History just tossed Halifax Mayor Peter Kelly the political opportunity of a lifetime. Kelly blew it spectacularly. And everyone in the city is diminished by his failure.
For decades, the chattering classes have been deploring the apathy of the young. The young don't care about public affairs, they don't vote, they have no interest in democracy and social justice. Imprisoned between their earbuds, wired into their iPods and PlayStations, focussed on nasty music and texting endlessly, they're immersed in selfish amusements.
And then, one October day, democracy erupted on the Mayor's front lawn, right in front of his office window, in the Grand Parade square in downtown Halifax. Suddenly there was a little encampment of people, mostly young, crying aloud for democracy and social justice, trying to practice it, their tiny colourful tents encircling the cenotaph that honours the Haligonian men and women who died for democracy and social justice. A little community in the middle of the city, full of the vigour and idealism of youth, eager to address the multiple wrongs of our time – gross social inequality, the despoliation of the planet, women's rights, public health, climate change, the war industry, the patenting of life forms, the affordability of education, trade rules, all kinds of things.
Occupy Nova Scotia in the Grand Parade (from Occupy NS site)
What an opportunity!
And what was Mayor Kelly's attitude to this outburst of democracy and youthful idealism?
He saw it as a problem.
As the protests rolled around the world, the Halifax occupiers settled in, some of them with their dogs. The fire inspectors and the health inspectors came and made suggestions, which the occupiers followed. As they did elsewhere, the occupiers developed a community, making decisions by consensus, compensating for the lack of microphones by repeating aloud whatever the speaker was saying. Labour unions brought them truckloads of bottled water. A nearby restaurant gave them tubs of soup. Sympathizers – including me – brought them warm clothing and boxes of food.
Remembrance Day approached. The Grand Parade, where Occupy Nova Scotia was camped, is the place where the annual remembrance ceremonies are held. The Mayor wanted the square cleared for the ceremonies. The protesters discussed the situation with the Mayor and the veterans. They wanted to win support, and non-violence is at the core of their world-view. So they put poppies on their windbreakers and agreed that they would move to Victoria Park, a dozen blocks away, until after Remembrance Day, and then move back. And the Mayor allowed them to believe that he agreed. His later interviews about whether or not he intended what happened next reveal him as an absolute virtuoso of weaseling and dodging.
Remembrance Day in Nova Scotia was so stormy that many ceremonies were moved inside, though not in Halifax. The wind howled, the leaves flew, the rain fell in torrents. At 11:00 at the Grand Parade, dignitaries and others laid wreaths. One of the wreaths was laid jointly by an Afghanistan veteran and a representative from Occupy Nova Scotia. The occupier met Mayor Kelly and shook his hand. The Mayor smiled.
And at that very moment, the police encircled the encampment at Victoria Park and served an eviction notice.
Two hours later, the police charged, beating and arresting fourteen protesters, dragging them through the mud to the paddy wagons, hauling away their tents. There's lots of video of the arrests on the web; here's one http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CMAelP2KnxQ&feature=related
As the word went around the city, other supporters – including me – went down to join the occupiers, standing in the pouring rain, arms linked in a circle around the remaining tents, while the occupiers debated their next move. In the end they took down all the tents but one, leaving the last tent for the police, and went to a near by church to regroup. The next day saw an angry rally at the Grand Parade, and there, as this is written, the matter rests.
Silver Donald Cameron at Victoria Park on Remembrance Day. (Chris Majka)
Is this what our veterans fought for? Is this the way the city celebrates Remembrance Day – with handcuffs and truncheons and Mace for people who are simply sitting on their tents in the rain?
The Mayor says that the council unanimously made the decision to evict in an in-camera meeting on Tuesday, and after that it was “an operational issue” to be dealt with by the police. Nothing to do with him. But who chose the timing and the method? The councillors, the cops, the city staff, the Mayor? Silence.
By Sunday, the councillors were distancing themselves from the Mayor.
"The Mayor is using council as a scapegoat right now to support his decision making,” says Councillor Linda Mosher. “It was completely unnecessary to do that and council did not give that directive."
I believe her. This is a Mayor who spends a lot of time making bad decisions and initiating questionable actions, and hiding behind others when the brown stuff hits the blades. Earlier in 2011 Kelly was caught having agreed, in writing, and without authority, to guarantee loans totalling $5.6 million to the promoter of a rock concert to be held on the Halifax Common. The city is still on the hook for about $360,000, and the Mayor narrowly avoided a police investigation that would have been entirely appropriate.
But the loans fiasco wasn't his fault either. It was those confounded city staffers again. Tsk, tsk.
All of which raises another interesting question: why is it all right for the Mayor to risk a ton of public money for a private operator to occupy and tear up a city park – and it's not all right for citizens to camp peacefully in a city park, doing a lot less damage than a rock concert does?
