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When Susan Lambert was sentenced to seven days in jail for breaching the Kinder Morgan pipeline injunction, she was immediately taken into custody.
Lambert, 68, the former head of the B.C. Teachers’ Federation, was taken out of the courtroom, shackled and handcuffed and locked up in a barred cell in the basement of Vancouver’s Robson Street courthouse.
She was given a Subway sandwich, but otherwise left alone – with no cellphone, no books, no possessions at all. She was there for five or six hours. To pass the time, she sang to herself and even managed to sleep a bit on the cell’s concrete bench before being loaded into the back of a paddy wagon.
The experience of riding in the paddy wagon she calls intentionally humiliating and depersonalizing – she says they were placed in Plexiglas wire cages, with no seat belts and nothing to hang onto as the vehicle made its way through the streets of Vancouver. She could see her fellow passengers, but she couldn’t touch them and she had to yell to be heard.
Eventually, the prisoners arrived at the Alouette Correctional Centre for Women in Maple Ridge, where Lambert says things got pretty horrible. The newcomers were told to pee in a cup and they were fingerprinted, photographed, X-rayed and strip searched.
Although the guards were both courteous and professional, Lambert says if she ever has to go back to jail, she’s definitely not looking forward to going through that again.
She was given prison green sweat suits, a bra, underwear and a bag filled with bedding and towels, before being led to her maximum-security cell, where she was told to make her bed.
Lambert was so tired, she fell asleep almost immediately.
More than 200 arrests result in 27 detentions, so far
More than 200 people were arrested earlier this year for breaching an injunction while protesting the Kinder Morgan pipeline expansion. Of those, 27 people have had some form of detention imposed as a sentence and there are another 16 cases still to be resolved, statistics provided by the Coalition to Protect the Inlet say. Kris Hermes, who is on contract with the coalition to provide legal support, says the coalition is a partnership between several non-governmental organizations and Indigenous groups.
Nineteen people have been sentenced to seven days in jail, like Lambert and five have been sentenced to 14 days, Hermes said. Women served their time at the Alouette Correctional Centre for Women in Maple Ridge and men went to the North Fraser Pretrial Centre in Port Coquitlam, Hermes said.
The arrests and the protests both stopped when the Federal Court of Appeal quashed the federal government’s approval of the Trans Mountain Expansion project in August, finding the federal government didn't adequately consult with First Nations or consider the impact of increased tanker traffic, particularly on endangered killer whales.
The federal government announced last May that it would buy the pipeline for $4.5 billion from Kinder Morgan.
Hermes said it’s rare for jail time to result from symbolic civil disobedience, but it does happen when a company or a government gets an injunction.
“You have to understand, this is a highly symbolic demonstration,” Hermes said. “(People were arrested) for literally just walking up to the gate and standing there or even sitting. It wasn’t as though they were physically obstructing workers or work being performed.”
The punishments recommended by the Crown escalated over time as people continued to breach the injunction – at first, they were $500 or 25 hours of community service, but by August, they were calling for $3,000 fines and 240 hours of community service, Hermes said. After that, the Crown started recommending custodial sentences. Now, for people convicted at trial, the Crown is recommending 28 days in jail, Hermes said. If they plead guilty early, the sentence will be less, Hermes said.
Sentence begins in maximum security
When Lambert woke up the next morning, she was given a “sickening” meal that she couldn’t bring herself to eat. It consisted of a slab of baloney, one piece of white bread, a packet of butter and black coffee with powdered or watery milk.
She spent the day mostly in her cell, other than for meals and one hour spent in the exercise yard, which she describes as 15-foot by 20-foot yard with high walls. Books were provided, as was a pencil and paper, which Lambert used to write about her experience to her husband and children. After dinner, she was transferred to the medium security section of the prison.
Like Lambert, Jo Murray, 66, was sentenced to seven days in jail. Her description of the first 24 hours is similar – down to the shackles and hand cuffs, inedible food in maximum security and harrowing ride in the paddy wagon. Murray, who is a retired medical social worker from Powell River, was sentenced on November 23, so her experience is still raw.
