Some of the felled trees on Tsawout reserve land on Saturna Island. (Courtesy of Perry LaFortune)

Bitter Saturna land-use dispute highlights legal grey areas

Unhappy Tsawout accuse leadership of cultural destruction

Three members of the Tsawout First Nation continue to protest a logging operation on Saturna Island, which has highlighted legal grey areas when it comes to First Nation land use.

Since the middle of last week, three First Nation members, supported by a fluctuating number of Saturna Island residents, have remained on site, peacefully blocking tree falling.

They are angry at their chief and council’s decision to contract a lumber company to fell trees on a 33,477 cubic metres stretch of community land on Saturna Island Indian Reserve No. 7.

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Mavis Underwood, an elected Tsawout councillor, has admitted that the community was not explicitly told logging was to commence. She said this was because there had been deaths in the community and the three arranged public meetings where this information was to be shared, were cancelled.

Underwood said that the land was suffering from three insect infestations and wasn’t being utilized to its full potential. She also said that the revenue-poor council needed funds from the logging to pay for a vitally needed new $1,000,000 longhouse.

Daniel Claxton, is one of the Tsawout members protesting the logging. “Block A is all gone. Culturally modified trees, burial sites, it’s all gone,” he says. “We’re not outside protesters, we’re occupying our own land. We the people own the land, like we always have, not an elected council who are there for only a few years.”

Perry La Fortune is another of the unhappy Tsawout members on Saturna. “This is a Douglas Treaty site, there has been no consultation with us and the last land-use study was rejected by the council.”

RELATED: Tsawout councillor visits Saturna to meet logging protestors

Accusations are flying about regulations not being followed and permits not being issued, but Indigenous Services Canada says the correct timber permit was issued, Feb. 26. They say an environmental assessment was carried out in Aug. 2018.

“This assessment was considered through the department’s Environmental Review Process resulting in a Detailed Environmental Review being conducted including consultation with science experts at Parks Canada, Environment and Climate Change Canada and other departments.”

While the permits were issued legally, the opaque nature of how the Douglas treaties can be interpreted and legal issues about First Nations’ members’ rights to their land mean the unhappy community members are questioning how a council decision, made by a limited number of people often with family ties, can have such a large impact on their traditional way of life.

ALSO READ: Tsawout members upset with leadership’s decision to approve logging

Neil Vallance, Adjunct Professor at UVic’s Faculty of Law, and an expert on the Douglas Treaties, says the dispute raises legal questions about whether a referendum should have been held over such important community assets.

“There’s no common agreement as to the application of these treaties to reserve land. Reserve land is still operated as Crown land not First Nations land. Some decisions require a band council resolution and some require a referendum. Part of the grey area is was this something that could be decided just by council or should it have been by all the people?”

“On-reserve issues generally aren’t covered by the treaties,” he says, adding “reserve land versus traditional land, the whole issue of jurisdiction is ongoing in law.”

The Peninsula News Review has contacted both Chemainus Forest Products who are overseeing the project and Indigenous Services Canada for comment.



nick.murray@peninsulanewsreview.com

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