Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Protest Etiquette - An Oxymoron?

Emigrating to Canada as a child is one of the best things that ever happened to me. This country is amazing in hundreds of ways. Canada is one of the most tolerant nations in the world and Toronto is the globe's most multicultural city. We're also very polite, ask questions before judging and tend to give everyone the benefit of the doubt.

Like most western countries, we support freedom of speech and the neighbourhood that is home to our provincial government buildings and a host of foreign consulates is often a site of peaceful protests. There is one happening now. The Greater Toronto Area has the largest population of Tamils outside of Sri Lanka and four days ago, thousands of them converged in front of the U.S. Consulate calling for a permanent cease fire in Sri Lanka. Since then, their numbers have dwindled but hundreds are still there and have vowed to remain until the U.S. and Canadian governments take action.

Despite its duration, the protest has been peaceful. But it has also been very inconvenient. The group has taken over a major downtown artery, forcing its closure, causing traffic chaos for three business days now and blocking access to some hospitals in the early stages. This street is such an important thoroughfare in Toronto that a parked car at any time of the day, is usually towed and ticketed within minutes.

I'm not going to comment on the cause at hand because I don't know enough about it to form an educated opinion but I have to wonder about the logic of inconveniencing thousands of ordinary people who are just trying to get to their jobs, which they probably feel lucky to have in a recession. The purpose of etiquette is to make other people feel more comfortable, and forcing commuters to leave earlier in order to drive around the blockage for three straight days is certainly not doing that. If the comments on this Toronto Star article are any indication, frustration over the traffic issues have eclipsed any empathy that citizens might have felt towards the protesters.

Does passion for a cause give any group the right to stop traffic? Is freedom of speech more important than the inconvenience of a detour? Should citizens of a city be put out because of things that are taking place on the other side of the planet?

Can etiquette and protests coexist?

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