More than 100 people, including prominent activist Maude Barlow, were arrested on Parliament Hill Monday during a protest against the construction of the Keystone XL Pipeline, and against the Alberta oil sands in general.
They were among an estimated 400 demonstrators who gathered for what organizers hoped would be a historic showing of mass civil disobedience against the development of the Alberta oil sands.
Protesters took aim primarily at the proposed Keystone XL Pipeline, which they say will damage fisheries and waterways, and cost Canada tens of thousands of jobs.
Barlow, head of the Council of Canadians, and Dave Cole, president of the Communication, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada, were among the first to be arrested in Monday's anti-oil sands protest on Parliament Hill when they crossed a police line.
RCMP Sgt. Marc Menard said that just more than 100 demonstrators were arrested and charged with obstructing police. They were released after being issued a provincial offense notice under the Ontario Trespass Act, which carries a $65 fine and a one-year ban from Parliament Hill.
Moving in waves of six, sit-in participants lined up along a concrete pathway before crossing a three-foot fence marking a restricted police zone.
Activist Brigette DePape, the ex-parliamentary page who gained fame holding up a "Stop Harper" sign, was among a series of speakers who addressed the demonstrators during the so-called solidarity rally.
Asking protesters to imagine what the outrage would be "if it was Harper's water made poisoned," or "if the Ottawa river was a tailings pond," she described the sit-in as a last resort.
"We have tried institutional means and they have failed. We know that change won't happen in Parliament and we know that change won't happen by writing policy reports. Change happens when we take action," she told the cheering crowd.
Speaking to reporters from the other side of the barricade after being arrested, University of Toronto professor and Greenpeace campaigner Keith Stewart said he was missing his class on energy policy to take part in the protest.
"I think the university understands that acts for causes are important. I think they also understands that climate change is important and doing something about it."
Though organizers had planned to conduct the sit-in in the foyer of the House of Commons, they chose on Monday not to cross another eight-foot fence that had been erected in front of the entrance.
"Rather than having the sit-in in the foyer we were forced for security reasons to have the sit-in on the steps of Parliament," Andrea Harden-Donahue, energy campaigner for the Council of Canadians, told The Huffington Post.
Anti-oil sands advocates have garnered support from within the House of Commons. NDP MP Denis Bevington and Green Party leader Elizabeth May were spotted among demonstrators on Parliament Hill during the protest.
“Today, protests are planned against oil sands expansion & Keystone pipeline,” May posted on Twitter on Monday. “I support peaceful, non-violent acts of conscience.”
During question period on Monday, interim Liberal Party leader Bob Rae used the protest as an opportunity to ask Environment Minister Peter Kent about the government’s energy policy.
“Why is it that the government has failed to develop a coherent approach on climate change, on the reduction of greenhouse gases and on producing a truly sustainable policy?” he asked.
In response, Kent maintained that “cleaner air cleaner water and active stewardship of our great natural spaces remains an active priority of this government, even in times of fiscal restraint,” pointing to the recent World Health Organization report that ranked Canada third in the world in terms of air quality.
This week also marks an important turning point for the Keystone XL project south of the border. On Monday, the U.S. State department kicked off a series of hearings over the proposed pipeline. As The Associated Press reports, the meetings, which are being held in the six states that stand to be directly affected by the project, are being billed as “listening sessions,” with State Department officials inviting residents and environmentalists to voice their concerns.
In Kansas, The Topeka Capital-Journal reports that Gov. Sam Brownback defended Keystone XL as a means to growth the economy and jobs.
"We must maintain our access to reliable and affordable sources of energy. And we must improve our national security by shifting American dollars to more friendly nations," he said.
Meanwhile, Rabbi Moti Rieber of the Kansas Interfaith Power & Light, called the pipeline a “moral failure.”
"I consider this project to be a direct threat to Kansas' environmental future,” he said.
