On February 17, 2013 an estimated 35,000 protestors assembled in front of the American White House to urge President Obama not to approve the proposed Keystone XL pipeline extension to the Gulf Coast in Texas. The protest – dubbed the biggest climate rally in US history – was co-hosted by the Sierra Club, who had released a statement a month earlier condoning the use of civil disobedience in the interest of climate protection for the first time in its 120-year history. Sierra Club’s president, Allison Chin and the organization’s executive director, Michael Brune, were among the 50 protestors arrested for tying themselves to the White House gate during the rally. The call for non-violent civil disobedience and the subsequent arrests have forced the Canadian chapter of Sierra Club to wonder whether it should follow suit. Beyond the dialogue that persists within Sierra Club Canada, citizens should be asking themselves the same question: is it time for civil disobedience?
Given the nature of the threats posed by Canada’s energy superpower aspirations, and the overt recklessness practiced by the Harper Conservatives in governing the country, the answer is an urgent yes. The argument supporting civil disobedience in Canada can be informed by the statement put forth by Sierra Club, which pointed out the imminent threats of the global climate crisis that is unfolding before our eyes. The Harper government has proven that it cannot be reasoned with and that it will not let Canadian legislation interfere with its development strategies, leaving Canadians with a choice between resisting through civil disobedience or collaborating with a power that disregards environmental concerns and sustainable energy alternatives. Future generations within as well as beyond our borders are dependent on present Canadian resolve.
Civil disobedience can serve as an agenda-setting tool to raise awareness among Canadians and the international community alike. The Conservative government has presented the Alberta Tar Sands as a major economic opportunity while largely neglecting the project’s environmental and health hazards, let alone the ways in which the project violates and compromises indigenous land rights. It’s time for Canadians to be exposed to the other side of the discourse. After all, public opinion polls consistently assert that Canadians value their natural landscape and environment, and want it protected and preserved. Surveys also reflect Canadians’ trust in the science behind climate change, as well as their belief that the federal government should assume responsibility in addressing the issue. If civil disobedience raises awareness about the discrepancy between what Canadians want and what the government that is supposedly serving their interests is giving them, pressure for corrective measures will undoubtedly mount. The need for awareness is urgent, and realistically speaking, there is very little room for compromise at this point in time.
Since assuming office in 2006, Harper and his Conservatives have amassed a track record not unlike those of traditional colonial powers. Firstly, the Conservatives have turned Canada into a playground for big business, whose interests have managed to become the government’s main priority. Corporate interest has manifested itself in the realm of natural resource exploitation through the gutting of legislation that once served to protect the environment and First Nations’ rights. Canada also abandoned its international commitments to the Kyoto Protocol and lied to the United Nations about tar sands emissions in its climate reports. The white lies directed at the international community have been matched on a domestic level, with accusations of the Harper government’s failure to protect Canadians’ health and environment from the pollution risks associated with the resource industry boom across the country. These practices are reflected in the 2013 Climate Change Performance Index, which ranks Canada 58 out of 61 countries assessed. The index mentions that “Canada still shows no intention to move forward on climate policy and thereby leave it placed as the worst performer of all Western countries”. While there are many groups and movements throughout Canada that have dedicated themselves to holding the Harper Conservatives accountable for their actions, non-violent civil disobedience seems like the next logical step.
Elected governments have the responsibility to protect their citizens. If states cannot or are not willing to protect their own citizens, existing mechanisms can be employed by the international community as a means to pressure the given state, or as a last resort, intervene on behalf of the neglected or oppressed population. This doesn’t seem like a likely possibility for Canadians, which is why civil society must intervene on its own behalf. There is a drastic need for unity in Canada; to assume responsibility for the environment and future generations. Civil disobedience can encourage unity, and perhaps salvage Canada’s reputation on the international stage. Canadians are no longer protected in a manner consistent with the traditional understanding of democracy and good governance, and it’s time to make a choice: resist or collaborate.