Divide-and-conquer, old growth, and hereditary leadership: inside the Indigenous takes on the Fairy Creek blockades

Pacheedaht First Nation expresses disapproval for Fairy Creek blockades—while Elder Bill Jones continues to support them

By Kate Korte
April 24, 2021

Divide-and-conquer, old growth, and hereditary leadership: inside the Indigenous takes on the Fairy Creek blockades

Pacheedaht First Nation expresses disapproval for Fairy Creek blockades—while Elder Bill Jones continues to support them

By Kate Korte
Apr 24, 2021
Photo: Sergej Krivenko
Photo: Sergej Krivenko

Divide-and-conquer, old growth, and hereditary leadership: inside the Indigenous takes on the Fairy Creek blockades

Pacheedaht First Nation expresses disapproval for Fairy Creek blockades—while Elder Bill Jones continues to support them

By Kate Korte
April 24, 2021
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Divide-and-conquer, old growth, and hereditary leadership: inside the Indigenous takes on the Fairy Creek blockades

In August, environmental activists began planning to blockade an area of old-growth forest and watershed near Port Renfrew. For the next eight months, the blockade continued without ever gaining that consent from the band council. The Pacheedaht First Nation was silent on the issue until last week, when they published a statement asking the blockaders to leave.

The statement, signed by Frank Queesto Jones and Chief Jeff Jones, requests that the blockaders leave negotiations around logging to the nation. 

“All parties need to respect that it is up to the Pacheedaht people to determine how our forestry resources will be used,” the statement reads. 

This comes after an injunction was granted to the logging company Teal-Jones. The injunction was served at all camps on April 6, which has led to some fears of a repeat of the 1993 “War in the Woods” in Clayoquot Sound. But despite the risk of arrest and the band council letter, the blockaders are staying put. 

One of the main environmental groups behind the blockade, the Rainforest Flying Squad, released a statement saying that they respect the First Nations' right and title but have decided to go against the wishes of the band council. 

The duelling statements are raising fundamental questions that have surfaced elsewhere in recent years, most notably in the Wet’suwet’en blockade in northern BC: who speaks for First Nations, and who should be listened to by outsiders looking to develop or protect the land? 

Pacheedaht nation wants logging to continue

Pacheedaht Elder Bill Jones has supported the movement on the front lines. In his recent statement, he focuses on the ties between band councils and the provincial and federal government.

“Federally instituted Indian Band Nations are by design meant to obliterate relationships to land and families, consent and matriarchal decision-making, and international agreements between other Indigenous Peoples,” Bill Jones said. “Pacheedaht First Nation is no exception to this condition of colonialism.”

The Pacheedaht First Nation has a band council under the Indian Act with three members: Chief Jeff Jones, councillor Tracy Charlie, and councillor Roxy-Merl Jones. They are currently negotiating a treaty with BC together with the Ditidaht First Nation. 

The Pacheedaht signed a revenue-sharing agreement with the province of BC in 2017, to receive some revenues from logging that happens on their territories. The agreement prevents the Pacheedaht First Nation from speaking out against the logging activities or stalling them in any way. In the words of the agreement, they cannot “support or participate in any acts that frustrate, delay, stop or otherwise physically impede or interfere with provincially authorized forest activities.”

The Pacheedaht council expressed in their statement that they are “concerned about the recent polarization over forestry activities in [their] territory.”

Minister of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development Katrine Conroy said the BC government sees these concerns around polarization.

“The statement from the Pacheedaht Hereditary Chief and Chief Councillor last week asked for the space to work on their Integrated Resource Stewardship Plan,” Conroy said in an emailed statement. “Our government respects their need to do this work and we hope that others will also respect their wishes.”

The government says it did not have any role in writing the Pacheedaht statement.

The Pacheedaht First Nation council did not respond to a request for comment. 

The council has reaped the benefits of logging, including old-growth logging. According to an article published by Ha-Shilth-Sa, a newspaper published by the Nuu-Chah-Nulth Tribal Council, Pacheedaht harvests approximately 145,000 cubic metres a year through secure tenures and partnerships.  

“We just watched logging trucks go by out of our territory,” Chief Jeff Jones told Ha-Shilth-Sa. “Now we’ve got tenures in our traditional territory with revenue coming back.”

A mill owned by the nation mills about 10,000 cubic metres of old growth annually and employs 30 people. Revenues from logging have allowed the nation to relieve their debts and purchase a store, a campground with Parks Canada, a gas station, and a lodge for tourists.  

Hereditary chieftainship in dispute

The statement signed by Chief Jeff Jones and Frank Jones claims Frank is a hereditary chief. But Bill Jones, who is also a relative of Frank, alleges that Frank is falsely claiming hereditary chieftainship. Whose claim is correct could also determine who has the right to speak on the First Nation’s behalf.

