A province wide campaign has been launched to raise Ontario’s minimum wage to $14 an hour. To initiate the campaign blocks of ice containing $10.25, the current minimum wage, were delivered to politicians across the province with the request that we melt the minimum wage freeze. I participated in this going with my local anti-poverty group to visit two MPPs – Rick Bartolucci and France Gelinas.
I was the contact person for the media and since we had sent out a media release beforehand I had hoped for phone calls from local reporters. I was not prepared for the phone call, the day before the event, from the local police liaison-officer. He wanted to know what our organization was planning on doing and if he could be of any assistance. Since what we were planning was a simple visit to talk to two of our elected politicians in their constituency offices, I was quite horrified by the phone call. We were breaking no laws and planning no public disturbance. Talking with local politicians is not a matter for the police to be involved in.
Now eleven members of the anti-poverty group had been arrested previously for setting up a mock homeless shelter at the office of one of the members of provincial parliament and the trespassing charges are slowly working their way through the court system but no restrictions had been placed on them. They were not banned from the building. They were not told they may never approach the politician or his staff with their concerns about government policy. Unless they cause another disturbance there’s no need for police involvement.
The police liaison questioned why we had booked an appointment with one MPP but not with the other. The answer was easy. One MPP has a notice on her webpage that her office is open by appointment only on Fridays, and since Friday was the day we planned on going it seemed prudent to book the appointment. The other office is open every day of the week, so there didn’t seem to be a need. Moreover previous attempts to book an appointment involved being told to call the Ottawa office and schedule several months in advance. So there didn’t seem to be a point in trying. The police liaison officer told me he might be able to arrange a meeting for us with the politician or one of his staff. The idea of having to go through the police in order to book an appointment with the politician horrified me.
The police liaison officer stressed to me that he has been helpful with local #idlenomore protests and that it was just about sharing information. Yet the very idea of having the police involved in public protests annoys me. What kind of protest is it if the police tell you where you can go or not? Organizations can buy a permit to hold protests but how is it a protest if you have to seek out government approval before hand? I was uncooperative with the police officer on instinct, and that’s strange for me to say because I really do have a strong respect for authority figures, just not when police try to get involved in people’s ability to make a political statement.
This all brings me back to questions of how we change political policy. Is there a time for struggle and for inconveniencing others? What venues are open to us for getting messages across? There are the peaceful no-inconvenience to anyone else methods like political lobbying and letter writing, and those don’t need police involvement what so ever, and there are other methods like sit-ins that do cause inconvenience and just won’t ever happen if we did seek police assistance for all our actions. Yet those are valid ways of making a point too.
I hear Mr. Bartolucci talk about the anti-poverty organization and friends being “rabble-rousers” and not experts, and I hear him say that in a democracy they don’t change political policy because people attempt to take over a constituency office. I think yes, but I also know that our action and the dozen police vehicles surrounding the building brought a ton of media publicity. We followed it up with working with our city council to get them to pass a motion asking for the cuts to the Community Start-Up and Maintenance Benefit to be reversed. Other antipoverty organizations did similar actions and the end result of all the outcry across the provinces was that the Liberal government did, at the last minute (December 27th), give a one-time extra $42 million to the replacement program. Some would argue that it was the municipal government’s motions that caused the money to be given, others think it was the street pressure. I don’t know but I honestly think that each action inspired another action. We were inspired by the actions were heard of elsewhere and we had others say they were inspired by the actions they heard of here. Definitely we had a lot of increased support locally after the arrests took place.
When we went to France Gelinas office yesterday she said that politicians are followers not leaders, and that they need us to continue the actions we take. Was it an excuse for her and her party not taking a stronger stance on issues of social justice? Probably, but there’s also truth to it. They follow because they feel following will be the way to get elected. We need to show that there’s political will to end poverty. We need to show it in any way we can, from writing letters to taking to the streets to sit-ins and street theatre.