Jack Layton finds Haida Gwaii allure on holiday

🕔Sep 22, 2005

Northwestern B.C. issues came into sharp focus for federal NDP leader Jack Layton during an August vacation here—and he’s quick to offer ideas about how to address them.

After plying misty Haida Gwaii waters by kayak and catching 14 salmon with fishing guide Mark Walsh, Layton was impressed by this region’s tourism resources—but senses they are seriously undermarketed.

“We observed that promotion of tourism in this incredible part of Canada isn’t that good,” he says, noting he and his wife Olivia Chow faced a struggle to set up a seamless itinerary, using the Web, for their vacation. “There isn’t really a one-stop shopping website to make your selections around.”

Layton’s own decision to visit Haida Gwaii was based on a personal recommendation from the party’s newest MP, Nathan Cullen. He says he hopes to work with Cullen to better promote this region, adding sustainable tourism could generate much-needed jobs for young people.

The two already work closely together. Cullen, a Smithers-based facilitator and strategic planning consultant, has assumed an important role: environment and youth critic.

To locals, Cullen’s appointment is logical given his activity on regional and international environmental issues. To Layton, Cullen’s youth (he’s 32, while the average age for MPs is 51) and newness to politics do not detract from his suitability. Although impressed by Cullen’s enthusiasm, small business experience and direct communication style, Layton says it was Cullen’s way of thinking about environmental issues that made him a natural.

Layton cites a new David Suzuki Foundation report, Planning for the Next Generation, which calls for innovative thinking about environment and jobs to create sustainability within a generation.

“Nathan’s approach is that new approach,” says Layton. “For example, he favours keeping the moratorium on offshore oil and gas drilling in place while we get a thorough understanding of the risks… but develop an energy strategy which could create jobs and energy for the northwest right now—such as wind turbines.”

Layton’s enthusiasm for wind turbines is grounded in experience. During his six-term stint on Toronto city council, Layton helped spur several innovative projects, including the first urban wind turbine in Canada. It’s co-operatively owned and generates enough clean electricity to light 250 homes.

He’s also acquainted with the challenge of finding win-win solutions. This PhD and seasoned university instructor founded the Green Catalyst Group Inc., a company which helps organizations implement real-world environmental solutions—and whose work won a United Nations award. He was president of the Toronto Atmospheric Fund, vice-chair of Toronto Hydro and a board member of the federal Climate Change Protection Program. In 2000, he was named Environmental Professional of the Year by the International Association of Energy Engineers.

When asked why the wind power sector hasn’t gained a foothold in places like Haida Gwaii, Layton cites its cost, pointing out that it is becoming more competitive, and common misconceptions about wind power.

“Some have issues around the esthetics of turbines—but we have to compare these to the impacts of air pollution, which aren’t as visible unless you live in a city like Toronto where 1,000 people a year die prematurely in emergency wards due to smog-related diseases.

“There are also concerns about the impact of turbines on birds. But international research shows that a typical turbine will likely kill about one bird per year, while global warming promises to wipe out entire species. Still others are concerned about turbine noise. You have to stand beside one to know that they’re not noisy.”

The most important factor, says Layton, is a powerful oil and gas lobby which eclipses the emergent wind power sector—particularly in hard-hit communities tempted by promises of large-scale cash infusion.

“It’s propelled by some of the largest corporations in the world, global multinationals with significant resources to win over public opinion,” he says.

But public opinion on Haida Gwaii remains firm, even after a majority of UBCM delegates endorsed a resolution in September by Prince Rupert Mayor Herb Pond to end the 32-year-old moratorium.

“I was surprised by the unanimity on the moratorium in the Islands. But then, Haida Gwaii gets the most intense earthquakes in Canada and Hecate Strait is the fourth windiest water body in the world. There are serious environmental questions that need to be answered.”

After building up their upper body strength paddling in those Haida Gwaii winds, Layton and Chow stopped into Dick’s Wok-In Restaurant in Sandspit. Over Chinese food, they talked politics with owner Dick Leung—in Cantonese, which rounds out Layton’s language skills in fluent French and beginner’s Mandarin.

Layton also visited with members of the Council of Haida Nations, and got a better understanding of the Supreme Court case involving Weyerhaeuser and the Haida. He disdains the argument offered by the B.C. government that consultation and accommodation of First Nations shouldn’t have to take place before aboriginal title has been proven in the courts.

“That’s a delaying tactic that could produce disastrous consequences while the so-called proof is being determined. Canada has not been very good at rapidly tying up proofs of title. This should be speeded up. At current rates, it could be well over a century before all settlements are finalized.”

Without proper consultation and accommodation of First Nations, Layton argues, the “Weyerhaeusers of the world” could do much damage in the interim.

Prince Rupert was also a tour stop for Layton and Chow, who were met there by several northwestern politicians and entertained by Nisga’a and Chinese traditional dancers.

Layton sensed optimism around the city’s new multi-million dollar container port, which is expected to increase shipping capacity on the west coast by 50 per cent, and its potential to generate much needed jobs and more sustainable, value-added industry. But he also acknowledged a pressing concern: a Canada Customs decision to charge for container inspection in Prince Rupert—a service provided free of charge to other Canadian ports. Prince Rupert Port Authority president and CEO Don Krusel has called this a “tax on northern industrial expansion.”

“That’s patently unfair,” declares Layton. “We’ll be calling for fairness on this. We can’t have some ports getting a free ride, while others don’t.”

As former president of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, Layton knows how critical transportation infrastructure is to regional economies—and that’s why he’s also seized by another issue dear to northern municipalities. During the election, the federal Liberals promised to redirect five cents per litre in fuel tax to municipalities for local transportation needs. Now the feds say they will phase this in gradually, offering one to two cents per litre for the first year.

“I’m extremely disappointed to see how fast they’ve been backtracking on this,” says Layton. “This investment is needed. The federal government has a giant surplus and it should be used strategically. This is one of the areas it should be used.”

Layton’s first visit to B.C.’s north coast included a cover-to-cover read of Northword Magazine’s August issue.

“Congratualtions on your magazine. You’ve taken on some challenging issues,” he said, offering praise for articles on HIV, environmental stewardship, repatriation of Haida remains, the Stikine River, and cycle-touring. “Now Olivia wants to go up the Stikine, and we’re both interested in cycle-touring this area.”

©Larissa Ardis