An amateur’s guide to activism for frustrated Canadians

So, we marched. We marched in the millions, we marched across all seven continents, we lit up buildings and shut down traffic.

We marched, but it’s not enough. Germany marched, too. The most dangerous thing we could do is pat ourselves on the back and be complacent with a single show of symbolic unity. It’s absolutely crucial to not let the momentum lapse and to continue work on the ground. As Jay Smooth asks:

A piece of paper that says: “What Will You Do Monday?”

Most of the guides for further action I’ve seen have been US-centric, which is understandable but frustrating for Canadian allies who both want to help their friends in the south and who want to prevent the rise of totalitarianism in our own country. I’m not an organizer or a seasoned activist by any means, but here are some ideas I’ve absorbed for how to enact change in your community in Canada. I hope they help.

1. Donate money or time

If you are financially able to do so, donating to non-profit groups doing work on the ground is a great low-effort way to have an impact. Many organizations allow you to set monthly recurring donations, so you can set it and forget it. Monthly email receipts acknowledging my donations always make me feel a tiny bit less hopeless.

Here’s my personal list of A+ organizations (not all of these are monthly donations because lol I’m a full-time student):

Amnesty International Canada
Vancouver Black Lives Matter
Action Canada for Sexual Health and Rights
Planned Parenthood
American Civil Liberties Union
Southern Poverty Law Center
Showing Up For Racial Justice
Trans Lifeline
Campaign Zero
Electronic Frontier Foundation
Doctors Without Borders

(Edit, 1/30/20170) These are some other orgs I was previously not familiar with, but that also are also doing excellent work:

Council on American Islamic Relations
National Immigration Law Center
National Lawyer’s Guild
Sylvia Rivera Law Project

(Trans)-national organizations like the Canadian Civil Liberties Association or Amnesty or MSF are great, but they also get a lot of visibility and resources. There are probably local groups doing good work who need your support more urgently. Doing a “[Your city] women’s shelter/homeless shelter/soup kitchen” search on Google is a good place to start. (Pro-tip: shelters rarely get donations of menstruation products. Or make-up! Help someone in a vulnerable position feel good about themselves!) The Ten Oaks Project does really good programming for LGBTQ+ youth in Ontario. If you have a local chapter of Black Lives Matter, I highly recommend contributing to them as well. The Toronto chapter in particular has been fantastic. Black women have been agitating for all of us since the beginning — it’s time we started giving back.

If you’re not familiar with a given organization’s policies or actions, be sure to research them thoroughly before handing over your hard-earned cash. Charity Intelligence Canada provides ratings for a Canadian organizations, and Givewell is a good resource for US/International orgs. For example, many homeless shelters discriminate against LGBTQ+ individuals (especially trans/gender non-binary individuals), who are also disproportionately more likely to experience homelessness. (Vancouver Rape Relief is notorious in terms of being transphobic and anti-sex-workers, being extremely competitive with other DV shelters in the city so they get more funding, using exploitative imagery, and so on.)

If you aren’t in a position to donate money, consider donating your time instead. You can make it a social thing and get together with friends to find local organizations who need your help (see point 3). Whatever you do, make it recurring. Don’t let it be a one-time event.

2. Hold your elected leaders accountable

Municipal politics is where you’re likely to have the greatest impact. Find out who your city counselor is, and how to get in touch with the mayor’s office. Find out when they hold town halls and how to get on a mailing list to be notified of those events. Find out when local elections are — not just mayoral ones, but the ones for school-board trustees, counselors — and contact their offices to ask if they have plans to ameliorate something in your community that’s missing. When you call, have a specific question or a specific ask in mind, and make sure it’s relevant to their office. For example: if calling a counselor, you can ask about their plan for addressing affordable housing shortages, voting for transit instead of car-oriented programs, or implementing harm-reduction programs. If calling a school board trustee, ask about supporting the decolonization our curriculum, or more inclusive and diverse evidence-based sex-ed.

