Just after noon tomorrow, a few hundred protesters, many of them homeless, will arrive on the steps of Queen's Park with a very simple request. They want to speak to the Ontario Legislature about the effects its policies are having on the poor.
If history has anything to teach us, Mike Harris will make a get-tough speech about how Ontario's voters have made their voices heard and he won't be bullied—right before he calls in the cops for a smashup. The question is: How will the rest of us react?
I ask this because, since the E. coli outbreak in Walkerton, voters across Ontario have been searching their souls about the effects of Tory deregulation on real people and their daily lives. There has been widespread horror at the possibility that government cuts to the Ministry of the Environment, and downloading to municipalities, may have put the people of Walkerton at great risk.
"We have learned the lessons of Seattle and Washington," RCMP Constable Michele Paradis tells me on the cellphone from Windsor. She is in charge of media relations for the meeting of the Organization of American States that is coming to Windsor this weekend, along with a few thousand protesters who object to the OAS's plans to expand NAFTA into all of Central and South America.
"And what were those lessons?" I ask.
"I'm afraid I can't answer that," she says.
This is unfortunate, because there are any number of lessons that the Canadian police could have learned about how to treat protesters in the wake of November's demonstrations against the World Trade Organization and April's demonstrations against the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. In the absence of any elaboration from Constable Paradis, here are the key lessons the Mounties appear to have learned from their colleagues to the south.
Lesson #1: Strike pre-emptively.
Faced with the Million Moms in Washington and a mounting cry for tougher gun laws, the National Rifle Association has finally decided to pull out the really big guns. At its annual meeting in North Carolina last week, the organization announced its plans to open an NRA-theme restaurant and superstore right in the middle of Times Square: the NRA- Sports Blast and the NRA Grille.
They will fight mandatory trigger locks with greasy oversized hamburgers and brand-mobilia.
No longer will the awesome powers of lifestyle branding be left to the bleeding hearts over at the Rainforest Cafe, with their screeching parrots and tropical storms erupting on your potato skins. Soon, the NRA will sell tourists pieces of the gun-toting lifestyle, with shooting games to play and wild game to eat. No actual guns will be sold, just clothing and trinkets emblazoned with the NRA logo.
John Sugarmann, executive director of the U.S. Violence Policy Center, told reporters that this foray in "eater-tainment" shows that the NRA is "bizarrely out of sync" with the times.
Is it strange to quote NBC characters at policy meetings?
A few weeks ago, I participated in a serious roundtable discussion at the University of Toronto's venerable Massey College. The subject was whether a guaranteed annual income could be a viable campaign for the left. A group of political theorists, economists and activists debated the question, divided over whether the idea was too pie in the sky.
Which is when the TV show came up. "Well, to quote a recent episode of The West Wing," one of the policy experts said, "we need to raise the level of debate in this country."
The West Wing,which had its season finale last night, comes up a lot these days. It's especially popular on the left, where it serves as a kind of hallucinatory vision of how politics could be if Bill and Hillary Clinton weren't such sellouts to the business lobby.
Toronto ravers are trying to be so reasonable.
They have worked with City Council to draft the Protocol for the Operation of Safe Dance Events. The Toronto Dance Safety Committee has tried to make sure paramedic teams are at all the big parties.
And this week, at the inquiry into the death of 20-year-old Allan Ho, ravers are explaining that the primary cause of ecstasy-related death is dehydration. Therefore, they say, most of the risk from the drug can be eliminated at raves simply by making sure there is unlimited access to water and proper ventilation. What the ravers are only just beginning to understand is that none of this matters. The rave uproar, like all drug wars, isn't about safety, it's about politics. It's about the fact that a lot of parents don't understand their own kids: the way they dress, the music they listen to, the thing with the pacifier lollipops.
It was May Day when a leaked copy of the Retail Council of Canada's master plan to eliminate sweatshops came through my fax machine. London was rioting, two million people were protesting in Japan, and workers were smashing rice bowls in Hong Kong. As I read this feather-light document, designed, it proudly states, to assure "customers that the goods they buy are not produced under exploitative, inhumane or illegal working conditions," all I could do was laugh. Unlike tougher codes in Europe, and even the one just adopted by the University of Toronto, it said nothing about transparency, independent monitoring, or a living wage.
The retailers of Canada, it seems, are going to stop the sweatshop epidemic with nothing but bad blood and good intentions.
In June, 1998, Minister of Foreign Affairs Lloyd Axworthy was presented with a petition signed by 30,000 Canadians. It demanded that he convene a task force, much as the Clinton administration had done in the United States, to address the rise of sweatshop abuses in Canada and overseas.
Railing against the flawed methodology of polls published on the front page of The National Post is a little like pointing out that Leonardo DiCaprio's interview with Bill Clinton wasn't the proudest moment in journalistic history. True enough, sure, but must we really stare in gape-mouthed amazement at the obvious? And yet, last Thursday, my jaw went slack on me. "WTO protests fail to sway Canadians," read the banner headline in the Post. "Most support free trade talks, federal poll finds."
It wasn't just that the Angus Reid poll in question proved no such thing. It wasn't even that the research was conducted last December. It was that the day before the Post published that old poll, the same agency released the results of a brand new poll, and its very different findings went entirely unmentioned. This new Angus Reid poll, based on interviews conducted in February, showed that Canadians are split down the middle in their support for unregulated free trade and that "opposition to [the] World Trade Organization may be hardening."
My friend Mez is getting on a bus to Washington, D.C., on Saturday. I asked him why, and he said with all this intensity: "Look, I missed Seattle. There's no way I'm missing Washington."
I've seen people speak with that kind of unrestrained longing before, but the object of their affection was usually a muddy music festival where Beck shares a stage with the Beastie Boys, or a short-run New York play such as The Vagina Monologues.
I've never heard anyone talk that way about a political protest. Especially not a protest against groaner bureaucracies such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. And certainly not when they are being called on the carpet for nothing sexier than a decades-old loan policy called "structural adjustment."
Follow the logo.
If there is a guiding principle in the current wave of student activism, that is it.
At the University of Toronto, students are following their school's logo from T-shirts and sweatshirts to contract garment factories in Asia and Latin America. Last week, after a nine-day sit-in, students and administrators finally hammered out a strong code of conduct for the university's products. If it is approved by the U of T's governing council next month, the companies that license the school's insignia will have to pay their workers not only the legal minimum wage, but a living wage.
As I write this, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police are closing in on your position. Maybe you are already behind bars, imprisoned for crimes against Yahoo. They say you had something to do with the rash of attacks that crippled some of the most powerful commercial sites on the Net this month. They overheard you bragging about your exploits in an online chatroom: "U just pin em so hard they can't even redirect," you wrote, calling yourself "mafiaboy." They're still not sure who you are exactly, but they have a few hunches: You are based in my hometown (Toronto), you are 15 years old and you have a preoccupation with Satanism.
Nice cover. I know better, of course. Like so many who have secretly cheered your exploits (if indeed they are your exploits), I can see through the nihilistic pranksterism to another kind of Mafiaboy. My mythic Mafiaboy isn't a vandal but an anticorporate freedom fighter for the e-commerce age.