Fairy Creek: Meet the people behind the largest act of civil disobedience in Canadian history

Youth forest defenders explain why they're answering the call of Pacheedaht Elder Bill Jones
Clay Nikiforuk
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Renegade had been lying in a trench for three days.

The RCMP raid on HQ camp at Fairy Creek was in full swing, and activists had locked themselves into trenches, called “hard locks,” dug across the road to slow down the police advance. It’s one of a number of creative roadblocks people have used to protect old-growth forest from logging.

“I can’t even imagine, if I were to have children, what they would have to live through. And so I just want to do anything I can to ensure that the generations that come after me are able to live in a clean and safe world,” said Renegade.

"Renegade" in her trench
Aleisha Langmann

Like many of those on the front lines at Fairy Creek, Renegade is a teenager. And like many others at the camp, she goes by a “camp name” to protect her identity. She choked up as she shared her dreams for the future — just the simple hope that the water will be drinkable and the air breathable.

In the largest act of civil disobedience in Canadian history, thousands of people have come to a string of blockade camps to stop logging company Teal-Jones and the RCMP from penetrating deeper into the forests.

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There have been restrictions on media, keeping mainstream news coverage to a minimum. There is no cell service, no flushing toilets. The main mode of transportation is foot, so people hike supplies in and out. They sleep on the ground in tents. And they face off against advancing police lines. Conditions are difficult. More than 1,100 arrests have been made.

But where demoralization might be expected to set in, impromptu dance parties, laughter, and hugs have emerged instead.

Peaceful protest, brutal police

We spent ten days in August at the blockades, travelling between central HQ Camp, River Camp, and the sequestered Waterfall Camp. Later, after bulldozers flattened HQ camp, R&R Camp became a second HQ, and Land Back Camp, seven kilometres up the logging road, became the new front line for the blockade. Since the August 9th raid on the HQ Camp, land defenders must hike over seven kilometres uphill to deliver food, gear, and medical supplies to the front lines. This rule also applies to media: our cars are no longer allowed in.

“You are the care-people of this earth and I encourage you to be peaceful, to be at peace with yourself.”

Restrictions on media have been unevenly applied, but with some exceptions we were usually free to walk the logging roads to what was Land Back Camp. For land defenders hoping to avoid arrest, their journey instead takes them through dense brush. Tanned arms and legs are left criss-crossed with abrasions.

In our first days at the camp, we joined a large circle of newcomers being onboarded. The first point the group’s guide made was that the fight is not against logging as an industry. This sentiment was echoed by all the protestors we interviewed. In fact, retired loggers are among those trying to protect the forests.

“It doesn’t make sense,” one retired logger, who calls himself Sitka, told us. He was talking about the police and Teal-Jones driving towards the top of the Fairy Creek watershed. It feeds the San Juan river, and logging at the top would have severe ecological repercussions downstream.

As we spoke with people on the new front line at Land Back Camp, the bushes to our left began to shake. In theory, because land defenders were emerging from the deep woods on the correct side of the police “exclusion” line, they shouldn’t have faced the threat of arrest. And yet, after three land defenders with large backpacks came out, the only Indigenous man among them was searched and arrested. His open bag — which was full of medical supplies — lay in the dirt as he was led away by police.

Clay Nikiforuk

“No more racist cops!” chanted the watching crowd.

“It’s not the first time it’s happened here,” commented Faye, a white woman. She had travelled with the Indigenous medic and seen him targeted before. “It’s continuous. And I’d really love to hear some answers. And some apologies, as well.”

Ace, an older white man sitting on a folding chair just metres away from the front lines, said that police continued to conceal their identities, even after being asked for badge numbers. Police officers justified their actions by claiming they had concerns for their safety.

“Do we look like we’re gonna hunt them down? No. I think they’re worried about being held accountable,” said Ace.

Just the day before, we witnessed members of the Emergency Response Team — a SWAT-like group of highly trained RCMP officers who wear green camo and are intended to respond to the most dangerous, high-risk situations — raid a tent and walk away with tent poles. It was unclear how this related to any emergency.

Clay Nikiforuk

Bill Jones says he knows all too well about the brutalities that land defenders face. Jones, 81, is a Pacheedaht Elder and residential school survivor. “You are the care-people of this earth and I encourage you to be peaceful, to be at peace with yourself. Because you have the sensitivity that this world is denied. And that is what Teal-Jones and the RCMP and the colonial courts want in you, to be crushed,” Jones told a small group at the entrance of HQ.

“How much effort it takes to keep this peaceful, to keep this, like, so high energy and feel so full of care and love in spite of everything ... it’s just really incredible,” Myth, a tall teenager with short black hair tucked under a bandana, told us while sipping a cup of coffee that had just been delivered by a fellow camper.

We spoke to protesters who had been pepper-sprayed by the RCMP on August 21. The incident was caught on film, and cited by Justice Thompson the following month as an example of the lawless police behaviour that led to his decision to end the injunction granted to Teal-Jones. While the incident seems to have left some protesters shaken and further jaded about the police, it has also solidified the land defenders’ dedication to nonviolent protest.

“I can’t stand watching my future be absolutely demolished by this bullshit.”

After pepper-spraying protesters, the RCMP refused to give arrested them water to rinse out their burning eyes. Instead, arrestees were left to sit together in police vans where the pepper-spray clinging to their clothes and bodies was inescapable.

“It felt like an eternity just sitting there with my skin burning,” a land defender named Void explained. The only ambulance that arrived on the scene was for an RCMP officer who had apparently fallen.

“Luckily, when I got out at the other side at the police station, after an hour drive, there was support from our people, to safely guide me off to a park and to wash the pepper spray off of our faces, and to feed us and to give us water, and make us feel appreciated and loved for what we did,” Void said.

“The brutality is only one side of the story. And unfortunately, that’s the only side of the story that seems to be making it out in the media. But there is a beautiful group of strong people that support and love each other.”

An activist lies locked into a trench dug into the road, one of the 'hard locks' used to keep loggers out
Aleisha Langmann

Drawn to Fairy Creek

Maple had been secured in a hard lock for four days, her short brown hair barely visible from the road. When asked how long she would be willing to stay several feet deep in the earth, the youth replied, “Until I don’t need to be here anymore.”

She said she had been told by police that if the trench fell in around her in their attempts to unlock her, they “didn’t have” the lifesaving equipment they would need to treat her, such as oxygen. They described in detail how her pelvis would be crushed under the weight of a rock in the side of the trench. It was a “pretty pathetic” scare tactic, Maple told us.

Rose, a slight teenager with blue eyes, had locked herself inside a car. The tinted windows blocked our view, but she told us her wrist was linked to a cement block underground. A camp member warned that we might witness a dismemberment as the police attempted to remove her.

“I see this [as] part of a greater revolution against hatred,” said Rose, talking to us through a hole in the car’s underside. “I think capitalism and environmental destruction and police violence and colonialism and racism are all part of [the same problem].”

“I want people to know that we’re willing to make sacrifices to actively demonstrate our love, a love that has gone so long undemonstrated [towards] Indigenous people.”

After hearing Myth, who is of Iranian descent, describe the RCMP repeatedly targeting Indigenous and racialized people, we asked why they stay. “I’m just 19. I really don’t want to be here, you know? I really don’t. I don’t think anyone wants to be here doing this shit.

“I can’t stand watching my future be absolutely demolished by this bullshit.”

The lives of other forest defenders have become entwined with the trees.

“One year ago, my partner and I went to the old growth and he proposed to me, and it was those forests that moved him to do that,” said Skye, who moved to Canada from Germany more than a decade ago.

“And right then, we were like, if anybody tried to cut this down, we would come and chain ourselves in front of it.”

Not long after their engagement, that is what Skye and her fiancé did.

“It’s just really important, and especially with the climate crisis and the forest fires and the heat waves. The forests are the only thing that can save us from this,” she told us, dusting herself off from having just been chained into a hard lock.

Red dresses hang by the roadside to honour missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls
Clay Nikiforuk

Solidarity

At Fairy Creek, the community built by the land defenders has become more than a group of like-minded people protesting to protect old-growth trees. The strength and longevity of the movement lie in the care that land defenders show each other.

