- Acting under Natural Laws
On 15 April 2019, Rita Wong, Barry Morris, Mel Lehan, Kyle Farquharson, and Will Offley stood trial in the BC Supreme Court, having been charged with criminal contempt of court for challenging an injunction and blockading the Trans Mountain Pipeline expansion on Burnaby Mountain. The five mountain defenders pleaded not guilty and invoked a “defence of necessity,” arguing that the imminent disaster of climate change, and decades of government inaction, had left them no alternative but to engage in civil disobedience.
Though the group had hoped to win a verdict that would establish a precedent in Canadian law that other climate defenders could employ in future trials, on 16 August, BC Supreme Court Justice Kenneth Affleck sentenced Wong to twenty-eight days in prison, and the four other defendants to varying sentences—100 hours of community service, fines of $1,500 and $4,500, and fourteen days in prison. The disproportionate nature of these sentences—especially given that there were no acts of violence, threats of harm, or damage to property—prompted calls by environmental and human rights leaders like David Suzuki and Amnesty International to stop the criminalization of protest. After more than 200 arrests for opposition to the expansion of Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain Pipeline, the federal government purchased this climate liability, which risks becoming a stranded asset if Canada is to meet international climate targets.
The ongoing assembly of mountain protectors on Lhuḵw’lhuḵw’áyten (Burnaby Mountain) and many other sites threatened by the development of the pipeline represents a dynamic form of political performance emerging in relation to the collusion of state interest and corporate initiative. Water, land, coast, and mountain protectors pose a challenge, in corporeal terms, to the destruction of Indigenous lands; they disrupt the state’s narrative that the development of this—and any other pipeline—is in the interest of the Canadian public. Through embodied acts of prayer, song, and ceremony, these bodies stand to prevent infrastructural expansion that will increase Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions and impinge on the country’s ability to fulfill the emissions reduction targets the government agreed to in the 2016 Paris Accord. Moreover, they defend against an intrusion on the unceded traditional lands and waters of the Tsleil-Waututh, Musqueam, Squamish, and many more First Nations, which would violate their sovereignty and the government’s duty to meaningfully consult with them. They oppose a project that would hasten the extinction of orcas and other endangered species, as well as pose immense risk to all communities exposed to fast and slow forms of violence, like fires, explosions, toxic leaks, and climate destabilization. The state’s characterization of songs, prayers, and ceremonies enacted by Indigenous people and their non-Indigenous allies as “civil contempt,” “civil disobedience,” “protest,” and sometimes even “ecoterrorism” draws attention to a powerful architecture of performance reception in Canada. The criminalization of these acts and their actors shows the endurance of the colonial project, designed to extract and profit from the wealth of the land’s natural resources as well as its reliance on a narrative that it is morally deficient in the face of climate science Water protectors and land defenders vouch that clean air, clean water, and healthy land are public interests, taken for granted by the colonial narrative. They reveal how that colonial narrative is based on an ego-driven (I think therefore I am) logic that is insufficient in the comparison to Indigenous knowledges (I am part of the land, whether I think about it or even understand it).
On 7 June 2019, when Rita Wong was sentenced to four weeks of prison, she offered the following public statement. Her sentencing statement draws attention to the performativity of the law and its legal texts, asking us to reconsider whom the law serves. Wong was released from prison on 3 September 2019.—Kimberly Richards
I’m grateful to be here alive today with all of you on sacred, unceded Coast Salish territories, the homelands of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh peoples.
On 24 August 2018, while BC was in a state of emergency because of wildfires caused by...