Above Photo: An Indigenous land defender with a friends baby at Savage Patch camp in Pacheedaht territory near Port Renfrew, British Columbia on Tuesday, August 8, 2023. Amber Bracken for Ricochet and IndigiNews.
NOTE: Don’t miss “To The Trees,” a new documentary film by award-winning producer Eleanor Goldfield about the decimation of old growth forests in the United States and the struggle to protect them.
Inside the fight to save one of the last ancient old growth forests on the planet.
Not long past the break of dawn, along a remote road deep in the unceded, forested mountains of southern Vancouver Island, the steady blaring of a conch shell sends a warning through the trees.
A raid is coming.
In the Savage Patch camp, a new front in a years-long struggle over the fate of some of the country’s oldest trees, a small group of forest defenders scurry to pack sleeping bags and douse the fire that kept them warm through the night.
Uncle Rico, a Cree land defender, streaks her face with red warpaint. A young, broad-shouldered settler land defender, known as Sandstorm, beats a drum gifted to him by a Native ally. He sings an ancestral Viking warrior song, the reverb of his voice echoing through the quiet of the woodland morning. In this camp, everyone goes by a pseudonym.
Uncle Rico begins to sing the Women’s Warrior Song as the group forms a circle and joins the call to battle.
This fight is for the ancient forest of the Fairy Creek Watershed, which is being systematically cut down by the largest privately-owned logging company in the province.
For over three years, settler activists and Indigenous land defenders have fought to save some of the last and largest old growth trees on the planet. Thousands of forest defenders once occupied the 1,189-hectare watershed, spread across isolated camps and blockades where they chained themselves to hard blocks, set up tree sits and perched under handmade tripods dozens of feet in the air.
Their desperate attempts to stop the harvesting of majestic red and yellow cedars, trees up to 2,000 years old, have been met with force by both the RCMP and the Teal-Jones Group.
Teal-Jones owns the rights to Tree Farm License 46 in the Fairy Creek Watershed, which it purchased 20 years ago. Those rights allow the company to cut stands of old growth that have not been specifically protected by the provincial government. The company produces shingles and shake from the coveted cedar wood.
These cedars are some of the oldest in the world, and their habitat is the last unprotected, relatively intact watershed on southwest Vancouver Island. Little wonder then that it has drawn so many passionate defenders.
The problem is that Teal-Jones stands to make an estimated $20 million in profits from logging 200 hectares (494 acres) of old-growth trees in the licence area, and the elected chief and council for the local First Nation would lose out on a significant source of revenue if old growth logging were to come to an end.
Land Defenders have said the forest is endangered and should be left intact, as logging threatens the fragile watershed. In April of 2021, Teal-Jones was granted a court injunction against persons unknown blocking access to their logging sites. The RCMP’s Community-Industry Response Group (C-IRG) has spent two years and $20 million arresting protesters en masse for defying the court order.
Those protests have been called the largest act of civil disobedience in Canadian history, with almost 1,200 arrests being made over a roughly eight-month period. Almost all of the charges were eventually withdrawn or dismissed, with 146 cases dismissed earlier this month over RCMP errors.
“This is going to be that time that changes the entire future,” says Uncle Rico, moments before an RCMP raid that will end with three arrests, including her own.
“We’re no longer asking for (our) rights, we’re telling them what those rights are.
“You have a thousand ancestors standing behind you,” she tells her campmates. “Your own, and my own.
I make sure I call them everywhere I go. As Crees, we ride together. I’ll lead you on. All the brave to the front. Today is a good day to die.”
Uncle Rico stops to chuckle and wink, “but you don’t have to die.”
RCMP Operating With Impunity
C-IRG was formed in 2017, reportedly following the massive anti-pipeline resistance led by the Standing Rock Sioux in North Dakota, and amid concerns similar uprisings could occur around resource extraction projects in Canada.
As the name suggests, the unit is responsible for managing conflicts between industry and communities. Unfortunately for those (overwhelmingly Indigenous) communities, conflicts have more often been managed by militarized commando raids than good faith negotiation.
The unit exists to flatten opposition to natural resource projects, and has sought to do so, with mixed results, in places like Wet’suwet’en territory and Fairy Creek.
