“I think they waited too long for this,” said a Roberta Aiken, a Haida woman from Skidegate who was snapping photos as a caravan of 15 cars, representing the Haida families of Old Massett, pulled up at the blockade in Queen Charlotte City.
“Look around. Everyone is hungry, our land is hungry and it’s being taken away,” said Aiken. The smell of the campfire drifted from makeshift concession stand where salmon sandwiches were rapidly disappearing.
Now in its second day, the protests on Haida Gwaii continue to grow. The sun shone as elders wrapped in button blankets, babies in kerchiefs, men in lumber jack shirts and women in cedar hats continued their vigil after a long, cold March night.
Haida and non-Haida have come together to form two round the clock lines blocking access to Weyerhaeuser’s log sorting facilities, one near Juskatla and one near Queen Charlotte City, where hundreds of cedars wait to be loaded onto massive barges and shipped to mills farther south.
Juskatla is half way between Masset and Queen Charlotte City and the caravan stopped to have a look before continuing to a huge rally held at 1 pm Wednesday at the blockade in Queen Charlotte.
Chief Alan Wilson of Old Massett held his hand above his six foot frame and told 200 onlookers there were cedars bigger than that ready to be shipped away.
“The amount they log in one year would last us ten and all communities would be prosperous on Haida Gwaii,” he told the crowd.
Already the protests have dissuaded the Weyerhaeuser log barge from navigating the waters of Masset Inlet and Weyerhaeuser staff and crews are at home with a wait and see attitude about coming back to work.
Those on the frontline recognize a company logging truck or a Ministry of Forests employee at 100 metres and both are being turned away. In these small communities those on either side of the line know each other by name, and for now, there is a jovial atmosphere to the standoff.
But as Aiken said, “We need to survive too,” and she worries about small logging contractors and others who haven’t been able to work in the face of this standoff between islanders, the government and Weyerhaeuser.
Appeal to Governor General
The reasons for the blockade are long and complicated, yet utterly simple — the Haida want control over their traditional lands and resources.
Diane Brown, who at 56 is the youngest fluent speaker of Haida, held her granddaughter aloft and said she wants her to be able to harvest food from the beach, take cedar bark from the trees and collect pure medicine from the forest floor.
“The people have entrusted their leaders to resolve conflict through negotiations and the court. When court decisions are ignored by this government to accommodate industry, I think it is proper the people stand up,” said Guujaaw, the president of the Council of the Haida Nation.
Although the Council of the Haida Nation do not officially sanction the protests, Guujaaw stood beside a red Haida flag on the road Tuesday morning, along with everyone else.
At a Monday night meeting in Skidegate when times and locations of the blockades were discussed by audience members, Guujaaw joked that it seemed rumours were being substantiated. But he was careful to also say all who join blockades or actions do so under their own conscience.
The Haida have taken their ongoing dispute with the province over land-use decisions on their territory to the streets, but they have also taken it to the highest authority in the land.
A day before the blockades went up the CHN sent a letter to Governor General Adrienne Clarkson asking her to intervene in a matter of honour — what the Haida call the province’s contempt for the Supreme Court decision on the case referred to as TFL 39 handed down in November 2004.
The Supreme Court of Canada ruled in favour of the Haida on a case in which the Haida asserted the Crown had failed in its duty to consult over the transfer of tenure when McMillian Bloedel was sold to Weyerhaeuser.
The decision included a unique legal concept known as “the honour of the Crown.”
“…the Crown, acting honourably, cannot cavalierly run roughshod over Aboriginal interests where claims affecting these interests are being seriously pursued in the process of treaty negotiation and proof,” said Justice Beverley McLachlin in her decision.
Duty to consult ?
Now the Haida are facing a new transfer of tenure — as Weyerhaeuser plans to sell its Tree Farm License to Toronto-based asset management company Brascan — and once again they were not consulted.
There is another letter involved in the story. The same day a letter went out to the Queen’s representative, a letter from the Ministry of Forests was received by the Haida.
The letter said the Crown has no authority over the transfer of tenure and therefore no reason to consult with the Haida. Strangely enough, it was during the time the Haida and Province were in the Supreme Court, that laws were changed ensuring the Minister did not have to approve these transfers.
The Haida point out another contentious issue. The November Supreme Court decision said the honour of the Crown may require consultation and accommodation to avoid harming Aboriginal interests while negotiations take place.
While the Haida sought remedy through the courts, the province has enacted legislation to divest itself of the legal authority and public duty to regulate the forests, says Guujaaw.
He also cites the 18 months of negotiations for a Land Use Plan for the islands in which representatives of all interested groups tried to come to consensus on land and resource management issues.
“The provincial government has continued to compromise the outcome of the planning process by approving cutblocks within the area.”
Although the province’s duty to consult was made clear in the Supreme Court decision, businesses breathed a sigh of relief in the aftermath, as the court relieved them of any duty to consult with First Nations.
But some who are following this dispute carefully, don’t think businesses like Weyerhauser and Brascan are out of the proverbial woods yet.
Will Horter runs the Dogwood Initiative, a non-profit organization concerned with sustainable land reform. He has been watching closely as the Weyerhaeuser deal moves through the paces.
The deal will likely not be complete until June, and Horter says the companies face significant legal hurdles, which could end up scuttling the sale.
“Foremost is the law suit filed by the Hupacasath First Nation in Port Alberni. They are challenging the privatization of 70,000 acres of Weyerhaeuser’s Tree Farm Licence lands, which are included in the proposed Brascan deal,” says Horter.
The case which was launched earlier this year involves a quarter of the private lands proposed for transfer to Brascan. Although the BC Supreme Court refused their injunction, the judge said there is a serious issue to be tried regarding the Crown's failure to consult first nations.
What really galls Horter, the Hupacasath and the Haida is that the Liberals took 90,000 hectares out of Tree Farm Licenses in the province and turned them back into private holdings, once again without consulting first nations. This was done quietly over the summer, Horter says, even though 97 per cent of people were opposed to taking private lands out of the TFLs when a public process took place in 1997.
Horter explains the history.
“In exchange for agreeing to manage their private land under provincial forestry laws, and for operating local mills that would build regional economies and employ workers, logging companies were granted [rights] to log vast tracts of public lands. And they made millions doing so,” says Horter.
With this aspect of the social contract taken away, Weyerhauser and other companies like Timber West, West Fraser and Western Canada Forest Products who have taken private land out of TFLs stand to make a windfall when they sell their licenses, Horter says.
What’s left for islanders?
And while corporations can now happily buy and sell their rights to Crown land with no public comment or judicial review, those who live and work on the islands feel like their hopes for control over the island economy continue to slip away.
One retired logger who stood at the blockade Tuesday morning, lamented the loss of jobs on the islands.
There are 11,000 spin off jobs in the south, thanks to our wood, he told others who stamped their feet in the chilly March air.
When asked how long they were willing to stand at the blockade, elders and others agreed.
“As long as it takes.”
At the Monday night meeting Guujaaw declared: “We still have an opportunity to create a sustainable economy, but that opportunity is fading away. If we let this transfer go through it will fade away completely.”
Heather Ramsay lives in Queen Charlotte City and is a frequent contributor to The Tyee.