Conflicts over old-growth logging at Fairy Creek on Vancouver Island highlight issues of Indigenous sovereignty, destructive resource extraction and the fate of future generations.
Conflicts over old-growth logging at Fairy Creek on Vancouver Island highlight issues of Indigenous sovereignty, destructive resource extraction and the fate of future generations.
Story and photos by Mike Graeme
In early August 2020, forest protectors sounded the alarm when in a remote region of southwestern Vancouver Island, logging road-building crested the mountains into the last unprotected intact old-growth watershed on Indigenous territories south of Bamfield.
Soon after, six camps comprising blockades and lookout stations — including a “headquarters” at Fairy Creek near the small town of Port Renfrew — had been erected and fortified on Pacheedaht and Ditidaht territories to prevent logging company Teal-Jones Group from further harvesting.
The 2,000 hectares of rainforest around Fairy Creek is the last unlogged old-growth valley in the region (except for parks). The province defines “old growth” as trees more than 250 years old. Some of the yellow cedars and Douglas firs near Fairy Creek are hundreds and even thousands of years old.
On Sept 15, 2020, B.C. released the recommendations of its own Old Growth Review Panel, which include “immediate responses to ecosystems at very high risk.”
However, the B.C. government has yet to step in to protect the last remaining three per cent of high-productivity ancient forest on the island, nor has it demonstrated a feasible action plan for funding Indigenous communities — which have been forced to depend on logging their territories due to a long history of colonialism.
During the early days of the action camps, Pacheedaht Band Council remained publicly silent on the Fairy Creek issue. A revenue-sharing agreement with the province means the nation is compensated for logging in its territory, including in Fairy Creek.
Pacheedaht Elder Bill Jones and young Pacheedaht Hereditary Chief Victor Peter emerged among those who were outspokenly in support of the blockades.
On April 12, 2021, the Pacheedaht Band Council, which has signed benefit agreements with Teal-Jones, released a statement condemning any third-party activism that impeded logging operations on the territory.
In hopes of continuing operations, Teal-Jones — which holds the tree farm licence to the area where nearly all protection camps are located — applied for a court injunction to remove blockaders.
The injunction was granted on April 1, 2021 by the Provincial Court of B.C., and on May 18, RCMP moved in to the Caycuse Camp on Ditidaht territory to begin enforcing the court order. Police called for land defenders to stand down and leave the area. More than 130 forest protectors were arrested during the first two weeks of enforcement.
Photojournalist Mike Graeme has been on the ground covering the conflict. He spoke with Indigenous land defenders ƛapisim (Aya Clappis), from Huu-ay-aht (Nuučaan̓uł) and Somali descent, and xʷ is xʷ čaa (Kati George-Jim), of T’sou-ke and W̱SÁNEĆ, and the niece of Pacheedaht Elder Bill Jones. George-Jim was forcefully arrested on the third day of the injunction enforcement.
George-Jim and Clappis have been working for Indigenous sovereignty and land defence by strengthening kinship ties, honouring the Indigenous laws that are connected to those family relationships and revitalizing Indigenous networks of resistance against resource extraction projects — such as old-growth logging — on unceded Indigenous lands. This is part one of an interview with them.
The red hand print on the face of a forest protector locked to a 700-year-old Douglas fir signifies the links between resource extraction and the epidemic of violence towards Indigenous women, girls and two-spirit people.
Mike Graeme: From old-growth logging, to oil and gas extraction, the foundations of colonialism — and the governments and industries that perpetuate it — consistently pit Indigenous communities against themselves, undermining Indigenous laws, governance and sovereignty. The provincial and federal governments often cite Indigenous band council approvals as justification for giving the go-ahead for resource extraction projects. We’ve seen it through the Wet'suwet'en conflict and now we’re seeing it in Pacheedaht. For Indigenous Peoples, how do these blockades go beyond saving one forest?
Kati George-Jim / xʷ is xʷ čaa: These colonial systems put us in a position where there is no choice while the traditional systems that we have had to depend on for our entire existence as Indigenous Peoples to this coast are actively being disrupted by this government.
With what’s happening on the ground in the West Coast territories of what is now known as Vancouver Island, it needs to be known that this is by design: to have band councils, to have the Indian Act system be placed on our peoples, to be placed on the land in order to exploit and rape the land. It is not a mistake. This system is meant to undermine our family structures, is meant to rip our children from our families and from the land.
Band Nations are upholding this system over the people, over the land. We cannot be fooled into thinking that logging the last ancient forests will help us get to a just future. Without the land, how can we practise who we are? How can we have a relationship with every generation before and after us?
For the provincial government — this NDP government and every settler government before — that has been the directive: to divide our peoples, and to make everything scarce.
Aya Clappis / ƛapisim: The immediate issue is debt and money because of conditions of colonialism. Canada has forced our communities into poverty and now weaponizes this poverty and the Indian Act’s band council system to push Indigenous Peoples to commit extreme forms of violence against their own land in order to survive.
