Janice Oakley never expected that at the age of 61, she would become an environmental rebel prepared to be arrested to protect the planet for future generations.
The long-time Galiano Island resident previously organized volunteers for a hospice program for people who chose to die at home. But the program was cancelled because of the pandemic.
Oakley, who now lives in Metro Vancouver, has long cared about the environment. And she came to realize that the only effective way to bring down greenhouse gas emissions was through mass mobilization of people.
"It feels like pretty much the only thing that is left is taking to the streets," Oakley told the Straight by phone. "And that involves not just taking to the streets. It does involve arrests as a symbol of how important this is to everybody.
"It doesn't mean that everybody has to get arrested, nor should everybody," she continued. "But if one in 20 of us gets arrested and the other 19 support that arrest, then I think we have a good balance of support."
Oakley spoke to the Georgia Straight in advance of Extinction Rebellion Vancouver's "Spring Rebellion".
It begins today at noon on the north side of the Vancouver Art Gallery with an Indigenous welcoming followed by discussions about the struggle to protect land and water.
Oakley, one of the group's organizers, will be among those who will gather there before peacefully occupying the intersection of Granville and West Georgia streets. According to Extinction Rebellion Vancouver, dozens of arrests are anticipated.
"People will be masked and distanced," Oakley emphasized. "We will continue conversations about the struggle that we are in with our government and what's at stake."
Courage is crucial, Hallam says
Oakley acknowledged that she's been influenced in her thinking by watching YouTube videos featuring the founders of Extinction Rebellion, Gail Bradbrook and Roger Hallam.
At first, they talked a great deal about the science, but Hallam, in particular, has adjusted his message to focus on the need for courage to survive a looming apocalypse.
In a talk last year, Hallam spoke about being a bit of a "fuck-up". He talked about his business failures, his failed relationships, the death of his parents, and the inevitability that he will die and be forgotten.
He also said that he's been a vegan for 34 years old, but admitted for the first time that he buys milk chocolate when he's feeling down. Then he called on people in the audience to make similar confessions to the people next to them.
Next, he asked people to put their hands up if they had made a big confession. About one to five percent had the courage to do this.
And that's who he directed his talk toward.
"You're the people that are going to make the change. You're the outliers," Hallam said.
He said that values don't mean anything without courage—and the courage to act on those values.
Controversy in eye of beholder
This has long been a central core of Extinction Rebellion's message: a relatively small percentage of the population can effect societal transformation if they're willing to risk arrest in peaceful civil disobedience.
Oakley pointed out that this worked for the suffragettes, Mahatma Gandhi's salt marchers, and for the Freedom Riders in the United States.
But sometimes, Hallam's version of courage has rubbed some in the environmental movement the wrong way, such as when he was arrested for trying to fly a drone near Heathrow Airport. That came following a split in the movement, with Bradbrook publicly opposing this tactic.
"I guess everybody is controversial to somebody," Oakley said before adding that she's happy Extinction Rebellion has simplified its message over time.
"Roger Hallam has just made a video very specifically geared towards the global youth," Oakley said. "It's amazing that he's not talking about science at all anymore. He's actually talking about their survival—and how they need to mobilize and what is stopping them.
"I think that's the biggest conversation; [it] is what's stopping us from stepping out of our house and actually making this the most important thing that we need to do," she continued. "For me, that's it. There's actually nothing else for me to do in my life but this."
Preventing internal conflicts
There have been ruptures within Extinction Rebellion in Toronto—and it's something that Oakley is trying to avoid in Vancouver.
In this regard, Oakley has been inspired by the work of nonviolent communication expert Miki Kashtan, who lives in the San Francisco area.
"She's devoted a lot of her time in the last two years to helping Extinction Rebellion and other activist groups get better at handling conflict within...their organizations or their communities at large," Oakley said.
"It is conflict and the lack of skill in resolving conflict that has led to a lot of movements just losing their steam and crumbling," she added.
According to Oakley, this can be attributed to how some of these movements have related to people in society "who are targeted and marginalized".
"If you're a mainly settler, white organization, there's a pretty good balance between men and women, straight and otherwise in these movements," she said. "But there aren't a lot of Indigenous and people of colour drawn to the movements for many good reasons. You know, people who are struggling financially or with housing also aren't in these movements."
To Oakley, it's critical for Extinction Rebellion Vancouver to honestly address any criticism that might come over this. She said that some of the hardest work entails looking inward and doing "our own work on our own understanding of racial justice".
"So that's all going on at the same time as trying to mobilize masses into the street," she noted. "Those are two things that pretty much have equal weight in Extinction Rebellion Vancouver."
To reinforce an inclusive message at its Spring Rebellion, Extinction Rebellion will support a sacred fire that Indigenous people will oversee at Nelson Park in Vancouver's West End during the five days of action.
The environmental group is encouraging people to visit the location and camp there to "take advantage of the teachings that will happen around that fire".
"That's open to everybody," Oakley said, "and everybody is welcome to come and feel the benefit of what it means to stand around that space."
A seed waiting to germinate
Oakley readily concedes that one of the toughest challenges is persuading people to get involved when they feel powerless to address something as overwhelming as environmental breakdown.
First of all, there's the distraction of COVID-19. In addition, there's no shortage of entertainment in North America, including professional sports, that diverts attention away from the crisis.
Another big piece, she said, is that some don't feel that their voice will count.
Oakley, on the other hand, said that there is a "surge of power" that comes from realizing that every life has great implications.
"If you're feeling empowered as an individual, you do come back to this feeling of 'oh yeah, this is all having an effect'," she stated.
Oakley likened the Extinction Rebellion protests around the world to to a seed in the ground just before it germinates.
"There's a lot going on in that seed," she said. "It's just waiting for the right conditions, whether it be moisture, length of day, heat. And I see our civil disobedience movements in every country of kind of being in that state now. We're about to germinate."