Courage of their Convictions
Four Canal Rd Tree Protesters Face Their Day in Court
by John Subritzky
The four protesters arrested at Canal Rd avoided criminal sentences at their hearing in Auckland District Court on 26 October. Mana Rākau protesters Zane Wedding, Hanna Luypers, and Trav Mischewski were all offered diversions. Steve Abel wasn’t eligible for one as he's already had diversion before.
The Canal Road protest saw a continuous occupation and protest at the site from July 2020 to March 2021. This was covered by Beacon Community News at the time. The amazing forest was planted by Walter Burgess. Nicknamed “Old Burgie”, wood and trees were Walter’s lifelong passion. He decided to plant his own arboretum on his half acre paradise, likely in the late 1920s to 30s. At a time when a lot of native forest was being clear felled across the country, Walter decided to plant indigenous trees. He carved the tree names in Latin and te reo Maori on wooden plaques and used his growing forest as an educational aid. Of the 46 trees that remained, there were seventeen different species, including black maire, puriri, rimu, titoki, totara, whau, and pohutukawa.
In 1961 the Burgess property was sold to Merv Raymond. After he was deceased, his family decided to sell the three lots they owned. Auckland Council passed up the opportunity to buy this unique forest for a reserve, so the Raymond’s reached a deal with property developer Paul Macy, conditional on the trees being removed first. Despite numerous attempts to negotiate a settlement between the parties, Macy refused to engage with the protestors.
Ironically, after the trees were felled and the protests abandoned, they did get the opportunity to talk when the protesters asked for access to the fallen timber to take to marae for carving. Some beautiful pieces have already been created from the wood. At that stage perhaps Paul Macy realised that it could have all been handled differently to achieve an outcome that was a win for all parties.
Zane says that despite the consequences, he stood by his protest action. he felt his arm snap when he was held down by security. "In that cell, I knew my arm was broken," he said. "My back couldn't stop spasming from the beating. When that subsided, I felt warm. There is no better way to honour my tūpuna than to fight for whenua. I actually felt proud to be locked in that cell," Zane said. "In that moment, my wairua, it just felt so full." Zane was unable to work as an arborist for six months after his arrest due to his injuries. As a highly rated tree climber, he was also unable to enter the annual tree climbing competition which he usually competes in. The course at Manukau Institute of Technology that he used to lecture at also no longer exists. He is almost outside the arboriculture industry now, so before he got to court, Zane had already paid a heavy price for his protest.
Confusingly, Steve was arrested early on in the 245-day Canal Rd protest, but he was in court on charges from his protest at Western Springs Forest. The common denominator is that both times he was protesting by sitting high up in trees. At Canal Rd, he was arrested after a dramatic tree felling operation saw a rewarewa tree felled so that it collided with the puriri tree that Steve was occupying. Video of the event shows two police who had been below the pururi running for their lives as the rewarewa fell towards them. At Western Springs Forest, Steve was occupying a karo tree.
Judge Fraser said that he thought "we were beyond a pure conviction and discharge" due to Steve’s previous offending. "A diversion, suspended sentence and now a discharge without conviction, how does that work?" Judge Fraser asked.
Steve’s lawyer tried to explain the circumstances. The Police were neutral on pressing for a conviction. With Judge Fraser struggling to see a pathway forward, in an unusual move, Steve asked if he could address the court.
He explained that the process of getting to the point of felling the pines at Western Springs had taken many years. Along the way, new scientific evidence had been found but it was too late to be considered. Steve had made presentations to the Waitematā Local Board opposing the felling. He had taken every reasonable step available to him. It was only when contractors arrived and started felling 25-year-old pohutakawa and kauri trees to create a logging road, that he was tipped over the edge to direct protest action. He described the regenerating native forest under the pine canopy as a “magical, ecologically rich environment” that had contained 15,000 plants. After the pines were felled, destroying most of the native understory, the forest had been replaced with only 7,000 plants similar to a motorway landscaping job, according to Steve.
Judge Fraser took into account the community push back against the felling, and letters of support and references. This included a letter from Sarah Trottman who was a member of the Waitemata Local Board at the time. She had been arrested in the forest for protesting by sitting on a digger, accompanied by an elderly woman.
Judge Fraser said that he was not unsympathetic. "Despite the fact you have been breaching the law, in my view you have been publicly responsible," he said, as he discharged Steve without conviction and apologised to Steve for the inconvenience of having to come into court that day. The crowd packing the court broke out into cheers and clapping as the discharge was announced.
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