A growing cohort of Indigenous groups taps into the “next big economy”: tourism.
“You’re on the Seabus, and we’re on Haida Gwaii,” proclaims a man in suspiciously city-dude clothes, leaning in through the front door of the boat cabin. He and a few other guests have opted to embrace the wind and buck of the choppy sea from the foredeck of our 28-foot, custom-made aluminum landing craft. The rest of us choose to remain comfortably ensconced in the dozen or so shock-absorbing suspension seats of the enclosed cabin.
Just this morning, all of us had been closer to a Seabus commute than an ocean-going voyage. But after a two-hour flight from YVR’s South Terminal to the Sandspit airport, then a mind-bending helicopter hop—shooting the gaps between peaks like velvet-tattered antlers peeling lush vegetation—and a short boat ride, we arrived at Ocean House. The new Haida-owned floating eco-lodge is moored in an inlet on the serrated edge of this northern B.C. archipelago, islands with a mystique reaching near-mythic proportions.
In the past, much of the high-end tourism that came to Haida Gwaii didn’t have much to do with the Haida. A flight into the airport, a short walk across the tarmac to a waiting helicopter and straight out to a fishing lodge. At the end of the trip, the process was reversed, except with boxes upon boxes of Styrofoam coolers filled with fish. Each year these sport fishers take tens of thousands of pounds of fish away with them but often not an ounce of knowledge about Haida culture. They also leave no significant contribution to the local economy.
From when the fur traders first came to what was then known as the Queen Charlotte Islands until now, that’s been the story of this place: mass resource extraction benefiting off-islanders. “Tourism is our next big economy,” says one of our young Haida guides, Jaylene Shelford, who had previously worked with another Haida tour operator down in the Gwaii Haanas reserve. “It’s really the only non-depletable resource. We need to move away from reliance on activities like mining, logging, fishing—things that take away from the islands. The Polynesians and the Hawaiians managed to build a strong tourism industry. It’s something we can do, too, as a small community on a group of little islands.”
Now, almost 35 years after the internationally heard Lyell Island logging protests, the Haida, through a parent company, HaiCo, have made significant inroads into participating in and shaping how industries on the islands are run. With the purchase of West Coast Resorts, HaiCo gained two operating fishing lodges and a 12-guest-room barge lodge that was in dry dock in Milbanke Sound.
After a luxe renovation, complete with a longhouse-inspired bar, button-blanket headboards, a full spa, and a rebrand as Ocean House, they towed the barge to this remote location. It joins over 400 Indigenous tourism businesses in the province that together generate over $700 million; an estimated one in four overnight visitors to B.C. will experience them.
During the days, when we’re not eating lavishly and getting pampered stupid, we explore the rugged coast. Our guides out on the water include Shane Bell, a.k.a. Tuna—sporting a tiny cedar hat on a tight man bun—and our quiet driver, Nico York. Samantha Rullin, formerly with HaiCo and now with Indigenous Tourism BC, grew up with these two, and she points out an added benefit to the new operation. “It’s a way for people from the Haida Nation to present their culture in a way that they find respectful, but it’s also a way for Indigenous people to connect with their culture.”
The Haida themselves don’t necessarily have the means to visit these relatively inaccessible ancient village sites and see such things as an incredibly well-preserved standing pole sheltered in an old-growth forest. Nothing compares to actually standing in the thick moss, feeling the energy of the land, and hearing Shelford present a song using a drum handed down from her great-grandmother.
One afternoon, we join Pansy-Kaakuns Collison, a weaver, artist-in-residence and member of the Council of Haida Nation, on a trip up Stads K’uns GawGa (Peel Inlet) in search of a plant medicine. The outer bark of the plant is so powerful, it has found traditional use in everything from promoting fertility to treating dry skin, arthritis and depression. The exact details of its use are a closely guarded secret, preserved through generations.
Yet what also proves powerful is spending the time out on the land together, hearing Collison’s stories. She sends us home with a small sachet of the plant as a souvenir, a gift that is lighter and more enduring than boxes of frozen fish. When we leave, we take nothing else from the islands but our shared experiences and a greater appreciation of the Haida land and culture.