Not too little. Not too late.

Confrontation and conflict in the last forty years of Canadian environmentalism.
(Published in the Earth Day issue of Resistance Magazine, 2010)

“It is to this new-found resolution to reassert our indivisibility with life, to recognize the obligations incumbent upon us as the most powerful and deadly species ever to exist, and to begin making amends for the havoc we have wrought, that my own hopes for a revival and continuance of life on earth now turn. If we persevere in this new way we may succeed in making man humane … at last.” Farley Mowat, from Sea of Slaughter (1984)


In 1988 I traveled into the eye of a massive clearcut for the first time in my life, beyond the beauty strip and up a rough logging road an hour from the highway. The destination was the Carmanah Valley and I was bounced along in the back of my friend John’s Land Rover with a group of high school friends determined to participate in the movement to save the valley from the logging industry destroying Vancouver Island’s old growth. Even though I grew up on a loggers’ island in a province dominated by the forestry economy, I had never seen anything so devastating before: the slash burns right up to the edge of the road, the choking dust filling the creeks with silt and turning them thick brown, the tallest trees I could imagine jumbled together as “waste” wood because they weren’t straight enough to bother hauling out of the forest once they were felled. Here and there, chewed up greenery poked through, fireweed had begun its long process of repairing the soil, but I remember distinctly the fear that pricked along my skin as I took in that scene: it already seemed too late to change anything so what were we doing there?

Fortunately we were doing there what thousands of people would over the next handful of years, spending time in the luscious uncut parts of the valley in order to take back that experience to the front lines of protest with the vigor we would need. Fortunately I came to this at a time when the environmental movement was in tremendous upswing in Canada and it *mattered* what high school kids thought about the devastation as we joined the demonstrations and blockades to save forests, rivers, and wildlife in BC and the rest of Canada in the decade following.


In British Columbia, it’s customary to believe that modern environmental activism begins and ends with Greenpeace. Whether talking Canada or the rest of the world, GP and its offshoots are still carrying out highly visible actions and fundraising millions of dollars per year from supporters, and they’ve been kicking around for a very long time. But with that success Greenpeace and its supporters have had a tendency to write their story to the exclusion of organizations that came before and afterwards. Before Greenpeace, the stage was being set for them by other Canadian individuals and groups who realized by the late 1960s that the Canadian economic reliance on resource extraction wasn’t sustainable and that the environment mattered as much as stopping the bomb or securing womens’ liberation. Whatever sparked it? Toronto historian Ryan O’Connor traces this growing awareness back to a 2-part CBC documentary that aired in 1968 titled The Air of Death. This exposé took issue with the deadly impacts of air pollution in industrial Ontario. Highly controversial, The Air of Death alarmed Canadians with graphic accounts of animal birth defects, evidence of poisoned food supply and human health problems which could be traced back to the phosphate industry.

Not long afterwards the Canadian environmental movement took off with the formation of Pollution Probe (Toronto, 1968), Society for Pollution and Environmental Control (Vancouver, 1969) and Ecology Action (Halifax, 1970) – the first three grassroots organizations in Canada. From there sprung hundreds of groups dedicated to environmental protection including Greenpeace, which grew out of the nuclear disarmament committee “Don’t Make a Wave”. The initial eco-organizations of the seventies were activist in nature and informed by the radicalism of the sixties, bringing people out into the streets in opposition to the pressing problems of the day: air and water pollution, arms testing, and a call for greater government oversight of Canadian industry.

Greenpeace didn’t officially incorporate under that name until 1972, but traces its history back to a 1971 confrontation at Amchitka, Alaska where the US government was testing nuclear devices by detonating them offshore. Influenced by the pacifism of the Quakers, but not satisfied to simply “bear witness” to the testing, these folks intended to get in the way of the tests by parking their boat (christened the Green Peace for the voyage) under the nose of the test missile before it could be launched. Although testing was delayed by the US government, thus derailing the confrontation sought by the small activist crew running out of money and patience, Amchitka was the action that brought on the transition of “Don’t Make a Wave” into the new organization Greepeace.

