Michael Yahgulanaas believes it’s time to make a gesture.
He’s not talking to the federal government or the provincial government, he’s talking to us out here on Bowen Island.
The islander, Haida, artist and self-described mischief-maker, spoke at Cove Commons Saturday as part of the library’s Nature of Home speaker series.
In WRECK-CONciliation: Now What? Yahgulanaas served up seaweed-sprinkled popcorn and lessons in despair and hope.
“We are on a trans-Canada road trip that starts here at mile zero,” started Yahgulanaas, progenitor of Haida Manga and author of War of the Blink and Red: a Haida Manga. “On this trans-Canada highway of reconciliation, one route is a dead end and the other opens a world of undiluted potential.”
“To persist on the route of the last 150 years is to choose a national car accident in which we risk our very lives and mark that decision in the wreck of conciliation,” he said.
Noting the century and a half of broken laws and broken promises on the part of the Canadian government and to Indigenous peoples, Yahgulanaas warned that Canadians can neither claim ignorance nor innocence. Not morally and not when threatened with “the final presentation of the
Darwinian Award” from the “deep fryer” of climate change.
“We cannot hide ourselves under the repeated acknowledgement of unceeded, untreatied and occupied lands,” he said. “This statement, however accurate, is a promise with no deed.
“We seem to be content that the Canadian constitutional requirement to properly find our place is not applicable to us the renters. We appear to hope that the relationship with the landlord lies entirely within the hands of our real estate agent, the federal government of Canada.
“What we become is at best party to illegal circumstance where the rule of law, the constitution, is buried by layers of inconsistent and flawed legislation.”
“This dangerous assumption that we are not accountable requires that we are compliant in the disregard for our own laws,” said Yahgulanaas.
“It is not Haida law, or to my limited understanding, it is not pan-Indigenous law, that says there must be a treaty. Rather, it is the Canadian Constitution and its Charter of Rights, 1982, and as far back as the Royal Proclamation of 1763, we said that our governing institutions and its citizens must make treaty with the pre-existing landlord, the Indigenous People.”
Yahgulanaas tied colonial history to the unsustainable divorce of economy from ecology and drew on his political and activist experiences on Haida Gwaii in the 1980s and ‘90s to chart a possible path away from the “moral, legal and ecological cliff we are facing.”
Raised on Haida Gwaii, where logging was a primary industry, Yahgulanaas started out working as a surveyor for a logging company. He worked his way up to being assigned his own parcel of land.
Yahgulanaas studied a swath of cedars and sitka on the side of a mountain for three months and engineered how it would be cut. When it was all over, Yahgulanaas returned to the site and couldn’t recognize the land.
Decades later, describing the Earth, red and raw, his voice cracked at the memory.
It was after that that Yahgulanaas found himself standing with his friends on Lyell Island, in 1985, blocking logging companies from cutting the old growth island forests. The small crew of Haidas fought the companies, lawyers, the province and found themselves in contempt of court and the centre of national media attention.
Eventually, they won. The dispute culminated in the 1993 Gwaii Haanas agreement, signed by both Council of the Haida Nation and Government of Canada.
As Yahgulanaas explains it, the agreement has two columns, one with how the Haida Nation sees the archipelago, the other with how the federal government sees it. After explaining their differences, the agreement lays out where the two parties agree – on the protection on of the land.
The land is now part of the Haida and Canadian co-managed The Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve and Haida Heritage Site and is managed through consensus-based decision making. Consensus-based decision making is where Yahgulanaas sees potential.
It was in those years, frightened, facing off against more influential, more experienced adversaries that Yahgulanaas said he learned the power of a gesture and the power of stepping outside of the lines.
The gestures Yahgulanaas described were seemingly small.
A janitor from New Brunswick sending the Haidas $18 a month during the blockade. A police officer crying upon return to Haida Gwaii after testifying against the activists. Police officers waking up the bleary-eyed young people to make sure they made it down to the blockade. But he described them as human acts, revealing a transcendent respect, a foundational brick for a relationship.
“I believe that we are ready as a Peoples, as a Nation, to truly reconcile the books,” said Yahgulanaas. “To take proper account and to do as we said we would do. I also believe that the path to this better place can begin with a small gesture.”
Yahgulanaas said that Indigenous people can’t be expected to step into colonial processes. New relationships and systems need to be built. He suggested reaching out to the nations that include Bowen in their traditional territories and asking what the municipality can do. And then doing it.
“Small government, particularly the one we currently enjoy here, can create landslides of progressive change far beyond our shorelines and historical blip,” he said.
“This island community, through the Bowen municipal government, has the opportunity to step forward and honestly acknowledge the systematic failings of 150 years of silly buggers and nasty, brutish games,” he said. “We can choose to speak directly to our neighbours and begin a conversation that reveals we are a community of high moral values and that we wish to treat others as we wish to be treated.
“We need to make a heartfelt commitment to be trusted and be trustworthy,” he said.
By the end of the evening the crowd was standing and at least 30 people signed a sheet asking to be part of the conversation and part of the gesture.
The talk was timely, not only on a global and national scale, but locally, the municipal council passed a resolution at the April 8 council meeting to invite the Squamish Nation to Bowen to discuss relationships and shared activities.