Words & Photography :: Nikkey Dawn.
“Calling all hikers, climbers and backcountry users,” has been the callout on the Fairy Creek blockade Instagram for over a month. The outdoor community has the skills and knowledge needed on the frontlines to help defend Ada’itsx (Fairy Creek, near Port Renfrew, B.C.) one of the last remaining intact old-growth watersheds on Vancouver Island. Now that the provincial travel restrictions are lifting, many outdoor enthusiasts, from around B.C. and beyond, are feeling the call to get involved but wondering what we need to know first. After visiting the blockades and working to understand the events leading up to such extreme measures as putting one’s body on the line to protect old-growth trees, here’s what I’ve learned.
Who is the Rainforest Flying Squad?
The Rainforest Flying Squad (RFS) includes anyone and everyone who takes action to defend old-growth forests. It is a decentralized movement where creativity and self-initiated projects are encouraged.
The Squad began when Joshua Wright, a Washington resident, spotted road construction (using satellite imagery) going into the Ada’itsx area by subcontractors of the Teal-Jones Group, the largest logging company operating in B.C. Wright reached out to his network of forest defenders on Vancouver Island and within two weeks an emergency logging road blockade was erected on the western side of the Fairy Creek headwaters. It was the beginning of a movement to protect pristine stands of old-growth forest in the Fairy Creek and Central Walbran areas.
The RFS is on the unceded territory of the Pacheedaht Nation at the invitation of Elder Bill Jones. The Pacheedaht, Ditidaht and Huu-ay-aht First Nations submitted a request to the provincial government to defer logging in the area for two years while they collaborate on a management plan. The news of the deferral’s approval by the cabinet was welcomed news to the RFS. However, the deferral only includes a portion of what RFS is trying to protect. It does not apply to the important Granite Creek watershed or the stoppage of road-building throughout the deferral area. By continuing to try and build roads, Teal-Jones is setting themselves up to log the old-growth after the two-year deferral process is over. But if the three Nations decide not to allow harvesting in the deferral area, the road-building process will have already harmed the ecosystem, with many old-growth trees chopped down.
The RFS has committed to staying in place until there is protection for the entire Fairy Creek and Central Walbran areas, roughly 1700 hectares in size and containing the last intact watershed out of a park or protected area, and some of the last unprotected temperate old-growth forests on Vancouver Island, including the rare yellow cedar. For context, 50,000 hectares of old-growth forest is cut annually in B.C. The 2020 Old Growth Strategic Review, written by independent experts and commissioned by the provincial government, states we are hurtling towards “irreversible loss.”
This is a peaceful movement where forest defenders use non-violent action to block road work and logging activity. They use physical barriers and their bodies, by strapping, chaining, tying, or gluing themselves into contraptions that will take a long time to dismantle. But there are also equally important non-arrestable operation positions that keep the movement running. Their goal is a moratorium on old-growth logging (not second-growth) while the B.C. government takes the time to adopt the recommendations laid out in the 2020 Old Growth Strategic Review.
The movement is spreading beyond Fairy Creek with new blockades recently popping up on the Sunshine Coast and in the Gulf Islands.
Indigenous Rights & Sovereignty
What is happening at Ada’itsx is a familiar scene, one that is often conducted by the provincial government and extraction industries. A First Nation council is given the “choice” of continuing to struggle with little economic opportunity for their community under an oppressive colonial system or enter into an agreement with the government for resource extraction that “awards” them licenses for their own (previously stolen) land. The agreement usually sees the Nation receiving the smallest fraction of the profit pie.
In 2017, the Pacheedaht Nation entered a revenue share agreement with the Province of B.C. and Teal-Jones for the Fairy Creek area. Teal-Jones will make at least $132 million while the Pacheedaht will make $350,000 at most. What’s more, the agreement has conditions of “Non-interference” and “Cooperation and Support.” These conditions and agreement are seen by many to be in conflict with Indigenous People’s right to self-determination under the United Nations Declaration on the Right of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), which Canada is beholden to.
