British Columbia

Why Extinction Rebellion protesters have been blocking major thoroughfares in B.C.

7 arrested on Monday for anti-pipeline rally, the latest in a series of demonstrations targeting major routes in Metro Vancouver.

7 arrested on Monday for anti-pipeline rally, the latest in a series of demonstrations in B.C.

Police attempt to move climate change activists away from the Lions Gate Bridge in Vancouver, B.C., on Monday, May 3, 2021. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

As the rain trickled down on Monday afternoon, dozens of protesters stood face to face with Vancouver Police Department officers on the northbound sidewalk leading to the Lions Gate Bridge.

The Extinction Rebellion protesters planned to shut down traffic, much like they had done just one day earlier on the Granville Street bridge. But this time, they wouldn't make it onto the road.

Police didn't let them disrupt what the VPD called 'a critical piece of infrastructure'. Seven people were arrested, five of them taken to jail.

"I'm being arrested for walking on the sidewalk," said Zain Haq as he was handcuffed and escorted to the back of a police van.

The Extinction Rebellion group has staged protests each of the first three days of May, a series dubbed the 'spring rebellion.' It's the latest effort to raise awareness about the environmental impacts of the fossil fuel industry, namely the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project.

The government-bought project involves twinning the existing 1,150-kilometre pipeline between Alberta and B.C. It will add 980 kilometres of new pipeline and increase capacity from 300,000 barrels a day to 890,000 barrels a day.

"The Canadian government is engaging in the destruction of this country through the inaction of this climate emergency," said Haq, who said he's a student at Simon Fraser University.

Climate change activist Zain Haq is arrested while blocking the sidewalk along Lions Gate Bridge Road in Vancouver, B.C., on Monday, May 3, 2021. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

But social movement experts say their efforts could also be working against them when it comes to public sentiment.

"If people don't necessarily have sympathy for them or are inconvenienced, it can lead to negative orientation toward the group," said David Tindall, a University of British Columbia sociology professor who specializes in social movements.

"A lot of these folks believe there's a crisis, and the fact that they believe there is a crisis justifies creating a crisis for other people, like not being able to drive across the Lions Gate Bridge."

Inside the rebellion

Extinction Rebellion considers itself a 'flat' organization that has a minimal hierarchy.

That's according to Brent Eichler, who was the group's spokesperson at the Monday protest. He says the position rotates across members day-to-day.

"We make decisions as a group," he said. "Today I'm a spokesperson, sometimes I'm an organizer, sometimes I'm the person carrying the flags to the action."

Eichler is an an internet installer by day. He's also the president of Unifor local 950. The private sector union has long opposed the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project.

7 people were arrested and 5 taken to jail, according to the VPD. As of Monday, police did not say if charges had been laid. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

He says he's been an environmental advocate ever since he was child and grew up connected to B.C.'s forests. Similar to other members, Eichler participated in the Occupy movement a decade ago and in Trans Mountain protests staged at Burnaby Mountain over the past few years.

Eichler says he acknowledges that the group's actions can be polarizing, but he says members don't see any other way to get their message across.

"It's obvious to me that marching in the streets does not work, and signing petitions does not work. We need to go in the streets and actually oppose business as usual," he said.

A need for diversity

The Extinction Rebellion group, which first originated int he U.K.,  is a decentralized group with members worldwide. Among the criticisms directed at them is a lack of diversity within. Its members are primarily white and middle-class.

"We're trying to become more diverse, but I would say that it is an issue for us," said Eichler. "We have young and old, we have men and women, we have people who identify as other genders."

David Tindall says the environmental movement has historically skewed white, while in recent years environmental groups have tried to forge relationships with Indigenous communities.

But he says the groups who attend protests like Extinction Rebellion aren't necessarily reflective of the overall array of people who might support the movement.

"When there's the risk of getting arrested, there are lots of people who aren't willing to put themselves in that position... but they still might support the groups," he said.

The group has planned further disruptions up until May 5.