Wherever Indigenous Peoples are halting the flow of profits, the C-IRG will show up, lock down the area, exclude journalists and then arrest everyone — far from the prying eyes of the public.
Earlier this year, the Civilian Review and Complaints Commission, the RCMP’s civilian oversight body, announced they would be launching an investigation into systemic misconduct by C-IRG. Almost 500 formal complaints over violence and violations of Charter and Indigenous rights have been reported to the CRCC. Allegations include excessive force, harassment, illegal tactics, unprofessional behaviour, racism and discrimination.
Many of those complaints stem from the force’s actions at Fairy Creek.
C-IRG’s presence at Fairy Creek has been minimal since June of 2021, when the province issued a deferral of some old-growth logging permits at the request of the Pacheedaht First Nation, whose traditional territories encompass the watershed. However, in late July of this year, Indigenous forest defenders set up a new blockade, naming it the Savage Patch, on Trunk Road 11, leading to a stand of old growth near Edinburgh Mountain. It’s above Eden Grove, a sanctuary of temperate rainforest, where some trees measure ten feet thick. Despite the deferral, the group had said the Fairy Creek Watershed was still being logged.
They constructed a giant effigy of a native, endangered screech owl, built from recovered wood, on a bridge leading to the old growth.
‘Stand In Strength Together’
Pacing, Uncle Rico tells the forest defenders to hold their ground. C-IRG is on its way.
She’s wearing camo pants, a black t-shirt printed with white text reading ‘STOP PIPELINES, SAVE FORESTS’ and a green vest. Her thick, long brown hair is tucked behind a black bandana.
“They’re (RCMP) gonna test you, they’re gonna try to get into your head, they’re gonna try to get into your knees and make them shake. And you’re just gonna sit here, and you’re gonna know in your heart that what you’re doing is right.”
She beats her drum and continues, “They want you to be violent… But it’s our job to keep everybody safe. So, remember when your feet feel like running, that the group is standing. Stand in strength together.”
She tells them not to be afraid, but even if they are, to know they’re helping to save future generations.
“It’s always when you tremble the most that you’re making the biggest change in the world. Whether it’s your voice, your knees, your soul. And right now, we’re making a huge change for the next seven (generations). We’re making it so our babies won’t cry themselves to sleep.”
In unison, they sing a warrior song and raise their fists to the sky.
From the north side of the roadway, we hear the gravel rumble under truck wheels. A fog of dust fills the air before parting to reveal a convoy of at least 13 RCMP and C-IRG cars, trucks and paddy wagons.
They pull up along the road in front of the blockaders.
A sacred fire surrounded with stones smoulders quietly in front of the land defenders as traditional medicines of sage and sweetgrass burn on top of a piece of red fabric.
Dozens of RCMP officers line up in front of the entrance to Trunk Road 11, just meters from the resistance group, who continue to sing and drum.
We’re the only journalists present, the only observers as the two sides prepare to square off on a remote road in the shadow of giant trees. It’s important to be there to document this, the first raid in over two years.
During the arrest of Uncle Rico, an RCMP sergeant grabs me and threatens me with arrest when I refuse to follow their media exclusion zones. I remind him that the RCMP have been ordered by the courts to respect media rights. In 2021, a coalition of media outlets, including Ricochet, took the RCMP to court over access restrictions at Fairy Creek, and won.
A lone young woman from the Pacheedaht First Nation noses her pickup truck past the yellow line of police tape and throttles it, disappearing behind a cloud of dust. Known as Wee-One, she is helping lead the protection of her territories. But it’s risky for her to stay. She’s been arrested and charged with obstruction at previous blockades, more than once.
During one of her arrests in October of 2021, this journalist witnessed the RCMP use chainsaws to cut logs piled over her vehicle in a makeshift barrier. She and an Anishinaabe land defender known as gaagaagi were barricaded inside. The RCMP smashed the windows of the car and dragged them out. The two were attached at the arms to a hard lock inside a PVC pipe. Both were held down by multiple officers as they began cutting the pipe with a small hand saw.
Wee-One screamed out in pain multiple times. Then she passed out. An officer who identified himself as a medic assured onlookers that Wee-One was “fine.” Other forest defenders shouted in horror as they watched from behind another barricade. Her limp and motionless body was then turned over and handcuffed. The RCMP carried her to the paddy wagon and shut the door.
