As superintendent of the Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve and Haida Heritage Site, Ernie Gladstone is protecting ancient totem poles and burial grounds built by his Haida ancestors.
He is also breaking down cultural barriers and creating new opportunities for the residents of Haida Gwaii (Queen Charlotte Islands) off the northern coast of British Columbia. In recognition of his achievements, Ernie received a 2008 Public Service Award of Excellence.
In 2001, Ernie became the first Haida superintendent of the Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve and Haida Heritage Site on Moresby Island. At the age of 31, he also became Gwaii Haanas’s youngest superintendent.
As a member of the Skidegate First Nation, Ernie is well versed in the history of the site. Gwaii Haanas was established as a National Park Reserve and Haida Heritage Site and is co-operatively managed through a 1993 agreement between the Government of Canada and the Council of the Haida Nation. That agreement came after extensive negotiations following a widely publicized standoff, dating back to the mid-1980s, between Haida residents and logging companies.
Despite the controversy of those early years, Ernie is clearly focused on the common goals of the Haida Nation and the Government of Canada: protecting and preserving the natural and historical beauty of Gwaii Haanas, while providing opportunities for employment and tourism to support the local economy.
“It helps in my work to have some familiarity with the local community,” says Ernie. “I am Haida. I grew up in this community. When I sit down at the table to discuss issues, I respect and understand the local concerns.”
He admits, however, that he sometimes faces conflicts in his position as a government representative while dealing with Haida neighbours. But his focus doesn’t waver.
“I don’t let the fact that I am Haida or that I work for the Canadian Government get in the way of my decisions. I think about what is best for Gwaii Haanas,” Ernie says.
“I need to make the best decisions for Gwaii Haanas because I will be living with these decisions for the rest of my life.”
Ernie began working as a deck hand on a Parks Canada vessel off Moresby Island in 1992. With a diploma in business management, he worked his way into management and signed up for a superintendent training program.
He is proud of what Gwaii Haanas has done for the local community. “We are lucky to have this protected area on our doorstep. There are a lot of opportunities for the local residents, a lot of tourism-related opportunities.”
He recalls that in the early 1990s only 10 percent of the staff at Gwaii Haanas was Haida. “Today,” he says, “50 percent of staff members are Haida.”
Perhaps that says something about Ernie’s success as a role model in his community, and his ability to bridge the divide between an ancient culture and a vibrant new opportunity for co-operation.