Unlikely allies in a complex ecosystem

By Briony Penn, March 1, 2016

Reflections on the Great Bear Rainforest Agreement cannot leave out Chief Qwatsinas.

Chief QwatsinasWITH AN ASSIGNMENT TO SUM UP the Great Bear Rainforest Agreement in 1500 words, I thought of Steinbeck’s quote. “It is advisable to look from the tide pool to the stars and then back to the tide pool again.” He was talking about the meaning of life but figuring out the Great Bear Rainforest  Agreement is about as baffling and existential. The metaphor is also a good one to establish my limited credentials. 

The tide pools of the Great Bear Rainforest   (GBR) are where I spent my time over the last two decades—far away from the stars. The galaxy of globe-trotting gals shaking hands with the industry strong arms and regalia-clad chiefs are the ones to sum up the insider story. I had the plodding role of a naturalist, pointing out names of sea stars. 

But when you’re pottering around in the tide pool, you do get to see who paddles by— film crews, politicians, people with briefcases, young people on surf boards, paddleboards, sailboats, rowboats—joining what Haisla elder Cecil Paul called the “magic canoe.” You catch bits of their conversations, but, even better, you are out there with the locals who are in charge of food-collecting and decision-making on the coast. So this is what I gleaned. 

The ink might be dry on the final Great Bear Rainforest Order but don’t think it’s over. And don’t think this agreement spans two decades; it spans two centuries of indigenous challenges for sovereignty. 

There are some pretty interesting stories about the shimmering constellation of negotiators, but the most important stories are out in the shimmering bioluminescence of the plankton. The inhabitants of the 6.4 million hectares have such biological and cultural richness that it isn’t surprising that so many waded into this intertidal fray. And like the intertidal zone, the negotiations have been a complex ecosystem with every kind of relationship forged—from symbiosis to opportunism and downright predation.

 Everyone has some role, if not two, and they are usually paradoxical. 

Few will disagree that the formal agreement is unprecedented in our colonial history, and was achieved by dogged perseverance. This will be a textbook case study that scholars will muse over and point to for the skilful mapping, the detailed (and baffling to most) classification of forest types and stages, and the delineation of oral history that dictated with western precision where industrial logging could continue over a numerical 15 percent of the land base. The remaining 85 percent of the land, some of it scalped already, is being mapped with multiple colours into reserves for old growth, spirit bears, cedar, salmon, rivers, future old growth and cultural features. 

For all the efforts to map this agreement into existence, it is the resurgence of indigenous sovereignty and natural law that is shaping it.

Just before Ed Moody, Chief Qwatsinas, of the Nuxalk First Nation (Bella Coola) died in 2010, he wrote a declaration called The Phoney Great Bear Rainforest Deal in which he set out his objections to a process that he felt compromised cultural and ecological integrity. At his memorial it was said that he continued “fighting to his death for the integrity of our traditional laws and the security of the Nuxalk territories.” His testimony is an important part of the story. 

At the time, his declaration raised important questions about land use planning processes, power brokering, First Nations sovereignty, and the application of natural laws. Qwatsinas was part of the original grass roots resistance to logging back in the 1990s. He blockaded and campaigned relentlessly with his trademark humour for the protection of Nuxalk territory. 

The chief’s lecture tours took him not just all around the province, but the world, starting in 1995. He worked to persuade CEOs of German paper companies to stop buying pulp from the logging companies and human rights organizations in Switzerland to take an interest in indigenous culture. 

In 1997 he was arrested for contempt of court for blockading Western Forest Products and Interfor for “relentlessly clearcutting our rainforests” at Kimsquit and Itsa. 

Much of the early groundwork for the market campaign was laid by Qwatsinas, bolstered by the swelling contingent of environmental groups and activists from both urban and First Nation communities. They were clearly having an impact on global markets when large contracts for Great Bear pulp and paper started to be cancelled. Moody’s words rallied many around him: “There should be more support for the forests, and the life in and around it. The animal life, marine life, and bird life; the environment and its integrity. Then, there is support needed for sovereign First Nations who believe in saving these things.”  

What happened next could be characterized as a transformational moment, when barnacle becomes limpet, with shifting positions. An abridged account of this time was penned by some of the lead negotiators: Art Sterritt, Gitga’at First Nation member, who, until his retirement this September, led the alliance of Wuikinuxv, Heiltsuk, Kitasoo/ Xaixais, Nuxalk, Gitga’at, Metlakatla, Old Massett, Skidegate, and Council of the Haida Nation, under the banner of the Coastal First Nations; Merran Smith, the face of one of the three environmental groups (Greenpeace, ForestEthics and Sierra Club of BC) under the banner of Rainforest Solutions Project (RSP); and Patrick Armstrong, the industry guy who was around the longest representing logging companies under the banner of Coast Forest Conservation Initiative (CFCI).

