Protest – Always a Close Run Thing

It was 2.35 pm when the leader of the Opposition rose to speak but then stood silent for a few seconds, his head cocked to one as he tried to capture meaning to shouts filtered to whispers by the marble and granite walls of The House of Government.

It was 1958 and is remembered here only to remind readers of today’s newspapers – the few who remain – and the viewers of television who have replaced them, that the scenes you read about earlier in the week were not quite as new as portrayed. Mass protests have been around for a long time and more often than not with loud choruses of verbal abuse and threats. But not always.

On Tuesday, February 11, 1958, the Front Page headline in The Daily Colonist proclaimed  “Angry Shouting Farmers Storm into Legislature.” The crowd several hundred strong massed on the front steps chanting a demand to meet Premier W.A.C. Bennett. “Bring him out or we’ll come in and we’ll bring him out.”

It was tense. Reporter Courtney Tower covering the main event described  “the turbulent mob’ surging into the building chanting “bring him out, bring him out.” What was the problem? The price of milk. In 2021 we have become so programmed to food price increases that a cent a pint increase would seem like a gift – but not to the local farmer whose production costs still outstrip their returns on the product.

Bob Strachan, the NDP Opposition leader you met in my opening paragraph with his head cocked to snare the far away shouts, eventually broke his pregnant pause and asked if maybe the minister of agriculture would like a few moments to chat with farmers.

Peter Bruton was providing a colour commentary. He tells us the minister “looked up and with a weak smile” declined the invitation. Close to 20-years later in January 1976 W.A.C. Bennett’s son Bill was occupying the Premier’s chair when the doors to the cabinet room were crashed open and mixed mob of protesters and press gallery reporters disrupted.

In one of the rare photos recording the event it’s hard to tell the reporters from the protesters. Nothing of consequence was damaged; the Premier took control and the reporters who had become part of the story could always boast about the time they attended a cabinet meeting.

In dispute that day – ICBS auto insurance rates and some drastic and unwelcome social welfare changes called “reform” by the government, “cruel cuts” by recipients and social workers. It proved to be but a prelude to the 1980’s procession of massed protests which exploded with the infamous 1983 provincial budget (26 restraint control bills in a single day) and the occupation on July 19 by staff of the Kamloops health facility at Tranqu

The siege lasted 22 days and the newly formed Solidarity movement took over with the first protest marches of 25,000 in Vancouver, 3,000 in Nelson with an estimated 80,000 on hand in the Fall to form an unbroken ring around the Hotel Vancouver where Premier Bennett and the Social Credit Party were meeting in annual convention.

In between there had been two or three mass rallies with crowds 30 to 40,000 strong in Victoria covering the front lawn of the Legislature and stretching several blocks back along Government Street to Fort. And there was one protest which gained access to the Legislature while the House was sitting. There was damage to the main doors to the Chamber and one senior staff member was injured before order was restored.

Students of history will be well aware that my selection of noisy, sometimes threatening, but rarely totally out of control protests is highly selective and avoids mention of  Cromwell’s spectacular revolt with its brutal ending; and the overrated glory of the French Revolution still known as “the age of terro

I thought it better to leave President Trump’s failed coup of earlier this week which would have surely launched another bloodbath, to collapse on its wretched foundations – but with an epitaph to be ever remembered that a few years ago in BC we had “a close run thing.’

One comment

  1. Protest can be good and is a vital, if unacknowledged, element of democracy. In the Sixties in the U.S. it was instrumental in ending the Vietnam War and promoting racial equality.

    But it only works under the aegis of democracy, as witness 1989 protests in Tiananmen Square and more recently in Hong Kong.

    So, when a protest attempts to destroy democracy’s underpinning, as happened this week in Washington, it is no longer beneficial and can be self-defeating.

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