I hate to sound like a broken record, but I think I started last week’s letter saying it had been a weird week. I had no idea about how weird weird can be! Last week, I was in parliament, but from familiar surroundings, zooming into the Chamber from home. This week I worked in Ottawa, amid pandemic restrictions, icy sidewalks and – by the way- the surrealistic experience of a city in the midst of what exactly? Not like any protest I have ever seen. The claims it is a peaceful protest must come from those with no idea of what a peaceful protest is. The standard of “peaceful” is not met based on no one being injured nor that people are intimidated verbally, but not punched.
Non-violent civil disobedience has a long history deeply embedded in principle. We can trace its roots to Henry David Thoreau’s essay “Civil Disobedience” (1849). In it he made the case that breaking an unjust law was morally justified. Looking back at it, I was impressed by the range of his moral purpose – against slavery, treatment of Indigenous peoples and the conquest of Mexico. He had already been jailed for refusal to pay taxes when he wrote his essay:
Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison. The proper place today, the only place which Massachusetts has provided for her freer and less desponding spirits, is in her prisons, to be put out and locked out of the State by her own act, as they have already put themselves out by their principles. It is there that the fugitive slave, and the Mexican prisoner on parole, and the Indian come to plead the wrongs of his race should find them; on that separate, but more free and honorable, ground, where the State places those who are not with her, but against her- the only house in a slave State in which a free man can abide with honor.
Sixty-five years later, Thoreau’s writings impressed Gandhi who adopted the principles lived by Thoreau: non-violence and a willingness to accept the consequences of one’s actions. Applied in India, Gandhi carefully monitored the success of various strategies – the Salt March, hunger strikes. Always non-violent. Which leads in a direct path to Martin Luther King.
All of these apostles of non-violent civil disobedience grounded themselves in a moral stance which, by design, shamed the authorities. Gandhi said once that the British Empire of his day was capable of being shamed. His tactics would not have worked against a government unmoved by having the oppressed hold a mirror to the actions of their government. Fascists cannot be shamed. But in democracies, even when a citizen feels the arrogance of power and overreach, our elected premiers and prime ministers can be shamed.
And that’s how the logging of Clayoquot Sound was stopped. I was trained in non-violent civil disobedience before joining the protests at Clayoquot Sound in 1993. As you likely know, the Clayoquot blockades were to that point, the largest number of arrests in civil disobedience in Canadian history – over 900. That record has been broken by the valiant land protectors of Fairy Creek. The Clayoquot Peace Camp, run by a collective of committed people, but particularly the brilliant and brave Valerie Langer and Tzeporah Berman, derived a code of conduct for the protests. Their inspiration was the UK protests against nuclear weapons at Greenham Common. Started by a Welsh group of activists, Women for Life on Earth, the protests attracted hundreds of women. And the camp was maintained from 1982-2000. Their code of conduct governed the Clayoquot Peace Camp.
If they gave grades for non-violent civil disobedience camp, I might have flunked. The code was tough. If loggers taunted you, do not retort. Stay calm. Be kind. Go limp. I did reply once – and then ashamed, I stayed quiet.
So how to compare this legacy of non-violent civil disobedience with the so-called Freedom Convoy? This is not Gandhi’s crowd.
One big caveat – Although I am near the streets, have had to get cross a street to reach some meetings, I have not been walking about, chatting with people. That would be my first impulse. The security guards, RCMP (and my husband!) have firmly advised against it. But I do know from many friends that the people on the street are varied and inchoate. Some are nice people, smiling and waving. Others have gone into numerous local businesses, demanded service mask-less, yelled at people and intimidated others. Some went into the Shepherds of Good Hope (a homeless shelter supported by the church I attend when in Ottawa) demanded food prepared for the homeless and assaulted a security guard.
Not every protester can be judged by the conduct of the worst of them. But in what kind of protest do demonstrators try to set a fire in an apartment building lobby, after taping the exit doors closed? In what kind of protest is there an air of menace? In what kind of protest, do the organizers not try to constrain their followers’ illegal and dangerous actions?
