What happens when the political becomes personal? Then who has the power?
Does Stephen Harper because he’s our prime minister? For sure. Does Oprah Winfrey because she’s a billionaire media celebrity who likes to share her political views and ideas? Yep, she’s got some sway. How about ordinary citizens who come together to champion certain causes, or try to tackle certain socio-economic problems? Do they have any political power? Darn right they do. And they’re what Maker Culture politics is all about. People, united in cause, working together to spread a message and set changes in action.
Whether at the local, provincial, national or global level, examples of Maker Culture politics are everywhere.
London Activism: Empowerment Infoshop
There’s an American and Canadian flag that says “United We Fall” right above the dining room table, and a Barack Obama poster above the door with the words “You won’t make change” scratched across it.
This is the headquarters of Empowerment Infoshop, a radical information centre in London, Ont. And those are just two signs among many that show the political views of the shop.
It’s not that the members dislike Americans, but they are frustrated with capitalist systems and mainstream governments. According to Anthony Verberckmoes, the facilitator of Empowerment Infoshop, he and his activist friends aren’t the only ones unhappy with the current government.
“There was just a poll that came out… and 20-something per cent of the Canadians in this poll were against the capitalist system,” said Verberckmoes. “I mean, that’s a fifth of the Canadian population. That’s an enormous number.”
In London, a growing number of activists are taking action to make political change. Verberckmoes is one. Common Cause is an Ontario-wide federated anarchist organization that recently added a London chapter. Verberckmoes is a member of the group as well as Alex Balch, a Fanshawe College student.
Balch says Common Cause members are putting their political plans into action. “We’re trying to get a free school organized now,” said Balch. “Also a lot of members are active within unions and trying to push for anarchist organizing methods and we have workshops and educational and stuff like that for the public.”
Another up and coming organization in town is the London Activist Assembly which was created in September by a group of the University of Western Ontario Students. Heather Graham, a founding member, says the assembly, is also against capitalism and large corporations.
“The fact that everything is being turned into a business and it’s very hard for individuals to promote their own skills, their own services and their own needs, separated from the consumer culture that we live in — that’s been a very big issue of ours,” said Graham.
She says the assembly is largely into guerrilla campaigning which involves things like posting stickers around the city to promote their political views. Both Common Cause and the London Activist Assembly agree that with the growing number of Canadians getting frustrated with government bodies, Canadian activist activity is sure to increase in the upcoming years.
Cyclist Advocacy Movement: Bike Camp
Hundreds of cyclists huddle in a cramped conference room. The room’s walls are covered with pieces of paper on clipboards. At the top of each page are suggestions on how to best promote cycling issues in Toronto, followed by a series of empty dots. Jason Diceman, a facilitator for BikeCamp, yelled above the crowd.
“Read these, fill in one dot to record your opinion! How many dots?” Diceman playfully asked the crowd. “One,” the crowd responds. “Tell your friends!” Diceman joked. “Fill in one dot and sign the sheet!” As Toronto’s next municipal election approaches, city cyclists join forces to strategize about how to get their issues on the agenda.
The Toronto Cyclists Union and community members met at BikeCamp in mid-October last year to outline what issues they want to push for during the 2010 mayoral race. Their strategy is decided on democratically. The TCU aims to act on those ideas which received the most dots.
What were BikeCamp’s three top ideas? The first is get a segment on cycling rights and rules into Ontario’s driver handbook and driving courses. Second, to promote a specific route or bike lane with support from wards across Toronto. And the last is to get cycling education in schools.
Brainstorming is the easy part, according to Margaret Hastings-James, a BikeCamp organizer. The hard part is actually getting people to work on those projects.
“The most important thing that will come out of today is getting some new energy. People that are interested to pick up on some specific campaigns or events and to actually run with that and make it their own project,” Hastings-James explains.
Hastings-James has been a bike advocate since 2003, after she was hit by a car while cycling. Luckily her injuries weren’t serious, but the accident made Margaret realized the need for more bike lanes and stricter traffic rules. Although hundreds of cyclists showed up for BikeCamp in October, only a small group donates their time to bike advocacy.
“You come and there’s people here all presenting awesome ideas and then they leave the room and it’s like ‘wait a minute, who’s going to implement all this?'” said Hasting-James.
But Hasting-James remains positive. Rising gas prices, concern for the environment and crowded streets have increased participation in cyclist movements. Only decades ago bike advocacy was virtually unheard of, but now attracts support from people in all walks of life.
“It’s really encouraging to see a lot of new faces here today. I find that the movement in general in Toronto is changing face,” said Hasting-James. “It’s not the same die-hard sort of ‘enviro’ freak types… there’s a lot of variety in people here.”
After one year of operation, the Toronto Cyclists Union has 730 members, and continues to grow.
Open Data and the Age of Participation
Cell phones, digital cameras, the Internet: they are all tools of the 21st century trade that make it easy for people to capture and share content, images and ideas. Tools that make it easy for people to connect with one another, and build community.
“We can all create. We can all participate in a lot of different ways that we couldn’t before.” Says Mark Kuznicki, a social innovator who behind a number of political movements including ChangeCamp and OpenData Toronto.
“It’s the age of participation,” Kuznicki says, “and this has a huge implication for government.”
Citizens can come forward and get involved with political issues, and make change. A recent movement that embodies the participatory philosophy is Open Data Toronto. This November, the city of Toronto opened up its municipal data to the public. At a two-day conference called Toronto Innovation Showcase, Toronto Mayor David Miller, launched toronto.ca/open. This site hosts official datasets from the city containing information about everything from the city’s wards to apartment standards to food bank services.