A fresh cut block behind the Caycuse Camp blockades where logging was stopped by protectors for around two months.
MG: Can you speak to the broader picture of colonial violence, including how violence against Indigenous lands equates to violence against Indigenous bodies?
AC: We’re never going to seek justice across all these different fronts if we’re not thinking holistically and thinking in this mindset of a broader network of how oppression operates, of how colonial resource extraction operates.
Resource extraction — those back roads, those isolated logging roads — contribute to missing and murdered women, girls and two-spirit folks. They’re all connected. And so separating violence on the land from violence against Indigenous bodies is only going to produce glimmers of success and protection and also lead to other non-beneficial precedents to the long-term goal of liberating people and upholding our Indigenous sovereignty.
KGJ: It is no mistake that the violence industry inflicts on the territory is simultaneously enacted towards Indigenous people. The colonial system has violently targeted women, queer people, children and our family structures. We are in an abusive relationship with the Canadian State. And if settler governments and industry continue to exploit the land unchecked, we will not see an end to the systemic violence.
It is important for everyone to connect those dots. It is to the benefit of the logging industry, LNG, pipelines — all of these extraction industries — for this violence to be permitted. And when Indigenous Peoples stand up for their lands, they are criminalized and incarcerated by RCMP, the police, and the colonial courts.
It is those Indigenous leaders and people who seek that sovereignty, that we need to look to, give care to, and stand behind those leaders defending against that violence.
Indigenous land defender Okimaw stands at a red dress ceremony held at a clearcut between Fairy Creek headquarters and River Camp to honour missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls and two-spirit people — an epidemic which has been found to correlate with natural resource extraction projects.
With more than 320 arrests and counting, the movement to save Fairy Creek — the last intact valley of old-growth forest on southern Vancouver Island — remains a charged period of time in the history of coastal Indigenous territories in British Columbia.
Protests and blockades have continued even after the provincial government granted a request from the Huu-ay-aht, Ditidaht and Pacheedaht First Nations to postpone old-growth logging on more than 2,000 hectares of land in the Fairy Creek area for two years while the Indigenous leaders develop long-term resource stewardship plans.
The protesters are demanding that this deferral also include a halting of road building through the Fairy Creek watershed, which it currently fails to do, as well as provide protection for the large tracts of old growth in the valleys directly adjacent to Fairy Creek.
Ultimately, many believe there should be a moratorium on all old-growth logging across B.C.
Every day, more blockades are erected and more old-growth trees come crashing down, as the fierce dance between land defenders, police, governments and the logging industry continues.
The conflict has been labelled a second “War in the Woods” of loggers versus tree protectors, referring to forest protection efforts in Clayoquot Sound during the 1990s. But the Fairy Creek conflict’s difficult and complex dynamics are not black and white — they involve ongoing colonial power structures, which can also manifest within environmental movements themselves.
Photojournalist Mike Graeme has been on the ground for more than a month, documenting the sharp tensions that have emerged as RCMP enforce a court injunction granted to logging company Teal-Jones, which owns the rights to the tree farm licence encompassing Fairy Creek and some of its neighbouring watersheds.
In June, Graeme sat down with Indigenous land defender Aya Clappis (who is Afro-Indigenous from Huu-ay-aht) and Kati George-Jim (who is T’sou-ke, W̱SÁNEĆ, and the niece of Pacheedaht Elder Bill Jones) to discuss how colonialism has historically undermined Indigenous laws, kinship ties and connections to the land — and how it continues to impact these areas today.
In this issue, he continues the conversation with Clappis, as she describes a precedent-setting development for her nation; the queer networks that are at the core of resistance to industrial exploitation; as well as how “white environmentalism” can replicate colonialism within old-growth protection movements.
Asiyah Robinson, who helped organize a mass Black Lives Matter rally following George Floyd’s killing, stands at the police checkpoint as an ally/accomplice to Indigenous land defenders fighting to save their ancient forests.
Mike Graeme: On June 4, the Huu-ay-aht, Pacheedaht, and Ditidaht First Nations signed the Hišuk ma c'awak Declaration “to take back their power over their ḥahahuułi [territory].” The declaration was coupled by a request to the B.C. government for logging to be deferred in Fairy Creek for two years, which was granted. Do you see this as a win for Indigenous sovereignty?
Aya Clappis / Tsimtu ƛapisim: This declaration is more than what’s been happening at Fairy Creek. It’s really about Nuu-Chah-Nulth sovereignty. It’s hard to really communicate what it means because it’s so significant. What this declaration was, what it is, and what it will be is an alliance between Pacheedaht, Ditidaht, Huu-ay-aht — and it’s setting an example.
I heard Squamish (Skwxwú7mesh?)now wants to do this. We’re building coastal Indigenous alliances all over again and this is the first time I’ve seen this happen in my lifetime.
And it’s probably the first time for a lot of people, because our people have been deprived of this since the first colonizer came and took our pride away, since the first residential school opened.
