Phil Burpee, Columnist, Pincher Creek Voice
In the early seventies I was in Ottawa at a demonstration in front of the Parliament Buildings in support of a contingent of Aboriginal representatives from across Canada who had set up an ‘Embassy’ in an old, unused limestone building not far from the E.B. Eddy paper mill across the river in Hull. It was the time of the American Indian Movement (A.I.M.) and the dust-up at Wounded Knee, South Dakota. Feelings were running high. As a young white man, born of the culture of his day, I felt it was my place to stand in solidarity with my Sisters and Brothers in whose country I had been raised. We were at the steps leading up to the main entrance and the crowd was pretty boisterous – lots of signs, lots of shouting, lots of drumming. Apparently the RCMP determined that there was an imminent threat to the security of the legislature, and so a phalanx of riot police came at a quick step and lined up at the top of the stairs, huffing and pounding their plexi-glass shields in unison with their truncheons, still jogging on the spot – huhf/whack, huhf/whack, huhf/whack – impressed the hell out of me.
So, some skinny, little white guy appeared with a couple of rocks in his hands, ran up and fired one at the cops – bonk! I suppose he was an anarchist-in-training or some such, but he was in the wrong place at the wrong time without a doubt. I ran up and kicked his ass and dragged him back out of harm’s way before the whole situation went ballistic. Cooler heads prevailed, riot-readiness was stood down, and eventually leaders were moved to the front to speak and address the many concerns of the day. The threshold of civil society’s capacity to accommodate volatile discourse had been reached and, that day, not crossed into mayhem and violence. It is not always so. In many countries, and for many peoples, that threshold is very, very low.
In our liberal democracy it is expected of us that we will make our displeasures known, at the very least through the ballot box, but sometimes in a more direct fashion. Once again my memory brings me to another event – to the Burrard Street Bridge in Vancouver in 1983, marching amongst a throng of a hundred thousand fellow citizens to protest the impending decision to allow the U.S. Air Force to test its new General Dynamics cruise missile at Cold Lake, Alberta. It was a massively unpopular move on the part of the Trudeau government of the day, and hundreds of thousands of Canadians were expressing their deep concern for what was perceived to be an immoral and inflammatory escalation of an already super-heated nuclear showdown with the USSR. And I have likewise been on the street in solidarity with fellow Canadians who are gay and lesbian, and in outrage over the ill-treatment of, and disregard for, the poor and the marginalized, and from time to time in support of municipal concerns for ill-advised industrial development. Yet I am not a radical person. Civil action is a normal and healthful indicator of a society in a dynamic state. Five years ago one of my neighbours, a man from a deeply conservative ranching tradition, went to Edmonton to deliver on horseback to the steps of the Legislature a letter penned by hundreds of concerned people from up and down the Porcupine Hills and Southern Foothills decrying the arrogant behaviour of certain oil and gas interests and the ineffectual state of the now-defunct Energy and Utilities Board (EUB). The venerable Ian Tyson himself rode with that posse. When the streets (or byways) become empty and silent, then well may we be concerned.
|Castle Special Place|
Phil Burpee photo
Recently a group of citizens from the Beaver Mines area felt compelled to undertake a concerted civil action against what they perceived to be a poorly-considered and unnecessary proposal to log off a swath of low grade timber just inside the Castle Special Management Area. The Castle Special Place was mapped and designated as a protected area by the Government of Alberta in 1998 as a result of public consultation during its Special Places 2000 program. It was one of 81 such Special Places determined under this process, yet it remains today the only one of those still without formal legislative protection. The Municipal District of Pincher Creek wrote a letter to the Minister of Sustainable Resource Development (SRD) noting the Castle Special Management Area "is of particular concern to our Council, specifically with respect to the environment, Grizzly Bear population, and watershed management" and expressing concern that SRD's logging approval "is premature in allowing cut block logging until this Land-use Framework is in place, as the two may be contradictory." (Comments in italics from http://www.castlespecialplace.ca/ ). Indeed the Ministry of Tourism, Parks and Recreation was inclined to agree with the idea of taking a somewhat more conservative approach to the whole issue until such time as a full range of economic and ecological determinants had been properly articulated. It was not to be, however, despite similar calls for prudence from the Castle Crown Wilderness Coalition, the Oldman Watershed Council, the City of Lethbridge, and the Assembly of Treaty Chiefs in Alberta. Ultimately, orders sought and procured from the Court of Queen’s Bench provided for the arrest and detention this past week of those not willing to stand aside, and logging swiftly began.
