Brigette DePape’s act of civil disobedience

June 6, 2011

In 1846 Henry David Thoreau went to jail for his refusal to pay poll tax to a government waging what he considered an unjust war.  His essay “Civil Disobedience” became a textbook for peaceful protest against an oppressive authority.  A century later Mohandas Gandhi pointed out to newspaper readers in Britain the disparity between principle and practice in the Empire’s treatment of citizens in South Africa, and later in India.

Last Friday senate page Brigette DePape held up a hand-lettered STOP HARPER! sign during the Speech from the Throne.  This act fits the definition of civil disobedience.  It was a protest made with forethought by a serious individual who was aware of the consequences of her action and prepared to accept them.

Professor Ned Franks huffed in The Toronto Star:  “Brigette DePape’s breaking of the rules governing the behaviour of the staff of Parliament was not civil disobedience. She was not protesting a specific law or policy. She was simply objecting to the results of a democratic nationwide election in which she, along with every other citizen 18 years or older, was entitled to vote. Her act was amusing, and held a sort of childish charm. But it offended her professional responsibilities.”

But I fear tradition’s egg was broken long before Brigette trampled a bit of the shell into the Senate floor.  Further, I am not sure that in her view four years of unbalanced power does not constitute a specific set of policies.  In interviews she has repeatedly mentioned large expenditures on fighter jets, prisons, cuts to social programs, and a lack of climate legislation – a set of policies in her view disastrous to Canadians.

In fact I would suggest that the target of Ms. DePape was Stephen Harper himself.  Through her smuggled STOP HARPER! sign she pointed out to him that while voter tracking, mini-campaigns, attack ads and Zionism may enable his MPs to win just enough votes to form a majority, it takes policies which reach out to Canadians if he is to win their hearts.  She told him in no uncertain terms that there is more to a mandate than 156 seats.

In fact DePape commented in the CBC interview that only one in four eligible voters supported the Conservative Party of Canada in the last election, and this shows that Stephen Harper does not represent the interests of all Canadians, particularly those of her generation.

In the face of massive power, without any checks upon the government except those of tradition which Harper has proven all too willing to dismiss (ministerial accountability, rights of the legislature, manual on the disruption of parliamentary committees), how else but by protest and civil disobedience will Canadians affect the direction of their country if they believe it is headed in the wrong direction?

If we accept that the people of Canada have given Stephen Harper a strong mandate in spite of the contempt-of-parliament charges, then by the same mandate anyone who wishes to speak out at any time in the House has the right to do so, because Canadians have made it clear that they don’t care about parliamentary protocol.  With the actions of his government over the last five years Harper has shattered parliamentary tradition and can’t now hide behind the fragments of the shell.

Robert Silver ridiculed Brigette DePape’s use of the phrase “Arab spring” in her call for a protest movement in Canada.  He correctly pointed out how the life-and-death struggles in North Africa have no Canadian equivalent.  But in today’s virtual world a word takes on new context and meaning whenever it is uttered.  The best Silver can say is that, up until DePape used the phrase in a CBC interview, “Arab spring” meant rebellion against a homicidal authority.  No one can say for sure what the phrase now means, or what it will mean tomorrow, for television creates reality, and Brigette DePape showed last Friday that she understands this better than most.

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