Macleans magazine has an interesting article on an emerging difference in agendas between British Columbia First Nations and environmental groups that had partnered with them on numerous protests against development on what at the time both groups considered to be environmentally sensitive areas.
Last month, the Squamish Nation okayed a controversial plan to erect a series of billboards on scenic native land. They weren’t just any signboards, but 300-sq.-foot blinking, digital billboards to advertise cellphones and cars. Negative reaction to the planned signs—some of which are set to line the spectacular route to Whistler—was so visceral the band was forced to scale back the design. Its opponents, the Citizens for Responsible Outdoor Advertising, say they are having to take on the role of “guardians of mother nature”—a role traditionally played by their “Squamish neighbours.”
Aboriginals are hardly the typical environmental bogeyman, but Squamish isn’t the only band making environmentalists barking mad. Last month, Coast Tsimshian Resources, a fledgling Aboriginal logging company based in Terrace, B.C., began shipping western hemlock to China. The company, which recently harvested its millionth cubic metre, is already one of the largest licence holders in B.C., with another sale to China in the works, and it has handily given Canada’s blighted logging industry a shot in the arm. But by exporting raw logs—so-called high-volume, low-value industrial forestry—it is igniting controversy. That the company is providing vital jobs and revenue to the Lax Kw’alaams First Nation hasn’t done much to earn it the sympathy of environmentalists. They are “destroying forests, and jobs,” says Wilderness Committee director Ken Wu; like the Sierra Club and ForestEthics, it supports a total ban on raw-log exports.
While the media was reporting how the environmental movement and First Nations were working hand in glove for a common cause, they were in fact using one another. The environmentalists were using the powerful image of the First Nations as being protectors of the land to achieve their goals of limiting or outright stopping logging in large areas of the province. At the same time, the First Nations were using the media skills of the environmentalists to promote their claims to ownership of, if not the land itself, at least the resources it held.
Fittingly, perhaps, the split between natives and greens began at Clayoquot Sound—where their marriage was celebrated a decade and a half ago. Environmentalists and the Nuu-chah-nulth, Clayoquot’s five tribes, had united in 1993 to protect the ancient temperate rainforest from the industrial logging that had razed so much of Vancouver Island. And what an alliance it was. B.C.’s War in the Woods became an international cause célèbre—“one of the defining environmental battles of our time” according to Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.—recording the largest protests in Canada’s history, and over 800 arrests. Last year, however, when two Aboriginal logging firms, Iisaak Forest Resources and Ma-Mook-Coulson, began clearing logging roads into Clayoquot’s undeveloped valleys, a powerful alliance of brand-name environmental NGOs including Greenpeace, the Sierra Club, the Wilderness Committee and ForestEthics banded together, threatening a return to its feted blockades. A truce has been called—but it is unlikely to hold for long. “Within a few years, we’ll have to go into the pristine valleys,” says Iisaak spokesperson Gary Johnsen. Otherwise, “neither company will survive.”
It has always amazed me that the various environmental groups involved were so naive to not see this coming. Did they really believe that in the long run the First Nations leaders would maintain their alliance with a bunch of non-native, elitist activists? Or did they really believe that the long-term needs of First Nations would be satisfied by some back-to-the-land philosophy.
I wonder if the First Nation leaders of that time saw the eventual route that they would eventually take or whether they honestly bought into the preservation agenda of the environmental community and their successes there simply left them in a strong position to act independently when their new agenda became jobs and income streams.
The environmental community has said that they will fight the First Nation’s resource extraction in areas that they fought to keep undeveloped. I suspect that they will not as successful fighting against them they were fighting with them. In fact, I would wager that they have lost that battle already.