A couple of Saturdays ago I got arrested.
It’s not the usual behaviour expected from a white, middle-class, at times quite conservative Christian. Growing up in the evangelical church in North America, getting arrested was something that happened to Christians in other countries: maybe believers reading their own Bibles in the Soviet Union or persecuted Christians in China or the Muslim world. While many of our brothers and sisters in the faith were suffering elsewhere in the world, here we had comfort, freedom, democracy. Here the law worked for us.
So we thanked God for blessing us here in North America. We prayed for the persecuted elsewhere, and we resolved to be even more grateful for the freedom and opportunity we’d been given.
Well – that’s one response. It’s just that . . . I’ve always found it a little unsatisfying. It seemed a bit too easy when the centre of our faith is a man dying on a cross at the hands of the powers that be.
So I started digging deeper, asking unsettling questions. Like, how do we have what we have? And who is ‘we’ in the first place? But the more I’ve learned about my own place here in Canada, the more I’ve become convinced that the we may be a particularly white, middle-class we. And the ‘how’ is far more nuanced and often darker than a simple divine blessing.
To take one example: Vancouver’s Stanley Park. Countless thousands of people flock through this park every week, admiring the lush forest and serene coastline so close to a bustling city centre. I have often biked around its seawall, picnicked there with friends, hiked through its heart . . . and loved it. It’s a place that restores souls and relieves tensions.
When Stanley Park was Xway Xway
But Stanley Park also a site of great tragedy, as Indigenous residents of the village of Xway Xway [also known as Whoi Whoi: for a story on the ‘forgotten people’ of Stanley Park, go here], on the area’s eastern peninsula, found themselves gradually displaced. They were not consulted when the land was made into a military reserve in 1859, or when roads began to cross through the village, or when the land was finally given its park status in 1886. Did they have any reason to be thankful for the gift of ‘Stanley Park?’
Recently I’ve been wondering – what would have happened if settlers had stood alongside the Indigenous people of Xway Xway? If they had told the government that it couldn’t just decide on the fate of a place without taking seriously the people who called it home? If they had been in the way, settler and Native standing arm in arm, when workers came to demolish homes for a road no Squamish person had ever asked for?
Maybe things would have turned out differently. Maybe there would still be a Xway Xway. And since the law was made and enforced by a government that wanted to solidify its hold on the region, maybe in the process, somebody might have gotten arrested.
I don’t know. It’s all conjecture, right? We can’t change the past.
Learning from the past
But we can, and should, learn from it. What I learn when I hear stories like that of Xway Xway is that my comfort comes at a price. What I have experienced as a blessing someone else may have experienced as a curse. But disturbingly often, the fault lines between the two strike through rift valleys of race and class. The police may protect my freedom, but what if I was poor and black? Or Native and a woman? Or homeless and undocumented?
As a Christian, this presents me with a choice. I can live satisfactorily enough with the privileges of my race and socio-economic background, thanking God for being where I am, who I am, for systems that more often than not work for my benefit. Or I can take the plunge into the realities of that Other not so far away, letting my welfare be tied up in theirs. I can choose to suffer, weep, struggle alongside those who have experienced discrimination in the same places where I have known acceptance and power.
Isn’t this what it means to follow Jesus? The most high God, taking on flesh, becoming utterly vulnerable so that we might know God in the depths of God’s (and our) powerlessness and suffering. One who died on a cross he didn’t deserve, revealing injustice and evil for what they are, and in so doing overcoming them – “leading them in a victory procession,” to use Apostle Paul’s words. Liberating from the law by submitting to it. It didn’t simply end with Jesus; it’s a way of being that we have been invited to join in and adopt as our own.
Learning in solidarity with others
There’s a danger here. Many white, middle-and-higher-class, often male folks like myself like to paint ourselves into Jesus’ role on earth. We like to see ourselves as saviours, offering the solutions the world so desperately needs. In so doing, though, we neglect to see how God is already present in those who are different. We refuse to affirm their leadership, using others’ places of pain to boost our own ego. I am no doubt guilty of this at times.
The reality is, too, that we can never fully dissociate ourselves from the privileges we grow up with. No matter how I try, I will still likely have more money, freedom and social capital at my disposal than the oppressed neighbour I seek to love. We need to remember that the goal is not abandoning privilege for its own sake. The goal is walking in deeper solidarity with one another, letting my neighbour’s pain and struggle become my own, and finding a deeper freedom together.
For me, this has meant a journey of deepening in knowledge and concern about my Indigenous brothers and sisters. The story of Xway Xway is only one example of the relentless assault their nations have endured across this land, experiencing language, culture, land, children all stripped away. I can not change what has been done, but that is no excuse for inaction. I am impelled by conscience and, I believe, by Christ, to become a part of ensuring that the future is different from the past.
