Sunday, March 30, 2008

In Ottawa, Democracy is across the street

I had wanted to make this post for a while. In fact, I thought I had done so months ago.

You see, back in September, when everybody was caring about Burma, there was a march from the Human Rights monument to the Chinese embassy.

Not having been to such a march before, I was quite surprised when the group was met at the Chinese embassy by two RCMP officers. They told the two or three people at the head of the 100-strong group that the protest had to be held on the other side of the street, in accordance with city by-laws and protest permits. (Seriously. You need a permit to hold a protest?!?)

RCMP officers meet the protesters
Now, I don't know if you're familiar at all with the Chinese Embassy, but in front of it is a public sidewalk, and between the public sidewalk and the public street is a strip of public greenspace (technically referred to as a "boulevard") about five or six metres wide. Plenty of space to protest, without even blocking pedestrians or motorists from getting by. Then you have St. Patrick street, which itself is very wide.

Below is a Google view of the scene. The Chinese embassy is the monstrous complex on the top of the image, and across the street is a fenced-off green space. It's hard to see there, but the fence is only a few metres away from the curb of the roadway, leaving little room for any significant protest to gather. (I believe you can find Falun Gong protesters there on a regular basis)

Now, say what you will about terrorism (this law was initiated at the behest of the U.S. embassy after 9/11), but a law that prevents people from congregating on public space is a pretty big affront to democratic society in itself. Or, as Andrew Nellis said to the police officer shortly after the above photo was taken, "horseshit." If it's a public space, you should be able to protest there. Period. No permits needed, no threats of state violence, and nothing else that will draw comparison to police states.

The mere presence of police (especially those in paramilitary riot gear) serves to discourage people from partaking in democratic activity, through the implicit threat of arrest, charges, or direct violence such as tear gas. Hell, I shy away from larger protests myself for just those reasons.

Nellis dropped his complaint and left that protest shortly thereafter, as, he said, he didn't want to hijack these people's protest about China's actions in Burma.

I bring it up now because I saw a small gathering of protesters today across the street from the Iranian embassy on Metcalfe. As I'm sure you know, I can't help but be morbidly attracted to sights as absurd as a group of people politely protesting against the actions of a cruel and powerful entity. I immediately snapped a photo of the surreal scene.

As with the other protest, there was an RCMP officer talking to the protesters at the Iranian embassy.

I went up to the protesters and started talking to a couple of them. I learned that they were protesting about something that Iran was doing in southern Azerbaijan. I asked them what they thought about not being able to protest on the same side of the street as the embassy, even though that sidewalk was public property.

The answer was somewhat surprising. A couple people agreed that since the parade permit required them to be across the street, that's where they should be. One man said he'd like to go inside and do damage, but the law requires him to stay across the street and protest peacefully. That particular man had difficulty understanding the fact that laws are created, and aren't just some monument that must be accepted as they are. When I told him that vile states like Iran do not have a monopoly on unjust or arbitrary laws, he regurgitated some platitudes about Canada being democratic, and thus he was justified in blindly following its laws.

One man seemed particularly interested in what I had to say. I'm not sure if he was one of the leaders, or if he was a spy or something, but from the expression on his face, it looks like he "got it."

I asked them some rhetorical questions about democracy, and the origins of law. The laws are passed by the government, which is elected by the people, so if the people dislike the law, we should be able to get the government to change the law.

I think I finally broke through to a couple of them when I made the contrast between the way laws are made in Iran and in Canada.

Of course, as with Nellis at the Burma protest, my goal was not to get these people to move across the street, but to plant the seed that Canada implicitly assisting the actions they oppose by impeding on their ability to protest against them.

I bid them good luck on their protest, and headed on my way. I think that the comparison between Canada and Iran got through to a couple more people.

I hope that people start to understand that public property is public property, and in Canada we have a freedom to assemble in those public spaces. I certainly hope that this stupid law is changed. To move protests away from embassies denies the whole point of a protest: to make the people in the embassy uncomfortable.

Until that happens, however, democracy will continue to be across the street.

- RG>

1 comment:

Meg said...

I like that "Democracy is across the street." nice ring to that.

However, its still a far cry from

Canada is not utopia, but being a newbie here, I am continually shocked at just how different things are here.