The elephant in the room: arguing differences of opinion

A letter to the editor from Peter Christensen of Radium Hot Springs

Over thirty years ago and in response to the “war in the woods” on the coast in which the Haida Nation and other concerned citizens were reacting to rapacious logging practices, the B.C. government initiated a province-wide Land Use Planning Process that would take nearly twenty years to complete. The objective was to provide “certainty on the land base” for investors, citizens and licensees.

B.C. had reached a point in its history where the lay of the land was well known, many of its riches were laid bare, and some flooded.  Numerous interests and stakeholders had been issued overlapping rights and licences on the 94 per cent of the province’s land base, which was “owned” by the Crown and managed by an ever-growing BC Public Service, made up of the some 40,000 bureaucrats, in collusion with big union partners and big business stakeholders (see Forestopia by M’Gonigle and Parfait, Harbour Publishing).

The thinking was to rent out the land base to as many interests as possible.

As time went on, not surprisingly, user conflict grew and, as well, the patient First Nations were out of patience. A made-in-Canada constitution “brought home” in 1982 had set in motion an examination of past Indian Affairs practices and diligent First Nations leaders were exploring Section 33 of the Canadian Constitution that guaranteed aboriginal rights and title. The quest for a post-colonial vision for Canada was on.

As it is turning out in British Columbia, much of the lands on which the colonial bureaucracy, unions, and rich stakeholders were feeding actually belongs to the First Nations.

Few treaties had been negotiated with B.C. First Nations and provincial bureaucrats were knowingly in denial with regards to what constituted aboriginal rights and title — they smugly stated that First Nations were a federal problem. An unsuspecting public was to find out differently.  Again and again, the courts ruled in favour of First Nations land claims, forcing the preservationist Government of British Columbia and their bureaucrats to recognize, compensate, reconcile and partner.

What a mess!

To add to this disarray, American-style activism reared its ugly head, usually led by expats who had moved north laden with romantic dreams that anything north of the 49th was an “Alaskan” wilderness full of unsophisticated Canadians in need of their leadership.

These social activists identified some greater evils threatening “their” wilderness, ponied up an American-style ideological war, and occupied citizen groups like the fledgling East Kootenay Environmental Society. EKES was started by a few well-meaning folks who tendered what were, at that time, relatively new ideas like recycling, better landfill practices and higher standards for sewage treatment.

The activists, however, with their dreams of becoming “saviours” of the new wilderness they had “discovered”, politicized these organizations, driving many original members away with their readiness to perpetrate personal attacks and pursue ideological agendas.

I think people thought that if they just quit the organization, maybe after a while these activists would just go away. But they didn’t go away. The East Kootenay Environmental Society, now occupied by ideologues, was selected for a seat at the land use planning roundtable and then proceeded to turn what was a fairly civilized discussion into a platform for an ideological campaign complete with grandstanding speeches, flag waving, enemies and polarization.

Ideologues need organizations, heroes, sacred ground and causes to sustain themselves. This was provided by the foundation work and vision for a Purcell Wilderness Conservancy that was laid out by three local students who, aided by an Opportunities for Youth Grant in pursuing a recreation management course at Selkirk College, and by the concerns already being  raised by the local guide outfitting community at Land and Resource Management  Plan meetings, reopened the Earl Grey Trail.

Since those early days, quite a few persons have since stepped up to take credit for sowing the seeds that led to the establishment of the Purcell Wilderness Conservancy. But it was the visionary students who first understood that the future for conservation lay in wilderness tourism. The guide outfitters understood that a conservation strategy for the Purcells was necessary or road building would put them out of business.

It is my opinion that the confrontational style of personality attacks and polarization tactics adopted by some during the land use planning processes has led to distrust, entrenchment, disappointment and hard feelings regarding proposals and future management co-operation.

What the activists failed to grasp and respect was that Canada, for all its shortcomings, was not created out of the fires of a revolution with heroic individualists leading charges, waving flags and demonizing all those with whom they disagreed.

Canada was created through agreement. A confederation, Canada remains a constitutional monarchy with a tradition of proposed ideas that are discussed and debated. Evidence is presented, the rule of law is applied, and a consensus derived. An elected body or its designates make decisions that takes into consideration that there is disagreement, but does make a decision for what it believes to be the greater good of the society — it then being self-evident that participants in the process abide and respect the decision.

In thinking back to the time of the land use table discussions when, as a technical writer, I was contracted to create an unbiased narrative that represented the various sector viewpoints, it seemed to me at the time that many people were shocked, intimidated and concerned by the campaign style tactics of the activists who were now at the table. In the end, people were just too darn polite to point out to them that this was not the way discussions took place in Canada.

It needs to be said that many immigrants from the United States and others did not subscribe to the use of social revolutionary tactics and have rather presented their arguments analytically or through good science to bear directly on complex and difficult issues. With these folks, I have no quarrel. I respect their right to an opinion that may not be the same as mine and, because we are in this together, respect the contribution they make to decision-making. In return, I want to be able to present a point of view on issues without being demonized.

One may not agree with every decision — you win some, you lose some. But, in the spirit of compromise and good faith that most of the time the right thing is being done, we Canadians go along with decisions that have gone through an open process or, if we cannot abide by the decision, then proceed through the courts or tackle the issues directly.

Ours is not a perfect system — none are — but we generally work our way through difficult issues despite the cynicism of some. Not every decision turns out to be the best one in the long term, but many are, so we move forward as a community rather than becoming enemies. Because we are not enemies and have not resorted to tactics, we listen to each other with consideration and can adopt good ideas.

There are those who wish to replace this decision-making process and custom with revolution and anarchy or a system where whoever can run the best defamation campaign will get their way. Not me.

The First Nations of B.C. have utilized demonstrations from time to time to draw attention to their concerns. However, they have successfully proceeded with their arguments through the courts. They have made their arguments and won. Rule of law has been applied and the reasons for decisions are online for anyone to read and understand.

Even though the B.C. government public service has dragged its feet and sidestepped court-ordered recognition, reconciliation and accommodation, many First Nations leaders have shown great patience, forbearance and statesmanship. As they say, “we are not going anywhere.” I admire them greatly. There are good people working to make our environment green and sustainable, but there have been those who have relied on slander and polarization to incite hatred in aid of their opinion. These people have undermined the credibility of the environmental sector, a loss to us all.


Peter Christensen has a home near Radium and lived in the Columbia Valley for 40 years. He worked as a Technical and Creative Writer, Wilderness Guide, Park Ranger with 10 years in the Purcell Conservancy, in Skeena Region as North Coast Sr. Ranger and, as Aboriginal Relations Program Specialist BC Parks. More recently for Haida Fisheries  in Marine Use Planning.



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