Once moved to medium security, both women describe a much better experience. The women were housed in cabins, with two women sharing a bedroom. Other than at meal times or when being counted, the women are free to wander the grounds within their section of the prison. There is a coffee area, a shower area and a dining hall. The food was much better in medium security, both Lambert and Murray said.
There was little communication with the outside world and using the phone – calling collect – was technically challenging, Lambert said.
Lambert and Murray, who are both grandmothers who have never been arrested before, said the inmates were considerate, generous and kind to the newcomers.
Murray still thinks about the women she left behind in jail – her social worker’s perspective makes her concerned for the lack of treatment available to them, or any education beyond high school.
“The women who were in there really turned my heart,” Murray says.
Lambert has a similar perspective.
“We were like adventure tourists. This is their life and we’re dropping in,” she said.
The guards and prison staff were courteous and respectful, Murray said.
Lambert, who has chronic back pain, was given an extra mattress by a friendly guard, which was helpful because she describes the regular mattress as little thicker than a yoga mat. She felt embarrassed to be given special treatment, but she says the other inmates said as long as the protesters were there, they were also treated better.
She was given a taste of what it might be like to be a regular inmate on her last night in jail. Because of her chronic pain and other medical issues, she got her medications prepared in blister packs before going to jail.
Every day, she lined up three times a day with the other prisoners to be doled out her medication. Everything went smoothly, until the last night when she was given a liquid medication, something she didn’t recognize as one of her normal medications, which are not liquid. She tried to question the nurse, but a nearby guard wouldn’t let her ask, saying, “You’re in prison, you don’t get to question. You either take it or you don’t.”
She took it and still doesn’t really know exactly what it was. Afterwards, she was up all night with pain, pacing her room. The guard wouldn’t let her into the common areas and she was worried about waking up her roommate.
“It was the most horrendous night. That’s where I knew what would happen to a regular inmate who complained of pain,” Lambert said. “It was a rough and rude wakeup call.”
They'd do it again
Both Lambert and Murray were released from jail after serving four days and four nights, two-thirds of their sentence. Although they’re not keen to repeat the experience, both say they would do it again if they have to.
“I think I might have to. I’m very scared, but I might have to,” Lambert said. “Since August 19, when we came out, first there was the baby Orca, then we had the California wildfires, we’ve had that UN report. It’s so clear we have to get something done in 10 years.”
She says she wants to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with her Aboriginal allies.
“If there is a necessity for further action down the road, I think it’s my generation that has to do it because we’re the ones that made it so,” she says. “Now I’m a retired person with very little to lose – I’ve lived a full and wonderful life. I’ve got two wonderful kids, two wonderful grandchildren – it’s my responsibility and I have the opportunity.”
Murray said in her statement to the court the reason she breached the injunction was because she believes the Trans Mountain expansion will harm Indigenous people, the climate and the southern resident orca whales.
“I care deeply what kind of a world I am leaving for my family and for all families present and to come. I need to be accountable,” she said. “I need to be able close my eyes at night and know that I did my best toward that end, for I see no light in any of this.”
Murray also would go to jail again, if need be.
“The state we’re in today – I don’t know what else is going to work,” she said. We need to wake up from our denial. This is very real.”
When asked what her grandchildren think about their grandmother going to jail, Murray said they know she made a political choice.
“They know that I’m doing this for their future,” Murray said. “They don’t understand conscience, but it’s an act of conscience.”
Although Murray was scared a couple of times when she was in jail, she says she got through it because she felt a tremendous sense of support.
“I didn’t walk alone. I felt like I was being carried by all the people who were supporting me,” Murray said. “In a normal situation, I probably would’ve freaked out.”
More trials will be held this week, with three defendants scheduled to be heard on Monday and three who are facing 14 days in jail will be sentenced on Wednesday and another on Thursday, Hermes said in an email.
Tracy Sherlock writes about B.C. politics for National Observer. Send your tips and ideas to [email protected].