UBC Theses and Dissertations

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UBC Theses and Dissertations

A war in the woods? : environmentalisms, old growth forests, and the labour movement on Southern Vancouver Island, 1970-1995 John, Henry


Between 1980 and 2000 a series of disputes and protests erupted across the Pacific Northwest regarding old growth forests and their utilization by the forest industry. Journalists and scholars have often referred to these events as “The War in the Woods”, dissolving a complex matrix of environmental, economic, and political nuances into a binarized conflict of rural loggers vs. urban environmentalists. However, such a framing obscures not only the longer history of worker and labour union environmental activism in the region, but also overlooks the efforts made by woodworkers and old growth preservation advocates to form allegiances as the conflict unfolded. This dissertation traces the shifting relations between labour union organizers and the evolving environmental critiques of the forest industry that emerged on Southern Vancouver Island between 1970 and 1995. It uses multi-archival research, oral histories, and mass media database analysis to show how this relationship shifted over time from a relatively harmonious cooperation over pollution issues in the 1970s to an escalation of tensions with the outbreak of preservationist campaigns in the Carmanah and Walbran Valleys in the 1980s and 1990s. These events are framed and contextualized by the rise of Indigenous sovereignty movements and by the impact of neoliberal industry restructuring on woodworker communities during this period. However, by highlighting the collaborative alliances made by union activists in the International Woodworkers of America and both radical and mainstream eco-activists even as the conflict unfolded, the dissertation questions the socio-political divisions taken for granted by both contemporary and historical representations of the period. It thus argues that while differences certainly existed between the environmental sensibilities of woodworkers and old growth activists, the excesses of the conflict were constructed and sensationalized by both forest industry representatives and journalists in the mainstream media. The methods and findings of this study have significance for both understanding British Columbian and Pacific Northwest history, but also for understanding the mechanisms underpinning both the successful and unsuccessful formation of social movement alliances.

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