Guest Commentary

Bill Clennett


I’ve spent the greater part of my adult life in street politics promoting the right to housing, jobs for the unemployed and income support for the poor. People who are impoverished must find ways to get their issues on the political agenda.

“Professional protester” is a derogatory phrase used by the elites who profit by the status quo. They use it to disqualify opinions they don’t want to hear. Street demonstrations and civil disobedience are important and necessary means of affecting change. When I splashed paint on the Langevin Block in 1999, it was an attempt to wake up the political authorities to the fact that homeless people were freezing to death on the streets.

Demonstrations are a means of pressuring government. Of course there are people who shrink from street protest; we are after all socialized to obey and respect authority. This being said, where there is injustice, protest is both necessary and inevitable. It is a question of self defense. Such was the case in 1996 when a local demonstration against unemployment insurance cuts became a national event.

On February 15, 1996 then-Prime Minister Jean Chretien attended a Flag Day ceremony at a park in Gatineau, Que. Dozens of us had arranged to demonstrate against yet another weakening of the unemployment insurance program. We chanted, “Chretien, au chomage” (“You should be unemployed”). This had the effect of drowning out and ultimately putting an end to the Prime Minister’s speech.

He then left the podium and made his way through the crowd, surrounded by bodyguards and media. We continued chanting and I noticed that he was heading in my direction. He kept on coming and grabbed me. This happened very fast; the RCMP had to pull him off; they then threw me to the ground. The RCMP called it a “minor altercation”, but the altercation was all Chretien’s. In his version of the event the Prime Minister said: “Some people came in my way, it might have been… I had to go, so if you are in my way, I am walking. So I don’t know what happened. Something happened to somebody who should not have been there.”

It was indeed a peculiar moment seeing and hearing the Prime Minister lose control and behaving in an erratic manner. It was well-photographed; Global News’ video of the attack was named 1996 News Picture of the Year. It became iconic. Perhaps it was the toque I was wearing, or Chretien’s sunglasses. It was a powerful image: here was the head of government attacking a protestor. There was symbolism here that went beyond the event itself. In fact it was such a charged image it completely eclipsed the issue at hand.

It has been 18 years since the Chrétien government adopted bill C-12. During that period there has been a further weakening of the social protection in Canada with the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer. There have also been more and more people taking to the streets to fight for social justice. The Occupy Movement, Idle No More, the Quebec student movement, to name just a few are indicative of the fact that when attacked, people do organize, resist and fight back.

(Editor’s note: the author is a longtime community activist and Québec solidaire organizer)

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