Pacheedaht First Nation chiefs in Canada tell anti-logging protesters to leave their lands

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Two chiefs of a First Nation in western Canada have told anti-old growth logging protesters camped out on their traditional lands to pack up and go home.

Operating under the banner of the Rainforest Flying Squad, a group of predominantly non-Indigenous activists have been blocking logging roads across a swath of southern Vancouver Island and calling for an immediate halt to old-growth logging since last August.

But in a letter released Monday, the Pacheedaht hereditary chief Frank Queesto Jones and chief councillor Jeff Jones say the nation has grown worried about the “increasing polarization” over forestry activities and the anti-old growth logging movement.

“We do not welcome or support unsolicited involvement or interference by others in our Territory, including third-party activism, ” the letter says. “Pacheedaht needs to be left in peace to engage in our community-lead stewardship planning process so that we can determine our own way forward as a strong and independent Nation.”

Tensions in the territory have been rising since a court injunction was granted 1 April authorizing police to remove the blockaders and setting the stage for a showdown similar to 1993’s so-called “war in the woods”, when 900 people were arrested for blocking logging roads in nearby Clayoquot Sound. Despite the injunction, the protesters refused to leave, and instead began digging in and strengthening their blockades.

So far the Royal Canadian Mounted Police have made no move to enforce the injunction. A police spokesperson, Cpl Chris Manseau, said that while the force is “monitoring the situation from the ground and air” it is “also focused on facilitating dialogue between all parties”.

The logging company Teal Jones Group holds harvesting licenses to the area and says that cutting in the region is critical to support jobs locally and at its mill site in Surrey, British Columbia.

The Pacheedaht chiefs’ letter could become a critical blow to the Rainforest Flying Squad movement, which has struggled with the question of Indigenous consent since it began more than eight months ago.

When the first dozen activists set up a camp last summer to stop Teal Jones building roads into the headwaters of the Fairy Creek watershed, which sits within the Pacheedaht’s traditional territory, they did so without the explicit consent of the First Nation.

Since that first blockade, Bill Jones, a Pacheedaht elder, has become an outspoken ally of the movement and guiding voice for its supporters.

On Tuesday, Bill Jones released his own letter in response, alleging that Frank Jones was not a true hereditary chief and did not represent the will of the nation.

“Frank Jones claiming himself as a heredity chief is false,” Bill Jones said. “He is not eligible to make the claim for the Jones family line, and is not informed by the hereditary system amongst our peoples.

“I will continue standing for the land until I am dead,” Bill Jones said. “I implore people to continue to stand with me to protect our forests from destruction and colonialism because we need allies on the ground to stop old-growth logging.”

In a statement, the Rainforest Flying Squad said they had been “invited guests” of Bill Jones since August, adding that they would “continue to stand with Elder Bill Jones and maintain the blockades on his behalf to preserve these irreplaceable forests”. The group called on the British Columbia government to find “an immediate solution that both protects these forests … and also provides economic justice for the Pacheedaht as well as all other similarly affected First Nations communities.”

The Pacheedaht chiefs’ letter says that the First Nation is in the process of creating its own resource stewardship plan that “will be developed by our community” and be led by hereditary and elected leaders.

“Pacheedaht has always harvested and managed our forestry resources, including old-growth cedar, for cultural, ceremonial, domestic and economic purposes,” the letter says.

The plan will include identifying traditional-use areas and places where conservation measures will be in place. The First Nation has obtained commitments from logging companies and the government of British Columbia “to suspend and defer third-party forestry activities within specific areas identified by Pacheedaht”, the letter said.

Neither the chiefs nor officials from Teal Jones Group immediately responded to the Guardian’s requests for comment.

The British Columbia forests minister, Katrine Conroy, said in a statement that she understood and respected the Pacheedaht’s concerns.

“We support the Pacheedaht’s desire to take a greater management and stewardship role in their territory,” Conroy’s statement said. “This is at the core of why we believe that government-to-government engagement is crucial to our plans for a new old-growth strategy,” she said.

The government would continue working with the Pacheedaht on the creation of their resource stewardship plan and “in the meantime, I hope the Fairy Creek protesters respect the Pacheedaht’s request” to leave the territory, Conroy’s statement said.

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