Does our right to protest include stopping others from carrying out their lawful activities, such as access to work in order to make a living and support one’s family?
If you follow the news, no doubt you have heard of Fairy Creek and of the thousands of protestors taking turns blockading loggers from their work site to harvest trees, and of the hundreds who have been arrested by the RCMP during this so-called protest.
Fairy Creek is, by all accounts, nothing special when compared to the entirety of the B.C. coast, or even Vancouver Island in itself. Fairy Creek is one of hundreds, if not thousands of small, tree-growing watersheds on Vancouver Island, part of a First Nations’ traditional territory, part of a Tree Farm License (TFL) that allows for timber harvesting, and an area that still has some of its original forest remaining (original meaning that it hasn’t been harvest before). It is also an area that the last land use planning exercise designated as a timber harvesting area.
Fairy Creek is also ground zero for those who wish to see all “old growth” logging stopped in B.C. - old growth being defined as trees over 250 years on the coast, 140 in the interior.
A year ago, a teenager in Washington State initiated this protest when he noticed new road construction via online satellite photos and subsequently posted that this activity was occurring near designated old growth protected areas.
Looking for a new cause célèbre in B.C.’s decades old logging debate, environmental activists swung into action and quickly established blockades at this site. Since then, an ever-changing mob of enthusiasts have maintained blockades preventing the owner of TFL 46, Teal-Jones Group, from building roads or harvesting trees.
Tired of the protests, Teal-Jones applied for an injunction against the blockaders and was granted one on April 1 of this year. With the injunction in hand, RCMP began making arrests to allow work to continue.
As of late June, more 300 persons had been arrested, including several for multiple and re-occurring offences. Most of those arrested are booked and then released to go home, with promises to appear in court at a later date and to not participate in any further blockades as per the injunction. Recently it was reported that two persons had been jailed for a second offence and are now being held in custody until they can appear before the B.C. Supreme Court in Nanaimo at some future date.
Although I could write in defence of the need to continue logging old-growth forests, that isn’t the purpose of this column. Rather, this is about our ability, or more succinctly, our society and government’s inability to properly and effectively address “activists” who knowingly and willingly break the law to achieve their own objectives, despite society saying differently.
Canada has a longstanding tradition of allowing peaceful protests, one that is enshrined in Section 2 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. This guarantees we all have the freedom of expression, freedom of association, and the freedom of peaceful assembly.
Over the years, the limitations imposed on our right of peaceful assembly and expression has slowly gravitated further and further away from its original intention, from one that allowed us to say what we wish (within bounds), and to publicly demonstrate in support, or against, whatever cause one believes in, to what we now have today.
Today, and to some, this right now means they can interfere and harass others with impunity. Fairy Creek is just one example where activist protesters believe they can act with impunity and prevent others from their right to assemble and associate, this being for their work. It also now means that, should they be arrested, the penalties will be so minuscule that they are essentially without meaning – our judicial system now views these protestors as minor nuisances and treats them as such.
This all needs to change. Once a court injunction has been granted that prohibits one from assembling in specific places and circumstances, such as a blockade or disruption of an action or service, it should have the full support of enforcement by our courts, our law enforcement, our governments, and our citizens for anyone who chooses to disobey these orders.
Obeying laws is part of maintaining a civil society. Obeying the law is an essential part of how democracy works, and if one does not like a law, then democracy says use due process to change it. Unfortunately, it currently doesn’t work as it is supposed to.
Throw up a blockade, get enough support and keep it going until government or the police get tired and give up. For those arrested, all they need to do is promise to not do it again and the courts say good enough, and lets them go with a warning. Do it again and maybe get a small fine and a warning that it could be worse. No lasting criminal record, no recompense for those who could not work or support their families, no blight on the person about future employment opportunities, and still have the ability to hold down their public sector jobs.
This is what must change, and I have some suggestions that just may work.
Anyone that knowingly breaks the law by violating a court injunction should have the full weight of the law and society dropped on them from a great height, whether that be for activists blockading loggers at Fairy Creek or blockading rail lines and highways or disruptions to private business at fish farms or pipeline construction sites.
This should include lengthy jail times (at a minimum, no shorter than those inconvenienced by the protest) and fines/restitution to make those affected whole, plus damages for the inconvenience of the protest itself. Not enough jail space? Build a new one. For the penalty, add up all the costs associated with the protest, such as policing, court services, incarceration, wage losses for workers and production losses for the businesses affected, and then divide the total cost by number of protestors and that is each person’s fine. Throw in a criminal record and then don’t let them out until paid.
Bet it wouldn’t take long before the elitists of the world stopped participating in illegal activities.
Evan Saugstad lives and writes in Fort St. John.