First Nations, environmentalists face off

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TOFINO, British Columbia – Clayoquot Sound, on the west coast of Vancouver Island, is an area of deep-green ancient forests, snow-capped mountains, long sandy beaches, and small rugged islands shaped by the pounding surf of the Pacific.

Three First Nations (Hesquiaht, Ahousaht and Tla-o-qui-aht) have called this area home since the beginning of time. When the first Europeans arrived in the 18th century, the First Nations taught the newcomers how to harvest the plentiful ocean and forest resources.

Through the next 200 years, First Nations people powered the area economy; working in the woods for forest companies, and operating the largest fishing fleet on the west coast. But after two decades of government programs to reduce the size of the fishing fleet, and economic factors forcing the closure of lumber mills and logging operations, First Nations communities are desperate for a new economy.

“We are the owners of this land and all its resources, but we’ve been reduced to being spectators to the local economies,” said Ahousaht Chief Councilor Keith Atleo.

Photo by David Wiwchar Clayoquot Sound, on the west coast of Vancouver, is the site of a current faceoff between First Nations and environmentalists.

Standing on a weathered and rotted dock in his remote community located 40 minutes by boat north of the resort community of Tofino, Atleo stares past a dozen old fishing boats left to rot and crumble on the harbor rocks.

The sheltered dock at Ahousaht was once home to more than 60 commercial fishing boats. Today, only two boats remain, licensed for aboriginal home-use fisheries and the occasional eight-hour commercial opening. A community that only two decades ago enjoyed full employment is now ravaged by desperation.

Recently, new industries arrived in Clayoquot Sound.

Fish farms anxious to use the clear, sheltered waters for raising Atlantic salmon in open-net pen cages quickly set up 26 tenures, and a mining company believes a large copper and zinc deposit fills the previously logged Catface Mountain.

Both industries were quick to negotiate “protocol agreements” with Ahousaht to prevent First Nations opposition to their polluting practices, promising jobs and possible revenue-sharing schemes to pacify the politically powerful Natives.

Environmental groups are crying foul, claiming their concerns have been ignored as companies rush to meet with band councils “behind closed doors.”

“We realize Ahousaht is desperate to redevelop their economy, but this isn’t the way to do it,” said Maryjka Mychajlowycz, from the Tofino-based Friends of Clayoquot Sound. “We want to work together with First Nations to find better solutions, but we’re just not being listened to.”

The Friend of Clayoquot Sound and First Nations once stood side by side on environmental issues.

When a logging company began clear-cutting old-growth forests in the sound in 1993, both groups rushed to stop the devastation.

Environmentalists blocked logging roads, and 800 protesters were arrested in the largest act of civil disobedience in Canadian history.

Despite the highly publicized protests, many observers argue it was unresolved aboriginal rights and title in the area and the political clout of First Nations that silenced the saws.

Last month, the three Clayoquot Sound First Nations, along with two neighboring nations, announced a partnership with a small forest company to begin logging in old-growth areas.

Environmental groups rallied and began threatening a new “war in the woods” if First Nations mining and logging plans continue.

“Bring it on,” said Ahousaht Deputy Chief Councilor Johnny O. Frank. “We’re sick and tired of these people telling us what we can and can’t do. They’re not Ahousaht. They don’t live in Ahousaht. Most of them have never even been to Ahousaht. But they think they know what’s right for Ahousaht?”

Despite the polarized positions, First Nations and environmental groups have agreed to a “cooling-off period” and planned to meet in the remote community of Hot Springs Cove in late September.

“We won’t be making any comments until after that meeting happens,” said Jackie Godfrey, executive director of the regional Central Region Chiefs group and its forest company, MaMook Developments. “We don’t want to negotiate through the media. We need to meet face-to-face, away from the cameras and have a clear dialogue.”

A meeting had been planned for late August, but was postponed because of the death of an elder. Another meeting date has yet to be scheduled.