How B.C.'s newest war in the woods shows the complex web of environmental politics
With over 800 arrests, the Fairy Creek blockade could soon become Canada's largest act of civil disobedience
A little over a year ago, the first protesters arrived at the Fairy Creek watershed in southern Vancouver Island to stop logging in the old-growth forest. Today, the blockade — which could soon become the largest act of civil disobedience in Canadian history, by number of arrests — is representative of the complex way environmental issues could play out in the federal election.
"More and more people understanding that all of those issues that drive policing, racial justice, Indigenous sovereignty, economic development are issues of climate justice, that they are threaded together," said Grace Nosek, a Vancouver-based climate activist and PhD student.
The Fairy Creek watershed is one of Vancouver Island's last remaining unprotected old-growth stands of coastal temperate rainforest.
Some of the massive trees in the area — like yellow cedars and Douglas firs — are up to 2,000 years old, support a great variety of ecological diversity and store a lot of carbon. The area is the traditional territory of the Pacheedaht First Nations, and is located in the federal electoral district of the Cowichan-Malahat-Langford.
Protesters arrived to the site, a two-hour drive from Victoria, a year ago to prevent Surrey-based logging company Teal-Jones Group from working. The company obtained an injunction against the protesters on April 1, which the RCMP have enforced since mid-May. Over 800 people have since been arrested. There has been criticism of the actions of the RCMP enforcing the order, including accusations of an excessive use of force and obstruction of the press.
In the meantime, the Pacheedaht First Nation has asserted its own rights to determine what happens in its territory. The nation asked for a two-year deferral on old-growth logging in Fairy Creek from the province (which granted it), and have asked protesters to leave.
While forestry itself is under provincial jurisdiction, the protest — which has echoes of B.C.'s first war in the woods in Clayoquot Sound in the 1990s — embodies a set of larger political issues: climate change, the role of policing, economic development and Indigenous self-determination.
"People who are interested in the intersection of those issues might think about it at the ballot box," said Nosek.
A complex web of issues
It's playing out in complex ways at the local level.
The federal incumbent in the riding — and favourite to win based on current polling — is NDP candidate Alistair MacGregor. His focus, if elected, would be to promote Indigenous-led stewardship in the area.
"It's incumbent upon all of us to really give those [First] Nations the time and space to develop those plans. And from my federal perspective, I want to make sure that we are there as a full and able partner to help them realize those goals with short-term, medium-term and long-term funding," MacGregor said.
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But his rivals, both Green candidate Lia Versaevel and Liberal candidate Blair Herbert, criticized MacGregor for not taking a more prominent role in engaging the provincial government over the Fairy Creek protest more immediately.
Versaevel, who is supportive of the protesters, expressed concern over police tactics in particular. As of Wednesday, the Civilian Review and Complaints Commission for the RCMP (CRCC) received a total of 163 public complaints involving the blockade. It says 54 of those complaints are under investigation.
"In this riding, we have not had a conversation that I am aware of and no one else that I speak to is aware of between the ... current MP and the province in terms of putting a stop to this," said Versaevel.
"I'm terrified that someone is going to be maimed or killed."
Versaevel acknowledged that with only two Green MPs in the last Parliament, she would be open to working across party lines to reach a "peaceful solution" for all those involved.
Herbert, whose Liberal party has promised $50 million to protect old-growth forests, said there was "certainly enough [money] there on the table in order to get everybody together."
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Herbert said he would champion the cause of local forestry workers, who he says have been left out of the conversation.
"That whole area out there was built by loggers, really, and those people need to have a voice at the table in order to get this stuff resolved," said Herbert. "The people that are doing the protesting, from the local people's perspective, I think these people show up in the forest once in a while. They certainly don't live there."
Conservative candidate Alana DeLong declined to participate in this story.
Nationally, the Conservatives are closing the gap with the Liberals in the latest polls. While the Conservatives do now have a climate plan, albeit with less ambitious emissions targets than other parties, environmental issues have long been contentious for them.
In March, Conservative delegates at the party's policy convention voted to reject adding green-friendly statements to the policy book — including a line that would have stated the party believes "climate change is real" and is "willing to act."
The larger context
David Tindall, a sociology professor at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver who studies environmental protest movements, says it's unlikely that Fairy Creek by itself will have a big impact on this year's federal election — beyond the local level — but the issues it embodies will find their way into the voting booth.
Tindall says the policing issue might work its way into the campaign with different parties.
"The Conservatives [are] much more likely to not be very patient with protesters who violate the law and perhaps some of the other parties being more supportive of freedom of expression in this particular instance," he said.
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For those with strong environmental leanings, says Tindall, it might come down to strategic voting to avoid a Conservative outcome — something that might require a compromise.
"On the one hand, funding to protect old-growth forests might be an incentive to support the Liberals. But on the other hand, most of these folks are disenchanted with the Liberals for their purchase of the Trans Mountain pipeline and support of oil and gas," Tindall said.
WATCH | Protesters challenge Trudeau on old-growth logging at Fairy Creek:
For Nosek in Vancouver, voting as an environmentally minded citizen has never been more important.
"A vote is by far the most important thing you can do on climate in a year," said Nosek.
"I think there is a real chance that although the country has never cared more ... we might end up with a government [where] a majority of their party refuse to put in their platform that climate change is happening."
With files from Ethan Sawyer