A giant wind turbine rotated slowly within view of the entrance to the Liberty Grand Entertainment Complex in Toronto, providing a fitting backdrop for the Gala of the 2008 Canadian Environment Awards, hosted by Canadian Geographic magazine in honor of those dedicating their energy, creativity, and passion to making this country and its environment healthier.

I was there to protest.

A week and a half earlier I had been in the land of windmills and wooden shoes (The Hague, Netherlands) to shine a spotlight on Royal Dutch Shell’s conduct in BC’s Sacred Headwaters at the company’s annual shareholder meeting.

My companion from that trip: a 5 foot tall, 15 pound cylinder containing a rolled-up 12 foot long banner, was being unpacked nearby.

Shell, it turns out, is the founding partner and major sponsor of the Canadian Environment Awards. Specifically, here we had a situation where the 3rd largest corporation in the world – 2nd largest in the industry responsible for much of the Earth’s present environmental calamity, and significant social unrest – was sponsoring 18 grassroots ‘Community’ awards for environmental achievement.

The irony of this was about as subtle as a brick to the face – particularly to those currently embroiled in struggles against the company.

Those of us working on keeping Shell from drilling in the Sacred Headwaters knew that we couldn’t let the company’s representatives have a comfortable evening at this year’s awards.

Hence the protest.

But I needed help – and I needed to avoid alienating the people and groups that had worked hard, and deserved, these awards.

Protesting is always a difficult thing. It is a relatively ‘in-your-face’ and confrontational endeavor; usually not physically, but always psychosocially. Protests are out of the ordinary, and as such they are not normally expected; and as animals, anything unexpected inevitably leads to some tension as our brains try to figure out if it represents a threat.

And to some people it is a threat – it is a threat to their preconceptions, ideas, and opinions about the world. Thus, protesters are always trying to balance bluntness with sensitivity, illuminating rather than alienating. Bluntness and stunts get attention, which is often the sole point; but low-key sensitivity brings more people onside.

At this protest, more than others, both were needed – Shell had to be the focus of a lot of critical attention, both outside and inside the event; and that needed to happen without alienating or embarrassing the other corporate sponsors, the hosts, or those attending.


Part 1
– Conduct low-key protest outside and pass out illuminating materials.

Part 2
– Have keynote speaker begin their speech by talking about the protest.

First Part: Not a problem – though it would never have happened without the support of local staff and volunteers of Greenpeace Canada and the Council of Canadians. Many took the information we offered, and several openly expressed their discomfort with Shell’s involvement. Although I didn’t make it far enough up the wait list to attend the event, I heard that many people could be seen inside flipping through the blue folders we had passed out, and a few chose to wear the buttons that we had scrambled to print the weekend before.

Attendees could choose from three buttons to wear inside

[Click here to see what we handed attendees on their way into the awards]

Second Part: Not normally possible.

Enter one of Canada’s most respected and effective activists and advocate-scholars: Maude Barlow, National Chairperson of the Council of Canadians. This year Maude joined past recipients David Suzuki, Sheila Watt-Cloutier, and Robert Bateman in receiving the event’s Citation of Lifetime Achievement. As such, she had the honor of giving the keynote address for the evening. Fortuitously, the Council of Canadians have long supported the campaign to keep Shell out of the Sacred Headwaters.

For those of you who have not seen, heard, or read about Maude Barlow, I can tell you that she embodies the balance of bluntness and sensitivity – and it was her involvement in the action that transformed its character from commonplace to an outright coup.  

She conducted interviews in front of the protest outside; she wore a button emblazoned with the slogan: “3 Rivers 1 Voice” – referring to the Skeena, Nass, and Stikine rivers of BC’s Sacred Headwaters. Inside, she began her speech by criticizing Shell’s ambitions for the area, saying to those affected that “Your struggle is our struggle” before announcing that she was donating the $5000 she received for the award to the Sacred Headwaters campaign.

She went on to talk about Shell’s proposed tar sands refinery in Sarnia, Ontario, and framed the struggles against that company as part of a larger struggle to achieve indigenous and water justice the world over. [Click here to read the full text of Maude’s speech]

She received a standing ovation…

…At the head table, immediately facing Maude’s podium, was Canadian Vice President for Royal Dutch Shell Graham Boje (the figure in the foreground of the podium image). Mr. Boje conspicuously remained seated during said ovation… until he noticed that there were cameras pointed at him.

All in all it was an unforgettable evening; both for me, and I dare assume for those representing Shell as well.

Let me be clear that I have nothing wrong with Shell donating portions of their multi-billion dollar profits to awards and causes such as these – in fact Shell should sponsor more awards, thereby indirectly returning a fraction of the wealth they take from the Earth, back to it – and good on them for every dollar that flows thus.   

Nor do I hold any personal grudges with any Shell employees or representatives – I don’t have to respect their role to respect their person.

I was there, with my new friends and colleagues, to simply make sure that Shell’s involvement in awards such as these don’t create or support any false impressions about the company’s environmental and social conduct on the ground. Shell’s basket of awards that night went to “those who put our right to a healthy environment first”.  

But let’s be honest, Shell will never cease to put gas first, or oil first, or whatever it is they are after first – because that is their reason for existence.

If we want Shell out of our Sacred Headwaters, we have to continue to assert our priorities over theirs.  

At some point, the third largest corporation in the world will come to see that the Klappan project is not w
anted, really not wanted, explicitly and by enough people that they truly in their heart of hearts know that it is not wanted; and then decide on a graceful exit.

Onwards to that goal!  

To help with this campaign email eswanson@dogwoodbc.ca