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
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 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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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!
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
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.
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.