When Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, Green Party head Elizabeth May, NDP MP Kennedy Stewart and over 150 other protesters deliberately sought arrest on Burnaby Mountain for violating a civil injunction granted by the courts to Texas-based corporate giant Kinder Morgan, they did not do so because they wished to inflict harm on any person or any property.
They did it because their actions might lead to the exact opposite outcome: a reduction in harm to everyone.
And by protesting, the target they are aiming for – changing the hearts and minds of Canada’s political and business leadership – could accomplish this hoped-for outcome.
Industry and governments hide behind “the law”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his cabinet and Premier Notley and her political allies — and even some of her opponents — as well as the business leaders in the oil and gas industry and sectors directly or indirectly dependent on them, have all taken pains to amplify this pragmatic notion to grandiose proportions. They have gone out of their way to recite, over and over, that completing the Kinder Morgan pipeline expansion is a matter of "national importance," an act on which the economy of this country is utterly dependent. If it fails to go ahead, they say, investor confidence (primarily from other shareholder-driven enterprises) will be lost, and we’ll all be marching off to the poorhouse.
They have also worked hard to convince all Canadians, and the world at large, that the "rule of law" is being destroyed by peaceful protests and acts of civil disobedience which obstruct the pipeline expansion's construction. They say these dissenting opinions must be overruled and the perpetrators punished harshly.
According to the black letter of Canadian law, as it now stands, they are correct. Like a car salesman who has sold a customer a lemon, they can point to the fine print of the social contract, and say that fine print says they are not responsible for any problems with the vehicle, and the customer has to suck it up and be happy.
The laws of any particular nation, however, are never immutable. Laws change all the time because of new insights, new data and new experiences. In particular, they are overturned when clear and unmistakable evidence suggest that the premises underpinning them are wrong.
History is repeating itself
Four centuries ago Galileo Galilei produced irrefutable concrete evidence that the Earth revolved around the sun, building on a mathematical model developed by Nicolaus Copernicus decades earlier. But for various political reasons, Pope Paul V in Rome decided that this view conflicted with the Church's interpretation of the Bible, which functioned then very much as a legal dossier does in our times.
Pope Paul V sent word to Galileo in 1616 that he must “...abandon completely... the opinion that the sun stands still at the center of the world and the earth moves, and henceforth not to hold, teach, or defend it in any way whatever, either orally or in writing.” The writings of Copernicus were also banned at this point – despite the fact that he'd been dead for over 80 years.
Threatened with punishment by the Inquisition, Galileo accepted house arrest instead. Incredibly, he remained closeted under house arrest until his death in 1642.
What happened 400 years ago is happening again today
No-one accepts today that the political and religious leaders of the 17th century were correct in their opposition to the evidence before them.
Yet there is an exact parallel between the conduct of Pope Paul V and his coterie of advisors back then, and that of the Prime Minister, his Cabinet, the fossil fuel industry, and assorted politicians in 2018. But their denial of reality today is even more troublesome than it was 400 years ago.
The Pope and others acted as if the way they interpreted the Bible took precedence over direct observations of the world around them. The evidence before them presenting a new way of looking at the world was convincing and still holds up today, but it was sparse.
Canada’s current political and business leaders, on the other hand, are surrounded by a wealth of facts and data. They are trying to tell us that nearly all the climate scientists in the world are wrong when they say that global warming is upon us, and the greatest crisis ever facing humankind.
These same leaders are trying to tell us that virtually all the economists who study the energy industry are wrong when they say that expansion of the fossil fuel supply has to come to an end, and further reserves must be left in the ground as ‘stranded assets”.
They are further arguing that well-informed futurists, health professionals, engineers and scholars are wrong when they call for a shift from fossil fuel dependency towards energy conservation and a massive expansion and deployment of renewable energy systems.
And finally, they are telling Indigenous leaders they are wrong to have repeatedly appealed, for years and all over the world, for protection of the values of the natural environment.
They’re even ignoring the opinions of their own hired public Auditors General, who say that Canada is lagging far behind on actions to address climate change.
Unlike the shareholders in Kinder Morgan, the vast majority of impartial and disinterested parties are advocating for change have nothing material to gain from doing so. And yet if they also carefully advocate for the support of displaced workers through future employment in other industries, they also are painted as foolish, misguided. Now, they are potentially even considered criminal.
If the laws are wrong, don’t use them to punish people
We don’t have the Inquisition with us anymore. The Kinder Morgan protesters are neither going to be stretched on the rack nor burned at the stake for overtly dissenting from today’s authorities.
Our laws have at least changed that much.
But the current laws, which current authorities endorse, do provide penalties that can seriously affect the lives of citizen advocates – fines, jail terms, and a badge of criminal conviction that has widespread implications for those citizens’ personal security and relationships.
Yet the laws of Canada are blissfully immune to the existence of climate change – as are most of Canada’s political and corporate players. The laws of Canada are also blissfully blind to the inherent value of peaceful citizen protest, with absolutely no provision for acknowledging that the grounds for such protest can justify actions beyond simply saying a few mollifying words in person or in print.
We also have an electoral system – the first-past-the-post system – that routinely allows a minority of voters, strongly influenced by a desire to maintain the status quo, to elect governments that tell the majority of citizens what they must do. This is the system which Prime Minister Trudeau repeatedly promised to scrap while campaigning, but then infamously refused to change.
If the government doesn’t like what you say, even if it’s backed up by massive documentation from impartial, independent experts, they can and will exploit the laws, as they now stand, to ignore you and your arguments – as long as they calculate that they can win the next election.
The right side of history
We have an obligation to collectively affirm the innocence of the protesters who have lined up on Burnaby Mountain, holding out their wrists for restrained and polite RCMP officers (some of whom look unhappy with the task they have been assigned) to encircle with handcuffs.
We must encourage anyone who recognizes the unprecedented gravity of the current global situation to consider proudly joining those who have climbed the mountain already. We must support them in speaking out at every turn about the illegitimacy of a government policy that insists that citizens are irrelevant, misguided and potentially criminal, when they in fact rely on the best and brightest minds in our scientific pantheon.
One day, sooner than we expect, we may be forced to reap the mature harvest of unchecked global warming, coming on over the next two decades, a trend that has already devastated lives all over the world with shifting conditions and extreme weather events.
When that happens, the CEOs and shareholders of Kinder Morgan will probably be well out of the public sphere, sending their children and grandchildren to the best schools and enjoying a level of personal comfort far beyond the reach of most of their fellow citizens. Our political leaders may well be living in similar conditions, though perhaps on a somewhat less lavish scale.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. Government leaders can and do change their minds. They can decide that the climate science community, the progressive economists, the thoughtful and deeply-informed futurists and a vast concourse of literate, intelligent and well-informed ordinary folk are worth listening to. They can turn their faces and their minds away from the status quo, and away from a short-term dollars and cents mind-set, and accept the critical fact that we face profoundly transformative times – times that demand appropriately transformative conduct.
There is before us an opportunity to bring about such a change of heart and mind.
While innocent of the crimes of which they are accused, it is safe to say attempting to change political leaders' mindset to embrace the future is a crime of which the protesters on Burnaby Mountain are unquestionably and enthusiastically guilty.