Last week, I got arrested for kayaking next to a construction barge.
It wasn’t exactly a surprise. My kayak was one of dozens of small boats, bobbing on the water near Whey-ah-Wechen, a traditional village site near what the settlers named Vancouver, British Columbia. We were there for the same reason the barge was there: because a Canadian oil giant, Kinder Morgan, is trying to build a massive new oil tanker terminal to go with its massive new Tar Sands pipeline expansion, a devastating and reckless proposal that would threaten everything we hold dear in these lands and waters.
As we approached the barge, Kinder Morgan’s loudspeakers blared that kayakers would be arrested and prosecuted if we refused to leave their private property. Their private property. As Tsleil Waututh elder Amy George responded, “This is not their private property. My people have lived here for 30,000 years.”
The Tsleil Waututh Nation never ceded this territory. But the proposed site of Kinder Morgan’s new terminal is right in the heart of it, along the narrow inlet from which Tsleil Waututh, or “People of the Inlet,” get their name.
Kinder Morgan needs the new terminal because their proposed expansion to their Trans Mountain Pipeline would more than triple the pipeline’s capacity, pumping 890,000 barrels of bitumen every day. All that excess bitumen means not just a bigger marine terminal, but a quadrupling of Tar Sands tanker traffic through Burrard Inlet. A spill would be devastating, and it would be inevitable.
And so I say: not in my name. It is time for me to say no.
Canada’s current government was elected on a promise of “reconciliation,” that it would do the work necessary to reconcile the innumerable wrongs of the past against indigenous people who had their children taken from them through the brutal process of colonization, people who grew up in an abusive residential school system.
I see the state’s determination to drive this massive fossil fuel project through the territories of First Nations that oppose it as a continuation of that violence, as far away from “reconciliation” as you could get.
They say the cure for despair is to take action. I felt strong as I kayaked toward the giant crane on the barge, which was setting up an enormous security fence around the proposed terminal site. I knew I might get arrested. I had come to terms with that.
Protesters who are arrested for non-violent civil disobedience in Gandhi’s tradition usually receive a minimal sentence of community service. Often the charges are dropped because courts recognize that the protesters do not pose a risk to others. They act from a moral choice.
But I am an organizer, and it’s not uncommon for the courts to treat organizers more harshly. I found many reasons to take this risk. I believe that collective action is the only way to meet the organized forces of destruction that we face, and I bring people together to stand for their collective rights – for safe water and a safe climate future for our children.
The biggest threat my 23 year old son Aedan faces in his life is a changing climate and the political, ecological and social upheaval it will bring. If I have to sit a in a jail cell to protect him, I am absolutely willing to do that. To protect him, his future, and all the children I love. To change things for the young friends who have told me of their growing sense of fear and even hopelessness
Those children that I don’t know and never will know – I love them as well. I want them to live in safety and have good opportunities. We are all raising kids in a time of increasing uncertainty and anxiety. The author Barbara Kingsolver wrote that to raise our kids in a world without hope it to commit a kind of societal child abuse. Now that is criminal.
To continue pumping carbon pollution into the air when so many people are already dying in climate change-intensified hurricanes, floods, heat waves, fires, droughts and refugee migrations – and when we know untold numbers more will suffer and die if we continue on – that too is criminal.
To destroy the land and waters of the indigenous people whose land has already been stolen from them – that too is criminal.
But today I am the one facing criminal charges.
And yet, for now, I feel hopeful and energized. After being processed by the police and charged with a promise to appear in court, I feel empowered. I am among a legacy of people willing to stand up for all we hold in common. I believe there are many more of us — hopefully, you included. Collectively, we can change the tragic course we are now on.
There are so many reasons to take a stand. Go for it: even when when you are under arrest, it feels great.