It is a warm spring night on St. Laurent Street. At 8pm, the appointed hour, my group of friends were on the lookout to join one of the neighbourhood pot banging orchestras. The pot banging or casseroles, as you may remember, were a nightly citizen’s revolt against the special law forbidding gatherings during the 2012 Quebec students’ strike.
Armed with a cellular phone and some rusted pots, we waited until the hashtag #casseroles popped up on our twitter feeds disclosing a location. The #casseroles turned into a march which turned into an all—out celebration with people that we didn’t know. There being no organizers, the location of the march, followed a whimsical and surprising course.
#manifencours enabled us to find out about instant rallies. The @SPVM account helped the more intrepid amongst us to avoid illegal ones, or to avoid getting involved in the first place.
From our Maple Spring, to the Arab spring, the hashtag has been especially popular with younger activists. Twitter and Facebook are vectors for bringing disparate people together instantaneously. Obama and Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi capitalized on social media to transform themselves from underdogs to champions. Instantaneous, uncensored, and able to bring people together– we brandished our outrage on Facebook or Twitter.
While the days of telephone trees, mail-outs, and e-mail chains are not completely dead, it seems that those without a smart phone and a Facebook account are feeling themselves more and more out of the loop.
Montreal has seen an explosion of hashtag activism #ggi, #manifencours, #idlenomore, #femen and #occuponsmontreal, the student strike, Idle No More, Femen, and Occupy Montreal respectively. We will look at some of the key social media organizers of this movement, and see whether social media is a tool for good: does it actually lead to concrete change, or does it just give the NSA and the Montreal police a surveillance trail?
Melissa Mollen Dupuis: Idle No More Québec
(photo: from Twitter)
Of Innu origins, Idle No More Quebec organizer Mellissa Mollen Dupuis was a teenager during the Oka crisis in 1990. She remembers being with the movement, and the famous photos with a masked Mohawk man staring down a Canadian soldier. One of the “children” of Oka, she is now one of the major instigators of Idle No More Quebec.
After years of Canadian colonization, an inadequate education system, and poverty, and living conditions comparable to the developing world, Idle No More, the native spring, was a welcome, if unexpected, change in Canadian politics. Named after a teach in, it was started by Saskatchewan activists Nina Wilson, Sheelah Mclean, Sylvia McAdam, and Jessica Gordon in November 2012 after the Harper Omnibus bill C-45 took away water protections. The result was a social media fueled movement with flash mobs, round dances, rallies, and the blocking of train tracks and major arteries. Often, there were rallies all over Canada with thousands of people.
Mollen Dupuis says, “We want to re-appropriate our space in the media and in the public sphere, our history also because unfortunately, many people often think that the First Nations no longer exist, however, we are still here!”
Ken Coates is professor at the University of Saskatchewan and author of #Idle No More and the remaking of Canada, an upcoming book on the Idle no More movement.
“Idle no more is one of the most remarkable political sort of social movements in Canadian history. This more than anything this was a cultural renaissance. And It was a statement about identity and survival. It was a celebration more than it was a protest. It was more singing and dancing. And then there was screaming and yelling,” says Coates.
The movement is leaderless, pacifist, indigenous, and privileging the voice of native women, Coates explains, “It tapped into something that is very profound; it tapped into the power of youth, it tapped into the remarkable strength of aboriginal women who have emerged as the most potent sort of group in society and who will emerge in a major way in the coming decade or two. It tapped into the need for aboriginal people to find common cause with each other to somewhat recognize and celebrate their own language and culture but also to realize that they are not in it, alone.”
The pacifism is also important, Mollen Dupuis adds, “We block economic arteries, but not forever, and we won’t destroy things. And when we block something, we do so, by dancing.”
Merging the traditional and the modern, native culture, and stories, with hyperlinks. “We use stories which come from the past and we don’t exclude our traditions and culture, even if we are modern. Yes, I have a cell phone, and Facebook, but I also do my traditional activities.”
To illustrate her point, she takes out her cell phone which has an app for learning the Innu language, a language she says she is yet to master.
Mollen Dupuis says that natives have always mobilized. But this time, the Canadian government’s unprecedented resource grab — with pipelines and fracking— puts the environment and native survival in danger.
