Holding hands with Maude Barlow and marching with Dave Coles, Tony Clarke, Graham Saul, George Poitras and a group of Aboriginal leaders, we marched slowly towards a metal fence. Media blocked our way and it was difficult to see past them to the police awaiting us, but it seemed to me that they were standing back rather than moving forward to confront us. That was comforting and a small sign that this would more or less go as planned. We were supposed to spread out at arms length to give each of us room to step up onto the lower bar of the fence and swing the other leg over. But the media funnelled us into a narrow space and that just wasn’t going to happen. Coles was first over, the rest of us one or two at a time after. An RCMP approached and told me that I was in a restricted zone and if I did not go back over the fence he would arrest me. He asked again to make sure I understood. Plastic cuffs bound my hands behind me and that was it — my first arrest in a lifetime of political and labour activism.

This was an act of conscience against the Keystone XL pipeline which in spite of Canadian regulatory approval a year and a half ago has not yet received U.S. approval and has not commenced construction in Canada.

Dave Coles, President of CEP, and I were representing our members who have stood opposed to the pipeline and the model of development it represents from its inception. CEP opposed XL at the National Energy Board, appealed their decision to cabinet and then sought leave in federal court to force a judicial appeal.

In truth, this was a fight we feared was all but lost — until the U.S. ENGO campaign started to gain momentum this year. It culminated in August at the White House with a month of demonstrations and a thousand-plus arrests — but the breadth of opposition has extended to the Environmental Protection Agency, a coalition of 80 U.S. NGOs, and voices from Al Gore to a growing body of U.S. Senators and Congressmen. Obama has a range of options to bend to the pressure on him, including just doing nothing — a tactic he seems to have honed very well.

Because the U.S. approval has been stalled, TCPL could not start construction in Canada and CEP has now asserted that its Canadian permit has expired. The company and its “sympathetic administration” in the National Energy Board claims that “earth moving” near the Hardisty tank farm in 2010 constituted commencement of construction before its March 2011 deadline. But the union sent out an investigative team and found nothing but a grass field and a weather-beaten sign.

The economic model for the bitumen sands demands high oil prices, tens of billions of dollars in continuous new investment and a virtually unlimited, willing market in the only current customer — the U.S. Add all of this together and none of this is looking good at the moment. Some investors and policy makers must be now asking about the fundamentals of what they are doing.

That makes the media coverage of Monday’s Ottawa action curious. Our cynical media focused on the turn out of about 500 – 800 people, claiming it was below estimates. There were no higher estimates that I was aware of, but what did they expect at 10:00 a.m. on a Monday morning? The 117 arrests in Ottawa perhaps lacked the television quality of some of the summit protests with police in riot gear, but they did demonstrate a passion and commitment that decision-makers must know will not simply dissipate with the next news cycle.

Coles and I climbed over the fence knowing that XL is a pivotal moment in the development of the bitumen sands. If the pipeline is stopped, not a single person will lose a job. But tens of thousands of jobs may well be created by the processing of that resource in our own country.

If XL is reconsidered, the unsustainable pace of development which is now on track to double and triple production of bitumen may well be slowed. But no one will lose their job either if the frontier economy is brought under control, and it may then become possible for Canada to set and meet targets for greenhouse gas emissions.

If opposition to XL makes it clear to Albertans and the federal government that both Canadians and U.S. customers for our exports care about the downstream effects of bitumen production on First Nation communities, perhaps some real change for these suffering communities may now come about.

Of course, the reverse of these possibilities is true also. XL will weld the continental model into place and make all alternatives much more formidable to achieve. All of these factors lifted me over the fence, in spite of the obvious concerns that family, friends and colleagues had over an act of civil disobedience.

A small shout-out from me to RCMP officers Maisonneuve and Kubisecki, who treated me respectfully during my couple of hours in their custody. At the end of it, I was given a trespass ticket with a $65 fine. I was put into a police wagon that squeezed four of us, hunched over facing each other on a steel bench. We thought we were on our way to the Ottawa Police Station, and we talked to each other quietly about the experience while a young Aboriginal brother closed his eyes and sang. Suddenly, the wagon pulled over at a corner in downtown Ottawa and let us out on the sidewalk. Body and conscience intact.


Fred Wilson

Fred Wilson is a retired Unifor activist and author of a New Kind of Union (Lorimer 2019).