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Blockades and arrests in the Vancouver Island wilderness may give us flashbacks to 1993, but tactics, technology and the role of First Nations make this a very different moment

Elder Bill Jones of the Pacheedaht First Nation, middle, holds up his hat as he joins anti-logging activists marching through an exclusion zone set up by the police near Port Renfrew, B.C., on Aug. 22.Photography by Jen Osborne/The Globe and Mail

Arno Kopecky’s new book The Environmentalist’s Dilemma: Promise and Peril in an Age of Climate Crisis will be published in October.

The Fairy Creek blockades on southwest Vancouver Island have already become one of the biggest civil disobedience campaigns in Canadian history, measured by arrests.

They are poised to surpass the mark from 28 years ago in Clayoquot Sound, when 856 people were arrested for most of the same reasons as today. As of Thursday, Fairy Creek had logged 843 arrests. The tally’s ticking upward every day.

At first glance it all looks terribly familiar. Once again, in almost exactly the same place, the clear-cutting of ancient irreplaceable trees on Indigenous turf sparks righteous public outrage. People from all walks of life arrive to jam the gears of industry with the only tool they have: their bodies. The state throws its support behind the loggers. A daily ritual of obstruction and arrest extends for weeks, then months. How much longer can it last? And how can it be that a second war in the woods has erupted, three decades after we thought we won the first one?

People try to get pepper spray out of their eyes on Aug. 21, when a medium-sized crowd tried to push against the police exclusion zone.

But there are major differences between 1993 and 2021, changes that are central to this story. As with every conflict, narrative is crucial here – the forces that want to keep logging have one tale to tell, those opposed have another, and the public will decide which one is more compelling. To complicate matters, it isn’t always clear what’s being logged, or which side the surrounding First Nations are on.

The biggest narrative salvo to date has been the formal agreement reached in early June between B.C. and the leaders of the three First Nations whose territories are affected by the blockades. At the request of those nations, the province deferred all logging within the valley for which the blockades are named. “We have allowed the title holders to make decisions on their lands,” Premier John Horgan declared, brandishing the agreement as proof that his government was “embarking on the journey to transform forestry.” Then he – and the elected chiefs of the Pacheedaht, Ditidaht, and Huu-ay-aht Nations – told the blockaders to go home. It seemed to the public, briefly, as if the conflict had been resolved. Government had allied with First Nations, a manoeuvre that should mollify concerned environmentalists and Indigenous rights advocates alike.

It was a savvy bit of PR.

The only thing that had really been protected – and temporarily at that – was Fairy Creek itself, as the blockaders knew; old growth logging is still permitted up to the rim of the 2,000-hectare watershed, throughout the surrounding valleys, and all across the province. What’s more, it soon became apparent that the elected chiefs of those three nations didn’t speak for all in their communities.

That was the narrative the blockaders fought back with. It worked.

New recruits came flooding in, and the police footprint expanded accordingly. More than six hundred arrests later, the one thing everyone agrees on is the importance of establishing what this is really all about.

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*Non-sensitive occurrence area is a specific geographic location. It represents a habitat capable of sustaining or contributing to the survival of specified species that are not defined as "Endangered Species.”

the globe and mail, source: wildnerness committee

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*Non-sensitive occurrence area is a specific geographic location. It represents a habitat capable of sustaining or contributing to the survival of specified species that are not defined as "Endangered Species.”

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the globe and mail, source: wildnerness committee (Geoff Senichenko);

Based on B.C. and Federal Government Mapping Data; b.c. government


The key to that lies in seeing what’s changed since the last war in the woods, and what hasn’t.

The most obvious development is technological. “In Clayoquot Sound in 1993, we didn’t have cellphones – we didn’t have internet yet,” says Tzeporah Berman, a leader of the Clayoquot campaign and today one of Canada’s foremost environmental advocates. “We would do the blockade in the morning and then drive to the Friends of Clayoquot office, type up a press release and get it out by fax.”

By contrast, blockaders at Fairy Creek can get pepper-sprayed in the morning and watch the footage go viral by dinner. That’s given today’s blockaders an immense advantage, especially in light of all that pepper – which brings us to the second major change: the rise in police aggression.

A surge of filmed arrests in mid-August exposed a degree of violence that RCMP spokesmen have struggled to explain. Officers deliberately tore the masks off blockaders, dragged them by their hair and pepper-sprayed their eyes at point-blank range. It was bad enough that several MPs demanded that Public Safety Minister Bill Blair investigate the situation.

The bad press seems to have chastened the RCMP. Arrests have slowed dramatically in recent days, giving the blockaders a chance to retake and fortify positions they’d been pushed out of.

At top, police close in to arrest protesters at what used to be River Camp on Aug. 20. At bottom, a group of protesters lie on the ground at the blockades four days later.

Still, it’s true that the blockaders’ tactics are also more extreme than they were in 1993, when arrests were more of a symbolic ploy for attention than a physical attempt to halt logging. This reveals a third major shift since Clayoquot: The environmental stakes are immeasurably higher. Today, B.C.’s wildfires are producing more carbon dioxide than Alberta’s oil sands, and ancient coastal rainforests are valued as much for the carbon they store as the biodiversity they support. It’s not just that we’re logging the last ancient trees; it’s that we’re logging the last trees in North America that don’t burn.

