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Cortes Island ForestFest: Forest activism for all generations

Retired school teacher John Woolley finds it staggering that his pension fund, bcIMC, owns 49% of Island Timberlands, is a major shareholder of IT's parent company Brookfield Asset Management and owns all of Timber West. "I assumed the investments were things I’d be comfortable with,” Woolley told the VO.

As September draws near, Cortes Islanders and other opponents of industrial logging are gearing up to protect Cortes forests from Island Timberlands.This weekend, a multipurpose “ForestFest” brought blockaders and friends together for strategy and inspiration. Preparations for ForestFest spurred completion of the “forest camp,” a long term camp area on private land for off-island activists for use in the event that Island Timberlands goes forward with its plans. ForestFest also provided an opportunity for celebration of the forest ecosystems, Cortes style, with hundreds of people walking in 3 kilometers to listen, learn, eat and dance late into the night.

Young adults: Coming full Circle

Many “children of Cortes,” now in their 20s and 30s, returned home for the event. They view defence of island forests as a way to give back to the place that gave them so much. “Our parents planted the seeds of forest awareness in us,” 30 year old Kioshi Kosky of Pemberton said. “We’re coming back to do what our parents taught us to do.”  Kosky remembers how the Klahoose First Nation asked his school to help with a blockade against MacMillan Bloedel in 1989, when he was a child. “Our parents decided that it was important to teach us about standing up to defend what you love,” Kosky recalls. “Now Island Timberlands plans to cut that same area that we protected back then. It’s come full circle.”

Amy and Rosemary Bockner grew up on Cortes and then spent years working in the tree planting camps. “We are witnessing the end of industrial logging,” Rosemary stated. “It can’t continue this way. My tree planting friends on Vancouver Island watch huge burn piles of trees that were deemed not straight enough for export. The pillaging is the worst we’ve ever seen it.” For Rosemary, the issue isn’t just about Cortes.  “Cortes isn’t unique in its problem,” she told the VO. “We live in a time when small communities and indigenous cultures all over the world are rising up against industrial resource extraction. It’s the only way left to preserve what our children need. If we fail, they won’t say ‘Thanks for trying.’ They’ll say, ‘Oh my God, we need fresh water.’”

Kosky notes there have already been  changes to the island water table over time. “My dad hand dug our well thirty five years ago. It was always dry two months of the year, but now it’s dry between six and eight months of the year,” he said. “Island Timberlands plans to cut in the core of the island’s water recharge basin.”

Zoe Miles thinks small communities provide a good opportunity to redirect where we are going as a society.

For Zoe Miles, growing up in a small community in a rural area gave her deep contact with other generations and other species. “Those of us who grew up here developed really strong relationships to our place, and you defend what you love,” she said  She thinks that small communities are the best opportunity for redirecting where we are going as a society.

Myann Woolley was 14 at her first Cortes Island blockade. Now she's keen to see a forest related economy on Cortes.

Myann Woolley was 14 when the first blockade against MacMillan Bloedel occurred. “I was the look out person for the Squirrel Cove blockade,” she said. “And I was 16 at Clayquot. I remember the local shuttle drivers at Clayquot who brought activists from other places into the camp. Now I’m the local shuttle driver. I got tears in my eyes when I thought about that today, how now it’s my turn to give that to the next generation.” Myann still lives on Cortes and sees the need for long term local jobs in forestry. “Without a forest related economy within our community, it’s getting harder and harder to live here,” she said. “The corporate control has got to stop. I felt empowered by the last community meeting with IT, how the community is standing in unity against their operations without the internal conflict we used to have.”

The parents: Opting in

Cortes land owner Tzeporah Berman, who plays a central role in BC in forest and climate activism, told an audience, “When we were negotiating with Island Timberlands, one of their people said to me at a break, ‘People on Cortes Island don’t believe in progress. They are hippies that have opted out.’ That’s when I realized that our negotiations could not succeed. Because people who live on Cortes didn’t opt out. We opted in - to a life in which we can protect what sustains us and pass that along to our children.”

Tzeporah Berman at ForestFest: opting in to a future for her children

Berman remembers how, years ago, MacMillan Bloedel employees (who were the owners of the IT lands at that time) told her not to worry about the forests when she moved to Cortes Island. “Cortes has been written off as ‘socially inoperable,’” they assured her. Berman told the crowd, “Our message to IT is that Cortes Island is still ‘socially inoperable.’ Your plans to log the heart out of Cortes Island to line the already fat pocket books of distant shareholders is not okay. When you come to Cortes Island to log, I will be there. You can expect protests around the world and at your shareholder meetings in Toronto.”  In January, a petition signed by over 6,800 people was delivered to the world wide offices of Brookfield Asset Management, IT’s parent company.

Rex Weyler, Cortes resident and co-founder of Greenpeace, sees opportunity for Island Timberlands on Cortes. “I’m excited by the work toward community tenure of Crown lands on Cortes,” Weyler said. “Island Timberlands has a golden opportunity to join in that effort.”  According to Weyler, Merv Wilkinson of Wildwood provided the model that forestry operations need to adopt. “It’s a simple rule,” Weyler said. “Cut less than the growth rate.” He points out that Wilkinson made a living by selectively harvesting his land for over 50 years. “There was more timber on his land when he passed away than when he started,” Weyler notes.