Niece of Elder Bill Jones, “xʷ is xʷ čaa (Kati George-Jim), has been vocal on social media about how band councils are a form of governance imposed by the colonial system and are not representative of an individual Nation’s own laws or traditional forms of self-governance. Speaking in a video for the Fairy Creek blockade account, she explains, “This province especially, this government especially, have gotten so good at lying and making it seem like it is consent … the fact is, these colonial systems put us in a position that there is no choice, there is no consent, and the systems that we have had to depend on for our entire existence are actively being disrupted by this government. And this government selectively chooses who and what type of Indigenous leadership that they support, and again it is no mistake that it is those that are directly connected to Industry to exploit the land for profit.”
Elder Bill Jones echoes his niece’s sentiments in a media statement saying, “This is indeed an oppressive system, whereby governments crush all hope and consciousness of its membership to the benefit of our political elite.” He goes on to say the province has used a divide and conquer method to create division within the Pacheedaht Nation. Both “xʷ is xʷ čaa and Elder Bill Jones have explained that looking after these lands is their ancestral duty. Elder Bill Jones states, “I will continue standing for the land until I am dead. I feel like an old-growth tree is worth the same as my life.”
Pacheedaht Nation Chief Jeff Jones recently broke his media silence to speak to The Narwhal, he thinks the protests imply, “You Indians don’t have the ability to carry yourselves, so we’re going to fight for you and we’re going to protect the old-growth whether you like it or not.” The Huu-ay-aht Nation Chief Councillor, Robert J. Dennis Sr., has also been vocal that their people want to be able to manage, and profit, from their territory without outside involvement, saying to the Globe and Mail, “Even protesters have to respect the territory of the people – it’s [the Huu-ay-aht] that should decide how their lands are managed. It shouldn’t be determined by outside sources,” and “We’re tired of being on welfare, for Pete’s sake.”
Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, president of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, was one of many environmental leaders to sign a letter petitioning the province to provide financial support for First Nations protecting old-growth. This would provide a third choice to Nations struggling economically, beyond industry or poverty. The Provincial government has not picked up, or publicly acknowledged the proposal.
When asked in a podcast interview for Capital Daily what he thought about revenue share agreements, Grand Chief Steward Phillip said, “I don’t think First Nations have the right to hold the rest of society hostage in regard to how our collective efforts to preserve the environment and preserve the old-growth forests.” He goes on to explain stewardship is ingrained in their culture, “It’s a fundamental part of our teachings that we have a sacred duty to protect the lands, and all living things, our teachings don’t speak to cutting deals in the back room, to destroy and devastated old-growth forestry.”
The Politics Behind Old-Growth Logging
The recent events at Fairy Creek have invoked a feeling of deja-vu for many British Columbians. The current NDP government in B.C. ran an election campaign highlighting the importance of protecting old-growth forests and adopting the actions set out in the 2020 Old Growth Strategic Review. To see a government go against its own campaign promises is nothing new, but many remember thirty years ago when the ‘War in the Woods,’ the last major clash in B.C. over old-growth logging that saw approximately 1000 people arrested, erupted to protect Clayoquot sound. That was also during an NDP governance, one that was also elected on a campaign that included the protection of old-growth forests. In 2019 Research Co, commissioned by Sierra Club BC, found 92% of British Columbians want to see old-growth forest protected. Astute political analysts believe the NDP adopted the old-growth messaging in order to win votes from the Green Party in the snap election, securing a majority government.
On World Environment Day, I joined Paul Manley, the Green Party MP for Nanaimo, and about 200 other protestors for a processional hike to the Fairy Creek Waterfall Camp. He was out for the day to show his support and meet with Elder Bill Jones and Hereditary Chief Victor Peters who had just used their rights to invite hundreds of guests onto their unceded, traditional territory that was being blocked off by the RCMP.
Manley says it’s all very familiar to him. “I was a part of the movement in the early nineties for Carmanah Walbran and Clayoquot … I worked for Western Canada Wilderness Committee and set up the VA [sound systems] for those protests.” Manley also played in a reggae band, holding impromptu protest concerts on the lawn of the Legislature. Reflecting, he says, “It’s unfortunate that 30 years later we don’t seem to have learned anything, and now we’re here with less than 3% of the old-growth remaining.”
Manley explains that Canadians are in the financial position to protect old-growth, “The federal government just put 2.3 billion dollars into the Nature Legacy Fund to preserve 25% of our marine base and 25% of our terrestrial base by 2025,” he says. “And this [old growth] is a perfect example of what needs to be protected.”
Manley is referring to Canada’s commitments coming out of the G7 Summit, where it was concluded the loss of biodiversity is tied to climate change. “If we’re going to talk about biodiversity and protecting that, this is a sample that needs to be saved. We have signed international agreements, that we are bound to protect biodiversity, and we are signed on to our ninth climate agreement, that we haven’t upheld.” He pauses, takes a breath, and explains he’s tempted to use unparliamentary language before continuing, “It’s about bloody time that we started doing something about climate change.”
His frustration, and passion, match those of everyone in the procession and many can be seen holding signs with sayings like “Worth More Standing,” “Stop the Ecocide,” and “Protect Our Grandchildren.”
“The federal government just put 2.3 billion dollars into the Nature Legacy Fund to preserve 25% of our marine base and 25% of our terrestrial base by 2025. And this [old growth] is a perfect example of what needs to be protected.”
On the Frontlines
Forest defenders go by “Camp Names” to protect themselves from being targeted by the RCMP and incurring potential charges, but even that is a privilege not available to everyone. People like Elder Bill Jones, “xʷ is xʷ čaa and Hereditary Chief Victor Peters do not use camp names because their lineages hold the relational rights and responsibilities to the land. Other front liners, like Shauna Knight, or “Bush Pig,” have simply been involved for so long that they are already known to the RCMP.
Headquarters, or HQ, is the heart of the camp network, with a basic kitchen, wildcraft art installations, and various tents for media, information and communication. This is where anyone wanting to get involved needs to check in. From there you can be sent to help with supply distribution, blockade building, or set up at a camp that needs more reinforcements. People are welcome to help for the day, but being able to camp for at least 2 nights is appreciated by the organizers.
To get a sense of what it is like to commit to the frontlines long term, I met up with forest defender “Lion.” She is the classic relatable, outdoor-loving, Vancouver Islander who moved here for the surf. After spending weeks on end with the old-growth, she says it has changed her, “You can be in nature and not really be in nature, you can walk through it without observing it. And I know that because I used to be that person where you’re just going for a walk but you’re not taking it in. But there’s something about the old-growth forest, and living there, that forces you to take it in.”
Scientists studying the effects of nature on the human brain call this the awe-factor. We get the biggest hits of the good hormones, and the most restorative reward when we’re in landscapes that inspire awe. The theory is that these landscapes pull us into the interconnectedness of nature and out of our own narratives. Perhaps it’s even a built-in survival response that whispers, “there’s more here than you understand tiny human so don’t go messing it up.” Unfortunately, decisions impacting these landscapes are generally made in stifling boardrooms and not ancient forest groves. Not a lot of “awe factor” in play.
Lion says the restoration effect is undeniable, and it’s likely what has kept so many front-liners able to keep going through everything from trench foot to police intimidation, all while on a diet consisting mostly of Mr. Noodles.
Recently, Lion found her image being used to perpetuate a narrative mainstream media outlets have been pushing. The photo of her standing naked chained to boulders in front of a legally questionable gate installed by the RCMP was sold by a photojournalist and used under the headline “First Nations at Odds With Anti-logging Protestors.” Lion says that the narrative blatantly ignores the fact that many of the protestors are First Nations. She says that she was thinking on her feet that day, operating from the same flow state she experiences surfing. She needed to come up with a tactic that would stall the RCMP for the day with the limited materials she had on hand.
“…it is for the trees, but it’s about a lot more than that. And I think that’s what people are realizing and it’s a huge moment in history.”
