After last June’s heat wave, the coast of British Columbia reeked of a billion dead sea creatures. Wildfire smoke choked the interior all summer. November’s deluge ripped highways and train tracks to shreds and forced 17,000 people from their homes. Some of this province’s most iconic animals — salmon, caribou, orca — are disappearing before our eyes. A province famous for being gorgeous has become a global mascot for environmental mayhem.
There are planetary forces to blame. But it wasn’t climate change that turned B.C.’s forests into a patchwork of clearcuts, or sent over 1,300 species down the path to extinction. A century of homegrown resource extraction — of industrial fishing and logging and mining for gold and gas and coal, all of it on stolen land — has left us terribly exposed.
We’ve done this to ourselves. And we’re still doing it. Still logging old growth, fracking for gas, building a Site C dam that floods a fertile valley. Still arresting Indigenous land defenders for trying to halt these things.
How can this be? Weren’t the BC NDP supposed to correct course after 16 years of BC Liberal misrule? They promised to build a sustainable economy, honour reconciliation and tackle climate change. Veteran activists like Tzeporah Berman endorsed John Horgan when he first ran in 2017; “Environmentalists Rejoice,” proclaimed a Vancouver Sun headline soon after he’d won and selected the former director of BC’s Sierra Club, George Heyman, to be minister of environment and climate change strategy.
Four and a half years later, nobody in my circle is rejoicing. I moved here from Alberta straight after high school, drawn like so many to the spectacular nature of “Beautiful B.C.” I have been writing about environmental justice in this province and beyond for over 15 years. That’s an eyeblink compared to those who’ve dedicated entire lives to this cause, to say nothing of the nations whose roots in this landscape run all the way back to the ice age; but it’s helped me understand and share much of their anger. Many of us voted for the BC NDP and now wonder what it means that a self-advertised progressive government, finally heaved into power, has failed to boldly implement the changes so clearly needed.
Bound up in that question are so many others about the nature of politics and the politics of nature that I decided to seek answers at the source. As November’s floods finally began to recede and a catastrophic 2021 wound down, I reached out to people inside the provincial government and others close to the policy-making action.
I wanted to get past the typical 10-minute interview format and have human conversations. Maybe I’d get a sense of whether our leaders are operating in good faith, or at least come to know their cold calculus. And that, in turn, could give me a better sense of whether they’re up to the task we selected them for: correcting this province’s calamitous course.
And so, over the past six weeks I’ve had wide-ranging conversations with people inside the BC NDP government, as well as allies and critics. They include B.C.’s ministers of environment, George Heyman, and Indigenous relations, Murray Rankin; three former and current senior officials who are familiar with cabinet’s inner workings and spoke on condition of anonymity; a co-author of the Old Growth Strategic Review; Indigenous leaders, environmental activists, political scientists and more.
I decided from the outset that if I was going to interrogate their worldview, I should give my own the same treatment. Which assumptions are so embedded in my thinking that I no longer even notice them? How many of my opinions have hardened into moral truths, and why?
This piece is the first of three resulting from those discussions — the B.C. government tapes, we’ll call them. The picture they paint has confirmed some of my assumptions and destabilized others. No less destabilizing were the “freedom” protests that seized Canada while I wrote; while this series is not about those protests, the questions they raise about civic engagement with the rule of law do add a critical subtext to everything that follows.
You will draw your own conclusions. Rather than force any particular agreement, my hope is to provide a clear view of the forces affecting all sides of our mutual struggle for progressive politics and environmental protection.
“They positioned themselves as the party of change,” said Torrance Coste when I called him in the first week of January to talk about our provincial government. “But if you actually drive out on a logging road, you can’t tell much is different from five years ago.”
I first met Coste on a logging road near Fairy Creek last May, on the day 55 blockaders were arrested at the entrance to the Caycuse watershed. The blockaders were corralled behind a ribbon of police tape by the time I arrived, opposite a long line of idling police trucks. Coste, calm but alert, stood among a small clutch of reporters milling between the two groups, filling us in on the day’s events and their wider context.
The trees those arrestees were trying to protect are now long gone. The last blockades at Fairy Creek dismantled. But millions of hectares of unprotected old growth remain in this province, and Coste’s work continues.
