Working people need to seek out solidarity opportunities.
Unions and unionized workers need to reach out to non-unionized workers and seek legislative improvements for all, like improvements to the EI and doubling the CPP and renegotiating the Canada Health Accord and expanding Medicare and getting a national pharmacare program and starting a national childcare program and building a poverty reduction plan and a national housing strategy and no longer funding First Peoples at third world conditions. And the list, actually, does go on.
And public sector workers need to build solidarity with private sector workers, whose union density is declining.
If we don’t fight the 1%’s decades-long plan to divide us, we are toast. Here are two key thought experiments to try on this hump day:
It is not an accident that I am a political junkie.
Even as a toddler, I was fed a steady diet of left-of-centre ideology, pro-union sentiments and anti-monarchist dogma. My mother, who was not overtly political, ensured I could recognize political leaders from around the world by sight before I could read, that I understood the vast differences between different types of political thought, and the inherent differences in Canadian political parties before I was school aged. During election season, she brought me with when she voted, and made sure that I was well aware that voting was a responsibility that we had as Canadians, and was something that was not an option. One of my earliest memories as a child is one of smearing mud on the back the giant brown and orange “JIM FULTON, NDP” billboard in our yard when I was sent out to play while my infant brother napped. In a subsequent provincial election, the neighbours erected a massive Social Credit sign on their front lawn, and I was informed “SoCreds are evil. NDP is Good. SoCreds only work for big businesses. NDP is for the working class people…like us.” One might even say I was brainwashed.
When I was in grade 4, I engaged in fisticuffs on the school bus with a boy from down the street. Ryan was a year older, and his parents were self employed. There was some sort of provincial election brewing, and Ryan’s parents had a megalith of a Social Credit sign on the corner of the lawn. I informed Ryan that his family was clearly batting for the wrong political team, and that, people who voted SoCred were evil and sucked. Ryan retaliated, informing me that only losers would vote NDP. We wound up smacking the hell out of each other with math books, and were sent up to sit in the front of the bus for the remainder of the year.
Why are my memories of a blue collar, slightly pinko childhood in Northern BC in the 1980’s relevant now?
As Manitoba (where I am a home owner and my children go to school) creeps ever closer to the October 4th provincial election, there has been an onslaught of automated calls to our residence, glad-handling politicians standing on my doorstep, reams of glossy campaign fliers from the Conservative, NDP and Liberal parties festooning my mailbox. Most of the propaganda is of the usual variety: health care funding/cuts, taxation increases/cuts, infrastructure, aboriginal issues, education. Bored to tears of watching the Three Stooges bonk one another on the head on the local news, I was pleased to notice something that was out of the realm of the usual regurgitation. It was a large 1/4 page ad in the Winnipeg Free Press, advertising a website: www.citizennext.ca. The tag line? “When You Vote on October 4…Bring Your Child.” On it, a man voting at a booth, with children surrounding him. Under the picture, it read “It is never too early to learn about democracy.” Finally! A government campaign that I could relate to!
A quick visit to the CitizenNext website shows that someone in the employ of the government put some thought into the program. There are games and puzzles for kids to enjoy while passively learning about democracy. There are voter pledge cards, which can be personalized and printed off for the child, and a sticker that they can finish it off with only when they go to the booth with you to vote. They list books to read to children about democracy and politics. While I’ve seen previous campaigns that were targeted at educators, this one is targeted at parents. The gist is that declining voter numbers can be traced back to parental apathy, and that by acting now, we can turn the tide in a decade or two, by educating our children now. The site also shares a number of simple ways to foster engagement early:
Ideas for raising kids to be engaged citizens:
Talk about it – Let your kids know why you think it’s important to vote. Even very young kids can understand the idea of selecting a leader. Engage older children in a discussion about political issues that are important to you or that come up in the news. Encourage your kids to express their own opinions and ideas.
Vote at home – Introduce the concept of voting by holding simple votes on household issues. It could be as simple as voting on what to prepare for a special meal.
Bring your child with you when you vote – Children are welcome at voting stations. Show your kids what voting looks like.
Visit our Game area – For games and activities related to citizenship and voting.
Take older kids to a live debate or watch one on TV – Discuss the points the candidates make and ask your kids for their views.
Point to resources on the Web – There are many excellent websites devoted to encouraging youth to participate in the election process.
