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Edge of paradise

Haida Gwaii draws a line in the sand to protect environment

Haida Gwaii: On the Edge of the World at Vancity Theatre, Dec. 3.

The tagline on the poster for the new documentary Haida Gwaii: On the Edge of the World is "maybe we're not screwed."

"And that's basically what it's about. It's about a group of people who have come together to create a model for how the rest of us could chart our way towards some sort of sustainability," says director Charles Wilkinson, who created the documentary with his partner Tina Schliessler.

This is the third in an eco-trilogy created by the couple, that also includes Peace Out and Oil Sands Karaoke.

The first two, admits Wilkinson, didn't offer the same sort of optimism about the crusade to save the environment as his latest doc, which has already won tons of praise, including top prize at the largest documentary film fest in North America. "Yeah, just by definition it ends up being kind of depressing," he says about Peace Out, which set out to answer the question, "Are we destroying our backyard for energy?" "The second (Oil Sands Karaoke), I mean it's a ton of fun to see how fun a karaoke contest is in the oil sands - I mean people had a lot of fun up in Fort Mac, not so much today, but they have had. But the conclusion you'll come to when you get to the end is 'God how is it possible to party on when something this devastating is taking place right there.' So it's also not particularly cheerful." What's happened in the ruggedly pristine Haida Gwaii archipelago in northwestern B.C., however, should leave filmgoers with a sense of optimism about the future of the planet.

"We went to Haida Gwaii to their film festival for one of the shows and just spent some time there and saw that it's a remarkable place. It's pretty interesting to note that Haida Gwaii is world famous amongst environmentalists - for a place that managed to draw a line in the sand and stop unsustainable development." "That was the appeal of the place for us and that is what the film is about," said Wilkinson.

For Wilkinson, who has lived with his wife in Deep Cove since the late 1980s and taught

filmmaking at Capilano University, a keen interest in the environment, comes naturally.

He was born in Western Canada and grew up in a family that loved the outdoors. "I grew up around the campfire listening to my parents and uncles talk about the electrification of Western Canada," he says. "At that time the W.A.C. Bennett Dam was going in (northern B.C.) and they really talked a lot and I found it unforgettable about some of the costs associated with building that dam. You know some of the First Nations peoples whose lives were completely destroyed and yet at the same time, it was pretty clear that the electrification of B.C. made this a 'have' province and it had been a 'have-not' province, so I really grew up appreciating the conflicts and the contrasts between stuff we have and stuff we need."

The story of the Haida Nation and the magical islands they call home is a fascinating tale.

"That's their story and that's the narrative that people around the world find so captivating," he says. "The Haida Nation was decimated by smallpox, their numbers had shrunk to about one per cent of previous numbers, the logging companies moved in, you know the multi-national loggers, and they were clear-cutting the islands without any regard for sustainability whatsoever."

But, at a certain point, the nation began to recover. Around the same time a number of environmentally-minded people came to live in Haida Gwaii "because they valued the natural beauty of the place. And so they got themselves in alignment with the Haida Nation and they began fighting back." The area gained national notoriety when police arrested dozens of Haida Nation elders who'd created a blockade to halt logging on one of the islands. After years of strife and struggle, thanks to tireless work and determination of the First Nations inhabitants of the area and environmental groups, in 1987 the provincial and federal governments made South Moresby a national park reserve. "Brian Mulroney finally had to listen to the will of a large number of Canadians and say we're going to change South Moresby into a national park," says Wilkinson. "It's a great story." Haida Gwaii: On the Edge of the World is showing Dec. 3 at 2:45 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. For more go to