It was the vulnerability aspect of being naked that resonated with her, she says, “There are so many parts of women that have been defiled in the media and that is strategic to upholding capitalism, it is strategic to upholding colonialism.” Before acting, she cleared her idea with the Indigenous members at Waterfall camp, aware the media could misconstrue the act and center her as a white settler. After gaining their support, she stripped down on the cold, wet day, wrapping metal chains around her mud-streaked ankles. Another woman in the camp joined her last minute, afraid of the possibility Lion would have to endure verbal and physical abuse from the male officers, alone.
Both women are passionate that anyone with privilege needs to be using it to protect the old-growth and end the colonial systems of oppression. Lion adds, “The issue for a lot of people when they get involved, it’s for the trees. And it is for the trees, but it’s about a lot more than that. And I think that’s what people are realizing and it’s a huge moment in history.” Lion is grateful to the Indigenous land defenders who have spent their time and energy teaching her and many other settlers at the camps about the decolonization movement. In a call-out video for the RFS social media accounts, Shauna Knight invites people to, “come for the trees, stay for the reconciliation.”
The movement has not been perfect, and there are still fumbles being made by settlers, but it is inspiring to see hundreds of people navigating difficult conversations and complex issues together. If you are a settler heading to the blockades, prepare to go with a humble attitude and readiness to learn. *
RCMP Enforcement of the Teal-Jones Injunction
On May 15, 2021, the RCMP began upholding the injunction granted to Teal-Jones by the Supreme Court of BC. The injunction allows RCMP to remove and arrest anyone obstructing Teal-Jones access to the 59,432 hectares of Tree Farm Licence 46. Arrests continue today at 473 and counting.
Beyond the RCMP, paramilitary and special forces are also present and increasing in numbers since the deferral was granted. Infiltration and raid operations, tactics used to break down a person’s mental state (like 24-hour floodlighting and weapon intimidation), and reports of brutality have increased in the last few weeks. The RFS has reported Indigenous youth are being targeted the most and incidents have been on the rise with acts of brutality committed against both minors and people with medical conditions recently. In a daily social media update, the RFS wrote that when one arrestee warned the officer she was about to have a seizure, the officer then threw her against a car and continued to restrain and cuff her as she experienced the seizure. No first aid was administered.
The RCMP is spending a lot of resources on enforcing this injunction and some of the organizers think they are trying to cut costs, and save time, by extracting forest defenders from contraptions like ‘sleeping dragons’ or ‘tripods’ without the aid of specialists. After footage of the RCMP using an excavator in an attempt to dig someone out of a contraption embedded in the ground was released, Felix Amuir, owner of Amuir Excavating came forward to give a statement to the RFS. He says, “It’s just a complete lack of regard for human life,” he goes on to say that if it was a job site, the practices would be shut down by WCB and the operator would lose their insurance.
Unfortunately, not enough of these incidents are being documented because the media and legal observer exclusion zones created by the RCMP are being placed out of sightlines. Authorities use distance, tarps and body positioned blocking tactics to obscure their actions from anyone within the zones. The camps that are furthest away from the RFS Headquarters are the ones in the most vulnerable positions because media and observers must hike the 10+km (one way) to witness arrests and there is no phone signal or wifi to allow for quick communication. Like the days of old, runners are used to relay information.
The RCMP has created this situation by installing a locked gate that blocks vehicle access and even periodically shuts down the public roads that go to Avatar Grove and other recreation sites. But nowhere in the injunction does it say the police can create exclusions zones / block public access, only that they may remove those who are obstructing logging activities.
How it is possible for Canada’s federal police force to be used to protect corporate interests remains a mystery to many. Peeling back the layers, it begins becoming apparent that the legal entity of Canada is an occupying force within Indigenous Peoples territory. In the British-North American act, the initial set-up was closer to a corporation than a country, a corporation that extracts resources under colonial property law. That is why Canadians have “Crown Land.” The Indian Act and the creation of the RCMP were both tools to ensure Canada could protect and continue its resource extraction. Our initial systems of oppression are still in place, and the RCMP continues to uphold them.
