Asked why she was speaking out against Canada’s tar sands development and prepared for civil disobedience and arrest, Council of Canadians Director, Maude Barlow responded: ‘Because I love my grandkids.’
In the course of media training, part of a day-long session that preceded the action, we considered various responses to this question, one that might be posed by media on the Hill or passersby. Why are you taking this action, one that includes the risk of arrest? The data are formidable and comprehensive and the temptation is to tick them off your fingers and the fingers of everyone nearby, roll them off, pummelling the questioner with evidence that is beyond question, exposing both the irreparable destruction of boreal forests and pristine waters and the cynical, rapacious greed of the oil patch barons – businessmen who have forgotten they are grandpas, as one indigenous leader put it.
Years ago, as part of an Interfaith Social Assistance Review Commission delegation to the provincial Standing Committee on Finance interested in challenging the Harris government’s November 1995 slash & burn omnibus bill, one of the members of the committee sneered back: ‘This is not a moral document,’ he said – presumably defining the limits of our dissent – ‘this is an economics document’ – and, thus, outside of our concerns as representatives of faith-based organisations. As if economic decisions do not have a moral component, offering a panoply of possibilities that take us closer to – or further away from – the societal good. Labelled and dismissed, eliminating the need for thoughtful debate.
Since then, political discourse in this country has slipped to an historical low, with political leaders betting on an ill-informed public incapable of complex thought. Journalists show up, most without having done their homework, needing you to do all of the work for them – and in the briefest of sound bytes, presented artfully enough to sell newspapers, blandly enough to avoid disturbance of the air. Flip open any issue of any newspaper and count the number of political leaders who bully the challenger with inane and highly assailable epithets or anodynes, sidestepping the hard questions, any questions.
On Monday, my favourite was Environment Minister Oliver’s oft-repeated, ‘These people are job-killers.’ Calgary School Harperite ,Tom Flanagan, repeated it, forcing the NDPer to defend the jobs part without getting to question what kind of jobs for what kind of good. The epithets and anodynes went largely unchallenged, reducing the equation to people in favour of jobs over here and those against jobs over there. Having thrown in the towel long ago, the media have traded accountability for access and we all lose.
In the unexpected late September heat several hundred of us gathered on Parliament Hill, with about 215 prepared for the kind of civil disobedience that gets one arrested. An impressive phalanx of speakers told their stories of poisoned rivers and aquifers that no longer yield either safe water or safe food, elevated rates of cancer, destruction of hundreds of square kilometres of boreal forest and all those creatures whose lives depend on it, the permanent removal of millions of litres of water from the planet’s hydrological cycle, the use of clean natural gas brought down the Mackenzie Valley to fuel the filthy extraction of the world’s dirtiest bitumen, our country’s cynical signing of and walking away from Kyoto, a government and an oil sector with their heads in the oil sands, bent to the will of an oil-thirsty world oblivious to the suicidal fouling of our own nest. Stupid to the last drop.
As one sign put it: the planet will survive; will we? I probably will; but my grandchildren? How will the planet be altered, tipped into unsurvivable heat (George Monbiot) or pushed to the point of collapse (Jared Diamond), where we discover the limits to human technological ingenuity (Tad Homer-Dixon)? What are the mechanisms by which we are persuaded into greed or silence or complicity in the face of impending disaster? what has made us so myopic in our vision for the future, where jobs, any jobs, profits, any profits, blur our human survival needs for water, food, air, community?
A far cry from the conduct of the G-20 ranks of servers and protectors, the RCMP and the Ottawa Police were mostly kind – removing a portion of fence so a man in a wheelchair could make his way to the illegal side of that fence, patient, some of them curious,asking questions. With the police overwhelmed by the exigencies of arrest, caution, handcuffing, transporting, charging and processing, they had to leave us in the 28 degree heat for several hours. Allies brought food and water, some passing over boxes of pizza, fruit, nuts and muffins.
When I was in University, the Club of Rome had just issued its first report, calling for ZPG (zero economic growth), a new economic model, and pointing out what any high school physics student ought to have realised long ago: infinite growth in a finite space, a limited biosphere, is problematic. To continue this economic model unchecked is, as one commentator put it recently, the definition of insanity. Put together with the direct cost to Creation, which nurtures us all, it is difficult not to conclude that we have to shut this down. No such thing as ethical oil, they said there in Ottawa. And one lone MP, Dennis Bevington, NDP, Northwest Territories, from the Parliament steps, looked on in solidarity. It’s a start.