Forest defenders persist at blockades as 59 are arrested and old-growth logging begins.
AFTER NINE MONTHS of sustained, successful blockades against old-growth logging in remote valleys on Southern Vancouver Island, the forest defence action led by the Rainforest Flying Squad entered a new, more intense phase on Monday, May 17, 2021.
The ensuing week has seen the use of significant police resources to carry out arrests of forest defenders; continued—and creative—resistance on the part of blockaders; legal action on a number of fronts; and the commencement of old-growth logging by Teal Cedar Products (a division of Teal Jones Group) in Caycuse Valley in Ditidaht territory. The endangered Western Screech Owl has also made an important appearance.
On May 17, RCMP established a blockade and checkpoints on the logging roads leading to the Caycuse blockade to begin enforcing the BC Supreme Court injunction granted to Teal Cedar Products on April 1—despite the fact that the injunction has been appealed and, according to some legal watchdogs, that exclusion zones are not legally justified. As of May 23, close to 59 individuals have been arrested within exclusion zones (which RCMP has rebranded as a “temporary access control area”).
FOCUS sent myself and photographer Dawna Mueller to witness and document the events on the first day of arrests, Tuesday, May 18.
The evening before, press representatives were contacted by the RCMP and given no option but to meet RCMP at 7 am the next morning in a parking lot in Honeymoon Bay, near Lake Cowichan, if they wanted to get anywhere near the expected arrests. After quickly renting a car that could handle the rigours of logging roads, we left Victoria at five in the morning.
Eighteen members of the media showed up and were chaperoned by RCMP minders past police lines to witness the enforcement. Television crews from CHEK, CBC, CTV, and Global, as well as representatives from smaller publications and freelancers milled around in a rainy parking lot after checking in with the RCMP. We were shepherded to the front of the police checkpoint at the McClure service road—about seven kilometres from the camp itself—for another hour-long wait.
Many supporters of the forest defence action were gathered in front of the police line, with some arriving from the other camps or from one of the two convoys that drove in from Port Renfrew and Duncan the same morning.
“We are here to protest and support our friends who are here in the front line at Caycuse,” said Solene, who was from camp headquarters near Fairy Creek. The forest defenders chanted slogans, such as “shame on Horgan,” sang songs, and spoke to media waiting at the gate.
Pacheedaht Elder Bill Jones—one of the most visible Indigenous supporters of the movement to protect Vancouver Island old growth—spoke to those gathered on the site. (A video of his speech can be found here.)
“My girlfriend’s going to be mad,” said Jones, laughing when asked about how he was feeling. Jones has been in ailing health recently and was shivering slightly by the end of his speech. Despite the cold, intermittent rain, the 87-year-old came out to protest. “I figure we are here doing the right thing, to protest and tell the government we are here to save our old growth,” said Jones who was quickly whisked off after his speech by friends concerned about his health.
Jones’ determination would be echoed by those waiting to be arrested beyond the police line.
The forest defenders at the Caycuse blockade had been given 24-hours notice to vacate or risk arrest the day before. Gently smouldering embers in recently abandoned campsites suggested that many had left at the last minute. Banners and signs hung limply along the road which used to house a lively crowd of forest defenders and their tents. Only a few legal observers remained behind to observe and document the arrests.
Each of the arrestees—most of them chained up, locked down, and in one case, suspended 10 metres off the ground to make arrests difficult—were served with injunction papers and given a chance to leave freely before they were arrested.
RCMP officers move in to Caycuse Camp on May 18 (Photograph by Dawna Mueller)
Val Embree, grandmother, and Mitchell Steinke, musician: arrested May 18 (Photograph by Dawna Mueller)
Perhaps it is symbolic that the two first arrestees at Camp Caycuse were Val Embree, a grandmother who described herself as a longtime forests protector, and Mitchell Steinke, a younger man who strummed a guitar and sang songs about nature and trees until he was arrested and escorted away from the camp gate.
His guitar was left behind.
“The land, the trees, the forest, belongs to the people, the First Nations, and all people,” said Rainbow Eyes, a Da’naxda’xw-Aweatlala Indigenous forest defender from Knight Inlet, who had chained herself to a road gate with a bicycle lock and another forest defender, Brandon Busby.
Rainbow Eyes and Brandon Busby: arrested May 18 (Photograph by Dawna Mueller)
Several officers held up tarps to obstruct the views of legal observers and media during the arrests of those who had chained themselves down, ostensibly to protect “proprietary” police techniques.
