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The power of protest


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I felt like I had stepped back in time to 25 years ago when I saw the front-page photos of pipeline protesters being arrested last month in Vancouver—including federal Green Party leader Elizabeth May.

It's an image that stayed with me as another Earth Day passed us by last Sunday, April 22.

We have all seen and read about the on-going issues surrounding the building of the Trans Mountain pipeline by Kinder Morgan, North America's largest energy infrastructure company, which is based in Texas.

The Burnaby expansion plan of the $7.4-billion project, which has been approved by the National Energy Board and the federal government, has ground to a halt thanks to these protests and now Kinder Morgan is re-thinking if it's going to go ahead at all.

Of course, this is infuriating to Alberta's NDP premier Rachel Notley—who is busy fuelling provincial boundary trade war threats.

But let's step back from the hype for just a moment.

In many ways, this needs to be a big-picture moment for us and perhaps that is why the image of the arrests last month at the pipeline and the images I still remember from the front lines of Clayoquot Sound in 1993 are blurring in my mind.

The logging protests were powerful not just because they drew attention to the planned destruction of an environmentally sensitive area, but because they put a spotlight on the relationship between the resource sector and the government of the day. And for many ordinary citizens what the spot light revealed—the very deep and interwoven relationship between big business and government—was rather shocking.

I was reminded of this as I read a column last week in the Globe and Mail by Tzeporah Berman, who was on the front lines of Clayoquot Sound, and today is the director of Stand.earth.

"The B.C. government had been like an arm of the logging industry with parties left and right alike doing its bidding," she wrote of the Clayoquot Sound protests.

"Clayoquot happened because B.C.'s political system and institutions were failing to process change."

One can see the same relationships exist with Kinder Morgan and government. Various governments, and more than half of Canadians (if you believe polls), are for the pipeline, which represents fossil fuels and our current economy and way of life.

But many others, including the incredibly important voice of Indigenous peoples, are standing for change.

We know that climate change is real, we know that fossil fuel emissions are a huge part of the problem, we know that Canada signed the Paris Accord pledging to reduce emissions 30 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030, and we know that if we continue with the tar sands and pipelines we cannot make those targets (Alberta accounted for 38 per cent of Canada's greenhouse gas emissions in 2015, the most recent year with available data).

When Green Party leader May was led away, she said: "The commitment to build a pipeline in 2018 when we are in climate crisis is a crime against future generations and I will not be part of it."

She has been charged with civil contempt for blocking a road, which is not a criminal charge, and must appear in court on June 14.

Non-violent civil disobedience is the moral obligation of a responsible citizen on the issue of climate change, May later said.

Putting aside for a moment that the Trans Mountain needs to traverse the lands of First Nations peoples who do not support it to get to Burnaby, let's remember that the increase in bitumen flow means an increase in tanker traffic of seven fold along our coastline.

So clearly, it's not a question of if an oil spill will happen, but when.

Just take a moment to picture that. Remember the images from the Exxon Valdez, which went aground off Alaska in 1989? Horrific.

What about that "tiny" oil spill in Vancouver in 2015? The Canadian Coast Guard spent $2.4 million in its response to that and the City of Vancouver is still waiting to be paid back $500,000 for its response costs. Canada's polluter-pay system and the changes to spill response being suggested by various levels of governments are simply not up to the task.

It's time for all levels of government and indeed all of us to recognize that there must be change. National and global economies have gone through massive restructurings in the past—it's time to learn from them and plan for the next generation of Canadians.