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Lessons We Keep Learning: Reflections on the Burnaby Mountain Pipeline Opposition

by Megan Craig

Lessons We Keep Learning: Reflections on the Burnaby Mountain Pipeline Opposition

Also posted by Megan Craig:

For many weeks local residents occupied a small piece of unceded Coast Salish Territory (the Burnaby Mountain Conservation Area) in hopes of preventing the building of another oil pipeline that would connect the Alberta tar sands with tankers in Vancouver's harbor and triple the amount of bitumen already transported. So far, there has been a broad range of people acting to oppose this project. Municipal government, left leaning academics, liberals, Indigenous warriors and elders, migrant organizers, grassroots activists, and anarchists, have all taken a stand against the pipeline.

When the arrests began, calls for support and participation literally read, “We need bodies!” Coverage of the events unfolding depicted what has amounted to over 100 people arrested so far, as of December 2014, the majority of whom were released without charges. Prior to this repression, activists organized “training days” to prepare the many new and unfamiliar participants with tips from the activist tool kit. Anarchists also organized a public discussion on anarchist perspectives and modes of resistance. As someone who has experience organizing in and around activist communities, I didn't go to the training days and can't speak to the lessons covered. I did participate in the anarchist discussion and found it to be relatively well attended. The conversation eventually focused on strategy and tactics relating to illegality and the merit of symbolic arrests. Here, a foreshadowing of later events occurred, as anarchists debated long winded claims that group hugs are impenetrable to police violence, or that the moral high ground allegedly achieved by sacrificial lambs in metal cuffs would contribute to a public outcry somehow capable of stopping construction. There is nothing new or surprising about the debates, action, and inaction on the mountain, and that is precisely what is interesting about it.

Role Play

The theatrics we organize and participate in today as rebels and activists are a living history: on Burnaby Mountain we are practicing traditions easily recognized as activism. This form of resistance to oppression is a spectrum full of many avenues for political engagement, often ritualized and pre-formulated. Today, under the farce of democracy in North America, our organized “uprisings” have been woven into democratic praxis. Now, the goal of most “mass mobilization” protests is to gain a favourable public reception. Success of a demonstration in immediate terms is often determined by media coverage or the number of people in attendance. Frequently, “positive arrests" are thought to increase media exposure and are therefore regarded as an important contribution to a protest. By "positive arrests" I mean the kind that don't result in serious criminal charges, jail time, severe physical injury, or deportation. These arrests are often participatory, where people submit willfully to handcuffs or make the choice to enter into a known "arrestable" situation. From what I've witnessed, most often these participants are without a history of abuse by police or have not experienced incarceration, and know that the long term consequences of their arrest are likely insignificant. The tradition of dissent through organized protest has become so imprinted in activist communities that its strategic usefulness, its effectiveness as a vehicle for influence or change, is left largely unexamined.

“Legitimate protest” is a term used by corporate media, government officials, police, and benign aspects of “the left” itself. Since our official political elections are viewed by most as a constant failure, it seems suspicious, or at least convenient, that “the right to protest” is entirely normalized and folded into democratic conventions. To manage unrest, the democratic state automatically develops approved modes of dissent through a dichotomy between “legitimate protestors” and “hooligans” or “criminals”.

A police line has been drawn on Burnaby Mountain. On one side, legitimate protest occurs as spectators “bear witness” with chants, banners, and signs, and watch the test drills eat into the mountain they have sworn to protect. As people cross the line and step foot into the designated illegal area, they are exercising civil disobedience and many are arrested for this violation. Still a third area is maintained by these dissenters: the drill itself and the workers using it are left uninterrupted, and so as arrests accumulate, one way or another most activists are released without criminal charges because of their loyalty to the status quo.

During periods of rebellion, the state and the dominant culture responds by broadening the base of “legitimate protest” to include tactics that were previously excluded. Forms of civil disobedience (such as strikes or occupations) that were once unacceptable due to disruption and illegality are gradually co-opted and are deemed benign when tactics arise that do not adhere to a pacifist ideology, that include property destruction, or are simply more aggressive. Public rebellion that includes aggressive elements (for example: irate rioters—especially when they are people of colour—or Indigenous warriors defending their territory with arms or the destruction of property, or a black bloc smashing through a financial district) motivate the capitalist hegemony to champion non-threatening alternatives for social expression. However, through a narrative of dissent and democratic legitimacy, any protest tactic is at risk of co-optation, even a riot.   

