by John Broadhead
The people on the Queen Charlotte Islands off the west coast of Canada have been up to something extraordinary if not dramatic, audacious if not downright spunky, something almost unprecedented.
It’s extraordinary because a $1.2 billion sale of timber and real estate assets from Weyerhaeuser to Brascan is in the lurch, and the locals seem to have all the angel cards.
Two public roads are blockaded, denying access to Weyerhaeuser and the BC Forest Service. Most extraordinary of all, neither the provincial government nor two of the planet’s more powerful corporations have gone to court for an injunction against the action.
It’s dramatic because a few thousand souls on a remote archipelago accuse the provincial government of abandoning a constitutional duty and legal obligation and defying the highest court in the land.
It’s audacious because a bunch of islanders have established two strategic “checkpoints” to deny Weyerhaeuser access to its logging operations. Fishing boats watch the mouth of Masset Inlet while Weyerhaeuser’s log barge sits in Prince Rupert, 80 kilometres east on the BC mainland.
It’s spunky because thousands of logs worth millions of dollars have been seized by the Council of the Haida Nation for breach of contract because Weyerhaeuser has refused to abide by a written agreement to curtail the use of job-killing mechanical harvesters and to safeguard cedar for Haida cultural uses. Proceeds from the eventual sale of the logs have been promised by Haida and other community leaders to local health care, schools and recreation facilities.
The British Columbia Forest Service is also denied access to its offices although provincial inspectors are allowed to enter the mainline forestry road on central Graham Island to monitor logging operations by companies other than Weyerhaeuser, and to check roads and bridges for safety.
It’s almost unprecedented because 20 years ago the Haida did much the same thing at a place called Lyell Island, where a different provincial tree farm licence ultimately met its demise. And because somewhere out there, Mahatma Gandhi must be smiling.
Something that’s different this time around is that people from every island community and walk of life are standing with the Haida. Their numbers vary from day-to-day and shift-to-shift, from a few overnighters to several hundred by day. There’s a donation account at the local credit union. Hot meals are prepared in community kitchens and delivered to the line, where you’ll find a lot of local seafood, fresh baking and good company.
At the checkpoints near Port Clements and in Queen Charlotte City, the line in the road is marked with a two-by-four wooden speed bump, flanked by flags and signs that say “Enough Is Enough.”
Security is co-ordinated by two Haida ex-Mounties, in regular contact with the RCMP who visit several times a day. Women and men in reflective vests greet every vehicle and pedestrian at the line, inquiring cheerfully what they’re looking for today. They seem to know from 100 metres who’s in most of the approaching vehicles, many of them locals coming to visit, bring food, or grab a truckload of gravel down the road, and they get through.
Weyerhaeuser’s main contractor drives out from Port Clements to the line at the Yakoun River every morning, then returns to town to report to the crew there’ll be no logging today. Some stay at home, others visit the checkpoints to stand around a bonfire, trade news and talk about what’s going on. There are financial worries to deal with, security matters to discuss, warm food and drink, a bit of raunchy humour, many songs and prayers.
At the checkpoints and back in any of the islands’ six small communities there’s a networking buzz in the air, a palpable sense of something historic happening, of growing resolution and empowerment to make it last as long as it takes to bring the province and industry to task. Or at least of living in interesting times.
The Haida Nation has posted a website link called Island Spirit Rising with daily bulletins, background information and photos (www.haidanation.ca). The site log shows 80,000 hits since the action began, and web news tracking indicates that the story has spread from regional to national to European media. Offers of support from distant domains are escalating.
There’s a lot at stake for everyone concerned, and the closer you look, the higher the stakes seem to go. But put aside the seized logs, the billion-dollar deal and legal matters for a moment and consider the lot of the people who call the
For the past 18 months, several dozen of them have sat in a community forum for a formal land use plan process, and have learned some interesting things about what’s changed hands in the Queen Charlotte Forest District.
They’ve learned that two-thirds of the best forests on the islands have been logged. In the Skidegate Plateau where the most logging has occurred, 80 percent is gone. That’s 80 percent of the best places for trees, salmon, bear, birds, plants and people, gone.
They also know that’s a huge chunk of their economic future. In the past 50 years, the industry has shipped away 80 million cubic metres of raw logs worth over $10 billion, plus $800 million in provincial stumpage revenues collected, and then many billions more in capital gains, reinvestment and multiple taxation benefits.
That’s gone too, because where that mighty, and valuable, spruce and cedar grew, today there stands a second-growth forest worth a fraction as timber, if not of doubtful marketability. And public revenues from stumpage fees on second-growth logs are five percent or less of the old growth they replace.
What about the logging jobs? There were 900 in the ‘80s, 450 today and steeply declining, while school enrollments and real estate values plummet.
Every new mechanical harvester replaces a nine-person crew with families to feed in Port Clements, and Weyerhaeuser now has three of them. Every log barge loaded in a single shift by a crew of five could keep 15 people working in local mills for a year, and every second day another barge sails, usually under cover of darkness.
When you look at the numbers the way islanders do, it’s hard to see anything to build a future on, let alone slow the decay of social infrastructure or the eroding banks of salmon streams. Billions of dollars have been taken, a pittance has returned, and a huge environmental cost has been inflicted.
It’s all so colonial and all too clear that the province and industry want to keep it that way. Which is why the signs say “Enough Is Enough.”
What do people want? In a word, responsibility.
The BC government emphatically denies it, but it has in fact abandoned some fundamental public responsibilities. While the Haida case was wending through the courts, the government was changing its forestry legislation to divest the Crown of its legal authority to review changes in ownership of major forest licences.
Under new provincial legislation, nobody is responsible for the logging industry’s collateral damage to the people and forests of Haida Gwaii, or anywhere else in the province. Several decades of public control and oversight of the forest industry have come to an end. No Crown minister, no public agency, and no forest licensee can be held legally accountable for the economic and environmental losses being sustained.
And so Haida Gwa-iins have taken up what the province has put down, and people aren’t so much asking the government and industry for anything as telling them that the gig is up and things will be done differently from now on.
Down at the line in Queen Charlotte City last week, a local elementary school class paid a visit to find out why people are there instead of at home or work. One student asked, “Is logging a good thing?” A Haida carver and father of two pretty much summed it up for everyone with this reply:
“Yes it’s good. We all depend on the forest and logging is a part of our lives. But too much has been taken too fast, and now we’re at the brink of losing everything of value.
“The pace needs to slow down. We need to protect the cedar trees that are left for making canoes and carving poles, the streams for the salmon and bears, and the forest for future generations to build skating rinks and swimming pools and a future of their own.
“And we’re going to stay here as long as it takes to do that.”
John Broadhead is president of the Gowgaia Institute in Queen Charlotte City www.spruceroots.org, and co-ordinates mapping and analysis programs. He received the Governor General’s Conservation Award for his contribution to the establishment of the Gwaii Haanas Haida Heritage Site and National Park Reserve.
The website for updates on the action is: www.haidanation.ca