Policing

INVESTIGATION: RCMP misled public about pepper spray incident at Fairy Creek

The RCMP said they had to pepper spray a crowd to evacuate an injured officer. An exhaustive review of the available evidence shows that was not true

Policing

INVESTIGATION: RCMP misled public about pepper spray incident at Fairy Creek

The RCMP said they had to pepper spray a crowd to evacuate an injured officer. An exhaustive review of the available evidence shows that was not true

Screenshot from a video by Laura Mina Mitic
Policing

INVESTIGATION: RCMP misled public about pepper spray incident at Fairy Creek

The RCMP said they had to pepper spray a crowd to evacuate an injured officer. An exhaustive review of the available evidence shows that was not true

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INVESTIGATION: RCMP misled public about pepper spray incident at Fairy Creek
Screenshot from a video by Laura Mina Mitic

This investigation is a joint project between Capital Daily and Ricochet.

Alexander Curran was lying prone, face down in the dirt, with a cracked rib. He had been blinded by pepper spray, and had an elbow driven into his face and a knee into his back as his hands were zip-tied behind him. He could feel his backpack being cut off his arms.

Moments earlier Curran had been linking arms with the people next to him, protecting several protesters who were chained to a gate, when the person beside him was pulled down by police. He went down too, roughly, and the next thing he knew he was dragged away from the crowd. 

Curran isn’t the first peaceful protester to be injured at Fairy Creek, and the events of Aug. 21 aren’t unique. They’re part of a pattern of police behaviour that led a BC Supreme Court judge to describe some of the RCMP’s conduct as “unlawful” in an August ruling. Justice Thompson rebuked the force for “disquieting lapses in reasonable crowd control” and found police had been responsible for a “serious and substantial infringement of civil liberties, including impairment of the freedom of the press to a marked degree.” 

Now, a joint Capital Daily–Ricochet investigation has established that virtually everything the RCMP told media about what happened on that Saturday morning was false. 

An exhaustive review of more than 90 minutes of footage taken from nine different angles, interviews with witnesses, and information from official sources has disproved many elements of the police force’s narrative and cast serious doubt on others. 

“It fits within a pattern,” says Jane Gerster, journalist and author of For the Good of the Force, an upcoming book on the RCMP. 

“Historically, they get away with [misleading the media] all the time. They’ve shaped public thinking on so many of their actions.… The priority is their image, and it always has been.”

Officer down

Curran still doesn’t know why he was pepper sprayed. When he saw the red canisters, he was terrified—he had never experienced what police call “OC spray” before, and though he knew it would be painful, he didn’t know what he could do to protect himself.

Alarmed, he saw that the crowd was pressing against the line of police tape that had been arbitrarily strung up in front of him. The “blob,” as he calls the tightly packed crowd of protesters arranged in a series of concentric circles with arms linked, was intended to protect a particular group of immobile protesters behind them, not move forward along the road or past the tape.

“They did want us to move back, but even then we were obeying by not crossing the line they put up,” he says. Video shows police were clearly ready to use the spray—but he says he didn’t hear any warning. “I didn’t hear police say anything.” 

After an eerily long wait, the pepper spray started, and Curran was blasted in the face along with dozens of others—some of whom had their masks ripped off by an officer so the spray could be directed straight into their mouths and noses. 

The RCMP told the media in a press release and multiple interviews that the crowd had been pepper sprayed to allow an injured officer to be rescued from an “aggressive” throng of protesters.

“Just prior to the deployment of OC spray, a member was pushed, was shoved, was knocked down and actually struck their head and ended up becoming unconscious, and they had to be airlifted out of the area,” Sergeant Christopher Manseau, media relations officer for the RCMP, told Capital Daily when asked about the reasoning behind the use of force. 

“Direction was given to the crowd to follow police direction to move out of the way. They did not follow that direction. OC spray was deployed, and then [protesters] followed the direction and that member could be removed from that area.”

That’s the story the police are sticking with. And it’s not true.

Most notably, video footage shows that while an officer did fall, no protester appears to have made contact with him before or after he fell, and he was clear of the crowd and moving under his own power within seconds. 

