• Forest guardian Jaalen Edenshaw pauses in the Skidegate Plateau, a heavily logged region on the west coast of Graham Island. (Photo: Farah Nosh)

  • Logs are piled high on a cutblock in the Skidegate Plateau, once home to a lush cedar forest. (Photo: Farah Nosh)

  • Forest guardians Lana Wilhem (at left), Gerry Morigeau and Edenshaw flag a wire fence used to protect young cedar from browsing deer. In the 100 years since their introduction by colonists, deer have had a profound impact on cedar regeneration, shifting the forests toward domination by hemlock. (Photo: Farah Nosh)

  • Garner Moody carves a small totem pole from yellow cedar in the Skidegate carving longhouse. (Photo: Farah Nosh)

  • Moody works with cedar every day, and says it is becoming increasingly difficult to find. (Photo: Farah Nosh)

  • Haida elder Norman Price is drawn to the view from his porch in Skidegate and the red cedar totem pole that took him two years to carve. It was raised last July 1, his 80th birthday. (Photo: Farah Nosh)

  • Morigeau (at left), Edenshaw and Wilhem search for monumental cedar in the Skidegate Plateau. An unfinished Haida canoe (at right) was likely abandoned in the 1800s when small pox devastated the native population. (Photo: Farah Nosh)

  • A stump-scattered cutblock provides a dramatic backdrop in the Skidegate Plateau. (Photo: Farah Nosh)

  • A young student sketches eagles and bears at George M. Dawson Secondary School in Masset. (Photo: Farah Nosh)

  • As Edenshaw continues his survey near the Yakoun River, truckloads of timber roll down the road. (Photo: Farah Nosh)

With photography by

Cedar: A fight for the forest

For thousands of years, the Haida have used the towering cedars and spruce of Haida Gwaii as an outlet for their creativity, and for transportation, warmth and shelter. Because of their dependence on trees, the relationship between the Haida and the forests was, and remains, one of respect and protection.

"Our people used the forest fairly extensively," says Guujaaw, president of the Council of the Haida Nation and an expert carver. "But if you were able to look back over time, the use of it wouldn't even show up because it was only one tree at a time."

But that delicate balance was upset as European presence grew over the years, bringing an ever-increasing demand for lumber. Disease decimated the Haida, reducing the population of some 10,000 in the late 1700s to 588 in 1915. In their weakened state, they were no match for loggers.

"There really was not much resistance at first," says Guujaaw, who is leading the Haida in their fight to win back control of the forests. For the past 50 years, the fight has involved blockades along logging roads. Now it also means lawsuits and legislation.

In November 2004, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that governments have a legal duty to consult with Aboriginals before allowing logging, mining, new roads and other development on Crown land that is subject to Native land claims. The ruling marked the first time that Canadian courts recognized that the "honour of the Crown" extends to negotiating with Aboriginals before deciding the fate of resources on land subject to land claims.

Haida Gwaii (Queen Charlotte Islands) (Map:Steven Fick/Canadian Geographic)

"The Crown, acting honourably, cannot cavalierly run roughshod over Aboriginal interests where claims affecting those interests are being seriously pursued," Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin wrote in the unanimous Supreme Court ruling. "When the distant goal of proof is finally reached, the Aboriginal Peoples may find their land and resources changed and denuded. This is not reconciliation."

The decision upheld a 2002 British Columbia Court of Appeal ruling ordering the province to consult the Haida on a tree-farming licence issued to Weyerhaeuser Co., which had allowed the company to log and manage the forest on one-quarter of the land claimed by the Haida.

As a result of these rulings, the Haida have also organized themselves, creating Haida Heritage and Forest Guardians, which conducts forest surveys for the Council of the Haida Nation. The CHN, in turn, negotiates agreements with governments regarding which lands can be logged, and how many trees can be cut down. These agreements are largely the reason the annual take by logging giants has fallen from a peak of 2.2 million cubic metres in the early 1970s, to about 1 million cubic metres today. The goal is to reduce that figure by another 25 per cent pending approval by the B.C. government of a land-use plan that would give the Haida a stronger voice in negotiations with the government and logging companies. "We're in a real transition period right now," says Guujaaw. "I think it will become a little more stable and I think we'll have a controlling interest over the logging that does occur."

More stories from our Haida Gwaii (Queen Charlotte Islands) coverage:

Q&A - Cedar and culture
Keeping the language alive
Q&A: Learning the language
Music - A cultural rebirth