All of the people that I know, who are avid political enthusiasts and are active politically, have at least one parent that downloaded some sort of passion or duty into them. When reading biographies of politicians, they often come from what seems to be dynasties: generations of people who catch the bug, and can’t shake it. What concerns me about this campaign, which I believe is a fantastic start, is that it misses the mark. People who care already do this with their kids. They are having these discussions. They’re involving their charges. They’re taking their progeny to the booth. The problem is that people who are already apathetic are not going to pick up the glossy half page flier in the mail and suddenly feel inspired to a) leave the house and vote and b) have deep and meaningful conversation with their children about the importance of voting.
I give the Manitoba Government an “A” for effort, but remain skeptical of the impact that this will have long term.
In the meantime, my daughters both have “I VOTED – CITIZENNEXT.CA” stickers on their coats, because they joined me at the advance polls over the weekend. I can only hope someone else sees the round little reminder on their coats as they scamper by, and suddenly feels compelled to put an X in the box on October 4th, possibly with their child in attendance.
Tonight’s the night many of us have been waiting for – whether it be because we trudged to a poll today, stood in line with credit card bills, drivers licenses, and other sundry pieces of identification, were handed a ballot, and promptly marked a little “x” next to the least offensive candidate, and now the results come in, or because we may be able to go to sleep early and wake up tomorrow and see if anything has changed.
Either way – or more – PoliticsRespun.org is bringing you an election night liveblog. We have contributors spread across the country – from the Atlantic Provinces, to BC transplants in Toronto, to real, live BC folks all ready to contribute their thoughts to the evening. Alex and I are just back from Montréal, where we witnessed the “orange crush” first hand, with a preponderance of NDP signs, people voting NDP who have never thought of it before, and even poor Gilles Duceppe apparently in a touch of a fight for his own riding.
Our liveblog may be sporadic at times, with updates rolling in occasionally, and as we figure out what to do about the ban of publishing results before the polls close in BC. Two of us may wander over to the NDP victory party at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre, if we can find it. Regardless, stick with PoliticsRespun.org for potentially irreverent coverage of what may be democracy, perhaps inaction.
Earlier today, the Vancouver Mayor’s office posted an announcement on twitter that quite a few people were likely happy to hear: the proposed bylaw that would have charged people in Vancouver $200 plus a $1000 deposit to have a protest where a literature table or even a sign stuck in the ground was being sent back “to the drawing board.”
In the linked news article, Mayor Gregor Robertson posits that there ought not be fees attached to the right to have a protest with a sign, and that a better ‘balance’ can be found.
Sounds good, so far, right?
Well, a whole new bylaw is supposed to come back from the city by Wednesday. And it will be telling how much will change – that will tell us what’s more important to Vision Vancouver.
If you go back to my original piece on this issue, you’ll see that there were a ton of restrictions that the city wanted to place on protests with structures. They could only be up from 8am to 8pm. Only in certain parts of the city. (That particular restriction would have effectively completely banned the original protest that gave rise to all of this, the Falun Gong protest on southern Granville Street outside the Chinese consulate). The restrictions went on and on and on.
Effectively, it looked like getting the right to protest would have been almost as complicated as a building permit. All to have a tent. Or a sign stuck in the ground.
Well, Gregor’s promised a new bylaw. With a new balance, a new approach.
Will it still have onerous restrictions, but drop the fees? Will it still ban night-time vigils? Restrict tents to keep off the rain to 2m by 1m in size? Only one side of a block, to a maximum of 30 out of 60 days? It’s quite possible.
I have a perhaps modest proposal – the bylaw could be quite simple. Protests are permitted, as is our constitutional right. And if a protest does construct a structure that is somehow or in some way dangerous to public safety, the city can attend the site, and tell the protest organizers what needs to be done to fix the risk.
At a lot of protests, there are rally marshals. They organize the route. Keep people from getting lost. There’s often a police liaison who speaks with the police. Treat protest in Vancouver this way. Fix the problems as they arise, not create so many hoops that people outraged at the most recent stupid thing their government has done risk financial ruin or jail time because they didn’t fill out the 24th form or submit an architectural drawing of the folding table they’re putting the sound-system on.
But what’s more important in this respect: keeping the Falun Gong practitioners out of Kerrisdale, appeasing the Chinese consulate, Vision Vancouver saving face, or free speech?
As I said before, democracy doesn’t have a price tag. But it also doesn’t happen only between 8am to 8pm, one side of a block, and only 30 out of 60 days.
