Friday, 7 October 2011

Ottawa Tar Sands Protest Challenges Canada's Ecological Responsibility

On a bright sunny day, September 26th, 2011, over 800 people gathered on Parliament Hill in Ottawa to peacefully say NO to the toxic tar sands industry in Alberta.

Canadian First Nations; American Indian Tribes; Territorial, Provincial and Federal First Nations Governments; and advocacy groups added their support for the rally.

About 200 were arrested for trespassing, including one man in a wheel chair. Most were fined $65, and given a restraining order to not come to Parliament Hill for one year. About one-third were not punished, due to the cost of processing. The orders are being appealed.
  • Photo Album with 177 images taken over 7 hours. For higher resolution images, please e-mail.  
  • Ottawa Action (10.5 min video) by GreenPeace Canada, showing training session the day before, march, speeches, arrests.
Featured in this gathering was a civil disobedience sit-in against the massive tar sands. In waves of six people or so, over 200 people peacefully climbed over a four-foot police barricade on the Parliament Hill lawn. Soon after the first people climbed the fence, the police provided a step ladder on both sides to facilitate the climb. At this point the police confronted each activist, told them of their trespass and led them to sit on the grass behind the fence several hundred feet in each direction. Supporters on the outside of the fence talked to the protesters, sang, chanted and gave them encouragement for their brave action.

Then, for the next three hours the Ottawa Police and the RCMP began the slow process of dealing with their prisoners. With tied hands behind their backs, each escorted by two police personnel, two-thirds of the group were taken to special tents set up for the purpose of processing the detainees on the Hill located between the bronzes of Sir John A. McDonald and Queen Elizabeth and the 'Famous Five'. Here they were charged with trespassing under the Ontario Trespassing to Property Act, fined $65 each and ordered to stay away from Parliament Hill for one year. The other one third was eventually released in the late afternoon for what seems to have been a decision not to arrest them.

Police provided ladders on both sides of short barricade,
helped tresspassers, and arrested them.

As an observer and photographer during the seven hour stay on the Hill, I was inspired first by the speeches, the chanting and the singing, and then by the resolve of concerned people to courageously allow themselves to speak truth to power. It was a classical nonviolent sit-in for a just cause.

As a last resort, the protesters want politicians to hear their voices about the proposed Keystone XL pipeline. However, the current right wing Conservative Government, headed by Stephen Harper, claims a large majority in Parliament with 166 seats out of a total of 307 and supports the pipeline project. Harper feels he has the right to speak for the majority. The Opposition headed by New Democratic Party (NDP) has 102 seats, followed by Liberals with 34 , the BlocQuebec with 4, and Greens with 1. In actual fact, the Conservatives took only 39.6 per cent of the popular vote while over 60 per cent of the Canadian electorate did not vote for the party.

The inspiration comes from the fact that this was not a criminal act, but an act of democracy, conscience and compassion. Its spirit comes from such stalwart civil rights activists as Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

'It was a great day for everyone', as Allan, one of the protesters who went over the fence, wrote me after the event. Indeed!

No incidents of violence were reported and both sides in the rally behaved civilly. This was a very welcome exchange from what we've seen in the 2010 G-20 Toronto Summit and the Olympic mobilization in Vancouver where police definitely were overly hostile. 'So today was a good day', said Indigenous Environmental Network campaigner Clayton Thomas-Mueller. It was Gandhian in spirit.

Part of the success for the amicable tone of the day was set by several factors: 1. A training session was held the day before for those who intended to participate in the civil disobedience. Only the graduates were allowed to walk over the fence (a green ribbon around their arm indicated they took the course). 2. The police had a Liaison unit in place communicating with the public. 3. Of course, the power of the spirit within each person was the guiding light that set the positive spirit for the day of protest, as well as the quality of the organization itself.

Harper's Government appears to have caved into oil and gas corporate lobbyists to support a multi-billion dollar Keystone XL project, proposed by Alberta-based TransCanada, which would provide a new 2,700-kilometre route for about 700,000 barrels of oil per day from Alberta to 15 refineries on the Gulf Coast of Texas and Mexico.

Alberta and federal government officials have supported the project for its economic benefits, including thousands of jobs in Canada and USA. Environmental groups have objected to the over expansion of the oil-sands section — which requires large amounts of water, land and energy to extract synthetic oil from Alberta and Saskatchewan's northern deposits, increased pollution, stress on water resources, and greenhouse gas emissions.

Peter Lougheed, the former Alberta premier, has reservations about the pipeline because he wants the bitumen oil to be refined in Alberta, not Texas.

Eight Nobel peace laureates have signed an open letter urging Prime Minister Harper to stop the expansion of Alberta's oilsands. Earlier they appealed to US President Barack Obama in a similar petition that called him to reject the proposed Keystone XL pipeline plan.

