Youth from across the country gathered in Ottawa on Monday to tell Prime Minister Justin Trudeau that climate leaders don’t build pipelines. Along with our peers from across the country, we took part in a voluntary act of civil disobedience on Parliament Hill.
Ninety-nine youth were arrested and subsequently charged with trespassing for climbing over an erected police barricade. According to protest organizers, Climate 101 was the largest act of student climate civil disobedience in Canadian history. This protest was organized in the hope of enabling youth to engage in civil disobedience when they return to their respective communities.
We were protesting the proposed expansion of the Kinder Morgan pipeline, which would add 980 kilometres of pipeline running from the Alberta tar sands to Burnaby, B.C. Trudeau has until Dec. 19 to make a final decision on the proposed project and has so far hinted that he will approve the expansion. The pipeline has been fought by Indigenous peoples of the Tsleil-Waututh, Squamish and other First Nations and their allies for over two years.
The organizers of Climate 101 focused this particular direct action on youth engagement. Forty-five per cent of Canadians aged 18 to 24 voted for Trudeau in the 2015 election. Trudeau’s platform promised progressive climate action, and his self-appointment as Minister of Youth seeks to show that he is taking the opinions of youth seriously.
In order to uphold the 2015 international agreement solidified in Paris to limit global temperature increases to two degrees celsius, 80 per cent of the world’s remaining fossil fuel reserves must be kept in the ground. Expanding the Kinder Morgan pipeline is incompatible with this goal.
Mandatory for all those participating in Monday’s arrestable action was a five-hour training session the day before, held on the University of Ottawa campus. The training was led by experienced climate activists affiliated with 350.org, an international organization that organized Climate 101.
Although we were prepared for multiple situations, no one knew exactly what the action would entail. Trainers created role-play scenarios in which they acted as police officers and we practised techniques of police interactions. These included de-escalation tactics, a vital aspect of non-violent, direct action. We were taught a song that would ground us in the face of potentially tense situations.
One of the organizers of Climate 101 was Mount Allison alum and Divest MTA founder Lauren Latour. Latour felt empowered by this act of civil disobedience.
“It was obviously intimidating, but I was proud to be standing beside people who are fierce and powerful and excited,” she said. “We’re very hopeful that going forward, Trudeau will start to reform his actions and will start to walk the talk that he has spouted so freely and so easily. It’s time for him to start living up to his promises.”
The protest began at Ottawa U, where more than 200 people attended a rally in support of the action. Indigenous activist Clayton Thomas-Mueller led the rally, which featured the Ottawa River Drummers and a smudge ceremony.
“Climate leaders don’t build pipelines” was the message written on the large banner that led our march to Ottawa’s downtown core. Youth held signs featuring messages such as “keep it in the ground” and “reject Kinder Morgan.” Protesters of all generations attended the march in support of the action.
For a march to be considered legal, protesters must declare their intent to law enforcement in advance. This march was undeclared. As Climate 101 made extensive use of social media before and during the action, police were aware of our protest and were present at the outset.
Even as we marched, we did not know where we were going. Atiya Jaffar, a digital campaigner for 350.org, said before the protest that it was important not to share details of the action itself. “The participants still don’t know what the route is, the organizers still don’t know what the route is, we’re going to make decisions on the go,” Jaffar said. “We know the government will try to reduce the impact of this action if everything is publicly communicated.”
Jaffar added that social media played an overwhelmingly positive role in Climate 101. “I think the most important thing is storytelling,” she said. “A lot of us are in this movement because we’ve heard a really powerful story, and I think social media gives us access to so many people all at once. It allows us to really own our narrative and own our story.”
After marching for an hour, we arrived at Parliament Hill. As the organizers signalled that we would be moving into the arrestable part of the action, our group separated into two parts. Youth who would be risking arrest moved forward toward the gates, while the rest of the protesters cheered from across the street.
The police were blocking our chosen entrance to Parliament Hill and would not let us pass. We chanted “Hey Trudeau, just say no!” and “Listen Justin, to climate justice,” to the tune of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” as we changed our course.
We successfully made our way in from another entrance, but faced a barricade halfway up to the parliament building. The situation intensified, and in order to ground ourselves, we broke into song: “They told us it was over, they told us the world gets colder, they told us too much on our shoulders, but we believe that we will win.” This song was shared with Divestment groups across the world by the Dream Defenders, a migrant justice group in the U.S.
The message was passed through the group that crossing the barricade would lead to arrest. We linked arms and moved closer together, making our way to the police line.
In rows, we came face-to-face with police officers directly across the barricade. They asked if we understood that we would be arrested if we crossed over the fence. We each affirmed our understanding and expressed our intent to deliver our message to the prime minister.
One at a time, we pulled ourselves over the metal fence and were placed under arrest.
“You are under arrest for mischief. You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law.”
Two police officers escorted each of us to a makeshift processing area. Some students were searched.
Many of the officers introduced themselves and asked about our respective universities and programs of study. In turn, protesters explained their reasons for participating in civil disobedience.
The first line of youth to cross the fence were handcuffed as they were led away, but most of us were not.
Civil disobedience, which has historically been a means of resistance in several social justice movements, is not always treated peacefully by the police. In choosing to participate in the action, we knew the implications of possible arrest would likely not be severe for us because of the privilege we hold. Because we were able to make this statement without fear for our livelihoods, we decided we had a responsibility to act where others would have been more vulnerable.
Racism, sexism and xenophobia in law enforcement are factors that affect individuals differently. At the Standing Rock resistance in North Dakota, Indigenous activists have been subjected to pepper spray, strip searches and dog attacks by police and security. Climate 101 organizers affirmed the importance of standing in solidarity with those of our peers who face this discrimination both at Climate 101 and in climate movements across the world.
On a Facebook post, Sadie-Phoenix Lavoie said that of the 99 protesters arrested, she and two other Indigenous people “were the only ones that got roughed up by police.”
“We remained peaceful the entire time,” she posted.
Although we were told we were being arrested for mischief, which is a criminal charge, we were charged with trespassing. One at a time, we were handed a paper that stated that we would not be welcome on Parliament Hill for the next three months and were escorted off the premises.
Gabriel D’Astous, Climate 101’s Ottawa organizer, sees Climate 101’s victory as extending beyond Trudeau’s decision on Dec. 19.
“So many students and youth got to partake in civil disobedience, get arrested for the first time and get trained to do it properly, and hopefully in an environment that was relatively comfortable and relatively supportive,” he said.
Climate 101 was successful because it enabled students to “head back to their campuses and have that experience and be jazzed about civil disobedience and what that looks looks like, what that entails and hopefully organize civil disobedience at their campuses.”
Co-authored by Catherine Turnbull.