Rita Wong is a poet, blogger, teacher, cultural critic, and contributor to the pomegranate
You may not agree with Brigette dePape’s protest – she displayed a “Stop Harper” sign during the throne speech in the Senate – but dePape acts from a place of genuine concern for Canadians. She feels that we are in danger, and this justifies stepping outside the mode of business-as-usual into creatively thinking about how to best warn her fellow citizens. Living through a year with the highest greenhouse gas emissions on record, I take her warning seriously.
Interviewers in the mass media seem to miss or avoid engaging with dePape’s point that our government’s parliamentary system will not protect the peace and the environment that most Canadians value. They take a superficial definition of democracy that begins and ends with an election, whereas dePape asserts that democracy is much wider and deeper than an election where three quarters of the Canadian population did not vote for Harper. The Conservatives got 40% of the votes from the 61% of Canadians who participated in the election, translating into one quarter of the population. Ms. dePape’s math turns out to be more accurate than her media interviewers’ calculations that accept the conventional definition of a majority government and disregard the many people who did not vote.
Math aside, it is very important to consider DePape’s argument—broadcast on CTV news June 4, 2011—that millions of Canadians will not see their concerns adequately addressed within the Canadian parliamentary system for the next four years. A quarter of the country helped to elect a government that will build enormous, expensive prisons, buy fighter jets, and speed up the destruction of our planet through increased global warming. The 75% of Canadians who did not vote for this violent, fearful agenda are nonetheless held hostage to it, and the sooner they realize this, the better. It is our children and grandchildren who will pay for our mistakes, as they inherit a more polluted, degraded planet with acidifying oceans, as well as a more violent society with greater extremes of inequality. The Tory agenda is a corporate agenda, specifically a tar sands agenda where the rich will increasingly rule, at least temporarily, before leaving an enormous toxic mess for everyone else to clean up.
What strikes me about dePape’s statement is how integrated her concerns about social justice and the environment are. In her press release, she writes, “We have to stop [Harper] 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.”
Whereas the wealthy [such as the oil industry, making its profit from exploiting the environment] may be able to afford large advertisements in the mass media, a regular, working citizen like dePape mostly gets marginalized by the agenda of an increasingly right wing mass media. The story of the a few rich, powerful men getting much more press time than many middle and working class people is an old one, which dePape interrupted with her David-against-Goliath gesture.
DePape was willing to lose her job to try to wake up and help protect Canadians. She made her statement peacefully and concisely, holding two written words on a hand-made sign in the middle of the Senate chamber where she worked as a page. As people have commented, it was an act of civil disobedience with the emphasis on civil. But any act of disobedience or disagreement is now being seized by the right wing as an excuse to increase their “security” agenda, which is actually a violence agenda, one of increased policing, repression, and intimidation. It rings hollow, but if Conservatives abuse their government power to waste public funds on the criminalization of dissent, as they already did with the mass arrests of over a thousand people during the G20 in Toronto, who will stop them? Those hardworking folks in parliament won’t be able to outnumber them in votes. This is precisely dePape’s point.
DePape’s call to find creative ways to engage Canadians politically is both intimidating and necessary. It isn’t easy to educate complacent, alienated, or distracted Canadians. But anyone who loves justice, peace, and the environment needs to seriously consider how best to respond to dePape’s invitation. We are facing unnecessary and unwarranted increases in prisons, military expenditures, and environmental destruction, and people will have to decide if these are the actions and policies they want to define Canada, or if they are willing to devote themselves to building the truly just, equitable, and ecologically sustainable home that their government will not and cannot achieve on their behalf. As dePape suggests, social movements, such as the civil rights movement, are what bring real change. It’s hard to know what the tipping point might be, but it will come, if enough of us care, commit to the peace we want, and refuse manipulation by right wing appeals to fear and greed.
In contrast to the ruling party, dePape articulates a politics of courage and peace. Those who dismiss her too quickly would do well to ask themselves if they really want more pollution and violence for their communities, under the guise of an Orwellian “security.” This young woman’s sacrifice merits less knee-jerk railing and more thoughtful self-reflection from us all. As she herself has pointed out, the actions of one person cannot change much, but they can become a catalyst for more conversations and actions. We spectators need to figure out what we can do, wherever we are situated. It may take time, and it will need to be strategic, as dePape’s act was.
Many Canadians were demoralized and depressed after the federal election, but with one small sign and quiet, steadfast commitment, dePape has reminded us to stay alert to possibilities, and to keep working for peace, justice, and the earth. As long as the earth gives us life, we owe this to the earth and to each other.