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Arrested, handcuffed, proud

Photo of May 5th coal train blockade arrests by Rob Baxter

I didn’t want to be standing on the railroad tracks in White Rock on a hot sunny day. I would have much rather been playing with my daughter or going for a hike. But as I stood with 12 colleagues on the rail tracks in front of a coal train transporting U.S coal bound for China, I knew I was in the right place.

No matter how much you think about it in advance, nothing prepares you for the moment the handcuffs synch shut.

As the RCMP pulled my hands behind me and ratcheted the thick plastic handcuffs tight on my wrists, all I could think of was a quote from Winston Churchill, "It is no use saying, 'We are doing our best.' You have got to succeed in doing what is necessary."

As I stood in front of that coal train on May 5th surrounded by RCMP, for the first time in a long time I felt I was doing what was necessary. I was the last of the 13 British Columbians arrested for engaging in civil disobedience by blocking coal exports on the Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) railway line to the Westshore coal terminal at Delta Port. British Columbians would be shocked to know the Jimmy Pattison-owned Westshore Coal terminal adjacent to the Tsawwassen ferry terminal is the second largest exporter of global warming pollution in North America.

The arrest itself was somewhat anti-climactic. As I was escorted along the tracks, for some reason I counted my steps all the way to the police car. As I walked  I reminded myself to hold my head up with pride to avoid looking like a perp on a perp walk. I’m not sure if I succeeded. It’s hard to look dignified in handcuffs even if you are wearing a tie and sports coat.

I was exhausted, but each of the 235 steps I took to get the police car reminded me of my daughter’s life and why I was there.

My journey to those railroad tracks actually began 233 weeks (4 years, 5 months, 21 days) earlier when my daughter was born four months prematurely. She weighed a bit more than a pound and her odds of living weren’t good.

As I watched my daughter fight to live, fight to breathe, I made a pledge: if she lived, I would do everything possible to ensure the world she inherited was one where she had a fair shot of living on a planet hospitable to life. 

I was stopping coal trains for her. Standing on railway tracks in front of a coal train was not something I ever thought I would do. I chose to be arrested because I believe if we don’t stop burning coal the world my daughter will inherit will be so fundamentally changed that it might not be worth living in.

My goal was to model for other morally conscious parents and grandparents what needs to be done to stave off a looming climatic disaster. I hoped to inspire fellow British Columbians, especially parents and grandparents, to take similar actions before it is too late.

I wasn’t alone. Twelve other British Columbians stood with me. We weren’t a ragtag group of activists; we were a broad cross-section of British Columbians, young and old, who were deeply concerned about the direction our political leaders are taking our country and our province.

Just before the arrests we all gathered together, dealt with last-minute logistical details and began telling each other our personal stories about why we were there and why each of us individually thought it was necessary to stop coal trains I was surprised at the strength of the emotions that flooded me.

I began to cry. I couldn’t help but think about my daughter, about the 110 days my wife and I spent with her in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit in Victoria watching her fight to live, about the joy of each of the 233 weeks of her life so far and about my pledge to do what was necessary. 

I don’t remember much of the next few minutes. I remember the handcuffs tightening, trying to keep my head up, some camera’s flashing, some heckling and some shouted words of encouragement, but not much else. With each of the 235 steps I tried to envision the world I wanted my daughter to live in and what it would require of me to make that possible.

After providing identification and being issued a federal ticket for violating the Railway Safety Act, I was released. Walking out of the RCMP station was surreal. Less than an hour before we had been surrounded by police officers, reporters and a crowd shouting out support with a few loud critics. Now I was a free man worrying about whether I could get to the last ferry in time to get home and sleep in my own bed.

I was exhausted, hungry, dehydrated, yet elated. We had accomplished what we had set out to do. We had stopped coal trains exporting climate unfriendly coal to China. We had modelled for other concerned citizens that their actions matter and that they can make a difference. I had taken a first step toward doing what was necessary for my daughter’s future.

Now as a few months have passed and I have had time to reflect I am glad I participated. I was inspired by the generosity of our many supporters who through their efforts made the successful action possible.

I was amazed by how quickly one Twitter account and some fast moving thumbs could spread a message around the world.

I was pleased that we collectively set the tone for the memorable day. A tone for a citizen action that was peaceful, creative and hopeful, but also focused and determined.

Despite the petty partisan actions — and inactions — of our federal and provincial leaders, my day in White Rock made me proud to be a Canadian. I was proud to be among the growing number of people willing to risk arrest to stand up for what they believe in.

 To learn more about: civil disobedience in a changing climate, attend an open discussion on why peaceful civil disobedience is an ethical course of action for those concerned about climate change.  This will include an exchange of information on the practical, legal and financial implications of engaging in civil disobedience in BC.

Moderated by James MacKinnon (co-author of The 100-Mile Diet).  With British Columbians arrested last May for stopping a coal train in White Rock will share their experiences and motivations.   

Arrestees expected to attend include:

  • Mark Jaccard, Energy and Environment Economist
  • Lynne Quarmby, SFU professor of molecular biology
  • Alejandro Frid, professional biologist
  • Fred Bass, epidemiologist and former city councillor
  • Bruce Mohun, documentary film maker
  • Peter Nix, regired Tar Sands engineer
  • Ray Haynes, 84 year old retired labour leader
  • and others

When and Where:

Friday September 21st, 7:30 pm, Alice McKay Room, Central Branch of the Vancouver Public Library.  The event is free.


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