Story by Emilee Gilpin
The Tla-o-qui-aht Nation in coastal British Columbia has always been a strong nation, governed by cultural values that protect and preserve their homeland.
Its people have a long history of innovation, trade and war — having survived colonization's ugliest attempts to eradicate Indigenous cultures, protected their sacred land and waters, and pushed back against extractive resource industries.
According to its members, this past is an essential ingredient in decisions the Tla-o-qui-aht make about their future. It has informed the community's current land-use plan, tribal parks program and clean energy projects — all of which are developing its economy to create a more sustainable future for generations to come.
History of cultural obedience and civil disobedience
For the Tla-o-qui-aht Nation, many of these modern efforts are made possible by a culture of resistance that is rooted, in part, by a tense period of time known as the 'War in the Woods.'
Alongside the 13 other Nuu-chah-nulth Nations, the Tla-o-qui-aht resisted forestry company MacMillan Bloedel Ltd. from logging a large portion of Meares Island — a stunning rainforest in the coastal B.C. area known as Clayoquot Sound, which they call home.
The community held a massive protest on Sept. 11, 1984 on the steps of the B.C. legislature in Victoria, calling for an end to destructive clear-cutting in their territory.
Soon afterward, the Tla-o-qui-aht and Ahousaht Nuu-chah-nulth First Nations went to court, declaring their Aboriginal ownership of the island. Before a judge, the Nuu-chah-nulth Nations articulated their relationship to the land they have occupied for more than 5,000 years, drawing on their hereditary chief (ha'wiih) and potlatch systems, rich culture, and traditional knowledge of their territories.
They declared Meares Island a tribal park — a declaration of the sacredness of its ecosystems, and the need to sustain them. But the fight to protect their territories was far from over.
More protests took place over the next decade, bringing the logging conflict to its peak in the summer of 1993, when the same company attempted to clear-cut another large portion of old-growth in Clayoquot Sound. It sparked what eventually became known as the 'Clayoquot Protests,' or the 'War in the Woods.'
The Tla-o-qui-aht and Ahousaht First Nations were joined by leaders of other First Nations, environmental groups, nearby residents and allies, in blocking logging trucks and access to the company's logging site across Kennedy Lake (Haa'ukmin) bridge. For five months, the protests to protect the temperate rainforest brought thousands of people together.
The forestry company obtained a court injunction to prohibit the resistance, and RCMP arrested more than 800 people — one of the largest mass arrests in Canadian history.
It was another stand in a long history of Indigenous communities governed by diverse worldviews and relationships to land and water pushing back against outside forces. The War in the Woods was formally over, but the community's mission to protect the territory continues.
New efforts to protect the environment, re-establish a sustainable economy and assert Tla-o-qui-aht governance cannot be separated from yesterday, its members believe, and it is inherently connected to tomorrow.
Nuu-chah-nulth loosely translates to "that line of mountains that runs along the coast," and the Nuu-chah-nulth people have lived on their coastal territories for thousands of years.
Nuu-chah-nulth oral history describes its people as wealthy rulers of their own land and economies. They traded fish and furs, and when foreign schooners sought shelter in their territory, would collect fees for the parking, and from other First Nations visitors who wanted to trade with the outsiders.
The history also tells stories of rebellion — children who rebelled in residential school, parents who fought to shut one down, and members who occupied Indian Affairs offices, among other forms of resistance.
The 13 Nuu-chah-nulth First Nations are divided by three regions — the Southern, Central and Northern regions, spread primarily across northern Vancouver Island. Tla-o-qui-aht people, who are master carvers, artists, singers, dancers and fishermen, occupy Meares Island, Long Beach, Sutton Pass, and the world-famous District of Tofino, which is widely recognized today as Canada's unofficial surfing capital.
Trouble with tourism
The land now known as Tofino is covered by hotels, resorts, shops and restaurants. Its tourism industry attracts a wide range of visitors, who sometimes hitchhike north up Highway 19 holding cardboard signs, as they seek to benefit from the beautiful territory that its original Indigenous owners preserved for generations.
Saya Masso, the nation's natural resources manager, doesn't hesitate to say that Tofino's tourism hasn't always benefitted his community. Excessive sewage has forced the closure of their clam beds, he explained, and airplanes can be an aggravating source of noise pollution.
"Over a million people can come here throughout the year," he said, sitting outside his home in the village of Opisaht, a short boat ride away from the main dock in Tofino, in an interview with National Observer.
"I could tolerate it if I knew they were paying a portion of their plane tickets to the nation — if I knew they were putting a roof on our gym, helping build a new basketball court or feast house, or if they were contributing money for language and cultural programs. But it's not happening."
Pushing for basic respect
As Tofino's tourism industry shows no signs of slowing, the Tla-o-qui-aht Nation pushes for recognition and respect, as it always has. Masso said the nation is currently negotiating an ecosystem service fee with the Tofino-Long Beach Chamber of Commerce — a conversation that has been ongoing since 2008.
