Many of the protesters assembled at the B.C. Legislature on February
23rd went home with hoarse voices. The sore throat I was already
nursing from camping on the Legislature lawn restricted my chanting.
I skipped the usual “Fill-in-the-blank has got to go! Hey hey!
Ho ho!” and the ever-fashionable “Three word chant! Three word
chant!” But there’s one that always gets me. Call me a romantic,
but I can’t resist joining “The people, united, will never be
defeated!” Sure it may take some tear gas, a martyr or two, maybe
a few Bastilles, but leaders can’t go where a population won’t
follow. The trick, then, is for the people to stand united. I
am beginning to understand how hard this will be.
* * * * *
It is February 9, 2002 and Camp Campbell has been up for four
days. It started after the student protest against the newly thawed
tuition fee freeze. About ten activists set up camp, threw down
stakes left over from the rally, roped them together and started
to build a community. Now we have four-man commercial tents with
state-of-the-art goretex flies and we have shelters built from
two-by-twos and tarps. The largest structure is is a tarp tent
kitchen, which doubles as a residence for overflow guests. The
tables inside bear an impressive spread of donated goods - breads,
cheese, chilis, coffee, juice boxes. Beside the tables, separate
boxes have been labeled for garbage and recycling. There is a
playful atmosphere as we discover that it’s much more fun to giggle
at the state than to smash it. At the entrance to our roped enclosure,
someone has driven a palm tree branch into the ground and set
up the headboard of a dismantled bed, painted with the words Camp
Campbell, written in a childish script over an idyllic lakeside
backdrop - the perfect summer camp welcome. Beside the threshold
of our space, a poster board and school desk offer pamphlets and
information bulletins, explaining our little get-together on the
Legislature lawn. Someone has added a sign on union posterboard
urging ‘let’s vote Gordon off our island’.
The plan is to take protest rallies one step further by providing
a visible 24-hour opposition to Gordon Campbell’s agenda. This
agenda includes cuts to legal aid and welfare, frozen health care
funding, ripped up collective agreements, tuition fee deregulation,
massive job cuts to civil service in the name of smaller governement
- and the largest cabinet in B.C. history.
I’ve only been here two days, and already feel the emotional
connection a camp veteran warned me about. “You’ll think about
it all the time when you aren’t here. You’ll scheme on how to
get donations, how to improve the camp, how to make it successful.
And you’ll only feel at home once you’re back on the lawn.” She’s
right. I am amazed by the number of cars honking as they go past,
by the donations of food and supplies that pour in. At a local
kiosk, the clerk recognizes me as a protester. As I count my change,
deciding between a coffee and a muffin, she stuffs a bag full
of pastries, gives me a large coffee, and says, “go ahead” with
a conspiratorial grin. I thank her as graciously as I can without
giving her away to the customer who has just walked in.
Back at the camp, we have erected a geodesic dome. No one knows
what we’ll do with it, but it boosts the group’s confidence. With
a lot of patience, daily meetings are now a place where the campers,
be they students, homeless people or labour activists can share
ideas. After two days of meetings we’ve finally managed to get
- with the help of a talking stick - one person speaking at a
time. These are small victories, but they’ve kept me going.
* * * * *
A few feet from the barrel fire, I shift my weight from one
foot to another, trying to relieve my aching soles. The wind feels
like it has entered my skull and is biting my inner ears. I hold
my scarf tight under my chin and squint up into the sun so I can
see Kenny. His face is wide and flat and pock-marked, half covered
in black hair. His mustache is crusty and curls around smiling
lips. Long hair hangs, gnarled on one side into the beginnings
of a dread lock, down the front of his army jacket. It’s early
in the morning and I feel optimistic, surprised that we’re still
here. Then Kenny tells me I’m a yuppie hippie. I ask him what
“Dude, yer just like, yer one of the students.”
“So you guys come in here and you stir shit up, and, and when
the cops come, you can just fuckin’ go home, and sleep at home.
You’re here til it’s uncomfortable.” He scans my face tentatively,
and continues. “Yah. Yer just like, just like a fuckin, yuppie
hippie. You’re gonna go home, and we get arrested, and no one
gives a shit about us. Dude, if we get the shit kicked out of
us, no one’s gonna notice cause we’re a bunch of homeless people.
You won’t stand up for us. You’ll go to your comfy bed, dude.”
He looks around, adding a few more ‘dudes’ to punctuate the silence
that follows. I stand still, staring into the sun, feeling hot
water rise up to my eyes.
“Oh dude, I made you cry.” He rests his hand on my shoulder.
“No, it’s OK.” I blink away a few tears, then look up at Kenny.
“Cause you’re right. I mean, I have a choice. I have a home to
go to, and you don’t. I know that, and it sucks. That’s why I’m
here. And it’s true - I don’t know if I’m willing to get arrested.
I’ve got a lot at stake. I don’t know what good it will do. Maybe
I am chicken.”
