Content warning: police brutality, violence, and sexual misconduct
Last week, I was violently thrown to the ground, tackled, and arrested for peacefully protesting at the Fairy Creek blockade.
Around 7:00 am on September 18th, a group of land defenders and I, clad in ponchos, rain jackets, and pool goggles (in anticipation of pepper spray) built wooden blockades on the Granite Main forest service road. We lit a sacred fire as the rain poured down, and Lady Chainsaw, a Cree elder, held a ceremony from her wheelchair as we sang and huddled close to the fire for warmth.
By 7:30 am, a convoy of police vehicles arrived. As more than two dozen officers emerged from the vehicles and approached our blockade, we linked arms to form a human “blob” and continued to sing. The officers surrounded our circle and began to rip it apart by yanking, punching, choking, kneeing, and kicking anyone and everyone in sight. By standing in the road, I knew I was risking arrest, but I was shocked and horrified to see our peaceful act of resistance be met with so much violence and brute force.
That morning, we were all arrested and later released without charges.
What’s Happening at Fairy Creek?
The Fairy Creek blockade was first established in August 2020 to protest old-growth logging in the Fairy Creek watershed, situated on unceded Pacheedaht territory on southwest Vancouver Island. With ancient trees over 1,000 years old, it is an irreplaceable ecosystem, home to the nearly extinct green lichen and endangered animal species such as owls, murrelets, and bears. Old-growth forests are also massive carbon sinks, actively slowing climate change.
Fairy Creek is one of the last remaining old-growth forests in the region and is set to be logged by the Teal-Jones Group, which is BC’s largest privately-owned timber company. On April 6th, 2021, Teal-Jones obtained a court injunction, which legally prohibits protestors from blocking the logging road. Since May, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) have been at the scene enforcing the injunction and attempting to clear out the protestors. With 1088 arrests to date, the Fairy Creek blockade is officially the largest act of civil disobedience in Canadian history (in terms of the number of arrests), following the 1993 Clayoquot Sound protests, during which 856 people were arrested.
As is often the case, the Fairy Creek blockade is caught in a complex web of historical and contemporary land politics. Issues of Indigenous sovereignty, police brutality, capitalism, corporate interests, and lingering colonial power dynamics have permeated the environmental movement, leaving me with a lot to think about as I process the recent events. As a white settler occupying stolen land, I am writing and reflecting from a place of immense privilege, which is inevitably woven into my own personal experience and perceptions of the blockade.
Divided Sentiments in the Pacheedaht First Nation
The Pacheedaht First Nation is deeply divided in its stance on the Fairy Creek blockade. Elder Bill Jones of the Pacheedaht Nation has become the central figurehead of the movement. A former logger himself, Bill Jones is urging the protestors to come and defend the land.
This past April, the Pacheedaht band council released a statement signed by Elected Chief Jeff Jones and Frank Queesto Jones asking protestors to leave. The statement says that “all parties need to respect that it is up to the Pacheedaht people to determine how our forestry resources will be used.” Logging is a major source of revenue in the region, and the Pacheedaht nation receives some revenue from the logging that occurs on their land, as laid out in a 2017 revenue-sharing agreement with the province of British Columbia. The agreement states that the Pacheedaht nation cannot “support or participate in any acts that frustrate, delay, stop or otherwise physically impede or interfere with provincially authorized forest activities.”
Perhaps the biggest skeleton in the closet of the Fairy Creek blockade is the fact that when the blockade was first established last August by the Rainforest Flying Squad, the organizers did not ask for approval from the Pacheedaht band council. For a movement that denounces colonialism and claims to champion Indigenous sovereignty, this is contradictory – and one of the main reasons why I hesitated joining the blockade for many months.
Nevertheless, the political dynamics within the Pacheedaht nation are tricky, and they raise important questions about who is the most legitimate voice of authority for First Nations. By refusing to abide by the request to leave, are the protestors representing the very colonial forces they claim to denounce?
Who Speaks for Pacheedaht?
Band councils are small units of government led by an elected chief to represent a First Nation to the Canadian federal government, as outlined in the 1876 Indian Act. The creation of the band councils and elected chiefs was largely intended to eliminate the traditional hereditary chief system, which is an unfamiliar concept to the Western democratic tradition. In fact, the imposition of band councils and elected chiefs has been widely dubbed as an attempt to “assimilate Indigenous people into the proposed newcomer culture of the colonists through westernized voting, elections, and democratic councils.”
In a media release, Elder Bill Jones stated:
“Federally instituted Indian Band Nations are by design meant to obliterate relationships to land and families, consent and matriarchal decision-making, and international agreements between other Indigenous peoples. Pacheedaht First Nation is no exception to this condition of colonialism.”