The posted data not only increases the city’s transparency, it also fuels the creation of new software programs and applications, says Kuznicki. He explained that within 90 minutes of the mayor’s announcement, a developer had created a Google Maps application. Although Kuznicki says the initial Google Maps application wasn’t overly useful to Torontonians, “it shows how quickly change can happen … and shows there’s an engaged community ready to do something with the raw data that’s put out there.”
While the Open Data Toronto movement’s in its infancy, the project’s a manifestation of a political movement that dates back to the time of the stoics in 3 B.C. That’s when the stoics laid out the framework for anarchism, says Professor William McKercher, who teaches at Kings College in London, Ont. and has written several books about anarchy. McKercher says the stoics believed “rules should be made by the community in a non-coercive fashion.”
While anarchist tendencies may have changed over time, the original anarchist notion of citizens working together to improve their state of existence is reflected in Toronto’s Open Data movement.
And Kuznicki hopes the open movement will continue to pick up steam by more people accessing and analyzing the data.
“We’re hoping for future events that’ll be more of a hack-lab kind of a session. Where we get lots of developers and people with ideas together with data over a day or a weekend to see what we can do in a very short period of time.”
When the Governor General prorogued parliament in Dec. 2008, Kuznicki realized there was something deeply wrong in Canada. The political process had devolved into petty squabbling to the point where the opposition parties couldn’t even put aside their differences to form an effective coalition.
But while dialogue had broken down in Ottawa, Kuznicki noticed that people were more engaged than ever through social media, the only question was, how do you mirror online social interactions in the real world? “It’s not just government that needs to change, our ideas of citizenship also need to change,” Kuznicki said.
Last January, he came up with the idea for change camp, an unconference designed to get people together and get them talking. From its beginnings in Toronto, the idea has spread across the country, with Montreal, Ottawa, Vancouver and Edmonton hosting their own camps.
“It’s a new citizen style think tank,” said Michael Janz, marketing director for the Edmonton Federation of Community Leagues. “You don’t need to turn to the Frasier institute or the Canadian tax payer’s federation. New results can be coming organically right out of the coffee shops in your community.”
Janz attended Edmonton’s change camp in mid-October last year, and said it’s a place where socially-conscious people can get together, bounce ideas around, and come up with solutions. However, far from the providence of young radicals, change camp attracts people of all ages and interests.
“It wasn’t just young people, all university students. It wasn’t just all tech people. There was a real mix of students, people from the public service, people from the private sector — people who were just interested,” said Dave Cournoyer, a political blogger based in Edmonton. “They knew that something was going on and they wanted to discuss how things could happen differently.”
Because the movement is still in its infancy, it’s difficult to see the products of change camp. However, Chris LaBossiere, one of the organizers behind Edmonton’s camp, said a successful change camp event is its own product.
“We wanted people in the room, and we got that,” said LaBossiere. “We just wanted this great discussion, and we wanted people to walk out knowing more people who care about the same topics, and we really feel that we succeeded.”
International Movements: Bolivia
Grassroots political change is happening much further afield too. Bolivians took matters into their own hands and elected their first indigenous president, Evo Morales, in 2005.
Morales became president after a series of social movements that mobilized the indigenous population of the country. And he handily won the election there in early December last year. Bolivia is an example of a participatory democracy. In December, 2009 Morales won two thirds of the Senate and a strong majority in the House. There was over 80 per cent voter turnout in the 2005 elections.
According to Elections Canada, the Canadian federal election in 2008 only saw 58.8 per cent voter turnout. The activist group Toronto Bolivia Solidarity is trying to change the way people in Canada look at government and democracy.
They sent a group to Bolivia in February of last year to cover the referendum that took place — and saw a change in their constitution allowing the indigenous people to have more power within the government. Raul Burbano is a member of Toronto Bolivia Solidarity. He will be travelling down south to document the political process surrounding the elections in December.
“We’ve seen the people and grassroots taking power, not through traditional institutions, through their own. The most interesting component is that it’s done peacefully. Non-violent through democratic means,” he said.
Burbano also wants Canadians to learn from the documentary his group will be producing and be motivated to participate more in their own political process.
“I think Canadians can learn a lot from the concept of participatory democracy,” he said. “We see a political apathy not just by Canadians, it’s a phenomenon that’s taking place in the North because people don’t trust political parties, they don’t feel that there is an alternative,” he added.
Bolivians are taking the democratic into their own hands to effect change. Evo Morales came to power as an opposition leader who spoke out against the United States. He gained a significant amount of power in 2002 after the U.S. ambassador to Bolivia told Bolivians that a vote for Morales meant that aid from the United States would be put in jeopardy, said Jose Antonio Lucero, an assistant professor of International Studies at the Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington in Seattle.
There are critics of Evo Morales out there, Lucero said, but their criticisms will not be enough to remove him from power.
“In a country that is as polarized as Bolivia is right now even indigenous folks who have their critiques aren’t about to abandon him for folks who are opposing him,” Lucero said.
It turns out Lucero was right. Evo was re-elected on December 6, with 63 per cent of the vote.
Katie Atkinson, Andrea Damiano, Shannon Kelley, Conal Pierse and Alana Power are students in the MA Journalism program at the University of Western Ontario in London, Ontario.