Spirituality, Broadly Speaking
I am quite taken with the action of the Gitga’at people of Hartley Bay in response to the Federal Government’s decision, announced June 17th, to conditionally approve Enbridge’s Northern Gateway pipeline project.
It started with one woman from that community, Lynne Hill, imagining a crocheted chain stretching across the Douglas Channel at a narrow point through which tankers will have to pass to load and transport bitumen the pipeline will carry to Kitimat. The idea caught fire and other women from the community began to create links for the chain, with others from across Canada sending on their contributions. A Canadian Press report from June 21st quotes Hill as saying that one woman sent on her contribution to the chain, a full kilometre long. Then, on June 20th, three days after the government made their announcement, the women and men of Hartley Bay launched their canoes and boats to stretch the thin-yarn-line from Hawkesbury Island to Hartley Bay, some 3.3 kilometres in length. Yes, the men helped, but it was feminine consciousness that birthed the idea.
Well, such a fragile line could not stop a sea-going tanker laden with bitumen. It wouldn’t even know it was there and would snap it in an instant and pass right on through.
But that line is stronger than it looks, for it is made not with the stuff that politicians and industrialists rely upon to force their will on the people and the land. Instead, it is made from the power of the imagination and from the strength of community. Of such materials are constructed things that prevail. With serious playfulness, the Gitga’at people have expressed their resolve that the beauty of their territory will not be blemished and the bounty of the sea from which they derive their livelihood will not be threatened. They have created a simple gesture that draws to it all persons of conscience whose intuition recognizes that something essentially true is being expressed here, even if it cannot be succinctly put into words.
Such a gesture is a link in another chain – the history-long chain of non-violent resistance to misdirected officialdom and to downright evil. The crocheted chain stretched across the Douglas Channel is akin to other lines formed by the peace-marchers and civil-rights activists of the 60’s and of the lines of protection drawn around the forests of the Clayoquot Sound in the 90’s. What a debt of gratitude our generation owes to the insightful and courageous people who took to the front-lines of protest in earlier generations – abolitionists, the labour movement, the women’s movement, the gay rights movement, environmentalists, and so many more. What is it about governments – perhaps Tommy Douglas in Saskatchewan being a notable Canadian exception – that they are always on the wrong side of history, out of step with the advance of human consciousness, requiring such persuasion for them to eventually catch up?
But there is a problem with non-violent resistance. Though non-violent itself, such action often provokes violent backlash from entrenched power and fearful imaginations. I do believe that is a risk worth taking. But I also believe that the more positive energy we can put out there, the more positive energy we will receive back. That is why the simplicity, the creativity, and even the playfulness of this gesture from the people of Hartley Bay appeals to me so much. How can you argue with such an image? How can you resist its appeal?
Belligerence of any kind stirs up corresponding belligerence in return. Things escalate and someone gets hurt. In the long run, one side wins but the cost can outweigh the benefit – or at least compromise it. The advance of democracy and human rights has left such scars and bloodstains in its wake. I am deeply grateful for those who have stood fast on the front-lines of non-violent protest and who have paid the price for their convictions and their courage. I have often thought that, just as we have a national day of remembrance for those who have taken up arms to stand against worldwide forces of imperialism and megalomania, so we should have a national day of remembrance for the martyrs of non-violent protest as well. But if democracy and human rights have evolved over the generations – at least in some places – maybe the methods of non-violent resistance also need to evolve, so that the essence of the consciousness out of which such action is born is evident in the action itself.
That is why the simplicity and the creativity of the action conceived by the Gitga’at women intrigues me. Had the community mounted a more conventional protest, should the powers-that-be have struck back it would have been easier to rationalize their response as necessary under the circumstances. If someone got hurt in the process, it would be easy to shrug it off and say, well, they set themselves up for it. Maybe even some might say they deserved it. But, in this case, a response to the line drawn in the water instead of the sand would only reveal the brutality of any counter attack. In a way, it is very difficult to answer such a symbolic gesture for it disarms the other side and they will be at pains to figure out what to do about it.
Some protests – even of the non-violent variety – force the other side into submission. This type of creative action, on the other hand, embarrasses the other side into doing what should have been done from the beginning. Maybe it even touches the other side at some level at which their consciousness is raised as well.
Too much to hope for? Maybe. But hope is a shallow word unless there is something authentic and ultimate to invest in and to strive for. Thank you to the Gitga’at people of Hartley Bay for stirring my hope.
Ted Hicks is a spiritual director, workshop & retreat leader, minister, and hospital chaplain in the Comox Valley who seeks the connection between personal spiritual formation and social transformation