On Monday, in a press conference, Police Chief Frank Beazley told the press that he made the decision to evict the occupiers by force – and to do it on Remembrance Day, because not many people would be around, and he didn't expect the protesters to leave peacefully. Really? All by himself? Knowing that it would cause a political uproar, he didn't seek the approval of the Mayor? Pah! No matter how you look at it, the responsibility circles back to Peter Kelly. Nor should we entirely exempt the councillors, who seem similarly addicted to secret meetings after which nobody has to take responsbility for anything.
Halifax deserves better than this.
In case you do not have the good fortune to live here, I should tell you a bit about Halifax, population about 300,000, a beautiful old seaport, the capital of Nova Scotia, the largest city on Canada's Atlantic coast. Halifax was established in 1749 on one of the biggest, safest deepwater harbours in the world. It was a pivot in the wars between the French and the English, and later between the English and the Americans. During the two World Wars, Halifax was the portal through which troops, ships, munitions and supplies poured across to Europe. It is home to Canada's principal naval and Coast Guard bases. It contains half-a-dozen universities and numerous research institutes, and it's the regional headquarters for innumerable agencies and companies. It is well supplied with parks and green spaces, and is said to have the largest urban forest in Canada. It is a city of scholars and shipwrights, legislators and law courts, broadcasters and boutiques, symphonies and scientists, art galleries and admirals and archbishops.
Linked to international events by its location, its history and the ocean, Halifax is a world city on an intimate scale, and it has sometimes had leadership adequate to its character. The very first national magazine article I ever wrote, in 1968, was a profile of the Mayor of Halifax, Allen O'Brien. A tough-minded businessman who was also a vice president of Canada's semi-socialist New Democratic Party, Mayor O'Brien marched in street protests against the Vietnam war. Was this appropriate for a municipal leader?
“We certainly have problems here at home, and I work on them every day,” he said – as I remember it; I'm quoting from memory. “But that is no excuse to ignore the plight of our neighbours – anywhere in the world.”
And what about his role as Mayor?
“The Mayor,” he said, “ has very little actual power – but he has the power to bring people together, to encourage action on matters that he considers important. He has the power to influence the public agenda. He has access to the press. And if you use those powers strategically, you can accomplish quite a bit.”
Young man acting as host at the November 12 rally (SDC)
Now just imagine. Imagine if Peter Kelly had that kind of awareness, that sense of direction, when he looked out the window in the middle of October. Imagine if he'd gone down there with his eyes and ears open. Who are you? Where do you come from? What do you do? When I asked those questions, I found I was talking with some very interesting people. An education graduate from St. Francis Xavier University who was playing a mad scientist in a children's theatre. A sustainability consultant. A young boutique farmer. A Mi'maq veteran. A postal worker. A filmmaker.
Okay (the Mayor might have said), let's not talk too much about things that are clearly national or provincial. What are the things that municipal governments actually can affect? Food? Maybe we need an innovative urban agriculture policy. What do you think such a policy might look like? Homelessness? Let me get a couple of property developers and someone from the province down here, and let's brainstorm a little. Tell me about youth unemployment. Say that again, will you – there's an organization in Winnipeg called Build that trains street people to do energy refits? Fascinating. Let's get someone from Winnipeg down here to talk about that. How can I reach them? (Answer: at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2x4shcdZ8QI
Anti-poverty activist Sharon Murphy addresses November 12 rally (SDC)
I'm pulling examples from my own experience and imagination, but you get the idea. What if the Mayor had treated the occupiers respectfully, as though they were actually citizens whose voices deserved to be heard, whose ideas might have merit, whose concerns might reflect the concerns of other citizens? What if the city had welcomed the arrival of new ideas, new insights, a passionate commitment to a better future? What if the Mayor had paused to reflect that the young people among them were not aliens or monsters – or bums or dregs or scum, as they have been called by adult commentators who should know better? These are our own children, brought up in Dartmouth and Moser River, Blandford and Fairview. What if the Mayor had contemplated the possibility that those young people probably arethe future?
What if the Mayor had acted not as a short-sighted enforcer of petty bylaws, but as the wise, patient leader of a functioning community?
If he had acted like that, Peter Kelly would have taught the occupiers that civic engagement actually works, that change is possible, that older people can and do welcome the energy of youth in the quest for a better tomorrow. Instead, he taught them the exact opposite – that their concerns are not of interest, that their involvement in politics is not welcome, that civic leaders cannot be trusted, that violence is just fine as long as it's the police who start the brawl.
If Peter Kelly had found a fresh, positive way to engage with Occupy Nova Scotia, the news would have gone around the world – just as the news of the eviction has gone around the world. Other cities that are also trying to figure out what to do next would have taken note. Halifax would have looked like the thoughtful, creative community that it is. And Peter Kelly would have been a hero, a prime contender for higher political office had he chosen to pursue that.
Like I said, history just tossed Kelly the political opportunity of a lifetime. He blew it. And we are all diminished by his failure.