Alberta Diary

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David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with the Toronto Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. His 1995 book, A Poke in the Public Eye, explores the relationships among Canadian journalists, public relations people and politicians. He left journalism after the strike at the Calgary Herald in 1999 and 2000 to work for the trade union movement. Alberta Diary focuses on Alberta politics and social issues.

Idle No More protests successfully wind up Alberta solicitor general

| January 21, 2013
Jonathan Denis

Surprising as this may seem to alert readers in other parts of the country, protest is in fact permitted out here in Alberta. However, like strikes by unionized workers, it is usually only allowed if it's completely ineffective.

So it should be easy for us to understand the anger and bewilderment, no matter how crudely expressed, of Alberta Solicitor General and Justice Minister Jonathan Denis, who was "pissed off" at Alberta's Idle No More protesters for, quelle horreur, delaying pickup trucks for a few minutes.

After all, the Idle No More protesters actually succeeded in capturing our attention for a few minutes last Wednesday, and that means their protest worked. As Denis didn't quite explain, that's not supposed to happen here in Alberta!

That became a big problem for Denis, apparently, because nowadays all those PO'd guys have cell phones in their trucks!

Denis, a coruscating legalist from Calgary before his election as MLA for Calgary-Acadia and subsequent elevation to cabinet, was quite offended that local law enforcers worked with the Aboriginal protesters and their supporters last week to keep the peace and ensure public safety during the two brief protest blockades in the Edmonton area.

The man the Calgary Sun risibly refers to as Alberta's "top cop" -- he's no more a cop than I am, regardless of whom comes under his cabinet portfolio -- seems to think the police ought to have been in there swinging truncheons and putting the boots to the peaceful protesters.

Because, you know, just the thought of someone getting between a pissed off person in a pickup truck and an open road he (or she, as it happened) is anxious to speed down is almost enough to give a fellow palpitations! God help us if Denis himself had come upon the 15-minute smudge ceremony on St. Albert Trail or the two-hour slowdown on Highway 2 just south of town. Given a provocation like that, he might have been tempted to ram an RCMP cruiser himself!

Well, I'll admit to feeling a certain empathy for Denis -- as my unhappy passengers will attest, I spend my days behind the wheel directing abuse at trucks and buses that move too slowly, swearing at trains that have the temerity to use level crossings I'm planning to cross, grumbling at pedestrians, cyclists and other cars for their very presence in my path, cursing potholes and the municipalities that don't fix 'em fast enough, and so on.

So I'm not entirely unsympathetic to the notion that anything that keeps a fellow from his appointed rounds via his preferred route is a legitimate cause for some serious griping -- although I'm not about to risk a fine and violate Alberta's new distracted-driving law by phoning Denis up about it.

It's only when you operate your mouth in public without engaging your brain that this kind of thing can be a problem. This is especially so if the local right-wing news network is hanging on your every word and making you think that just because you have something to say means you’re smrt.

So, Denis told Calgary Sun columnist Rick Bell, not only is he "pissed off" at the protesters (his words, so don't blame me!), but so are nine out of 10 of the people who call him. Well, duh! Would a reasonable person bother to call about this? (The answer to that is no. A reasonable person would be listening to the traffic report on the radio and would have taken another route home, as I did, as a matter of fact.)

"I'm prepared to face this issue head on with the police when I meet them on Monday," Denis told Bell, who is known as The Dinger after the noise a bell makes, but who in my opinion ought to be called The Clapper, after the part of the bell that does the dinging as well as for the way he encourages right-wing politicians to agree with him. Just saying…

"Oh crap, I wonder if I can phone in sick," senior police officers all over the city must have mumbled to their spouses when they heard about The Dinger's column.

"People’s patience is wearing thin," Denis rambled on -- what? After one day of protest? "They respect the right of individuals to peacefully protest in a democracy but when you start blockading a roadway, it's going too far. There is a right to peaceful assembly but there are limits." (Emphasis added for humourous effect.)

Yeah, yeah… In Alberta, as previously noted, there's been a longstanding limit on doing things that are effective, that can’t be easily ignored, that actually get people’s attention -- like making them slow down for a few minutes and think about a problem.

So I've got a bulletin for Denis: Sometimes you have to inconvenience people to get anything fixed around here. And with a bunch of Albertans running the show in Ottawa, that goes for the rest of the country too. From the perspective of the Idle No More protesters, the last couple of hundred years of being polite don't seem to have been terribly effective.

Indeed, you could make a case that the last time First Nations people negotiated a deal to which they could hold Canadians -- the very treaties the government of Stephen Harper is now trying to gut through legislative sleight of hand -- was the last time they were in a position to inconvenience the colonial authorities.

So we signed a deal in perpetuity -- the deal, for all its imperfections, that Harper would now like to sidestep.

As former prime minister Brian Mulroney told the same news network soon after Denis was blowing off steam, it's not all that surprising Aboriginal Canadians are protesting these attacks on their treaty rights, especially in light of Canada's dismal record to date in its dealings with its First Nations.

Unfortunately, it was impossible to understand from the Sun's "exclusive" story just what Mulroney proposes ought to be done -- which at least raises the possibility that it's not the same as Harper's neoconservative agenda, which the Sun News Network exists to promote.

That wasn’t the problem with Bell's account of Denis's opinions, however, which seemed perfectly clear.

Fortunately, as Denis himself appeared to realize, since he's not really the top cop, or even the top deputy, he can make suggestions like the rest of us, but he can't actually tell the police what to do.

So my suggestion for the Mounties, Edmonton Police Service and Alberta Sheriffs who have to protect public safety when there are public demonstrations -- effective or otherwise -- is that they simply ignore Mr. Denis.

If he calms down and thinks about it, he might even thank them. Then again, this is Alberta

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, Alberta Diary.

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