Commentary: Attacking the medium isn’t the right message

Lawyer Sarah Leamon analyzes the possible legal ramifications of syrup-based protest.

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      Climate activists are taking increasingly extreme measures to draw attention to their cause.  Over the last few weeks, works of art across the globe have been vandalized in the name of climate change. From tomato soup on Van Gogh’s Sunflowers to mashed potatoes on Monet’s Haystacks, it seems no masterpiece is safe.

      And now a local painting has become the latest to make headlines in this unfortunate trend.

      Over the weekend, Emily Carr’s Stumps and Sky, which is currently on display at the Vancouver Art Gallery, was doused in maple syrup by two climate activists who then glued themselves to the wall underneath. They say they did it to protest the climate emergency and the Coastal GasLink Pipeline. The next painting may not be so lucky.  If it’s not adequately covered by glass – or covered at all – it could be irreparably damaged or destroyed by protesters. 

      While one activist has now been identified in the media, the other two—including one who appeared to be documenting the ordeal on a smartphone—remain unknown. The Vancouver Police Department has confirmed that they are aware of, and are actively investigating, the incident. No arrests have been made yet. 

      It wasn’t long ago that other protesters were arrested for similar antics.  

      Earlier this year, a number of Save Old Growth protesters were arrested after blocking major highways and creating chaos for road users. Last year, Extinction Rebellion protesters were arrested after erecting an impassable concrete structure in downtown Vancouver.   

      While these protests involved blocking major lanes of travel, disrupting the flow of traffic, and perhaps even causing some to re-think their decision to use gas-burning vehicles, throwing food at famous works of art doesn’t have the same effect. It simply lacks any rational connection to the climate change cause.  

      While protesters have said their stunts are designed to be a “wake-up call,” it is difficult to see them as anything more than that—stunts designed for nothing more than shock value.  

      Damaging a priceless work of art, even if it is covered in glass, ultimately accomplishes nothing.  Moreover, damaging it by wasting food seems both logically disconnected and diametrically opposed to the overall goal of drawing attention to climate change and a potential impending food shortage. The shaky methodology of these protests may only serve to alienate otherwise sympathetic citizens from a valiant cause.  

      On top of being largely irrational, these protests may also be criminal.  

      Wilfully destroying or damaging property is a criminal offence in Canada. So is obstructing, interrupting, or interfering with the lawful use or enjoyment of property. The Criminal Code describes this type of behaviour as mischief; and the penalties for a case of mischief like this could be severe.

      Where mischief relates to an item with a value of more than $5,000 or where the item is defined as a piece of cultural property, like an important work of art, the charges could proceed by indictment. This means, among other things, that a greater penalty could be sought by the Crown. The punishment could end up being a term of imprisonment for up to 10 years, meaning the stakes are high for protestors who do end up causing damage.  

      While we do not know if charges will be laid in this incident, doing so would send a strong deterrent message to others who may be inclined to stage a similar protest involving a priceless piece of cultural capital. It could have a chilling effect, which could give protesters a much-needed opportunity to pause and rethink their methods.  

      Perhaps it would be better for climate change activists to use more traditional, non-destructive methods of protest—such as marches, hunger strikes and other forms of peaceful demonstration—to get their point across.   

      Choosing approaches like these might not only help to cultivate more community support, but would also avoid criminal prosecution in the name of activism.  

      To many rational people, this seems like an obvious win-win.