From protest to prison

Professor’s experience sheds light on the current state of political repression

The evening before I was sentenced to six months in prison for contempt of court I e-mailed David McDonald, the head of the department of global development studies, to let him know I expected that I would be unable to finish my winter courses.

After two days of testimony about the Ardoch Algonquin First Nation’s refusal to recognise an injunction that permitted a mining company the right to drill and deface land in our traditional territory, Superior Court Justice Douglas Cunningham accepted the mining company’s call for lengthy sentences. The lawyer for the province, Owen Young (now the lead lawyer for the Residential Schools Truth and Reconciliation Commission), had called for “stiff punishment” to send a clear message to Aboriginal protestors that “law breaking” would not be tolerated by Ontario. David was in court that day to see his colleague sentenced, cuffed and shackled.

Over the last decade I have become increasingly concerned that intellectual expression and the right to criticise government policy have been endangered. Since 9/11 and the shift from ‘national integrity’ to ‘national security,’ citizens have been reluctant to test the extent to which they can question so-called authority. Both capital and governance have become even more sacred cows to be protected at all costs, including our personal freedom. Sadly, the restrictions that we have accepted as the new normal have been largely self-imposed. The affluence that we enjoy in Canada makes it all palatable. My six-month sentence—the harshest sentence ever imposed in Canada for peaceful protest—is evidence that the once-imaginary threat of political repression has become much more real. To some extent, we still have functional safeguards to protect Canadian democracy from the forces that would undermine it. Even though I was locked in a cell for 17 hours a day, denied books or the right to spiritual practices, subject to censorship of incoming and outgoing correspondence and monitored by a “bug” in my cell, I still found ways to express myself to the outside world: I spoke with the media by telephone, a right the prison was reluctant to deny. When a chapter I had written for a book on environmental justice disappeared, I learned how to pass uncensored writing out through my lawyer. In this way, and because of these protections, I was able to participate in efforts for my release and the struggle to protect our homeland.

I was released from prison on May 28 after 103 days. The decision by the Appeals Court of Ontario vindicated our decision to follow Algonquin law and demand a greater responsibility from courts and government. It also upheld the right of public dissent as a fundamental tenet of democracy. Our struggle and that of others may go on for months and possibly years but some faith in Canadian democracy has been restored.

For my students, the experience of seeing one of their professors imprisoned was both traumatic and instructional. The political activities in my First Nation have an affinity with what I teach, but I choose to leave out my own bias or “war stories.” Consequently, many of my students were surprised, even shocked, that my involvement in Aboriginal politics would land me prison. For many, the connection with what they had been learning through my courses became real and required reaction and participation on their part.

While I adjusted to life in a cell, the University community rallied behind the cause of protecting the Ardoch Algonquin homeland and denounced the injustice of my incarceration. The news trickled in through letters and a few newspaper clippings. It was hard to grasp the extent to which my colleagues, students and community had become involved. Later I would find comfort in knowing that I was not alone and there was a growing movement that demanded a much higher standard from the courts and the government.

One never goes to prison and comes out the same. Picking up where you left off is out of the question. Society is seen differently and to some extent you are seen differently by society. When I emerged into the daylight from Osgoode Hall, I was fortunate to have my friend James Loney meet me and give me the best of advice: “Do what you want to do.” I was in control of my life again. The transition was not easy but the moral and financial support I received from colleagues, students and even strangers ensured that I could get back on my feet. I will always be profoundly grateful to the Queen’s community for looking after one of their own.

Robert Lovelace is a professor in the department of global development studies and a former chief of the Ardoch Algonquin First Nation. He spent 103 days in prison for defying a court injunction and continuing to protest against uranium mining on disputed land.

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