I am trying so hard to avoid the generalizations and demonization of any group. A surprisingly large number of my constituents support this convoy. After last week’s newsletter, I have been in many email conversations. This snippet I share because I think our divisions need to be healed. This is the kind of thoughtful note that makes me wish we did not have so many echo chambers in which people access the “facts.” So many people who have written me think the attack on the homeless shelter was fiction. If I did not have friends there, I might have doubted such an awful story, but it happened. As did the attempt to set fire to the apartment building – caught on surveillance video.
“My aspirations for a better world were very much encouraged by the truckers convoy. I feel that the media has been deliberately misrepresenting this movement. I believe this is very often the case when the interests of ordinary people come into conflict with the rich and powerful. …I’m merely disappointed as I have been often of late that the needs and aspirations of most people are too easily dismissed or mischaracterized. I mean no offence. I know of you well enough that I do not believe you have any ill intent. I’m merely disappointed.”
I hope that we can find ways to overcome these divisions. I know the vast majority of people agree with government policy, but that would not have persuaded Thoreau. The majority can be wrong.
In this case, I am deeply concerned to see the Trump-like anger. I am concerned to see that in the complex mess of agendas in the street – against mandates, or against some mandates, against vaccination, and what seems to most menacing – angry people whose agenda is to attack the hopeful possibility of a post-pandemic better world. A lot of what attracts people to the streets in this convoy is the idea that globalized elites are going to enforce “the Great Re-set.” The one we want to work for social justice, equity and climate action. In a climate emergency, I am sorry but you do not have the right – nor can you insist on the freedom to idle a diesel fueled 18-wheeler. As we “Build Back Better,” some in that convoy want us to just go back.
There is also no doubt that if this had been a Land Back protest of the people on whose land Parliament Hill sits on, not a single tent peg could have gotten in the ground before arrests were made. Think of the assault and arrests on the peaceful Indigenous actions against fracking at Elsipogtog – police dogs snarling, guns drawn: https://thenarwhal.ca/first-nations-lit-sacred-fire-protest-fracking-new-brunswick-face-arrest/
Think of the arrest of hereditary chiefs of Wet’suwet’en territories protecting their lands from pipelines and fracking. Elders, chiefs thrown to the ground, knees against backs. Think of Fairy Creek – smashing the guitar, dragging that poor woman by her hair.
There are too many stories for comfort of the Ottawa police being very helpful and friendly as convoy rolled in. And why were Vancouver police arresting the bicyclists and pedestrians trying to peacefully halt the advance of huge trucks into Vancouver – but not the protesting drivers of those huge rigs?
Some excellent questions are asked in this opinion piece from Cindy Blackstock, Alex Neve, Monia Mazigh, and Leilani Farha: “Five questions about human rights and the Ottawa trucker protest.” https://ottawacitizen.com/opinion/blackstock-farha-mazigh-neve-five-questions-about-human-rights-and-the-ottawa-trucker-protest
They write: “The leniency shown by police in downtown Ottawa differs dramatically from the heavy-handed and violent responses and quick rush to obtain injunctions when dealing with Indigenous land protests, homeless encampments, environmental blockades and demonstrations against systemic racism.”
We must pursue the implicit racism in the way police react to protests. White guys seem to get the benefit of the doubt. Actually, it is not a question. No “seem to” about it. There is no way to avoid seeing it.
I am safe and well. The RCMP are being very careful to protect an older MP using a cane. They give me drives. On Friday, I told two lovely officers driving me so I could avoid an unsafe area that if I was in an RCMP car, it would be more likely that I had been arrested. And then I told them I was once opposing a pipeline. And then I explained the history of non-violent civil disobedience to them. And that made me think of sharing it with you this morning.
Stay safe, love each other. And let’s figure out how we heal.
Saanich-Gulf Islands Greens