There’s lots of work to do and our people are getting it done because we are proud, even despite what’s been happening to our people. This is a win for our whole coast. This is a win for every Indigenous nation that is looking to not be stuck under colonialism. It’s powerful. Our people are powerful. They deserve respect, dignity; they deserve sovereignty.
Our people are wealthy where it matters. We’re wealthy in our hearts, in our spirits… and we’re ready to share that with the world — maybe we already are.
I think this declaration is proof, it is evidence, that this whole colonial system is crumbling because our people have broken the ground. Like an earthquake, like lightning, we’ve crumbled the system because we decided to because we were ready.
That declaration shows that we do not need Canada’s approval. We do not need British Columbia’s approval, and we don’t need the Maa-nulth Treaty to say we’re Nuu-Chah-Nulth.
A boardwalk created by forest protectors to encourage a less-destructive use of old-growth forests.
MG: In the June issue of Megaphone, you discussed the links between resource extraction and the epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls, two-spirit, and Indigiqueer people. How has this network of colonial oppression been met with networks of resistance?
AC: Before this movement [for our lands and sovereignty] broke out, Kati George-Jim and I had been talking about the importance of revitalizing networks forged between warriors up and down this coast in the ’80s, ’90s, and 2000s.
Everyone standing up a lot of the times now are generally Nuu-Chah-Nulth queers, and femmes, and women, and non-binary folks. We saw the possibility when this blockade arose to use it as a rallying point to re-create these networks and relationships.
Everyone who is at the margins, as bell hooks puts very beautifully, need to be at the centre. So, queer folks: I love you; I see you; you matter; you’re welcome here.
Indigenous land defender Raccoon stands at a blockade at Road 2000 on June 21, Canada’s National Indigenous Peoples Day, not long before being arrested by RCMP.
MG: While the War in the Woods of the ’90s saved much of the old growth in Clayoquot Sound, the overall violation of Nuu-Chah-Nulth sovereignty never skipped a beat. Once “the war” was won, many white folks involved had the privilege of going back to their daily lives and moving on, while industrial old-growth logging simply moved shop. Many people — namely white environmentalists — are calling this the second War in the Woods. What do they need to know?
AC: The War in the Woods [really] began when our people had to begin fighting to protect their lands against the first invaders and colonizers arriving on our ḥahahuułi. This war has yet to end. A lot of people will see the War in the Woods of the ’90s as really successful, but that individual action basically failed to disrupt the broader system, and enabled them to move and log all over my territory and destroy old growth the next few territories over. If we’re just trying to choke out one area, they will just move to the next Indigenous territory.
Forms of movement building that de-centre Indigenous Peoples and sovereignty may be able to achieve short-term success and protect specific areas that white environmentalists deem most valuable. However, it just moves the sacrifice zone. And that sacrifice zone will just increasingly affect our peoples as it gets closer to where we’re living — if it hasn’t happened already.
White environmentalism is uncritical of colonialism and is furthering the colonial occupation and processes that led to the problem in the first place — invasion, and taking from our lands and peoples. And environmentalists can just parachute out at any time. There’s no accountability long term to Indigenous Peoples to uproot the oppressive conditions that they live under.
Two blockaders stand hands clasped before an excavator and a convoy of police vehicles on the road leading to Waterfall Camp.
MG: I’ve heard about the concept of “benevolent colonialism,” which refers to the imperial, paternal rhetoric where settlers purport to know what is best for the land and for Indigenous Peoples under the assumption that their actions are inherently good. How has this played out in the movement to save ancient rainforests?
AC: That whole structure of going onto the land and occupying it without consent and “we know best” essentially pushes out any respectful protocol to happen. If you live in a home and someone just busts in and says, “Hey, I’m going to make your house better because if no one else is going to do it, I will,” it’s kind of that same thing.
White settlers claiming spirituality to place is problematic as well. It has really been uncomfortable to see spiritual tones and conversations around these trees that co-opt our language and culture. It also naturalizes them to place, which is literally what colonialism strives to do: make people think that they belong somewhere more than others and that they have the right and claim to be there. That is the root of the colonial process.
The ability to have a spiritual connection with these forests is a privilege, too. Our culture, our ways, our belief systems have been violently attacked, and for people to co-opt that and then serve it back to us, telling us protecting our forests the “right thing to do” is such a huge problem and shouts privilege.
A queer Nuu-Chah-Nulth woodcarver and Kati George-Jim stand next to an ancient cedar — which they refer to as their relative — slated for logging.
MG: Despite the uncomfortable and harmful frictions caused through the reproduction of colonialism and racism in white settler environmentalism, you have also expressed gratitude for those who have come to Fairy Creek to stand in solidarity, am I right?
AC: I really hold my hands up to everyone who has shown up for Fairy Creek Blockade, who’s shown up for Nuu-Chah-Nulth sovereignty, who’s shown up for me personally and my Black kin, because I probably wouldn’t be alive without you. And I say that very deeply because it’s really hard to believe you matter in a world that only tells you that you don’t matter. Every single day that we wake up under colonialism, racism, white supremacy, the world tells us that we don’t matter.