By Mark Nykanen
On the day my family applied for Canadian citizenship, my excited 10-year-old daughter asked, “What’s the first thing you’re going to do when we become citizens, Dad?”
“Get arrested,” I replied.
I explained that with citizenship I’d feel free to take part in civil disobedience in Canada, as I had in the U.S., because in our new country the climate crisis and treatment of Indigenous peoples were as serious as they were in the States.
An arrest did not turn out to be my first act as a Canadian, but it eventually proved among the most memorable when three of us from Extinction Rebellion Vancouver Island (XRVI) took part in civil disobedience on a public road in front of Premier John Horgan’s home on February 18. Outraged reactions to our protest overshadowed the NDP’s budget speech hours later.
Our demonstration took place one week after almost a thousand of us—drawn from a broad coalition of Indigenous, environmental, and human rights groups—all but encircled the legislature on the day of the Throne Speech. That protest was in support of Wet’suwet’en demands that the government halt the construction of the Coastal GasLink pipeline through the Indigenous nation’s unceded territory, which is ongoing despite the COVID-19 pandemic.
After the Throne Speech demonstration, Indigenous leaders implored the settler community to take actions against government officials for forging ahead with the natural gas pipeline by deploying heavily armed RCMP officers. By that time, a horrifying video of an officer aiming a sniper rifle at non-violent Indigenous land defenders had been widely viewed here and abroad.
XRVI’s nonviolent action in front of Horgan’s home symbolized the invasion of Indigenous territory by the province’s heavily armed officers, with two huge differences: We were unarmed, and we didn’t invade Horgan’s home. XRVI’s Howard Breen, a long-time environmental activist—who months earlier had been handcuffed by police for threatening to make a citizen’s arrest of Minister of the Environment and Climate Change Catherine McKenna—announced that he planned a citizen’s arrest of the premier.
Before our demonstration began, I walked to the premier’s front door to tell him that we were outside and willing to talk to him about the reasons for our protest.
I tapped on the door. To say “knocked” would convey a more forceful approach. That wasn’t necessary because I could see a woman through a vertical glass panel next to the door. So I tapped. Lightly.
There was no response, but through the glass I saw the woman raise a phone to her ear while slowly walking away.
I headed back to the street without saying a word. My arrival at the door and departure could not have lasted more than 10 to 15 seconds.
This is the incident that Premier Horgan denounced as “terrorizing” his wife, and in another public statement accused us of “traumatizing” her. He said we “banged” on the door and shouted. This grotesque misrepresentation is why we have repeatedly demanded that the premier make public his home security video to show what actually happened. As one local wag put it, “Jehovah Witnesses are more aggressive when they knock on a door.”
I returned to the public road, slid my arm into one half of a “sleeping dragon”—a steel pipe—and locked onto an interior post, sharing it with veteran environmental activist Regine Klein. With Howard Breen sitting behind us, we blocked the driveway entrance.
A minivan promptly pulled up and Premier Horgan stepped out. I said, “Good morning, Premier Horgan.” Before I could continue, he barked,
“Go fuck yourselves!”
RCMP officers warned us we would be arrested if we didn’t leave.
We were handcuffed, culminating an action that lasted less than 45 minutes. We were taken to jail, charged with criminal mischief, and released within hours.
It was nothing compared to the multiple arrests endured by the Wet’suwet’en under far more threatening circumstances.
Bereft of irony, B.C. Liberal Leader Andrew Wilkerson tweeted: “No one in B.C. should ever feel unsafe in their homes or at their workplace.” Tell that to the Wet’suwet’en and other Indigenous peoples resisting the plundering of their ancestral lands for fossil fuels.
In contrast to Horgan’s reaction, seven years ago Liberal Premier Christy Clark never accused protesters of “terrorizing” anyone, including her 12-year-old son, who was eating a French toast breakfast when protestors erected a facsimile of a fracking rig on her front lawn. Was she happy about the protest? Of course not, but she didn’t act as though the sky was falling, either.
The Horgan government has now appointed a special prosecutor to try us in criminal court. He’s an experienced trial lawyer who prosecuted Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic for genocide and crimes against humanity, leaving us two degrees of legal separation from one of the 20th century’s most hated madmen.
But we’re grateful to draw attention, even in a small way, to the much more dangerous plight of Indigenous land defenders. They deserve our support now as they did on the day of our arrest. Nonviolent direct action is the only effective tool we have to end colonization peacefully. This is vital to all of us facing the overhanging climate catastrophe.