‘Blatantly unjust’: Poet, climate activist jailed over TMX protest speaks out from prison

A respected writer, professor and activist has been jailed over her peaceful protest against the Trans Mountain pipeline.

On Aug. 16 Rita Wong was sentenced to 28 days in prison for breaking an injunction in Burnaby, B.C. intended to keep protestors away from pipeline infrastructure.

Wong says the incarceration of her and another water protector, nurse and labour activist Will Offley, is unjust, and that the two were forced to break the injunction in order to prevent further harm to people and the planet from climate change.

“It’s blatantly unjust in my opinion,” Wong told APTN News on Sunday during a phone interview from the Alouette Women’s Correctional Centre in Maple Ridge, B.C.

“But I hope it draws attention to people that we live in systems that are unfair and unjust, and that are not prioritized around the things we need to be focused on, which is protecting the land and water,” she said.

“These colonial governments are doing a dismal job — like, they’re failing at protecting the lands and waters. So it’s up to people to do that.”

Wong was arrested Aug. 24, 2018 while in prayer and ceremony, she wrote in a statement published by freedom of expression advocate PEN Canada following her incarceration.

“I did this because we’re in a climate emergency, and since the Federal government has abdicated its responsibility to protect us despite full knowledge of the emergency, it became necessary to act,” she wrote. “We are in imminent peril if we consider the rate of change we are currently experiencing from a geological perspective – we are losing species at an alarming rate and facing mass extinction due to the climate crisis that humans have caused. This is the irreparable harm I sought to prevent, which the court, the Crown, and corporations also have a responsibility to prevent.

“Everyone has the responsibility to respond to this crisis,” Wong continued in her statement. “We are on the global equivalent of the Titanic, and this industrialized ship needs to change direction. We also need to build life boats, healthy places that can support resilience in the future, such as the sacred Salish Sea.”

Wong is an award-winning poet and an Associate Professor of Critical and Cultural Studies at Emily Carr University of Art and Design in Vancouver.

On the morning of her arrest she and others hung red dresses to honour missing and murdered Indigenous women, who Wong and others argue will be put even more at risk when remote workers’ accommodation sites — or man camps — are staffed with mostly men working along the pipeline route.

A protest and reoccupation of traditional lands is still underway in Blue River, B.C., where members of the Secwepemc Women’s Warrior Society and Tiny House Warriors continue to occupy a camp adjacent to the future site of a Trans Mountain workers’ camp.

Wong told Justice Kenneth Affleck of the B.C. Supreme Court — the same judge who approved previous pipeline owner Kinder Morgan’s injunction application — that she and the three others appearing at the Aug. 16 sentencing that they tried to respect the justice system.

But that, ultimately, the justice system’s version of the rule of law is incomplete.

“Natural law and Indigenous law rely on mutual aid and cooperation, qualities that require maturity and a deep love for one’s community, recognizing that we are all equal,” she said. “It is a rule of law that works primarily from a place of love and respect, not from fear of authority and punishment.

“This is the aspect of rule of law that has moved the hearts and spirits of the thousands of people who’ve shown up to care for the land and waters of this place. Such an understanding of rule of law, as coming from a place of love and courage more than fear, could strengthen our sense of democracy. It could make our commitment to reconciliation a sincere one.

“We can all learn from natural law and Coast Salish law that we have a reciprocal relationship with the land; and that we all have a responsibility to care for the land’s health, which is ultimately our health too.”

Offley also made a case to Justice Affleck that the activists’ motives and the greater context of the global climate emergency should be taken into account for their sentencing.

“The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s October 2018 report raised the alarm that in order to have any chance of avoiding a 2 degree Celsius rise in average global temperatures by the end of the century, greenhouse gas emissions need to be cut 35 per cent by 2030, and to net zero emissions by 2050, the blink of an eye in geological time,” he said.

“This will require an enormous retooling of our economy, our social and environmental priorities, and a unified effort on a scale only previously seen at the start of the Second World War.

“The good news is that the IPCC tells us the scientific and technological capacity exists to make such an effort possible. The bad news is that almost without exception governments have been refusing to make this effort.”

The IPCC’s 12-year deadline to curb greenhouse gas emissions was recently challenged by some climate scientists, who say global emissions must peek in 2020 and begin a steep decline from there.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Environment and Climate Change Minister Catherine McKenna have both repeatedly said that expanding the oil sands is necessary as part of the transition away from fossil fuels.

Wong pointed to the students who have been walking out of classes on Friday, and the grassroots-led push for a Green New Deal in Canada, as evidence the Trans Mountain pipeline isn’t a done deal.

She thinks Canada selling the pipeline to Indigenous communities and stakeholders is a “farce,” explaining it’s a risk private investors don’t want to take because the project could end up as a stranded asset pending further opposition in the courts or on the ground.

“It’s a tragedy to think that the people who’ve just been the most exploited by this thing would then be financially responsible for it. It just makes me want to cry,” she said.

Wong told APTN she may be released early for good behaviour, and that she hopes to be out in time to teach her university classes when the semester begins Sept. 3. If not, she said faculty members have offered to cover for her until she’s free.

Speaking to Justice Affleck, according to her statement, Wong told the judge that “to speak the truth is not to show contempt, but to hold those in power accountable for failing to protect us and for instead knowingly choosing to inflict systemic harm and violence upon us and upon the land and waters that give us life.

“I pray that the urgency of the climate crisis and our responsibilities to be good relatives living on Coast Salish lands, under Coast Salish laws, will help to guide this justice system as it encounters land defenders. As land and water defenders, we do what we do for everyone’s sake.”

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4 thoughts on “‘Blatantly unjust’: Poet, climate activist jailed over TMX protest speaks out from prison

  1. Re: “The IPCC’s 12-year deadline to curb greenhouse gas emissions was recently challenged by some climate scientists, who say global emissions must peak in 2020 and begin a steep decline from there.”

    The IPCC’s 2018 1.5ºC Special Report didn’t give a 12-year “deadline.” It explained, as you said, that in order to not blow past a temperature increase limit of 1.5ºC, “global emissions must peak in 2020 and begin a steep decline from there.” They also said that to remain on track for the goal of remaining below 1.5ºC, we must then lower our global emissions by 50% (from 2005 levels, I believe) by 2030, and then be at virtually zero emissions by mid-century.

    It was unfortunate that when people grasped onto the 2030 “deadline,” they missed the most important part: getting emissions into steep decline by next year or we won’t be able to meet that “deadline.”

  2. it’s incredibly disgusting the way that that judge refused to hear the over 200 people who were arrested for protesting the TMX expansion in Burnaby. I attended Rita Wong’s sentencing, and he listened for over 6 hours and he didn’t hear a single word of it. Rita Wong is a university professor and a poet, she isn’t a criminal. During that sentencing, 4 other people were punished for taking part in a peaceful protest. One was a 70+ year old trauma nurse, there was a pastor who services the downtown eastside, a journalist, and a man who has dedicated his life to community service to the most amazing degree. All of these bright, kind, selfless people were punished by a judge and a system that values looking good over the country we live in. Criminal contempt of court is just code for “they won’t do what I told them to”, and it hurt to hear how each accused were forced to include “it wasn’t my intention to undermine this court” in each of their beautiful addresses.
    The mistreatment of these amazing people should be criminal.

  3. What can be unjust about being arrested for breaking the law! What utter nonsense.

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