News  Tar sands demonstrators arrested in peaceful protest on Parliament Hill

More protests planned as Keystone XL pipeline undergoes public hearings in the U.S.

Approximately four hundred demonstrators gathered on Parliament Hill on September 26 in a peaceful protest of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline.

In a symbolic act of civil disobedience, protesters crossed the security perimeter set up by the RCMP and sat down, holding hands. Although 117 protesters were arrested, witnesses from both sides said that the demonstration was calm and well-organized.

Maude Barlow, national chairperson of the Council of Canadians, was one of the first to be arrested for trespassing and obstruction of a police officer. However, charges for every person arrested were later changed to a $65 provincial trespassing fine.

“It was very moving, very peaceful, very joyful,” said Barlow, “but very clearly deliberate about why we were there, what we hoped to get from the day and…the determination that this was maybe a new phase in the struggle against the tar sands and against Canada’s terrible energy policy.”

Proposed by TransCanada Corporation in 2005, the Keystone XL pipeline would transport 700,000 barrels of bitumen per day from northern Alberta to refineries in America. Bitumen is a dense form of petroleum found in a mixture of sand an clay known colloquially as tar sands. The tar sands extraction process has been heavily criticized in recent years for damaging the environment and the health of local communities.

The project was approved in Canada on March 11, 2010 by the National Energy Board, and is currently undergoing hearings in the United States regarding whether or not it would be in the best interest of Americans.

According to the CBC, the Canadian portion of the project will extend for 529 kilometres and cost $1.7 billion.

Canadian supporters of the pipeline, which include the Canadian government and the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, claim the project would create more jobs in Canada.

It’s opponents have a different view, however. “It’s exactly the opposite… It’s taking jobs away,” said Barlow. “It’s leaving the pollution, but exporting the jobs.”

Daniel Kessler,  communications manager for the Rainforest Action Network, helped plan the protest.

“People have been saying that the tar sands are an absolute blight to the country and that we’re becoming a sort of extraction colony that is only exporting natural resources,” he said.

According to participants, the protesters placed a strong emphasis on the symbolic nature of the demonstration.

Stephen McMurtry, a Sustainable Energy Engineering Masters student at Carleton University, told The Daily that, “When it came time for me to go across, I linked arms with the people beside me…and we just kind of walked towards the fence. It was a really low fence – it was a very symbolic thing. There were even a couple step-ladders over it so that people could cross more easily. It was all very pre-planned and not some sort of antagonistic thing.”

“We hadn’t gone for big numbers,” said Barlow. “We wanted a direct action and a particular kind of action and therefore we wanted people who would cross the line…we were very pleased with the number who came out.”

In a press release the same day, Superintendent Luc Lemire, Officer in Charge of General Duty Protective Policing and Incident Director for the event, said he was pleased with the level of cooperation between the RCMP and protest organizers.

“From the start we were able to work together, which allowed the RCMP to fulfill its mandate and keep everyone safe on Parliament Hill while allowing the protestors an opportunity to express themselves in a safe and secure manner,” he said.

Kessler said another protest is being planned for November 6 in Washington, D.C.,  and that he expects between five and ten thousand people to attend.

“We’re going to be holding hands around the White House to show our solidarity with Americans who are saying one last time to [President Barack] Obama, ‘Take the right position here, do not allow this pipeline,’” said Barlow. “This will just continue and we’ll get more and more people…until people start to ask, ‘Why are these people doing this?’ When we can explain to them, ‘Well, we’re doing it for your health, and for your children’s health, and for the environmental sanity of our planet.’ More and more people will come on board.”