“Essentially you have a police state”

Fairy Creek shows the limits of checks on RCMP power

Recent weeks have seen increasing reports of police violence and misconduct at Fairy Creek. According to reporters, activists, and legal observers on the ground at the anti-logging demonstrations in southern Vancouver Island, the RCMP has been deploying force in their arrests of peaceful demonstrators.

One video taken on August 21 showed an RCMP officer ripping the Covid face masks off of two women, seconds before police unleashed pepper spray onto a crowd at close range.

“I screamed at him, asking what the heck he was doing and why’d you rip our masks off?” one of the women, Sharon Davies, tells Canadaland.

On this week’s episode of CANADALAND, we speak to people who describe violence they’ve experienced or witnessed at Fairy Creek, as well as to experts who explain the limits of the public’s ability to hold the RCMP to account:

Joseph Saunders, at Fairy Creek as an activist and medic, says he encountered a man who complained of a sore neck and who, upon examination, turned out to have a spinal injury. “The police medic did then come in, once I had said that, and yeah, examined [him] and also agreed that he needed to be taken out,” he says.

Kristy Grear, a producer and videographer with an independent film studio, says she felt compelled to break out of her documentarian role to help demonstrators shield their faces when police brought out their canisters of pepper spray. She says the RCMP threw her into some bushes and that, when she got up, she saw some particularly disturbing things.

“I watched them pick up a girl by her hair and make her open her mouth and deploy the pepper spray into her mouth,” Grear says. “I saw one officer spread the legs of a young woman and spray the pepper spray up her pants and into her genital area. I watched people be [dragged] out and choked and beaten and stepped on and kicked and punched.”

There have been allegations that Indigenous people and people of colour appear to have been specifically targeted for harassment and arrest. Others have described the police engaging in night raids, in which loud sounds and lights are used to keep people awake.

Asked if it’s standard procedure to remove someone’s mask before pepper spraying them in the face, RCMP spokesperson Chris Manseau didn’t answer. He did, however, offer a statement saying that “all of our actions since enforcement began on May 17, 2021, are well-documented, including the use of body-worn cameras.”

Speaking to Canadaland, former BC Supreme Court judge Wally Oppal is more direct in his assessment of such conduct.

Oppal, who’s led two inquiries into policing in British Columbia, says it is “obviously” wrong for an officer to rip a mask off a member of the public. “I don’t think anybody would justify that type of conduct,” he says.

At over 900 arrests, the Fairy Creek blockades have now surpassed the 1993 Clayoquot Sound conflict as the largest act of civil disobedience in Canadian history.

The Fairy Creek watershed is home to old-growth forests that have long been coveted by the logging industry. Most of the old growth on southern Vancouver Island was logged decades ago, leaving these last patches at Fairy Creek as all that remains.

In August 2020, after BC company Teal Jones had started to build roads and apply for permits to cut down the last of such trees, a small group of activists began erecting blockades to put a halt to the road-building. As the blockades grew, the company asked the BC Supreme Court for an injunction, which, along with an order for police enforcement, was granted on April 1, 2021. The RCMP began arresting people the next month.

Throughout the summer, activists used a variety of tactics to try to slow down the police, including locking themselves to trees and other objects in the forest. The RCMP responded with greater force, tearing down camps, cutting the activists out of structures, and more aggressively arresting them.

The RCMP recommends that anyone with issues about their behaviour submit a complaint. And demonstrators at Fairy Creek have been doing just that, with at least 91 having been filed to the RCMP’s watchdog body, the Civilian Review and Complaints Commission (CRCC).

But lawyer Paul Champ says that the CRCC is quite limited in its ability to actually hold the force to account.

“You make a complaint to this Civilian Review and Complaints Commission. They do an investigation and then they make a report with findings and recommendations,” he explains. “But the RCMP commissioner doesn’t have to accept any of those findings or recommendations. And if the RCMP commissioner doesn’t, then it just sits there.”

Champ is now representing the BC Civil Liberties Association in a court application to get the force to move more swiftly, so that complainants needn’t spend years waiting for the RCMP commissioner to respond to the CRCC’s reports.

The RCMP itself is responsible for the first phase of complaint reviews. And if they believe that a complaint against them falls outside their mandate to investigate it, they are able to dismiss it. Hundreds of complaints get dismissed each year.

It is when someone disagrees with the RCMP’s assessment of their complaint that it is referred to the oversight body, the CRCC.

Per figures in the CRCC’s annual reports, complaints against the RCMP have been increasing over the past few years. In 2020, the public lodged 1,647 complaints against the Mounties — 22% more than in 2019.

Champ describes the RCMP complaints process as “toothless,” compared to even those for most municipal and provincial forces in Canada, which he says “are usually far more effective” and “go far more quickly.”

The CRCC also offers no opportunities to hold individual officers accountable for misconduct.

“For example, [under] the Ontario Police Services Act, if you make a complaint, it can actually go to a full disciplinary hearing against individual officers. Individual officers can be disciplined and even fired,” Champ says. “There’s no mechanism like that at the federal level, none at all.”

Historically, the fourth estate has also served as a check on police powers, shining a light on misconduct when official processes prove ineffective.

But the RCMP has been blocking access to areas where arrests are being made, in exclusion zones far past the sightlines of reporters and photographers.

In one video shared August 24, Ora Cogan, a freelance journalist reporting for Teen Vogue, was seen arguing with an RCMP officer. According to her tweet, she’d “asked why media access was being restricted.”

“You are to be silent while doing your job, or you’re gone,” the officer is heard saying. “You are not to talk to us or engage with us. You are to be independent and quiet.”

The RCMP has also avoided responding directly to questions about their conduct at Fairy Creek, even when there is video evidence.

When spokesperson Manseau appeared on CBC Radio’s Vancouver morning show, The Early Edition, host Stephen Quinn asked about the “operational value” of an officer chasing down a man and pepper-spraying him in the face, yet another incident documented on video.

“If anybody feels that they were wronged or they want to make a complaint,” Manseau answered, “that information is there and available, and I suggest anyone who feels that they were wronged to please take that avenue.”

Earlier in the summer, the Canadian Association of Journalists and a coalition of news outlets took the Mounties to court and won. In July, the judgement came down underscoring the right of journalists to report in the area without “undue and unnecessary” police interference.

It stated that the RCMP cannot restrict media access or attempt to determine who is a journalist.

However, the precedent had already been set.

In 2019, journalist Justin Brake won in a similar case, establishing that journalists in an exclusion zone are not in violation of an injunction if reporting on issues of public interest. The same year, the CRCC found that the Mounties don’t have the authority to establish and control access to broad exclusion zones.

Oppal, the retired justice, says it will take tougher legislation to create a real civilian oversight body that can compel police to change their conduct, not one that is just advisory in nature.

“I just think that’s absolutely wrong for a police force in the 21st century, still not being amenable to independent civilian authority to examine their conduct,” he says. He describes it as akin to policing in the United States, “where there are very few, if any, independent civilian oversight bodies that have any teeth.”

“You know, if you don’t have independent oversight, essentially you have a police state,” Oppal says, “and you can’t do that in a democracy.”

Top screencap from Deanne Balas’s YouTube video “RCMP Pepper Spray Peaceful Land Defenders and Protestors.”

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