Thousands gather for 'No Prorogue' rallies

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Just over two weeks ago, quiet Internet chatter began amongst members of the newly formed and fast growing Facebook group Canadians Against Proroguing Parliament (CAPP), with individuals in cities across the country and the world coming together over a single, coordinated idea: to take to the streets on Saturday Jan. 23 and collectively express their concern over Prime Minister Stephen Harper's prorogation of Parliament.


As a result of the prorogation, parliamentarians will not return to Ottawa until early March, 37 bills are scrapped and committee work is halted.


Through CAPP, event organizers who had previously never met teamed up, putting their respective skills to work and organizing round the clock. Facebook chats and messages turned into real-life meetings, and late-night coffee shop brainstorms turned into a massive, grassroots national campaign. Two days before Parliament was originally set to return to work before Harper's prorogue, thousands of Canadians marched in over 50 rallies, sending a strong message to Harper that "Canadians care."


The result was impressive: police said that upwards of 7,000 people gathered in Toronto, 2,000 in Vancouver and rally organizers estimate 4,000 came together in Ottawa. Smaller cities across the country also boasted an impressive turnout, with 200 hitting the streets in Whitehorse and 300 in Regina.


Protesters ranged in age, occupation and political background. Vancouver's rally included Afghanistan veterans; members of Teamsters Canada; socialists, anarchists, communists and school-aged children. The Raging Grannies led a packed Victory Square Park in singing the national anthem. Representatives from the Green Party, the Liberals and the NDP attended. One of the rally's keynote speakers, Bob Hamilton, was introduced simply as a "grumpy old Conservative who knows the difference between right and wrong...I'm traditionally a Conservative voter, but decided that [Harper] went a bit too far on this one. Hundreds of thousands of Canadians from all walks of life, from all political perspectives...care when [Harper] choose[s] to run and hide instead of facing public scrutiny."


The rally's MC, Charlie Demers, called the Facebook group and coordinated rallies a "movement of people across political lines. People are angry at this absolute abuse of democracy...and Canadians across the country... are letting Stephen Harper know."


Individual protesters' reasons for attending ranged from concerns over pension reform to criticism of Harper's handling of an investigation into Canada's role in the torture of Afghan detainees, from calling for the removal of troops in Haiti to resistance of the upcoming Vancouver Olympics. "In my opinion he doesn't want the world coming and watching the Olympics and hearing about the travesty of Afghanistan and the detainees...He doesn't want that on the front pages," said Tanya Van Valkenburg, who attended the Whitehorse rally.


According to Shoni Field, a keynote speaker at the Vancouver rally and representative of Fair Vote Canada, the prorogue represents a broken parliamentary system. "We talk about what if in the future Parliament loses its legitimacy, loses its role... but we have to admit that we're already three-quarters of the way down that slippery slope," she said. "The uncomfortable truth is that...our Parliament is not able to meet our ideals right now."


"We are facing a spiraling democratic deficit," Field continued. "The need for reform is absolutely urgent. We need a Parliament that can hold our government accountable."


A common thread bringing thousands together was the desire to hold Prime Minister Harper accountable for the prorogue by showing that ordinary Canadians care about this action, and encouraging parliamentarians to get back to work. "I like the sign 'Canadians Care,'" said Carrie Baptist, who attended the Vancouver rally. "I feel like a lot of the reason that Harper prorogued is because he thought that nobody would notice, nobody would care, and nobody would comment on it, and that he could just do what he likes. But people do care and people do notice and I think it's important to say that we see what you're doing and we don't agree with it."


Event organizers across the country are calling the coordinated rallies a success. Messages of support and congratulations overwhelm the CAPP Facebook page, which now boasts 216,000 and grew by the thousands over the weekend.


According to Glyn Lewis, a Vancouver organizer and co-founder of Canadians for Obama, an organization that used social media to help galvanize support for U.S. president Barack Obama, "we've entered a new age in community based organizing here in Canada. I think a lot of these on-line and off-line tools and strategies and tactics that we're implementing is something that the Obama campaign perfected, and I think that's what's happening here. We're connecting people using social media and we're translating those connections into on the ground organizing efforts.


"We use text messages, we started holding events, we would meet at a Skytrain station and hand out [information]," says Lewis. "People became community leaders in their respective neighborhoods by engaging people in the issue."


Justin Arjoon of CAPP Toronto and an organizer of the city's rally echoes Lewis' enthusiasm. "This is the first time I've seen a movement actually organized through Facebook. Most people use Facebook as an auxiliary, and in this case it was the beginning of something." According to Arjoon, the Jan. 23 rallies demonstrate the "untapped potential of Facebook that has not been harnessed until now in Canada."


CAPP members and event organizers encouraged rally attendees to continue the discussions and protests that occurred on Jan. 23. "We will not be disregarded," said Field. "Let this be the thing where we are outraged and we stay outraged until it is fixed."


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