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Frank Island

North Pacific swells crashing on Clayoquot's outer coast.

Steve Lawson was a warrior for the wilderness

June 1st, 2016

Written by Mark Hume for the Globe and Mail

Steve Lawson, environmental activist, master boatman and perhaps one of the few people who has ever looked into the eyes of both a cougar and a killer whale, was usually way out front.

When he died recently, surrounded by his family at his home on Wickaninnish Island near Tofino, an important voice in the wilderness was silenced.

In 1984, nearly a decade before he and some 800 others were arrested for blockading logging in Clayoquot Sound, Mr. Lawson was leading a small protest to stop MacMillan Bloedel Ltd. from cutting the old-growth forest on Meares Island.

The company tried to get an injunction barring him from the island, alleging he could be spiking trees to rip up the blades of chainsaws, but the B.C. Court of Appeal refused the application – and Mr. Lawson continued the battle, which grew until he and other environmentalists eventually won.

In 1988, long before the movement to stop the trophy hunt for bears became widespread in British Columbia, Mr. Lawson was chasing hunting guides around Clayoquot Sound. He disrupted their attempts to kill bears by making noise so that the animals would run away. In one incident, he made off with a recently shot animal before the hunters could claim it, so that its head and hide would not end up on a wall. He said he wanted its spirit to stay in the forest.

He fought from the very beginning against the spread of fish farms through the region. In 2001, when former B.C. Supreme Court justice Stuart Leggatt held a hearing in Tofino as part of a David Suzuki Foundation inquiry into salmon farming, Mr. Lawson showed up with the remains of a dead sea lion.

Mr. Lawson said he had found the animal weighed down with rock-filled fish-feed bags, and it had probably been shot by salmon farmers when it tried to break into salmon pens.

“To me, it’s an example of what is happening throughout the sound,” he said at the time. “It is an experiment that has gone horribly, horribly wrong.”

At the time, many dismissed Mr. Lawson’s concerns as unfounded, but in 2013, a fish-farming company admitted causing the drowning deaths of 65 sea lions, and earlier this year, another farm admitted shooting 15 sea lions over two days.

Mr. Lawson had an affinity for the water, crossing the turbulent tides and currents of Clayoquot Sound with such certain skill that some of the world’s top nature photographers sought him out as a guide.

He seemed to have a spiritual connection to both the sea and the land. Once he looked up while cutting firewood on the beach and saw a cougar crouched a few metres away at the end of the log he was working on. They locked eyes, and then the cougar thought better of its planned attack and vanished into the forest.

On another occasion, Mr. Lawson said he looked down a narrow cleft in the rocks on Wickaninnish Island and saw an orca turn in the quiet waters below to look up at him.

He saw those moments of communion with nature as sacred events, and his life had many of them. They inspired him to fight for the protection of Clayoquot Sound until cancer brought his battles to an end.

“As an Ojibwa native man, his heart was rooted in the natural world … to the wildlife around us and to the spiritual teachings he inherently knew,” his family said in a tribute. “A wisdom teacher and a patient, peaceful and dedicated man of few words, he was a leader in the most humble sense who strove for integrity and understanding and was an example to all who knew him. He went to prison for blockading the old-growth logging of the forests of Clayoquot Sound, standing beside many chiefs and members of First Nations communities in the defence and preservation of their lands and waters and all future generations.”

He and his wife, artist Susanne Hare, lived in a house they built largely from salvaged driftwood that seems so natural you might think it had grown out of the forest floor. They raised five children there, surrounded by wildness. Two of them, MitlaNova, who is known as Misty, and Oren Lawson, guide nature tours in Clayoquot Sound, showing visitors from around the world the marvels their father showed them. Another, Matahil Lawson, is a captain with the Coast Guard in Tofino and is a skilled boat designer who inherited his dad’s instinct for the sea. The others, Keila and Quoasinis, or Cosy, share his deep love for nature.

Steve Lawson is gone. But the great trees, and the bears he fought to protect – for his children and yours – are still there. That’s some monument.

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