Dissent from a distance: How Alberta activists are coping with physical distancing rules

In a time of physical distancing, social activists are largely prohibited from using traditional tools of gathering en masse to express dissent.

Experts say there's a balance between public health and personal freedoms

Edmonton Raging Grannies Marilyn Gaa (left) and Anna Novikov hoist a sign to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Earth Day on April 22, 2020. (David Bajer/CBC)

Hoisting a banner hung from yard sticks to prove they were at least six feet apart, Marilyn Gaa and Anna Novikov said they just couldn't stay home.

To mark the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, the pair were joined by other members of the Edmonton chapter of the Raging Grannies stationed on different corners of the intersection on the south side of the High Level Bridge.

A mainstay at local marches and rallies for decades, the activists, many of whom are over 70, have had to adapt their tactics in the face of public health restrictions amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. In an interview earlier this month, Gaa said they would find a way to make some noise on Earth Day. 

"With people respecting the six-foot separation, I would like to see activists and Grannies in full battle dress, standing on as many street corners as we can," she said.

The handful of Grannies managed to attract some honks from passing traffic. But in a time of physical distancing, social activists are largely prohibited from gathering en masse to express dissent.

The Edmonton chapter of Raging Grannies staged a physically distant rally to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Earth Day on April 22, 2020. (David Bajer/CBC)

"The freedom to peacefully assemble and the freedom to associate in many parts of the country have been largely wiped out, essentially eliminated, because of all these emergency orders that are in place to prohibit large gatherings … they prohibit small gatherings too," said Cara Zwibel,  director of the fundamental freedoms program at the Canadian Civil Liberties Association.

In a time when governments have extra powers over citizens' lives, Zwibel has been thinking about how people are able to effectively dissent.

Zwibel said she's been contacted by someone hoping to protest against prison conditions during the pandemic, and that she had a discussion with a colleague about how they could safely and legally speak about risks in shelters for homeless populations in front of Toronto's city hall. 

Recent protests, notably in the United States, by groups calling for the public health restrictions to be removed, have attracted condemnation both for spreading misinformation and for violations of physical distancing rules. 

Zwibel said publicly denouncing those kinds of views is fine, but argues that regardless of the message, the right to dissent needs to be protected for everyone. 

"I think the same rules do apply to people who take a different view of what the government is doing, and people who believe very strongly in the need to take these measures and need to point out instances where the government could be doing better in prisons and homeless shelters," Zwibel said.

Even if it's not yet safe to ease any of the emergency restrictions in place, she said, governments need to be more clear with people about what the rules are, and what metrics need to be reached in order for them to be lifted.

"I think it is important for us to hear from officials what that looks like, what are the goals we're trying to reach? What's the plan?" she said.

A shift in momentum?

Alberta has not traditionally been a hotbed for social activism, the way other jurisdictions like Quebec have been, said Roberta Lexier, a Mount Royal University associate professor who studies social movements in the province. 

"Part of that might be long term government in place, when people didn't really feel any empowerment to engage in the political system outside of that electoral side," Lexier said, referring to the 44-year provincial reign by the Progressive Conservative party that fell to the NDP in 2015. "But I think what we've been seeing over the past few years is some of that start to shift."

Thousands of people marched on the legislature in October 2019 during climate activist Greta Thunberg's visit to the province, and large crowds turned out in both Edmonton and Calgary to protest provincial public sector cuts in February. 

Lexier said it's possible that momentum could pick back up when physical distancing rules are lifted if organizers use time in isolation to lay groundwork.

While it's a "scary time" when governments are able to control people's movements, she said, the reality of a public health emergency is realizing as a community that what one person does affects everyone else. 

"There really does have to be a balancing that takes place of our rights and the need for human beings as citizens to have the option to protest their government and speak out, while at the same making sure that people's health is protected and the communitarian aspects of public health actually work," she said. 

Drive by protest at Alberta legislature in February. (Trevor Wilson/CBC)

Getting creative

While some may be organizing, others are already finding ways to share their displeasure with the government. In early April, in the wake of announced funding cuts to education, people strapped protest signs to vehicles with protest signs and drove around near the legislature, honking instead of chanting. 

After the government announced plans to partially or fully close 20 provincial parks in early March, planning was underway to protest by turning the Alberta legislature grounds into a campsite, according to Adrian Pearce, a member of the Canadian Parks and Wildlife Society.

On a weekend in late March, park enthusiasts were going to pitch tents, hike and ski around the seat of provincial political power. But then the pandemic struck.

Adrian Pearce and his daughter, Jacki Pearce, took part in a physically distant protest against the Alberta government, setting up camp in their own home to speak out against the full and partial closure of 20 provincial parks. (Adrian Pearce)

Organizers decided to innovate, and participants set up inside their homes and share photos on social media. Pearce and his family put up a tent in the living room, and were planning to have a backyard fire complete with hamburgers, corn on the cob, and marshmallows. They were also planning to call their MLA to speak out against the cuts. 

"This is all the kinds of things we would do normally if we were camping, and it's a great opportunity to let the government know that we're unhappy with their cuts," he said, adding that he wasn't worried that the impact would be diminished by not being able to meet in person.

"I think it'll have more impact, because a lot of people at home are scratching around for things to do and to entertain themselves, but also to express themselves," he said.