In sort of a break from the ever-so-boring federal election coverage that we’ve been bringing you lately, the City of Vancouver and its maybe-progressive governing party Vision Vancouver and former NDP MLA and now VanCity mayor (and Gordon Campbell endorser) Gregor Robertson have (almost) decided that any protests that have a literature table, tent, or even sign at them might well be charged $1,200 – a fee charged to citizens in order to exercise their (supposedly) constitutionally guaranteed right to assembly.
Sadly, it looks like the progressive Mayor Gregor Robertson is showing us what a Harper majority government would probably do to our “democratic rights.”
The country that has disappeared Ai Weiwei (艾未未) simply because he did try to exercise his (not guaranteed) free speech.
First, a bit of history. Those of you familiar with the city on the edge of Lotus Land may well remember the constant presence of Falun Gong protestors and their signs depicting the horrendous atrocities the Chinese government visits upon practitioners outside the Chinese consulate in Vancouver, which itself is situated in a residential zone. No one, as far as I am aware, is suggesting that the Falun Gong protest was violent or unruly. In fact, most Falun Gong practitioners I’ve known are calm, and quiet, and they almost, well, flow with the qi.
Well, one day the city decided to ban these protestors. They used a bylaw to prohibit any “structure” (the Falun Gong signs) on public property (the edge of the sidewalk) and evict the entirely peaceful protesters. Sue Zhang, one of the organizers, rightfully challenged the bylaw in court, and after a series of cases, the BC Court of Appeal struck down the bylaw, saying that blanket prohibitions were unconstitutionally restrictive on free speech rights and rights of assembly.
That being said, there’s a court order in place at the moment, preventing the Falun Gong protest from re-establishing itself, to allow the City to bring its bylaw to shape in order to pass constitutional muster. Effective April 19, the court would strike down the current law which bans any structure.
Let’s put this in plain and simple terms: charging $1,200 to have a table, or a sign, or a tent at a protest limits free speech. It restricts freedom of assembly to those who can afford it. There should not be a fee on democracy.
This is a ridiculous concept. One, a lot of protests and rallies involve a table for literature or refreshments. $1,200 permit charge. Two, a lot of protests and rallies involve a tent to keep rain off of speakers and sound system equipment. $1,200 permit charge. And it rains a lot in Vancouver. If you happen to stick a sign into the ground, $1,200 charge. Imagine that you put up an installation art piece. $1,200 permit charge.
The Falun Gong protestors set up a series of signs and a rain shelter on city property directly outside the Chinese Consulate. They couldn’t put the signs on the consulate property – that would be trespassing. They used public property for their signs. The same public property we use every day to walk on, to protest on, to rally on. However, they put up signs. Here, the city is trying to ban protests that occur on public property unless you can afford to pay a $1,200 fee for a permit to actually hold a protest this way.
The City won’t tell anyone what they discussed with China, bastion of free speech, because they signed a “confidential agreement” about the consultations.
The city says that this wouldn’t restrict sandwich boards for stores. That’s covered under other bylaws. In fact, according to the city, this proposed bylaw only impacts “non-commercial installations.” So, not only do I need to pay one thousand two hundred dollars to put up a table and show off my “PROTECT FREE SPEECH” signs – the store down the way can put up its signs and/or kiosks hawking whatever it wants for free?
Whose free speech is being protected there?
The message box emerging from Vancouver council appears to be as such: currently, the city bylaw bans all structures on public property. No tables, tents, or structures used in a political protest are allowed under the current Vancouver bylaw. According to the city, the proposed bylaw would actually enable people to do things that have been illegal all along. Gracious move by the city to save us?
No. The BC Court of Appeal said that the prohibition was illegal and it will strike down the prohibition as of April 19. This talking point will be moot in exactly 11 days. It’s also incredibly disingenuous. Yes, the current (as it exists) bylaw bans ALL structures on city property. But yes – the BC Court of Appeal has said that’s illegal. So, Council, you’re not rescuing people from the vagaries of an unfair law – the BC Court of Appeal has already done that.
Could the same be said on April 2oth? Effective April 19, the bylaw that currently prohibits all structures is struck down, it ceases to exist. All structures would be legal. The Vision Vancouver councillors can get away with saying that this is a proposed bylaw that would enable people to protest, that would legalize protest, until April 19th. After that, they’re making a lot of protest illegal. Of course, any time you add opportunities when no opportunities legally exist, you’re adding. But when everything’s legal? Then you’re restricting.
Instead, the City of Vancouver is proposing that the following restrictions will apply to any protest that need a table, or a tent, or a free-standing sign:
Structures would only be permitted from 8:00AM to 8:00PM
There must be people attending the structure
Structures would not be permitted in areas of the city that are zoned residential or that have residential units on the ground floor
There could only be one permit per individual at a time.
