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UBC student manipulated into eco-protest roadblocks, court hears

Olivia Mary Howe has pleaded guilty to mischief for being among 60 Extinction Rebellion supporters who blocked an intersection last fall and for being one of three Save Old Growth blockaders on the Ironworkers Memorial Second Narrows Bridge last winter. 
There could be another wave of protests this fall, according to the protest group's Instagram account.

A provincial court judge in Vancouver heard that a foreign University of B.C. student was bullied into climate change protest roadblocks. 

Olivia Mary Howe, 19, pleaded guilty Aug. 24 to mischief for being among 60 Extinction Rebellion supporters who blocked an intersection last fall near Vancouver International Airport and for being one of three Save Old Growth blockaders on the Ironworkers Memorial Second Narrows Bridge last winter. 

Judge Patricia Stark sentenced Howe to a conditional discharge, meaning she won’t have a criminal record if she respects the law during her 18-month probation term. That includes an order to not block traffic or pedestrians. For the first six months, Howe will live under a 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew, with allowance for employment, education and emergency healthcare. Howe must also perform 100 hours of community service work within the next 12 months. Stark excused her from paying the $100-per-offence victim surcharge. 

“Public roads should be free for the public to use in the ordinary way,” Stark said in her verdict. “Emergency vehicles are impacted, public transportation, individuals trying to get to work, drop  children off, get to medical appointments, do their jobs, deliver goods, they’re all adversely impacted.”

Prosecutor Ellen Leno said Howe came from South Carolina without family to study forestry at UBC. She began to associate with members of Extinction Rebellion, which spawned Save Old Growth, and was one of five people to incorporate Eco Mobilization Canada in January. The federal company raises money for the protests via crowd funding donations and grants from the U.S.-based Climate Emergency Fund. 

Howe became increasingly pressured to participate in roadblocks. When she declined, she was ostracized and feared losing friends and connections. 

“She indicates that it was internal pressure from senior members who have criminal records and previous arrests that younger, newer members earn their stripes by participating,” Leno told the court.

Defence lawyer James Wu said Howe was “emotionally manipulated” into participating. She has since “completely disconnected from the two groups” and intended to plead guilty for some time. 

“Starting from about March, she had left British Columbia essentially to get away from these groups and to break the connections that she had,” Wu said.

Stark said interruption of traffic flow near the airport on Oct. 25, 2021 greatly affected emergency response to medical calls in or around the terminal and people needing to visit the COVID-19 testing clinic. It would have also compromised response to an emergency landing. 

The court heard that Howe and two other protesters drove separate vehicles from North Vancouver, southbound to midspan on the Ironworkers bridge during morning rush hour on Jan. 31. They stopped, exited the vehicles and glued their hands to the bridge deck, causing a half-hour disruption. Paramedics were called to unglue their hands. 

Stark noted Howe’s stress-related health issues and lack of criminal record. She has found new friends in the community that support her and has been accepted to study at UBC’s school of music. A criminal record would have hampered her ability to travel for educational and professional opportunities. 

Howe expressed remorse in a brief address to the court: “I just wanted to say that I regret my ignorance and my naïveté in this situation, and picking a group to find support with that was so radical, when there are so many amazing groups I could find that would have been a lot different of an outcome for me.”

Howe’s sentence came more than a month after one of the protest group leaders, 26-year-old Ian Shigeaki Weber, was sentenced to 14 days in jail. Weber pleaded guilty to mischief and disobeying an undertaking to not block highways. 

Unlike Howe, Weber remains active in Save Old Growth. On Instagram Aug. 24, Weber was photographed at Kitsilano Beach with a sign reading: “The best way to Save Old Growth is to block highways. Change my mind.”

Save Old Growth took a month off from roadblocks earlier this summer. Another image on the group’s Instagram account hinted at the next wave of protests, an “October rebellion” campaign coming this fall.