“I’ve been in the central Walbran [an adjacent, partially protected watershed] with people who are sitting cabinet ministers right now, when they were opposition MLAs,” Coste told me. Those MLAs included George Heyman, who back then was “railing against projects that he’s now more or less behind.”
That more or less carries a lot of water. Torrance acknowledged that Heyman and his colleagues “didn’t come right out and say ‘We’re going to put an outright ban on old-growth logging’ in their platform. But they did say ‘Look, we realize there are places that need to get protected.’ Things that aren’t different from what they’re saying now, but that are very different from what they’re doing.”
Coste’s frustration echoed a widespread impression that BC’s NDP is deliberately employing a cynical “talk and log” strategy. And it has to be said that Heyman’s manner of speaking does little to dispel that impression.
In place of passionate urgency, B.C.’s environment minister exudes a studied expertise that verges on clinical detachment. He has an encyclopedic grasp of policy detail, and has been known to deploy it via multi-clause sentences in order to run down the clock against antagonistic journalists.
It seemed at first that he would do so again when we spoke on Dec. 27. The first thing I asked was whether he agreed with my premise that there’s a rift between B.C.’s environmental community and the NDP, including him specifically. He responded with a typical clock-killing Heyman Non-Answer:
“When I occasionally go on social media and read comments,” he said, “I regularly see the comment of, I’m the former executive director of Sierra Club BC, which is true, but before that I had a close to 30-year career in the labour movement, and during virtually all of that time I was involved with the New Democratic Party.” He went on to say that he joined the Sierra Club not from a burning concern for B.C.’s ecosystems, but because “it struck me that there was a rift between labour and other elements of the social justice movement, and people who were focused on the environment, and it seemed to me to be an artificial rift, and one that needed to be bridged. Because I thought that all of the issues, whether it’s issues of equity, social justice, environmental justice, working people’s rights, the ability to make a decent living, are all part of the same societal issue of justice.”
That was not the response of an ardent environmental activist. It was the response of a man who wants to broadcast that he is not an activist, but a bridge-builder.
I asked if he was acknowledging a tension between protecting jobs and protecting the environment in a resource economy like B.C.’s.
“One could call it a tension, or one could more correctly call it a complex range of interests in society in general, not just in British Columbia,” he replied. “All members of government, from whatever party, are facing very complex sets of imperatives for different groups of people, all of whom are convinced they’re absolutely right, and none of which can be resolved absolutely immediately, no matter what the immediacy that those groups feel.”
Once again: This is how to talk if you want to piss off a progressive. It’s not that it’s incorrect, or oblivious, or biased. It’s that it refuses all bias. We wish people like Heyman would pick a side, our side, and dig into direct confrontation with industry. Instead, Heyman embodies what a senior official who is no longer with the government told me: “The leadership in the premier’s office is looking for a more consensus-based politics, to try and balance off all these interests and to not really have a transformational agenda.”
According to that former official, "It is business, not labour, where the contradictions of pursuing a progressive agenda in a resource economy are laid bare.”
In search of a direct answer from Heyman, I asked the most naive question I could think of: Why can’t we just stop logging old growth? He responded with a list of his ministry’s accomplishments that took four minutes to deliver.
But then he came back to my question.
“That is not, first of all, what the Old Growth Strategic Review recommended,” he said. “What the strategic review said was we need to transform how we manage our forests, and our old forests in particular, and change the paradigm, and put protection of biodiversity and the range of values at the front instead of making timber paramount. And that is a substantial change. And then they said, in the interim, as you begin that work, a) you must consult and do it in collaboration with Indigenous peoples, the First Nations who are rights and title holders. And you also need to defer the most at risk.”
(Fact check: Heyman is perfectly correct on this.)
He continued: “So we have been consulting with Indigenous people, and some of them have said ‘Yes, we’d like to defer,’ and others have said ‘We want to talk some more and we have our own processes of conservation planning and we want to work through those with you or we want to work through those on our own, but we don’t want you to tell us what to do.’”