Teal-Jones has been up to their own antics as well, allegedly removing cars left on public access roads by forest defenders and having them towed to their offices or unknown locations. People have reported their vehicles stolen to the RCMP with no success. Some believe the company is even outright crushing vehicles. Recently, Shauna Knight’s motorcycle went missing and while out looking for it, the RFS members were pulled over and questioned by the police. For many, there’s a sense of lawlessness afoot, with few trusting those who are supposed to serve and protect.
Why Old-Growth is Worth Standing For
The temperate rainforest have been called “the best kind of forest in the world or accumulating atmospheric carbon,” by environmental scientists partly because the trees’ ability to sequester carbon increases with age. An individual old-growth western red cedar, Douglas fir or hemlock can absorb as much carbon in a single year as what an entire “middle-aged” tree holds. However, this doesn’t put BC, or the planet, in the climate plus column but rather keeps us from going farther into the negative. The Sierra Club BC found B.C.’s forests, on the whole, stopped absorbing more carbon than they release in the early 2000s because of the amount of CO2 put into the air from the annual forest fires. Old-growth trees, with their thick bark and dense canopies that keep the forest floor damp, are more resilient to forest fires than second growth.
While wandering through an ancient grove near Eden Camp, I hear an excited, disembodied voice ask, “Are you looking for the northern goshawk, or maybe even the western screech owl?” Out pop two young hikers from behind a massive Douglas fir, kitted out for some serious bird watching, one holding a small machete plastered in the yellow petals of the invasive Scotch broom. Bright-eyed, they tell me they found an old goshawk nest a few weeks ago so today they’re looking for the new nest. These birds and others, like the marbled murrelet, only live in old-growth forests. Their survival is intertwined with that of the old-growth and proving habitat use can be a powerful tool for pushing conservation.
It’s an example of how in the temperate rainforest, as trees reach a new stage of maturity they provide a different ecosystem service. This is why old-growth forests are more biodiverse and ecologically valuable. Ada’itsx is also unique in that it contains an intact watershed which means clean, stored water, protection from floods, and salmon streams free and clear of logging-caused dams.
Old-growth forests are invaluable for protecting humanity’s future in the face of climate change, but beyond our human-centric thinking, these trees lead complex lives with intricate communication systems all while supporting entire ecosystems. They’re worth standing for simply because they are magnificent expressions of life on this planet.
What You Can Do
As an outdoor community, we hold power in our numbers and passion. To live in balance, we can’t just be users of the land, we must also be stewards of it. Hold BC Premier John Horgan and the NDP party accountable to their campaign promises. Call BC Premier John Horgan at 1-250-387-1715 and Minister of Forests, Lands, Natural Resources Operations and Rural Development Katrine Conroy at 1-250-387-6240 daily to demand a moratorium on old-growth logging operations while the 2020 Old Growth Strategic Review recommendations are adopted.
If you live in B.C. and feel called to, go to camp. If you’re unable, or feeling conflicted about who has a right to be on the lands, you can still keep the pressure on the NDP for province-wide old-growth protection from wherever you are. But don’t stop there.
In Canada and around the world, Indigenous Peoples are experiencing genocide, oppression, and dispossession of land at the same time as we are collectively experiencing a mass extinction event. These are not unrelated issues. Indigenous Peoples make up 5% of the world population yet protect 80% of the world’s biodiversity. Supporting unconditioned Indigenous leadership, and the land back movement is essential for a socially just future with a shot at mitigating the impacts of the climate crisis.
Three decades after B.C.’s original “War in the Woods”, it’s clear we don’t have another 30 years. The time for real, societal-shifting action is now. As the RFS says, “If we do not succeed here, this will never happen again. This IS the Last Stand. It’s not just a catchy phrase. It’s the reality of the situation.”
*Author’s Note: I recognize I am centering on the settler experience. I worked with the RFS media team to try and find an Indigenous forest defender who was available and comfortable being interviewed but was unable to. As an industry, media has given Indigenous Peoples many reasons to distrust reporters and I recognize that I was not at the blockades long enough to earn that trust. If you are an Indigenous forest defender and you would like to share your experience, please reach out.