The Nature of Things

30 years after an historic fight against clear cutting, Indigenous communities are still fighting for forests

Two directors tell the story of some of Canada’s last remaining old-growth forests, and the people trying to protect them.

Two directors tell the story of the people trying to protect some of our last old-growth forests

David Suzuki and Stephanie Kwetásel'wet Wood sit on a log on a beach while being filmed by a small film crew.
Stephanie Kwetásel'wet Wood and David Suzuki are filmed for War for the Woods, a documentary following the legacy of old-growth logging and the Indigenous communities working to protect the forests. (Jeffrey Burnett)

By Joy SpearChief-Morris

2023 marks the 30th anniversary of the 1993 Clayoquot Sound protests against the logging of old-growth forests on the western coast of Vancouver Island.

While much of the protested logging area was eventually spared from clear cutting, old-growth forests in other areas of B.C. have not been offered the same protection. 

The documentary War for the Woods follows Stephanie Kwetásel'wet Wood, an Indigenous journalist seeking to understand how B.C.'s old-growth forests have all but disappeared in this troubling time of climate change — and how Indigenous communities are trying to save what's left. 

The film is written and directed by Toronto-based filmmakers Sean Stiller and Geoff Morrison. Stiller is also the film's director of photography and a member of the Williams Lake First Nation of the Secwépemc Nation, while Morrison is the founder of the documentary's production company, Big Cedar Films. They spoke to CBC Docs to discuss the importance of old-growth forests and the making of this film from Indigenous perspectives. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Has anything changed since the 1993 Clayoquot Sound protests? Have there been any updates to the logging and clear cutting policy in B.C.?

Geoff Morrison: I think one of the things the film tries to do is look at it really from the perspective of the Tla-o-qui-aht and the central Nuu-chah-nulth nations. Their story was not heard quite as loudly [and isn't] remembered as much in the history, but things really did change for them in terms of gaining control of their forests and how those forests would be logged over the coming years. 

In a broader sense — I mean, just from my view — I'm not sure much really changed in terms of the debate on clear cutting and old-growth logging, because here we are 30 years later and we're still fighting to protect what old-growth remains.

Sean Stiller: Perhaps what's changed somewhat, among these nations, is [that there's now] a much more robust conversation, or maybe confidence is the right word, around questions of sovereignty and of really taking charge of stewardship of the territory. The Tla-o-qui-aht, the Ahousaht and the Hesquiaht have all articulated very clear land use decisions, very ambitious land use visions for how they want to steward their territories. 

These days, there are also outside partners who, of course, are incentivized to protect these pristine ecosystems. And so there are systems in place to try to funnel funding toward these nations so that they can, for example, effectively buy out their tree farm licenses so that they're economically incentivized to not log [and] have other viable economic paths forward. That feels like a very new conversation.

An image of two men side by side. One is white with a mustache and one is Indigenous with some stubble.
Geoff Morrison (left) and Sean Stiller (right) are the writers and directors of War for the Woods. (Big Cedar Films)

Why is this story still important to tell today?

GM: The reason we're hearing so much about old-growth forest in the news is because there is so little growth left, and it's been scientifically proven that these forests are critical to the planet storing carbon. 

What we tried to do with the film is kind of look at it from another perspective as well … to show that there's more than just the ecological value, [that] there's a cultural value to these forests as well. 

SS: To some extent, the impetus for this [documentary] being commissioned is that we are now in the 30th anniversary of the Clayoquot Sound protests, which of course we allude to in the beginning of the [film]. So there's a timeliness to that historical event and then using that as a launching pad for a more contemporary conversation. 

We took the opportunity to talk about things like conservation financing, which particularly among the central Nuu-chah-nulth nations has become quite a strong push, in terms of how they move past logging, but in a way that allows the nations to provide economic opportunity to their band members … rather than just leaving them empty-handed. 

Our focus was to spend time talking about these solutions, versus simply being on the front lines with largely non-Indigenous people who were opposed to old-growth logging.

