The Haida Nation has always fought to protect their land.
The indigenous people mainly of Northern British Columbia are at the center of a heated court battle against the Northern Gateway pipeline, and have fought for decades to rein in harmful logging practices.
Nonetheless, a provincial judge has found three companies, including one run by two Haida leaders, guilty of 20 counts of destroying the land and key salmon and char habitats through logging activities carried out in 2010. Experts testified the devastation could take centuries to repair.
Arnie Bellis, director of Gwaii Wood Products Ltd. and a former vice-president of the Council of the Haida Nation, insists it wasn't supposed to be this way. "Who would want to set out to destroy some nice, pretty land?" he said in an interview.
In 2010, his company purchased 62.5 hectares of land located on Graham Island in the archipelago called Haida Gwaii — very close to conservation lands on the BC coast — and entered into a log sales agreement with Howe Sound Forest Products. The agreement allowed for the sale of logs as long as they were harvested according to "best practices" to "ensure the integrity and value of the land." Howe then contracted the harvesting to I. Crosby Contracting Ltd.
The contractor agreed to operate in such a way that prevented "any harmful substances" from being spilled into nearby bodies of water, in compliance with various environmental laws. According to court records, Gwaii received nearly $600,000, Howe Sound just over $1 million, and I. Crosby over $600,000 for the deal.
This all happened right around the time Haida leaders gained control over how the land can be harvested, as well as preserved.
But just three months after the work started, a local filed a complaint with an officer at Fisheries and Oceans Canada, also known as the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, about damage to Mallard Creek near the logging site. A federal investigation began later that day when a Fisheries and Oceans Canada officer came by the site and saw what happened to the fish habitat.
One of the investigators, fisheries biologist Renny Talbot, testified that the harvesting activities have removed and changed "important feeding and rearing" features of the fish habitat and "will take centuries to fully restore." But even then, he concluded, it might never go back to its original levels of production.
Al Cowan, a retired fisheries biologist who assisted the investigation, added that, before the companies started their work, the productivity for the fish in that area was overwhelming. "I called it a fish factory at one point," he testified. "That would have been a phenomenal area prior to logging. It kind of breaks by heart … I have never seen anything like this before."
Even though Gwaii did not carry out the logging project itself, and submitted a request to the court that it be exempt from the charges because of that, the judge ruled it was still responsible for the work of the other two companies.
The judge's decision says the court is "unable to discern what actions, if any, it [Gwaii] took to prevent or ameliorate the damage to fish habitat caused by the timber harvesting activities."
A spokesperson for Howe Sound declined to comment, and I. Crosby Contracting Ltd. did not immediately respond to an interview request.
"We're still living in the shadow of hardship," said Bellis, who added that the company hasn't done any other business since 2010. "We had a role in it because we looked online and we thought these fellas were credible companies with environmental standards. We did our homework — but that didn't work out obviously."
The sentencing hearing is scheduled for November.
For Joe Foy, national campaign director for the Wilderness Committee, a BC environmental advocacy group, the case signals an unfortunate blip on the Haida's land preservation record. In 2012, the Haida gained control over the region's main tree-farm license, which has been controlled by large forestry corporations for decades. And since then, harvesting rates have gone down by more than half.
But, he says since this case happened just before the Conservative government slashed the budget for the federal fisheries department, and severely cut its funding in 2012, it shows just how important it is that the federal government oversees forestry in the country, as well as any deals between First Nations and corporations.
"We would not have seen this case, this investigation, had the offenses occurred any later," Foy said in an interview. "We don't have a strong federal fisheries department on the ground monitoring these activities. That's crucial because there's going to be mistakes and this one sounds like a colossal one."
"I'm hoping that cases like this will allow our new government to bring federal fisheries department back to full strength," he added. "Because we sure need it."
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