Haida Gwaii – Sabbath Space

Haida Gwaii – Sabbath Space

As many of you know Heather and I spent five of the last nine months when we haven’t been around Trinity on Haida Gwaii. We were serving as supply ministers while the congregation there adjusts to the retirement of their minister.

Heather and I first visited Haida Gwaii twelve years ago when Sharon Ferguson-Hood was the minister there and I was the Coastal Circuit Minister visiting First Nations communities on the BC North Coast. I’ve done a little more of that visiting ministry during the last two years since I retired and I’ve discovered that the North is not done with me yet.

And so Heather and I agreed to this adventure of living on the Skidegate reserve situated on the largest and most Northerly island of the Haida Gwaii archipelago. Some of you may know these islands as the Queen Charlottes but in 2009 the Haida respectfully returned the name of the wife of King George the III to the British and the government of British Columbia began calling the archipelago what its occupants had always called it: the islands of the people or Haida Gwaii.

Currently about 5,000 people live on the two main islands. Fifteen hundred of them are Haida and the rest are now referred to as settlers: loggers, farmers, fishers, service providers, artists and back to the landers.

If you could walk on the ocean floor to a point a few kilometres west of Haida Gwaii you would come to the spot where the North American tectonic plate meets the Pacific plate and the ocean floor drops from a depth of 150 metres to a depth of two miles. This is one of the reasons that Haida Gwaii is called by some, people “The Edge of the Earth”.  Not only is it the westernmost point in Canada, it is also literally sitting on the edge of a cliff that marks the edge of North America.

From the time of the desert monks of the earliest Christian centuries, some people have had an urge to get away from the busyness and bustle of regular life and live apart from the world. Haida Gwaii is a place that attracts such people. They seek physical isolation so that they can live detached from the distractions and temptations of our modern world. It seems to me that such people are seeking a Sabbath of place. Just as the Sabbath means a day of the week when we put aside the normal routines of life and leave space for our relationship with God to deepen, a Sabbath place allows us to separate from the routine and to experience the sacred.

Experiencing the sacred was not what the first settlers had in mind when they came to Haida Gwaii. When Europeans arrived in the late 18th Century they had little interest in the sacredness of these islands for the 30,000 Haida who then populated them. They saw the islands as a place with the potential to enrich the emerging capitalist economies of Great Britain, Spain and Russia. The people already there were seen as an impediment to exploiting the natural resources of these islands. Fortunately, from the perspective of the more rapacious settlers, Indigenous people of the Americas proved highly susceptible to European viral illnesses, particularly smallpox. By 1900 the remnant indigenous population of Haida Gwaii was something less than 1,000 people, a mere 3% of what it had been at the time of first contact with Europeans.

As the population of the Haida has slowly begun to recover, they have begun to lay claim to the sacredness of their land, to claim it as a Sabbath space that enriches the human experience.  Beginning in 1973, the Haida engaged in negotiations with the Federal government, BC government and logging companies to assert their claim that one of the few old growth forests that remained unharvested should be protected – treated as sacred. When the negotiations proved futile and logging continued the Haida decided to blockade access to the forests on Lyell Island and protect the territory. This was not a dispute about who gets to benefit from logging income, nor about who owns the land. It was a dispute about how to treat the land.

The dispute was resolved by creating a National Park Reserve covering the southern third of the archipelago. This includes the sites of a number of ancient villages that were abandoned during the late 19th century as smallpox devastated the populations. But it also includes areas that have never been populated or inhabited, though they have been the traditional territory of the Haida for millennia. This vast territory is not a National Park, because that would mean the Federal Government would own it and Parks Canada would have control of its use and development. But neither has this territory been acknowledged as sovereign Haida land by the government of Canada.

The question of ownership has been put aside and instead Canada and the Council of the Haida Nation have agreed to co-manage the territory for the benefit of future generations. In other words, Canada and the Haida are acting as stewards of the land. One might say that they have recognized that who cares for the land and how they do so is more important than who owns the land.

