Defenders of the ancients
Defenders of the ancients
The Grandfather Tree has outlived the rise and fall of civilizations.
At the top of Granite Main logging road, in the Fairy Creek watershed in unceded Pacheedaht and Ditidaht territories on Vancouver Island, the yellow cedar is estimated to be more than 2,000 years old. Standing over 100 feet tall and 40 feet wide, it points to the sky like a mighty rocket ship. Its expressive branches shelter the land beneath. Its massive, lichen-covered trunk dwarfs any creature nearby, and its winding roots, interweaving into moss-bedded soil, are the size of large trees themselves.
The Grandfather is a living testament to nature’s grandeur, and a silent witness to human devastation. It has stood for centuries as wars were fought, as colonialism metastasized, as the industrial revolution poisoned our air and our relationship with the natural world. It stood as Indigenous women and children were ripped from their homes, beaten and abused, forced to assimilate into a culture that believes humans are masters of the universe, separate from all other living things—a culture that deems us gods of exponential growth, in a finite system that, without major changes, is doomed to collapse.
“It’s not easy to have an Indigenous heart and to see this world dying,” Paul Chayakten Wagner said as late-afternoon sunshine rippled through the leaves of the Grandfather Tree looming over him.
It was August 23, 2021, weeks before the arrest count at Fairy Creek climbed high enough to render this forest defence campaign one of the largest acts of civil disobedience in Canada’s history; in mere weeks over 1,000 would be arrested, with countless claims of excessive force and police brutality.
Wagner was at the top of Granite Main and about 50 forest defenders stood behind him, wearing rain jackets and dirt-stained backpacks. They faced an army of RCMP officers who stood on the other side of the blockade—a heap of logs, stone, broken tires, and debris. An excavator was rumbling nearby, ready to plow through River Camp, one of the many camps set up by protesters along Granite Main. A lumber worker, sitting in the machine’s cockpit, had his legs resting over the controls, a bored look on his stubbled face as Obstruction Removal Teams—officers with arbitrary extraction qualifications—struggled to remove two protesters chained to cemented trenches, using chainsaws.
“It’s not easy to hear the words of your ancestors given through your elders and know how beautiful we held this place and how much love we had for each other and all human beings,” Wagner said to the crowd behind him. The idling excavator and roaring chainsaws dominated the rushing river and chirping birds nearby. “It’s not easy to be inside of a world that landed on top of ours and mostly destroyed everything we’ve loved.”
Wagner, a member of the Saanich people of southern Vancouver Island, and the other forest defenders were part of a cultural and economic struggle that had become a major focal point for environmental and Indigenous sovereignty activists throughout North America over the last few years.
The first blockade went up in August 2020, and police enforcement began in spring 2021, after B.C. lumber company Teal-Jones won a court injunction to clear the logging roads. The preservation of old growth forests is seen as a crucial step in the fight against climate change, but also an important stand for Indigenous sovereignty.
“Each and everybody walking on the bones of our ancestors here needs to know about our way,” Wagner called to the defenders. “The teachings of mother earth and the circle of life. In wellness and love and togetherness and lifting up.” As he spoke, the excavator rumbled louder.
“We’re witnessing a way of death,” he said. “Colonialism, at the centre of the government, has brought nothing to us but death, my family. And there’s no more time to live in an era of death. There’s simply no more time.”
The story of Fairy Creek had a fleeting moment in mainstream media. In September and November of 2021, Canadian newspaper headlines and broadcast stand-ups regurgitated a tale of police brutality and activist stubbornness—RCMP enforcement clashing with the thousands defending ancient ecosystems. There were reports of pepper-spray and beatings, racial profiling, and arbitrary media exclusions that defied Supreme Court rulings.
The arrest count in particular was a point of interest for general coverage, but the official numbers tell an incomplete story.
In addition to the 1,100 arrests last summer, hundreds of protesters were thrown into vans, driven to RCMP Detachment Zones, and let go without charge. These were colloquially referred to as “catch and releases,” efforts to minimize the number of defenders on site without having to fill out the official paperwork required for an arrest.
“Our job is to make sure that the line is clear so we can move forward and if you’re still refusing to leave, at that point, when you start resisting, then we have no other option but to arrest them,” Gill Deziel, RCMP media relations officer, explained in August.
The recent wave of occupations and blockades at border checkpoints and in major Canadian cities, ostensibly motivated by opposition to vaccine mandates, involved thousands more protesters than Fairy Creek and have caused supply chain bottlenecks and other disruptions, with significant impacts on ordinary residents of Ottawa and elsewhere. Despite this, they have so far not been met with similar arrest counts, nor have they faced the intensity of police action deployed against many Indigenous-led land defence efforts. Fairy Creek activists attribute the brutality they experienced to a lack of wifi and cell reception, along with excluded media witnesses, which cloaked officers in a veil of invisibility not afforded to them in downtown cores.
