1074 Elizabeth May & Gwaii Haanas

Paradise Won: The Struggle to Create Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve
by Elizabeth May

Victoria: Rocky Mountain Books, 2020 (second edition; first published by McClelland & Stewart, 1990)
$25.00 / 9781771604581

Reviewed by Ron Verzuh

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Anyone who has visited Haida Gwaii will instantly relate to Elizabeth May’s remembrance of one of the most significant First Nations land claims battles of our time. The battle was significant because it was a battle for everyone who saw the cultural and environmental value in protecting the ancient territory. Significant, too, because the Haida won.

In Paradise Won, we are transported to this pristine territory on British Columbia’s northwest coast. The Indigenous villages that artist Emily Carr painted decades ago are no longer there, but hints of what might have been sit eerily in the silent forests of former villages like Skedans and Ninstints. The shrill cry of eagles overhead and the odd dipping of a kayak paddle are all that breaks the silence of this magical place.

How the Haida and their non-Indigenous allies protected the serenity of their homeland provides the main substance of this narrative of a political confrontation that still has the power to inspire. May, leader of the national Green party from 2009 to 2019, takes hold of that inspiring story to recreate a tale of bravery, defiance, camaraderie, and perseverance.

Perhaps unintentionally, the book divides into two parts. The first takes us to the majestic and soulful archipelago of Haida Gwaii (Islands of the People) once called the Queen Charlotte Islands. Here we meet Haida leaders Miles Richardson, Gary Edenshaw a.k.a. Guutjaw, sculptor Bill Reid, and many other Haida people preparing to fight off the logging companies that are intent on chainsawing through their heritage.

Elizabeth May at Ninstinsts, 1988. Photo by Jeff Gibbs, courtesy Victoria Times Colonist

Enter the environmentalists, some of them non-Indigenous activists like May, who share the First Nations cause and that of saving the old-growth forests of South Moresby Island. We also meet Haida-supporting luminaries that range from David Suzuki, host of CBC TV’s The Nature of Things, to world-renowned artist-naturalist Robert Bateman and former American president Jimmy Carter.

May does a solid job of describing the blockade erected by the Haida and she defines the opposing players: Haida defenders vs. the chainsaw-wielding employees of Frank Beban’s logging company, local activists vs. right-wing governments, and local logging supporters vs. Haida community leaders.

As the story grows so does the list of players in this account of heroes and villains, enablers and disablers, whites vs. aboriginals, the pro-logger Red Neck News vs. the public relations juggernaut that May and others build, including Islands At The Edge, an award-winning book that celebrates Haida Gwaii.

The first half of Paradise Won, an inspiring choice for the title, has a reportorial quality to it whereas in the second half May’s narrative takes on the style of memoirist. It becomes about her efforts to assist the Haida in forming a chainsaw-free national park. May gets a job as an aide to the Conservative environment minister Tom McMillan, the affable Prince Edward Islander who embraces the quest to preserve the Haida territory.

The story shifts from the beauty and tranquility of Haida Gwaii to the cloudy bureaucratic maze of Ottawa and Victoria. May becomes the pivotal political centre of the battle. As an insider in the Ottawa power structure, she serves to connect tireless environmental activists on the ground like Colleen McCrory, Diane Brown, Vicky Husband, and Thom “Huck” Henley, among many others.

We learn of the intense negotiations between McMillan and then B.C. premiers Bill Bennett and Bill Vander Zalm, leaders of the right wing and pro-logger Social Credit party. True to their pro-business politics, the premiers are determined to support the logging companies, arguing that the provincial treasury needs the revenue.

The bureaucratic policy debate overshadows the struggle to save Haida heritage, but May and others, using highly sophisticated media, public relations, and lobbying tactics, ultimately force the issue to a head.

It is May, with help from New Democratic Party MPs like Jim Fulton, who manages to engage the help of respected Conservatives like John Fraser, Speaker of the House of Commons, Conservative miracle worker Dalton Camp, and eventually prime minister Brian Mulroney.

First edition of Paradise Won (McClelland & Stewart, 1990)

May’s personality and perseverance win her the respect of minister McMillan and help steer him to make the right decisions regarding Haida Gwaii. She astonished the minister and others with her ability to insert herself into the offices of people who wield power. Reading Paradise Won, it is not hard to see how she, and she alone, held then Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper’s feet to the fire during the 2008 leadership debate.

First published 30 years ago, some might wonder why Paradise Won is being republished now. The story is long over. Many of the players have moved on. The times are different now. But as May notes in the foreword to this new edition of her 1990 book, we all need to support the “indigenous-led struggles to protect land” from pipelines like Kinder, flooding in Labrador, and chainsaws.

May’s book, one of six she has written, has the weight of a saga behind it. It recounts a struggle deserving of retelling as an inspiration to the generations to come in their struggle to preserve First Nations lands and Canada’s cultural heritage.

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Ron Verzuh

Ron Verzuh is a writer, historian, and documentary filmmaker. A watercolour painting of a fallen totem at Skedans given to him by a friend serves as a constant reminder of what has been saved with the help of Elizabeth May and others. Editor’s note: Ron Verzuh has recently reviewed books by Rosa Jordan, Vera MaloffPeter NowakDavid Laurence JonesGary SteevesIan HaysomJohn O’Brian, and Scott Stephen for The Ormsby Review.

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