Tolerating civil disobedience

Idle No More protesters march towards the Ambassador bridge in Windsor Ontario, Wednesday, January 16, 2013. About 1000 demonstrators disrupted traffic to the country’s busiest border crossing for several hours. THE CANADIAN PRESS/ Geoff Robins

In a pair of blog posts, Brent Rathgeber explains his concerns with some of the tactics used by Idle No More protesters.

Last Wednesday, Native Protestors blocked the QE II near Gateway Boulevard fully and then partially for a little less than 2 hours.  Then during the afternoon commute, the same protestors set up a blockade on St. Albert Trail at Sturgeon Road.  As St. Albert is a bedroom community of Edmonton, I represent many commuters.  My office has been inundated with e-mails and phone calls asking why the RCMP allowed this admittedly peaceful protest to proceed. According to the St. Albert “Gazette”, the demonstration happened with the cooperation of the RCMP, who had met in advance with the protestors and were on scene to manage traffic.  Apparently, the RCMP share Edmonton Police Service’s theory that managing a protest is a better tactic than stopping it.

I am not so sure. In the first place, acquiescing to an illegal activity does nothing to prevent further illegal activities. And make no mistake; the police were enabling an illegal activity.   Section 430 of the Criminal Code clearly defines the offence of “Mischief” when one willfully “obstructs, interrupts or interferes with the lawful use, enjoyment or operation of property”.  Moreover, you can be charged with “Intimidation” when you compel “another person to abstain from doing anything that he or she has a lawful right to do” including one who “blocks or obstructs a highway”, which is “a road to which the public has the right of access” (Section 2).

A hallmark of a free society is our Charter protected rights of expression and assembly.  Accordingly, I defend the rights of peaceful assembly without equivocation.  However, one’s freedom to demonstrate cannot break the criminal law; one’s freedom to protest cannot trump another’s right to the lawful use of public property to get home after work.  As enlightenment philosopher John Locke so famously declared: “my liberty to swing my fist is limited by the proximity of your chin.”

Blake Richards is similarly concerned.

That being said, some of the militant activists hiding behind the Idle No More banner are doing all they can to threaten the progress being made between our government and First Nations leaders. Canadians are growing increasingly frustrated and disappointed with the actions of those who blockade highways and railways. The blockades must stop. They are counterproductive, and an impediment to progress.

From a philosophical standpoint, violating the law is fairly central to the idea of civil disobedience.

Such protests are, of course, not unique to aboriginal causes. Farmers in British Columbia conducted a blockade of a private property on an entirely unrelated matter this month (the blockade ended Thursday at the RCMP’s behest). Farmers have used convoys in the past that have tied up or otherwise impeded traffic in the process of protesting government policy. (Farmers also protested the coalition in 2008.) And at least one such protest has occurred with support from some of Mr. Richards and Mr. Rathgeber’s colleagues (see story below).

Ultimately, we’re talking about tolerance: what should a democratic society be willing to tolerate and what should law enforcement be willing to tolerate before intervening? (From a policing standpoint, for the sake of maintaining peace and order, where is the line between letting a protest run its course and needing to enforce the law? At what point is it more troublesome to intervene than it would be to work around the situation?) Protesters who break the law probably have to accept the possibility of being arrested, charged or fined—though, with something like a highway blockade, working with law enforcement in advance might allow for reasonable compromises to be found. But protesters also have to keep in mind how the general public will view their actions: a protest might be meant to raise awareness, but it might hurt the larger cause if the action greatly angers and frustrates those directly impacted and is viewed unfavourable by the majority of those who read and hear the news. In that regard, Idle No More protesters might be smart to consider the complaints of Mr. Rathgeber and Mr. Richards, even if they disagree with their conclusions.

Brockville Recorder And Times
Sat Feb 5 2005
Page: A1
Section: News
Dateline: PRESCOTT

It came off in snarl-free style.

Friday’s “rural revolution” convoy of 50 tractors and 220 support vehicles closed a 10-kilometre stretch of Highway 401’s westbound lane for almost four hours but created only minor delays and no traffic snarls for motorists.