From the perspective of our Christian tradition, we profess the belief that all the earth is a gift from God and our human role is to care for it, for the good of the earth as well as for the good of the people who happen to inhabit it at any particular point in time. The unique agreement reached by the Haida and Canada offers a model for other communities. Instead of fighting over who owns the land, let’s fight together to preserve the earth.

When Jesus told his disciples that it was OK for them to gather grain on the Sabbath rather than starve, he was implicitly telling them and us that the laws of God and the laws of humankind are intended for the good of humankind, for the good of God’s created order. If those laws lead to harm, then they should be put aside, changed or ignored. Far too often our modern debates about land use, logging, resource exploitation, pipelines and similar commercial activities focus on the so-called laws of economics. Extraction of more resources it is said will lead to a higher GDP and more wealth for Canadians generally.

But the agreement that created the National Park Reserve of Gwaii Haanas suggests another approach to the question of how we collectively relate to the natural world that sustains us. We can break the laws of economics and treat the earth as sacred. It is our mother and we rely on it for nourishment, but it is also the mother of generations yet to come and so our responsibility includes caring for it as the gift it is, entrusted to us by God.

Let me finish with another story from Haida Gwaii. One of the moments when Heather and I felt most powerfully the sacredness of the islands was while walking the Golden Spruce trail. Towering giant hemlock, spruce and cedars block the sun, soaring hundreds of feet from the forest floor. Between and among those sentinels, their fallen brothers and sisters nurture new life as lichens, mosses, ferns and even new trees grow from tree trunks that fell one hundred or more years ago.

The trail is called Golden Spruce because it leads to a spot on the Yakoun River where until recently the remnants of a 300-foot tall Sitka spruce could be seen. This tree, because of a genetic abnormality, was golden instead of green. The Haida called this tree Kiidk’yaas and trace its origin to a young boy who disrespected nature and thereby caused a terrible storm to descend on his village. Only he and his grandfather survived the storm. As they fled the village, the grandfather warned the boy not to look back. The boy disobeyed, and was immediately turned into the Golden Spruce on the spot where he stood.

In 1997, the Golden Spruce was cut down by Grant Hadwin, a 47-year-old logger who said he was motivated by “rage and hatred towards university trained professionals and their extremist supporters”. Now I’m not sure how to interpret that, but after reading John Vaillant’s marvellous telling of this tale, Heather suggested that Hadwin’s point was to say that holding one tree as sacred while clear-cutting all the rest is really a way of letting us off the hook for our abuse of the earth. If we feel that saving one spectacular example gives us carte blanche to destroy all the rest, then we are abusing the concept of sacredness. All of God’s creation is sacred. If we are to be sustained by the earth, we must treat all of it as sacred, which doesn’t mean we cut down no trees, but that we do so only with respect and with an eye to the well-being of future generations.

Jesus intention in saying that the Sabbath was made for humankind and not humankind for the Sabbath affirms God’s intention that we should savour the sacredness of everyday. Surely it is not God’s intention that we be excused from loving God and our neighbour on six days of the week if we behave ourselves on the seventh. A Sabbath time is a time to reflect on and nourish our sense of the sacredness of every day, for the sake of every day.

Similarly, Gwaii Haanas is not a place that is set apart as a sacred landscape so that we can rape and pillage the rest of the earth. And though I cannot condone the cutting down of the Golden Spruce, if the point was to say that to preserve one uniquely beautiful tree cannot excuse the ruthless exploitation of our forests, then I can agree with the message.

It was only Friday, two days ago, that Heather and I returned from Haida Gwaii. What I’ve shared with you this morning is only a glimpse of what we learned and experienced during our time there. This remote, beautiful and sacred territory and the people who have been its stewards for millennia have become part of who we are and changed our way of seeing the world around us. We had the gift of an opportunity to step out of the ordinary for five months. But each of us has the opportunity to step out of the ordinary with every Sabbath, every Sabbath of time and every Sabbath of place. May today and all the Sabbaths you experience touch you with the spirit of the divine and heighten your awareness of God’s gift of life, that you may live as God’s stewards caring for this sacred place at this sacred time.

Rev. Dr. John Burton reserves all rights © 2018.
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