Something amazing happened in Canada last Saturday.
Right across the country, from small towns to big cities, Canadians of every political stripe and from all walks of life rallied against Stephen Harper’s decision to shut down Parliament.
From St. John’s to Victoria, and even in New York and London, more than 30,000 citizens carried placards and shouted slogans on a cold January Saturday to voice their anger with a sitting prime minister. Was that really us out there? “Apathetic” Canadians, actually taking to the streets on an obscure issue of parliamentary procedure?
Here in Whitehorse, more than 150 people showed up outside the federal Elijah Smith Building on Main Street. Afterwards, several people told me it was the most fun they’d had at a rally in years. Politicians, including Yukon’s MP Larry Bagnell, spoke, but the most memorable moments were provided by artists. Musician Natalie Edelson handed out song sheets with new lyrics to familiar tunes, such as Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star, Wonder Where The MPs Are. She also brought a platter of homemade “proroguies,” each one sporting a miniature Canadian flag.
But what’s so amazing, you might ask? Sure, people showed up in larger numbers than anyone might have predicted – there were between 9,000 and 15,000 at the Toronto rally alone, depending on whose figures you believe. But what impact are they likely to have, if any? Aren’t we being naive? Wasting our time?
That’s certainly what the media and conservative commentators would have you believe. First they said it was just “kids on Facebook”- a reference to the page set up by University of Alberta graduate student Christopher White called Canadians Against Proroguing Parliament (CAPP). When McMaster University student Shilo Davis launched the rallies as a CAPP offshoot, the pundits predicted no one would show up, then sneered that “only a few thousand” did. We were damned if we did and damned if we didn’t, apparently. Either we were too apathetic to care, or wasting our time because only “real” political action – i.e., votes – counted.
The mainstream media, by and large, just didn’t get it. As White himself said on the alternative media website rabble.ca, “They (the media) were assuring us that we didn’t care about prorogation, while they busied themselves discussing the tactical brilliance of Mr. Harper’s assault on democracy rather than the simple question of whether it was right or wrong.”
The public, amazingly, turned out to be actually concerned about such moral issues. Belatedly, the mainstream media is catching up. With Harper’s 10-point loss in the polls still holding in late January, EKOS pollster Frank Graves calls the public anger “the real deal.” He terms it the “Aha! moment for voters, who are now saying, ‘No, I’ve had it. I’ve had enough.’”
But it’s the generation of White and Davis that has really understood the profound significance of the whole phenomenon. It wasn’t just the use of online social networking – we saw that during the Obama campaign – but the fact that CAPP remained a purely grassroots, apolitical, citizen-directed organization. Each of the 60-odd rallies across the country and abroad was planned and organized in its local community. Here in Whitehorse, a small group of organizers and volunteers sprang up on a local listserv and through e-mail. Some of us had never even met until the day of the rally.
And the rallies weren’t just an astonishing display of citizen action. They also represented the shattering of a myth. When push came to shove, we turned out not to be apathetic after all. As a poster designed for the Facebook page put it, “The sleeping giant has woken.” It was Parliament’s prorogation, of all things, that brought about that awakening – a word whose meaning many of us didn’t even know until a few weeks ago.
Rallies alone, of course, don’t achieve change. But they are powerful acts of imagination. When prorogation became the issue that crystallized public discontent with Harper, the rallies offered a way to express that discontent in symbolic form. Most of the media underestimated their power. Yet symbols are essential vehicles of communication – think of the wedding ring that symbolizes marriage, for example. A mere circle of metal round a finger, yet invested with profound significance and weight.
Citizenship itself is “an act of imagination,” as Michael Ignatieff says in his book True Patriot Love. “We engage in this act of imagination because we need to,” he writes. “The lives we live alone do not make sense to us unless we share some public dimension with others. We need a public life in common, some set of reference points and allegiances to give us a way to relate to the strangers among whom we live … You love a country because it gives you the possibility of feeling at home.”
From the original brainwave of that McMaster student, who proposed holding the rallies on the same day and time across the country, to the actual rallies themselves, imagination was on full display. One poster on the Facebook page – and there were many – showed Stephen Harper wearing an elaborate powdered wig and beauty spot, a la Marie Antoinette, with the slogan “Let Them Eat Cake” underneath. Rally participants used slogans, placards, and acts of political theatre – like that platter of “proroguies” in Whitehorse – to give imaginative force to their anger.
In a world where we often feel powerless, and where our democracies are increasingly dysfunctional, the whole citizen-driven movement was a striking display of belief in ourselves and our country. As an anonymous response to a Globe and Mail column put it, “We are witnessing the awakening of true democracy here, driven from the bottom up, for the people by the people. The only thing capable of stopping us now is ourselves.”
The last word goes to Chris White, the solitary individual who started it all. “This prorogation is far more than a matter of parliamentary procedure,” he wrote. “It is emblematic of an institution that has turned its back on its people. We can stand outside and rage against the machine for as long as we like, or we can work together and take it apart, brick by brick, and rebuild it anew. The rallies are not the culmination of our efforts, they are the beginning.”
Whitehorse writer Patricia Robertson’s most recent book is The Goldfish Dancer: Stories and Novellas. Her column appears on
the last Friday of each month.