"A Crime Against Nature"
By mid-day on Mar. 1, the protest known as the Occupy Gatineau Park movement was effectively quashed by authorities. Tree sitters and their supporters, as part of the group A5X, were arrested for trying to protect the old growth forest near Wakefield, Quebec. Several were taken to hospital for hypothermia.
On Feb. 22, activists climbed trees in a last ditch act of civil disobedience to block the government’s proposed extension of Autoroute 5. On Feb. 27, the Quebec Ministry of Transportation (MTQ) obtained an injunction barring the public from setting foot within the area slated for cutting.
Nine arrestees face charges that include disobeying an order of court and mischief.
“The brave young people who were in those trees were driven to this because all legal channels have been pursued and nobody has listened to us,” said A5X spokesperson Anne Winship. “This is a crime against nature.”
She continued, “In a so-called democratic country, that it should come to a handful of people to stop such a wrong project is just tragic.”
A5X is encouraging their supporters to contact Premier Charest and Quebec Minister of Transport Norman MacMillan to demand a moratorium.
The $61 million contract for the project was awarded to Couillard Construction Limitée on Feb. 2, with the green light from the MTQ.The clear cutting will affect 88 acres of old growth forest.
“It’s an important area ecologically, and we know that it’s an important part of the Gatineau Park,” said Winship. “They haven’t finished all the cutting yet, but there’s certainly some big gashes there.”
A5X has been present at the clear cutting site since early January. They established an incident command post, a homebase for activists located nearby the occupied area.
Following the MTQ injunction, police would shine bright lights at the protesters, using the technique of sleep deprivation to frustrate the treetop occupation. As they came down, they were promptly arrested.
Others gathered at the incident command post to show their support for the sitters. Three were arrested after crossing police lines.
“We’d get as close as we could and start shouting support for the tree sitters, and they’d [police] tell us, ‘If you are encouraging them, we can charge you with mischief,’ so we had to just start making noises to tell them that we’re still here on the ground,” protester Kevin Donaghy told the Leveller.
Tensions between the protesters and the developers continued to mount. “We were shouting and trying to get the folks in the trees’ attention to let them know we weren’t being let in,” said Donaghy.
One protester threw a snowball at a nearby bulldozer. “He took his bulldozer and pushed all of the trees right into us, we had to jump literally off the side of the road in order to avoid getting the tops of these trees hitting us in the face. We couldn’t believe it.”
The group questions the environmental impact of the project. They are concerned that the development plans, which include blasting a rock feature known as Wakefield Mountain, may threaten several aquifers, as well as the 5000 people who draw on the Wakefield Spring.
“There was a screening report done, and the local residents were promised that their well issues would be handled and completed before any clearing or cutting was done,” said A5X’s Bettina Koschade. They believe this promise was not fulfilled.
The group is calling for a moratorium on the project until this and other issues of public accountability can be addressed. “We’re requesting a public consultation, as the last public consultation on the issue happened 25 years ago,” said Koschade.
In a press release, Sierra Club Canada claims that while the province offered limited opportunities for public comment online, the project’s original environmental assessment has been called into question by scientific experts who consider it flawed and outdated.
Despite these issues, the government says the development must go ahead to address safety concerns raised by accidents along Highway 105, the road that currently passes through the area.
A5X is not necessarily opposed to a new highway, but takes issue with its blueprint and implementation. “The design is also 25 years old, so it’s a design from 1987 that is just not acceptable today,” said Koschade. “We could create something really forward-thinking and modern that’s low impact.”
While the protests have ended, Winship believes that their actions were not all for naught. “It’s very sad to see our beautiful village just look so destroyed. We hope that in the future, that at least what we’ve done will help things be done in a more environmental way.”
“Hopefully the message will be out there in the future, to consult with the people and try to get an environmental assessment plan that’s half decent,” she said.
Still, “It really just seems like the whole environmental assessment is just a rubber stamping process.”
The weekend after the arrests, Winship and a handful of others held a small ceremony near the affected area. “We sort of went and tried to come to peace with the stuff that’s happened and check in with the land.”
This article first appeared in the Leveller, Vol. 4, No. 6.