Civil disobedience as a tool for setting Canada’s climate agenda

November 1, 2015

Captain Planet is taken away in handcuffs during an anti–Keystone XL pipeline protest in Washington, D.C., March 2, 2014 (Credit: Light Brigading)

As I write this, a drawn-out electoral battle is coming to an end with a lot riding on the result. Unsurprisingly, little of substance was said about serious action on climate change during the two-month campaign, but this does not need to mean the climate movement should lower its expectations. In fact, I’m willing to propose a bold new posture for the movement in Canada: that it must focus less on reacting to an agenda driven by the political class and insist on leading the climate debate.

None of the climate plans expressed by Canada’s three main parties are realistic. People in Canada are ready for a shift—a leap as some have recently framed it—which leaves the tar sands in the ground and lays the foundation for a justice-centred, community-focused, clean-energy society. The first bricks of this foundation are already being laid by forward-thinking communities. Often, they are the same communities that are fighting for their own survival.

The Lubicon Lake (Cree) First Nation, for example, has taken a leadership role on renewable energy with its Lubicon Solar project. The 80-panel installation will power a health centre in the town of Little Buffalo. Importantly, the project builds expertise within the community, allowing residents to take a step toward fossil fuel independence while also focusing on healing, as impacted communities see cancer rates and other health issues creep upward.

This transformative project in the heart of oil country signals to all levels of government that it is well past time to stop the destruction and embrace a transition to a better future. Scientists have agreed that to avoid catastrophic climate change, 85% of existing and future fossil fuel reserves need to stay in the ground, including Canada’s reserves of tar sands oil. Yet Canada has dragged its feet on climate change for the last two decades, deregulated the environmental assessment process for large energy projects, and spent hundreds of millions advertising one of the world’s most dirty energy sources to global investors.

While frontline communities and civil society activists have managed to block export pipelines, the tar sands have been allowed to expand rapidly to the point where they are one of the main things standing in the way of Canada achieving already inadequate climate targets set by the Harper government. The climate movement needs to take charge of the agenda.

Depending on when you read this, frontline communities, students, environmental activists and others will either be getting ready to or have since converged on Ottawa (November 5–8) for a welcoming committee of sorts for the new prime minister. Through marches, sit-ins and the giving of symbolic gifts, their goal is to set the stage for Canada’s participation in the Paris climate talks at the end of November, and set the tone for climate justice activism for years to come. We aim to start an important and too long delayed conversation about Canada’s climate policy.

The party (or parties) elected to govern Canada after October 19 will not matter much at the end of the day, since there are limited (and obvious, if difficult) options for how we must meet our climate obligations. Though the ways we frame the issue might change, ultimately the urgency does not. The need to co-ordinate a people-driven political vision rests with the climate movement at a time when the political class continues to let us down.

The Canadian government must feel compelled to move beyond symbolic action and be part of a concrete societal shift. Strategic direct actions, by people willing to risk arrest if necessary, are an important tool for highlighting how high the stakes are; they are a legitimate means of engaging meaningfully with government.

Civil disobedience has been successful, time and again, at setting a bold justice-based agenda for policy-makers to adapt to. Just as the Keystone XL sit-ins in 2011 created the first push for an escalated and broader anti-pipeline movement over the years that followed, the prime minister’s welcome in Ottawa this November will, we hope, raise the bar on the current party promises on climate action.

 Daniel Cayley-Daoust is the Ottawa Climate Welcome Action Co-ordinator.