Anti-old growth logging blockaders on the ground at Fairy Creek, British Columbia, say police officers have disproportionately targeted and assaulted Indigenous land defenders, including by pushing and shoving them, pinning them to the ground, and using pepper spray.
A video by photojournalist Jen Osborne taken Sunday shows several police officers swarming and pinning down Paul Chiyokten Wagner, a W̱SÁNEĆ man. In the video, officers can be seen approaching as a mixed group of blockaders gather across a road. To the right, Wagner, wearing a woven hat, sings and drums. After police read out a document, presumably an injunction order, they swarm Wagner and force him to the ground. At least two or three officers pin him down and yell, “You’re under arrest.” While Wagner seemingly resisted arrest, police did not swarm most of the other members of the group the same way.
“The RCMP’s illegal arrest interrupted a ceremonial prayer song,” Wagner told VICE World News. “We were simply standing along the side of the road playing a makeshift drum and singing to my ancestors in prayer for the destructive dark spirit of colonialism to be healed.”
Wagner said he is following sacred instructions from Creator to protect the land and all beings on it. “These ancestral beings we know as old-growth trees are also who we promised to protect,” he said.
RCMP did not respond to request for comment when shown the video.
Stacy Gallagher, who is Anishinaabe and has been arrested for mobilizing against the Trans Mountain Pipeline, said he’s seen police target Indigenous people at Fairy Creek. (Gallagher has been to Fairy Creek several times.)
“We’re being targeted. The first ones to get arrested are Indigenous people—always,” said Gallagher.
Gallagher said he’s been followed and pointed at by police, handcuffed and put in a paddy wagon, and taken to a police station while protecting the trees at Fairy Creek. His niece and other Indigenous youth have also been targeted, Gallagher said, adding he’s seen white, European folks pass by police officers without trouble.
In a statement to VICE World News, RCMP spokesperson Christopher Manseau said Indigenous peoples aren’t being targeted because they’re Indigenous.
“The RCMP does not target any individual or group based solely on their racial, ethnic, or religious background, and focuses on observed or suspected criminality and behaviours,” Manseau said.
For a year, people have been at Fairy Creek, near Port Renfrew, a small community on Vancouver Island, blocking industry from clear-cutting 1,000-year-old cedar trees—at the last intact watershed outside of a protected area or park on the southern region of the island. The blockades cover several additional spots on the island, too, but “Fairy Creek” acts as a catch-all term for the efforts.
“They’ve yelled they’re coming for me.”
More than 800 people had been arrested in the area as of Thursday, according to the RCMP. Fairy Creek may soon become Canada’s largest civil act of disobedience ever; the current record was set in 1993 when 856 people were arrested for protesting old-growth logging in Clayoquot Sound in B.C., dubbed “the war in the woods.”
Shy-Anne Gunville, an Afro-Indigenous land defender, told VICE World News she’s been assaulted by police five times—the latest last weekend.
“I’ve had five police officers on my body crushing my chest with their knees, my stomach, my legs. I’ve been punched in the face numerous times, yanked by my braids,” Gunville said. “I also have been pepper sprayed and they’ve yelled they’re coming for me.”
Gunville said officers have also dragged her across the ground by a handcuff, hurting her wrist, and refused to let her access her canes that help her walk.
There have been multiple instances of officers swarming towards Indigenous people and other people of colour, while largely ignoring white people, she said.
“I have settler friends who try to get arrested and will put themselves in front of me and the cops will not do anything,” Gunville said, adding she has Indigenous friends who won’t go to Fairy Creek front lines because “they’re so scared.”
In April, the B.C. Supreme Court granted forest company Teal-Jones Cedar Products, which holds the tree farm licence in the area, an injunction, giving the RCMP permission to detain and arrest activists for blocking logging entry points.
But in June, B.C. Premier John Horgan accepted a request from three First Nations—the Pacheedaht, Ditidaht, and Huu-ay-aht—to halt old-growth logging at Fairy Creek for two years so they can develop forest stewardship plans.
The Narwhal reported that blockaders have remained on site because nearby old-growth trees are still at risk of being logged.
Other reports and video footage have shown how officers have acted aggressively towards people at the blockades. In one YouTube video posted Saturday that’s been restricted to people over 18, several officers are visibly using pepper spray on a crowd of people blocking a road. Protesters can be heard shouting, “Why are you doing this? Why? Ask yourself why.” Officers physically push members of the group and try to pull them apart, with many people falling to the ground.
At the 2:24 minute mark, several officers can be seen pinning a single man down to the ground, while other points show officers dragging protesters by their limbs.
Manseau acknowledged the videos circulating online.
“There are videos and comments being posted to social media of alleged police misconduct or excessive use of force in the course of their duties while effecting arrests of individuals who are protesting in the Fairy Creek Watershed area,” Manseau said. “We will not attempt to speak to dynamic situations we were not present for.”
According to Manseau, the events on scene will be subject to upcoming court proceedings, and evidence will include footage from police body cameras.
“The officers have continued to use a similar, slow and measured approach, particularly in removing protesters (often for several hours) from various devices and tripods,” Manseau said. “Essentially, the actions of the individual or crowds will dictate the actions of police.”
GoAskAlex, a Métis sex worker and adult performer, has been at Fairy Creek twice. She said she’s seen police break up a group and only handcuff an Indigenous woman.
“The RCMP have really ramped up the violence in the last couple of weeks,”GoAskAlex said. “Indigenous folks have been pulled specifically out of the crowd.”
GoAskAlex said she’s interacted directly with angry cops. Earlier this month, when she and a friend locked themselves to a cement block in the ground, police took away their shade even though it was nearly 40 C and refused to let her empty her ostomy bag—an external storage bag for bodily waste that’s connected to the abdomen, she said.
“It was really dehumanizing,” GoAskAlex said.
According to the sex worker, police have also taunted people at the blockades, and their aggression is getting worse. “I’ve seen a big change in the way police were acting. They felt empowered, while some, in particular, seemed very angry,” she said.
Things have been escalating at Fairy Creek on and off for months, with RCMP even blocking journalists from documenting the events on the ground. After a short court battle, the B.C. Supreme Court amended Teal Jones’ injunction, so that it now includes a clause safeguarding journalists’ rights to observe RCMP enforcement.
Police brutality targeting Indigenous people is a systemic problem in Canada; the Globe and Mail reported that between 2007 and 2017, more than one-third of people shot dead by officers were Indigenous, despite the fact that Indigenous peoples make up about 5 percent of Canada’s population.
Clarification: The opening sentence has been updated to more specifically describe blockaders as "anti-old growth logging" as opposed to "anti-logging."
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With files from Jen Osborne.