All protests are not the same - Keith Roulston editorial
As I watched the most recent protest demonstrations on Parliament Hill this past weekend, the second in recent months, I couldn’t help but think of three protests I had been part of in my life – and how different they were.
My first protest dates back to my student days in the 1960s, back when there were so many protests that groups must have had to draw lots to see who had the use of the provincial legislature or Parliament Hill at the particular time.
Our particular march was to convince provincial Premier John Robarts and his education minister, Bill Davis, that more money was needed for student loans.
Loans were still pretty new at the time and enabled my classmates, most of whom were the first generation of their families to do so, to attend universities and the new community colleges.
Our protest march, consisting mostly of University of Toronto and Ryerson (as it was called then) students, went up University Ave. to Queen’s Park. Aside from the chaos that we probably created for drivers who couldn’t use the street for an hour or so, there wasn’t a lot of disruption caused by the relatively short, relatively well-behaved crowd.
Much later, as editor of The Citizen, I travelled to Toronto to cover a farmers’ protest – probably about the sky-high interest rates of the mid-1980s, although I don’t have a clear memory of the cause.
Farmers, however, were in desperate shape, or you wouldn’t have found thousands leaving their busy farm schedules. Interest rates had ballooned to 20 per cent. Still, as I recall, the protest was polite. Anne Chislett and I wrote an award-winning Blyth Festival play, Another Season’s Promise, which had a national tour the following year.
Then, during the mid-2000s, a case of BSE, or mad cow disease, was discovered in a cattle beast on an Alberta farm. Borders around the world were slammed shut for Canadian cattle and meat. There never were more than a handful of infected cattle discovered with the disease that affected the animal’s nervous system and made it stumble around unable to control its bodily functions.
Prices, not only for beef cattle, but also for dairy bull calves and culled milk cows, were driven to devastating lows as we, an exporting nation, couldn’t send meat from Canadian cattle beyond our borders. A protest was set up for Parliament Hill and local farm groups rented buses to make it convenient for local farmers to attend. I was on one of those buses.
The crowd on Parliament Hill was large and passionate. There was fear of what might happen when farmers from Québec marched in together but people stayed law-abiding. At one point, I wandered away from the crowd and around one corner of the Parliament buildings and there, lined up ready for action, was a riot squad, helmets, masks, shields and batons at the ready. They were never needed and I doubt the vast majority of the desperate farmers even knew they were just around the corner. Still, the farmers came, protested and went home peacefully to their farms.
Those memories of three other protests shaped my perception of the two recent high-profile demonstrations. My student protest aside, the other two were desperate pleas for help from my farm neighbours whose very futures were imperilled by situations beyond their control.
The biker demonstration this past weekend was, for the most part, peaceful, and, given the earlier occupation of the capital city’s Parliamentary district, the city overreacted. But they prepared for the worst, much like the 2006 farm protest – although bikers’ hardship hardly compares to the devastation faced by farmers.
The outlier is the truckers’ protest, which took over Ottawa’s downtown for most of February. They didn’t make their point and go home. Certainly some of them could argue their business was damaged because they couldn’t take their trucks
across the border unless they were vaccinated, but they had a choice. The farmers had no choice against either the spike in interest rates or the sudden plunge in their income from the ban on exporting their cattle or beef.
But the farmers got back in their cars, pick-ups or buses and went home. They didn’t occupy the city or harass businesses that obeyed the law (by having their employees wear masks in the recent protest’s case) until they were forced to close for the day.
I was shocked on the weekend when I heard Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson say that his city has 800-1,000 protest demonstrations
a year, all of which have to get licences. Obviously far more are like the protests I’ve been used to over the years, not the
anti-COVID occupation. All protests – at least at this point – are apparently not the same.