Ever feel like you aren’t where you should be? It’s okay, we all do. Yet, sometimes, we feel, without a single doubt, we are in precisely the right place at precisely the right moment.
A meticulously-planned civil disobedience uprising demanding climate justice and the honoring of the rights of indigenous people, felt just like that. Even before the drums.
The right place is a hill which belonged to the Algonquin First Nation for centuries, yet is currently occupied by Canada’s capitol buildings and is known as Parliament Hill.
The right time is the blue sky morning of Monday, September 26th. Clayton Thomas-Muller, of the Mathias Colomb Cree Nation and organizer with the Indigenous Environmental Network, opens a solidarity rally by thanking the Algonquin First Nation for use of their land.
Elder Terry McKay, of the Tsimshian Nation, leads the rally in prayer.
Speakers filled with passion and conviction against tar sands development and pipelines include First Nation Elders, climate activist leaders, and others. Unlike any other day on the hill, the air was thick with sounds of courage, respect, solidarity, strength, and hope. Seagulls circled overhead.
The first participant to cross over a 3-foot fence marked with a yellow ribbon that read “POLICE LINE DO NOT CROSS,” was David Coles, the President of the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union. “What blooming idiot came up with the idea of ‘ethical oil’?” Coles had rhetorically asked the crowd minutes before.
“Ethical oil” is a notion that first originated in mid-2010 from Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s administration, whereby reliance on oil from Saudi Arabia is intrinsically unethical, due to the oppression of their women. And tar sands or “oil sands” as Harper prefers, is ethical, because Canadian women are less oppressed. Whether the carbon dioxide emissions from Saudi oil is more or less ethical than the carbon dioxide emissions from the dirtier-burning tar sands oil is left to the imagination.
Coles is followed over the fence by Cree Nation Elder Roland Woodward, a community organizer born in a small town located on the banks of Alberta’s Athabasca River called Fort McMurray.
The water from his hometown’s river is considered essential for tar sands production. As a result, tailings ponds holding the toxic waste created by production are scattered alongside and often within hundreds of feet of the Athabasca. Before the outbreak of high cancer rates, the Cree would drink water directly from their river as they canoed.
Third over the fence was Maude Barlow, National Chairperson of the Council of Canadians.
“I’m doing it cause I love my grandkids,” Barlow had told the crowd earlier. “In my opinion, those crossing the line today are not breaking the law. The people breaking the law is the Harper government in that building behind us.”
Next across was Julie Burke, Chairperson of the Keepers of the Athabasca. Five years ago, Keepers of the Athabasca and its parent organization, Keepers of the Water, were formed by the Deh Cho First Nation Declaration, recognizing water as sacred and essential to life, with the duty to protect it an obligation shared by all people. Naively, the previous day, I had asked Burke how long the First Nations had been fighting to keep the the Athabasca River clean?
“Since forever,” she had replied.
While the initial wave of participants to cross over the fence were arrested immediately, subsequent waves were respectfully instructed by police to sit down until officers were available to arrest them.
The arrests and crossings continued for hours, as did the solidarity rally. Drum sounds, battle cries, indigenous song and dance, became the new pulse of the hill.
According to Article 32 of the UN’s Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Harper is required to cooperate in good faith to obtain:
free and informed consent prior to the approval of any project affecting their lands or territories and other resources, particularly in connection with the development, utilization or exploitation of mineral, water or other resources.
“We’ve been informed and we do not consent.” said Chief Jackie Thomas of the Saik’uz First Nation, to the crowd during the rally. Her Nation is one of five nations making up the Yinka Dene Alliance. Enbridge Pipeline offered to give the Alliance a 10-per-cent ownership stake in the proposed $5.5-billion Northern Gateway pipeline, and the Alliance declined.
After hours in the full sun on a warm day, police simply quit arresting participants, effectively ending the action.
Up until that point, no matter how many were arrested, the number awaiting arrest continued to grow. Were participants extremely fast procreators, or was Earth itself experiencing a Darwinian adaptation allowing for the spontaneous generation of climate activists? Neither.
With each wave of participants climbing over the fence, the legal table set up by the Centennial Flame had received new enlistees wanting to also be on the “right” side of the fence.
The day before, Thomas-Muller said, “You can’t buy into tar sands oil, without buying into ecocide.”
Likewise, you can’t buy into “ethical oil,” without buying into the oppression of indigenous rights.
The drum beat sounds of the Ottawa Action were powerful, but the heartbeats of the warriors climbing that 3-foot fence were thunderous.
Small farmers in Oregon, backed by a coalition of animal rights and climate activists, secured a big legislative victory over industrial factory farms, providing inspiration for wider action.
Once I decided that violence was not an option, I found the humanity in my fellow prisoners through the simple act of sharing food.
Political educator Harmony Goldberg discusses whether the ideological traditions of the left are helpful for practical organizing.