Tofino: Where the War in the Woods still whispers
The nine-seat Cessna from Iskwew Air flew so close to the snow-capped mountains you could count the evergreens, poking out from underneath scraps of cloud on our journey from Richmond to Tofino. In just over half an hour, you see city, then sea, then forest, then mountains. Long strips of sand bordered by the brilliant blue ocean were visible as we descended.
The tiny airport, midway between Tofino and Ucluelet, feels like a remnant of a past time. It was built by the US military during the Second World War, when the country wanted Pacific-side air bases. A framed typewriter note in the lobby from June 1942 says the area’s “boggy muskeg” land and “heavy wooded” surroundings posed challenges—and yet, here it still is, 80 years later, servicing daily Pacific Coastal flights. A thumbprint of war that now serves tourists flying into unceded ƛaʔuukʷiʔatḥ (Tla-o-qui-aht) land.
A short drive away is Tin Wis—Nuu-chah-nulth for “calm waters.” It’s both the Tla-o-qui-aht name for Mackenzie Beach, and the name of the yawning beachfront Best Western resort where we stay. Every room has west-facing windows, showing the sprawling beach and array of little islands. When the tide goes out, the smooth sand becomes a water-slick mirror. It looks like the world goes on forever.
“This is where we anchored our whales,” artist Hjalmer Wenstob tells us, back in the days of Tla-o-qui-aht whale hunts, before they were taken “to butcher them up and spread them out amongst our communities.”
He’s our host for naaʔuu, a Tla-o-qui-aht cultural experience that presents traditional stories and dance alongside a feast. A dancer, using masks that Wenstob carved, shows us different characters. There’s an inquisitive raven whose beak opens and closes to steal shiny objects; a smooth mask that gains a mouth to celebrate the revitalization of the Nuu-chah-nulth language; another that marks COVID-19, the way previous generations carved masks to record smallpox outbreaks.
The Tin Wis convention room has been transformed into a longhouse, the cedar-wood entrance and back wall adorned with carvings beneath a sloped cloth ceiling. It’s the first time the Nation has engaged in such clear cultural outreach, combining a feast prepared by Heartwood Kitchen with an evening of education and entertainment.
The thread throughout our time in Tofino is the tension of what tourism means. The tiny town sees hundreds of thousands of tourists every year, flocking to the edge of Vancouver Island to experience the wild West Coast: hiking, surfing, and paddle-boarding in summer, storm-watching in winter. Travellers drive the local economy. But tourism’s impacts are far-reaching—and not always positive. Trails can be eroded, trash can pile up. Visitors can be destructive, extractive, inconsiderate. When they leave their holiday home, the locals are left with the aftermath.
Part of the Tla-o-qui-aht plan to do things differently is the creation of Tribal Parks. All the Nation’s traditional, unceded territory is part of one of four parks, which are protected by ƛaʔuukʷiʔatḥ laws, rights, and title. Guardians steward the land to ensure sustainability and conservation. Reciprocity—living in balance with nature—is baked into the Nation’s stories and histories.
“The laws of nature stated that we only take what we need. When we take, we’d give something back,” Wenstob tells us. “Thousands of years ago, we found a way to make a form of balance with the world. We found a way to live with as much harmony as we could with the world around us. Once again, that balance has since been thrown off.”
Businesses in and around Tofino can sign up to the Tribal Parks Allies program, agreeing to look after the area and donate one per cent of revenue to Tribal Parks Regional Services. That pays for the Guardians’ work—which is obvious in a place like Wah-nuh-jus–Hilthoois Tribal Park, also known as Meares Island.
This is the site of the War in the Woods, one of the largest acts of mass civil disobedience in Canadian history. In 1984, Nuu-chah-nulth people refused to let logging company MacMillan Bloedel clear cut the island.
“Their plan was to harvest 90 per cent of Meares Island,” says Moses Martin, an elder and language keeper. He’s soft-spoken, one of a handful of fluent Nuu-chah-nulth speakers who helps pass the language on to future generations. He was elected as Chief in 1983.
“We thought this was getting too close to our backyard, so we said no. My people said ‘No,’ ” he says.
Just as naaʔuu’s feast shares food with visitors, Martin tried to do the same thing with the logging company. We’re walking around the Naa’Waya’Sum Coastal Indigenous Gardens as he tells us about that moment. “What I decided to do was invite them ashore and share some food with us. They didn’t take it.”
The resulting decade of blockades throughout the Clayoquot Sound led to nearly 900 arrests in 1993, as the province fought the Nation in court over who was allowed to issue logging permits on unceded land. Eventually, the province re-opened its treaty procedures to try and agree on a treaty with the Tla-o-qui-aht Nation. No treaty has yet been signed.
The clear cutting was averted, but the legacy of that activism lives on.
When we visit Wah-nuh-jus, it’s in the pale morning sun, skipping across the waves in a water taxi. The verdant greenery contrasts with the shimmering azure of the water and the flecks of white foam on the wake. It is a place that’s full of life, the old-growth forests supporting rare biodiversity.
The picturesque island is home to an ecosystem of towering trees and lush ferns. Tla-o-qui-aht people have been gathering cedar from trees here since they began occupying this territory, at least 10,000 years ago. There are thousands of these culturally modified trees throughout the woods. You can see the indents, where people cut planks for longhouse boards or harvested bark to make clothes—taking only what they needed, and leaving the tree to grow. These trees are proof of long-time cultural and historical connections to the land.
Saya Masso, lands and resources director for the Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation, explains the work the Guardians have put into maintaining the historic site. The old-growth forest stretches towards the light; below our feet, planks of repurposed cedar line the path. The older parts are worn and smooth, braced with metal bars for grip. As the trail winds further, newer planks are obvious from their bright orange hue. Tour groups and hikers coming to the area have to pay a fee, which goes towards conservation. Masso gestures to the signposted Tree of Life. This tree was featured in National Geographic when it covered the protests in glossy photospreads. Here it still is: over 1,000 years old, growing huge and straight, its branches spiralling towards the clouds.
Keeping the world in balance isn’t cheap, or easy. But it’s worth it for places like this. The air is moist and clean. Sound is muffled by thick vegetation. The trees have survived so much. They deserve another 10,000 years here, with the salt and salmon and sky. GS
naaʔuu will return to Best Western Tin Wis later this fall.