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Home > English > Alternatives International Journal > 2013 > March 2013 > Interview on Civil Disobedience

Interview on Civil Disobedience

Friday 1 March 2013, by Houda Chergui

Phillippe Duhamel is a strong proponent of civil disobedience. He was one of the instigators of Operation SalAMI that in May, 1998, was successful in its efforts to prevent the Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI) — a global investment treaty that was being privately discussed between member countries of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC) — from being adopted. He and a group of over a hundred trained participants blockaded the Sheraton Hotel in downtown Montreal and delayed the Conference de Montréal on Globalized Economies for a couple of hours.

The blockade proved successful in cracking the debate open on globalization in Quebec, Duhamel says, and was one of a few major actions that eventually led to the shelving of the agreement. Today, Philippe Duhamel leads a campaign against shale gas development, also know as fracking, and mentors a training group on civil disobedience and resistance in different parts of Quebec.

Was Operation SALAMI your very first instance of resistance?

I had been organizing civil disobedience actions since the mid-1980’s by the time SalAMI came. So I had already been organizing campaigns using direct action for about 15 years. My first arrests were as part of actions to stop the manufacturing and deployment of early versions of drones, called cruise missiles, and to stop NATO military low-level flight trainings in Nitassinan, over First Nation lands in the Lower North Shore area of Quebec, and Labrador.

What is your view on the various forms of protests, are there any that you disagree with?

I don’t believe in protests as the dominant form of action, as the go-to tactic. Protests are too often content with being mere expressions of objection, of disapproval, but still set in a framework defined by powerlessness. They’re about complaining or pleading with the powers-that-be. Hundreds of thousands of people demonstrating is another story, however. But if you keep doing it over and over for lack of better methods, only to vent and get more frustrated as repression increases, or boredom sets in, something is missing.

Then what is, in your opinion, a more effective course of action?

I believe there’s an alternative, a third way, that shuns both ineffective protests and military warfare, murder or terrorism, and that’s strategic civil resistance, which includes civil disobedience tactics. At their best, tactics like civil disobedience, direct action, blockades, sit-ins, strikes, boycotts are not just another form of protest, they constitute deliberate tactics of resistance, methods of struggle meant to exert a capacity to obstruct, to disrupt... to withdraw consent and cooperation, to create and deploy a new "rapport de force", new relations based on a redefinition of power relations.

What I believe in is organized, citizen-based resistance, and autonomous power. Some call it People Power. The Power of organized large groups. Solidarity. I believe in waging "armed struggle" of the nonviolent kind, a type of struggle with a different set of arms, its own non-lethal weapons system: hundreds of nonviolent tactics that can be cleverly sequenced in a way that generates social power, that strengthens people’s capacity to compel and coerce, or dismantle and disintegrate, a violent system, any system of oppression in fact.

I wish — it’s a dream — that as social movements, we would experiment with a moratorium on demonstrations, you know, your usual « hey hey ho ho » protest march and rally. Maybe that would force us to come up with more interesting action designs and ideas. Gandhi didn’t do protests... Think about it. Why is that?

In a way, it’s about the framing, the perspective, the longer-term strategy on which we base our actions. Do we truly believe we, as citizens, are the most powerful force in society, once we get organized and moving? Or do we believe we can only cajole, persuade and pressure those we put in power? The logic, the mindset, and the strategy are going to be very, very different depending on the answer.

That’s the different paradigm that comes with civil resistance. We, as citizens, ultimately hold the key to our own destiny. To me, it’s no use protesting. We only reinforce the power that we give others over us. Instead, we can deploy tactics designed to take that power back — power that we gave in the first place. Different methods that can be used include blockades, refusal to pay fees, tax resistance, mass noncooperation, occupations, and citizen raids on government buildings.

What matters is the power we set out to generate as we come together, get organized, get moving. Let’s devise a strategy that’s intentional, cognizant of the fact that we can stop feeding our own power and resources into a system that’s killing us and future generations. To me, that’s the key.