In the moments after he stumbled, the crowd complied with police directions to back up. The officer was able to rejoin his colleagues and even participated in an arrest before walking away. At no point was vehicle access blocked by the protesters, and while BC Emergency Health Services confirmed that paramedics were called to treat protesters for exposure to pepper spray, no response was logged for any injuries to police officers.

It wasn’t until nearly five minutes after the officer tripped and fell that the police began to use pepper spray. At that point the officer can be seen standing a safe distance behind them. 

Curran experienced the contradiction vividly: his backpack was taken away from him after he had been pepper sprayed, a use of force the RCMP says was justified in order to protect the safety of the injured police officer from an uncooperative crowd. Yet video shows it was that same officer who had fallen who helped handcuff Curran and carried his belongings away as he lay in the dirt.

‘Incidents of excess’

The Fairy Creek blockades have been active for more than a year, and well over 1,000 arrests have been made since logging company Teal-Jones received an injunction from the BC Supreme Court to clear protesters out of the area. The RCMP has been charged with enforcing that injunction, and, since the start, has faced criticism from multiple sides: from the protesters for using excessive force, from the media for imposing excessive restrictions, and, eventually, from the court itself for having done both. 

Justice Thompson of the BC Supreme Court cited this incident and others as examples of improper police conduct in his decision not to extend the injunction (a temporary injunction has since been applied in its place until an appeal of Thompson’s decision can be heard). 

“One series of images shows a police officer repeatedly pulling COVID masks off protesters’ faces while pepper spray was about to be employed,” he wrote. “Another shows a police officer grabbing a guitar from a protester and flinging it to the ground, where another officer stomped on it and kicked what was left of it to the side of the road.” 

Both of those events happened that same day. 

“The problem, of course, is that these incidents of excess are widely broadcast, and they are seen as the methods by which this Court’s order is being enforced.”

Though much of what has happened in the Fairy Creek standoff has been hidden deep in the woods and on the sides of remote mountains, the Aug. 21 incident was just off a heavily travelled, paved road, minutes outside of Port Renfrew. It was well attended by protesters and others who were not part of the protest that day but recorded it on their phones.

The area of the confrontation. Map: Bing Maps. Illustration by Jimmy Thomson / Capital Daily

Fairy Creek HQ, the central organizing hub for the blockades, used to be at the turnoff where the gravel Granite Main logging road drops out of the mountains and meets the pavement at Pacific Marine Road. The camp was destroyed earlier in the summer by police raids, and Teal-Jones had installed a gate to control access to the area. On the morning of Aug. 21, that intersection was occupied by a few dozen protesters.

The earliest video shows that as the police arrived, “blob” participants were singing and surrounding protesters who had chained themselves to the gate. 

Specially trained RCMP Emergency Response Team members—known to the protesters as “green guys” due to their olive-coloured uniforms—were busy building a throughway to allow access around the gate, cutting small trees and laying them down across a low-lying patch of grass. That pathway would allow vehicle access throughout the morning—before, during, and after the pepper spray incident. 

“They can stay there all day if they want.... We’re just going to go around,” one police officer told a Rainforest Flying Squad legal observer in a video recorded around that same time.

Critically, this access means that had the RCMP needed to medically evacuate a member, it would have been possible at any point.

A disproportionate response

The confrontation heated up at around 8:40 am, about ten minutes after the start of the standoff, with officers shoving the crowd back. 

“I remember enforcement coming up and pushing everybody in the front row; there was like a group [of] probably seven or eight enforcement officers that stood in front of us, pushing us back,” recalls Shy-Anne Gunville, an Afro-Indigenous woman who was arrested multiple times over the summer for participating in protests at Fairy Creek. 

One of those officers lost his baton at some point as he pushed against the crowd. 

Video shows the officer fixating on the dropped baton, and pushing against protesters with one hand while reaching into the crowd with his other hand and his feet. At one point in his scramble he became tangled in his radio cord and at another point he placed his hand on a woman’s crotch as she shouted at him. As he finally retrieved his equipment from the ground and slipped it into a side pocket, his motion appeared to cause an officer behind him to move back and to the side. That officer lost his footing as he backed into a concrete barrier then stepped into a depression in the grass next to the road. He fell backward. 

Photos: Shaena Lambert (Submitted)

In an affidavit filed during the hearing on renewing the injunction, Chief Superintendent John Brewer said he “learned that during this incident, an RCMP member was pushed backwards by a protester." 

