Activists take heart: Twenty years of making a difference


(This comprises the talk I was going to give at Under the Volcano but was unable to. I’ve added onto it a bit, mainly the intro, given the lack of constraints on time in print.)

So, a few weeks ago, I got an email from Meegan of UTV-organizing fame asking me if I would do a 20-year retrospective piece for the “People’s History” series at Under the Volcano. At first I thought, who me? I’m not nearly old enough to do a 2-decade retrospective…. but then again…. In any case, I wasn’t sure exactly what I would say given our present state, both in terms of movement politics as well as the darkness that we face socially and ecologically. I had just finished Bill McKibben’s book Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet, and while I found it incredibly motivating, it didn’t exactly leave me hopeful about our ability to transcend our ecological plight and move forward. What was I going to get up and say exactly – we’ve tried for all this time but failed? It’s too late?

In this year’s final UTV guide, I published a poem called “Lessons and Inspiration” which I drew from over a dozen activists who gave me input into the lessons they have learned over their years organizing for social and environmental justice. You can see it here. I was thinking along these lines at the outset, you see, and in the process reminded myself of all the amazing people I’ve worked with over the years and why I thought their work had really made a difference to me and to the people they have activated and supported over the years.

And somehow finally, while I was preparing these notes a couple of weeks ago, I was coincidentally reading the extended essay Hope In The Dark, which I think is a really important read for activists in these difficult times. What moved me in particular about her work is the suggestion that as people shooting for the stars, activists are often disappointed if we only get the moon – that we need a better metric for assessing the impacts we make in the world, the role that activism fulfills in society.

In her opening paragraphs she writes:

“On January 18, 1915, six months into the First World War, as all Europe was convulsed by killing and dying, Virginia Woolf wrote in her journal, “The future is dark, which is on the whole, the best thing the future can be, I think.” Dark, she seems to be saying, as in inscrutable, not as in terrible. We often mistake the one for the other. Or we transform the future’s unknowability into something certain, the fulfillment of all our dread, the place beyond which there is no way forward. But again and again, far stranger things happen than the end of the world.

Who, two decades ago, could have imagined a world in which the Soviet Union had vanished and the Internet had arrived? Who then dreamed that the political prisoner Nelson Mandela would become president of a transformed South Africa? Who foresaw the resurgence of the indigenous world of which the Zapatista uprising in southern Mexico is only the most visible face? Who, four decades ago could have conceived of the changed status of all who are nonwhite, nonmale, nonstraight, the wide-open conversations about power, nature, economies, and ecologies?

There are times when it seems that not only the future but the present is dark: few recognize what a radically transformed world we live in, one that has been transformed not only by such nightmares of global warming and global capital, but by dreams of freedom and of justice – and transformed by things we could not have dreamed of. We adjust to changes without measuring them, we forget how much the culture has changed. The US Supreme Court ruled in favour of gay rights on a grand scale last summer, a ruling inconceivable a few decades ago. What accretion of imperceptible, incremental changes made that possible and how did they come about? And so we need to hope for the realization of our own dreams, but also to recognize a world that will remain wilder than our imaginations.”

Solnit, in eloquent prose, speaks to the question of how we measure change, how we continue to hope, how we keep moving on with the lessons from the past informing our future – and in doing so, looks at five pivotal moments in US activism and their bigger picture contributions that may have been overlooked in the moment.

I liked her message, and I liked that approach, so for the remainder of this essay (talk), I am going to examine five pivotal moments in the last twenty years of BC activism that have had profound effects, and should be celebrated at this last Under the Volcano. At the same time, I don’t want to paint a pollyannish picture because none of the following struggles are “over” in that struggle never achieves everything it wants. But I think it is crucial to recognize our victories mid-way. We need to realize that although the struggle is never-ending, without it the world would likely be even darker than it is.