As Kati George-Jim, a niece of Elder Bill Jones who is deeply involved in the blockades said in a press release, “Indigenous peoples are forced into the extractivist economies because of the entrenchment of poverty, where the only way out of poverty is to surrender their inherent rights and responsibilities.”
Police Brutality at Fairy Creek
After we had all been arrested, we huddled under tents with our hands bound in zip ties as an officer called us one by one to process us and take our mugshots. As I waited, I asked two nearby RCMP officers if the level of violence they used against us was really necessary. The male officer responded, “however you guys behave is how we will treat you,” which is hard to believe, given that we were simply linking arms and singing when they began brutalizing us.
I then told the female officer about a disturbing experience I had with another officer that morning, one that still gives me goosebumps when I think about it too hard. After my hands were bound behind my back in zip ties, a male officer came to drag me into the police van. Of all the ways he could have carried me, he held me by my arms from behind. Not only was this excruciatingly painful, but it meant that my hands, which were completely immobilized, were firmly pressed against his genitals the entire time. In response, the female officer shrugged and said “I wasn’t there, I didn’t see it, not much I can do.”
Since the beginning of police enforcement at the blockade in May, the RCMP has become increasingly violent. On August 21st, the police indiscriminately used pepper spray on a large group of protestors who were peacefully occupying the road. The police have also resorted to using reckless and unsafe practices to remove protestors secured into hard block contraptions. Last month, a 17-year-old was dropped at least 20 feet from a tripod as the police tried to extract him.
Unsurprisingly, the police have disproportionately targeted BIPOC protestors. As a white woman, this was my first time experiencing police brutality and still, I was treated significantly better than my BIPOC counterparts.
Whiteness in the Environmental Movement
While there are many Indigenous leaders and activists on the front lines and behind the scenes at Fairy Creek, it remains a very white movement. This is the case with many other similar movements, too. The face of the global environmental movement appears to be very white, and certain aspects of it have deep roots in white supremacy and colonial concepts of “wilderness” and what “nature” really means. Throughout history, BIPOC communities have felt the brunt of climate change, as they are disproportionately exposed to exploitative resource extraction, pollution, and toxic waste. Indigenous communities have been at the forefront of many grassroots environmental and land defence movements, informed by and rooted in ancestral practices that promote reciprocal relationships with the earth – but they typically don’t receive as much credit as their white counterparts do.
In some senses, the high presence of white protestors on the front lines and risking arrest at Fairy Creek demonstrates a positive and constructive use of privilege, because we know that we are likely to receive better treatment by the police. But valid concerns have been raised over whether the organizers are doing enough to include and follow Indigenous leadership. Without prudence and due diligence, we risk speaking over Indigenous voices, thereby resembling the very colonial structures we’re working to dismantle.
At Fairy Creek, and throughout other environmental movements across the world, it’s crucial for those who partake (especially white settler protestors) to be aware of these power dynamics. Even more, we must critically reflect on what our role is and how we contribute to and benefit from the oppressive systems that got us here in the first place. White settlers have the ability – and arguably, the responsibility – to put our bodies on the line to stand up for the environment and protect other BIPOC land defenders. But this must not come from a place of saviourism and superiority; we are not uniquely more capable of caring about the environment. Rather, the act of showing up at Fairy Creek or elsewhere should come from an understanding of how our privilege can best be put to use.
Fairy Creek is an important and powerful movement. Old-growth forests are sacred ecosystems, indispensable for sustaining life. While the law serves an important role in society, I strongly believe that the people have an obligation to challenge (or even break) it if it is immoral. The enforcement of the court injunction and the laws imposed are not in place to serve the people – instead, they serve a corporate interest and facilitate the destruction of a precious and irreplaceable ecosystem.
However, if the organizers and protestors are not aware of the complexities of the issue at hand and mindful of the nature of privilege, we risk perpetuating colonial mindsets and harmful notions of white saviourism. We live in a world that continues to be scarred by colonialism, so we must constantly work to remind ourselves whose land we are on and why we are here in the first place.
We shouldn’t be living in a system in which militarized police forces, who claim to be serving the people, are being deployed to brutalize peaceful protestors who are working to protect a vital ecosystem. The fate of the Fairy Creek watershed is currently up in the air, as Teal-Jones has gone to court to request a one-year renewal of their injunction, which was set to expire on September 26th. Regardless of how this particular case plays out, the blockade should bring deep-seated issues of colonialism, the extractive logging industry, and police brutality to the forefront of the Canadian psyche. And if being one of many mass arrests is one way to generate this change, then I’m happy to have played my part.