Blockaders at Fairy Creek describe their experience
New waves of blockaders are arriving; activists say the injunction brought them out
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New waves of blockaders are arriving; activists say the injunction brought them out
Those travelling to the Fairy Creek blockades from Victoria can catch their first glimpse of a clearcut, lining a section of Highway 14, roughly an hour out of the city centre. It’s a sign of the industry that has shaped the lives of the people and landscapes around Port Renfrew for over a century: a stand of trees, simply gone as though they had never been there at all.
Port Renfrew was born out of the logging industry. Today, around 100,000 people in the province are employed within the forestry industry or associated industries; as many as 38,000 of those jobs, the industry says, are reliant on the logging of old-growth forests.
Inside the encampments, dotted across Pacheedaht and Ditidaht First Nations territory, veteran activists from the 1993 War of the Woods share their stories with young and eager environmentalists. All of them are considering whether they will face potential arrest to protect BC's old-growth forests.
Far from spelling the end, with the court injunction, the movement to protect old growth is set to intensify.
Despite the risks, people are flocking to the blockades. Or, perhaps, people are coming precisely because of it; media attention has spiked since the court’s decision and has given it a new sense of urgency. The blockaders, who call themselves forest defenders, are calling for more people to join their cause. Activist-created maps and GPS markers circulating on social media guide the new and returning to camps, likewise new and old.
Evan, who has asked that his last name not be used, was involved in the first blockade back in August of 2020, where a group of determined activists stopped Teal-Jones contractors from building roads into the Fairy Creek watershed. After being away for most of the winter, he returned to Fairy Creek right after the injunction was granted and set up his tent. There are more that are coming out like him.
“On the very first day in August, there was like 15 people. I was not expecting however many people there are right [now],” Evan said. “It’s the injunction that brought them out.”
The ridge where Evan camped out last year is now just one of at least eight flashpoints maintained by members of the Rainforest Flying Squad, who have their own car stickers and cloth masks. Throughout the winter months, they’ve been busy organizing.
The names of active blockade sites roll off the tongue of Rainforest Flying Squad member and organizer Bobby Arbess: Walbran, Bugaboo, Edinburgh Mountain—just some of the many mountainside spots at which forest defenders and logging contracts play an elaborate game of cat and mouse. Contractors and their trucks try to make it up to the forests, and forest defenders try their best to stop them. Some blockades only last for a few hours; others are occupied 24/7. A day before the court injunction was served at four different camps, Arbess helped set up another camp at Caycuse, stopping early-morning logging efforts with a school bus and support from other members of the Rainforest Flying Squad.
“Any day now, we’re expecting [RCMP] to arrive, essentially escorting logging crews into some of these places where we’ve been holding the line over the last eight months,” Arbess said.
River Camp and Headquarters Camp are among the most established. Seven kilometres apart, they sit on opposite ends of an unfinished road leading to the headwaters of the Fairy Creek watershed. Headquarters, which sits at roughly sea level, is often the first stop for those looking to get involved in the blockades. Dusty cars crowd the road leading towards the info tent, where a small fire crackles next to a school bus. Some pizza boxes, donated by a local business in support of the movement, sit on a chair. At the info tent, a forest defender is usually around to take questions, process supplies, or direct newcomers to a camping spot.
Steve Fischer is one of those who volunteers his time at the info tent. If you ask him about trees, he gets emotional. He grew up in Switzerland, where he says the last great trees were felled thousands of years ago.
“I’m not against logging in general,” Fischer said. “It should be [as] sustainable as possible. But the thing is, old-growth forests—that’s not sustainable. It’s a thousand-year-old tree, how could it be sustainable?”
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Fischer’s an older man with a family. He’s not willing to be arrested, but something about the movement just keeps drawing him back to Fairy Creek.
