Mavis Underwood, a respected councillor from the Tsawout First Nation has travelled to Saturna Island to talk to three community members who are disrupting logging operations there, amid an acrimonious land-use dispute.
The Tsawout First Nation has 955 registered members, with more than half living on a small reserve near Central Saanich. Part of Saturna Island is reserve land where members can exercise their traditional practices of hunting, fishing and collecting medicinal plants.
Underwood is an elected Tsawout Councillor and she acknowledges that poor communication about the logging plan has led to unhappiness in some quarters.
“Some people have good reason to be concerned,” she says. “In hindsight, communication hasn’t been the best and we should have done better.”
Community members who fish and hunt on the island are unhappy, saying the extensive logging operations, reported to be about 130 acres, have disrupted their activities and they weren’t consulted.
Tsawout leadership say that three community meetings had been scheduled before logging commenced, but were all cancelled as marks of respect due to deaths within the community.
Misunderstanding seems to have grown from the council’s belief that logging parts of the island had been discussed for ten years, while the protesters believed logging wasn’t going to happen precisely because it had been talked of and not acted upon for so long.
“We understand the anger,” says Underwood. “We’re not heartless and we didn’t take on this project in a careless way.”
She continues, “We [the Tsawout First Nation] are land rich and revenue poor. We are under pressure to fund new projects and bring people together.”
Underwood says the decision to log parts of Saturna was taken due to intense financial pressures, as the band seek to build a new longhouse. Leadership believe the project is critical to provide a place of meeting and care for a community reeling from rising mental health issues.
The logging operation will net $2, 500,000, around half of which will go to the co-owners of the land – the Tseycum First Nation. Around $1,000,000 will be left to fund clearing and building of the community longhouse.
Protestors claimed their concerns had been dismissed and leadership had flip-flopped about the reason for the clearances, variously claiming powder worms, root rot and beetle infestation.
“There are three identifiable infestations and we’re also dealing with lots of deadfall, which is a fire hazard,” Underwood said.
She explains that the land, in her view, can be better used, “We have a lot of transient camping, squatting and people growing things on the land.
“We want reforestation and regrowth, with the planting of medicinal plants. We want a presence and place on our land.”
Despite the contractor believing the logging roads will remain, Underwood says council are not seeking to build on the cleared areas. However, she says council would consider building cabins or rental houses around the perimeter to secure much needed revenue.