Peter Knighton, pictured on his boat before his Qwa-ba-diwa home. (Friends of Carmanah Walbran photo)
A man whose very existence embodied his tribe’s right to protect its traditional territory in Southwestern Vancouver Island was laid to rest in June. His-tah-too-qua, who was otherwise known as Peter Knighton, drowned on June 5 after his boat capsized during a trip to Port Renfrew for supplies. The 78-year-old regularly made such trips along Vancouver Island’s rugged and unpredictable coast from Qwa-ba-diwa, the Knighton family’s ancestral home halfway down the West Coast Trail at the edge of the dense old-growth forest of the Carmanah Valley.
Knighton’s boat capsized a few kilometres from where he was born in Clo-oose, back when there was a settlement there. As Knighton retold in the document titled Carmanah and Her Hereditary Guardians, Canada’s Department of Indian Affairs made the people of Carmanah move to Clo-oose in 1939. He wrote that no natural harbour existed at Carmanah and his parents, who had four children at the time, were already accustomed to travelling to Clo-oose for groceries delivered by a ship.
“In order to get to Clo-oose my parents and my grandparents had to hurry about seven miles on the wet sand at low tide,” wrote Knighton. “They would each carry one child on top of their carry baskets, except for the older two who could run themselves part of the way. More than one trip was required. Dry staples like sugar and flour were obtained in this fashion to supplement their own home-grown or caught diet.”
As a young child Knighton was moved from Clo-oose to attend residential school. In early adulthood he worked for a chemical company in the Vancouver area for over 20 years, then met his wife Monique in 1984, who grew up in Montreal.
In 1986 he was pulled back to Vancouver Island upon the request of his father, who was an elected councillor of the Ditidaht First Nation. Long before this time the people of Clo-oose had been moved to the Malachan No. 11 reserve by Nitinaht Lake, retold Knighton in his writing.
The next year he was elected councillor, then chief councillor of the Ditidaht First Nation. But by December 1989 Knighton resigned from the role, citing the importance of dedicating his efforts to serve the hereditary system of the Qua-ba-diwa, rather than an elected model imposed by the federal government.
“I gave notice to the general membership present that the Qua-ba-diwa people had now started a process effectively to demonstrate their paramount autonomous status and jurisdiction as the hereditary government of the Qwa-ba-diwa territory,” he wrote in Carmanah and Her Hereditary Guardians.
In 1991 Peter and Monique Knighton permanently moved to Carmanah, erecting a shelter with an air mattress on the beach. This would become Chez Monique, a restaurant and store in the middle of the West Coast Trail where hikers drawn to the route from around the world would stop for a meal and a rare replenishment of supplies.
The next year Peter Cressey met the couple for the first time at a roadblock for old-growth logging in the area. The Knightons were holding their tribe’s flag.
“They were blockading Fletcher Challenge’s logging operations in the Walbran Valley,” recalled Cressey. “For an environmentalist back then it was a big eye-opener to be introduced to Indigenous sovereignty. I think that was a big learning curve for us, and Peter was a big part of that.”
In 1990 the lower Carmanah Valley was recognized as a provincial park, but it wasn’t until 1995 that the upper Carmanah and the Walban valleys would be granted that same protection. As the logging of Vancouver Island’s old-growth forest earned international attention, Knighton pushed hard for the protection of the Carmanah and Walbran Valleys during early 1990s. He also advocated for the Qua-ba-diwa to be recognized as an independent band.
The two causes seemed to be inherently interconnected. In Carmanah, My Carmanah, an address Knighton made to the United Nations in Switzerland in 1992, he described his tribe’s deep connection to their land while calling on the international court to stop the “holocaust of nature” that was unfolding.
“The human people of the Carmanah, the Qwa-ba-diwa, like the winged people of the air, the furred people of the land, the finned people of the water, the tree people, the stone people, and all else that makes Carmanah what She is – our Mother Earth – constitute the burden that the hereditary Chiefs Nytom are charged to carry, to protect, forever,” wrote Knighton to the UN. “Most recently the federal and provincial governments are promoting an obscene scheme to leave a ribbon of rainforest along the west coast of Vancouver Island. Beyond this ribbon the rainforest will be clearcut and obliterated, through to the east coast of Vancouver Island, within years that can be counted upon the fingers of one hand. My heart breaks. My soul rebels.”
That year Knighton even signed an order from the Court of Qua-ba-diwa, directed to the Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, Chief Justice William Esson and B.C. Premier Michael Harcourt. This order directed the federal and provincial governments not to exercise jurisdiction over Qwa-ba-diwa territory, while granting caretakers of the Qwa-ba-diwa the right to interfere with the logging operations of MacMillan Bloedel and Fletcher Challenge.
“There were multi-national corporations that were in there, taking the trees and shipping them abroad,” said Cressey. “He talked about his people as being stumps. There were clearcuts of stumps, giant stumps - people’s potential cut off by colonialism.”
Despite Knighton’s determination, the Qwa-ba-diwa were never recognized by the federal government as an independent nation. In 1992 this was expressed in a letter from Jean Charest, who was minster of environment, which cited a lack of historical data to support the claim.
But for those who knew him this took nothing away from the authenticity of the Qwa-be-diwa’s most publicized advocate, said Cressey.
“Hanging out with Peter, you had the sense that…the sea was kind of in him. In just his presence he had this calm in him that was from the land and where he spent so much time,” Cressey said. “Winter, summer, all year round he would be in sandals and shorts with a checkered shirt on. He didn’t seem to worry about the cold, he was a very hardy man.”
Peter Knighton was predeceased by Monique, who died on New Year’s Eve in the Victoria General Hospital.