On her first trip to Fairy Creek, the author finds her daughter coping with the violent pepper-spraying of the RCMP earlier that morning.
ON SATURDAY, AUGUST 21, I WENT TO FAIRY CREEK to participate in a circle ceremony hosted by Pacheedaht Elder Bill Jones. I was hitching a ride with my daughter Caroline, and we were going up for the day.
We had arranged to meet my other daughter Laura at the recently installed red gate across the main entrance to several of the forest defenders’ camps on the logging road into Fairy Creek. From there we would walk together to the ceremony site a bit further in. Laura and her partner Pat are devoted environmentalists who’ve given much of their last five months to the Fairy Creek protest, their careers as musicians and their band, Carmanah, having been sidelined by the pandemic.
Caroline and I had long been wanting to go to Fairy Creek, and today was the day. We chatted lightly on the way up but grew sombre when the landscape began including hillsides that looked as if they’d been buzzed with giant clippers.
Also worrying was the RCMP’s increasingly hard-hitting tactics at Fairy Creek as of late, perhaps spurred on by an aggressively impatient industry, or perhaps by their own frustration over having failed to banish the protesters in short order, despite being the ones with all the training, legal power, muscle and gear including helicopters and ATVs. Helicopters delivering ATVs, to be exact. It was they who had the seemingly unlimited budget and fresh recruits daily, including specialized teams for when the going got tough.
Whatever the reason, these last few weeks had become increasingly volatile and dangerous, and more protesters were being injured.
LAURA HURRYING ALONG THE ROAD to where her truck was parked was the first sign that something was amiss. By the time we caught up with her, she’d climbed into the back and was rummaging through a backpack.
“Pat’s been pepper-sprayed and needs a clean shirt,” she said. “They were all pepper sprayed earlier this morning, it’s unbelievable.”
Wordlessly we follow her back to the gate, where two ambulances are attending to the last of the injured. People stand milling on both sides of the highway, many still dazed, clutching water and dousing eyes.
Pat puts on his shirt; his shoulder-length hair still drenched. It seems they spray the hair so it drips into the eyes to prolong the temporary blindness, not to mention the excruciating pain. “I guess they thought I needed my hair washed because they just kept spraying my head,” he jokes, but his eyes are red and sad.
Laura Mitic tending to victim of pepper spraying by RCMP (photo by Shaena Lambert)
A group of day visitors wait near the gate for the Elders to arrive and lead them through. Someone keeps reminding everyone to stay off the pavement, this being the highway from Port Renfrew to Lake Cowichan. To step on it is to risk being arrested for impeding traffic, and this is not where the protesters want to waste their strength and numbers.
A line of black motorcycles keeps cruising by ominously, back and forth. The black-clad riders are not out on a casual drive. We note their thumbs-up to the RCMP. And their Quebec license plates. There are many influences in this struggle, perhaps more than we know. The hairs on the back of my neck stir a little.
I’M STILL TRYING TO GET MY BEARINGS. “Why did this happen?” I ask Laura.
She doesn’t know, it’s impossible to know. Pent up exasperation, maybe. The RCMP had arrived angry and aggressive that morning, which was verified in videos I pored over later. It was expected they would go to River Camp that day—one of the last stands in that touch-and-go weekend—to finish mincing it into the ground. (Yes, literally. Pounding it down with the bucket of a backhoe.)
Maybe they hadn’t anticipated the tight knot of 60 or so people blocking their access at the red gate. In one video, a member of their District Liaison Team—the DLT—can be heard saying they had not expected a group that large.
Instead of dealing with the blocked gate, the RCMP pulled out their chainsaws and felled enough nearby saplings to open an alternate access route. Then those headed for River Camp drove their vehicles through and vanished up the logging road. A dozen or so officers, maybe more, stayed behind and turned their attention to the gate.
The group’s efforts there were now moot, but still they clung together and resisted efforts to pry them apart. Red spray cans appeared and were portentously shaken. The alarm was sounded among the defenders, who tightened themselves up and lowered their heads. The spraying began and mayhem ensued.
Video of pepper spraying event just before Trudy arrived.
IT’S ALMOST NOON when the RCMP allow us through the gate, but no further today: The ceremony will have to take place in this gravel clearing, right off the highway. At the back of the clearing, where it narrows back into the dirt road, RCMP members now stand behind yellow tape to keep us contained.
RCMP (with Teal security employee) keeping defenders in check (photo by Caroline Mitic)
Security guards for Teal Jones shuffle between the RCMP stronghold and the gate, the dust rising off their boots.
While we wait for the Elders to settle themselves in, we speak in hushed tones, and note that everyone else is doing the same. It feels like a requiem for irretrievable loss, for best efforts that are still not enough, for justice that fails when the well-heeled aren’t looking. It feels hopeless, truth and righteousness having been buried too deep under the weight of self-interest, ulterior motives, voracious greed, blind allegiance and pride, campaigns of misinformation, a deeply flawed political system still steeped in colonialism, and yes, racism. Everyone seems to be processing thoughts.
