Sudbury·In Depth

Sawdust still not settled decades after logging protests in Temagami

It's been decades since protests over logging in the Temagami area made national headlines. And while the dispute has simmered down, it doesn't take much to spark up a debate about what forests are for and who they belong to.

Environmental and First Nations protests regularly blockaded logging roads in the 1980s and 1990s

Police officers carry away protesters from a blockade on Red Squirrel Road in Temagami in 1989. Future Ontario Premier Bob Rae would be among those arrested. (Ottertooth.com)

The protesters and placards are long gone. News reporters are now a rare sight in town.

But the dispute over the forests of Temagami is far from over.

It's just below the surface in the small northern Ontario of 800 people that in many ways has never moved on.

"If you want a placid dinner table conversation, don't bring this up," says local canoe builder and outfitter John Kilbridge.

John Kilbridge was part of the protests over the Red Squirrel Road expansion in the late 1980s and is concerned that more permanent logging roads have stretched into the wilderness since then. (Erik White/CBC )

In 1989, he joined the blockades over the expansion of the Red Squirrel Road — which was to extend further into the wilderness and create a thoroughfare for logging trucks in the area.

Kilbridge says those protests coincided with the closure of Temagami's three largest employers — a sawmill, iron ore mine and Ministry of Natural Resources office — which many blamed on the environmentalists.

"A lot of people hated our guts about this," says Kilbridge, remembering getting threatening phone calls and finding dead animals on his lawn. 

"It's so close to being a ghost town, it's not funny."

Protesters camped out for months in the forests around Temagami in the 1980s and 1990s, blocking logging roads and tying themselves to trees and equipment. (Ottertooth.com )

Some of the blockades of the Red Squirrel Road were organized by the Temagami First Nation, which had made a land claim for those forests it says it never relinquished to the Crown in a treaty.

Elizabeth Potts lived out along the road with her family for several months in 1989.

"It was awesome, it was beautiful. We had good weather. My children were on the land, learning things," she remembers.

Potts was one of dozens of protesters who were arrested, but never jailed, for blocking the logging road. In the end, the courts rejected the community's land claim.

The proposed expansion of the Red Squirrel Road further into the forests north of Temagami prompted several blockades and protests in the late 1980s. (Erik White/CBC )

"Today I think some of the people feel it was all for nothing," she says.

"We didn't give up our Indigenous rights to this land. That's the land we were given and that comes from creator not from some government or someone who decided to draw a map."

Potts says if the protests ever started up again, she would once again put herself in the way of logging trucks.

"I'd do it again," she says. "We should be able to go out and make ourselves nice and loud again with more blockades."

The logging in the Temagami forests became a major political issue across Ontario, including this protest at Queen's Park in the late 1980s. (Ottertooth.com )

Some of the trucks trying to get through those protests belonged to Goulard Lumber.

The company was started by Marc Goulard's grandfather, who remembers in 1970s when they made the switch from floating logs down the Sturgeon River to a system of trucking roads through the northern Ontario bush, setting the stage for more conflict with environmentalists and tourist outfitters.

Goulard says the blockades were very hard on his workers and contractors his company hired, who would be held up by protesters chained to skidders or sitting in the middle of a road and ended up missing paycheques. 

"Some workers almost lost it. Really got upset. I'm surprised nobody got really hurt," he says.

Logs, some of which still come from the Temagami forest, sit in the yard of the Goulard sawmill in Sturgeon Falls. (Erik White/CBC )

One of the physical reminders from those days Goulard still deals with are the metal spikes protesters drove into pine trees. Loggers use metal detectors when cutting in that area to avoid a dangerous situation, but often leave trees behind.

Goulard says in the 1990s Ontario brought in an intricate forest management system that requires a scientific approach to logging, but feels many still see forestry as a simple matter of cutting down trees and turning them into something else.

"Most of the people that are not into logging think it's very simple, but it's very complex," he says.

Doug Adams owns Northland Paradise Lodge and fought to preserve the White Bear Forest very close to the town of Temagami. (Erik White/CBC)

Doug Adams, who runs Northland Paradise Lodge in Temagami, wasn't sad to see protesters pack up and leave calling them "a nuisance in the bush."

But he sees himself as occupying a rare middle ground between the loggers and environmentalists.

"Everybody hates you from both sides. It's just a steady fight all the time and there's no excuse for any of it," says Adams, who helped preserve a section of bush close to the town of Temagami that he named the White Bear forest.

"I want to see both sides use it in respect to the thoughts of the opinions of the other side. You can't just have it all your way."

Timiskaming First Nation is hopeful that it will see some of the economic benefits of logging the Temagami forest which currently "generate a lot of profit for a few companies." (Erik White/CBC )

As an Ontario Provincial Police officer in Temagami for 30 years, Wayne Adair was at most of the logging protests through the 1980s and 1990s.

He says most were "touchy" but peaceful, remembering a blockade of a cottage road by idle forest workers as one of the more tense situations he had to keep under control.

"There wasn't really a lot of violence, but it was touch and go," says Adair.

He went on to the mayor of Temagami and feels the uneasy compromise reached over the forests has left both sides unhappy and has kept the town from attracting new jobs for the last 20 years. 

"I don't think anyone's 100 per cent happy. Nobody agrees 100 per cent on how it turned out, but it did calm things down," Adair says.

"Right now, there's nothing here."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Erik White

journalist

Erik White is a CBC journalist based in Sudbury. He covers a wide range of stories about northern Ontario. Connect with him on Twitter @erikjwhite. Send story ideas to erik.white@cbc.ca

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