2 weeks on the front lines: The battle for old-growth in B.C.

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Over the last two weeks around 120 people have been arrested and charged, most with violating an injunction obtained by a logging company. But with more people streaming in by the day and the RCMP trying to secure an area the size of a small country, there’s no end in sight.

This is the latest from southwest Vancouver Island, which has become an international hotspot in the fight to save old-growth forests.

Last August, a group of environmental activists set up a series of blockades of logging roads deep in the bush surrounding Port Renfrew, B.C. Their goal was to preserve stands of old-growth in the Fairy Creek watershed, one of the largest and most significant ancient forests remaining in North America.

NDP Premier John Horgan campaigned on protecting old-growth but, somewhat inexplicably, activists say the issuing of permits to log these ancient trees has doubled under his tenure.

Press freedom concerns have also been a consistent subplot, as international watchdogs like the Committee to Protect Journalists have joined national press groups and many outlets in denouncing the RCMP’s restrictions on media attempting to cover the story.

One complicating factor is that the Pacheedaht band council, which has authority over the reserve lands but not the whole Pacheedaht territory, supports the logging and is heavily invested in the industry. Many Pacheedaht elders and youth oppose cutting old-growth trees and have joined the barricades, but the issue has caused fractures in the community.

The band council of the neighbouring Ditidaht has been silent on the issue, while many Ditidaht people have also taken a stand against old-growth logging.

The financial cost to the Pacheedaht has been cited as one reason to allow the logging to proceed. In an effort to counter that, activists and environmental groups are now planning a campaign to raise enough money to buy out the Pacheedaht First Nation’s investments in old-growth logging. Many members of the nation have expressed in speaking to our journalists that most would prefer to have the money and the trees: it is the choice between securing jobs and livelihood and protecting old-growth that has divided their community.

2 weeks of arrests and counting

On Monday, May 17, the RCMP gave protesters 24 hours’ notice to leave or face arrest. Over the next two days they cleared out a series of blockades known as Caycuse camp. Each barricade represented a significant piece of infrastructure as well as a carefully thought-out set piece for media cameras.

In some cases people were chained to metal gates across the road, as one might expect, but some of the barricades that have met police and media are far more elaborate.

At the entrance to a bridge at Caycuse sat “The Cookie,” a slab of the base of an old-growth tree that had been cut down by loggers, with two activists tied inside the wood with chains. On the other side of the bridge sat a lean-to with an activist perched on a platform 30 or more feet above the ground. Below her, his right arm buried in the road surface up to his elbow, was Derek.

“It’s ridiculous that the government allows these trees to be cut,” Derek told Ricochet. “The government made some promises, and they have not been following through with them.”

They call this the “sleeping giant,” and it’s a popular tactic. Several protesters have been found with an arm buried, forcing the RCMP into a time-consuming and delicate excavation process.

Yesterday, at the remains of the previously raided Waterfall camp, a new obstacle confronted police: a man at the end of a steel beam, with an arm attached to the beam and encased in concrete, and the other end of the beam held down under the front wheel of a Honda.

He was removed yesterday, after media were escorted from the area and told no further action would be taken that day. This is one of many examples of the RCMP restricting journalists’ ability to cover police actions. Consequently, of the dozens of arrests to date, it is impossible to know how many took place without any media present.

There have also been reports of activists being extracted from their perches high in the treetops by helicopter-born special operations units within the RCMP, but those arrests were closed off to the media.

Press groups head to court

On Thursday, the Canadian Association of Journalists and a coalition of seven media outlets (including Ricochet) launched a court application asking a judge to modify the injunction to guarantee media access.

The application will be heard in B.C. Supreme Court within a week or two, but the initial response to it from the RCMP has been for the most part to intensify their restrictions. Global News, the top-rated network in B.C., posted footage on Friday of one of their journalists being threatened with arrest.

Two mass arrest events have also taken place. Last Saturday, May 22, a group of roughly 100 protesters led by Ditidaht elders and youth breached an RCMP checkpoint at the entrance to the exclusion zone and sat down beyond it to protest restrictions on access.

On Tuesday, May 25, over 50 arrests were reported, making it the most active day of arrests. The majority occurred around Waterfall camp, and many journalists were again denied access.

“You guys are losing big time,” said naturalist Sally Soanes to police while stopped at an RCMP checkpoint. “I hope you know that. I know it’s not your fault, and I know you’re here under orders, but boy oh boy. Even the old folks are getting mad, and that’s not a good sign.”

Today Ricochet’s Jerome Turner and Kyle Darling are on the ground with Emilee Gilpin from IndigiNews to cover what may come. The RCMP have announced there will be no enforcement actions today, but what they say and what they do have been moving targets from the beginning, as persistent problems are brushed aside with apologies or a nod to the “fluidity” of the situation.

Recent days have also seen increasing reports of loggers threatening protesters, a trend that may boil over into violence at some point. Already our journalists have encountered a ditch dug in a main road by heavy machinery, which seems almost certainly to be the work of loggers, and checkpoints established by logging company employees to try and block the access of protesters. Activists say the RCMP has been unwilling to investigate what they allege is criminal conduct by logging company employees.

What comes next remains uncertain, but the protesters have made clear they have no intention of leaving. Already in the last two weeks the RCMP have raided the same camps over and over, as activists return to them. And only nine of the arrestees were arrested more than once, indicating the RCMP are mostly encountering new protesters each day, rather than the same group that gets arrested and comes back. As summer arrives and COVID-19 related travel restrictions lift, their numbers are sure to swell.

Barring a sudden reversal by the Horgan government, we’re most likely in for a long, hot summer on Vancouver Island, as War in the Woods 2.0 plays out for an international audience.

Assuming, that is, that the RCMP let media do their jobs.

Our team remains on the ground. We’re publishing regular updates and video reports on Twitter, along with updates on Instagram and Facebook.