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Rise up, Canada! But not over a hockey game.

June 22, 2011

Little over a month ago, as my fellow Canadians re-elected a federal government that had defended a minister who had altered government documents after their signing (and then lied about it), and that then, for unrelated reasons, had been found to be in contempt of parliament, I wondered:

What would it take to make Canadians rise up and demonstrate?

I know that much has been written this past week about the hockey riots in Vancouver, and I think that anyone who has paid any attention to them has experienced a range of emotions.

My initial feelings – as I watched the riots live on streaming internet – were of shame and disgust. But by the following day, my disgust was tinged with irony. I’ve wanted to see my fellow Canadians take to the streets, to demonstrate make a stand – for the environment, or against a federal government that protects lying cabinet ministers, for anything that matters.

But when they finally do, it is over a hockey game.

It’s been a year of protest around the world. Demonstrations that began in Greece a year ago are on-going. 2011 began with the Arab Spring, sparked by the street vendor in Tunisia who had had enough of his government’s injustices and corruption. Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation was a catalyst for other Tunisians to launch the demonstrations and riots that ultimately resulted in their president’s resignation.

Tunisia inspired other Arab nations to rise up, too: Algeria, Jordan, Yemen, Egypt, and many others. In Egypt, the mass protests resulted in the resignation of their president as well. Leaders in Sudan and Iraq have announced that they will step down when their current electoral terms end. In Libya, leader Muammar al-Gadaffi has refused to resign, and the protests there have escalated to full-on civil war.

The people in these countries are not only politically engaged; they are politically active. And it is not only in the Middle East that we see this level of engagement and public demonstration.

On my most recent trip to South America, this past January, demonstrators blocked the routes to the Punta Arenas airport on the day I was to fly out; they were protesting against the Chilean government for fuel price hikes they deemed unfair. On my previous South American trip, the year before, I awoke to noisy public demonstrations in the streets of Buenos Aires: thousands of citizens in the streets marching and drumming and parading with signs, for no reason beyond manifesting their support for, or their condemnation of, Argentina’s returning Kirchner government.

And, as I write these words, thousands of high school and university students are protesting in the streets of Santiago, Chile, demanding better quality education and an end to profit-oriented educational institutions.

That is Greece, that is the Middle East. It is Africa, South America. Here in Canada, what is it that brings citizens to the point of acting upon their anger and their frustration in the streets?

A hockey game.

I know that a lot has happened in the week since that night of rioting. I am impressed  that so many Vancouverites and so many Canadians have expressed their outrage about what happened, and are searching for justice through a variety of means (including the social media campaigns). I am impressed that so many Vancouverites went out to volunteer with the clean-up, and I am impressed by the many messages left on the plywood boards.

However, I am still dismayed that the big-picture issues: issues of social justice and transparent government and judicious environmental policies do not inspire Canadians to act. These are the issues that we can influence right now, that will directly influence our own futures and, even more importantly, those of our children.

But it seems too much to hope to move Canadians to active protest or demonstration – these issues barely motivate Canadians to move their sorry butts off their chairs to get out to vote. The official voter turnout in last month’s federal election was estimated at 61.4%. (With the Conservatives getting 39.6% of the popular vote, this means that we Canadians ended up with a majority government that only 24% of us actually voted for).

Where other countries have fought to gain the rights and privileges of a truly democratic society, or are still fighting for those rights, in Canada our peaceful history and high standard of living have made us lazy and complacent. We hole up in our basements pretending to play sports on our Wii, or connecting with our virtual friends on Facebook, or – yes – pouring our attention and energy into a hockey tournament.

There was a moment, during that last federal election campaign, that I did feel a momentary glimmer of hope. Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff gave a stunningly inspirational speech, invoking us to “Rise up, Canada, rise up!” (If you have not heard it, I strongly recommend that you click on that link). Regardless of anyone’s political stripe, that speech inspired me as a call to all Canadians to attention, to paying attention, and to action – but, unfortunately, like a shooting star, it was ephemeral, fleeting. Ignatieff’s fire faded quickly, leaving me wondering: What will it take to get Canadians to rise up?

And then this.

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