She doesn’t want to be caught in their hands again.
For Pacheedaht, It’s Complicated
Wee-One’s presence in the fight to save her territories is complicated. As a member of the Pacheedaht Nation, her elected Chief and Council have a partnership with Teal-Jones and the forestry industry. In fact, the Pacheedaht manage or co-manage a forest area with 140,000 cubic meters of annual cut, run a sawmill and log-sorting plant and have more forestry projects in the works.
“We’ve been pushed out of the forestry industry for hundreds of years,” Pacheedaht Chief Jeff Jones told the Narwhal in 2021. “And now we’re at a point where we’re actually benefiting from forestry resources in the territory.”
The nation, made up of approximately 300 members with around 120 living on reserve, created a cedar conservation strategy in 2005 to identify areas to protect. It takes 400 years for cedar to grow to the appropriate size for traditional activities like canoe-making.
Ricochet reached out to Teal-Jones to request an interview. They declined.
We also reached out to Pacheedaht First Nation leadership but did not receive a response by press time.
Even though the Pacheedaht elected leadership supports Teal-Jones logging activities and in the past has asked forest defenders to pack up and leave, Wee-One doesn’t accept the colonial band government’s decision to allow it.
There is also a dispute over who the legitimate Pacheedaht traditional hereditary chief is. The elected leadership recognizes Frank Jones as the hereditary leader, and Frank has given the green light to logging. However, Pacheedaht elder Bill Jones, 82, who is against logging old growth, disputes Frank’s legitimacy as the rightful hereditary leader.
Elder Bill says Frank, who was adopted into the Pacheedaht and grew up with Chief Jeff Jones, has created an allyship of sorts with the chief that serves the two well when making deals with industry.
He attributes his community’s disconnection from their culture and spirituality to residential schools and other acts of colonial violence. He says he’s tired of mourning everything that has been lost and does not want the last of his peoples’ lands to be pillaged.
The true hereditary chief, says Bill, is 20-year-old Victor Peters.
“Jasper Peters was the true hereditary chief, and his son Harry followed him, and his son Michael and then Victor, Michael’s son,” explained Bill from his long-term care home in Sooke, British Columbia.
Victor publicly claimed hereditary leadership in a YouTube video posted in March, 2021.
“I want to keep them (the trees) standing,” he said in the video. “I think I’d probably feel like I’d lost a loved one… I’d feel sad… and kind of more depressed if that happened.”
But Bill claims Victor and his family have been subject to political bullying from Pacheedaht elected leadership, which has led to Victor pulling back from, rather than stepping into, his hereditary role.
‘They Want The Truth To Be Hidden’
Bill is a survivor of the Alberni Indian Residential School, where he endured beatings alongside mental, spiritual, and sexual abuse. He went on to work in the logging industry and lived on the reserve up until six months ago when health complications required him to move to an assisted living facility. He’s been an unwavering voice of opposition to the old-growth logging industry for years and fully supports land defenders protecting what’s left of his territories.
He says the Pacheedaht chief and council are operating under oppressive systems of colonial law designed to assimilate Indigenous tribes, using economic incentives to force them into doing the bidding of colonial governments and industry. Chief Jeff Jones, who is Bill’s second cousin, and his leadership team, says Bill, “are pawns to industry and the provincial government.”
“In other words, it’s coercion. You know, the Truth and Reconciliation Act, the oppressors are living in a world of ‘let’s pretend.’ And they want the truth to be (hidden from) those that they oppress. Our (Pacheedaht) government operates much the same as the federal and provincial governments. They operate in secrecy. They don’t inform people, and they don’t account to people.”
The colonial agenda to divide, conquer, and consume has infiltrated the hearts and minds of greater society, he goes on to say. And many are too overcome with oppression and fear of economic uncertainty to realize the harm being done to themselves, others and Mother Nature.
“There’s a basic structural part of the oppressive system — they do not want people everywhere in this world to recognize themselves… They do not want to have, in particular, First Nations people become aware that they have to be sensitive to their surroundings, so that they can know what to do in their lives, and to keep their life going in this part of the world.”
Wearing blue jeans held up by suspenders, and a t-shirt depicting a tall tree standing alone in a forest bed, Elder Bill’s long, thin white hair is tied back in a ponytail. His brown eyes, outlined with rings of blue, are amplified through his prescription glasses as he gestures with weathered hands.
