Do disruptive protests make or break the cause?

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Sabrina Almeida

If you were among the GO train commuters affected by the rail blockades on Tuesday, chances are that your support for the Wet’suwet’en community wavered or diminished.

The blockades which first interrupted Via Rail service between Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal, later extending to some CP and CN Rail routes in Ontario, Quebec and British Columbia have begun to erode the patience of Canadians in these regions.

The irritation is not just with how the Wet’suwet’en community has chosen to express its opposition to the Coastal GasLink project in BC, in the past three weeks, but also the federal government’s inability to resolve the matter.

With the Lakeshore and Milton line GO train disruptions on Tuesday, the GTHA became embroiled in yet another bitter struggle that seems to have no end in sight.

Those impacted by the rail blockades and Ontario teachers’ agitation were not happy with the federal and provincial governments or the protesting groups. Understandable if you had to take days off virtually every week to babysit school-going kids and were then late to work because of the rail disruptions. Or worse still, had to stretch the household budget for babysitting, and rideshare services which would typically switch to high-demand pricing in such situations.

While protesting groups and their supporters think that strikes and blockades are a way to garner public support for their cause, prolonged disruptions are likely to have the opposite effect. A large number of the affected Via Rail and GO train passengers applauded the measures taken in BC to get protestors off the tracks and wished the Ontario government had acted just as quickly.

That being said, many newcomers are also unaware of the Indigenous people’s struggles in Canada and therefore oblivious as well as apathetic towards them. A friend told me about a post on his social media group in which one member alerted the others to the GO train disruptions by ‘teachers’!!! While I was appalled at the individual’s ignorance, there are many like him. Some may know who the protesters are but not the issue at hand and dismiss them as an entitled lot, like the teachers.

One South Asian gentleman was of the opinion that the Wet’suwet’en community was being put up to these blockades by their chiefs just as the teachers were being instigated by their union reps. He believed that the First Nations community had no concept of landownership and therefore didn’t really care about it. He was sympathetic towards them because they were being tossed around both by their chiefs and government.

Should the teacher’s one-day strikes escalate to continuous action, support for their cause is likely to erode very quickly. Most people I talked to are upset with the provincial government for not taking a hard line with them. Unfortunately, few are willing to tell the teachers how they really feel. This includes school office staff who are resentful of their high salaries and privy to how “little they work”. As one lady remarked, if they are really advocating for students, why not take wage increase off the table!!!

While protests are seen as a way to bring about change, one school of thought is that they are more of a habit than a solution. Messages are often marred by images of violence and have had mixed success when it comes to generating positive public opinion. The longer and more disruptive they are, the higher the chance of turning the public against them.

The truth is that we are more supportive of protests on foreign ground than those that may disrupt our lives.

Studies also show that they are likely to be viewed more positively in retrospect than at the time. Perhaps because attitudes vary based on who or how many are affected by the issue at hand.

A recent Ipsos poll showing 63% of Canadians (a 10-point increase over polling numbers last week) oppose the Wet’suwet’en solidarity protests and are becoming more supportive of police intervention to end blockades, exemplifies this attitude. That’s why teacher unions have restricted their strikes to single days so far.

However, with no end in sight to either battle, we can expect more of the same with public disapproval of the agitating groups also growing rather quickly.

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