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Tla-o-qui-aht continues to protect its garden


By Debora Steel Windspeaker Contributor TOFINO, B.C.







The Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation marked the 30th anniversary of the fight against logging on Meares Island in the Clayoquot Sound at a gathering in Tofino April 20.

On April 21, 1984, Tla-o-qui-aht declared Meares Island a tribal park, and that began the push back against forestry giant MacMillan Bloedel’s plans to clearcut 90 per cent of the timber—old-growth forest with trees as old as 1,500 years—on the island.

It also was the start of a Native, non-Native alliance that would spark worldwide attention, rallying against undesirable resource development in the area.

Many of those on the front lines of that struggle gathered for a meal and traditional dances and to share stories from what became known as the War in the Woods.

Chief Councillor Moses Martin, who was chief councilor also at the time of the declaration, remembered the conflict and the help Friends of Clayoquot Sound provided in saving Meares from being logged off, destroying sensitive salmon habitat, medicine gathering areas, places of spiritual significance, and the systems that provide Tofino with its water.

The day following the celebration, Martin traveled with a small group to the site of a stand-off in November 1984 with MacMillan Bloedel at a place the company dubbed Heel Boom Bay, which the Tla-o-qui-ahts call C’isaqis. Protesters had built a cabin that survives to this day at the base of a planned road that would bring the logs down from the mountain.

The soft-spoken Martin, who stood with many hundreds of people behind him, said he had a choice to make; tell the loggers to stay on their boats or welcome them to the shores. In traditional Nuu-chah-nulth fashion, Martin said he decided to provide a welcome to the forestry representatives. With a sweep of his hand he gestured to the forest and said “You are welcome to come ashore and join us for a meal, but you have to leave your chainsaws in your boats. This is not a tree farm – this is Wah-nah-juss Hilth-hooiss, this is our Garden, this is a Tribal Park.”

Martin recalled a discussion between the then chair of the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council George Watts and an RCMP officer on the beach that day. The officer told Watts that there was room in his cells for a thousand Indians. Watts, in return, said if the RCMP arrested a thousand of his people that day there would be a thousand more on the island the next.

The fight made its way to the courts and protesters successfully fended off MacMillan Bloedel’s logging plans until March 27, 1985 when the BC Court of Appeal ruled that no logging could occur on Meares Island until Aboriginal land claims had been settled in the region.

Tla-o-qui-aht continues to face threats to its territory from resource developers, including the mining industry. The Nation chose to mark the 30th anniversary of their tribal park declaration by expanding the designation to Tla-o-qui-aht’s entire traditional territory, which includes the municipality of Tofino.

The Meares Island Tribal Park was the first Tribal Park declared in British Columbia and it has inspired First Nations’ protected areas across British Columbia and around the world.

“The declaration of Meares Island as a Tribal Park 30 years ago set in motion an idea that has caught and spread throughout Indigenous communities, that we can sustain our cultures by safeguarding the land and living things that provide for us,” said Eli Enns, Tla-o-qui-aht co-founder of the Ha’uukmin (Kennedy Lake Watershed) Tribal Park in Clayoquot Sound. “We can assert our own management plans for our territories, as we have been doing for thousands of years, so that we can continue to live in harmony with the land that sustains us – and all of humanity.”

Saya Masso, Tla-o-qui-aht band councillor and resource manager, said “We have just finished a tribal park planning initiative that sustains jobs for 500 years, not just 10 years of jobs and 500 years of impact,” said. “We are developing plans for our long-term future. We regard fish as a value, the serenity of our lands, and spiritual practices that we have to do there as all vital for our culture.”

Photo caption: Lee Hilbert (left) was once a forestry engineer working for MacMillan Bloedel. He saw that the company would take 90 per cent of the trees on Meares Island and decided to quit and fight against the plan. He was on the front lines with Chief Councillor Moses Martin 30 years ago.