On February 15th, activist extraordinaire Dave Meslin delivered an 85-minute talk at Hart House entitled Flirting With Democracy. He examined the subject of citizen advocacy from a number of angles, sharing the lessons he'd learned from two decades of working for change. (In the interest of disclosure, I should mention that I am friends with Meslin and was one of the people who headed up his Toronto Public Space Committee following his departure from it.)
Here, transcribed and edited, are three of his anecdotes concerning engagement in simple acts of resistance.
A few funny things about the above grad photo: you can see in it that I'm not very happy. Partially because I'm a teenager, and that's my job. Partially because there's a huge zit on the end of my nose.
But I also wasn't happy in this particular moment because there was a table, a small table in the room that had a bouquet of flowers on it - bright red flowers. And I said to the photographer, "What are the flowers for?"
And he said, "Well, those are for the girls. When they do the grad photos of women, they hold the flowers."
I said, "Okay. Can I hold the flowers?"
And he said, "Of course not, I just told you, those are for the women." Like as if I was crazy. Maybe I was, I don't know; I didn't seem so to me. I like flowers.
I wanted the flowers in my photo, so I said, "Come on, let me hold the flowers."
He said, "No, absolutely not, it's only for the women."
And I was really insistent, you know. I think I reminded him that my mom's paying for these photos, so I'm technically the customer, through one degree of separation, and the customer's always right.
And I don't know if it's because of my logic or because I kept harassing him over and over, but eventually...
He allowed me to hold the flowers.
In the 1993 Earl Haig yearbook, I was the only male to hold the flowers (and might still be to this day). And they look good! But most importantly: look how much happier I am.
The moral of the story is that if you stand up and fight for what you believe in, you will be happier.
I was talking to a bunch of high school kids a few years ago, and I was talking about things that matter a lot to me: billboards, ballots, bicycles. "B" things. And they couldn't care less. And I don't blame them: I was older, I was in a different stage of my life and I could tell they started tuning me out.
I was supposed to be talking about civic engagement, so I tried a different approach. I said, "Okay, what do you care about?"
And some of their eyes kind of opened a bit, and they were like, "Oh, no one ever asked me that before."
"So what would you change, if you could change one thing; you're the prime minister, you're the premier, you're the mayor. If you could change anything you want, what would it be?"
And they were shy, and they were thinking, and I said, "Okay, let's make it even easier. Let's bring it really small: you're the principal of the school - what's one thing you would change in the school if you were totally in charge?"
And they had to think about it a bit, because no one had necessarily asked them that before.
One kid puts up his hand, and he says, "Hats."
I was like, "What about them?"
And he said, "We're not allowed to wear hats." And he was upset about that. It was some kind of deep infringement on his democratic right to wear a hat. Probably how I felt in high school when I wasn't allowed to run for class president (due to my marks).
And I said, "Okay. So have you ever thought about changing that?"
And he's like, "No, of course not." It was astounding to him that any stupid rule could change; stupid rules are like concrete, they're static, they're not malleable.
And I said, "Well, maybe there're things you could do. Have you ever actually set up a meeting with the principal to ask what the rule's about? Have you started a petition? Have you started a Facebook group?"
And I said, "Have you done research? There's probably data out there, there's probably been PhD theses done showing that there's no correlation between dress codes and dropout rates and schoolyard violence and health. (There's probably PhD theses showing the opposite, too: that's the beauty of data, you can make it say whatever you want. But find the one that works for you, and show that to your administration.) Have you had any parents on board who would support you? Have you done a press conference? Do you know that media love youth who are fighting back against the man? And if you do it with a smile and a good slogan and a banner, you'll get media there."
(I was in the Toronto Star in grade 11, because I found asbestos in my locker. The reporter's still at the Star: Bruce DeMara. And he actually came to my school, reported on it, and the school got shut down. For a whole week!)
So by the end of talking this through, all their eyes were open; they were all suddenly engaged. I'd suddenly taught them about something they actually care about.
Now, obviously, you might be thinking: well, hats aren't gonna change the world, who cares if they can wear hats? I say to you, it's a gateway drug. If young people at that age really care about hats, let them fight for their hats.
