Looking beyond TransCanada’s summer of discontent

Why excluding opponents to resource development is unwise

September 01, 2011

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You don’t often see men wearing loincloths in downtown Calgary which, when you stop to think about it (and thankfully you don’t have to very often), is a good thing. As a fashion statement, the loincloth clearly belongs to other, warmer countries where the weather is good and the living is easy. A loincloth simply isn’t going to cut it in a windy December where we live.

As a political statement, the loincloth is also similarly limited to other countries and other times, with Mahatma Gandhi probably being the best known example. He wore one for years in his non-violent campaign of civil disobedience against British control in India and many of us grew up with the image of the mostly naked, frail little fellow deeply implanted in our brain.

While we have thankfully left the garment behind, Gandhi’s methods of civil disobedience remain with us today, realizing their latest incarnation in none other than the American actor, Danny Glover. Glover is perhaps best known for his Lethal Weapon film appearances in the late 1980s and 90s. He’s also become somewhat of a serial activist – donating his time and star power to support union workers, Cuban political prisoners in the U.S., and lately, climate change.

The latter cause is why Glover, along with a bunch of high-profile fellow travelers including American green activists Bill McKibben and Wendell Berry and the Canadian trio of David Suzuki, Naomi Klein and Maude Barlow, the chair of the Council of Canadians, planned a campaign of civil disobedience in Washington, D.C. this summer. The disobedience is of interest to the Canadian oil patch because it was staged in opposition to TransCanada Corp.’s proposed Keystone XL pipeline project in particular, and the continued development of Alberta’s oil sands (make that “tar sands” if you’re a friend of Glover’s) in general. Glover wanted us all to join him.

In their use of this technique, this collective followed a long American tradition, one begun in the mid-19th century by Henry Thoreau, he of Walden Pond fame, who argued that not only was civil disobedience appropriate, it was in fact “a duty for the correction of injustice.” His approach helped inform the campaign of Gandhi, the marches of Martin Luther King Jr. and the more current writings of the American philosopher John Rawls, the latter arguing that civil disobedience is justified “if the majority in a democracy deny equal rights to a minority.”

Thoreau’s approach continues today as the underpinning of campaigns such as that of Greenpeace in its opposition to oil exploration off the western coast of Greenland. We may expect to see more and more of it in the months to come as it attracts new adherents who want to use it to express their opposition to a variety of perceived injustices.

Sadly, our governments and industry associations have brought much of this state on themselves as they seek to enhance the regulatory regimes of the country, improve their efficiency and guarantee their outcome. What is forgotten in this drive to regulatory efficiency is simply this – to the extent that people feel they are left out of the deliberations around development; to the extent that they feel powerless against forces they believe to be entrenched and powerful; to the extent that they feel a sense of injustice in the workings of the regulatory system – they will seek redress in other forums, whether the courts, the press, the ballot box or through public opposition in the streets.

Perhaps we should turn to another American thinker to help us reach a better end. James Madison, writing in Federalist X (November 22, 1787), argued that a society should not expect to move forward with no conflict among its members but rather take the approach that since “the causes of faction cannot be removed” the “relief is only to be sought in the means of controlling its effects” and therefore seek to develop a means of dealing with those effects.

Canada today, faced as it is with resource development decisions of such magnitude and complexity that some are actually welcoming the federal government back into the formulation and management of a national energy strategy, has little to gain from seeking to exclude those with whom it does not agree. There can only be progress if all are given their day in court, if all are heard and, by being heard, satisfied that they were not entirely left out of the decision making process. This approach is how one deals with effects and it looks much better than the jaded approach used to promote the Washington disobedience campaign.

In his discourse on the subject, Thoreau was clear that there were two conditions that must be met if civil disobedience were to be successful as a means to the end it sought. First, it had to be non-violent and, second, it had to be “prejudicial only to the resister and those who freely associated themselves with him.” In other words, it must not harm the innocent or the non-involved.

But what are we to make of someone who actively encourages prejudicial action on the part of others while clearly avoiding any such prejudice to him or her self? For that is what we saw in this campaign. What are we to make of Maude Barlow who, while encouraging others to oppose the Keystone XL project in Washington, noted that she wouldn’t be there because “I do a great deal of work in the United States, and I would be barred”? And that would cost her money. Thoreau must be spinning in his grave. Let’s just hope none of the protesters come decked out in a loincloth.

Doug Matthews spent 25 years working on energy issues for the Northwest Territories government. He now lives in Calgary and, along with his ongoing consultancy work in the North, spends much of his time writing about energy issues.

More posts by Doug Matthews

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4 Responses to “Looking beyond TransCanada’s summer of discontent”

  1. John Hartz says:

    Suggested reading:

    “Tar Sands Impact on Climate Change,” Skeptical Science, Aug 23, 2011


  2. Erica says:

    Dude, Maude Barlow was there:


    And tell folks along the Kalamazoo River, Yellowstone River, in the Gulf of Mexico, in Fort Chip and Nigeria, etc. etc. that their injustice is “perceived” and see how far you get.

  3. Doug Matthews says:

    Close but no cigar, Dudette.
    Let’s go back and look at the original 11 signatory letter announcing the planned sit-in.
    “Each day we will march to the White House, risking arrest with our trespass”
    “Not all of us will actually be able to get arrested-half the signatories to this letter live in Canada and we might well find our entry into the U.S. banned”
    And then on to dear Maude herself, quoted by Post Media.
    “No, I won’t get arrested”, Barlow said, ” I do a great deal of work in the U.S. and I would be banned.”
    The original letter ends by noting that for those who will sit in and risk arrest “We know we’re asking a lot.” Of them, yes, of us, well, maybe not so much.
    Oh,yeah, Maude was there alright, “standing in solidarity” as her video says, with the real demonstrators. Standing way over there, out of harm’s way.
    I stand by my original point – Thoreau would be spinning!