Thinking outside the ballot box: Stop Harper

| September 22, 2011
Brigette DePape and the national chairperson of the Council of Canadians, Maude Barlow.

Activist Brigette DePape was a page in the Canadian Senate when she came to the attention of the public on June 3, 2011 by a protest she made during the first throne speech of the majority government of Stephen Harper. By silently holding up a sign that said "Stop Harper!" she earned dismissal from her job, the media nickname "the rogue page," and the admiration of Canadians concerned with the undemocratic, ideologically extreme tendencies of the Harper government.

DePape has produced an extensive essay for the Council of Canadians on how we can be more engaged in political life and activism. rabble.ca is reprinting the essay in five parts, starting with part one today.

Introduction

My experience discovering the power of direct action has been exhilarating. It has filled me with hope about our collective ability to transform this country for the better.

Many now know me as the page who held up a stop sign against Prime Minister Stephen Harper. But when I first moved to Ottawa to attend university, my aspirations were very different. I had no thoughts about turning Parliament into a site of protest. Instead, I wanted to take a comfortable place at its centre.

When I left my hometown of Winnipeg for Canada's capital, I came in part to join the Parliamentary Page Program. Back then, I saw Parliament as a means of bringing about much-needed social and political change. But living in Ottawa and working on the Hill, I began to understand our parliamentary system very differently. Far from serving to remedy injustice, it often seemed only to perpetuate it.

I was working as a page in the Senate when Harper secured his majority government with only 39.6 per cent of the popular vote. It had been difficult for me to watch the Conservative agenda move forward in a majority Conservative Senate. With a majority in the House of Commons as well, I knew it was about to get much worse. How could I continue to sit idly by as Harper pushed through a destructive agenda? I could no longer stay silent, so during the Speech from the Throne, I held up a bright red sign that read "Stop Harper."

I am moved by the thousands of people who were excited by my action. It shows that people in Canada are burning for change.

Harper will not be stopped within Parliament. With a Conservative majority in the House and in the Senate, he is free to implement the most damaging parts of his renegade program. For the next four years, we can expect corporate tax cuts, cuts to public services and pensions, erosion of public healthcare, free trade agreements that undermine democracy and labour standards, environmental degradation, and the expansion of the military and prisons. Even if all members of the opposition vote against Conservative policies, the policies will still pass.

I have come to realize that the only way to stop Harper is through grassroots activism. I have always been active in my community, but it was not until recently, and especially since my action in the Senate, that I have begun to discover the power of social movements and direct action.

Some people asked me if my being fired from my Senate job left me worried about my future. Actually, I have never been more hopeful. Working on the Hill, I felt trapped in an agenda and a system that I did not believe in. But as human rights activist and songwriter Joan Baez said, "Action is the antidote for despair." Now, working with social movements, I am more optimistic than ever about tomorrow. While the Conservative government tries to make a mess of our country, social movements are working tirelessly to stop it. They are the hope for real change in Canada.

Since my action, I have been excited to deepen my understanding of direct action: what it is, its source of power, and how historically it has led to positive change in Canada and around the world.

In this paper I write about discovering what people power is and the power of direct action; about how our power as citizens extends beyond voting to dissenting, which should be viewed as both a right and responsibility. I will explore direct action in the current Canadian context and how people power can stop Harper. I look at how Harper's agenda is part of broader systemic problems. I explore the rich tradition of direct action in Canada from which our movement can build on and how intergenerational solidarity can be an important part of this. I look at the effects of taking action and the incredible impact it can have on each of us. I conclude with my thoughts about Canada's future and the power a broad-based people's movement could have.

People power is greater than the power of any government

In our culture, we are misled to believe that power lies in the hands of wealthy politicians and their corporate allies. For example, the prime minister and the Queen give orders to the Usher of the Black Rod (my former boss) who gives orders to the chief page, who gives orders to the deputy chief page, who gives order to the Senate page (formerly me). We are led to believe that power flows only from the top down. From this perspective, workers obey those in higher positions or else we face sanctions: for me that meant getting fired.

