Four First Nations are hailing a landmark agreement with a logging company that will increase their role in forestry operations on northern Vancouver Island.
The Tlowitsis, We Wai Kai, Wei Wai Kum and K’omoks First Nations and Western Forest Products (WFP) announced Tuesday they’ve crafted a deal with the First Nations paying close to $36 million for a 34 per cent interest in the company’s mid-island forestry operations, part of WFP’s wider Tree Farm Licence (TFL) 39.
The new partnership involves 157,000 hectares of forest – or Block 2 of TFL 39 – within the First Nations’ territories on northeastern Vancouver Island near Campbell River and Sayward.
The deal – which allows the logging of 904,540 cubic metres of timber annually and includes a long-term agreement guaranteeing timber supply for WFP’s coastal manufacturing operations – will likely be finalized in early 2024.
The agreement is a significant step forward for First Nations historically excluded from the forestry sector and any economic benefits despite stewarding healthy, abundant forests for millennia before colonization, said Dallas Smith, president of Nanwakolas Council, which helped conclude the agreement along with its four member nations.
The deal comes after decades of work by the member nations looking to achieve sustainable management of forests in their territories, Smith said, noting the long process involved five premiers and approximately 11 different WFP chief executive officers.
“Any journey takes time when you bring in other partners. It takes patience. It takes collaboration, it takes relationship-building,” Smith said.
“I applaud the First Nations for taking this step. I acknowledge Western for stepping up into the partnership and thank B.C. for helping make this happen.”
The agreement will transfer forestry tenure into First Nations’ hands and ensure they help devise land use plans that are sustainable for future generations, Smith said.
The First Nations’ decision-making around land use to ensure forestry is sustainable will build on previous projects, such as the cultural cedar protocol that protects monumental trees to create totem poles, traditional big houses or canoes. Forestry operations will be monitored by a growing team of Indigenous Guardians, he said.
However, moments of conflicts helped spur change and sped up the negotiation process, Smith said, citing Wei Wai Kum Chief Chris Roberts’ courage and refusal to back the renewal of forestry operations in the nation’s territory until its interests and concerns were addressed.
“Sometimes these relationships take some friction to push them over the line,” Smith said.
Concerns around the wealth of resources being drained from traditional territories with no benefits and decision-making power for First Nations had been raised repeatedly over generations, Roberts said in a statement.
“We took a stand four years ago that this must stop,” Roberts said.
“We could not support the replacement of forest licences in our territory that don’t have commitments to address our concerns.”
After “at least two years in the trenches,” a shared commitment to achieve sustainable management of the land base resulted in the agreement, Roberts said at the press conference.
“We feel encouraged that our territory and our lands and resources are being managed in the way they were intended to be by our Creator.”
In addition to generating economic benefits for the First Nations, forestry revenue tied to the agreement will continue to drive the region’s economy and create predictability for Western’s forestry operations and more employment for contractors and workers in the sector, he said.
Both Roberts and Smith praised the B.C. government for its commitment to reconciliation, saying the provincial incremental treaty process, legally enshrining the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), and former premier John Horgan’s promise to increase First Nations’ role in the forestry sector helped seal the agreement.
Historically, the forestry sector has been characterized by conflict, racism, court battles and short-term transactional relationships, Premier David Eby said.
But partnering to boost First Nations as stewards of their territories will drive stronger communities and greater economic development on northern Vancouver Island where forestry is the lifeblood of the region, Eby said.
“This announcement today means that these benefits are on the way for communities in northern Vancouver Island now, rising the tide so that all boats are lifted.”
Steven Hofer, WFP president and CEO, said the deal is a template for sustainable, successful forestry operations that will share economic benefits.
“We’ve worked together to pioneer a new model of shared business ownership in a way that we believe is unique, not just in our sector, but among established companies all across Canada,” Hofer said.
Reconciliation, adhering to UNDRIP and shifting operations to a stewardship model is the future framework for forestry operations, he said.
“We recognize that our future lies not only in the products that we make, but the relationships that we build,” Hofer said.
The agreement is the second partnership Western has crafted with First Nations.
The first was a 2020 deal that saw the Huu-ay-aht First Nation purchase controlling interest in TFL 44 on western Vancouver Island in the Port Alberni region.
More agreements are expected as Western continues to engage with other First Nations with TFLs in their territories to foster reconciliation and ensure clarity in the sector and continued access to timber and supply for its operations, Hofer said.
“From our perspective, this is the path forward of how our industry needs to operate here in British Columbia,” said Hofer.
“When we think about our business and the traditional territories that we operate on there is no other option.”
Rochelle Baker / Local Journalism Initiative / Canada’s National Observer