Helen Boyd and Melissa Lem: Fairy Creek land protectors must be protected

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      By Helen Boyd and Melissa Lem

      This month, antivaccine protests targeting hospitals across Canada have disrupted access to health services and demoralized frontline workers.

      In response to their vilification and assault by angry mobs, government and health officials at every level have publicly denounced these attacks on people who have worked tirelessly to protect their communities’ health.

      Our planet’s health also needs protecting in this challenging 21st century. This has become painfully explicit after a summer of lethal heat waves, wildfires and drought, and the release of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s report that doomed us to catastrophic global heating unless we undertake immediate, transformational change to reduce carbon pollution.

      For over a year, concerned citizens—including seniors, Indigenous elders, and youth—have been standing up for the planet and our collective health by organizing to protect the old-growth forests that sequester carbon and cool our planet at the Fairy Creek blockade on Vancouver Island.

      Their commitment to preserving this irreplaceable ecosystem has remained unwavering during their civil protests to halt logging in this area. Yet who is standing up to protect them?

      As healthcare professionals, we are deeply concerned for the physical and psychological well-being of forest protectors on the frontlines, and we call on government officials to swiftly rise to protect them—in the same way they have our health colleagues.

      To date, 91 complaints have been filed against the RCMP for their use of paramilitary-style tactics on these nonviolent land protectors. On August 21st, a video depicting police using pepper spray to subdue crowds of protectors who were peacefully “holding the line” went viral.

      That the land protectors took up the chant “Who keeps us safe? We keep us safe,” was very likely borne of their lost faith in law enforcement to ensure their safety while they exercised their right to voice their opposition. 

      Many of those arrested are hopeful young adults who have interrupted their regular lives to support a cause we should all wholeheartedly believe in: securing the health of our planet.

      But after their violent arrests, land protectors are seen withdrawing, staring into the distance, trying to make sense of their surreal experience.

      Unfortunately, this is often done in isolation, without psychological support that could prevent an acute stress disorder from progressing to posttraumatic stress disorder.

      Still, moved by their conviction and determination, these defenders often return to the frontlines, where they witness additional violent arrests that have become the norm. 

      High degrees of mental and physical trauma will undoubtedly ensue for those who dare express their commitment to protecting elder trees in such a tangible way. Blind jackhammering to extricate the arms of those hooked into ‘sleeping dragons’, despite the existence of less violent alternatives, is done at great risk to the protector. The potential for injury and even amputation is real.

      Terror experienced by this clan of predominantly young forest guardians has potentially lifelong negative outcomes. As they are submitted to dangerous extractions, the stress hormone cortisol courses through their bloodstreams, laying the path for future intrusive memories, panic attacks, and depression. The legacy of treating the emotional trauma arising from these standoffs will endure long after the trees and barriers have fallen.

      The mostly young people gathering at the Fairy Creek blockade are at serious risk of developing acute stress disorders, including PTSD.
      Fairy Creek Blockade Twitter

      Indigenous land and water protectors have long been subjected to trauma at the hands of law enforcement across Turtle Island. In recent memory, this includes the 1990 Kanesatake resistance near Oka that saw two dead and many injured as Mohawk land defenders rose to protect their ancestral burial grounds from golf-course development, and the 2019 RCMP takedown at gunpoint of Wet’suwet’en peoples protecting their traditional territories from pipeline development.

      Recognizing the urgent need to protect B.C.’s elder trees, the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs demanded an end to old-growth logging this summer, and that traditional Indigenous stewardship of the forests be reinstated.  

      Whether or not you agree with the tactics of Fairy Creek forest protectors, one thing is clear: solutions are urgently needed before fatalities and injuries, mental and physical, ensue from the ongoing conflict at the Fairy Creek blockade.

      We urge the B.C. government to deescalate the violence and adhere to its own 2020 Review of Forest Practices recommendations to immediately end industrial logging of the remaining three percent of these ancient trees. 

      Helen Boyd, RN, is a Comox nurse and the B.C. representative of the Canadian Association of Nurses for the Environment. Melissa Lem, MD, is a Vancouver family physician and president-elect of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment.