New Brunswick

Silence on the Tobique: Founder cancels fiddle festival to protest clearcuts

Bill Miller, canoe maker and founder of Fiddles on the Tobique, is not holding the annual festival because he says he's upset with the continuing clear cutting of forests along the river.

'I'm not very proud to live here anymore,' says Bill Miller, founder of Fiddles on the Tobique

Bill Miller, builder of Miller canoes and founder of Fiddles on the Tobique, works on a canoe in his shop in Nictau. (Harry Forestell/CBC)

The path to Bill Miller's workshop is rutted and brown, the grass worn away by three generations of Miller men. 

For 96 years Bill, his father and his grandfather before him have travelled the short distance to a ramshackle shed, where they crafted the canoes that carry the family name — sleek wooden vessels carved from the spruce and cedar harvested from the surrounding woods.

Past a door covered with licence plates from around the world sporting witty asides — "I KNU 2" — you'll find 74-year old Miller, sporting a lush white beard, usually hunched over a jig, the form he uses to mould and create a new canoe, like a shoemaker's last.  

Bill Miller is a third-generation canoe builder at Miller Canoes. (Harry Forestell/CBC)

"I have the most wonderful job in the world," says Miller. "I like it so much I'd do it for free if I could make a living at it."

The workshop is crammed with a lifetime's worth of wood shavings, pots of dried resin and sad, broken canoes awaiting repair. Miller, who usually spends hours alone here, is delighted to have an audience. He's waving a smooth, thin, white cedar rib through the air as he talks.

"It takes about 25 minutes to make each rib. By the time I go out and pick a board out of the board pile and bring it in here ... takes about 22 minutes to make each one."

Broken canoes lie ready to be repaired in the shop where generations of Miller men have worked. (Harry Forestell/CBC)

He should know. Miller has been warping, twisting and tacking wood into canoes for 47 years now. He figures he's made close to 500 for buyers from around the world.

"There's one in South Africa and there's five or six in Fairbanks, Alaska. There's Miller canoes in England, there's one in France, I have a boat downstairs that belongs to a fellow in Norway."

Miller is known for more than his canoes. He's also the founder of Fiddles on the Tobique, a local music festival that drew hundreds to the river for a day of music on the water. This will be the first summer in 25 years that the Tobique will be silent.

A mute protest, says Miller, over the clear cutting that has scarred the surrounding landscape.

Licence plates from all over the world decorate the inside of the door leading into the Miller Canoes shop that's been in business since 1925. (Harry Forestell/CBC)
"With the clear cutting going on, they're taking the vast numbers of trees that I need to build canoes off, and just cutting them, they're just randomly cutting them and hauling them to the mill."

Miller admits he probably has enough wood piled near his workshop to satisfy his needs for the next few years, but he is upset with how he feels clear cutting is affecting the environment and the once-unspoiled view from the river.

After two consecutive years of flooding in the lower St. John River valley, Miller is convinced clear-cutting is contributing to the problem.

The Miller Canoes shop is filled with lots of old signs and tools. (Harry Forestell/CBC)

"They're taking away the trees that hold the moisture and the water levels rise. How come all that flooding we had in the St. John River this year and last year. Where do you think all that flooding is coming from? It's loss of trees."

Just down the road about half a kilometre is an area Miller uses to illustrate his point. It is a mess of dried, bleached waste wood, the detritus left behind after trees has been harvested.

Just looking at it seems to fuel Miller's resentment.

"I'm not very proud to live here anymore. I'm not proud to even be a New Brunswicker or even a Canadian when I'm representing people who come to Fiddles on the Tobique and we don't have anything to show them."

Clear cutting has changed the face of the province, even near the slopes of Mount Carleton, a provincial park and the highest peak in New Brunswick, just down the road from Miller's place in Nictau. 

The blocks are difficult for the untrained eye to see, screened as they are by a thin green border left standing. Aerial images taken over the area in the past few years show the large blocks of land, up to 100 hectares, shorn of trees and left lying fallow until they can be replanted.  

The Conservation Council of New Brunswick says Miller has a point.  

This aerial shot shows the Little Tobique River with clearcuts all around it except for a thin green border along the riverbank. (Contributed)

"The way we're cutting our forests today is a contributor to what we're seeing happening in the intense spring freshets," says the council's Jon MacNeill. 

We're looking at photos of clear-cut blocks around the Little Tobique, a tributary of the Tobique River.  

"In 2015 the auditor general released a report, and in that she found that in the last 20 years, 80 per cent of the harvesting of Crown land in New Brunswick was being cut by clearcut."

Bill Miller says clear cutting has changed the face of the province, and he's not happy about it, going as far to cancel the Fiddlers on the Tobique festival in protest. (Contributed)

MacNeill hastens to add that this is all done according to regulations. No laws are being broken. The lumber firms harvesting wood here are following the rules.  

That does little to temper the mood of Bill Miller. He's spent his life making boats that give people access to the province's rivers. If the view from there is of blocks of clear-cut forest, then what's the point?

"People from all over the world came to Fiddles on the Tobique, people from all over. And to encourage people to come to the Tobique and look at all the clearcut, all the devastation, the land crap, it looks a mess."

About the Author

Harry Forestell

Host CBC News New Brunswick at 6

Harry Forestell is the host of CBC News New Brunswick at 6. He worked in London as journalist from 1995 to 2000 and from 2005 to 2008 as CBC's European correspondent for Newsworld.

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