The history of Gwaii Haanas is a story of determination and perseverance. In 1974 – in response to proposed logging plans by Rayonier Canada – a small group of concerned islanders drafted and presented the South Moresby Wilderness Proposal to the provincial government. The proposal drew lines on a map which, unbeknownst to all involved at the time, would be debated in local, regional, provincial, national and international forums over the course of 13 long and divisive years.
Movement on the proposal did not begin in earnest until the mid-1980s. In 1985 the Haida Nation designated the area a ‘Haida Heritage Site’; two years later a Memorandum of Agreement was signed by the Governments of Canada and British Columbia, and in 1988 the South Moresby Agreement designated the area as the ‘South Moresby National Park Reserve.’ The battle was long fought and, in the end, involved civil disobedience by the Haida community. The images of Haida elders protesting the rate and extent of timber extraction in their traditional territory captured the attention of a nation and drew enough support to protect the area.
Within the borders of Gwaii Haanas, there are hundreds of islands and islets, amounting to 1470 square kilometres of land. In 1991, UNESCO and the Council of the Haida Nation jointly declared the island of SGang Gwaay within Gwaii Haanas a World Heritage Site. This designation further increased and secured the exposure of Gwaii Haanas in national and international circles.
In 1993, the landmark Gwaii Haanas Agreement recognized the Haida name of the area, translated to mean “Islands of Beauty.” It also outlined the foundation for a co-operative relationship between the Canadian government and the Haida Nation: both governments agreed to disagree on land ownership in lieu of a shared commitment to mange the natural and cultural values of the area. This agreement has been widely hailed as the vanguard of progressive co-management arrangements between the federal government and First Nations.
Significantly, both the South Moresby Agreement and the Gwaii Haanas Agreement committed to establishing an adjacent “marine park.” This finally occurred in 2010 when the Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve and Haida Heritage Site was jointly established by the Government of Canada (represented by Parks Canada and Fisheries and Oceans Canada) and the Council of the Haida Nation, extending the Gwaii Haanas boundary 10 km offshore. With this new designation in place, Gwaii Haanas is the first area in the world formally managed from the mountain tops to the sea floor – nearly 5000 square kilometres of land and ocean.
Under the new Gwaii Haanas Marine Agreement (2010), Gwaii Haanas is managed through the Archipelago Management Board (AMB), a six-person body with three representatives from each government (for the Government of Canada: two Parks Canada, one DFO; and three Haida Nation representatives). Decisions are made by consensus and the AMB is considered accountable to both the Council of the Haida Nation and the Government of Canada. This cooperative management arrangement, now with DFO’s involvement, remains unique in the world.
Another distinctive feature of Gwaii Haanas is the Haida Gwaii Watchmen Program. The program was informally established in the 1970s due to concerns that sacred and old village sites were being vandalized and damaged and was later formalized in 1981 by the Skidegate Band Council and Council of the Haida Nation. Following designation of Gwaii Haanas in 1988, it began to actively participate in the operation and management of Gwaii Haanas. Although managed independently from Parks Canada, the program mandate is to safeguard Gwaii Haanas, ensuring that sites are protected and visitors are educated about the natural and cultural history of the islands. Watchmen cabins are located in the most popular cultural sites in Gwaii Haanas and staffed from May to September every year.
In 2005, Gwaii Haanas was ranked the top park destination in North America by a panel of tourism experts polled by National Geographic Traveler. Considerations included the level of ecological and cultural integrity and quality of management. Panelists noted that the area was among the most beautiful, bountiful, and spectacular areas they’d ever visited.
Gwaii Haanas received national and international attention once again in 2013 when the first monumental totem pole was raised at Windy Bay (Hlk’yah GaawGa) – the first pole to be raised in Gwaii Haanas in over 130 years.