Over the last year, I had the privilege of visiting two of the most magical, awe-inspiring and magnificent places in the world. Last August, I traveled through the Canadian High Arctic as part of the Students on Ice expedition; and last month, I was at the beautiful island of Haida Gwaii as part of the Ocean Bridge program. As a newcomer to the world of marine conservation, both experiences deeply shaped my understanding and appreciation for our marine environment and the importance of marine conservation was carved in my heart.
While I tried to put my experiences into words, it’s very difficult. There are no words in the world that can truly describe the magical experience I had at both places. Both journeys provided me with so much emotional and spiritual connections to the land and gave me the motivation to pursue my future path.
At first glance, these two places seem quite different. One is a world of ice and snow high up in the north. The other is an ancient rain forest that lies at the western edge of North America.
However, upon closer examination, one would find many similarities and parallels between the indigenous peoples, the meaning of the ocean, and the importance of the marine environment to the local culture.
One key similarity is the importance of ocean to both the Haida and Inuit culture as both rely heavily on the animals from the sea. For the Inuit, the seals, Arctic char, belugas, and narwhals, constitute an important part of the northern culture and diet. At Haida Gwaii, the main staple of food are shellfish, crustaceans, kelp and many others.
In both cultures, ocean is a significant part of their local culture and history. Haidas believe that they came from the ocean and are a marine-nation that travels in large cedar canoes across the ocean. Similarly, the Inuit have many stories about the ocean as well as they were credited for inventing the kayak to travel and hunt throughout the Arctic.
Further, in both languages, there are many words to describe different parts of the sea. In the north, there are many words in Inuktitut for different types of ice. It was important for the Inuit to be able to distinguish the different ice as it can mean life and death when carrying out hunting. In Haida, there are also a myriad of words to describe the waves and weather on water. With the unstable weather at Haida Gwaii, it’s important for the Haida to distinguish the wave patterns while travelling.
Most importantly, both cultures endured much hardships throughout colonization. With the introduction of diseases, many communities were wiped out and subsequently, culture practices and customs were lost. With the implementation of residential schools and forced relocation of communities, families were separated and much of the language and familial bonds were broken. Yet despite all these hardships, both cultures demonstrated resiliency and endurance through difficult times.
These are just a few examples and there are many other similarities between the two lands. Since both experiences are unique, I will try my best to put them into words.
The Arctic journey was my first real introduction to the world of marine conservation. I had attended many workshops in the past and visited a few national marine conservation areas but none of them had the same impact as this visit to the North. During my visit to the Arctic, I was in awe being immersed in this completely new world.
Here I was, witnessing and learning as much as I could about the Inuit way of life and their connection to the land. I spoke to elders and learned about the Inuit history and how they lived off the land and their respect for the animals that sustained their northern livelihood.
I learned about the importance of protecting and living a sustainable lifestyle and how much the Arctic Ocean meant for the Inuit. This experience was an emotional awakening. My connection to the land really hit home. It really made me feel inadequate in the life that I have lived and the worldview that I had at the time.
The emotions and feelings I have experienced, it’s not easy quantifying something I cannot understand or feel. How do I express something larger than all I have ever known or understood? There is so little I know and so much more for me to look forward to and hopefully accomplish. The North and its people were truly magnificent, and it taught me so much about myself and my life going forward.
Here is a small passage from my journal up North:
“I don't know...these last few days really made me realize how little I know. This experience, all these emotions, I really don't know how to feel and take it all in. I struggle to process all these feelings and emotions. The conversations we had, the connections to the land and the hospitality of the people made me question what I thought I knew. I always thought of myself as someone who sympathized and understood the plight of Indigenous people, but the last two days made me realize how pitiful I was to feel that way. There's so much I don't understand or hope to ever understand; the struggle and plight they experienced is not something I can ever fathom. Before arriving in the north, I always looked forward to seeing the wildlife or the beautiful natural scenery, but the connection to the Inuit allowed me to see beyond the land to its guardian. I really don't know how to process these emotions I am feeling. Part of me wants to escape and hide away these feelings and pretend they never happened but another part of me is afraid of losing these feelings when I am back south. It's a struggle I hope to find an answer to before we depart. The North, the Arctic...being here really made me see how little I knew or understood. Despite my personal struggles, I am extremely grateful to be here and allowing me to see and experience this wonderful and beautiful northern world.”
August 11, 2017
Haida Gwaii, where do I start? Haida Gwaii is one of the most beautiful and surreal places I ever been to. There was a deep magical and spiritual energy that emits from the depth of the land and deep within the forest. There was a sense of familiarity with a slight tinge of foreignness. What were the deep personal feelings I was experiencing? Seeing the mist in the air and the majestic whales by the shore. Being surrounded by passion and love all around and feeling excitement for the learning throughout. In Haida Gwaii, we had the honour of getting lectures and workshops from the elders. We learned much about the local history, culture and way of life. We learned about the importance of the ocean to the Haida.
According to the Haida history, the Haida people came from the ocean and many aspects of their culture and way of life reflected upon this reality. We were fortunate to visit many old village sites and learned about the history and the tragedies of the past and the resilience of the Haida. All this knowledge and all these connections I made, truly helped me gain a better understanding about myself and my role in protect our water. With newfound friends and mentors, I am more prepared for the challenges ahead.
Here is another passage from my journal:
“The place is filled with so much life and magic. The forest was like a whole new world, a world lost or stuck in time. Travelling through this ancient forest, there was a magic I never truly felt before. Exiting the forest into the beach, I saw the beautiful surrounding and the surreal scene ahead. The beach was known as Tlang Slaang, the place that has everything and it was magical and pure. “
May 22, 2018
Haida Gwaii and the Canadian Arctic are the two places that truly changed my life. These two places allowed me to learn about things I never thought about before. They taught me lessons and permitted me to truly understand and appreciate the important things in life. By going to these places, I grew to love and appreciate our water and now will now work to protect them for the present and future.