Joshua Wright and his family often travelled from their home in Washington state to spend time in the lush, ancient forests around southern Vancouver Island during their holidays. But the pandemic kept them home last summer, so instead Mr. Wright poked around on online satellite maps, making virtual visits to some of the places that had made a deep impression on him.
The 17-year-old climate activist had been campaigning to protect old-growth forests long before he spotted a new logging road leading into one of the greenest patches of the San Juan watershed. Having visited the area, home to some of British Columbia’s most magnificent ancient trees, he understood the significance. He “made a few calls” to conservationists, and, a week later, people he had never met were holding down a blockade at Fairy Creek.
The biggest act of civil disobedience in the province over logging since Clayoquot Sound had begun.
“The protestors and defendants are numerous, highly organized, and well-funded,” B.C. Supreme Court Justice Frits Verhoeven wrote in his April 1 decision to grant an injunction to the logging company, the Teal Jones Group, whose operations under Tree Farm Licence 46 near Port Renfrew have been frustrated by blockades since last August.
The origins of this conflict were nothing like what Justice Verhoeven saw in his courtroom.
Mr. Wright is a filmmaker who believes traditional environmentalism needs to be replaced by climate rebellion. “We are in a climate catastrophe. I felt I needed to do something. I’ve been an environmentalist since I was nine years old,” he said in an interview.
The path forward was indirect, and mainstream environmental groups in Canada are notably absent from the narrative.
Mr. Wright reached out to Max Wilbert, an activist with the radical environmental movement Deep Green Resistance. Mr. Wilbert put him in touch with Michelle Connolly, director of Conservation North, which is focused on protecting old-growth forests in the B.C. Interior. Ms. Connolly met Mr. Wright over a Zoom call.
“That’s how I became aware of Fairy Creek,” Ms. Connolly said. “It was Joshua looking at satellite data – he had observed the road going in. I was very impressed with his skills.”
Mr. Wright wanted to talk to people who were willing to do what he couldn’t do from his home in the U.S. “I said, ‘We need direct action,’ and they put me in touch with activists.” (Nine months later, he remains involved in the campaign. He describes himself in his Instagram profile as a co-creator of the Rainforest Flying Squad, the group that has been maintaining the blockades in and around Fairy Creek.)
Ms. Connolly introduced him to Carole Tootil to see if she was willing to go out and look at the site, a three-hour drive from her home in Nanaimo.
Following Mr. Wright’s co-ordinates, Ms. Tootil drove up a steep resource road and confirmed his long-distance assessment about the imminent logging of old-growth trees. “There’s so many roads blasted in there, it’s almost like they’re going to be picking the trees between the roads, like harvesting tomatoes,” she said. She returned home and e-mailed a local network of like-minded activists.
Within one week of Mr. Wright’s first call, Ms. Tootil gathered with about 30 people at Lizard Lake, near Port Renfrew, ready to take action. “So we threw up the first blockade that night.”
Ms. Tootil isn’t tied to any environmental organization, but she has been an outspoken critic of old-growth logging and was an activist looking for a cause. “I’ve been networking, looking for people who wanted to be activists and actually do something like a blockade, to just do something to save some of these forests from going down,” she explained in an interview. “This is people who have just stepped up, with a mission to save the last of these beyond-invaluable forests.”
The number of supporters grew as police enforcement raised the profile of the conflict. There have been more than 150 arrests since the RCMP began enforcing the injunction on May 18. Hundreds of supporters remain on the ground, disrupting Teal Jones’ logging in different parts of the area.
Ms. Tootil said the action is well organized and donations are streaming in – much of the money to be used for legal fees. But the campaign is leaderless. “So many people like myself, we’ve all been isolated since environmental groups, the NGOs, became more armchair-bound, click-tivists,” she said.
Some members of the protest are uncomfortable with a young U.S. activist sharing the spotlight. Eartha Muirhead, who was on one of the early Zoom calls involving B.C. activists and Mr. Wright, maintains she was the one who recruited him for technical support. “The blockades have evolved into autonomous zones within a very loose structure. Naming one person as an ‘organizer’ runs counter to how we operate,” she said. Mr. Wright, for his part, denies that he was recruited.
The tension around launching a movement is familiar to Valerie Langer, a veteran of B.C.’s first “war in the woods,” at the Clayoquot Sound blockades in the 1990s. She said the parallels between this campaign and that one are strong.
“It’s emanating, not from large environmental groups, but from a public sentiment, from a group of people who feel very strongly that the direction that the government and industry is taking is just not right,” she said.
She also recalled how hard it can be to generate public interest. “The people who’ve been on the blockade there [since August], there was a feeling amongst them for a long time: ‘Where is everybody?’ They held the line for everybody, for months and months and months, and were wondering why they were alone,” she said. “I had that experience and I held that feeling for years in Clayoquot. There was many lonely blockades, just a ragtag group of us.”
What changed, in both cases, was something the protesters couldn’t control.
“There are moments in time where elements of politics and public sentiment converge,” Ms. Langer said. “And then there’s a spark, and it catches the public imagination. And you can’t manufacture that.”
In the case of the Fairy Creek blockades, the NDP government has provided the spark, she said. During last October’s snap election campaign, the NDP promised to protect old-growth forests. Having won the election, the government has not done what was necessary. “They bungled it.”
Ms. Langer said progressives expect more from an NDP government, but it’s not the first time they have been disappointed. After Clayoquot Sound, Ms. Langer spent 20 years helping negotiate a groundbreaking agreement to protect ancient forests in the Great Bear Rainforest, a deal that was concluded by the former, BC Liberal government. That pact is now faltering because Premier John Horgan’s government hasn’t introduced the required enforcement mechanisms around logging.
“The NDP started the biggest fights in the history of the province with environmentalists,” Ms. Langer said. “They have lost trust and they need to rebuild that trust.”
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