Headquarters is a busy place, with forest defenders and media constantly popping in and out. Despite it being a short drive from Port Renfrew, the lack of cell service makes the camp feel more remote than it actually is. Some people bring their gear to set up camp between River Camp and Headquarters, joining the long line of activists along the road that would serve as impedance if the injunction was enforced—more “annoying” for the police than anything, as one organizer put it. Others drop off supplies and bring news from the outside world. Dogs and children roam free. What happens at each of the camps is largely up to individual initiative—the movement ebbs and flows with whoever’s around and willing to make improvements to the camps.
There’s usually an old-school bus or two involved: favoured for their large frames and spacious storage, they serve double duty as storage and transportation. The large exteriors lend well to pro-old-growth mural painting and sloganeering. In a pinch, a school bus could also easily be used to block a road.
Emily, who did not want her last name used, owns the school bus—a former roving mobile daycare that used to be based out of Powell River—now parked at River Camp. It’s playfully nicknamed the OrcaBus. River Camp is now closed to new arrivals as part of a pandemic precaution. Emily is a repeat camper who’s been involved since September and looks completely at home in the forest with her two young children. This time around, she’s been up here for three and a half weeks.
The camp is well suited for long stays: it was winterized last year, has a hot shower and a community kitchen complete with compost bin, and a COVID-19 maximum occupancy sign that you would expect to see back in the city. Two tents with wood stoves have helped campers weather winter conditions. Everything’s fuelled by scavenged wood left behind in the clearcuts.
Here, a smaller, tight-knit group of forest defenders have established camp on the fork of the road that leads further into the mountains. Those who are up in River Camp are generally in for the long haul, compared to the campers on the road who might stay only for a few days. This area has not been logged yet, so it stands out in stark contrast to the brown stump-fields that lie between River Camp and Headquarters.
Not everyone can dedicate the time, effort, and risk involved in staying at a blockade. Some donate to the Fairy Creek GoFundMe, which is now past two-thirds of its funding goal of $300,000. Others come up just to visit, drop off supplies, and learn about what is going on.
Farheen Haq went up to the Fairy Creek blockades just for the day, bringing baked goods and her family of four. Haq is an artist based out of Victoria, and her husband had previously participated in the Clayoquot Sound protests in 1993.
“As a parent with two kids and as a family who loves to hike, it felt important [for us] to all go,” Haq said. “If we can’t camp right now, at least we can still learn and we can provide sustenance for some of the folks who are out there defending the old growth.”
The family first visited Headquarters, dropping off some baked goods. Haq vividly remembers one forest defender apologizing during the intake process that he couldn’t be arrested due to upcoming medical appointments.
Later, they drove to the camp based around Eden Grove—twenty minutes away on a bumpy logging road—to drop off some more baked goods that they had brought. Eden camp is situated on the way to Lonely Doug: hikers on the way to that natural monument would have the chance to learn about the old-growth preservation movement through the info tent sitting right on the trail.
Haq says her kids were taken with the experience of talking to and seeing so many people willing to camp for months on end to protect the old-growth forests still on Vancouver Island.
On the bridge just a short walk from Eden camp, the family sat down to reflect and discuss the movement with their kids. They noted the complexities of the settler-Indigenous relationship inside the movement and also of the homogeneity of the participants. “We talk about race a lot in our family,” Haq said. She’s of North Indian descent, and her children are of mixed race. “I don’t know if you noticed, but it was predominately white folks.”
Overall, Haq is grateful for the forest defenders who have given up so much to fight for the old growth still at risk in Southern Vancouver Island. (Her daughter noted that it’s good that white people are putting their bodies on the line. According to independent watchdog Global Witness, Indigenous and racialized peoples were overrepresented in those murdered for defending the land and the environment in 2020.)
She holds a lot of admiration for those willing to be on the front lines: “The how does matter, and knowing things have complexities… it’s good to explore that.”
Given her commitments at home and to her career, Haq isn’t able to commit as much as some forest defenders have. But she is considering her daughter’s request to skip school for a week in May and join the blockade.
Correction on April 12 at 9am: an earlier version of this story said there are 100,000 jobs in BC's forestry industry. That number accounts for jobs in spinoff industries as well.