Cortes resident David Shipway is a builder, fine woodworker and boat builder who advocates long harvest rotations to capture BC’s legendary ability to grow first rate wood. For Shipway, the pivotal moment in the IT negotiations came when he asked IT for data showing the age class profile of their lands – a graph indicating the age of the trees on all the lands it holds. “Bill Waugh [Director of Forestry Operations] snapped his head around and said ‘We can’t show you that.’ His refusal wasn’t for business reasons. Their data would show that most of their forests are only a few decades old. Mining of the forest capital has been so intense that the only viable long term option left is to reduce the cut big time.”

In Shipway’s view the underlying problem is too much land tied up in too few corporations. “Ninety percent of the land on the eastern slope of Vancouver Island is owned by Island Timberlands and Timber West. It should be held by thousands of small land owners who live on their land and work it, like the Swedish model.” In Sweden, there are more than three jobs per thousand cubic meters of wood harvested. In BC, there is less than one.  Shipway notes that massive corporate land holdings on Vancouver Island arose from land grants by the province to the E & N Railroad and Dunsmuir coal empire. “Those companies were given a million hectares in exchange for a rail road,” Shipway notes. “And there’s still no rail road.”

Pensioners awakening to their investment portfolios

bcIMC is the pension fund for provincial employees and it owns 49% of IT. John Woolley, a retired teacher who lives on Cortes, finds this figure “staggering.” bcIMC is also a major stockholder of parent company Brookfield Asset Management, and just purchased Timber West. “I enjoy getting a cheque each month and I assumed the investments were things I’d be comfortable with,” Woolley said. The bcIMC website gives this impression with the following statement, stating that it encourages companies to implement responsible environmental and social practices.

John Woolley assumed his pension fund has investments he would be comfortable with and was surprised by  bcIMC's investment in unsustainable logging. “We don’t want divestment of forestry holdings," he said, "We want forest management that is accountable to the future.”

In Woolley’s view, the BC logging industry doesn’t meet a reasonable standard for responsible investing. “Forestry as such doesn’t exist on Vancouver Island anymore,” he told the VO. “At a community meeting, an IT representative told me that 50-60% of their ‘fiber’ is now sold off shore. Communities receive absolutely no benefit from logging in their own area.” Woolley sees bcIMC’s investments as a wake up call to pensioners. “There is a huge wave of time, energy and curiosity in this group of retired people,” he said. “We don’t want divestment of forestry holdings. We want forest management that is accountable to the future.”

Green up: the new generation of activists

Cortes forests taught Jemma how to be by herself to reflect and recharge. She wants other people to have that experience. 

Seventeen year old Jemma Burr Hicken lived on Cortes Island from age 8 to age 14. “The forests helped me learn how to be by myself,” she told the VO. “I know I can recharge and reflect there. I want to help other people to experience that.” She thinks that, in fairness, the money made from Cortes forests should stay on Cortes. “IT shouldn’t even be on the island,” she said.

"The plants and animals of the forest develop quite a relationship over time."

Alma Huuskonen, 12, is concerned about ecosystems. “IT’s logging will destroy whole ecosystems and everything that lives under the trees,” she told the VO. “Over the years, the plants and animals develop quite a relationship. If we take away the trees, it will be majorly disruptive.” She sees trees as a renewable resource, but it takes a long time for them to grow back. “We can’t cut them all down,” she said. “We need to use them responsibly and take only what we need.”

Isabel Steigemann, 18, seeks a university education so that she can work more effectively to protect the forests. “If I could learn more, I’d like to work on creating laws that would give us stronger rights to stop things like this,” she said. “A job wouldn’t be good enough for me unless it was helping with the important things.”

For Leah Seltzer, one of the major forces behind ForestFest, the event has been a transformative experience. “The inter-generational meetings that have been the backbone of our organizing have been one of the most unique experiences of my young adulthood,” she said. “It feels very significant that we have been able to work across a wide spectrum of opinion and experience in order to create a unified effort towards the goal of keeping industrial logging off of Cortes Island.”

Forest allies

Representatives from the Western Canada Wilderness Committee, Forest Action Network, and Ancient Forest Alliance were among the off-island activists who attended Forest Fest. “I wasn’t born with Teflon skin,” Zoe Blunt of Forest Action Network told the audience. “You have to develop mental strengthening exercises. They will call you names. In the words of Gandhi, ‘First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.’”

Lovena Harvey is one of the people steeling themselves up for the challenge. “Civil disobedience is the only way change has ever happened,” she said, “like with the suffragette and black empowerment movements. Corporate dominance is another one of those giant problems.” “For me,” she continued, “it’s about the future of our children. It’s not an option to not do it.”



 Lovena Harvey thinks only civil disobedience can change corporate dominance over ecosystems. "It's about the future of our children," she said. 

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