10/02/2011 08:34 EDT | Updated 12/02/2011 05:12 EST

Oil Sands Protest: A War of Words, Not Violence

Non-violent resistance, or civil disobedience, has been with us for centuries and has shaped the world in which we live today. Those who chose to risk arrest on Parliament Hill are not the extremists. They are the front line of a growing group of people prepared to engage in "the politics of ordinary people."

On Monday of this past week, hundreds of Canadians from all walks of life converged on Parliament Hill to protest the tar sands. By virtue of the size of the investment, a decision to move ahead with the plans to triple output from the tar sands will dictate Canadian energy policy for the next 40 years. Over 100 of these concerned individuals were arrested and many more risked arrested on a point of principle: Canada's tar sands are dirty, they are driving catastrophic climate change and the new pipelines required to deliver this oil to international markets will irreversibly tie Canada to a dirty fossil fuel future.

The governing Conservatives were quick to dismiss the protesters labelling them "extremists." The business press chided the police for letting the activists off too lightly with their arrest and fines. Ezra Levant, author of Ethical Oil argues that governments should outlaw Greenpeace as a "criminal organization."

These reactions are predictable. The Harper government has steadfastly refused to acknowledge the seriousness of the threat of global warming and quickly dismiss anyone that disagrees with them. Controllers of the oil patch, for their part, routinely use the courts to silence opposition to their uncontrolled expansion.

What is truly astonishing however is their lack of a broader historical context of the action on Parliament Hill.

Today is the United Nations International Day of Non-violence. Established in 2007, Oct. 2 coincides with the birthday of Mahatma Ghandi, considered by many as the father of non-violent resistance. The purpose of the International Day of Non-violence is not just to promote peace and non-violence but unabashedly promote the tactic of non-violence as a tool for making fundamental global change. The UN website says of the day:

"The principle of non-violence -- also known as non-violent resistance -- rejects the use of physical violence in order to achieve social or political change. Often described as 'the politics of ordinary people,' this form of social struggle has been adopted by mass populations all over the world in campaigns for social justice."

Non-violent resistance or civil disobedience has been with us for centuries and has shaped the world in which we live today. Aristotle warned that it is not the same thing to be a good man as it is a good citizen. Thoreau's historic 1849 essay "Civil Disobedience" spoke of the need to be a person before a subject of a state. Gandhi was emphatic in his belief and practice calling civil disobedience a "sacred duty" and non-violence the "greatest force at the disposal of mankind."

Non-violent resistance in recent history would include the Underground Railroad that delivered runaway slaves across the border into Canada, the suffrage movement that won a woman's right to vote and Rosa Parks' arrest for refusing to take her place at the back of a public bus in race segregated Alabama. All defied existing laws that were either unjust or designed to provide order to a misguided society. The Arab Spring, Orange Revolution, anti-apartheid movement and British Columbia's "war in the woods" to protect old growth forests all have their roots in non-violent civil disobedience. And all were popular movements engaging in acts of defiance that were met with a legal and police response. Attempts to suppress these movements threw legal action not only failed, but probably accelerated them.

The Pentagon and other intelligence agencies estimate that climate change could overthrow governments, provoke and intensify terrorist movements and significantly damage entire regions. Every dollar we invest in the tar sands is a dollar that does not go into a clean energy economy and further binds Canada and our future prosperity to a dead end road. The Global Humanitarian Forum, led by Kofi Annan, the former UN Secretary-General, says climate change is already killing 300,000 people a year in a "silent crisis" that is seriously affecting hundreds of millions more. And downstream from the tar sands, First Nation communities are saddled with the effects of 11 million litres of toxic tailing waste disappearing into the Athabasca watershed each day.

Those who chose to risk arrest on Parliament Hill are not the extremists. They are the front line of a growing group of people prepared to engage in "the politics of ordinary people" against a government and corporate agenda that is woefully out of touch with the reality of the crisis at hand.

History will deal much more severely with those that failed to take action on climate change than the courts can against those that choose to act now. While governments and oil producers can take solace in the non-violent nature of anti-tar sands protests they should also fear it because as Gandhi said, non-violence is "mightier than the mightiest weapon of destruction devised by the ingenuity of man."