On Nov. 2, 2021, the province announced it would defer logging in 2.6 million hectares of B.C.'s most endangered old growth — exactly what the strategic review recommended. Before implementing the plan, B.C. gave 204 First Nations throughout the province one month to decide whether they wanted to approve any deferrals that landed in their territory, or allow logging to continue. One month later, the majority of those nations declared they needed more time to study the issue. The province extended the deadline indefinitely, which is where we are today: awaiting the implementation of a deferral, which, being temporary (two years, per the NDP’s announcement), is not to be confused with a moratorium. “But essentially,” Heyman insisted, “in those 2.6 million hectares there’s little if any logging going on.”
One unlikely confirmation of the NDP’s commitment to protecting old growth would seem to come from the forest industry itself, which has kicked up quite a fuss over these developments.
But Heyman’s comments didn’t square with reports from advocacy groups that claim old-growth logging continues while we wait; nor did it address a central complaint articulated by Khelsilem, spokesperson for the Squamish Nation Council, in a December press release: “The BC NDP are giving a terrible choice by only offering consent for temporary deferrals but not requiring consent for logging.”
It seems the only thing all sides in this dispute agree on is the Old Growth Strategic Review itself, whose findings and recommendations are regularly cited by government and conservation groups alike. So in the hopes of getting somewhere near the bottom of all this, I reached out to one of the strategic review’s co-authors.
Garry Merkel is a registered professional forester from the Tahltan Nation. He is advising the NDP as an independent contractor on their implementation of the review’s recommendations. Everyone I spoke to, including Torrance Coste, regarded him as a man of integrity without any partisan bias.
Merkel’s style of talking is the virtual opposite of Heyman’s — playful, unguarded and given to personal anecdotes. He gives the impression of someone who cares deeply about everything except the opinion of others.
Our conversation turned my world briefly upside down.
“The government’s doing everything they can,” Merkel told me. “There’s certainly mixed opinions on should they get consent from Indigenous governments before they implement deferrals… but at no point have I questioned their commitment” to implementing the 14 recommendations in his strategic review.
Things are complicated, Merkel told me, because “you’re serving two masters here. One is we have committed to implement UNDRIP through DRIPA, which means that we’re going to actually treat Indigenous governments like governments and establish collaborative management relationships with them in their territory. And we’re also trying to change our management paradigm to an ecosystem health management model, and there’s a real sense of urgency to do that because we’ve waited so long to make the shift. So we’re kind of pushed both ways.”
I asked Merkel a variation of the question I’d asked Heyman — is there a conflict between those two imperatives? — and received a surprisingly similar answer: “I wouldn’t say they’re in conflict; I’d say they complicate each other.”
“Maybe I say it this way,” Merkel went on. “We wrote an old-growth strategy almost 25 years ago now, and if we had implemented that we wouldn’t be in the situation we are now. It was urgent then. It’s way more urgent now, and we’re panicking because it’s gonna take another week or two or month or two longer, when we already just burned up 25 years not doing it.”
In that single sentence, Merkel encapsulated not just B.C.’s entire predicament, but the planet’s. We have waited too long. For a great many things, it’s already too late. The old growth is almost gone, the planet is at 1.2 degrees, the fires and floods have begun. A generation and more of frustration is exploding in tandem with the consequences of our delay.
I hadn’t known what to expect before I called Merkel, but it certainly wasn’t a near wholesale endorsement of the NDP’s attempt to conserve old growth while honouring reconciliation. Until now, I’d always regarded the NDP’s stance as a thinly veiled effort to protect logging operations while shifting blame for them onto First Nations. I’ve written as much, in this publication and others.
Still, I asked — wouldn’t one way out of this mess be to simply pay First Nations and other stakeholders not to log their old growth?
“That may be on the table,” Merkel said. “We’ve only been in this negotiation for less than two months now, especially when you count Christmas.”
Then he told me a short story.
“I had a good friend of mine phone me not that long ago, a First Nations leader. And he said, ‘You know, I totally get and support what you recommended. I absolutely get it and support it. Our problem is we just got into the forest tenure business. We’ve spent millions of dollars on capital, we’ve got this license, and these deferral areas cover most of our next couple years operating. And if we were to abide by this it would drive us under.’ He said, ‘but I totally get why we have to do it, because if you let us go we’ll cut every damn stick down.’
