A rough lesson in civics
Toronto Star, Opinion, July 14, 2010
Associate Professor, School of Education, Bishop’s University
Recently, a student newspaper reporter asked a professor what every undergrad should do as part of the university experience. My colleague suggested taking part in student cultural life — join a club, put on a play! Giving back to the local community — volunteer at a local community centre or shelter! And becoming an active citizen — develop informed views on the issues most important to you! Decide how to live out your values! Go to a demonstration!
Recounting this anecdote, my colleague asked herself: Would she offer undergrads the same advice now, after the largest mass arrest in Canadian history?
Of course she would — but that teachers are asking ourselves this question this should worry us as Canadians.
As educators, our job is preparing active citizens with a strong concern for civic institutions and a sense of duty to participate in democratic processes of public debate, community and civic organizing and shaping policy.
What does civic participation mean? One: critical thinking, seeking out diverse sources and dissenting perspectives on issues that affect all of us on this Earth, particularly those excluded from decision-making echelons of power. Two: understanding, interpreting and exercising the rights and freedoms enshrined in Canadian law. Thoughtfully forming and communicating our views to our elected representatives. Three: engaging in collective discussion and debate. Protecting an inclusive public sphere, especially when it’s threatened.
All three forms of democratic participation were not only threatened but, in sweeping numbers, criminalized and punished during the G20 summit.
Canadians’ civil right of access to information through a healthy, diverse and independent media was violated by the intimidation and detention of independent and mainstream journalists (ask Steve Paikin).
Our rights to public expression, assembly, debate and protest were put under martial law. Let’s not forget: not only is protest a right, it’s a civic duty and the safeguard of democracy. Passive populations invite abuse of power.
Amnesty International and the Canadian Civil Liberties Association conclude that an “unprecedented, disproportionate and, at times, unconstitutional” police response “narrowed the space for civic expression and cast a chill over citizen participation in public discourse.” The Twittersphere and Facebook were abuzz that Sunday with warnings of police detaining, searching and intimidating anyone carrying a bag or wearing black, particularly young adults and people of colour.
What was the lesson of the mass “kettling” of not only a peaceful sit-in, but anyone watching, walking their dog or waiting for the streetcar at the Queen/Spadina intersection that Sunday afternoon? As I watched the live CP24 coverage of over 100 individuals corralled and shivering for four hours in the severe thunderstorm with no access to information, explanation of their offence, legal counsel, shelter, warm clothing, food, water, medication, washrooms or dignity, I asked myself: What should we learn? That “responsible citizens” get the message and stay home?
This was the criminalization of the very act of witnessing. I’ve learned from friends — survivors of police states and military dictatorships — that the primary guarantor of civic safety and constitutional rights is a street full of witnesses.
In the youth drawn to the Queen/Spadina sit-in, I saw my own past students: curious, with limited political literacy but an unshakable faith in their Charter rights and freedoms. Here was the answer to years of civic and global education, years of teaching my students of our ethical civic obligation to stay informed, envision a better world and act in solidarity on that vision.
The “summit show” taught anyone watching clear lessons in fear and apathy: Stay home. Accept that 20 individuals from 20 selectively chosen nations need $1 billion in protection to put the world’s most vulnerable populations on a crash diet to pay for Wall Street’s unregulated greed, all the while ignoring the Earth. Follow the media, not your own eyes. Condemn those who sought to witness the evacuation of the public space and blame them for daring to gather. One woman, returning barefoot and shaken from 23 hours of detention, was chastened by her roommates: “Then why did you protest?”
Wherein lies our responsibility then? When we teach our students of the duty to think critically and participate in democratic processes, are we putting them at risk of public humiliation, detention without explanation, harsh confinement, verbal and physical intimidation, harassment and an enduring sense of insecurity and fear?
My colleagues are refusing to let this happen. Over 200 university, college and public school educators have signed an open lettered demanding an independent public inquiry into the Integrated Security Unit’s actions during the G8 and G20 summits.