First Nations Change the Environmental Dynamic

Assembly Of First Nations national chief Shawn Atleo returns to his home village of Ahousat on Flores Island

Satisfying protesters used to be easy when it was a broad coalition of environmentalists and First Nations. But First Nations are now driving the bus, and they have very complex concerns and demands.

Twenty years ago the combined forces of First Nations bands and environmental organizations mounted what turned out to be Canada’s biggest demonstration of civil disobedience—and ultimately drove two major forestry corporations out of the west coast’s Clayoquot Sound.

Dubbed the War in the Woods, the Clayoquot Sound protests completely altered the landscape for resource conflicts in B.C. and, for the first time, put ecology ahead of economic development. That First Nations/Environmental coalition took on and defeated not only a couple of large corporations, but the provincial government as well.

But twenty years later, that War in the Woods is simmering again and it is happening in the context of yet another dramatic change in the political landscape. There are moves to expand the now severely limited logging prospects in Clayoquot Sound into areas the environmental movement has always seen as off limits. This time, however, the environmentalists may be up against First Nations rather that allied with them.

Iisaak Forest Resources Ltd. is owned by a consortium of five First Nations bands in the region and holds forest tenures on about half the Clayoquot Sound land base. Its success is crucial to the economic health of the five bands. In early 2011, Iisaak got a permit for a logging road on Flores Island, setting up the potential for confrontation with environmental groups. There has been much discussion since then, and a truce is still holding at this time.

While the environment movement had little trouble gaining public support for the 1993 War in the Woods against those evil corporate robber barons, launching a battle against First Nations communities that still endure chronically high unemployment is a different game entirely. And that is a new political dynamic. First Nations are now driving the bus, and while they clearly have environmental concerns of their own, they also have a significant number of complex economic issues they want addressed.

Look at all the resource-based projects now being proposed in B.C., and you’ll find the most strident opposition comes not from the environmentalists (sure, they are also in it), but from First Nations. Enbridge’s proposed oil pipeline from Edmonton to Kitimat; Kinder Morgan’s similar proposal to ship more oil through Vancouver, and virtually every hard rock mine put forward. The projects getting the (relatively speaking) easy ride are those that appear to have sufficient First Nations support—like the proposal for a liquefied natural gas export industry on the north coast.

All of this puts the provincial government (no matter who the premier is after May 14), and the various corporate players, in the position of choosing priorities as they try to build sufficient support for their projects. As an example of this. look no further than a recent Vancouver Sun report that has the Wet’suwet’en First Nation threatening to blockade Huckleberry Mines planned copper mine expansion near Houston.

The Wet’suwet’en say they’re not getting any jobs. But delve into the Sun story and you find that Huckleberry was focusing on employment opportunities for five other First Nations bands, all closer to the mine site. The company was in discussions with the Wet’suwet’en, officials told the Sun, but balked when the band asked for priority consideration over its fellow First Nations bands.

Bottom line here: if the province wants to continue resource development (and economically it has no choice but to do that) it will have to focus on First Nations concerns, sometimes (not always) at the expense of environmental concerns. And if the Huckleberry case is an example, that won’t be easy.