I went down to the main branch of the Vancouver Public Library the other day to sit in on an unlikely criminal conspiracy.
Sponsored by Stop Coal (stopcoal.ca), a group that is dedicated to stopping B.C’s accelerating exports of coal and reducing our provincial contributions to the impending climate disruption catastrophe, the forum featured talks from the 13 people who were arrested May 5 in White Rock for standing on the rails and blocking a coal train on its way to Roberts Bank. They were there that night to encourage others to follow their example by planning non-violent acts of civil disobedience against B.C.’s involvement in destroying the world’s climate system.
The 13 “criminals” who risked this act of public civil disobedience are not, by and large, “professional protesters.”
For 84-year-old Ray Haynes, former secretary treasurer of the B.C. Federation of Labour, the arrest on the White Rock tracks was his first. Others who joined Haynes on the tracks included internationally acclaimed environmental economist Mark Jaccard, retired environmental scientist Peter Nix and Lynn Quarmby, chair of molecular biology and biochemistry at Simon Fraser University.
Haynes told the Courier Sept. 28 that he believes civil disobedience is both legitimate and necessary as a way to try to stop our disastrous plunge into climate destabilization.
Quarmby recently told The Tyee online newspaper that “either we all just give up and ride to hell in a hand basket, or we do what we can and hope that maybe, with people around the world doing what they can, something will change. At the very least, I will know that I didn’t just give up.”
Peter Nix asked Synergy Magazine recently: “What if a thousand people stand on those tracks the next time? Then our blockade would become an earthquake, an irresistible tsunami of political action forcing B.C and the federal government to take on the difficult task of phasing out the burning of all fossil fuels.”
Kevin Washbrook, one of Stop Coal’s key organizers, told the Courier that more civil disobedience actions against fossil fuel use and exports were inevitable.
“Reasonable people see that this is serious, and there is no adequate government response,” he said. “It is important that people know that average middle class people are standing up, thoughtful people who are willing to be arrested to stop what’s going on. People are ready for the next step.”
Washbrook said his organization stands ready to help interested B.C. citizens in planning more environmental civil disobedience.
Meanwhile, what is being described as one of the largest acts of civil disobedience in Canadian history is being planned for Oct. 22 in Victoria. The proposed sit-in is being endorsed by more than 80 environmental leaders and political activists including Stephen Lewis, David Suzuki, Maude Barlow, Naomi Klein, Tom Goldtooth, David Coles, Vandana Shiva, Bill McKibben, John O’Connor, and Tony Clarke. The Victoria action, being organized by Defend Our Coasts and other groups, focuses on the proposed Enbridge pipeline and its associated Northern Gateway project, which is opposed by more than 100 First Nations whose territories would be hurt by the pipeline project.
In addition, as I reported in a recent column, the Tsleil-Waututh Nation on the North Shore is pledging to stop the expansion of the Kinder Morgan pipeline into Burnaby and the insane expansion of tanker traffic through Vancouver harbour. What all these protest campaigns have in common is a clear recognition that we are facing perhaps the most important crisis in human history, with the fossil-fuel driven economy on track to destroy the climate equilibrium that has made human culture possible. Every year the impacts of human-caused climate change become worse.
Time is short and the crisis is imminent, as the mild-mannered “criminals” I saw in the library basement the other day recognize. They have found a way to act on that recognition, and they are challenging the rest of us to join them. We should, in my opinion, answer that challenge. Anyone who cares about the human future should take seriously the moral challenge of these brave, ordinary citizens, and find ways to join them. We owe it to our children and grandchildren, and we owe it to our own self-respect. It is time for dramatic and effective acts of resistance, and folks like the “White Rock 13” and the Tsleil-Waututh Nation are setting a good example. I urge everyone to consider emulating them.
If we do join with those who are brave enough to risk arrest to prevent climate disaster, we’ll be acting in the grand tradition of Gandhi, Martin Luther King and of the more than 800 Canadians who put themselves on the line to help prevent the clearcutting of Clayoquot Sound in 1993, all citizen activists who changed history.
Other examples of successful civil disobedience include the American Civil Rights movement and the work of peace activists such as Dorothy Day and the Berrigan brothers against militarism.
(Allen Garr is on vacation.)