What do you do when everything you have come to love is threatened with destruction? Well, if you are Richard Desjardins, you make a documentary to use as a tool in your defense. What was done initially to protect the area around his beloved chalet in Abitibi that was being encroached by forest companies scratching at his doorstep became a province wide battle to save Quebec’s boreal forests.
You may have seen him before. He participates in press conferences with Grand Chief Ted Moses when needed and tours extensively. Desjardins is a noted Québécois musician and documentary movie maker. He says the idea for a documentary to save the forests came about in 1994.
“I was there in a chalet by a lake, it was beautiful, then my father showed me a clear cut,” he recounts. Horrified by what he saw, he decided he could do something. The twist in this story is that his father and most of his family members have been involved in the destruction, as forest technicians for the plethora of companies that come bulldozing through.
So, in 1998, he and Robert Monderie made L’erreur boréale, a documentary on the clearcutting destruction in Northern Quebec. In 1998, the forest industry was responsible for 70,000 jobs and $10 million in exports. Desjardins says that there has always been too much ineffeciency in the industry and now it is being brought to the north. “We could probably satisfy our economic needs by more effeciently harvesting down south instead of in the boreal forest.” Desjardins says that enough wood to fill 10 Montreal Olympic stadiums is cut a year, but three are wasted.
The footage shows the destruction that goes on but the industry and the government paint the picture with words such as “selective cutting.” It shows the bird’s eye view of huge clear cuts, with thin bands of trees that hide the open wounds from the road or the river, giving the illusion of a healthy forest. Meanwhile, there is a massive monster of a machine that locks onto a 50-foot tree with mechanical arms, a saw comes out from the bottom and swipes it free from its trunk. Then it proceeds to shear off all the branches and tosses the future two-by-four among its fallen comrades on the back of a logging truck. In its sideswipe of an alley-oop toss, it knocks over the other smaller, younger trees in its path as though they were blades of grass.
This is what he speaks of when he says that they can call it what they want, but once those massive machines come clambouring through the woods like a tank in war, nothing is safe and few trees will survive.
The film also features Cree Isaac Dixon, who shares his thoughts on what happened. Dejardins says that 55 traplines were within cutting areas, that 42 were destroyed. Dixon says that the Cree themselves contributed to the destruction of the territory because a cloud had been over their heads. “They came and they insulted us and mocked our way of life,” he says in the film. “We wanted to talk with them, they wanted to cut and raze the forest. They didn’t ask us anything, and we were never consulted about any of it.”
While the Paix des Braves has, in theory, changed that approach, in reality it remains to be seen. Hopes are high that all parties will keep their word.
The film ends with comments by Desjardins that the government and the forest companies are buddy-buddy. He asks that the ministry responsible for the environment do its job, to remember the importance of the forests.
Desjardins says that things haven’t changed much since the movie was made six years ago. “They still cut the same amount of wood in the same way, its just that the wording has changed,” Desjardins said. “Between 10 and 15 thousand trees in one week can be cut and made ready for milling by one machine.”
Still, he has not lost hope. He says that the movie is a tool in the fights against companies and their sidestepping of issues and that it works. “The minister of forestry came by yesterday to say that the forest in front of me, an area of 300 square kilometres, will always be a protected area: no mining, no forestry.”
This is only one area that he has helped to secure. Through a regional organization called L’action boréale since 2000, eight areas in the northern region have been allocated as protected areas, which are basically untouchable.
He estimates that 60 million trees in the region are cut each year, and that within seven years there won’t be any left. “Then they will sell my albums,” he says jokingly.
Desjardins recently finished a three month tour and will be performing at the First Peoples Fest put on by Terres en Vue as part of the Red, White and Blues show. He will also be touring in the fall.