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By rights, this should have been a quiet year for protests in Alberta.
You might remember Energy Minister Sonya Savage saying in May 2020 that the pandemic would be the “best time” to build the Trans Mountain expansion because public health restrictions meant “you can't have protests of more than 15 people.” But the past year has been notable not for its lack of protests—but a proliferation of them.
After George Floyd’s murder last summer, upwards of 4,000 turned up at Olympic Plaza in Calgary for a vigil, and in Edmonton, around 10,000 gathered at the Legislature. There were several notable marches against cuts to education and healthcare, anti-racism rallies, and what appears to be an endless stream of demonstrations protesting public health restrictions.
So far, 2021 has been no different.
You can take something that hurt you and you can change it into something that will drive you.
Every week, the headlines seem to be full of protests and counter-protests, demonstrations and rallies. And with last week’s news of a mass grave containing 215 missing First Nations children found at a former residential school in Kamloops*, we see again how grief and trauma can fuel social movements.
“You can take something that hurt you and you can change it into something that will drive you,” said Mekwun Moses, who organized a vigil for those children in Edmonton on Monday night.
We’re seeing this drive in action right now: consider today’s news that after a four-year campaign by students, staff and Indigenous community members, Langevin Science School in Calgary (named for one of the architects of the residential school system) will be returning to its original name of Riverside School.
Why have people in Alberta become so outspoken?
This recent activity of social movements is all the more noteworthy given Alberta’s reputation for a lukewarm-to-nonexistent culture of protest.
Growing up in Calgary, I was only dimly aware of the G8 demonstrations in Kananaskis in 2002 (being 12 years old at the time and preoccupied with Pokémon), but it was notable for being a shock that more than 5,000 Albertans would turn out to such an event.
On a Sunday in April two years earlier, 3,000 people rallied in Calgary to protest a private health care bill that then-Premier Ralph Klein was determined to pass in the legislature. Organizers reportedly wondered if anybody would show up given Calgary’s conservative character, but it was a weekend in which Albertans were “uncharacteristically vociferous,” one Globe and Mail reporter wrote. A similar protest in Edmonton the day before saw more than 8,000 people gather for the same cause.
Part of Alberta’s reputation for political apathy stems from the province’s history of tenacious political dynasties.
“From 1971 until 2015, there was a sense that the only way to make change was through the ruling party, and that limited what political action was possible,” said Roberta Lexier, who researches social movements at Mount Royal University. It’s hard to feel motivated to march for a cause or door knock for a candidate when odds are that the province will elect the same party it did the last 12 times.
If you think electoral politics are limited, then the next option for most people is to get in the streets.
That changed in 2015, when Albertans elected the first non-Progressive Conservative government in 44 years. Obviously that didn’t change the culture of protest in Alberta overnight, but it allowed many Albertans to rethink the potential for change within the electoral system, while also revealing its limits.
Lexier identifies former Alberta Premier Rachel Notley’s willingness to go to bat for the embattled Trans Mountain pipeline expansion as a key moment where dismayed progressive Albertans—who’d seen potential for sweeping political change in the NDP, especially on climate action—encountered the limits of effecting political change through politicians.
“If you think electoral politics are limited, then the next option for most people is to get in the streets,” Lexier said.
Also during Notley’s term, we saw protestors at an anti-carbon tax rally chanting “lock her up,” echoing a refrain from then-U.S. President Donald Trump’s campaign. From there it was a hop, skip and a drive to yellow vests, convoys in the streets and a bid for Alberta secession with a “Wexit.”
Between the provincial elections of 2015 and 2019, political discourse in Alberta became increasingly polarized. These days we seem to be a province divided, especially on topics like energy, environment and taxation.
As opposing social movements fight for change, what does it mean for our future? And what’s motivating us to be so outspoken at this moment? Today, The Sprawl kicks off our new Protest Edition. We’ll dig into these questions throughout June and look at the politics of protest—whether it’s happening in the streets, in the corridors of power, or on the front yards of your own neighbourhood.
I hope this continues on for as long as we live — bigger crowds coming together, shouting at the top of our lungs for what we deserve — because it’s been too long.
Speaking to a crowd of about 300 people outside Alberta’s legislature building Monday night, Moses said she couldn’t believe how many of them heard her call to action on social media. Last night’s vigil is yet another reminder that people in Alberta are no longer content with keeping quiet.
“I hope this continues on for as long as we live—bigger crowds coming together, shouting at the top of our lungs for what we deserve—because it’s been too long,” Moses said. “Our people have experienced enough trauma, enough cultural genocide. Being somebody of a younger generation, as long as I’m alive, I’m not going to sit back and watch it happen any longer.”
Miranda Martini is The Sprawl's associate editor.
* If you’re a residential school survivor experiencing distress because of this news, the 24-hour National Indian Residential School Crisis Line is available to listen and support: 1-866-925-4419