“And I said, well, you are driving this bus. Go and speak to government about your issues, and try to work out a solution. Propose some solutions. And I don’t know what those are, but this is a negotiation. It’s not a yes/no thing, it’s not like that at all. And I know that hasn’t been communicated very well, but it is very much a negotiation.”
Was Heyman correct, I asked, when he said that there is “little if any” logging currently taking place in the 2.6 million hectares the government has offered to defer?
“He’s right on that,” Merkel confirmed. “Government has made it very clear to companies that ‘we are working with the First Nations right now to gain consent, and doing our level best to do that… and if you choose to go ahead, and you’re offside with us, then you will deal with the consequences of that personally.’ Most companies read between the lines on that and go, ‘That is not a good place for us to be in.’”
That wasn’t to say no ancient trees were coming down. In a few places, including just outside of Fairy Creek and the Caycuse, they were. But these were the exception, and, at least in some cases, were happening at the express bidding of the local First Nation who controlled those territories.
“I’m not saying it’s right that we’re losing important areas,” Merkel said. “What I’m saying is, you can choose [as provincial government] to say ‘Well, we’re not going to talk to you [First Nations] governments, we’re just going to do it [implement the old-growth deferral] and then we’ll repair the relationship later.’ And government certainly could do that. I’m not sure what my decision would have been; I’m not government. But I do understand the complications of doing that, because that has long-term repercussions in terms of implementing any type of land management in this province. Because if the Indigenous community doesn’t believe they’re serious about the partnership, there’s a zillion ways they can create problems.”
I offered my opinion that when it comes to extracting resources in this province, the government does in fact have a long history of saying “We’re just going to do it.” But Merkel insisted this has changed in recent years.
“I don’t know a case — and I’m not saying there isn’t any, but I have worked at quite a detailed operational level with many First Nations, and I don’t know a case where a First Nation has said ‘No, we don’t want this to happen, for these reasons’ through their government, and the provincial government has gone ahead with it. In many cases there may have been objections from some community members, but that’s a whole different story than a community’s government saying we’re opposed to this, and the community at large saying through proper government channels that we don’t want this thing to go ahead.
“That’s a whole different thing, although it’s amazing how this governance confusion can be manipulated by all sides to support their point of view and the way they want things to be. ‘Oh the community said this’ — well, when you explore it a little deeper, in a lot of cases it’s not the community who said it. It’s a few people in the community who said it. So all sides are quite adept at playing this game, and frankly from my perspective, at manipulating the community to meet their own ends.”
I have, by now, walked very far out on thin ice. By sharing that last quote in particular, I am flirting with the same manipulation Merkel decries. Worse, I risk implicating Merkel himself in my process. He didn’t say which communities he had in mind, and I didn’t ask, but my mind immediately went to Fairy Creek, where the blockades recently collapsed under the weight of the very contradictions Merkel was describing.
We have arrived at the fundamental fact that you can’t discuss environmental issues in this province without discussing Indigenous consent. And because the vast machinery of British Columbia’s industry is already in motion, because it is vitally entwined with the First Nations on whose territory it takes place, because those nations have finally been included in at least a portion of the proceeds (however paltry) — for all these reasons, it’s too late to give anyone the time they deserve to think things through. The play has begun, everyone’s on stage — should we carry on? Stop? Slow down? Speed up? Any move, including not moving, calls for negotiation.
“There is this uncomfortable purgatory stage,” Merkel said to me, “where everybody’s going ‘Oh my god — we’re all trying to do these monster things, and we’re all just feeling a little lost here, and what do we do?’”
Think of it this way: The entity known as the province of British Columbia is essentially a criminal organization. Outside a handful of treatied and self-governing First Nations whose territory covers less than five per cent of B.C.’s land base, every home, business and industrial operation in this province is operating on stolen property. Anyone who forms the government of this organization is automatically implicated in that crime. And if they are honest about that fact, they face a true dilemma: How do you put an end to a crime on which the well-being of five million citizens currently depends?
There’s one genre of literature that captures this dilemma better than all the rest: Supreme Court decisions, both provincial and federal, involving Aboriginal rights and title. From Delgamuukw in 1997 and Tsilhqot’in in 2014 through to Blueberry last November (and too many more in between to list), the judges of our land have spelled out the excruciating drama of B.C.’s predicament.
