A page out of the civil disobedience book

The media has widely praised the civil disobedience occurring throughout the Arab world, but when protest came home to roost in Canada’s Senate recently the vitriol began to fly.

Compared to the graphic images from the “Arab Spring,” Senate page Brigette DePape’s silent display of a “Stop Harper!” sign during the throne speech was fairly tame. Who would have guessed that a stop sign could cause so much controversy?

The Canadian press alternatively praised DePape as a “hero” or excoriated her as “dangerous” or a “spoiled child.”

Generally I abide by Texas pundit Jim Hightower’s famous saying: “There’s nothing in the middle of the road but yellow stripes and dead armadillos,” but not this time. I disagree with both extreme perspectives, finding myself – for one of the few times in my life – right in the middle of the debate.

On one hand, the critics denouncing DePape clearly misunderstand or reject the very idea of civil disobedience. On the other hand, if DePape was attempting to create real change she surely could have highlighted something less mushy than “Stop Harper!”

Civil resistance is an important political tool, especially for the disadvantaged with minimal access to the levers of power.

DePape’s silent sign-holding is a part of the long honourable history of civil disobedience, or what some people prefer to call civil resistance. Civil disobedience occurs when people consciously refuse to obey certain laws, customs or commands of a government with the aim of bringing about a change in laws or policies. In DePape’s case, the laws and customs she was defying were the rules around decorum in Parliament and the non-partisan role of staff. Clearly she thumbed her nose at these rules and customs and was promptly fired for doing so.

While DePape engaged in civil resistance, her actions certainly won’t be chronicled in the history books alongside the likes of Ghandi or anti-apartheid activists. But her failure to achieve greatness doesn’t delegitimize her action.

Critics have denounced DePape as “disrespectful to our grand history and to Parliament itself,” a “lefty kook,” “arrogant,” “immature” for polluting what Mike Duffy ironically calls “the people’s place.” These people obviously don’t believe in civil disobedience.

The current reality is that protests don’t even get mentioned unless they are the first, biggest, most violent or involve something edgy or creative. Simply refusing to obey a law doesn’t have the power it used to. People objecting to government or corporate actions have to be extremely creative in getting their messages out.

For example, our notankers.ca loonie decals played to the edge of the law. We expected the Canadian Mint to claim we were defacing currency, but our research suggested that because there was no adhesive and the decals could easily be removed, we couldn’t be successfully prosecuted. We were prepared to defend our position in court. We believed the unacceptable risk that oil tankers would bring to B.C.’s coast far outweighed the risk of being found to break the law. Ultimately, we were surprised when the Royal Canadian Mint threatened us not with defacing, but with a trademark violation and sections of the Currency Act designed to prohibit the melting of coins. We fought back telling the Mint that we did not think those laws applied and indicated we were willing to defend our actions in court. The Mint huffed and puffed, but never followed up.

The current reality is that protests don’t even get mentioned unless they are the first, biggest, most violent or involve something edgy or creative.

Civil resistance is an important political tool, especially for the disadvantaged with minimal access to the levers of power. Its strength lies in the debate it generates about the law and the moral justification of violating it. By defying a societal norm, and being willing to suffer the consequences, protestors shine a spotlight on the bad law or draconian consequences and seek to both bring it into disrepute and catalyze others to stand against it.

That brings us to the question: was the throne speech stop sign effective civil resistance?

While well-intentioned, it fell short. DePape’s call out to “Stop Harper!” was vague and confusing. Was it a call to action over Prime Minister Harper’s lack of accountability and contempt for Parliament and its institutions? Was it a protest against Harper’s failure to act on global warming? Or was it a stunt to highlight the massive expansion of power of the Prime Minister’s Office? It certainly wasn’t clear from the message itself, nor from the media interviews following, where DePape made reference to all these things.

Our communities, our nation and our world are all facing enormous challenges, including a growing disparity between rich and poor and major disruptions from a rapidly changing climate. Harper and many other political leaders are ignoring the consequences of the choices they are making today.

Just as it has in toppling abusive governments across the Arab world, if we want the future of the Canada we believe is possible, civil disobedience will play an important role. I can’t think of any major political shift that has ever occurred in Canada that didn’t have a component of people breaking laws. For example, many Canadians forget the role civil disobedience played in helping Tommy Douglas get a universal health care system first in Saskatchewan and later throughout Canada. Given the role corporations, the media and government have in maintaining the status quo, I can’t imagine Canadian governments taking meaningful action on global warming or reducing poverty without some people engaging in civil disobedience.

So when we evaluate any civil resistance – an audacious Canadian page or the Arab people struggling for a different vision of their country – we must remember it is not about the perfect strategy or new social media gadgets; it is about people who are passionate about their beliefs being brave enough to step away from the convenient path, to ruffle feathers and break a few rules in pursuit of a more just, equitable and sustainable future.

On that note, while I give DePape a “C” for messaging, she gets an “A” for effort. I applaud her for taking action. Perhaps that’s all that matters.

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