I got arrested today for the first time today. Just before noon, I walked hand in hand with colleagues and friends, the steady and haunting beat of First Nations drums behind me, to a four-foot barrier near the front of Parliament Hill, erected to keep me and other protesters away from the doors of Parliament. I took a deep breath, stepped on the barrier and crossed over.
We were on Parliament Hill to show our opposition to the extension of the Keystone Pipeline, which would take raw bitumen from the tar sands of Northern Alberta over prime farmland and the Ogallala Aquifer to a refinery in Texas. Keystone is only one of a number of pipelines planned or built to export bitumen to other places for refining. Together they resemble a snakes and ladders board game, taking more and more heavy oil, the dirtiest in the world, to communities and countries around the world. My concern is that we are exporting our dirty oil as well as the process to refine it, which also pollutes local water sources. Also, by investing trillions of dollars into these pipelines, governments and the energy industry are ensuring the continued rapid acceleration of tar sands development, instead of supporting a process to move to an alternative and sustainable energy system.
Opposition to Keystone is growing in the United States with the greatest concern being for the safety of the Ogallala, a closed and overworked aquifer. One bad spill and the aquifer could be severely damaged putting the food supply and livelihoods of million of Americans in jeopardy. I took part in the two week rolling protests held in Washington in late August and led by the indefatigable Bill McKibbon of 350.0rg. I was deeply moved by the dignified process of non -violent civil disobedience I witnessed there and vowed to help create a similar event in Canada.
So with Greenpeace, the Indigenous Environmental Network, the Polaris Institute, and the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union (who represent the tar sands workers), the Council of Canadians organized a similar demonstration of civil disobedience and worked with local police forces to make it as dignified and peaceful as possible.
Over 800 Canadians gathered on the Hill, where we heard the stories of despair from First Nations people living downstream of the tar sands and the need to take our campaigns to the next step of direct action. It was not an easy decision to make. The charges could very well have been criminal and impair my ability to do work in the United States, which would have been devastating for me. I chair the board of Food and Water Watch in Washington and serve on advisory boards of several other organizations. I also speak to many American groups and at universities. The merging of the no-fly lists between Canada and the United States is a real and growing concern, as many of us fear such lists will be used to shut down peaceful dissent.
But the day comes when you have to take a stand beyond the range of your comfort zone and for me, this was the day. I have four grandchildren I love more than life itself and I want them and all children to grow up in a safe and healthy world. I was lucky to have on one side Dave Coles, the fearless president of the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union and on the other, Fred Wilson, senior adviser to Dave and a wonderful board member of the Council of Canadians. Banks of cameras caught our every move and I found myself wishing I had told my mother I was going to do this.
I was asked three times by a very respectful police officer to go back over the fence and when I refused, he arrested me for obstructing a police officer, a serious criminal charge. I was handcuffed, searched and escorted by an also respectful policewoman and sat, as did my friends, for a long time while they decided what to do with us. Finally, they thankfully decided on the lesser charge of trespassing and we, and the 200 others who followed us over the fence, were given a fine and an edict to stay away from Parliament Hill for a year. (Not sure how that can be constitutional but that is an argument for another day.) Then I was taken in a paddy wagon and escorted off the Hill. "Damn!" I thought. I wanted to go back to the protest.
I realize that at no time was my life in danger as is the case for activists in some other countries or even some groups in our own. But I also for a short time, felt the unnerving experience of being totally and completely out of control of my life and it has left me shaken. Mostly I feel privileged to have been part of a wonderful experience where people of all ages and from all over the country came together to put themselves on the line. I did it because I fear we are killing the planet and I can no longer be content to only write and speak about it. Today my feet spoke for me as I crossed that barricade and took away one more fear in my life.