SpruceRoots Magazine - July, 1998
by Ian Lordon
RL Smith was the epitome of the polarized environmental debate of the 1980's.
If you said 'save the trees' he said 'cut'em down.' If you said 'park' he said 'no fuggin way.' He was a friend and a champion to many, and a loud, prolific pain in the rear to a bunch more. It depended on what side of the fence you stood. And he didn't like fence-sitters.
RL Smith printed approximately 100 issues of The Redneck News, and he wrote approximately 200,000 words in those issues. He wrote about the right to work, politicians, and "sissy environmentalists."
In the early years RL hit the issues on the head, he did not pull punches, but in the in the later years more and more of the newsletter became community announcements. And then it stopped. So what happened to RL Smith?
from THE RED NECK NEWS, October 2, 1985 - "Everyone on Moresby [Island] is aware of the activities of the learned Dr. Suzuki, who is here with us again in Sandspit, this week. Us rednecks are not in the habit of bad-mouthing tourists when they come here, so I hope Dr. Suzuki has a pleasant stay with us while he spends scads of the taxpayers money to do a smear job on the logging community over the dumb-ass Windy Bay issue. With a heavy Southeast gale on the way, perhaps the good people of the CBC will get a generous dose of the environment down their necks that will add some reality to their snow-job this time around."
"You shouldn't read that shit. It'll bend your mind," are the words from R.L. Smith when he notices the thick folder on the seat of my car.
I've just pulled into his driveway, a stone's throw from the fire hall in Sandspit, and interrupted him in the process of mowing his lawn. Once he's off the back of his tractor mower I introduce myself and we shake hands before he asks for a copy of the newsletter I write for. It's while I'm searching for it in the car that he spots the folder and makes the remark.
I'm not exactly sure how to reply - after all the folder contains more than fifty issues of the Redneck News which Smith himself owned, operated, wrote, and printed from Sandspit between 1983 and 1993 - so I simply laugh.
Smith is wearing a pale green toque (oddly out of place on this sunny July afternoon), faded, paint-splattered jeans held high by suspenders strung over a worn plaid shirt. His eyes watch me closely as he introduces me to his dog Dozer, a hefty Rottweiler who seems friendly enough, and then invites me inside.
Once we're settled at his kitchen table sipping Diet Pepsi, Smith confesses he doesn't know why he agreed to the interview, or for that matter, why I'm even interested.
"It's over," he says, "we lost the fuckin' argument."
from THE RED NECK NEWS, November 6, 1985 - "Recently, a band of about 20 of our good friends and neighbours of the Haida Nation have taken up residence on Lyell Island, South Moresby, in the Queen Charlotte Islands. Saying they are "protecting our traditional way of life," they left Skidegate Landing in three diesel-powered fishing craft, loaded with BC made plywood, and considerable dressed lumber and nails, to "occupy Lyell Island, OUR land." Well I would think their ancestors would be amazed to see the change in their "traditional way of life" which now means being subsidized by the Canadian taxpayers to the tune of about two billion dollars a year through the Department of Indian Affairs, nationwide. Going ashore on Lyell, at Sedgewick Bay, our good Native friends proceeded to fall and clear a campsite from the virgin timber. Breaking the law, cutting down trees without permission will get you or I a fine or imprisonment, or both. To compound that, our good native friends have also blockaded a private industrial road, to prevent logging crews of Frank Beban Logging from going to work. This again, is breaking the law, as well as being a form of robbery. The Haidas, by preventing the crews from going to work, are robbing the loggers of wages they would otherwise have earned. Those who will suffer the most will be the hourly-paid working people who have suffered a number of layoffs due to environmentalists actions. The Haidas are grinding the little people, the working people, into poverty with their lawlessness."
Robert Labonté Smith was born in 1938. When I glance up at the Labonté, he adds: "I'm half-frog. My father was full frog, his father was full frog."
