Chorus of Dissent

What comes to mind when the word “activist” is spoken? Often, it’s likely to be thoughts of radical hippies, violent anarchists, and left-wing dreamers…

Calgarians have long adopted this negative stereotype as their view of those who fight for social justice. However, the activist community in Calgary may not be quite what you think it is.

“It’s certainly not the best name to have tacked to you, but hopefully, we can change that,” says Julie Hrdlicka, the Office Co-ordinator for The Canadian Network to End Sanctions on Iraq (CANESI). “In North America, it’s got that stigma.”

That stigma is not as predominant elsewhere in the world. From this widely accepted label of activism come a few problems that activists must deal with. Gordon Christie of the Calgary and District Labour Council, who helped organize the Feb. 15 anti-war rally along with CANESI, is a veteran activist who sees them regularly. Many techniques have been used to slow him down. They include the occasional reluctance of the police to co-operate, stalling tactics at City Hall, or raising the costs of liability insurance to unusually high levels.

“I don’t think we have ever agreed on anything,” says Christie of Calgary Mayor Dave Bronconnier.

For Dr. David Swann, it went even further when he found out first-hand of the dangers of speaking out in support of the Kyoto Accord. He was fired from his position as medical officer for the Palliser Health Region for expressing the unpopular opinion.

The activist stigma clearly exists in our city, but why is this the case? In a democracy that thrives on the ability to make a difference, on the willingness to participate actively, and on the recognition that every voice counts, why are local activists continuously marginalized?

This question is commonly answered by expressing discontent with the media’s portrayal of activists. Due to the stereotypes mentioned earlier, some activists feel they do not get the fair representation they feel they deserve. This complaint is supported by looking at the coverage of the global peace protests that took place Feb. 15.

CNN’s coverage of these protests claimed, “hundreds of thousands of people around the world [voiced] opposition to war in Iraq.” This was reported when, in reality, over a million people protested in Rome, three quarters of a million in London, and protests with over one hundred thousand participants took place in Berlin, Paris, Madrid, Barcelona, New York, Montreal, and other major cities. Coverage of the potential war dominated coverage of the global peace rallies that day.

“War sells, I guess,” laments Dr. Swann.

By down playing the number of protestors, CNN helped perpetuate the feeling that only a few people are against a war in Iraq. As opposition to the war grows, the lack of representative coverage disappoints many activists. Burying articles in the back pages of newspapers has the exact same effect.

The media’s ability to distort reality is also a frustration for the activist community. Carolyn Reicher, a co-founder of Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan, talks about living in a “sound-bite” world where complex issues get drastically shortened. For example, the plight of Afghan women was often boiled down to having to cover their entire bodies in public. However, people who speak to these women will find out that “access to health care, education, financial opportunities, and mental health care” are more urgent concerns.

Despite these obstacles, activists are still optimistic about the possibility of accomplishing something significant through their actions. Every activist I spoke to had faith that their voices and actions could contribute to solving the problems they feel particularly attached to. As Dr. Swann notes, “I have to believe my voice can make a difference.”

The ways in which activists can change the world are numerous. Seeking to educate oneself is undoubtedly a valuable tool and is the first step toward activism. Being able to fully understand a complex issue beyond commonly held beliefs is vital to successful activism. This requires the willingness to look at the issue from various angles and to challenge socially accepted norms that have become ingrained in the community’s consciousness.

The next step toward effective activism requires looking for people who share common beliefs, and employ methods to accomplish a common goal. Creativity and wit are often good ways to get an otherwise disinterested audience to pay attention. For example, two favourite signs at the Feb. 15 rally were “Stop Mad Cowboy Disease,” and a close-up of a Tolkien style ring on President Bush’s finger with a caption reading “Frodo has failed, Dubya has the ring.”

Actual activist methods include the traditional approaches such as letter writing, contributing to or joining activist groups, protesting, and phone calls to government officials. Yet there are many other ways people can go about it. From simply discussing the issue with people who know little about it to attending documentary nights or organizing an activity that will get the word out, all actions have the potential to make a difference.

Based on people I have spoken to and personal experience, it is clear the most important feature of activism is education. Most activists are thoroughly knowledgeable on their field and are more than willing to debate, discuss and share knowledge with any interested participants. All the organized activists I spoke to had at least one university degree.

Seeking to educate yourself is undeniably important. When the September 11 attacks took place, many people began to realize how little they knew of the world around them.

“It was an event that has made people open their eyes, open their minds,” says Hrdlicka.

This event also took place at a time when protesting became more commonplace than it was in the decades since Vietnam. In the interim period, activism declined significantly.

Once protests began to resurface with causes like environmentalism, globalization and the peace movement leading the way, activists staged significant opposition to specific policies. This culminated in massive rallies like those in Seattle, Prague, Quebec City and other summits around the world.

The rise of the activist movement has been noted in Calgary too. Reicher says, “we are very safe in the way we approach things.” Despite this conservative demeanour, more and more Calgarians are getting involved.

Christie remembers the Gulf War protests in 1991, “we got 20, 30, 40 people.” That is a far cry from the nearly 5,000 protestors who attended the recent peace rally, and the thousands who came to the G8 protests.

It cannot be seen as a coincidence that the rise of activism has occurred simultaneously with a destabilization of the political arena. However, the increased participation still ignites hope for Calgary activists who have feared for a long time that they would remain lost in the margins.

The growth of youth activism is another positive sign for the movement. The willingness of people under the age of 25 to get involved is rising sharply and the older activists are happy to see the change.

With this renewed hope, activists are confident they can achieve their goals. Dr. Swann likes to point out that the current peace movement might be able, for the first time in history, to stop a war before it happens.

The United Nations has estimated the American military plan will kill over one hundred thousand people and saving these lives would be seen as an undeniable success to the people in the activist community.

Significant accomplishments like these have been realized in the past. From the removal of an Apartheid government in South Africa, to the ban on land mines, the ability to achieve large scale success through activism is clear. As Dr. Swann puts it, “these were big steps that began with little steps.”

In the end, and despite everything they must overcome, Calgary’s activists seem unapologetically happy with what they do.

“I have a job that I truly love and enjoy,” says Christie.

Similar feelings were displayed by every activist that I spoke to, including Hrdlicka who summed it up best with her explanation of why she is an activist.

“I want my children to have a peaceful future.”

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