A hereditary chief role is immensely important in Pacheedaht traditional governance. Traditionally, the hereditary chief was responsible for the resources of a territory and would enter into agreements with other adjoining nations or tribes about resources. The hereditary chief was akin to a speaker and not necessarily a decision maker. 

Pacheedaht means “Children of the Seafoam.” Before disease was brought in by settlers, the coastal nation was estimated to have 1,500 members; there are now approximately 290 Pacheedaht, including 100 Paachedaht that live on their territories.

In early contacts with settlers, the late Chief Charles Queesto Jones was the hereditary chief. He was born in 1876 and lived to be over 100. 

Frank and Bill Jones are both Chief Charles Queesto Jones’s grandsons, but that doesn’t mean they are both hereditary chiefs. The title of hereditary chief was traditionally passed on to one relative. For instance, Charles was given the title in 1921 by his eldest brother, the late Willy Jones. 

Bill says their traditional governance structure of hereditary chiefs has been disrupted by decades of colonial rule. He says his grandfather, Charles, received this title from his brother Willy. According to Bill, the late Willy Jones intended for the chieftainship to be transferred to his children, but that did not occur. The hereditary lineage remains contested to this day.   

“It’s been in limbo ever since,” Bill Jones said. “We are sort of embarrassed about that fact. Usually, in most places on the coast, everyone is aware of the hereditary hierarchy of the chieftainship. Actually, the Indian Act threw that into a great muddle because they squashed numerous villages into one.”

Claims to hereditary chieftainship have been long disputed, and according to Bill, used for political aims. 

“The elite political group used inheritance as a veil to dominate the politics of our reservations,” Bill said. 

He says that the recent statement represents a “divide-and-conquer strategy.” His niece, Kati George-Jim, responded to it further on Instagram Live.

“[Saying it’s about band politics is] an us versus them narrative,” George-Jim said. “It’s not so much about band politics being resolved, it’s about conditions of colonialism being addressed. This is by design, and to put family against family.”

Along with the deaths from the disease and residential schools, Bill says the Indian Act reservation system caused many Pacheedaht to lose sight of their ancestral teachings. 

The Pacheedaht had an intertribal protocol process whereby other First Nations would approach the hereditary chief and request to share their resources. But with the confusions around the hereditary chieftainship, the Pacheedaht have also lost this traditional practice. Bill maintains that no one is a recognized hereditary chief, and therefore no one has the authority to claim that title and unilaterally make decisions about the forestry resources on Pacheedaht lands. 

The BC government said it supports the Pacheedaht’s right to determine their own hereditary chieftainship. 

In their statement, the Rainforest Flying Squad echoed Bill’s points, adding that sustainable conservation models would offer the First Nation more long-term prosperity. 

“To properly respect First Nations Rights and Title and protect these irreplaceable ancient forests the BC government must come to the table to fund economic alternatives for First Nations with logging interests of at-risk old growth,” the statement reads. “If the BC government is serious about protecting old growth forests, then they need to put their money where their mouth is.”

Some settler-led organizations step forward, while others step back

From the outset, the blockades have faced criticism for not involving Indigenous voices enough. These criticisms brought out larger concerns about BC’s environmental movement, and how Indigenous sovereignty has often been treated as an afterthought. 

Saul Arbess, a media representative from the Rainforest Flying Squad, said the blockades are protecting old-growth forests in consort with Indigenous people in defence of their sovereignty. He says there are Indigenous people on the front lines and that they will stay their course. 

“Essentially, we are in a role of support to the Indigenous rights and titles held by the Pacheedaht,” Arbess said. 

When Arbess received the letter from the Pacheedaht band council, he considered it. Without action on old-growth protection, Arbess said the Rainforest Flying Squad found the letter difficult to accept. He says they’ve made efforts to work with the Pacheedaht council throughout the eight months of their blockades.

Torrance Coste, the national campaign director for the Wilderness Committee, said the Fairy Creek Blockades represent a broader discussion that needs to happen in the environmental movement around respecting Indigenous sovereignty. 

Ultimately, Coste says that the blockade should not continue unless it is Indigenous-led. 

“[Non-community members should] allow the nation the space to have this conversation and decide their vision for the fate of these forests on their own,” Coste said.

There are Pacheedaht people with various perspectives on logging and Coste says outside groups—including government, industry, and those involved in the blockades—should take a step back so the nation can make their own decisions.

Coste added that the government has revenue-sharing agreements with bands but has largely failed to act on old-growth protection or engage in nation-to-nation dialogue with Indigenous communities. He says conflicts like the one occurring right now on Pacheedaht territory are bound to continue in the future if the government does not change its approach.

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