Infamous ‘War in the Woods’ in 1990s offers lesson for the Coastal Gaslink pipeline debate
By Cody Battershill
If you talk to participants of B.C.’s infamous “War in the Woods” forestry land-use debates of the 1990s, you quickly learn that virtually no one enjoyed the experience, no matter which side they supported. All these years later, each side can claim a handful of victories and plenty of defeats.
According to many of the participants I’ve spoken with over the years, a few First Nations leaders found the anti-forestry campaigns especially hurtful as their communities were pulled in — and then fractured — in large part by external campaign forces.
Hollywood heavy hitters Oliver Stone and Victoria Principal were among the stars who claimed expertise over local B.C. sustainability decision-making
Back then it was the Forest Action Network (FAN) and a number of other early enviro-combatants that led the anti-resources charge over B.C.’s Great Bear Rainforest. FAN became adept at finding divisions within First Nations communities, identifying roles for dissatisfied hereditary leaders and then elevating them before international media, often to the detriment of elected councillors and the Indigenous community at large.
So the parallels jump off the page when you read about the politics of the proposed 670-kilometre Coastal GasLink, the pipeline that would connect northeast B.C. to a $16-billion liquefied natural gas terminal being built in Kitimat. Every one of the 20 elected First Nation councils along the proposed route supports the project but — in an echo of the 1990s — activists are saying hereditary chiefs have the real authority, not democratically elected chiefs and councils, so Coastal GasLink should be blocked. It’s more than sad to see a repeat of this dynamic of sowing dissent among Indigenous communities. But on the pipeline front, it seems, everything old is new again.
Most Canadians likely side with Haisla elected Chief Councillor Crystal Smith, who recently said “In the end, the difference over governance among the Wet’suwet’en is a matter for the people of the Wet’suwet’en Nation to resolve. They do not need outside help or outside interference or outside activists to do that.”
In other words, it’s for the Indigenous communities to solve this difficult issue. Those non-Indigenous opponents of the project who sow dissension among elected and hereditary leaderships in the same way FAN did over the Great Bear Rainforest debates of the 1990s need to stop.
What’s wrong with activists pushing their outside views on Indigenous communities? Plenty. In the same way forestry was hit by outsiders from FAN in the Nuxalk region of B.C. in the ’90s, the province also saw Hollywood elites inject themselves and their limited understanding of sustainability into local resource debates. Erstwhile Hollywood heavy hitters Oliver Stone and Victoria Principal were among the stars who claimed expertise over local B.C. sustainability decision-making.
In another region, Wet’suwet’en hereditary chief Theresa Tait-Day has pointed to the fact Indigenous women in a traditionally matrilineal system of governance are often derailed in their attempts to practice local consensus-based decision-making. “I estimate that a large majority of our Nation supports the (Coastal GasLink) project,” said Tait-Day in an interview for ResourceWorks, describing how most people are excited about training and job opportunities the pipeline will bring. “(But) some of these people have also told me that they are afraid to publicly say that they support the project.” Disagreement is one thing but bullying and shaming are simply unacceptable, especially if they’re the result of outside forces influencing Indigenous decision-making.
Worse still, Victoria Council, through its vote last week that supported the hereditary Wet’suwet’en leadership rather than the democratic one — though without having carried out any local consultation or public discussion — is only likely to deepen the divide between Indigenous groups.
After the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination last month called for an immediate stop to Coastal GasLink and two additional projects in the West, Committee Chair Noureddine Amir had to admit to Canadian media that he was unaware Coastal GasLink had deep Indigenous support. “I did not know that most First Nations agree on that. This is something new that comes to my understanding,” Amir said in a phone interview with Thomson-Reuters from his native Algiers.
We hear of growing frustration among Canada’s Indigenous communities, who are tired of managing systemic poverty. They’re ready to turn to managing wealth, and to obtaining a safe, secure and sustainable future for their community members, particularly their youth.
As Canada continues on a path toward reconciliation with its Indigenous communities, it makes sense that economic reconciliation, including genuine participation in resource projects, be a key part of the discussion. My own view is that outside activists should keep out of Indigenous consultations on projects like Coastal GasLink. But I know I don’t speak for Indigenous communities. I only hope other non-Indigenous outsiders recognize they don’t either — and the sooner the better.
It’s time for Indigenous communities to come to the table, to move from poverty to prosperity, and to push ahead on reconciliation. It’s not the 1990s anymore. Let’s learn from the mistakes of the past, not repeat them.
Cody Battershill is a Calgary realtor and founder/spokesperson for CanadaAction.ca.