Arriving at Burnaby Mountain
This journey took me to Burnaby mountain. There, pipeline company Kinder Morgan has been seeking to triple the carrying capacity of an existing pipeline, the Trans-Mountain, by constructing a parallel one, transporting raw bitumen and refined oil from Alberta’s oil sands to the Burrard Inlet, where it would be shipped to overseas markets in China and east Asia.
Compared to the extensive review process Enbridge’s Northern Gateway has endured, KM’s pipeline consultations have been scant, with important parts of the review process hurried over and bypassed (check out former BC Hydro president Mark Eliesen’s reasons for disengaging as an intervenor).
Many in Burnaby and along the route feel that this project would pose an unacceptable risk to their land, water and livelihood, not to mention the climate impacts of continuing to expand fossil fuel infrastructure amidst increasingly dire calls for clean, renewable energies.
Beyond the lack of democratic input and the ecological risks, though, there is another reality.
Unceded land: Musqueam, Squamish, Tsleil-Waututh
Indigenous people are saying no. Despite centuries of attempts at colonization, assimilation and usurpation, Indigenous nations are still very real and still take their responsibility to the land very seriously. More often than not, they are on the forefront of land defence, the first impacted and the first to respond when a company or government acts with ecological hubris.
Whether the Grassy Narrows sounding the alarm on mercury poisoning in Ontario, the Mi’kmaq resisting fracking at Elsipogtog or Fort McKay’s efforts to publicize the cancerous effects of the oil sands on their community, Indigenous people are fighting to protect their nations and the ecosystems which sustain life for all creatures.
It’s no different here. The three nations on whose unceded land the city of Vancouver rests – the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh – have all declared opposition to the Trans-Mountain expansion. The Tsleil-Waututh have filed a lawsuit against Kinder Morgan for its failure to treat them as a sovereign nation and acquire consent.
Yet Kinder Morgan plows on, with the express backing of the National Energy Board. In a country that has, slowly and rather reluctantly, signed on the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, treating Indigenous nations as if they are simply another interest group to be heard or ignored is just not good enough.
I can not change Xway Xway. But I can change this.
So, there I was on Burnaby mountain. The courts had upheld Kinder Morgan’s injunction against protestors who got in the way of their exploratory drilling. Police were out in force. A zone had been cordoned off with yellow tape, surrounding KM workers. At the bottom of the hill, a diverse group of ordinary folks had assembled, ready to bear witness to the injustice happening just up the road.
A little after 11 in the morning, we walked up the road, chanting, “No pipelines on stolen Native land!” Then, after one man spoke about his concern for his children’s future and the future of the planet, about 16 of us crossed the police tape and broke the injunction.
We were promptly arrested, packed in a paddy wagon and shipped down the mountain, where we would spend most of the day at the local police station, waiting inside holding cells to be processed. The police were quite respectful, joking with us at times, even bringing us water and granola bars as we prepared to enter the station. Spirits were high as people sang and laughed along the way. We carried that feeling of integrity, having married our beliefs to action.
The cruciform way of Jesus
As I said, though, we can’t dissociate ourselves from our privileges. Earlier that week, a group of women had crossed the line in the evening, and their experience of the police was much different. I certainly believe that violence begets violence, so I’m not completely surprised when angry protestors yelling abusive names at the police tends to draw a more forceful reaction. But I’m also aware that, as a tall young white male, it might be harder to mistreat me than an elderly Native woman – for instance – especially when the media are swarming in droves. I have a social perception of power working for me, and I need to be responsible for that.
On the one hand, our stand was small. I was charged with civil contempt of court, a charge that has since been dropped. After six or seven hours in a bare concrete cell, I was released on conditions that I wouldn’t violate the injunction again and I would agree to appear in court. Really, all I suffered was a few cold, boring hours in the jail cell and a small police record.
Compared to the ongoing struggles of Indigenous people and the much more serious consequences they often face in resisting the multiple systems organized against them, it was little more than a drop in the ocean. But even so, it was no less real, and it was not taken lightly. Besides – to quote a fabulous line from the movie Cloud Atlas: “What is the ocean, but a multitude of drops?”
Talking with my fellow arrestees, all of us felt this was one important way to take responsibility for the privileges we’ve been given – a beautiful land, fresh water, a family to protect. For me, though, it was more than that. It was also a step of Christian faith, part of learning the “cruciform way of Jesus.” Like Apostle Paul, when he wrote those words thousands of years ago, I want to know Christ, identifying with him in his suffering, and through him my suffering brother or sister. Then, and only then, will we together see the power of resurrection.
Jason Wood worships at Immanuel Church Vancouver, which meets at the Rio Theatre at Broadway and Commercial, and works at an urban farm (Sole Food Farms). He and his wife Anna live in the Downtown Eastside. This article first appeared on Jason’s Forest Musings blog.