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A case for civil disobedience

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Editor’s note: Columnist Roslyn Kunin recently wrote about the dangers of civil disobedience to civil society. She pointed out that the Sierra Club Canada was discussing taking up civil disobedience. John Bennett, executive director of the Sierra Club Canada, was asked to respond.

 

OTTAWA — All the benefits Roslyn Kunin attributes to life in Canada in her recent column, including peace and order and good government, came about through civil disobedience. The suffragettes who won women the right vote did not shy away from it.

Civil disobedience is breaking an unjust law or breaking a law to draw attention to an unjust law. It has played a major role in creating democracy around the world. We shouldn’t forget that ever.

Nor will I shy away from discussing it, but to be clear I have not said Sierra Club Canada members will be taking up civil disobedience. We are discussing it for good reason.

Last year, the energy industry sent the government a list of changes to federal environmental laws including: the Environmental Assessment Act, the Fisheries Act, the Navigable Waters Act and the Species at Risk Act.

Without disclosing this letter, the federal government stuffed the changes into two omnibus budget bills and rammed them through Parliament despite the objections of tens of thousands of Canadians and more than 650 environmental, faith, health and business organizations that spoke out against them.

In the few short months since, an estimated 4,000 environmental assessments have been dropped. There are now rules preventing members of the public from participating in environmental assessments and the same cabinet ministers who promote projects and describe opponents as "radicals" and "money launderers" now have the final say on all projects.

There no longer is an arm’s-length process to determine the acceptability environmentally or otherwise of industrial projects. Thirty years of developing environmental policies to protect our air, forests and wildlife have been swept away.

These changes have deprived Canadians of their rights to participate in the decision that will impact them and their children. By any definition these are unjust laws that demand challenging.

Personally, I am no stranger to the concept of direct action and non-violent civil disobedience, but it has been 30 years since I deliberately broke a law to draw attention to an important issue. I have grown to believe it’s used far too often. So for many years, I, like Sierra Club Canada, have followed a legal course of what I call "technical" campaigning.

We research issues and solutions to ensure our policies and solutions are based on sound science and are sustainable and economically desirable. Then using the media and person-to-person contact, we first try to impact public opinion, and then to persuade government and industry to act. It is an effective technique (coal plants in Ontario are being shut down because of it and Agent Orange and a broad range of toxic substances are banned because of it).

For it to work, however, government must be prepared to act on scientific basis. Every successful campaign has relied on scientific evidence and when it was present government acted. However, when it comes to climate change, the government Canada is ignoring the science, and, worse, laying off scientists and silencing those who have kept their jobs. For 20 years I have been campaigning for action on climate change. We have experienced the 10 hottest years in history in that time. Storms have grown stronger and more frequent. Glaciers and Arctic sea ice have melted and still no action.

There is an ideology ruling this country seeking to profit from our natural resources without taking responsibility for climatic catastrophe that awaits our children. When it is opposed using the law, it changes the law. When it is presented with evidence, it turns a blind eye and approves the next oil project.

This has caused many people, including members of Sierra Club Canada, to question the efficacy of technical campaigning.

Repeatedly throughout the 20th century, people were forced to stand up to ideologues — often at great peril to themselves. People like Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. stood up to duly elected governments and demanded action using civil disobedience — it’s not a novel, or radical, idea. Nelson Mandela spent 28 years in prison for opposing government policy. These are the people who come to mind when the discussion turns to civil disobedience.

Droughts, floods, storms are not just reports on television. They kill people and make the survivors homeless. It is only going to get worse if we don’t act significantly and immediately. Can people be expected to stand by and allow this injustice to continue?

 

—Troy Media

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