UPDATED: Canadians rally around—and against—the Liberal-NDP coalition

Letters from Calgary and Vancouver

Rallies both in support of or against the Liberal-NDP coalition drew Canadians in cities across the country today—thousands on Parliament Hill, perhaps a little less than that in spots like Yellowknife and Charlottetown. In Edmonton early this afternoon, about 200 people unhappy at the prospect of a new government huddled outside NDP MP Linda Duncan’s office, though Duncan, Alberta’s sole opposition MP, has yet to put up signage and telephones aren’t installed. Still, the mob managed a passable rendition of Oh Canada. Curiously, pro-coalition events in Alberta, the heart of Conservative country, attracted comparable numbers. And all this despite the prorogation granted Stephen Harper by Governor General Michaëlle Jean. The following are two scenes, both from pro-coalition rallies, in Western Canada.

Calgary: Despite temperatures that hovered around –10, making it the coldest night of the year so far, about 100 people gathered in support of the coalition outside the federal government’s Harry Hayes Building. Occasionally, a pickup truck buzzed by on the busy thoroughfare shouting down the speakers. But the crowd’s temperature rose now and then, as contrarians penetrated the mix of students and grandmothers holding signs and wearing T-shirts with such slogans as “Down with Harper” or “Support the Coalition.” Paul Caouette, a stocky 49-year-old contractor, darted in and out of the crowd denouncing “The Three Stooges” and accusing Stephane Dion, Jack Layton and Gilles Duceppe of mounting a coup. “You got the wrong address,” advised one wag. “Go to a country that’s really had a coup.” Caouette, butting heads with former Calgary West Liberal candidate Jennifer Pollock—she lost to controversial Conservative Rob Anders—recoiled at the idea that Layton and Dion would rely on the support of the Bloc: “They’re not part of Canada,” he said. “I can’t tell someone else how to run their home—unless I’m part of their family!”

Buttonholed by a radio reporter, Caouette began to speak at length. Just then, an elderly man with a great white beard and a tweed cap broke into the interview. “Why are you talking to this asshole,” he asked the reporter. A microphone suddenly in his face, the bearded man, his face red, told the reporter to remove the instrument. “I’m talking to you,” he said, thrusting a bony white finger at her nose. His critique was brief but not without merit—the crowd here, granola as it may have been, was hefty for this city, and pretty civil. Tomorrow morning, he told the reporter, he didn’t want to hear all the airtime go to a spoiler. Many here recognized the pro-coalition crowd as an exotic species. “Calgary is the centre of the Conservative Party in this country. It’s the stronghold for capital-C Conservatism. So it’s definitely a minority viewpoint to be against what the Conservative want here,” said organizer Grant Neufeld, who introduced himself to the crowd as a community organizer.

One thing was obvious, though—this Calgary minority, lonely supporters of Liberals, New Democrats, Greens and the labour movement, were frequently new to the city. “I think it’s false to say all Alberta is against the coalition,” said 25-year-old Katrine Beauregard, a political science student at the University of Calgary but originally from Montreal. “It’s an interesting time for being here now.” Also in the crowd, Martin Mesvadba, who described himself as a longtime waiter and who was born in Czechoslovakia, could remember Prague during the Warsaw Pact invasion, had been in Montreal in 1970 when the October Crisis prompted Pierre Trudeau to call in the army, then watched his mother country split in two in 1993. “An anti-Conservative groundswell in Calgary is a little rich,” he said, but added: “You need to defend democracy.

Vancouver: “Yes, we can,” shouted the 1,200 to 1,500-strong crowd packed into Canada Place, in Vancouver’s downtown harbourfront. It was a predominantly NDP crowd—a “teamster event,” chuckled a well-known federal Liberal in attendance. Also spotted: Three city councillors from Vancouver’s newly-elected council, David Eby, the widely-known, new Executive Director of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, U.B.C. student union president Michael Duncan—who donned Kanye West “shutter” shades to the night-time rally—plus a handful of high-ranking local Greens. Marc Emery, Canada’s “Prince of Pot,” was there too—admittedly, for selfish reasons: “The Bloc, the NDP and the Liberals support canceling my extradition to the U.S.,” said Emery, who’s been indicted by a U.S. federal grand jury on conspiracy to distribute marijuana seeds into the U.S. “The Conservatives want me out.”

Not everyone had a personal stake, though. “I’m here to celebrate democracy,” said Taylor Verall, a 14-year-old Rockridge High School student, who carried a hand-made poster that read: “36 per cent is not a democracy.” Verall can’t vote, of course, but considers himself an independent and was incensed that Parliament had been suspended. “We need the country pulling in one direction,” rally organizer, B.C. Federation of Labour president Jim Sinclair, told Maclean’s. “Heading into a recession, a depression, we don’t need divisions,” said Sinclair.

There was one disruption: when Herb Dhaliwal, a Chretien-era cabinet minister, took the podium, three eggs were thrown toward the stage. All whizzed harmlessly past the former fisheries minister, and Dhaliwal carried on, seeming oblivious to the near-miss while a crowd of supporters formed a protective wall in front of him.

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