Relationship to the land is an ancestral duty, say Indigenous land defenders

Over a week of media exclusion zones at Fairy Creek, Indigenous youth and Elders are using their voices to take action in protection of old growth

Odette Auger

Activists against Teal-Jones logging Old Growth

Approximately 105 arrests to date, as land defenders and activists continue to stand against Teal-Jones logging Old Growth | Photo by Mike Graeme

xʷ is xʷ čaa Kati George-Jim was a legal observer at Caycuse Camp when she was arrested by RCMP on May 18. She was there with land defenders and activists invited by her uncle, Pacheedaht Elder and knowledge keeper William Jones.

“I implore people to continue to stand with me to protect our forests from destruction and colonialism because we need allies on the ground to stop old growth logging in my home territory, and for my future generations and relatives,” Jones wrote in a media statement last month.

George-Jim described her arrest over a scratchy satellite phone call with Watershed Sentinel. “With no media present, we are completely alone out there. There was no service, there was no internet,” she says.

Blockades have been set up and maintained by activists since August 2020. They have come together under the banner “Rainforest Flying Squad” (RFS) to protest Teal Jones’ logging of old growth trees in the Fairy Creek area, near Port Renfrew on Vancouver Island. On April 1 the BC Supreme Court granted an injunction to allow the logging company to get access to the old growth forest. An appeal of the injunction has been filed. On April 30, RFS served the Province of BC with a third party notice, bringing them into the civil action brought by Teal Jones against RFS, based on the NDP government’s responsibility for administering forest operations.

Along with the media, local Pacheedaht First Nation and Ditidaht First Nation people have been denied access to travel through their own territory.

It has now been eleven days of media exclusion zones, with changing lines. On May 17, RCMP designated Caycuse camp an exclusion zone, meaning only RCMP-approved media may cross the line, and they must stay in a designated spot. Rainforest Flying Squad’s lawyer Noah Ross has said the RCMP are overstepping by setting up the zones. “Exclusion zones are only legal in certain limited circumstances in which there are serious public safety risks. It’s explicitly not allowed by the injunction,” he pointed out, giving an example of excluding the public from a neighbourhood where there has been a shooting, until it is safe. Along with the media, local Pacheedaht First Nation and Ditidaht First Nation people have been denied access to travel through their own territory.

Legal observer Kati George-Jim and RCMP

xʷ is xʷ čaa Kati George-Jim was a legal observer, arrested by RCMP after media exclusion zone designated | Photo by Mike Graeme

“They’re willing to overlook people’s civil rights in order to give industry access to their logs. It is not legally justified,” Ross says.

At the time of her arrest, “there were only three people in an arrestable position [blockading], at the Caycuse camp,” says George-Jim. “The rest of us were there as legal observers and media.”

To be arrested, a protester would have to be interfering with industry or police operations. George-Jim explains breaking the injunction would look like disrupting, blocking logging trucks, road, or police. “We were doing none of that. We were literally walking, observing what they were doing.”

“Whose public safety justifies them not going closer? It’s the safety of industry, not the safety of people’s civil liberties,” says Ross.

The media exclusion zone is also referred to as an “access control point” by BC RCMP communications services. Ross explains, “They frame this as ‘access control’ as if it is a logistical decision, citing vague concerns of public safety. However, the exclusion of media and the general public from areas [where] they are legally allowed to be is arguably a violation of civil liberties. Further, it means that individuals on blockades and in tree sitters are being arrested without witnesses and without the ability to have their actions documented by the press.”

Shifting tone after media exclusion zone

George-Jim says when the media exclusion zones were first designated, it appeared media and legal observers were targeted first. She also says there was a change in tone after the media exclusion.

Rainbow Eyes, of Da’naxda’xw-Awaetlala Nation agrees.

“When I was arrested, there was so much media and the RCMP were overly nice, definitely playing it up for the cameras – some more than others,” she says.

Rainbow Eyes, Da'naxda'xw-Awaetlala Nation, chained to fence

Rainbow Eyes, Da’naxda’xw-Awaetlala Nation was arrested on May 18 | Photo by Dawn Mueller

George-Jim describes her arrest as using excessive force, and racially targeted. Arresting officers told her “you don’t even belong to a First Nation here, you’re here against their will.”

George-Jim’s response illustrates the difference in worldviews around identity and territory. “I don’t identify with a ‘band’ nation,” she says.

She identifies with her matriarchal lineage, growing up in T’Sou-ke territory. She “relates to all of our territories here – Pacheedaht, Ditidaht and Lekwungen.” On her father’s side she is also related to all of the W̱SÁNEĆ villages on Vancouver Island.

“The police and the government only recognize Indigenous jurisdiction when it’s in a body like a band council or a treaty nation. Or some sort of society that can interface with the colonial government or a colonial entity,” she says.

“When a sovereign Indigenous person or our hereditary system is brought forward, it’s not recognized by the Province or police as legitimate,” she says, “because it undermines their power to maintain control over the land.”

This is where Pacheedaht Elder Jones’ role as a knowledge-keeper offers some insight into the undercurrents of Indian Act and the imposed electoral system.

Colonial systems vs. Indigenous

Elder Jones is the son of Walter Jones (Pacheedaht) and Mary Yukum (Tseshaht), and paternal grandson of Charlie (Queesto) Jones Sr., but was raised by the last formally recognized family hereditary chief (speaker) Willy Jones.

Jones describes his view of leadership. “It is our principles of matriarchy, relational-balance, accountability to the laws of the land, and distribution of wealth that brings honour and validity to a leader.”