Ecosystem service fees are paid by the beneficiary of a service to the party that preserves or maintains its ecosystem —in this case, the nation. The fee would encourage sustainable land-use practices, he explained, but it has not yet been implemented across the board.
"We would do good things with the money, staying local — not putting it in corporate hands or giving it to other countries," Masso said. "We need to use it to recover from forestry and restore habitat."
Investing in tribal parks
Ultimately, the service fee would be invested into the Tla-o-qui-aht Tribal Parks Program. Tribal parks are areas preserved for the sustainability of the ecosystems that support Indigenous or treaty rights, as defined by lawyer Jack Woodward. Woodword represented the Tla-o-qui-aht and Ahousaht First Nations in their 1984 court proceedings to protect Meares Island.
Many First Nations in B.C. have declared their own tribal parks, but it is up to each one to determine how it will exercise its rights within the territory.
After declaring Meares Island a tribal park in 1984, the Tla-o-qui-aht extended parks declarations to Ha'uukmin (Kennedy Lake) in 2008. On the 30th anniversary of 1984's historic events, they declared their whole territory a tribal park in 2013. Masso said that when the community's leadership asked the elders about their vision for the future at the time, they shared a story about the past; about how families would quarantine themselves during the illness epidemics and colonial disruption brought by settlers.
"They're saying they want to protect the land and waters so that if something happens, there's a place with clean water and salmon," he said. "To get there, we knew we needed to change forestry practices, reduce oil use and protect drinking water.
"We looked at areas we needed to leave alone and areas we needed to engage the province on tenure reform. That crystallized our vision for what a tribal park was."
Making pools for salmon
Last year, through the tribal parks program, the nation installed three pools to help coho salmon survive. The region's rivers may look beautiful to those with less of a relationship to them, but Masso said sediment from boulders knocked down by poor forestry practices has destroyed the habitat.
The tribal parks team removes boulders and builds pools for the fish to survive in dry summer heat.
"If we didn't truck all of those boulders out at hydro hill, for it to get back to fish habitat would take hundreds of years," he explained. "You can help the process — human-engineer it to get it back — like channels around damns or pools for resting areas for the salmon. We intervene and accelerate its recovery."
Tla-o-qui-aht tribal parks manager Terry Dorward said their tribal parks declaration and land-use plan stemmed from Tla-o-qui-aht elders who led the 1980s Clayoquot Sound roadblocks.
Hereditary chiefs are the original caretakers of the land
The declaration and land-use plan is grounded in traditional values and conservation systems with modern twists, he explained, looking across at Meares Island from Tofino — the island he and his relatives fought hard to protect.
"We work on behalf of Tla-o-qui-aht hereditary chiefs. Those are our bosses," Dorward said, speaking to how the hereditary chiefs consider themselves the caretakers and guardians — not owners — of the land.
"We base our conservation efforts on how we would traditionally care for our natural resources. We look at all aspects social, economic, spiritual, political. This is what we want in the whole region."
Tla-o-qui-aht's land-use plan articulates the tribal park's objectives, crystallizing what the nation wants to protect and what its visions are for the future. To write the land-use plan, the nation gathered terrestrial, forestry and marine experts, and consulted the community on cultural protocols, values, and visions for the land.
Everyone benefits from the land-use vision, Masso said, from the protected eel grass that brings in bears for bear-watching, to clean drinking water for all. The plan is not fully implemented, he added, but they're on the right path.
The Tla-o-qui-aht are the first Nation to claim such a high percentage of ownership in a hydro project in B.C.
The Nation owns 75 per cent of the Canoe Creek run-of-river hydro project, while Barkley Project Group, which manages renewable energy projects, owns the rest.
Run-of-river hydroelectricity is generated when water taken from a natural stream hits a turbine and activates a generator. The water is then returned back into the stream.
The Canoe Creek project, which became operational in 2010, was a financial risk for the Nation, but a show of good faith on behalf of leadership at the time, Masso said. Not every Nation can mortgage $15 million on a clean energy project, he explained, and the Nation was blessed to have a piece of property — a district lot in Tofino — returned to them through treaty negotiation processes.
"Nobody was going to give us money for the project, so we had to use that high value property to get this off the ground," he said.
Canoe Creek is a 6.0-megawatt hydropower facility that produces enough electricity to supply annual energy to 2,000 homes. And despite the risk undertaken during the project's construction, the clean energy plant now pays for itself.
Brendan Tom, Canoe Creek's operations manager, said when it comes to monitoring the facility, there's no 'average' day.
"We up-keep the roads, access points, control the security gates, make sure we don't have any oil spills or leaks in the generating systems and that they're all closed-contained," he said. "These facilities are a great economic engine for the Nation. They help out with our long-term goals for community building."
Could Kinder Morgan come in handy?
