As Canada approaches the halfway point in the federal election, the Fairy Creek protests over old-growth logging on Vancouver Island are quickly becoming the face of a much broader conflict between environmental goals and economic forces.
The protests at Fairy Creek are on track to become the largest act of civil disobedience in Canadian history, surpassing the Clayoquot protests, sometimes called the War in the Woods.
Almost 30 years later, the similarities are striking. In both cases, RCMP has enforced injunctions to clear protesters, and in both cases, the protests are taking place under a provincial NDP government that campaigned on protecting old-growth and failed to live up to its promises.
Experts say the root causes of conflict over old-growth logging have never been adequately addressed, leading to a climate where First Nations, businesses, environmentalists, courts, and communities have been pitted against each other.
British Columbia’s largest privately owned timber company, the Teal-Jones Group, owns the tree licence at Fairy Creek. The Rainforest Flying Squad (RSF) is leading the blockades that are slowing access to the site. The Ditidaht, Huu-ay-aht, and Pacheedaht First Nations have declared their right to be stewards of their land and have asked the protesters to leave. The province has jurisdiction under Canadian law to manage resource development, but the old-growth is also home to a number of at-risk species, giving the federal government jurisdiction, too. Then there is the B.C. Supreme Court, which has issued an injunction to clear protesters, and the RCMP, which has been ordered to enforce the injunction.
So what is happening on the ground? Why does it matter? And how did it get to this point?
On the ground
For over a year, the RFS has been building blockades and digging trenches to prevent access to the old-growth logging sites.
“We talk about conflict diamonds in our pop culture, but old-growth timber that's being extracted in many places in British Columbia (is) essentially conflict resources," says @talltegan with @standearth. #cdnpoli #FairyCreek #Elxn44
“We've had over a dozen camps in various locations basically playing a cat and mouse game with industry over the past year,” says Joshua Wright, a RSF co-founder.
Since May, the RCMP has been enforcing an injunction granted to Teal-Jones to clear protesters. The police dismantle blockades and protesters’ camps, pushing the front line up the mountain as activists regroup and build again.
“It’s been one camp raided after another ... and now we're down to Fairy Creek HQ,” Wright said.
Last week, he told Canada’s National Observer this was looking like the last stand, saying activists were “in the end game of the blockades potentially.”
But over the weekend, activists locked themselves in a trench using an increasingly common technique called a “sleeping dragon” that essentially involves attaching a pipe to something (in this case, the bottom of a trench, though others have reportedly used the technique atop a tripod), sticking one’s hand in the pipe, and then locking themselves to it. The pipe prevents police from simply cutting through the lock. One activist stayed in for “85 hours straight,” according to Wright.
“The trench is extremely unsafe and unstable and police are trying to determine the best way to stabilize the trench and then conduct rescue operations,” RCMP said in a statement late Friday.
The delay proved to be an effective tactic. Wright says over the weekend, protesters scored a “major victory” when approximately 100 people marched on the front line and the RCMP “retreated.”
“We reclaimed the bridge, reclaimed River Camp, going all the way down to this area called Red Dress. So, the RCMP (has) been pushed back majorly, and then today, enforcement is going to begin again,” Wright told Canada’s National Observer on Monday.
Recently, video of police pepper-spraying and dragging protesters was widely shared on social media, bringing the old-growth issue to national attention. Federal NDP public safety critic Jack Harris has called for an independent investigation into RCMP use of force at Fairy Creek.
The RCMP says it is enforcing the B.C. Supreme Court’s interim injunction order in the Fairy Creek watershed, but nowhere does it say how police should execute the order.
“The RCMP has discretion about how much enforcement they actually do here,” said Andrew Gage, a staff lawyer with West Coast Environmental Law. “Someone's making a decision about how much money to spend on this, and that's not directed by the courts.”
The RCMP did not return a request for comment. B.C.’s Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth was not made available for an interview.
Why does it matter?
Old-growth forests are ancient ecosystems that protect biodiversity. They’re home to endangered animals, are natural carbon sinks, and once logged, are gone forever. There are trees in the Fairy Creek watershed estimated to be over 1,000 years old.
The federal Liberals have pledged, if re-elected, to set up a $50-million fund to help protect old-growth as a way to help slow the decline in biodiversity. During B.C.’s pandemic election last fall, the incumbent provincial NDP also promised to enact all recommendations from an old-growth strategic review it initiated.
The recommendations represent a fundamental shift in how forests are managed, with a recognition it should be for ecosystem health rather than timber, with ecological constraints imposed.