In the case of Burnaby Mountain, the potential threat to Kinder Morgan is a direct action that would physically prevent or stop the drilling, a move that would require protestors to fend off police attacks. Instead, protesters “express their rage” through a complying “non-compliance” where they aren't prepared to actually stop the drilling but are prepared to “get arrested” and contribute to the spectacle of opposition. These participants who “don't go too far” are bought by corporate media coverage that doesn't vilify their efforts and by an interaction with police that does not result in serious, or any, criminal charges. The criminalizing comparisons between forms of resistance (that inevitably arise in any social movement) surround “the right to protest” and are a manifestation of this adapting dichotomy more so than any issue of morality: legitimizing specific forms of protest always means criminalizing others and is an exercise in social control. Spectators and activists aid in this criminalization by emphasizing their support of conduct they deem morally superior (pacifism) as a reflex in self preservation.

Choosing Sides

Inside of our mobilizations exists the tired tension between advocates of non-violence and more militant elements. In examining the protest form, this tactical debate waged by seemingly opposing strategies, is ironically, often a matter of optics. Kristian Williams speaks to this tension in his compilation of articles titled “Confrontation,” (Tarantula Publishing, 2007).

“The respectable left restricts itself to intentionally symbolic protest—peaceful, legal, and largely irrelevant—while the militants only manage a symbolic break from that pattern, in the form of ritualized confrontations with police or minor property damage. So much of this dynamic is just posturing-- militant posturing on the one side, moralistic posturing on the other.”  

If a protest or political action is confined to the realm of symbolism, then the messaging conveyed becomes of paramount importance, and so we have our common ground on which to exercise this debate. On the mountain and elsewhere, debates on the spectrum of activism and rebellion continuously foreground a divide between not only violence and nonviolence, or legal and illegal protest, but also between legitimate and illegitimate protest. Given that these descriptors are generated by our opponents with strategic purpose, I propose that on our own terms we might more accurately and usefully characterize a divide between dissent & revolt.

To dissent is to hold or express opinions that are at variance with those commonly or officially held. A protest then, is a tactic developed to exercise dissent, or so it seems now.

“Protests can take many different forms; from individual statements to mass demonstrations. Protesters may organize a protest as a way of publicly making their opinions heard in an attempt to influence public opinion or government policy...” St. John Barned-Smith, "How We Rage: This Is Not Your Parents' Protest," Current (Winter 2007).

To revolt on the other hand, is to oppose or refuse to accept something. In the best of cases: to attempt to overthrow the authority of the state, to rebel.

Even when and if resistance tactics venture into illegality or property destruction or planned self defence, the logic of a given tactic does not necessarily step outside of the informal avenues of a democratic framework, i.e. “making a statement”. Popular insurrections like riots are not planned or easily managed by activists, it's here that activists and the state are tasked with transforming revolts into an exercise in dissent. This is unlike the activity we have seen on Burnaby Mountain, which is already firmly rooted in democratic activist culture. Broadly speaking, within activist culture in North America the resistance component of “class war” (a term I use to include not only housing and labor struggles, but racialized, migrant, gendered, and Indigenous sovereignty battles as the whole of a globally subordinated class) is equipped with easily replicated tactics to emphasize dissent, such as; rallies, marches, forums, civil disobedience, propaganda and art related subversion. Battlegrounds are material when oppression is systemically inflicted (through police violence, criminalization of race and poverty, incarceration; access to housing, employment, or healthcare; detention, deportation, and white supremacist migrant work programs; the pollution of water supply or destruction of hunting and medicine gathering territory; the theft of children by social services, restrictions on earned income by welfare policies, the criminalization of drug use; etc), while fighting back is largely ideological, as our tactics and strategies are most often a product of the democratic outlet we call activism. In this way we are active in reinforcing the paternal dominance of the same system that oppresses us. Through dissent we undermine our ability to organize ourselves for ourselves and demand that the state improve its apparatus of control (ie. social services and regulations).   

