For the better part of four years, I have been held captive by the area on the north-central coast of British Columbia, dubbed The Great Bear Rainforest by environmentalists in the 1990s. It is an immensely powerful global icon of interchange between terrestrial and marine ecosystems and is among the few last remaining threatened cultural wilderness-landscapes on this planet.
It is also ground zero for the equally powerful interchange between Indigenous and settler ontologies—ways of knowing. It is a place where beautifully symbiotic relationships are forged between First Nations and colonial settlers, and also where tense, combative and polarizing relationships with deep wounds struggle to heal.
It is the resting place of a dying economy and the birthplace of a new generation of people who are building new relationships with the land. They are not synthesizing what western economic loyalists might call “progressive new business models.” No, they are creating livelihoods in spite of modern economics.
Over one a year ago, I finished my life as an undergraduate university student studying political science and environmental studies and left a lifestyle of activism and grassroots involvement, and a mainstream-urban-Cascadian-settler culture of resistance, as a straight white male (or at least some form of this). I then moved between the Bella Coola Valley, northern Vancouver Island, Bella Bella, the Broughton Archipelago and the southern mainland of the Great Bear Rainforest directly east of the Broughton Archipelago.
This area is home to inlets stretching 125 kilometres in length, spanning 2.5 km in average width. It is host to the fastest tidal surge in the world and a wilderness landscape sanctuary honest enough to demand you re-conceive your notions of wild. In a single peripheral moment, your eyes can capture both mountain goats and dolphins.
I moved from talking about and fighting for the concept of wilderness amongst largely urbanites, to the wilderness itself. I moved from talking about First Nations politics and solidarity work, to actually talking with First Nations; an embarrassingly simple yet profound paradox (and problematic) in typical urban environmental activism.
My excursions, work, exploration, projects and freelance hikes have brought me face to face with bears, wolves and cougars. While out food fishing, I have been left completely alone with only orcas in endlessly immense waterways. Eagles know my boat motor sound and will follow me, hoping for a released fish to linger a moment too long on the surface for their talons to pierce. My meals are often composed of salmon, crabs, clams, mussels, spot prawns, sea urchin roe, lingcod, halibut; and chanterelles, matsutake, yellow feet, hedgehog, Chicken-of-the-woods, morel and angel wing mushrooms; berries of many kinds that make a candy shop look like a library; seaweed of all sorts, wild-harvested sea salt and a medley of unspeakably nutritious, delicious and unique foods. Licorice fern root, spring fir bough tips, nettles and Labrador tea are all present in my evening warm beverages — along with some whiskey on occasion.
I have had to surrender to 100 km/hour winds, biblical amounts of rain and spent weeks and weeks and weeks completely alone, kayaking unnamed bays and hiking in forests with no trails. And I have accidentally walked into dynamite blasting red zones while exploring the vast mountainous forest that left my ears ringing and feet running back for the hills.
If you are not already painfully aware, know this: the war in the woods is very very alive, and it is being executed with more-than-military might. What progress and safety that is provided by conservation zones like the Clayoquot UNESCO biosphere reserve is counterbalanced with the destruction of Kyuquot only two sounds north of “paradise.” And a hauntingly similar conservation / destruction tradeoff isnʼt unfamiliar to the oft-lauded reputation of the Great Bear Rainforest agreement either.
I have watched logging companies airlift exclusively old-growth red cedar trees year-round, day-in, day-out from a single inlet for months on end. And I have seen Chinese-registered super timber tankers illegally parked in northern Vancouver Island estuary ecosystems. They shade out eelgrass beds, and the log booms slough off bark that sinks and blankets the once-vibrant marine estuary floor. These trees, this timber, only stay on Canadian soil for the duration they are alive, next stop: China. The tankers never even enter a Canadian port. Canadians get minimal if any tax benefits; First Nations get symbolic royalties, and jobs float across the Pacific Ocean.
Federal and Provincial regulations pertaining to logging, salmon farming and resource extraction are, more often than not, completely irrelevant in the woods on the coast. It almost makes me happy to hear that the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) has had its budget cut, because often when it is present its paradoxical mandate to promote wild and farmed salmon makes it redundant and embarrassingly out of touch. And only with the conclusion of a Supreme Court inquiry has an inch of progress been made on the risks of the salmon farming industry on wild salmon stocks. Too little, too late.
Furthermore, I have wanted to vomit at what is Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified sustainable logging practice. The sound of saying “Forest Stewardship Council certified sustainable logging practice” actually makes me feel very nice. But what that looks like on the ground is clear cuts. I donʼt know whether FSC regulations are simply not being followed, or whether FSC is just semantics. Either way, I donʼt care. The result is threatened marbled murrelets literally watching old growth forests being logged within one kilometre for what is known as world-class logging ethics. A clear cut is a clear cut, whether you spread it out and mix “habitat zones” throughout or not.
