Yesterday afternoon, I attended what I thought would be the first protest of my life, outside of a few brutally quick, fruitless and humbling ones against food that was put in front of me some time ago by a tired parent. Yesterday’s was my first organized one. I suspect it was for many others, as the growing crowd began to mill about with the same mild awkwardness one does when standing in front of a crowd and not knowing what to do with their hands.
What a bunch of freaking amateurs. And that is a massive compliment.
And it wasn’t a protest either; it turned out to indeed be a rally. Organized by a group called Canada Action, it was put together to show a common voice in support of the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion, and to try, for the first time I can recall in the pipeline wars, to gather and catch the attention of the mainstream media.
I don’t know how many people were there, local news casts said several thousand, but I do know that I only heard about the event 5 hours before it started, as did many others. Given that, and the fact that every square foot of the park that wasn’t covered in several feet of snow was covered by a person, and that people even started venturing onto said snow despite casual and not very casual business attire and the obvious risk of a sudden plunge through the untrustworthy spring crust. It was as successful as the venue allowed, at a minimum.
I didn’t really know what to expect; I’d of course seen plenty on the news but had always presumed the filmed portion to be a sound bite of the 10 most frantic and lively seconds of the whole thing. The same selective editing may have happened here, I didn’t watch the news, but the tone of this event actually surprised me in a positive way.
The crowd, possibly because of its amateur status or maybe that’s the way it always is, but anyway the crowd reacted in a linear way is what resonated most. What was heartening about the whole show was that the peaks of heartfelt hooting and applause weren’t, as I’d feared, strictly along political lines. In fact, a particularly glorious moment happened during the speech of an incredibly brave NDP MLA who actually took the stage with no disguise or voice-pitch alteration device whatsoever and even allowed himself to be identified as an NDP MLA. There is a lot of pent up frustration in the oil patch, the steam of which has come from not just pipeline genocide but several years of layoffs, reduced salaries, and low commodity prices that have given a collective sag to the shoulders of downtown. I feared that this fellow, who did OK and sounded absolutely sincere as he talked about coming from an oil patch background, would be hounded off the stage. At one point it looked about to occur when some of the bluer elements of the crowd began chanting “Kenney, Kenney” in an attempt to drown out the lonely social democrat onstage. But the extremely impressive Cody Battershill, MC for the event and a key organizer (or perhaps the organizer) had the superb decency to motion for silence from the crowd. And the crowd actually listened.
That instance marked a definite high point, and another was when I noticed that the crowd’s most boisterous applause tended to accompany comments about how significant this project is for Canada, how hard Canada works to provide petroleum in the best way possible, and just in general that the applause-o-meter seemed to peak at times where the pride in the industry or nation was strongest.
One could not escape the continued emphasis on Canada as well, as a central unifying theme. That is an aspect often lost in the debate, that Alberta is not a monolithic pit of rednecks and oil barons. Alberta is an interprovincial rainbow, with significant representation from every province and probably territory too. The oil patch has been a magnet for talented, ambitious young Canadians for half a century. Alberta is Canada, in a way that few provinces can say.
Though billed as a rally, there was a danger that it would turn into primal scream therapy, with burning effigies and buckets of vitriol. But it wasn’t that way in any sense; it truly was a rally. It definitely wasn’t a protest, though of course frustration did flood out now and then. But there was also a very palpable feeling that the crowd was fed up with being disrespected and demeaned by outsiders who know almost nothing about the business, about how challenging the business actually is, and about how much people actually care that it’s done right. It was a rare chance to get a media spotlight and say wait a minute, we’re not ashamed of what we do, and we care a great deal about how we provide the world the oil it craves so badly.
It’s possible that the Trans Mountain opponents will come back with a vengeance tomorrow to bury this event with their huge media machines, wacko theatrical people-dying-in-the-streets-from-oil performance art, and squadron of natives in tow that somehow always show up for protests in full dress (as opposed to the capable and thoughtful Métis Robbie Picard who spoke yesterday, completely without the aid of a single cultural cliché). Those groups are very good at what they do; well-polished, well-financed, and eyes like lasers for media glory-hounding opportunities. It’s hard to compete with that.
What is a valuable takeaway for Canadians though is to keep this difference in mind: what does a protest propagate, and what does a rally? And what axis do we want to move along: black vs. white, which is futile and unwinnable, or constructive vs. destructive, which is neither of those things?