Just for a second, put aside your feelings — for or against — about the natural gas pipeline opposed by Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs in northern B.C.
Ask yourself instead: What if it were pro-pipeline yellow-vest protesters from Alberta who blocked access to the Swartz Bay ferry terminal on Monday morning? Would you be more sympathetic/enraged then?
Or would you in either case just roll your eyes about the hubris of those who thought they were helping, not hindering, their cause — whatever it was — by treating ordinary people as though their lives didn’t matter.
For here’s what those who truly care about those causes know: You can’t change people’s minds by punching them in the head.
We know this because we are from Vancouver Island, the protest capital of Canada. Vietnam in the ’60s, Amchitka in the ’70s, Solidarity in the ’80s, Clayoquot in the ’90s.
After the B.C. Liberals were elected in 2001, the legislature lawn handled more foot traffic than B.C. Ferries, with protesters queued up like the sausage-sample line at Costco. In one three-week stretch in 2002 the lawn saw 3,500 angry teachers (“You can tell who the primary-grade teachers are,” observed the late Barb McLintock. “Their signs are done with glitter paint.”), followed by hundreds of social workers, followed by 2,000 students, followed by Camp Campbell, where a little band of activists pitched a dozen tents, built a sod hut and dug a latrine behind the statue of Queen Victoria.
All of which is a long way of saying that here in the most contrarian-rich corner of Canada, we have a pretty firm handle on what kind of protest fosters change, and what amounts to nothing more than the kind of counter-productive self-indulgence that alienates people to the point that they want to shoot a whooping crane to death, purely out of spite.
With that in mind, here are 10 Tips for Effective Protest:
• Personal sacrifice earns respect. A quarter century ago, the War in the Woods succeeded because 850 people travelled to Clayoquot Sound to get arrested and take the consequences. In the 1930s Gandhi turned the hunger strike into a political weapon. That Tiananmen Square demonstrator blocked a row of tanks, not a line of schmucks trying to make the 7 a.m. to Tsawwassen.
• Disrupting the lives of others has the opposite effect. No matter how self-righteous and woke you feel, you are not more special than other people and don’t have the right to hurt them. Your protest does not prove that you care more than they do. Nor does it trump their trip to B.C. Children’s Hospital.
• Fun is not your enemy. Just ask Mr. Floatie, whose loopy cheerfulness was key to reviving the capital region’s sewage-treatment debate. On the other end of the scale: the Montgomery Burns-level gloom merchants who ruined the enjoyment of kids when the Olympic torch came through Victoria in 2009 (we never did find out who threw the marbles under the police horses’ hooves) and who picketed Victoria’s Santa Claus parade in 2011.
• Aboriginal people aren’t cannon fodder to be sacrificed in your ideological war. If you only support the ones whose agenda matches your own, then Indigenous rights are not your priority (corporations and governments should abide by this, too).
• Distance yourself from the crackpots. The urgency to address climate change is diminished, the crisis marginalized, when it becomes synonymous with the lunatic fringe.
• Shouting down opponents makes you sound like an intolerant kook yelling “Lock her up!” at a Trump rally. When Justin Trudeau held a town hall in Nanaimo in 2018 he was heckled so relentlessly that he won the sympathy of a crowd that had arrived ready to rip him over the Trans Mountain pipeline.
• Keep your clothes on. Most people look less like they were made in God’s image than in God’s Grade 8 shop class. Taking your pants off won’t change anyone’s mind about coal-mining.
• Bodily fluids are not toys. Don’t spit at people. Don’t pour urine on a city worker while up a tree, as happened in Centennial Square during the Occupy protest in 2011. Don’t smear excrement on yourself, as yet another tree-dweller did during the Walbran Valley protest of 1991.
• If you must sing, sing on key.
• When you go out of your way to alienate the people whose support you need, it’s hard to believe you’re serious about your cause.