The five pivotal moments I have chosen in historical order are the Clayoquot Sound Logging Protests (1993), Gustafsen Lake (1995), Anti-APEC Protest (1997), HEU/General Strike Movement (2004), and the February 14th Women’s Memorial Marchs (1991-continuing).

Clayoquot Sound Logging Protests – 1993

What was it: In the summer of 1993, thousands of people gathered in Clayoquot Sound to protect the old-growth rainforest, in what would become one of the defining environmental protests since the establishment of Earth Day in 1970. The protestors’ massive act of civil disobedience, accomplished by road blockades, resulted in the largest mass arrest in Canadian history (until the G-20); and incredibly, the largest mass trial in British common law. More than 900 people – students, artists, business people, clerics, parents and grandparents, were jailed for, “asserting public ownership over resources which, under Canadian law, are owned by all Canadians, but, in historical practice, were treated as the personal fiefdoms of a few giant timber companies.” (Robert F. Kennedy Jr.)

What was important about it: The blockades and the following market-based campaigns against purchasing products made from old-growth wood from BC had significant impacts on industrial logging practices – and for the first time, real attention was brought to the destructive practice of clearcutting. In 2000, Clayoquot Sound was designated a UN biosphere reserve which has added weight to the agrument for preservation but conferred no protection. In the larger sense this protest serves as a powerful example of the collective vision of the people applied to action and the articulation of a (what was new at the time), global paradigm of sustainability, healthy ecosystems and communities over private profit alone. It’s also important to remember that Clayoquot Sound was the culmination of a decade of protests in the Sound and along the West Coast of the Island. The Meares Island protests (’83), as well as the fight for the Carmanah Valley (late eighties) and the Walbran were important in building the discussion and the struggle leading up to this particular flashpoint.

Why it’s not over: Today, the Sound is threatened by industrial logging as well as salmon farming and even a proposed open pit copper mine on Catface Mountain.

Gustafsen Lake – 1995

What was it: In June 1995, people from the Secwepemc and other indigenous people began an occupation of sacred Sun Dance lands at Ts’Peten, known as Gustafsen Lake in English, located at the head of Dog Creek, near 100 Mile House. The occupation at Ts’Peten followed a long history of attempts to gain recognition of Secwepemc sovereignty by the Canadian Government, and indigenous rights to unceded lands in BC.

The standoff began when a previous arrangement from 1989 to hold sun dances on Crown Land under the jurisdiction of rancher Lyall James broke down. Considered a spiritually important place by Percy Rosette and other sundancers, Gustafsen Lake became a site of occupation by aboriginal people who wished to continue holding annual sun dances in addition to asserting indigenous rights to the land which had never been ceded in treaty. The conflict reached a head when the sundancers erected a fence to keep out James’ cattle, which were ruining the site, and James and his cowboys attacked the camp before calling in the RCMP.

Rather than entering into honest negotiations, the RCMP launched the largest paramilitary operation in BC history which cost $5.5 million dollars. Fourteen indigenous and four non-native people were charged following the siege, fifteen of whom were found guilty and sentenced to jail terms ranging from six months to eight years.

What was important about it: Gustafsen Lake was an important flashpoint in aboriginal struggle during a time in which treaty negotiations were largely stalled in the province, and aboriginal demands for justice were often ignored outside of native communities. This standoff exposed the limitations inherent in the fight for land-treaties and galvanized many young urban activists – aboriginal and non-aboriginal around the question of indigenous rights, treaties, and historic injustice – and organizations such as the Native Youth Movement grew directly out of this moment of resistance. Gustafsen Lake lives on in the memory of the province and is routinely referred to in the ongoing struggle to assert aboriginal rights in BC.

Why it’s not over: Calls for a public inquiry into the Gustafsen Lake standoff have gone unheeded by the federal and provincial governments since the events of 1995. As the current struggle to protect Fish Lake in Tsilhqot’in territory demonstrates, the struggle to protect sacred hunting, fishing, and ceremonial grounds continues in BC unabated. Real challenges to the questions of hunting and fishing rights have still not been addressed for many aboriginal bands in BC, and where treaties are being signed, historic rights to access are often curtailed. Urban indigenous people are often left landless and without sufficient supports after decades of neglect by colonial governments. There is obviously much work to be done, as I will note in the final example in this talk.

