Haida Gwaii, formerly called the Queen Charlotte Islands, is a seahorse-shaped archipelago located off the northwestern shores of the province of British Columbia. Over 150 islands comprise Haida Gwaii, stretching approximately 250 km north to south, and less than 100 km east to west. The Alaskan panhandle is a mere 40 km from the northern coast of the archipelago, and the maximum distance from the mainland (across Hecate Strait) is just over 100 km.
The temperate climate (moderated by the large bodies of water that surround the islands) and Haida Gwaii’s location on the continental shelf give rise to a diverse landscape. You will find mountainous terrain, west coast fjords, bog and lowlands, alpine tundra, and temperate rainforests throughout the archipelago. The remoteness and isolation of Haida Gwaii have also heavily influenced its ecology. Endemic species and sub-species give rise to Haida Gwaii’s reputation as the “Galapagos of the North” and generate interest in the islands’ contribution to theories of island biogeography.
The black bears on Haida Gwaii are a subspecies, noted for being larger than their mainland counterparts and having bigger heads and strong jaws that are well-suited for feasting on intertidal shellfish and salmon in the fall. Other subspecies on the islands include: pine martin, deer mouse, dusky shrew, short-tailed weasel, saw-whet owl, hairy woodpecker, and the Stellars jay. Indigenous plants, including several species of mosses and liverworts, can also be found in the archipelagos old growth forests and alpine areas.
Many comment on the abundance of marine life around Haida Gwaii. The oceanographic setting of Haida Gwaii is unique in that it marks the transition between the northern Alaskan current and the southern California current. There are diverse habitats along Haida Gwaii with a mix of shorelines – from the rocky headlands and sheltered pocket beaches of Gwaii Haanas, to the sandy dune coastline of north east Graham Island. Herring, rockfish, halibut, salmon, lingcod and blackcod are caught in the waters around Haida Gwaii, supporting both local subsistence harvesting and commercial fisheries. Gray and humpback whales migrate through the region, stopping to feed on the abundance of marine life in the area. There are numerous rookeries and haul-out sites for harbor seals and Stellar sea lions. Killer whales from three populations (northern and southern resident and offshore transient), fur seals, porpoises and dolphins are also sighted regularly.
Haida Gwaii is also a globally significant area for seabirds. The archipelago is home to 12 species of nesting seabirds, including Cassin’s auklet, ancient murrelet, marbled murrelet and horned and tufted puffins. It is estimated that 1.5 million seabirds breed in colonies on Haida Gwaii, and the islands serve as an important stopover for many migrating species. Other terrestrial bird species, including eagles, Peregrine falcons and red-tailed hawks are also commonly sighted.
Haida Gwaii is the traditional territory of the Haida Nation. Haida oral histories and art connect the Haida to the islands from ‘time immemorial’ to the present day. Origin stories tell of prominent events and supernatural beings including floods, ice woman, and the first tree on Haida Gwaii. The recent discovery of bear bones in a limestone cave suggests that the islands could support large mammals over 14,000 years ago—a time when the mainland was buried under ice. This was the time of the first people of Haida Gwaii.
At the time of first contact in 1774, the cultural traditions of the Haida were clearly well-developed, particularly in terms of arts, craftsmanship, language and identity. They were highly capable seafarers, and had well-established systems of resource management in which families, clans, and villages had area-based rights and responsibilities. Population estimates vary but the most recent archeological estimates range from 15,000 to 30,000 Haidas on Haida Gwaii in the late 18th century, scattered throughout the islands in ancestral villages.
Initial relations between Europeans and the Haida were generally peaceful and driven by trading activities, namely the maritime fur trade. Between approximately 1820 and 1850, steady economic activity eventually led to the collapse of the sea otter population and a subsequent decline in trade and economic relations. Similarly, trading came at another unforeseen cost—the arrival of European infectious diseases devastated native populations of the Pacific Northwest. The impact of smallpox, in particular, was immediate and extensive. A series of epidemics reduced the Haida population to less than 600 individuals by the early 20th century; by even the most conservative estimates, this represents a loss of over 90% of the Haida population over the course of less than one century. Consequently, many social and cultural traditions were lost, and old village sites were abandoned as survivors concentrated themselves in the two presently occupied Haida village sites, Skidegate and Massett.