The System is Not Broken

The obvious exception to the trend of democratic activism as resistance in Canada is the direct action carried out by Indigenous peoples to physically prevent the further destruction of their territories. Projects such as ski resorts, pipelines, logging, fracking, and mining projects encroach and threaten Aboriginal culture and territory. The difference between this type of Indigenous resistance and democratic activism is a product of Indigenous people’s exclusion from the promises of democratic capitalism and their rejection of the authority imposed by this colonial settler state.

Colonization of any land is for the purpose of exploiting and profiting from resources and labour. In the "New World", Indigenous communities have been relentless in resisting colonial forces since their first contact with the invading Europeans who never left. The ongoing genocide of native peoples resisting the destruction and theft of their land has resulted in a decrease in population of up to 90% in most areas, especially the Atlantic coast. Globally and historically, colonized and enslaved peoples have fought to take back their traditional lands from imposing empires. The current battles over territory in North America fit within this global pattern of colonized peoples revolts, with the exception that settlers make up the majority of the population and still rely on imported colonized labour, such as migrant domestic or agricultural workers, among many others. Indigenous warriors within Canada continue to be an obstacle to the colonial project. As such, native peoples are forced to choose between assimilation or annihilation. This reality of ongoing genocide is made obvious through a massively disproportionate native population in prison, frequent deaths at the hands of police, ignored disappearances of thousands of native people (especially women), the daily theft of children by Child Protection Services, and the forced poverty caused by the destruction of culture and self-sufficiency through the ongoing theft and pollution of traditionally used lands.   

The colonial governments of the Americas were not founded as utopias of liberty and are not now corrupted by corporate and capitalist interests. Exploitation of the land for the benefit of the rich is the central function of the colonial project. Placating the settler population through white supremacist patriotic loyalty and imaginations of democratic freedom has been successful in destroying decolonization sympathies and potential. Many settlers identify electoral politics as an illusion created by a state whose only loyalties are with the expansion of capital, and therefore apathetically ignore elections and political activity; others find informal avenues to participate, like activism. Activists and organizers navigate the theatre of grassroots democratic dialogue by managing voices and representation, facilitating a struggle for inclusion in place of revolution. As these organizers fight over notions of unity, warriors remind us that revolt lays in a rejection of the dialogue itself.     

Our Future in Flames

A somewhat unique element in the case of Burnaby Mountain is that the opposition to the pipeline expansion includes the local municipal governments of Burnaby and Vancouver. Typically, dissenters would be rallying against local government for not siding with them, as if municipal government support would be enough to stop the oil company. We've learned from the Burnaby Mountain example what we were fools to forget: all levels of government were founded and function to aid in development and resource extraction, and if any level refuses to engage in its inherent purpose, it will be overruled. Any town or municipality in Canada that hinders development projects, or simply does not “grow” as fast as its neighbouring cities, may on request have its land annexed to be managed by another municipality that favours development (Not all regions regularly practice this, though the procedure is gaining popularity. Southern Ontario especially, has many examples of this: Capitalism is based on theft, and this logic is pervasive in capitalist culture and governance: “if you don't exploit X, someone else will.” It is crucial to decolonization efforts that we all stop interpreting this practice in government as evidence of corruption; instead, we must understand that this is the purpose of the settler state.   

So, where do these lessons lead us? We are far from Anishinabe lands here on the west coast, but the Anishinabe Seven Fires Prophecy holds wisdom worth sharing.

“In the time of the Seventh Fire New People will emerge. They will retrace their steps to find what was left by the trail. Their steps will take them to the Elders who they will ask to guide them on their journey. But many of the Elders will have fallen asleep. They will awaken to this new time with nothing to offer. Some of the Elders will be silent because no one will ask anything of them. The New People will have to be careful in how they approach the Elders. The task of the New People will not be easy. If the New People will remain strong in their quest the Water Drum of the Midewiwin Lodge will again sound its voice. There will be a rebirth of the Anishinabe Nation and a rekindling of old flames. The Sacred Fire will again be lit.

It is this time that the light skinned race will be given a choice between two roads. If they choose the right road, then the Seventh Fire will light the Eighth and final Fire, an eternal fire of peace, love brotherhood and sisterhood. If the light skinned race makes the wrong choice of the roads, then the destruction which they brought with them in coming to this country will come back at them and cause much suffering and death to all the Earth's people.”

