Haida House | BCBusiness

Haida House | BCBusiness
Haida House at Tilaal in northern B.C.

The Haida reassert sovereignty by launching their own resource businesses.

Many less-advantaged bands and nations struggle economically against remoteness, lack of market access and very little in the way of business profile and experience. However, these barriers are appearing less daunting than they once were. Take the resilient Haida as an example. Since the tumultuous 1980s when the war in the woods raged, the Haida have steadfastly asserted sovereignty over the Queen Charlotte Islands, fighting alongside conservationists for the creation of Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve, and even winning an official name change for the entire archipelago to Haida Gwaii. However, these days the Haida are spending less time in courts and blockades, and more time flexing economic muscle; the Council of the Haida Nations’ business arm, Haida Enterprise Corp. (HaiCo), was incorporated in 2009 and already has interests in tourism, forestry and a still-developmental scallop aquaculture operation in partnership with the Metlakatla First Nation in Prince Rupert.

Last September, HaiCo acquired West Coast Resorts out of receivership. The sport fishing operation, which includes five resorts – two of them on Haida Gwaii and three others on the central coast and Vancouver Island – is a source of more than $15 million in annual revenue and seasonal jobs for dozens of Haida, Gitga’at and other coastal First Nations. Also last year, HaiCo bought the sport hunting lodge Tllaal House along with its bear-hunting license; it will be relaunched this summer under the name Haida House at Tllaal, without the trophy hunting option and with a focus on all-inclusive cultural vacations.

Image: Peter Holst
Guujaaw, president of the Council
of the Haida Nations.

What’s perhaps most significant is the Haida’s growing involvement in forestry, the crucible of the nation’s reassertion of identity and sovereignty. On June 27 this year, HaiCo closed a deal to buy Tree Farm License 60 on Haida Gwaii from Western Forest Products Ltd., a 130,000-hectare Forest Stewardship Council certified TFL that includes a volume-based forest license allowing a harvest of 120,000 cubic metres annually. (The Haida-owned subsidiary Taan Forest Ltd. has been managing TFL 60 for the past two years under a license agreement with Western Forest Products.)

“It’s a good business, and it’s profitable,” says HaiCo CEO Kevin Ainsworth, from his Vancouver office, about the TFL 60 purchase that was aided by $10 million in funding that flowed from a 2009 reconciliation agreement between the province and the Haida. “This deal has been in the works for quite some time and it’s a tremendous asset. HaiCo has a strong mandate to hire Haida members. I think we’re off to good start with the employment, but there’s always more we can do.”

That Ainsworth, the CEO of HaiCo, happens to be a forest industry veteran who spent two decades as a senior vice-president with Ainsworth Lumber Co. Ltd., marks a significant sea change for the Haida people accustomed to doing battle rather than business with white forestry executives. HaiCo’s board of directors is also comprised of industry insiders, among them Thomas Olsen, former president of the Truck Loggers Association, and Bill Dumont who, as a young forester for Western Forest Products in the late 1970s and early ’80s, faced off against environmental activists and Haida fighting for an end to clearcut logging on Moresby and Lyell Islands.

Guujaaw, the blockade-hardened president of the Council of the Haida Nations, has for decades been at the forefront of land-use battles between the Haida and the logging industry. He admits the purchase of the TFL marks a major milestone for the Haida. “Our first objective is to look after the culture, wildlife and nature. We don’t want to be part of the problem we have been fighting,” Guujaaw says, over the phone from Haida Gwaii.

To that end, the Haida have reduced the annual cut to roughly half of the 1.7 million cubic metres that was being hauled out of the TFL several years ago. At the same time, Guujaaw says, the Haida are excited about the economic opportunities that such a valuable forest asset provides. Already Sitka spruce is being custom-cut for guitar makers in Vancouver and San Diego, a pole-peeling operation is soon to open on Graham Island and, last December, Haico subsidiary Taan Forest signed an agreement with the family-owned Abfam Enterprises Ltd. sawmill in Port Clements, giving that mill preferential access to timber harvested in the area (the agreement enables more than $1 million in mill upgrades and the creation of an estimated 20 jobs). Young Haida are now being trained in felling and machine operation, “skills that our people lost when the TFLs were being run by big companies and unions,” Guujaaw says.