Current Problems

Justice (25-42)

B.C. imprisons people we should listen to

October 18, 2023

Swaysən Will George outside the courthouse in Vancouver. Photo by Donna Clark Listen to article

Canada’s National Observer: Swaysən Will George’s name in hən̓q̓əmin̓əm̓ means, “When he speaks, they listen.”

The B.C. Supreme Court did not seem to be listening well to Tsleil-Waututh member Will George when they sentenced him to 28 days in jail for upholding his sacred responsibility to protect the land and water. But many people were and are listening to Swaysən. “I’m a small piece of our history, of being locked up and silenced,” says Will George.

This case is part of the ongoing trials against Indigenous people defending their traditional lands against the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project.

George was imprisoned because he was said to have breached a court-imposed injunction at the Trans Mountain expansion terminal in Burnaby in January 2021. He allegedly parked his vehicle at the entrance of the terminal, which had been recently shut down due to safety concerns. 

Justice Shelley Fitzpatrick asked George how he would feel if someone blocked his driveway. How many of us in Vancouver have homes with driveways? Fitzpatrick’s question ignores that this small reserve on the shores of Burrard Inlet is itself under attack from the Trans Mountain project, with a massive port expansion that would increase more than eight-fold tanker traffic immediately in front of the reserve.

As George told the judge in court, Trans Mountain is pushing a big pipeline into his driveway, his community’s territories. 

That səlilwətaɬ, the Burrard Inlet, is sacred, the traditional grandmother from which the Tsleil-Waututh, People of the Inlet, were born, makes the project and the new mega-tanker terminal, Westridge Marine Terminal, a particular and unacceptable violation against them and the many life forms they have a deep relationship with.

An oil spill in these deeply sacred waters is simply a matter of time. It’s not a matter of “if” but “when?” 

George is obligated by his ancestors to protect his grandmother, the inlet, as well as all the lands and waters of his people. It feels offensive and preposterous that he would be imprisoned for upholding this sacred responsibility. 

George is doing this protection work on behalf of all life on Mother Earth. Fossil fuels’ time is over. It must be over. Fires and floods are displacing and killing humans and animals everywhere on the globe, from Maui to Yellowknife, as we have seen this recent, yet again record-breaking summer. 

The forest we have lost due to fires in 2023 represents a doubling over the last 20 years. Yet the fires and floods we experienced this summer may be the least of what we will experience in the next 100 years if we continue to burn fossil fuels at the rate and scale that we have been doing. 

The Crown persistently proposed 28 days in jail as the standard sentence. However, the Gladue Report, which advises the courts to consider an Indigenous person’s background in making sentencing decisions, was also discussed. 

Fitzpatrick had not even read George’s 16-page Gladue Report until after the sentencing proceeding started but felt prepared to imprison him after reading it during the 15-minute morning break.

“Gladue Reports are failing us. They are weaponized by the court system by retraumatizing us after we explain in detail how we were messed up by residential schools and having our culture taken away from us,” George explained. 

Even as a witness, it was heartbreaking to listen to. Unbelievably, the courtroom audience witnessed Fitzpatrick questioning how she could link his life experiences with the request for a lesser sentence. “Help me connect the dots,” she said. 

Gladue Reports are supposed to be used to prevent the disproportionate incarceration of Indigenous people. While Indigenous people make up five per cent of the Canadian population, they make up 32 per cent of those incarcerated

Fitzpatrick also asked the Crown where in North Vancouver the Tsleil-Waututh Reserve is located. Neither she nor the Crown knew. The Crown thought it was somewhere between the two bridges on the North Shore. George was sitting right there, but they didn’t ask him. All of the audience in the courtroom knew where the Tsleil-Waututh Reserve was. 

Tsleil-Waututh are the unceded lands on which we, in Vancouver, live. This information is well-known to locals who care to learn about the Coast Salish history of where we live.

And this short account is just a very little bit of the indignity and violence that is the colonial court, in this particular case.

In the face of these insults, threats and systemic violence against Indigenous people, Roxanne Charles of the Semiahmoo (Coast Salish) First Nation, George’s wife, says, “They cannot and will not break our spirit.” 

Donna Clark is a third-generation cis Scottish-Irish settler and hag, born and living on the lands of Hən̓q̓əmin̓əm̓ & Skwxwú7mesh-speaking people.

Donna Clark@DonnaClarkSnaps