As protests related to the Wet’suwet’en pipeline dispute continue to drag on, one gets the sense a good-natured nation is beginning to lose its patience.
The Alberta government captured that sense this week. In its Throne Speech on Tuesday, the province announced plans to crack down on demonstrators who imperil critical infrastructure, including major rail lines, which have been blockaded by protesters who have succeeded in halting the transport of vital commodities across the country.
Under the proposed law, protesters who violate the statute face up to six months in prison and fines starting at $1,000 a day, but can be as high as $10,000 and increase to $25,000 for subsequent days.
Not surprisingly, the proposed legislation has been criticized by some for being too draconian. Some see it as being directly aimed at Indigenous people.
I don’t, on either count.
Of course, the law is a response to the nationwide demonstrations that have sprung up in support of the eight hereditary chiefs spanning all five clans of the Wet’suwet’en Nation who object to a natural gas pipeline running through their territory in northern British Columbia.
But today’s actions are no longer simply about the hereditary chiefs. Today’s demonstrations have become a repository for protesters of all shapes, manners and causes. They include, for instance, more well-known activist groups such as Extinction Rebellion, whose cause is climate change. But the protests have also attracted less renowned entities, such as the Red Braid Alliance. A few things that Red Braid stands for: decolonial revolution, socialist revolution and anti-imperalist revolution.
“We prepare to take the power away from capitalists and colonizers by increasing the autonomous power of communities where we are, as part of the insurgent working class and Indigenous people’s movements of the world,” the group says on its website.
Members of Red Braid have been active in Wet’suwet’en-linked protests that have created havoc and chaos for commuters in Greater Vancouver, among other places. To what end, I’m not exactly sure.
But again, let’s be clear about what happened to the Wet’suwet’en dispute a long time ago now: It was co-opted by others who saw in the hereditary chiefs a perfect cover. As long as they had them as a shield, they could run around shutting down traffic or blocking rail lines, taking their anger out on colonial oppressors and capitalist autocrats in any number of ways with little repercussion.
I fully support Canadians’ right to free expression and right to peaceful assembly. I support the idea of hundreds of thousands of people marching through the streets demanding more action on climate change. I don’t care if someone from Greenpeace wants to hang a banner off a bridge as long as the person doesn’t endanger themselves or anyone else doing it.
But what we’ve been witnessing the past couple of weeks hasn’t been that at all. Rather, it’s been a form of domestic economic radicalism – one that has hurt companies both large and small, innocent business owners and Canadian consumers and workers.
Without repercussions, many protesters who are stopping commuter lines from going ahead, or trying to get in the way of the transportation of goods in this country can feel like they can get away with it with little to fear. That’s why some protesters are laughing when they get interviewed by journalists. This is fun for them. Hell, it ain’t their small business that’s suffering the fallout from their actions.
That’s why I think Alberta has it right here. I am certainly not hoping that it thirsts for the opportunity to use these laws at the first opportunity. Rather, I hope the law acts as a real deterrent to those who think they can set a bunch of tires on fire on a railway track with impunity, as long as it’s for their cause.
Maybe, just maybe, people will think twice if they know they face a big fine for intentionally sabotaging a company’s operations under the guise that they’re protesting for a specific cause.
Recent polls show that support for the protesters has slumped dramatically since the start of the blockades and demonstrations in support of the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs. That comes as little surprise.
Canadians have enormous reserves of patience. But they also have a keen sense of justice as well.
If you are going to protest in Canada by trying to bring the country to its knees economically, you should do so knowing that you may have to pay a hefty price yourself.
NATIONAL AFFAIRS COLUMNIST
The Globe and Mail, February 28, 2020