On Burnaby Mountain there are people who have spent many weeks out of their daily lives to defend the land, and many others who have given what they had the capacity to share. I don't doubt that these people and others sincerely want to protect the land, even if our ideas on how and why to do that are very different. However, my intervention here is motivated by my own organizing experience and the repeated failures of the thousands of activists that have faded away before our memories. I ask that we not fall into the traps neatly laid out for us, that we be skeptical of what we are given permission to do and who we have been trained to obey or condemn, and that we not be fooled into siding with an obvious enemy. There are no easy answers for moving forward, but it will be necessary to explore the patterns of managed dissent in order to generate an effective strategy against the pipelines and capitalism in all its forms.  


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Reading this from

Reading this from afar...incredible analysis!  Thanks!

This area is occupied by

This area is occupied by government. So nobody should enter at this place. Police should seal the specific place to avoid any external person to enter that area.

Welcome back!

The yuppie shithole that is Vancouver is very lucky to have anyone talking this much sense. Hope the author is sticking around for awhile

Tired of same old same old

"Inside of our mobilizations exists the tired tension between advocates of non-violence and more militant elements." This is indeed a tired line that needs to be re-thought.

The Zapatistas (primarily indigenous Maya) use mass non-violent civil disobediance combined with masterful communications. You could even say that it is their primary tactic, despite maintaining a guerrilla army. So, does that give 'militant' settlers the right to sneer and dismiss their struggle? Does this make the Zapatistas the 'pacifist' enemy?

A tiny isolated fringe of "more militant elements" does not have much hope of keeping the vast majority of fossil fuels in the ground - which we must do. A big diverse, inclusive and radical climate justice movement has a much better chance of doing so. Building such a movement will not be easy, and it will require much clearer strategic analysis than this.

Seriously Eric? We're not

Seriously Eric? We're not talking about assault rifles or guerilla armies here, this article is only making the same point as you do in your last paragraph.

You talk about the hard work of building a diverse movement, so why would you criticize analysis that leaves room for SOME militancy?

Not to speak for the author but IMHO, all she is saying is don't drink the koolaid when it comes to reformism. Don't dismiss diversity of tactics out of hand. Some risk-taking will be necessary by at least some elements of the movement and the rest of us shouldn't turn on them for "being violent or illegal or provocateurs" or whatever narrative that ultimately serves the energy companies and the cops.

That analogy ... how can you reference the zapatistas while arguing against the militant elements of any movement? I'm somebody who wants to see us all working together so the only pacifists I don't identify with are the arrogant ones who want to give me marching orders.


False dichotomy

Sid, maybe I was not clear. My critique of this is mainly that it seems to sets up a false dichotomy in which activists / dissenters are potrayed as dupes of the system and those who revolt (militants?) are the real chage agents. But the author has not found any clear way to draw the line between these two.

"To dissent is to hold or express opinions that are at variance with those commonly or officially held. . . To revolt on the other hand, is to oppose . . . something"

This is just confusing.

I also note that the author does not even mention climate or the need to keep fossil fuels in the ground. What is this about given that climate was one of the highest profile issues on Burnaby Mountain?


Ok, fair enough but that's

Ok, fair enough but that's not how I read it or how I believe it was intended.

I mean, doesn't almost everyone who visits this site already concede things like oil-pipelines-are-bad and climate change is happening? The Burnaby Mountain blockade and RisingTide604 are interesting to me because a bunch of new people are seeing the barriers that become visible when activists try and do more than march around in circles for a few hours.

As soon as they do, they begin to experience repression and thats where this conversation about revolt picks up. I don't argue that all activists are "dupes of the system" but the system would certainly love to dupe them in to going back to just marching around in circles and doing harmless social media stuff and publicity stunts. I learned this stuff the hard way too.

Dissent is important but ultimately, it's just having an opinion, whereas revolt is the much more tangible step. Actual disruption of these economic processes is what's going to "keep the oil in the ground". For example, strategic blockading can only be sustained by large, healthy networks because it takes a lot of people and resources. The purpose of dissent isn't to just perpetuate itself but to open up space for revolt and fuel it with people, morale and resources.

Hopefully it goes without saying that we're talking about what regular people can do -besides- waiting for a politician to come along and save them. heh!


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