Anti-logging protesters blockading a forest access road in B.C. got an unwelcome surprise last week.
It wasn’t from the police, which have authority to remove the blockade but have yet to move in.
And it wasn’t from a B.C.-based logging company, which has the legal right to cut down trees in the area, but whose chainsaws remain silent for now.
The surprise came from the local Pacheedaht First Nation, whose leaders made it clear they support logging in their traditional territory — and that the blockaders are not welcome.
“Pacheedaht has always harvested and managed our forestry resources,” the First Nation’s leaders said in an official statement.
“All parties need to respect that it is up to Pacheedaht people to determine how our forestry resources will be used. We do not welcome or support unsolicited involvement or interference by others in our territory, including third-party activism.”
Talk about an awkward moment for the environmental blockaders, who earlier invoked the cause of Indigenous rights for blocking logging crews from going to work.
The blockaders had argued the old-growth forests in the Fairy Creek watershed near Victoria were spiritually and culturally sacred to the Indigenous people who have lived there for centuries.
But then, they were being told off by those same Indigenous leaders for interfering in the First Nation’s internal affairs. The Pacheedaht have harvested trees in the area for generations, including the old-growth cedar that environmentalists want protected.
The Pacheedaht, a small First Nation of just 287 people, operate a sawmill and value the local jobs created in the forest.
The First Nation also approved cutting permits issued to Teal-Jones Group, the logging based in Surrey, B.C., just outside Vancouver. The Pacheedaht receive revenue from the company’s logging operations through an agreement negotiated in 2017.
First Nations standing up for responsible resource development is becoming more common in British Columbia.
The controversial Alberta-to-B.C. Trans Mountain oil pipeline — fiercely opposed by environmentalists — is supported by many First Nations along the pipeline route, who receive a share of pipeline profits. Now owned by the federal government, Trans Mountain says it has signed benefit-sharing agreements with 43 Indigenous groups.
Many salmon farms on the B.C. coast are also supported or co-owned by First Nations, to the chagrin of environmental groups trying to shut them down. The B.C. Salmon Farming Association says 20 First Nations in the province have signed partnership agreements for farming salmon in their territories
Of course, there are also divisions within First Nations themselves over these controversial projects.
In 2020, hereditary chiefs of the Wet’suwet’en First Nation opposed the Coastal GasLink pipeline in northern B.C., while the band’s elected chiefs supported the project.
But there’s no such division in the current logging dispute in Fairy Creek, where both the hereditary and elected chiefs of the Pacheedaht came out in favour of logging in their joint statement.
It’s unclear where the battle goes from here. Despite the wishes of the First Nation, the anti-logging blockades remain up for now.
More than 100 anti-logging protesters have converged on the area, vowing to face arrest if police move in.
And money continues to flow into an online blockade fund to support the protesters, with donations soaring over the quarter-million-dollar mark, even after the Pacheedaht chiefs issued their statement against outside interference.
For a new generation of Indigenous leaders, who see responsible resource development as a path out of poverty and dependence, the opposition from well-funded environmental groups is frustrating.
“It’s just ludicrous that these outside groups keep showing up,” Chris Sankey, a former elected band councillor with the Lax Kw’alaams First Nation near Prince Rupert, told me.
Sankey has emerged as a key Indigenous voice in the province advocating for First Nations control over natural resources in their territories.
He resents environmental groups claiming to represent the interests of First Nations, especially when more and more Indigenous people see the development of natural resources as a path to independence and prosperity.
Advocacy groups like the First Nations Major Projects Coalition have formed to advance their cause.
“Environmental groups talk about reconciliation,” Sankey said. “They keep saying they stand with Indigenous groups and their rights to their own land and resources. So they need to back up their own words and respect the wishes of First Nations.”
In the case of Fairy Creek, he said it’s time for the blockades to come down.
“This is sustainable development in line with the cultural values of this First Nation that could generate revenue to help with housing, unemployment, addiction, much-needed infrastructure and so many other things.”
But anti-logging protesters see it another way, warning a “war in the woods” is once again looming in B.C.
Mike Smyth is host of ‘The Mike Smyth Show’ on Global News Radio 980 CKNW in Vancouver and a commentator for Global News. You can reach him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter at @MikeSmythNews.