38 years after standing up to a logging company, this First Nation is still fighting for old-growth forests
The Tla-o-qui-aht took stewardship of their territory back and are protecting it for the future
Saya Masso stands in front of a culturally modified tree, looking up into the canopy that disappears into the sky above us. It has two massive crevices down its trunk, leaving a large smooth block in the middle of otherwise bumpy bark. This smooth block was left after Tla-o-qui-aht (ƛaʔuukʷiʔatḥ) people cut planks from the tree for a longhouse hundreds of years ago — a way of harvesting the wood they needed while preserving a living tree for centuries to come.
"I really wanted to show you this tree as an example of the traditional laws that led to our system of abundance and the vibrancy of our people," says Masso, a husband, father of three, and the lands and resource director for the Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation.
Masso is just one of the people I met while filming War for the Woods, a documentary from The Nature of Things.
Tla-o-qui-aht ḥaḥuułi (territory) is on the west coast of Vancouver Island, facing the wide expanse of the Pacific Ocean. The area, with its ancient forests and sweeping beaches, draws thousands of tourists every year, many flocking to the tourism hub of Tofino. Tla-o-qui-aht people have lived there for about 10,000 years.
But it's not just tourism this area is known for. Logging has shaped — and decimated — much of the landscape, threatening the livelihoods of the Tla-o-qui-aht and other Nuu-chah-nulth people. As the trees vanished, so did their ability to access food, engage in spiritual practices, and maintain connections with cedar, salmon and other relations.
So they fought back. In 1984, Nuu-chah-nulth people famously turned away B.C.-based logging company MacMillan Bloedel, which planned to clear cut old-growth forests — including trees that were estimated to be over 1,000 years old on Wah-nuh-jus–Hilthoois (Meares Island). It was the first major logging blockade in Canadian history and the beginning of a series of blockades in Clayoquot Sound known as the war in the woods.
While the media's attention turned away after the conflict ended in the 1990s, the story continued. The Tla-o-qui-aht have spent the years since grappling with how to approach logging and push for conservation amid the provincial government's restrictions. They are advocating for logging strategies that preserve old-growth and avoid clear cutting while still providing wealth and abundance.
Pushing toward a conservation economy instead of an extractive one
The Meares Island blockade led to the Tla-o-qui-aht establishing Wah-nuh-jus–Hilthoois Tribal Park in 1984. Every Indigenous government that has tribal parks may have its own definition, but to the Tla-o-qui-aht, it means lands and waters that are "protected by ƛaʔuukʷiʔatḥ laws, rights and title," and stewarded and cared for by tribal park guardians.
By 2014, Tla-o-qui-aht declared all of its territory protected within four tribal parks, and Masso helped to create a robust guardians program so their people could be out on the land stewarding their homelands.
Terry Dorward was 12 years old when the Ahousaht and Tla-o-qui-aht First Nations stood up against MacMillan Bloedel. He remembers marching in Victoria with his late uncle Ee-wah-nulth, or Ray Seitcher Sr., as a formative experience for his political growth. They marched in 1984, only shortly after Christie Student Residence closed in 1983.
"We were really defying Canadian law. I think that really instilled an awareness, [a] consciousness of, 'I have a role to do in life,'" Dorward said.
"What I remember is just … feeling extremely proud of being Nuu-chah-nulth."
Dorward is the Tla-o-qui-aht's former tribal parks project coordinator. The tribal park guardians are out on the territory almost every day. Their work is grounded in the Nuu-chah-nulth principle of hishukish ts'awalk: everything is one.
The funding for their work comes from Tla-o-qui-aht's Tribal Park Allies program. Businesses that join the program agree to be good stewards, and ask for a one per cent fee from their clients that goes to Tribal Park Regional Services, known as an ecosystem service fee. The fee allows the guardians to maintain a functioning ecosystem, which also supports a robust local economy.
Tourism in Tofino is propelled by its cultivated reputation for pristine beaches, forests and wildlife, and the town generates millions in revenues each year. Tla-o-qui-aht has spent years explaining to the public how Tofino profits off Indigenous land, and the tribal parks team has had some success encouraging locals to pay their share, Dorward said.
According to Masso, about a quarter of Tofino businesses participate in the Tribal Park Allies program, and in 2021, they contributed $277,260 to support the guardians' stewardship. The nation aims to get 100 per cent of businesses on board to keep the land healthy for everyone.
As the guardians program grows, Dorward hopes it will open up opportunities for young people to work on the land in roles like tree planting, restoration and education. The programs' funds also will support language and youth programs, he said. Masso hopes the funds will also go toward improved health-care, a language program and a longhouse.
"Our people understand that in order to be politically sovereign, with no strings attached with the government, we have to be economically independent," Dorward said.
Stephanie Kwetásel'wet Wood is a Sḵwx̱wú7mesh journalist who reports on Indigenous rights, sustainability and social justice for The Narwhal.