Kenny snorts dismissively, then lowers his voice. “I used to
live like you do. On a big fuckin’ ranch.”
I smile, thinking he and I aren’t so different. “And I used
to eat at a soup kitchen.”
“No way dude, which one?”
* * * * *
The media comes every morning and most evenings. The camp has
lasted over the weekend, and most of us expect it to be cleared
before Tuesday’s throne speech. We wait and field questions from
TV news anchors, print reporters and CBC radio. When the Times
Colonist arrives, most of us are still asleep or eating porridge.
I take the interview, somewhat reluctantly. The reporter shivers
whenever the ocean breeze off the Inner Harbour seeps through
her ice-blue track suit. I’m dressed in five cotton layers, oblivious
to the chill.
She begins with typical questions. Why are we here? What do
we want? When will we leave? Then the line of questioning turns
towards who ‘we’ are. Are you just students and homeless people?
Are you the same people from Spiral Island? -- a squat for homeless
people that was shut down because the building was deemed unsafe.
Do you have problems with drugs or alcohol? Is there tension between
the students and the homeless? Are there any people here who are
I recognize her line of questioning - divide and dismiss. When
we are presented to the public, broken into constituencies, we
are much easier to shrug off. Students are perceived as naïve
and idealist, excited about changing the world but frankly misled,
and poor people, well - they’re always complaining about something.
I feel goaded, and I’m offended. She came to write a story about
a group of homeless drifters and a few idealist students who really
don’t know why they’re here. I steer each question around to the
reasons for this protest. The manipulation of question and answer
comes easily; I surprise myself. As my lips move, my mind wonders
if creative responses are all it takes to be a politician. I’m
not completely honest. I withhold the tensions that are starting
to split the camp and tire the campers. I tell myself that she
has an agenda, and I have one too. As much as possible, I use
the media to the activist’s advantage.
When she leaves I predict her story will be slanted, not in
our favour. I’m pleased that I haven’t given her any quotes that
will help dismiss us as voiceless stereotypes in the public eye.
The front page of next day’s Times Colonist describes a scene
of ratty tarps and cardboard flooring, a student protest taken
over by the homeless and their dogs.
* * * * *
On the lawn, I watch campers take on roles. Some cook or clean,
some facilitate meetings, some challenge each decision, some take
care of everyone else. Like most, I play many roles, some of which
I choose, many of which I don’t. I am a protester, a student,
a woman, a person with a home, a strategist, a media watch-dog,
a councillor, a cynic, and a defender. My identity transforms
with each action and interaction, usually depending on the eye
of the beholder. Sometimes - like when I was given free food at
the kiosk because I was seen as a protester - this is to my advantage.
Most of the time it’s not. These identity shifts happen everywhere,
but I notice them more here, stripped of the rules of conduct
that usually govern my life. I overhear sexist and homophobic
jokes, and struggle with the urge to confront the tellers, at
the risk of sounding overly-sensitive or preachy. I’m constantly
aware that my status in the group will change the second someone
decides I’m too uptight. In the classroom, on the job, or with
my friends, certain words and actions are unacceptable. Here,
every rule is tested.
* * * * *
On Valentine’s Day, I take the bus straight from class to the
Inner Harbour, and walk to the camp. I slept at home last night.
My sore throat and cold have developped into a nasty ear infection.
Forgetting my puritan commitment to roughing it, I succumbed to
the lure of flannel sheets and central heating. The dome is newly
covered by a blue tarp. I enter it, looking for friends. I see
some familiar faces, but mostly it’s a different crowd. They all
look about fifteen years old. The number of new arrivals is enouraging,
until I see what they’re doing. Hunched in a circle, they have
an overturned tin lid into which they’re cutting up pot leaves.
They fill two baggies and start rolling joints. Outside the dome,
tourists approach with their cameras, taking in the local colour
which, at the moment, appears to be green.
Before Camp Campbell was set up, organizers asked permission
to pitch tents on Songhees First Nation land. The Songhees band
representatives agreed, on the condition that there be no drugs,
no alcohol, and no violence. I leave the dome to find David, who
has been here for a long time and knows the rules. He is crouched
by the fire, holding his hands out to the warmth. He greets me
with a woodsmoke-scented hug. I ask him about the dome.
“Well, they just feel that they should have the right to smoke
“What about our agreement with the First Nations? They’re being
disrespectful. Why don’t they cross the street and smoke up? The
last thing we need is to alienate people who agree with our protest.”
“Well, then there’s the issue of the inherent immorality of
I look into his blue eyes and see that he is sincere. He tells
me that they are digging up a garden and a compost, creating a
sustainable society. My admiration for his good sense wilts. I
decide there’s no point in mentioning that a camp living on donated
food and borrowed time will never be sustainable. Our conversation
is overpowered several times by a cheerful crowd singing sixties
protest songs. With each note, sarcasm and anger rise to my brain.