In 1972 David McTaggart captained another boat of activists to Moruroa, the Pacific atoll where the French government was engaged in nuclear testing. This voyage was somewhat more successful, not because they stopped to the bomb from being tested but because their gutsy action drew worldwide attention to the issue of France’s nuclear testing program. Moruroa became an ongoing campaign of Greenpeace and other organizations although it took until 1996 before the testing program was finally shut down.

From that point, Greenpeace was an energetic force in the environmental movement and moved onto additional campaigns in the 1970s – in tandem with other groups – against commercial whaling and sealing and toxic waste. In 1977 Paul Watson was ejected from Greenpeace over an internal schism between pacifism and increased direct action. This lead to Watson founding Sea Shepherd (originally called Earth Force) to take more aggressive action against destructive marine industries (fishing, whaling, sealing). Sea Shepherd to this day engages in such activities as scuttling ships, cutting nets and direct confrontations with seal hunters on the ice.

While all this was very dramatic and garnered a lot of international press attention on the high seas, the environmental movement in Canada continued to gather new supporters and new resistance as those most impacted by ecological devastation – First Nations – began organizing against the destruction of their traditional territories, hunting and fishing grounds. Although indigenous resistance to land theft and ruin stretches back to the original colonial contact, the first half of the century saw a native population that was disempowered and marginalized to a degree that made them almost invisible in Canadian society. However, as in the US, the sixties saw the rise of a Red Power movement that drew inspiration from national liberation struggles and domestic protest in a new assertion of indigenous rights.

Starting in 1971, when the Quebec government announced the James Bay Hydroelectric project which mapped the construction of many dams and the destruction of thousands of acres of traditional hunting and fishing grounds, the James Bay Cree mobilized to protest the project, setting the path of what would become a decades long struggle that continues to the present day. In 1976 members of the White Dog reserve in Ontario blockaded a road though their reserve to bring attention to the government’s continued lack of attention to the mercury poisoning by Reed Paper company of the English-Wabigoon river system. (The Ontario government finally met the demands for environmental remediation aid in 1986.) These early struggles were followed in the eighties by a series of protests that garnered national attention to the plight of native people living on reservations and held hostage by the corporations who had been granted permission to blight the land around them.

One could argue that First Nations in Canada from this point on have formed the bedrock of the Canadian environmental movement, as the group holding the greatest legitimacy in the struggle to preserve wild land for ceremonial, hunting, fishing and community purposes. This is not to say there are not tensions between different groups of interests within these communities, but because many indigenous people in Canada still live close to their traditional territory, they have often been the first to expose environmental problems and organize protest from both within and outside their communities.

Some indigenous-lead struggles coming out of the 1980s renaissance of indigenous activism around the environment include:

  • The Clayoquot & Ahousat First Nations fight to stop the logging of Meares Island. This culminated in the first logging blockade in Canada which was supported by the First Nation and Friends of Clayoquot Sound with the company being turned away. (1985)
  • The fight against logging on Haida Gwaii which resulted in a historic agreement to protect 40,000 acres in 2005, from 1986-1993
  • The struggle to save the Stein Valley successfully spearheaded by the Lytton First Nation and the Lillooet Tribal Council. (1986-1993)
  • The Innu of Labrador and Quebec’s unsuccessful but high-profile campaign against low-level military training flights from the Goose Bay base which continues to have a destructive impact on the people and their landbase. (1986)
  • The Lubicon Lake Cree fight against oil drilling on land which they claim as their rightful territory, and their subsequent fight against logging. (1988-ongoing)
  • The Temagami First Nation’s fight against logging of a watershed that was part of their land claims review. (1989)
  • The Mohawk stand-off at Oka, Quebec over the proposed building of a golf course on traditional territory. This drew national media attention due to the brutality of the Canadian government’s response. (1990).