The description of the scene that he provided—which was repeated by Manseau, who told the media the officer “was pushed, was shoved” by protesters—is not backed up by any known evidence. In the videos, it does not appear that any protester made contact with the officer who fell. 

Video captured him, seconds later, lying on the ground and putting his hat back on as officers surrounded him. 

“The slope [was] completely empty of anybody but police officers,” recalls journalist Shaena Lambert, who reported on her experience for National Observer. Photos and videos corroborate her description.

The crowd—noticing the fallen officer, and listening to police and one another—moved back and to the side. The officer was pulled backward, farther away from the crowd, before turning over and crawling away. From the moment he fell to the moment he was clear of the crowd, no more than 20 seconds passed.

During this time, the officer who dropped his baton, standing over the officer who had fallen, briefly pulled out a small bottle of pepper spray and pointed it at the nearest protesters, but did not appear to use it. He holstered his pepper spray moments later as the crowd backed farther and farther away.

As the officer on the ground was crawling away, another officer ran to a nearby police truck. He returned 30 seconds later with bottles of pepper spray. On his way back, he passed the officer who had been knocked down: he was now standing on his own, far back from the crowd and separated from the action by at least five other RCMP officers. 

From the moment the pepper spray was handed out to the officers to the moment it was first sprayed into the crowd, 3 minutes and 15 seconds passed. 

The incident involving the officer falling over—the only reason the police ever provided to justify the use of force on the crowd—had happened 4 minutes and 40 seconds earlier, and the crowd had complied with the police direction to clear the area near the officer.

The officers knew their colleague was safe but decided to use pepper spray on the crowd anyway. 

“I think that was an excuse for them,” Gunville says. “They used that cop falling as an opportunity to be able to use brutal force and pepper spray.”

‘Trade in your eyeballs for fireballs’

In 2005, the RCMP had a cadet write a blog documenting her training program at the academy in Regina, SK. In the eighth week, the cadet was pepper sprayed, something all RCMP officers experience as part of their training. 

“OC Spray (commonly called ‘pepper spray’) in the face feels like putting your face in the oven and turning it up to about a thousand degrees,” the cadet wrote. 

“To add to the pain and discomfort, trade in your eyeballs for fireballs, and let’s not forget the cross-contamination and re-contamination factors. It spreads like wildfire: up your nose, through your mouth, down your throat, in your eyebrows and hair, and when you've finally managed to calm your senses, the whole affair starts anew with your attempts to actually remove the residue by showering.”

The use of pepper spray on Aug. 21 can only be described as indiscriminate: every one of the several dozen people in the crowd surrounding the gate was doused, some of them taking a heavy hit of spray directly in the face. 

An officer holding a can of pepper spray shouted “unlock your arms and walk out” again and again between bursts of spray.

Gunville and Bourne, prior to the pepper spray incident, wearing the clothes they wore in the "blob." Photo: Submitted

Gunville says she was hiding her face to avoid the spray. But as soon as she looked up, an officer was waiting for her. 

“I got sprayed right on my face,” she says.

Video shows her partner, David Bourne, being pepper sprayed in the crotch multiple times. Later, he says, he had to strip naked in public. “I had to take my shorts off because they were soaked in pepper spray and I didn’t want to continue to be burning, so I had to expose myself,” he says. 

After Bourne was sprayed in the crotch he was pulled out of the crowd. Video shows he was pulled down next to Curran, who was arrested at the same moment. 

Both said officers deliberately targeted them that morning, explaining that the officers knew them from previous arrests, addressed them by their camp names, and told them, “We’re coming for you.” 

In the telling of Sergeant Manseau, the crowd was pepper sprayed to allow the fallen officer to be safely removed—and only then did the officer get to safety.

The video evidence directly contradicts that sequence of events. 

Emails sent to the RCMP and media in the days following by participants in the protest provided some of the same video footage we reviewed in this investigation. Capital Daily followed up with Manseau in September after he had been given an opportunity to review those videos. He said then he had not watched them.

In another interview on Oct. 21, Manseau said he had watched them but could not recall their contents since it was too long ago. 

“It has been quite some time since I reviewed that video,” he said. “I stand by what I said at the time.” 

