Haida Gwaii: On the Edge of the World

Haida Gwaii is a remarkable place. This remote archipelago off the Northwest coast of British Columbia attracted the attention of film director Charles Wilkinson and his partner/producer Tina Schliessler, who have made “some of the most important environmental documentaries being made in the world.” Haida Gwaii is world famous among environmentalists for managing to “draw a line in the sand and stop unsustainable development,” explains Wilkinson, and that is what sparked his creative interest.

Since first contact, the Haida people have suffered and survived outbreaks of smallpox that decimated their population, as well as government assimilation efforts aimed at wiping out Native culture and language. Exploitation of natural resources (excessive commercial logging and fishing) has also left its mark on the land and the people who live there, currently struggling with the impact of climate change and the showdown over the Northern Gateway pipeline. Greg Klymkiw of Film Corner has said Wilkinson’s latest work “might well provide the most persuasive aesthetic argument to save these islands at all costs.”

Alex Martinuik on the rocks. Haida Gwaii: On the Edge of the World.

Alex Martinuik on the rocks. Haida Gwaii: On the Edge of the World was directed by Charles Wilkinson.

Haida Gwaii: On the Edge of the World completes Wilkinson’s “Ok or not OK” eco-trilogy, which includes Peace Out and Oil Sands Karaoke. It is an inspiring and hopeful story that highlights the breathtaking natural beauty of Haida Gwaii and the unique community where 14,000 years of Haida tradition mingles with progressive, modern urbanites to create “a sustainable world that well may survive the formidable challenges of the 21st century.”

The film features Haida hereditary Chief Allan Wilson, renowned activist Guujaaw, and non-indigenous eco-activist Severn Cullis-Suzuki, in addition to local residents. It is a contemporary look at a community with ancient roots and resilient people; some were born there and some came to visit or work and loved Haida Gwaii so much they decided to spend the rest of their lives there.

The Haida Gwaii film took the top prize when it premiered at the 2015 Hot Docs Film Festival in Toronto and won Most Popular Canadian Documentary the Vancouver International Film Festival. “We’re really proud of the film,” Wilkinson says. “It tells the story of an amazing place and people—people who have endured and survived the worst this world can give. And they’ve done it with style, grace, intelligence, and humour.”

Screenings at the Rio Theatre in Vancouver have repeatedly sold out, and proceeds from special “benefit screenings” in support of opponents to the Site C dam go to the legal defense fund for defenders of the Peace Valley. Treaty 8 Stewards of the Land have occupied the remote Rocky Mountain Fort campsite (historically a fur trading post) since late December to defend their traditional territory against construction of the dam, which would flood 107 kilometres of the Peace River and its tributaries.

At a recent Vancouver screening, Grand Chief Stewart Phillip of the UBCIC spoke to the audience. He talked about his grown children and his many grandchildren and how important it is to preserve the wildlife and pristine forest and oceans for future generations. He also spoke proudly about the courageous group of land defenders camped in the Peace River Valley. Grand Chief Phillip recently visited the camp, accompanied by renowned environmentalist David Suzuki, to offer support.

A GoFundMe crowdfunding campaign has been set up for the Rocky Mountain Fort camp. To donate, go to [https://www.gofundme.com/s6c4s4vs].

Signs posted at Rocky Mountain Fort Campsite in the Peace River Valley.

Signs posted at Rocky Mountain Fort Campsite in the Peace River Valley.

The BC government insists the Site C dam project is necessary to provide for future power needs, but opponents say flooding the valley will destroy valuable farmland and devastate critical wildlife habitats. BC Hydro has been increasing construction activity in the area despite protests of Treaty 8 First Nations, local landowners, and environmentalists. The Peace Valley Environment Association, Sierra Club BC, and the Yellowstone to Yukon Wildlife Conservation Initiative are working together with farmers, First Nations, food security groups, conservation organizations, scientists, and concerned citizens to stop the Site C dam on BC’s Peace River. For more information, visit [www.StopSiteC.org].

B.C. Utilities Commission typically reviews energy projects before they begin construction, but they have not reviewed the Site C project. If the Canadian government is serious about improving relationships with Aboriginal peoples, Grand Chief Phillip believes reviewing the Site C proposal is a good place to start.

The UBCIC has denounced BC Hydro’s “deliberately provocative and reckless attempts at fast tracking construction” despite the legal uncertainty of the project. Although the matter is before the courts, BC Hydro has been moving equipment in toward the camp, while publicly saying they are speaking with protestors and local authorities to try to peacefully end the standoff. The RCMP made three arrests at the north bank entrance of the project in early January. No arrests have been made at the Rocky Mountain Fort campsite, but Grand Chief Phillip is “deeply concerned that BC Hydro’s actions are increasing tensions on the ground.”

“We are absolutely outraged that BC Hydro is working at the proposed dam site when critical court proceedings are in motion and a decision on Site C proceeding has yet to be determined,” Grand Chief Phillip said in a statement. “Members of Treaty 8 and landowners are defending their land and way of life, and in response BC’s Crown Corporation BC Hydro presents impoverished take-it-or-leave-it offers to private land owners and sends First Nation contractors to face-off with Treaty 8 Elders, women, and residents,” explains the Grand Chief. “It appears the sanctity of private land rights and the promise of reconciliation with First Nations do not apply at the proposed Site C site.” He added, “We completely reject the blatant hypocrisy and racist double standards being promoted by the BC Liberal government through its Crown Corporation BC Hydro.”

The road ahead looks difficult for stewards of the land. The proposed Kinder Morgan oil pipeline expansion will increase tanker traffic, and an oil spill along the BC coast would be devastating to the environment, the wildlife, the people, and the economy. Dam construction at Site C threatens critical habitat and some predict power costs will increase across the province, with benefit going to industrial interests and the people footing the bill.

Corporations and governments are intimidating entities with a lot of money to drive their will forward. They look at land and see expansion, resources, economic growth, and ears ring with the promise of jobs, money, a better “standard of living.” But to the people who live and breathe in the cradle of the Peace River Valley, their commitment to the land started long before there were corporations and industry, and it extends generations into the future. The land sustains them, and they want to preserve its bounty. Industry comes to resource-rich lands with its hands out and its mouth full of promises. When the land is destroyed and its resources ravaged, when the construction jobs dry up and the valley is flooded, what promises will be made after that?