He’s in full support of forest defenders and happily welcomes them to his traditional territory.
“And that’s where we come in, you know, our hopes and dreams are in our hearts, and our souls, our values are given to us by our Great Mother, and that is always reborn in our children. Now we have to continue our fight, and yes, I do approve of anyone going up to the forest to protect it.”
He’s especially proud of Wee-One, from his own nation, for putting herself on the line to save their ancestral home.
“She’s a valiant and courageous young woman who actually wants to live by the truth. She is a warrior looking after our Great Mother’s great gift to us.”
But he’s familiar with the C-IRG unit and their many, often notorious, raids on the forest defenders. He knows they will be coming for those on the frontlines of the new blockade.
“They invent brutal, oppressive tactics at the spur of the moment. It’s simple as that, you know, there’s nothing nice about it. It’s a brutal attack on our sovereignty… and personal integrity. They don’t look upon First Nations as persons. They look upon us as criminals, or as what the government once called us, ‘agitators’ and you know, ‘troublemakers’ and ‘shit disturbers.’”
“The RCMP have been given that authority to treat us like that.”
Elder Bill has tasked Tla’amin Nation Elder Rose Henry, affectionately called Grandma Losah by land defenders, to lead their fight to save the forest on the territory. She is a fiery, unyielding mover and shaker who has been involved in social justice initiatives since she was a teenager.
She regularly visits land defenders to provide pep talks and advise on cultural protocols.
“My message for the people from other countries is that behind every beautiful scene, there’s always a dark side,” she says while sitting in Eden Grove, an unprotected, old-growth forest within the Fairy Creek watershed.
Listening carefully, we notice the sounds of the forest come alive. Hidden beneath the woodland floor, the constant thrumming and buzzing of wasp colonies fill the air. Rays of light break through the canopy, scattering across the trunks of towering trees coated with soft moss. As the birds sing us their songs overhead, Grandma Losah sits on a bench, drum in hand, and continues.
She shares how when visitors come to appreciate and enjoy what makes the surrounding landscape beautiful, we often don’t see the extractive nature behind some of these industries harvesting natural resources. While the industries disturb these “perfect spots because they see the beauty,” they contribute to reducing biodiversity, disrupting ecosystems and releasing stored carbon from the soil, which is a key player in helping mitigate the harsh effects of climate change.
“Our brothers, the trees are few and far between. When you look around here, you see our most sacred medicine, the cedar,” she continues.
Her hand-woven traditional cedar hat covers her greying long hair that falls at her shoulders as she continues to keep the beat of her drum.
“So, when I sing some of the songs… I’m letting the spirits of our brothers know that we’re here, we hear you, and we love you.”
She begins speaking of the prophecy of the Eighth Fire, which speaks of a fork in the road that divides into two directions. One direction speaks of materialism and destruction, and the other leads to a period of harmony where “the destruction of the past will be healed.”
“The Eighth Fire is saying it’s time. Wake up, people. It’s time for us to come together and act as one. We are all one.”
She breaks out into the Women’s Warrior Song, and the beat of her drum reverberates through the dense, untamed oasis of the grove surrounding her.
‘Even The Animals Are Upset’
The day before the C-IRG raid on the blockade, several land defenders bathe naked in the Gordon River nearby. It’s a clear and gentle flowing refuge where they go to cleanse, read, sing and pray. Afterward, they take a break from the scorching 39-degree heat beneath the forest’s canopy, napping on the moss-covered earth.
Getting a deep, full night’s sleep here is rare. They’re always on high alert for potential enforcement from RCMP and prepared to face the wrath of angry industry workers who want to run them out. Land defenders take turns keeping watch to guard the barricade they’ve constructed.
This barrier, adorned with hand-printed signs of resistance and red dresses, represents and honours the Indigenous women and girls who were murdered or have disappeared across the country, victims of “Canada’s” genocide.
Beneath a tarp, they’ve created a makeshift kitchen using a propane cooking stove. A cook named Dragonfly, a woman in her 50s who has been arrested more than once at previous Fairy Creek demonstrations, is creating a communal meal of donated vegetables, pasta and canned tomatoes.
Later, they share stories and jokes before switching the tone to something more serious, the topic of what’s to come. “Even the animals are upset by what’s happening,” Uncle Rico says.
