Yesterday, Laurie Embree, a 70-year-old grandmother dressed in a broad-brimmed sunhat and floral cotton summer shirt, sat in the blazing sun blocking the gates of Kinder Morgan’s Westridge oil terminal, before being arrested by the RCMP. She smiled sheepishly and shrugged off the crowd’s applause as she was led away and returned forty-five minutes later, having been processed at a nearby temporary police tent.
She faces the possibility of seven days in jail — the stiffest sentence yet imposed for breaking the court injunction that forbids blocking access to the oil terminal or nearby tank farm. She is also the first arrestee since the Government of Canada recently announced it would purchase the pipeline from Kinder Morgan for 4.5 billion, with a plan to spend billions more to increase its capacity as a conduit for diluted bitumen (full disclosure: I was arrested on May 4th protesting the same project).
“It was my mother’s fault,” said Embree. “She always said to me that when you see something that needs doing it becomes your responsibility.”
Laurie Embree drove 400 kilometres from 108 Mile House to participate in the protest. She is a mother of four, a grandmother of three. Now retired, for many years she ran The Red Roof Bed and Breakfast. She also owned a 60-acre hay and cattle farm.
Over 200 people from all walks of life have been arrested blocking the Kinder Morgan gates since the anti-pipeline protests began on March 10. Most have never been in court before, except for jury duty, or to contest a parking ticket.
But with this pipeline, they have decided to break the law — listening, as they have often said in their statements in court, to a higher moral law: to support indigenous rights, and to act against climate change or a tanker spill, before it is too late.
The sentencing penalties have escalated as the protests have continued. Arrestees from mid-March through early April, who pleaded guilty at an early date, have generally received fines of $500, or 25 hours community service, while those arrested in May have mainly faced fines of up to $1500, or 75 community service hours. Some, arrested in later May, have faced staggering fines of $4500 or $5000, or 240 hours of community service.
According to Kris Hermes of the Terminal City Legal Collective, which has been providing legal support to defendants, there has been nothing from the courts in writing about what penalty a person faces who was arrested after May 28th. However, the Crown has recommended in open court that arrestees now receive 7 days in jail.
The stiffening penalties have been imposed to try to dissuade protestors from continuing to defy the injunction. But will it work? Or will some consider 7 days in jail a price they will pay?
Ten kilometres from the Westridge gates, in the vastly different milieu of the Supreme Court of British Columbia, with its wood-grained walls and leather chairs, a drama has been playing out over the last month, as those who have been sentenced approach the judge to read aloud their reasons for defying the law.
Many begin by acknowledging that they are on unceded Coast Salish Territory. Most then say that though they respect Canada’s justice system, they have felt impelled to engage in civil disobedience in response to a higher code of ethics.
Anna Gerard, a woman in her twenties who traveled from Alberta, recently pled guilty and was sentenced to 240 hours of community service. “When our democratic rights and freedoms appear to fall second to an aggressive oil company, I believe that it is our duty to try to correct that balance,” she said in court.
Gillian Johnstone, an artist, mother and grandmother arrested with her husband and daughter on March 17th , made her court statement on June 6th: “We are at a tipping point, perhaps beyond it... until society heeds the alarm bells, I feel a profound urgency to act against runaway climate change,” she said.
Today Briony Penn, a former federal candidate for the Liberal Party of Canada, and winner of the B.C. Book Prize, will make her statement to the Supreme Court of B.C., along with poet Murray Reiss, retired teacher Jean Wilkinson, United Church member and volunteer Tom Mitchell and others from Salt Spring Island. Yesterday Penn was among the cheering crowd at the Westridge Terminal supporting Laurie Embree.
“I think there are exceptional people in the world, and she’s one of them,” Penn said. “People like Laurie recognize that we are at a point of no return. They don’t care about their next trip to Disneyland. They care about the fate of the earth.”
“We’re not a spoiled little mob protesting – we’re a people who recognize that there is no other recourse.”
For Tzeporah Berman, a director of Stand.earth, one of several NGOs working on the frontlines of the Kinder Morgan fight, Laurie Embree’s arrest is a moving answer to the political crisis, especially in the wake of Trudeau’s pipeline buy out.
“I’m inspired by her arrest in the face of the Crown trying to deter people from standing up against this project,” Berman said. "I’m prepared to go to jail as well, supporting Indigenous rights and the safety of our coast and our climate, and I expect many people feel the same way.”
Shaena Lambert is an award-winning fiction writer. All three of her books were Globe and Mail Best Books of the Year. She was arrested at the Kinder Morgan tank farm on May 4th, and made her court appearance and sentencing statement on June 5th. www.shaenalambert.com