Sedmond Creek, Gwaii Haanas National Park

Hameet Singh is part of a team of CPCIL Research and Knowledge Gatherers producing content and compiling resources on themes such as inclusion, ecosocial justice, partnerships, conservation, organizational sustainability, climate change and biodiversity, connection to nature, conservation financing, and ecotourism, to support effective and equitable leadership and inclusion in parks and protected areas across Canada.

With the longest coastline in the world and a motto of A Mari Usque Ad Mare or “From Sea to Sea,” Canada has a vested interest in protecting its marine resources. 14 Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) and 4 National Marine Conservation Areas (NMCAs) have been implemented to preserve a healthy marine environment, support cultural and socioeconomic facets of local communities and the nation as a whole. This post is the last of a three-part series, highlighting a Canadian MPA from the nation’s three oceans – the Arctic, Pacific and Atlantic. For more information on what an MPA is, please visit this post

The Pacific – Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve and Haida Heritage Site

Map of the Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve and Haida Heritage Site
Figure 1: Map of the Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve and Haida Heritage Site (Environment & Society Portal, 2017)

Set afloat 130 km north of Vancouver Island in the Pacific Ocean is the ethereal and rain-forested Haida Gwaii, or “Islands of the People,” (1) – an archipelago consisting of 200 small islands and islets that are the ancestral home of the Haida People. In the southernmost portion and consisting 15% of the islands lies the Gwaii Haanas (“Islands of Beauty”) (2) National Park Reserve and Haida Heritage Site (Figure 1), an NMCA protected under Canada’s National Marine Conservation Areas Act (3). Formally established in 2010 (4), Gwaii Haanas has a surface area of 1,470 km, or about twice the size of Singapore (2). The NMCA protects the land and surrounding marine and seabed ecosystems. Separated from the mainland by the 140 km long Hecate Strait, the Haida Gwaii are one of the most isolated islands in Canada (1).

Historical and Cultural Significance

Insignia of the Council of the Haida Nation
Figure 2: Insignia of the Council of the Haida Nation (Haida Nation, n.d.)
Historic Haida poles in SGang Gwaay
Figure 3: Historic Haida poles in SGang Gwaay (Takei, n.d.)

Archeological indication of human occupation on Haida Gwaii dates back 14,000 years (2), making it the earliest known human habitation in Canada’s history (5).  An archaic fishing weir found in the waters of the Hecate Strait is the oldest known of its kind in the world (6). Markings on the seafloor around the islands, captured by sonar from an underwater remotely operated vehicle, are also indicative of prehistoric camps (7), showcasing an ancient and sophisticated coastal civilization. The Haida (Figure 2) are the descendants of these original inhabitants, developing their own distinctive languages and social systems over time (8). The pre-contact population is thought to be in the tens of thousands, as evidenced by the numerous former fishing camps, seafaring villages and more than 600 ancestral sites (9) that dot the coasts of Gwaii Haanas (10). These sites remain spiritually and culturally significant for the Haida. One site in particular, the SG̱ang Gwaay Llanagaay village, featuring the largest collection of Haida totem poles and cedar longhouses in their original locations (Figure 3), has been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The entirety of Gwaii Haanas has also been submitted for UNESCO designation and is currently pending approval (7). The islands are steeped in the rich and diverse culture of the Haida Nation, carried on through traditional narratives and supported by the land and sea of the area that are intimately intertwined with Haida history and way of life. 

European colonialists arrived in Haida Gwaii in 1774, led by Spanish explorer Juan Pérez. The islands were surveyed in 1787 by British Captain George Dixon, naming them “the Queen Charlotte Islands” after his ship (later renamed as Haida Gwaii in 2010). The expansionists brought with them smallpox, measles, typhoid and other European diseases that the Indigenous Peoples had no natural immunity against, leading to epidemics and decimating the Haida population to just 588 people by 1915, the most dramatic drop for any Indigenous group recorded in the province. They also extirpated the sea otter from the waters of Haida Gwaii through the fur trade, heavily unbalancing the delicate ecosystem. European settlement continued its legacy of cultural genocide during the 19th and 20th centuries through policies such as the Indian Act, destruction, vandalization and removal of Haida totem poles and monuments, the Potlach ban and residential schools that criminalized the Haida language, religion and cultural practices (11). 

In 1985, the Haida Nation protested against the logging of old-growth temperate rainforest on Haida Gwaii, which garnered international media attention. This led to the Governments of Canada and British Columbia signing the South Moresby Agreement in 1988, initiating designation of the area as a National Park Reserve. The Government of Canada and the Haida Nation also signed the Gwaii Haanas Agreement, formalizing co-management and a mutual commitment to protect Gwaii Haanas (12). Today, the two parties co-manage the NMCA, and the islands are overseen by the Haida Gwaii Watchmen Program (13).

Geological and Ecological Significance

Sedmond Creek, Gwaii Haanas National Park
Figure 4: The temperate rainforest ecosystem of Gwaii Haanas (The Canadian Encyclopedia, 2016)

Haida Gwaii was created 20 million years ago with the destructive collision of tectonic plates leading to the formation of a mountain range rising from the ocean floor and stretching from Vancouver Island to southeast Alaska (14). The archipelago has also been shaped by other natural forces such as volcanic activity and glaciation, and Haida oral histories and archaeological findings have affirmed that the Haida ancestors lived on the island during this time. They were also present when the climate warmed and the glaciers gave way to lush grasslands until the arrival of the first lodgepole pine 14,500 years ago, confirmed by the pollen fossil record (15). This attests to the vast amount of geological transformations that Haida ancestors have lived through, corresponding with Haida stories about floods, glaciers and fluctuating sea levels (2).

Figure 5: Gwaii Haanas protects an ecosystem immensely biodiverse and home to species such as black bears, humpback whales and a myriad of sea life (CBC, 2021; CPAWS, n.d.; Haida Nation, 2018)

The ecosystem of the islands has since evolved from grassland to rich coastal rainforest (Figure 4), hugely abundant, productive, and teeming with life. Located in the Northern Shelf Bioregion (16) and nicknamed “the Canadian Galápagos (17),” for its high biodiversity and endemic species’ rates, Haida Gwaii and Gwaii Haanas have a mystical atmosphere. They evoke images of lush foliage, vegetated tapestries and ocean mist entwined with colossal moss-draped spruce, hemlock and cedar that are thousands of years old. The other-worldly landscapes of the islands are mythical and highly varied, ranging from rugged mountain ranges, rolling sand dunes and beaches, rocky and surf-battered coasts, cathedral-like humid rainforests, towering and misty fjords, forested wetlands, bogs, fens and muskeg lowlands (14). The climate is moderated by the North Pacific Current, characterized by humidity, heavy rainfalls, and relatively mild temperatures. The islands’ isolation has resulted in a biologically unique area in Canada and support a plethora of flora and fauna, home to 200 seabird species, seal and sea lion colonies, black bear, fish species such as salmon and halibut, river otters, dolphins, porpoises, and various species of whales including humpback, orca, gray, blue and minke (18). Numerous plant species are found only on Haida Gwaii and all land mammals and three types of bird species found on the islands are sub-specifically unique, with the black bear being the largest in North America (1). Gwaii Haanas provides significant feeding, breeding, resting and nesting areas for migrating and endemic species. In addition, tidal pools in the intertidal and subtidal zones of the coasts are abounding with communities of marine life, including starfish, sea urchins, sea cucumbers, mussels, clams and crabs. Furthermore, the waters around the reserve are rich with kelp forests, sea anemones, corals and fish (19) (Figure 5). Taking into account this immeasurable biodiversity, Haida Gwaii has more biomass per square yard of any place on earth (20).

Management and Governance

Gwaii Haanas is a co-management success story, operated through the Archipelago Management Board (Figure 6) which constitutes equal numbers of representatives from the Council of the Haida Nation and the Government of Canada (4). The NMCA was established in June 2010 and was the first time anywhere in the world that an ecosystem was protected from mountaintop to seafloor (21). In the same year, the Government of British Columbia also announced legislation to officially rename the Queen Charlotte Islands to Haida Gwaii through the Haida Gwaii Reconciliation Act (22). The recoinage strives to acknowledge the history of the Haida People as part of their land claim efforts in the 1980s (23). A 42-ft totem pole called the Gwaii Haanas Legacy Pole was also recently constructed and raised to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Gwaii Haanas Agreement and celebrate cooperative management (24) (Figure 7). Furthermore, the Gwaii Haanas Land-Sea-People Management Plan was completed in 2018, providing direction on how to manage the natural and cultural resources of Gwaii Haanas for the following 10 years (25). 

Crest of the Archipelago Management Board
Figure 6: Crest of the Archipelago Management Board, signifying the sea otter and sea urchin (UBC, n.d.)

The reserve safeguards the mountains of Gwaii Haanas to 2500 meters below to the deep-sea ocean valley in its surrounding waters. It also extends 10 km offshore and protects 3500 km2 of ocean surface (18). The NMCA designation prohibits offshore drilling (26), exploitation of hydrocarbons, minerals and aggregates, disposal of substances (3), and commercial and recreational fishing in its strict protection zones (27). Indigenous fishing and harvesting rights are upheld, and recreational use of the park is allowed. Tourism is one of the main economic drivers of the islands, and the reserve is a popular destination for nature enthusiasts, adventurers, campers, hikers, bird watchers, boaters, kayakers and snorkelers (14) (Figure 8). The archipelago is only accessible by boat or aircraft and visitors must attend a mandatory orientation session before stepping foot on the islands (2). The Haida are deeply involved in both the management and tourism of the reserve, integrating Traditional Ecological Knowledge in their stewardship approaches (8) and showcasing the significant value of co-management and Indigenous Protected and Conserved Areas. The Haida Watchmen program oversees ecologically and culturally significant sites as an added measure of protection, and also provides education to visitors. Finally, Gwaii Haanas is also part of the larger Canada-British Columbia MPA Network (28), which protects ecologically significant features such as underwater hydrothermal vents, 9,000-year-old glass sponge reefs, and underwater mountains called seamounts (29). The Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve and Haida Heritage Site is a prime example of an effective co-management agreement and serves as a case study for similar arrangements across the globe (30).

Please check out the links below for short videos and documentaries on Gwaii Haanas and the Haida Nation:


  1. DFO (2019). Laurentian Channel Marine Protected Area (MPA). Retrieved from:
  2. Shaw, J., Piper, D. J. W., Fader, G. B. J., King, E. L., Todd, B. J., Bell, T., … & Liverman, D. G. E. (2006). A conceptual model of the deglaciation of Atlantic Canada. Quaternary Science Reviews, 25(17-18), 2059-2081.
  3. CPAWS (n.d.). Laurentian Channel MPA. Retrieved from:
  5. Government of Canada (2019). Backgrounder: Laurentian Channel Marine Protected Area. Retrieved from:
  6. CBC News (2019). Oil and gas out of N.L. marine protected areas, welcome in marine refuges. Retrieved from:
  7. Smellie, Sarah for CBC News (2017). Industry has too much sway in marine protected areas, says scientist. Retrieved from:
  8. Justice Laws Website (2021). Laurentian Channel Marine Protected Area Regulations (SOR/2019-105). Retrieved from:
  10. Oceana (n.d.). Bottom trawling. Retrieved from:

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