Protesters at the Fairy Creek logging blockade are taking logging company Teal-Jones to court alleging their vehicles are being illegally impounded, while fees of more than $2,500 are levied for their return.
The lawsuit, filed on June 21, says Teal-Jones was towing vehicles that were not obstructing the forest service roads, and they had no lawful authority to demand the payments.
Though Surrey-based Teal-Jones was granted an injunction by the B.C. Supreme Court on April 1 that forbade protesters from blocking access to roads and company activity, the protesters' lawsuit says the injunction did not give the company authorization to impound vehicles.
Protesters also claim their personal possessions went missing or were damaged after their vehicles were impounded, in what they charge are escalating tactics by Teal-Jones and the RCMP at the long-running blockade.
"It was something akin to extortion to hold, to demand money, for the return of the vehicle," said Noah Ross, a lawyer for the activist coalition Rainforest Flying Squad, which filed the civil suit in B.C.'s small claims court.
Ross says more than 40 vehicles have been impounded in this way, and they were all taken to a private lot away from the Fairy Creek exclusion zone, in the town of Cowichan Lake.
A spokesperson for Teal-Jones says the impounded vehicles were illegally parked.
"Teal-Jones has contracted a towing company to remove vehicles illegally parked in direct contravention of the injunction. Those vehicles identified by RCMP as being illegally parked are being removed," said the Teal-Jones spokesperson.
"The cost of retrieving vehicles reflects the expense of towing vehicles out of a remote area, storage and security, and the damage done to Teal-Jones. The vehicles are not opened, but returned in the condition in which they were found."
The Rainforest Flying Squad sent to CBC News a copy of a notice it says is posted at Fairy Creek, which says Teal-Jones has the right to seize personal effects within vehicles.
The notice goes on to say the effects may be returned "as a gesture of good faith."
The first court date for the lawsuit is on Oct. 8, and Ross says he expects a trial date in early 2022 with multiple other claimants coming forward.
One of the vehicles impounded by Teal-Jones belonged to tree planter Corey Henderson, who had both his truck and camper trailer towed, according to his mother Heather Henderson.
Corey Henderson, 25, is currently working out of cell range and could not be reached for comment.
Heather Henderson says her son was arrested by RCMP at the blockade a month ago and released without charge. When he returned, he found his vehicle missing and called RCMP to report it stolen. They subsequently directed him to a private number, which he called and was then told he needed to pay $2,500 to get his truck back.
According to Henderson, the person on the other end of the line said the camper trailer, with all of Corey's possessions, would cost an additional $2,500 to get back.
"He had spent all his money from tree planting to buy his truck and camper trailer, and he was going to live in that and live a more simple life," said Henderson.
"But now his life has been taken. All his money went into that and he doesn't have it."
Heather Henderson paid Teal-Jones $2,500 to get Corey's truck back, according to credit card receipts shared with CBC News, but she says the camper trailer remains in the company's possession.
"The RCMP has not seized any vehicles during the enforcement of the Supreme Court injunction," said Sgt. Chris Manseau in a statement to CBC News.
"As far as I'm aware, the only items that have been seized from any vehicles by the RCMP are items that could be used as a means of obstructing or impeding industry, [for example] bags of cement, rebar."
Carole Tootill, a protester at the blockade, believes the RCMP is working in conjunction with Teal-Jones.
"It's incredible. Teal and the police are working very closely on this [impounding]," she said.
Tootill believes the seizing of vehicles, and possessions allegedly being damaged, are part of "escalating" tactics ahead of the logging injunction expiring on Sept. 26.