By Camille Aubin
Following 14 months of heightening debate, protests, blockades, lawsuits, police action, and countless headlines centred on logging in some of B.C.’s last remaining old growth temperate rainforest in the Fairy Creek watershed, in Pacheedaht First Nations traditional territory on Vancouver Island, a recent B.C. Supreme Court ruling slammed police action on the frontlines of the Fairy Creek blockades.
Logging company, Teal-Jones LTD., was seeking a continuance of an injunction order that had been preventing protestors from interfering with logging. The injunction, which had been in place for several months, had given RCMP officers the power to arrest and remove any protestors who set up blockades or otherwise stopped Teal from logging. Many protestors defied the injunction and continued to blockade, and police stepped in to enforce it. The results? More than 1,100 individuals have been arrested at Fairy Creek since May 2021, making the protest the largest act of civil disobedience in Canadian history.
The number of protestor arrests surpassing that of even the famous (or infamous, depending on your perspective) ‘War in the Woods’ protests and blockades at Clayoquot Sound in the early 1990s. Indeed, many international media outlets have termed Fairy Creek as the ‘War in the Woods 2.0.’
The B.C. Supreme Court ruling pointed to a “disquieting lapse” in the reasonable force, citing several incidents in which the judge said police overstepped their bounds, including one in which they forcefully yanked down protestors’ COVID-19 masks to spray them in the face with pepper spray.
The judgement was widely reported worldwide, with many civil liberties groups hailing it, confirming the right to protest without fear of persecution.
But there was another dimension to the ruling, beyond the police vs. protestors angle, which attracted international attention: the issue of freedom of the press.
Several journalists who tried to cover the conflict were barred from doing so at RCMP checkpoints. Reporters were sometimes searched and escorted by police. Those who attempted to speak with the protesters, record the arrests on the site, or sometimes even just identified themselves as reporters were turned away by the police. Officers blocked views of independent witnesses by holding blue tarps around the area where the defendants were arrested. The RCMP used the injunction to restrict journalists’ access to the Fairy Creek site, which is public land that should, theoretically, remain open to the public under the terms of the injunction.
At the end of July, the B.C. Supreme Court granted a request to modify the injunction in place, which had been sought by the Canadian Association of Journalists (CAJ), in concert with a coalition of news organizations and groups fighting for press freedom. The modification added a clause instructing the RCMP not to interfere with media access unless there is a legitimate operational reason for doing so.
The role of the media was highlighted again in the most recent court ruling.
“The RCMP will be reminded by the presence of additional language to keep in mind the media’s special role in a free and democratic society, and the necessity of avoiding undue and unnecessary interference with the journalistic function,” said Justice Douglas Thompson.
It’s a much needed victory for press freedom and reaffirms journalists’ right to report important stories, even when a court order is in place. This is a good thing: the fight over Fairy Creek is far from over, confrontation may very well flare again, and B.C. needs independent media monitoring and reporting on the situation.