aloha spirit

🕔Sep 07, 2005

At first glance, the connections between two island communities—one in the temperate climate of the North Pacific and the other in the warm trade winds of the South Pacific—may seem as remote as palm trees are from Sitka spruce, but first glances don’t always paint a complete picture.

Take the humpback whales that glide along the west coast of Haida Gwaii in the summer feeding on herring roe and plankton in the lively waters of the north Pacific.

Like many who savour the short summers of northern British Columbia, when the winter winds pick up, a southern migration seems only natural. The humpbacks head to the warm, sheltered waters of Maui to breed and give birth. Whether that’s what other northerners do there is anyone’s guess.

These types of connections inspired a new link between Hawaii and Haida Gwaii, one that will leave a legacy of young people sharing experiences across the Pacific.

In 2001, a Hawaiian man named Kane Fernandez passed away. He was an avid fisherman and, along with a group of dedicated friends, visited a Langara Island fishing lodge off the north coast of Haida Gwaii, two or three times a year for the past 20 years.

Fernandez, who ran carnivals in Hawaii, was a strong supporter of education at home, and as a native Hawaiian, felt a strong connection to the native people of Haida Gwaii.

It seemed only fitting that his friends establish a scholarship in Fernandez’s name that offers high school students from Haida Gwaii the chance to attend university in Hawaii. In 2003, another avid fisherman, Roger Earle, who went on the same trips to Haida Gwaii passed away. This Vancouverite’s name was added, and the Fernandez Earle Scholarship Foundation was born.

Scholarship chairperson Beverley Kniffen points out how remarkable the opportunity is. With as few as 20 or 30 students graduating each year from the islands, the odds of receiving a scholarship that covers tuition, books, meals and flights home for the holidays are extremely high.

Offered once every two years, the prospect of heading to Hawaii to study has already had a huge impact on the young people of Haida Gwaii.

Thea Borsario, from Queen Charlotte City, always thought she would go to the University of Victoria, but four days before her last day of high school she found out the Fernandez Earle scholarship was hers.

She is now finishing her second year at Hawaii Pacific University, taking biology and other undergraduate science courses in hopes of one day going to medical school.

Swept up in the aloha spirit, Borsario found the real impact came by way of Haida Gwaii. She was treated to welcome dinners and new friendships with the people who counted Fernandez a dear friend, and who now looked out for her.

Four months into her first semester, she started receiving post cards from students at her former schools on Haida Gwaii.

“They wanted to talk to me about the scholarship,” she says of the young children who wrote to her, excited about the good grades they had received in science and how hard they are willing to work in hopes of going to school in Hawaii themselves one day.

“This has changed our lives, but it is amazing to see how it affects other people,” Borsario says of her and Meghan Deagle, the first scholarship recipient, who is now studying ocean sciences at the University of Hawaii at Honolulu.

Borsario, who was on the school’s dean’s list in her first year and the national list this year, replies to every letter. Deagle has also been on her school’s dean’s list and continues to receive straight As.

“This bodes well for the school system on the Queen Charlotte Islands,” says Kniffen.

Unlike Deagle, Borsario lives in the small community of Kaneohe on the windward side of Oahu. It is the wet side of the island, which she says feels more like her home in Queen Charlotte City. She also feels more at ease at the smaller university, where class sizes max out at 30, unlike the 200-plus students in classes in Honolulu.

The managers of the scholarship have raised more than $400,000 since its inception and continue to raise funds through fishing trips and other venues. The board is made up a powerful set of business people who love fishing, including the president of Langara Fishing Adventures, the owner of a retail and marketing company named one of the Top 100 Hawaiian businesses, and a president of a large car dealership in California.

The fund now also supports an exchange between Simon Fraser University and the University of Hawaii for third year marine biology students, with the hopes that knowledge of the North and South Pacific can be shared.

Fernandez, Kniffen says, saw the ocean as a whole and the goal of the foundation is to preserve and enhance the Pacific Ocean, one student at a time.

Borsario’s parents who are both teachers on the islands wrote this when their daughter was given the scholarship:

“For other students here on the Islands it is a goal to reach for and work for, it is an idea of a larger world, of other islands and another culture, an idea of what good people can do in memory of a good friend, and how dreams come true.”

The people of Haida Gwaii and Hawaii were great mariners able to carry out long distance ocean voyages in their canoes. Although there is no definitive evidence, there are tales of Hawaiians voyaging to the North Pacific and Haida paddlers taking advantage of the trade winds and currents heading south. In fact, Douglas fir from the Pacific Northwest is often found washed up on Hawaii’s shores.

Linguistic and genetic similarities between Hawaiian and North Coast people have been noted, as well as cultural similarities such as woodcarving and stone work techniques.

On his fishing trips, Fernandez would joke with Haida he met at the lodge, noting how similar they looked. He was convinced the Haida came by sea to Hawaii and thanks to his friends, exchange between islanders will continue into the future.

The latest recipient of the scholarship will be announced shortly.