The legalization rally that was an Enbridge rally

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.

One of the more on-topic signs, as the march began towards Centennial Square

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.

Editorial #1 – The Antigonish Bubble and the Death of Student Activism

“If it didn’t work for the USSR, why would it work for Bishops?”

I was so proud of that slogan on my sign, and of being a part of a greater cause; that is, trying to prevent the amalgamation of Burke, Fraser and Plessis into one house back in my first year. About three hundred students showed up in their house shirts or painted with their house colours outside the Residence office. We hoisted signs and banners and chanted all afternoon, and to our everlasting pride, it worked.

Then, last year, the only other protest I have seen in three years: the president of TNT was removed for pissing off the wrong girl, and a couple hundred of her closest friends rallied to her aid in the form of a march protesting some aspects of the Community Code.

Notice a pattern? As long as the cause is close enough to home that it leaves the toilet seat up, our campus community is more than happy to throw down and hoist a placard. As long as the cause is completely non-polarizing, clear-cut, and requires no real discussion, St. FX students will chant themselves hoarse. We are simply perpetuating the image of modern students as mindless sheep who are here to drink, study and screw, then hit up mom and dad for a spring break trip to Cuba, without regard for broader matters.

What happened? Students used to be the leaders of social change. Student activism played a major part in the civil rights movement, gender and sexuality equality, raising consciousness about human rights abuses and unjust wars around the world, and debating policy here at home. Now the only thing that can light a fire under our asses is a bad judgment from the Res office.

This is not to say that no one is doing anything at this school to enact social change. There are a number of activist societies, such as the Aboriginal Society, the Amnesty International Society, and Breaking the Silence – and that’s not even getting past the B’s. Those societies and others further down the alphabet are run by energetic, passionate people who are doing their best to raise awareness and funds to fight for what they believe in. The problem isn’t a lack of causes; it’s a lack of people willing to get involved, make some time, and put themselves on the line.

I used to think of the Antigonish “bubble” phenomenon, in which St. FX students have no notion of the outside world for 8 months of the year, as a cute, harmless little quirk of going to school here. But the bubble is insidious. It represents complete detachment from what is important to the rest of the world; not just out of ignorance, but more from apathy and from sluggishness. The most urgent issue I heard last year from most students here was that drinks had gone up in price across the province.

There are a lot of ways to get involved. Join a society (society night is coming up this month), watch for flyers regarding speakers, conferences and discussions – no matter what side of the debate you find yourself on – and generally keep informed. As frosh, it is way too easy to slip inside the bubble and not emerge until you have your x-ring on. If you allow yourself to fall into complacency and lose touch with the world, you will be forgetting why you are really here and you could easily miss out on a huge part of university life.