APEC Protest 1997

What was it: Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) is a trade body like the WTO or G-20 which is comprised of 21 Pacific Rim countries – also known as “Member Economies” – to promote regional trade and investment liberalisation (always at the expense of public programs and spending). In 1997, Vancouver was chosen as the site for the annual APEC Leaders meeting, and several sites were chosen for summit meetings, including UBC (at the invitation of UBC President David Strangway). Among the summit attendees were to be the presidents of Indonesia, China and the United States, all controversial figures accused of extreme human rights abuses.

Anti-APEC organizing took place for many months leading up to the event, and included a series of protests, a People’s Summit, and many educational forums. In particular, many student-lead groups came together around UBC to criticize the involvement of the university in the Summit – but all sectors, labour, environmental and social were engaged in the preparations for fight back.

During the actual summit, there were a series of protests which lead up to the November 25th day of action at the university where students and other protesters challenged police roadblocks at one of the campus gates. A rather poorly constructed fence came down during the demonstration and rather than non-violently de-escalate the protests, the RCMP chose to pepper-spray the crowd with backpacks akin to super-soakers. During the ensuing scuffle, about sixty people were arrested, some voluntarily “crossing the line” in order to protest their exclusion from the summit zone.

Following the protests, a variety of legal actions were initiated, including a call for an inquiry into the RCMP’s behaviour and the role the PMO’s office had in directing the RCMP actions. Serious charges were levelled at the RCMP and the PMO for their role in the suppression of free speech and other civil rights. A follow-up demonstration at the Hyatt in December of 1998 was dubbed the “Riot at the Hyatt” following a police riot that left several people beaten with batons, some requiring medical attention.

What was important about it: Hard to believe now – but the Anti-APEC protests were some of the first notable anti-globalization protests in North America, preceding the WTO which followed two years later, and the FTAA demonstrations in Quebec in 2001. The movement around APEC and the subsequent demand for an inquiry was broad-based and created connections in the local community between a variety of different organizations. The government of the day was exposed for its callous disregard for human rights, and has been forever tainted by the inquiry which followed. Additionally, scores of activists in Vancouver were trained over a long period of time in legal intervention and media work as a result of the inquiry.

Why it’s not over: G-20, need I say more?

HEU Strike (General Strike Movement) – April/May 2004

What was it: In 2002, B.C.’s Liberal government arbitrarily eliminated key job security provisions in HEU’s collective agreement with the passage of Bill 29, the Health and Social Services Delivery Improvement Act. This legislation allowed health authorities to layoff thousands of health care support workers, without cause, and privatize their work. These newly-privatized jobs reduced wages and eliminated previously hard-won benefits.

In April of 2004, HEU members at BC hospitals went on strike when negotiations for a new collective agreement broke down. Rather than go back to the bargaining table the government introduced Bill 37, nasty piece of back-to-work legislation which ordered an end to the strike, cut their wages by 15 percent, and refused to guarantee against layoffs through privatization of services. The back-to-work portion of the bill wasn’t a new thing, but the legislation of dramatic wage rollbacks in ordering people back to work certainly was, and many people reacted with outrage as the fight ramped up April 29th, feeding a nascent general strike movement and rally of more than 10,000 people in Vancouver on May 1st. A day of general strike was called for May 3rd, but was never achieved due to a sell-out on the part of the labour bureaucracy who agreed to call off the protests in exchange for some paltry concessions on the part of government. HEU in turn received support from the labour movement in taking forward a challenge on Bill 2002 which resulted in the historic ruling of 2007 making collective bargaining rights a Charter Right in Canadian Law. (This history taken from the HEU website)

What was important about it: What is really key about this whole period, right up through the illegal strike of teachers in 2005 is that a whole wave of wildcat strike activity took place all over the province in a show of defiance to the BC Liberal agenda. It was a reminder that a general strike is still a real possibility in BC if not held back, and that working people are a key constituency despite the anti-worker rhetoric of provincial and federal governments. On June 8, 2007, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled key sections of Bill 29 to be unconstitutional under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. After a five-year court challenge and months of negotiations, a $75 million compensation package was established for members impacted by the legislation. And for the first time in history, free collective bargaining is now a charter-protected right for all workers across Canada.

