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Rights + Justice

‘Someone Is Going to Be Seriously Injured or Killed’

At Fairy Creek, tensions between protesters and RCMP create heightening risk. Experts say it won’t end well. A Tyee special report.

Michelle Gamage 27 Sep

Michelle Gamage is a Vancouver-based journalist with an environmental focus who regularly reports on climate for The Tyee. Find her on Twitter @Michelle_Gamage.

Lawyers, a doctor, a criminology professor and dozens of protesters are warning that RCMP enforcement on the frontlines of the Fairy Creek blockades could lead to serious injury or death.

Protesters have set up camps and roadblocks in the area for more than a year to prevent licence-holder Teal-Jones from building roads and logging old-growth forests. More than 1,080 people have been arrested.

Teal-Jones won an injunction in the BC Supreme Court in April barring road blockades or other efforts to stop its logging. It’s now the RCMP’s job to enforce the court order.

Within the injunction zone, people are prohibited from blocking traffic and harassing or coming within 50 metres of Teal-Jones employees, said Noah Ross, a lawyer hired to represent members of the Rainforest Flying Squad, the name of the collection of volunteers organizing the blockade. People are still allowed to drive or walk into the area and to park on the side of the road, he added.

That’s a simplified summary of events, and anyone wanting more details should check out The Tyee’s previous reporting here.

Tensions have passed the boiling point on the southern Vancouver Island frontlines. For weeks protesters have been saying RCMP officers have been using increasingly dangerous tactics during arrests.

Videos have shown chainsaws being used near protesters who had chained themselves to logs, a 17-year-old falling at least five metres as police dismantled a structure he was on and RCMP officers pepper spraying protesters.

Protesters use a variety of tactics to prevent RCMP officers and Teal-Jones employees from moving up the logging road. The tactics date back to the 1960s when protesters started chaining themselves to fences to protest nuclear power and weapons manufacturing facilities. But chains can be easily cut with bolt cutters, so protesters adapted their techniques.

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A forest defender sits in tripod during police enforcement at Fairy Creek headquarters in Pacheedaht territory near Port Renfrew. Photo by @focus.wandering.

At the blockades, the Rainforest Flying Squad and supporters build structures out of wood and rope and sit high off the ground. They use “sleeping dragons” to secure arms or legs in a concrete-filled holes. Protesters say they can safely climb down from the structures or free their limbs, but choose not to.

Police have to work out how to extract them, often using heavy equipment and power tools.

RCMP asked to do ‘almost the impossible’

Rob Gordon, a criminology professor at Simon Fraser University, said protesters are using “passive opposition techniques” similar to the ones popularized by Mahatma Gandhi, while RCMP officers use paramilitary techniques of “direct conflict.”

The RCMP are asked to do “almost the impossible,” said Gordon. On the one hand, they’re required to enforce the injunction and use military tactics to clear out the protesters. On the other hand, they still have to act as a police force, not as an army.

Both sides are dug in and “blinded by fury and hatred,” he said. “You don’t need a PhD to figure out what will happen next here: someone is going to be seriously injured or killed.”

That fear was echoed by nine land defenders who agreed to speak with The Tyee. Several people who identified as BIPOC or disabled said they wanted to share their stories but did not feel safe to do so.

The Tyee agreed to not to use people’s real names in some cases because they feared repercussions.

Some said they’d witnessed violent arrests that left people bruised, bleeding or with headaches that lasted for days.

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“Every day I’m watching my friends get brutalized, ripped apart and pepper sprayed,” said a land defender with mixed Black and white heritage. “They’re getting picked up and dragged over hard rocks. We’re on the side of the mountain — there’s no grass. There’s big rocks and their tailbones are hitting them.”

Dr. Joan Rosenberg, a retired physician from the Victoria area who visited the blockades several times to offer her services, said she’s seen RCMP officers choke people as their faces turn red and drag people in ways that could dislocate limbs. She’s also seen officers remove tarps and tents so that protesters were stuck under the summer sun on 36 C days to the point that they were vomiting from heat stroke.

Martin Peters, a Vancouver criminal lawyer, said police are supposed to use reasonable force, proportional to the threat to public safety, when arresting someone.

But there’s nothing reasonable about the force being used by RCMP officers against non-violent protesters at Fairy Creek, he said.

“The police’s job is to protect the peace — that’s their role,” he says. “But what they’re carrying out is a kind of civil war against protesters, where the danger to public peace is from the actions of the police themselves.”

