Old-growth activists say they are allied with First Nations. Is that really true?

·11 min read

Huu-ay-aht Chief Coun. Robert J. Dennis Sr. is blunt in his assessment of old-growth activists in southwestern Vancouver Island who remain in First Nations' territories despite being asked to leave.

“The environmental movement needs to be more respectful,” said Dennis, also known as Emchayiik. “How would any of them like it if I came into their backyard and set up a protest?”

Activists behind the contentious nine-month-long logging blockades in the Fairy Creek and Caycuse watersheds have failed to seek permission or open dialogue with the Pacheedaht and Ditidaht First Nations tied to those areas, Dennis said.

Blockade organizers recently doubled down and refused to leave even after elected and hereditary chiefs of the Huu-ay-aht, Ditidaht and Pacheedaht declared sovereignty and received provincial deferrals on old-growth logging for sections of the prized Fairy Creek watershed and the Central Walbran Valley.

The Fairy Creek blockades have laid bare an uncomfortable tension between First Nations reclaiming dominion over their traditional territories and environmentalists seeking to protect centuries-old trees. Although some First Nations people are involved in the current protests, they are a minority.

While the environmental movement is generally supportive of First Nations' rights, as the push to save B.C.'s remaining old-growth forests intensifies, it puts them at odds with First Nations that may support a certain amount of old-growth logging on their lands.

According to Dennis and some other First Nations leaders, the noise and furor of the Fairy Creek protests threaten to drown out the assertion of Indigenous peoples’ rights over their territories.

Resource development helps pay for First Nations government and services, Dennis said.

“If we can't get this money from somewhere, what are we supposed to do? Stay on welfare forever?” he asked.

Yet public support to protect old-growth forests is widespread across the province, with upwards of hundreds or even a thousand people arriving in the territories to support the blockades on various occasions. Close to 250 people had been arrested as of last week, some more than once.

The campaign to save B.C’s remaining ancient ecosystems is getting international attention from diverse luminaries, such as Greta Thunberg and former prime minister Brian Mulroney. Sympathetic politicians regularly visit the blockades, and Hollywood actor Mark Ruffalo has tweeted shout-outs for Fairy Creek activists.

But by protesting in places they’re not wanted, conservationists are being called out by some Indigenous leaders like Dennis for exemplifying the colonial or paternalistic approach taken by their forebears.They may not be saying it out loud anymore, but the attitude is the same, Dennis said: “We’ll manage it for you. We’ll do it for you.”

The Fairy Creek blockades — in place since August and in B.C. Premier John Horgan’s own backyard — are touted as B.C.’s newest War of the Woods.

The 1993 battle for Clayoquot Sound was Canada’s longest demonstration of civil disobedience, drew global attention to old-growth logging in B.C. and resulted in nearly 1,000 arrests.

Environmental groups large and small, global and local, spilled into the region and helped limit clear-cut logging in the sound and preserve it as a UNESCO biosphere.

The environmental movement largely sees the Clayoquot battle as a milestone victory, a template for organizing protests to achieve conservation goals.

But, as in the War of the Woods, Fairy Creek environmentalists’ objectives don’t cleanly jibe with First Nations looking to assert rights, said historian Jonathan Clapperton, associated with Royal Roads University.

Settler environmentalists at blockades are in the shaky position of proclaiming support for Indigenous rights while simultaneously attempting to control forestry in First Nations' territory, said Clapperton, who researches the intersection of Indigenous history and resource use with environmental activism.

“If protesters are refusing to leave even at the request of the local First Nations with authority in their traditional territory, then it’s definitely problematic,” he said. “And it repeats actions that have taken place in the past when we look at the history of environmental protest on Indigenous lands.”

Conservation movements such as Greenpeace’s campaign to end the seal hunt in Canada’s North at the expense of Indigenous people, or the colonial legacy of parks creation that curtails traditional hunting or uses of the land, are just some examples of the environmental movement's neocolonial history.