Why it’s not over:
Neo-liberal anti-worker, anti-union, anti-public services agenda at both provincial and federal levels. The failure of the general strike demonstrates the importance of developing independent worker-driven resistance in the face of government cut-backs rather than reliance on political parties such as the NDP or the leadership of the labour movement.

February 14th Women’s Memorial March – 1991-2010

What is/was it: In January 1991 a woman was murdered on Powell Street in Vancouver. Her name is not spoken today out of respect for the wishes of her family. After decades of violence against women in the community, this woman’s murder in particular was the catalyst that moved women into action. Thus, an annual march on Valentine’s Day was created to express compassion, community, and caring for all women in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.

Nineteen years later, the march continues to honour the lives of missing and murdered women. Increasing deaths of many vulnerable women from the DTES still leaves family, friends, loved ones, and community members with an overwhelming sense of grief and loss. Over 3000 women are known to have gone missing or been murdered in Canada since the 1970s.

In 2010, in the shadow the Olympics, the largest-ever women’s memorial march took place, a growing reminder of the vulnerability of women in our communities – particularly those from marginalized and racialized backgrounds. It’s criminal that in Canada young Indigenous women are five times more likely than other women of the same age to die as the result of violence.

What is/was important about it: The organizing of women in the DTES over the past twenty years is a shining example of strength, patience and perseverance in the face of uncaring city councils and brutal chiefs of police. When I hung around these streets in my late teens there were whispers of women going missing, and when I moved back to Vancouver fifteen years ago the VPD was denying some of the missing had ever existed. If not for the ongoing work of women leaders in the community, many of whom with their own difficult histories, the BC Missing Women Investigation would have never been launched, and the Pickton trial would have likely never happened. This march, and other actions, have aided in turning the public eye towards the DTES and its most vulnerable people. It’s hard to overstate just how much of a difference this organizing has made to the lives of marginalized women, long treated as prey or a problem in the city’s urban core.

Why it’s not over: Since the seventies, thousands of women in Canada have gone missing or are the victims of unsolved murders. Hundreds of these women are aboriginal and their cases have largely been ignored by the authorities and the media, further marginalizing the young women coming up in our society who see the lack of value placed on their lives. A public inquiry into the mishandling of the Pickton case and the VPD refusal to acknowledge missing women in Vancouver for more than a decade is still being called for by families of the missing and murdered. There is also a national campaign (Stolen Sisters) for a federal inquiry into the status of missing and murdered aboriginal women in Canada. If women, particularly aboriginal women, in Canada are to receive justice – these are important calls to honour and work towards.

Point being – in each of these cases, a small group of people came together hoping to make a point, to make change. To have a demonstration, to stop logging, to bring attention, to resist further colonial appropriation. In some cases, it was a very small group – such as Gustafsen Lake which only was comprised of a couple dozen people. But each of these actions, has had resounding impacts on the way we think about our province, on the way we think about our activism and attempts to make change. So even in a case like Gustafsen Lake which had negative implications for many of the participants who went to jail, the overall contribution to the struggle has been positive. We simply don’t know all the effects of our actions when we take them – whether this action will be the spark that pushes forward a fundamental change, or whether it will simply contribute to the incremental movement towards greater ecological and social justice. It’s with this hope that we continue, while acknowledging all that we have to look back on and be proud of.

If we can make it another twenty years, working together, just think of how much more we can do.

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