When does a scrap of gravelled, besieged earth become hallowed ground? When the Indigenous Elders begin speaking. The aged among them may look frail, but their words are clear and unhurried, formed by the laws of the land, the reverence for it, and centuries of accumulated experience in nature. Their eyes seem to burn when they speak, not with animosity but with absolute conviction. Up until now, nature’s truth hasn’t changed much from century to century.
Elder Bill Jones with Rose Henry (photo by Caroline Mitic)
Elder Bill Jones extends a generous welcome, in this clearing surrounded by trees that are tall but still only juveniles compared to their ancestors up the hill. In measured tones, he rebukes the work of the RCMP but not the members themselves, reminding them that this special place is for them and their children too. He thanks and comforts the mostly young defenders who, for the love of the planet and life itself, found themselves assaulted just hours earlier in a manner usually reserved for hardened criminals.
The elders ask all older visitors to come form a circle. My girls nudge me forward. Now the drumming and singing starts, and the stories about healing and medicine and the gifts and powers of the cedar tree pour out. Cedar is so central to traditional life that it provided almost every need, yet rarely did a tree have to be cut down.
Elders circle ceremony (photo by Caroline Mitic)
“We are an ingenious people,” proclaims the elder Chiyokten (Paul Che’ oke ten Wagner) in summary. He is a master of story and song from the WSANEC nation, and next he introduces the cedar brushing ceremony, for cleansing, rejuvenation, purification and healing. Cedar boughs are dipped in water and then gently brushed over recipients, starting at the head and ending at the feet.
Everyone is invited to receive the brushing, starting with the frontline defenders. On this day, they need it the most. Afterwards they walk around the inside of our circle as we murmur our thanks and support. Some cry silently. Some are steady-eyed and resolved. Everyone is processing; no one is capitulating today.
Now it’s our group’s turn, and as the cedar is gently brushed over me, I think about the many layers of my society that keep me separated from the natural world. I become aware of a deep impoverishment.
At one point a security guard approaches me on the sidelines and softly asks how he can get to the gate without interrupting the ceremony. I suggest he wait until the dancing stops, and then ask him about his job.
“I open and close the gate, that’s all,” he says, and then unexpectedly asks, “Why do they want these trees anyway?” He has no idea.
“I don’t follow the news much,” he admits apologetically. He’s from Vancouver, but his company is currently providing security for Teal Jones. He’s worked 20 days straight and wants to go home.
“Maybe I need a new job,” he concedes, adding that it’s not easy finding meaningful work these days.
THE ELDERS HAVE FINISHED brushing everyone and now make their way to the yellow tape. They invite the four officers standing behind it to be brushed as well, reiterating the benefits of cleansing and healing and opening the heart to this moment. The officers agree somewhat awkwardly—granted, it’s a fine line—and step in front of the tape. The tape itself is brushed as well. In that moment, it looks like reconciliation gaining ground.
But reconciliation is a dodgy target, to be recalibrated again and again. It will suffer setbacks, perhaps as soon as tomorrow. Or later in the day, when the DLT member interrupts the ceremony—not rudely—to ask everyone to make way so the River Camp arrestees can be driven through and taken away. The speaker stops, the crowd complies.
Then the officer says, “It’ll be another 15 minutes.”
“They do this all the time,” Laura sighs. “They get us ready, then keep us waiting. It’s all on their terms, to show their power, to intimidate us and wear us down.”
Laura Mitic on logging road at Caycuse Camp in April 2021 (photo by Dawna Mueller)
The arrestees will be worn down too, having been locked in a van for hours, possibly injured and with no medical care. (The RCMP medic, I now realize, is a medic for his colleagues only. Since that morning, he’s gained notoriety—not for his deftness with splints and bandages, but with a canister of pepper spray.)
LATE IN THE AFTERNOON we step back again to let the entire RCMP convoy through—they’re calling it a day. It’s an interesting if disquieting spectacle, vehicles for every possible scenario, 17 in total. The stone-faced occupants all stare straight ahead; some are filming us. When the twin, windowless paddy-wagons roll by, a roar of support rises from the crowd.
Caroline and I start heading for home, though we move slowly, against the tug of this beautiful wilderness, its storehouse of wisdom, the struggle for its survival. Laura is staying but understands the yen, having slept under the stars here many times over the summer.
“Returning to the city feels like I’m on an episode of the Truman Show,” she writes to me a few days later. “You realize just how make-believe our society is. It makes sense for humans to live together in a cluster, in community, and let nature be elsewhere, but we’ve become too far removed from the outside world. That’s made us apathetic and unaware, and our governments have exploited that. So now here we are, struggling for nature against the very systems and values we have produced.”
The setting sun pours liquid amber into the forests as we pull away. The beauty of it takes my breath away. It fills me with hope, resolve and gratitude. For Nature, more beautiful than anything we’ve ever created. For the Indigenous elders who are unfailingly generous and patient. For the activists who dare to defy. For the old-growth forests and their first lesson: We need them if we ourselves are to survive.
In the haze of the conflict at Fairy Creek, Trudy would like to clarify that civil disobedience is not a criminal offence, and that it has played an important role in protecting our rights and freedoms in Canada, according to the BC Civil Liberties Association. For more information, check the BCCLA website.