Canada 150

What the Next Generation of Canadian Activists are Facing

Longtime activist Garth Mullins offers some perspective for young protesters.

by Garth Mullins
Jun 29 2017, 4:30pm

The grey, American nuclear-capable warship emerged from the Salish Sea fog. It was steaming right towards us. I spotted her through binoculars from a small sailboat bobbing off Vancouver. The radio crackled with chatter from our anti-nuclear flotilla of dozens of small boats—some not very seaworthy. We were mostly students—not all of us mariners—but we arranged our Zodiacs, canoes and kayaks as best we could into a nautical picket line.

I raised my binoculars again. The distance had closed rapidly. Some of the thousands of sailors aboard a ten storey oceangoing leviathan stood beside a pair of deck guns, waving. The ship roared through the Peace Flotilla at three times the harbor speed limit. In the chaos some of our boats were swamped. A police speedboat crashed into the communist dinghy.

Back at my high school, there was hell to pay. I was a teenage activist in the '80s, stupid enough to think dinghies can beat warships. But after decades as a community organizer, I've figured out that if you do it right, sometimes the dinghies can win.

Fifteen years later, the beat of truncheons against riot shields announced the arrival of more police. By now, I'd become familiar with the sound. Through my sneakers, I felt the rumble of armoured personnel carriers (APCs). Then, the deep, percussive thuds of tear gas canisters echoed off office towers.

Eric Draper/Associated Press

On the eve of the millennium, a world-spanning network of movements was emerging to challenge the fundamental assumptions of global capitalism. We'd been building it for years and now we converged on the Seattle summit of the World Trade Organization. Ten thousand of us blocked intersections across the city center. A hundred thousand trade unionists marched in support.

Our street blockade was swallowed up by choking clouds of gas. I inhaled too much of it, blacked out and struck my head on the pavement. Fellow protesters dragged me, concussed and unconscious, from the path of an oncoming APC. At dusk, a curfew was declared. Mass arrests continued on streets strewn with burning barricades and spent rubber bullets. Hundreds of injured clogged the hospitals. Hundreds of arrestees clogged the jails. For a week in November 1999, the whole world watched the epic Battle in Seattle displace Christmas shopping—the beginning of something big.

There were busloads of us from Canada there. We had already clashed with police during the 1997 APEC summit when the RCMP spied on, pepper-sprayed and arrested activists at UBC. The next year, police attacked us with riot batons when Prime Minister Chretien visited Vancouver. That was 20 years ago.

We need a movement of that size and audacity today, to challenge Trump and authoritarians like him who are gaining power around the world.

But life as a community organizer is not all maritime blockades and tear gas. It's mostly meetings, phone calls, stacking chairs, postering and research—unglamorous, unpaid shit work. You get up at five AM to join picket lines even though you aren't necessarily in the union. I've marched with federal workers striking for pay equity and dockers picketing a cargo ship to stop their brothers and sisters from getting sacked a continent away. I've marched with teachers, janitors, baristas and newspaper workers.

Elaine Thompson/Associated Press

The media has called some of us "professional protesters." But the gig doesn't pay and nothing works if we don't support each other. Solidarity is the key to organizing. In the words of Victoria punk band Section 46: "I cannot change anything by myself."

Over the past century or so, trade unions and people's movements fought for big concessions on wages and social reforms. Nothing was given freely. It was all hard fought and won. Mid-century British Tory Quentin Hogg warned his fellow Conservatives: "If you do not give the people social reform, they are going to give you social revolution."

This is part of a VICE Canada project on the future of protest. See more from the Canada 150 series:

That was the tradition I wanted to be a part of—world changing revolutionaries that welcome reforms and don't stop there. I joined actions in solidarity with Mohawks resisting a golf course in Oka, Quebec, defended abortion clinics, organized against Ontario neo-fascists and campaigned against the 1991 Gulf War. I started to understand all of these struggles connect back to power, economics, ideology and colonialism.

But sometimes I figured I was born too late. Social movements have been receding and fragmenting since before I got involved. They have largely abandoned the working class. The powerful have lost that healthy fear which once forced them to concede social reforms. Austerity governments of all stripes chip away at welfare, working conditions, union rights, community funding, social housing, etc. They are rewiring the welfare state into a surveillance state.

Activists are winding up on the defence, trying to save what remains of those wins of previous generations. I've been part of a rear guard, covering the retreat.

Beth A. Keiser/Associated Press

Over my lifetime, the right has burst forward in three big waves of reaction: Reagan, Thatcher and Mulroney owned the 1980s. Following the September 11 attacks, the right cultivated fear and xenophobia. Today, the "alt right" is weaponizing that fear.

Trump's victory was no surprise to those of us in Canada who organized and protested the Reform Party and the parallel rise of the fascist Heritage Front in the 1990s. I have physical scars from the days when neo-Nazis marched through neighbourhoods in Ottawa, Toronto, and Montreal. But those days are back. A new generation of white nationalists are on "street patrols" in Canadian cities. The far right has been here all along—colonialism's hooded fellow traveller.

Now, the "alt right" are the loudest voice on globalization with their chest-thumping, hyper-nationalist anger, which has eclipsed our critiques of global capitalism from the left. After 9/11, states granted themselves new policing powers, criminalized many forms of dissent and started wars that they're still fighting. That broke apart our fledgling movement from the streets of Seattle.

Much of my activism recently has been triage - just trying to get my union members paid properly, organizing to save cheap apartment buildings or responding to Vancouver's fentanyl overdose crisis. My outlook has been shaped by the loss of so many friends and colleagues to OD.

Eric Draper/Associated Press

Before government drew up a legal process to open safe injection sites, activists opened our own, unsanctioned facilities. Like many, I got Naloxone training in 2014—this is the medication that reverses overdoses. Over my life, I've stopped four overdoses. "Little Doug" a harm reduction activist in Surrey has saved 130 people. Since the last big overdose crisis of the late 1990s, we've been pressing government to make prescription heroin available - as it has been in many European countries for years. But Canada is way behind. Today, community organizers like Anne Livingston are considering civil disobedience - distributing the needed medication if authorities won't.

Activists need to push officialdom, but not wait for them. During these long social emergencies, we need to organize our own community self defense. And that's more important than ever, now that neo-fascist groups are "patrolling" East Vancouver.

Indigenous peoples, the marginally housed, undocumented migrants, drug users, and the precariously employed have pried open cultural, social and legal space, including within broader social movements. Many of these communities are forming links with each other that have been elusive or short lived in the past.

Authoritarian and fascist movements are gaining strength—or taking office—around the world. It's hard to say whether this is the death spasm of a calcified system deeply in crisis, or the birth pangs of something more odious. "The old is dying," wrote Antonio Gramsci, "and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.

It is the nature of social movements to rise and fall. Our defensive battles on housing and the opioid crisis must take the next big leap into mass mobilization—a leap back to the days of Seattle. Without real, concrete solidarity between different struggles, we are easily divided and marginalized. There is no way around the hard work of building international, intersectional movements that are rooted in the community and acknowledge the leadership of the Indigenous nations on whose land we mobilize. The working class must be a part of this. As workers, we collectively have the power to turn the lights off. For those just starting out, organize where you are; your workplace, school or community. You're already there.

Follow Garth on Twitter.