At the Port Renfrew RCMP Detachment Zone, “caught and released” defenders were often found lying on the shaded grass, expressions of defeat and despair on their swollen faces. In mid-August, one of these detainees spoke about being beaten despite having their arms linked to other protesters, unable to effectively resist.
“Police were just violently grabbing people,” the defender known as Opossum said. “They threw me to the ground, punched me in the face two times, told me not to resist, which I wasn't. I was basically limp.”
This violence of enforcement was a recurring theme throughout last summer, defenders say. Some argue that it was particularly bad for forest defenders who are Indigenous or racialized. But they also recall moments of triumph amidst the brutality.
There was the day, in early August, when a defender known as Mother G sat on the gravel road of Granite Main near the Red Dress section, a clear-cut area where wooden posts had been hung with red dresses, symbolizing missing and murdered Indigenous women and children. On that hot summer afternoon, RCMP officers had gained three kilometers of ground along the logging road, advancing closer to River Camp after plowing through soft blocks and tripods, detaining any protesters in their way. Feeling helpless, recognizing that the highly militant police force outnumbered activists, Mother G crossed her legs, looked up at the sky and wept. Others joined in, creating a symphony of sobs that caused police to stop their day’s advancement.
Or there was the time the defenders deterred enforcement from destroying River Camp simply by linking arms and singing “Lean on Me.” With late afternoon sunlight slipping over the horizon, bruising the sky a pale purple, Emergency Response Teams—officers known as the “Green Guys,” geared with kevlar and semi-automatic rifles—waved goodnight and walked down the gravel road as Bill Withers’ lyrics about friendship and togetherness ascended through the evening air.
The summer’s protests were marked by songs sung, chants shouted, trenches dug, blockades built. It was a walkie-talkie operation of vast collaboration, a grassroots network of shared supplies, hidden camps, and unwavering devotion to trees—like The Grandfather—that have seen this story of land struggle, of colonial enforcement against Indegenious protection, again and again.
Most of those trees have since been cut down.
In mid-November 2021, as winter winds whistled through clear-cut pockets, a defender known as Fir bushwhacked up the Fairy Creek mountain. Broken wood crunched under his boots as he made it to the area called Heli-camp. “People were holding it down, preventing ground access,” Fir recalls. “There were probably about 15 to 20 people there.”
The number of defenders had dwindled dramatically since the summer. A movement once composed of several hidden camps, each with hundreds of participants, was now a single cluster of Indigenous and settler activists, a final line of soldiers in a battle that had been widely forgotten.
Despite their lasting efforts, countless logs piled throughout the region. Teal-Jones lumber workers had been busy. “There was this huge section of forest right along the road that had just been cleared,” Fir recalls. “I had been there three weeks before and it was a forest, and now it was just a bunch of trees on the ground. It was really devastating.”
There was a long list of reasons why Fir kept coming back to Fairy Creek to protect what was so quickly being taken away. There were the trees, of course, and his understanding that preserving these giant carbon-trappers is imperative to mitigate future climate disasters. There was his hope for true reconciliation with Indigenous peoples, and his respect for elder wisdom that circulated through the community of defenders. Most of all, however, it was the love of a person that pulled him into this battlefront rainforest.
“My love of this one person … boosts my inspiration to drive there, work eighteen-hour days, seek easeful ways through the politics and personal conflicts of such a large movement,” Fir wrote in a letter, explaining a romance that involved a fellow defender who inspired him to continue taking action at Fairy Creek.
Fir said he hopes to be a father one day, and that his children will be able to experience these ancient woods.
He believes love is more valuable than lumber. To him, that’s what this protest really stood for.
In order to understand the complexity of old-growth forests, we need to go beneath the soil. Connected to root systems is a vast fungal network called mycelium—this underground system is what connects individual plants together, allowing old-growth forests to live and breathe as a collective organism.
According to Fungal Ecology, a leading text on mycelium by forest researchers Neville J. Dix and John Webster, fungal threads can reduce damage from extreme weather in an ecosystem through chemical releases that prevent freezing, a process that is crucial for lower winter temperatures.
At the heart of these fungal networks are the mother trees—ancient trees that orchestrate the distribution of water, minerals and nutrients. According to University of British Columbia researcher Dr. Suzanne Simard, when a plant needs water or senses a threat, for instance, mother trees use mycelium threads to channel necessary hydration or additional carbon.
When one of these mother trees is chopped down, the mycelium network is offset, and it can take decades for them to recover, like a community losing a caring leader.
Tree farms that replace clear cuts lack this foundational infrastructure to thrive collectively, denying the distribution of essential resources like minerals and water. This can cause trees to grow brittle and dry, increasingly susceptible to forest fires in the context of a warming climate, according to research by USDA Forest Services.
Fittingly, Simard’s findings suggest that mother trees not only share nutrients and help old growth communities flourish, but that seedlings planted around them would be two to four times more likely to increase their survival rate despite the threats of global warming.
