It begins at 11 a.m. on Wednesday, January 22. I receive an anonymous tip about a peaceful protest at Canada Place calling out the proposed Teck Frontier Mine. The tip says there is a group that is “willing to be arrested” and to be at the Citadel Theatre for 11:30 a.m. and to follow members of “The Red Brigade” to the protest meeting spot.
As I wait a few minutes in the Citadel lobby, the elevator opens. Six people, various local actors, with ghost-white faces and blood-red headdresses—each adorned with a different crimson flower on their head—slowly step out of the elevator and raise their arms, open-palmed. This must be The Red Brigade.
They walk in a line, open the Citadel doors, and are greeted with a light sprinkle of snow. They cross the downtown street and make their way to the courtyard on the side of the CKUA building. A body of 40 or so people are standing, some wearing Extinction Rebellion (XR) t-shirts, some wearing banners that read “Reject Teck.” Everyone claps as the congregation of red spectres makes its way across the snow and crouch down in a circle.
I hear a group of people talking about “the plan” and ask them who the organizer is.
“Oh, you’ll want Chris. He handles our communications,” says one Extinction Rebellion member.
I quickly find Chris and ask him why everyone has gathered here today.
The proposed Frontier oil sands mine is a project located between Fort MacMurray and Fort Chipewyan that is being developed by Vancouver’s Teck Resources, Ltd. Teck promises the mine will produce 260,000 barrels of bitumen per day, although the mine is also projected to emit six megatonnes of greenhouse gas emissions per year—as reported by The Pembina Institute. Frontier would be the largest oil sands mine in Northern Alberta. The proposal to go ahead with the mine is a decision of Canada’s Minister of Environment and Climate Change, Jonathan Wilkinson.
“We’re here today to show that many people in Edmonton and Alberta do not want the Teck Frontier Mine to get built,” XR organizer, Chris Gusen says.
He says that his group is occupying Canada Place simultaneously with other protest groups in Canada.
“It’s impossible to continue to approve the expansion of oil sands, especially with mega projects like Teck—which is the biggest oil sands mine proposed—and call yourself a climate leader,” Gusen says. “The review panel that looked at this project said it would have huge adverse impacts on the people who live in that area, the environment, and the animals. This is not in our best economic interest. There is a new economy that’s green and decarbonized and we have to choose.”
The Red Brigade make a circle outside the doors of the CKUA building and for a moment, raise their fists in the air. A small crowd of people stops by the courtyard and stares. If they keep up to date with protest events, it’s not the first time they’ve seen The Red Brigade. The group’s origin actually goes back to a Bristol, UK street performance group from the 1990s called The Invisible Circus, but recently the Extinction Rebellion has called upon different local chapters to represent them at various rallies.
Gusen aptly sums up their presence at the protest.
“We thought it was about time for Edmonton to have our own Red Brigade,” he says. “The significance of this ominous blood-coloured pale face symbolism of death further suspends the everyday status quo that we’re all sleepwalking in.”
The idea of theatre and art as a form of protest has been around for ages. Artists use it as a way to break social conventions and shout ‘wake up and panic.’
“Climate change is this huge cosmic horror that we all have to reckon with and silence at this point is death. Hence why the Red Brigade are silent,” Gusen says.
It’s almost time for the walk to Canada Place, but before, Gusen introduces me to a group of young Indigenous activists, some of whom will be speaking during the protest.
“A large part of it is that many Indigenous communities in the North are being affected as they open new tar sands to expand the economy,” Austin Mihkwâw says. “It’s affecting First Nations’ rights and it will destroy their medicines like the berry patches, the sage, and the sweet grass.”
“My community is a bit farther North than where Teck Mine is being built and in my community industries on the land affect everything: wildlife, animals, the air, water,” says Portia Morin. “We need to reject Teck and get the message out there that it’s not going to help with Indigenous communities.”