There could only be one permit per ‘face’ (side) of a block.
You wouldn’t be able to get a permit for a kiosk and a sign and a tent.
Your permit would only be valid for 30 days, but you could only get a permit for an area for 30 out of 60 days. So, only one month out of every two. And once a protest has been permitted the same area couldn’t see a protest for another 30 days.
The size could not be larger than 2.1 meters high, 2 meters wide, and 1 meter deep.
It must be at least 5 meters from a building entry or exit, 5 meters from a bus stop, 5 meters from street corners, and 0.5 meters from a curb. A structure could not also cover more than 25% of the front of a building.
Interestingly, the area in which the Chinese consulate is located is in a residential area, so, of course, no protests with structures would be permitted there. Anywhere else where you can meet these proposed restrictions (that the City of Vancouver would likely prefer us to read as “enabling conditions”) you can:
Put down a $1,000 deposit
Pay a $200 license fee
Pay $25 for any renewals
And then you can put your sign in the ground.
The staff person presenting the report at the council committee meeting was very specific in saying that this wouldn’t prohibit protests where everyone held their own signs and banners, of course. This is because the city only bans structures at the moment, and this is what the court case centres on – Vancouver can’t constitutionally put a blanket ban on structures used for political expression. I also think that this restriction is in danger of being ableist – I’ve seen people with disabilities bringing signs and banners that are free-standing to protests. Do they need permits?
But what exactly is a structure? There was an interesting back and forth between Councillor Woodsworth and the city staff person presenting the report.
Q: Is it a structure if I stick a sign in the ground?
Q: What if I put a table on the side of the road and set up a tent around it?
In Vancouver, it rains. And most protests in Vancouver I’ve been to have a tent in case of that, to keep the sound system dry. $1,200 fee, only in certain areas. Plus, no bigger than 2m by 1m. You also won’t be able to set up a petition table at the back of the protest, without that fee and that permit. And only in certain areas.
One, that’s a pretty close interpretation of the COPE campaign during the Olympics that had t-shirts that read “I am a free speech zone.” Nice move, Vision Vancouver.
Two, Vision’s statement is kind of sad. It states that Vancouver is a free speech zone. Right, it is, under the constitution anywhere in Canada is. The statement says that the City is working to protect free speech, and that the party “will not accept changes to the law that restrict these critical social expressions.”
Here’s a key point, Vision Vancouver: no changes to the bylaw could restrict free speech any more than they already do. This is part of your message box – the bylaw right now simply prohibits structures as part of a protest, full stop. That’s why the Court of Appeal said it was unconstitutional. Very technically speaking, any changes you make – even if it were to only permit structures on the south east corner of the Art Gallery lot with a $1 million permit fee – would have the effect of “enabling” free speech MORE than is already the case.
With the logic that they won’t restrict free speech any more than it is already restricted, Vision could do a lot, seeing as how free speech with any structures are completely banned at the moment – until April 19.
Would the same logic hold up after that, when the law is struck down by the courts? Hard to say.
But again – charging $1,200 for any protest that would need a table isn’t democracy. Democracy doesn’t require an admissions charge.
Councillor Reimer and I had quite a civilized twitter chat, though she suggests that there’s a lot of misinformation and creative editing going on. I’ve given you sources for every claim I’ve made in this piece, and while all opinion pieces contain flair, I don’t think I’m going overboard. Ms Reimer even graciously acknowledged that her electioneering tent was on the street and 100% illegal.
I’ve offered Ms Reimer the opportunity to add comments, corrections, and even her own viewpoint on this article, which I will post directly at the bottom of this piece , without any editing. I’d invite any other Vancouver councillor to do the same, so that everyone in Vancouver can see what their elected representatives are thinking.
Now, Vision Vancouver is asking for public input on the proposed bylaw. I suggest that we all take the moment to send them an email with our thoughts, or send them a twitter message. According to their statement, you can email them at firstname.lastname@example.org.
When you do so, remember:
The official message is that any changes to the bylaws would be an improvement, because the current bylaw (which is unconstitutional) prohibits all structures. However, the quasi-emancipatory changes proposed by the City include a $1,200 fee for permission to have a structure – anything from a sign in the ground to a table to a tent – at a protest. Democracy doesn’t have an admissions fee.
All structures for political protests would be perfectly legal after April 19th – after April 19th, these proposed bylaw changes would be restricting speech that had been made free by the courts.
