Land defenders face criminal contempt charges as the struggle against the Coastal GasLink fracked gas pipeline continues

Published by Brent Patterson on

On June 3, Gidimt’en Checkpoint tweeted:

Haudenosaunee land defender Layla Staats has also posted this short Instagram video.

CBC reports: “The B.C. [British Columbia] Prosecution Service plans to prosecute 15 [land defenders] for criminal contempt for allegedly defying an injunction protecting construction of a controversial pipeline in northern British Columbia.”

That article adds: “A Crown lawyer told B.C. Supreme Court Justice Marguerite Church on Wednesday [June 1] that prosecutors need four more weeks to decide whether to charge 10 other [land defenders, including Sleydo’ Molly Wickham] with criminal contempt in relation to blockades and actions last fall opposing Coastal GasLink’s natural gas pipeline.”

That decision is expected on July 7.

Criminal vs civil contempt

The British Columbia Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA) has explained:

“Civil contempt is where a person or corporation breaches a court order, and the nature of the conduct interferes with the interests of another private party. Criminal contempt is where a court order is breached, but the nature of the conduct interferes with the public’s interest in the ‘proper administration of justice’.”

A Supreme Court of Canada decision in 1992 further notes: “The Crown must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the accused defied or disobeyed a court order in a public way with intent, knowledge or recklessness as to the fact that the public disobedience will tend to depreciate the authority of the court.”

The BCCLA also notes: “Sentences are considered on a case-by-case basis. Because judges have discretion in sentencing, it is difficult to pre-determine what a sentence may be for a conviction of criminal contempt of court.”

That said, if found guilty, the sentence could include a fine of up to $1,500 and possibly up to 45 days in jail.

Skewed injunctions

The CBC also reports: “Coastal GasLink obtained an interlocutory injunction in 2019 blocking anyone from ‘physically preventing, impeding, restricting or in any way physically interfering’ with access to the road which leads to the company’s work site.”

And then adds: “In a study that collected data in 2019 on injunctions issued across Canada, the Yellowhead Institute found 76 per cent of injunctions filed against First Nations were granted, while 81 per cent filed by First Nations against corporations were denied.”

Defending rights is not a crime

Peace Brigades International accompanies land defenders in Colombia, Honduras, Mexico and Guatemala. Many of them have experienced similar criminalization and judicialization.

Peace Brigades International (PBI) has stated:

“International declarations and mechanisms on Indigenous rights enshrine the right to self-determination for Indigenous peoples and recognize the importance of land rights for the original inhabitants of many countries now governed by the descendants of colonizers. These rights are often the focus of conflict as powerful interests wish to exploit the natural resources found within and beneath traditional territories. Defenders of land rights, culture and natural resources can find themselves facing powerful interests and brutal opposition. Some have approached PBI for protection after they have been attacked or their colleagues assassinated. Many others have been subjected to criminal prosecutions based on spurious charges.”

Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, the past United Nations special rapporteur on the rights of Indigenous peoples, has also stated:

“Disregard of indigenous rights of traditional lands ownership breeds tensions, subsequent violence and criminalization, as indigenous peoples become trespassers or illegal occupants of their own lands, subject to criminal charges such as ‘usurpation’ or illegal occupation, and liable to forced evictions and removal from the lands they rely upon for their livelihoods, social and cultural cohesion and spiritual traditions.”

We echo PBI-Guatemala in their statement: “Indigenous leaders continue to be criminalized. We reaffirm that defending rights is not a crime.”

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