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Courts side with Kinder Morgan and sentence "sinister" seniors

Lisa Descary

August 3, 2018

“Your Honour, I have lived my 70 years abiding by the law. But, if we look back into our history, there have been many times when our laws have supported injustices. In the 18th century there were laws that supported child labour to the benefit of the Industrialists of the times. In the 19th century, laws were created to support the ownership of Black people to the benefit of Plantation Owners. In the 20th century, we made laws that allowed us to take Native children away from their parents and to place the rest of the family on reserves, to the benefit of Europeans that wanted their land….All of those laws were created through the judicial system- that you are a part of, sir – but they were actually designed by influential people behind the scenes that would profit from them…Our judicial system is still being manipulated by rich and powerful people that have the influence to make our legal system work for them. I truly believe that when we have laws that support injustices, it is the duty of all good men and women to stand up and challenge those laws.”

Last week in a Vancouver courtroom Laurie Embree gave that statement to judge Kennedy, and a packed gallery of supporters, before the judge sentenced her to one week in jail for blocking the gates to the Kinder Morgan Terminal in Burnaby. To date there have been 214 Water Protectors arrested for peacefully protesting the Kinder Morgan pipeline expansion, but Laurie was among the first to receive jail time rather than fines or community service hours as punishment. Those appearing in court this time included COPE City Council candidate Jean Swanson, past president of the BCTF Susan Lambert, and several others, many of them senior citizens, and most with no prior record of arrest.

These 214 arrestees are part of a larger number, now more than 25 000 people, who have joined UBCIC Grand Chief Stewart Phillip in taking the Coast Protectors’ pledge; "With our voice, in the courts or the streets, on the water or the land. Whatever it takes, we will stop the Canada/Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline and tanker project."

Climate justice activists have also noted that it seems very undemocratic for the sentences levied against those who block Kinder Morgan’s gates to receive ever more severe sentences for the same offence, despite it being each protester's first time breaking the law. The crown counsel addressed this issue in his comments to the court, and his explanation makes it even more clear which side the courts are on.

Colonial and capitalist courts

Counsel referred to trials in the 1990s of over 1000 protesters arrested for blockading old growth forest in Clayoquot Sound, where the judge argued that jail sentences were required to prevent people from “disrespecting the authority of the court” and to prevent “anarchy” and “an excess of lawlessness” from taking hold. When the crown’s lawyer stated, “Canada is a country founded on the rule of law,” one of the activists seated in the gallery yelled out in response, “like stealing land from Native people?”

The crown also remarked that many of the arrested are over 60 years old, and stated that this section of society, seniors, “must be deterred” from defying the law, a comment which was met with laughter from those of us in the spectator’s gallery. His comment that “this type of large scale disobedience is a particularly sinister challenge to the court’s authority” also elicited some snickering from us.

Judge Kennedy echoed these sentiments in his final comments, explaining to the two women being sentenced that day that while it was “regrettable” that he had to apply prison sentences, it was important to punish people who were in contempt of court to deter others, and “protect the rule of law.”

Canada’s courts consistently side with Kinder Morgan against the environment—levying $5000 in fines against protesters, while merely $920 against Kinder Morgan for its use of illegal mats to prevent endangered salmon spawning in streams along its proposed pipeline expansion route—a reflection of how much this particular pipeline, and corporations in general, rely on the Canadian state.

Only under capitalism could the judicial system be willfully ignorant of basic climate science and Indigenous sovereignty, protecting a planet-killing pipeline and the needs of petrochemical companies rather than of those of the vast majority of people, including those Nations who have been environmental stewards for tens of thousands of years.

The movement will not be stopped

Fortunately, the movement to oppose the pipeline expansion is both too determined and too large to be deterred by jail sentences. The indigenous-led coalition, Protect the Inlet, made a point showing that Water Protectors will not be swayed by the risk of jail time. They organized another protest at the Burnaby site the very next day, where another pair of protesters were arrested, and they and a much larger number of activists were able to delay Kinder Morgan’s construction crew for several hours.

The judge may also have unwittingly opened the door to more defiance by those of us who thought that our full-time jobs would prevent us from risking jail time. Judge Kennedy was clear that the court would accommodate arrestees’ work schedules by allowing sentences to be served intermittently; i.e. one weekend at a time, as Water Protector Constance Lasheras chose to do. So now, those “sinister seniors” with time on their hands don’t have be the only ones sitting down to block pipeline construction. They can be joined by any number of us who are willing to spend a few weekends in the Big House!

Given what’s at stake, I’ll bet that a fair number of the 25,000 of those who signed the Coast Protectors’ pledge might be willing to go to jail for climate justice. Numbers matter, and mass civil disobedience of thousands at a time could force this government to back down.


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