As for TransCanada Corp., the Calgary-based company behind Keystone XL, spokesman Terry Cunha maintained that the appropriate environmental safeguards have been taken.
“This project has been under immense environmental review now for three years,” Cunha told CBC on Monday.
In response to concerns about the impact of the project on Nebraska’s Ogallala Aquifer, Cunha noted that the State Department has confirmed that “the route we have selected is the best route.”
“Our Number One priority is ensuring a safe pipeline system that wouldn’t be a threat to the aquifer and this pipeline won’t,” he said.
The Keystone XL Pipeline, which will funnel bitumen from Alberta to refineries in Texas, has already been approved by the Canadian government. The TransCanada Corp. project is currently awaiting approval from Washington.
The protest on Parliament Hill was much smaller in scope than the recent demonstrations against the Keystone XL Pipeline in front of the White House. More than 1,200 people were arrested during the two-week-long demonstration. Celebrities Daryl Hannah, Margot Kidder and Canadian author Naomi Klein were among those taken into custody.
But Harden-Donahue dismissed the notion that the action is small potatoes in comparison.
"The fact that we're looking at 150 or more people crossing that fence and risking arrest, that's not insignificant by any means. This in the context of not being entirely sure of what it would mean in crossing that fence here in Ottawa. So that's actually a very significant thing," she told HuffPost during the demonstration.
"What I'm seeing right now is those sit-in participants, each one of them feeling very passionate in their reasons for crossing that fence," she said. "This is just the beginning."
Canadian actor and First Nations activist Tantoo Cardinal, who was among the celebrities taken into custody during recent demonstrations in Washington, said she would not be among those risking arrest in Ottawa.
"I'm going to let other people do that," she told CBC on Monday. "Both the demonstration in Washington D.C. and this one are very well organized. Peace is at the fore. The people who are going to be arrested are in a certain area, and the people who are supporting are in another area."
Jo Wood, a retired university professor, was among the demonstrators who were assembled on the lawn in front of the House of Commons on Monday morning. As she told HuffPost, the protest signals an escalation in the opposition to oil sands development.
"We've tried everything else in the way of trying to get the government to listen to us and they haven't done so,” she said. “So this is just a way of showing that we are just very serious about the whole climate issue and we hope the government will take us seriously."
Travis Ford said he was also prepared to be taken into custody.
“We will go over that fence and try to talk to our MPs and deliver the message to [Stephen] Harper that we don’t support his agenda, but we will probably be arrested as we cross the fence,” said Ford, who travelled from Calgary to Ottawa for the demonstration.
In advance of Monday’s protest, which was organized by Greenpeace Canada and the Council of Canadians, as well as several First Nations groups, about 300 demonstrators were briefed on how to handle confrontations with authorities.
Organizers say that Monday’s demonstration was endorsed by more than 20 environmental and Indigenous organizations, as well as 20 “high-profile individuals” and a dozen Canadian celebrities.
The Official Opposition is planning to fight the proposal in the House of Commons. “There are huge concerns when it comes to this pipeline in terms of both the environment and jobs,” NDP MP Megan Leslie told The Globe and Mail. “The U.S. gets all the jobs and we get the environmental devastations.”
As the demonstration unfolded on Parliament Hill, those on the other side of the debate continued to do battle in the all-important publicity war. In a press release by the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers Association (CAPP) on Monday, co-founder and former leader of Greenpeace Patrick Moore maintained that the reclamation work underway in the oil sands is environmentally responsible.
The self-described “sensible environmentalist,” who is at the centre of a CAPP-sponsored information campaign, characterized the reclamation process as “necessary” and “staggeringly complex.”
"Evidence shows the land will be reclaimed as thriving ecosystems after oil sands are developed to help meet the world's growing energy needs,” he said.
This story was edited from its original version. It was updated to reflect developments during the course of the day.
The Huffington Post's Althia Raj was on site this morning at the start of the Keystone XL Pipeline protest on Parliament Hill in Ottawa. Here are some of the sights she captured.