dying for the games

Vancouver’s 2010 Olympics have claimed their first life. Harriet Nahanee, a 71-year-old protestor, died in jail last week after being…

Vancouver’s 2010 Olympics have claimed their first life.

Harriet Nahanee, a 71-year-old protestor, died in jail last week after being sentenced to 14 days because she refused to apologize for blockading the Eagleridge Bluffs bridge project on British Columbia’s Sea to Sky Highway.

The bridge is supposed to relieve Olympic traffic on the busy Vancouver to Whistler route.

Now another elderly woman, 78-year-old Betty Krawczyk, is on her way to prison to serve a 10-month sentence for her part in the same protest.

If her photograph is anything to go by, Ms Krawczyk is in robust good health and better spirits.

Nevertheless, you have to wonder, how have we reached the point of imprisoning grandmothers over political disputes?

If ever a local environmental movement had a chance to succeed, Eagleridge was surely it.

The neighbourhood that will be most affected by the construction project is a wealthy one, many of the protestors are property owners, they had the support of their MLA who is a government member, there was a viable alternative to the bridge in the form of a proposed tunnel and every government department involved had pointed to problems with the bridge.

The manager of transportation and roads for the district of West Vancouver, Brent Dozzi, raised two problems with the Eagleridge Bluff project.

First, “The facilitation of two differently operating highway systems in a very confined space will lead to crashes,” and second, “The development of multiple destinations in a very confined space does not conform with good highway design and will lead to crashes.”

Environmentally too the project scores very poorly.

The BC Department of Transportation describes both Eagleridge Bluff and Larson Creek Wetlands as “unique, highly susceptible to disturbance and regionally rare.”

The BC ministry of Water, Land and Air Protection, the Canadian Wildlife Service and a consultant hired by the Department of Transportation all preferred the tunnel over the bridge as by far the less environmentally damaging.

In the face of overwhelming evidence suggesting they were making the wrong decision, the retread-Socred BC government pushed ahead with the bridge.

This decision will result in road accidents, some of which will be fatal.

It will cause the destruction of unique wildlife habitat, and it will make the road longer than need be — the tunnel being a significant shortcut — making everyone spend more time, more money and more fuel on the drive, releasing more carbons and pollutants and risking more accidents.

On the other hand, the bridge will cost less than the tunnel, a savings the government can pass on to the rich and the middle class in the form of tax cuts.

As the democratically elected government, they have the right to make this political decision.

Similarly, citizens have the right to make the political decision to protest, up to the point of breaking the law.

Civil disobedience as practiced by Harriet Nahanee and Betty Krawczyk is undertaken by people who are willing to take the consequences, including jail.

The question is, what kind of consequences are reasonable for peaceful political protests?

It’s typical of extreme right-wing governments such as Campbell’s retread-Socreds or the late and unlamented Ontario Conservatives — many of whom are now in the federal cabinet — that they go straight to court injunctions as soon as they are confronted.

This puts the protestors, who are nothing more nor less than political adversaries, in the position of having to give up their protest, or be held in contempt of court.

So, offences that would normally result in misdemeanour mischief charges become felonies.

The BC government’s response to Eagleridge Bluff is a classic case of government steamrolling.

The Greater Vancouver Region and North Shore municipalities have been trying unsuccessfully since 2004 to meet with Transportation Minister Kevin Falcon to discuss alternate proposals to the Eagleridge Bluff project.

Aboriginal Canadians will not fail to notice that, although she was not shot to death by provincial police, Harriet Nahanee, a native elder, died under very similar circumstances to Ipperwash protestor Dudley George.

In each case, the government of the day created the deadly situation by moving quickly to court injunctions and the threat of contempt-of-court charges to end a peaceful protest.

This is not to suggest that every political protest is sacrosanct.

If this had been the case of a neo-Nazi demonstration at the building site of a synagogue or a mosque, this would be a very different column.

That’s why judges have discretion in sentencing; as Aesop said, circumstances alter cases.

But in a less extreme case — say a dispute between citizens and a government over health, safety, the environment and property values, it’s not up to the courts to judge the politics of the situation.

That’s our job, we the public.

If we decide that a government has pursued a violent and dangerous policy by pursuing harsh felony charges for what are really misdemeanour offences, we can get rid of them, and we should.

If we don’t, the next death is on our hands too.

And when we spot a band of rogues in office like the retread-Socreds, we should look around us for others like them, and give them the same cold shoulder.

If BC had followed that rule after Ontario finally flushed the Common Sense Revolution, Gordon Campbell’s retreds would never have been elected, and maybe one less grandmother would have died in jail.

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