Digital Grassroots Puts Harper on Notice
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Digital Grassroots Puts Harper on Notice

If a poll were taken to assess the attitudes of Canadians, even the politically engaged, in the days and weeks before the January 23 anti-prorogation demonstrations, the results probably wouldn’t be that flattering.
Perhaps “failure” is an unfairly strong word, but to many, the predicted outcome of several weeks’ organizing was an anticlimax, an end to which some less-than-faithful optimists found themselves resigned. With elections like 2008’s, you can’t really blame those who pointed their fingers at a well-honed sense of Canadian cynicism, even as the headlines heralded a two hundred thousand–strong wave of resistance on Facebook. Most shrugged their shoulders and intoned four Twitter-era syllables: slacktivism.

The Onion’s Mike DiCenzo put it best. “For years, government-backed Arab forces known as the Janjaweed militia had attempted to wipe out black farmers in Sudan’s western Darfur region,” he joked to Youth Radio‘s Nico Savidge. “However, just as they were about to set fire to another village, word reached them that an American teenager thought that what was happening in Sudan ‘sucked.’ After learning that all her friends agreed, they immediately called off the whole genocide.”
To the cynics, it was probably assumed that Saturday’s protests would amount to something similar: a quarter-million Facebook avatars united in armchair dissent while maybe a few hundred people actually took to the streets. Twitter would be alight with hundred-character manifestos; for an hour or so, the halls of power would tremble, at least until eclipsed by Conan O’Brien’s farewell “Freebird” solo the night before.
Call it the growing pains of a still-nascent digital medium.
Although Twitter has shaken despotic strangleholds on information—especially in places like Iran, as we saw with grim clarity during the summer of 2009—it’s characteristic of our disaffection to see it and other social networking tools as the essence of Western sloth, not a powerful facilitator. Assumption suggests that if given the opportunity, anything that invites us to sit vacantly in front of a monitor having the day’s news pumped into our brains will keep us there: a passivity antithetical to the demands of a mobilized grassroots.
So when the time comes to organize, does that mean Canadians will rally as passively as they consume? Walied Khogali, who helmed much of the weekend’s anti-prorogation action, doesn’t think so. “With regards to the acccusations of ‘slacktivism,'” he told Torontoist, “I believe Canadians have proven the pundits and cynics wrong. Saturday’s turnout illustrates that. Only four thousand folks confirmed on Facebook that they [would] be attending that rally. I think on Saturday that number was tripled.”
Estimates of the day’s turnout are a matter of dispute, but Khogali cites the crowd he saw—ten to twelve thousand strong—as a triumph. “The rally in Toronto was a success,” he said, “clearly demonstrating that Canadians do care about their Parliament and the state of our democracy. The proroguing of Parliament and suspension of democracy affects all Canadians, irrespective of their political affiliations.” He pointed to assemblies of ex-pats from as far afield as San Francisco, Oman, New York, London, and Dallas as further evidence “that all Canadians are paying attention, and they want a working government and less of the partisanship.” Canadians, divided by both party and geography, had risen against their government. And for a movement that started on a Facebook page, it was anything but “slacktivist.”
Some might describe it as a coming of age for the digital grassroots in Canada, what Khogali calls “netroots.” The past few years have seen online activism striding into substantive reality, with meaningful, real-world results, from Anonymous’ creative, snowballing movement against the Church of Scientology to the presidential campaign of Barack Obama. But with Canadians Against Proroguing Parliament joining those ranks comes a greater responsibility to stick to its own dissent, taking a cue from those with Guy Fawkes masks and “Change” T-shirts, especially considering the Harper government’s plans for the internet itself.
In the end, though, it all comes back to the people, especially at historic turning points. What should simultaneously boost Canadians and terrify Harper is what we saw aboard the eastbound subway at High Park Station, a rare display of pan-political camaraderie in a country defined by anything but.
“I’m just saying he works for us,” said the young kid with the dreads and the flannel, clearly expecting a fight. “I don’t care. You can argue about war and the environment and the economy all you want, but this is a democracy. He works for us.”
The older gentleman, similarly clad in flannel of his own, adorned with pins commenting on gun control and the need to support our troops, among other issues, could have been his grandfather. He smiled, grabbing the younger kid’s hand with a firm, friendly shake.
“I hear that, buddy,” he said. “I hear that.”
Photos by Miles Storey/Torontoist