Writing these to help figure out my thinking on what is clearly becoming something that will go down in the history books, for good or ill.
As bad as the #FluTruxKlan is on its own terms – incessant noise being literally a form of terror inflicted on thousands of people, to take only one example – it becomes even worse when you try to place it in a historical context. It also becomes almost impossible to conclude anything other than it truly is an unprecedented, and unprecedentedly dangerous, event in the history of the country. Matt Gurney has an excellent Twitter thread along these lines.
I’ve been trying to think of events in my lifetime that compare to the occupation in terms of its duration, disruption of the lives of residents, and the literal calls for the overthrow of the current government. I’ve come up short.
The only things that come to mind don’t really fit:
- The Ottawa Occupiers’ building of permanent structures brought to mind the 1983-85 Peace Camp, which was “established on Parliament Hill in Ottawa to oppose the cruise missile and its testing in Canada.” But, it almost goes without saying, this was a peaceful protest confined to a tent on Parliament Hill. Also, unlike today, police unequivocally saw these peaceful protesters as threats.
When I was a reporter with the Catholic New Times, I worked with nuns and social activists who were involved in the peace movement, and it was understood that the RCMP/CSIS had files on them from their participation in the camp.
Which may be part of today’s problem. When Canadian security services think of threats to national security, historically they’re more likely to picture a 50-year-old nun or an undergraduate environmentalist than a swastika-sporting Nazi.
- ETA: In terms of disruptiveness, there were the anti-globalization protests of the early 2000s, e.g., the 2001 Quebec City protests against the Free Trade Area of the Americas. These differed, obviously, from the Ottawa Occupation in its duration, but also in the police response. The police built a fence to prepare for the protests. Police also didn’t hesitate to use violence to crack down on the protesters: “463 arrests, 5,148 canisters of tear gas and 903 rubber and plastic bullets,” according to a Montreal Gazette retrospective on the event.
It’s also worth noting that, as the Gazette reported, the event was hailed by some at the time as “a new form of political party.” Stephen Gill, talking about an earlier clash in Seattle wondered if these type of events heralded “a post-modern transnational political party” that “seeks to combine diversity with new forms of collective identity and solidarity.”
At the time, police clearly viewed those protesters, most of whom were peaceful and none of whom were given the run of the city to violate the law with impunity, as a threat to the state. Which raises the (naive) question of why the 2001 protesters were seen as a threat, but a protest that began by parading Nazi symbols and stealing food from the homeless, is still not being treated as such. As the 2001 events demonstrate, police are more than happy to crack some heads when they want to, or feel the need.
- In terms of tensions – and here I want to make crystal clear that I’m not making any kind of moral or substantive equivalence at all between the fight for the recognition of Indigenous land rights and the fascists currently terrorizing my hometown – the only similar event that springs to mind is the 1990 Oka crisis. That escalated into a military confrontation.
- Finally, it was slightly before my time, but in terms of scale and the open challenge to the rule of law and the established political order, the only thing in recent history that springs to mind as being similar is the 1970 October Crisis.
After that, what? The 1919 Winnipeg General Strike? The On to Ottawa Trek (put down violently in Regina before it got to Ottawa)? The Fenian raids? The 1837-38 Upper and Lower Canada rebellions?
The further you have to go back to find something comparable, the bigger a deal this seems.
To be clear, I’m trying to puzzle this out. I’d be more than happy to be told that I’m way off base.
But, never before have we seen a group of lawless brigands seize control of a major Canadian city for an entire week (and counting), while literally attacking and torturing thousands of Canadians, with no substantive reply from the authorities at any level. Never before have we seen an extreme right-wing protest lead to the resignation of a leader of one of our two main political parties, in part for not being sufficiently welcoming to fascists.
History can sneak up on you, and we all have a tendency to place events into familiar categories: the resignation of a weak leader, a rowdy protest against a government policy. But when history repeatedly punches you in the face for a week, you have to recognize the moment for what it is, and respond accordingly.