Of all the myriad and varied actions, blockades and events which have taken place since the Idle No More movement came together late last year, only one has resulted in charges being laid. This is the story of the only person in the country facing legal consequences for his role in Idle No More, and his efforts to raise enough money to pay for his defence.
On December 21st of last year members of the Aamjiwnaang First Nation, located near Sarnia, Ontario, began a peaceful blockade of CN tracks as an expression of solidarity with Chief Theresa Spence’s hunger strike and the broader Idle No More movement.
On the morning of the 22nd they were served with an injunction ordering them to dismantle the blockade by CN police. Later that day Ron Plain, a member of the Aamjiwnaang First Nation, arrived home from a trip and became the spokesperson for the blockade.
Plain is now the only person in Canada charged as a result of Idle No More related actions, and faces catastrophic fines, which he says would cause him to lose his house, and even the possibility of indefinite detention.
Raul Burbano, a Toronto based organizer, has launched an IndieGoGo campaign to raise funds to help Plain cover his rising legal fees.
“I got involved in helping Ron because I’m very concerned with the criminalization of dissent,” said Burbano. “I think this is a clear case of such criminalization, where the courts are being used as a tool against peaceful protesters who want to bring attention to community issues.”
With ten days left the campaign has raised only $3,528 of a goal of $10,000, which itself would only cover a fraction of the legal fees Plain will incur if the case drags on. Burbano however remains hopeful that the public will come through to help Plain defend himself.
“I think if people know about his story, they’ll be moved to support him.”
In an interview with rabble, Plain explained that after arriving, he advised the mostly young members of his community to move the blockade from one crossing to another to nullify the injunction and force CN to seek another one.
“The judge who issued this injunction, David Brown, had not only worked for CN in the past as a lawyer, he had also been an expert witness for them. The ties to CN are twofold and deep, and yet he failed to disclose this past relationship with CN, which he was required to do.”
The first injunction which was served on the 22nd ordered the blockaders to appear in court on the 24th of December if they wanted to appeal, otherwise they could appear in court in Toronto on the 27th.
“It was all very strategically done. There was no way we could find a lawyer on two days notice on Christmas eve. On the 24th, Judge Brown upheld his injunction and expanded it to apply to the tracks where we were at that point. He also ruled that if we wanted to appeal on the 27th we would have to give the CN lawyers twenty-four hours notice. Of course there weren’t twenty-four working hours between then and the 27th, because of the holiday, so it was impossible for us to appeal.”
At the hearing on the 27th Judge Brown changed his injunction from an immediate injunction to a thirty day injunction. This meant that taking down the blockade and immediately setting it up again would no longer satisfy its terms.
At the same hearing, according to Plain, Judge Brown publicly complained that police were not enforcing his injunction, and suggested that the OPP and Sarnia police ignore the recommendations of the Ipperwash inquiry, which they had been following, and which called for police to not interfere with blockades.
On January 1st Plain says he received an email from CN’s lawyers telling him he had to appear in court in Sarnia the next day, along with his band chief and the chief of police in Sarnia.
“Everyone agrees that I had no obligation to go. This was an email, from CN’s lawyers, giving me barely twelve hours notice. But I did, and in twelve hours I produced 250 pages of government documents which show that the tracks are there illegally. This isn’t a land claim issue, in a land claim there is a dispute over ownership, here there is no dispute. No permit was ever issued to cross that road, and that makes the crossing illegal. But I was not allowed to present this evidence in court.”
CN has now dropped the charges against the chief and council out of a desire to maintain good relations with the band. This leaves Plain alone, facing the prospect of dire consequences.
Because the charge is civil contempt of court, a complaint brought by CN, Plain cannot be sentenced to jail. However he can be ordered to pay a fine of an indeterminate amount and to pay the legal fees incurred by CN. He can also be sentenced to indefinite detention, if CN argue that they fear he will repeat his actions and he needs to be jailed to prevent him from blockading their tracks.
At the hearing on the 2nd of January CN offered to drop the charge, if Plain would agree to donate $5,000 to a charity of their choice, an offer he refused. According to Plain, the Sarnia judge, whose name Plain could not recall, then warned him that if he didn’t accept the CN offer, he would be forced to pay their legal fees which could be as high as $200,000. For Plain this was a clear indication that the judge had already determined his guilt, and had prejudged the outcome of his case.
He says the judge told him that the blockade was coming down that day no matter what. Plain then tried to explain that he had no control over the blockade, which he didn’t start and wasn’t responsible for. The decision to remove it had to be made by the community.
That evening, in consultation with Sarnia police, Plain was able to negotiate a face saving means of removing the blockade. Nevertheless, he remains at the mercy of the justice system.
“CN objected to my request for a fall court date, and insisted on May 24, which is now the date of my next hearing. None of my lawyers are available on that date, so we’ll petition for a fall trial. We will also be filing a complaint against Judge Brown for failing to disclose his past relationships with CN, and filing to have the injunction quashed because it was illegal. But at the end of the day I am still in contempt of a court order, even if that order is illegal and is quashed, I still violated a court order.”
Plain says that Canadian Auto Workers President Ken Lewenza intervened on his behalf with higher ups at CN, getting them to agree to drop the case if Plain signs an agreement not to block any rail tracks, something Plain is unwilling to do.
“If my community decides to block the tracks, I will stand with my community. I can’t sign a paper saying that I won’t.”
To donate to Ron Plain’s legal defence fund, please visit his indigogo page, which is sponsored by the Latin American and Caribbean Solidarity Network. If you’re in the Toronto area you can attend anti-line 9 events on April 7 and 8, part of the proceeds from which will be donated to Plain, and at which he will be appearing. You can also watch APTN’s video report on this story, and a video of the blockade itself.