Journey to Haida Gwaii

In June 2008, the government of Canada made a historic apology to the aboriginal peoples of Canada for the native residential schools policy in place from the 1870s to the 1990s which separated more than 150 000 aboriginal children from their families. In his speech the Prime Minister of Canada Stephen Harper said:

"The treatment of children in Indian residential schools is a sad chapter in our history. Today, we recognize that this policy of assimilation was wrong, has caused great harm, and has no place in our country. The government now recognizes that the consequences of the Indian residential schools policy were profoundly negative and that this policy has had a lasting and damaging impact on aboriginal culture, heritage and language."

Haida Gwaii is an archipelago off the northwest coast of British Columbia, just south of Alaska. Also known as the Queen Charlotte Islands, it’s about 1/10th the size of the North Island – or about 10 000 km squared. With over 400 Islands it’s been the homeland of Haida for some 9000 years. The effect of the residential schools policy on the Haida language was – and is - catastrophic. The policy which forbade generations of children from speaking their own tongue has left a legacy of only around 50 fluent speakers of Haida. And they’re mostly in their eighties. However there’s a grassroots movement to save the language with an immersion program, Haida language in the school system and language nests where older speakers are paired with children under four.

Amelia Nurse visited the Islands in June and was lucky enough to attend the opening of the groundbreaking new play – based on Haida legend, and the first ever play written and performed entirely in the Haida language. She talks to the playwright Jaalen Edenshaw and two of the actors in the play about what the production has involved for an all non-Haida speaking cast – and the effect it’s had on the larger community.