By Ian Huggett
This month the Sierra Club officially approves the limited use of civil disobedience in the United States. Coincidentally, this month marks the anniversary of Wakefield tree-sitters’ gallant attempt to halt the razing of old-growth trees during the construction of Hwy 5 through Gatineau Park.
Civil disobedience is predicated on the principle that the legal law remains an imperfect manifestation of a higher moral law. The Canadian Chapter of the Sierra Club, along with other mainstream environmental groups – including the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS) – do not support civil disobedience.
Their funding depends on corporate donations from institutions such as TD Bank and Shell Canada. These corporations cover the salaries of directors, office rental and public outreach programs. No corporation will fund an organization which approves of breaking the law.
For this reason only, civil society and grass roots involvement will resolve the war against nature. This was the case in Wakefield a year ago.
All stakeholders deserve congratulations, including MRC des Collines police. Why? In removing protesters they applied discretion in enforcing the court injunction. They used non-invasive tactics to keep tree-sitters from falling to the ground overnight by shining search lights to keep them awake. They allowed the expression of public protest for political reasons prior to their intervention.
Last month, the Ontario Provincial Police were criticized by an Ontario judge when they refused to clear Idle No More protesters from blocking the Via Rail line between Montreal and Toronto.
But the police force’s institutional memory includes decades of court hearings following the Ipperwash fiasco in the fall of 1995, during which a protester was shot. While courts and government write unjust laws, front-line officers are left mediating warring factions. When something goes wrong, invariably they get the blame.
While I was a teacher in the 1980s, the state prohibited moral education in Canadian schools. Social scientists such as Lawrence Kolberg conducted extensive research on the six stages of childhood moral reasoning in the 1950s. Consistent application of self-imposed ethical principals based on justice, reciprocity and equality of human rights was the highest level of moral reasoning.
However, society can only function on concrete laws which leave their discretionary application and sentencing to judges. This transpires after conscientious objectors are arrested, trees cut down and the earth torn up.
This month, let us reflect on what happened in Wakefield a year ago, when the ‘Mother Tree’ and everything it symbolized was eradicated. Let us thank Wakefield residents who stood their ground against blind progress.
For those who claim the gesture was in vain, let us recall the words of naturalist Aldo Leopold: “We will never achieve harmony with land any more than we will achieve absolute justice and liberty for people. In these higher aspirations, the important thing is not to achieve but to strive.”
Ed. note: Ian Huggett, a conservation biologist and Gatineau Park activist, is a resident of Shawville, Quebec.