Recent setbacks, real or perceived, could lead some activists to take the law into their own hands.
This contribution was published on The Hill Times on April 13, 2020
OTTAWA, CANADA — Until recently, the environmental protest movement was definitely on the ascendant. Protests in BC, Ontario and elsewhere against the construction of the TransMountain pipeline had attracted national attention. Many Canadians supported those blocking access to construction sites or railways as a necessary way to stop the initiation of projects that would develop our natural resource sector and hence add to global warming/climate change.
Public attention may have been divided – some Canadians saw the protesters as entitled and naive ‘lefties’ – but it is nonetheless true that at the very least a conversation was being held on whether Canada should continue to extract oil and gas in light of scientific evidence that such would lead to catastrophic effects on the global environment.
Oh what a difference a couple of months make!
We are all consumed of course today with COVID-19, a novel coronavirus which is having devastating consequences for Canada and the rest of the world. Aside from the obvious impact on human health the need to prevent large numbers of Canadians from gathering in order to limit the spread of the disease has led to an almost total shutdown of the economy. All but ‘essential services’ are ordered to shutter their businesses. This includes construction of everything aside from hospitals and other necessary sectors.
So now what? What will those opposed choose to do? Relaunch sit-ins and blockades? How will they do this in a time where any gathering of more than five people (in some jurisdictions more than two) is at a minimum frowned upon or could be actually illegal? A demonstration of four activists holding placards and shouting slogans is not that impressive, is it?
In the midst of this, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney announced the $7.5-billion deal to begin construction on the long-delayed Keystone XL pipeline which will move Canadian oil to refineries in the US. Premier Kenney noted that “This is our hedge that we get at least one major project built. That will ensure the flexibility for the future.”
The Keystone project was subject to mass opposition as early as 2009 and has drawn together opposition from multiple camps (environmentalists, First Nations, the Green Party), much as we saw in Canada with respect to the TransMountain pipeline plans. To these groups, an energy project of this scale constitutes an existential threat to the planet.
So now what? What will those opposed choose to do?
Re-launch sit-ins and blockades? How will they do this in a time where any gathering of more than five people (in some jurisdictions more than two) is at a minimum frowned upon or could be actually illegal? A demonstration of four activists holding placards and shouting slogans is not that impressive, is it?
In addition, with the economy already reeling, will Canadians welcome groups seeking to shut down a sector that will create much needed jobs? Protests run the real risk of undermining the entire environmentalist movement: it will be interesting to see where the leadership of this movement, if one can actually speak of a unified direction, decides to go in the following weeks and months.
We cannot rule out the possibility, however slim, of acts of violence by desperate actors. Even if mass attacks are unlikely given the prohibition of large groups, a frustrated oppositionist could decide that small sabotage operations would make a point. It is not as if we in Canada have not seen these in the past: Wiebo Ludwig was convicted for trying to disable oil and gas wells in northeastern BC in the 1990s.
It is important, nonetheless, to assert that extremist violence of this nature is a remote possibility, at least for the time being. Still, those of us who work (or in my case worked) in public safety/national security have to think of these possibilities. We hope we are wrong, but we must prepare for the worst.
Phil Gurski is a retired CSIS strategic analyst and the Director of the Security Program at the University of Ottawa.
When Religion Kills: How Extremists Justify Violence Through Faith (2019)
Christian fundamentalists. Hindu nationalists. Islamic jihadists. Buddhist militants. Jewish extremists. Members of these and other religious groups have committed horrific acts of terrorist violence in recent decades. Phil Gurski explores violent extremism across a broad range of the world’s major religions.