"No one, in my view, has celebrated the Great Bear Agreement for what it really is: a historic moment of leadership."
- Hadley Archer, Executive Director, TNC Canada
By Hadley Archer, TNC Canada Executive Director
Of all the days I’ve spent in Great Bear Rainforest over my lifetime—spotting spirit bears with Doug Neasloss (pictured below) of the Kitasoo/Xai’Xais Nation, my first encounter of humpback whales bubble-net-feeding, and sitting by a campfire with my team listening to traditional Heiltsuk stories—one of my strongest memories of this region is a day not spent in the Great Bear at all. It’s the day when the Great Bear Rainforest Agreement was finalized in a museum hall in Vancouver.
I felt chills as Nanwakolas drummers led the way into the hall, chanting ancestral words. I felt proud when British Columbia Premier Christy Clark described Great Bear as “a jewel in the crown of B.C.” I was struck by the candid words of Rick Jeffery, president and CEO of Coast Forest Products, who noted, “The road was not smooth.” And I chuckled when Dallas Smith of the Nanwakolas Nation ribbed the B.C. government, reminding them that he was a much younger man when he first embarked on this journey.
I thought about my friends in Great Bear, and all of the emotions wrapped up in this announcement. I thought about my team around the country watching this moment via the live webcast, and the people I’ve met who have supported this effort despite never having set foot in the rainforest.
As the coverage has unfolded over the last month (some have called it a global model; others have said it’s not nearly enough), no one, in my view, has celebrated the Great Bear Agreement for what it really is: a historic moment of leadership.
Decades in the making
The agreement conserves 6.4 million hectares of the largest remaining coastal temperate rainforest on Earth, banning logging on much of the land and setting stringent ecological protections on the balance. New protected areas have been created, and a path for sustainable forestry has been set. At every scale—regional, national, global—the agreement is a landmark in conservation history.
But how did we get here? How did we re-imagine the “War of the Woods”—in a province where industry, environmental groups and First Nations clashed on a battleground that remains today the largest act of civil disobedience in Canadian history—as the first step in bringing agreement across deeply entrenched and conflicting interests?
It took the leadership of environmental groups to set aside blockades and look for a new way of working that would bring all interests to the table, and keep them there.
It took the leadership of forestry companies to build new alliances where there had historically been conflict and division.
And it took the leadership of First Nations—the original and enduring stewards of these lands and waters—to raise their collective voice to protect what makes the Great Bear precious but also to call with equal volume for economic opportunities.
Doug Neasloss of the Kitasoo/Xai'Xais Nation describing his work on bear DNA sampling. © Hadley Archer/TNC Canada
Investing in leadership
Our focus at TNC Canada over the last decade in the Great Bear has been on supporting First Nations leadership and authority over resource management. The Nature Conservancy was first invited in 2006—by groups already working in the Great Bear—to help broker the initial agreement (signed in 2008). The Conservancy raised $39 million to create the Coast Opportunity Funds, leveraging double that amount in additional private and public funding. Those funds were divided evenly between an endowment to support First Nations stewardship activities and a fund to drive economic development.
I see it as $120 million invested in leadership. Since then, First Nations have developed vibrant community programs for on-the-ground stewardship and youth, built successful businesses, authored peer-reviewed science papers, led governmental negotiations, and forged new alliances with other Great Bear communities. Nearly all of the Indigenous communities in Great Bear have established their own natural resource offices or governance systems, and one of their first actions was to develop their visions for the marine waters in their territories. In April, plans for implementing this vision in collaboration with the B.C. government were agreed to by 19 First Nations, making B.C. one of the few places in the world with a complete Marine Use Plan and the only place where these plans were agreed to by both Indigenous people and the state.
Building for the future
The Great Bear Agreement may not be a perfect model for conserving forests and balancing economic interests globally. But gradually, over the last decade of hard, dedicated work, it has evolved into a perfect model of leadership: a model that imagined a bold, almost unimaginable vision of what could be, that brought together disparate views and interests, and that empowered others to make that vision a reality.
It is a model that we will need as we face the great challenge of our time—to preserve natural systems while meeting the needs of people. At TNC Canada, it is a model we will build on, working in-step with Indigenous stewards, industry partners and governments that see critical opportunities today to lead in shaping a bright, sustainable future for Canada’s lands and waters.
Learn more about TNC Canada