Mother trees, therefore, are also a crucial way in which old-growth forests defend themselves.
As winter rolled on, with temperatures dropping, the final residue of the Fairy Creek resistance efforts began to wither. The roadside camp was dismantled and people left the blockade by the end of December, says Kathy Code, spokesperson for the Rainforest Flying Squad, an organization dedicated to protecting ancient temperate rainforests.
“It's really hard to exist in that type of B.C. winter, you know, without permanent infrastructure,” Code said.
She believes the Grandfather tree was left uncut as part of an arrangement with Teal-Jones. But much of the forest around the tree is gone. “You can't just protect a tree. A tree is not a forest,” Code said.
Despite the numerous benefits of maintaining old growth, such as absorption of excess glacier water, or cooling microclimates that support biodiversity, not everyone agrees the old-growth of Fairy Creek needs to be saved. Some of that disagreement exists within the Pacheedaht community.
Pacheedaht First Nation Chief Jeff Jones renewed a revenue-sharing agreement with the Province of British Columbia in 2021, which prevents them from interfering with logging procedures.
“Pacheedaht First Nation agrees it will not support or participate in any acts that frustrate, delay, stop or otherwise physically impede or interfere with provincially authorized forest activities,” the agreement states.
Chief Jones did not respond to a request for an interview but he told the Toronto Star that Pacheedaht First Nation should benefit from logging on their territory. He would like the non-Indigenous protesters to leave. “I think they cobble onto certain Pacheedaht members to push their agenda,” he said. “I think these individuals need to go home and leave the territory and let us do our work.”
In the fall of 2021, Elder Bill Jones—a Pacheedaht elder in the same community as Chief Jeff Jones—reflected on why the area is important to him, and why he encourages defenders to protect this wilderness before it’s too late. “This is actually an important spiritual practice area—Renfrew Creek and Fairy Creek ecosystems.”
Elder Jones recalls hiking up the mountain as a younger man to pray and meditate. “It’s of spiritual importance to my people,” he said.
Jones suggests the government and Pacheedaht First Nation are locked in an agreement.
“Our Chief and council are virtual prisoners of a predatory contract that is not addressing our needs at all…. And so it took about 40 years for the companies to lock our band council into servitude mode…. And they're locked into a contract with Teal-Jones. And it's difficult when the premier goes fishing with our chief.”
Elder Jones plans to return to Fairy Creek in the spring if he can, says Wet'suwet'en activist and Fairy Creek blockade supporter Marlene Hale. Elder Jones calls for defenders to get their boots on their ground for another summer against RCMP enforcement.
On Jan. 26, the B.C.'s Court of Appeal reinstated the injunction that allows logging company Teal Cedar Products, a subsidiary of the Teal-Jones Group, to continue its work. The injunction will be extended until Sept. 26, 2022.
Code said that since the onset of the movement, about 5,000 supporters came through the camps and more gave donations.
“We're sort of a leaderless movement,” Code said. “It's sort of an amorphous type of situation where people just come into the organization and just slot themselves into wherever they want to help and where they feel the passion. So it's been amazing to watch that, that people just come in and pitch in wherever they can.”
In an interview with Biohabitats, Dr. Simard drew a parallel between ecological networks and activist communities. “There are key people in our social networks who are linked to everybody else. It’s the same in the forest. Those big, old trees become those key hubs. But say that key networker friend moves to another town, and suddenly there is a gap in that friendship circle. Someone else will move in to fill that role. The same is true in the forest: if a mother tree is killed or logged, other trees still form networks.”
While many don’t want to give up the fight to protect old growth, Code says right now they are thinking about what that will look like in the spring.
“I think everybody's kind of taking a bit of a breather and reassessing what that means,” says Code. “And in terms of going back again, Teal-Jones has managed to log most of what we were protecting. It's gone. So that's pretty sad. And once it's gone, it's gone. There's nothing we can do about it.”
Though the movement at Fairy Creek is currently at a low point, it echoes other struggles across British Columbia, some of which are active and ongoing. Wet'suwet'en land defenders continue to resist the Coastal GasLink pipeline project, slated to run through their territory near Kitimat. The West Moberly and Prophet River First Nations oppose the development of Site C Dam along the Peace River to protect their traditional territory from flooding. Grassroots land defenders from many Indigenous nations along with settler allies continue to oppose the Trans Mountain tar sands pipeline expansion project. While many hoped B.C.’s NDP government would move to protect Indigenous territorial rights and stop environmental degradation, this hasn’t happened, and struggle continues on many fronts.
Back in August, with the Grandfather Tree looming over him, and an excavator rumbling, Paul Chayokton Wagner called out for heroes. “We need our protectors to get their boots on the ground,” he said. “We need them now.”
With files from Karen Longwell, Grace Wells-Smith and Leah Borts-Kuperman