Now I am learning that this isn't the only way power operates. I have discovered that there are different ways of understanding power. In contrast to Parliament and most institutions in Canada that operate from the top down, people power rises from the bottom up.

Power from the bottom up

Our culture tells us that politicians, military officials, and business executives are the only ones with power. We are taught to believe that some people have power while most people don't and that is simply how it is and always will be. We are socialized to think that these power relations are like the stone of the Parliament building -- solid, durable and unchanging. But actually, these power relations are malleable; they are fluid like Canada's Great Lakes. By recognizing this fluidity, we can see the power that people have. These relations can be changed when people acknowledge their own power and join with others to build a movement.

Despite the popular misconception that institutions such as Parliament have more power than citizens, people are much more powerful when they choose to use people power.

While social movements do not have the same access to money or resources that governments do, what we do have is the power that comes when people act and speak together.

What is people power?

People power, also known as satyagraha by Gandhi (meaning soul force), street heat, and non-violent direct action, is power derived from uniting people to make change using tactics outside of regular institutions, such as courts or elections. In non-violent action, people make a commitment not to use physical force to do something that is unexpected or prohibited. Simply asking the government to do the right thing doesn't work often enough. So rather than give up, citizens and grassroots activists use people power to achieve a concrete goal.

The "consent theory of power," made known by Gene Sharp, a former U.S. political science professor who has written extensively about using non-violent tactics to change political policy, explains how power structures are naturally unsteady. They are supported by social institutions, such as the Conservative government, that are controlled by rulers with the assumed consent of those who are governed. When those who are being ruled remove their consent by refusing to obey, the controllers become powerless, and power shifts to those who were formerly with less.

The following quote from a group that helped to successfully oust Serbian dictator Slobodan Milošević through a non-violent movement aptly explains people power:

"By themselves, rulers cannot collect taxes, enforce repressive laws and regulations, keep trains running on time, prepare national budgets, direct traffic, manage ports, print money, repair roads, keep food supplied to the markets, make steel, build rockets, train the police and the army, issue postage stamps or even milk a cow. People provide the services to the ruler through a variety of organizations and institutions. If the people stop providing these skills, the ruler cannot rule."

- Centre for Applied Nonviolent Action and Strategies

People power leads positive change

In school, I was told that Parliament was the way to make progress. Wanting to make change, I sought out the opportunity to become a page to learn about the federal legislative process. But I have since realized that it is people power, not parliaments, that leads advancements in human rights and dignity. The most immediate victories that come to mind are Gandhi's peaceful war against British Occupation, and the civil rights movement in the United States against racism, but there are thousands more examples.

Non-violent direct action is a key part of people power. Non-violent direct action can take the form of blockades, sit-ins, citizen's arrests, and more, and often involves breaking rules or laws. But it cannot be done in isolation. I am beginning to see that while direct action is one of the most exciting parts of activism and its most public face, it can only be effective when a series of other elements come into the mix. These other elements include consciousness raising, community building, message framing, and media intervention, among other things.

Direct action has led to positive change, and more of it is needed to continue the unfinished work of past movements. Despite the tangible gains of civil rights movements in terms of securing the right to vote, banning discrimination in employment practices, ending public accommodations based on ethnicity, and creating affirmative action, racism and inequality persist. Despite the brave struggles of Indigenous peoples, the government continues to disrespect Indigenous sovereignty and rights, such as Indigenous peoples' right to free prior and informed consent over development. Despite a strong labour movement in Canada, collective bargaining rights continue to be attacked and workers still face unjust conditions, especially those who are marginalized including women, immigrants, refugees, Indigenous peoples, and people of colour. These examples show that while direct actions have made a difference, more grassroots work must be carried out to achieve the fundamental social and political changes that are urgently needed.

In part two of activist Brigette DePape's essay, which will next run in rabble.ca on Friday, Sept. 23, she looks at how democracy means more than a ballot box and how dissent is a right and a responsibility. This article is part of an essay that was published by The Council of Canadians. It can be read in full here.

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