Walking today towards a rally that I had looked forward to for weeks, I overheard a conversation between two middle-aged women at a stoplight:
“What’s that rally for?”
“Oh… marijuana legalization, I think.”
The rally was against the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline.
The thing is, I can’t blame the two ladies for having no idea what was going on; from what I saw at the rally, a good portion of the protesters didn’t know either.
Rallies make great media moments: they bring together, all in one place, hoisting signs and banners and shouting slogans, a representative number of people who care about the cause at hand. Reporters snap photos and record video, and that evening and the next morning, people will see images that symbolize the movement – in this case, the resistance to the pipeline.
The trouble with rallies is that they depend on energy. Education and well-balanced arguments are difficult to shoehorn into short, snappy statements that will hold an audience’s attention and inspire cheers. The result is a series of passionate, sometimes eloquent, and almost always somewhat fallacious statements from the stage. There’s no room for a thoughtful discussion of a very complex issue when you need to make a lot of people angry all at once.
Furthermore, because of the nature of this particular discussion taking place in Canada – that being our natural resource riches and how best to use (or not use) them – the issues people were bringing up were so wide-ranging that I am not at all surprised that the rally was mistaken for a pro-pot rally. In some ways, it was. I saw signs suggesting investment in solar power, demanding the prime minister’s resignation, pushing a ban on fracking, and, inexplicably, one that just read “WTF | LOL” with two pictures of the Earth from space. I was handed leaflets on food security and, yes, marijuana legalization.
To be sure, it was an event attended by mostly like-minded people who can find common ground on many of these issues, and many of them (such as solar power, oil sands, and fracking) are related, so I can see why people would take the opportunity to bring some of them into the mix. However, the feeling that I got was that besides a core of activists and political types, many of the thousands of attendees might as well have been at a rally protesting Corn Pops.
The take-away message for me was that this very significant, very controversial proposed project (and its cousin, the Kinder Morgan TransMountain pipeline) is not going to be beaten by rallies, marches, and drum circles. These are a good way to spread the message that there is an issue to be discussed, and to give the media a visual representation of the resistance, but not an effective tool for resistance. Rather, it will take the focused efforts of truly interested and educated groups who are willing to consider a multitude of sides of one issue, rather than one side of a multitude of issues.