In March 2006, I spent a week in British Columbia to learn of developments in two areas of great importance to my work – sustainable development and aboriginal languages.
Sustainable development is an approach that balances the needs of the environment and the economy. During my trip, I met with BC Minister of Agriculture and Lands, the Hon. Pat Bell, to learn about exciting new land management practices on Central and North Coast British Columbia. I also traveled to Haida Gwaii (Queen Charlotte Islands) where the Council of Haida Nations has a co-management agreement with Parks Canada for the Gwaii Haanas Park Reserve and Haida Heritage Site.
Another subject that has long been of interest to me is the preservation and promotion of Aboriginal languages. I visited a very special Haida language project in Skidegate as well as a BC organization that works with Aboriginal languages around the world.
In February, 2006, Premier Campbell announced a Land and Resource Management Plan (LRMP) for the North and Central Coast of British Columbia. This plan covers an area of about 64,000 square kilometers (one third the size of the Deh Cho region). This area, dubbed the Great Bear Rainforest by environmentalists, includes some of the most beautiful and environmentally sensitive lands and waters in BC. It is also rich in forest and mineral resources and has tremendous potential for tourism. It is an area of great importance to Aboriginal People who make up half the population in the region.
For twenty years, there has been conflict over land use on the North and Central Coast between government, industry, First Nations and environmentalists. Blockades and other actions as well as international boycotts created a “War of the Woods.” Yet, the new agreement has the support of all four groups and has been hailed as a model for land use throughout BC and beyond. It struck me that there might be valuable lessons to be learned that could apply in the NWT so I traveled to Victoria to see how this historic agreement had been reached.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Minister Pat Bell told me that the agreement was reached through a lot of hard work and tough negotiating. Hundreds of meetings were held throughout the region over several years. The key was having dedicated and creative negotiators who tackled old problems from new perspectives. Leadership at the highest levels of all four groups was essential.
Everyone involved had to gain something from the settlement. Industry wanted an opportunity to do business, even if on a much smaller area of land. Environmentalists wanted the most critical habitats and watersheds protected. First Nations wanted a strong voice in decisions over land use and full participation in the economy. Government wanted an end to conflict. All of these goals were addressed in the agreement.
The agreement will create a 1.8 million hectare park on the coast which includes 200,000 hectares for the Kitasoo Spirit Bear Conservancy. In total, 6.4 million hectares will be controlled under the new Land and Resource Management Plan. Resource development, in particular, forestry, will be strictly regulated but allowable in certain areas under a new regime called Ecosystem Based Management. Mining and eco-tourism will still be allowed in 3% of the central and 10% of the north coast.
This agreement paves the way “for finalizing government-to-government land use agreements with First Nations. This will enable the formation of Land and Resource Forums allowing the Province and First Nations to work together to finalize and implement land use plans the incorporate the cultural values and ecological and economic interests of the First Nations.” (BC Government News Release).
One interesting element of the agreement is a $105 million fund for environmentally friendly economic development by First Nations. The Nature Conservancy, a US based environmental organization, raised about half of the money privately and the government of BC is contributing $26 million. It is hoped that Western Economic Diversification Canada will provide the remaining funds. “This really represents conservation in the 21st century. It’s not an all or nothing proposition – all protected or all used. To conserve globally important natural habitat worldwide on a scale that will be meaningful, we have to contemplate human use.” Steve McCormick, CEO of The Nature Conservancy.
There is still much hard work to do before this agreement can be implemented. Ecosystem Based Management is still being designed and a few First Nations have not gotten involved in the land use planning process. Finally, the economic development fund still has to be finalized both in terms of money and design. It is expected to take up to three years to complete this process.
The Archipelago Management Board (AMB) for the Gwaii Haanas Park Reserve and Haida Heritage Site was established, after many years of conflict and six years of active negotiation, in 1993 through an historic co-management agreement.
The agreement – between the Government of Canada and the Council of the Haida Nation – begins with a statement setting out the differing views of the two parties with respect to sovereignty, title and ownership of “the Archipelago” and the common objective with respect to the preservation and protection of the area. Haida cultural activities and traditional renewable resource harvesting activities are protected but harvesting for commercial purposes (other than trapping) is prohibited.
The agreement establishes the AMB with two representatives from each party which will “examine all initiatives and undertakings related to the planning, operation and management of the Archipelago.”
