Published in the Haida Gwaii Observer, March 2, 2012
The drums pounded rhythmically, the song filled the hall, the hereditary chiefs proceeded solemnly down the main aisle, as more than 250 people looked on.
It was just after 9 am on day one-Tuesday- of the federal-provincial joint review panel hearing into the Enbridge project on the islands in the community hall in Old Massett.
“Haida Gwaii is our home. Just saying that sounds so powerful,” Alan Wilson-Chief Sgaann 7iw7waans said, welcomed everyone. The Haida people and the Haida Nation have had battles in the past, he said, but “we’ve always come out the victor.
“We have the support of many,” he said, this is our home, Haida Gwaii, and we the people…will protect it at all costs.”
Haida Nation president Guujaaw was the first to formally testify to the panel. His presentation lasted the better part of an hour. He started by describing his early life in Masset, gathering cockles, sea cucumbers and catching smelts.
It was ” typical how our people had developed a relationship with the land, from the early days,” Guujaaw said.
He also told the three member panel that today, he’s able to feed his family “probably five times a week” from the ocean around.
“This is the way I keep in touch with the land,” he said.
Guujaaw talked about Haida stories that go back before the ice age, about 10,000 years ago.
“We know of the time when the whole Hecate Strait was dry land. People lived there and hunted caribou and elk there, and lived in an entirely different way than we do today.”
“We are here to try to make you understand how a culture is born and how it develops,” he said. “Our culture is about how close we can be to the earth. All the material culture is directly from the earth.”
Guujaaw also said it became clear many years ago that industrial exploitation of the islands could be the death knell for Haida culture.
“Where disease and oppression had failed, the destruction of our lands did stand to destroy our culture,” he said.
“In this sanctuary, at this time, if you consider all that has happened to this earth, how many places on this earth can you still go and get your own food? There aren’t that many,” he said, noting that today, food is becoming more and more industrialized, resulting in health problems for many people.
Guujaaw also spoke about the problems oil tankers would create, including bringing introduced species from Asia in their ballast tanks.
“Any place where there is heavy shipping, there is heavy movement of other animals from one place to another. All of these things are of great concerns of ours.”
He said the oil from the proposed Enbridge project “is not essential to life on this planet and would be nothing but grief for the people who live here.”
Margaret Edgars of Old Massett was the next to give testimony to the panel.
She explained how she had learned about Haida traditions and practices from her parents and elders, and said that seafood is the basic food for Haida people.
“If we don’t gather seafood,” she said, “we don’t eat.”
She talked about gather clams and chitons, and even offered some tips on cooking the latter. “Boil them just a short time, they taste almost like abalone,” Ms Edgars said. She also shared the traditional observation that if it’s a good year for berries, it’s going to be a good year for fish.
“If we had an oil spill on our island here, it would be devastating on our way of life,” she said.
Following a short break, Reg Davidson of Old Massett addressed the panel. He underlined that fish is the “number one staple” for him,
“As long as I have been alive, and for generations, there has been an abundance of seafood here. It’s quite scary when the outside world comes onto our territory, when they’re talking about oil tankers,” he said. “We as a people, we survive on the ocean. This is the way we have lived from the beginning of time, and we still do this today.”
Oliver Bell of Old Massett listed all the places that are important to him as a seafood gatherer and a hunter. He said his uncle taught him where to catch various species, and to have respect for them. “I think there is a strong spiritual connection between the Haida people and the ocean,” he said,
“It’s like Russian roulette. That’s what I see happening if you have an oil spill. Our culture and everything would die,” he said. “I want my children and their children to have the same opportunity that I have today,” Mr. Bell said.
The panel returns to the islands for two days of hearings in March in Skidegate.