He also said commanding officers have reviewed the footage and stand by the decision the officers made to use pepper spray. 

At the time of the incident, Manseau had told media that the officer, unconscious for an unspecified amount of time, had been airlifted out, and implied that the protesters were preventing that. The connotation is clear: that the officer was unresponsive and that pepper spraying the crowd was the only way to rescue the officer so he could be airlifted out. Police statements to that effect were widely reported in local and national media. 

BC Emergency Health Services says no officer was airlifted out by paramedics. They airlifted one person from the scene that day: a protester who had a spinal injury. Paramedics treated some protesters for pepper spray exposure, but no other injuries were reported. 

In response to multiple requests for clarification, the RCMP later said the officer was transported from “the area” by a police helicopter, and that a vehicle had brought him to the helicopter. 

The RCMP did not specify where the helicopter transported him from, or where he was transported to, but in a sworn affidavit during the injunction renewal process, Chief Superintendent Brewer said the officer was airlifted in “Air 5,” a police helicopter, to Nanaimo General Hospital, where he was treated for a concussion. He was brought to the helicopter in a police vehicle, to which officers had clear access throughout the incident.

According to the same affidavit, the officer himself did not know if he had lost consciousness. A police officer with a medic badge—who video shows was not nearby when the officer fell down—is the apparent source of that claim. There is no evidence that the police medic spoke to the officer at any length before the officer left the area; the medic is shown throughout the event participating in arrests and pepper spraying protesters. The most time the two are seen spending with each other is when they are crouched, together, arresting a protester.

Police have refused multiple requests over the last few months for any supporting documentation of what happened during or after the incident, which could include flight records, workplace incident records, medical records, body-worn camera footage, or an interview with the officer.

In an email on Oct. 26, Manseau stressed that the police have proof of their claims. 

“Once again I remind you that our policing operations are well documented, including the use of Body Worn Cameras,” he wrote. 

He declined a subsequent request to release the relevant footage. Access to information requests filed with the RCMP by Capital Daily are still pending. 

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A troubling pattern of behaviour

As Gerster notes, this is far from the first time that the RCMP have misled the media. Last year, amid a series of RCMP raids on land defenders at Wet’suwet’en, Ricochet and Vice each reported on distinct incidents where a spokesperson provided them with false information. Manseau was brought in to replace that spokesperson shortly thereafter.

And it isn’t only the media who have suffered from the force’s sometimes loose relationship with the truth. Earlier this summer, a coalition of media outlets and press groups, including Ricochet and Capital Daily, went to court asking a judge to add a direction to the RCMP in the Fairy Creek injunction to allow media access to the police exclusion zones.

As part of their response, the RCMP submitted a sworn affidavit from a media relations officer alleging that Brandi Morin, an award-winning Indigenous journalist on assignment for Ricochet, had lied to them. 

Fortunately, Morin had recorded the encounter, and her video, which clearly disproved the officer’s claims, was entered into evidence. The government lawyer representing the RCMP acknowledged that the affidavit was incorrect, and the judge was highly critical of the process by which it came to be submitted to the court. 

The media application was granted, although in practice the RCMP have failed to comply with the court’s direction to allow press access. Their continued interference with the media’s ability to cover their actions was cited by Justice Thompson in his decision not to extend the injunction.

“I am so grateful … that I had that video evidence,” Morin says. The allegation “could have potentially had serious repercussions for my career.” 

Morin has travelled to the area several times this year, reporting for Ricochet and several international outlets, and describes a pattern of violence and threats from officers. She says she was unlawfully detained by officers who wouldn’t allow her to leave an exclusion zone earlier this month, and threatened by an officer who promised there would be “consequences” if he saw her again. 

But her concerns over the treatment of journalists pale in comparison to the treatment of protesters she has witnessed. 

Morin described an incident in which a young Pacheedaht woman was rendered unconscious. When she expressed concern to an officer that the woman might not be breathing, he replied, “They’re faking it. They’re not really in pain, they’re just being dramatic.” 

On several occasions when media have questioned the RCMP about injuries sustained by protesters, the force has claimed to have no record of any injuries. 

“They’re being very aggressive out there,” Morin says. “I hope that someone’s not going to get seriously injured, but I think that’s the way that it’s going.”