RCMP spokesperson Sgt. Chris Manseau was not made available for an interview but sent The Tyee an email statement about RCMP involvement in the Fairy Creek blockades.

RCMP officers use a “slow and measured” approach when extracting and arresting protesters, Manseau said. “Essentially, the actions of the individual or crowds dictate the actions of police.”

Rosenberg said she’s seen physical injuries and people suffering from psychological trauma.

Protesters say that during arrests, RCMP officers often block media and legal observers from the area.

In July the BC Supreme Court ruled the RCMP had to give media more space to witness arrests.

Rosenberg said it’s traumatic for people to be hurt, or know others who have been hurt, and then be surrounded by RCMP officers and cut off from everyone else, Rosenberg says.

“I never knew the RCMP could be like this. My whole life I’ve trusted the RCMP and the police. I think I’m a bit traumatized from not knowing who to trust anymore,” she said.

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The Fairy Creek watershed northwest of Victoria. Image via Zoë Yunker.

Rosenberg says when she visited Fairy Creek, RCMP officers would stall her for hours while she was trying to access patients. She was also prohibited from witnessing violent arrests, but that’s exactly where the doctors should be, she said.

RCMP medics can take care of broken bones or traumatic injuries, she said.

But physicians should be allowed access to the frontlines for smaller injuries, trauma or medication-related issues, Rosenberg said. Protesters aren’t going to talk to RCMP medics after being pepper sprayed or arrested by them, she said.

Paramedics called to the blockade eight times

Rani Earnhart of the Rainforest Flying Squad said protesters have suffered broken ribs, concussions, one spinal injury, extensive lacerations and bruising, heat exhaustion while being transported in non-air-conditioned police vehicles, and convulsions after being pepper sprayed. Grace Golightly, a member of the Rainforest Flying Squad’s media team, said two people have been choked unconscious during arrests.

BC Ambulance Service told The Tyee paramedics have been called to the Fairy Creek blockades on eight occasions since June 26, with one patient taken to hospital by helicopter. Sometimes paramedics tended to more than one patient.

In an email, the RCMP’s Manseau said “there have been no serious injuries reported.”

But not all protesters would be willing to report their injuries to the police, Golightly said. “Not everyone trusts doctors or hospitals, so they might not seek medical attention even though they need it. In particular, many Indigenous people have had bad experiences with medical people as well as police,” she wrote in an email.

Rosenberg said doctors should be allowed access to the frontlines to treat smaller injuries, trauma or medication-related issues.

Some protesters accuse RCMP officers of racism.

Cheviot, who uses the neutral pronoun “ta” from Mandarin, Cheviot’s native language, said an RCMP officer, who introduced himself as Japanese, told an 80-year-old Japanese man his actions were shameful.

“You don’t teach your own culture to your elders,” ta says. “That’s the equivalent of teaching your grandmother how to cook, but 100 times more disrespectful and insulting.”

Cheviot has also seen an officer grab an Indigenous man’s drumstick, while he was drumming, and throw it in the woods.

Some protesters say RCMP officers treat BIPOC and white protesters differently.

Catherine McClarty, a white middle-aged land defender, said she was arrested June 9 alongside an Indigenous woman. They were both co-operative and compliant but only the Indigenous woman was handcuffed and roughly handled, McClarty said.

The Indigenous woman was dropped off at the side of a road outside Port Renfrew and told there was a payphone down the road, while McClarty was dropped off in Lake Cowichan where the Rainforest Flying Squad’s arrestee support team was waiting for her, she said. The support team offers arrestees everything from cookies to a ride back to their cars.

Moon Moss (her pseudonym), a person of colour-identifying land defender, says white protesters would come back to the blockades after an arrest and say the RCMP officers were nice to them and had done kind things like offer them water while detained. BIPOC protesters would come back from an arrest shaking, bruised and traumatized.

Protesters also say officers are arresting people, then transporting them to Port Renfrew and releasing them without charges.

Criminal lawyer Peters said police need to have reasonable and probable grounds that an offence has been committed to arrest people. If charges aren’t laid, it’s questionable whether they had a strong enough reason to arrest a protester in the first place, he said.

Protesters are also having their possessions taken away by the RCMP and cars taken away by the logging company Teal-Jones.

RCMP officers confiscate backpacks, cameras, batteries and medical supplies, protesters say. They’ve used knives to slash open the sides of tents, smashed car windows and have cut locks off trailers to enter and confiscate items inside.

