In Vancouver Island’s Fairy Creek watershed, environmentalists have been blockading logging roads since last August. But over the past week, the conflict they’ve been preparing for has finally arrived, as the RCMP showed up in large numbers to begin making arrests.
So far, nearly 50 people have been arrested, most of them for defying a court injunction obtained by the logging company, Teal-Jones, that has rights to the area defined as Tree Farm Licence 46.
Joshua Wright, a spokesperson for the protesters, said more supporters were arriving on Sunday to maintain pressure on the province.
“They can make arrest after arrest, but we will keep doing this until Premier [John] Horgan keeps his promise and protects old-growth forests,” he said. “That is the only path to de-escalate this.”
The protesters say they are occupying the last unprotected intact old-growth valley in the region, with rare yellow cedar trees as old as 2,000 years. The towering old-growth trees in the San Juan Valley have become a destination for nature enthusiasts, but also a valuable resource to the forest industry.
At the headwaters of Fairy Creek, one of the blockades was established adjacent to a waterfall, high in the mountains. Police arrived on Saturday seeking to clear a key access road into the area that Teal-Jones intends to log. They found four protesters chained together, and another dressed as a bear who was locked to a concrete structure that required a jackhammer to extract.
The roots of this campaign can be traced back almost three decades, to Clayoquot Sound, where environmentalists blockaded commercial logging operations in a campaign known as the War in the Woods. More than 850 people were arrested, and British Columbia’s forestry practices came under global scrutiny.
Tzeporah Berman, one of the organizers of the Clayoquot Sound demonstrations, was arrested with five others at the waterfall camp on Saturday. Her support was hailed by organizers who have aimed all along to make this campaign the War of the Woods II.
But police are facing a far different campaign. At Clayoquot, there was one blockade and day after day, people stepped forward to be arrested. In and around Fairy Creek, there have been dozens of camps over the past nine months. Organizers say there are currently more than 300 supporters spread out at five locations – and an unknown number of protesters who are hidden in the trees, seeking to disrupt logging operations.
“The challenge is, it is such a large area and there are a lot of people everywhere, there are people living up in the trees,” said Sergeant Christopher Manseau, spokesman for the B.C. RCMP.
RCMP officers and equipment have been brought in from around the province, although he would not say how many officers are involved to try to clear the way for Teal-Jones’s operations.
“We feel this is going to be an ongoing thing,” Sgt. Manseau said. “This is going to be a long operation – and we are not in a rush.”
The organizers of the protest, calling themselves the Rainforest Flying Squad, have called on the media to witness the arrests, hoping to bring pressure on the provincial government that has declined to put a stop to logging old-growth forests such as this.
The B.C. New Democratic Party government has promised reforms to old-growth logging, but has yet to deliver in a substantive way. The protest has mostly taken place in the Premier’s riding, on southern Vancouver Island. The area has been heavily logged for decades, but still contains some of the most iconic old-growth stands in the province.
The campaign has kept Mr. Horgan in its sights. “John Horgan, hear our plea, now is the time to save these ancient trees,” a group of protesters sang as police worked to extract them from a heavy chain to arrest them on Saturday.
The protesters call themselves land defenders, and have highlighted the status of Indigenous supporters to show they are speaking with the authority of those who have been guardians of these lands for centuries.
But that narrative is complicated. Fairy Creek logging has been approved by the local First Nation band, the Pacheedaht, whose leadership have told the protesters to leave their territory. The band has three sawmills of its own, an important source of revenue. The band-council office was closed on the weekend and at the band’s Gordon River reserve at Port Renfrew, signs were posted denying access to visitors because of the pandemic.
Not all Pacheedaht support the official band position, including youth and elders who have backed the blockades.
Similar to the rest of the Premier’s riding of Langford-Juan de Fuca, there are divisions within the Pacheedaht and other Nuu-chah-nulth nations in the region.
Victor Peter, a 19-year-old member of the Pacheedaht, said protecting old-growth trees is a matter of following his traditional teachings. Another band member, Patrick Victor-Jones, 23, also has come out to support the blockades, adding that there is no unanimity among the nation on the issue.
Forestry is still an economic driver in the Premier’s riding and tensions between logging crews and the protesters have been high. Those who were arrested on Saturday and taken to the RCMP detachment in Lake Cowichan passed a noisy rally of forestry workers, who sought to remind them that the disruption of a legal logging operation is affecting their livelihood.
Throughout the region, road signs warning traffic of logging trucks have been defaced with anti-logging messages. At Mesachie Lake, graffiti on a road sign responded: “Save the loggers.”
Mr. Horgan must navigate both those worlds, but the Indigenous issue is the most complex. Unlike the days of the Clayoquot Sound protests, the B.C. government is now legally obliged to seek free, prior and informed consent from Indigenous peoples when making decisions on resource matters.
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