The arrests did not happen fast. Journalists would wander off from police supervision to look at the various structures left behind during lulls in the arrests. One particularly well-built outhouse stands out in memory, with journalists and RCMP constables both remarking on the ingenuity of the engineering.
One protector who had chained himself into a hollowed-out piece of old-growth cedar set in the middle of the road, would have to wait hours before it was his turn. Intermittently, the sounds of a helicopter and drones would come from the sky.
Forest defender Uddhava (Photograph by Dawna Mueller)
“I’m engaged in this apparatus as a physical blockade, a physical delay mechanism, but also as a symbolic blockage of industry into the heart of untouched environment,” said Uddhava.
He was carried out on a tarp after he went limp and refused to walk.
Uddhava would be the last to be arrested that first day of arrests.
There were two more forest defenders, blocking the way of logging trucks. They were chained to the sides of a massive slice of old-growth cedar salvaged from a previously logged stump, positioned in front of an unnamed bridge overlooking the Caycuse River.
But it was getting late. RCMP officers decided to call it a day, leaving those two blockaders to be dealt with the following day.
Many more than two would be arrested in the following days.
Tensions rise as logging begins
Since the first day of arrests, tensions have risen as supporters are denied access beyond the exclusion zone and press access has been significantly restricted. Reports and videos of more forceful enforcement are trailing out through social media.
The Fairy Creek and Caycuse areas do not have cell service, which means that the flow of information is staggered throughout the day and is often hours out of date. On Friday, May 21, the Rainforest Flying Squad’s Instagram account, which they rely on to communicate to supporters outside of the dead cell zone, inexplicably went down after they posted a video where Bill Jones’ niece and media representative Kati George-Jim was forcefully arrested. The Rainforest Flying Squad has since reported, “Instagram claimed that our site was promoting violence, when in fact it was exposing police violence.”
What we do know is that five dozen people had been arrested by Sunday, May 23—and that police had moved to enforce the injunction beyond Caycuse Camp, in other areas of the watersheds near Fairy Creek. On Saturday May 22, the Rainforest Flying Squad reported that 15 RCMP vehicles were en route to dismantle Eden and Waterfall blockades near Port Renfrew. Later, the RCMP said that six were arrested there.
During the week, we’ve heard complaints from some arrestees about how they have been treated.
Uddhava—whose arrest FOCUS was prevented from witnessing as his extrication process was blocked from view by tarps held up by RCMP—has complained that officers placed his head in a canvas bag and bent him forward without letting him know beforehand.
“Everything was black, and I was bent forward with multiple hands on me,” said Uddhava. He said that the RCMP used some sort of pneumatic device to cut the lock off his neck, which made him worried that his airway was going to get cut off. “I felt very vulnerable in that situation, knowing that it would have been very easy for the RCMP to have knocked me unconscious or to choke me out without anyone seeing,” said Uddhava.
Forest defender Uddhava (Photograph by Dawna Mueller)
He also alleges that RCMP did not let him relieve himself during the two-and-a-half hours from his initial arrest to the holding cell at Lake Cowichan, despite multiple requests to do so.
Another complaint—one of colonial violence—came from Kati George-Jim, niece of Pacheedaht elder Bill Jones. She was arrested on May 20 at Caycuse. In a video, made after her release in Lake Cowichan, she claimed the RCMP had tackled her using an “excessive amount of force.”
George-Jim says she was charged with obstruction of justice and assault of a police officer, though she was acting as a legal observer and not blockading. She says she was only attempting to help a young man being tackled and treated roughly by the RCMP. She stated, “From the video you will see the only assault was of me.” (This was on the Instagram account that was still down as of press time.)
One of the tree sitters at Caycuse said that RCMP officers on scene had threatened to use rubber bullets and tear gas to get another tree sitter out of her perch. RCMP spokesperson Corporal Chris Manseau denied that there was any tear gas on the site and that the RCMP doesn’t use rubber bullets. He said the RCMP takes such allegations seriously and these require further investigation.
Complaints have also come from media. Throughout the RCMP’s enforcement process, press have been restricted in their ability to observe and report on the ongoing arrests. Journalists were initially denied any access to the site on May 17. After threatened legal action, they have been allowed in under RCMP supervision during daylight hours, but still with varying degrees of access to the site and blockade supporters.