It is informative to observe that civil resistance is not a direct function of what might be called an objective determination of ‘right and wrong’ – often no such objectivity is possible. Rather it is an exercise in moral clarity. Certainly logging is a difficult child in our modern world, often castigated and reviled - sometimes rightly and sometimes wrongly. But it is most emphatically an activity that falls well within the purview of regional determination. For truly, the best place to log is around where people live, so that we can all understand, observe and monitor its impact and dimensions. Dispatching it to some distant ‘elsewhere’ only encourages industrial excess. And, as far as Nature is concerned, there is no such place as elsewhere – it is all part of the biota. But all of our small sawmills are gone – driven out of business by agglomerating monstrosities, just like the slaughter and butchering of stock animals. And our Regional Advisory Council (RAC) as designated under the Land Use Framework (Bill 36 – Alberta Land Stewardship Act - ALSA) continues to be mute and ineffectual, ignored by Ministers of the Crown. Further, it is also not difficult to see that certain areas are indeed no longer appropriate as targets of extractive industries, such as, undoubtedly, the aforementioned Castle Special Place. Bill 36 is, of course, currently under attack by landowners and libertarians for its various excesses, and the government continues to claim that regional sensitivities will be brought to bear once it is up and running. Some of the upcoming provincial election will be fought over this. Meanwhile, the very best spirit of this piece of legislation continues to be insulted by high-handed Ministers who are given free rein to make centralized decisions as to our regional wellbeing without recourse to any creditable analysis of actual contingencies ‘on the ground’ – other than those of powerful industry lobbies. It is this very centralizing disregard for the voices of the people of this province that so undermines our sense of inhabiting a functioning representational democracy. This is what we hear from Edmonton – “Yeah, sure. OK. Whatever. Yahdyahdyah. Now move your butt so we can get some business done here.”
A sorry state of affairs.
I had the privilege of going out to photograph the protest camp for the Voice early on in this determined and resolute action. Let me tell you – it was pretty much all grandmas and grandpas out there challenging the power and intransigence of the Province of Alberta. Not a youthful anarchist was to be seen reaching for a rock. Standing before the machines was an array of folks who, under normal circumstances, ought to be enjoying the fruits of their many lifelong works and the pleasures of family. There was, and continued to be, an air of deep civility and respect about the whole affair. No invectives were hurled at Forestry officials sent to hand out and/or pin up their proclamations – nobody flipped the bird at the courteous RCMP officers likewise dispatched to enforce the law. And, in fact, so astonishingly decent was the whole atmosphere, that at one point Voice reporter Chris Davis was asked to capture the image of the protesters, Forestry officers, and sober-looking members of the Queen’s Cowboys all chumming together for a big summer-camp grinfest. “Curiouser and curiouser” said Alice, as she worked her way through Wonderland.
All very fine and cozy. But the RCMP does not come to cart disputatious loggers or roughnecks or seismic operators or catskinners off to the slammer. When it finally comes to it, the police must enforce the law – even when, as somebody once quipped – ‘the law is an ass’. The larger the industrial apparatus, the more likely it is that it will take refuge in the strong arm of the law. If an oil company has sub-surface rights (bequeathed by the Crown) to resources beneath your property, and you demonstrate a sufficient degree of obstreperousness, you will in due course be visited by the Horsemen and advised to comply, on penalty of appropriate penalty. Likewise the people and their trees. It’s a stacked deck.
The C5 Forest Management Plan is a flawed document. But the Empress apparently has new clothes (very chic ones too, Madam Premier), and will not brook dissenting opinion. Indeed. And so we must be ever watchful of the extent to which powerful interests catch the ear of government. For, as the recently-deceased free thinker and s.o.b. contrarian Christopher Hitchens would have had it: -
“The essence of tyranny is not iron law. It is capricious law.”
Jon Lurie photo
February 4, 2012