Naomi Klein threw down the gauntlet at her Eden Mills Writers Festival event last Saturday. In talking about the LEAP Manifesto, and ways of confounding the alt-right tilt of the world since the election of Donald Trump and the decision in the U.K. to “Brexit”, Klein said many communities are looking to make new strides in progressive social, economic, and environmental policies.
"Guelph is being out-radicaled by Peterborough," the author and journalist said, then on behalf of her partner, documentarian Avi Lewis, she asked, “Are you really going to stand for that?”
No, I will not stand for Peterborough being better in Guelph on anything. Peterborough is to Guelph what Shelbyville is Springfield. They build a mini-mall, we build a bigger mini-mall…
However, our non-existent rivalry with Peterborough is not the point, it’s the fact someone might think that Peterborough can out-activist Guelph on the left flank, and that should put us all to shame. A friend of mine describes Guelph as the “Berkley of Canada”, but I haven’t seen any rioting in the Royal City lately! Have you?!
Now considering one might face police scrutiny for suggesting in print that a riot should happen, let me just say, I’m not provoking Guelphites into a civil disturbance. It was a jest, sir and madame.
At the same time, it’s been a scratching nag in the back of my head for a while that Guelph has become far too passive for my liking. It’s understandable though. The last great burst of radical organizing was on the lands then-slated to become the Hanlon Creek Business Park in 2009, and the City literally SLAPPed the protest out of the people behind that disobedience.
SLAPP, or strategic lawsuit against public participation, is a deterrent method by which a government or corporation sues protestors for an obnoxiously huge sum as a way of telling any future agitators that they might end up paying through the nose if they get out their placards and chants in the future. The City of Guelph tried to sue five of the young organizers of Land Is More Important Than Sprawl (LIMITS) for $1 million each.
If that didn’t take the wind out of the sails of local activists, then the next year, when local groups were targeted, and in many cases entrapped, by the RCMP and other authorities in advance of the G20 meeting in Toronto, certainly did. Protesting had become a very expensive proposition.
Of course, protests haven’t stopped completely. Prime Minister Stephen Harper brought them out when he came to Guelph in 2011. He didn’t make that mistake again after robocalls. Coming to Guelph, I mean.
And earlier this year, there was a huge protest in front of Lloyd Longfield’s constituency office on Cork St. Hundreds came out to demand action on electoral reform, a promise made that many of those Guelphites that still stingingly remember the robocalls took very personally.
After that protest, everyone went home thinking “job well done”. A few months later though, Longfield voted with the Liberal caucus and the prime minister to not accept the recommendations of a special Commons committee on electoral reform, and the issue was effectively dead.
Now a couple of months ago, a group of area residents in the neighbourhoods next to the Lafarge lands stopped the removal of trees on the property as developers were moving the heavy equipment in. I remember walking down Silvercreek thinking, “Yes, here’s the taste of radical resistance I’ve been craving!” but the protest only lasted a day.
Like many protestors, demonstrating on a myriad of topics over the last few years, there was a sense of inevitable failure. Either you can’t fight city hall, or it was too little/too late, or there just wan’t enough hours in the day to get mad and stay mad.
Even at the top of the hill at the University of Guelph, it’s a good day if you get our 100 protestors to shout and wave for the cause. On a campus of over 20,000 undergrads, getting out 100 is a drop in a bucket, and not for nothing, but I’m still around campus often enough that it’s usually the same faces in the crowd no matter the issue.
The self-destruction of activist tendencies has been a part of every generation, the hippies became the yuppies, disaffected Gen Xers had to go into business for themselves, and Millennials were hands off with their activism from the word “Go” preferring the slacktivism of Change.org than literally standing for something…
Now that may all be a generalization, but you can’t deny that there’s some disgruntlement out there. Last week, this space was about members of the Canadian Union of Public Employees spoiling for a fight on privatization of garbage services, and Paul Clulow, president of CUPE 241, said to me that he wished the Guelph Civic League was still around, an outside force that stood for progressive ideals and knew how to organize and advocate.
Sadly, those days seem long gone. Even Grassroots Guelph, which established itself to be the anti-GCL, the right-wing Yellow Lanterns to the lefty Green Lantern Corps if you will, folded immediately after the last election after five out of 12 of the candidates they endorsed were elected to council.
Now part of of this is the election mindset, if ever we get political, it only seems to be in advanced of an election. But politics is a process, and it is never-ending.
Naomi Klein, at her talk mentioned above, also noted that it’s not good enough that the country has a prime minister that looks good as compared to, ahem, other people we could name. Those people generate a sense of smugness in we Canadians because we can collectively say that we did not elect such a figure to govern our country.
Which is exactly why such a figure was elected in the first place! Too many progressives rested on their laurels. I heard a couple of people marching with the ladies back in January in Washington who said that they thought electing the last president was the end of the story, when, in reality, it was halftime.
The fight never ends. It’s a marathon. You can take a break, but you’ve got to get right back into it once you’ve got your breath back. And I don’t care what your issue is (within reason) because public pressure is the one thing that can reliably change the the minds of our politicians en masse, or at least change enough minds to make a difference.
As Henry Ford once said, “Whether you think you can, or you think you can't--you're right.” And I happen to think we can be better radicals that Peterborough at least.