The Commons: ‘I shouldn’t have to be here’

Canadians express feelings about the proroguing of Parliament with protests and plenty of creative signs

“If there’s a silver lining to the dark cloud of this political crisis in Ottawa, it’s an amazing, spontaneous degree of citizen engagement,” he said. “In a way, this manufactured crisis has woken Canadians up out of their so-called apathy.”

That was, to be fair, some 13 months ago and Jason Kenney, the immigration minister, had just witnessed 3,000 people gather in downtown Calgary to protest the possibility of a coalition government. “I don’t recall anything on such short notice with such a large crowd in this city,” Mr. Kenney gushed. One assumes the sentiment roughly holds for today’s events too.

Then John Baird was proudly declaring the government’s intent to “go over the heads” of the Members of Parliament and the Governor General, and go “right to the Canadian people.” Then it was Steven Fletcher, minister of state for democratic reform, encouraging all his fellow Manitobans to rally for no less than the nation we all hold dear.

Thirteen months later, a new political crisis. Then, the government side yelled “traitor!” Now, the other side yells “dictator!” Once more, our civic engagement runneth over.

Perhaps we should make political crisis an annual event.

Whatever the wisdom of crowds, and however exploited by partisan interest, it is difficult to judge the relevance of the public protest. Two years ago, 5,000 gathered on the front lawn of Parliament for a pro-China rally. There were no immediate calls for the country to consider communism. A year later, some 30,000 Tamils turned out to protest the conflict in Sri Lanka. Owing to some concerns about symbolism, only Jack Layton walked outside to address them.

Make what you will then of 3,500—a number equal to the crowd that rallied for Canada thirteen months ago—who gathered before Centre Block’s front steps this afternoon to denounce the prorogation of Parliament.

At its essence, the public protest is both charming and antiquated. A crowd gathers and chants and cheers and, when prompted, cries “shame” upon whatever shameful act has brought them there. Various individuals take the microphone to awkwardly and loudly air their grievances, almost all speaking roughly three times as long as they should. Periodically someone breaks into song.

This afternoon brought out the young and old, the peaceniks and socialists, the Nortel pensioners and autoworkers, the environmentalists and the electoral reformists. This being Ottawa, a place almost entirely unihabitable save for a two-week period each July, it was rather cold.

Chants involved various meditations on the theme of resuming one’s work and various rhymes for the word prorogation (nation, generation, investigation, television station, etc.). Jack Layton, beneath a wide-brimmed hat and dark sunglasses, wandered amongst the common men and women. A young lady read aloud from the list of legislation that perished in the great prorogation of New Year’s Eve 2009. The Raging Grannies, a group of elderly women who are somehow required at these sorts of events, performed a few of their self-penned tunes, somewhat dampening the fervour. A young man with a guitar singing a folk song entitled We Are The Beaver sufficiently revived the masses.

If there is some unimpeachably redeeming value in such demonstrations, beyond the physical and photographable display of public sentiment, it is the waved placard, one of the enduring mediums for political wit. Today’s signs included “I Prorogued The Dishes To Be Here,” “Your Sweater Vest Can’t Fool Us” and, perhaps most Canadian of all, “I Shouldn’t Have To Be Here.” Showing fine artistic skill for his age, a young boy traipsed around with a sign that read “I have to go to school, so why don’t you have to go to work?”

After a girl with a blue guitar sang a plaintive song, Mr. Layton was called on to speak. He reached immediately for his Reagan moment. “Mr. Harper,” he implored. “Un. Lock. These. Doors.”

The NDP leader was no doubt in his element, jabbing the air with his index finger and bellowing his syllables. He invoked King Charles I, the ultimately beheaded monarch who famously and fatefully clashed with the English Parliament. “I cannot advocate, nor will I advocate the decapitating of anyone,” Mr. Layton clarified. “We have elections to prosecute these things.”

Michael Ignatieff soon followed in his own meditative way. “You are a beautiful sight,” he said. “When the Prime Minister phoned the Governor General on New Year’s Eve, he had no idea you’d be here today.”

Mr. Ignatieff stepped away from the podium shortly thereafter and explained to reporters that, quite unlike last week, his side was interested in legislating limits upon a Prime Minister’s ability to request the House of Commons be prorogued.

While he did so, a band entertained the crowd with a song called Prorogation, sung to the tune of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah.