Injunctions and the Suppression of Dissent

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Injunctions have been used to try and stifle vibrant, grassrootsmovements against the invasion of Wet’suwet’en territory, Northern Pulp’s plans to pipe effluent into the Northumberland Strait, and the back-to-work legislation used to break the PostalWorkers’ strike .

So, what is this legal tool which is so useful in suppressing dissent? Injunctions are a legal oddity. Normally, someone must prove that they have been harmed by an illegal act in order to get a remedy from a court. Injunctions are an exception to this rule; they can prevent someone from engaging in a particular action, even if the person seeking the injunction cannot prove that they have suffered any harm. Injunctions are most often awarded to protect the interests of private property, and the profitability of commercial enterprise. Injunctions can block someone from doing something that would otherwise be perfectly legal, like engaging in a peaceful protest outside of a workplace.

Threestories of Wet’suwet’en, Northern Pulp, and the Postal Workers show how our legal system prioritizes private property interests. They also demonstrate how injunctions are used by corporations and governments to shut down peaceful and effective protests. From Unist’ot’en land defenders, to Canada Post protestors, to fishers in the Northumberland Strait,- one thing is clear, when we stand up for our rights, companies seek injunctions, the courts oblige, and we are criminalised. Meanwhile, corporations and government break the law and violate Charterrights with impunity.

On Wet’suwet’en territory, Indigenous Peoples exercising their inherent rights, as are guaranteed and affirmed by the Canadian Charter, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) have been brutalized by the Canadian state and the corporate interests it protects. They and their allies are defending the Wet’suwet’en land from the construction of a pipeline which they’ve been successfully delaying for five years. Canada has committed to meaningfully implement UNDRIP, which guarantees that Indigenous Peoples must give their free, prior, and informed consent to any project affecting their territories. Even though no such consent has been granted, CoastalLink has moved forward with the pipeline. The company obtained an interim injunction. Militarised police invaded the Unist’ot’en encampment, healing centre and blockade. Fourteen people were arrested. . Canada is clearly willing to drop the pretence that it intends to honour its treaty, Charter, and international legal obligations, to serve the interests of the Calgarian oil and gas corporation.

Injunctions have also been used to supress a strong grassroots movement in Pictou Landing, Nova Scotia. Northern Pulp (owned by Paper Excellence) operates a mill in Abercrombie Nova Scotia where it has been producing northern bleached softwood kraft pulp since 1967. This process produces an effluent that contains a combination of toxic compounds that bioaccumulate in ecosystems. Starting in the 1970s, the mill began piping effluent under the East River to treatment ponds at the Boat Harbour wastewater plant (just east of Pictou Landing First Nation), then into Boat Harbour to settle before it was finally emptied into the Northumberland Strait. The site became notorious for its smell and negative health effects attributed to it by many locals. After a effluent pipe leak in 2014, the Liberal Government (under McNeil) passed the Boat Harbour Act in 2015 which requires that Northern Pulp to cease using Boat Harbour as a container for effluent by January 30, 2020. To meet this deadline, Northern Pulp proposed the construction of a new treatment facility where effluent will be treated before being  piped directly into the Northumberland Strait, with no time spent in a stabilisation or aeration pond. Both Indigenous Peoples and settler peoples from Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and PEI voiced objection to this plan, citing fears that dumping treated effluent directly into the ocean will have detrimental effects on species crucial to local fisheries.

Because of the deadline imposed by the McNeil government (and the heel dragging of Northern Pulp), the company decided to go ahead with the pipe proposal despite the overwhelming public disapproval. Before it can construct the pipe, Northern Pulp needs to survey the floor of the Strait. Because their voices were not heard by the company, local fishers have been using their boats to blockade survey crews from completing their work. Northern Pulp sought injunctions against several fishers that were identified taking part in the blockade. A Nova Scotia Supreme Court Judge granted Northern Pulp these injunctions against several fishers on December 15, 2018. The Judge also included the names Jane/John Doe to the injunction to discourage anyone from the public from assisting with the blockade.

This example would be comical if the potential environmental effects were not so dire. Let’s reiterate: Northern Pulp (a privately-owned company) has appealed to the state to enforce laws that prevent those people most affected by their pollution (and any Jane/John Doe) from participating in an effective form of direct action. The judge states that they fully support the right of people to protest legally. In July 2018 a legalprotest containing upwards of 1000 people gathered in Pictou to send a message to both Northern Pulp and the provincial government that they were against the proposed effluent pipe. This legalprotest (not to mention one of the largest in Nova Scotian history) was apparently not enough for northern Pulp to consider changing its plan. It is because of the lack of recognition of the legal protest that these fishers are directly acting by using their boats to physically stop work on the proposed effluent pipe. Northern Pulp is portraying some concerned local fishers out to be a threat to public safety while they plan to install an effluent pipe that will be a legitimate threat to public safety.

Our legal system’s prioritization of the interests of the wealthy over the many is also demonstrated through the reaction to the recent strike of the Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW). Postal Workers waged a strike for gender pay equity, safe working conditions, an end to unpaid work, and an environmentally-sustainable Canada Post. The strike was on a rotating basis, which allowed CUPW to pressure Canada Post to bargain in good faith while maintaining the support of the public. Canada Post was never forced to engage in meaningful collective bargaining, because the federal government legislated CUPW members back to work. Similar legislation which forced Postal Workers back-to-work in 2011 was declared unconstitutional by the Ontario Supreme Court in 2016. CUPW has already launched a legal challenge to the Government’s recent legislation. When allies of the Postal Workers demonstrated against the forced return-to-work, police and the courts protected Canada Post’s profits by arresting and issuing injunctions against activists. The strike and its aftermath demonstrate that workers will be punished and constrained by the legal system for exercising power, while bosses and the government can act as if they’re above the law.

A legal system which serves the interests of the wealthy can’t protect the planet and the majority of people who call it home. A just legal system written by and for the people would protect our environmental wellbeing and human rights above all else. Join us in creating the justice we need for ourselves and our communities.