“Are you nervous?” I asked.

“No,” Ben Holt said. “Not really. I’ve done everything I can. Now it’s just a matter of hearing what the judge thinks.”

Holt had pleaded guilty to four charges of mischief for engaging in four incidents of civil disobedience between April and October 2022 with an organization called Save Old Growth. On Feb. 2, wearing a tweed jacket and a colourful printed tie, Holt took a seat in the B.C. provincial courthouse in Vancouver to hear Judge Gregory Rideout’s sentence.

His decision was sobering: a 60-day conditional sentence (house arrest) and six months probation. Holt, a 52-year-old North Vancouver soccer dad and IT specialist by training, would be able to work from home. But he now has a criminal record.

Holt’s civil disobedience had already cost him greatly. And in his court submission, Holt emphasized his promise to give it up. “I hadn’t fully considered the effect my actions would have on them (his family).”

Holt had been arrested on Oct. 20, 2022, and spent six days in custody for trying to paint a sign on the Lion’s Gate Bridge before bail was granted. “My incarceration really scared my kids, especially my daughter.”

He told the judge that his wife was a patient and supporting partner. “But she has limits. I put her through one of the worst weeks of her life and jeopardized our relationship,” he said.

“I can either continue in civil disobedience or I can continue in my marriage. I enthusiastically choose my marriage.”

The ongoing court appearances related to the charges also caused Holt problems at work. To appear in court for the first two charges, he said, “I was going between the North Vancouver and Vancouver courts, often on the same day, one in the morning and the other in the afternoon.” It was hard to get his work done, and eventually, Holt told his employer what was going on.

Old-growth activist Ben Holt recently pleaded guilty to mischief charges and vowed to give up his civil disobedience. “I can either continue in civil disobedience or I can continue in my marriage. I enthusiastically choose my marriage.”

That’s when he learned his employer had received emails from someone who thought Holt should be fired. His boss supported him and told him he was welcome to stay. But Holt said he didn’t want his employer to suffer because of him and resigned. For a while, he worked for Save Old Growth as an organizer for a $2,000 honorarium. However, it wasn’t a long-term solution, and he is now looking for new contracts in his field.

Until he joined Save Old Growth’s protest actions last summer, Holt had always been law-abiding. Deeply concerned about the climate crisis for decades, he signed petitions, joined marches and spoke to politicians. Starting in 2015, he campaigned for the Green Party during four elections. Holt threw himself into these efforts, spending hundreds of hours door-knocking and manning phone banks. Then he became convinced they were futile. In 2021, B.C. experienced the worst effects of climate change it had ever seen — searing heat and floods of biblical proportions. Holt blamed our governments for not bringing carbon emissions down.

For Holt, climate change is visceral and immediate. In his court submission, he wrote about a childhood friend forced to leave her home in Kamloops during the heat dome of 2021. He recalled a friend’s father during the November floods, caught between two mudslides on the Lougheed Highway and rescued by helicopter. He remembered a neighbour who had started a composting business and suddenly had to dispose of hundreds of pigs drowned in the raging waters. “The effects of climate change felt very, very close, very real and very scary,” Holt wrote.

He started looking for more ways to be heard. Holt was impressed by Erica Chenoweth, a Harvard professor who showed that by using civil disobedience, a small group of people could create durable change quite quickly. Holt joined Save Old Growth, a group that vowed to block highways until the provincial government banned old-growth logging. He called their demand a “symbolic ask.”

“This was akin to Gandhi,” he said. “His first ask was for Indians to harvest their own salt. He managed to parlay that into Indian self-rule.” Holt wanted to preserve our ancient trees and then move to action on climate change.

Three of the incidents of mischief involved blocking traffic. The fourth was the attempt with four others to paint “Save Old Growth” on the Lion’s Gate Bridge deck. Crown prosecutor Ellen Leno had asked the judge to sentence Holt to 35 days in jail with 180 days of probation. She said only jail could deter him from breaking the law again. Holt’s lawyer, Benjamin Isitt, argued for a conditional discharge, one year of probation and a 60-day curfew, a sentence that would not have saddled him with a criminal record. Isitt noted Holt had no prior charges, had pleaded guilty, accepted responsibility for his conduct and was motivated by a desire to stop climate change.

In explaining his decision, Judge Rideout mentioned the character references he had received describing Holt as kind, honest and hard-working. Nevertheless, he disapproved of Holt’s leadership involvement in Save Old Growth. “He was not merely a rank-and-file member drawn into the movement. His role greatly increases his moral culpability.”

Rideout also frowned upon the fact that after appearing in court for the first charge, Holt participated in another blockade. "He reoffended when he was well aware of outstanding charges.”

Rideout said he found Holt’s reflections about the rule of law “worrisome.” Holt had written: “Protecting its citizens is the prime purpose of a state and if it fails to do that, it is failing to live up to the Social Contract and is undermining the legitimacy of the rule of law. Protests such as my own, which aim to reengage the government in the Social Contract and the protection of citizens, are, in fact, strengthening the rule of law.”

Rideout begged to differ. “His belief that his actions in committing the unlawful protests in fact strengthen the rule of law clearly demonstrates a lack of genuine acceptance that his behaviour has no legal justification.”

Kimberley Brownlee, the Canada Research Chair in Ethics and Political and Social Philosophy at the University of BC, wrote The Case for Civil Disobedience. When I spoke to her about Holt, she pointed me to a 2019 Washington state Supreme Court ruling. It upheld the right of activists who break the law to offer the defence that they were protesting “the inaction by governments to meaningfully address the crisis of climate change.” So far, the courts in Canada have not followed suit.

Holt is philosophical about his fate. “I’ve tried my best,” he wrote. “That’ll have to be enough.” He remains committed to his cause but going forward, will advance it through legal means only.

Keep reading

When it comes to climate change, and indeed environmental issues generally, the legal system is, as the constitution puts it, in disrepute.