The ‘Stop the Destruction’ convoy, protesting excessive government regulation and calling for enshrined property rights, attracted supporters from as far away as Tillsonburg, Renfrew and places in between.

Their actions closed the west lane of the highway from Cardinal to Johnstown between 9 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. and tied up traffic for at least 30 minutes at both interchanges at the beginning and the end of the procession.

But there seemed to be little ill-will towards the protesters from affected travellers, including many who honked their horns in support while passing.

“It slowed us down about 15 minutes but we enjoyed the view by the river,” said a man driving from Montreal to Toronto who was forced to detour from Iroquois to Johnstown on County Road 2.

“It’s no inconvenience. We’re farmers, too,” he said.

Most other travellers interviewed from Quebec, New York and eastern Ontario expressed similar sentiments while only a few showed frustration at the delay.

“I understand completely (why they’re protesting) but this here, what’s it going to accomplish and it’s costing them a whole lot of money,” said Winston Martineau of Kemptville.

Martineau was looking at a half-hour wait while the tractors on the leading edge of the convoy exited the 401 on their way to the international bridge at Johnstown.

The shutdown of the bridge never materialized as advertised by the affiliated landowners’ associations that held the event, the second in a series of similar protests scheduled to reach Queen’s Park next month.

Still, the procession of tractors delayed traffic for more than an hour in both directions while slowly making the one-kilometre return trip between the overpass and the bridge.

OPP Sergeant Kristine Cholette said seven northbound vehicles coming from County Road 2 were delayed the longest.

“There were seven vehicles tied up. There were more (vehicles) but the others turned around and went back down (County Road) 2,” she said.

Police were present at the staging areas, along the highway and at interchanges to direct traffic and keep a watchful eye.

“We believe we accomplished our objective of maintaining traffic flow and public safety,” she said.

“Traffic was delayed minimally as far as we were concerned.”

Jacqueline Fennell, president of the Leeds and Grenville Landowners Association, said the bridge traffic was delayed by the parade of slow-moving tractors but organizers decided against an original plan to blockade the Canadian side.

She said the important thing was getting their message heard.

“We’re not going to take government intrusion any more and we’re going to stand up for ourselves,” said Fennell, during an interview at a post-convoy rally behind Angelo’s Restaurant.

That sentiment was repeated again and again by some of the 600 people attending the rally who felt encouraged at the widespread show of support and the wall-to-wall media presence.

“It’s a start,” said Bill Kroot, a North Augusta beef farmer who feels property rights are essential to addressing other concerns about excessive regulations.

“I have a creek on my property and the MNR (Ministry of Natural Resources) says there has to be a fence on both sides so the cattle won’t go in it and contaminate the water.

“There’s not even any water in it during the summer,” he said.

Larry Reid of Renfrew is a veteran of rural protests and he had two tractors transported to the convoy aboard flatbed trailers.

A cash-cropper with 15 milking cows and a small beef herd, Reid cited a range of concerns including a herd of deer that ravages his corn.

“We wanted to get the awareness out and get our voices heard. We’re not going to let government tromp on our rights,” he said.

Randy Hillier, president of the Lanark Landowners Association and the main organizer behind the protests, told the rally that occasional government handouts don’t solve farmer’s problems.

“You can fight today for a little more money but that doesn’t solve the problem. You’ll just be back tomorrow for more money,” he said.

As the family farm has declined, multinational corporations have a stranglehold on food products that the government has not attempted to prevent, he said.

“Go back and get the marketplace fixed so we don’t have to fight for crumbs every year,” he said.

Leeds-Grenville Conservative MP Gord Brown was joined on the stage by colleagues Scott Reid, MP for Lanark, Frontenac, Lennox and Addington, and Diane Finley, MP for Haldimand-Norfolk and the Conservative agricultural critic, who lent their support to the cause.

“Your presence here today, in these numbers and from across Ontario, demonstrates the voice of the rural revolution is loud and strong,” said Brown.

Reid drew applause for his plans to introduce a private member’s bill to enshrine property rights for Canadians while Finley is presenting a motion next week calling for a more even-handed support for agriculture.

The next rural revolution convoy is scheduled Feb. 18 near the Quebec border.