I traveled to Queen Charlotte City to meet with the AMB on March 9th – just in time for their first snow storm of the year! With thirteen years of experience working together, the Gwaii Haanas AMB have faced all of the issues that First Nations and Parks Canada representatives are likely to deal with in co-management arrangements. Certainly, my impression was of a group of people who were comfortable together and who shared common goals.
Many of the early meetings were contentious as they tried to work through difficult issues, including staffing, funding for Haida organizations and allocation of economic opportunities. Nevertheless, all the issues were resolved without ever having to resort to higher level negotiations or outside arbitration. At present, half of the thirty staff members, including the Superintendent, are Haida and 50% of the operating licenses in the Reserve have been reserved for Haida companies – although they have not yet chosen to take them up. Stable funding is also provided to the Gwaii Haanas Watchmen, a Haida organization, which mans stations within the Haida Heritage Site in areas of special environmental and cultural significance.
Although the AMB appears to working well, not everyone agrees that the current arrangement is in the best interest of the Haida. One prominent leader told me he thought, that while the jobs in Gwaii Haanas were welcome, there were still lots of problems with the arrangement and it needed to be completely revised or scrapped. This is a topic I’ll need to investigate further.
During my visit to Haida Gwaii, I also had a chance to visit a remarkable language project that has been underway in Skidegate for a number of years. The Skidegate Haida Immersion Program (SHIP) is revitalizing the Haida language – much of which has been lost in the long years of contact with English and, especially because of the residential school experience.
Every day, Haida elders (many in their 80s and some well into their 90s) come together for five hours in a traditional longhouse-style building overlooking the ocean to work on the Haida language. By talking together, they are able to remember words and expressions from their youth. To date, they have built up a glossary of over 7000 words and expressions. All of the conversations are recorded and as the meaning of each word is rediscovered it is placed in a computer data base. Some days they work the entire five hours to clarify the meaning of a single word, others, they are able to get ten or more words in a single session. “Any day we add something to the database is considered a good day,” Diane Brown, coordinator of the program told me.
As one traditional Haida chief put it: “It is like a refresher course in Haida. I am teaching myself my own language.” Elders are not the only ones who participate in SHIP. Students of all ages attend classes – regularly or on a drop-in basis – to learn the Haida language. SHIP also produces CDs with Haida language lessons and traditional stories for use in teaching. One day they hope to have sufficient resources produced to strengthen the limited Haida language programs in local schools. The difficulty, as always, is to excite young people about the language and make it seem relevant and useful in a world dominated by TVs and computers.
The work of SHIP is a remarkable testament to the importance that Aboriginal people place on their language. It made me realize how lucky we are in the North that many of languages are still widely spoken, at least in the smaller communities. It also made me realize that we have to work hard to find ways to preserve out languages and make sure they remain a part of our lives. As recent newspaper reports indicate, language loss is already happening in larger centres in the Northwest Territories and new ways to make the language relevant to young people are essential.
One such approach is that taken by the First Peoples’ Cultural Foundation and their FirstVoices program. Located in Victoria, FirstVoices works with Aboriginal groups across British Columbia, throughout Canada and around the world to help them retain, restore and revitalize their languages. I’ve been aware of FirstVoices for several years and have tried to support their work in a variety of ways. While in British Columbia, I visited their offices to learn more about their recent activities.
To quote from their brochure, “FirstVoices assists communities in the preservation and revitalization of their languages with a set of on-line tools and valuable hands-on training.... Elders are speaking and youths are recording them, placing the materials in the FirstVoices web-based archive.” I think this is the real strength of the program – it links the language skills of grandparents with the technical knowledge and enthusiasm of their grandchildren, helping to bridge the gap of language loss caused by residential schools.
Some of the funds for FirstVoices come from government but much of it also comes from corporations and individuals. They see the value of language for the future of Aboriginal communities – not just for self-worth and identity but also to ensure traditional knowledge about the land, rooted in aboriginal languages, is not lost. Aboriginal communities contribute, too, by volunteering their time as in the SHIP program or by allocating scarce community funds to this important task.
The newest project sponsored by FirstVoices is a program to publish books in Aboriginal languages in partnership with Tafford Publishing. This program, which is available worldwide, allows Aboriginal language communities to create books in their own language affordably and efficiently. From language primers to be used in schools to books on traditional knowledge, this is a wonderful opportunity for communities whatever the current state of their language.
For more information about FirstVoices, visit their website at www.FirstVoices.com