When outgoing fry and salmon smolts leave their wild-hatchery of a stream, the river is left momentarily empty (of salmon) for a few weeks before returning adults arrive to spawn. Any restoration work that needs to be done on salmon-bearing streams needs to be done in this window. The blisters that have formed on my hands from turning over gravel beds with a pitch fork to release silt from logging within the watershed would make your hands numb just thinking about it. There are red-listed streams and blue-listed streams on logging maps to indicate whether small watersheds are salmon-bearing or not. But if the Ministry does not have enough funding then streams do not get assessed and are often dubbed non salmon-bearing. The result is locals who depend on smaller salmon runs forced to take measures into their own hands, filling the gaps that DFO and government forestry do not. Typically they just log the river, causing siltification, nearby soil instability and mudslides. Much of the coast is root-mass and years of duff on rock. Without the tree, it just slides away.
There are growth pains involved in any progress, when it comes to government regulation transitioning from outdated management strategies to modern ecosystem-based management. But while our friend Stephen Harper is spending taxpayers’ money to open litigation to close down safe consumption sites for people who use illicit drugs in Vancouver three years in a row (losing every time at the Supreme Court Level), the DFO has its belt more than tightened—itʼs a noose. The science, local ability and certainly need for ecosystem-based fisheries management is all in place and moving forward. Only, government is moving backwards, leaving more room for large industry to move as freely as cowboys in the wild west (or the Hudson’s Bay Company).
My point is that where there are no eyes, there is no regulation. And in an age of an austerity government and in a wilderness landscape unparalleled by most on earth — there are very very few eyes and even less political will to see with them if they were there. As far as that murrelet knows, the Species At Risk Act is nothing more than a piece of paper collecting dust somewhere on the other side of the second-biggest country on the world. And those orcas I shared the waterway with, they are the most toxic mammal on earth. Nearly every PCB, dioxin, furan and endocrine disruptor identifiable on earth can be found in a single fat sample of our cherished northern resident orca ecotype. What do they know of our regulations, enforced or otherwise?
So what are we doing as activists lobbying for policy changes or political change? What is gained? And what is lost in translation? Are we fostering relationships with the wild; with the land; with each other? Or are we fostering relationships with a potentially harmful abstraction of wilderness? Clearly, itʼs going to be an eloquent combination of urban and remote community involvement that will move us closer to a space of community empowerment. What has helped me is trying to stay as close to the ground as possible. To humble myself and foster new ways of knowing. And move myself into settings that provide alternative opportunities to understand the actual subject of my love and passion, rather than strategically objectify it from afar.
My circle of friends is now composed of fisherpeople, biologists, hand-loggers, tourism venture personnel, Indigenous folks of many walks of life, boaters, lawyers, business people and craftspeople. Often they are the people who were here before industrial-scale resource extraction arrived, and they are the people who will be here after it has left. And they are tired and pissed off.
Iʼm writing to encourage those of you who are capable, willing and advantageously situated in remote coastal communities to take what matters you can into your own hands. Those who make livelihoods with the land, off the land, need only to be either given their agency or to take it from the overly entitled crown and province that so readily hands it over to corporations. They need only to be left alone by government and industry to take care of the coast and have the coast take care of them.
There are some immensely resilient communities that initiate hatcheries for smaller salmon runs, or document unsustainable and abusive logging practices and attempt to push back. This is all old news to Indigenous communities, and programs like the Coastal Guardian Alliance that monitors illegal poaching or insensitive activities pertaining to cultural heritage areas are a great example of communities taking matters into their own hands. However, an economic hardship index plots the north coast as the poorest region in the province, with the highest rate of depopulation and highest dependence on income assistance. How can an area so ecologically rich be so economically poor? Large-scale industrial extraction leaves nothing there. Two world views, two ontologies, and the land lost in translation.
Salmon fisherpeoples unions and First Nations gill-netters want nothing more than for salmon to return year after year, after year. They have the historical and hands-on experience where governments do not. Not to mention, they actually handle the fish and depend on it for food (and cultural) sovereignty.
Lets be clear, I have no qualms with the working class. I believe people do what they must. I believe people are not naturally destructive, but are pushed within the constructs of a failing system. But fish farming, for example, does not provide nearly enough jobs to warrant the immensity of the risks it poses. Chinese-bound super-timber, crude oil and liquified natural gas tankers do nothing for this coast. And they do nothing for this country. All taxes and ensuing funding to healthcare and education, and the “trickle-down” arguments for mega-scale industrial projects are symptoms, not solutions. They are excuses, not arguments. And they are the root of a problem larger than I am trying to address currently, that I have zero tolerance for hearing.