Protesters blocking logging activity on southern Vancouver Island are complaining that dangerous tactics are being used to remove them, including the unsafe use of heavy equipment.
But a spokesperson for the RCMP says people have been putting themselves into increasingly risky positions and that the police and excavator operators take precautions to make removals as safe as possible.
Noah Ross, a lawyer acting for the Rainforest Flying Squad, the group co-ordinating the Fairy Creek blockades, said there’s a high risk of injury when the machines are used close to people who have locked themselves in place and can’t move away.
“These machines are very powerful and difficult to move with precision, so my understanding is typically they are kept away from human bodies,” he said. “That seems dangerous to me.”
People blocking old-growth logging and road building have been using a variety of devices to make themselves difficult to remove. One frequently used method involves using a chain to lock an arm into a “sleeping dragon,” a length of PVC pipe set in concrete in a hole dug into a logging road.
When the RCMP began enforcing the BC Supreme Court injunction against blocking logging and roadbuilding in Tree Farm Licence 46 — which includes the Fairy Creek watershed and where the Teal-Jones Group is the licence holder — they used jackhammers and hand tools to remove people from the devices.
Around June 7, the police brought in excavators in what blockaders believe is an effort to make the job quicker that also makes it more dangerous.
In a recent press release, the Rainforest Flying Squad described an excavator bucket working “just inches from a young woman’s head as she lay on the ground beneath it.”
The release said protesters arrested at Eden Camp reported “they were so close to the excavator they could feel the machine’s weight shifting, compressing their arms, which were locked to cement beneath the earth.”
None of the affected protesters were available for an interview by publication time.
The release also quoted two experienced excavator operators expressing horror and quoted spokesperson Saul Arbess. “These people don’t deserve to be treated with such utter disregard for their lives and safety,” his statement said. “They are heroes who are peacefully standing up for these last fragments of ancient forests and all the beings that depend upon them to survive.”
B.C. RCMP spokesperson Sgt. Chris Manseau said police are working in partnership with the “skilled and trained operators” that Teal-Cedar Products Ltd. has contracted.
“Our officers are noticing the increasingly unsafe and dangerous situations the protesters are placing themselves in,” Manseau said, adding that police have shared concerns with people at the scene “numerous times” and with the designated police liaisons in the camps.
“As we continue to enforce the Supreme Court injunction, we have taken many precautions to ensure that all protesters are removed from these devices as safely as possible,” he said. “We have specially trained officers who make an assessment on the locking devices being used... and deploy various tools to slowly and safely remove them.”
RCMP officers have been providing hard hats, face shields and ear protection to people while they are being removed from their devices, Manseau said.
“We have also been providing medical assessments at several points during the removal and arrest processes, and to date we have not received any complaints or reports of injuries since enforcement began on May 17, 2021.”
All enforcement actions are documented, he said, including with body cameras, in case it’s needed in court or for responding to complaints.
A June 21 police news release addressing the subject included photographs.
The chair of the heavy equipment operator program at Vancouver Island University in Nanaimo, Lauren Wapple, said it’s common on job sites for excavators to work close to other people and that it can be done safely.
“If you take things slow and gentle, it’s probably safe,” he said, “but if someone’s rammy or something could happen wrong, somebody’s going to answer to what happened.... Sometimes those risks you just don’t take, because you don’t want to have to answer the ‘what if.’”
It’s important that the work be monitored by someone who knows what they are doing, and the RCMP no doubt have made a plan, Wapple said. “If something goes wrong, it’s the RCMP who are going to have to answer to why they did what they did.”
A spokesperson for WorkSafeBC said it is aware of the situation and is in touch with the employer, but is not responsible for the safety of protesters.
“WorkSafeBC’s role is to ensure employee safety and does not extend to a wider public safety role,” they said. “For any concerns related to public safety (e.g. not workers), please contact the BC RCMP.”
The Rainforest Flying Squad has pointed out that WorkSafeBC’s own Occupational Health and Safety Regulation says its purpose includes protecting “other persons present at workplaces from work-related risks to their health, safety and well-being.”
Responding to questions about the regulation, a WorkSafeBC spokesperson said there are minimal obligations within its mandate for the protection of non-workers. “The general duty of an employer is to ensure the health and safety of the employer's workers, and any other workers present at a workplace at which that employer's work is being carried out,” they said.
As of June 28, the RCMP had arrested 344 people since the enforcement began, at least 14 of whom had previously been arrested.
Rainforest Flying Squad lawyer Ross said that while many of the arrests have been peaceful, in some cases there have been injuries.
“When things get a bit more heated during the arrests, then the police seem to respond aggressively and unpredictably,” Ross said. “I’ve heard of people being bruised pretty badly and kind of manhandled during arrests, and those unfortunately largely seem to be younger Indigenous people. That seems to be a troubling trend.”
The only serious injury he’s aware of happened when police were using a chainsaw to cut the legs of a tripod that was suspending two people and it collapsed. One of the individuals was taken to a hospital where they were treated for a concussion, he said. “My understanding is a lawyer has been retained to file a personal injury action on his behalf, but I don’t have specifics of that.”
It’s unclear what licensing requirements there may be for excavator operators in the province, but there’s no question they would be legally liable for anything that may go wrong, Ross said. “There’s a risk exposure to their insurers that their insurers probably aren’t aware of.”
With the recent heat wave, the Pacheedaht First Nation is asking protesters to leave the area to reduce the risk of wildfires.
In response, the Rainforest Flying Squad released a statement from Pacheedaht Elder Bill Jones rejecting the request.
“Once we receive notice that Teal-Jones has stood down from active logging and road building for the fire season and that the RCMP are refraining from enforcement procedures in the area, we too, will reduce our presence in Pacheedaht unceded territory.”
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