Noah Ross, the lawyer hired to represent members of the Rainforest Flying Squad, said police target communications equipment protesters need to talk with the outside world, as Fairy Creek is an area without cell reception or Wi-Fi.

Police use bulldozers to clear camps by driving through them, and protesters say they’re not given enough warning to pack up camp and protect their items from being crushed.

Luke Wallace, a land defender, estimates around $100,000 worth of items, like tents, climbing equipment, batteries, cameras, computers and sleeping bags have been confiscated or trashed this way, with protesters not given a way to get their items back.

In his emailed statement, RCMP spokesperson Manseau says protesters have been “repeatedly told to remove their belongings, structures and themselves from the injunction area.... Through conversations with members conducting the enforcement, items such as bags, tents, medication and even drones have been located and have been returned to their rightful owners.”

In early September RCMP damaged four vehicles, said Jen Osborne, a photojournalist who has been covering Fairy Creek.

Two vehicles were damaged by heavy machinery when RCMP cleared out a camp known as Aurora Sept. 7. Two other cars were towed out of the Fairy Creek area by an excavator, and Osborne was told by protesters the cars rolled and were heavily damaged.

All of the vehicles were parked by the side of the road, Osborne says.

Criminal lawyer Peters said police are not allowed to do this.

Officers have very limited search powers, he said. They are allowed to confiscate weapons during an arrest and to seize observable evidence, like an item when someone is caught shoplifting.

“They can’t take away a pen or eyeglasses, but they could take a gun,” he says. Backpacks and cellphones can be seized during an arrest but not opened or searched without a warrant.

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Police walk through the Aurora land defender camp after the RCMP cleared it using a grader on Sept. 7. Luke Wallace, a white land defender, estimates $100,000 worth of items have been trashed or confiscated by police since the blockades began. Photo by Jen Osborne.

Police also need a warrant to enter a residence, like a trailer or a car — even with the injunction, Peters says. Otherwise, anything they find would be thrown out in court.

Peters says the RCMP and a logging company have no authority to bulldoze camps.

“Where’s the authority to do that? In the injunction? No. Teal-Jones has no power too. They’re working on Crown land — it’s our land. More importantly, it’s First Nations land,” he says. “With Fairy Creek, the RCMP are way offside here, and you have to ask why. Who are the police really protecting here?”

The Fairy Creek blockades are largely taking place on the traditional territory of the Pacheedaht First Nation. The nation has a logging revenue-sharing agreement with the province.

Elected Chief Jeff Jones and Hereditary Chief Frank Queesto Jones support logging on the territory and have asked protesters to respect their authority and to leave.

The nation of about 287 people is not united on the issue. Elder Bill Jones opposes logging and has been a participant in the blockades, inviting others onto the territory. The blockades are also supported by Victor Peter, who Jones supports as the hereditary chief, and other members of the Pacheedaht First Nation.

In June, the Huu-ay-aht, Ditidaht and Pacheedaht First Nations asked the province to defer logging in the Fairy Creek watershed and Central Walbran Valley for two years, but protesters say they want permanent protection for the old growth, not deferrals.

Big bills to recover towed vehicles

Rainforest Flying Squad lawyer Ross says Teal-Jones is towing away vehicles and charging thousands of dollars to protesters to get them back.

Companies can tow a vehicle if it blocks the road so a logging truck can’t safely drive around it, Ross said. But dozens of vehicles that have been confiscated were safely parked at the side of the road, he said.

The Rainforest Flying Squad estimates between 45 to 50 cars have been towed.

That’s theft, says Peters. “There’s nothing in the injunction order or a tree farm licence that permits Teal-Jones to steal cars, hold them in custody and blackmail people to get them back,” he says. “It’s a complete abuse of power, being facilitated by the police.”

Gurudayal Khalsa is a white land defender who uses he/they pronouns. Khalsa had their car towed Aug. 11. They were arrested the same day for crossing the RCMP exclusion zone line, transported to Lake Cowichan and released without charges.

Khalsa was given a phone number to call to get their car back. The person they called identified themselves as a Teal-Jones contractor who said he had to pay $2,500 and admit to participating in the blockades to get their car back.

Khalsa paid the money using a credit card and received a phone call a few days later from a blocked number. The person identified themselves as Rick, a contractor for Teal-Jones, and picked Khalsa up in a truck from a gas station in Lake Cowichan. Khalsa was told he was not allowed to bring anyone with him or have his mother follow behind them in her car. Rick drove Khalsa to a nearby lot and dropped him off at his car.

