Rita Wong: How to face a crisis with courage—Fairy Creek’s lessons

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      Despite nice-sounding announcements, the clearcutting of Canada’s last old growth forests continues unabated as we face a killer heat wave this June and early July.

      How do I know this? Recently, I was on the unceded Pacheedaht territories also known as Fairy Creek, and made a two-hour hike up to Eden, where I heard chainsaws, and dynamite blasts for road building so that some of the last giants on Turtle Island can be logged by Teal-Jones for short-term profit. As the Rainforest Flying Squad reminds us, these thousand-year-old trees are worth more standing. They draw people to come visit the area, but beyond that economic incentive, they have intrinsic value. You cannot put a price on your mother, and you should not put a price on these ancestral trees that are being slaughtered by colonial forces.

      While I was up at Eden, I had the honour of being locked down beside an Indigenous youth named Raccoon for a little while. As it turned out, we were both on our monthly flow time, and you could feel the powerful life force coursing through the camp.

      I eventually moved to another location, where I spent several hours lying down, with my arm chained to a hole in the ground, in what is called a sleeping dragon, waiting to be arrested. It felt like being married to the earth. From that location, I could not see the five arrests ahead of me, but I could hear the backhoe being used to extract people lying on the ground fastened to five sleeping dragons, the screams and yells of pain and anger, the passionate singing of the Women’s Warrior song each time someone was taken away by the RCMP. I sang with them and sent them gratitude with each time-consuming removal. 

      A few times, RCMP walked by and asked if I was okay. One of the times, I responded by explaining that when we live on Indigenous lands, we all have a responsibility to uphold Indigenous law, which involves caring for the health of the land, and that I was saddened to even have to be in this position.

      Around 2-ish, I was told by a RCMP officer that they would be coming to extract me in five minutes, at which point they would have to take away the tarp that was shading me from the hot sun. Instead, they changed their mind and decided to call it a day around 2:30 p.m. However, members of the RCMP special tactical unit deployed “to resolve high-risk situations” did drive by around 5 p.m., and walked through Eden camp around 7 p.m. the same day, so I did not stray far from the sleeping dragon until I was later ready to leave the camp.

      An excavator removes Rainbow Eyes.

      As a 52-year-old woman who is not particularly athletic, and whose nickname should probably be “Slow Walker”, this day pushed my limits somewhat, but I must say, I was inspired and invigorated by the youth around me, by their love, courage and wisdom. I would add that that it is a huge waste of money to deploy the RCMP tactical unit against the likes of me and Raccoon. Though there are people of many genders on the front lines, the majority of arrestees appear to be gendered as female on first glance.

      While my personal story that day may be anticlimactic, unfortunately many arrests have been much more dramatic and dangerous. The screaming I heard occurred because a RCMP officer knelt on a young Indigenous woman’s back and pulled hard on her arm to try to remove her, even though she was locked in and could not defend herself from his undue use of force. Over the course of 352 arrests (and counting), women have been pulled by their hair, dragged so that their necklace was ripped off, and so that their bra was torn off.

      One woman had webbing strapped to their torso so that it would constrict more tightly with their weight, inflicting chest pain so excruciating she described it as “the worst pain [she’d] ever experienced”. She had to be taken to hospital for an x-ray and ultrasound to examine her spasming severely inflamed intercostal muscles.

      At least one person has fallen unconscious from heat exhaustion. When people called an ambulance, the RCMP turned it away. Requests for a time out due to the heat wave have been denied or ignored by the RCMP, endangering people’s lives. These are just a few of the stories you will find in the updates at https://www.facebook.com/FairyCreekBlockade.

      Moreover, it is irresponsible for the RCMP to use such heavy machinery as excavators and backhoes, which were not designed to move human bodies; one slip, and a terrible accident could easily happen. Numerous injuries have already happened to land defenders—cuts, bruises, scrapes, fainting, shock, and worse, at the hands of the RCMP who have been setting up illegal and arbitrary exclusion zones so that legal observers and media cannot witness the arrests.

      Up at Waterfall camp, RCMP have been conducting psychological warfare against peaceful land defenders, running generators, shining flood lights, and using sleep deprivation to exhaust and intimidate the very people who are standing up for a livable climate for even the RCMP’s children. Is this Canada? You bet it is; Canada was designed to inflict genocide upon Indigenous people by separating them from the land, and it continues to operate in this mode, using RCMP as its henchmen.

