Acting out for the Earth
Breaking the rules
A couple Mondays ago, activists blocked a Vancouver bridge to call for an end to old-growth logging in B.C. Members of Save Old Growth — a civil society group known for organizing several recent blockades and dumping manure at the premier’s office to send a message — parked a car in rush-hour traffic on the Ironworkers Memorial Bridge. Two people climbed out, unfurled a green and yellow banner bearing the group’s name and almost immediately found themselves handcuffed and whisked off by police.
Their fellow activists had a more high-profile arrest. Still in the car, one person attempted to lock themselves to the steering wheel. A police officer approached and, after a short interaction, smashed one car window, then another. Two people were dragged out of the vehicle, one by their belt loops, and removed from the road.
My colleague Cloe Logan watched that morning as officers eyed the road before quickly descending on the protest. By her estimate, the entire scene unfolded in a few minutes. But while the protest was over almost as quickly as it began, SOG vows to keep showing up until Premier John Horgan meets the group’s demand: stop cutting down B.C.’s ancient trees.
SOG’s tactics are not for everyone — they certainly didn’t receive rave reviews from commuters that morning — but they are far from unique. Around the world, environmental activists use civil resistance to push governments and policymakers to move faster on climate. They've glued, chained and zip-tied themselves to banks, government buildings, soccer goalposts and even meeting room tables, all in the name of taking on the forces behind the climate crisis.
Canada is, of course, no stranger to protests blocking railways, logging activities, pipeline construction and more to draw attention to climate inaction and advocate for both environmental protection and Indigenous rights. Our environment minister once scaled the CN Tower — and wound up in handcuffs — to call out Ottawa’s shortcomings on cutting climate pollution. Last summer, police arrested more than 1,000 people at Fairy Creek blockades, making it the largest act of civil disobedience in Canadian history.
Last week, 65-year-old Tim Takaro was sentenced to 30 days in jail for occupying a treehouse along the route of the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion. He’s one of several people now doing time for their protest against TMX, including William George, a Tsleil-Waututh Nation member and Burrard Inlet protector.
“I would say my career has not been one of activism, but one of science and study,” Takaro told Canada's National Observer.
“And I exhausted all those routes and had my science ignored. And the whole process was rigged. And so that's what led me to non-violent civil disobedience systems.”
As the climate crisis grows, more people are willing to peacefully break the law to make their point — and face the consequences. As of last Wednesday, police have arrested 47 people in connection with SOG’s demonstrations, CBC reports. One of the group’s members is recovering from a shattered hip after falling 20 feet from a ladder while blocking a Vancouver Island highway. SOG organizer Zain Haq, a 21-year-old student from Pakistan, spent time in an immigration detention centre this week after he was summoned by the Canada Border Services Agency in the wake of the roadway blockades. It remains unclear why the border agency is investigating Haq, but the international student has been arrested multiple times at various climate protests, Rochelle Baker reports. (The CBSA ordered his release on conditions Thursday, according to Haq’s lawyer.)
“What I've come to realize is that what we need to do is something much bigger. That communicates the existential emergency that we're in. That sort of involves the public in the debate,” Haq told Canada’s National Observer.
“... It's not like you want to be doing this. Or that we're super into blocking highways or ferries. But that's totally what we need to do to force this dialogue on the government and on the press.”
Civil disobedience serves to keep the case for climate action at the front of public conversation and sometimes succeeds in changing environmental policy. The 1993 War in the Woods — an act of civil disobedience that drew thousands of people and led to hundreds of arrests in Clayoquot Sound — helped bring about big changes to B.C.'s forestry policy, for example.
But even among environmentalists, not everyone is on the same page about the who, what and where of these protests. Is camping out in a remote cutblock the same as stopping traffic on a major highway? Is it better to mobilize thousands in the streets or enlist a smaller group to disrupt and delay? Should protesters limit the inconvenience they cause to banks, governments and fossil fuel companies they oppose, or find ways to keep the climate crisis at the forefront of public attention?
There’s no simple answer. But prominent activists say now is the time to ramp up civil disobedience in hopes of averting more serious impacts from climate change. Experts suggest a range of approaches to protest — even radical ones — can be helpful but, depending on a group's tactics, can also risk triggering public outrage. Whatever your stance on breaking the rules as a form of protest, it’s not going anywhere any time soon.
Reads of the week
How long will Trans Mountain last? Canada’s business case for the pipeline assumes it’ll be transporting oil for 100 years. The country’s financial watchdog says that’s unrealistic.
Keeping an eye on Canada Day. For the first time in 50 years, Ottawa is moving its celebrations away from Parliament Hill to avoid any repeats of the freedom convoy as groups opposed to COVID-19 restrictions pledge to protest in the capital.
Not ready for destruction (yet). Canadians are feeling pain at the pump, but experts are torn on when — or even if — sky-high gas prices will be enough to discourage people from filling up.
“Mantraception.” Fed up with slow progress, two Toronto teens are seeking the key to male birth control to promote reproductive autonomy for all.