Living history doesn’t come along very often. The islands of Haida Gwaii, north of Vancouver Island BC, have been continuously inhabited for somewhere close to 12,000 years. Think about that for a moment: empires have risen, and fallen, civilizations have reached their height and disappeared, all while the Haida people have lived (until the mid-1700s) in isolation and peace. When colonists arrived, there were ~10,000 people living on the archipelago of over 100 islands. That number dropped below 600 thanks to all of the stereotypical colonial scourges, and currently stands at about 4500.
If you’re not just fascinated by the history of this First Nations community continuously inhabiting this small place on earth, you should admire what they’re trying to do to persevere.
Personally, I have a blind spot when it comes to colonialism – I feel like I apply my modern sensibilities of ethics and fairness (not to mention land rights) to actions that happened hundreds of years ago. So when the various people narrating HAIDA GWAII: ON THE EDGE OF THE WORLD, from elders, local scientists, local government employees, and local residents, try to explain why their forests are being cut down, and oil spills along a very narrow inlet are threatening their ecosystems or their fisheries are collapsing, I can’t figure out why a group of people so devoted to their land would be having these problems. I know this is borne from my own ignorance of colonialism, and watching the Haida people struggle with, and later cooperate with the Canadian and Provincial governments makes me want to revisit my history lessons to understand why the local people have so little control over their own land.
We see the local people, about half of the people on the island, attempting to find sustainability – not needing to endangered their waterway by trying to avoid important oil. They are building ways to live off the “grid” and to use the local resources, including seaweed, to support themselves. They’re not trying to isolate themselves, and clearly have a very open and welcoming culture, but are trying to do their best to preserve themselves and their culture.
The genius of this movie, directed by Charles Wilkinson, is that you see most of the sides of this people. The film is not trying to force you to feel something, but to make you aware of something that is as true for the Haida people as it is for everyone – we have a limited planet, we need to make the best use of it we can in order to continue to be ourselves. Figuring out who that should be is the greatest challenge that the film extends to all who watch it.
HAIDA GWAII: ON THE EDGE OF THE WORLD plays at Hot Docs 2015 tomorrow, Tuesday April 28th – 7:15pm at The Lightbox. It plays The Royal Ontario Museum on Wednesday April 29th – 4:30pm, The Lightbox on Saturday May 2nd – 8:15pm, and finally at Hart House Theatre on Sunday May 3rd – 7pm (official website)