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Democracy Demands The Freedom To Turn Celebration Into Protest

Why do we need to protect people who want to upstage or interrupt our celebrations, or other public gatherings?

07/06/2017 11:17 EDT | Updated 07/06/2017 11:23 EDT
THE CANADIAN PRESS/JUSTIN TANG
People hold up a sign during a demonstration on Parliament Hill, as a crowd gathered to erect a teepee as part of a four-day Canada Day protest, in Ottawa on Thursday, June 29, 2017.

Canada is now officially 150 years old. Some of us have been celebrating loudly, some of us have been protesting, and some of us have been doing both.

For those who wanted to simply have a fun Canada Day weekend, the right to dissent can seem like the right to be a nuisance. Some people even wonder why democracies protect the right to dissent when we already get to express our opinions at the ballot box during elections. After all, we choose the government that represents us. Those running for office tell us in advance what they plan to do. If they don't do what they promise, we can kick them out at the next election. That should be simple, right?

So why do we need to protect people who want to upstage or interrupt our celebrations, or other public gatherings?

On Canada Day, a group of Indigenous protesters attempted to raise a teepee on Parliament Hill. They told reporters that Canada Day was a painful reminder of the wrongs done to their people. They also wanted Canada to know that their people have been here for much longer than 150 years.

The protesters were told by Ottawa police and RCMP officers to take the teepee down. Several members of the protest group were arrested. Only later were they permitted to move the teepee to a place of prominence. No charges were laid against the protesters, who were subsequently released from custody.

Protest must strike while the iron is hot; while the public eye is turned toward them.

The thing about protest is that it needs to be immediate. If we have to wait years between elections -- and goodness knows how long the First Nations, Metis and Inuit peoples have been waiting for -- authorities to address their grievances, we run the risk that we will never be heard. Protest must strike while the iron is hot; while the public eye is turned toward them.

Governments and the public in general have short attention spans. What was a big issue a few weeks ago can fall out of the news very quickly. We cannot trust that our problems will be resolved solely in the halls of various governments. As citizens, we have the right to take nonviolent and persistent action, because elections are just not enough.

But why do some protests result in arrests and others in protection from censure? Why should our governments care about the content of the expression of the group gathered together? Shouldn't police be neutral on what is being said? Why should their focus be on anything other than the physical safety of the people present?

The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees the rights to freedom of expression, freedom of association and of peaceful assembly. This appears to mean that the government (against whose unreasonable actions the Charter protects us), is obliged to let people in groups have their say, so long as they do so peacefully. This should be content neutral. Opposing voices need to be heard by those in authority and by passersby alike.

Why was the first instinct of the police in Ottawa to shut down the Indigenous protest?

The freedom of expression of each of us means that we all must have the opportunity to gather information and evaluate it. If YOU are censored, MY freedom of expression is threatened. If I did not get to hear about the Indigenous people protesting on Canada Day on Parliament Hill, I cannot begin to understand what they want me to know. Now that I know, I can choose to support or to reject their argument. That is my right.

Why was the first instinct of the police in Ottawa to shut down the Indigenous protest? It is unclear to me whether the police did not want any unplanned structures to go up, whether they thought the protest against the Canada 150 celebrations constituted a threat to safety, or if they thought that Indigenous people were dangerous as a rule. We will likely never know.

But for me, the more important question remains, why did the police not understand their obligation to protect people's Charter rights? The right to peaceful protest, like all the other rights and freedoms, does not protect itself. Law enforcement is there to enforce laws equitably.

Do we need police to protect our safety? Without doubt. But we also need them to balance this objective with the protection of our right to be heard, to be seen even in unexpected places, and to be a nonviolent nuisance. Democracy demands no less.

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