Smith says his grandfather was an Albertan horse-thief who would rustle horses in Canada, run them across the border to the States, sell them, steal American horses, and run them back to market in Alberta.
His father was an Air Force carpenter, and Smith's childhood consisted of moving from base to base, mostly in the Maritimes. "It seemed like we were always getting on trains with suitcases in our hands."
At fifteen, and in BC, Smith left home to find work. And in those days he says it didn't take long to find it.
"I can remember how it used to be. I was walking down the side of the road and I got picked up by this guy in a pick-up truck who took me to a logging camp and put me to work. On the way there he picked up three or four other guys and put them to work too."
Although he tried mining briefly, Smith decided forestry was for him and eventually he began operating bulldozers. It was this skill which brought him to the Islands in 1963 and provided him with work and a living until last year.
from THE RED NECK NEWS, January 17, 1985 - "The truth is that there is no viable alternative timber anywhere on the coast. The Islands Protection Society knows that, have been told that and shown the timber inventory to prove it. ANY timber withdrawal cannot be made up anywhere else. A timber withdrawal of any kind means a loss of future employment, whether on Lyell, Louise Island, or Graham Island."
"The Redneck News grew out of the problem with the hippies, government, and the environmentalists..."
Smith can't say for certain, but estimates the first 11x17 inch, black on white, double-sided, foolscap edition of the Redneck News likely appeared in 1983. At the time it didn't have anything to do with logging. It was born over the issue of ferry service to the islands.
"The environmentalists were interested in saving the islands from the outside world. They didn't think the Queen Charlotte Islands could take any more people."
Smith says at the time the province agreed to continue providing barge service to the islands for two years while locals debated whether or not ferry service was in their interest. But while the debate went on unresolved, Smith says sources told him the government had gone ahead with plans of its own.
"At the end of two years we found out they had put together a memorandum of understanding to run the barge service for the next ten years."
Unable to get letters or ads printed in the Observer to his satisfaction, Smith and his friend Ray Lamson took it upon themselves to print their own newsletter and get their message out. They used a printer in the basement of Frank Beban Logging's offices, and paid for the paper and ink out of pocket.
"We printed it three times and by that time everyone wanted the ferry."
Then Smith went door to door collecting signatures on a petition supporting ferry service and presented it to the province.
"We won the argument and got the ferry."
from THE RED NECK NEWS, November 20, 1985 - "Those of us who have been watching the weird movies being made for the evening television news are finding it hard to believe the snow-job that's going down. Before anyone loses their perspective about all the demonstrations and the passionate speeches by our Haida friends and neighbours in the war paint - keep in mind that there is no grounds whatever under Canadian law for our Red Brothers to lay claim to Lyell Island or any other part of the Queen Charlottes other than established Indian Reserve lands."
"We couldn't get into the newspaper. They didn't want to print anything that involved saving logging."
A couple of years after the ferry debate and unable to say what he wanted in the papers about Lyell Island, Smith decided to fire up his own press once more and enter the argument from there. Only this time it was a little more serious.
"You have to have two sides to a public debate, I would answer any letter from these asshole environmentalists. The forest industry helped with expenses."
Smith says his newsletter adopted the banner of the Redneck News in response to the reception his opinions enjoyed.
"I'm a redneck."
"Those ding-a-ling hippies come up from the United States and start calling us rednecks. They said we're redneck because we wanted a ferry. You knew you really were a redneck if you were against Indian land claims and against the environmentalists. There were people all over the Queen Charlotte Islands who agreed with what we said who didn't know what a redneck was. They said Archie Bunker was a redneck, so we said - what's wrong with Archie Bunker?"
For three solid years, Smith toiled at the Redneck News and delivered a twice-monthly torrent of vitriol towards those opposing logging on Lyell and praise to those in favour of it.
"I kept on top of the battle. I would crucify the people I had to and boost up those that needed it."
