At first, Dexter Xurukulasuriya didn’t realize that their friends were packed into the courtroom. Beamed in via video from inside a holding cell, Xurukulasuriya could only see the judge on the screen during this preliminary hearing. Then, they heard an audible laugh as the judge imposed a condition for release — Xurukulasuriya was not allowed to be in the vicinity of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
Xurukulasuriya faces charges of aggravated assault, assault with a weapon, and obstruction of justice. If found guilty, it could mean time in prison.
The charges stemmed from an incident the day before the preliminary hearing, when, on Sept. 27, the largest demonstration in Quebec’s history had taken over the streets of Montreal. An estimated 400,000 to 500,000 people poured into the streets, paralyzing downtown traffic. Across Canada, some estimates put the total turnout for the climate strikes at nearly a million people, or nearly 3 per cent of the Canadian population.
One of those protesters, in Montreal, was Justin Trudeau.
Trudeau’s decision to attend, which was announced the day before the protest, was denounced in a statement by some of the protest’s student organizers. “The hypocrisy of this gesture is flagrant,” the statement read. “You are protesting against yourself.”
Trudeau’s time in the demonstration was punctuated by protesters heckling him about his environmental record, including his controversial decision to purchase the Trans Mountain pipeline in British Columbia despite massive opposition to the project. Trudeau ignored the protesters. He smiled and waved, periodically shouting “thanks for coming” in French.
This posture was briefly interrupted when Xurukulasuriya approached Trudeau. An egg flew through the air in Trudeau’s direction, and Xurukulasuriya was tackled to the ground by plainclothes security forces. Within seconds, they were surrounded by a ring of riot police, amid shouts of “stay down” and blasts of police whistles.
Face pressed against the pavement, Xurukulasuriya was under arrest.
‘Trudeau is continuing that tradition’
Xurukulasuriya has spent years involved in social movements. “I’ve been an activist since I was a teenager,” they said in an interview with Ricochet. “I was arrested on my first climate action 22 years ago climbing and blockading a coal shipment from the U.S.”
These days, between organizing a wide array of protests, Xurukulasuriya also leads Rest To Resist, a self-care project focused on queer people of color and trauma survivors.
In a post-arrest statement, Xurukulasuriya wrote that their action was motivated in large part by opposition to Trudeau’s repeated confrontations with Indigenous activists over the past four years.
The statement mentions the ongoing, decades-long mercury poisoning crisis at Grassy Narrows First Nation in northern Ontario, as well as the arrest of Secwepemc activists who protested the Trans Mountain pipeline. Trudeau is described as a “climate criminal,” and people who are “not actively fighting climate criminals” as collaborators. For Xurukulasuriya, Friday’s action was meant as a shot across the bow amid “the most urgent threat we and our children will ever face.”
“Canada’s extractivist economy was founded and continues to rely on the theft and plundering of Indigenous lands, territories and peoples tantamount to genocide,” Xurukulasuriya wrote. “Trudeau is continuing that tradition.”
“What I did,” Xurukulasuriya told Ricochet, “I did in defence of vulnerable children fighting for their future so their historic popular mobilization for the climate isn’t turned into a photo-op.”
Claims of police abuse
Xurukulasuriya says that after their arrest, Montreal police officers refused to consider a neurological disorder they have that causes a hyper-sensitivity to light. According to Xurukulasuriya, officers removed their protective glasses and subjected them to “half a dozen camera flashes at close range,” leading to “pain attacks which feel like a knife repeatedly stabbing my left eye.”
They were held in confinement for 30 hours and shuffled between different holding units during that time. Over that time, says Xurukulasuriya, they engaged fellow inmates in political discussion.
“The inmates listened and agreed change can be made both peacefully and forcefully,” Xurukulasuriya said. “And that maybe it needed to begin with spiritual transformation, and that spiritual transformation could maybe begin with taking care of one another.”
As someone immersed in a culture of “radical healing,” Xurukulasuriya spoke to fellow inmates about their lives and struggles. Xurukulasuriya hopes to meet up with some of the inmates, outside the walls of the prison, to help them overcome addiction and trauma.
For now, Xurukulasuriya says that they’re feeling “defiant” about the charges, which they describe as a “ludicrous farce.”
“The climate crisis is going to require bolder action and greater risks,” Xurukulasuriya said. “We’re going to drag the courts into acknowledging that.”