediate but even without a spill, just the traffic and the allowable spillage would start to pollute the waters.”

“People talk about what a catastrophic spill would do,” Gwaii concurred, “but we don’t even need that for it to be catastrophic for us. Just the dribbling off one of these VLCCs (very large crude carrier) is enormous and would unalterably affect the whole coastline.”

“The spill that happened in Abbottsford was 100,000 liters and they were saying that’s not a big deal,” Gwaii continued. “If that’s not a big deal, what’s the threshold? They don’t have to report less than 20 liters.

"If that’s in your food supply, it’s a big deal.”

Jaalene noted that, whether the tanks went north or south around Haida Gwaii, spillage would harm the Haida. “Both areas are very important to us,” he said. “Right at the spit on the north side is the village where a lot of people make their income clam digging. If there was a spill anywhere around there, the whole village would be ruined for food.”

Gwaii pointed out that close to 2000 people eat well, even if they live below poverty threshold, because they have access to that food. “You can believe Enbridge’s job numbers or not,” he said, “but its thousands and thousands and thousands of people for generations and generations that can live well because we have access to that food. There’s no replacing that and there’s no dollar value on that.”

“Oil is disastrous, but the crude is worse,” Jaalene added. “It’s just not cleanable. It will sink and it will enter the food chain forever.”

When I asked the brothers about Enbridge’s promise of jobs, another long silence ensued.

“A good percentage of the promised jobs are in cleaning up the mess that this is bound to make,” Gwaii said. “It seems so ridiculous that it’s kind of mind boggling.”

“I think Enbridge and Canada expect it will just go ahead,” Gwaii continued. “I don’t think they understand how strong and passionate the opposition is. It will not go ahead.”

Then our conversation turned to the future of the Haida Nation. Both young men foresee a time when, rather than fighting to protect their territory, they will be working to re-create a sustainable economy for their nation.

“That can be just as much work,” Jaalene said. “It’s less glorious than fighting to protect something. Figuring out how to have an economy without destroying it -- that’s the hard thing.”

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