Over the last year, I visited two magical places in Canada. Last August, I traveled through the Canadian High Arctic with the Students on Ice expedition. In May, I visited the beautiful islands of Haida Gwaii with the Ocean Bridge program from Ocean Wise. At first glance, Haida Gwaii and the Arctic seem quite different. One is a world of ice and snow; the other is an ancient rain forest at the western edge of North America. But on closer examination, I found many similarities between the local people, the meaning of the ocean, and the importance of the marine environment to local culture. One key similarity is the importance of the ocean to both Haida and Inuit culture. Both rely on animals from the sea. For Inuit, the seals, Arctic char, beluga, and narwhal constitute an important part of the culture and diet. In Haida Gwaii, the food staples from the sea were shellfish, crustaceans, kelp, and other seashore critters.
Haida storytelling says the people came from the ocean and they truly are a marine nation with a history of travelling in large cedar canoes. Inuit have many stories about the ocean as well, and invented the kayak to travel and hunt in icy environments.
In both languages, I learned new words to describe different parts of the ocean. In Inuktitut, there are multiple words for sea ice because it’s important for Inuit to distinguish between ice conditions. Accurate descriptions can mean the difference between life or death when winter hunting. On the tempestuous islands of Haida Gwaii, I learned news words to describe wave patterns and weather.
Both cultures have endured, and continue to endure, hardship from colonization. The introduction of new diseases wiped out entire communities as well as cultural practices and customs. Residential school and forced relocation separated families, splintered language, and broke familial bond. Despite these hardships, I saw a resilient people and culture able to flourish in the face of unimaginably difficult conditions.
Here is a passage from my journal to the North:
“There is so much I don’t understand, or could ever hope to understand, about the struggle and plight experienced by the Inuit. iI’s something I cannot even fathom. Before arriving in the North, I always looked forward to seeing wildlife or beautiful natural scenery. But Inuit helped me to see beyond the land, and to see us as its guardian.” – August 11, 2017
In Haida Gwaii, I had the honour of attending lectures and workshops from the elders through the Ocean Bridge program. We learned about local history, culture and the Haida way of life. We were fortunate to visit many old village sites and study the history and resilient future of the Haida.
Here is a passage from my journal during Haida Gwaii.
“The place is filled with so much life and magic. The forest was like a whole new world, a world lost in time. Travelling through this ancient forest, I experienced a magic I never truly felt before. Exiting the forest into the beach, I saw the beautiful surrounding and the surreal scene.” – May 22, 2018
As a newcomer to the world of marine conservation, both trips deeply shaped my understanding and appreciation of the ocean. They provided me with an emotional and spiritual connection to the land and have given me the motivation to pursue my future path in marine conservation.
Da Chen participated in the Ocean Bridge 2018 trip to Haida Gwaii. He is a recent graduate of the University of Toronto, Scarborough, with a double major in City Studies and Political Science.