Chants of “Harper, don’t be a jerk, get your ass back to work!” and “Harper, au travail!” were heard as demonstrators gathered before the locked doors of Parliament to decry Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s decision to prorogue Parliament.
Over 4,000 protesters descended on Parliament Hill last Saturday, joining another 500 in Montreal and 22,500 more in 60 cities across the country and as far as Tiananmen Square in an international day of protest. They called for their Members of Parliament (MPs) to return to work on January 25, waving Canadian flags and placards reading “Stop Torture, Not Parliament,” and “This Is What Democracy Looks Like.” The rallies were the culmination of weeks of organization by local volunteers and coordinated through the Facebook group Canadians Against Proroguing Parliament.
The decision, on March 3, to suspend Parliament for the second time in a year killed all government bills currently under review in the House of Commons and halted committee sessions. The prime minister’s office has stated that the government requires more time to finalize the federal budget. But opposition parties and other critics have denounced the move as a ploy to disrupt an inquiry into the government’s involvement in the torture of Afghan detainees.
Speaking at the Ottawa rally, Errol Mendes, a human rights lawyer and professor at the University of Ottawa, called the unprecedented action “an insult to democracy.” He also accused the prime minister of using prorogation power to deflect “one of the most serious allegations that this government, or any government has ever faced: the possibility of complicity in war crimes for the transfer of detainees to torture.”
Among the several important bills that died was a landmark piece of legislation dealing with women’s property rights on First Nations reserves. It was introduced in Parliament last year after decades of legal uncertainty on the issue of matrimonial real property. Aboriginal rights activist and former Canadian Human Rights Commission employee Pamela Tabobondung told The Daily that for her, the rally was not just about the prorogation but about more fundamental issues with the Harper government’s failure to listen to Canadians.
“What [Stephen Harper] is doing [by] shutting down Parliament is undermining the will of the people and First Nations rights,” she said. “It’s been a hundred years that we’ve tried to advance Aboriginal rights in Canada but it’s not happening.”
Representatives from the main opposition parties were in attendance at the rallies, and praised Canadians for showing pride in their democratic institutions.
NDP leader Jack Layton had harsh words for the prime minister, drawing a parallel between Harper and King Charles I, the seventeenth-century English monarch whose attempted prorogation of Parliament cost him his head.
“I want to be crystal clear on the following point: I am not advocating, nor will I advocate the decapitation of anyone. We have elections to prosecute such indiscretions,” he added, drawing cheers from the crowd.
Speaking in Ottawa, Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff alluded to skepticism that support from the strong online movement would not materialize on the day of the protest.
“This was a demonstration that the pundits said would not happen. This is a demonstration that, frankly, many politicians didn’t think would happen,” he said. “This is a demonstration that shows that Canadians understand their democracy, care for their democracy, and if necessary, will fight for it.”
Elisabeth May, the leader of the Green Party, also spoke at the rally and MP Mario Laframboise spoke on behalf of the Bloc Québecois. Gilles Duceppe, the leader of the Bloc, attended the Montreal rally. Conservative Party representatives declined to respond to invitations to participate, according to protest organizers.
The prime minister’s office has not yet given an official response to the protests.
Christopher White, a graduate student from Edmonton, started the Facebook group after Harper’s December 30 announcement, to encourage others to write to their MPs to demand that they return to work on January 25. The group, which now has close to 220,000 members, attracted as many as 10,000 new members per day in the weeks leading up to the rallies.
White said the movement would never have been successful without an outpouring of grassroots support from communities across Canada.
“What’s really great about [about the movement] is that it is decentralized; I am only the Facebook administrator. There’s a lot of infrastructure at the local levels,” White said. “I think if this issue is to be sustained, we have to keep it going at the local level.”
Montreal rally coordinator Matthew Angelus said he was astonished that 60 volunteers attended the first meeting. It was decided that the Montreal chapter would remain non-partisan and not accept funds from any group or individual. The open nature of the group was apparent on the day of the rally.
“[The rally] transcended linguistic lines. There were many different ethnic groups and different ages,” said Angelus.
The Liberals were the first opposition party to acknowledge the demands of the massive online movement, and declared they would be at work in Ottawa on January 25. The NDP announced more recently that they will put forward legislation to limit the prorogation power of the prime minister.
White believes that his Facebook group is a forum for debate and unifying force for all Canadians, regardless of their political views.
“I like the fact that that this issue has really transcended partisan lines. I think that people do recognize that this is not an issue of left or right,” White told The Daily. “I’ve been getting a lot of positive feedback from people who voted Conservative, or have never voted or been involved before.”
White and other organizers are optimistic that this experience with cyber-activism will have a positive impact on other forms of political action in Canada.
“I think this issue is going to change things in the future. The next time there is a political manifestation it will be compared to this and the ‘real world effects’ we’ve had as well,” said White.
He explained that as Canada’s political norms evolve, the debate around prorogation is forcing people, like himself, to consider new ideas.
“One of the things I have noticed is that a lot of people are talking about the coalition again,” said White. “Honestly, I was one of the few [people] who weren’t supportive of the coalition but now I’m starting to reimagine and rethink how democracy works in Canada.”
Tabobondung also told The Daily that she hopes cyber-activism will usher in a new era of grassroots political action and engagement, especially for politically isolated youth.
“I think one of the challenges is that Canada is so wide and so vast. [But] Facebook has allowed us to network, to be in one place, to stand in solidarity. The key thing is reaching out to kids on Facebook, and getting the youth involved,” she said.
In the original version of this article, The Daily originally stated that the number of protesters were 7,000. The number was in fact 27,000. The Daily regrets the error.