In Jail for Justice


On March 5, 2018, I had the opportunity to hear the Honourable Senator Murray Sinclair speak at Canadian Mennonite University. He was a lawyer and a judge, then served as one of the commissioners of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), and was recently appointed to the Canadian Senate.

Sinclair spoke about the TRC and the 94 Calls to Action that we, as a nation, are called into if we ever want to see reconciliation happen in our country. I was intrigued by his stories and his challenge to us, but I had a question for him that I had been pondering for quite some time.

It seems to me that so much has already happened in our country in terms of reconciliation with Indigenous peoples. There have been settlements, repayments, apologies, etc. But I wondered if he, as a former judge, thought we have seen justice yet.

In short, his answer was “no.” But as he dug more into it, I started to understand why. The question of justice is a complicated one, and it’s one that our legal system isn’t set up to answer. This caught me somewhat off guard. Aren’t our legal institutions collectively called the “justice” system? Sinclair clarified it this way:  

“The problem we have is that we’ve dressed up the legal system as a justice system, but it’s still nothing more than a legal system. It’s a system about laws…. If we have a law that is defensible, then no matter what injustice that law creates, we still say that the rule of law trumps justice. The rule of law is a greater commitment, a more important commitment than justice…. Sometimes to do justice will put you in opposition to the law, and sometimes to follow the law results in an injustice.”

This was a huge statement, especially coming from a former judge in our legal system. Also, it’s implications for us and the Church are life changing, and to be honest, quite frightening. Christians believe that God is a God of justice and that we are to follow suit. But justice in the Bible looks nothing like legal retribution. It’s a call to love, care for the poor, stand up for the marginalized, and to sacrifice in the face of danger. 

What Sinclair seemed to say is that our legal system isn’t even equipped to deal with questions of justice. It’s only meant to reinforce the law through punishment. But laws are created by us, and any political party could potentially pass a law that we interpret as unjust, and yet be perfectly legal. I’m sure you can already think of a few examples.

So justice and the law don’t always match up. Now where does that leave us? Well, many of us know that this is not a new idea, especially in non-democratic countries. Millions of Christians have ended up in jail while fighting for justice all over the world. Because of their faith, they broke the law and sacrificed their own freedom in order to stand up for what they believed was right and just.

This past week, this idea has left the theoretical and become quite a bit more real for me and our wider Mennonite church. My friend and former colleague, Steve Heinrichs, was sentenced to 7 days in jail by the British Colombia Supreme Court for criminal and civil contempt of court.

Why? Because, on invitation of spiritual leaders and the land defenders of Tsleil-Waututh, Steve joined a peaceful protest against the expansion of the Trans Mountain Pipeline. I’ve written about him in the past and also wrote a blog post on his arrest

In his court statement, Steve explained why his faith convicted him to stay put even when he was told by court order to move from the protest site. This is part of what he said:

“I chose to act because at the center of the Christian faith lies the conviction that the Creator suffers with the oppressed; that God takes sides with the victims over-against the dominant powers; and that the people who see the issues of our day most clearly are those pushed to the socio-political margins.

I chose to act because my church has publicly rejected the legal fictions of Discovery and together with communities of faith across these lands, has committed itself to ‘a new relationship between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples, based on sharing, respect and the recognition of rights and responsibilities.’

I chose to act because, as Chief Dan George said, the Crown has made many promises— sacred promises to respect Indigenous self-determination, consent, and sovereignty. And I long for those covenants—going all the way back to the Royal Proclamation of 1763 and the Treaty of Niagara—to be fulfilled.

I chose to act because Indigenous nations, like the Tsleil-Waututh, have paid far too great a price for Settler gain, and we must find a better way—together. For as former Chief Justice Antonio Lamer underlined, ‘we are all here to stay.’”

I would encourage you to read Steve’s full statement to understand the background of his actions and more about why he felt compelled to act in civil disobedience for the sake of justice. 

Working for justice sometimes has severe consequences. For Steve, one of the leaders of our nation-wide church and the director of Settler-Indigenous relations, it means spending a week in prison, the cost to appear in court, and of course, a criminal record. But that’s only what happens in the public eye. Let’s not even mention all the stress, drama, and navigating of relationships that takes place where we can’t see.

I am moved and challenged by Steve’s actions. His decision was not selfish; it was sacrificial. Not only did he act out of conviction of faith but also on behalf of so many who would have loved to be there but couldn’t see how it would be possible. Yes, he broke the law, but by doing so, he worked for justice on behalf of our church.

I’m not suggestion that we all need to go out and do the same thing, but I do believe people need to hear about this. I don’t think the call to justice will lead most of us to civil disobedience, but I have learned that we mustn’t rule it out completely. I don’t know if I’ll ever find myself in such a situation, but I stand by our church leader and am proud to belong to the same body of faith.