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Comment: There was good reason to shout at the prime minister

Words such as “raucous” and “rowdy” are in a lot of the headlines about Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s town hall meeting in Nanaimo on Jan. 2, but none of the news stories capture the real frustration in that room.
Native elders turn their back and walk out on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as he participates in a town hall in Nanamio, B.C., on Friday, Feb. 2, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward

Words such as “raucous” and “rowdy” are in a lot of the headlines about Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s town hall meeting in Nanaimo on Jan. 2, but none of the news stories capture the real frustration in that room.

What was expressed, from the silent dignity of hereditary Indigenous chiefs from up the coast, to those of us with our banners and chants, to the folks who shouted at the prime minister until he had police drag them out, was a fury and heartbreak that comes only from being systematically ignored by those who are supposed to look out for you.

In response to the louder and more constant heckling, Trudeau genuinely got angry — at one point he truly lost his cool. He recovered quickly and dismissed the concerns, justifying his dismissal with a proclamation that those of us who disagreed with him “were not listening, not being respectful.”

The tragic irony here is staggering.

His government is forcing the Kinder Morgan pipeline through the territories of Indigenous nations who don’t want it, going completely against what climate science is telling us we must do and threatening one of the most incredible places on this planet.

His government is disregarding the concerns of many Indigenous nations about open-net fish farms in their water as trivial and ignoring the fact that reconciliation can’t happen if one party isn’t treated as equal.

These and other actions are the policy equivalent of shouting at us so that we can’t be heard, so that our voices are pushed aside and our power is taken away and all that we love is nationally categorized as expendable.

The difference is, no one comes to drag him out.

To me, the criticism of the tone of the protests misses this point. Is disrupting a public event with a world leader the most constructive way to contribute to meaningful dialogue? Probably not.

But when the prime minister thinks the profits of some supersede the safety, the livelihoods or the inalienable Indigenous rights of others, there’s not much meaningful dialogue to be had.

The prime minister’s go-to line when addressing questions about Kinder Morgan is a great case study on this.

“Canadians know we don’t have to choose between growing the economy and protecting the environment,” Trudeau proclaims again and again.

I’m sorry, but when the economy Trudeau is talking about is one that erases the right of consent for Indigenous nations, threatens endangered species and sustainable coastal economies and continues to pump climate-changing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, then, yes, we do have to choose between growing it and protecting the environment.

Yet through repetition and his position of power, Trudeau is instilling his message as the truth, and then shutting down all rejection of his domination of the conversation by calling it unrealistic, childish and not in the national interest.

This deserves nothing less than bold protest.

The criticism of the methods of this protest isn’t unexpected, nor is it all that discouraging. I can’t think of a mass movement that has achieved social or environmental progress and enjoyed widespread acceptance of its tone and tactics. Change is uncomfortable, so the road to it will be as well.

It was clear that the prime minister didn’t like having his preferred version of the conversation challenged, but this is the reality that so many — especially marginalized communities such as Indigenous people and people of colour — live as a result of some of his policies.

The frustration expressed, at the town hall and online, by citizens who thought the protests shut down dialogue, got a little taste of what it’s like for those of us who are fighting Kinder Morgan because it threatens everything we love.

I hope that everyone who felt cheated because something they were interested in got interrupted for a few minutes will try to imagine the agony of the Indigenous nations whose pleas for their right to say no to open-net fish farms have been ignored for decades.

The process that prioritizes some people and regions over others isn’t polite or respectful, and it’s unfair to expect that activism against it always should be.

So while “rowdy and tense town hall” makes a great headline, what really happened was a raw example of the friction and discomfort born from a system that concentrates power with the few and silences the many.

Let’s fight through this unfair system and build a better world instead.

Torrance Coste is the Vancouver Island campaigner for the Wilderness Committee.