When I first heard the name, I found it off-putting. Who would want to join a group called “Extinction Rebellion”?
In late 2018, both words smacked of the lunatic fringe. The public discourse surrounding climate change (it wasn’t a “crisis” yet) mostly revolved around ideas like “sustainable development” to avoid “extreme weather events.” No one seemed to be worried about extinction — not humanity’s, at least. And no one was itching to rebel.
Less than a year later, my outlook has changed, and so has the conversation. The majority of Canadians are still not interested in rebelling, but once “extinction” makes its way into the Overton Window, the notion of “rebellion” doesn’t seem so strange.
I joined XR in March; participated in my first action in April; and led my first protest march in May. After a couple of weeks off in June, I pushed myself to take the next step, reaching out to XR members who participated in a “national strategy” conversation online. XR is decentralized — no leaders, no hierarchy — but some of us dream big. We knew we couldn’t issue marching orders to the “affinity groups,” but I felt that if we came up with a sufficiently cool idea for a coordinated nationwide action, they might be able to pick it up, or at least put their own regional spins on it.
We drew inspiration from XR-UK’s huge, successful occupation actions — thousands of protestors blocking traffic for weeks at a time in London — but we knew it would be harder to achieve the same kind of critical mass in a country as big as Canada. We were also careful to acknowledge tactics that haven’t worked thus far to change government policy: marching with a permit; blocking energy extraction or production sites; picking up trash or planting trees. These sorts of actions could be inspiring to the public, but they were easy for politicians to ignore.
(This disdain was on full view in September’s Week of Action marches. On Sep 27, 300,000 people marched for climate action in Montreal alone. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau marched with them. He marched in protest against his own government. How messed up is that?)
The way to escalate, we decided, was to disrupt the status quo. Specifically, we hoped to hit the power brokers where it hurt: their profits. Disrupting morning rush hour traffic would cost businesses money. It would be controversial, of course — we certainly won’t be making friends with the motorists who are trying to get to work — but our goal was bigger. Consider early in this year, when Trump shut down the government to try to force funding for his wall; he only caved when the shutdown began disrupting air travel, something that affected big business more than the little guy. When even the corporate elite start calling their MPs and MLAs to say, “Why aren’t you doing something about this?” then you know you’ve got them where you want them.
The plan was developed collectively, over a series of weekly meetings with a rotating cast of XR members from various cities. I wouldn’t try to take solo credit… but I was the one who pitched the metaphor which brought it all together. “Bridge Out,” I said. As in, “The bridge to the future is out. We need to change course.” And also, potentially, as in, “If we bridge out to each other, we can still fix this, before it’s too late.”
As in: Don’t nearly all Canadian cities have at least one bridge? Aren’t bridges easier to occupy than intersections? What would the bigwigs do if XR shut down all their bridges at once?
That was the idea behind Oct 7’s #BridgeOut initiative. The date corresponded to the first day of XR International’s declared Week of Rebellion, so we knew that other actions would occur around the world at the same time, hopefully strengthening our cause. I knew that some affinity groups were much smaller than others, and some had barely any experience or training with NVDA (non-violent direct action), so I created a multi-tiered menu for different groups to choose from. Then we worked with them online to share resources and ideas.
Throughout the planning process, I had the notion that I could participate directly by coordinating an occupation of the Canso Causeway, which connects my island to mainland Nova Scotia. But I concluded the action wasn’t feasible with the number of “arrestables” in Cape Breton. So I focused on helping others where I could, especially the NS/Halifax groups, whom I knew had dreamed of blocking MacDonald Bridge for months. Now was their chance.
About a week before Oct 7, we got those huge, inspirational climate marches. They were peaceful, mostly non-disruptive, and pretty non-controversial. They proved that over 7 million people worldwide were deeply committed to swift, just climate action. But like I said, they didn’t provoke a sea-change in political circles — if anything, it seemed like corporations responded more readily to the clamour. But not Big Oil & Gas… they were confident that, after the marches, the news cycle would turn over and people would forget about everything except that warm, fuzzy feeling they got from all the photographs.
Cue #BridgeOut. While specific goals varied from region to region, the message was consistent, and baked right into the form of the actions: You can’t ignore this anymore.
As I’m writing this up, the results are still trickling in (turns out you can’t really synchronize actions across Canada because, y’know, timezones). But so far, here’s what #BridgeOut seems to have looked like:
- About 50 people occupied Halifax’s MacDonald Bridge for over 3 hours. 18 were arrested, no one charged.
- ?? people occupied the Prince Edward Viaduct in Toronto. 20 were arrested — not sure yet if any were charged.
- About 12 people blocked Edmonton’s Walterdale Bridge for about an hour, negotiating with police to depart peacefully.
- Over 100 people occupied Vancouver’s Burrard Bridge in the morning, and have stayed there all day, setting up cook stations and ball hockey games! No arrests, no hassles. Go Vancouver!
- Plans are afoot to block the Johnson Street Bridge in Victoria, B.C. during afternoon rush hour.
I also know of three other cities who are planning similar actions later in the week. The rebellion continues.
And yeah, for the first time, it actually feels like a rebellion. It’s not a warm, fuzzy feeling, like the student-led marches. For me, it’s a feeling of grim resolve. The public response is mixed, and very passionate on both sides of the spectrum. A lot of people who claim to know the gravity of the crisis argue that our tactics are misguided; that we’ve basically alienated ordinary citizens and made fools of ourselves.
They may be right, but I don’t mind. Popularity was never the goal. Then again, the goal as stated was to provoke government response, and as far as I know, that didn’t happen either. Yet.
But I’ve only been a climate activist for a year. Give me another 12 months, and then we’ll see who’s bridging out to whom.