The Tyee was shown the receipt for $2,500 paid to Teal-Jones and a video recording of Khalsa’s interaction with Rick.

Ross says he has heard similar stories and is helping five people sue Teal-Jones for unlawfully taking their vehicles and charging between $2,500 and $3,000 to get them back.

Moon Moss said protesters are told their backpacks and personal items, like cameras and camping equipment are all being held by Teal-Jones, and they have to call and give their personal information, like their name, number and address, to get their items back.

“That is completely inappropriate for a private company to do,” Moon Moss says. “We’re not going to give our personal information. It’s one thing to give it to the cops while being arrested, it’s another for a company to ask for. Who are you to ask for that?”

Peters said Teal-Jones’ reasons for wanting protester names and personal information stretches back to the original lawsuit between the company and the protesters.

The injunction is between Teal-Jones and “unknown persons operating as the Rainforest Flying Squad” and “John Doe, Jane Doe and Persons Unknown.”

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Police move to arrest a protester on a logging road near Port Renfrew. Photo by Jen Osborne.

The company wants the names of protesters so it can add them to the lawsuit and say they’re liable for millions of dollars in losses caused by the blockades, Peters said.

It’s an empty threat, Peters said. Lawyers would argue land defenders just wanted their car back and admitted to liability under duress.

“It’s a scare tactic... and it’s abusive,” he said.

Khalsa says when he called the number to get his car back, “Teal-Jones read me my rights. They told me they can use it against me in court.”

When The Tyee called the number given to protesters, a woman who identified herself as a processor who could not speak for Teal-Jones hung up when asked to read the legal justification.

In his emailed statement, RCMP spokesperson Manseau said police have not seized any vehicles but is aware Teal-Jones is removing vehicles that block roads. He added “vehicles are then transported to a secure compound where the owners can make arrangements to have them released.”

Teal-Jones did not respond to repeated requests for an interview.

A ‘no-win’ situation

So where will the conflict go from here? Criminology professor Gordon says he hopes it’ll head back to the courts.

The land defenders and the RCMP need to realize they’re in a no-win situation, he said.

The RCMP especially need to realize they’re dealing with a failed court order, Gordon said. They should be going back to court to say the order is unenforceable and to stop putting the RCMP on the firing line, he says.

Teal-Jones has applied to extend the injunction, which is scheduled to expire Sept. 26. The Rainforest Flying Squad was in court last week to argue against the extension.

Its lawyers said public interest should trump corporate interest, and that old-growth forests should be protected to ensure biodiversity and slow climate change, said Kathleen Code, a spokesperson for the group.

The team also cited RCMP and Teal-Jones misconduct to argue against the extension, she said.

Justice Douglas Thompson said he wouldn’t reach a decision before the injunction expires.

Gordon says he’s not sure the conflict will play out entirely in the courts.

“It’s a characteristic of the RCMP as a paramilitary organization that they can only think in a paramilitary way,” he says. “RCMP response is ‘Well, we’ve got a court order, we have to enforce it. Damn the torpedoes.’”

But that’s a “colossal mistake,” he said, because using force against peaceful protesters always sets the public against you.

News about increasingly aggressive police tactics is also bringing more people to the blockade’s frontlines, protesters say.

Cheviot said BIPOC land defenders understand they have to show up to physically protect other BIPOC protesters with less privilege than them.

Wren Wild, a white land defender, similarly said she was heading back to the blockades to use her white privilege to stand in between BIPOC protesters and RCMP officers to offer what protection she could.

As of Sept. 9, 186 complaints about RCMP actions have been filed with the Civilian Review and Complaints Commission, which oversees and monitors police misconduct.

In an email to The Tyee, the commission said 65 of those complaints fell within its mandate and will be investigated. Complaints include excessive use of force; lack of police identification; refusal of medical attention; inappropriate handling of protesters, legal observers and the media; improper arrest; mishandling of personal belongings; improper enforcement of exclusion zones; lack of PPE; and wearing Thin Blue Line emblems, it said.

Manseau says all enforcement is well-documented and the RCMP will use those recordings to defend itself in criminal proceedings or as part of a complaint process.

Rainbow Eyes, a First Nations land defender and member of the Da’naxda’xw-Awaetlala First Nation near Knight Inlet on Vancouver Island, said RCMP aggression is growing because protesters are succeeding.

“It was like [the RCMP] realized we don’t have to listen to them anymore, they sensed it. Now they use mace and get violent. But those who love Fairy Creek keep coming, and it’s beyond anything the RCMP can handle,” she said.  [Tyee]

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