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‘Always a bright side’: Squamish forester highlighted by Indigenous network

The Indigenous Resource Network, a national grassroots organization that advocates for Indigenous representation, was in Squamish recently to speak to forestry workers.

While protest action involving First Nations peoples blocking industry projects often make headlines and are sensationalized images on our screens, there is a quiet majority of Indigenous workers proudly making tracks in resource industries, says the head of the Indigenous Resource Network (IRN). 

It is those “silent and silenced” voices, the IRN — a national non-partisan network of Indigenous workers and business interests involved in resource development industries, such as forestry, mining, energy, and fisheries — wants to elevate.

IRN reps were recently in Squamish to create content with local Indigenous forestry workers to highlight the importance of First Nations involvement in that industry.

"We want to ... give voice to what good looks like in resource development, and really profile Indigenous success and go a little deeper than just [resource development] providing the jobs," said IRN executive director John Desjarlais.

Desjarlais, who was in Regina, Sask. on Treaty 4 territory when he spoke to The Squamish Chief earlier this week, said the organization hopes to inform "good" government and industry policy as well as showcase Indigenous people working in various industries.

Highlighting Indigenous success

There can be a balance of First Nation values and resource extraction, Desjarlais said, and this is what IRN aims to show.

"How do you live as an Indigenous person, live your values, and then at the same time, participate in sustainable resource development? So, we are out there, able to talk to those people in industry, doing their thing. And then showcasing … the incredible talent that's being developed. Our goal is ... how do you operationalize reconciliation?" 

That goal led to the organization’s relationships in Squamish, he said.

Local forester

Squamish's Roger Lewis is one of those people working in the resource sector.

He recently completed a podcast and documentary with the Indigenous Resource Network. 

"I was able to involve some Squamish Nation members in the documentary. Past and present workers in forestry that were able to tell their stories and tell the history of their family members working in logging throughout the years," he said, in an email exchange with The Squamish Chief. 

Lewis is the superintendent of special projects with Sqomish Forestry LP, which falls within Nch’ḵay̓, the economic development arm of Sḵwx̱wú7mesh Úxwumixw (Squamish Nation).

Lewis, who was speaking on his own behalf, not for Nch’ḵay̓, oversees operations in the Nation's TFL 38 (Tree Farm Licence), and within the Nation's traditional territory. 

"The majority of my time is spent in the woods," he said. 

"We have quite the range of areas we operate and harvest in. One day, I will be in the Mamquam, the next in the Squamish, and another day, I could be checking on cedar salvage operations in the Elaho."

He added that other days he will be in meetings alongside forestry manager Maxime Lepine and the executive team at Nch’ḵay̓ or with Chartwell Resource group, which is Sqomish Forestry's engineering firm.

"I have often been involved with Squamish Nation membership, whether it be hiring for contract work — removing log jams in creeks, bridge maintenance, campsite cleanup, traffic control for fallers or even movies and commercials," he said.

This past summer, he brought around 20 youth to go cedar bark harvesting. 

"This was a very rewarding experience — to give back to the community and show some of the territory to youth who might have never seen these places."

Growing into logging

Lewis got his start in the forest industry in 1999 when he was 12 years old, working helicopter logging with his dad, Paul Lewis, and uncle, Earl Lewis.

"I was green; I had no experience with logging. So, I started out just shadowing my dad, learning how to walk the ground in different types of terrain, mainly steep terrain; I was also packing tools and fuel for him," he recalled.

This continued as summer work for the remainder of high school.

The first time Lewis picked up a chainsaw, his dad was bucking, or cutting, cedar shake blocks and asked if he wanted to try it out. He was 15 and jumped at the chance.

"[I] was a bit nervous 'cause it was a large saw and loud as hell," he said.

"After graduating from high school, I tried out a few different trades; no matter what I did, I always wanted to go back to logging. When I received a call to go logging, I would drop what I was doing at the time and go."

He learned more and more along the way. 

"I was taught by some very skilled loggers, who turned into my mentors down the road; I am very grateful for their knowledge and taking the time to train me."

Lewis said what he likes most about his job is being "hands-on" with the management team.

"I have an opportunity to have my say in what happens with operations instead of just being told," he said.


Desjarlais said that in the media, Indigenous folks are often portrayed as blocking projects, but that isn't the whole story.

"There is a silent and silenced majority of Indigenous people ... not feeling comfortable to talk about, what does progress look like?" 

He said the conversation becomes political and polarized, which isn't helpful. 

"Indigenous sentiment is often sensationalized," he added. 

"What does support look like? What does consensus look like? We don't emphasize and talk about those stories enough to try to give the tools to both the community and industry and government to try to move these things along. What does good regulation look like? What is good investment? [What does] Indigenous involvement in resource development look like? From a public perspective, that type of discourse, ... there's just not enough people standing up, telling their stories." 

Desjarlais said it can be "incredibly problematic" when non-Indigenous-led groups or high-profile people, such as celebrities, oppose things on behalf of Indigenous peoples or "weaponize" members of Indigenous communities who oppose projects. 

"Heavily funded NGOs and activist groups, advancing their own agendas and weaponizing some of that upset Indigenous sentiment," he said. 

His message to Indigenous folks who oppose projects is to speak for themselves, but not on behalf of others. 

"Continue to do what you need to do, educate yourself on all aspects, advance your rights, advance the rights of your community, but at the same time, it's problematic when we have groups speaking on behalf of people, where they don't have that type of authority, and they're not granted that type of authority by the community."


The IRN has come under scrutiny for perceived fossil fuel company support. 

Climate journalist Geoff Dembicki, of activist outlet Desmog, noted that Cenovus, a Calgary-based oil and gas company, has financially supported the IRN. 

But Desjarlais told Dembicki, “We do have funding sources from a variety of places, different industries, as well as different businesses, Indigenous business community associations, so it’s pretty diverse in terms of where we get our funding from.” 

Desjarlais confirmed to The Squamish Chief that its roots are Indigenous and it is not an industry mouthpiece. 

"It's not industry-led or organized," he said. "It is grassroots. We are governed and managed, and our directive and strategies are all developed by Indigenous people involved in the space. And so, no, there's no authority, as it relates to industry. We weren't born out of an industry interest or advocacy or anything like that."

Logging misconceptions

Lewis said one misconception he sees about logging is that it is "bad for the environment and loggers don't care about the land, or wildlife."

"Actually, it is the complete opposite, forestry workers really care about the land — it's our livelihood, where we go on our days off." 

Lewis added that there are many rules and regulations for harvesting cutblocks; there are retention tree zones, meaning no clear-cutting, wildlife reserves and riparian zones, which are boundaries close to water sources. 

"I often get asked if the cutblocks are planted after harvesting; not only is this the responsible thing to do, but it's also necessary for future harvesting and is required by law," he said.

Advice for youth

There are many different streams in the forest industry for those interested to pursue, Lewis said.

"I encourage anyone interested in working in forestry, especially youth, to reach out to myself or other forestry companies," Lewis said. 

"Get started at a young age and stick to it if you like working outdoors. You can learn a lot from experienced professionals if you come with an open mind and a can-do attitude. Your mindset is everything. Just like any other job, there will be tough days, but from what I've experienced there's more good than bad and always a bright side."

Find out more about IRN by visiting their website.