EDITORIAL: The right to protest

Agree with it or not, but without the right to protest, we have no business pretending we live in a democracy.

Is there a place for acts of conscience in our society?

Protesters on Burnaby Mountain have proven they feel strongly enough about stopping a proposed Kinder Morgan oil pipeline that they are willing to be arrested.

No doubt there are many who will dismiss their protests as foolish and misguided. Others will not envy the hassles that inevitably attend being arrested and charged.

But there are those, too, who will view their actions as heroic and principled, and will privately wish that they had the courage to take a stand against something they feel, on a very deep and fundamental level, is wrong.

To those arrested, it is all the price of making a statement. It is not a price they wish to pay. It is one, they say, they feel compelled to endure.

Their actions force us to assess where we stand on the issue – or indeed any issue that disturbs us. They pose questions that are not easy to answer, that call for considerable soul-searching. How many of us would be willing to put our comfort and name on the line, to back our word – easily given – with unequivocal action? And what would be the tipping point that would compel each of us to similar protest?

Although Kinder Morgan president Ian Anderson says the company wants to respect the “right of peaceful protest,” the fact is that our society gives scant respect to protest, peaceful or not.

Many of us leap to label protesters ‘wing-nuts’ and bandy the term ‘professional protester’ as though the existence of such a thing would nullify all right to protest.

Dissent is not popular in our society. The conventional wisdom is that governments always have good and just reasons to act as they do, that lies are never told to voters and that business interests always act for the good of humanity. Anyone who believes otherwise is swiftly dismissed as a ‘conspiracy theorist.’

Yet we have discovered time and time again that governments can be wrong, and that conspiracies – sometimes on a grand scale – do exist. If the past 100 years of world history has taught us nothing else, it has taught us that.

Protests may be discomfiting. Protests may be foolish. There may be better ways to argue the rights and wrongs without chaining ourselves to railings and trees.

But without the right to dissent, without the right to protest, we have no business pretending we live in a democracy.

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