February 15, 2003. A cool, clear winter’s day. I walk south down the middle of 97 Street and west onto Jasper Avenue. I look behind me. As far as I can see, people are shoulder to shoulder, filling up the street curb to curb. A mighty river. Ahead of me the river flows past the ATB tower, the Hotel Macdonald, and Scotia Place.
I weep at the sheer power of it. I weep that my hometown is standing up against George Bush, Tony Blair, and the armies preparing to invade Iraq. I weep for the millions in Iraq who suffer under Saddam Hussein and the lethal international economic sanctions in place since 1991. I weep for those who would suffer when – if? – the threatened firestorm of “shock and awe” sweeps them away. I hope that even now mass protests around the world can stop the invasion.
I had participated in antiwar demonstrations in Edmonton before. Most involved speeches and songs at Corbett Hall, followed by a walk down Whyte Avenue to Gazebo Park carrying signs, blocking traffic, and mingling with a few hundred like-minded people. But today is different. This is, by some accounts, the largest mass demonstration in Edmonton’s recent history and includes 10,000 people or more.
The Edmonton Journal virtually ignored the local demonstration. The Globe and Mail said 10 million people marched for peace that day in 600 cities, that this was the largest antiwar protest in human history. A New York Times column declared that there are now two superpowers: the US and global public opinion. Eight years later, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan continue, and antiwar protests are small and rare.
Sometimes I feel so strongly about an issue that I need to channel that energy somewhere. And when I march, I gain strength by connecting with others.
In 1970 I marched against the Vietnam War in St. Louis before I came to Canada as a draft dodger. In 2001 I went to Quebec City to join 100,000 or more to protest the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA). I was tear-gassed and stood face to face against heavily armed storm troopers. I stood up against Bill 11 on the Legislature Grounds when Ralph Klein attempted to privatize health care.
The Vietnam War did end in 1975. FTAA supporters did retreat. Alberta still has public health care. But I participate in protest marches not only for results. Sometimes I feel so strongly about an issue that I need to channel that energy somewhere. And when I march, I gain strength by connecting with others. Together we are stronger than we are alone, and together we can devise letter-writing campaigns and personal strategies to continue the struggle.
One person can change the world. Look at Gandhi and Mandela. Look in the mirror. Over Christmas I watched that old classic, It’s a Wonderful Life. At the end, Jimmy Stewart’s character sees his hometown as it would have been if he’d never been born. Sure, the movie is hokey, but seeing it this time reminded me that if I don’t fight injustice, injustice has already won.
Gary is a McCauley area poet, writer, and activist.