A few weeks ago, television news and newspaper columns headlined stories about a new totem pole being erected on southern Haida Gwaii. While the coverage was widespread and pictures of the 13-metre totem pole were magnificent, most of the coverage was superficial and missed the real significance of the 20th anniversary of the agreement establishing the Gwaii Haanas national park.

The real story was not the first new totem pole in over a century being erected on Lyall Island at the southern end of the park; the real story was what happened 20 years ago to force the Canadian government into signing the agreement with the Haida Nation, which established Gwaii Haanas.

While totem poles and park anniversaries are newsworthy, overlooked was the deeper story of courageous self-determination, warrior spirit and power sharing. The more meaningful story is about people coming together to develop a vision for their unique place in the world, then fighting to ensure that vision moves forward against formidable odds.

Some reporters touched on that story by recapping the confrontations leading up to the creation of the national park 20 years ago, but even these well-intentioned efforts overlooked fundamental facets of history, which distinguish the Haida’s approach from protests elsewhere.

Miles Richardson, former President of the Haida nation, captured the essence of this deeper significance on CBC’s BC Almanac. In response to a question about the protests leading up to the agreement, he said, “…people need to understand we weren’t protesting, we were upholding our own laws. Haida Gwaii are Haida lands, always have been, always will be. We were upholding our law. We had to fight to uphold that and we were willing to pay whatever price it took…”

What Richardson was pointing out – and what makes the history of Gwaii Haanas so intriguing – was not the signing of the agreement 20 years ago, but what happened before that.

Years before the Canadian government designated Gwaii Haanas as a national park, the Haida, using their own decision-making process and their own laws, designated the area as a Haida Heritage Site. What the media have been calling protests were not attempts to get the Canadian government to protect the area – rather, they were an effort to force Ottawa and Victoria to recognize and respect the Haida’s decision to protect the area.

The distinction is important. Again, Richardson described it best on CBC “…What we are celebrating here today is that Canada first, and then B.C., accepted Haida law and brought their laws in line with ours.” What’s so unique and amazing is that the Haida succeeded. Unfortunately, few other First Nations have been able to replicate the Haida’s victory in the ensuing two decades.

Also missing from the coverage of the pole-raising was recognition that Gwaii Haanas is managed under a unique arrangement that is built upon the Haida First Nation’s assertion of title.

The Gwaii Haanas Agreement acknowledges the existence of two distinct, yet equal, land designations for Gwaii Haanas – the Haida designation as a Haida Heritage Site and Ottawa’s designation as a National Park. Neither party fully recognizes the others’ designations, but surprisingly the dual designation arrangement seems to be working in more ways than one. Back in 2005 Gwaii Haanas was declared the best park in the world by Conde Naste magazine.

In addition to its dual designation, what makes the Gwaii Haanas Agreement so unique is its de facto power sharing arrangement. Unlike most agreements with First Nations, the Gwaii Haanas Agreement does not explicitly place final decision-making in the hands of the Canadian government. Rather, the hierarchy of authority between the authorities of the Haida and Canadian governments is left vague.

While few existing agreements other than Gwaii Haanas truly share power equally between First Nations and government, some agreements do allow First Nations to exercise significant control over some decisions prior to the resolution of larger land claims (these are generally co-management agreements).

The distinctions between co-management and shared jurisdiction are subtle, but important. Under a co-management arrangement a decision-making role is delegated. Conversely, in a shared jurisdictional model like Gwaii Hanaas, two equal parties come together and share decision-making.

Despite the rhetoric about “new relationships,” shared jurisdictional models in British Columbia are rare. Power-sharing arrangements like Gwaii Hanaas can only result from government-to-government negotiations between First Nations and Canadian governments. And both the provincial and federal Crowns have aggressively resisted negotiating power sharing. Governments and corporations only agree to share power when forced to – in the last few years the Crown has been forced more in this direction (and I predict this will happen more frequently in the future).

As an expert negotiator pointed out to me a few years ago, governments only negotiate agreements when the consequences of no agreement are significantly painful. That is why the deeper back story about how the Haida were able to force the federal government into the Gwaii Haanas arrangement is so important to other First Nations, communities and people who care about conservation, democracy and local control.

It didn’t just happen; the Haida forced the government’s hand by unilaterally declaring the area a Haida Heritage Site and joining with environmentalists pushing for protection of the South Moresby Island. Together, the Haida’s resolve, their strategic assertion of the title, the collective actions of the Haida, community and environmental activists led to this unique arrangement.

The question for people who care about equity, justice and sustainability is: how can we replicate the conditions that created Gwaii Haanas in other important places across our beautiful province, such as the Sacred Headwaters and the Great Bear Rainforest?