The Globe and Mail: First Nations Businesses Flourish on Haida Gwaii
A landmark ruling in 2004 by the Supreme Court of Canada paved the way for the Haida Nation and other aboriginal groups to gain control over resources on their ancestral lands. For the Haida, that meant the richly timbered Haida Gwaii archipelago off the coast of British Columbia, formerly known as the Queen Charlotte Islands.
Ancient Haida totems at SGang Gwaay Llnagaay, Gwaii Haanas National Park, Haida Gwaii. Photo by Brodie Guy.
Since then, the Haida have been busy building their own businesses, with the goal of creating a sustainable economy. Haida Enterprise Corp. (known as Haico) was born in 2009 with a mandate to provide jobs for the Haida people and to generate income for the nation as a whole.
Starting up wasn’t easy. After all, at the time of the ruling, non-aboriginals – particularly big forestry companies – had been calling the shots in the region for decades. But what the Haida lacked in business experience was made up for in determination.
They now have three established businesses under the Haico umbrella: Taan Forest LP, Westcoast Resorts and Haida Wild, a seafood processing company.
According to chief executive officer Bob Brash, members of the 5,000-strong Haida Nation, about half of whom live on Haida Gwaii, are employed whenever possible in all three businesses.
Taan Forest holds Haida Gwaii’s largest licence for harvesting trees. It specializes in sustainable harvesting of Northern red cedar, Sitka spruce and hemlock, but also cuts alder and pine. And for the Haida, sustainability is more than a fashionable buzzword – it is a way of life and was a key reason for their long-running legal battle against non-aboriginal forestry practices.
Haida Gwaii comprises about a million hectares of land, most of it treed. Of that, 51 per cent is outright protected. An additional 20 to 25 per cent is being left alone either because it is difficult to get to, making harvesting uneconomical, or is considered environmentally sensitive. There is an effort, for instance, to protect streams and at-risk birds, such as the northern goshawk and the marbled murrelet.
Black bear dens are also protected, which is fitting for a company named Taan, which means “bear” in the Haida language.
In the past, more than a million cubic metres of wood were being logged from the area each year, according to some accounts. Taan’s maximum allowable cut is 460,000 cubic metres, but it has been coming at 350,000 to 375,000 due to self-imposed environmental concerns. The company says it is careful to cut in places where trees are likely to regenerate, and it plants seedlings where they are most likely to grow. Its cedar seedlings are protected by plastic tubes to prevent them from being devoured by deer.
The company’s environmental sensitivity has earned it the coveted approval of the Forest Stewardship Council, a global non-profit group dedicated to sustainable use of resources.
This certification goes a long way to pleasing environmentally aware customers, Mr. Brash says. “We have a compelling story for the marketplace because we’re trying to do things right. We want customers to feel good about where the wood is coming from.”
Not that the company is having a problem finding buyers. There’s such a hot demand for cedar in particular, due to its clarity, durability and strength, that customers are lining up. “Before a cut happens, we pretty well know where every stick of it is going to go,” Mr. Brash says.
The cedar tends to end up in doors, window frames and decks. Sitka spruce, by contrast, is coveted by makers of pianos, guitars and other instruments, due to the way it resonates.
So far, Taan has been selling its wood to distributors, who then sell it to end customers worldwide. But the company is well-enough established that it has begun investigating direct-to-customer sales, which will likely mean higher profit margins. It has already made the leap from logs to more value-added sales of sized lumber.
And it wants to build a plant to start manufacturing its own guitar tops. It will be a small facility, Mr. Brash says. But to Haico, every job counts.
The corporation also has plans to expand its tourism business, Westcoast Resorts, which it purchased in 2011. The acquisition gave it two luxury fishing lodges on Haida Gwaii as well as one on B.C.’s central coast. The lodges attract about 3,700 guests each year.
In keeping with the goal of ending recreational bear hunting in the archipelago, the Haida acquired a hunting lodge built in the 1980s and renamed it the Haida House at Tllaal. It offers tour packages that give visitors a glimpse into the traditional Haida way of life.
A third leg of the corporation is seafood processing. Through Haida Wild, Haico sells sustainably fished and gathered products such as chinook, coho and sockeye salmon, smoked sablefish and Pacific halibut and lingcod. Prawns, razor clams and dungeness crabs are sold on a seasonal basis.
Haico doesn’t disclose revenue. But Mr. Brash says the company is profitable and keen to reinvest in order to grow.
“We’re getting to the point where in the near future we can start making investments for increased job creation and provide financial dividends to the nation.”