…. speaking truth to power is something to be admired.
The barrage of criticism being heaped on former Canadian Senate page Brigette DePape’s lone act of civil disobedience comes as no surprise, nor does the vehemence of some of the attacks. Naysayers’ statements range from the garden variety – “I agree with her statement, but she broke the rules and disrespected Parliament” – to the hyperbolic insinuation that her act bordered on terrorism. I have no wish to refute such histrionics. I simply want to try to articulate how I feel about DePape’s actions, and why.
This sight filled me with joy, and with hope. I was incredibly moved by the spectacle of a young woman urging us into resistance amid the pomp and circumstance of the Speech from the Throne. The contrast between the institution of government – slow moving, conservative, designed to concentrate power in the hands of a professional political class – and the democracy of the people was extremely powerful. Imagine the courage this act required, and the poise.
Like much civil disobedience, DePape’s action was symbolic, yet it immediately produced tangible results: The whole country – and, indeed, much of the world – was talking about it. My friends attending the International Peace Conference in Cairo, Egypt, said that Egyptians were cheering for DePape. And Canadians are now discussing if protest matters, why protest matters, and what should be done.
I’ve read that DePape’s actions were not heroic because she didn’t risk her life, or even risk arrest. Perhaps in some societies standing in the house of government holding a protest sign would not be a big deal. But in the Canadian context, DePape’s actions stand out for their clarity and unique visibility.
DePape knowingly took an action that would cause her to lose her job, and that would place her at the centre of a media whirlwind, in order to make a statement. She used her position to give voice to the feelings of so many Canadians, and to put our agenda on a national and international stage in a way that no lawful protest could ever do.
By my observations, most Canadians are afraid to speak up, and many find the very act of speaking up distasteful. A common sentiment is that public protesters are objects of ridicule and disgust, and that they need to be controlled. Order is valued above all, at almost any cost.
Such attitudes do not create a climate in which a healthy democracy can flourish. They do, however, make it easy for elected officials to get away with nearly anything, from shutting down Parliament to avoid disclosing complicity in massive human-rights violations and possible war crimes, to allowing a Canadian teenager to grow up in a concentration camp.
As Canadians, freedom of political expression is supposed to be our right, yet we have seen with our own eyes how legal, peaceful protest is often met with brutality and mass arrests. Violent provocateurs are used as an excuse to discredit protest, criminalize dissent, and strip us of our basic civil liberties. For the last decade or so, police forces and governments on every level (municipal, provincial, and RCMP) have carefully managed public protest and kept it in pens, or “free-speech zones,” with security used as an excuse. Furthermore, corporate media minimize protest, and often portray protesters as loopy fringe elements, or focus on one violent protester out of thousands of peaceful ones. One of the commonly heard arguments against DePape’s actions was, “Protest is fine, in the proper time and place,” to which many activists sarcastically added, ” … when no one will see or hear you.”
We live in a society where the majority of the population is complacent, apathetic, and politically disengaged. Around 40 per cent of eligible voters don’t bother to vote, and too many who do seem to believe that voting, in itself, is sufficient democratic engagement. In that context, DePape’s actions were heroic. In a society where people are even afraid to ask their employer for a raise, DePape stood up – alone – and spoke truth to power. She knew her protest would have grave consequences, but she did it anyway, and in an elegant and peaceful way.
DePape’s bold actions affirm that merely acting, as expected, through institutional channels such as city councils, provincial parliaments, and the House of Commons is insufficient. We can be well-behaved, quiet children and meekly ask our elders in Parliament, “Please, sir, can I have some more?” Or we can remember that Parliament is supposed to represent us, not dictate to us.
Calling a country a democracy does not make it so. In a healthy democracy, great masses of votes are not wiped out when voters happen to be the minority voice in their geographic location. In a healthy democracy, people are not afraid to protest. In a healthy democracy, people do not express horror and anguish at the sight of a young woman holding a sign.
Below is the statement that DePape released on the day of her protest. I fully agree with her, and I pledge to do what I can to support the same goals.
Harper’s agenda is disastrous for this country, and for my generation. We have to stop him from wasting billions on fighter jets, military bases, and corporate tax cuts while cutting social programs and destroying the climate. Most people in this country know what we need are green jobs, better medicare, and a healthy environment for future generations.
Contrary to Harper’s rhetoric, Conservative values are not, in fact, Canadian values. How could they be, when three out of four eligible voters didn’t even give their support to the Conservatives? But we will only be able to stop Harper’s agenda if people of all ages, and from all walks of life, engage in creative actions and civil disobedience.
This country needs a Canadian version of an Arab Spring, a flowering of popular movements that demonstrate that real power to change things lies not with Harper, but in the hands of the people, when we act together in our streets, neighbourhoods, and workplaces.
With realization of one’s own potential and self confidence in one’s ability, one can build a better world.