In the Clayoquot battle, environmentalists and First Nations generally co-operated, but there were also clashes and fallouts with environmental groups when First Nations asserted their authority.

The Nuu-chah-nulth banned both the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society and Greenpeace from their territory, and shut down blockades erected without their permission.

The Fairy Creek protest is complex in that a number of First Nations activists — such as Pacheedaht Elder Bill Jones and his niece Kati George-Jim — are expressly opposed to old-growth logging in their territory.

First Nations activists should absolutely have a central role in discussion around resource use in their territories, Clapperton added. But settler conservationists should be leery of determining who has the right to speak for a nation or cherry-picking voices who support their objectives.

Clapperton expressed empathy for old-growth activists under the gun to save rapidly diminishing ancient ecosystems.

“It’s a race of time, and once the trees are gone, there's no going back, but (the sense of urgency) can continue to perpetuate an imbalance of power between white settlers and First Nations.”

Torrance Coste, a campaigner with the Wilderness Committee, agreed environmental groups (ENGOs) must strive to ensure conservation goals are firmly tethered to environmental justice.

“The environmental movement needs to do a much better job in recognizing Indigenous sovereignty and for fighting for solutions that don’t just protect the environment, but uplift the people who belong to it,” Coste said.

Following the Pacheedaht Nation’s request that activists leave its territory, the Wilderness Committee expressed unequivocal support for the rights and title of Indigenous peoples.

Coste blames the Fairy Creek conflict on the B.C. government’s failure to substantially protect at-risk ecosystems as promised. He maintains that set the table for any ensuing tension between activists and First Nations.

B.C.'s premier has wielded the First Nations’ request for third parties to leave as a means to deflect criticism and get the blockades out of his riding, Coste noted.

Yet with chainsaws still buzzing, government and logging companies with their attendant colonial legacies haven’t fully exited the scene or created a space that would truly allow First Nations to choose how to manage their resources.

Coste says the answer lies in offering First Nations monetary compensation in exchange for logging deferrals, so they have the option of saving old-growth rather than having to cut the last of it for much-needed revenue.

The government isn’t the only entity justifying its actions on the grounds of supporting First Nations sovereignty. The Rainforest Flying Squad (RFS), the grassroots coalition behind the blockades, points to calls to action by Jones, the Pacheedaht elder, and young hereditary Chief Victor Peter as justification for their continued protest in the territories.

The colonial system allows the province to sign away First Nations' right to control resources on unceded lands to industrial logging companies and forces them under economic duress to enter agreements to go along with old-growth logging, Jones has said.

But it’s unclear what efforts the RFS has made to seek permission to stay in the territories from the nations, or if it has attempted to dialogue with the leadership to discuss old-growth areas of concern.

Veteran environmentalist Tzeporah Berman, who organized protests in the original War of the Woods, defends the right of protesters to continue. She recently joined the Fairy Creek blockades and was arrested.

Asked how she reconciles the seeming contradiction of claiming to support First Nations' sovereignty yet refusing to leave their territories when asked to do so, Berman has this to say:

“If we are truly going to decolonize British Columbia and recognize Indigenous nations’ sovereignty, they need to be treated as nations,” she told Canada’s National Observer.

All governments need to be held to account for their decisions, the Stand.earth director said.

“So I respect the Pacheedaht right to make decisions over their territory, and they need to understand that everyone is not always going to agree with those decisions.”

Berman said she wanted to respond to Jones’s call and noted First Nations elders and youth were among those who invited her to join the Fairy Creek protests.

“I (also) saw Indigenous folks being arrested on the blockades, and I thought, ‘You know what, that's enough for me,’” she said.

Berman said she understands why First Nations sign revenue agreements for old-growth logging on their land. They are pushed into supporting industrial extraction, she said.

While contemporary conservationists don’t set out to act like colonists by pursuing environmental objectives, that's no guarantee it doesn’t happen, Clapperton said.

