More than 3,000 people flocked to the B.C. legislature grounds on Monday to protest the proposed Enbridge Northern Gateway and other oil pipelines, but they picked the wrong spot for the demonstration.
Instead of preaching to the choir, they should have carried their objections to Edmonton, where the Alberta government and Enbridge are the strongest proponents of the project, or to Ottawa, where the final decision will be made and where Prime Minister Stephen Harper is in favour of the line.
The B.C. government has already said it won't give its approval unless certain conditions are met, including safety standards and a share of the economic benefits. The province has surrendered real control over the project to the federal environmental review process, but it could still refuse some of the estimated 60 provincial permits that would be needed after Ottawa signs off on the pipeline.
The opposition NDP, which seems likely to win next May's election, says it would pull out of the federal review process and force Enbridge to go through B.C.'s own review.
It's unlikely the thousands of protesters will change any minds in Victoria, and their voices, however numerous, will carry only faintly over the Rocky Mountains.
Regardless, protest organizers said about 1,000 people had signed up to say they were willing to be arrested as part of civil disobedience planned during the demonstration. That included unrolling black fabric the length of an oil tanker and staking it to the legislature lawn, which is against the rules and would, they thought, invite arrest.
In the end, Victoria police didn't arrest anyone for driving stakes into the lawn or even for blocking Belleville Street with the tanker banner. They just diverted traffic around the block.
Getting arrested for a trivial act outside a legislature where almost everyone inside the building is more or less on your side seems pointless. It's even more pointless when the police decline to arrest you at all. Civil disobedience is effective when it is courageous and inspires others to take a stand - and when it is focused on the injustice that the protesters hope to right.
This protest was about stopping a pipeline, not changing the rules on legislature lawn care.
To be effective, the activists need to get arrested by Edmonton police or Ottawa police, or lie down in front of the bulldozers if construction starts. They must inspire protests so widespread that the decision-makers determine that public opposition outweighs the economic arguments in favour of the project.
They must make their cause part of the political calculations of politicians who have to think about re-election. They have already done that in B.C., but the real challenges lie farther away.
Certainly, mass protests build enthusiasm among the converted, renew their commitment and demonstrate the extent of support. Monday's event met those goals, and it made clear the potential political costs for B.C. politicians of ignoring the widespread opposition to Northern Gateway.
Gandhi said: "Nonviolent action without the co-operation of the heart and the head cannot produce the intended result." The organizers of Monday's protests have plenty of heart; to be effective, they must match it with better strategy from the head.
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