Why we face jail time for safeguarding a livable climate

Ruth Walmsley
Prayer Circle Peaceful Direct Action with (from left) Ruth Walmsley, Dr. Christine Thuring, Catherine Hembling. jpg

Feb 09, 2022 

In the coming weeks, six of us face jail time for peacefully protesting the construction of the Trans Mountain Pipeline Expansion Project (TMX) near the Brunette River in Burnaby. We are members of a multi-faith prayer circle and residents of Burnaby and Vancouver.


In mid-February, we will be appearing in B.C. Supreme Court to face charges of “criminal contempt of court.”


In our efforts to stop tree-cutting at a TMX worksite, two of us occupied trees, while four positioned ourselves in active work zones. The severity of sentences for the more than 240 people who have been arrested over the past 3-1/2 years for breaching a 2018 injunction prohibiting the blocking of work at TMX worksites has escalated in an attempt to deter others from protesting. What began as a $500 fine and community service is now typically two to four weeks in prison. Our willingness to face jail time reflects our deeply held conviction that we need to act immediately to curtail fossil fuel expansion to prevent catastrophic climate change. Recent deaths in B.C. alone, due to heat domes, wildfires and extreme flooding, along with the recent code red for humanity, clearly indicate that we are in a climate emergency. We cannot afford to be building new infrastructure in support of a carbon economy that is fuelling this crisis.


Our prayer circle is inspired by solidarity with Indigenous Land Defenders. We began meeting in July 2018 outside Kwekwecnewtxw, the Coast Salish Watch House on Burnaby Mountain. Our meetings are grounded in silence, during which time anyone may feel led to speak or sing. We engage in ceremony and maintain support for earlier arrestees, especially our Indigenous brothers and sisters. The prayer circle includes Quaker, Buddhist, Unitarian, United, Anglican, Presbyterian, Catholic, Jewish people, and those unaffiliated with any faith group. Starting in August 2020, the prayer circle joined the coalition group Protect the Planet Stop TMX to maintain constant tree-sits in the path of pipeline construction.


One of us expects to be spending her 80th birthday in jail, and another his 65th. We all have carefully considered our actions in light of the worsening climate crisis, including years of meetings with members of parliament in Ottawa and members of the legislature in Victoria, submissions to government, marches, petitions and letters. However, with construction proceeding, we felt non-violent civil disobedience was an appropriate expression of our deeply held conscientious objection. By autumn 2021, our final tree sit had become a bottleneck for tree clearing in the Brunette corridor, and the RCMP in militarized gear forcibly extracted and arrested us.


If completed, the TMX pipeline will carry around one million barrels per day of highly toxic, flammable diluted bitumen from the Alberta tarsands to Burnaby. The pipeline will run through residential neighbourhoods, next to schools, through vulnerable salmon-bearing streams and sensitive ecosystems.


The Trans Mountain oil storage terminal on the side of Burnaby Mountain is being expanded from 13 to 26 tanks. According to a recent affidavit from the Burnaby fire chief, the layout poses numerous potential fire scenarios that would be “unextinguishable due to lack of safe firefighting positions.” Approximately 240,000 people live within the 5.2-km radius of the dangerous “downwind Sulphur Dioxide exposure area,” including Simon Fraser University, yet the evacuation zone features a single road that passes directly past the storage terminal.


In 2018, the Trudeau government purchased the Trans Mountain Pipeline from Texas-based Kinder Morgan for $4.5 billion. In February 2020, the government announced that the expansion project will cost in excess of $12.6 billion. With delays at every segment of the route, an updated cost estimate is long overdue. To our fellow Canadians: Please call your MP and urge them to stop the TMX pipeline expansion.


We are in uncharted territory, but we do know climate change is here and that it is irreversibly altering and threatening all life on Earth. Change is difficult, but it is not impossible, and often leads to better things. The prayer circle arrestees know this, and stand firm in calling out: “Canada! Stop building new fossil fuel infrastructure!”


On behalf of the Prayer Circle Direct Action Group: Ruth Walmsley, Quaker; Catherine Hembling, Unitarian; Dr. Christine Thuring, Buddhist; Janette McIntosh, Presbyterian; Dr. Tim Takaro, Quaker; Bill Winder; Beth Carlson-Malena, non-denominational pastor; Zain Haq.

[Top photo: Prayer Circle Peaceful Direct Action with (from left) Ruth Walmsley, Dr. Christine Thuring, Catherine Hembling. jpg]