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Clayoquot Was Defining Protest of Our Time
Biosphere reserve status gives no protection

In the summer of 1993, thousands of people gathered in Clayoquot Sound to protect the area’s ancient temperate rainforest, in what would become one of the defining environmental protests of our time.

"The percentages were astounding," Common Ground reported at the time. "Forty five percent of the sound is scheduled for clear-cut logging, 17 percent for ‘special logging,’ with 33 percentremaining as protected areas. MacMillan Bloedel and Interfor were given more than they had actually asked for."

In the flats below the giant clear-cut known as The Black Hole, the protestors/protectors set up hundreds of tents and shanties. The camp was only 20 minutes from Kennedy River bridge, primary site of the later arrests by RCMP.

Among those protesting were two children, 11 and 12, who persuaded their father to take them with him to be arrested and two grandmothers who spent an evening in the drunk tank after police removed them from the bridge in leg shackles. An Anglican priest, halfway to Alberta when he heard of the protests on the radio, turned his car around, showing up in time to be handcuffed along with dozens of others including an Anglican bishop who arrived to support him.

The protestors’ massive act of civil disobedience, accomplished by road blockades, resulted in the largest mass arrest in Canadian history; and incredibly, the largest mass trial in British common law. More than 900 people, from students, artists and business people to religious clerics, parents and grandparents, were jailed for, in Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s words, "asserting public ownership over resources which, under Canadian law, are owned by all Canadians, but, in historical practice, were treated as the personal fiefdoms of a few giant timber companies."

Kennedy points out that the Clayoquot protesters weren’t just engaged in self-aggrandized acting-up, in contravention to the democratic process. "Since neither Canadian nor provincial law gives Canadian citizens the authority to stop the trees from falling either judicially or through formal avenues of access to government decision-makers, the protectors used the only democratic tool available: civil disobedience."

Civil disobedience is the personal recognition that one is obligated by a higher, extra-legal principle to break some particular law. It’s a spiritual cousin to pacifism, the refusal to act as a proxy of the state in taking a human life.

With the band Midnight Oil arriving to perform at Clayoquot, the protestors had already won global mindshare on the issue of old-growth logging. Back in the corporate aeries of Vancouver, even the most unsympathetic executive had sensed a shift in the wind; the world was not with the forestry industry on this one. A trial would not alter the perception that British Columbia was hell-bent on clear-cutting its ancient rainforests.

The attempt by the corporate media to paint the Clayoquot controversy as a Manichean struggle between hard-working woodworkers and professional protestors did not succeed in deconstructing the planetary concern around the old-growth forests -- not when the woodworkers were the expendable employees of multinationals, whose business practices often default to sucking resources dry and exporting profits away from local communities. Merv Wilkinson, one of the elderly protestors at Clayoquot, said at the trial, "I am the operator of a forestry (business) that has harvested timber for 45 years off the same land and still has the forest Now, at 80, I simply must defend what is left of my country from the multinationals of vandalism."

The blockades and the following market-based campaigns against purchasing product made from old-growth wood from BC, had significant impacts on industrial logging practices. In 2000, Clayoquot Sound was designated a UN biosphere reserve. The UN designation added weight to protestors’ arguments for preservation but conferred no protection.

Partial success in protecting the region is an instructive and heartening example of people power at its finest. But ultimately, what energized these individual acts of human will, streams of determination building into a river of defiance, was Clayoquot itself, with its primordial forest of giant cedar, hemlock and Sitka spruce sheltering the hunting grounds of bear, wolf and cougar, where bald eagles and great rookeries of sea lions congregate for the herring run.

Wild places like Clayoquot owe nothing to the human world, but we are nothing without them. This goes beyond the simple truth that such areas are the material bedrock for our planetary existence. They are also birthplace to the mythic imagination and the sense of the sacred. They are vital not just in their own right, as protected sanctuaries in our diminishing natural world, but as places for us all to reconnect, and momentarily drown our parochial worries and day-to-day concerns in the ground of being. They are part of a world that predates us by billions of years and we continue to struggle to protect this world from ourselves.

The Clayoquot protestors have bravely laid out a path in the woods that later generations may choose one day to follow.

Today’s Testimony From Clayoquot Protesting

Vivian Chenard
The code of nonviolence in effect at the Peace Camp was central to the profound and transformative impact of the Clayoquot summer. We were given a glimpse of the power of being willing to suffer, but never to inflict suffering, in defence of the truth.

Dan Lewis
We expected a bad land-use decision for Clayoquot Sound in 1993, but not nearly as bad as we got. People were shocked and outraged. Ordinary Canadians had been following the movement to save Clayoquot for years, seeing images of giant ancient cedars, and watching dignified, peaceful people getting arrested in order to save them. People showed up in droves to join the Peace Camp in 1993, thereby making Canadian history.

Valerie Langer
Clayoquot Sound was a movement builder as well as an awe inspiring place. It changed the political landscape. Clayoquot is where we figured out how to think and act both locally and globally. It’s successes hang precariously, but I hold tremendous hope for its potential.

Tzeporah Berman
The reverberations of the struggle to protect Clayoquot Sound have been felt around the world as the plight of our rainforests has highlighted the fact that a meagre 22 percent of the Earth’s original forests remain. Canada is home to some of the largest areas of forest left on the planet and I hope that in the next decade we can create a framework for protection and conservation based economies for all of Canada’s forests that will serve as a model for other regions of the world.

Bonny Glambeck
In 1988 we were blockading illegal road-building in Sulphur Pass. Our fantasy was to have the band Midnight Oil on the road, thereby stopping the destruction. We worked hard between 1988 and 1993 to build the Clayoquot Sound movement. And in 1993 Midnight Oil came and played the Black Hole. Thousands of people swarmed the road and stopped the logging for a whole day, without even getting arrested!

Gregory Hartnell
Why would I not heed my conscience after having found it to be such a liberating experinece? I highly recommend it to anyone, especially Christians on their spiritual pilgrimages and to those recovering from addictions

Marlene Cummings
I don’t think that any of us standing on the road in 1993 could have foreseen the tremendous impact that has unfolded as a direct result of public protest. This was truly a profound example of the power of people with the collective vision of a new global paradigm -- one that values healthy ecosystems and communities, over financial profit alone, acting locally to induce change in forestry policy and practices on a global scale. The unprecedented protest of Clayoquot Sound in 1993 is in my view, a good beginning, down what continues to be a long and arduous road to preserving this still unprotected world-class treasure.

Terry L. Brown
Clayoquot is a phy-sical place which embodies the conflict between differing human beliefs: whether Earth is a storehouse of raw resources to be utilized primarily for human material benefit, or a community of living beings and processes interweaving in a functional yet wondrous way. May the Clayoquot Consciousness grow, changing a commodity paradigm into one of community!"

Geoff Olson is a Vancouver writer and political cartoonist.


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