This is a woefully incomplete list and could go on right until the present day protests against logging in BC, the tar sands in Alberta, and contaminated water supplies in Ontario – but suffices to demonstrate the degree to which First Nations in Canada have taken the environmental fight up as essential to their struggle for sovereignty and survival. What is also worth noting is that a diversity of tactics have been used at different points in these struggles. The Stein Valley protest was popularized through an annual music festival; in the Temagami, blockades and even direct action in the form of burned bridges and other property damage took place; the Lubicon have spent years in courtrooms pleading their case. No one avenue of struggle has been universally successful on its own, but it is clear that First Nations can take a lot of credit in the major struggles to protect wild space and wildlife despite the face many settlements have not happened on their own terms. While there are some cases where land has been returned to the rightful First Nation, there are many morein which traditional territory simply is converted to park pland contolled by federal and provincial governments.

And therein lies one of the central conflicts within the Canadian environmental movement, for at the same time that sovereigntist-environmentalism was on the rise, so was the broader environmental movement. Joining the Sierra Club and Greenpeace, the Western Canada Wilderness Committee was founded in 1980 which marked a major shift in environmental activism towards a focus on forestry and mining and an increased call for more designated conservation and park land in order to protect it.

By the early 1990s the environmental movement in Canada, particularly in British Columbia, was at its highest period of activity yet, with fights to save several old growth watersheds taking place over the decade that would make environmental history. The Carmanah Valley, Meares Island, The Walbran, and of course, Clayoquot Sound made regional and international news as people came from across Canada and outside it to protest the clearcut logging practices the province of BC had become known for.

What made BC such a battleground? It was one of the few places left in North America with such large tracts of roadless old growth, owing to the fact that much of the terrain is difficult for industrial logging. As practices mechanized from the seventies onwards, and helicopters were employed in the pursuit of bigger and better trees, more of the province opened up to destruction which galvanized the movements which had been gathering strength in the 1980s. Photographs of clearcuts beamed around the world gave people a glimpse of what some of us local activists already knew – the BC forest industry was destroying the land in such a way that it would never recover, and all the tree planting in the world wasn’t going to reforest the sides of mountains or bring the diversity back to these wild places.

The Clayoquot Sound affair crystallized much of this fight in what has become known as the largest act of peaceful civil disobedience in Canadian history. Clayoquot Sound is located off the West Coast of Vancouver Island and encompasses 350,000 hectares of land that contain beaches, old growth rain forests, rivers, lakes and important marine areas. It is also the largest tract of intact old growth left in BC. A powerful place, and for many who travel there, symbolic of what has been lost in the province to logging, road-building, and mining thus far.

In the late 1980s blockading started in the Clayoquot Sound watersheds when Friends of Clayoquot Sound (FOCS) discovered illegal logging roads being built. (One of the real travesties of logging in BC is the amount of illegal logging that goes on when companies ignore the boundaries in which they have been granted access. By the time this is discovered, it is often too late. Many swaths of protected forest have been taken this way). From 1988 onward FOCS worked to bring attention to this problem and to the need for more protection for the old growth of Clayoquot Sound. Despite this, the provincial government made a decision in 1993 to allow logging of 74% of the Sound’s ancient forests. Over the following summer 12,000 people attended the “Clayoquot Peace Camp” leading to blockades on Kennedy Lake Bridge and the largest mass arrest in Canadian history. In total, almost 900 people would be arrested for civil disobedience that year, several hundred in a single day. Although the provincial land use decision was never altered, by 2000 the UN had declared Clayoquot Sound a World Biosphere Reserve bringing international attention and concern to the area. Forestry protests led by FOCS and area First Nations continue to occur on an almost-annual basis, though nothing has occurred since to rival the summer of 1993.

Overall, most environmental protest in Canada has incorporated civil disobedience in the form of road blockades and tree sits without going beyond that, unlike our US counterparts who have a fairly consistent tradition of direct action in the woods among other places. Possibly the most well-known case is that of Direct Action (dubbed “The Squamish Five” by the media) who carried out a series of bombings in 1982 including the Cheekye-Dunsmuir BC Hydro substation on Vancouver Island causing $5 million in damages. This action was claimed in defence of the environment and wildlife habitat before the group went on to a much larger action against Litton industries in Ontario in opposition to arms manufacturing.

