As the tories pack their bags after eight miserable years, it's an opportunity to take a momentary breather and reflect on the way the rascals goaded some of us into stretching the bounds of social activism. In taking on their cult-like rule, we had to be wily, to move like rapid response teams and to pack our tactical punches with humour and a sense of the absurb. From the time the first cuts in services began, my friends and I in Toronto Action for Social Change (TASC) showed up twice a week at the legislative steps for prayer vigils. This went on for five years. We were there for our session the day the first protestor-blocking barricades were sunk into the concrete. Twice a week from then on we made a habit of scaling the metal barriers to occupy the steps and continue our usual appeal to the divine. Father Bob Holmes, a Basilian priest, often led readings as we heard security over their walkie-talkies call out in frustration, "They're praying again!" Security gathered around us and scolded that these were not "proper" demonstrations.
TASC members were arrested for a variety of actions at the legislature, including the pouring of stage blood on the steps on Martin Luther King Day in January 1996. We were trying to say that the Tories had blood on their hands: Dudley George, the deaths of homeless people, women forced back into battering relationships when shelters were full, and those dying in hospital hallways and from smog.
We planted seasonal gardens under Mike Harris's office window and built a house there, too. We presented a birthday cake to the premier to see if it was the only thing in Ontario he would not cut. And at the end of a 10-day hike to end hunger and homelessness, we attempted to evict him.
We were almost always acquitted in the courts. The plant-in produced the first in a series of significant precedents, in which Justice Paul Bentley concluded that "one must start from the basic principle that in our society peaceful protest should not only be allowed but encouraged."
While the courts had no problem with TASC activities, the Tories certainly did. On October 1, 1998, House Speaker Chris Stockwell issued a ban against five members of our group for pouring water-soluble stage blood on the legislature walls. We were not allowed to go near our seat of government on pain of arrest.
Stockwell said the ban would stand as long as he was speaker, with no route of appeal. When a reporter asked if the ban was reasonable, Stockwell defied 50 people in Ontario to state that it was not. Over 500 wrote letters to Stockwell saying it was undemocratic. Due to the threat of arrest, we could not personally present these petitions. Memorable among the letters was one from Margaret Atwood, who declared, "This is not Stalin's Russia, Mr. Stockwell, nor Pinochet's Chile. You are not an absolutist dictator. Don't act like one.'
But Stockwell refused to budge. Finding no other options, the group, joined by about 75 others, openly defied the ban on King Day 1999. Despite a heavy police presence, no one was arrested. Disappointed that we would not be able to challenge this ban in the courts, our hearts lightened a month later when police started appearing on our doorsteps with court summonses. In scenes straight out of It's A Wonderful Life, we jubilantly told the police, "We're being charged! This is great!"
A year later, after a trial and Charter challenge, we were acquitted for defying the ban, but the court refused to rule on its constitutionality. "It would be untenable for the government to use the law of trespass to quell the freedom of expression on state-owned property," Justice of the Peace Richard Quon concluded. The ban nonetheless remains in effect. The government immediately chose to appeal this decision. After much legal wrangling, the case goes back to trial in November. A week of court time has been booked. An old case - tried in a new climate. Or will it be?