Jones was moved to bring his voice to the issue of Fairy Creek when a letter was posted by Nathan Cullen, BC’s Minister of State for Lands and Natural Resource Operations. The letter, which asked protesters to leave, was signed by Pacheedaht Nation’s elected Chief Councillor, and a “hereditary chief.” Jones’ response corrected the title, and he also explained this to RCMP when they blocked him from entering his territory.

“The Indian Act is certainly an active and effective part of [the colonial system], and it’s still going – they’re still using it to divide and rule.” —Elder Bill Jones

As a direct descendant of the lineage, Elder Jones said in his response, “Frank Jones claiming himself as a hereditary chief is false. He is not eligible to make the claim for the Jones family line, and is not informed by the hereditary system amongst our peoples. In fact, the Jones family is not originally from the territory, and have no chief rights to the San Juan valley.”

“They have a pretend chief and a band council chief acting outside of his authority – still under the Indian Act, in fact the band council’s authority is only within 180 acres of land,” explains Jones. Jones is referring to Pacheedaht not having completed the treaty process, which means elected chief and council only have authority over reserve lands – not over traditional territory.

“The Indian Act is certainly an active and effective part of [the colonial system]. The most successful act that ever has been, by destroying and murdering our people over the 150 years it has been in effect, and it’s still going – they’re still using it to divide and rule.”

In an earlier press release, Jones noted the history of the territory recognized as Pacheedaht today “has too often been ignored or manipulated to suit the needs of the colony and extractivist economy.”

Lacking government leadership

Over one year ago, a team of independent scientists was commissioned by the BC government. The result was a call for “immediate response to ecosystems at very high risk.” The Old Growth Strategic Review was released April 2020 with 14 recommendations. The BC government accepted all 14 recommendations, and welcomed a “new paradigm” in forestry management.

As shares, “less than one per cent of BC’s forests still have big old growth trees, and most of what’s left is open to logging.” The review’s sixth recommendation was to defer logging in key areas, to allow time for the recommended consultation with Indigenous communities and to implement the shift to holistic forest management.

Ross explains the impact of not implementing deferrals. “The BC government could have avoided the further destruction of important stands of old growth and also avoided massive expenditures in funding the RCMP to enforce Teal Cedar’s injunction,” he says.

The review also addresses the gap in meaningful consultation, and notes the lack of involvement of Indigenous peoples in “creating most of the higher-level plans and orders that dominate the management of old forests.”

Ross says it’s important to take a closer look at the question of jobs and local economy.

“Old growth logging as an industry on Vancouver Island is directly responsible for only 60-80 jobs. These jobs, held mainly by white men, represent a small fraction of the thousands of jobs which have been lost due to corporate decisions to close lumber mills and other timber processing plants on Vancouver Island,” Ross says. “The provincial government’s failure to take steps to defer or halt old growth logging demonstrates how beholden our frontier settler society is to the need to maintain well-paying jobs for white men even when the consequence is destruction of the few remaining stands of old-growth. We really are still living in frontier times, regardless that the beer is better and we have some bike lanes.”

Tree-sitting protesters suspended over 100 feet

Tree-sitting protesters suspended over 100 feet. | Photo by Mike Graeme

Increasing risk

On May 21, Teal-Jones began cutting in the TLF 46 area – which is where protesters are sitting in trees. The risk is very high, George-Jim says.

Also on May 21, a press release from the BC Civil Liberties Association raised alarm over the secrecy, noting “Legal Observers Victoria have documented a number of RCMP practices designed to prevent the public from witnessing and documenting police actions. The organization has documented RCMP officers using tarps and other coverings to visually conceal arrests from media and legal observers.”

RCMP Sgt. Chris Manseau describes the tarps as tools to assist in their operations, and says they were not intentionally blocking the view.

“However, all attempts to have the media have access are being made,” Manseau told Watershed Sentinel by email.

Police block view of legal observers and media

Police block view of legal observers and media. | Photo by Dawn Mueller

Ross and George-Jim says the media exclusion is a human rights violation. The BC Civil Liberties Association agrees, and so does the Canadian Association of Journalists (CAJ):

“The RCMP and other police agencies have failed to respect the Charter of Rights and Freedoms when executing injunctions,” said CAJ president Brent Jolly in a press release. “Since they have not shown an ability to handle the powers, the only solution we can think of is to respectfully ask the courts to limit those powers.”

“What’s really missing here: why aren’t we more concerned about this power that is trying to be exercised over this entire narrative?” George-Jim says.

More than a blockade

For George-Jim it is more than one cutblock, one blockade. “My relationship to the land is an ancestral duty,” she says.

“The fact that they’re the last of the old growth – all the last of our spiritual freedom that we have in this world. When that goes, our cathedral is gone. For most First Nations, a walk in the forest is usually a spiritual experience,” Jones says. “You are close to your being, a great mother brings you back to your being – by being with you and going through you.”

“They don’t have the right to take the children’s heritage. That is one of our main parts of our struggle to preserve and keep the last of the old growth for our future children yet unborn.”

Odette Auger, Sagamok Anishnawbek, is a guest on Klahoose, Homalco, Tla’amin territories. She works with IndigenEYEZ, has written and produced for First People’s Cultural Council project and Cortes Radio. Her journalism covering Indigenous health, Vancouver Island, and Indigenous art, can be found at IndigiNews, the Discourse, APTN, and the (Toronto) Star, among other places.

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