On the edge of our province a hundred kilometres from the mainland is Haida Gwaii, the former Queen Charlotte Islands, the ancestral home of the Haida, the West Coast First Nations. In the remote south of Haida Gwaii is a national park reserve, one of the most spectacular, untamed wilderness areas in the world. Gwaii Haanas—place of wonder. An isolated archipelago of 138 islands featuring some of the largest trees on earth, 1,600 kilometres of coastal shoreline, 42 freshwater lakes, thundering surf, fog-hung mornings, rain-deluged days and sometimes, mirror-flat seas. With no roads and limited facilities, the only access is by chartered aircraft or boat, as was our experience three years ago. In deepest summer with drink and book, a particular memory of that trip surfaces, still.
Anna Inlet was the first place the Oceanlight II moored for the night. The eight of us guests were noisy with getting-to-know-you high-point stories of our travels, careers and family. But a hush arose when Tom captained us through the narrow waist of the entrance to Anna Inlet.
Speechless, we could hear the gentle rippling of water as the hull slowly cut into the inlet. Cocooned in isolated beauty, we felt like the first and only people to have set our eyes on this distillation of wilderness.
The Haida have lived here for 14,000 years.
It was their people who assisted George Mercer Dawson (1849-1901), who “may have contributed more than any other person to early knowledge of the geology, biology and ethnology of Canada’s Northwest.” In the two decades following Confederation, George led some of the most epic explorations in the country’s history into the blank spaces on maps of Canada’s Northwest. Working on behalf of the Geological Survey of Canada (GSC), he established the foundations of geological knowledge and natural history in these regions. Dawson City and Dawson Creek are named for him.
Imagine trying to chart 1,600 kilometres of Gwaii Haanas coastline! In 1878!
What made it more difficult for George was at the age of eleven he contacted spinal tuberculosis that deformed his back and stunted his growth—he only grew to 4’6”. His father, a noted geologist and principal of McGill University, provided a lot of George’s education during his slow recovery.
An exceptional man, George not only rose to become director of the GSC, he accomplished much as an anthropologist, natural scientist, meteorologist, poet, photographer and ethnologist. He discouraged the government from segregating First nations people on reserves, encouraging instead a policy of education and assimilation. His comprehensive geological report on Haida Gwaii included a Haida vocabulary and a warning to politicians that the Haida culture possessed fully developed concepts of property ownership that needed to be considered during land negotiations for the railroad. He is considered one of Canada’s foremost contributors to ethnology and the father of Canadian anthropology.
Guided by the Haida, George found and reported on masses of copper pyrite. Captain Tom told us that from 1907-1912 there was a mine, Copper Belle Workings, in the San Christoval Mountains here. From 1908-1941 there was also a salmon cannery nearby at Lockeport, where at its peak, Haida and Japanese workers processed more than 70,000 salmon annually. Large-scale logging operations employing 200 men began near Lockeport in 1918. Until the mid-1980s, some Haida wintered here for a few months to fish for herring.
“When can I go fishing?” Jean-Paul had been asking Tom during the day. In no time once we’d anchored, Jean-Paul had jigged a rockfish and a snapper.
Lazy days of summers past floating by, I wondered again, as I had at Anna Inlet: who was Anna for which this place of wonder is named?
I may have discovered the answer.
For George Dawson, an intensely private man, immediate family was the locus of his life. He was especially fond of his sister, Anna Dawson Harrington, with whom he shared many interests, had a deep respect and a close friendship, even when he was away on expeditions and Anna was married with nine children. A writer and artist—and had she lived a few generations later, she could have been a scientist herself—Anna wrote an unpublished memoir of her father and illustrated many of his geological books and articles. Her letters can be found in the McGill Archives, her drawings at McCord Museum.
Summer, from the Old English sumor… meaning both one and together. To you Anna Dawson Harrington, to your brother George, to Anna Inlet and to summer interludes that unveil the stories of summers past.
Birker, Ingrid. George Mercer Dawson—What’s in a Name? Dictionary of Canadian Biography.Montreal: McGill Blogs, March 30, 2011.
Jekins Phil. “The fascinating life of George Mercer Dawson.” Ottawa Citizen. September 6, 2016.
Lerner, Lorna. “Anna Dawson Harrington’s Landscape Drawings and Letters: Interweaving the Visual and Textual Spaces of an Autobiography.” Ottawa: Concordia University.
Martin, Jason William Grek. “MAKING SETTLER SPACE. George Dawson, the Geological Survey of Canada and the Colonization of the Canadian West in the Late 19th Century.” Kingston: Queen’s University, 2009.
Tides to Tins: “Lockeport Cannery.” GulfofGeorgiaCannery.org.