CN Rail protest in Tkaronto Toronto. Photo credit: Jason Hargrove

Protests and the Discomfort of Progress

February 14, 2020

In the past week or two there has been an increase in protest actions supporting the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs in their rejection of the Coastal GasLink Pipeline. It’s a complex issue and it’s one that few of us have the authority or understanding to speak on with any real depth (least of all, me). Moreover, there have been a few reports, including the one concerning treatment of MLA Ellis Ross over his dedication to Indigenous rights and title, that have been disturbing. So at the outset it is worth noting that this posting is not meant to address either the issue generally, or the protests in particular.

However, comments made by Premier John Horgan bothered me because I think they fundamentally misunderstand the role of protests and civil disobedience in society. Specifically he said:

“Yesterday was a day when people were denied access to their workplace not because of their political views but because they were seen as symbols of government. That was unacceptable.”

This is wrong on a variety of levels. The first is it seems to imply that denying access to a workplace based on someone’s political views is okay. This undermines the spirit of our Charter rights. Although I’m sure he misspoke on some level (perhaps a Freudian slip), it is indicative of the nature of politics in our government. An attack on the people who are opposed to you is ok, but an attack on the institution is forbidden.

This thinking leads to a second problem, which is a lack of understanding of the very nature of citizen control and leadership. The government is fallible. In fact, it is often corrupt. This, in turn, makes external citizen challenges necessary to the functioning of government. Sometimes we can’t wait for another election cycle; we need to stand up and demand change now. Therefore, our governing leaders should remember that protest and civil disobedience are as endemic to the checks and balances of government as voting and the court system are.

Finally, within Horgan’s characterization of the protests is a narrative of how people are free to express their opinions as long as that expression is contained. Sitting in prescribed areas and chanting is ok, but shutting down intersections, ports, or government buildings is out of bounds. Again, this cuts against the entire point of protest and civil disobedience. Protesting is meant to be uncomfortable. It is meant to inconvenience people and add friction to our daily lives. This is primarily because change doesn’t typically happen when corporate and governmental powers are comfortable. It happens when they are nervous; when they are concerned about the limits of their power and realize that they may have gone too far.

In the States some jurisdictions and lobbying groups have started referring to protests – especially from climate and social activists – as economic terrorism. They have equated the disruption of institutions and systems as a form of violence or treason. Canada has not yet reached that level of rhetoric but it’s certainly a slippery slope. Our inherent rights to protest and civil disobedience must be protected and preserved. And all of us – especially those of us who work for institutions of power – should be ready to accept a certain level of friction in our lives, even when it’s uncomfortable and emotionally charged. Generally speaking the victims of injustice are not given a break from discrimination and dispossession, so when they push back, the rest of us shouldn’t be given a free pass either.