These restrictions only apply to non-commercial messages, because other bylaws already permit commercial (ie advertising, etc.) signs under specific conditions.
No function of democracy should have a price tag attached to it or restrictions as to when or where democracy can be practiced.
This isn’t just a municipal issue. It’s our right to free speech, with a table for our signs and petitions, or a tent for the rain.
Democracy doesn’t have a price tag. Certainly not one that is $1,200.
Here’s where I’ll add any corrections, clarifications, or comments from any Vancouver City Councillor who wants to clear up any ‘misinformation’ or ‘creative editing,’ and I’ll post them without any editing on my part. Post your comments in the comments below, or email me directly at email@example.com.
All right everyone, we’ve got an election. Let’s get our democracy on?
Maybe, just maybe, I’ll roll out of bed on May 2 (though I’ll likely sleep in), trudge over to the local school or church basement, wait in line behind everyone, argue with the poll clerk that I actually live where I claim to live (Ontario doesn’t issue identification cards with addresses that aren’t drivers’ licenses, so I’ll have to try to prove my identity with a credit card bill, passport, and a smile), I’ll be handed a little piece of paper with names on it and directed to a folded piece of cardboard with a tiny pencil behind it and I’ll have the chance to vote.
In all likelihood, while I’ll have a limited number of choices as to who I can gift with my little pencil-scratched ‘x’, I’ll likely end up voting for the least offensive candidate in order to try and avoid the most offensive government. It’s the Canadian way!
I suppose my biggest difference here, as compared to my colleague Jasmin, is that I’ll likely be arsed enough to get out of bed and trudge over to the ‘democracy’-fulfillment station. That being said, I agree with the vast majority of what he writes when he says that the election is “a spectacle provided for the masses, a circus.”
So… if I agree with the vast majority of what he writes, why would I be arsed enough to get up on May 2 and actually vote? Who knows. Maybe I’m hopelessly optimistic. Maybe I’m deluded. But I’ll probably be voting.
I just won’t be overly happy with what I’m doing. But I’ll still likely be doing it.
Why? Because I really don’t want Stephen Harper to get a majority government, because I’m genuinely concerned about the havoc he could wreak with an unchecked hold on power. Because a Harper majority government could crack down on our already circumscribed ‘freedoms’ and ‘rights’ even more than they already have. And because this would severely challenge everyone’s ability to organize and create a better world.
Sure, Harper is a boogeyman (full of boogers, I might add) and Ignatieff is the leader of the party that did most of what Harper is currently doing, but they did it with a red tinge instead of the blues. Layton, who looks like Lenin but certainly doesn’t act like him, can promise the world (but not socialism) because he certainly won’t be prime minister, and Gilles Duceppe (maintenant et toujours mon politicien préféré!) can act as both a comic relief and actually cutting critique of the whole charade at the same time.
But this doesn’t change the fact that the election will have very real outcomes that impact each and every one of us, whether we like the system or not. Admittedly, these outcomes will happen no matter who is in charge, but with any luck, they may not be as bad with Harper out of power and someone else – by default, Ignatieff, I suppose – in. Though I’m relatively confident that’s just wishful thinking. But I’m reluctant to simply not vote even though I know the system is broken and won’t get better any time soon.
There are three very simple reasons why I will not be voting, and they are as follows:
1. Our electoral system is broken, as such, my vote is meaningless.
2. The parties running are inept and/or disingenuous.
3. Continued electoral turnout on the part of voters is making matters worse, rather than better.
Right, right, and mostly right. So why vote? Because, in the system that we’re currently cursed with, that is, representative parliamentary democracy, the election is effectively the only time that we officially get to participate in democracy in the formal Canadian system. And while the system is broken, mostly because the parties are inept and disingenuous, it’s what we’re stuck with for now.
We can be – and we should be – working towards a better system. Towards a better democracy. Quite obviously, as we saw in British Columbia during the single-transferable-vote referendum, and in Ontario during their referendum on electoral reform, the system that we currently have is structured in such a way as to prevent this kind of change. The parties themselves oppose voting reform that would try to fix the worst problems of the electoral system. The parties themselves are broken, reduced from articulating demands and engaging people in governance to cultivating and grouping together acolytes who thoughtlessly repeat party lines and foam at the mouth at the sight of someone wearing another team’s colours. And while I’ll tentatively agree that turning out to vote does legitimize the system that we’re cursed with, I worry that if all of us who actually care about progressive ideas stayed home and didn’t vote that we’d get the worst possible outcome. But sure, like the Marxists say, maybe we just need to progress through even more bitter times before we get to that whole revolution bit…
Okay. We’re not going to be getting a better system through simple voting and electoral and parliamentary charades. But we’re absolutely not going to be getting there if we ignore the only fleeting moments of democracy that most of the people around us know, whether or not they like, approve of, or participate in them.
