On September 26, more than 200 Canadians came together with clear minds and hopeful attitudes to risk arrest on Parliament Hill. They were protesting the Keystone XL pipeline that would take oil from the tar sands in Alberta down to the U.S., and were doing so because the pipeline represents a grave threat to our future. Tar sands oil is the dirtiest oil on earth, and burning it would be “game over” for the climate, but Prime Minister Harper seems to be completely deaf to the voices of Canadians who are concerned about climate change. Canadians value social justice, and the tar sands are proving to be the greatest violation of social justice facing our country. Civil disobedience might be the only way to pursue this justice. As an example of this, we can look to our neighbours to the south, 1,252 of whom were handcuffed to protest Canada’s climate crime.

In August, thousands of people risked arrest in a sit-in protest at the White House against the Keystone XL. The highly successful protest was based on Martin Luther King Jr.’s principles of non-violent civil disobedience, as many of us in the environmental movement feel that there are strong parallels between the fight for civil rights and our current fight for a future that is safe from the ravages of climate change.

These protesters were ordinary citizens; teachers, doctors, and stay-at-home moms who all realized that when faced with great injustice, we all have a moral imperative to quite literally stand up and be heard. Many have been spurred by the entreaties of Tim deChristopher, an activist who was recently sentenced to two years in prison for disrupting a federal land auction that he felt was illegal and immoral. In a speech he gave at his sentencing, he calls on others to stand with him in holding the government accountable, saying that when legal means of challenging the status quo have failed, it is time to turn to illegal, nonviolent means. In his words, “…those who write the rules are those who profit from the status quo. If we want to change that status quo, we might have to work outside of those rules because the legal pathways available to us have been structured precisely to make sure we don’t make any substantial change.”

Environmental activists have been using non-violent direct action to send a message for decades. Greenpeace, which is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, was among the first groups to make it one of their defining features to put themselves directly in the path of environmental injustice, and to this day continue with direct actions that catch the attention of people around the world and draw focus onto environmental issues. These actions, however, are usually performed by small groups of highly trained activists, and it is in this way that demonstrations like the Keystone XL protest and the Ottawa Action are different. When thousands of regular people put their lives on hold to not only go to a demonstration but to knowingly risk arrest and a criminal record, the message is amplified: we are not going to let you sell our future.

The Keystone project is a critical target; without it, tar sands developers will struggle to export their dirty oil. While this won’t shut down the tar sands entirely, it would be an important step in reducing the production, which is critical given that the tar sands represent the fastest growing source of industrial carbon emissions in Canada, among other impacts. Recently, the Conservative government has been acting as a lobbying arm for the oil industry, going so far as to attack clean energy policy in other countries to promote the tar sands. This is on top of an already atrocious track record on climate change, including muzzling government climate scientists and making absolutely no progress towards our Kyoto targets. Now, Canadians need to step it up and let the government know this isn’t acceptable. The tar sands have been called Canada’s “carbon bomb”: if we let the Keystone XL pipeline light the fuse, our climate will never be the same, and our children will inherit a world far different from the one we had the privilege of growing up in.

This is an enormous challenge that we will have to face as a nation. 64 per cent of Canadians support halting production of the tar sands; we must show our government that they work for us, not the oil companies. We know that we don’t need the tar sands, and that widely adopting renewable energy can end our dangerous addiction to fossil fuels and provide us with a safe, clean, bright green future.