      This senseless violence shows how unjust Canada’s laws are. It was legal to kill and bury thousands of Indigenous children in unmarked graves in this country, and it is legal today to kill the inheritance of these children: the ancient forests, the very land that the colonial forces tried to separate Indigenous people from. Based on these colonial laws that privilege money over life, an injunction was issued so that RCMP from across Canada, including the ironically named “Emergency Response Team”, can remove land defenders using the aforementioned heavy machinery, as well as expensive helicopters, angle grinders, and military-style jeeps.

      The RCMP are making the climate emergency we all face worse, not better, through their misdirected force against people who are protecting our collective well-being. Destroying the old growth forest is NOT in the public interest, even though the colonial courts pretend that it is.

      In privileging an injunction that solely serves the destructive logging industry over access to forests for ecotourism operators, visitors, and the public, the RCMP are not neutral at all. They are part of a violent colonial system that is hastening the planet toward mass extinction.

      The heat wave could teach us how crucial trees are to cool the earth; just stand in the shade of a large tree and feel some gratitude for this calm old being, protecting us. How disconnected, selfish and arrogant would one have to be to kill the last ancient trees of this land? How slippery and irresponsible to issue misleading announcements from Victoria, while the logging company Teal-Jones and the RCMP continue to work hand in hand to intimidate and arrest hundreds of land defenders. The RCMP are literally taking land defenders’ belongings (a motorbike, camping gear, etc.) and giving them to Teal-Jones. This is how morally bankrupt Canada is, how arbitrary as to which laws it enforces, and which laws it violates. Until Canada takes Indigenous law seriously, I cannot respect or take Canada seriously.

      In the face of these bullying tactics I’ve mentioned, the invitation from Pacheedaht elder Bill Jones back in March is a breath of fresh air, reminding us to take care of our spiritual needs and to bring the children in our lives to Fairy Creek to see the forests while they still can.  

      Video: An interview with Pacheedaht elder and Fairy Creek protector Bill Jones.

      As I have learned from leaders like Rueben George from the Tsleil-Waututh Nation and Freda Huson from the Wet’suwet’en Nation, we have a reciprocal relationship with the land; if we take care of the land, the land will take care of us. We destroy the land at our own peril. Without getting into debates about imposed colonial band council structures and revitalizing hereditary leadership, we can focus on some basic principles: everyone has a responsibility to care for the land, to respect it, and to honour our interconnectedness.

      I see these principles living deeply within many of the young Indigenous people I’ve met up at Fairy Creek, strong spirits like Okimaw, a Nehiyaw/Cree from Cowessess First Nations, where 751 mass graves have recently been found in their community, and Rainbow Eyes, a land defender who was recently removed by the RCMP using an excavator in a dangerous manner. Okimaw, Rainbow Eyes, Sage, Loon, Raccoon, and countless others are incredibly dedicated to protecting the land, responding to Bill Jones’s invitation with courage and commitment. They are the living law, as Mel Bazil might put it; they enact right relationship through their love and care for the ancient forests.

      Spending time up at Ada’itsx/Fairy Creek is a gift, and what I am left with from my time there is not only the gratuitous waste of many millions of dollars on unnecessary and actively harmful policing, but more importantly, the deep sense of community guided by a strong spiritual connection to the land. This is more powerful than guns, excavators, and men in camouflage uniforms trying to sleep deprive and intimidate (mostly) young tree huggers: our ancestors’ wisdom brings us to Fairy Creek, and a spiritual fire, an awakening, is happening there in the forests. You can feel the love and energy when you arrive, and you will never forget this. It is the power of peace, of interconnectedness, of what it means to be at our best as human relatives to the rivers, trees, animals, and one another. It is to see the long view—the coming climate crisis that is already upon us, and to return to natural laws, which we forget at our own peril.

      While this is an intergenerational movement, as Bill Jones makes clear, youthful energy is in abundance at Ada’itsx/Fairy Creek. Without guns, without (much) money, without the resources of the state, youths are showing incredible resilience, dedication and integrity in the face of Canada’s systemic violence. They teach us that what you cannot do alone, you will accomplish together. The sheer creativity and mutual care demonstrated, the refusal to be bullied, the courage to act based on the knowledge we have; these are priceless gifts that help us to collectively face the climate crisis we’re in.

      Rita Wong is a poet-scholar who has written several books of poetry. She understands natural ecosystems as critical infrastructure that must be protected and cared for in order to survive climate crisis. In other words, old growth forests are what remains of the earth’s lungs.