Those who put their bodies on the line don’t do so alone. Dedicated support people stand nearby to offer water and food, and legal observers witness extractions and police actions, jotting notes on paper pads.

From a distance, behind police lines, groups of protesters pound drums, play instruments, and scream “We love you!” to those in hard locks.

Meals are coordinated and delivered, and people routinely insist that their fellow protesters nap and rest.

“The cops bring the destruction. We bring the love,” said Myth.

Like every youth we interviewed, Myth recognized that the challenging conditions of camp life and police violence could not be endured by everyone.

Some of the trees at Fairy Creek are over 1,000 years old. This one's age would be in the hundreds.
Clay Nikiforuk

“I’m here not just for me, but for my brothers and sisters, old, young, whatever. It’s like, we need this shit to live, and if it’s all gonna burn down, then where are we gonna go, right?”

Maple noted that she was strengthened by the support of those who couldn’t physically be at Fairy Creek. “Everyone I ever talk to these days says, ‘Thank you for being out there. I’m so glad you’re able to do that. Like, here’s 200 bucks for your gas.’”

All the camps have a policy prohibiting drug and alcohol consumption. Even those who smoke medical marijuana are required to do so in a vehicle, away from others to avoid triggering those in recovery.

“I’m a mad alcoholic, but you can’t see that while I’m here. [You] can’t see that at all because one of the rules is that you don’t drink,” a young man told us while relaxing in a hammock after a long day of building blockades at Waterfall Camp.

“I’ve lost two friends here who, after going back to the real world, they go back to drugs. And now they’re gone,” he explained, “I’m really fortunate. And I’m really seeing a change for me that’s going to be permanent coming out of here. I know I’m not the only one either.”

Alcohol and narcotic support groups have been established to help those in recovery, and spiritual counsellors are available to those who are in need of support, whether to talk about addiction struggles or other mental health challenges people in the camps are facing.

Improving life

Even for those who had a good situation before coming to Fairy Creek, spending time in the forests has had a major impact on how they see their lives.

“I feel more alive out here,” said Zen, who explained he was on leave from work to be at Fairy Creek full-time. He said he had “the best possible job” in Victoria.

“And it doesn’t hold a candle to actually being out here.”

While discussing the trauma they have faced defending the line at Waterfall Camp, a land defender who did not provide their name said, “I would rather go spend time watching my friends get assaulted by cops every day and living in a community that’s closer to what I think a lot of us are more meant to be in, than be out there.”

Duality, a dark-haired youth who sat alongside a hard lock to support Void, who had locked himself in, agreed. “In this world, we have very few intact ecosystems. We have very few sacred spaces. And we have very few spaces that feel safe. And what we’re doing here is trying to create a space that is all of that, for everyone. [It’s] worth it in every way to know that I can make a difference for the seven generations to come.”

As the blades of police helicopters whirred overhead, protesters sang. When the RCMP threatened arrest, protesters made jokes among themselves. After months of police violence and intimidation, racism, and isolation from the outside world, the protesters remain — their unusually high spirits a stark contrast with the anger and frustration of police and loggers. Even as conditions worsened and camp gear and personal belongings were taken or destroyed by police, the bonds between protesters only seemed to grow stronger.

The blockades celebrated their one-year anniversary in August. In late September the injunction, which justified the arrest of over 1,100 nonviolent protesters, was lifted. But the conflict is far from over. In early October, the injunction was temporarily reinstated pending the company's appeal later this year.

In the immediate aftermath of the court ruling, industry moved in to dig trenches and install gates, closing off the areas the RCMP no longer controls. One Ditidaht village was even locked in by an industry gate, as their main road flooded. A spokesperson for the B.C. government told Ricochet that the new gates and even the destruction of public roads through trench digging were authorized by the Ministry of Forests and Lands, and that residents of the village would be able to pass that gate by showing identification.

The blockades still stand after months of violence and arrests, and the mostly young activists and land defenders who occupy them aren’t going anywhere.

Officers with the RCMP's Emergency Response Team at Fairy Creek
Clay Nikiforuk
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