Natives' Land Battles Bring a Shift in Canada Economy

The New York Times, December 5, 2004

SKIDEGATE, British Columbia - In this rainy land of scarlet dawns and big black bears, workers are busy constructing a 40,000-square-foot extension to a museum that sits in a bushy cove where gray whales come to eat herring and roll over the shell beach to scratch barnacles off their bellies.

It is an ambitious project, not least because the hundreds of traditional masks, carvings and blankets the building is meant to display for the native Haida people still belong to some of the world's most prestigious museums. Resistance to the return of artifacts is likely, but the Haida have become used to challenging the rich and powerful, and winning. Today they are in the vanguard of what appears to be a renaissance of Indian nations in Canada that legal scholars and others say could determine ultimate control over many resources vital to Canada's future, including oil, timber and diamonds.

The Haida won a landmark case in November in Canada's Supreme Court obliging British Columbia to consult with them over land use anywhere on their traditional homelands here on the Queen Charlotte Islands. The decision is expected to have a sweeping impact on similar Indian claims across Canada. Adapting their old warrior ways to federal and provincial courtrooms, the Haida have already managed to slow efforts to clear-cut their lands by Weyerhaeuser and other companies. They have stalled plans by Petro-Canada and other companies to drill in ancestral waters should a government moratorium be lifted along the coast.

They are not alone in their efforts. Native bands are similarly exerting increasing control over natural resources across vast stretches of northern Canada that promise to be vital economically in a future of global warming. The developments have pleased environmentalists. But some legal experts warn that the stirrings represent a danger to the unity of a nation already struggling to keep separatist leanings in Quebec under control. There has not been a full-blown public debate on the issue, partly because most Canadians agree that native people deserve better conditions. "When you wed the notion of sovereign self-governments to land claims that are far-reaching and poisonous to investors, you create an ungovernable, uneconomic and unharmonious community of Canada," John D. Weston, a constitutional lawyer who has worked for the British Columbia government, said in an interview.

The balance of power is already tipping in a nation where a vast majority of the population lives within 100 miles of the United States border and rarely thinks about developments in the far north. In the Northwest Territories, the 4,000-member Dogrib band last year won the right to control fishing, hunting and industrial development over 15,000 square miles of territory. The nearby Deh Cho band has managed to stall a $6 billion gas pipeline project planned by ExxonMobil and several other companies through its traditional lands until Ottawa makes major financial and environmental concessions.

In the snowy woods of northern Quebec, the Cree made a deal three years ago with the provincial government giving them full autonomy and substantial powers to help manage mining, forestry and hydroelectric energy development. After Eskimos gained their own Arctic territory, Nunavut, in 1999, they have since won self-rule in northern Quebec and logging rights over a vast forest in Labrador. "The groundwork is being laid for the possibility that aboriginal people will have more power and real participation in national politics," said Dara Culhane, an anthropologist at Simon Fraser University.

For the Haida, their revival has yet to penetrate the consciousness of most Canadians. But already their efforts have produced a bright new chapter in a history of highs and lows that stretches back many centuries. The Haida carved the mightiest totem polls and swiftest canoes out of giant cedar trees before the Europeans arrived in the mid-18th century on this remote archipelago. They were fierce conquerors and vibrant storytellers, and their rich culture spread up and down the coast.

While never conquered in war, they were nearly wiped out by smallpox - reduced from a population of 6,000 or more to 500 by the late 19th century. Canadian government policies until the late 1960's focused on forcing them to assimilate, leaving only a handful of people speaking Haida and a sad tableau of poverty and addiction. There is still a lot of unemployment and substance abuse here, but there are signs of a rebirth. While the elders are taping 25,000 Haida idiomatic expressions to save the language, the use of Haida phrases in everyday conversation has become fashionable at the local high school. There is a boomlet of construction in totem poles and longhouses. Women are spearing abalone again.

In the village of Massett, the first Haida canoe wedding in the traditional style in 80 years was held last year, with the groom not permitted to paddle ashore with his family and friends for the ceremony until he agreed to love his bride forever and serve her breakfast in bed for the rest of her life. The Haida, like many native groups, has a high birthrate, and the population has grown again, to about 4,000 on the islands. A resurgence in handicrafts and spiritual healing has bolstered self-esteem.

When Ottawa created a new $20 bill this summer decorated with a print of a Haida myth depicting a raven, a frog, a grizzly bear and his human wife, the Bear Mother, the government intended to honor the ascendant band. "We've come into a new age," said Gilbert Parnell, a 39-year-old guide. "There's so much strength we find in our songs, dances and stories and we need to keep up the momentum to clean up our nation."

When the provincial government withdrew financing for a local program to maintain the salmon population three years ago, the Haida Nation took over operations to save jobs and keep Pallant Creek teeming with chum and coho salmon. The Haida are pushing forward with a land use program, using computer software to map surveys of bear dens, seabird nesting areas and other habitat to protect them from logging.

"We're a few thousand people with no resources except a stubborn belief that we are the owners of this land just as our parents and grandparents believed," said Guujaaw, the charismatic Haida president who uses only one name, while sitting on a log along a forest river. "If they fly the Canadian flag over the land, they think they have the right to spoil it. For us, that is unacceptable." Much of the renewed energy was generated in recent years by a successful effort to repatriate 500 ancestral remains from private collections and major museums in Canada and the United States, including the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

Village youth took part in making and painting burial boxes, cedar mats and button blankets to properly lay to rest ancestors who had been taken off the islands by researchers and thieves. Harold Williams, a 20-year-old student, said he was so inspired when he painted burial boxes and made cedar mats for the burials that it changed his life. He went on to make an animated movie of a Haida warrior capturing and slaying an escaped slave. "Its part of our history after all," he said. "We have the weight of the culture on our shoulders."