Photo: Raising a symbol of partnership: Learning from the Gwaii Haanas Legacy Pole

By Jodi Stark, Communications and Public Engagement Specialist

It's not often that we witness the moment when something is transformed into legacy.

That's what happened on August 15 on a remote island of Haida Gwaii.

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An exquisitely carved and painted three-storey-high totem pole was raised to commemorate 20 years of cooperation between the Haida Nation and federal government to protect Gwaii Haanas National Park and Haida Heritage Site. This is the first protected area of its kind in Canada, co-designated and co-managed by First Nations and federal governments.


Credit: Sabine Jessen,

It's also the first site to protect the continuum of ecosystems from the seafloor to the mountaintops as represented by animals ranging from the sculpin on the bottom of the totem pole to the eagle at the top.

The pole was raised on Lyell Island, where a blockade took place 25 years ago to stop logging on this moss-drenched old-growth forest of giant Sitka spruce, hemlock and cedars.


The blockade was a turning point in government relations with the Haida Nation and can be seen as a huge victory for the Haida, who succeeded in protecting (without bloodshed) not only Lyell Island, but now nearly 5,000 square kilometres of land and sea, rich in life, resources and Haida history and culture. Emotions ran high among the 400 people who returned to the site, this time to celebrate.


To me, this event was particularly powerful because it's not often that as non-indigenous Canadians we can feel proud of, and even celebrate, our relationship with First Nations. Gwaii Haanas National Park and Haida Heritage Site provides an example to the world of how we can protect the land and sea on which we all depend, even when there are unresolved land-title issues.

Many of us believe our best hope for a healthy future lies in working with First Nations, listening to them, learning from them and following their lead. I did as much of that as possible while visiting Haida Gwaii and was graced with stories from so many incredible people: Haida elders, young parents, fishermen, park staff, tour operators, woodcarvers and kids.

The totem pole came to life through the stories they shared about old Haida villages, the 1985 logging blockade, the art of carving, the ocean and forests that sustain life on these remote islands and the massive earthquake last October that shook this great land "like a bowl of jellyfish", as described by a local friend.


I spoke to Miles Richardson, who was president of the Haida Nation at the time of the blockade and signing of the National Park Agreement. Miles sits on the board of the David Suzuki Foundation and has great knowledge and wisdom gained through his experiences. He describes the Haida as strong, resolute and with a warrior spirit that, "comes from a place of love". He seems to embody those characteristics too.

Miles made the clear distinction that the blockade was not a protest. At the time, the land on Lyell Island was already protected under Haida law and so the blockaders were simply enforcing that law. To this day, Gwaii Haanas is protected under both Canadian and Haida Law and carries two designations: national park and Haida heritage site. It is what makes the management strategy unique and a model for progress even when there are unresolved land disputes.


Screen capture of the event's live stream of an estimated 200 people raising the pole into position.

That was a big part of what was being celebrated as this totem pole was raised in Gwaii Haanas, the first in the protected area in 130 years. This partnership took a literal form as 200 people from all walks of life, with different backgrounds, cultures and connections to the area, stood together and pulled on the ropes to raise the 13-metre pole into its place, where it will stand tall for the next century, at least, until it starts to "return to the earth, as the old ones have before it and as new ones come to replace it".

I was one of those who pulled on the ropes to raise the monumental Legacy Pole. Being a full participant in this event, rather than just an observer, left me with feelings of gratitude, inspiration and hope for a new world order, based on respect, partnership and common vision for a healthy future.


- Jodi Stark would like to thank all those who shared their time, stories and hospitality on Haida Gwaii, including Shawn Cowpar of Haida Style for getting me safely to Windy Bay on Lyell Island..

All photographs are Jodi Stark's unless otherwise noted.

August 23, 2013

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Sep 06, 2013
3:29 PM

I love how the totem is going to eventually return to the earth as this is the traditional way. I live in Duncan, BC where the city is known as “city of totems”. These totems stand on concrete blocks and are repainted when needed. My son was on Haida Gwaii when this event transpired. He told me that he was not able to get to where the totem was being raised as it was too expensive for his budget as he is biking, camping and backpacking. He has sent on wonderful pictures of the potlatch he attended after the raising of the pole. I feel such a well of emotion around this and am so very pleased for the Haida people. I hope to come there someday myself to see this pole and to be among the beauty of the island and its people.

Sep 05, 2013
6:14 PM

very beautiful to read and see the photos from this special moment. ☺☼♥

Aug 23, 2013
8:20 PM

There are no words. This symbol is perfect!

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