Recently the province launched an old-growth advisory panel, staffed with well-respected forest experts and environmentalists, but only a few weeks previously, Premier John Horgan unveiled a forestry plan activists compared to gasoline on a fire.
The ongoing protests are also pulling into sharp focus the challenges with overlapping jurisdictions.
“The province has the most obvious jurisdiction under Canadian law,” says Gage. But “the federal government has jurisdiction where the province is going to do something that is going to undermine a federal authority.”
It’s “more of a backstop jurisdiction,” he said, adding federal funding is often a way for Ottawa to get control over things when it doesn’t have clear jurisdiction.
The province calls the shots on natural resource development, but the federal government has jurisdiction over species at risk. The Ditidaht, Huu-ay-aht, and Pacheedaht First Nations also claim jurisdiction to manage forests in their traditional, unceded territory.
Days after the nations declared sovereignty over managing the land, the B.C. government announced two-year deferrals of logging in nearly 200,000 hectares in the Fairy Creek watershed. However, some critics remain concerned this is kicking the can down the road because it is not a deferral of all old-growth logging.
“The province approved (the deferrals) in an effort to try to reduce tension in the area, but the Paachedaht elder who has been at the forefront of the forest defence there, elder Bill Jones, asked for folks to stay because a lot of the surrounding old-growth forests were not included in that deferral,” said Tegan Hansen, a forest campaigner with climate group Stand.earth.
As Canada’s National Observer has previously reported, divisions between First Nations, environmentalists, and within communities themselves, have been laid bare through these protests. Revenue-sharing agreements, like the one the Pacheedaht First Nation has with the province, give the right to receive revenue from logging. Environmentalists trying to stop the logging, therefore, pose a threat to that income, which is driving part of the tension.
Huu-ay-aht Chief Coun. Robert J. Dennis Sr. says Fairy Creek activists need to be more respectful of First Nations.
"The protesters have called for a halt of all old-growth harvesting, so when they say that, they put our treaty rights into that category," he said. "They're infringing on our right to exercise our cultural ability to harvest old-growth cedar for cultural purposes."
Teal-Jones says it's committed to reconciliation.
“Teal-Jones is abiding by the First Nations’ declaration, and has suspended all harvesting, road-building, and related activities in the deferred areas, including Fairy Creek,” the company said in a statement. “The First Nations’ declaration clearly states forestry work in other areas of their traditional territories will continue and the First Nations have asked all parties to allow that forestry work to continue without interference.”
The Pacheedaht and Ditidaht Nations, and elder Jones, did not return a request for comment.
How did it get to this point?
Old-growth forests may be a rich ecosystem, but forestry represents the largest manufacturing sector of B.C.’s economy, worth billions of dollars annually. The province receives hundreds of millions in revenue annually from the forest sector as well.
“Most of B.C.'s forest is publicly owned and the government parcels the right to log those trees out to private corporations. Historically, that was in return for a promise of having mills operate and create jobs,” explains Gage.
The government sets an annual allowable cut that functions as both a maximum and minimum amount by requiring companies to log within 10 per cent of the allowable cut. In other words, Teal-Jones is obligated to log a certain amount from the area or risk losing the licence.
That legislation is still in place at a time when the province has committed to protecting old-growth and reveals the tension between climate and jobs is still evident in the provincial government, Gage says.
“This came to a head in the 1990s, and I think both then and now it's because the expectations of the NDP were higher than they had been,” said Gage. “In both cases, when in opposition, they were very critical of the logging of old-growth, and people who supported them really expected them to take action and were really disappointed.”
Gage said “the underlying causes of the protests have never been addressed well.”
“With Clayoquot, the NDP got elected on a mandate to end the War in the Woods … and they tried to cut the baby down the middle,” said Gage. “They’d protect the lower Walbran, but not the upper Walbran, they’d protect large tracts of Clayoquot Sound, but not all of it.”
Hansen sees a similar story of not following through playing out today.
“What's happening right now in B.C., and specifically on Pacheedaht and Ditidaht territories on southern Vancouver Island, is really a result of years of inaction to protect old-growth forests … and more recently, inaction from the BC NDP government to follow through on an election promise they made last year,” she said, referring to a commitment to stop logging in old-growth forests at high risk of biodiversity loss.
Hansen said she believes it’s time to start labelling old-growth as a “conflict resource.”
“We talk about conflict diamonds in our pop culture, but old-growth timber that's being extracted in many places in British Columbia (is) essentially conflict resources,” she said.
John Woodside / Local Journalism Initiative / Canada's National Observer