It’s time to leave for the protest and the Red Brigade silently leads the charge. Following closely behind them are Gusen and other XR members, representatives of the Beaver Hills Warriors, and a group of 30 or so protesters made up of adults and children that look as young as eight.
As they walk in through Canada Place’s revolving doors and amass by the building’s marble surrounded fountain, people—probably just on their lunch break—begin to stare. Three XR members drop a banner that reads “REJECT TECK FRONTIER MINE” over the second-floor overlook. An XR member named Devin Radcliffe stands on the fountain and begins shouting.
“This the Reject Teck occupation. Teck Mine is a project that is set to be approved by the environment minister at the end of February. The mine will emit six megatonnes of carbon per year for 41 years. We’re choosing to trust Teck Resources with the lives, careers, and livelihoods of our communities and the Indigenous communities up North. This is unacceptable. We are occupying this space in hopes that you tell Jonathan Wilkinson to reject Teck.”
A unison chant of “Reject Teck, reject Teck, reject Teck” emanates off of the walls of Canada Place. The building’s security quickly takes note and motions to other guards.
“Now they’re trying to build new tar sands and create a new violation of rights,” Mihkwâw screams in a hoarse voice. “They don’t care about Indigenous rights. Is this the Canada you want to live in? Is this the Canada you want to be a part of?”
A group of three security guards attempts to move the protesters off the fountain steps. An XR member named Michael James stands between them and says “We’re doing nothing wrong. We have a right to speak.”
One bearded security guard is fuming and James begins to talk him down.
An arm-locked group of eight XR members blocks the speakers on both sides. A woman in a white dress shirt arrives with more security in the distance. She’s a building staff member and the police are about to be called.
While all this is taking place, the Red Brigade slowly walks around the fountain using hand gestures and what looks like improvised movements to mimic the speaker’s words.
Soon a few songs are led by a protester named Garnet, playing the accordion. He leads renditions of John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” but alters the lyrics to fit the Frontier mine protest. He does the same with John Lennon’s “Imagine.”
A woman named Jean L’Hommecourt speaks into the megaphone. She wields a traditional-looking drum with a painted eagle on it. She is from the Fort McKay First Nation, a community that will be directly affected by the Frontier mine’s development.
“I’ve been hearing in the news that everyone is in agreement with this Teck mine, including our Indigenous leaders, but I’m here to say reject Teck!” she shouts.
She clarifies that the Frontier Mine will be built on her home territory and will “dismantle” the lives of her community members as well as the land.
“We need to survive and protect our sacred land and sacred waters. They’re trying to call Birch Mountains Teck territory but it’s not. It’s pristine lands and we are trying to protect it.”
A few police officers appear behind the fountain near the building information booth. Michael of XR goes to talk with them.
“We’re here having a peaceful protest of the Teck mine and we want this to be a non-violent event,” James says.
“Security doesn’t want you here and they told us that they thought it was an Indigenous thing,” says the officer.
The officer, in short, tells James that security won’t touch or move the protestors until they are finished.
It’s an outcome James and the rest of the XR probably weren’t relying on as these types of protests can get hairy and result in arrests pretty quickly.
“Communication is what makes the differences of these certain situations,” James tells me. “Initially security was going to throw us out, but after I spoke to their superiors they changed their tune. Extinction Rebellion Edmonton are willing to be arrested at any given point. But the police know that the optics of that are terrible. But if it happens, we’re ready.”
Gusen ends the protest with his closing remark but directly addresses the people watching the scene from the top floor overlooks.
“We’re sorry for disrupting your workday today. Up until June of last year, I was a bureaucrat too, but I saw young people and Indigenous people raising the alarm on climate change,” he says. “Do you people believe in climate change? Hands up. Who believes in climate change?”
Only a few people raise their hands. The protest dies down soon after Gusen’s speech and the security and police eventually make their exit. The XR members are happy with the turnout and call the event a success.
“If you are silent and not with us and think it’s OK because ‘I believe in climate change and I recycle’ then you are complicit with the people destroying this Earth,” Gusen shouts. “Silence is complicity.”
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