(Originally written for Root Issues in the Barrie Examiner)
Back in the late 60s and early 70s student protest about social issues was a constant presence. But by the time I entered high school and university in the 80s and 90s, the protest culture had reached its nadir. Not for my generation the sit-ins, teach-ins, and shutdowns. At Waterloo in the 90s, student focus was on getting good grades, good jobs, and having a good time (in that order). Sure, there was the odd demonstration, but it was not a pervasive part of student culture. I demonstrated against the 1989 Tiananmen massacre, but most of the other marchers were from the Chinese community. I marched against the launch of the Gulf War, but it didn't turn into a campaign - just an hour of walking and chanting. As I watched Mulroney and Chrétien vote together to send our (former) peacekeepers into a combat role and CF-18s flew bomb raids over Iraq, campus eyes focused on textbooks and computer screens.
Of course, students would occasionally rise to protest direct offence like a tuition hike, loss of a treasured lounge space, or blocking Internet porn from school computers. The LesBiGay community fought valiantly (and successfully) against pervasive homophobia. The "Womyn's Centre" fought the spectre of patriarchal oppression, with less visible effect. A remnant of hard-core leftists dominated national student organizations and campus newspapers and dreamed of socialist revolution. Beyond that, students just weren't involved beyond their own horizons.
Now the pendulum has swung back. The issue, overwhelmingly, is the future and whether it will be livable for human civilization. While entrenched corporate interests and their beholden governments dither and delay (with Canada the ultimate example), the planet lurches towards climatic catastrophe.
Young people, with the most to lose and the least invested in the old ways, are getting angry and getting active.
At a recent manufacturing conference at Ryerson University, this attitude was put into action right in front of me. Veteran union organizer and Ryerson professor Buzz Hargrove introduced a panel including Ontario's Minister of Economic Development & Trade Sandra Pupatello, John Galt, President of Canadian success story Husky Injection Molding, and Gordon Nixon, CEO of RBC. It was the last who drew the protesters' ire. Apparently RBC's green awards and programs don't measure up against $50 billion of RBC financing for tar sands development.
The protest itself was well-orchestrated. As Nixon began to speak, two students arose behind my left shoulder and unrolled a critical banner, carrying it to the front. Facing the audience and cameras, they made some statements before being escorted out (peacefully) by security. As the panel resumed, two more arose from the back with another banner which they marched to the front. Security again arrived for another peaceful exit, although one shouted that it was Nixon, not himself, who should be removed.
With eyes now peeled for banners, the tactic changed and one after another, students rose from the audience to denounce RBC's enviro-sins, with each waiting incognito until Nixon was due to speak again. The planning and organization were flawless, as everyone tensely waited for the next event to unfold. Even after it was all over the tension remained, and one of the student questioners had her microphone turned off when she mentioned the tar sands and green finance, even though she was not associated with the protest.
Although the event was filmed for Rogers TV and the Business News Network, I doubt that part will ever see broadcast. I also doubt the students won over any new supporters from the audience of economists and industry reps, nor have they changed Gordon Nixon's mind or his plans for RBC. So, the effect of this protest can really only be to inspire and energize the participants to do still more.
On Oct. 24 , tens of thousands of Canadians took part in over 150 events nationwide for the International Day of Climate Action. Three thousand massed on Parliament Hill, 5,000 in Vancouver, thousands at Queen's Park (and a few dozen, including me, in Craighurst). The young, Canada's future, were well represented. But this global event received minimal media attention in Canada. In frustration, some passionate young participants took their message to the House of Commons visitors' gallery and were forcibly ejected, to much ballyhoo. And MPs dither.
More recently in the run-up to the UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, a series of sit-ins have been staged in the offices of Conservative MPs Jim Prentice, John Baird, Rona Ambrose, Jim Flaherty, Andrew Saxton and Gary Lunn. Peaceful protesters demanding to be heard have been arrested and removed. Greenpeace activists scaled the House of Commons to occupy the roof and hang banners. The lights were on, but was anyone home?
In this day of corporate media ownership and political spin, protest seems to have diminished effectiveness.
What makes MPs really sit up and take notice is the risk of losing their jobs. Those who truly want to change things can continue to demonstrate, but must also get active in electoral politics.
Rather than being thrown out of the House of Commons, get elected in. Elections are no longer a once-in-four-years ritual of re-electing a dictatorial false majority. Today's minority governments and frequent elections can empower a concerned public, if they grasp the opportunity.
On the scale of effective activity, apathy is of course the worst. "Slactivism" -signing online petitions, or joining Facebook groups - is not a whole lot better. Demonstration can certainly raise awareness, but awareness itself doesn't fix the world. The surest way to change society is to find the party or candidates that best reflect your views, then work hard during elections to see that they win.
Your help in volunteer hours or money can make a real difference. Lower contribution limits have helped to level the playing field, while poor voter turnout means that every vote cast counts double. For young people it may seem a slow process, but they have the most time over which to make the greatest impact.
For others, the futility of "strategically" trying to vote someone out of office is exceeded only by that of staying out of the process altogether, so take your cause to the polls and demand to be heard. Positive action to change the faces of power - by putting new people there, not just rotating the same old government and opposition - is within our grasp, if we but reach out for it. By engaging effectively, you not only speak to the government; you become it.
Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is a teacher, father, volunteer, and politician.