Quebec environmental activists adopt civil disobedience to get climate action
MONTREAL — Environmental activists in Quebec are turning towards civil disobedience as a way of pressuring politicians to do more to fight climate change.
They are part of a global movement of activists who advocate for the use of non-violent civil disobedience as a tool to stop what they fear is the looming mass extinction of humans.
Elza Kephart helped start the Quebec branch of the international movement, called Extinction Rebellion, or XR, which began in the United Kingdom in 2016. Twenty-five members of her group — Extinction Rebellion Quebec — were arrested July 13 after they blocked traffic on a major downtown Montreal street.
"We have gotten to the point where only drastic change in our system can save humanity from extinction," she said in a recent interview. XR activists say they are looking for peaceful ways to disrupt the economy and "shake the current political system" to get that immediate, drastic change, according to the U.K. group's website.
From July 15-19, activists with the group blocked roads in cities across the U.K., camped out on bridges and tried to interrupt work on construction sites. International media reported similar actions from XR groups during that period in cities around the world, including in France, New Zealand, Ghana and India.
According to the group's website, in addition to Quebec, it has branches in Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia.
Civil disobedience is widely understood as form of non-violent, political protest, where people purposefully disobey laws.
XR activists in the U.K. who have been arrested after engaging in civil disobedience have attempted to use the courts to raise awareness of their cause. Their lawyers used what's known as the defence of necessity to try and get their clients acquitted.
Universite de Montreal law professor Hugo Tremblay said the concept of "necessity" as a defence against a charge stemming from civil disobedience is applicable in Canada's criminal law system. But it has never worked in a case involving environmental activism, he said in a recent interview.
A defendant using that defence must prove that they disobeyed the law out of necessity, because doing so would have avoided a harm more significant than the one caused by breaking the law, Tremblay said.
"The actual state of law, in western society and particularly in Canada, is that we can destroy the environment and legally end up with an unlivable ecosystem," said Tremblay, who specializes in environmental law. "Faced with this reality, yes, we can expect that environmental protection groups to commit ... illegal acts and use necessity as a defence."
Quebec XR activists say they don't have the money to pursue a necessity defence in the courts. May Chiu, head of the group's legal wing, said their goal is to get their arrested members out of detention as quickly as possible.
"All I can say is that we will give the best possible legal defence to our members," she said in a recent interview.