SpruceRoots Magazine - April 2002

SpruceRoots Magazine - February 2002

by MC Davies
Living on Haida Gwaii, as I do, the daily influences of my life are very different from what most (urban) Canadians experience. Standing off the edge of the North American continent, these precious green islands rise up from the sea, glowing with life. Every day, we look out to see mountains cloaked in rain forests, dark and deep. We walk trails along rivers that run with salmon down to the sea. In the spring, grey whales gather close in to the shores of Skidegate Inlet, where we can stand on the rocks with our children and watch whales grazing in the eel grass, feeding up on their long annual journey from California to the Arctic. Eagles and ravens, speaking from the sky and the trees and along the beach, keep us company all day long. Here, even the very rocks have names, as do the great sand dunes that are blown in from the eastern Straits. This is one of those places in the world where the creative force loosed in nature is always clearly visible and deeply felt.

I’ve lived here for many years. Now I am a grandmother, and this is the world I am showing to my grandchild. And the stories I tell her are about the pleasure and the gratitude we share for being able to live in such a land. But, like grandmothers everywhere I am worried about what’s coming next. What stories will our grandchildren have to tell their grandchildren? And I am really worried about what state the land will be left in to sustain their very lives - provide their food and shelter, a dignified livelihood, to give their hearts joy and their spirits strength.

Because, just over the hills, and behind the narrow fringe of trees that runs along the highway, the interior plateaus and hillsides of these Islands are being decimated by bad logging. In an airplane you can fly from one end of the Islands to the other and see everywhere naked earth, wood abandoned as waste, and landslides scarring the hills. Along the logging roads, rivers have torrented, stream banks are collapsed, the rivers run brown, and silt suffocates fish.

Here we are, one hand living in a clear vision of how wholly beautiful the earth is. On the other hand, we have, right in our faces, a vast example of how horribly we can wreck it. This is not a new lament to be sure. But it sure is relentless.

Enough is enough, we say! Haida elders have told us this for many long years. They see who is telling the lies, and where the pillage of the land is headed. Haida protesters over many years have been as forthright as the problem is long. Now, I think, the rest of us might be waking up.

Times are getting tougher than ever right now. Money is getting tight and our communities are getting hammered. The social “safety net” has got so many holes in it, it’s disappearing entirely. Women’s centers, transition houses, legal aid services are being yanked. In our towns it’s getting harder to keep the street lights lit, the water and sewer running, the potholes filled. More jobs are getting cut, working hours shortened. Paychecks are getting smaller, costs for food and rent are not.

In the past, families in logging dependent communities learned to live with the boom and bust cycles of the British Columbia forest industry. Times were bad . . . , yea, so OK, and then times were good too. That’s the way it was. You rolled with the markets. Nobody believed that BC logging was a sunset industry.

Well the sun just set. And now the industry is going broke faster than anybody imagined, even a couple of decades ago. Well . . . some people did imagine - like forest industry consultants and the Economic Council of Canada who told us companies had to stop wholesaling 2x4’s and get on to diversifying markets and value added. Well, industry didn’t do that. Environmental activists, backed by good science, called for responsible logging practices that would keep the forests healthy.

Obviously nobody was listening to them, either.

On Haida Gwaii, the story just got worse. The trans-nationals have moved in and the consequences of free trade, first felt in the sweat shops of the third world, have moved north. We’ve had almost a decade of NAFTA, so we know what the results are: workers suffer, the land suffers, human rights and social justice are suppressed, cultural space implodes, the rich get richer and the rest of us just get poorer. Welcome to the third world!

Some days I get really tired of thinking about where we are going. “Stop the world, I want to get off!” as they say. Or at least, maybe, I could turn on the TV and watch the horror show at a safe distance, in the comfort of my own living room, with time out for commercials. But, you know what, I don’t like that feeling of being so disempowered, a no one, going no where. Helpless.

Therefore, last weekend, when I was given the opportunity to meet up with a band of women from my Islands community and protest against the export of raw logs from Haida Gwaii by the mega-transnational Weyerhaeuser, I joined in. At first, I have to admit, I hesitated. I wasn’t sure who was organizing the protest, what the agenda was. I didn’t know who would be there, or if I would be safe. To be truthful I didn’t even know if I wanted to get up that early on a Saturday morning to go bumping around on logging roads. But my friends called. They were going, so I went too.