Of course it is also about old growth for its own sake. Clayoquot may have slowed the carnage (B.C.’s Forest Practices Code was revamped after 1993, drastically reducing the size of allowable clear-cuts), but nobody stopped logging old growth altogether. Now 3 per cent is left – more or less. People quibble over this figure, along with the rate at which we’re chipping it down to zero, but nobody disputes the fact that most of this province’s original old growth is gone. Mr. Horgan campaigned for re-election less than a year ago on a promise to enact a moratorium on old growth logging.

Yet the logging continues, not just condoned but enforced by state power. How does Mr. Horgan explain this? The answer brings us to the fourth and most devilish difference between Clayoquot and Fairy Creek, the one on which everything may hinge: the question of Indigenous support.

In 1993 there was no ambiguity about where First Nations stood in the matter. Years before white protesters showed up, the elected chiefs of the Clayoquot and Ahousaht bands took British Columbia and MacMillan Bloedel (the logging company) to court in order to halt the logging of Meares Island, in the heart of the Sound. They won an injunction in 1985, protecting Meares Island but not the surrounding area. Negotiations over the fate of the rest of Clayoquot Sound dragged on for years, and it was only when those negotiations collapsed that the first war in the woods began.

“The Blockades in Clayoquot Sound grew out of Indigenous organizing,” says Ms. Berman, recalling the parallel campaigns to stop the clear-cuts – one on the logging roads, led by white protesters from all over the world; the other at the negotiating table, led by the Nuu-Chah-Nulth Tribal Council, a coalition of First Nations spread throughout the region. Because of the sensitivity of those negotiations, and the legal vulnerability of the injunction on Meares Island, the Sound’s Indigenous citizens refrained from participating in the 1993 blockades. But they didn’t repudiate them, either.

“They were under severe pressure by the government and MacMillan Bloedel to ask us to leave,” Ms. Berman remembers. “But they didn’t. And as a result they got a lot more than they were being offered in those early days – they got full control over decision-making on forestry in Clayoquot Sound.”

Two protesters sit in tripods with the intention of slowing down road traffic. The words on the sign between them, 'land back,' have been a rallying cry for Indigenous nations and their allies in recent years.

Today, the blockades at Fairy Creek are headed by Indigenous leaders like Bill Jones, a respected Pacheedaht elder. Indigenous supporters have flooded in from across the province and beyond, becoming the collective voice of the blockades. In many circles, “Fairy Creek” is synonymous with the struggle for Indigenous autonomy against the forces of colonization.

But the awful catch remains: The elected chiefs of the Pacheedaht, Ditidaht and Huu-ay-aht, whose nations all receive a percentage of the logging revenues at stake, have repeatedly told the protesters to go home.

“It will be the people of Pacheedaht that will be deciding how much old-growth to save, how much old-growth to log,” Pacheedaht Chief Jeff Jones told The Narwhal in July.

“They’re just starting to gain some economic footing,” Huu-ay-aht Chief Robert Dennis said in that same article, “and then – bang – somebody comes along and says ‘Oh, we don’t want you to be economically viable. We don’t want you to have an economy through old-growth forestry … and, by the way you dumb Indians, you don’t know how to manage your forest, so we’re going to say how to manage it for you.’”

Those statements allow Mr. Horgan to insist that he’s enforcing old-growth logging not in spite of Indigenous rights, but because of them. He’s clearly learned the same lesson as everyone else in the 28 years between Clayoquot Sound and Fairy Creek: You can’t win these kinds of fights any more without a few First Nations on your side.

A man in a safety vest, possibly a logger, picks up debris left after an RCMP raid on Aug. 26.

How to wade into this quagmire without betraying any principles? Hoping for an answer to that question, I called the Grand Chief of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs, Stewart Phillip, and read him Chief Dennis’s quote. “How does a white guy like me,” I then asked, “get involved in this protest without abusing the dignity of Indigenous leaders who are trying to do right by their people?”

“You do it by realizing that’s not the issue,” Grand Chief Phillip said. “You can’t simply parcel this off as an Indigenous cultural rights issue. You can’t parcel it off as an economic issue. You must remain focused on the fact that old growth forests in British Columbia are at the point of extinction. We all have a responsibility to do whatever we can to protect them.”

That’s a strange statement to take solace from. But it reminded me that there is a way out of this mess, one that would honour Canada’s obligation to First Nations, their land, and the Paris Agreement all at once. We could pay them not to log their old growth. No one has made them that offer. It’s not a fantasy. The federal government has earmarked $2.3-billion to protect 25 per cent of Canada’s land base by 2025. In light of this, federal Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson’s recent offer of $50-million to preserve B.C.’s old growth is no less beguiling than Mr. Horgan’s insistence that he’s protecting the Pacheehdaht’s own interests.

There are a lot of things going on in the world that Canada can’t do much about. The destruction of B.C.’s ancient trees isn’t one of them.

Three women keep watch at the blockade on a bridge near Port Renfrew on Aug. 25.


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