NATIONAL POST — It’s been dubbed the new “War in the Woods”: A growing Vancouver Island protest encampment aimed at disrupting planned logging in Fairy Creek, an expanse of old-growth rainforest located just north of the British Columbia capital of Victoria.
But this month yielded an unexpected twist in the Fairy Creek saga: Local First Nations leadership are definitely not on board.
“We do not welcome or support unsolicited involvement or interference by others in our Territory, including third-party activism,” read an April 12 letter drafted by the Pacheedaht First Nation, whose traditional territory encompasses the Fairy Creek watershed. The letter was posted to Twitter by Nathan Cullen, B.C.’s Minister of State for Natural Resource Operations
The letter denounced “increasing polarization” over forestry activities in the area and asserted the Pacheedaht right to determine how the forest is used. “Our constitutional right to make decisions about forestry resources in our Territory … must be respected,” it read.
It’s a phenomenon that is becoming not all that uncommon in British Columbia which – unlike much of Canada – sits largely on untreatied land. As the province’s Indigenous communities acquire greater control of development and natural resources, they are increasingly butting up against environmentalist groups who claim to represent them.
In early 2020, Southern Vancouver Island’s Scia’new First Nation denounced Extinction Rebellion Vancouver Island after the group blockaded the home of B.C. Premier John Horgan, ostensibly in defense of the recognition of Indigenous rights.
“We find it disturbing that you would ignore our rights and titles over our traditional territory and not follow protocol and ask permission to enter,” said the letter, which also demanded an apology to the Scia’new community, chief and council.
Around the same time, a different Vancouver Island faction of Extinction Rebellion was also denounced by K’òmoks First Nation for an illegal highway blockade that activists asserted was devoted towards “defending our home in the K’omoks Territory.”
“This event was organized by non-indigenous Comox Valley residents who aren’t connected to our territory in the same way as K’òmoks, and in no way represent K’òmoks or our values,” wrote K’òmoks chief Nicole Rempel in a statement at the time.
Fairy Creek, located about a two-hour drive from the B.C. capital, is one of the last unlogged valleys of coastal rainforest in all of British Columbia. According to the Ancient Forest Alliance, Fairy Creek is home to some of the world’s largest yellow cedars, including several specimens that may be more than 2,000 years old.
Pacheedaht First Nation encompasses 284 members, 97 of whom live on the reserve. Pacheedaht is in the process of negotiating a modern treaty with the B.C. government, and in recent years has moved heavily into the forestry sector. The nation owns a log-sorting facility, a sawmill, and cutting rights to several woodlots. In 2017, the nation signed a memorandum of understanding with TimberWest Forest Corp.
In the April 12 letter, Pacheedaht noted their use of forestry resources is guided by a stewardship plan, “which will include the identification of special sites, traditional use areas and places where conservation measures will be in place.”
Although two-thirds of Fairy Creek are subject to existing protections, the remaining third is subject to a tree-cutting license owned by the Surrey-based forestry company Teal-Jones Group.
After Teal-Jones began moving equipment into the area in August, a group calling itself the Rainforest Flying Squad quickly moved into the area to blockade roads. While Teal-Jones successfully obtained an injunction earlier this month to arrest protesters, the area remains at a stalemate.
The original “War in the Woods” occurred in the early 1990s in Clayoquot Sound, about 100 kilometres north of the Fairy Creek watershed. In one of the largest acts of civil disobedience in Canadian history, hundreds of protesters ignored a court injunction and faced arrest in order to prevent MacMillan Bloedel logging operations in the area.
In the case of Clayoquot Sound, local Nuu-chah-nulth First Nations — most notably the Ahousaht and Tla-o-qui-aht — had been among the first to oppose planned logging operations in the area by declaring a tribal park over Meares Island, one of the most celebrated areas targeted for clear-cutting.
Although First Nations and environmental groups had a mutual desire to prevent wholesale clearcutting in Clayoquot, the conflict did emerge over the latter’s goal to preserve the region as a pristine wilderness. Speaking at a Clayoquot Sound fundraiser at the time, Ahousaht spokesman Clifford Atleo said that his nation did not oppose logging on its face and that “natives become annoyed when non-native environmental leaders make public statements such as ‘not another tree will fall’ in Clayoquot Sound.”
Clayoquot Sound never came under formal protection from logging, but the protests ultimately caused MacMillan Bloedel to pull out of the region. Clayoquot tree farm licenses then reverted to smaller, First Nations-owned companies.
The last major B.C. resource battle to galvanize Canadian public opinion came just before the onset of COVID-19. The country saw nationwide rail blockades put up in support of Wet’suwet’en opposition to the Coastal GasLink pipeline, a 700-km pipeline to carry natural gas from around Dawson Creek to the port of Kitimat.
Coastal GasLink had the support of elected band governments along its route. But anti-pipeline activists backed a dissenting faction of hereditary chiefs, asserting that they represented a more legitimate form of Indigenous governance as opposed to elected band councils established by the Indian Act.
Lost in the resulting national controversy — ginned up by both environmentalist and gas industry influence — was an intra-community fight over power and legitimacy. Elected chiefs accused hereditary chiefs of going rogue, as did female subchiefs who accused the all-male anti-pipeline chiefs of acting outside of their nation’s matriarchal traditions. “To ignore their clan members and Elected Councils, something is terribly amiss,” Dan George, chief of the Ts’ilh Kaz Koh First Nation, told APTN in March 2020.
Wet’suwet’en Hereditary Chiefs from left, Rob Alfred, John Ridsdale, centre, and Antoinette Austin, who oppose the Coastal Gaslink pipeline take part in a rally in Smithers B.C., on Friday, January 10, 2020. PHOTO BY THE CANADIAN PRESS/JASON FRANSON
In the case of Fairy Creek, the Pacheedaht letter was signed both by the nation’s elected chief councilor, Jeff Jones, and hereditary chief Frank Queesto Jones, the grandson of Queesto, a legendary Pacheedaht chief who, when he died in 1990 is believed to have been 114 years old.
Within days, however, a counter-statement had come out from Pacheedaht elder Bill Jones claiming that Frank Jones is not a legitimate hereditary chief. “He is not eligible to make the claim for the Jones family line and is not informed by the hereditary system amongst our peoples. In fact, the Jones family is not originally from the territory, and have no chief rights to the San Juan valley. The Jones family is ancestral to this place, through many intermarriages and ties to the land, but that is within the last 400 years,” read the statement, which came out in the form of an interview with Bill Jones’ niece Kati George-Jim (xʷ is xʷ čaa), a former coordinator with the Sierra Club who posted it to her Facebook page. The Rainforest Flying Squad has not acknowledged the Pacheedaht First Nation’s letter in any of its official social media channels, but they did issue an April 18 statement saying they “stand with Pacheedaht elder Bill Jones.”
Other B.C. environmental groups have been more willing to address the Pacheedaht call for an end to outside interference. Stand.earth is the descendant of Friends of Clayoquot Sound, one of the main organizers from the War in the Woods era. In a release, the group said it “fully supports and upholds the sovereignty of the Pacheedaht Nation,” but also renewed their call for deferring old-growth logging.
“Our hearts go out … to the Pacheedaht Nation in this difficult moment as a result of lack of provincial leadership.”
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