The fight between resources and environment on Haida Gwaii

Award-winning Canadian documentary comes to Vancouver.

November 16, 2015

By Fiona Morrow

This article was originally published in the September 2015 issue of Vancouver magazine. Haida Gwaii: On the Edge of the World will be playing at Vanity Theatre starting Nov. 20.

For Charles Wilkinson, Haida Gwaii was a life-changing destination.

The documentary filmmaker had travelled to the archipelago to work on the final part of an environmental trilogy he began in 2011 with Peace Out, a look at the impact of fracking in northern B.C., and continued with 2013’s Oil Sands Karaoke, a glimpse into life in Alberta’s tar sands.

He spent several months on Haida Gwaii, interviewing locals working in everything from solar power to marine biology, organic farming to kelp harvesting. Haida Gwaii: On the Edge of the World captures a community for whom living a simple life is the greatest act of resistance. The islands’ beauty is inescapable, but he digs below the postcard views to find a history marked with successful push-back by the Haida.

“It’s very noticeable that this is Haida land,” he says, on the phone from Deep Cove. “They are dominant, yet they have been so smart in welcoming collaboration to protect their environment.”

With the Haida in principal control of logging and fishing, these resource industries are returning to the sustainable model that flourished before contact. “What hits you with real force,” he continues, “is that the first European traders, so determined to plunder all the natural resources they found in the New World, missed the most valuable natural resource of all: the sustainability system of the First Nations.”

Wilkinson may have a green agenda, but his documentaries are not polemics: instead, he draws audiences in by looking at issues through the eyes of those living amidst the resource extraction. He himself came to the issue late, forced to confront his complacency after asking an acquaintance if climate change was as big a deal as people were making out. “They looked at me, incredulous, and said, ‘Where have you been?’ ”

The admonishment was enough to turn his focus away from the good living he was making as a director of episodic TV (Road
to Avonlea
, Highlander) and set off for northern B.C. with his producer and life partner, Tina Schliesser. Their films have been well received: Haida Gwaii won best Canadian documentary at Hot Docs in Toronto earlier this year.

The sense that it’s not too late to change course to protect B.C.’s coast is evident in the documentary. But, Wilkinson says, that’s not to overlook the coming fight. “I’ve been surprised to find many people who believe the First Nations are our last hope,” he says. “White society has a lot to lose if they stand up and fight, but look at how put-upon the First Nations communities are. The very fact they don’t have a lot to lose is what makes them such a threat to the political agenda.”

Haida Gwaii: On the Edge of the World
Nov. 20-Dec. 3
Vanity Theatre, 1181 Seymour St, 604-683-3456


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