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Steve Collins covers urban affairs and other issues facing the nation's capital.

Ottawa has plenty of activisim to be proud of

Metro's Steve Collins argues this government town has plenty of people prepared to fight government even from within.

Tony Turner, the former Environment Canada scientist whose anti-Stephen Harper folk song "Harperman" got him suspended from his job.

The Canadian Press / Darryl Dyck

Tony Turner, the former Environment Canada scientist whose anti-Stephen Harper folk song "Harperman" got him suspended from his job.

At first glance, the Human Rights Monument on Elgin seems a remote starting point for a "Women's March on Washington," organized in solidarity with the big one in the U.S. capital, but voices raised together can carry a long, long way.

It could be that we've become accustomed to having the national leadership always within shouting distance here in the capital. Whatever the reasons, Ottawa is a government town where we don't shrink from giving the government hell --even from within.

This is, after all, where federal government scientists rallied en masse against policies that stopped them from talking publicly about their work, and where one of them, Tony Turner, was suspended without pay (he subsequently retired) over his political protest song, Harperman.

Federal prosecutor Emilie Taman, who lost her job after being denied leave to run for the NDP did it anyway. And then she kept on fighting as a member of Bookmark the Core, pressuring city hall to build the new central library closer to the town's centre.   

Activism isn't easy. Defeat, sometimes temporary, sometimes total, comes with the territory. Friends of Lansdowne organized , protested, and even took the city to court over its sole-sourced deal with Ottawa Sports Entertainment Group to redevelop the public park. They lost (and the city, in a creepy display of sore winning, started musing about going after such grassroots groups to recoup legal costs.)

Name-calling -- naive, unrealistic, publicity-seeking -- is also an activist's lot. Community activists are reflexively dismissed as  NIMBYs, community engagement somehow recast as selfishness. Not so long ago, a federal cabinet minister was denigrating environmentalists as "foreign-funded radicals." He's out of office; they're still fighting.

But out of the singing, the marching, the petitions and general harassment of elected officialdom, the small victories add up. The city's introduction this year, after years of anti-poverty activists chewing on official ears, is one example.

The improved prospects of a supervised injection site in Sandy Hill, which has faced no end of official obstruction and emotion-over-evidence policy-making, can be ascribed in part to tireless advocacy of groups like Canadians for Safer Consumption Sites. Change doesn't happen quickly or cleanly, but if you keep pushing, it can happen.

Elected officials wear pink to stand against bullying every April, after tireless campaigning by Jeremy Dias, founder of the Canadian Centre for Gender and Sexual Diversity. Dias started his career in high school, where he was bullied for coming out as gay. Instead of taking it, he sued his school and board, won and put the proceeds towards making life easier for the next generation of kids.

Saturday's marchers will make their way past Parliament Hill, the perennial stomping grounds of loud, proud demonstrators of every imaginable stripe (4/20, March for Life, Idle No More, and countless others).

They will start near city hall where former Ottawa Mayor Charlotte Whitton, the feminist rabble-rouser and first woman to govern a major Canadian city worked.  

"Whatever women do they must do twice as well as men to be thought half as good," she famously snarked . "Luckily, this is not difficult." It’s not hard to imagine a sisterly thumbs-up from Mayor Whitton to today's activists.

*Correction: A previous version of this column suggested there was a statue of former mayor Charlotte Whitton on Parliament Hill. There is no such statute.


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