This documentary was filmed and produced by an Indigenous team. Why is it important to tell these stories through an Indigenous lens?

SS: We see things from a very different perspective, and I think when you're working with an Indigenous production company … you don't have to fight for that perspective. It's there. It's sort of built-in. And it also works its way into a lot of other aspects of production. So, you know, the way that you treat one another, the way that you dialogue, focus on people's wellness, knowing that you're entering spaces where there could be trauma or difficult conversations.

There's a built-in understanding that you take the time you need, you take the care you need to address these things in a good way. Things like really generous honorariums and ensuring medicines are being offered to participants — these are all just givens.

It's [the] things that historically non-Indigenous companies might have had missteps around. You can assume a certain amount of nuance and sensitivity working with an Indigenous production team.

This film was shot in some incredible patches of old-growth forest. What impact did filming in these locations have on you? 

SS: It's always a really incredible privilege to be invited into any community. I grew up in B.C. and so the West Coast has … an extra special connection [for me]. 

That region of Vancouver Island, that kind of temperate rainforest ecosystem, is just so rare and so pristine and special. Ken Wu [executive director of Endangered Ecosystems Alliance] took us to a pretty pristine old-growth patch, a grove, which I wouldn't be able to get back to. It's sort of deliberately been kept hidden. 

Even having grown up in B.C., I don't think I had been in such pristine old-growth ecosystems as I had on this trip. You hear people speaking in spiritual terms, about the space … and when you're there, you really get it. It just has such an incredible weight. And there's such a sense of reverence for being in these places, and you understand so deeply why there are these relationships, articulated through language, through cultural practice, through everything. It's just one of those things that film will never fully capture, you know? But to be there was just an incredible gift.

GM: I also felt extremely lucky to be in these environments — certainly to be welcomed in. [There were] a number of moments where, you know, Sean might've been off filming, and I'd be scouting for other stuff to shoot and just pinching myself at all the natural beauty.

I mean, there were times where it just struck me: Being here in this place — this is evidence. Like, I can look around, and I can see how all these ecosystems are connected, and why it's so important, and why you don't get that in a second-growth forest. And everything that we were reading about, and everything in our research was telling us [about] why these ecosystems in particular need to be maintained. And you know … saving a little parcel of trees is just not going to do it. So, yeah, to be able to experience that, certainly in person, had a significant impact on us as filmmakers. 

What can be learned from Indigenous activism for protecting old-growth forests? 

GM: Something that we observed from speaking to people in this film is the Indigenous approach to conservation is much more rounded. There's a lot more to it, and I think that it's much more based on this historical relationship to the land. Hundreds and thousands of years of stewarding the land is what is informing these decisions about how the land should be stewarded today, and I think that's something that's really exciting about new models of conservation.

SS: The Nuu-chah-nulth people, as do most other Indigenous nations, have their natural law and have systems of knowledge based on observation over many hundreds of years. And so when there's a resistance to logging … it's not out of some purely emotional connection to the forest. It's because they understand very well that birds migrate in their territory at a certain time of the year. 

There are other very sound ecological reasons to restrict certain activities at certain times, or to only focus on certain regions, for example, and that comes out of carefully fought for scientific knowledge — in some cases, knowledge that [Western] scientists themselves are just arriving at.

Why did you want to make this documentary?

SS: On a personal level, I seem to be drawn to projects that have, at their core, some relationship [with] the natural world and human culture, and where those two overlap — particularly in an Indigenous context. I just find myself drawn to the importance of the stories, especially today. 

GM: It's a very complicated and important story. And I think the privilege to come at it and look at it from a slightly alternative perspective — and really focus on the importance of these trees, not just for their ecological value but also their value to Indigenous culture — I think is really what gives this piece a real heart. I'm hoping that's the message that the audience leaves with

Joy SpearChief-Morris is an Indigenous Black Canadian writer, advocate and retired Team Canada athlete.

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