Jailed pipeline protester and poet Rita Wong calls for more prison programs for fellow inmates

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      An opponent of the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion says she's "incredibly grateful" for all the support she's received after being sent to jail.

      Award-winning poet and Emily Carr University of Art + Design professor Rita Wong was sentenced to 28 days in prison this month after violating a court injunction outside the Westridge Terminal in Burnaby.

      Messages of gratitude have been sent not only from the Lower Mainland, but also from Calgary, Toronto, and Halifax.

      "I'm in good spirits," Wong said in a phone interview from the Alouette Correctional Centre for Women. "I'm really bowled over by all the support that has come in."

      The day of the interview, Wong received 16 pieces of mail. Another 10 were rejected by prison authorities.

      "So they're actually turning away a lot of mail," she said. "Same with phone calls, right? It's not easy to get through. It's designed to basically obstruct people from staying connected to their communities."

      Rita Wong is incarcerated in the Alouette Correctional Centre for Women in Maple Ridge.

      Inmates' outside contact is limited

      The Georgia Straight's original request for an interview with Wong was ignored, even though it was left on an answering machine for media calls.

      Wong called the Straight only after being informed of the request by a friend.

      During her conversation, she was twice cut off with this automated message: "This call has been disconnected due to a probable three-way transfer attempt."

      As a result, she had to phone three times.

      She said that during her stay in prison, she's been working in the gardens, earning $2 per day. Each phone call costs 90 cents on a prison account.

      Wong described herself as privileged and she can afford to make outbound calls.

      But she also noted that for low-income inmates, the high cost of phoning out of the prison is a barrier to remain in contact with loved ones, which Wong thinks is very unfair.

      The poet and university professor is even more alarmed by the lack of culturally sensitive services to Indigenous inmates.

      "If I had something to say to the king of jails, I would say that we need more programs in prison," Wong said. "There used to be a sweatlodge here. There used to be elders here.

      "There is still some Indigenous programming, but it's not as much as it used to be," she added. "This place could really use a sweatlodge."

      In her opinion, a sweatlodge should be covered by operational funding and not have to rely on grants.

      There have been lighter moments even though prison life is highly regimented.

      "I wrote a poem the other day called 'Prison Candy'," Wong said.

      This confectionary is created by combining peanut butter with cream and sugar from packages from the dining hall, and then placing the concoction in a microwave.

      "You melt it into taffy, and it's actually not bad," she revealed.

      Wong added that people should not be scared of prison. And she called on others to be compassionate and respectful to whomever they come across in life.

      “I have a cellmate who has been very kind in showing me the ropes around here," she said. "There’s a lot of weird unspoken rules that are very arbitrary and seem to change depending on which guard is in charge, so it can be a very kind of upsetting place that way.”

      Wong also pointed out that she's been working in institutions a long time, including hospitals and a university, and said that they all "have a weird kind of logic to them".

      Stand.earth posted this video on YouTube encouraging people to join the fight against the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion.

      Climate crisis brings on protests

      "I want to just say I reject the criminalization of people who live with poverty and addiction," Wong emphasized. "There's lots of really good people in here. And they're not that different from the people out there except some of those criminals out there are not getting convicted for their crimes—who are running our country."

      In court, Wong and four others charged with her argued a defence of necessity, which was rejected by Justice Kenneth Affleck.

      In a statement released after her sentencing, Wong wrote: 

      "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."

      In that same statement, Wong declared that everyone has a responsibility to respond, likening humanity to being on the "global equivalent of the Titanic" and arguing that "this industrialized ship needs to change direction".

      "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."

      According to a study done for the City of Vancouver, there could be about 71 million tonnes of annual downstream emissions of carbon dioxide equivalents as a result of the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion.

      That exceeds the total annual emissions of 62.3 million tonnes from the entire province of British Columbia in 2016.

      In addition, the same report found that there could be an additional 8.8 million tonnes of upstream emissions if the pipeline expansion is completed.

      In her recent interview with the Straight, Wong said she was "pissed off" when Affleck imposed the 28-day sentence.

      "I made it very clear to the judge that I was trying my best to be respectful and to uphold Indigenous laws and Coast Salish responsibilities," she stated. "By that, I mean I think anybody who lives on Indigenous territory has responsibilities to care for the land and water in that place. And I think that is what colonial law is really failing at."

      Three others—Kyle Farquharson, Mel Lehan, and Barry Morris—received sentences ranging from community service to fines. Will Offley was sentenced to 14 days in jail. 

      "I got the highest sentence because I was on the last day of arrests," Wong said. "The way it worked is if you got arrested early, you get a lower sentence than if you got arrested late because they wanted to deter people from doing this."

      Rita Wong (seen above being arrested) launched an unsuccessful attempt to have Justice Kenneth Affleck recused from sentencing people for violating his injunction.
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      Judge dismissed earlier challenge

      Justice Affleck had previously rejected an application by Wong and Mary Beam that he "recuse himself due to a reasonable apprehension of bias by informed observers".

      That was because Affleck imposed the injunction, later broadened it, and then had sole authority to enforce it.

      "These proceedings place Justice Affleck in the position of having to judge whether his order was scorned," Wong and Beam wrote in the eight-page document filed in court. "Accordingly, it may reasonably be perceived that he lacks the neutrality required for fair judicial assessment of the facts and the law and has a self-interest in maintaining his own order."

      From prison, Wong said she didn't have high hopes that this application for Affleck to recuse himself was going to succeed.

      "But I felt it was important to make the argument nonetheless, and get people thinking about it and talking about it."

      She's actually no stranger to the prison system. In the 1990s, Wong helped refugee claimants from China who were put in prison while their cases were being processed. 

      For many years, Wong has also been part of a group called Joint Effort, which connects women from inside prison with women on the outside.

      "I'm lucky that people here have been very kind to me," she said. "They appreciate, you know, why I'm here. That I'm doing it not just for myself but for other people.

      "But you know, it's still very unjust," she added. "My lawyer did make an argument for a suspended sentence, which the judge refused."

      Wong said that she could be out of prison as soon as September 3.

      "Unless I get charged for bad behaviour in here—and I'm trying to behave in prison—I should be released after 18 days," she said.

      In the meantime, Wong expressed gratitude to faculty colleagues who've promised to fill in for her in class if necessary, and to students who've been supporting her all along.

      If she's let out on September 3, she plans to go to the protesters' Watch House, which is outside the area covered by the court injunction.

      "I'm part of a group called Mountain Protectors who've been up there pretty solidly throughout since the Watch House was built last year in March," Wong said. "So I'd like to encourage people to support Mountain Protectors. If they want to donate, they can donate to that."