On August 16, 2019, Rita Wong, an award-winning Vancouver poet and an associate professor in Critical and Cultural Studies at Emily Carr University of Art and Design, was sentenced to 28 days of incarceration at the Alouette Correctional Centre for Women in Maple Ridge, BC. She had participated in a peaceful protest on behalf of missing and murdered Indigenous women on August 24, 2018 alongside three other women protestors at the Westridge Marine terminal, impeding access to the Trans Mountain facility in breach of a court-ordered injunction.
Wong read a moving statement in court outlining the reasons for her protest, emphasizing the current climate change emergency and the urgent need to protect the environment, in particular our waterways: “Our ceremony that morning was an act of spiritual commitment, of prayer, of artistic expression, of freedom of expression, an act of desperation in the face of climate crisis, an act of allegiance with the earth’s natural laws, and a heartfelt attempt to prevent mass extinction of the human race.” She emphasized that ” [w]e 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.”
The four other protestors at the same B.C. Supreme Court hearing received varying sentences: 100 hours of community service, fines of $1500 and $4000, and 14 days in prison. As Wong had participated in the last day of organized protests occurring over several months prior, her sentence was significantly more severe. Last year, over 200 protestors were arrested and convicted for protesting the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion.
Rita Wong’s most recent book, Beholden, co-written with former Canadian Poet Laureate, Fred Wah, was written as a response to the damming and development of the Columbia River in British Columbia, Washington and Oregon and to the renegotiation of the Columbia River Treaty. It was a finalist for the Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize earlier this year. Her book, Forage, won CBC’s Canada Reads Poetry award and the Dorothy Livesay Prize in 2008. Her research and writing focus upon the relationships between contemporary poetics, social justice, ecology, and decolonization.
Written by Fiona Tinwei Lam ( BC member of PEN Canada)
PUBLIC STATEMENT BY RITA WONG
I’m grateful to be here alive today with all of you on sacred, unceded Coast Salish territories, the homelands of the Musqsueam, Squamish and Tsleil Waututh peoples.
On 24 August 2018, while BC was in a state of emergency because of wildfires caused by climate change —breaking records for the second year in a row; putting lives at risk, health at risk, and displacing thousands of people— I sang, prayed, and sat in ceremony for about half an hour in front of the Trans Mountain pipeline project’s Westridge Marine Terminal.
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. 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. 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.
I acted with respect for the rule of law which includes the rule of natural law and the rule of Indigenous law and the rule of international law. Under the rule of law:
- I have a responsibility to my ancestors and the ancestors of this land to protect the lands and waters that give us life with each breath, each bite of food, each sip of water.
- I have a responsibility to reciprocate to the salmon who have given their life to feed mine, to reciprocate to the trees that produce and gift us the fresh air from their leaves through the perpetual song of photosynthesis.
- I have a responsibility to give back to the great Pacific Ocean, the Coast Salish Sea, Stalew (the Fraser River), and the many water bodies on which human life – and other lives – depend.
- I have a responsibility to hold our politicians accountable when they persistently breach their international legal obligations to protect us. They should be reducing greenhouse gas emissions, not increasing them in ways that put the very existence of life at risk.
By breaching the injunction, I had no intention of reducing respect for our courts. I do intend to ask the court to respect Coast Salish laws that uphold our responsibilities to care for the land and waters that make life, liberty and peace possible for everyone. I sincerely ask the court to take our reciprocal relationship with the land and water into consideration because we are on Coast Salish lands, where everyone is a Coast Salish citizen.
I’m one of over 200 citizens of conscience who were arrested because, unlike our federal and provincial governments, we take the climate crisis seriously. We take the need to protect society seriously. We did what we could to maintain respect for our justice system:
- We cooperated with Indigenous spiritual guardians, non-governmental organizations and the police.
- We waited patiently for decades before determining —at a moment in history when time has almost run out to act —that orthodox ways of getting the federal government to act were doomed to fail.
- The police were informed in advance and they appointed people to liaise and communicate with the NGOs in order to maintain order.
All of this is evidence of the rule of law working.
I respect the court’s concern for the rule of law. I do appreciate that obeying court orders is part of the rule of law. There are more aspects of the rule of law that I would ask you to consider before sentencing me.
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. 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. This was reinforced most recently for me by Tsleil-Waututh speakers at the Drums Not Drills gathering at the scene of my arrest, the Westridge Marine Terminal, on Aug 5 this year, which I helped to co-organize as part of the Mountain Protectors group.
My ancestors teach me to act responsibly, to honour the water, the land and my relatives. I feel their teachings in my blood & guts, my bones that carry their spirits within them, my heart as it closes & opens again & again with each beat.
The morning of my arrest we hung red dresses to honour the murdered and missing Indigenous women, the sisters who are made more vulnerable and victimized by the man camps that accompany pipeline expansion and massive resource extraction. We sang the women warriors song, over and over again, for each woman who should have been there & wasn’t.
We sang for our grandparents, for people from all four direction of the earth.
Our ceremony that morning was an act of spiritual commitment, of prayer, of artistic expression, of freedom of expression, an act of desperation in the face of climate crisis, an act of allegiance with the earth’s natural laws, and a heartfelt attempt to prevent mass extinction of the human race.
As I see it, one shows respect by speaking honestly, a view shared by Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. 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 & 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.