Saturday 8 October 2011

#OccupyWallStreet #OccupyCanada #Occupy...Winnipeg?

"The poor have no choice."  (James S. Woodsworth)

When one is on a long journey, sometimes it's a good idea to stop and look back.  You can take heart in how far you've come and what you've accomplished, or realise that it's time to change direction.

Working in a municipal archive, I have more opportunity than most to look back, and accidental discoveries have given me a better picture of where we've been, who we were and how we've changed.

One discovery was the record of a man who appeared before a rural municipal council, requesting assistance, as he could not work. A veteran, he had lost his leg in WWI and his wooden prosthesis had broken.  The council refused him, advising him to get an axe, go out to the woods and cut himself a new one.  Yes, really.

Another was a collection of old metal ballot boxes, obviously manufactured at the same time, but of curiously disparate sizes – from very large to oddly small - each marked with a different ward designation.  As today's electoral boundaries are generally placed according to population and our ballot boxes are fairly uniform, these gave me pause and I puzzled over them for a time before doing the obvious and asking about them.

The answer continues to give me pause.

Apparently, when laws expanded to give all Canadian men, titleholder or not, the right to vote, the ruling class was concerned about giving so much control to the newer citizens who may have been less inclined to maintain the status quo.  So, the boundaries were drawn according to size, regardless of population.

Thus, the largest ballot box was for a ward where the immigrants lived packed and stacked in close quarters on small lots, and the smallest was for a wealthy area, where the lots were huge and the number of eligible voters was not.  So, one alderman represented hundreds while another represented a handful.  Crazy, but true.

Some things do not change.  Those with power and control are not inclined to share it.

I've also heard many stories about the 1919 General Strike.  Coming from immigrant stock myself, they touch me deeply.  I've tried to imagine what it would be like to leave everything and everyone familiar for a dream of freedom and opportunity in a country where I don't know the laws, customs or language.  It's frightening to think how vulnerable I'd be.

Of course, one would adjust as best as one could, accepting whatever work was offered at whatever pay because one must live; and many were obligated to send money back to "the old country", often with letters filled with false tales of hope and optimism as the sender couldn't bear to burden those left behind with the harsh reality of immigrant life.

These tales spread and encouraged others to risk everything to take the one-way trip to Canada.  In such a huge, young country, there would be plenty for everyone – land to farm and space to build and endless possibilities that simply did not exist for common people in their birthlands.

The more that came, the less there was for them.  Supply and demand kept wages low.  Dreams of prosperity rarely materialised.  Securing citizenship did not improve your lot and you and yours were still treated as "foreigners."

It's been said that addicts have to hit bottom before they will admit to having a problem.  Perhaps it's just human nature to be blind to a problem until you are trapped and there is nowhere left to go and nothing left to lose.  Desperation is powerful motivation for change and fear is what you have when hope is gone.

During Winnipeg's General Strike, there were many marches, rallies and protests.  Participants faced the very real threat of arrest and deportation.  The upper class particularly feared that the Eastern Europeans wanted to lead a Bolshevik revolution here on the Prairies.  The marches were peaceful, and silent, so as not to provoke law enforcement.

Imagine how eerie that would be:  hundreds or thousands of men, women and children walking without shouting or singing or chanting, only their footsteps, their shifting garments, sporadic whispers and shushing of children to mark their passing.

Typically, the protests focused on the places of power - city hall or the business centre.  Then, one march brought their concerns nearly to the doorsteps of the powerful, right along the street fronting their estates.

The protesters gathered at the foot of the Maryland Bridge and set out across it to Wellington Crescent, where most of them had never been before.  As they walked without speaking past the mansions on huge, park-like lots, many of the strikers wept.

