Why the massive turnouts at anti-racism rallies might signal change to Calgary's protest culture

The sight of Calgarians repeatedly pouring into the streets by the thousands this week to march against racist injustice and honour victims of police violence might signal a broader cultural shift when it comes to protests in the city, an expert says.
A Calgary professor says recent demonstration turnouts could mean 'protest culture' is changing in Alberta. (Terri Trembath/CBC)

The sight of Calgarians repeatedly pouring into the streets by the thousands this week to march against racist injustice and honour victims of police violence might signal a broader cultural shift when it comes to protests in the city, an expert says.

A wave of protests have swept through all U.S. states, through Canada and in many countries around the world after George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man, was murdered by police officer Derek Chauvin in Minneapolis on May 25.

Chauvin kneeled on Floyd's neck for nearly nine minutes while Floyd — who was unarmed and handcuffed — pleaded repeatedly that he could not breathe.

In Calgary, people have taken to the streets in the thousands in at least four separate events this past week.

On last Saturday alone, Calgary police estimated more than 4,000 people attended a Black Lives Matter vigil at Olympic Plaza.

Roberta Lexier, an associate professor of general studies at Mount Royal University, called the turnout "astounding."

"Calgary doesn't have the most active protest culture around the world," Lexier told the Homestretch on Monday.

"And I think a lot of it has to do with the trajectory and the history of politics in this province — where one government was in power for a very long time, and much of the political work happens sort of within the party."

COVID-19, 2015 election potential catalysts

Lexier, whose research and teaching focuses on social movements, social activism and social change, said that from climate activism to women's marches, protests have been gathering momentum in Alberta for the last few years.

Throughout history, protest cycles ebb and flow, Lexier said. But the seismic shift that occurred in Alberta politics in 2015 — when the NDP managed to unseat a four-decade dynasty of conservative governments — might have signalled to constituents that change is possible, she said.

"Whether you supported that government or not ... it showed that there is a potential for political change in this province, and that there is a different way of participating in the political system," Lexier said. 

"And now, when we seem to be kind of back to the old way of doing things ... I think people are looking for alternatives of, 'How can we influence the system differently?'"

Another factor when accounting for the large turnout, Lexier said, is COVID-19.

Higher numbers are generally expected on weekends — but the sustained attendance has been made possible, in part, because people are not working.

"There's a lot more ability for people to get out and participate, and [they] are really looking for a way, I think, to feel empowered — at a time that feels really disempowering," Lexier said.

Measuring success in protest

Lexier said that measuring the effectiveness of protest is complex and ambiguous; it is difficult to identify a win or a loss because they are subjective concepts.

But another remarkable hallmark of the Black Lives Matter demonstrations that are happening now, Lexier said, is that the messages are resonating — and resulting in some tangible changes.

"City councils are contemplating defunding police services. We're seeing conversations happen around the globe about these issues. We're seeing statues fall in places recognizing colonial complicity," Lexier said. 

"So I think ... things are going to change one way or the other."

Looming impact of Bill 1

Some critics have voiced concerns that Albertans' right to protest might soon be inhibited by the UCP's Bill 1.

Introduced in February, the bill allows hefty penalties against any person or company found to have blocked, damaged or entered without reason any "essential infrastructure."

The list of possible sites is lengthy and includes pipelines, rail lines, highways, oil sites, telecommunications equipment, radio towers, electrical lines, dams, farms and more, on public or private land.

Adora Nwofor, one of the organizers of Saturday's Black Lives Matter vigil, said while she's been heartened by recent protest turnouts, seeing Bill 1 on the horizon gives her pause.

"People are ready to have the conversation. They're ready to see what's happening. But if I'm going to be honest, Bill 1 shows us that they don't actually want to apply the things, because they keep silencing with legislation, with laws, without giving opportunity," she said at the time.

Kenney introduced the legislation against the backdrop of protests across Canada, in which groups blockaded rail lines, commuter train routes and roadways in solidarity with Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs opposed to the construction of the Coastal Gas Link pipeline through their territory in northern B.C.

Lexier believes the bill will be used as an "intimidation tactic."

"My guess is [that] it's unconstitutional, it's a violation of one of our most fundamental rights, and I assume that's going to be challenged in some way or another — but that takes a very long time, and it can cost a lot of money to do those sorts of things," Lexier said.

"And so in the meantime, it acts as a deterrent for people who are scared of what the penalties might be."

But whether or not people will be deterred, Lexier said, remains to be seen.

"We're at a time where people might not care that much. I think we've pushed beyond some of these limits, and where the numbers are showing that they can maybe try and stop it in some way or another."

With files from The Homestretch, Sarah Rieger and Janet French


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