September 18 – It’s been a little more than two years since Mylene Vialard headed north to protest a major oil pipeline in Minnesota.
Late last month, Vialard, a veteran activist and member of Boulder’s Police Oversight Panel, returned to Minnesota to stand trial. After a tough week filled with examples of what she called “egregious” prosecutorial misconduct, Vialard was found guilty of a misdemeanor charge of obstructing legal proceedings. She faced a year and a day in prison, but the 54-year-old water conservationist said she would do it all again if she could.
“The message is still the same. The reason I’m fighting in court is still for the same reasons,” she said. “This is an aberration, that we are criminalizing people like me – activists – while our planet is on fire. We know it comes from fossil fuels and all the extractive industries, and we do nothing about it. land, and we continue to get permits for pipelines and extraction. And it has to stop.”
The 1,097-mile Line 3 pipeline, owned by Canadian multinational oil company Enbridge Energy, runs from Edmonton, Alberta, to Superior, Wis., crosses multiple states and runs close to the headwaters of the Mississippi River. It is also known for causing major oil spills: In March 1991, the pipeline caused the largest inland oil spill in U.S. history when it ruptured and dumped 1.68 million gallons of oil into a river near Grand Rapids, Minnesota.
Enbridge proposed replacing the pipeline in 2014, and while portions in North Dakota and Wisconsin have since been replaced, the project has faced stiffer opposition from indigenous groups and environmentalists in Minnesota. Vialard said there were “so many reasons” for her to join the protests.
“(Enbridge) didn’t do their due diligence. They did not consult all the indigenous peoples along the pipeline. Throughout construction they continued to litter and said they were cleaning up, but we know it was never completely cleaned up. …The indigenous people did not know how to stop this construction. And the construction was endangering their way of life,” she said. “There’s a point where I couldn’t just watch and forget about it. I had to be there.”
So on August 26, 2021, Vialard hoisted himself in protest to the top of a building near where a pumping station was being built along Line 3. Six other protesters occupied the same building. Within a few hours they were all arrested.
Vialard said her charge of “obstructing legal process” was essentially a charge of obstructing or resisting law enforcement, which she denies.
As she and others climbed the structure, she said, “I never thought about law enforcement. I thought about Enbridge and Line 3, and the damage that was going to happen, that was going to happen… because of the presence of this pipeline under over 200 bodies of water.”
In court, Vialard described the prosecutor’s behavior as “shocking.” Prosecutors raised allegations such as violations that were not considered in her case, claiming she was on a private road — a claim Vialard denies — and not turning over phone records at a judge’s request.
Aitkin County Attorney Garrett Slyva, who prosecuted the case, could not immediately be reached for comment.
When her guilty verdict came on September 1, Vialard was not surprised, although she does not feel guilty.
“I’ve said it before, but I’m really not to blame here,” she said. “Enbridge, the fossil fuel industry, the extractive industries… are to blame for the climate we’re experiencing now. And it’s getting worse. And you’re criminalizing me for saying ‘stop’ in a non-violent way?”
Vialard also doesn’t see herself as unique or special for what she did. She said many other protesters, even in Boulder County, were “putting their bodies on the line” like her. But she decided to go to trial in part because she wanted to raise awareness about the pipeline and inspire people to take action, because she knows activism doesn’t happen “in a vacuum.”
“Let’s get the conversation going again. Let’s make sure people know what Line 3 is. And there are also so many other places in the US where activism is needed, where activism is happening,” Vialard said. “It’s really important to put the conversation back at the center, link it to everything else that’s happening that we need to fight for, and really encourage people to take action.”
Asked for comment on the case, Claire Glenn, one of Vialard’s lawyers, said in a statement that she would appeal the verdict.
“The frequency and blatant prosecutorial misconduct during Ms. Vialard’s trial was disturbing. Under no circumstances did she receive a fair trial. Unfortunately, the court denied our request to live stream the jury trial, denying countless individuals the opportunity to see for themselves what the government is doing on their behalf and with their tax dollars,” said Glenn.
“If constitutional guarantees mean anything, the court should overturn Ms. Vialard’s conviction. If not, we will go to the Minnesota Court of Appeals and ask a higher court for justice.”