Direct action works

Breaking the law has played an important role in resisting social injustice for centuries; in particular, civil disobedience and other forms of non-violent direct action. Whatever the issue — workers’ rights, anti-racism, women’s rights, the environment, anti-militarism, Indigenous rights, and more – the use of non-violent direct action has contributed to positive social change.

As the reasons for resistance increase by the day, so, too, do the numbers of people who want to learn how to resist.

And so was born Direct Action Works: a legal handbook for civil disobedience and non-violent direct action in Canada.

Taking it to the streets

I have been involved in civil disobedience/non-violent direct action for a long time. Along the way, I have chalked up a criminal record. I have also been involved in planning actions, providing support to those who have been arrested, going to court to support fellow activists and, eventually, learning enough about the law to provide legal support. In fact, it was largely my involvement in civil disobedience that led me to go to law school when I was in my mid-30s.

Working with other activists on a broad range of social justice issues, whether linking arms across roads and corporate driveways, sitting down on military runways, occupying streets, blockading doorways into government offices and sometimes spending short periods of time in jail, has been a meaningful and often humbling experience.

Over the years, there have been a number of helpful tools developed to assist people who are involved in direct action campaigns: some were specific to individual actions, some were more general. But there were few that were specific to Canada, and those that were are long since out of date.

Keeping current

Aric McBay, a long-time political activist, organizer and writer, and I met during the Save Our Prison Farms campaign in Kingston a decade ago. With others, we provided training to new activists who were about to participate in their first-ever act of civil disobedience. We facilitated legal strategy discussions and supported those who were arrested.

There was an interest among many of the prison farm campaigners to learn more, so in the winter of 2011, along with fellow activist Matt Silburn, we ran a resistance school: 12 Saturday afternoon sessions to help folks learn more about activism, law breaking, group dynamics, working effectively with the media and more.

Since then, we have had many discussions about the need for an up-to-date legal handbook, specific to Canada. And, we have had requests, in recent months most often from climate crisis activists, for workshops and information to help them step into the world of non-violent direct action.

Here it is!

Aric and I began working on this handbook last spring. We shared drafts with other experienced activists as well as with those brand new to direct action, and we learned a lot from their comments. Draft one became draft two became draft three – and on it went.

Today, we are launching what we are calling the online pre-print version of Direct Action Works: a legal handbook for civil disobedience and non-violent direct action in Canada.

We have high hopes for where we can take this resource next. Print versions are in the works, as well as, if we can find some funding, podcasts, webinars, powerpoint slides, training guides and more.

For now, though, we want to hear back from activists and thinking-about-becoming-activists. Is this handbook helpful? Is anything missing? Do you disagree with anything we have said? Let us know at

The time for resistance is now

As Aric writes in the conclusion to the handbook:

“In the courts, power may rest with the state. But in so many other places, that power can belong to us. Civil disobedience and NVDA can let us reclaim that power in our streets, our workplaces, our institutions, and many other places. We can have that power if we are willing to build movements, defy authority, and take risks. Those risks are real, but it’s important that we put them in context. . .

The risks of action are evident: the risk of police violence, the risk of arrest. The risk of going to jail. The risk of missing work, or losing a job. The risk of alienation from friends and family.

[But so are] the risks of inaction: A worsening climate change emergency and more extreme weather. The continued rise of right-wing authoritarians around the world. The claw-back of labour rights, civil rights, and human rights. Famine and human displacement. Global ecological collapse.

Civil disobedience is about so much more than avoiding risk. It is about seizing an opportunity. An opportunity to take action. To do something that really matters. An opportunity to be part of something historically important, and that future generations will remember.

Here is our chance. Let’s seize an opportunity to change the world.”

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