In "the old country", only royalty lived so ostentatiously, in rare, palatial homes.  Here, in Winnipeg – this small city! – there was a whole, long street of palaces!  And there, that is where the man who owns my company lives!  How can it be that they have so much – so much more than they can ever use! – and they will not spare us enough to be safely fed, clothed, sheltered and warm?  Can it be that this place is no better than the one I left behind?  That people like us will always toil to serve and will never know a life without want?

Eyes opened, the working people, and their children, fought on and on, slowly earning the rights and freedoms that most of my generation takes for granted:  safe working conditions, minimum wages, pensions, benefits, overtime pay, parental leave, sick leave, workers compensation, health care, limited hours of work, vacation time . . .  It's a long list and it's surprising to consider that we haven't had these improvements for very long. 

Even more surprising that there are those who believe we shouldn't have them at all; that any part of a social safety net meant to catch you when you fall and help you up again is ridiculous, unreasonable and expensive.

Many years after the General Strike, my grandmother learned to cut slices of bread so thin you could read a newspaper through them.  It was a skill she needed when my grandfather and his co-workers at Canada Packers were on strike.  To feed everyone on the picket line, the sandwiches were as thin as the soup.

Years later, when my mother was 15, they moved into their first house with running water and an indoor toilet.

My grandparents were proud to own their small house and even more proud of the city they helped build.  Their municipal taxes were invested by the City, for its citizens:  in asphalt plants and quarries to supply materials to build and maintain roads, sidewalks and bridges; in trucks and landfills to collect waste; in pipes and facilities to expand clean water delivery and wastewater treatment; to build and maintain parks, pools, community centres, arenas, sports fields, golf courses, playgrounds, parkades, hospitals, schools, museums and libraries. 

As citizens of Winnipeg, my grandparents owned everything the city owned and had a right to enjoy and share it.  Ownership is insurance against market forces.  If anyone had told them they paid too much in taxes, they would have laughed – "Look at what our taxes do!  It's worth it!"

As much as I miss my grandparents, I am glad they are gone.  They wouldn't like what we've done with the place. 

We've sold every asphalt plant, quarry and garbage truck and are barely hanging on to our last landfill.  We sold off or centralised most municipal services, often sacrificing good, secure jobs, convenience, accountability and quality delivery.  Most street repairs and snow clearing are done by lowest-bid contractors.  Our infrastructure is crumbling, our arenas are moldering, our golf courses are for sale, our community centres are disappearing and, cheap, miserly lot that we are, we continue to look for things to sell and cut.  We cut through the fat and the meat, hit bone and keep industriously chipping away at it.

They would have wondered what happened to our conscience and would have been appalled that we begrudge every tax dollar, that we demand government be run as a profit-making business, rather than a public service.

On this day, on what I hope will be a long journey of my life, I've stopped, looked back and, having seen where I and my city have been and where we appear to be going, I realise it is time to change direction.

In 1919, people acknowledged that trying to change their world within the confines of the established system wasn't working and wasn't going to work.  Less than 100 years later, here we are again.  Most of us have not yet lost our homes and our hope, but we can feel the ground beneath us is not as solid as we'd thought.  Not only are we losing ground, but our eyes are also open to the reality that many of our neighbours have no ground at all:  we are exploiting temporary foreign workers with few rights at all and we STILL have indigenous people fighting to get out of the hole we tossed them into - and we keep adding traps and obstacles to keep them there.

In the 21st century, humanity's biggest failure isn't the lack of flying cars and moon colonies, it's that we had such a tenuous grasp on fairness and decency that we didn't even notice when they'd slipped away.

We've played by the rules, followed the system, and let greed decide our direction.  We've allowed unsustainable development, exploitation of the commons, commodification of our resources and, well, it's not working for most of Earth's inhabitants – or Earth, for that matter.

In 1919, millions of working people stood up and changed direction by refusing to work.

In 2011, people are standing up and changing direction by seizing, holding and filling a space.  From Tahrir Square to Wall Street and beyond, they Occupy.

On October 15, on the Winnipeg streets once proudly walked by my grandparents, I will join them.

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