I took action in the Senate because I could no longer sit idly by while our government compromised the well-being of Canadians and my generation. Their agenda is perpetuating massive injustice as it cuts public jobs and services, degrades our environment, and facilitates the rise of the top 1 per cent while unemployment and poverty increase. Youth are given no guarantees — of a decent job, or of a healthy environment in the future. This is especially the case for those who society marginalizes the most, including by class, race, gender, immigration status, and sexual orientation. Despite inflation being quite low in the past couple of years, the cost of living is always rising, making it harder and harder for the average person to get by.
The majority of Canadians are against the Conservative austerity agenda. But this agenda continues to be pushed forward without significant, national, concerted opposition against it — yet.
The youth-led uprisings across the world that are challenging elites offer us ideas for re-imagining democracy, and hope for making democracy work for us by using people power.
Uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt overthrew authoritarian leaders. Fifty thousand students protested tuition fees in London. Young people in Greece have been occupying Syntagma Square since June. In Chile, 100,000 youth rose up and seized 300 schools with the goal of rebuilding the country’s broken education system. What began with a dozen students in New York, has incited occupations in every direction, including south to Oakland with a massive general strike and north to Canada with the occupations of dozens of parks and even of banks. These have become models of collective indignation and action. They have disproved accusations of an apathetic generation long held over our heads.
There are common veins throughout the protests: frustration at the appalling wealth and power concentrated in the hands of the few at the expense of the many; the refusal to let politicians throw away our futures; and the taking of matters into our own hands. While with the Occupy movement in particular, the message on placards is mostly about re-inventing our economic system, the way they are organizing to have this message heard, by coming together in the streets with an intensity not seen in decades, embodies the beginning of a re-creation of democracy we so urgently need.
What can Canadian progressives learn from global youth movements? Below are four key ways forward.
1. Create and support autonomous spaces and movements
Youth-driven autonomous movements across the globe are giving us the space to freely articulate and create new, independent visions.
Youth are showing us how to create autonomous and collective spaces of resistance, ones that are separate from the free market and the state. For example, with the Occupations in Toronto, Vancouver, and other major cities in Canada, youth have set up encampments in parks. They are not part of a particular organization, but have organized independently. Young people have created committees and hold general assemblies to discuss and plan the maintenance of these spaces and methods of resistance to the corporate agenda.
Creating autonomous spaces is so important because many of our institutions are increasingly plagued by corporate interests that are at odds with our best interests. For example, in Canada, the corporate lobby for extractive industry props up the Conservative government while the Conservative government pays them back with enormous subsidies and the expansion of extractive projects. This highlights the importance of creating and supporting autonomous spaces. With these spaces, we are free to propose alternatives that are not covered by elite fingerprints.
2. Understand and leverage our power through direct action and community organizing
By coming together en masse, these youth movements understand and show that our power comes from joining together.
Progressives in Canada can learn from this. The reason why we creep back to the state and corporations is because they have power, for example the power to raise money through taxes. But we derive power in a different way. We will never have the money or resources that the state or corporations do. We won’t beat the government at their game. We’ll beat them when we join together and take collective direct action.
That is not to say that government is irrelevant or to be ignored. Quite the opposite. We need to confront them head on, which can only be done through community organizing. And when the governments are failing us? We need to become a force so strong that the government has no choice but to listen to us. One recent example, was the deftly organized campaign against fracking for gas extraction in Quebec. It included a march that drew out hundreds of people across the province, and the Quebec government ultimately ceded to the demands of protesters and have agreed to a two-year moratorium.
3. Support non-hierarchical structures
With the state and corporations, power is rooted in an attitude of dominance, and operates from the top-down in a hierarchical way with little movement. But we are re-inventing democracy with non-hierarchical decision-making processes, such as the consensus-based model seen in many general assemblies happening across Canada. Some of the general assemblies we see with Occupy movements, are models for the kinds of democratic governance structures we want to see: consensus-based, inclusive, and non-hierarchical.
4. Take matters into our own hands through collective direct action
Democracy is all about agency. Young people are refusing to be subjects of a broken system, and are instead becoming agents of change by taking direct action — from occupations, to banner drops from the leaning Tower of Pisa, to marches, to strikes.
The youth movement shows us that democracy is a living breathing force where everyone can voice their thoughts, not just neo-conservative Harpers, and where everyone’s views count, not just politicians’.
A major barrier that we face in collective action is that our society is set up in a way that facilitates our narrow participation in a western liberal democracy, instead of in social movements and in direct action. Our institutions, including our schools, train us to be obedient citizens when what we need are responsible dissenters. We need fewer bureaucrats, and more community organizers.
We are not encouraged to question the status quo, and certainly not to engage in direct action. And when we do, we face sanctions.
To counterbalance this, more of us need to join together to make direct action something that is celebrated — and a habit. No one should be denouncing direct action, including politicians. Instead, politicians should be accountable to movements and support them. This is possible. In Bolivia, for example, the government and social movements work closely together. A recent illustration of this is when government chose not to approve a highway plan that would run through the territory of an Indigenous group after they protested against it.
In addition, we need to build capacity so that our direct action is strategic and effective. We need to create spaces for people to learn the science and art of direct action — including non-violent direct action campaign strategy, consensus-based decision making, direct action theory, media training, etc. The general strike in Oakland was partly possible because it is a hub of community organizers, with non-violent direct action groups like Rukus converging there. We need more training and education programs in the theory and practice of direct action.
Still, the best way to learn is by doing, for example by drafting strategies and taking action. Everything we don’t know, we’ll learn. In this process of experimentation, it is extremely important to be aware of the results, take them into account, and incorporate lessons learned for next time we act — this is praxis.
While we have yet to see substantive, concerted opposition to the Harper government’s war and austerity agenda, the good news is our counterforce is gaining momentum. Social movements in Canada have been building capacity, with increasing intersections between movements. Since Harper’s election, we have seen a surge of collective action, including civil disobedience against the proposed Keystone XL Pipeline where hundreds of people risked arrest and which culminated this week in the U.S. government postponing the scheme until at least 2013.
When I took action in the Senate in June, deeply inspired by the young people who created the Arab Spring, I had no idea of what was to come just a few months later. Like so many Canadians, I dreamed something like the Arab Spring would take shape in Canada. Little did I know that come autumn, with occupations and protests springing up across the continent, the mood of change from Arab Spring would soon make its way across the world for North America’s own spring. When people, not just elites, take back power and gain influence, we re-invent the possibility of a livable planet where all can live well with sane relations between humans and earth — of policies and systems by and for us. By not only re-imagining democracy, but actively practicing it, we are re-inventing what is possible.
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.