Sydney’s Open Hearth Park has a remarkable history closely tied to environmental recovery. In a way, it is a green miracle: less than 20 years ago, it was one of the most polluted sites in Canada, the “tar pond” tailings of the massive steel plant that supported Cape Breton’s economy for decades.
Today, thanks to investment and collaboration between the community, businesses, and all three levels of government, the toxic sludge has been stabilized in concrete, and the tar ponds replaced with a bright, broad multi-use park, complete with a playground, running tracks, and public art. It stands as vibrant proof that environmental remediation is possible, if everyone pitches in.
So we began our May 24 march at Open Hearth, where green miracles can happen. When I arrived at 11:30, I was the first one there. By 11:50, maybe a dozen people were there, a few with protest signs. 10 minutes after that, the flood began — but not the bad kind of flood that we’re fighting against: young people, university students, seniors, and even a couple of tyrannosaurus rexes. Over 100… maybe 150? That’s the number the Cape Breton Post estimated. To me, it felt like a million.
My co-organizer Terry brought a megaphone, which I used to issue some initial statements and requests: a Mi’kmaq land acknowledgement, a request for marshals and people with first aid training, and an advisory that using the canteen bathrooms before we set out would be a good idea.
The police were also nearby. I’d already had several genial conversations with a traffic safety constable who advised me against marching on the streets. I looked into parade insurance, but as I’d suspected it was prohibitively expensive. Extinction Rebellion is not a legal entity, and I wasn’t going to pay more for insurance than I’d likely pay to get fined.
“What will happen if we choose to march on the streets?” I asked him, and he seemed to have trouble even understanding the question. “Nobody has ever done that without insurance,” He replied. But now here we were, shaking hands in Open Hearth Park — the site where, in 1967, Sydney’s steel plant announced its closure, prompting 20,000 Capers to march on the streets without insurance. Back then, they felt their livelihoods — their lives — were at stake. And so do we.
Our march began on schedule, at 12:10. We had an extra-wide vinyl Extinction Rebellion banner to lead us, but I marched in front along with my 7-year-old, who’d managed to snag an XR flag. We cut through the park as a “warm-up,” practicing simple chants which I’d printed off the night before: “Hey, ho, hey, ho, fossil fuels have got to go” etc. I tried a couple of more complex ones, including a rhyme I’d made up using the names of four climate-stalling politicians, but it was a bit too much for the crowd to absorb on the go.
And that’s fine. “What do we want? Climate action! When do we want it? Now!” is a perfectly acceptable means for getting our point across.
After 5 minutes, we ran out of park, and it was decision time. I’d told everyone that it was their choice — march on the sidewalks to play it safe, or spill out onto Inglis Street and risk getting ticketed. The police were already there in three squad cars, waiting for us to choose. I was in the lead, and for a disconcerting instant, I imagined myself stepping out onto the street entirely solo, while 149 law-abiding Capers played it safe. I needn’t have worried.
The police adapted. No one was detained or ticketed, and the squad cars surrounded us protectively, just like they would have done for a parade with insurance. We turned onto Prince, a much busier street, and traffic slowed to admit us. Many passersby honked their support. I only overheard one heckler, who shouted “Go home!” from his SUV. I had told the marchers not to engage or debate with deniers, and they stuck to their guns — but in my mind, I heard myself saying, “This IS our home. We’re trying to save it.”
The media arrived: a CBC television camera, and a photographer from the Cape Breton Post. The latter scrambled to keep up with us and take down the correct spellings of names as we strode briskly up Prince, across George and Bentick and Charlotte, through the heart of downtown Sydney. Ours is not a very busy city centre, but 12:30pm is the lunch rush, so our march was perfectly timed to garner exposure from passersby.
The last turn took us from Prince onto Esplanade, where Sydney’s gleaming, semi-circular Civic Centre awaited us. I carefully guided the crowd up onto the concourse, where we surprised some construction workers into taking an early lunch break. The 150 participants fit almost perfectly into the bricklaid plaza. And the City Hall staff had courteously set up a microphone and speaker for us. Everyone was getting along.
Now for some inside info: one of our city councilors told me that Mayor Clarke was in the building, so I walked into the lobby and asked for him to come down. The security guard, a bit deer-in-the-headlights when he saw the size of the crowd outside, called up to Clarke’s office, but then reported to me that, sorry, the Mayor was not in his office.