Have you been involved in other resistance movements since SalAMI?

In April, 2001, a “Search and Seizure Operation” at the Department of International Trade and Foreign Affairs (DFAIT) in Ottawa successfully challenged the secrecy of the Canadian government and its negotiating partners around the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas (FTAA). This came after months of campaigning to get the document out through petitions, press events, and so on. After a day of a People’s Inquiry into Free Trade — which included training for civil disobedience within the Parliament buildings themselves, right in Ottawa! — hundreds showed up in front of DFAIT and demanded access to the minister’s office, Pierre Pettigrew. Then, we proceeded to cross the police barricades. It was very dramatic. And also very powerful.

Within a week, the Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, Pierre Pettigrew agreed to make the FTAA draft treaty public. Once again, the Anti-Vampire Strategy — forcing into broad daylight nefarious secret documents, which then creates outrage — succeeded in forcing the hand of the government, and the FTAA never got adopted.

Since then, I have worked with labour organizations, helping workers learn — or learn again — how to design and wage more powerful campaigns, sometimes involving direct action. I campaigned for the release of Maher Arar, the cause célèbre target of a joint RCMP-CSIS-CIA rendition. I helped various environmental groups and social justice struggles strategize and train. I volunteered with Greenpeace, helping with its oceans campaign, and to fight Big Oil and the ongoing destruction of sustainable life on the planet.

So how do you work on stopping shale gas development in Quebec?

For the last two years, I have been involved with Moratoire d’une Génération, the One-Generation Moratorium Campaign, to stop the shale gas industry, and its toxic, dangerous process called fracking. It’s a success story, because these guys were simply going to take over much of Quebec’s best farmland and southern wooden areas. In 2011, we walked from Rimouski, along the St. Lawrence valley, up the Richelieu river, all the way to Montreal, some 700 km in total over a month. By the end of the walk, the minister of Environment announced the first official halt to drilling and fracking in the province. Nothing has moved since, because they can’t.

We have developed a quite comprehensive campaign. Control Risks, an international consultancy firm that includes major clients from the oil and gas industry, recently looked at anti-fracking campaigns around the world and said: "At the more sophisticated end of the spectrum, for example, the anti-shale Quebecois (Canada) campaign Moratoire d’une generation maintains a dedicated initiative – Schiste 911 – to alert activists by email to drilling activity in the province."

And that’s right, we do offer an online and on-the-ground monitoring and alert system, complete with a 1-888-SCHISTE number. But we also help groups prepare to stop drilling and fracking operations effectively through civil disobedience trainings. Workshops have been held in Bécancour, Calixa-Lavallé, Montréal, St-Hilaire, Bonaventure, with more to come in Ste-Anne-de Bellevue, St Denis-sur-Richelieu, and elsewhere.

We offer these trainings to any group that wants to explore the use of civil disobedience as a tactic of resistance. Next, we also provide assistance and accompaniment in the development of local emergency action plans, so groups know in advance what to do if the industry comes: where people will stay and how they will be fed, who will be driving the minivans and the tractors, what access roads are going to be blockaded by knitting grandmothers in rocking chairs...

One of the strength of the campaign is that sometimes you don’t even need to go all the way to civil disobedience to have an impact. Sometimes the mere fact that people are well prepared for civil disobedience is dissuasive enough for an industry whose cost of operation reaches in the hundreds of thousands of dollars a day.

Together, with other methods, with many other groups that lobby local governments, invite property owners to sign letters of refusal, and use other pressure tactics, the shale gas resistance movement in Quebec has developed into a formidable force.

The reason why the resistance to shale gas has been so successful in Quebec — and we are by no means the only player, as there are over a hundred other groups and organizations involved — lies in the synergy between more traditional forms of community organizing, popular education, lobbying, letter writing, and the proactive development of a civil disobedience component. That small, but significant contribution makes me very happy.