Conservationists can too easily play the role of benevolent heroes, reducing Indigenous people to the role of environmentalist sidekicks. And they can earn the neo-colonialist moniker by portraying Indigenous people as victims overwhelmed by the infrastructure of a colonial elite, his research suggests.

“In either situation, environmentalists remain at the centre of history and Aboriginal peoples are denied any significant measure of agency,” Clapperton writes.

Environmentalists and First Nations have long made for uneasy allies, said Cliff Atleo, a Tsimshian and Nuu-chah-nulth scholar and professor at Simon Fraser University.

Atleo, who specializes in Indigenous governance, political economy and resource management, was invited to speak at a 20th-anniversary celebration of the War of the Woods and its conservation milestones.

“I kind of went there with this express purpose to be very clear about some Indigenous perspectives on that movement, and it almost felt like I was raining on their parade,” said Atleo, also known as Kam’ayaam or Chachim’multhnii.

Some attendees were taken aback to hear there were limited overlapping interests between First Nations and environmentalists — and perhaps disillusioned that the two parties weren’t actually staunch allies fighting united for a common cause.

“I was just trying to say we felt like we were being besieged by what we had interpreted as privileged environmentalists, coming to save our trees, on our land, with no consultation with us,” Atleo said.

“But in this case, it was a marriage of convenience, if you will. And it was always quite contentious.”

It felt predetermined that activists wouldn’t pack up when the Pacheedaht asked them to, Atleo said. ENGOs, governments, industry and even the Supreme Court still reserve the right to infringe on First Nations’ sovereignty, he added.

“So there's always that sense of crushing inevitability that Indigenous peoples have really grown accustomed to,” Atleo said.

Indigenous leaders face huge challenges balancing resource projects, job creation and economic opportunity with conservation and community preservation.

“In addition to cultural, environmental and spiritual values, it also includes the economic and political realities that we still have to navigate,” Atleo said.

“Which, of course, from an environmental or conservationist point of view, is usually interpreted as selling out.”

Unlike the past battles to save old-growth on Vancouver Island, the Fairy Creek blockades involve a number of Indigenous activists, Atleo said. It demonstrates, like everyone else, First Nations as individuals and communities are not monolithic and hold diverse opinions on environmental issues, be they logging or fish farms.

Conservationists also often expect all Indigenous people to be the original environmentalists and save what little old-growth exists after their settler forebears cut most of it down.

“You know, we're supposed to take one for the team and inspire others,” Atleo said.

In signing the recent Hišuk ma c̕awak Declaration, the Pacheedaht, Huu-ay-aht and Ditidaht asserted they were taking back control of their ḥahahuułi, or traditional territories, and its resources.

The nations adhere to sacred principles that guide stewardship in their territory and have a millennia of experience in managing their resources for future generations, Dennis said.

All three of the nations are involved in forestry operations, either through revenue agreements, woodlot licences, partnerships or operating sawmills.

The Huu-ay-aht announced in March it had purchased a sizable chunk of the logging tenure in its territory as well as an interest in a regional sawmill.

Dennis didn’t offer an opinion on whether the province should pay the Huu-ay-aht to not log old-growth. In any event, he doesn’t think it is a likely option.

The blockades are polarizing First Nations communities and hampering the development of stewardship and restoration plans for their lands and waters, he added.

“People should realize that First Nations are probably giving more attention to how the forest is managed than anyone else, and they should be respected and able to carry on their work without any interference from the outside world,” he said.

First Nations and environmentalists actually share similar concerns around preserving old-growth forests, Dennis said.

“I’m not anti-environmentalist. A lot of the value systems they have, we’re all on the same page,” said Dennis, adding he’s open to discussing environmentalists’ concerns.

All three First Nations support peaceful protest that doesn’t interfere with authorized forestry operations in their territories, he added.

But, said Dennis, “I don't like being bullied. And in my perspective, when someone comes into our territories, uninvited, they're bullying their way through.”

Rochelle Baker / Local Journalism Initiative / Canada’s National Observer

Rochelle Baker, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, National Observer

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