Most people reading this website will acknowledge that elections aren’t the only instances of actually existing democracy and politics in the world. A lot of people here are actively involved in their unions, in community groups, in student associations, in trying to make the world a better place. All of that is politics. All of that is democracy. of the opinion that democracy ought to be how we collectively discuss and decide how we’ll live together and work towards the future.
But this isn’t how everyone else sees these things. A lot of people out there see politics as starting on March 25th and stopping on May 2nd. Democracy is the process of scratching that little ‘x’ next to the least offensive candidate. This is their lived experience. And I question how much we’re contributing to the betterment of things when we dismiss this.
How many times have we gone to a protest rally and had handfuls of people on the sidewalks wonder why we’re doing what we’re doing? Wondering why we don’t join a party and change things from the inside? Sure, it’s pointless to actually do that – but maybe we can seize the opportunity of a general election as momentum towards building the communities of change that we want to see. People may not be more engaged in politics at the moment, but they’re at least aware that something is happening.
Might not we make Jamsin’s three-pointed argument about protest politics in Canadian democracy? They very rarely make any changes for the better, though they certainly try their most. Often, under state-sponsored and often precipitated conditions of ‘violence’ they legitimate state repression. They’re often insular. And continued efforts to block a street and smash a window sometimes – though certainly not always – seem to alienate more and more of the population from people who protest for very good and very important reasons.
I’ll take Jasmin’s point about needing to build communities of change. That is what we need to be doing. We cannot and should not be focusing on reactionary politics. We need to be creating the world that we wish to see. But how do we do this? Just as I think that politics is something that encompasses all aspects of collectively self-determining how we live together and go forward, I think that activism can encompass the full range of what we might think is political – from elections to anything.
Voting and actually effective political organizing and activism are not exclusive activities. We can do both. And perhaps we should. I can understand the logic behind boycotting elections because they’re relatively pointless, they mere change the colour of the people who rule us, and so on – but I don’t think that it’s hypocritical of me to desire substantive and progressive change in the political realities of where I live and to vote.
So, on May 2nd, I’ll trudge over to the church basement, credit card bill and passport in hand, smile on face, and I’ll go behind that little bit of folded cardboard and I’ll take that little pencil and I’ll scratch and ‘x’ on the ballot paper.
I’ll vote for the least offensive candidate in my riding, in the hopes of avoiding the most offensive government.
And I’ll continue working with my friends, my colleagues, and my comrades in activism, towards social change, towards political progress.
Because voting will only take 15 minutes of my day. And even though I live in a ‘safe’ riding, there are people out there who don’t. And if enough of us scratch that little ‘x’, then maybe we won’t have to spend months getting back to where we are now in terms of ‘rights’ and so forth. Or spend months defending the next right that Harper wants to take away from us – even though Iggy may well do the same thing. Regardless, fifteen minutes to vote isn’t much, and if it gives me more time to work for change, maybe it’s better. And if you’re particularly inclined, you can always spoil or reject your ballot, using the system to make a statement.
And then we can all go out and keep building communities for change. Sure, we’ve all got a raging election on. But it’s not our only political moment, nor is it a monolithic instance of democracy. And it’s not mutually exclusive with other forms of activism.
Another, better, fairer, more just world is needed. And we need to work for it, with it, with each other, in as many ways as we can.
The G20 protests, bail, and rights restrictions: a ‘free’ and ‘democratic’ society?
According to internet reports, after having been threatened with solitary confinement in the Toronto East Detention Centre’s “hole” (likely not a euphemism) without being permitted any communication and after having been refused contact with legal counsel, G20 arrestee Alex Hundert has been ‘released’ on bail. Alex’s bail restrictions are nothing short of incredibly restrictive: amongst other conditions, he is not to directly or indirectly post anything on the internet, he is not to associate or communicate with any number of fellow community organizers and activists, he is not to attend or plan any public meeting or demonstration, and perhaps most tellingly, he is not to express views on political issues.
Bail conditions and restrictions are supposed to be a way for someone charged with an offence to be released with a restrictions to prevent further alleged crimes from being committed. The restrictions in Alex’s case beg the question: what are the Crown prosecutors and courts concerned about?
