Indigenous land defender criminalized for doing his sacred duties

on unceded Coast Salish territory.

“For the people. For my daughters. For the seven generations to come. I’ve been given a great responsibility to care for our relations. I live a good life!” On October 6th, 2020, Stacy Gallagher (GitchiMakwa, MakwaIndodem) posted this to Facebook hours before being sentenced to 28 days in prison for praying, singing, and holding ceremony in resistance to Trans Mountain’s pipeline expansion project (TMX).

As it’s important to amplify Gallagher’s voice, his story occurs in a moment of Indigenous land defense happening on multiple territories across so-called Canada. From coast to coast, Indigenous peoples are being forced to defend their Nations’ rights and titles to their lands and waters.

Now receiving international media attention, the Mi’kmaq are demanding recognition of their inherent and treaty rights to provide for their families while facing violent hate crimes from non-Indigenous lobster fishermen.

The Algonquins of Barrière Lake are calling for a moratorium on excessive moose hunting by non-Indigenous trophy hunters.

The Six Nations of the Haudenosaunee are maintaining a blockade against non-consensual development on their territories.

The Wet’suwet’en continue their fight to protect their headwaters from the Coastal GasLink pipeline.

Members of the Secwepemc Nation are facing prosecution for resisting TMX at a drill site in Kamloops, BC.

On unceded Coast Salish territory, Stacy Gallagher and two other Indigenous land defenders are about to be released from 28 days in jail for their principled opposition to TMX in so-called Burnaby, BC. As their current sentences come to an end, Gallagher faces an additional, even longer sentence for upholding his sacred duties to protect Mother Earth.

Stacy Gallagher, Jim Leyden, and Tawahum Bige were convicted of criminal contempt in October 2019 for ceremonies lasting less than an hour in August 2018 at Trans Mountain’s Westridge Marine Terminal in Burnaby, BC. They were initially arrested along with roughly 200 other people for breaching an injunction issued by Trans Mountain, which was designed to deter peaceful protests of TMX. Nearly two years after their arrests, Gallagher, Bige, and Leyden are the first to be imprisoned since COVID began.

Rita Wong, Gallagher’s partner — who also served 28 days in jail in 2019 for her principled opposition to TMX at the Burnaby site — says that Gallagher, Bige, and Leyden’s cases are prime examples of the “disproportionate punishment of Indigenous people for upholding their responsibilities to care for the land.”

Since the spring of 2018, Gallagher and Leyden have offered spiritual support to Indigenous land defenders and allies at the Coast Salish Watch House on Burnaby Mountain near the TMX oil tank farm. This Indigenous-led and ally-supported Watch House is explicitly protected under the terms of the injunction. Still, as both Gallagher and Leyden continued to uphold their spiritual responsibilities from the Watch House, each were charged again in November and December 2019 for violating the injunction.

While neither Gallagher nor Leyden were arrested on site, each was allegedly identified by RCMP officers at the tank farm who recognized them via video surveillance. Gallagher and Leyden were charged, weeks after they conducted peaceful ceremonies in front of the tank farm gates, with criminal contempt — even though they left the premises of their own volition in a timely manner. These charges were not filed in accordance with the injunction’s five-step process, which gives people a chance to leave the premises. While no formal verdict has yet been reached, the Crown is seeking 28 more days in jail for Jim Leyden, and three times that length of sentence for Stacy Gallagher.

Wong said that many non-Indigenous people, including so-called “known protesters” who are recognized by the RCMP, were also present for the events in November and December 2019. But it is only the two Indigenous people who are being prosecuted.

The systemic racism faced by Indigenous land defenders like Gallagher and Leyden is a direct human rights violation by the Crown under UNDRIP principles, and an overt disregard for Indigenous pedagogies and natural law.

The night before his sentencing hearing, Gallagher clarified, “I’m not what you call an environmentalist.” Rather, he carries the inherent, sacred duty to protect Mother Earth, as passed down to him from his maternal Anishinaabe ancestors.

“The duty to pray for the land and conduct ceremonies in situations of conflict is an acknowledged responsibility under Indigenous cultural traditions and laws,” said Wong, who said she saw no understanding of this by the Crown during Gallagher’s court proceedings. “Singling out Indigenous people for prosecution in this context sets a profoundly disturbing and dangerous precedent.”

Though Gallagher is an Anishinaabe man, he has been granted permission by local Coast Salish elders to conduct ceremony from the Watch House. During Gallagher’s court proceedings, he has urged Judge Shelley Fitzpatrick and Crown Prosecutors Monte Ruttan and Daniel Prium to recognize that they are on unceded Coast Salish lands. Instead, they argued this fact as “irrelevant.”

This blatant disregard for Coast Salish laws and land in particular is an affront to Indigenous sovereignty, and a direct threat to all human and non-human life in this time of climate crisis.

As the Crown and Trans Mountain Corporation work in lockstep to maintain the racist and extractive mechanisms that are upheld by the colonial rule of law, Gallagher spoke passionately about challenging this “Windigo.” In traditional Anishinaabe language, the Windigo is a legendary monster. As written by Potawatomi author and professor, Robin Wall Kimmerer, in her book, Braiding Sweetgrass, the Windigo “is a human being who has become a cannibal monster […] The more a Windigo eats, the more ravenous it becomes. Consumed by consumption, it lays waste to humankind.”

Gallagher sees how those who perpetuate the violent behaviors of Trans Mountain and the Crown are clear victims of the Windigo; despite the discrimination he faces, Ghallagher said he values his time in court as an opportunity to share his teachings with those who need healing.

As Ghallagher often says, “This isn’t about me.” It’s about protecting Mother Earth. And although criminalized by the colonial State for upholding his sacred duties, Ghallagher — or, Uncle Stacy — reminds us, “They can’t control my spirit.”

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