The most recent example came in the opening weeks of 2022, when the Supreme Court of BC ruled on a dispute between Rio Tinto Alcan and two First Nations — the Saik'uz and Stellat'en — who were seeking an injunction to restore natural flows to the Nechako River running through their territory; the Nechako has been diverted for 70 years to provide hydroelectricity for Rio Tinto’s aluminum smelter, driving salmon and sturgeon populations to the brink of extirpation.
Although the court denied the injunction, in his decision Justice Kent went out of his way to describe the paradox confronting him: “Some argue, in my view correctly, that the whole construct [of the Crown’s ‘underlying title’] is simply a legal fiction to justify the de facto seizure and control of the land and resources formerly owned by the original inhabitants of what is now Canada.”
Unfortunately, he went on, this fiction has been in place long enough to become a fact. As Kent put it: “While the legal justification for Crown sovereignty may well be debatable, its existence is undeniable and its continuation is certain. The task of this court is therefore to somehow reconcile continued settler occupation and Crown sovereignty with the acknowledged pre-existence of Aboriginal societies.”
That task has already absorbed entire generations of activists, lawyers and Indigenous leadership. Over the past decade it has expanded beyond the court to enter our streets and classrooms, our parliaments and legislatures, suffusing every aspect of public discourse.
Here’s how Minister Heyman described the conundrum, nearly 40 minutes into our conversation: “I realize I’m giving very long answers to your questions. All I can say is, whether we are developing a climate plan, whether we are dealing with old-growth logging, whether we are dealing with all the legitimate interests of British Columbians in health and well-being in healthy communities and jobs around British Columbia, it is rarely if ever a binary decision. It is complicated…. I don’t mean that it’s complicated and people just don’t understand. I’m saying, trying to do it is complicated.”
That kind of talk doesn’t mollify activists. Their job is to remain unmollified, and to never stop reminding our elected leaders of their job. “The government didn’t promise to save old growth in B.C. had colonialism and 100 years of old-growth logging not happened,” Torrance Coste reminded me. “They promised to save old growth. For Minister Heyman or the premier to say, ‘It’s complicated, you can’t go too fast,’ well, they promised to go fast. That’s the nature of making a promise on old growth in the 2020s.”
Wherever you stand on the rate of progress on protecting old growth or advancing reconciliation, there can be no doubt that it would have been much slower without the relentless push of activists in every corner. By the end of the Fairy Creek blockades, infighting tore the movement to pieces and made it hostile to newcomers and journalists alike; but for the first year of its existence, the same movement’s heroic insubordination held a constant flame to the government’s feet. The public pressure generated by the largest act of civil disobedience in Canadian history left the NDP zero wiggle room in the end.
A senior official currently serving in the BC NDP confirmed that Horgan’s government is keenly aware of the public’s overwhelming support for a ban on old-growth logging, even if it costs hundreds of millions of dollars. “I think the public would say that’s a good investment,” that official told me.
What did that official say to people who feel betrayed that it’s taken this long to get here? “They have not been betrayed by the NDP,” the official insisted. “It’s not fast enough, we all get that. But the problem is not that there’s been a go-slow effort carried out by people who had bad faith from the get go. That’s the hardest thing for a lot of people in politics to take, including Horgan, is to have people say ‘You’re a phony, you don’t care, you’re full of shit.'”
“We know we need to do more,” Heyman said when I asked him the same question. He urged frustrated activists to continue pushing, “but also recognize and help us implement the measures that we’ve set out that we are going to take. Understand that they are important, and take a moment to appreciate them, even if your answer might be ‘That sounds good and we’re gonna stay on your case to ensure you actually do it, and on top of that we want you to do some more.’”
“This the hard part, getting from here to there,” Merkel said near the end of our conversation. “The there? Everybody agrees with that notion. It’s just how to get there is really the hard thing. To get through this part, and do it in a way that everybody is working together and rowing in the same direction.”
Photo credits: Sawed cedar logs by Torrance Coste; police line by Jen Osborne, the Canadian Press; B.C. legislature via B.C. government.
Read the rest of the series: 'The BC Government Tapes: Pipelines and Reconciliation' and 'The BC Government Tapes: Climate, Energy and Site C.'