As the sun rises over the mountains where the soaring trees grow in the ancient Fairy Creek forest, Sage Jackson, 23, quietly tends to a sacred fire lit two weeks earlier.
She travelled from her home in Chilliwack, B.C., in late May with the aim of staying for three days. But that changed when she saw the beauty and depth of the last-of-their-kind forests near the shores of Port Renfrew on the southwest coast of Vancouver Island.
The threat of logging and damage to irreplaceable ecosystems has been a call to action for thousands, who have set up camps to stop forestry company Teal-Jones from building a logging road and harvesting old-growth trees.
But for Jackson, who is Nuu-chah-nulth/Heiltsuk and Nuučaańuł?ath/Haílzaqv, there wasn’t a choice. It’s a part of her inherent responsibility as an Indigenous person to protect the lands and waters.
“I was called to do this work. So, you do your work,” she told Ricochet while walking through the chaos of environmental activists planning blockades at their headquarters in the forest on May 31.
In a sea of settler activists
Not long after she learned to speak, Jackson was taught by her Elders about protecting and preserving the land for seven generations ahead.
“I also think about the seven generations and how the settlers are here, how their seven generations will have their knowledge of Indigenous people and how to be good allies.
“It gives me a lot of hope.”
Jackson left Chilliwack to mourn the loss of a close friend. She heals best on the land, she says, but at times it can feel lonely.
“When I first came into this space, it was … very colonized,” she says on being one of a small group of Indigenous land defenders in a sea of passionate settler activists.
“But everyone’s been very open to my input and everything I have to say, and respecting the Elders. And I think the garden that we’re building shows greatly the relationship that we have when it comes to a common goal, respecting Indigenous culture.”
She’s referring to an Indigenous garden she’s organizing with the help of settler activists on a clear-cut mound overlooking the main camp. It’s where the sacred fire is and where she spends most of her time. Indigenous land defenders can seek refuge in this space to destress and connect with their culture.
“This clear-cut, a week ago, was just a giant wound on the earth, and now we’ve blessed a sacred circle with Elders and we can hold ceremony here,” Jackson says, admiring a large circular area made into raised dirt beds for planting flowers and vegetables.
Though grieving the loss of her friend, she feels empowered being on the front lines and entrusted with the responsibility of keeping the fire alive. Every morning a lone doe visits her. Jackson has earned the deer’s trust and is now able to hand-feed apples to the curious animal. It’s moments like this that encourage her and make her feel that she’s doing the right thing.
But she’s seen violence here too, she says, with the RCMP enforcing an injunction against the land defenders. That injunction, granted to a subsidiary of Teal-Jones in April, prohibits anyone from blocking roads in the area and has led to over 200 arrests since mid-May.
Jackson has held the hands of Pacheedaht hereditary leaders and elders while they assert their sovereignty over their territories. Danger lurks around every corner with the threat of being arrested by police or assaulted by angry industry workers, which she has also witnessed.
“We stopped over 25 police cars, just in the middle of the road, because they were heading up to arrest a bunch of our youth. And it was very powerful to see.”
Of the hundreds, and at times thousands, of supporters flowing through the camps, most are white. The dreadlocked, hippy type of environmentalist is a common sight.
Some of these people have little understanding of the Indigenous spiritual, cultural and physical connections to the fight, Jackson explains. “I know everyone here is just trying to do their best and there’s a lot of education needed.” She pauses and looks around in recognition at the swarms of people gathered.
“Which is not their fault. They’re just wanting to learn, which I can really, really appreciate. Everyone here is here with a good mind and a good heart and here to protect the land, which we need.
“And it’s heartwarming. I’ve been on the front lines before in my life and it’s often just myself, my brothers, my sisters, my aunties and my uncles … and we have no settler support.
“But this, I’ve never seen this before.”
A generation of fire and reclamation
Jackson is worried about a friend who was arrested and injured the night before. She wants to check on them, which means going to another camp, called Waterfall, perched high above rows of cut blocks on a remote logging road. But she’s stopped at the entrance to the nine-kilometre trek up to the camp by a metal gate locked shut by the RCMP. Her demeanour is quiet, her spirit calm and her voice fearless as she addresses the officers.
“I’ve gotten over 72 stitches from RCMP officers in my short 23 years,” she says. Police brutality against Indigenous people and people of colour is an ongoing problem across Canada. “I want to go up there and check on my Indigenous brothers and sisters.”
After more probing, the officers finally let Jackson and others through, along with Ricochet.
Her friend, an Indigenous land defender known as Grounding Eagle, was reportedly cut out of a tripod stand made from logs by the RCMP at Waterfall camp. His head was gashed, and he was taken to hospital. Jackson is frantic to find out what happened from people who were there.
The RCMP tell Ricochet they have no knowledge of the injury, but eyewitnesses share accounts of Grounding Eagle suffering a bloody wound when he fell.
