“In the current Canadian context, I think the protestors are justified in blocking railway tracks and highways to make their point.”
n recent weeks Canadian politics has been dominated by the blockade of railways and highways by protestors opposed to a national gas pipeline, which is proposed to extend across Northern British Columbia. Members of the Wet’suwet’en First Nations claim that—while some indigenous groups and politicians consented to have the development take place on their land—many did not. They are joined by a variety of other activists and groups who protest either the subordination of First Nations’ sovereignty or the potential impact of the pipeline on the environment. Many have called these blockades illegal, insisting that while protesting is a constitutional right blockading rail tracks and roads is not. Some conservative commentators like Rex Murphy (the Abraham Simpson of Canada) have even gone further in describing the protestors as “zealots” and “radicals,” enmeshed in the “doomsday cult of global warming.” However, where figures like Murphy, whose educational background is in English and law and who has taken money from the oil industry, reach such hyperbolic conclusions about First Nations and environmental issues remains a mystery fit for Prospero. For its part, the Canadian government has expressed concern about using force to break up First Nations protests over how their own land is used, particularly given the country’s dark legacy of violent colonialism.
Order and Justice
One of the major psychological differences between conservatives and progressives, as discussed by Jonathan Haidt, is that the former tends to place greater emphasis on the importance of authority and in-group loyalty, while the latter prioritizes principles such as fairness and ameliorating suffering. Consequently, conservatives will be more likely to tolerate a degree of injustice if that is necessary to prevent a—perceived or real—slide into chaos and uncertainty, while progressives are willing to disrupt the status quo to correct what they consider—rightly or wrongly—an injustice. This, of course, in and of itself tells us nothing about which perspective is morally superior, though Haidt himself emphasizes that some balance is likely required. But the mere fact that someone is psychologically disposed to favoring the existing order or to rallying against unfairness doesn’t indicate they are correct. The order in question may be tyrannical, or the means used by radical activists could be cruel and counter-productive. Almost everything that matters about these issues outside providing an accurate psychological description depends on examining both the theoretical principles underpinning an action—and the context in which they’re applied.
In cases of civil disobedience, we see a clear conflict between these two inclinations. When conservatives look at these protestors and the disruption they cause, there is often a visceral and oppositional reaction. This is because the protest hits many buttons, which are currently taboo on the political right. Environmentalists protesting the oil industry? Check. First Nations and their defenders discussing the colonial heritage of Canada and undermining its grandeur? Check. Vacillation from Justin Trudeau, an often-despised figure who frequently presents himself as the global spokesman for “woke” culture? Check. But more foundational than any of these is a deep resentment that the protestors are breaking the law by blockading transportation and causing a disruption. For many conservatives, protest and political activism are to take place in an orderly manner. The alternative is the specter of disorder and lawlessness.
The problem with this standpoint is relatively easy to point out. A specific law or even a legal order as a whole may be just and vital to the preservation of a good society, whether for realist Hobbesian reasons—or because they generally promote correct behavior. However, both specific laws and—in many circumstances—an entire legal order may be so unjust and even wicked that it warrants resistance. Indeed, from even a moderate contemporary standpoint, most of us would argue that the majority of political and legal regimes throughout history were—at best—unacceptably authoritarian and—at worst—transparently tyrannical and unjust. While the advent of liberal democracy in modernity improved things, problems persist. Few would now argue that while American law as a whole was reasonably just throughout the 20th century, the Civil Rights protestors who marched against Jim Crow in South were more than entitled to break those laws in the pursuit of justice. In a more extreme case (such as that of Nazi Germany), we would even say that revolutionaries were entirely correct to seek to bring the whole rotten structure down, even if millions voted for the NSDAP in 1933. Canada in the 21st century is, of course, analogous to neither of these societies. But presenting these paradigmatic instances can help clarify the issues at stake.
The Importance of Civil Disobedience
Put simply, there is a continuum that exists between a just society which warrants our uninhibited fidelity and a tyranny which needs to be destroyed. Running alongside this continuum of legitimacy are situations where various forms of resistance or push back against state authority might be warranted, even if that involves breaking the law or operating in a legal gray area. Recognizing this fact was one of the great achievements of liberal democracy. It is why we praise figures like the American and French revolutionaries, down through Henry David Thoreau, Mahatma Gandhi, and Martin Luther King Jr. for resisting unjust laws and systems. This, of course, generates disorder, and also does not justify taking any action protestors feel is necessary to achieve their objective. But the price of not engaging in civil disobedience may also be extremely high.
In the current Canadian context, I think the protestors are justified in blocking railway tracks and highways to make their point. I will highlight three reasons for this position, largely eschewing the environmental questions here. The first is the long history of marginalizing First Nations, which is Canada’s cross to bear. Trudeau is correct to be reticent about sending in the police, given the uncanny parallels with the Oka standoff in 1990. This concerned a golf course to be constructed on a Mohawk cemetery. The result was a crisis that left many injured and one dead. To this day, the incident generates ongoing shame and anger. We do not need a repetition of such a national travesty, and avoiding it would be very wise. Secondly, there are serious questions to be asked about whether everyone who can lay claim to the disputed land was adequately consulted about the pipeline construction. Many Wet’suwet’en chiefs are opposed to the project and argue that they are both entitled to much of the disputed land and did not consent to its use for the pipeline. If this turns out to be the case upon further examination of the law and history, a great wrong would have been committed by allowing its appropriation. This is not even to mention a dangerous precedent being set, echoing Canada’s dark past. And thirdly, the relatively small scale and remoteness of these groups necessitates their use of moderate civil disobedience to agitate for their claims. When you boil it down, blockading train tracks and roads may cause some economic harm—but nothing which cannot be swiftly repaired. The alternative would be the protestors are effectively ignored and the project proceeds regardless of its appropriateness. For these various reasons, I think the government has made the right choice in not combatting civil disobedience and emphasizing the importance of dialogue and a closer look at the situation.
Matt McManus is Professor of Politics and International Relations at Tec de Monterrey, and the author of Making Human Dignity Central to International Human Rights Law and The Rise of Post-Modern Conservatism. His new projects include co-authoring a critical monograph on Jordan Peterson and a book on liberal rights for Palgrave MacMillan. Matt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or added on twitter vie @mattpolprof