Restricting Alex’s freedom of expression – taking away his human freedom, his human right, to have an opinion and share it – shows that the threat that he poses to the Canadian “public order” is not any action that Alex could take, out on the street with a sign, but his very thoughts and opinions.
Here’s what happens in an allegedly “free” and “democratic” society when your opinions and your thoughts and your political stances threaten the dominant order. You get your rights restricted. Speak truth about power? Now you’re not allowed to speak.
‘Constitutionally’ guaranteed rights?
Alex is not the only activist facing charges or restrictions of their civil liberties, but his bail conditions seem to be the most restrictive. Importantly, his bail conditions significantly infringe on his theoretically guaranteed rights under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms – part of Canada’s constitutional law – notably those found under section 2, labelled as our “fundamental freedoms.” Alex’s bail conditions expressly and clearly violate his freedoms of opinion, expression, and assembly.
At first blush, readers would be forgiven for wondering just how the courts could impose such restrictive conditions, especially restrictions that so clearly and flagrantly violate fundamental freedoms. Especially those that are supposedly guaranteed under the constitution of our country, which takes great pride in publicly trumpeting its fairness and its democracy to the rest of the world.
Well, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms opens with an important clause: all of the rights contained within are subject to “such reasonable limits, prescribed by law, as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.” So, folks, your rights contain a very important expiry clause in the fine print.
“It’s basically putting a gag order on a citizen of Canada, when it’s not clear that the gag order is at all necessary to protect public order,” he said, of Hundert’s restriction from speaking to the media.
“People have to be able to air grievances, and the media is a primary tool in which people can air grievances effectively.”
Young called the strict bail conditions “astonishing” — something unheard of in modern-day Canada.
This means that the government and the courts can – and do, regularly – infringe on your rights. In order to do this, they just have to plan to meet what’s called the “Oakes test,” judicial jargon for an analytical test applied to the situation to see if the restrictions are permitted under the constitution.
This is no day for thanks. It is neither glorious, nor free.
Canadian governments have criminalized dissent to the point where we have become a shell of a sensible democracy. And we, like the frogs [or beavers] in a slowly boiling pot, are too complacent to do anything about it.
I don’t know Alex Hundert personally, but while his treatment encourages us to think he may be a criminal terrorist mastermind justifying his pre-emptive arrest at gunpoint before the G20 in Toronto, I seriously doubt it. $1.1 billion in security funding leads to surreal behaviour.
Last Wednesday was the beginning of his bail hearing to determine if the police were justified in re-arresting him last month for breaking his bail condition by appearing at public demonstrations. He was a member of a discussion panel at a public meeting at a public university. The police alleged that such an event constituted a demonstration. How absurd.
I know demonstrations. They involve signs, rallies, loud speakers, chants, marches, and the like. Public meetings at local universities or activist churches are meetings. Sure, dissent happens at both, but the first is an active assertion of attitudes designed to demonstrate to the public a certain political value. A meeting is a meeting.
I fully, yet it turns out naively, expected the judge to throw out the arrest within five minutes of the bail hearing beginning. Not so. His bail hearing will continue this week.
So the police have asserted a new definition of a demonstration. This is designed to chill public dissent.
What happens if a faith group invites a social or political activist to speak at a service or weeknight prayer group? Is that a demonstration?
Naomi Wolff’s spectacular book about the rise of soft fascism in Bush’s America is useful here. It warns that we need to watch for signs that our open society is closing. Elements of numbers 5, 6, 8, 9, and 10 have been in Canada since before the G20 in Toronto:
Invoke a terrifying internal and external enemy.
Create secret prisons where torture takes place.
Develop a thug caste or paramilitary force not answerable to citizens.
Set up an internal surveillance system.
Harass citizens’ groups.
Engage in arbitrary detention and release.
Target key individuals.
Control the press.
Treat all political dissidents as traitors.
Suspend the rule of law.
We lost the rule of law when hundreds of people were arrested and abused, and released without charge or after being charged under non-existent laws.
Not all political dissidents are considered to be traitors right now, but the rhetoric is that they are anti-Canadian. How much more of this tone can we safely tolerate? None. We have already tolerated too much.
Key individuals, the protest “ring-leaders,” are suffering under conspiracy charges. Conspiracy has a connotation of doing something illegal or harmful. Protest is not illegal. But perhaps that’s naive too, now.
Arbitrary detention and release? Ask the hundreds of people rounded up in Toronto.
