Judith Rees-Thomas. (Photo courtesy author)

Topics: Ethical Living | Activism

75-year-old pipeline protester shares what she learned in jail

This writer chose to go to jail for her activism, but had no idea what to expect

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In May 2018, I was arrested for protesting the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion outside the gates of a worksite for the project in Burnaby, B.C. As I was escorted away to be booked, supporters sang “Courage, my friend, you do not walk alone.”

When the sentencing date approached, the reality of seven days in jail registered in my body. What if I am cold all the time? What if I can’t get comfortable enough to sleep on the thin mattress? As my stomach churned and my mind spun, I remembered my spiritual director suggesting I invite God to be with me in jail. “Holy One,” I prayed, “remind me that you are there with me.”

I had a choice of whether or not to go to jail. I could have paid a $5,000 fine or done 240 hours of community service instead. But it seemed to me that being willing to go to jail was part of making my point — that planet Earth is too precious to risk the economic and political adventure that is the pipeline expansion. Our First Nations neighbours have been clear in refusing permission for a pipeline on their land.

I believe the Creator brought the Earth into being and that divinity is present in every tree, rock, salmon, orca and drop of water. We are surrounded by and immersed in the presence of God and it is nothing less than sacrilege to allow this amazing creation to be destroyed.

I’m also a spiritual director, which means I help facilitate a person’s connection between them and God, and part of a peer supervision group for directors. About a week before court, I learned that all of the group members had committed to light a candle and pray for me, one on each of the seven days I would be in jail. Friends also made a point of wishing me well, offering hugs, joking about files in cakes, and letting me know they stand with me. I was not alone.

As the five of us who were arrested that day sat on a bench facing the judge, Tracy, an Indigenous man, reached over the railing from the visitors’ gallery behind us and shook our hands, then passed us an eagle wing — not a feather but a whole wing. We took turns holding and stroking it as the judge spoke. We were offered intermittent time, which would mean we could basically spend weekends in jail. That wouldn’t work for me from my Saturna Island home, and Jo Ann, who sat beside me, chose to reject the offer and be with me in jail.

Judith Rees-Thomas, second from left, with Victoria Marie, Danika Dinsmore, Ron Berezan and Jo Ann Murray after their arrest. (Photo: Laurel Dykstra)

We were taken one by one to the holding cells in the courthouse building. I turned around to smile at my husband, David, and saw that all the people in the visitors’ gallery were standing with hands outstretched towards us. We were not alone.

Once outside the courtroom, the young woman escorting me asked me to put my hands on the wall and patted me down before putting on my wrist shackles. She seemed to be fumbling with them, and explained that she was orienting the shackles so they wouldn’t rub on my wrist bones. Her kindness was a reminder that Spirit can appear in unexpected places and people.

“A woman I met here told me that every day you are alive is a reason for hope,” April said. “I’ve found that to be true.”

I met many kind people during my prison experience. The staff who admitted us to Alouette Correctional Centre for Women in Maple Ridge, B.C. were all gentle and courteous. They asked the standard questions about drug use, whether they needed to be concerned about us going into withdrawal, and whether we were given to depression, but sounded apologetic about having to ask. After testing the urine sample that I’d given her, the nurse told me, smiling, “You aren’t pregnant, in case you were wondering.” (I’m 75 years old.)

When we got to the cells, the other prisoners were friendly, interested in the protest we had been jailed for, and amazed and indignant that we were serving time. Jo Ann and I gradually got to know the other women, to appreciate their individual personalities and to hear some of their stories and their hopes for the future: hope for lasting sobriety, for a job, to get a child back.

April and her story are etched on my heart. She casually mentioned that she has terminal brain cancer. While I took that in, she added that she was hoping to get out in time to spend some time with her daughter. I asked if there was hope that she might still respond to treatment. “A woman I met here told me that every day you are alive is a reason for hope,” April said. “I’ve found that to be true.” She smiled. “I’m alive today. Today is a day for hope.”

April was one of the most cheerful and helpful women I met in jail. But all of the women were kind and generous. Several offered us shampoo, conditioner, skin lotion and “jail candy” made from coffee whitener, sugar, butter and jam. It was surprisingly good.

The guards were also pleasant. One of the staff said quietly, “I see you as political prisoners. Thank you.” That was the first time that tears came to my eyes. Another was the day I was summoned to the nurse’s office for discharge planning (both Jo Ann and I were released after four days and four nights).

She asked about the conditions I would be going home to. Did I have support there? Was there anything I needed? I told her that I hadn’t been able to contact Errol, a volunteer who had offered to pick us up and drive us to Vancouver when we were discharged. She said that she couldn’t let me use her phone but she could call for me. She contacted Errol and made the arrangements. I found myself teary.

Rees-Thomas is welcomed home on Saturna Island after her prison stay. (Photo: Chaya Katrensky)

“It’s normal for this experience to affect you,” the nurse said. “Even though it seems fine, you may find you have some grief about it all. If you can give yourself time when you get home to reflect and feel your feelings, it would be a good idea.”

I assured her that I would do that, and told her that the tears were not about sadness. They were about the kindness of so many people, including her and our driver who was a stranger to me. “I feel almost overwhelmed by love,” I said.

Tears continued to appear during my first weeks at home on Saturna as I remembered the people I’d met and the grace in which I felt held. Some of the people who hugged me as they welcomed me back were also teary as they thanked me for doing it “for them.”

The evening I arrived home, the community had a “welcome home” potluck. After the meal, several people stood up to talk about what it meant to them that I had acted on my convictions. I spoke about my gratitude to them and about the women who were spending much longer in jail than I, many of them addicted, many repeat offenders who didn’t seem to see a way out.

“I am so grateful,” I said, “for the life I have, because it happened that I was born into a stable and privileged family, and I’m grateful to live in this caring community.”

I have been changed by this experience. I hope that I do not take my life for granted ever again. I know now that doing something difficult can bring unexpected rewards, and that I am not alone, ever.

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  • says:

    So, you purposely broke the law, (and made no promises not to break the law again), and then ask God to protect you? Hebrews 13:17 and Romans 13:1 states we are to obey those in authority over us. We may not like the decisions that our Governments make, but we have the freedom to elect them, or others if we're not satisfied, among other options. In my opinion your not a hero, just a person with a criminal record. Personally, if I were you, I wouldn't be proud of myself.

    Replies

    • says:

      Consider Daniel prayed to God despite the orders of the king. He believed in a higher power, justice.

      There are times, a person must stand up for what is right and just.

      Replies

      • says:

        Daniel's defiance had nothing to do with justice. Daniel was serving a higher power - God, not justice. He also did what he was accustomed to do daily.
        Finally, Daniel was also "set up", "justice" (as you put it) was served by those framing Daniel.
        You can stand up for what is for God, but the author is at the risk of pantheism, worshiping the creation, rather than the Creator

  • says:

    I really appreciate being a member of the United Church of Canada and receiving inspirational stories such as Ms. Rees-Thomas' which remind me what life is all about.

    Bertie Mo
    First United in Ottawa

  • says:

    Judith,
    Blessings on your life and work. Jesus broke the “Law” numerous times, to be on the side of justice. He paid the ultimate price, and for that numerous people have called him “Hero” and much more. “Bringer off health and healing to all who walk that path of love and justice”
    You are a fine role model for young, and older people yearning for deeper meaning and courage in their lives
    Light and Love,
    Jen-Beth

    Replies

    • says:

      Matthew 5: 17-18 Christ came to fulfill the Law, not "break" it.
      This is why He paid the price. True followers call Him LORD, more than a hero. I have yet to read that God promises health and healing for anyone who earns it. Prosperity gospel promises all sorts of blessings, but it is a false teaching. As believers, we are only promised an eternal destiny - and God living within us - nothing more. If you're looking for deeper meaning in life and courage read and study the Psalms.

  • says:

    Why are you celebrating misguided illegality? I'm sure she went back to her heated, electrified dwelling, and may even have driven a car. Hypocrisy abounds, and her white privilege is in full display. Jail tourism? That is offensive.

  • says:

    Most encouraging and inspiring account of life being lived FULLY now, in the moment. It illustrates lines in Richard Rohr’s The Universal Christ, “......a cosmic event...has soaked all of history in the Divine Presence from the very beginning. This implies that the Divine DNA Of the creator is therefore held in all creatures. What we call the ‘soul’ of every creature could easily be see as the self knowldge of God in that creature. .......”
    Thank you .

  • says:

    l can relate to all the comments here but we miss boat we ignore the message that God is to be everywhere .

    Replies

    • says:

      God is everywhere, past present and future. God is not in everything (tangible). If the writer does not appear to have integrity, in respects to the law, then why should I listen to her message? It's telling me "It's OK to break the law, if I "feel" it's for a good cause" (Not supposing that nothing good may have came out of the situation).

  • says:

    Standing Together for What is Right is a Precedent' to be Admired when Those of Us make Certain the Commitment in HUMANITARIAN ADVOCACY. i know and have been locked up twice for doing the Honest Right Stance. Each Time it cost many thousands of Dollars to Stand Up' for what is Right'. The last time Standing for what is Right was referred by Justice Brown in the Courtroom of Osgoode Hall Courthouse / Toronto Ontario as a 101 Year Precedent that would Set to Perpetuity Section 149 of the WORKPLACE SAFETY AND INSURANCE ACT for All Worker's. As Worker's We " Won ".

  • says:

    I am encouraged as a senior by your shining beauty.

  • says:

    Stories like these continue to bring hope, hope that light will overcome darkness. I was a conscientious objector in the country of my origin. It was a personal decision accepting consequences on the basis that it was the right decision for me. I fully respect those who have to make such a decision and have another outcome.

  • says:

    unfort you now have a record that will stay with you for travel and credit ...some times it is best to step back when the out come really wont make a difference
    the pipe line is needed ..good or bad for the good of all
    I would be more concerned with the shipping
    You stand a good chance to record to be forgiven but will cost
    so in respect..GOOD FOR YOU but in other was it worth it for some thing that will make little difference
    May GOD be with You

  • says:

    Such a powerful and meaningful story. Thank you for sharing your sense of HOPE and GRACE. Inspiring.

  • says:

    Thank you for your example. Progress does not always come in a ‘nice orderly manner’. Our society and world evolves in part because of people like you who stand up to cries that ‘you can’t make a difference’ or that ‘we must accept the law good or bad’. Your story brought tears in my eyes.

    Replies

    • says:

      One can make a difference without breaking the law. If we do not have laws (good or bad) we then have anarchy. The world has and needs order, whether we like it or not.

  • says:

    Ms Rees-Thomas may think that tankers carrying diluted bitumen are more of a threat to the marine environment than container ships loaded with bunker fuel--which far outnumber the tanker traffic. Is she right? I doubt it.

  • says:

    Judith, Thanks for sharing your inspiring message! Most of us (hope to) never experience the inside of a prison, but we also don’t think about others who are sometimes ‘trapped’ in the system with mental health and addictions.
    It seems you may have inspired hope in some of them, as they did for you.

  • says:

    I'm disgusted with the comments you have recieved. People will always show their badside when asked to comment. So you broke the law. Was it because you were passion ate about the cause? If so, I give you high praise! It is a critical time to make change. We won't be long on this planet if things don't change. If we stay steady on this path, there will be no great grandchildren to tell our stories too. Thank you for your part in creating a change.