Later on Jackson prepares to head out to Victoria to meet her mother and brother, who are coming to spend a few days in the camp with her. Like many Indigenous families, they struggle with adversity from the effects of colonialism and the legacy of its violent tactics, such as residential schools.
Jackson represents a new generation on the mend, rising up to revitalize what was lost. She believes it’s a generation of fire and reclamation.
Ultimately, she’s tired of endless empty promises from governments, oppression and violation of Indigenous rights from all entities.
“I want true reconciliation. Money and reparations don’t mean much to us when we’ve lost so much of our languages, our culture, our Elders, our healers and our children. The last thing that we have is this little bit of land — this last 2.7 per cent of our old growth of our ancestors,” she says.
A recent report detailed how only 3 per cent of the land in B.C. can support the large trees people think of when they hear about old-growth forests, and within that small area, only 2.7 per cent of old growth remains. The forests are being wiped out.
“So, leave us with our land. When our hereditary chief (Victor Peter) asks this land to be untouched, listen to him. He’s welcoming everyone to this territory to protect it because he knows it’s at risk and there’s no going back from it.”
Jackson speaks endearingly about a kilt-wearing settler known as Unity, who builds infrastructure for the camps. Unity is tall, shaven-headed, with clear blue eyes encircled with black tattooed ink and an intense desire to defend not only the forest but Indigenous women too.
Unity has been a constant support, says Jackson, always looking out for her. She feels safer when he’s around.
“Yeah, the missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls crisis is a fucking problem,” he tells Ricochet while leaning against a camper van parked against the thick bush while his dog, a husky, waits on alert inside.
“It’s a shame the government continues to deny investigating it to the point that it should be. It taps into my own anger over why I’m here to begin with.”
For a moment he stops, overcome with emotion. He doesn’t want to let his tears flow because he’s got too much work to do. The tears have come and gone for weeks, and he’s planning to stay for months longer.
To demonstrate his commitment and honour the lives of the taken, Unity is spearheading a ceremonial initiative to stake dozens of donated red dresses into the earth towards the top of the mountain, about five kilometres uphill from the headquarters camp.
It’s the least he can do, he says, and he hopes it sends a powerful message to governments, RCMP and perpetrators of violence against Indigenous women and girls — that he won’t let the violence happen on his watch.
“We are in the trenches of this all. It’s all interconnected. I see this as warriors and wisdom coming together,” he explains about the collaboration between settlers and Indigenous people. “They’re both needed. We need the warriors and we also need the why, the wisdom.”
Protecting Indigenous lives
Two Indigenous land defenders named Okimaw and Loon are gathering supplies and heading to Hummingbird, an Indigenous camp two hours away. It’s a place where Indigenous land defenders hold ceremonies, practise their culture, sing, drum and eat good food cooked by Naas, an Indigenous graduate of the Emily Carr University of Art and Design.
Two settler men, Nolm and Enby, are acting as protectors. Okimaw and Loon refer to them as their “shields.”
“We want to keep them with us because they will and they have done it, where they’ve stood in front of us and wanted to chain with us to protect us,” explains Okimaw, 27, a Cree who travelled from Treaty 4 territory in Saskatchewan to help defend the forest. “We’re Indigenous women and we need protecting because we are targeted, and they totally understand that.”
“I haven’t really connected this much with settlers in these types of movements, and it’s exciting. But it takes time to grow and build relationships. What happened in the past (with colonization) was horrible. I used to be so mad and racially prejudiced towards white people.
“They’re still learning, and we have to be humble with them.”
Loon, 26, who is Lakota mixed with European ancestry, has been on the front lines at Fairy Creek for weeks. She is appreciative of settler solidarity with Indigenous land defence.
“I have a suspicion that if this had started with just Indigenous, it could have gotten ugly really fast,” she says while hurriedly eating a breakfast cooked by a senior called Cookie, after a long, restless night in the forest.
“It’s been really good that settlers came through and started with the blockades and stuff. I think at the end of the day they ended up helping to create a safe place … for us to come in and continue the work without feeling like we’re just going to be on our own.”
Colonization and the forced removal of Indigenous Peoples from their lands is part of everyone’s pasts, says Loon, who sees herself as a type of bridge builder between settlers and Indigenous people here.
“I want to be an example of settlers and Indigenous people working together, uniting them within myself and hopefully being able to unite them within the movement. I feel Western civilization has spent more time being generationally disconnected to the land, so it’s important for everyone to connect back to the land.”
Enby, 23, one of the “shields,” just got fired from his job at a construction company on the Sunshine Coast because he left for the Fairy Creek blockades. The comforts of home and economic stability are worth giving up, he says, because it all becomes meaningless when the earth is being destroyed in the name of progress.
