A protester in Santa costume at the Nova Scotia forestry blockade. (Facebook)
“There is a time and place to debate [the validity of protestors’ concerns about forest harvesting practices], and this courtroom is not it.”
Lawyer for WestFor Forest Management
January 26, 2021
If you met Sandra Phinney, the last words that would probably come to your mind would be “lawbreaker,” or “scofflaw,” or “criminal trespasser.”
Phinney is a cheerful 76-year-old Nova Scotia grandmother who now lives with her husband on the edge of Nova Scotia’s Tusket River. She’s had what she calls a few “former lives” in teaching and social work, then filled up close to two decades as an organic farmer before transforming herself once again, this time into an award-winning, globe-trotting freelance travel writer and photographer. That’s how I know her best. I have been a wishful attendee at a few of her travel writing workshops and have worked with her as a fellow member of various writing organizations.
Last year, she told me, she travelled to Jamaica to research stories about community tourism at Treasure Beach, a collection of off-the-beaten-track coves and settlements along Jamaica’s south coast. She’d planned to return this year to follow up, but COVID got in the way. She still hopes she’ll find her way back, she says, but admits, “if I end up with a criminal record, I will not be able to do that.”
A criminal record?
On Dec. 15, 2020, Phinney and eight others were arrested and charged with defying a court order for refusing to take down a blockade they’d set up in a remote area of Digby County on the northern edge of what the province refers to as Harvest Area DI068550E.
Their rag-tag tent community had been erected two months earlier to try to prevent logging contractors and their massive tree-munching machines from gobbling up what remained of the local forest, a habitat for endangered mainland moose. The contractors worked for WestFor, a consortium of 12 lumber mills and private companies established by the provincial government in 2016 to “increase the efficiency of forest management on Crown land in the province.”
WestFor claimed the blockade had cost it and its contractors “significant financial losses and damages” and threatened to seek damages from the protesters. On Dec. 11, it won a temporary injunction against the protest.
Four days later — 55 days into the encampment — the Mounties moved in and arrested the “forest protectors.”
The protesters, for their part, had been demanding the provincial government declare a moratorium on harvesting long enough for “an independent review by biologists to establish best management practices for the area with the primary goal of protecting mainland moose and creating the necessary conditions for their recovery.”
That is the Cliff’s Notes version of how Phinney came to find herself last week at the Nova Scotia Supreme Court in Halifax where WestFor lawyer Ian Dunbar tried to convince a judge to permanently block her and her fellow protesters from interfering with harvesting our/their forests.
On Mar. 15, Phinney will be in court again, this time a provincial criminal court in Digby where she and the eight others will appear before a judge to answer charges of “disobeying a court order.”
Like Phinney, her fellow defendants make unusual suspects. They include Nina Newington, a professional garden landscaper and author; Danny LeBlanc, a retired actor, producer and restaurateur; Keith Joyce, a former house painter, carpenter and woodsman; Roy LeBlanc, a former fisherman who now carves canoe paddles for friends; Melodie Howes, who manages a restaurant with her chef husband; David Arthur, a carpenter who is starting a farm; Anna Osborne, a former co-owner of an Annapolis Valley café; and Joan Norris, the retired owner of a stained glass studio who also taught yoga.
Why would this group of mostly retired and otherwise law-abiding citizens risk criminal convictions, and perhaps worse, just to protect some trees?
And why didn’t they take advantage of what Ian Dunbar called that better “time and place to debate” their concerns.
Where and when to begin?
Let’s start, perhaps arbitrarily, with a reading from the much-praised August 2018 Lahey report entitled An Independent Review of Forest Practices in Nova Scotia. “My conclusion,” Bill Lahey began, “is that environmental, social and economic values should be balanced by using forest practices that give priority to protecting and enhancing ecosystems and biodiversity.”
The McNeil government not only commissioned that report but accepted and promised to implement it.
Two and a half years later, the best that can be said is that it’s still a work in not much progress.
Newly appointed Lands and Forestry Minister Derek Mombourquette told the CBC’s Michael Gorman in late November that “he continues to work with department officials and an advisory group to advance work on the [Lahey] report’s recommendations. The minister said his goal is to ‘ensure that the foundation is in place for the next [Liberal] leader and premier to come in to make some decisions.’”
So far, not so good.
Meanwhile, the department pushes forward with its own 1989 industrial forestry goal to double provincial forest production by 2025. On that score, so far, so much better.
And then there is this. Exhibit 2. In May 2020, Justice Christa Brothers ruled the government had failed to implement its own Endangered Species Act with respect to six species, including the mainland moose, the same animals whose habitat the protesters sought to protect and which the province itself declared endangered in 2003.
Sandra Phinney had watched all of that — and more — unfold from the sidelines. She kept hoping for “signs” the government would pay attention to its own report, or the courts, or experts. “But I kept hearing and reading a lot from environmentalists who were talking and writing about glyphosate spraying, clearcutting, the lack of leadership in our government, etc.”
She wrote letters to the premier, ministers of environment, lands and forestry. After a while, “I got tired of the standard pablum that was dished out in response to my concerns.”
Then she learned about WestFor’s plan to harvest the forests in the corridor between the Tobeatic Wilderness Reserve and the Silver River. Phinney, a nature lover who has paddled and camped in the area, says the woodland region — part of the Southwest Nova Biosphere Reserve, one of only 18 UNESCO designated delicate ecosystems in Canada — is “dear to my heart.” She was “incredulous” when she learned “large hunks of this region were on the chopping block.”
By the end of October, she’d “reached a tipping point.” A few weeks later, “I was tenting at Rocky Point as part of the blockade.”
Even after they began their blockade, the protesters hadn’t given up on discussion and debate. On Nov. 11, Nina Newington, a spokesperson for the protesters, wrote to Lands and Forestry Minister Mombourquette:
Congratulations on your recent appointment as Minister for the Department of Lands and Forestry. As spokesperson for the group of citizens currently blocking access for logging equipment to an area of crown land in Digby county, I am requesting you meet with me and two other people knowledgeable about mainland moose and the impacts of forestry as soon as possible. We will be happy to meet in person or by video conference…
I hope that, in your new role as Minister of Lands and Forestry, you will signal a change of direction for the department by halting logging in the area in question so that the fate of this piece of crown land can mark a new approach, one in which the protecting and enhancing of ecosystems is the overarching objective. Nova Scotians across the province will applaud you.
Mombourquette didn’t bother to respond.
So, two weeks later, on Nov. 24, Eleanor Wynn and three blockade supporters showed up at the minister’s office in Halifax. Staff informed them they had to go through the “proper channels. You won’t get a meeting this way.”
Of course, that was why they were at the office, they explained. The minister hadn’t responded to their proper-channels request.
But instead of arranging a meeting, staff called the police. Wynn and her fellow protesters were arrested, handcuffed, taken to police headquarters and charged with refusing to leave the premised as instructed.
It is worth noting that, as of Jan. 30, more than 36,000 people have signed a petition demanding “the department of lands and forestry uphold the Endangered Species Act and immediately halt all harvest activities that result in heavy removals (e.g. clear-cuts and even-aged harvests) on crown lands between Fourth Lake and the Napier River, where the presence of the Endangered Mainland Moose was recently confirmed by several biologists and naturalists.”
Will the province pay attention?
“There is,” Ian Dunbar reminds us, “a time and place to debate this, and this courtroom is not it.”
Which begs the question. What is the time and place when Nova Scotians will be listened to?