'As you know, further exploitation of the tarsands will dramatically increase the amount of greenhouse gas emissions being produced in North America. It will also ultimately make turning the clock back on climate change impossible,' read the letter, signed by South Africa's Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Joy Williams of the United States, Dalai Lama, and others.

It is hoped that a quicker development of electric-car infrastructure, solar energy and other devices will reduce the addiction to dirty oil.

Beginning two hours before the sit-in, speakers kicked off the protest rally by sharing their own personal stories of suffering from the colossal impact of the Alberta tar sands. Below is a sample of the voices that I heard:

  • Chief Bill Erasmus (Dene Assembly of First Nations) said: 'There is no plan. Their only plan is to expand. Our people no longer want to drink the water. They don't know who will clean it up....There were 12 spills in the last 10 years.' Dene communities are downstream from the tar sands, and are threatened by the impacts of upstream water usage and pollution and the impacts of climate change and global warming. 
  • David Coles (Communications, Energy and Paperworks Union): 'What blooming idiot came up with the idea of "ethical oil"?'
  • Chief Jackie Thomas (Sai'Kuz First Nation): 'We are standing up to protect our water from the tar sands oil spills. We are standing up to protect our Cree and Dene brothers and sisters downstream from the tar sands who are being poisoned and who are dying. And with your support we are standing up together so that we will not sit down. That's why we are here — to stand up with all of you and to send these Ottawa politicians a message. We will put up a wall that Enbridge Pipeline will not break through....'
  • Melina Laboucan (Massimo Climate and Energy campaigner): 'The time is now to put people before profit. Behind me is the House of Commons, not the house of corporations.'
  • Tantoo Cardinal (actor/member of the Order of Canada): 'We have suffered a long time. Thank you for standing up with your hearts and standing up with your spirits from generation to generation....'
  • Maude Barlow (National Chairperson Council of Canadians): '....This project violates the UN charter. I will be crossing the line today. I'm doing it because I love my grand kids...and I'm not breaking the law. The people breaking the law is the Harper Government....'
  • Brigette DePape (the renegade Senate Page in Canada's Parliament who dared to oppose the Harper Government during the throne speech on June 3, 2011) urged activists to use civil disobedience to oppose the Conservatives in controlling all levers of power in Ottawa. 'You should be very proud. This action is a testament to your commitment. We have tried institutional means and they have failed, and we know change won't happen in Parliament and we know it won't happen from writing policy reports....Change happens when we take action. We may not have the money and the resources that government and companies have, but we have people power.' 
  • Photo Album with 177 images taken over 7 hours. For higher resolution images, please e-mail
  • Ottawa Action (10.5 min video) by GreenPeace Canada, showing training session the day before, march, speeches, arrests.
  • 'Protesters' Guide to the Law of Civil Disobedience in British Columbia' by Leo McGrady, QC, November 20, 2009.


  1. Thanks Koozma,

    I couldn't look through it all, but was impressed with what I was able to scan. Was struck by the WWII conscientious objectors. It's great that you're able to combine your photography with the accessible, professional indexing/cataloguing.

    Fergus Watt, Ottawa, Ontario

  2. Great pictures Koozma! Thanks for sharing them and for all your excellent work documenting these events!

    Dr. Jason Bailey, Ottawa, Ontario

  3. Good report Koozma.
    I worked with Tantoo Cardinal for a summer in a theatre group in Edmonton.
    Looks as though the Wall Street protest will be next.
    Larry Ewashen, Creston, British Columbia

  4. Alan Todd, Ottawa, Ontario11 October 2011 at 21:38

    Hi Koozma

    Thanks so much for carrying the word and images of the Tar Sands Demo Day to your community and the world. Your record of the event is testament to your convictions for peace and justice. Bravo and many thanks!

  5. Thanks Koozma:
    I will check it out. I see NO compelling reason why Canada or the US needs
    an oil pipeline from Alberta to Texas.

    Brussels, Belgium

  6. Amber Lloydlangston13 October 2011 at 10:29

    This is fascinating stuff, Koozma! Thanks so much for sending me the
    link. I'll be sure to be a regular visitor to your blog...and it's also
    good to know that you photograph all sorts of activist events!

    Thank you very much....
    Ottawa, Ontario

  7. Thank you, Koozma, for enlightening people around the World with your articles and photos!
    In addition to helping increase awareness about this important pipeline issue, I like how you captured the absurdity of police helping protesters cross the fence - and then arresting them. This brings about the currently-in-style "... really?" reaction, but in this case to a very important departure from reality, not just one individual's inappropriate action.

    After the parade is finished and everyone has gone home, you will have helped us to realize what the emperor's clothes were really made of!

    All the best,
    Joe Staresinic