Dear Judge: Comfort Zones & Climate Change

Readers: This post consists mostly of a letter I wrote to a provincial court judge after having been sentenced in her court – along with 6 other Toronto-area activists calling ourselves 'People for Climate Justice' – on February 23rd. We had occupied Canadian federal finance minister Jim Flaherty’s Whitby, Ontario constituency office on November 30th, last year. We wanted to convey to federal politicians, just prior to the Copenhagen meetings, our deep concern & frustration about our federal government’s inaction (& even willful obstruction) vis-à-vis international efforts aimed at appropriate action on the most urgent issue facing humanity today: global climate change.

After spending about 6 ½ quite peaceful hours chained together in Mr. Flaherty’s office, we were arrested, handcuffed & taken to police holding cells & charged with 3 related offences. These were Loiter and Obstruct Persons in Public Place, Mischief – Obstruct/Interrupt/Interfere with Lawful Use/Enjoyment or Operation of Property (both Criminal Code offences) & Fail to Leave Premises (Trespass to Property Act).

We had a court date on January 14th and then again a few days ago, on February 23rd.

The judge gave us an opportunity to say a few words before she handed down our sentence(1), but I found myself feeling pretty intimidated by the whole situation, and refrained from saying anything. I’ve now written her a letter & have mailed it to her office. Here it is…

February 25, 2010.

Dear Judge:

I was in your courtroom in Oshawa the other morning, Tuesday, February 23rd. I was there with my 6 co-accused on charges relating to our November 30th peaceful sit-in at the office of Jim Flaherty, Whitby’s Conservative MP and Canada’s federal finance minister.

Ours was one of 6 such protests that took place across Canada just prior to the United Nations meetings in Copenhagen to discuss and find urgent solutions to the climate crisis. (Occupations also took part in the offices of federal cabinet ministers Jim Prentice, Rona Ambrose, Gary Lunn, John Baird and Andrew Saxton.)

I believe you suggested to us that we might find more law-abiding ways in future to express our frustration with the Canadian government’s (in our view criminal) lack of action on this utterly crucial issue – in fact, the single most serious issue and challenge ever faced by humanity! We did not really have the opportunity to explain to you that we have indeed each tried more “conventional” and “polite” methods.

I’m writing this letter to you now because, although you did give us the opportunity to speak up just before you handed down our sentence, I personally found the whole setting and situation more than a little intimidating, and so remained silent.

What I would have liked to say to you on Tuesday, in court, is this:

Your Honour, I am very proud of having taken part in the peaceful occupation of Canada’s finance minister’s office this past November 30th. As a matter of fact, it’s one of the things in my life I am most proud of. I wish I had done more of this kind of thing in my life, because taking this action made me feel great! Apathy and inaction in the face of such a momentous issue and challenge drain our energy, while action is a powerful energy booster.

You commented that you suspected our action probably took us all a little beyond our usual comfort zone, and you are certainly correct in my case. Chaining myself to fellow human beings and being hauled off to a jail cell with my hands cuffed behind my back in a cold, hard paddy wagon is indeed not the sort of thing I do routinely.

But here’s the thing: I felt I had to do this. That it was the very least I could do in the face of our government’s appalling inaction on climate change and its (in my view) criminal behaviour in the Alberta tar sands.

Letters, phonecalls, petitions, peaceful gatherings on Parliament Hill – none of these have made even a tiny dent in our so-called leaders’ intransigence. When these conventional methods of expressing dissent in a democracy fail, one feels obliged to “up the ante.”

Another thing I want you to be aware of is how overwhelmingly positive the reactions to my part in this protest have been. People have offered effusive praise, and I’ve been told over and over that friends and family members are proud of me.

Canadians are disgusted with the antics of the Harper government. We all know we need to see serious action on climate change: targets, policies, legislation and global cooperation.

Yet our government sits on its hands, stifles dissent by proroguing Parliament, and embarrasses our country on the world stage (we’ve been labelled a “corrupt petro state” by world-respected writer/activist George Monbiot) with its appalling performance on this most urgent issue in the entire history of humanity.

I recognize that you are playing your own (perhaps quite principled) part in our legal system in the best way you can, and I do appreciate your intelligence and considerate handling of our case. The disposition you handed down was not an unreasonable one, given the original charges and the limitations with which you no doubt must work. I must say too, though, I do not feel the slightest bit guilty or ashamed for having done what I did. I’m proud of it, and I wish many more citizens would take similar coordinated action.

Yours sincerely,

Janet McNeill

P.S. Joanna Macy and Molly Young Brown have said in Coming Back to Life – Practices to Reconnect Our Lives, Our World, “Grace happens when we act with others on behalf of our world.” It’s true!

Note to blog readers: Other blog posts about the sit-in: Busted for Climate Justice!; Civil Disobedience Rocks!! 10 Observations;Civil Disobedience: Why did we occupy Fin. Min’s Office?

Also note: If you go to Direct Action in Canada for Climate Justice you can read up on the various sit-ins held in MPs’ offices across Canada last Fall, just before the Copenhagen meetings.

‘Quote of the Day’ w. this post: “When the Earth has been ravaged and the animals are dying, a tribe of people from all races, creeds and colours will put their faith in deeds, not words, to make the land green again. They will be called ‘Warriors of the Rainbow,’ protectors of the environment.” – Native saying


(1) The first 2 charges were dropped. We pled guilty to the third. We were each fined $100. & will be on probation for a year. The conditions that had been imposed on us at the time of our arrest (involving police notifications & non-association with our co-accused) were also dropped.