British Columbia

Reflecting on B.C.'s Fairy Creek blockades one year later

After a year of blockades and more than 500 arrests, activists fighting to protect old-growth trees on Vancouver Island remain committed, while the B.C. government, local First Nation, and timber harvester are calling for an end to the conflict.

RCMP have made more than 500 arrests through injunction enforcement in the Fairy Creek Watershed area

Activists from Ridge Camp watch the sunset from the top of the Fairy Creek watershed. Most have vowed to continue their opposition despite the recently negotiated two-year deferment of logging in the Fairy Creek and central Walbran areas. (Kieran Oudshoorn/CBC)

It's been one year since a group of people opposed to the potential harvesting of old-growth trees in the Fairy Creek Watershed on Vancouver Island decided to block the construction of a logging road.  

Since then, protest camps and blockades have been set up throughout the area, delaying logging activity, triggering a court injunction and police enforcement, and leading to the arrest of more than 500 activists.

The protests also led to a two-year deferral of old-growth logging in the area while local First Nations title holders create resource stewardship plans for their lands.  

Carole Tootill says she was an armchair activist until she heard about old growth trees at risk in the Fairy Creek Watershed.

Tootill says she participated in the first blockade last August, after she emailed the activists she knew in Victoria. Word spread, she says, and about 30 people met at Lizard Lake near Port Renfrew on Aug. 9, 2020. 

"The next morning, industry did come up, all very amicable. We made sure we were sitting down, so we wouldn't look threatening," Tootill said.

"Two or three days later, the equipment was actually removed."

The movement gained supporters. A collective known as the Rainforest Flying Squad formed, and blockades became a fixture around Fairy Creek. 

The Rainforest Flying Squad is planning an anniversary event at the B.C. Legislature today, Aug. 9, featuring speakers, music and dancing. 

Meanwhile, the local Pacheedaht First Nation, provincial government and logging company say it's time for the protests and blockades to come to an end. 

More than 500 arrests 

The activities undertaken by protesters to impede the work of Surrey-based logging company Teal-Jones Group has included tree sitters, a person cantilevered over a cliff, people cemented into the ground and chained to trees. 

After months of blockades, Teal-Jones sought a court order to remove the demonstrators. It was granted on April 1, 2021 and police enforcement started May 17. 

Police prepare to arrest activists who chained themselves together to block a road into the headwaters of the Fairy Creek watershed on Saturday May 21, 2021. (Brad MacLeod)

In the months that followed, daily arrests have been a common occurrence, with 523 as of Aug. 9.

RCMP say there were no arrests between Aug. 6 and 8.

Most of the arrests have been for breaching the court injunction, more than a fifth for obstruction. 

B.C. RCMP Staff Sgt. Janelle Shoihet says officers from across the province have come in to enforce the court-ordered injunction. 

Logging company Teal Jones says it remains committed to "responsible and sustainable forest management" and plants more than a million trees every year.

"It is well past time for the blockades to end," said Gerrie Kotze, Teal Jones vice-president and CFO.

Kotze points out recent allegations about the illegal cutting of live trees and smoking in an extreme forest fire hazard in the dry forests.

First Nation and province agree on deferral

The Fairy Creek Watershed resides in the traditional territory of the Pacheedaht First Nation.

In early June the Pacheedaht, along with two other First Nations in Southern Vancouver Island, requested a two-year deferral of old-growth logging while they work on resource-stewardship plans for the lands.

The B.C. government agreed and says the entire Fairy Creek watershed is included in the deferral. However, blockades have continued nearby.  Protesters say areas surrounding Fairy Creek contain old-growth trees that Teal-Jones could still harvest. 

While demonstrators say they have thousands of supporters, the Pacheedaht First Nation isn't counted among them.

The nation has asked for the forestry operations it has approved, as well as the ones the province has approved, to continue without disruption and for protesters to leave their territory.  

Activists at a protest site known as Ridge Camp near the headwaters of Fairy Creek on southwestern Vancouver Island rest and warm their feet by the fire. Some have been in the camp for months. (Kieran Oudshoorn/CBC)

In a recent statement, the Pacheedaht First Nation condemned the "disrespectful and anti-social actions of anti-forestry protesters," citing vandalism, unsanitary camp conditions, loss of Pacheedaht access, increased wildfire hazards, and unlawful tree cutting, among other issues. 

"The Pacheedaht community does not believe that blockades, violence, theft and destruction of the environment practised by the protesters offers a productive path towards sound forestry management decision making," the nation said in the statement.

The Pacheedaht asked for decisive enforcement actions to restore law and order.   

Rainforest Flying Squad spokesperson Kathy Code says the trees have to be protected through various means. 

"We intend to hang in there through whatever means and avenues that we can," Code said. "Whether it's legal, whether it's negotiations, we're open to whatever's available that somebody is willing to set up." 

New old-growth strategy for B.C.

The province has also urged protesters to give up the blockades after a year of conflict. 

"The passion British Columbians have for their forests is inspiring, and we have heard you," the Ministry of Forests said in a statement. "We know there is a better way to move forward as we change our approach to old growth management."  

The province says it is at work implementing the recommendations of last year's Old Growth Strategic Review, issued by an independent panel commissioned by the government, which advocated for the deferral of old-growth forest harvesting over 3,527 square kilometres.

A protester is cantilevered over a creek at the end of a sailboat mast being held down with a car at a Fairy Creek old-growth logging protest, near Port Renfrew, B.C. (Mike McArthur/CBC)

Reflecting on the past year watching the Fairy Creek events, panel member Garry Merkel says the impact of activists has a part to play in overhauling B.C.'s old-growth strategy. 

"If something goes quiet for a little while, sometimes people make the mistake of thinking it's no longer important when it actually is," Merkel said.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Cory Correia

Associate Producer and Video Journalist

Send tips or comments to cory.correia@cbc.ca

With files from Courtney Dickson

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