They’ve heard frightening sounds from the bushes on more than one occasion as a mother bear on the other side of the Gordon bridge asserts her territory and, to the land defenders’ ears, expresses her anger over the ravaging of her home by these loggers.
But Uncle Rico encourages them never to bow to fear and reminds them of why they’re there.
“This is a worldwide problem… The government doesn’t want [blockades] because that stops money. But with the amount of old growth that were losing worldwide, things will never be the same. Everything is so connected.”
“Taking away these ecosystems, taking away our ancestors. It’s definitely not going to fix anything.”
Now, as C-IRG is closing in, the officers play a pre-recorded reading of the injunction over an echoing speaker. The land defenders, led by Uncle Rico, continue to drum and sing the Women’s Warrior Song. The police move in, wielding yellow tape, demanding the land defenders move back or face arrest.
‘No Matter What We Do, You’re Going To Brutalize Us!’
The front line slowly shifts as the land defenders are walked all the way back to a wooden gate they now lock from the inside with a chain and padlock. A C-IRG officer tells them to get behind the barricade, or they will be arrested.
“But we can’t!” yells Uncle Rico. “Don’t you see? You either want us to move out of the way, or you want us behind the gate, but right now, you’re giving us instructions that no matter what we do, you’re going to brutalize us.”
An RCMP helicopter that has been circling nearby eventually lands in a cut block where old growth cedars were logged just three years earlier. Drones dart about overhead, buzzing back and forth over the clearing as a sea of blue-uniformed police swarm the road.
“We’re not going to brutalize you,” the officer responds. “Get on the other side of the gate, or you’ll be arrested for obstruction.”
“But I don’t want you blocking us in so you can brutalize us…” pleads Uncle Rico.
RCMP officers approach Uncle Rico, who is now sheltering behind Sandstorm. The two continue to beat their drums as they are separated by the RCMP, and Sandstorm is dragged away.
As Uncle Rico screams at the officers not to touch her drum, that it is a sacred object, a First Nations C-IRG Liaison Officer named Ben Smith steps in, directing the two officers holding Uncle Rico at each arm to stop. He asks if someone can take her drum.
“No, this has spiritual significance, and I can’t just give it to anyone,” she yells back.
The two had an exchange the day before when he arrived at the camp with two other liaison officers, one of them also Indigenous. She told him colonial law had no relevance there.
She tells Smith what he’s doing is wrong.
“What happened, Neech? You just don’t respect our own laws. Your ancestors see you; you know how sick you are in your heart.”
He steps slightly away and says nothing. The other officers holding her attempt to drag her forward.
Smith steps in again.
“Ok, she’s going to resist, so stop.”
He says his job is to avoid escalation in these often-traumatic experiences and to be a liaison with Indigenous peoples as they’re being arrested. He notes that his job is hard, dealing with the legacy of colonial violence against his own people. But he believes what he is doing is good.
Uncle Rico is laid on the ground, and officers attempt to place a drag bag underneath her to pull her to their paddy wagon. She kicks it off, and four officers grab her by each limb and carry her toward the waiting vehicle. Meanwhile, an excavator is clearing some rocks and logs from the road.
When the land defenders are cleared away and one other woman is arrested, the excavator roars in, and demolishes the wooden barricade in minutes. The sounds of the machine rumble through the forest.
The remaining land defenders who haven’t been arrested are silent.
They follow police to the Gordon River bridge and discover the screech owl effigy has been torn apart by officers dressed in military fatigues that hiked in through a back path. The remnants of the structure were thrown into the river below.
After being taken to Lake Cowichan, a town about an hour drive from the former Savage Patch camp, the three land defenders are released without charges. Uncle Rico says it’s the first time she has ever been arrested.
Wee-One, her companion gaagaagi, and other land defenders embrace their comrades and smoke cigarettes outside the RCMP station. Uncle Rico gives the middle finger to an officer driving out of the parking lot.
With a smile on her face, she says this fight is far from over.
“This is just the start of the next seven generations. We are nothing but a prayer standing here until the next prayers step up and take our place. This is forever. We’re never going away. And even when Savage Patch is old, and we become the ground, our children will be Savage Patch. Savage Patch will never die. They can’t break us.”