Protesters blocking a developer from cutting a Winnipeg forest have pledged to face criminal charges if necessary to save the trees.
"We're going to maintain this until we're either arrested or a moratorium is placed on clearcutting the trees," said Jenna Vandal, an organizer of the demonstrators that set up camp on Friday.
Members of the Parker Wetlands Conservation Committee rallied at the 42-acre site in Fort Garry when they noticed a large swath of trees had been cut to make way for a residential real estate development by Gem Equities Inc., the land's legal landowners. As of Monday afternoon, two tents were pitched in the path of tree-clearing machinery, including a mulcher and a brush cutter. About 20 protesters have been at the wetlands each day.
In 2009, Gem acquired the land in what many regard as a controversial landswap with the City of Winnipeg. Gem's Andrew Marquess told the Free Press in June there weren't plans to remove trees on the wetlands until the company reached an agreement with the City on potential naturalized, protected greenspace locations. Last week, Marquess maintained Gem has the right, as private land owner, to clear trees from the site, although "clearing trees is not beginning development of the site."
Marquess added development wouldn't begin until the city approved the development plan.
Before demonstrations began, Marquess said he didn't know exactly the area of the trees which had been cleared. One site worker confirmed 14.8 acres -- over one third of the total area of the wetlands -- had been cleared so far.
On the deforested plot, where thousands of trees once stood, only eight remain, surrounded by scattered bushes, mulch and a vast expanse of wood chips barely thicker than toothpicks. The strong scent of the wetlands was even more prominent than usual, as the wood dried out under the intense July sun.
"There's silence. No sounds. No life," as protester Laura Pearson put it.
The siteworker couldn't say why the eight trees were left, though Dirk Hoeppner, the president of the Green Party of Manitoba, speculates the machinery there wasn't strong enough to take down the trees, which are thicker than ones already cut down.
Hoeppner noted the area's diverse flora and fauna including aspen trees, whitetail deer, foxes, owls and several species of plants not commonly found in Winnipeg.
Last week, Parker Wetlands Conservation Committee co-chair Cal Dueck told the Free Press the nest of a Cooper's hawk was destroyed, however he wrote in a later email that his information was factually inaccurate; the nest was still intact.
"I apologize for any possible inference of neglect or misconduct on the part of the developer, Mr. Marques (sic), in relation to the hawks," Dueck wrote. Dueck mentioned the destruction seriously impacted other insects, animals and plants in the area.
"The false statement on behalf of Mr. Dueck was purposeful for his group as it accused me of doing something which never occurred," Marquess wrote to the Free Press in response.
Aside from the site's ecological significance, Vandal, who is Métis, says the site is close to the former site of Rooster Town, a Métis settlement which disappeared as Winnipeg developed in the mid-20th century.
Vandal, the daughter of St. Boniface-St. Vital MP Dan Vandal, believes before any further work occurs on the site, First Nations and Métis people must be consulted.
"I will defend this land that cared for my Indigenous ancestors," Vandal wrote in a Facebook post.
Vandal says she's contacted the Manitoba Métis Federation (MMF) and will be reaching out to the Treaty Land Entitlement Committee of Manitoba (TLEC) as the protest continues.
"This is a contentious and sensitive area when it comes to Indigenous rights," she added. Hoeppner believes there is legal precedent to fight the development, and the group is currently consulting with lawyers to prevent further destruction. However, a spokesman for the province's department of sustainable development said there were "no permissions" required from that office for bulldozing.
Hoeppner and Vandal say police respectfully visited the site each day since protests began. The site worker, who wouldn't give his name, confirmed crews had called police to remove the group for trespassing. He also asked a reporter to leave the wetlands Thursday.
"We are frustrated with the apparent inability of the Winnipeg Police Service to enforce private land owner property rights," he said. "We have contacted the police numerous times since Friday when this began and asked them to remove the trespassers from private property, and they are doing nothing."
Vandal and other demonstrators shared a statement Thursday with a list of provisional demands, namely city consultation with the MMF, TLEC and other Indigenous groups, along with an invitation for others to join the protest or bring supplies.
Since the protestors set up camp Friday morning, no more work has been done on the site.