It is a late spring this year and the cold morning fog was still lying low over Masset Inlet when we met near the mouth of the Yakoun River. All told, we were not a huge troupe in numbers. I am not sure why more people didn’t show up - too short notice? fear for their jobs, or their partner’s job? A sense of futility? Disinterest? Any one of many reasons, I suppose. But gathered together we represented nearly all the communities of Graham Island - Skidegate, Port Clements, Old Massett, Queen Charlotte City, Tlell, Skidegate Landing.

In a procession of vehicles, we drove the rough, gravelled road west from Port Clements out to where the road forks down to Ferguson Bay at the south end of Masset Inlet. When we got to the gate at the “sort” it was locked, so in gum boots and rain gear we set out to walk the rest of the way down to the beach. We walked slowly because there were children with us, and elders, and a couple of the women were not in good health but had come because it was so important to them to be there.

The Weyerhaeuser sort yard was all cleaned up, neat and tidy. No mammoth log hauling trucks, no loaders or other machines nearby, the weigh scale was swept clean, the sort bunks empty. And everywhere stacks of logs were piled high. The stacks glowed a deep red-brown colour at the ends and gave off that sweet sappy smell distinctive of fresh cut forest. Down on the tidal flats rafts of logs were floating within the booms. Each log was hammered with an export number.

The logs we saw at the sort were long thin poles, toothpicks in contrast to the massive old growth trees that are usually barged out. Most of these export logs are from what is called the “burn wood,” an area near Port Clements where a huge forest fire swept through about 160 years ago. The stands that have grown up since then are dense, and logging with feller-bunchers is easy and less expensive. The trees, predominantly cedar, are prime sawmill logs. In the past few years Weyerhaeuser and the Ministry of Forests Small Business program have hit these areas of young forest hard.

Over the next few days, the logs in Ferguson Bay will be wired into bundles and dropped into the water. In the next week or so, an enormous black ship will steam down the length of Masset Inlet and with cranes and grapples haul the bundled wood out of the water and on board. And off they will go to join the long procession of barges and tugs headed south from the BC coast.

Since the US has set a high tariff on softwood exports from BC, Canadian mills†are shut down and the BC government has raised export quotas. Weyerhaeuser is in excellent position, of course, to benefit from all this. Having closed down its mills in BC, Weyerhaeuser will now export logs it cuts in Canada straight to its sawmills in the US. What the politicians say they are doing is trying to keep some shreds of the forest economy going in BC. Do you believe this? Do they think we are stupid or something? In this sweetheart deal who wins? Weyerhaeuser, Weyerhaeuser, Weyerhaeuser. And who loses? We do. We do. We do.

So there I am standing ankle deep in the mud down at the dry land sort on a drizzly Saturday morning holding on to a placard. No one from Weyerhaeuser brass has come down to meet us, or talk with us. No loggers are working in the log yard. So it’s a little lonely standing down there. But, the organizers, who include Weyerhaeuser employees and their partners, have spoken clearly about the issues we are facing. What we are protesting is the irresponsible way logging is done on Haida Gwaii and the loss of jobs in our communities. The message is clear. What Weyerhaeuser is doing and what the government is doing is not right by us.
After the speeches, we left our placards attached to the log piles. We took some pictures and some video and the Haida contingent sent us back on our way with a song. As we walked back up the long hill from Ferguson Bay to our vehicles we continued our conversations, telling stories, sharing our worries, talking about our lives here and the responsibilities we undertake for our children and grandchildren.

As we pulled away on the road back into town, I found myself wondering, “Do I think that standing out in the cold in a desolate place, surrounded by fallen trees and friends is an effective way to protest?”

And an answer came floating up from a place other than my head. “You bet I do!” something said quite clearly. It was some place of heart, some instinctiveresponse. What we were doing out there on that damp grey morning was witnessing the grief of this land, and being present in our own plight as people. To me protest is also about standing up together, exercising our capacity for courage and caring by walking together —many strong women and a few good men.The world, after all, is changed only one thought, one step, one person, at a time, they say. A thought that became even clearer on the way home.

As we were passing through Port Clements, we came upon some ladies from Old Massett who were set up on the roadside with a truck selling pies and fried bread cooked right there in hot oil on an outdoor gas burner. They were raising money for an Anglican Church women’s project. So we wheeled up and enjoyed their company for a few minutes too. We were grateful for hot fried bread and jam. And presumably they were glad to sell us a couple of pies. In our exchange we benefited and they benefited too — good community and good economics. •

SpruceRoots Magazine - April 2002