Canada

The Haida Gwaii’s fight to save centuries-old ‘trees of life’

Lisa White-Guuyang recalls the touch of her clan grandmother’s hand, guiding her in gently peeling a handspan of bark from the mammoth red cedars used to weave traditional baskets of the Indigenous Peoples of B.C.’s Haida Gwaii.

“Don’t take more than you need,” she would tell her. “We don’t want to harm the tree.”

Fifty years later, most of those giants — which can live a thousand years and grow to nearly 200 feet tall — are gone.

“I have watched our forests disappear my entire life,” Lisa laments. She and her family have fought for generations to preserve Haida artistic and spiritual traditions. Now, they must also fight to save the trees that give birth to those traditions.

Blockading logging operations, giving speeches, writing letters, creating video sand social media campaigns — Lisa speaks for her people, her ancestors and future generations that don’t have a voice, she says.

Haida Gwaii’s ancient cedars, many worth upwards of $20,000 as lumber, are being cut down at an alarming clip. More than 2,000 hectares of Haida forests are clear cut each year, according to the University of British Columbia, and Lisa’s family must now drive hours to find old-growth cedars healthy enough to harvest for their totem poles, canoes, bentwood boxes, masks and weaving.

The Whites live in Old Massett, a tiny hamlet on the northern coast of Haida Gwaii, 40 kilometres across open sea from Alaska. The family’s artistry comes naturally as descendants of Chief Da.a xiigang Charles Edenshaw, a world-renowned carver whose 19th and early 20thcentury work has been exhibited alongside the likes of Emily Carr and A.Y. Jackson.

Lisa and her sister Sharleen are cedar weavers. Their brothers, Christian, Derek and Todd, are carvers and painters whose work has been displayed in museums in Canada and the U.S.

Though the White family works with tradition every day, Lisa says that they are traumatized by watching the Haidatrees of life” leave the islands.

“The devastation of our land is so connected to the trauma of our people,” she says, a trauma she is reminded of every day as she watches from her art studio the barges carrying cedar logs to a lumber hungry world.

Accomplished Haida carver Christian White works on a reconciliation pole at his workshop in Old Massett. White says the monumental, centuries old cedar logs needed to make great works of Haida art are getting harder and harder to find.

Her brother Christian was introduced to Indigenous traditions the same time as Lisa, watching the raising of a totem pole by sculptor Robert Davidson when he was seven.

“Before that I never understood that we were Haida people,” he says. “I got a real sense of pride.”

Trees suitable for totems and canoes must be old, he says. Really old. The cedar for a totem Christian raised recently was six feet in diameter and 800 years old and he worries now about finding such ancient specimens for his work.

“They are cutting old growth cedar at far too high a rate,” he says. “Even the younger generation of cedar that is 200 to 300 years old” needs to be saved to use in a century.

A Haida tree planting manager who wished to remain anonymous surveys a cut-block managed by Taan Forest.

The Haida have not stood in silence amid the devastation. Many of its people were arrested during the Lyell Island anti-logging blockade in Haida Gwaii in 1985, making international headlines with footage of dozens of elders being ferried away in RCMP helicopters. The demonstrations ignited Indigenous rights movements across the country and led to the establishment of the 1,495-square-kilometre Gwaii Haanas National Park and Reserve in 1993.

The British Columbia provincial government has been involved as well. Since 2012, it has worked collaboratively with the Haida Nation to restrict logging to 800,000 cubic metres of timber annually — a third of the level of 30 years ago.

But logging in Haida Gwaii is said to extract enough wood every year to run two-by-fours around the earth more than 40 times. And with southern and western areas of the archipelago protected, logging is now taking place in more concentrated areas that are closer to Haida villages in the north, forcing people who wish to continue traditional relationships with red cedar forests, like Lisa’s family, to travel hours to find suitable trees.

Aerial photos of Graham Island, where the White family lives, show hectares of clear-cut blocks scarring the landscape. Deforestation is also edging close to watersheds that spawn salmon, according to the Pacific Salmon Foundation. Stocks of the fish, the primary food source of the Haida for thousands of years, are vanishing.

“They are cutting down all the trees and … we have watersheds that we need to protect,” says Charlotte Jones, a Haida environmental activist. “Wildlife like bears and deer have nowhere to go, so they are coming into our village.”

The distance between Masset and Queen Charlotte City, Haida’s two largest villages, is only 110 kilometres. But maps show approximately 5,000 kilometres of logging roads criss-crossing the island between the two towns.

A screen grab of a logging barge in Masset Inlet near Old Massett from a YouTube video "Clear cutting Haida Gwai."

In 2018, the community held an occupation at St’aala Kun, or “Collison Point,” to block old-growth logging by Husby Forest Products, an exporter of raw logs from Haida Gwaii for more than 50 years. But Husby swiftly obtained a B.C. Supreme Court injunction to eject protesters.

It takes eight hours by car or two hours by boat to get to many logging sites on Haida Gwaii, so recent protests have received little attention, and Lisa says environmental organizations do not have enough staff or volunteers to check every industry-cut block to ensure foresters are not taking more than their allotment.

The forest industry has been making a particularly aggressive assault on Haida’s coveted red cedars, according to the David Suzuki Foundation, because the industry no longer has access to remaining stands of red cedar in the U.S. The species represents 30 per cent of Haida forests but comprises the majority of recent cuts.

“We should have stopped cutting 20 years ago,” says Herb Hammond, a forest ecologist and retired forester who lives part time on Haida Gwaii. “These are the most carbon-dense forests on the planet, and the highest in biological diversity.”

Even though nearly half of Haida Gwaii is protected, these areas will break down on their edges as foresters degrade the ecological integrity of adjacent areas, Hammond says.

Complicating matters is the fact that some Haida see forestry as essential to their economy, Lisa says, so there is tension among residents. The Haida nation itself owns a logging company, Taan Forest, which provides employment for about 100 people in the area. (Taan Forest and Husby Forest Products did not respond to requests for interviews.)

The B.C. government also heavily subsidizes forest companies spending an average of $1 million a day more on forest management than its revenue from stumpage fees and taxes, according to estimates by David Broadland founder of the Evergreen Alliance.

“The forest industry does not need incentives to continue the devastation of clear-cutting our forests,” says Lisa, who wonders if subsidies could be put to better use creating environmentally friendly employment in Haida Gwaii.

The White family's newly raised totem was carved by Christian out of an 800-year-old cedar. "We are the cedar people. It's about time we got our rights back so we can carry on with our culture."

Dr. Suzanne Simard and Dr. Teresa (Sm’hayetsk) Ryan of the University of British Columbia, have recommended making Haida a UNESCO Biosphere Protected Area Reserve, which would benefit the Haida through tourism. A UNESCO reserve would provide a source of employment as well as protecting the forests, Lisa says.

Lisa proposed a resolution in the Haida House of Assembly in November 2021 to create an Indigenous Protected and Conservation area across the northern region of Haida Gwaii that would protect the areas closest to where most of their people live. She is still waiting for action.

The White family’s newly raised totem pole symbolizes the pride of Edenshaw’s descendants. There is the grizzly bear, the shark, the sea grizzly, the killer while, the moon and the raven telling different stories and praying for the family, Christian says.

He hopes that the pole will stand a century from now and give the next generation pride in who they are.

“We are the cedar people,” White says. “It’s about time we got our rights back so we can carry on with our culture.”

Katharine Lake Berz is a writer based on Vancouver Island and in Toronto. [email protected]

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