Michelle Johnson: 20 years after the Great Bear Rainforest protests

Good things come to those who wait

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      “Hi Mom—remember when I told you that I was up in a remote area of the coast and wouldn’t be reachable? Well I’ve been arrested.” Dead silence on the other end of the line.

      I was standing at the air strip in Bella Bella, a Heiltsuk community on B.C.’s Central Coast. It was September 1997 and I’d just been on a boat and float plane after an early morning arrest. I’d spent two weeks on the ground, as an invited guest of the Nuxalk Nation, in a place called Ista, one of many old-growth rainforest areas threatened by clear-cut logging in a region known as the Great Bear Rainforest. And I had to call my parents and let them know that I’d made a difficult decision—to stand for the forests.

      The Nuxalk people’s origin stories or “Smayusta’s” take place on Ista, known to us “settlers” as King Island. It is also where I was honoured to take a stand to protect these ancient forests, part of the largest remaining mostly intact coastal rainforest on the planet and home of species that don’t exist anywhere else, like the Kermode or spirit bear, rarer than the panda bear.

      In mid-June, I learned that, almost two decades later, the sacrifice that we made and the personal freedoms we exercised that day have done their work. I burst into tears when my colleague Jens Wieting informed us during our staff meeting that the final steps of the Great Bear Rainforest Agreements were now up for public comment. The proposed measures, a combination of stricter logging regulations and new protected areas, will result in an additional 600,000 hectares of rainforest being off-limits to logging. Once the changes become legal, about 70 percent of the natural old-growth forest of the region will be set aside. He further elaborated that it now includes two areas of significance to the Nuxalk people: the Kimsquit and a portion of Ista (King Island), a welcome addition to the agreement.

      I had sat in one of the groves targeted for logging on King Island where orange tape marked trees that would fall to the machines we had sheltered under during the rain, 18 years ago. Trees that have been thousands of years in the making; I had wept at their loss. I cried then and I cried again yesterday—but yesterday I cried with relief. Knowing that a portion of this sacred place was now forever safe. Bittersweet to say the least.

      For more information, visit savethegreatbear.ca.

      Michelle Johnson was charged with contempt of court and has no criminal record as a result of her arrest. She believes that civil disobedience is a last resort and a decision not taken lightly. Her hope is that we can all learn from the path that led us to the Great Bear Rainforest Agreements and avoid conflict like this in future. Johnson has long been a proponent of sustainable, community-led solutions that are rooted in science. She currently works at Sierra Club B.C. in the development department as their major gifts manager. As a registered charity, Sierra Club B.C. neither advocates nor endorses civil disobedience.