Most of the world recoiled in horror and disbelief 20 years ago when, only a few months before 9/11, the Taliban blew up a pair of massive statues carved into the sandstone cliffs of central Afghanistan that had been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The towering Buddhas of Bamiyan, built along the historic Silk Road trade route between Europe and Asia back in the sixth century, were deemed by the jihadists to be in violation of Islamic law prohibiting idolatry, and it seemed almost inconceivable to non-fanatics that these ancient treasures had been lost forever in the name of religion.
And yet something similar is happening in British Columbia, only, this time, the giants are trees and the religion is capitalism.
More than 170 people have been arrested so far in a remote part of southwest Vancouver Island after trying to put a stop to logging in one of the province’s few remaining untouched temperate rainforests, where many of the trees are hundreds, or even thousands, of years old. While activists with the grassroots group Rainforest Flying Squad have been blockading roads, chaining themselves to the ground, and perching precariously in trees since August of last year, the number of protesters has swelled exponentially in the past three weeks after RCMP began enforcing a court injunction banning interference with logging operations by the Teal-Jones Group. The provincial government granted the Surrey-based forestry company permits last year to cut timber within three areas of its tenure of nearly 600 square km.
The pristine Fairy Creek watershed, located just a few hours by car from the provincial capital outside the sleepy fishing community of Port Renfrew, has since attracted a steady influx of land defenders from all walks of life, many of them galvanized into action by a recent viral photo of a colossal Sitka spruce being hauled on a truck near the city of Nanaimo. (The tree was reportedly killed on northern Vancouver Island before new rules were introduced that would have cost a forest company fines of up to $100,000 for cutting down such an exceptionally large specimen.) The protest is fast on its way to becoming the country’s biggest act of civil disobedience since the so-called War in the Woods in the early ’90s, which ultimately resulted in the arrests of more than 800 people, and forced the NDP government at the time to prevent the MacMillan Bloedel Corporation from clearcutting the neighbouring Clayoquot Sound rainforest.
Fairy Creek — which is probably Canada’s best-known creek after Schitt’s — is one of just three per cent of untouched ancient forest left remaining on the island, and is found within the less evocatively named Tree Farm Licence 46, as well as both the unceded territory of the Pacheedaht First Nation and Premier John Horgan’s own electoral riding of Langford-Juan de Fuca.
Earlier this month, Horgan announced plans to modernize his government’s forestry policy to redistribute provincewide forest tenures to First Nations and small-scale operators, as well as to eventually implement recommendations in the 2020 Old Growth Strategic Review to protect rare ecosystems, which were made out of valid concern that the current management plan would lead to permanent biodiversity loss.
But the premier — a pulp-mill worker in his youth, and whose political party relied historically on heavy financial donations from forestry workers belonging to the United Steelworkers before corporate and union donations were banned in 2017 — passed the buck when asked why no action was being taken to immediately end logging in the Fairy Creek Valley and neighbouring Central Walbran by pointing to the other tragic B.C. news story currently dominating headlines.
“The critical recommendation that’s in play at Fairy Creek is consulting with the title-holders,” Horgan told reporters last week. “If we were to arbitrarily put deferrals in place there, that would be a return to the colonialism that we have so graphically been brought back to this week by the discovery in Kamloops.”
Horgan essentially exploited the heartbreaking (if unsurprising to anyone who paid any attention to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report) discovery of the unmarked graves of an estimated 215 Indigenous children outside a former residential school run by the Catholic Church, likely the first of many more from similar institutions once widely scattered across the country.
It seems both tone-deaf and grotesque to pretend your hands are tied to put a halt to old-growth logging on unceded land because it might seem like settlers simply imposing their will on Indigenous people again. It also backfired spectacularly when, just a few days later, the Pacheedaht, along with the Ditidaht and Huu-ay-aht First Nations, requested a two-year pause of old-growth logging in their traditional territories after jointly signing the Hišuk ma c̕awak Declaration.
“For more than 150 years, they have watched as others decided what was best for their lands, water, and people,” reads the statement. “This declaration brings this practice to an immediate end.”
The proclamation demands that the governance and stewardship of their traditional lands be acknowledged and respected in accordance with constitutionally protected Aboriginal title and treaty rights.
Horgan and the NDP made a big deal during the last election campaign about promising to protect old-growth forests, and they’d be wise to live up to them. A recent Insights West poll found the vast majority of British Columbians are concerned about the destruction of these unique and vital ecosystems, and don’t think the provincial government is doing a particularly good job of managing what tiny fraction is left of them.
In Big Yellow Taxi, indisputably one of the most famous songs about environmental stewardship, Joni Mitchell asked: “Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone?”
Not knowing what they’ve got ’til it’s gone could just as easily apply to the ruling party’s grip on power, if they don’t read the room and start seeing the forest for the trees.
MORE FLEMING: Falcon launches leadership bid amid some turbulence
The views, opinions and positions expressed by all iPolitics columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of iPolitics.