Disinformation from a trusted institution

Ahmed Al-Rawi is an assistant professor at Simon Fraser University and head of the Disinformation Project, an academic working group studying the influence of disinformation on Canadian society. 

“Usually I look at fringe groups, the anti-vaxxers, the far right, maybe the far left… But when it comes from the RCMP it becomes a bit different because it’s an institution that many people in Canada trust.”

Describing the force’s conduct as disappointing but not surprising, he noted that “the expectation in the public discourse is that fringe groups are involved in these types of activities, not credible institutions like the RCMP.”

While both the federal and the BC governments have yet to comment on RCMP conduct at Fairy Creek, provincial Green Party leader Sonia Furstenau has called for Mike Farnworth, BC’s solicitor general, to make it clear he expects police to adhere to the law. 

“He should be indicating that he takes it very seriously when there's clear evidence that this isn't happening,” Furstenau says.

“For there to be trust in public institutions including policing and the RCMP, the public needs to have a very high expectation that there will be honesty, integrity, and adherence to lawful practice by the people who are supposed to be upholding the law,” she says. 

Farnworth declined to be interviewed for this story, but in an emailed statement he said RCMP conduct at Fairy Creek is an operational matter “entirely at arms length from government.” He pointed to the Civilian Review and Complaints Commission (CRCC) as the place for people to lodge complaints regarding police conduct. 

Former judge and BC attorney general Wally Oppal sees a lack of accountability or meaningful independent oversight as a core issue for the RCMP, noting that the CRCC is a purely advisory body, unlike other police oversight bodies in Canada, with no real power to address problems. 

“The RCMP, being a paramilitary organization, has retained the ultimate authority to deal with misconduct, and I think that’s wrong.”

Already, he warns, the RCMP are seeing the consequences of some of their actions. The city of Surrey is replacing the RCMP with a new municipal force, a move he attributes to issues with governance and accountability, and a commission in Alberta has recommended creating a new provincial force to replace the RCMP. 

“More and more democratic governments are deciding that with that type of service, maybe we should do without the RCMP,” he says. “The RCMP has to think long term, or they may be rendered irrelevant.” 

Gerster added that the force’s relationship with the truth has long been a weak point for its credibility.

“Historically, the RCMP has had a pretty heavy hand in terms of managing how people experience and understand RCMP actions. Sometimes they are the creators of that false narrative, and sometimes they see that opening and take advantage of it.”

Not all events at Fairy Creek are as well documented as this incident, and few get an in-depth second look. Between the cost of sending a crew to the area and the RCMP’s heavy-handed restrictions on journalists who do get there the public must often rely on two competing narratives to understand events—one from the protesters and another from the police. This investigation, however, into one day in the life of a conflict that has dragged on for over six months raises troubling questions about the reliability of the information provided to the public by Canada’s national police force. 

Gerster noted that even if false information is subsequently corrected by media outlets, the damage has most likely already been done. 

“People have challenged them at every moment throughout history; the point is that there’s the first version of any story, right out of the gate, and that’s the one people see the most of. You can correct it later … but not everyone will see that. Or enough time will have passed that some of the rage, or the public attention, will have died down. 

“The track record is one in which the force says factually incorrect things, gets called on it and doesn’t say, ‘Actually, here are the facts that support our version.’ They just say, ‘No, you’re wrong,’ and nothing ever changes.” 

In 1997, RCMP Sergeant Hugh Stewart (later nicknamed “Sergeant Pepper”) indiscriminately pepper-sprayed a crowd and media members at the University of British Columbia in strikingly similar circumstances. The CRCC looked into the incident and found—five years later—that “pepper spray was not required to move the protesters. It should not have been used.” 

Stewart was promoted to the rank of sergeant major. After he retired, he was brought back into service to run the Integrated Security Unit for the Vancouver Olympics. 

Thus far, neither the federal government nor the BC government on whose behalf the RCMP are acting, have commented on the RCMP’s conduct at Fairy Creek. 

This investigation was supported by a grant from the Misinformation Project, an initiative of Journalists for Human Rights.

With files from Jackie Lamport.

To support more investigations like this, consider becoming a Capital Daily member.

contact@capitaldaily.ca

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