When Allison Chin and Michael Brune were arrested outside the White House last week, the event was noted with gravity in Sierra Club boardrooms from British Columbia to Nova Scotia. Ms. Chin, president of the Sierra Club, and Mr. Brune, the organization's executive director, were participating in a protest against the Keystone XL pipeline, and they went to Washington knowing they would be arrested along with Robert Kennedy Jr., president of Waterkeeper Alliance, and actress Daryl Hannah.
The arrest of the Sierra Club's top U.S. leaders marked the first time in its 120-year history that it had condoned civil disobedience.
And it has triggered soul searching north of the border, where Sierra Club Canada directors are asking if it is time they too cast off the policy restriction against civil disobedience.
"The president is about to embark on a cross-country tour and he intends to talk with club leaders from Halifax to Victoria," John Bennett, executive director, Sierra Club Canada said on the weekend. "We've already conducted a survey of our supporters … and they were overwhelmingly in support [of civil disobedience]."
The poll results notwithstanding, the issue is raising fears among some that the conservative environmental group might lose core supporters if it becomes radicalized. But others are saying it would be shameful if the Sierra Club wasn't willing to go to the wall to fight climate change.
"We recognize that civil disobedience is not something that everyone can endorse … But we believe the future of our planet demands no less," Ms. Chin recently wrote. "We are watching a global crisis unfold before our eyes. To stand aside and let it happen – even though we know how to stop it – would be unconscionable."
Sierra Club Canada was formed 50 years ago, and is affiliated with but remains a separate entity from the U.S. arm. There are five regional chapters of the club within Canada – and they are all trying to come to grips with the question of whether they should break the law to further their environmental goals.
Sierra Club BC recently posted a statement on its website, assuring the public it "does not engage in civil disobedience as a matter of policy " and saying it would do everything it could, "within the bounds of the law," to stop the proposed Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline that would run from Alberta to the B.C. coast.
But the Sierra Club Prairie Chapter seemed to be leaning the other way, stating that while it "does not participate directly in civil disobedience, we definitely applaud the use of both lawful protest and non-violent civil disobedience in the best traditions of Gandhian non-violence."
Over the decades, Sierra Club Canada has dealt with many environmental crises – from acid rain to clear-cut logging – without feeling its leaders had to be prepared to break the law.
But Mr. Bennett said climate change is different, because it is a threat of such magnitude and because governments aren't dealing with the problem.
"We're a pretty traditional organization," he said. "We gather up the science and run a campaign based on the science. We have grown to expect over the last 50 years in Canada and 100-plus in the United States, that when you compile significant scientific evidence, government reviews that evidence and then takes action. But when it comes to climate change … governments haven't acted, they haven't followed the science. … So something more needs to be done."
That something more could see the leaders of one of Canada's most respected environmental groups chaining themselves to a fence, or sitting down in a road to block a pipeline.
And if it comes to that, government should prepare itself for a storm of protest, because if a quiet, professional group like Sierra Club Canada can be driven to desperation, then the general public can't be far behind.