British Columbia

Fairy Creek activists say RCMP more aggressive when no observers present, question police accountability

RCMP have arrested more than 820 people protesting old-growth logging at the Fairy Creek watershed on Vancouver Island. Media access to the area has been difficult. Activists say aggressive enforcement has continued, claiming police are more forceful when there are no observers present.

Police denied journalists vehicle access to Fairy Creek blockades last week; told them to walk 7 kilometres

RCMP and old-growth logging demonstrators stood face to face in silence last week, before police pushed the group back to access a structure a demonstrator was harnessed to. (Adam van der Zwan/CBC)

On a recent afternoon in the Fairy Creek watershed on Vancouver Island a group of about 40 old-growth logging demonstrators stood face to face with a solid line of silent RCMP officers at the River Camp blockade northeast of Port Renfrew. 

A demonstrator, acting as a liaison with police, informed the group the police would be forcing them up the road in order to access a tripod structure to which a protester was harnessed. Many of the protesters willingly dispersed.

Police enforcement that afternoon, Aug. 26, was relatively calm, measured, and based largely on communication.

It's a contrast from the aggressive enforcement tactics police have used against the protesters, such as their use of pepper spray on Aug. 21, which was recorded and shared on YouTube the same day. 

The RCMP began enforcing a Supreme Court-ordered injunction barring protesters from obstructing logging activities in the Fairy Creek watershed in May. Protesters have been blocking lumber company Teal Jones from accessing old-growth trees in the Fairy Creek watershed for a year.

A demonstrator secured himself in a trench that was dug across the road. RCMP attempted to extract him Aug. 26. (Adam van der Zwan / CBC)

Since enforcement began, RCMP have arrested 824 people, 72 of whom were previously arrested. 

Demonstrators told CBC that police tactics were less aggressive in the immediate aftermath of the pepper spray video, but said officers have more recently reverted back to aggressive enforcement methods, particularly when journalists and other observers aren't present.

Protest actions dictate police response, says RCMP

As of Aug. 25, the Civilian Review and Complaints Commission for the RCMP said 21 of 91 complaints it has received about the conduct of police enforcement at Fairy Creek fall within its mandate and will be investigated.

RCMP spokesperson Sgt. Chris Manseau said the police commander ultimately decides enforcement tactics.

"It's the actions of the protesters that dictate the actions of the police," said Manseau. "[On Aug. 26] they were calm, they were quiet. Obviously, our members would much prefer to take those routes." 

Momo, a demonstrator from Pender Island, says police enforcement was tame for a while after a seven-minute video of officers pepper-spraying protesters was published online. (Adam van der Zwan / CBC)

Several activists spoke to CBC News on the condition they be identified only by nicknames because they face potential prosecution. 

Momo, one of the demonstrators, said that after the pepper-spray video was published "[the police] let everybody [at the blockade] come close enough so that we could see the arrests and extractions."

Now, he said, they're largely back to keeping everyone, including the media, at a distance.

Journalists told to walk 7 km to blockades

On the morning of Aug. 26, at a police checkpoint northeast of Port Renfrew, an officer who identified himself as a media relations officer, and was later identified by the RCMP as Cpl. Ian Sim, told journalists including the CBC they had no choice but to hike seven kilometres to access a blockade.

Cpl. Sim told journalists the RCMP would not be driving them up in a police vehicle, as they normally would, due to logistical and liability concerns. He also said journalists wouldn't be allowed to drive themselves up, as they have in the past, explaining it was his first week working in the area, and he was following orders.

CBC journalists carried heavy camera equipment up the Granite Main logging road while it rained — around 350 metres in elevation — to witness RCMP enforce the injunction. Once at the site, officers allowed CBC News to move in and speak with demonstrators at the site of arrests. 

This comes after public concerns have arisen about how police actions at the Fairy Creek blockades could be limiting freedom of the press. 

A protester is shown harnessed to the top of a tripod made of logs last Thursday. (Adam van der Zwan / CBC)

Earlier this month, the B.C. Supreme Court ruled that the RCMP's media exclusion zones and checkpoints are unlawful, given they unreasonably limit press freedoms, and that a "principal purpose of the injunction is to maintain public access to roads in the injunction area."

Sgt. Manseau apologized for the incident, and said he didn't know details so he could not comment further. He said journalists should have full vehicle access to the blockades because it "benefits everyone."

Police more aggressive when not being observed, alleges protester

A demonstrator who identified herself as Sunshine said police tactics "have changed several times" depending on which group of officers are there, adding they now tend to "do their dirtiest work" when they know the media and legal observers aren't present.

Sunshine said in the past week one group of all-new officers was "very aggressive," particularly with Indigenous women and other people of colour.

"This type of violence is not new," Sunshine said. "A lot of people have woken up to what's happening because they saw it last weekend."

Indigenous demonstrator Raven said she and another protester were "brutally attacked" by police last week when she and her friend expressed the need to urinate. The CBC could not verify this claim after sending it to the RCMP.

An old-growth logging protester fastened herself to a log and waited for RCMP to attempt to extract and arrest her on Aug. 26. (Adam van der Zwan / CBC)

Sgt. Manseau said the RCMP does not target anyone based on their race. 

It's "very concerning that allegations are being made in very general terms," he said, noting police actions are "well-documented, including the use of body-worn cameras," though he said not every officer at the blockades wears one.

Manseau said police actions are taken "regardless of attendance by any other observers."

Other protesters told CBC they were exhausted and feeling residual trauma from the violence they've experienced at the blockades since the pepper spray incident.

Pacheedaht Elder Bill Jones, a figurehead for the old-growth logging protests, told CBC the police "attack the [demonstrators] when they feel they're at their weakest" and suspects police will become more aggressive in the coming weeks. He said he expects support for protesters will strengthen, despite the possibility that a number of activists will return to school in September. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Adam van der Zwan is a journalist based in Victoria, British Columbia. You can send him a news tip at adam.vdz@cbc.ca.

With files from Kathryn Marlow, Bethany Lindsay, David P. Ball, and the Canadian Press

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