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Martin Luther King Jr.'s mugshot after he was arrested in 1963 in Birmingham for protesting racial segregation. (Credit: Birmingham Police Department)

Martin Luther King Jr. was right

Civil disobedience has been a powerful tool for activists through the decades, and can still be for Canadians looking to stand up against injustice.

By Glynis Ratcliffe

When a government continually goes against the will of the people, the time comes for protest and civil disobedience. These days, however, it seems like protests mainly happen on Facebook and Twitter. As a writer, I don’t want to downplay the power of words for protesters, but watching Britons protest Trump’s state visit to England en masse was a potent reminder of how important it is to actually show up and peacefully protest the thing or person you disagree with.

Civil disobedience has been going on for centuries, but American writer Henry David Thoreau came up with the term in an 1849 essay.

Thoreau’s act of civil disobedience was to not pay certain taxes to protest the federal government’s policy of slavery and a war with Mexico he didn’t believe in. He ended up in jail for one night, until an unknown person paid his taxes for him, much to his chagrin.

While his non-violent act of protest was a small one, his writing on the topic became an inspiration for many, including Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. Each of these leaders showed the world the power of this form of dissent.

Oceti Sakowin Camp in North Dakota, where many protested the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, is seen on Nov. 15, 2016.

Civil disobedience is a decision to not follow one (or many) laws. This could mean choosing not to pay a specific tax for moral reasons, as Thoreau chose to do, but it could also mean breaking a law that one believes is unjust. 

Standing Rock is a perfect international example. In 2016, thousands of protesters succeeded in temporarily halting construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, which runs close to the Standing Rock Sioux lands in North and South Dakota.

According to the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, “the Dakota Access Pipeline violates Article II of the Fort Laramie Treaty, which guarantees the ‘undisturbed use and occupation’ of reservation lands surrounding the proposed location of the pipeline.”

While the pipeline was ultimately pushed through as soon as President Donald Trump came into power in 2017, it galvanized thousands of Indigenous communities and non-Indigenous allies, who travelled from around the world to support a worthy cause and defend the land.

In 2012, in response to ongoing student protests about a dramatic rise in tuition fees, the Québec government passed emergency legislation that required protest organizers, if their protest involved 50 or more people, to notify police of the time, date and duration as well as their proposed route.

The result was a march that numbered, by some accounts, in the hundreds of thousands. Ultimately, the provincial government’s decision to hike tuition fees by 75 percent was shelved.

A brief survey of recent news stories reveals that, for the most part, those who perform civil disobedience in Canada who fall into one or both of the following categories: environmentalists, Indigenous people and allies of Indigenous people who support an end to the colonization of First Nations people and the destruction of their land and communities in Canada. Of course, the two are often intrinsically related because of the government’s historical misuse of treaty land.

These protests don’t always achieve their intended goals, but they do raise public awareness, which can lead to further public discussion. That, in and of itself, can be a huge step.

If the Canadian government cannot respect the wishes of the First Nations whose lands it occupies, perhaps civil disobedience is something we should all consider.

The next big developing act of civil disobedience in Canada is against the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline expansion in British Columbia. The Tiny House Warriors are members of the Secwepemc Nation, whose territory the pipeline will run through. According to their website, they “have never provided and will never provide our collective free, prior and informed consent — the minimal international standard — to the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain Pipeline Project.”

Secwepemc land defender Kanahus Manuel was already arrested earlier this month for occupying a spot in a provincial park where a Secwepemc village once lay. She and other members of the Secwepemc Women’s Warrior Society have asked land defenders everywhere to join them in their protests.

If the Canadian government cannot respect the wishes of the First Nations whose lands it occupies, perhaps civil disobedience is something we should all consider.

At a time when tensions run high between so many different groups, non-violent acts of protest against unjust laws or government actions are the ideal way to express our dissatisfaction.

This story originally appeared in the February 2016 issue of The Observer

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