All I know now is that it is no longer as legal in Canada to hold a Poets Against the War reading at a restaurant as it was 6.5 years ago. I also know that organizing such an event with another person can lead to conspiracy charges.
Ultimately, the government is now asserting that this tone of terror created by the riot police, especially beginning at the 7:30 mark of this video [the most disturbing documentation of the G20 protests for me since I routinely bring my children in strollers to demonstrations], is a new benchmark for people to expect if we wish to express dissent.
So what can we do about these abuses and erosion of our social contract, democracy and free speech?
Secondly, challenge your favourite media outlet to cover this Committee inquiry when they inevitably don’t report on it, its potential for supporting democracy or implications if it is ineffective.
Thirdly, participate as a citizen. Research the Alex Hundert bail hearing this week to make sure you find out what happens. Talk with your people about what liberty and the right to protest means to you. Then be vigilant.
Democracy is a muscle. Not exercising it leads to atrophy.
We do not deserve a democracy we don’t fight for.
In an era where the stakes are insanely high [climate change, peak oil, peak water, crisis in capitalism, the simplistic and simple-minded lure of totalitarianism], we cannot afford to simply trust that our leaders are benign.
They’ve demonstrated that they are not the guardians of democracy countless times. For citizens to refuse to be the guardians is a moral crime unto each other.
Three days, a fake lake, and $1 billion dollars in security costs later, the G8/G20 meetings will have wrapped up by the afternoon of June 27. Over five hundred protesters will have been arrested, and as of the time of writing, at least three police cars have been burned. Hundreds of police officers will have marched and massed and beat back people protesting the (in)actions of the G8/G20 and so many other causes. Some reporters noted today that protests seem to happen everywhere the G8/G20 meetings go. Perhaps that is indicative of a broader problem with the system itself.
Sitting here in Burnaby, it’s interesting observing the protests in Toronto on television or through social media. Were I in Toronto, I would have been on the streets. It would have been terrifying. But it would have been liberating.
Yes, the protests and actions smashed some windows and burned some police cars. Yes, the black bloc tactic was employed. Yes, there were thousands in the streets. But there’s a reason for this. The people who are meeting in the downtown core of Toronto as part of the G8 and G20 are our “leaders,” our “politicians,” and they are the people who, according to the popular mythology, we have elected to do the peoples’ work.
But they’re not doing that work. And the people are rightfully unhappy. And they want to protest this lack of work. And they do. And the police put on their riot gear and pick up their batons and pepper spray and beat back the people in the streets. Why? They’re “protecting” the people in the meeting from the people in the streets.
The protesters in the streets of Toronto, of Vancouver, of Genoa, of Buenos Aires, of Santiago, of Johannesburg, and of so many other cities and towns and places around the world are demanding a different world. And they’re demanding a different world, a better world, in the only way that might be left.
Emma Goldman famously said, “if voting changed anything, they’d make it illegal.” So many of the people in the streets of Toronto today were there because they voted for a difference. And no matter who was in power, promising that difference, it has yet to come.
The media argue that the protesters in the streets have resorted to “violence.” Smashing a window is not violence. It is destruction of property, certainly, but not violence. And the property being destroyed when someone smashes a window of a bank or a transnational corporation is but one manifestation of an inherently violent system, capitalism, which requires subjugation and exploited labour and alienation. The window of a bank is one manifestation of a system with forcibly enclosed public spaces, which removed people from lands and removes the product of peoples’ work from their own control merely because they must work to survive.
The smashing of a window is an act of freedom, as it smashes the manifestation of the violent system and strikes at its heart.
And our “leaders,” the politicians, know the violence of the system and its inherent contradictions. The capitalistic desire to profit more created the commercial ‘products’ and predatory lending and so forth that caused the economic crises that hurt so many. The crises that the G8/G20 meetings are struggling to address, in order to restabilize capitalism.
And the people don’t want this. They want their education system to be free and of high quality. They want public health care. They want equality and freedom. This is the peoples’ work, and it is what so many of us vote for, when we are permitted to vote.
But our “leaders” aren’t doing this work. And so the people are in the streets, protesting.
And the fences go up, and the police march in, and the boots come down, to protect the people who have been elected to do the peoples’ work from the people who elected them. Who want them to do their work.
Friends, we have a choice. We can continue to hope that the people that we vote for will actually do the work that we want them to do. Or we can do it ourselves.
I’ll see you in the streets.
De-Spinning the Political and Re-Spinning it for Social, Economic and Political Justice