Gold in them hills

It’s natives and suits versus greens in this new war in the woods

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.

It’s not just logging. Across the West, First Nations have become major players in all sorts of resource and energy projects. B.C.’s biggest private power project is a $660-million joint venture between Vancouver’s Plutonic Power Corporation and the Klahoose First Nation—the very same band that, in the ’80s, drove forestry giant Interfor out of B.C.’s unspoiled Toba Valley. Much-protested power projects on the Klinaklini, Ashlu and Bulson rivers have strong First Nations support. In the spectacular Coquihalla Pass, the Coldwater Indian Band has partnered with Westscapes Development for a $2-billion ski resort and golf course—to be carved out of harvest grounds at the headwaters of the increasingly threatened Coldwater River. (The band will receive 10 per cent ownership, a seat on the board, and a share of land sales.) In a stunning move last week, B.C.’s isolated Gitxsan tribe announced it will petition Ottawa to drop its Indian status, in return for a bigger prize: a share of resources on ancestral land. For that, it’s willing to hand over reserves, tax exemptions, free housing and financial supports, and the ambition of a separate order of government.

Yes, the ground has shifted considerably since the ’90s, when greens and natives were allies in the fight to beat back industry’s never-ending drive into Canada’s wilds. Today, as natives gain the whip hand over development in their territories, that formidable alliance is coming undone. Increasingly, the former allies are at each other’s throats—and two former enemies, big business and native leaders, are finding common ground. “Ten years ago, a joint venture with a First Nation was seen as an act of corporate enlightenment—or stupidity,” says Ian Gill, president of Ecotrust Canada, an environmental NGO. Industry now sees it as “necessary” to avoid long, costly fights over resource ownership and ensure certainty to investors and banks.

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.”

The greens are gearing up for the fight—but are also devastated, says Valerie Langer, a founder of ForestEthics. “I’ve been a First Nations advocate for 20 years,” she says. “I got arrested with Chief Earl George—on behalf of the environment, and his rights in his territory. I’ve gone to jail for that.”

More hurt may lie ahead. Logging isn’t the only issue in Clayoquot, home to 1,500-year-old giant cedars, rare sharks and the tiny marbled murrelet, a threatened seabird that uses its wings to “swim” after herring. If a group of business-minded Aboriginals gets its way, the UNESCO biosphere reserve, greens say, will become one of Vancouver Island’s biggest industrial sites. Already, the Ahousaht have allowed nearly two dozen fish farms into the sound; a Synex Energy hydro project is in the works. Last month, Vancouver-based Selkirk Metals Corp. announced approval for exploratory drilling at 11 sites on the sacred Catface Mountain. If that goes ahead, environmentalists say the top third of the 900-m mountain will come off, and Clayoquot Sound, home to more organic matter per hectare than anywhere on the planet, will swallow an industrial-sized port geared to move 300 million tons of waste rock.

“The massive doses of arsenic will wipe out the crabs,” says Michael Mullen, a white-haired whaleboat skipper. “It will chase away the whales. And it will be loud as all hell,” he adds, pointing toward the cone-shaped green mountain visible from the wooden porch of Mermaid’s Tale, his bookshop on the main drag in Tofino, a rustic mini-Maui known for its surf shops and cafés. Mullen, a founder of the non-profit Friends of Clayoquot Sound and a veteran of the blockades, says it is a “tragedy” that First Nations are collaborating in the industrialization of the Sound. “They’re saying, ‘We don’t care anymore: ravage the place. Go ahead and rape me again, just throw a few coins my way first.” Mining royalties are “just another form of welfare,” he adds. “They’re still sitting around. They’re still getting a handout.”

But Catface Mountain isn’t the only thing visible from Tofino. In the foreground sit tracts of weathered, sad-looking, prefab reserve housing. “We’re not looking for hand-outs,” says the Ahousaht’s chief councillor, John Frank, shouting above the crashing surf at the south end of Flores Island; nearby, two men hunt for chanterelle mushrooms on an otherwise empty white-sand beach. “I’ve watched as millions of dollars in trees leave our land, without seeing one red cent come our way,” the 59-year-old adds, pointing to the quilt of shaved mountainsides and ragged clear-cuts that sweep up and over the shoulders of the range. “This mine is going to benefit us for seven generations.”

The youngest of 13, Frank, known locally as Johnny-O, bought his first boat, the Falcon III, at 18, and, like his brothers, fished for herring, salmon, and sea urchin. “Four hundred of us would leave the harbour on April 15. For six months, we’d be gone fishing. Everyone would make $20,000, $30,000,” he says. “And then, bang,” a decade ago, the fisheries collapsed. Soon, the suicides started. “I was almost one of them,” he says. “I’d fished for 40 years, day in, day out: that’s all I knew.” After selling his boat and fishing licence, he was still $30,000 in debt. “I lay down in the bath, and I thought: I’d rather be dead.” That was six years ago, when unemployment in the community of 900 peaked at 80 per cent. In 2005, the Ahousaht recorded one suicide attempt for every 10 members. Today, says Frank, it’s a happier reality. Unemployment has been slashed by a third—thanks largely to forestry, fish farms, and that mining project.

So a whole new war is brewing in Clayoquot’s placid woods. “The rage the mine will generate will make the logging protests pale in comparison,” says Mullen. “We’re not prepared to allow them to destroy a world heritage site,” another well-known local environmentalist told Maclean’s. These are “so-called ‘traditional lands,’ ” she adds. “They haven’t got treaty yet.” That’s a striking change of tone from the recent past, when greens argued—loudly—that the Nuu-chah-nulth, who have called Clayoquot home for 10,000 years, deserved both title and final say.

Well, it was a beautiful arrangement while it lasted. The greens used native title claims to boost their credibility at the blockades. First Nations, meanwhile, used their media-savvy allies in land-use disputes they’d once fought alone. The game is changing rapidly as a new landlord takes over from the Crown, and just where public sympathies will fall is hard to predict. The greens taking on a multinational forestry giant is one thing, after all—a grossly impoverished First Nation, quite another.