Posted by: friendsofstrathcona | December 16, 2009

The Strathcona Blockade of 1988 (by Karl Stevenson)

This is the second in a series of articles on Strathcona Park. The first article talked about some of the history of Strathcona, which includes mining, damming, logging and various other abuses which were inflicted upon the park by commercial interests over the years. Although the park boundaries looked great on maps, they provided little protection, and inside these meaningless boundaries the park was being reduced to an empty shell. What’s more, it eventually became evident that the government, which was supposedly protecting the park, was actually quietly allowing commercial and industrial concerns to destroy large areas of the park for profit. Finally, in 1987, a group of dedicated people became angry enough to see if they could somehow bring this damaging process to a halt. In essence, they decided to try to force the government to start protecting the park, instead of assisting in its destruction.

This group (which I became part of) was called the Friends of Strathcona Park, (FOSP) and it was formed when the government created a large industrial corridor through the centre of the park, and dumped several areas, including the Bedwell Valley, from the park entirely. Once this was done, with no public consultation, the government asked for public input. The Friends of Strathcona strongly believed that the public should have been asked for input before these harmful changes were made, rather than after. Indeed, several government ministers had promised just this, and the Friends were understandably upset when it didn’t happen. We were even more upset when a mining outfit began making preparations for exploratory drilling in the newly created industrial corridor, which the government had euphemistically labelled a “Recreation Area”.

At first, in our efforts to get the government to reverse this action, which effectively cut the park in half, FOSP members stayed within so-called normal channels. We followed the same futile path that numerous hiking clubs and other park users had been following for decades, with (not surprisingly) exactly the same lack of results. We wrote letter after letter, made innumerable phone calls, and met with several (they changed frequently) successive park ministers. We talked with many administrators and officials. This process was tiring, time consuming, and frustrating, probably by design. After we spent months arranging for a meeting, park ministers gave us a quick figurative pat on the head, complemented us on being good citizens, and said good bye. Meetings with lesser officials and administrators took more time, but their main purpose seemed to be to keep us uselessly occupied while the higher-ups were protected from our presence. We assumed our letters of protest were carefully stored somewhere, probably in some remote basement, along with piles of other irrelevant mail.

Although we soon came to realize the futility of this path, we followed it for approximately a year. What made it even more discouraging was the fact that, while we worked for nothing, and took time from our normal jobs to meet with parks staff, they were collecting good salaries (through our taxes) to work against us in support of the very industries that were destroying our park. We soon came to resent this, and we couldn’t see how it made sense. Weren’t these people supposed to be protecting the park? If not, why were we paying them? Did the park boundaries have no meaning at all? If this was so, why were they drawn on maps in the first place? Apparently, those in power had a very different view of a wilderness park than we did, and this quickly became crystal clear when Cream Silver Mines began moving drilling equipment into the park in January, 1988.

And so began the Strathcona Blockade. It ran for approximately two months, in the depths of an icy winter, and became a regular feature on television news programs. The media was captivated by this non-violent and courageous battle by ordinary people to protect their park from destruction by their own government. By the time the blockade was done, a total of 64 people of all ages had been arrested. Initially, drilling was held up for a week, until a court injunction allowed the drillers through, but people didn’t quit, and they continued to disrupt the drilling and allow themselves to be packed off to jail. Through the worst of the winter, they kept to showing up in large numbers from all parts of the province. The government was flooded with thousands of letters and phone calls. Public outrage was growing. News crews camped on site. In the end, the volume of public opinion forced the government to finally begin negotiating with the Friends of Strathcona Park. It had been a long, hard, battle, but it was ultimately successful. If not for the blockade, the park would be a chopped-up shadow of what it is today. Not only was the government forced to remove the industrial corridor from the park and return areas they had deleted, but safeguards were put in place to hopefully thwart similar government actions in future. I intend to deal with those safeguards in the next article, but for now I’d like to end with a few thoughts on parks, governments, and society in general.

I’ll start by saying that it seemed wrong to me at the time, and it still seems wrong to me, that people had to break the law and face arrest in order to force the government to simply treat Strathcona like a park, rather than as some kind of commercial grab bag. After all, a park is a creation of society, and as such, it’s essentially just a law, although in physical form. In what may seem something of a paradox, society generally creates parks to give them protection from society. Societies do this by creating legal boundaries, and if we didn’t intend those boundaries to provide protection, we wouldn’t need to create them in the first place. Of course, most park boundaries aren’t meant to totally exclude us, they’re mainly intended to protect the park from some of our more destructive activities. All this seems pretty simple. Most people are able to grasp the concept that boundaries are meant to protect the park from our high impact activities, and that these boundaries are intended to exclude (rather than include) activities which would be detrimental. So it seems wrong to me when a government ignores this, and compels otherwise law abiding citizens to break the law in order to force the government to honour this seemingly simple concept.

Societies, like people, value different things at different times, often for different reasons. We live in a society that obviously values money. In less than 200 years, we’ve converted most of the fish in our rivers, and most of the trees in our valleys and on our hillsides, into cash. We won’t see those fish or trees again. So we clearly value money, and some of us seem to value it above all else, but, thankfully, this doesn’t describe us all. Every year, thousands are drawn to watch in awe as the pitiful remnants of once great salmon runs struggle up our damaged river systems. Thousands more, young and old, come to stand and gaze, also in awe, at the few remaining acres of old growth timber that are left, in the very few places where society has had the fore-thought to set them aside. There are many of us who find value (other than money) in untouched natural areas, and this is very evident in our appreciation of parks. If our society didn’t want parks, we wouldn’t create them.

Unfortunately, creating parks is not enough. If we value them, we have to protect them, sometimes against our own governments, because governments are often trying to serve several masters, and one of the strongest of these masters is always money. Our current government, unfortunately, is just one more example of this, and I’ll touch on that in a future article. Park boundaries, without our protection, mean nothing. It’s up to us. If there’s one thing we can learn from the Strathcona Blockade, that’s it.

The next article will deal with the results of the blockade.

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