Tens of thousands protest democracy erosion in Canada

Photo by John Maclennan

It was magnificent.   After three weeks of online and off line organizing, tens of thousands of people across generations and political persuasions took to the streets on Saturday January 23 in 65 cities and towns across the country and around the world to stop the erosion of democracy in Canada.  The demonstrations were to protest the prorogation (shutting down) of Parliament by Conservative Prime Minister Steven Harper a few weeks ago.  

Organized mostly by activists in their 20’s, using  the tools of social media to reach each other across the vast distances of land and political discourse. they found that tens of thousands of Canadians really do want their voices to be heard in the democratic process.   Harper made the mistake of pride and arrogance so often the downfall of autocratic leaders by saying that Canadians wouldn’t care that he shut down Parliament.   That’s what really pissed them off.  But ror many it was the last straw after a series of attacks by Harper on the democratic protest and his foreign and environmental policies that are making Canada a pariah internationally.

The protests had enough of an impact that they were covered extensively in mainstream media, as well as on Facebook, Twitter and rabble.ca.  But I am enough of an old leftie to think an analysis of its significance is useful.

As I said in my speech to the Toronto rally,   the method of organizing this rally was completely unprecendented in Canada.  Activists in Europe have been using networking through social media and text messaging for a few years now.  Some of the most important protests we have seen in Europe over the past years have been organized this way.  What the networking does is allow for individuals without organizational or institutional support to organize in a new way.  And of course online organizing was critical in the Copenhagen environmental protests.

The Facebook group started by an indivdual student at the University of Alberta grew exponentially and allowed a space not only for 210,000 people to indicate their anger at Harper’s proroguing Parliament but also a for activists to begin organizing protests.  In all my years of organizing, I have never seen a truly spontaneous protest like this.

Moreover, in a country like Canada, organizing a national demonstration without resources has been almost impossible.  Even in the pro-choice movement in the 1980’s, the most powerful movement of my life in Canada, we would not have been able to organize simultaneous protests in so many cities.  It is the decentralization, the low level of entry, and the ability of anyone to call themselves part of the CAPP (Canadians Against Proroguing Parliament) as long as they oppose the Prorogue that makes it possible.  So there were protests in dozens of small towns, a few cities around the world and even a single protester in Oman.  The protests were organized differently in each city.  In Toronto, there were no politicians permitted to speak, in Ottawa, the leaders of the Opposition parties were featured but the message was similar developed through online media.  Social networking, this time through live reports on Twitter, also allowed the organizers to control the message including how many protested, 25,000. 

Secondly, a new generation of leadership emerged through CAPP.  Christopher White who started it all is an Anthropology grad student from University of Alberta. In Toronto it was three student activists, all three people of colour.  In most places, it was individuals rather than organizations who organized events.  The political parties came to support it late in the game with the exception of Elizabeth May from the Green Party who is the only leader who seems to understand social movement politics, followed by the Liberals and finally the NDP.    The leadership was young but the participants were all ages. 

None of the usual suspects were involved.  The unions came to support it near the end; although some union activists did.  Even then there was little effort from the labour movement to really mobilize.  The organizers in Toronto included the labour movement.  Marie Kelly, the new secretary-treasurer of the Ontario Federation of Labour gave an excellent speech as did John Cartright of the Metro Labour Council, which was the only union group to really promote the rally, and there were small clusters of labour activists but not very many.

Hard to understand given the negative impact these protests have had on Harper’s popularity. From being in striking range of a majority, the latest polls put the Tories in a dead heat with the Liberals and that was before the protests.  It is the first real damage anyone has been able to inflict on Harper in some time.  Talking to one union leader, it became clear that they thought it was a Liberal front so they held back, probably the same reason the NDP did.  This reflects a failure to understand the new politics that are emerging with this generation and in particular how out of touch both the unions and the NDP are with how social networking operates.  A few minutes on that CAPP Facebook group made it very clear, even early on that this was no Liberal front.  First the Liberals are not that good or they would be doing better and second given the personal connections people use to spread the word on Facebook, it would have quickly become clear that it wasn’t what it appeared to be. 

But neither was there any visible presence of what we might call the Left.   A few days ago I was at an organizing meeting for the People’s Summit against the G8/G20 next June.  I saw very few of those people at the rally and no sign of their organizations.  It is true that the rally was not very radical.  Demanding that Parliament get back to work is not the most revolutionary of demands.  But the reality of the depoliticization created by neo-liberalism means that the biggest obstacle to any political or social change is the passivity of ordinary people.  The fight for citizen participation in democracy is progressive.  Bringing people into the streets again in these kinds of numbers is radical in the present context.

The leadershp of these protests was very clear that they wanted the broadest possible mobilization.  including conservative democrats. That is the nature of a mass movement.  The environmental movement, for example, includes a broad political spectrum from direct action anarchists to staid conservationists.  The women’s movement, especially in its early days, included Tory women as well as youthful radical activists.  And any movement for greater democracy will include a broad spectrum of political views. 

It is not clear yet if what will emerge from this is what I hope, a broad movement for more participatory democracy that would include reform to Parliament, as the NDP is proposing, reform to the electoral system as Fair Vote Canada proposes and more citizen participation as we are seeing throughout Latin America.  I have argued for some time that deepening democracy will provide a path to more radical social and political demands so of course I was very excited about yesterday’s protest. Not to mention that I haven’t been able to give one of those rabble rousing speeches in a long time.

But it is certain that the young people who so brilliantly organized these rallies will not stop.  Once you get a taste of people’s power, it’s hard to turn back from it.  There is already a Facebook page on next steps

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