Find out what policies your local police department has regarding accountability, who the ombudsperson is, and their track record on police violence. Call your community liaison and ask what de-escalation training is provided for police officers, or if they’re working on reducing prejudice in policing. If not, ask them why not.

Calling will be the most effective, but writing letters (both on paper and via email) matters too. This Indivisible guide is a quick read and it’s largely US-centered, but I found it really invaluable on how to be the most effective in getting a response from elected officials, and it has templates and scripts to get you started. One of the key takeaways: politicians hate negative local press. Keep up the pressure, and if they won’t respond, put them on blast.

Don’t forget about your premier or your MP. Here’s how you can find out who represents your riding. Even if you live in a conservative district, it’s still important to call to keep reminding them that you’re a constituent, too, and that someone is watching their actions and will put up resistance. For example, get them on record denouncing awful policies like the Barbaric Cultural Practices act, repealing C-51 and C-24, or calling on Kellie Leitch to step down from the CPC leadership race. (A girl can dream.) If you live in a district where your elected officials are upstanding humans, call and tell them that, too! We as a culture are very bad at positive reinforcement, and elected officials can benefit from hearing that you notice and approve of their fight for progress.

And last but most definitely not least, protect your voting rights. Contact your representatives about pushing Justin Trudeau to keep his campaign promise and enact electoral reform. First-past-the-post is not a sustainably viable system in a plurality system. Get started on the Fair Vote website.

All of this can be a little overwhelming, and it’s okay to start small. Block off time in your calendar for it — actually schedule it in. It may only be a five minute meeting, but it can be nerve-wracking and you may need time to psych yourself up / prepare / recover. Remember: your elected officials work for you, and you can absolutely hold them accountable. Research indicates that active resistance from 3.5% of the population is enough to collapse a government. We do have power.

A hand holding up a sign that says “No Power for Bigots” taken at Vancouver Women’s March. Photo credit: Chris Melito.

If you can’t beat them, take over the system for yourself. Run for office! As Donald Trump has demonstrated, everyone can do it. Equal Voice works to encourage women to run for office in Canada, and also has resources for women wishing to volunteer for a campaign. The Disability Caucus is a US/Canadian committee with representatives from both countries that encourages people with disabilities to get involved in elected office. I haven’t found a similar program for people of colour, but please let me know if such a thing exists.

3. Continue agitating

If you are a person with privileges by virtue of your skin colour, legal status, physical size, or financial situation, use that to help the cause. We’ve seen from the Women’s March that police are still unwilling to be seen brutalizing white women. So if you are a white woman, show up to the next Black Lives Matter march and let your body be its own power. After all, the March on Versailles allowed women to storm the Palace of Versailles and (basically) kidnap King Louis the XVI, in part because palace guards were unwilling to fire on women. That’s a hell of a precedent.

If you see a police encounter that seems questionable, stay on the scene and record it. If you see acts of hatred and oppression in public, speak up to protect the vulnerable. You don’t have to confront the aggressor; center the person being victimized. Practice this at home in front of the mirror: it’s really easy to freeze up in the moment because it’s a stressful new situation.

Find local activism organizations. Chances are, there are already great people in your community doing work that you can lend your energy to, and they often put on public events for education and outreach where you can get to know organizers. Independent and alternative newspapers will often have listings for such events — here’s the Georgia Straight’s listing for activism events in Vancouver, Daily Xtra lists LGBTQ events in Toronto. If you live near a university, they will often have guest or feature lectures that are free to the public as well.

If there really aren’t any local organizations, why not start your own? For example, Showing Up For Racial Justice has an excellent chapter-building toolkit that you can use to start a local chapter. Grab a few friends and get to rabble-rousing.