RCMP are citing “common law rights” and “public safety” as justification for the restrictions on media—despite no documented instances of violence involving forest defenders over the nine months of blockades. The Rainforest Flying Squad and others involved have consistently stressed their commitment to non-violence.
On May 18, when FOCUS was present, press access restrictions changed throughout the day, ranging from a 50-foot distance and a tight media cluster, to relatively unfettered access to forest defenders who weren’t actively being arrested. But when I had to return to my vehicle to retrieve my packed lunch, I was accompanied by two RCMP officers for the 40-minute walk and was not allowed to move my vehicle closer.
On May 19, press movement was more restricted; media personnel were told to remain at least 160 feet away from the arrests, on the grounds of safety. Ricochet Media journalist Jerome Turner reported that journalists needed a police chaperone to relieve themselves, and that he was forcibly pushed back and detained with the rest of the media in a space more than 200 feet away from the arrests.
Independent filmmaker Gabriel Ostapchuk was arrested that day, while attempting to document the arrests, on an alleged obstruction of justice charge. The charge was dropped and he was released the same day, according to a press release from the Rainforest Flying Squad.
On May 20, journalists were not allowed to witness six arrests conducted by the RCMP in the morning; nor were they allowed into the area as before. Press access to the area was only allowed after noon.
Active logging began in Caycuse on May 21, while forest defenders were still on site, leading the Rainforest Flying Squad to call Worksafe BC complaining of active, unsafe tree falling.
The same day, two applications seeking to overturn the RCMP exclusion zone were submitted to court, according to Noah Ross, a lawyer retained by the Rainforest Flying Squad.
Ross claims that the RCMP is overstepping its powers by setting up an exclusion zone. “Exclusion zones are only legal in certain limited circumstances in which there are serious public safety risks. It’s explicitly not allowed by the injunction,” said Ross.
“It appears that the RCMP are once again willing to enforce exclusion zones that are not legally justified in order to make their job easier. They’re willing to overlook people’s civil rights in order to give industry access to their logs,” Ross continued in the statement. “It’s not legally justified.”
The Canadian Association of Journalists is also calling on courts to limit the powers of the RCMP and other police agencies when issuing injunctions. The BC Civil Liberties Association and Legal Observers Victoria have released a joint statement condemning RCMP actions. It states, “In our view, the RCMP’s actions are overbroad in scope and constitute an inconsistent, arbitrary, and illegal exercise of discretion to block members of the public, including legal observers and the media, from accessing the area and to monitor police activity.”
Another development towards week’s end was that Teal Cedar may be contravening the Wildlife Act by logging in the area. Royann Petrell, a retired UBC professor, captured audio recordings and photos of Western Screech Owls five times within the past two months in the valley and neighbouring watersheds like Fairy Creek. She has been in correspondence over the matter with the Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development.
Logging of old-growth forest in the Caycuse Valley area (Photograph by TJ Watt)
On Saturday, May 22, after arrests at Waterfall camp, the Rainforest Flying Squad’s first camp in the area, the organizers stated, “It guards the approach to the Fairy Creek watershed. As soon as it is cleared, road building crews will begin cutting down trees and carving a road into the last unlogged watershed in the San Juan River system.”
Joshua Wright of the Flying Squad said, “If the government allows road-building into the headwaters of Fairy Creek, it will prove they value corporations’ profits over the last of this province’s biodiversity—and over the well-being of all generations to come.”
Scientists have found that less than 1 percent of BC’s 50-million hectares of forested area contain large or very large trees like those in the Fairy Creek and Caycuse Valley regions. BC forest scientists have determined that 33 of BC’s 36 forested biogeoclimatic zone variants have less than 10 percent old forest remaining, putting them at high risk for extirpation of certain species, such as the Western Screech Owl, the Northern Spotted Owl, the Northern Goshawk and Marbeled Murrelet. As well, conservation of BC’s old-growth temperate rainforests is considered to be an effective, low-cost strategy for keeping carbon out of the atmosphere.
Kathleen Code, a member of the Rainforest Flying Squad, said, “If [the Province] had kept their word [about implementing all the recommendations of the Old Growth Strategic Review], there would be no citizens risking their lives or freedom by locking themselves into strange structures, or sitting on platforms 30 metres above the ground while trees are being cut down around them, trying to keep each other calm, watching bear cubs fleeing the destruction.”
Michael John Lo was recently senior staff writer for the Martlet and has joined FOCUS Magazine.