Dallas Smith, who headed up the six Kwakwaka’wakw First Nations alliance, the Nanwakolas Council, was another key figure.

Making a long story short, RSP (enviros) joined CFCI (industry) and became the Joint Solutions Project (JSP)—making for an alphabet soup of acronyms and personalities—with a promise to come to an agreement.

The meat of the agreement was: No logging in 100 valleys in return for no bad press. 

Meanwhile the First Nations, with their increasing legal standing in the courts, bypassed the old land use table and went directly to government. The bargaining chip of the enviro groups with First Nations negotiators was a commitment to kickstart a conservation economy that could leverage government. With a big infusion of new money from conservation funders, the fund was targeted to the health and well-being of coastal First Nations. It will take many books to capture all that went on over the next 15 years but it is tide-pool politics like never witnessed in BC before. 

For some, like Chief Qwatsinas, however, the backroom deals presented a problem: As he put it, “When they are bound to such processes, First Nations cannot badmouth logging practices, timber markets, logging companies, or the official agreements. The process on the table is a legal contract with an official gag order. The First Nations who are caught up in these processes have essentially relinquished their sovereignty and historical status as a First Nation. They become bound by legal and contractual routes whereby they try to get as much as possible, financially and economically. What they possessed becomes a social and economic bargaining chip, part of a ‘business’ arrangement. The ancestral and historical connections to their Lands and Rights are lost and a new definition or term must be adopted.”

Chief Qwatsinas’ declaration in 2009 came out of his frustrations as the clear cutting continued in his territory. In 2006, The Strategic Land Use Planning Agreements, which had codified how each nation was going to work with the provincial government to develop a Land and Resource Protocol,  were landmark documents. The first conservancies off-limit to industrial logging were established. Companies agreed to an additional 50 percent off-limit area and were asked to follow the principles of Ecosystem-based Management (EBM). 

Out in the tide pools, you witness where “the spirit of the agreement” wasn’t quite met. Chief Qwatsinas was not alone in his dissatisfaction with the process, though few expressed it so bluntly. The complexity of the deals struck behind closed doors made it virtually impossible to raise anything but questions. Environmental organizations around the province that felt sidelined were having similar frustrations, many believing the GBR process was muddying the waters for their issues. You only have to look around BC to see that it has experienced two decades of relentless industrial development. 

Quoting Qwatsinas again: “These sorts of tradeoffs and deals are also used on the environmental community, for example in the case of the so-called Great Bear Rainforest Agreement. These are parallel tactics to those used historically against the First Nations…I think industry and government do not like to have this kind of thing exposed because of their desire to profit from developing Indian lands.”

Since Chief Qwatsinas’ death, though, there have been continued transformations. According to natural laws, this is to be expected. The sheer beauty and power of this coast has kept disparate people talking against all odds. The unlikely allies, united over their love of this place, have ultimately strengthened us and shifted world views. First Nation sovereignty has enabled coastal nations to take on oil and gas industries, government to government. From these communities, those of us on the settler side learn to recognize and deal with the deep psychological damage of internal conflicts, fanned by more powerful sources. 

The next part of the story is not etched in stone as illustrated by this recent Heiltsuk statement: “This announcement does not signal the end of our work. Our people have been here for tens of thousands of years, practising our laws and customs that outline our relationship to our territory and our responsibility to steward it…it is important to recognize that the burden of implementation and monitoring for the Order will fall disproportionately on the Indigenous peoples—like Heiltsuk—who live on the front lines, and whose lives and livelihoods depend on the integrity of our lands and waters.”

How will we support the implementation and monitoring? How will a conservation economy support the First Nations communities? Will we provide similar commitments for the marine environment? Will agreements like this be replicated around the province or are we somewhere new now? 

Natural laws have kicked in, in more ways than we know. When the GBR exercise began, there was an assumption of climate stability. That is no longer the case. We have an opportunity as a province to shift our governance closer to natural laws. It means giving up things. When poor communities give up certain old-style financial opportunities for uncertain conservation opportunities, we need to sit up and pay attention. 

In the final days of the agreement, the Nuxalk surprised everyone with a major addition to the plan—the inclusion of over 100,000 hectares of the Kimsquit that Chief Qwatsinas died defending. That is the news. 

Briony Penn has been working in and writing about the Great Bear Rainforest for 25 years.