Though the eighties and nineties saw a smattering of direct action incidents in the form of tree spiking, bridge burning and culvert damage in the context of forestry protests, it wasn’t until the late nineties when national news media focused on a series of larger-scale sabotage actions aimed at the oil and gas industry in Northern Alberta. After a rather elaborate police sting, Wiebo Ludwig was tried and sentenced to jail in 2001. During and after his trial, Ludwig has continued to advocate for his community in opposition to the sour gas wells that he has demonstrated are sickening livestock and people in the area, as well as poisoning the land. A second bombing campaign on the Encana Pipeline started in 2009 and has resulted in six sour gas line disruptions designed (according to a letter to the press) “To let you [Encana] know that you are indeed vulnerable, can be rendered helpless despite your mega-funds, your political influence, craftiness and deceit in which you trusted.”

Although Ludwig was arrested in connection with these actions, he was released without charges due to insufficient evidence and at the time of this writing is focused on bringing environmental protesters to his property to support his family and community against the oil and gas companies who continue to threaten their existence.

Besides these three notable cases of direct action sabotage, there have been a couple of anti-development fires in 2006 in Guelph, Ontario claimed by the Earth Liberation Front, and a few unclaimed actions which took place in BC from the mid-nineties into the 2000s in opposition to genetic engineering, forestry and the hunting industry.


Environmental protest and issues are still very much on the forefront in Canada today with the focus most recently on the development of the tar sands, fish farming on the Pacific coast, prairie conservation, climate change, and forestry. Gatherings such as Wild Earth continue to happen year after year, drawing activists from across the country to share skills and arguments in order to continue opposition to environmental devastation in all its ugly instances. And while looking back can be an exercise in frustration – so much protest and yet still so many clearcuts, strip mines and gas wells stretch across the landscape of this once (and still) beautiful land – it is possible to see the impact that environmental crusaders have had on the political forefront.

Prior to 1970, there wasn’t much dialogue about the devastation taking place on the back doorstep of Canadians – even when many people could see the effects of industrial logging, mining, and electricity generation right in front of them. It has taken the sustained effort of many people – First Nations communities fighting back, environmental researchers drawing samples and publicizing results, mainstream organizations drawing on large petitions and protests, and the sometimes rag-tag treesits and action camps – to bring the issues to the fore in such a way that government and corporations can not simply do what they want without having to consult and do environmental assessments before embarking on destructive projects. It’s not to say this is enough, that the Canadian wild has been saved because of the valiant efforts of a few – but it is clear that public opposition and protest has had some effect and will continue to as long as people take the task of protecting their world seriously.


When I stood on the edge of that clearcut at sixteen, I was full of the belief that if enough people got together and saw this place, we could save the Carmanah Valley from the destruction that surrounded it. The first truly wild space I hiked into and fell in love with, it seemed to me that if people only *knew* about its beauty, they would refuse to allow it to fall to the axes of Macmillan Bloedel. And on that count it turned out I was right, because in 1990 the lower Carmanah was protected and by 1994, the upper valley was also designated a provincial park leaving an incredible old growth tract as a testament to the power of people working together. It hasn’t always been this way, as I’ve been disappointed to recognize over and over again. But at the same time, there are countless examples across Canada of the positive impact environmental activists continue to have in protecting what little wild space, clean water and natural landscape is left. We can only hope that the movement will continue to grow in the face of governments (provincial and federal) that are anti-environment, and ultimately anti-life. Canadians are largely for environmental protection in poll after poll, but we are also (stereotypically) far too polite when it comes to challenging power – the wild and rich heritage of our natural landscape should be cause enough for inspiring the movement’s continuation and willingness to confront the industrial powers in defense of our shared land.

One Comment on “Not too little. Not too late.

  1. Hello,
    My name is Shawn and although I am a city boy from Montreal I always believed in minimizing my “footprint,” and I believe this is what prompted me to move to Vancouer. I recently took a trip to Starvation lake and the scenery was simply breath taking, but that’s something left for another day… I have been reading alot on the environmental protests throughout B.C. and upon my return I was told about the Squamish 5. Do you or anyone happen to know where the incident happened to take place? I would love to visit the what I presumed is the abandonned sight where this took place. Also knowing that Gerry Hannah was involved with the Direct Action group is a fascination for me (grew up in the 80’s during the punk era)! Thank you in advance, Shawn.

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