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Islands of the People

Haida Gwaii, Haida Nation (British Columbia)

One hundred kilometers west of the northern coast of British Columbia (and 600 km north of Vancouver), on the very edge of the Pacific continental shelf, lies a group of 200 islands. Since 1787, this archipelago has appeared on maps under the name of the Queen Charlotte Islands (Queen Charlotte was the wife of wife of George III of England). The people of the Haida nation, who have lived there for thousands of years, call their land Haida Gwaii or "Islands of the People."

It is estimated that at one time the Haida people numbered close to 30,000. Contact with Europeans was devastating; small pox and other diseases killed about 95% of the islands' population. Today, approximately 4,000 Haida live on the islands. Most of the population live on Graham Island which has two fairly large towns - Skidegate in the south and Old Massett in the north. Sandspit on Moresby Island is home to about 600 people, and is the only community in the archipelago not on Graham Island.

Far off shore, surrounded by the northern Pacific, Haida Gwaii is the most isolated land mass in Canada. It can only be accessed by boat, ferry or airplane. But the ocean currents around the islands have provided the people there with an abundance of forest and ocean-based resources which have sustained them for at least 9,000 years. Since the 1930s, the islands' economy has been based on forestry and commercial fisheries. With the decline in fish stocks and the need protect old-growth forests, the Haida have begun to develop their economy in new directions.

More than half of the BC sea lion population live in the waters around the Haida Gwaii; more than a quarter of the nesting seabirds in the Canadian Pacific are supported by the islands; and, the forests of Haida Gwaii contain some of the largest trees on the planet. In 1993, the Government of Canada and the Council of the Haida Nation signed the Gwaii Haanas Agreement to protect the unique wildlife, plant life and heritage of the islands. Gwaii Haanas National Park covers the southern part of the archipelago and is a protected heritage site. It includes the remains of Skung Gwaii which, with the agreement of the Haida, was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO (a United Nations organization) in 1981.

Gwaii Haanas and Skung Gwaii are staffed by Haida Watchmen who ensure that tourists respect the sites and the wildlife. They are part of a growing tourism industry on the islands, which is contributing to local economic development. To further support tourism and local education in Haida culture, the Haida plan to build a new $10 million cultural centre near Skidegate. Among other things it will house a museum containing a large portion of world-renowned Haida artist Bill Reid's work.

This article was written based on information at the following websites:

Canadian Heritage Information Network (a site featured at Expo '98 in Spain)

and a site by Haida Gwaii resident Clemens Rettich

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