Opponents of old-growth logging on Vancouver Island are alleging RCMP used excessive force amid rising tensions near the disputed Fairy Creek watershed.
The RCMP says one protester and one police officer were injured on Saturday while arrests were being made on a road leading into the area. A total of 33 people were arrested on Saturday.
“Early in the day, police were met by individuals who were blocking the roadway and in locking devices attached to an industry gate,” Mounties said in a media release.
“There was pushing and shoving and OC spray was deployed when the crowd failed to comply with police directions and became aggressive.”
Demonstrators describe the altercation differently and allege police indiscriminately targeted peaceful protesters with pepper spray.
Kathleen Code, spokesperson for the protest group Rainforest Flying Squad, said demonstrators had formed a human “blob” in the road when it happened.
“People linked arms and stood peacefully and chanted and sang and were obstructing nothing when the RCMP came and decided then that they were going to disperse them by any means whatsoever,” she said.
“There was no aggression. People were determined to stand their ground peacefully in song and in drumming. But it was the RCMP who decided to attack and to attempt to take out protesters one by one, dragging them on the ground, cutting off their backpacks, you know, leaning on them full body so that they couldn’t move.”
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Protesters claim that one person was sprayed in their mouth, while another was sprayed in their private parts.
Video shot by demonstrators shows officers attempting to pull protesters from the “blob” one at a time, before deploying multiple canisters of pepper spray on the group.
Police can be seen dragging demonstrators across the grown, and in one case, an officer appears to punch a man on the ground.
Shiloh Underwood, who is Coast Salish, returned to the site Saturday after she says she suffered a broken foot while being arrested on Friday.
“The force that’s been used within the last few weeks has been unprecedented,” she said.
Underwood said the incident wouldn’t stop her from returning to the blockades.
“We don’t have a choice,” she said.
“You know, a lot of our settler supporters there have a choice to leave and go home. That is our home … this is our last chance to protect our ancestral homeland and I can’t just leave.”
Police say they later removed multiple obstacles including a “tripod-like structure” amounting to 7,500 pounds of material from the forestry road, where they arrested three other people.
The RCMP did not respond to questions from Global News about the decision to deploy pepper spray or about allegations of excessive force.
Police have been in the area enforcing a BC Supreme Court injunction barring protesters from blocking work by logging company Teal Jones since May.
A total of 740 people have been arrested in the area since the start of that enforcement, according to police.
In June, the B.C. government approved the request of three Vancouver Island First Nations and deferred logging of about 2,000 hectares of old-growth forest in the Fairy Creek and central Walbran areas for two years, but the protests are continuing.
The Rainforest Flying Squad says very little of the best old-growth forest remains in B.C., and the deferrals fall short of protecting what’s left.
-With files from the Canadian Press