June 10, 2019 5:40 pm
Updated: June 12, 2019 7:50 am

Mi’kmaq grandmothers call small courtroom size an example of ‘systemic racism’

Mi'kmaw grandmothers were shocked on Monday at the size of the courtroom in Halifax where dates would be set for their contempt hearing later this year. As Elizabeth McSheffrey reports, they said they didn't “feel safe” without room for all their supporters to join them as their lawyer defends against Alton Gas.

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Three Mi’kmaq grandmothers are angry after some of their friends and family were denied entry into a Halifax courtroom in a case involving Alton Gas.

Kuku’wis Wowkis, Kiju Muin and Thunderbird Swooping Down Woman appeared in Supreme Court on Monday, where they’re alleged to have contravened a court-ordered injunction against trespassing on the site of the company’s natural gas storage project in Fort Ellis, N.S..

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But the small, seventh-floor courtroom could not accommodate all their supporters, leaving some allies – including two children – waiting outside.

READ MORE: N.S. RCMP arrest 3 ‘grassroots grandmothers’ as officers enforce injunction at Alton Gas site

“The courtroom size is not compatible for our people,” Thunderbird Swooping Down Woman told Global News. “They’re not giving us the support that we need. I’m a grandmother, I want my people around to support me. I want our knowledge keepers to be able to get in there.

“I feel safe when I have my people around me. I don’t feel safe sitting in there.”

Previous court dates involving Indigenous activists and Alton Gas have attracted large crowds, and Thunderbird Swooping Down Woman said Supreme Court staff ought to have known that and given them a bigger room.

A representative for the Supreme Court declined multiple requests to comment on this story, or whether another, larger courtroom was available for use on Monday.

“My concern is the justice system is doing the grandmothers wrong,” said Thunderbird Swooping Down Woman.

“Another example of systemic racism. Marginalization,” added her companion, Elizabeth Marshall, who was there as a supporter.

“We’re always pushed into the corner, pushed onto the reserve. Pushed into the outhouse. Now we’re being pushed into a room the size of an outhouse.”

The grandmothers occupied the Alton Gas site in April as part of an ongoing Indigenous and environmental campaign to protect the land and water from developments that could harm the ecosystem. Proceedings against protesters occupying the site began with Dale Poulette and Rachael Greenland-Smith, but the names of the grandmothers have since been added to the documents.

WATCH (March 11, 2019): Mi’kmaw matriarchs serve ‘eviction notice’ to Alton Gas

Monday’s proceedings were a motion for directions, which is scheduled to set dates for motion filings, hearings and other paperwork. A contempt of court injunction hearing is a civil, not a criminal matter. The complaint is filed by the company, but the RCMP carries out the arrests and provides the evidence.

Alton Gas plans to use water from the Shubenacadie River to create large underground storage caverns, but says there’s ample evidence that its brining process will fall within levels that are safe for the environment.

In an emailed statement, the company said it’s continuing with proceedings against the grandmothers “because of trespassing at the work site.”

“With respect to today’s court proceedings, Alton sites are work sites,” wrote spokesperson Lori Maclean. “There is a court decision and a court order in place to allow for safe access by workers to these Alton work facilities near Stewiacke.

“We needed access to the work site to assess damage from flooding, and to ensure that we are responsibly maintaining the property.”

Maclean added that Mik’maq groups have been engaged on the project since 2006, and have contributed to an independent science review and two ecological knowledge studies.

READ MORE: Opposition to Alton Gas get small designated zone for ‘peaceful protest’

The grandmothers’ lawyer, Michael McDonald, said after the court hearing on Monday that the women could face fines and court costs if a judge finds they were in contempt of the injunction.

The original notice of motion from Alton against the three was filed on May 10, alleging they had “trespassed” on its property in contravention of the original order.

“We’re not arguing the facts,” McDonald told reporters outside the courtroom.

“We’re saying that under Mi’kmaw law, the respondents believed those lands were Mi’kmaq lands, and they were never ceded or sold.”

He said he’ll file a motion for that constitutional issue in the next few weeks, and will ask for a “cease and desist” on all of Alton Gas’s activities until the matter is resolved. Hearings for the alleged breach of injunction to stay off Alton Gas land have now been scheduled for Dec. 16 and 17.

McDonald said he intends to call at least four witnesses to those hearings, including one of the constables who carried out the arrests on April 10. It’s possible that a misinterpretation occurred due to the dialect of Mi’kmaw spoken by the arresting officer, he told the judge, as the language can vary slightly from region to region.

With files from The Canadian Press.

© 2019 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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