By Luke Arbuckle
Oct. 29, 2012
In the hills of Bonshaw, just off one of P.E.I.’s busiest sections of the Trans-Canada Highway about 15 or 20 minutes from Charlottetown, is a site unlike anything the Island has seen before.
A group of people trying to preventing a provincial government highway project from moving forward were gathered in protest.
The Trans-Canada highway realignment in Churchill is the first major improvement to the Trans-Canada. The existing 6.1 kilometre section will be replaced with a 5.8-kilometre road at a cost of $20 million. The province is responsible for $12 million while the federal government is paying the remaining $8 million through the Atlantic Gateway project.
Parts of a six kilometre-long orange fence peek out from behind the tree line along the highway.
The RCMP ordered the fence erected to deal with safety concerns.
On the right, just past the bright orange fence, is Peter’s Road. The dirt road is cut from the soft Island soil and much of the canopy above has grown over, giving the impression of driving through a tunnel. The leaves on the trees have begun to turn different shades of green, yellow, orange and brown.
A kaleidoscope of earth tones on a sky-blue background.
About 10 minutes down the puddle-ridden road a string of signs appear in the ditch on the right.
“Welcome” says one.
“Stop Plan B” reads another.
The last sign on the right indicates there is a campsite in the field. The campsite, known as Camp Vision was set up on private land adjacent to the construction site when the construction first began. It has become a meeting place and ground zero for protesters and the public to meet.
A group of people around a fire is immediately visible through the thin brush between the campsite and the parking area. They are here trying to stop Plan B.
They take turns telling stories, playing songs or critiquing government decisions.
Earlier in the day, the camp was visited by members of a Mi’kmaq Warrior Society from Cape Breton who heard about Plan B and were concerned about the area’s stand of hemlock trees. Mi’kmaq elder Ginny Marshall was among them.
“We’ve just arrived to look into the situation, see what’s going on and do a basic assessment,” she said.
“We make medicines and use them in sacred rituals, cutting them down this way is wrong and we want to know exactly what is happening here.”
“These trees are important to our people.”
Downhill from the main fire, through a field and down the hill toward the stream, more orange fence is visible against the tree line. Two private security personnel stand watch over the fence.
The chatter of their walkie-talkies increases as a small group of protesters and media descend the hill towards them.
“We’ve got activity near the base camp,” says one of the guards.
One security guard addresses the group. He can’t answer any of their questions and recommends for the group’s safety, they stay out of the woods, he says.
The group stands around talking. They wonder where the rest of the protesters are and what would be the consequences of disobeying the security guard. Several members of the group prepare to return to the main camp seeking advice when several figures emerge from the woods.
“It’s safe to go in that way,” said one walking out of the woods. They point to a small path just outside the fence.
“Security told us we’re not allowed,” a member of the group responded.
“You’re in public land anywhere outside that fence,” another replied.
The group follows directions to a path in the woods just outside the fence. The muddy trail goes down an embankment, through a forested area and towards a stream.
There is an absence of typical forest sounds, no chirping birds. Handmade signs and blankets tied to large trees offer messages on the importance of forest ecology and condemn Plan B.
As the group neared the stream, the sound of crisp fall leaves blowing in the trees was replaced by the low rumbling groan of heavy machinery. They knew they were getting close.
Only a few muddy steps later the forest opened up to the empty expanse beyond. There had been more forest here, but all that remained were stacks of felled trees waiting to be cut up and carried off.
The sound of the running stream was replaced by the splintering sound of trees being cut.
Inside the fence, another group were gathered around a slowly rising plume of thick, grey smoke.
They were angry and intent on doing anything within the law – aside from trespassing – to make a stand for their beliefs and what remained of the forest.
(A few days earlier, several protesters were detained by RCMP and charged with trespassing after being found inside the fence line. Two Green Party leaders were among the five people served papers for trespassing.)
Darcie Lanthier, the Green Party’s interim leader, was among those charged after RCMP removed her from the property, charging her with mischief and resisting arrest. Of the five people charged, all but Lanthier’s have been dropped.
“I’m the only one with charges remaining,” she said in a later interview.
“I’m not sure why all the other charges were dropped. Maybe the police are just trying to make a point, but it certainly doesn’t feel very fair to me.”
The groups gathered around the small fire by the stream and discussed what each could do to help. Some were asked to collect samples of what appeared to be an oil-like substance collecting on the surface of the stream.
Others took photo and video footage of the large machines making their way into the valley, slowly descending towards the fire, cutting and collecting the fallen lumber as they moved.
The group has been keeping their eyes on the environmental impact of the project, hoping to discover evidence of adverse effects on the waterway. If any such evidence could be found, it might halt the project, at least temporarily.
One protester was upset about the amount of fill the project will require to level out the valley.
“They are going to fill this whole area with 30 metres of dirt,” he said. “Any trees not cut down will be covered up.”
A few members set off up the hill to meet with security personnel were making their way downhill toward the group. After a brief exchange, most of the security detail headed back up the hill. The protesters returned with news the RCMP would be arriving shortly.
Some members of the group decided to move their gathering just outside the fence line, about 15 feet away.
The machines moved nearer to the protesters, the volume of the large engines, mechanical chainsaws and shredding tree limbs, threatening to overwhelm normal conversation. The protesters were unable to speak to each other without yelling.
Before long they turned toward the hill to watch in silence as the machines descended into the valley, towards the stream, towards the fire, mulching everything in their paths.
“It’s like in Fern Gully,” hollered one member of the group. (Fern Gully was the rainforest depicted in the 1992 animated movie. The residents of Fern Gully fight against logging machines bend on harvesting the gully.)
Two security guards stood between the working machines and the protesters as the machines moved closer, cutting, stacking and quickly hauling away the lumber.
A protester arrived with news the RCMP had arrived and met with security officials, who said the situation was under control.
The sun began to set behind the trees and the temperature started to drop. Some of the protesters had come prepared to spend the night.
“We’ve been here every night since the work started,” said one of the women as she laid out her sleeping bag.
The heavy equipment finished its work for the evening, at least near the stream. The tracked machines made a metallic grinding sound as they crossed the steel bridge over the stream and headed up the opposite bank toward the main work site.
Several members of the group decided it was time to pack up and head to Charlottetown. There was little more they would be able to accomplish safely after dark.
As the group reached the top of the clear-cut hill, they looked back. They saw a smoldering fire with a couple of people left to tend it. Machines still worked on the distant, opposing hilltop.
Their worksite now lit by a dozen floodlights. Their movement echoed across the valley.