Early Settlement on Haida Gwaii
By the mid-19th century the British were busy establishing colonial authority over the islands. However, British authorities did not secure aboriginal title under the provisions of British law, acquiring sovereignty over Haida Gwaii without negotiation, purchase or agreement. Despite lacking legal right to title, the British proceeded to issue mining licenses and regulate activities. Gold fever first reached the islands in 1851, and the first official government transaction on Haida Gwaii involved the leasing of 5,000 acres in Skidegate Inlet to the Queen Charlotte Coal Company of Victoria in 1865. A decade later, an experimental oilery to process oil from dogfish livers was established in Skidegate Landing, and was later expanded to include clam canning. As news of resource opportunities leaked south, a steady flow of wealth-seekers began to flood north. Industry and settlers had “discovered” the islands.
Gold and coal generated early interest in the islands, but industrial development was soon to expand; where buildings were established, small milling operations began to appear. The sites of Jedway, Ikeda, Pacofi, Tasu and Lockeport were established by prospectors for copper claims, fisheries production and cannery purposes, and later for iron ore production. The shared history of all of these sites is one of boom and bust—of fleeting riches followed by poverty and abandonment. The whaling stations of Rose Harbour and Naden Harbour followed a similar course and operated continuously until the 1940s when the parent company, Consolidated Whaling Incorporated, declared bankruptcy.
This ebb and flow of rags and riches did not temper pioneer optimism however. In the early 20th century, Graham Island townsites began to appear with regularity and Queen Charlotte City, Masset, and Port Clements were all established. The BC government was actively promoting settlement on the islands by encouraging British citizens to stake claims on unsurveyed territory. At the same time however, they were also issuing coal, petroleum, and timber licenses with abandon, and without clear surveys. Where competing claims occurred between industry and pioneers, the pioneers inevitably lost.
Technology also influenced the pace of development on the islands. Steamships made transportation more accessible and the flow of goods, services, and people began to increase. The invention of the tin can enabled fish processing and the concentration of people around canneries – a significant influence in terms of dissolving traditional Haida community ties. The internal combustion engine also established new economic linkages with the mainland. It was not long before resource industries came to dominate the islands’ economy, with logging operations and canneries becoming the most important sources of income for local residents. But resource booms are inevitably unsustainable, and two successive World Wars, prohibitive transportation costs, and ever-changing resource policies and regulations underscored a volatile 20th century for Haida Gwaii.
The 21st Century on Haida Gwaii
According to the 2011 census, Haida Gwaii is home to fewer than 5,000 people. Seven communities comprise the population centers: Masset and Old Massett at the mouth of Masset Inlet on the north shore of Graham Island, Port Clements in central Graham Island, Tlell on the east coast of Graham Island, Skidegate at the mouth of Skidegate Inlet, the Village of Queen Charlotte tucked in Skidegate Inlet, and Sandspit on north Moresby Island. The population is roughly split along a north/south divide, with the Masset/Old Massett and Queen Charlotte/Skidegate corridors accounting for the bulk of the population. Old Massett and Skidegate are designated ‘Indian Reserves’ under the Indian Act and the majority of people of Haida ancestry on the islands live in these two communities.
Services in all communities are limited. There are two hospitals on the islands, in Queen Charlotte and Masset, and banking facilities are also only available in these two communities. Airport facilities are located in Sandspit and Masset, and the BC ferries terminal is situated mid-way between Queen Charlotte and Skidegate (approximately 5 km from each) at Skidegate Landing. Despite being the location of the largest airport on the islands, Sandspit is the most isolated from other islands’ communities due to its location on north Moresby Island. A 20 minute ferry serves to connect Sandspit with Graham Island, crossing from Alliford Bay to Skidegate Landing. The six Graham Island communities are spread over 140 kilometres of paved highway from Queen Charlotte in the south to Old Massett and Tow Hill in the north.
The early 1980s marked the beginning of a long period of transition for the islands’ communities. The battle for, and eventual designation of, Gwaii Haanas marked a shift in the islands’ economy. The jobs vs. environment debate grew louder and garnered international attention, as did the issue of Haida title; together, these concerns would dominate debate on resource rights and access for decades. On Haida Gwaii, the reality of transitioning communities hit hard and fast as locals grappled with the challenges of economic diversification and the islands’ primary resource sectors became less accessible and lucrative. The designation of Gwaii Haanas in 1988, however, also served as a benchmark for Haida Gwaii in many respects: it diversified the economic base of the islands by promoting tourism-related growth on the islands; it increased Haida influence and authority at provincial, national, and international levels; and it demonstrated that it is possible to successfully challenge the status quo from the local level.
Today, islanders maintain a strong sense of place. The growing political influence of the Haida Nation has strengthened the Haida communities and afforded new opportunities for the next generation, both Haida and other island residents. Haida Gwaii is an extraordinary place to live – at times it can be challenging as groceries don’t always arrive on time and internet connections are slower, but it is always exciting and rewarding.