British Columbia

B.C. judge lambastes conservation group for using protesters as 'cannon fodder'

A B.C. provincial court judge has accused a conservation groups of using frontline protesters as "sacrificial lambs" to mount illegal traffic blockades aimed at drawing attention to climate change by stirring up chaos.

Judgment says only 'a matter of time' before someone is killed or injured at illegal blockades

Save Old Growth protesters blocked the Massey Tunnel in June. A judge who sentenced one of the protesters accused the group of using people like him as 'cannon fodder.' (Save Old Growth)

A B.C. provincial court judge has accused a conservation group of using frontline protesters as "sacrificial lambs" to mount illegal traffic blockades aimed at drawing attention to their climate change agenda by stirring up chaos.

In a searing decision, Judge Laura Bakan gave a conditional discharge to a 30-year-old who took part earlier this year in repeated Save Old Growth demonstrations.

Bakan said Ian Wiltow Schortinghuis was the type of "unsophisticated" person organizers convince to get themselves arrested instead of those who "pull the strings."

"He is a person whose personal attributes are easily preyed on," Bakan said.

"If they are saying, 'We are going to have so many people arrested,' that is like using people as cannon fodder. It is generally not the strategists that are on the frontline."

'A total mischaracterization'

Bakan sentenced Schortinghuis in Richmond Provincial Court at the end of June after he pleaded guilty to three counts of mischief and two counts of breaching an undertaking. The judgment was only recently posted online.

Save Old Growth is a group dedicated to ending old growth logging in British Columbia. A spokesperson rejected Bakan's comments as "speculation" based on defence submissions aimed at getting the best outcome for the accused. 

Save Old Growth protesters blocked the Ironworkers Memorial Bridge in April, leading to arrests. The group says a judge who accused the group of 'grooming' people has mischaracterized the organization. (Save Old Growth/submitted)

"I think the judge made a total mischaracterization," said Ben Holt, who serves as a central co-ordinator.

"You can't help but have hurt feelings as a result of this, but what we talked about internally is defence lawyers need to do what's in the best interest of their clients."

Schortinghuis's first arrest came April 4 after he and others sat on the deck of the Ironworkers Memorial Bridge for 30 minutes, blocking southbound vehicles and holding signs. He was released after signing an undertaking not to block traffic again.

Despite that promise, Schortinghuis was one of five people who set out pylons, held Save Old Growth signs and stopped traffic in both directions at a major on-ramp to the Trans-Canada Highway days later.

He was released on another undertaking, which he violated in early June by standing at the top of a ladder mounted at the entrance to the Massey Tunnel. Schortinghuis was removed after police scaled a dump truck to bring him down.

He was forced to remain in pre-trial custody for 17 days.

'Sacrificial lambs for their causes'

Schortinguis has a high school education and no previous criminal record. According to the decision, he has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and mental health issues. He has been accepted into an auto-mechanic training course beginning this fall.

"He appears to be the type of person these groups entice and basically use as sacrificial lambs for their causes," Bakan wrote.

"His mother states that, in her view, this makes him more vulnerable to being somewhat 'seduced' into these sort of activities. These groups are sophisticated, well organized and well funded."

The judge said it is only 'a matter of time' before illegal blockades of busy Lower Mainland roads result in death or injury because of the frayed nerves of motorists. (CBC)

Bakan aimed her comments at both Save Old Growth and Extinction Rebellion, which has also mounted protests around the Lower Mainland.

"[Schortinghuis] explained that he had felt down due to the pandemic and suddenly felt a sense of purpose and belonging that had been lacking," Bakan said.

"I do not mean to make this to be disparaging, but basically, these organizations groom people like Mr. Schortinghuis."

Holt, who is also facing his own mischief charges related to Save Old Growth protests, said all the group's members have been willing to face arrest for their beliefs.

He insisted Schortinghuis was not manipulated. 

"He's a pretty smart person. He's intelligent, he's concerned, and this is something that was done entirely on his own," Holt said.

'It is only, unfortunately, a matter of time'

In her sentencing, Bakan drew on a body of decisions from other judges who have weighed consequences for the disruptive actions of climate change protesters against the recognition of their legal right to dissent.

She agreed that "there must be accountability under the criminal justice system" when civil disobedience "adversely impairs or impacts other citizens and their right of lawful and peaceful movement."

"It is only, unfortunately, a matter of time before someone gets injured or killed during one of these illegal blockades," Bakan said.

The judge said the blockades were traumatizing for people with medical appointments and children and a driving public already on edge because of the pandemic.

She also noted that "the blockade caused more carbon fuel to be sent into the atmosphere as cars were idling or were diverted and had to take longer routes."

Save Old Growth announced an end to traffic disruptions earlier in the summer, but Holt said the group expects to resume its blockades in the coming months. 

"Yes, people are inconvenienced by the traffic being stopped. Traffic stops all the time, and it's always inconvenient. I don't think it's any more or any less inconvenient when we do it," Holt said.

"What we are weighing that inconvenience against is a very looming and very real threat of climate breakdown, of an unlivable planet."

Schortinghuis has to complete two years of probation as part of his sentence. If he complies with the terms, he will not have a criminal record. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jason Proctor

@proctor_jason

Jason Proctor is a reporter in British Columbia for CBC News and has covered the B.C. courts and the justice system extensively.

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