One of the biggest youth-led marches in Toronto is the Global Marijuana March. Again: gateway drug. I don't really care if they smoke pot, I don't care if it's legal or not. But the fact that they're marching excites me.
The point is that these guys can fight for hats and win it. That'll change the rest of their lives, because they'll realize that things are malleable. This podium here is totally non-malleable, and I think one of the biggest obstacles to change is that people see the world that way.
Someone will ride a bike on a street without a bike lane, and it won't cross their mind that there might be a process where they could successfully advocate to add a bike lane on to that street. It doesn't mean they're apathetic; it means they're alienated from the system. Disillusioned. It's nothing to do with apathy at all.
One thing I pitched to those kids was, "Why don't you ask the administration if you could wear hats once a month, as a pilot project? I think if you put those proposals forward, you'd probably get it." Their minds were kind of blown.
I don't know whatever happened there. And you should have seen the teachers, at the back of the room. They were like, "Who invited this guy? What's going on?"
I also learned that, with very little resources, you can influence major change.
One of the first times I learned this was during a campaign against the Adams Mine. This was at City Hall, just over ten years ago. And there was a proposal to ship all of our garbage up into this big pit in Kirkland Lake called the Adams Mine.
And we had David Suzuki and other scientists look at the data and tell us that this plan was insane.
They weren't gonna put a liner on the mine. The company was called Rail Cycle North, and they essentially said that you don't have to worry about any chemicals from our garbage leaking out, because "as far as we can tell, water is leaking in. There's like a vacuum, essentially: there's higher pressure outside the pit than inside the pit, so if water is leaking in, we don't have to worry about water leaking out. And we're just gonna fill this whole thing with garbage."
And we had a First Nations group up there that was against it, and the mayor of Kirkland Lake was against it, but most of Toronto City Council was in favour of it.
So I was working on the campaign with Tooker Gomberg, with the Toronto Environmental Alliance, with a radical-left, rogue city councillor named Jack Layton.
And at one point during our campaign, Rail Cycle North, which had tons of money, put an ad on the radio, on CHUM-FM. It essentially said, "This mine is really safe, and everyone up there wants it, and First Nations want it, and nothing's gonna leach out, and you should just trust us and support this project."
And we were really pissed off, because we didn't have the money to fight against that message. And we knew that it wasn't true, on lots of counts.
But we did have this massive email list of about 1000, 2000 people. So I sent an email to all them saying, contact CHUM-FM and demand that this ad get pulled off the air right away.
So they started phoning. And then I get a phone call from CHUM-FM, saying like, "Can you make these people stop? We're getting all these phone calls, we can't handle all these calls. All we did was take an ad from a customer. We don't know about science and mines and garbage - all we did was place an ad."
And I said, "Well... you could stop the ad."
They said, "Well, we can't. They paid us for it; we have a contractual obligation."
And I said, "Okay, could you place an ad for us? For free? So these people are hearing both side of the story?"
I'm not a total left-wing, socialist, anti-capitalist kind of guy. But if there is one major flaw of capitalism, it's that it gives such a loud voice to those who have wealth and capital, which means people aren't being exposed to both sides of most debates when we're actually trying to figure out things like where our garbage should go.
And I said, "Well, why don't you at least level the playing field? We're not a garbage company - we're not a company at all - I'm just a dude. Could you place an ad?"
And they said, "Fine. We'll do it." And they said, "We can't do it for free, because we have some kind of rule - but we could, for like 300 or 400 bucks, essentially give you tens of thousands of dollars' worth of ad time, if you can get these goddam people to stop phoning us and emailing us." Heck, we were probably faxing then; this was '99.
This is the audio from the ad that, for a total of $500, ran on both CHUM-FM and EZ Rock for a whole week:
They even let us record it in their studios.
And we won that campaign: our garbage never went up to the Adams Mine. Mostly because Layton inserted this liability clause which made the whole deal fall apart in the end. (It's amazing what councillors can do; there's a lot of tricks.)
But for those of us who worked on the ground in the grassroots campaign, it was so inspiring. And every time I've worked on one of these campaigns, and we've beaten a big company, I got more and more hooked on the idea that citizens on their own can make a difference.
In this case, it's just because we asked people to bombard them with phone calls.