This was not what I’d hoped for, but I’d planned for the possibility. I told the crowd we’d wait 30 minutes, to see if the Mayor “shows up.” In the meantime, I’d lined up a number of speakers: Paul Strome, from the Council of Canadians; Geoff Lee-Dadswell, a physicist from CBU, and Hannah Kosick, an articulate CBU student/activist. We also gave a few students turns with the megaphone.
Finally, despairing of seeing the Mayor before we lost momentum (or numbers), I asked Councilor Amanda MacDougall to accept our demands on Clarke’s behalf. MacDougall is an ally — in fact, she’s responsible for getting a state of climate emergency declared earlier in May — so the action was largely symbolic, but I think the crowd needed to see someone in power agree that yes, climate was obviously a serious issue in need of immediate action.
Then I broke out the chalk. “If the Mayor isn’t willing to meet with us,” I said, “Let’s leave him a message.” Within minutes, the concourse was covered with environmental messages — pleas and warnings and inspiring phrases, representing the full gamut of emotions we’re all feeling as the climate crisis grows unchecked.
The young people loved the chalk, of course. Along with the sidewalk chalk sticks, I’d brought eight cans of Rust-Oleum “Yard Art” Chalk Paint Spray — “Spray, play, & wash away! Washes off easily!” — and they were mostly put to innocuous use — hearts and XR logos and portraits of the Earth. One of my marshals spotted a chance to leave a message that would be visible to traffic, so he sprayed “Save Our Planet” on the side of a planter unit. The police were mere feet away, but did nothing to stop him.
After the speakers were done, Cyrus R.O. plugged in his guitar and played a few songs, including a new composition about coping with uncertain times. We wrapped up the event with a party atmosphere. Although I talked a lot about joining XR and signing my petition, and promoted upcoming events like the Climate Cafe, I was mostly just relieved that we’d made it through this event without incident.
But I didn’t knock on wood.
I was chatting with some of the high school students who’d joined us to represent their schools in the Fridays for Future Global School Strike, when someone rushed up to inform me that one of my marshals was under arrest. I dashed over, camera in hand. It was the same young man who’d painted the planter 15 minutes earlier. As the uniformed police led him to a squad car, a plainclothes sergeant asked to speak with me off the record.
“We got a call from somebody inside the building,” He said, referring to City Hall. “They want this chalk cleaned up.”
He wouldn’t tell me who made the complaint, but seconds later a woman burst out of the doors, issuing the same demand. I spoke for some time with Marie Walsh, the CBRM Chief Administrative Officer, trying to explain our rationale for gathering and for using chalk paint. She gravitated to one graffito in particular which included the F-word, but the person who’d painted it immediately apologized and washed it off with water from his bottle. He said he’d written the swear word in response to his friend’s arrest.
Both Walsh and the sergeant were hoping I’d reassure them that I’d take responsibility for cleaning off the chalk, but I was only concerned with the safety of my detained marshal. I excused myself as quickly as I could and, after making sure that all our signs and litter was cleaned up, I walk-jogged back along the parade route to my car, then drove to the police station.
Having participated in a Halifax action where four people were arrested, I had a pretty good idea of how it would play out, and I wasn’t disappointed. The CBRP held my friend only until they were sure the protest was over, then released him without charge. They did mutter something about “restorative justice,” and said they’d be in touch, but I’d be surprised if anything came of it. In my view, the police were not interested in pressing charges or even detaining anyone because they could see that we were non-violent and respectful.
Our attitude wasn’t clear from three floors up, where the call presumably came from. All they saw was a concourse “defaced” by slogans. Nor was our tone clear to Mayor Clarke, who issued a quote to the Cape Breton Post, complaining that our protest “wasn’t done in a respectful way.”
The chalk paint will wash off after one or two rainy days. If it doesn’t, well, Mayor Clarke won’t be around in 2100, when the waterfront Civic Centre will probably be underwater. But we can’t wait till then for action. We can’t wait 20 years, or 10. If the Mayor had deigned to join us, we could’ve explained that to him. 150 of his constituents were calling for his help, and — if my sources are correct — he stayed silent in his office, three floors above. Who’s disrespectful in this situation?
The day was encouraging. We formed a community, and I am optimistic that it will remain in force as we push forward, trying every tactic in our playbook until we get results. The work continues. Like the transformation from Tar Pond to Open Hearth, it won’t happen overnight, but it will happen. It has to. The dinosaurs are proof of what will happen if we don’t.