The sound of drumming and singing fills the air as the aroma of sage drifts through the crowd. Yellow police tape spans the gravel road and flutters in the breeze, signifying the boundary of another RCMP “exclusion zone.” A sign stating “Land Back” in bright red lettering leans up against a dark green SUV. An arrestee lays alone in a trench 30m away with a wall of RCMP and a single legal observer in between.
This is the scene on the frontlines of the Fairy Creek blockade. Spirits here are high despite the harsh reality of the situation: Indigenous land defenders and forest protector allies stand as the last line of defense against the decimation of the surrounding ancient forests. As they chant and sing together on this logging road amongst the cedars, douglas fir, hemlock and other precious giants, they represent a growing movement—one that deeply understands these ecosystems and the array of monolithic trees they contain are worth more standing.
From humble beginnings, the Fairy Creek blockade now prevails as the largest act of civil disobedience in Canadian history. With arrest numbers nearing 1,000 people, there’s no sign of frontliners or their supporters backing down anytime soon. This direct action has gained international acclaim for its role in attempting to protect the last of southern Vancouver Island’s temperate rainforest. So, how did it get to this point? “It’s complicated” is an understatement. Over more than a year, the story of Fairy Creek and its numerous eccentricities has emerged and evolved. Staying true to its origins, this volunteer-driven, grassroots movement attracts people from all walks of life passionate about effecting change. What began as a small group hanging out to block a logging road has exploded into a mass organization consisting of Indigenous leaders, working professionals, students, tradespeople, and every other variety possible of the passionate and the motivated. Dedication and the strength of their spirit feeds this fire—feeling them even through moments of extreme adversity. Against the odds, their battle persists even now after 4 full months of police enforcement and over a year of blockades
On August 9th 2020, thirty people hailing from southern Vancouver Island blockaded the road after hiking 1,000m above sea level to the west ridge of Fairy Creek. Shortly after, Bill Jones, a Pacheedaht Elder and knowledge keeper, publicly voices his support to save the old growth and offers an official invitation to remain on the land. He illustrates the complicated relationship between industry, the government, and the band council—a trifecta rooted in colonial oppression. Hereditary systems of self-governance were the norm for Indigenous Peoples prior to European colonization. Currently, the band council—a system implemented by colonizers—technically only governs reserve land, and not unceded traditional territories. Yet, unsurprisingly, this is the system recognized by the BC government. Ada’itsx, aka Fairy Creek, is part of the unceded ancestral territory of the Pacheedaht Nation. Its traditionally recognized leadership, which includes hereditary chief Victor Peter, is in favour of the blockades protecting the last of their original forests.
So, why is there such an emergency, and what exactly is at stake? Hiking through the forests on the chopping block, it’s easy to recognize that these trees contain a certain magnificence. Elder Bill Jones refers to these spaces as natural cathedrals and places of deep spiritual meaning to his people. Outside of the traditional wisdom, the science is clear: old growth forests are irreplaceable, and logging them is obviously unsustainable. Less than 2.7% of original forest cover remains in British Columbia. The BC government vastly over-inflates the supposed amount of old growth left, suggesting that 13.2 million hectares still stand. Professional biologists on the other hand, such as Rachel Holt, have stepped forward to set the record straight and make it clear that in reality less than 400,000 hectares remain. These ancient forests and their biodiversity are essential for food security and carbon sequestration, they are drastically more fire-resistant than second growth, and their unique ecosystems provide habitats for myriad plants and animals—including endangered species. Apathy holds severe consequences this late in the game, and the urgency of the situation is palpable. As the climate crisis rages on and the destruction of the remaining old growth continues, it becomes clear there is simply no more time for politics or bureaucracy. Action, in this case, is the only answer.
On April 1st 2021, Justice Verhoeven granted an injunction allowing RCMP to arrest and remove anyone blocking access through roads within the stated injunction zone. They began enforcing this order on May 17th, and have been locked in an ongoing battle with forest defenders ever since. Protestors quickly began building hard blocks of increasing complexity to peacefully delay the police from arresting them and clearing roads. These include sleeping dragons—concreted-in tubes that allow activists to chain themselves into the ground—fallen trees lashed together into tripods, “Loraxes” ie. logs that a person can clip into, treesit platforms, and many other ingenious devices structures and techniques. At the beginning of June, the provincial government announced a deferral in association with the Pacheedaht band council; a stunt that defenders feel was intended to trick the public into believing the area was now protected. However, this deferral neglects the vast majority of the areas they are actively blockading—in other words, the announcement was smoke and mirrors.
The stakes have grown higher recently, with mounting pressure on Teal-Jones to log while they still can, at the risk of more deferrals. What started off peaceful has evolved into escalating police violence and shocking recklessness during hard block extractions. Police brutality, towards BIPOC defenders in particular, continues to increase. The comments muttered by officers and their horrific actions on the frontlines paint an appalling picture. RCMP have repeatedly used pepper spray and excessive force on peaceful protestors while they have all had their arms locked together, without any possibility of them having instigating violence towards police. Videos captured on the frontlines reveal protestors being dragged across dirt roads, choked, punched, kicked, and kneed by RCMP officers. There have also been numerous and consistent accounts of police damaging, destroying, or stealing belongings and supplies… including slashing forest protectors’ tires, tearing off van doors, and standing by as excavator operators have crushed entire vehicles to scrap. One BIPOC defender was asked, “How do you stay safe on the frontlines?” His blunt answer: “Cardio.”
Arrest numbers now exceed those of Clayoquot Sound’s “War in the Woods” back in the mid-90’s. This might seem like an exciting feat to some, while others feel a deep sadness in knowing that this fight still drags on almost 30 years later. Even after the harrowing events and assaults endured by numerous peaceful defenders, they remain optimistic and they continue coming back. Many express gratitude in finding what they have here, the sense of community felt within the camps, and excitement at the prospect of protecting these forests once and for all.
Teal-Jones is seeking an extension to their injunction, which currently expires near the end of this month. Only time will tell if BC’s Supreme Court will tilt in favour of stopping the madness, which would set a critically important precedent in safeguarding the last of BC’s remaining ancient forest. Until then, the unbreakable spirit of land and forest defenders will continue to hold steadfast on the frontlines of the Fairy Creek blockade.
Article written by Emily Kane. Emily Kane is a nature lover, adventure seeker, activist, and yoga teacher based out of Whistler, BC. These days, when she's not in the mountains or in the studio you'll find her protecting old-growth forests around BC. You can follow her via @emilykaneyoga or get her book here.
All photos by @focus.wandering