Haida Gwaii's Next Wave

How hope for the future could reside in the new heritage centre.

By Crawford Kilian 26 Sep 2008 |

Crawford Kilian is a contributing editor of The Tyee.

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Amber and Nonnie from 'Islands of the People.'

Education in Haida Gwaii faces the same challenges as most schools in rural B.C.: shrinking enrolments, low completion rates and declining local industries.

But the islanders have developed a potential way to succeed in the future by exploring their own past.

I was lucky enough to attend the first day of school at Queen Charlotte Secondary early in September. It started with a teacher "drumming in" the students to their first assembly in the school gym. They didn't take up much space -- enrolment is 150, about the same as last year.

They listened to Angus Wilson, who used to be the school principal but is now the superintendent of School District 50, which includes all of Haida Gwaii. Wilson explained that he was helping the new acting principal for the first few days.

I could see that Wilson was very comfortable with the kids, and they with him. He ran them through a short PowerPoint show on what the school expects of them, and offered a tip: Leave the iPods at home, not in your backpack or locker where they might be stolen.

Facing challenges

Angus Wilson and his colleagues face some real challenges. He's dealing with the pressures of a failing rural economy. The total population of Haida Gwaii is 4,800, with about 1,900 being Haida.

The school district has 700 students, most of them in four locations: Queen Charlotte City and Skidegate in the south of Graham Island, Port Clements in the middle and Masset/Old Masset in the north. More than half the students are of Haida or other aboriginal descent.

Like any small community, Haida Gwaii has complicated politics. Language is a major factor. Over every classroom and office at Queen Charlotte Secondary is a carved wooden sign in Haida: the principal's office is K'uula Naay, "Big Man's House." The boys' toilets are Ilhllnga and the girls' are Jaada. When Wilson gets on the school public-address system to announce something, he signs off with "Howa'a" -- Haida for "thank you."

Quite a few people attend the Skidegate Haida Immersion Program, including Wilson, but he notices few young Haidas bothering to learn their ancestors' language.

The student population has dwindled by 200 in the last eight years, and the school district expects the shrinkage to continue. A disturbing proportion of its young people don't graduate from high school within six years of entering Grade 8. Province-wide, the completion rate is around 80 per cent. In Haida Gwaii, says Wilson, "It is usually around 50 per cent Haida and 70 per cent non-Haida."

Why students don't complete school

Wilson sees several reasons: "Often northern students move to Vancouver or equivalent and never enroll, discover interesting things, and eventually come back in their early 20s.

"We have many students who are close to graduating but leave for work and never come back for the one course they need -- the $9/hour they are receiving seems like big money.

"We have a very high rate of special education students.... They never 'graduate,' despite having successful school careers." And a certain number, he says, simply prefer to work or party. Wilson praises his staff, who include many Aboriginal teachers: "I'm proud of the work they do, not just in the classroom but in linking up with our communities. It really is a strength."

Like so many rural B.C. communities, Haida Gwaii is struggling to find new roles and jobs for its young people. White or Haida, kids can't just follow in their parents' footsteps. Logging is a fraction of what it once was. So is fishing.

Tourism is the obvious answer, and as a tourist I can see why: Haida Gwaii is astoundingly beautiful, and its history is comparable with the Greece of the Iliad and the Scandinavia of the Vikings. Even the racist traders of the 18th and 19th centuries were stunned by the Haidas' skills in architecture, art, and marine engineering… not to mention their business acumen.

But it costs a lot to get to Haida Gwaii. It costs still more to explore the islands and ruined towns that are now part of Gwaii Haanas, one of our greatest national parks. You can't support a culture -- or an economy -- on a few planeloads of rich tourists.

A new source of wealth?

But education may bring other sources of wealth. The islands' most important event this year has been the opening of the Haida Heritage Centre on the western edge of Skidegate. It stands on a small cove like an ancient Haida village: Cedar-built houses with splendid canoes drawn up on the beach, including Bill Reid's famous Loo Taas, "Wave Eater."

Built from 700 old-growth cedars, the centre expresses a culture that cherishes its past and has the confidence to build on it. It includes a carving shed, a conference area designed like a Haida house, and a museum with astonishing exhibits. Significantly, it also includes classrooms where staff (including Parks Canada employees) can explain and interpret what the centre contains.

The centre is a reminder of the Haidas' powerful culture. Even before the smallpox pandemic of the 1860s, they never numbered more than 10,000. Yet their art is part of the world's image of Canada. (The reverse side of our $20 bill is all Haida images.)

Listening to presentations on Haida food and the archaeology of the islands, I could see that the centre has the potential to be far more than a tourist destination. It could be a major centre for scholarship and teaching -- and about more than Haida culture alone.

Part of a larger world

"Things happen here that don't happen in Canada," one young Haida man observed in a Port Clements restaurant. To a remarkable extent, this small archipelago with 4,800 inhabitants is part of a larger world, the circum-Pacific world that includes the Aleutians, Kamchatka, the northern islands of Japan and even Korea.

The peoples of this world are grappling with shocks like those that nearly destroyed the Haida a century and a half ago: global trade, destruction of natural resources, alcohol and drugs, the domination of outsiders. Somehow the Haida saved themselves from extinction. The rest of us might be wise to learn how they did it.

So Haida Gwaii, though its high-school completion rate is low, has the potential to become a focus for advanced studies in ecology, climatology, anthropology, and the arts. Universities from Seoul to San Diego could establish programs using not just the centre but everything from Cape St. James to Langara Island. Indigenous peoples from the Ainu to the Hopi could gather on the shores of Hecate Strait to learn from one another.

On the trail to Spirit Lake, our Haida guide said that her people had long ago journeyed to California, Hawaii and Japan. They had both the courage and the skills for great adventures. If they could do it once, they can do it again.

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