“This is not the first mobilization; it is only one among many others. And it is the biggest because we live in urgent times. The Mohawks asked for the respect of their land, and that is what we are doing right now at a bigger scale because we have realized that the exploitation of the land has taken up so much more space.”
Xenia Chernyshova: Femen Québec
(photo courtesy of Femen Québec)
Promoting a “naked war”, Femen, the made-in-Ukraine movement, aims to end patriarchy, discomfort dictatorships, and get rid of the sexual exploitation of women. Their brand of topless protest uses surprising civil disobedience tactics to bring media attention to feminist issues very much in the style of Greenpeace.
They have protested at the Vatican, cut down the cross in Maidan square, ambushed talk shows, and criticized Putin and former Ukrainian president Yanukovych. Inspired by Marxism, and the Viennese actionist movement, the Ukrainian woman have been kidnapped by Belarus’s KGB and have become outlaws in Ukraine and now live in exile in France and Switzerland.
An international group, Femen has boot camps in Paris which teach budding feminists how to scream, resist arrest, pose in an aggressive way, and to otherwise stay strong physically and mentally during an action.
The Quebec movement made headlines when they protested the crucifix in the National Assembly topless from the National Assembly’s public gallery while then premier Pauline Marois spoke.
Chernyshova says that it flips the sexualized image of women on its head. Instead of being used for men’s consumption, nudity is used for women’s rights.
“What really attracted me in Femen was the okay, I know that I have power because I am a sex object , but at the same time, maybe I can use this power to knock out the one who is looking at me or the one who judge me or the one is wanting something from me, whatever, I just want to question everybody.”
” Femen” is a kind of political playgirl. It uses aggressive eroticism as tools…as weapons. And it was something that really that fucks up people’s minds because they never saw that before.”
François Genest: Occupy Montréal
(photo from Facebook)
A worldwide movement which needs no introduction, Occupy Montreal is inspired by Occupy Wall Street and the occupation of Zuccotti park to protest taxation and banking policies, amongst others that benefited the one per cent at the expense of everyone else. In 2011, Occupy Montreal occupied Victoria Square with a tent city. They were evicted by police a month later. They continue to organize through their Forum and Facebook page, and have neighbourhood chapters such as Occupons Sud-ouest and Occupons Mile End.
Julian Royal: CLASSE, Québec Students’ Strike
Website: asse-solidarite.qc.ca, www.bloquonslahausse.com
And who could forget the student strike with its sea of thousands of protestors overwhelming the downtown core on March 22, 2012, the special law against protests, the arrests, the nude rallies, and the battles between students and the Liberal government? An attempt to scale back the Liberal’s tuition increase, it became a rallying call for a generation of Quebec students lasting seven months.
CLASSE was the most radical, arguing for free tuition while rallying the maximum numbers of students on strike. A coalition of ASSE, the Association de solidarité syndicale étudiante ,and several associations, the CLASSE collaborated with the university (FÉUQ) and CEGEP (FECQ) student associations.
Royal was the social media professional behind much of the tweeting and Facebooking.
“In life, popular support has never been on the side of social movements,” argues Royal, “(The media) told us, ‘but you don’t have public support’. But what we would say at ASSÉ, is that we don’t care about that. We were clear on that point. We said, the reality is that you have a generational clash, you have young people on the street, and the society is paralyzed right now. You have a choice: send in the cops to rough up your youth, and the popular support will come to our side, or you sit and negotiate with us.”
“That is something the media had never understood, that we are not speaking to the parents who are 60-65 years old, but we were speaking to their children. And if we brought along the children, that the parents would have no choice to get involved because they saw their own kids roughed up by the police.”
Social Media’s Use
With media concentration, many activists feel that social media is their oxygen, it is the only way to bypass the Sun News, Fox News, Postmedia conglomerates.
For Mollen Dupuis, native issues are never covered, “There is not a lot of interest for native issues in the media. That is why we insist on social media. We put information there so everybody is aware of what is going on.”
For Chernyshova, most of the media don’t understand the feminist message underlying their actions, “It is the only place that we can have a voice except protests. When we send out press releases, nobody cares. Nobody wants to know. It is our only way to be heard and explained by ourselves, not by somebody else. That is why we use it. Facebook– it is kind of a freedom for us.”
It also helps communicate to members rapidly, under conditions that change fast. Genest agrees, “It permitted us to give virtual spaces where we could communicate with everyone. It had been useful for the rapid mobilization and eviction to stay in contact. During the occupation, social media was not used as much by the occupiers on the site because of a lack of time and access. Now, it is the way we distribute information on the primary social causes.
Royal says it was their life blood, especially during the Special Law, “There was a certain moment where ASSÉ wasn’t sure if it would defy the law or not, so we used a separate page to call a rally. The government would call press conferences at odd hours. They announced the special law at 9pm at night to avoid a rally. But through social media, we mobilized 15-20 thousand people at Émilie Gamelin Place that night.”
Mollen Dupuis says that is the only way, often, to really get to all native people, “We often make the joke that within the First Nations, even our grandmothers—everyone— is on Facebook. Because I have been in the regions where there are no roads. You have to get there by plane, but you can get Wifi. So that helps us to get their news. ”
She says it also helped translate into native and Inuit languages, “It allowed us to have news in our own language because people could write their news in Innu and Cree. Those who spoke French and English could translate that afterward. Also, they can translate back into their own language for those whose French or English is a second language.”
For ASSÉ, Facebook was used to mobilize their student body, inform them of decisions, and provide argument tools for activists. Twitter on the other hand was used to inform the general public, the media, and to confront pundits, the government, and the police, often to set the record straight.
Royal says, “We did a lot to reveal to the media all of the excessive treatment of the police and their strategic errors. Therefore, Twitter was a more confrontational place where we would debate our adversaries directly mostly the government, the ministers and of course, the police. We would contest their spin and their version of the facts. As much as possible, we tried to break their lies which they would promote on social media.”
The police, within the student strike, took an active interest in social media, but they had a steep learning curve compared to the students.
Royal laughs about it, “The police were not used to social media at the beginning of the strike. They were not capable of distinguishing between real and fake actions. So the more radical elements of the CLASSE started to organize fake actions. At a certain time, they organized one called ‘We will break the windows and flip the cars.’ In fact, they brought some toy cars and a window that they bought in a store. Then, they broke the window in a plastic bag and tossed the toy cars. We encouraged it and took photos and put it on social media and laughed because there were 20 police officers for three people.”
From memes, to Obama’s hope image that got spread out on Facebook, the message is decentralized and in the hand of those who contribute to it. Gone are the days of centralized command, of a line of attack; instead, there is remixing, mashups, the crowd actually comes back at you with their own ideas.
Julian Royal was inspired by the creativity of the strikers, “I think in a social movement, what’s important is to have an idea of the visual, the concept, the general political line and let people remix on that. I cannot tell you how much we were surprised by the creativity, but we integrated it. The strike had many spontaneous things that were not organized and we didn’t control. (Rabbit Crew,L’école de la montagne rouge) In all of the rallies, it created a political imagery around the strike.”
In one case, L’École de la montagne rouge , they sent out posters that they had produced, and invited everyone to print them out and take them to the rally.
Mollen Dupuis says that Idle No More was so decentralized that when she tried to get permission to do something in Montreal, they told her that they didn’t have to ask for permission, “It was for us to organize ourselves, and no one would give us the right to speak, and no one would take it away.”
Coates adds, “Idle No More had no centre. The most amazing thing about it is that it is the fact that the leader— the people who put it together—essentially established the organizational core went out of their way not to take the spotlight. Everyone knew who they were— the four women from Saskatchewan— everybody knew what they had done. But they were extraordinary, one of the most remarkable acts of political leadership that I have seen where they sort of don’t hog the spotlight, they let everyone at the local level stand up for themselves which is exactly the point.”
Genest says decentralization was useful, “Decentralization helped us show that there wasn’t a group or a person who directed the movement. To counter our movement, the police had to make an international, concentrated effort. ”
But decentralization can have its problems, lack of focus, inability to set a political agenda and common goals. The question that trailed Occupy and many of these movements is what do they want exactly?
Coates saw this question often from the media regarding Idle No More, “I think the problem was that the non-aboriginal community looks for who are the leaders, they are more comfortable in seeing who’s the leader, what are the demands, where’s the manifesto, where are the list of expectations?”‘
Censorship and Surveillance
And there is of course, the dark side of social media; censorship and surveillance. Facebook, Twitter and YouTube can all remove content from the internet. They can all report to state or other authorities.
Chernyshova’s Facebook account has already been taken down, “ Facebook has often cancelled our accounts, I don’t know how many times. Even my personal account just because I was too involved in the Ukrainian revolution and posting a lot of facts about what was really happening out there. In the beginning, it was just photos because there were pictures of naked breasts. We found out the trick was to hide the nipple. You can see so many girls wearing strings and being in very pornographic positions and it is fine, but Femen, no.”
All of these groups have been made aware that are being monitored by police and other agencies. The Harper Government has, in fact, created a monitoring agency to monitor all activists, especially those who target major infrastructure or resources.
Mollen Dupuis says that she lives her life openly and has nothing to hide, “People say to us ‘it is because you have done something bad.’ I say that it is because we have done something good. It is dangerous when you do something good because if it works, the government is not happy since we are against their pipeline project.”
Genest says, “Complete transparency is an effective way to control surveillance. When nothing is hidden, nothing can be used against all of the participants.”
Femen found out that they were in the Canadian police register as a terrorist group. Chernyshova says, “I don’t know why they are scared of us : we are just ordinary girls and we have no power to change anything in society.”
Royal says that he’s not worried because most activists do not put anything they don’t want seen on the internet. And he says, for years, governments have been unable to really catch people with all the methods at their disposal. He adds, “The majority of direct actions were organized by word of mouth in apartments or in the parks, in places where there were no microphones and everyone would shut off their cell phone and remove the battery. The issue of policing of the internet is not a problem if people have the right conception of what the internet is. It is a public place, ” concludes Royal.
The Digital Divide
But the internet is still not an activist utopia. The digital divide still exists. While more and more people are moving to the internet, those who are rural, francophone, poor, old, or immigrant are less likely to be on the wifi express.
The web— especially Twitter— is seen more a tool for the fashionable chattering classes, instead of a tool for real community groups: anti-poverty groups, refugee groups, housing groups , for example.
Coates agrees, “Most of the aboriginal organizations, whether it is the friendship centre or the community centre youth centre, these are community funded, soft funded centres lots of things going on don’t have these social media opportunities. And so, there are lots of opportunity for greater activity if the resources were there, so on the university campuses a lot of the moral force from this emerged you know high levels of connectivity, high levels of access to the internet and social media and what have you, and also very good social networks, as well.”
Royal says that are strategies to get everyone aboard the internet, but thinks that the digital divide is getting less and less important since with time, everyone is adopting it.
“Doing social media requires energy that they do not often have, and that is a problem. Those are the organizations whose public funding is cut so they have less money and they have to give more services. They don’t have the funding for that. All the groups who fight against poverty cannot all have their own Facebook page, that they give it to their provincial organization to do. I think that poorer groups have an interest in developing links with richer groups who communicate to the same types of people. ”
From Montreal to Cairo…
But there seems to be a flurry of youthful, international wired activity not seen in several generations, all festive, cultural and plugged in. And they all seem to inspire each other. Mollen Dupuis was inspired by Occupy and supported the student strike, and that students supported Idle No More. The Occupy critique of banks and the lack of redistribution of wealth was on the minds of the Maple Spring’s leaders.
Idle No More was supported by many non-natives in the environmental movement. Coates says that despite the fact that Egypt was a dictatorship, the disengagement of Egyptian youth and their unemployment was not unlike the case with native youth.
But why all these movements here? Why now?
Coates says that for native youth, the acceleration of native youth entering university, has been a dramatic catalyst for the Idle No More movement. Dupuis adds that natives are the largest growing population in Canada with 50 per cent of natives under the age of 25.
Royal says that it all has to do with the timing. The technological things which he was able to do wouldn’t have even been possible five years ago. Wifi and internet speeds have completely changed and as a result, the velocity of people coming together. But he says there is something more profound.
“For the first time, it is a generation that hasn’t known the big recent ideological disenchantments in Quebec. They have never voted in a referendum, and they have never been ‘disappointed’ by the failure of socialist ideas after the fall of the Berlin Wall.”
Mollen Dupuis says it is also the result of an extremist federal government. She says even without the web, natives had their own old school social media, through the oral tradition where everyone would teach several people who would go on to teach other people, a web of sorts.
“Social media is a tool, not an ideology. If we don’t have social media, we will exist on radio; if we don’t exist on radio, we will exist on paper; if we don’t exist on paper, we will organize with the oral tradition: everyone will share the story and spread it.”