“What’s going on here, perpetuated by the RCMP and just the gross injustice being thrust upon the peoples and the land defenders here, it’s disgusting,” he says while taking a break from cutting sections of felled trees that will be used to block access to the Hummingbird camp. So far, he’s built tables, chairs and other amenities for use in the various camps.
“It’s really, really, really soul-nourishing work.”
He’s angered by the “human rights abuses” against Indigenous Peoples and feels compelled to do his part to protect Indigenous lives.
“Not only are Indigenous lives at stake, but the life of the planet is at stake here,” he says. “And the police don’t target me as heavily because I’m presenting as a white male. We live in a society that’s plagued by white supremacy and resource extraction colonialism. Injustices like genocide (missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls) and abject cultural genocide has been perpetrated against all the peoples in these territories.
“It’s up to us, like me, a descendant of settlers, to right some wrongs and stand up for what’s right.”
‘Rebuilding our humanity to relate to each other’
Kati George-Jim, 25, a T’Sou-ke First Nation member with ancestral ties to the Pacheedaht and Ditidaht territories where the battle for the old-growth forests is playing out, has been arrested twice.
She told Ricochet of an RCMP officer grabbing her sweater from behind while her hoodie was tied around her head, which put her into a chokehold. She says she was grabbed multiple times by her hair and dragged along the gravel by police after they arrested her.
No official media were there to record what happened, but some of the actions were documented by legal observers. One video of a police officer dragging George-Jim around by her sweatshirt has spread widely on social media.
But George-Jim is prepared to assert her Indigenous sovereignty for as long as it takes to protect the lands, water and air here and in all of Turtle Island.
The allyships forming with the settlers working to protect the forest are something she’s never seen at this scale before, and it’s complicated.
“There are still all of the systemic problems within coordinating and organizing here. I believe it’s not enough to just say, ‘I support Indigenous people’ or ‘I support Indigenous sovereignty,’ because I don’t believe there’s a full understanding of what that is,” she says.
“It doesn’t mean it’s not possible. It just means there’s a lot of work to be done.”
That work includes learning about the history of colonial violence and understanding the trauma Indigenous people experience while navigating land defence. George-Jim believes governments, industry and police are ultimately afraid of true alliances forming between Indigenous Peoples and settlers because they’re most powerful when standing together.
“Then we have the centre being the land and ancestral relationships and having a new beginning for folks to engage with. But I would say reconciliation has never existed. So what is required now is the destruction of oppressive systems at the same time as rebuilding our humanity to relate to each other.”
Back on the Pacheedaht Nation reserve, nestled on the shoreline against the ocean’s choppy waters, George-Jim’s uncle, Elder Bill Jones, 81, fields multiple satellite telephone interviews from reporters vying for his thoughts on the latest actions on his traditional lands.
He wears an orange t-shirt in recognition of the recent discovery of the remains of 215 First Nations children at Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc in Kamloops, B.C. A survivor of the notorious state-funded, church-run St. Anne’s residential school, he continues the fight for the survival of his people against the destruction of the spiritually sacred forests of his ancestors.
He says he’s overwhelmed by the numbers of non-Indigenous people streaming in to save the forest. The settlers are colonized too, he says, and he sympathizes with their plight.
“These people who go up there are the ones who don’t feel comfortable in the spiritual structure of their society,” he says while sitting in a rocking chair in his living room, which smells of moist cedar and coffee. His white hair is pulled back and his glasses rest on the bridge of his wrinkled nose.
Leaning forward, he whispers, “So, they go in search of it and they’re up there (in the forest) searching. And they find, ‘Oh, this is a spiritual place. This is where I belong.’ This is why I feel that these people are an essential part of our great Mother (Earth)’s calling to come over, come and help her.”
For Jones, these settler supporters are more than allies. Like him, they are finding liberation from the bounds of colonial ideologies.
“In other words, they’re First Nations in white skin,” he chuckles. “And that’s okay. I think that we’re all like that when we’re in the comfort of our Mother. The logging companies want us to be ignorant of the fact that the forest is a freeing place.
“The forest is a place where you can find the truth and know the truth and the truth will set you free.”
The days and nights overlap in the forest, where land defenders from all walks of life stay vigilant in a war to safeguard it. Back at the main camp, Unity attaches a red cotton dress to the thick branch of a fallen tree and hoists it 20 feet off the ground.
He’s preparing for an official ceremony where dozens of these dresses, embodying another war not far removed from this one, will loom across the cutline for as long as it takes to eradicate the violence it represents.
Loon returns to the headquarters that evening. She will go to Victoria with Okimaw and one of their protectors to shower and take a short break from an emotionally, physically and spiritually demanding endeavour.
“I really hope that when we (Indigenous and settlers) work this out, like it’s a pretty ambitious thing, but hopefully this becomes a template and maybe eventually goes around at least Canada to help out with movements just like this.
“And eventually maybe the world.”