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.”

Ian Dunbar
Lawyer for WestFor Forest Management
January 26, 2021

***

Sandra Phinney

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.

Derek Mombourquette

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?

Stephen Kimber

Stephen Kimber is an award-winning writer, editor, broadcaster, and educator. A journalist for more than 50 years whose work has appeared in most Canadian newspapers and magazines, he is the author of...

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  1. A lot of the frustration expressed by people for inaction by the government on crown forestry etc. is more of an expression of how poor the government has been at keeping the public updated on what is changing, how it’s changing and why it’s changing. I’m lucky enough at times to be a “stakeholder” and have some insights into the ongoing processes.

    Most of the technical details of the very important changes happening with DLF for the last two years would bore the average person to tears (but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be given the information anyway). Rest assured there ARE fundamental changes happening because of the Lahey report, SAR court case and auditor general’s report. Resources are being thrown at these things left, right and center and fundamental changes are being made to how forestry is done on crown land and how species at risk are managed. Not superficial changes. Systematic changes that are largely based in the best available science. This takes a frustrating amount of time by its very nature.

    BUT DLF have been terrible at keeping the general public up to date about those changes. So people are lobbing misguided frustrations at what they see as a system where nothing has changed. The Lahey report is the only review that got it right and specifically identified what needs to change and how (mostly the really the boring stuff). Commissioning it and implementing was is an extremely important piece that no other government has taken in the past few decades. The changes started before the report was even publicly adopted.

    When people send these frustrated letters to politicians asking for change to happen “NOW” the upper level bureaucrats and ministers probably roll their eyes a bit because of how out of touch the writers seem. But it’s the politician and bureaucrats fault they’re getting these letters in the first place because they’re failing at ever turn to fully explain the situation to the public.

    If the public were better informed about this stuff, it would likely give the liberals a boost in the polls but as it stands, they are loosing face in the pubic eye despite all of the good that their staff are doing to fix these problems.

  2. Excellent summary of a horrible situation. This Liberal government has completely ignored every bit of scientific evidence demonstrating that the current practices are unsustainable. Dr Bob Bancroft, an established forest expert, has advocated for more sustainable forest management for 20 years, with no result.

    I went to demonstrate in Southwest Nova Scotia with the road blockaders in November. I have nothing for respect for them and want them to come out of this ordeal without a criminal record for sure.

    This week is the Liberal leadership election. Among other promises, Iain Rankin has vowed to implement the Lahey report. Immediately? Starting Monday February 8 (the day the new premier will be sworn in)? I personally have zero confidence in any of these candidates but I recognize that no other party is currently close to forming a government and if we get a conservative government after the next election, that would be even worse for the state of biodiversity of our province.

    It’s a desperate situation. We can’t continue to destroy the planet that we depend on for shelter, food and everything else any longer. The lobbying forces in Nova Scotia, whether they come from the forest industry (the website of the Dept of Lands and Forestry excitedly states that ‘the forest industry is growing worldwide and Nova Scotia can play a big role’) or the mining industry, are strong and have deep pockets. The health of our lands is of zero concern to them

  3. I owned a small (40 acre) woodlot on the North Mountain near Kentville in the 80’s and 90’s, maintained it under a management plan worked out with a DNR forester, and saw my new son-in-law establish a small logging business with a workhorse. No, it didn’t support the family but it added, with his wife’s income, AND he didn’t have to make payments on a half-million dollar tree and soil and habitat wrecker. We have gone nowhere but backwards, both on private lands where too many folks have been clearcutting to get money while they feel they can, BUT particularly on our public lands. Nova Scotia does not have the acreages of Crown lands that other newer larger provinces have. Our woodlands have suffered heavy logging from the earliest years of settlement. Our thin soils do not allow good regrowth. We have been putting them into an industrial forestry cycle that will not protect us in this time of climate change. It is time to stop all cutting on Crown lands in Nova Scotia and manage them for carbon retention.

  4. This is an excellent summary of a difficult but untenable situation. The government needs to establish proper habitat protection for our species at risk. The recent court decision establishes this clearly. Maintaining the Acadian forest is crucial for habitat protection for our many species at risk. The government needs to foster ecological forestry on Crown lands. That successive governments have seen the need for major reports on forestry (Natural Resources Strategy and the Lahey report on Forestry Practices) indicates that there is something seriously wrong with how industrial forestry is being conducted. The government needs to change the lens through which it sees Crown land and recognize that Crown Lands serve many other roles. Recreation, water quality protection, maintenance of biodiversity are some of the many roles played by our Crown lands. Clearly, the citizens of Nova Scotia are truly concerned about habitat protection for species at risk. That nearly 40,000 people have signed a petition asking for protection for these species is a clarion call that MORE NEEDS TO BE DONE! The Department of Lands and Forestry, Minister Monbourquette and WestFor have been reprehensible in their response to this situation.

    1. I am really tried of the Nova Scotia government. Every stripe since I began paying even moderate attention gets elected on promises that are impossible to keep as long as they let the bureaucrats run the show. In a democracy, the people run the show, through the representatives they elect. As highly-experienced and knowledgeable as any head executive in any government department may be, they must take direction from the people who pay their wages. If it goes against what they did before, they have to figure it out. Reports and studies gather dust on the shelf while the departments do what they always did, clinging to the past as the world changes under their feet. The politicians assigned to direct those departments believe their knowledgeable-sounding statements that “oh, we are handling it” because the politicians just don’t know the difference. By the time they figure out their portfolios, their promises have lain in the ditch for a couple of years and they are left having to defend their inaction. I hate political patronage, but I have begun to understand why any minister might want to purge their department of those who are not interested in, and actively oppose, the people’s/government’s vision.
      Much better to stand firm on their promises.

  5. I would add to the above attempts to discuss this issue with Minister Mombourquette, many other concerned citizens also made that attempt. Further, the president of Nature Nova Scotia, Bob Bancroft (a wildlife biologist), wrote to the Minister around December 1st, asking to discuss this issue. As of December 18th, the Minister had not replied and I don’t believe he has ever replied. It’s very difficult to imagine any possible explanation that a Minister might have for totally ignoring the citizens of this province as well as the head of a large nature organization. To say that we haven’t all tried — and tried *very hard* — to address and resolve this issue without this ending up in court, is really disingenuous. The people of this province could not have tried harder — but we have been let down in the most reprehensible way. Shame on the Department of Lands & Forestry, the Minister, on Westfor, and on their legal counsel.

  6. That the new minister Mombourquette didn’t even acknowledge correspondence from Ms Newington clearly demonstrates this provincial government is so out-of-control it can’t be bothered to practice the most basic of good manners. That the province continues to ignore the science; Justice Brothers’ ruling on its failure to implement its own Endangered Species Act and overwhelming public opinion demonstrates they simply don’t care. What is important to this corporate captured bunch is enabling the continuing growth of industry profits – Nova Scotia’s future be damned.

    1. There’s the truth behind all of this. The Dept. of Lands & Forestry, did not wish to discuss or consider any other outcome than hacking down this forest. They were not at all interested in seeing evidence of Moose in that area. It has become obvious to the people of this province that this was a “done deal” between Westfor and DLF and nothing we could have done or said would hit the “pause” long enough to discuss any other outcome than that desired by the forest industry.

  7. I hope Mr. Dunbar reads this article so he can see that the courtroom is the last place the forest protectors wanted to be. Every other option was explored and the province stonewalled. This is clearly explained in this article. Thank you Stephen

    Full disclosure: Sandra Phinney is my wife of 42 years.