As civil disobedience goes, it was remarkably civil – on both sides.
Hundreds of people converged on Parliament Hill on Monday to protest a massive pipeline project that, if approved by Washington, would transport 700,000 barrels per day of bitumen from Alberta to a Gulf Coast refinery hub in the United States.
The protesters listened to speeches from environmentalists, union representatives and aboriginals decrying both the oil sands and the Keystone XL pipeline. Then, in groups of two to six people, they clambered over the waist-high fence that had been erected by police to prevent them from reaching Centre Block.
Unable to get past additional fences and lines of officers to reach the main parliamentary building, they formed a long seated line in the grass as they waited to be arrested.
George Poitras from Fort Chipewyan in Northern Alberta, a community that is downstream from the oil sands, was among the first group of protesters to be taken away by the police. He had expected to be charged with obstructing a police officer but instead walked away with a $65 ticket for trespassing.
The intention, Mr. Poitras said, was “to impress on some people the significance of the Keystone XL pipeline and its implications environmentally, on people’s health, on our constitutionally protected treaty rights.”
The oil sands are having major repercussions, he said. The cancer rate in Fort Chipewyan is higher than expected and many of the people there blame the giant energy extraction project. “We don’t like any notion of expansion of the tar sands and Keystone XL represents that,” Mr. Poitras said.
Also arrested in the first group were Maude Barlow, the national chairperson of the Council of Canadians, and Dave Coles, the president of the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union who says the pipeline will kill jobs in Alberta because processing will be done in the United States.
While the police had prepared for the arrival of thousands of protesters, in the end there were no more than 500. But they came from all parts of Canada. And they were determined to get arrested – much like 1,200 people who were charged during a similar demonstration in front of the White House last month.
As they crawled over the barrier, uniformed officers warned the protesters that there would be legal consequences to their actions and suggested that they reconsider. If they persisted, the police helped them use step stools so they could cross the fence without getting hurt.
Brad Benson, 71, came from British Columbia, to take part in the demonstration. The future is at stake, he said, as are “my grandchildren, the planet, harmony on this earth. This is an environmental disaster that’s the tipping point.”
Rita Bijons of Toronto said everything she loves is at risk. “The policies of this government are biocidal. They are obstructing international negotiations.”
While the protesters were being arrested on Parliament Hill, feederal Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver was praising the economic benefits of the oil sands and the pipeline at a meeting on nuclear thermal hydraulics in Toronto.
"One of the keys to Canada's economic strength is our natural resource sector and our emergence as a global energy superpower," Mr. Oliver said in a speech to academics and policymakers. "Canada is fortunate to have abundant and diverse energy resources."
"In fact, energy represents roughly 7 per cent of our gross domestic product and creates hundreds of thousands of direct and indirect jobs across the country. That is why the government strongly supports the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, for which expanded oil sands development will generate over 140,000 new jobs and $600-billion in economic activity in Canada between now and 2035."
The U.S. State Department is launching hearings to determine whether the Keystone XL pipeline would be in the U.S. national interest. It is widely expected to approve the project despite noisy opposition from activists and some American politicians who worry about its environmental impact.
With a report from Daniel Leblanc