Celebrate the tepee protest. Demonstration improves social justice

Posted on June 30, 2017 in Inclusion History

TheGlobeandMail.com – Opinion

“Peace, order and good government:” That’s us, right? Canadians are meant to be content, law-abiding, polite. Or at least, that’s our national story. But there’s another story, one that’s even more relevant to today: Protest obtains good government.

When Indigenous activists brought a tepee to Parliament Hill this week, seeking to bring attention to legitimate and long-delayed grievances, they were stopped by security forces (the protesters eventually erected the tepee on the edge of Parliament Hill). The Globe and Mail reported that 10 people were detained by police before being released.

Instead of listening to the issues that were being raised, critics immediately dismissed the protest as ill-timed and un-Canadian. It was viewed by some as impolite party-crashing. Couldn’t we all just get along and wave some red balloons?

In fact, there’s nothing more Canadian than impolite party-crashing. Protest is in this country’s DNA, from the 19th-century pro-democracy rebellions in Upper and Lower Canada to the road blockades of Clayoquot Sound to the youth-fueled energy of Black Lives Matter and Idle No More. As a country, we tend to think we’re quiet and demure and resigned to our fate, and it’s countries such as Brazil and France and the United States that know how to agitate and organize. But in Canada protesters – both individuals and those who come together in large groups – have led the way and improved social justice for us all.

Political and social reforms that we now take for granted were hastened by the power of angry voices raised in unison. Consider the bathhouse raids by Toronto police in 1981: More than 200 gay men were arrested on a February night, many of them publicly humiliated. The next day, thousands from Toronto’s queer communities gathered to march on police headquarters and chant “Gay rights now!” There was a renewed purpose in their organizing and cohesion. Still, it took until last year for the Toronto police to apologize for the bathhouse raids.

It took until 2010 for the government of Nova Scotia to apologize to Viola Desmond. Here’s where the power of one person can have a profound effect, even if it takes years for the results to be felt. In 1946, Ms. Desmond, a black woman, took a seat in the whites-only section of a movie theatre in New Glasgow, N.S. Refusing to leave, she was dragged out by police, charged, and, after a court case, forced to pay a $26 fine. Now, more than 40 years after her death, Ms. Desmond’s bravery will be honoured when her image appears on the new $10 bill.

No, more than that: Her bravery will be legitimized by the state that once oppressed her. This is the way of protests – the things that are dismissed as radical and unruly at one moment (say, Canada Day, 2017) becomes a celebrated part of our national fabric a little further down the road. In the same way, the Museum for Human Rights held an exhibit honouring the legacy of the Winnipeg General Strike, a labour protest that once terrified every Bolshevik-fearing heart in the country.

Sometimes the protests get messy. They are disruptive. An underclass that is used to being ignored must use every ounce of leverage it possesses. The Vancouver Women’s Caucus found this out when it launched the Abortion Caravan in 1970, a great feminist convoy that travelled across the country, picking up women as it went. Eventually its members made their way to the House of Commons, which they shut down for the first time ever after locking themselves in the gallery to protest Canada’s laws restricting women’s reproductive rights.

In early 2014, commuters grumbled when Indigenous protesters shut down the Via Rail route between Toronto and Montreal, inconveniencing passengers for a few hours. But guess what? It worked. There would not be an inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls if not for the work of activists who would not accept government foot-dragging (what happens to the inquiry, currently experiencing a troubled rollout, is another question).

On this weekend, we’re meant to be celebrating the history of our country, whether you consider it to be 150 years old or many thousands of years older, as Indigenous people do. There are so many things worth celebrating in that history and high among them would be the fact the we are not always a polite people. We’re people who shout to get things done.


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