CALGARY – Pro-pipeline activists who hit the streets in increasing numbers this year to try to drown out anti-pipeline picketers plan to continue to confront their adversaries, even in the face of predictions of protest line violence.
Stay-at-home mom and part-time activist Nicole Wapple, 37, of Red Deer, Alta., has been posting information on social media and occasionally taking part in protests for about two years since co-founding Rally4Resources, a self-described grassroots organization.
The group invites pipeline supporters to rallies so their chants of “Build that pipe!” can counter the many voices shouting, “Say no to pipelines!” as uncertainty continues to plague the Trans Mountain oil pipeline expansion project.
The mother of three whose husband works in oil and gas was stunned by a recent suggestion that such confrontations could lead to injury or death.
“I want to believe that it’s far-fetched and if it’s not I’m absolutely flabbergasted,” she said. “Why would anyone die over a pipeline? Or be willing to die over a pipeline? That’s absurd!”
The federal government’s recent deal to buy the existing pipeline and its expansion project from Kinder Morgan Canada Ltd. for $4.5 billion prompted some pipeline proponents to wonder if Ottawa will be willing to complete its construction in the face of fierce opposition that could result in people putting their lives on the line.
“There are some people that are going to die in protesting construction of this pipeline,” former Bank of Canada governor David Dodge told media in Edmonton earlier this month following an event by his employer, law firm Bennett Jones. Dodge declined a request for an interview to confirm and explain the quote.
Wapple’s group has been teaming up with CanadaAction.ca, a pro-resource development group founded by Calgary real estate agent Cody Battershill about eight years ago, to encourage oil and gas supporters to come out whenever anti-pipeline forces gather.
The groups managed to field dozens of supporters at rallies at the Calgary annual general meetings of pipeline builders Enbridge Inc. and Kinder Morgan earlier this year.
Their most successful rally took place in March in Vancouver — although its turnout of about 500 supporters was dwarfed by the 5,000 that came to a major anti-pipeline rally on the same day.
CanadaAction.ca has “zero tolerance” for violence and encourages respectful behaviour at all times, Battershill said, but added he doesn’t trust the other side when it comes to confrontation.
“I certainly hope (there’s no violence) but we’ve certainly seen a real extremist element in and amongst the Greenpeaces of the world that are willing to trespass and break the law. We have to make sure that as a country we are enforcing the rule of law.”
Dozens of people have been arrested outside Kinder Morgan’s facilities in Burnaby, B.C., in recent months, including Green Party Leader Elizabeth May and New Democrat MP Kennedy Stewart, who both pleaded guilty to breaking a court injunction barring protests near those worksites.
Greenpeace Canada trains people in “de-escalation tactics” and respectful civil disobedience, never violence, said Keith Stewart, a senior energy strategist with the group.
He said he is suspicious of pro-industry forces, however, given some vicious personal attacks against environmentalists on social media.
“You can … leave space between the two groups,” Stewart said of the counter-protests. “Remember that we’re not fighting each other as individuals but we’re arguing about what kind of future we want to leave for our kids.”
He said Dodge’s comments were “completely irresponsible” and suggested he is justifying state violence against protesters. For example, if a protester lies down in front of a bulldozer to stop the pipeline, it’s not an invitation to violence, he said.
“People won’t die unless someone else kills them.”
A death on the Trans Mountain picket line would be a highly unusual event, according to Kathleen Rodgers, a University of Ottawa sociology associate professor who recently published a textbook called Protest, Activism and Social Movements.
“Not to say there’s not violence and not risk to both sides but there has been no, to my knowledge, deaths of protesters over environmental issues in Canada in recent history,” she said.
People have died in other kinds of protests, however. An Indigenous protester was killed in 1995 during a dispute over land in Ontario’s Ipperwash Provincial Park and a Quebec policeman was killed during the Oka standoff in 1990. In 1919, two protesters were shot and killed when police tried to shut down a demonstration during the Winnipeg general strike.
Rodgers said counter-protest activity often follows protests, especially if they are effective, citing the emergence of anti-abortion activism in the wake of the success of the pro-choice movement.
“This kind of politics is about persuasion and whoever can more effectively get their message out, to be more visible, has the ability to persuade the public,” she said.
“It’s a good strategy because people listen to that kind of activism, that kind of politics.”
She said if the pro-pipeline protesters can get their message on TV screens, they weaken the anti-pipeline message because members of the watching public will see that there are two sides to the issue.
Rallies to support the goals of its energy company members help drive home the point that ordinary citizens do support pipeline and oilsands development, said Tim McMillan, CEO of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers.
He said the organization encourages such activism by helping promote events on its social media sites and through its Energy Citizens program, but doesn’t believe it will lead to more risk of violence.
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