Sanitizing Protest Movements: Canadian Protests Evolve

Last week the city of Toronto saw Tamil protesters blocked the Gardiner Expressway.  For the Tamil protesters it must surely have seemed a radical move to get our federal government to notice the civil war in Sri Lanka.  I know that is a terrible conflict and one for East-West readers, however I took something different back from it.   I thought the Tamil protest was the latest example of how protests are becoming sanitized in this country.

I say that because Premier McGuinty and Toronto Mayor David Miller came out against the blockade of the Gardiner Expressway.  I can understand why because the Gardiner Expressway is one of the few main highways into downtown Toronto.  It is very difficult in our Canadian society to put parameters on protest, but the shutting down of major highways in Ontario seems to be drawing the line in the sand for Ontario politicians.

I say that from some experience.  For some of you might remember about three years ago farmers from across the province took over the 400 series highways many times.  To the letter of the law that was illegal but it was tolerated at the time because it was so difficult to control.  For instance trying to get 100 huge tractors off the road is like herding cats.  At the end of the day the police authorities felt it was much better to work with this protest instead of causing a confrontation to ban it altogether.

Now I was very involved at the time in Farm protest.  However I was never on a 400 series highway but I know many people who were.  In fact I became friends with a man from the Ottawa area who was one of the first farm leaders in Ontario to take tractors onto 400 series highways.  I really admire this man because he believed in his convictions and he was willing to do something to draw attention to what he thought was the wrong against greater agricultural society.  He took his tractor on more than one 400 series highway and learned how to do it the right way.

When I met this man I asked him how he felt the first time he took his tractor on a 400 series highway.  He told me that he was very scared because he knew as soon as he went on the 400 series highway there was no going back.  After he did it once it became easier, however I know this man has not been on these roads again in the last three years as farm protest has grown quiet.

So now we have our Tamil Canadian friends taking their protest out onto the 400 series highways.  In fact tonight they are threatening to do more of it to bring some visibility to the plight of their relatives back in Sri Lanka.  However, the press is full of warnings from the Premier and the mayor of Toronto that there are certain ways to protest and then there are ways not to protest.  In other words you don’t go onto 400 series highways in this province to inconvenience everybody else when you have a social issue you are against.  It’s not the first time I heard this, former conservative leader John Tory said the same thing soon after the farmer protests of three years ago.

It’s almost like it’s un-Canadian to be like that, as if it’s too impolite for Canadians to be protesting on a 400 series highway.  In fact forgetting about the 400 series highways for a moment, it’s almost like to me our elected politicians are trying to sanitize protest in this country.  Back three years ago when the farmer protests were on, we were always hearing warnings about what was right and what was not right and what they would put up with.  I came to believe that our politicians who are paid all kinds of money to do what they do were not willing to be put in uncomfortable situations.  It was almost like they were setting up the infrastructure for what protest “should “be like in this country.

I have always thought this is very wrong.  However I know it is a double-edged sword, in Canada we are not used to anarchy.  So I know that Premier McGuinty is on thin ice when he suggests what the Tamil protesters should do.  No Canadian politician wants to come down on the wrong side of free speech.

The challenge for our Tamil friends is to keep the protests going and to portray the genocide in their homeland in the most effective way.  That may involve our 400 series highways and it may not.  It may involve things we’d never thought of before.  The bottom line is protest in this country is always evolving, however it’s usually done in a very Canadian fashion.  Finding out exactly what that means seems to be everybody’s challenge.