I save my comments about teenagers yearning for an era that was
repackaged and sold to them in a commercially viable, feel-good
format - an era that never happened. I save them for my friends,
who I know will understand. Then I remember that I was one of
those teenagers ten years ago, and my anger fades to disappointment
This isn’t what we built, I think. I support a protest, not
a bloody commune. I walk away, now playing the role of the deserter.
* * * * *
On February 23rd the Inner Harbour is packed with demonstrators.
The boundary rope around the camp is gone, but the perimeter is
marked by the relatively lower density of people inside the ‘campground’.
Demonstrators spill into the streets all along the causeway and
surrounding the Legislature, but not within the camp. From above,
it must look like a bald spot on a lawn otherwise crowded with
protesters holding colourful signs and styrofoam coffee cups.
The division is unspoken, but clear. Chants that start within
the camp are abandoned once they reach the edges. I stand in the
middle of the camp area, and wonder where the unions and the rest
of the students were when we set up camp. I hope they didn’t stay
away for the sake of public credibility - wanting to distinguish
themselves from the street community. The empty spaces around
me tell me otherwise.
* * * * *
The day that the police get the order to remove the camp, I
go back. I feel guilty - for leaving, for giving up, for letting
go. I think I must be one wimpy revolutionary, and that I at least
owe an apology to the campers I respected, then abandoned. The
street community is still here. They tell me the fifteen-year-old
pseudo-hippies left after a nasty windstorm. I’m quietly thankful.
It’s much easier to criticize others for not uniting than to reach
out to them myself. Now I don’t have to worry.
The media is back for the big day. About nine police officers
stand in the camp area, looking bored and cold. Everyone waits
to see what they will do. On the sidewalk, tourists and passers-by
have stopped to watch. Most shake their heads at the newest addition
to the camp - a circular garden, about nine feet in diameter,
delineated with stones that outline the shape of a yin yang. Outsiders
open debates with campers, sometimes debates so lively that police
ask the visitors to leave. The protesters police themselves, aware
of their precarious position, knowing that any violent outburst
would be grounds for arrest. One protester has been hauled away
already this morning for assaulting a CBC cameraman. When I arrive,
I’m told that the cameraman refused to stop filming inside the
tent after being asked three times. I’m told that the security
guards were unnecessarily rough when they pinned Tom down. Everyone
is grumpy; everyone is tense.
I speak with people who disagree with the camp, finding myself
on the defensive again. One woman tells me to shut up. Another
finishes her argument by calling my friend fat. We laugh these
incidents off. But one man stays, and talks candidly about why
the camp upsets him. I discover that his argument is based on
the identity of the protesters. I hear all about us from someone
who has never met us. We are from other provinces, we don’t have
jobs, we didn’t vote, we’re scaring away the tourists, we don’t
pay taxes, we have no solutions to offer B.C. My friends and I
try to dismantle these perceptions. Like others I’ve spoken with
that day, he tells me that I’m a ‘good protester,’ that I know
what I’m talking about, but the other people in the camp are ‘bad
protesters.’ They are dirty and rude and violent, and the place
looks like a mess. I say that they have less to lose, that they
are going to feel the government cuts first. Their passion may
be less eloquent than mine, but it’s more urgent.
By the end of the day, I realize that this man and most of the
people who have come to cheer the destruction of the camp actually
agree with many of the reasons we are protesting. They disagree
with how we’re protesting.
But on some level, I think they also disagree with who we are.
Or rather who they think we are. Specifically, who the homeless
are. Stupid, foul-mouthed, ugly, lazy - all words I heard that
day, used to describe my campmates at a distance. All code words
for poor. In the face of a public lawn claimed by the disenfranchised,
the gloves of political correctness came off. I saw that ‘correctness’
was purely political. We pay lipservice to respect by saying ‘gay’
when we mean ‘faggot.’ Polite words give us a tactical advantage
in our social lives and our jobs. But there is no advantage to
feigning respect for the poor. Especially not when they’re ruining
the lawn. Orderly labour union rallies that last for one day are
good protests. Round-the -clock protests that include the street
community are bad.
* * * * *
I put up a false front of unity to the media and the people
with whom I debate, anyone I consider outside the activist community.
I try to keep us from being divided by forces outside the camp.
In the end, we are divided by forces inside the camp.
I still believe in activist unity, but I don’t know how we’ll
unite. Unite is such an abstract word, so far from my frustrations,
the arguments about effective tactics, the initial three-second
glance that shapes my opinions of a stranger. Especially a fifteen-year-old
pseudo hippie. The challenge for activists is to be honest about
how we keep ourselves divided and to take down the barriers that
keep us apart. To stop using our identities as stances pitted
against each other. The people, united, will never be defeated.
I don’t know how we’ll do it, but if the chant slogan is right,
it will be worth it.
Mary Conquest sends
her wishes. Good and bad.