(A note on protesting: protesting can be dangerous for immigrants or children of immigrants, even if they have legal status. Bill C-51 gives police the power to arrest without a warrant if they even suspect “terrorist activity”, “online propaganda” can now be grounds for a warrant, and CSIS has been granted unprecedented power to engage in active policing with little oversight. Meanwhile, Bill C-24 allows Citizenship and Immigration to strip the citizenship of anyone convicted of terrorism, treason, or espionage, even if they were born in Canada, without the oversight of a Federal Court. Given the alarming amount of legal leeway in how to define “terrorism”, critics have suggested that this could be defined as anything from “environmental protests to religion-based attacks”. This is why it’s all the more important for privileged allies to throw their hat in the ring with us.)

4. Stay updated

The news is overwhelming, and there’s a lot of it, and most of it seems bad, and it’s often immensely complicated. I know. I get exhausted from the news at least once a day. But that’s also what those in power are counting on — a population that is too exhausted and overwhelmed to pay attention to shifting narratives is a population that can’t resist.

Try setting a strict news schedule — no more than an hour a day, or no news right after you wake up. Short of an impending nuclear apocalypse (in which case there’s jack-all any of us can do anyway), it will be very rare that there are barn-burning developments you have to know about immediately. Nor do you have to take on everything at once. You can pick a few websites, or a few issues. Most major news organizations have their drawbacks, so beware of biases. The Toronto Star generally does good reporting with relatively diverse perspectives. CBC Radio 1 is solid, as are NPR and ThinkProgress, though the former tends to skew national and the latter American. The Atlantic and The Washington Post have been doing better than the New York Times when it comes to calling a (Nazi) duck a (Nazi) duck, or critically reporting on the historically unprecedented levels of bullshit coming out of Trump’s administration, but they’re still fallible and US-centric, so read with a wary eye. Like any proper commie pinko I love me The Guardian, and they have a Canadian bureau. Al Jazeera remains a voice of international sanity. BuzzFeed and BuzzFeed Canada will occasionally have really fantastic longform investigative journalism — just take care to distinguish these from listicles of embedded tweets masquerading as writing.

I found this a really enlightening read of what digital literacy actually means, and how easily we are fooled. Hold the press accountable — call them out for euphemizing atrocities, white-washing Neo-Nazis, or letting politicians set the agenda instead of critically reporting the news. We need a critical Fourth Estate now more than ever.

5. Educate yourself

Our many systems of oppression have been millennia in the making. If you’re new to activism: welcome! Glad to have you. There are many people who have been doing this work for a long time, and they can teach us many lessons.

The best thing we can do is to listen. We have all grown up in a toxic system, which means that all of our thought patterns have been influenced by unexamined prejudices. Things that seem perfectly reasonable may have harmful assumptions built into their premise. You may be participating in racist dog-whistling (e.g. “urban/inner-city” as a code for black) without even knowing about it. Figure out which progressive voices are missing from your regular news consumption cycle, and seek those out.

I am incredibly grateful to the many black and brown women who freely and thanklessly give their time to speak truth to power, and I have learned and grown a ton from following amazing women of colour on Twitter and on Facebook. In no particular order, here are just a few names and blogs to get you started:

Tressie McMillan Cottom
Eileen Chow
Nicole Chung
Roxane Gay
Imani Gandy
Flavia Dzodan
Ijeoma Oluo (you need to be logged into Facebook)
Janet Mock
Melissa Harris-Perry
Mikki Kendall
The Root
Native Appropriations

If you commute a lot, try podcasts! I am a huge fan of the Code Switch, Still Processing, and Another Round podcasts for unpacking complex cultural and racial issues in a really engaging and diverse manner. The Globe and Mail ran an 11-episode podcast series called Colour Code that featured Denise Balkissoon and Hannah Sung talking about race in Canada, which I loved. I hope they produce more.

Here are some really great books that provide an entry-point to the discussion of oppression and racial justice:

We Should All Be Feminists, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
The New Jim Crow, by Michelle Alexander
Sister Outsider, by Audre Lorde
Women, Race, & Class, by Angela Davis
Ain’t I A Woman, by bell hooks
Critical Race Theory, by Kimberlé Crenshaw (who coined ‘intersectionality’!)
Between The World And Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates
A People’s History of the United States, by Howard Zinn

This is, again, a very US-centric list. There are many ideas here that are applicable to Canada as well, but Canada faces its own challenges with our own insidious racism. For a start, the CBC has an excellent and gut-wrenching interactive feature on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, many of which cases remain unresolved.