Tom said to build the project, they used pipes from other failed or outdated pipeline projects. As Kinder Morgan's controversial Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project roars in the Nation's periphery, Tom said if it fails to be completed, the leftover pipes could be used for clean energy projects.
Canoe Creek takes water from 1.8 kilometres up the road, always upstream from fish-bearing habitat, and runs it down the pipe (called a penstock). It hits a large pelton wheel, activating the drive shaft, magnets and copper coils, and generates electricity that matches BC Hydro's electric grid. Once the two frequencies match, the Canoe Creek generator closes its breaker and connects to the electricity grid.
Working toward seven clean hydro plants
Canoe Creek was a precedent-setting project for the Nation, and a second project with the Barkley group, Haa-ak-suuk Creek Hydro, became operational in 2014.
After learning the tricks of the trade, the Nation constructed a third project, a 4.5-MW run-of-river facility, "Winchie," which it claims full ownership of. It will turn the key on the Winchie Creek project after a ribbon-cutting ceremony in June.
These three projects set the tone for four more that the Nation has in the works.
Clean energy projects are economic drivers for the nation, giving its members independence as they push for reconciliation beyond rhetoric in other relationships.
Masso calls the clean energy projects "jumpers."
It means they drive the local economy, give the nation more independence, and foster relationships with different levels of government, he told National Observer. When it comes to reconciliation, he explained, there is no time to waste.
"We have forestry to recover, hatcheries to relocate and operate, connections to hook up buildings to," he said. "If our forests are fine and rivers vibrant, and our hatchery program is running, I could rest easier.
"But what we also have to work on is this relationship with the Chamber."
Masso said the Tla-o-qui-aht bear the burden of growing tourism and industrial development on their traditional territory. He meets regularly with representatives of the Tofino-Long Beach Chamber of Commerce to work toward creating a hotel tax and an ecosystem service fee, which would be paid to the Nation by visitors to Tofino who benefit from the work of the Tribal Parks Program.
Kings, not castaways
Some groups, like West Coast Wild Zipline, have voluntarily partnered with the nation. Each person that uses its zipline pays an ecosystem service fee to the Tla-o-qui-aht's Tribal Parks Program. The long-term business plan is for the Tla-o-qui-aht to fully own and operate the zipline service, Masso explained.
The Tofino Resort Marina agreed to resolve a Moorage Fee to be paid to the Tribal Park restoration projects and program, Masso said. Harbour Air, in addition, has agreed to pay a landing fee of $5 per person for a new dock being installed at the Tofino Resort Marina.
Tofino's tourism industry at large however, which is expected to grow and expand, needs to come to the table as well, he said: "We should be kings in here, not cast-away citizens."
If the Chamber of Commerce, District of Tofino and every tourist hotel and service agreed to support the Tla-o-qui-aht Tribal Parks Program as their own form of reconciliation, Masso said the nation would be more than willing to show exactly how every dollar is spent.
"We'll show exactly how the money went into the hatcheries, or to our rivers and salmon that we will all benefit from," he said. "We'll show exactly what is done."
Before colonial control, the Nuu-chah-nulth in Tla-o-qui-aht territory benefitted greatly from the wealth of their culture and inherent relationship to land and water.
The nation is currently negotiating with all levels of government to establish a reconciliation framework agreement, he said. Other First Nations are pushing for such agreements as well, which help assert rights and title outside of the Supreme Court of Canada. Framework agreements are dealt with on a nation-to-nation basis, as each community has different history, experiences and developments to deal with, said Masso.
The Tla-o-qui-aht Nation could do what the Tsilhqot’in did, he added, winning a Supreme Court case to formally recognize their Aboriginal title to their land under Section 35 of the Constitution Act. But that route would require a lot of time, energy and resources — 20 years' worth, in case of the Tsilhqot’in.
'We should still be rich'
"We were rich and well-off," Masso said. "We traded, we had businesses, we were a powerful nation. We should still be rich from the benefits happening now, from the land we worked and continue to work to preserve, and it's wrong that we're not."
As he drives along the highway through his territory, he passes the nation's hydro connection lines — a sight that makes him proud. Further down the road, Masso sees Marion Creek, an old run-of-river plant built and operated by a third party that did not have a formal impact benefit agreement signed with the band before proceeding.
It was built at a time when such agreements weren't required, and the nation felt that outsiders benefitted from their conservation efforts and watersheds.
But Masso said he's filled with hope when he drives past the zipline — hope for the possibility of a better future and stronger relationships in the spirit of making things right again. He sees Canoe Creek and thinks of the water returning to the river, unharmed and unconditionally generous.
He sees the place for the third run-of-river facility on the way, and thinks of the four others in the works. He thinks of his kids, who will inherit this land, legacy and this work, he said.
"There's a lot of history for my people here," Masso said, surveying the "feast bowl" territory his people have known, protected and safely used for countless generations. "We stayed here when they wanted us gone, and we're not going anywhere."