With the greatest of care, Tim Paul carved into an 800-year-old cedar on Port Alberni’s waterfront Wednesday to begin transforming the 40-tonne giant recovered from storm blow down into a towering totem.

“It’s alive and we treat it as such,” said Paul, a master carver from Port Alberni.

“It’s part of our family.”

The growing die-off of Western red cedars on East Vancouver Island is being felt by First Nations all over the coast.

“It hurts to see,” said Paul.

“You see their leaves or branches are turning real different colours,” said Nuu-Chah-Nulth Elder Harry Lucas.

“They’re dying.”

The western red cedar is a cornerstone species on the coast and a critical part of Indigenous culture.

Yet experts say climate change’s extreme heat and drought are making the rainforest these trees are native to no longer habitable for them.

“The temperature’s too high for too long,” said Patrick McIntosh, the Urban Forestry Coordinator for the City of Nanaimo on Tuesday.

“And the trees just aren’t coping well.”

So First Nations carvers from Port Alberni wonder what that holds for the future.

“Are we too late? To see some trees and especially that cedar begin dying,” said Paul.

“The Salal berry bushes are drying out. The whole forest floor just a tinder,” he said.

Tim Paul says this canary in the coal mine needs to be a wake-up call about climate change and for people to act now.

The Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations tells CHEK News, they are now replanting more tolerant species in groves where cedar are dying.

Skye Ryan