This list is by no means exhaustive, in part due to my own ignorance. Some of the other issues that are incredibly important that are not represented here that I will commit to learning more about include Indigenous land rights, disability rights, ecological feminism and environmental justice (The Leap Manifesto was a good place to start for me), and water protectors (NoDAPL and so on) and their history. If you have resources for any these, send them along and I will update this post.

Yours truly at Women’s March Vancouver holding up a sign that says “My feminism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit — Flavia Dzodan”. Photo credit: Chris Melito.

Real talk: The history of feminism is also a history of transphobia, racism, queerphobia, and much more. White feminists, including beloved suffragettes, have a history of throwing black people under the bus to advance their own rights. Gay and lesbian activists have often turned their backs on the trans community. This is an injustice, and remedying justice is often uncomfortable. Sit with that discomfort and unpack it before getting defensive. We are all complicit in systems of oppressions, and I know that’s an awful feeling, because we want to be good people and we don’t want to be contributing or perceived as contributing to these inequalities. But we have to recognize our role in the systems we reproduce.

We can learn how police and media respond differently to black protestors, why Martin Luther King Jr. feared the apathy of white moderates, what the much-demonized “black bloc” tactics actually constitute. We can understand that vagina feminism excludes trans women and gender non-binary folks, that reclaiming the label of ‘slut’ and ‘nasty’ is not equally accessible to women of colour who have been dehumanized through sexualization, that feminists of colour have good reason to distrust mainstream feminism, how anti-black racism is rife in the Asian American and Asian Canadian communities, why it’s incredibly problematic that Vancouver Black Lives Matter was excluded from the Women’s March, why it’s important to address these injustices within our own camp instead of just sweeping it all under the rug in the name of coalition-building.

(Update: I’ve come across this heartbreaking account of one indigenous woman’s experience at the DC march. I don’t like saying something is “essential reading” but… essential reading.)

It’s also really important not to ask people of colour or LGBTQ folks or people with disabilities you don’t know well to explain concepts that you could easily google and research yourself. One of the realities of being a member of a visible minority group is that we’re often asked to be a racial ambassador, and your question is often one of many identical questions lobbed at us on a regular basis. This is exponentially true for women of colour who have any sort of platform or visibility, who face an added expectation of “nurture” built into these interactions. Educating people on topics so intimate to our lived experience is exhausting, more so when it involves helping the addressee process their discomfort, so please be mindful of this free emotional labour being performed.

That said: if I have the bandwidth for it, I am always happy to sit down and have a conversation with my friends in a venue other than a heated online shouting match. If we’re mutuals on Twitter or friends on Facebook and you genuinely want to have a conversation, get in touch.

6. Take care of yourself

Warriors who are exhausted and broken down can’t march for justice. We need you in top shape to truly engage in resistance. This means recognizing where your limits are — maybe marches trigger immense anxiety and claustrophobia for you, and you would be better off calling an MP. Get healthy, stay in shape. Drink lots of water. Take a bath. Read books that delight you in between books that fire up your passion. Get enough sleep. Take a self-defense class, a martial arts class. Go with your friends. Build a solid circle of people who have your back, to whom you don’t have to explain and justify your passion and your humanity, but who will call you on your shit. Remember to laugh (for example, at Nazis). Watch Lemonade. Watch it again.

I really love this line from John K. Samson’s song Winter Wheat:

We know this world is good enough because it has to be.

This is the only world we’ve got. It’s up to us to fight for it.


Sources that were helpful for my thinking but that were not directly referenced: Imani Love, Lily Herman, Britany Oliver. As in so many things, I am still learning. If I screwed up in terms of disrespecting or marginalizing any groups in this piece, or if there are gross inaccuracies or terrible advice in here, please let me know. (The amateur in the title refers to me. I am the amateur.)

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