Protests in Toronto: Spanning a Decade

By Ryan Bolton

Originally published in Spacing magazine’s Rules issue.

On a brisk Saturday afternoon, a rotund man is waving a black sign and chanting, zealously. Spittle is sticking to the edges of his graying beard. His right arm juts up and down brandishing a placard. It reads: “NO TO PROROGUING, YES TO DEMOCRACY.” Scanning to his left is Bob Rae hanging off to the side, sporting a black toque. Past him are thousands of toque-wearing heads. Above them is a forest of placards. They vary in message, but carry a similar sentiment. Their faces show signs of exasperation, but tend share a merry disposition. There are equal grins for each hoisted placard. It’s a joyous affair suffering from an upset stomach of mood. Like a massive birthday party that everyone showed up to but the birthday boy stayed home — well, 24 Sussex Drive to be precise. It’s a political protest — a well-attended one with a politically-cum-age diverse crowd — in Toronto. A city home to an annual buffet of collective frustrations.

The bearded man marches on and edges himself into the mass exodus pouring onto Yonge Street. Yonge-Dundas Square is packed with people on any given Saturday, naturally. But today’s crowd is different. The premises are stuffed with young, old, canine and a hodgepodge of political stripes. Upset by Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s call to close parliament’s doors, thousands took to one of Toronto’s arteries. Olivia Chow is here, too, alongside many of her supporters holding NDP-orange signs displaying: “DEMOCRACY WORKS. STAND UP TO HARPER.” After the fact, reports will widely vary on the number of protesters. They range from a modest 3,000 to a more liberal 12,000 demonstrators — all equipped with a placard, warm jackets and a dose of chagrin. They chant. They laugh. They wave their signs at bystanders hunting for bargains at H&M. Police officers donning bright yellow jackets with police emblazoned on the back are sprinkled along the perimeter. Some have bikes, others are in cruisers, most are on foot. The officers are here to ensure that everything runs smoothly, to keep the peace.

To make sure that no one breaks the rules, so to speak.

Toronto, being a bulky public (and democratic) space, is no stranger to the occasional protest. Within the last year alone, the city stopped — quite literally — and witnessed the media-soaked Tamil Tiger protests. Last Spring’s Iranian election saw hundreds of Torontonians pour into Mel Lastman Square to protest the re-election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Hordes of student protestors took to the typical stomping grounds of Queen’s Park to shed light on poverty last November. The fall also witnessed commuters protesting the TTC fare hike by boycotting the troubled transit system. The Olympic Torch was forced to detour after a wall of protestors blockaded Yonge Street in December. All of this said without mentioning the myriad of smaller uprisings that swell in the city on any given day. And now Toronto is enduring the people’s right to protest yet again.  Although protesting is included in our freedom of speech, it’s curious to engage in the “rules” — both official and official — of protesting.

The city erupted last May when the Gardiner Expressway came to a halt. Hundreds of women and children joined hands making the frontline of the 5,000-strong Tamil protest on the downtown highway. Toronto Police, joined with both the RCMP and OPP, stood patiently in full riot gear facing the army of protestors. The human flood of demonstrators annoyed many of the city’s commuters. Congesting traffic for hours in both directions, many questioned the possibility and unlawfulness of such a blockade. Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair was quoted after the fact as saying, “It was a big mistake to go up there.” And although Toronto Mayor David Miller et al. condemned the act for its lack of safety, only three protestors were arrested. The arrests were for assaulting a peace officer.

The guidelines for protests are somewhat vague and mostly contextual. Within the city’s limits, Toronto Police will typically arrest demonstrators for only a couple of no-nos:  causing a disturbance and assault. When asked if there are any rules to a protest, Constable Tony Vella of the Toronto Police, said, “Rules? No. As long as it’s orderly and peaceful, there’s not going to be an issue.” While assaults and fights do tend to occur at protests due to escalating tensions, Vella maintains that most of Toronto’s protests are arrest-free peaceful occasions because the organizers “are well-organized and they work with the police.” Albeit hazy, you also shouldn’t bring weapons (this includes sharpened sticks brandishing flags) or set up shop on private property, like, say, 24 Sussex Drive. Otherwise, all is pretty much fair game within the broad strokes of the law. Then again, the mission of the police is to ensure the safety of both the demonstrators and the general public. In so few words, keep the peace. Because, as Vella puts it: “Everybody has the right to their opinion and to express their opinions as well.”

“Every case is based on its own merits. It depends on the size, it depends on quite a few different things,” explains Constable Wendy Drummond of the Toronto Police. Size does matter in relation to demonstrations; it changes the rules. Although protests shouldn’t impede traffic, when large numbers come out of the woodwork — like the anti-prorogue protests and are well-planned— roads may be blocked when the demonstrators (peacefully) spill into the streets. Emergency vehicles, however, must still be able to get through if needed. When it comes to incidents like the Tamil protests on the freeway, it becomes “a fine balance between unlawful and what law enforcement agencies will do to ensure a safe environment,” says Drummond, calling the protest a “dangerous situation.”

“We can’t have the protestor’s rights outweighing the community at large.”

Well-planned logistics and transparency is the best policy for organizing a protest, says Walied Khogali, one of the chief organizers of Toronto’s anti-prorogue protest, Canadians Against Proroguing Parliament (Toronto Chapter). Beginning with a modest Facebook page led by a Christopher White, a student at the University of Alberta, the public quickly mobilized. It was Facebook activism that saw some 220,000 members by the time of the Canada-wide protests. “I have never seen that much profound and sustained content and commentary on a Facebook protest page,” says Colin Carmichael, the founder of the official protest website, It was virtual mobilization that led to physical rallying. With some 200 people on the planning committee, a boatload of manpower went into the logistics, budget, organizing, and media outreach of such a large-scale demonstration. CAPP Toronto booked Yonge-Dundas Square. They got in touch with city councilors sympathetic to the cause. They got in touch with the police, explaining their itinerary and plan of execution. They rallied the proverbial troops using Facebook (they had nearly 4,000 people on Facebook say they would attend the Toronto protest). They disseminated myriad anti-proroguing placards. They set a positive, yet serious vibe. They protested.

The rules for the protest organizer, according to Khogali, are commonsensical. Rule No. 1: It must be fun and high-energy. Rule No. 2: It must have plan of action, which includes a detailed itinerary. Rule No. 3: It must have well-trained marshals to divvy out directions to the protestors and to liaise with the police. And lastly, Rule No. 4: It must be safe for everyone. In order to be effective and purposeful with protesting, say, government, one should also tout a clear message. A message that is steeped with a possible solution. “The simple message was get back to work,” says Khogali, before nudging in, “Get back to Ottawa.”

In some countries, demonstrations are part of the social fabric. Both France and Argentina are wont to picking up placards en masse without batting an eye. In Canada, Saturday, January 23 saw more than 25,000 demonstrators in 60 Canadian cities protest the proroguing of government. And although there is no universal set of rules to manage a protest, save for general safety, there, like always, are laws. But when it comes to public space in Toronto’s core, there are also laws protecting freedom of speech and the corresponding right to protest. And if the past 10 years are any indication, Torontonians will continue to throw up their collective fists and take to the streets.

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