Our third instalment of our civic engagement series Where Do We Start tackled Activism. With local politics in a whirlwind of uncertainty, it’s never been more important to understand activism and how everyday citizens can make a difference. Our two incredible speakers, community organizer Terra Loire and Young Urbanist League founder Rachel Lissner, schooled us in all things activism: from where to begin to how to be effective! Here’s how the night went down.
First we addressed the elephant in the room: the Notwithstanding Clause. We tried to wrap our heads around what it is and how it can be used. Simply put, it allows Parliament or provincial legislatures to override certain portions of the Charter for a five year period. This has allowed Premier Ford to overturn a court decision to squash the cutting of Toronto City Council. Never heard of it before? That’s probably because it’s only been used 15 times in Canada’s history, mostly in Québec.
This is one of many current issues that we as citizens can take a stand on! Want to learn how? Read our activism Q&A with Terra and Rachel below.
What is an activist ?
To put things simply, an activist is someone who takes action. Anyone who engages in what is going on around them in a meaningful way. Everyone who showed up in the Gladstone Hotel on Tuesday is an activist because they’re doing something – and that is where change begins.
How do I get involved?
An easy first step – the internet! With internet access you can join in circles and learn, join groups who don’t represent you. These places are filled with smart people who might know more than you and know the pathways and next steps to further engagement. Check out some of the organizations listed below, and join their newsletters.
Another place to start is a tour of city hall and Queens Park. You can simply show up and see what’s going on! These are places where important decisions in our lives are made, and they’re made to have you participate.
What level can have the most impact/bang for your advocacy buck (federal, provincial or municipal)?
It depends on the issue! For something like transit, it would be the municipal government and you can contact your city councillor. For tackling something like climate change, this would have most impact by joining organizations working at the federal level. A good place to start is to look at your particular representatives at each level, and see who might be most amenable. If, for example, your MP campaigned on platform that specifically addressed affordable housing, this might be the best person to get in touch with.
Who do you contact for each issue, and where do you find this out?
How do you know which issue is dealt with at each level? As Terra explained, a good rule of thumb is to look at what region is impacted as a gauge for what level of government is in control of it. Always helpful to call your local office – they’ll be able to point you in the right direction!
How impactful are petitions?
Petitions are always a great step, but much more meaningful if followed up by a number of other actions. It is important to look at the accountability of the petition: where are they going to present it? Is it going to be presented at Queen’s Park on a specific day? Read the fine print. Something like online petitions do not carry a ton of weight, but again are better than nothing. Handwritten petitions like the ones you might see at your local street festivals can be hand delivered and read in legislature. Sometimes, if an issue that is happening hits home but happens to be a province away, signing a petition is again a good way to start getting involved.
Important note pointed out by Terra is that if a petition you are looking to sign does not ask for the first three letters of your postal code, it is not official. That doesn’t mean it will do nothing, but it will not be delivered to legislature.
What about internet trolls?
There can often be a lot of hateful speech out there, and it can be overwhelming at times. The internet can be a place that fosters negativity, and people can be cruel. If you’re being trolled on the internet for your activism, it’s sometimes a good idea to reach out and meet ideological rivals in real life. Sharing ideas in person can often lead to understanding.
What role should I take?
Both speakers pointed to the importance of checking in with yourself and your capacity. There are people like those who work in activism full time. They are professionals, and they are paid to do it. For many people, activism is choosing to engage in issue that is meaningful to them. What is important to remember is that everyone can play a different role, and all of these roles is important.
In engaging with your city, you need to find what works for you and your schedule as well as your skillset. Rachel noted that not everyone needs to be a leader, sometimes there is equal importance in those who show up! You don’t need to be leading the charge to be involved. People are finite resources who are capable of burning out and how you choose to get started will be based on your knowledge, energy, skill sets, and interests.
Notes on our speakers:
Terra Loire is a local organizer who has volunteered on many candidate campaigns, and initiatives, such as Women in Toronto Politics, and Our City Hall. She works full time in digital communications and has worked on provincial and federal advocacy initiatives for health organizations. She lives in Toronto with her cat Pyewacket, and many plants.
Rachel Lissner is the founder of the Young Urbanists League (YUL), Toronto’s largest online discussion group for city building and municipal issues. YUL takes a holistic approach to city building by bringing people across the GTA together to share their experiences, questions, and passions and recognizing that one doesn’t need to be a “professional” to be an expert on their city.
Professionally, Rachel has coordinated programs with Jane’s Walk, the Centre for City Ecology, ReelAbilities Toronto, Cycle Toronto, and other civic-minded organizations in Toronto with a focus on community engagement. She has been nominated as a Samara Everyday Political Citizen and for the CivicAction Emerging Leader Award and was a subject of TVO’s “Life-Sized City.” Rachel has a degree in urban studies from the University of Toronto and is a founding advisor for Progress Toronto.
Places that can help get you started:
Research your local candidates and see which you align with!
Your local neighbourhood facebook group – there’s one for every neighbourhood!
Toronto has a waste wizard: https://www.toronto.ca/services-payments/recycling-organics-garbage/waste-wizard/
There is a Trudeau Meter to track how he is measuring up to campaign promises: