6.07.2011

why brigette depape's actions were heroic in my eyes

The barrage of criticism being heaped on former Canadian Senate page Brigette DePape's lone act of civil disobedience comes as no surprise, nor does the vehemence of some of the attacks. Naysayers range from the garden variety "I agree with her statement but she broke the rules and disrespected Parliament" to the hyperbolic insinuation that her act bordered on terrorism. As you know, wmtc is not a forum for debate, and I have no wish to refute such histrionics. I simply want to try to articulate how I feel about DePape's actions and why.


This sight filled me with joy and with hope. I was incredibly moved by the spectacle of a young woman urging us into resistance amid the pomp and circumstance of the Speech from the Throne. The contrast of the institution of government - slow-moving, conservative, designed to concentrate power in the hands of a professional political class - and the democracy of the people was so powerful. Imagine the courage this act required, and the poise!

Like much civil disobedience, DePape's action was symbolic, yet it immediately produced tangible results: the whole country, and indeed much of the world, was talking about it. My friends attending the International Peace Conference in Cairo, Egypt said that Egyptians were cheering for DePape! Canadians are discussing if protest matters, why protest matters, what should be done.

I've read that DePape's actions were not heroic, because she didn't risk her life or even risk arrest. In some societies, perhaps standing in the house of government holding a protest sign would not be a big deal. But in the Canadian context, DePape's action stands out for its clarity and its unique visibility.

DePape knowingly took an action that would cause her to lose her job, and place herself in the centre of a media whirlwind, in order to make a statement. She used her position to give voice to the feelings of so many Canadians, to put our agenda on a national and international stage in a way that no lawful protest could ever do.

Most Canadians are afraid to speak up, and many find the very act of speaking up distasteful. Public protesters are objects of ridicule and disgust; we need to be controlled. Order is valued above all, at almost any cost.

Such attitudes do not create a climate in which a healthy democracy can flourish. They do, however, make it easy for elected officials to get away nearly anything, from shutting down Parliament to avoid disclosing complicity in massive human rights violations and possibly war crimes, to allowing a Canadian teenager to grow up in a concentration camp.

As Canadians, freedom of political expression is supposed to be our right, yet we have seen with our own eyes how legal, peaceful protest is often met with brutality and mass arrests. Violent provocateurs are used as an excuse to discredit protest, criminalize dissent and strip us of our basic civil liberties. At the very least, protest is kept out of sight in "free speech zones" and out of mind by corporate media.

We live in a society where the majority of the population is complacent, apathetic and politically disengaged. Around 40% of eligible voters don't bother to vote, and too many who do, seem to believe that voting is in itself sufficient democratic engagement. In that context, Brigette DePape's action was heroic. In a society where people are afraid to ask their employer for a raise, DePape stood up - alone - and spoke truth to power. She knew it would have grave consequences, but she did it anyway, and in an elegant and peaceful way.

DePape's bold action affirms that merely acting through institutional channels - city councils, provincial parliaments, the House of Commons - is insufficient. We can be well-behaved, quiet children and ask our elders in Parliament, Please, sir, can I have some more? Or we can remember that Parliament is supposed to represent us, not dictate to us.

Calling a country a democracy does not make it so. In a healthy democracy, great masses of votes are not wiped out because voters happen to be the minority voice in their geographic location. In a healthy democracy, people are not afraid to protest. In a healthy democracy, people do not express horror and anguish at the sight of a young woman holding a sign.

This is the statement Brigette DePape released on the day of her protest. I fully agree with her, and I pledge to do what I can.
Harper's agenda is disastrous for this country and for my generation. We have to stop him from wasting billions on fighter jets, military bases, and corporate tax cuts while cutting social programs and destroying the climate. Most people in this country know what we need are green jobs, better medicare, and a healthy environment for future generations.

Contrary to Harper's rhetoric, Conservative values are not in fact Canadian values. How could they be when 3 out of 4 eligible voters didn't even give their support to the Conservatives? But we will only be able to stop Harper's agenda if people of all ages and from all walks of life engage in creative actions and civil disobedience.

This country needs a Canadian version of an Arab Spring, a flowering of popular movements that demonstrate that real power to change things lies not with Harper but in the hands of the people, when we act together in our streets, neighbourhoods and workplaces.

11 comments:

johngoldfine said...

You make an eloquent case for activisim generally and for this woman's heroism in particular.

Cid said...

Brava Brigette. Our country needs more thoughtful young people like her.

allan said...

She used her position to give voice to the feelings of so many Canadians...

Percentage of eligible Canadian voters who did not vote for the Harper Conservatives on May 2: 76.2

***

Amazing drop in Liberal votes
2006 - 4,479,415
2008 - 3,644,185
2011 - 2,783,175

While the NDP nearly doubled their support since 2008, from 2,515,288 to 4,508,474.

Scott M. said...

A couple of random thoughts:

1) Unfortunate that she wasn't a Commons page instead of a Senate page. It would have been much more appropriate to do the same thing during the budget than during the throne speech. But she did what she could with her job -- no other time would anyone have paid any attention to the senate chamber whatsoever.

2) I'm baffled by the people who think she shouldn't have been fired from her job as she was exercising "free speech". Of course she should be fired -- and she's indicated she knew she would be. That's her choice. In fact, it adds to her publicity so it furthers her exposure. It's insane to think someone should be able to so flagrantly embarrass her employer (the Speaker of the Senate) and not have consequences.

But it has been quite a week for her since then. I think if I were her parents, I would be proud.

laura k said...

Scott, I agree. Of course she would be fired. It's inconceivable to imagine otherwise. Free speech doesn't apply to civil disobedience in the workplace. I also agree (obviously) about being proud if I were her parent. But I think it's even cooler that you said that!!!

Kim_in_TO said...

So many great points you make, Laura! Thank you!

I cannot believe the criticisms heaped on this young woman and her action. Ok - yes, I can. But some of the arguments are so inane; others are just despicable.

laura k said...

FWIW: click to vote.

Stephanie said...

I am inspired daily by the creative young people in my community doing everything they can to better our community and world.

I often think if it weren't for these young people I would have no hope but when I look at the energy and vitality of the community they are building I thank the stars for the young people! There is a bright future ahead!

New Nova Scotian said...

Excellent piece. Of course her actions are appropriate. They are completely appropriate in the fact that they rattle the powers that be. Revolution is not afraid to step on toes. Revolution is not polite to the elite.

allan said...

YouTube:

Performing from her self-penned, critically acclaimed play, She Rules with Iron Stix, Brigette DePape asks whether art is an escape from real world problems or part of their solution.

A playwright since the age of 15, and a third year international development student who has contributed to sustainable development projects in Senegal and Bosnia, DePape explores the possibility of new worlds: changing our actual world through activism vs. creating new worlds through fiction. She attempts to reconcile responsibility and creativity, suggesting that plays can be a powerful tool for cultural change.

Presented at TEDxYouthOttawa on March 4, 2010 at Ashbury College in Ottawa, Canada.

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In the video, she performs for seven minutes then comes back out and talks about it.

allan said...

Guelph Mercury:

The University of Ottawa graduate spoke with her family in Winnipeg Friday night on the phone. Her mother, Marcelle, is proud of her, DePape said.

"It was really good to hear some encouragement from a really important woman in my life," she said.

DePape's father was less positive.

"My dad was quite critical of it. He sort of asked what concrete changes can this actually have," she said. ...

"I do think the act of one person can't make a difference but I can't wait for when the resistance continues to build and to show my dad that social movements actually are an effective means for pressuring government and initiate changes that we need to happen."

***