Before long his newsletter was reaching readers throughout the interior, in the offices of Victoria politicians, behind the desks of industry, government, and even those of some academics. Many, like Smith, stood behind continued logging on Lyell while others were merely amused or curious as the issue began to take on national significance and polarize the province.
In the years that followed, Smith used the Redneck News as a platform to take on all comers in the debate over Lyell. He attacked politicians, government workers, environmentalists, and institutions. He was never afraid to name names, and he didn't shy away from getting personal or insulting.
"Then the Toronto media got hold of this thing and that was the end of it. The environment won and practicality lost."
The federal and provincial governments came to terms over what is now Gwaii Haanas and Frank Beban Logging, the contractor on Lyell, was ordered to pack up and leave.
The Redneck News carried on for some time after Frank Beban died on Lyell Island while closing down the logging camp he built there. But without the issue or Beban's support to sustain it, the newsletter finally shut down as well.
excerpted from THE RED NECK NEWS, February 5, 1986 - "Last Friday your community redneck was invited out to UBC to speak to a class of third-year forestry students. The class is normally taught by Professor HARRY SMITH, PhD, Department Head of Forest Management, who is one of the most respected educators in forestry today. Through his cooperation and the good efforts of Cameron Forrester I was able bring a short message to the foresters of tomorrow. Most of the message went like this: If you, as graduate foresters, expect to find employment in the B.C. forest industry upon graduation, then together we are going to have to solve the constant erosion of the forest land base of this province. This means we are ALL going to have to get involved in the politics of the wilderness preservation versus logging argument."
These days Smith still doesn't have many nice things to say about the outcome of a fight more than a decade past.
"We've shot ourselves in the foot because we've taken away half the forest lands on the Charlottes to have a dubious park that nobody can go to. Originally there were supposed to be 30,000 visitors a year. Today it's 2,400 visitor-days per year. By the year 2005 they want to make it 1,000 visitor-days per year. Why are you taking away all those jobs and all that opportunity for 1,000 visitor-days per year?"
He doesn't like the look of the future either.
"We're turning into a depressed area. I don't know anyone in Sandspit who's working right now. We're going to see economic depression on a scale you have never known over the next ten to fifteen years. Logging is being pushed out of the industry by the environmentalists and the Indians while the fishing industry has come to a standstill."
But even though environmentalists and Natives give him headaches, Smith saves his harshest criticism for government.
"If you settled the land claims issue today, this afternoon, the Indians wouldn't be able to go to work because of the Forest Practices Code and high stumpage. That has wiped out more jobs than any other factor on the Queen Charlotte Islands."
To Smith, it's never an issue of are we logging too fast, or badly - it's a question of erosion from the forest land base. If timber lands were not surrendered to parks, protected areas, highways, development, or whatever else, there would not be a shortage of resource or employment.
"You're not going to have more ground because BC is not going to get bigger."
And he can't take value-added manufacturing seriously as a viable source of replacement jobs.
"I think it's a huge joke. I'm all for the idea of value-added manufacturing, but how are you going to sell it?"
So what is there left to do?
Smith swears he's finished logging. He plans to collect Employment Insurance until it runs out and then who knows? He may move, he might stick around.
In the meantime he's looking after Dozer, his son's dog. His son asked him to care for it when he left the Islands in search of work three years ago. He hasn't come back for it.
As R.L. Smith walks me back to the car to see me off he shakes my hand, I thank him for his time, and once more he points to the folder on the seat and says:
"You really shouldn't read that shit, it'll bend your mind."
Again I'm at a loss for words, but this time I manage to say good-bye.
As I pull away, I see him climb onto his tractor mower to finish the lawn and it's hard to imagine him powering a bulldozer through a stand of virgin timber.
The Redneck News resumed printing briefly in 1993 during the stir over the Sandspit harbour and hasn't been heard from since.
Today the press sits in his wife's basement in Langley.
SpruceRoots Magazine - July, 1998