Search Halifax on one of several online petition sites operating today and some interesting windows into the state of the city’s soul and its democracy emerge.
One asks for signatures to help “Bring Dances Back to Halifax, 2006/07.” Last month, St. Patrick’s High School on Quinpool Road, for example, banned school dances, citing teachers’ stress of dealing with some students’ booze-fuelled behaviour and inappropriate get-ups as the reason.
The petition organizer, Nick Baros-Johnson, refers to a definition of dance as an “animal behaviour,” offering other examples of dance-like behaviour in the natural world. In his argument to reinstate dances, he writes: “I don't think it's right to ban a form of animal behaviour from school. Fighting is an animal behaviour, but it often kills people, so I can see why school boards won't tolerate anything like that. Dances are just plain fun and are important get togethers if you can't get together anywhere else.”
At the time of writing, the petition had 500 signatories.
Regardless of your position on the animal logic of the high school dance, young Mr. Baros-Johnson offers a basic forum for expression, a basic political building block, on an issue he and his constitutency (high school students) believe important. Efforts like his have had surprising currency, despite a deceptive simplicity, and motivational effect on some big issues this year in Nova Scotian politics.
Authority figures – teachers, principals, government and bureaucrats – often appear unreachable says one Nova Scotia MLA who helped devise the NDP’s online web site and petition, www.cutthefees.ca
“There’s a sense that politics is an elitist process and that the parties, the leaders and all are defining policy claim to speak in the name of the people without any great basis in public support,” says Leonard Preyra, MLA for Halifax-Citadel and the NDP’s post-secondary education critic. He’s also a former chair of Saint Mary’s University political science department.
“Petitions in general are there to say the public has a right to speak and the public wants to speak,” Preyra says about the format’s enduring appeal and use. “It’s a form of direct democracy.”
Within the first few days of going live, the cutthefees.ca site received the bulk of its almost 2000 signatures. Supporters can still sign the petition even though the MacDonald Tory government announced several weeks ago its intent to increase funding to post-secondary education by $28.8 over the next two years to help cut tuition fees in Nova Scotia, which has the highest in the country, and to provide job training and a needs-based grants system too (something the province hasn’t had before).
Preyra plays down any “causal relationship” between the petition and the government’s decision to find and pledge the money. Rather, he says, the petition was one part of a larger effort, which included a high degree of student activism, along with Preyra and NDP leader Darrel Dexter hammering away at the government during the summer session (the cutthefees.ca site went live just as school started earlier this fall) and visiting communities for public forums.
According to Preyra, it all adds up. “People coming to meetings, writing to you, calling and sending emails: it does make a difference. We need to be able to go to the government and say, ‘we’re not making this up.’”
On another key issue in Nova Scotia, Sunday shopping, people’s personal autographs played a key issue in solidifying support for a position.
In late summer, the Halifax Chamber of Commerce drafted a letter in support of Sunday shopping. They offered a downloadable version through its web site and. The chamber even set up a kiosk at the Barrington Street Atlantic SuperStore where they offered hard copies of the letter. According to chamber director of sales and marketing Brian Rose, the organization planned to simply pass out copies of the letter for people to take away, sign and send themselves in an effort “to stay away from any perceived undue influence on our part. But people were so keen on it, they wanted to send it right then and there and we would send it for them.”
Reaction was swift, Rose says. Between 1100 and 1200 were downloaded from halifaxchamber.com while they gave out 400 to 500 copies of the letter from the kiosk. “God knows how many photocopies got made,” Rose says.
Like Preyra, Rose dismisses the actual political power of petitions and letter campaigns, calling them “promotional tools.” Rose credits the “tone” of media coverage for doing most of the work, leading up to the Nova Scotia government decision not to further challenge in court stores that were opening. But Rose continues to believe in the symbolic power of the signature on the letter (the chamber is set to launch a Yes campaign in support of the Commonwealth Games bid) because they galvanize a quiet constituency.
“The yes side of an issue tends to be the silent majority. The No people are much more vocal. They’re the people who don’t like change,” Rose says. “Half the battle is to give a tool to the Yes side that doesn’t tax their private time but at the same time gets the message across.”
Continues Rose: “The Yes side tends to think, ‘I can’t believe anyone’s so stupid that they wouldn’t vote yes.’ So they become complacent because everyone they talk to is for it.”
Complacency kills in politics and in other areas too, such as the arts. At the very least, petitions and letter campaigns can help thaw ice-hard complacency, until people are limber enough to take on bigger actions.
Just ask Mount Saint Vincent University Art Gallery director Ingrid Jenkner. Last month, she circulated the link to an online petition demanding the federal Conservative government refrain from massively cutting the Museum Assistance Program, which provides crucial funding to museums big and small of which Nova Scotia has many. The federal Conservative government backed off the cuts.
Unfortunately, as Jenkner knows, the arts world is often under threat. “I’m very good at signing and passing them on,” she says. “I get involved with up to six petitions annually.”
Jenkner doesn’t hesitate to say the petition helped the MAP cause because it worked in tandem with other efforts. “The petition was initiated, I believe, by the Canadian Museums Association (CMA), which enjoys a strong reputation for strategic and knowledgeable advocacy,” Jenkner says. “The CMA undertook several further steps to ensure that the federal government heard the message, but the petition, because it comes from the grassroots and not lobbyists or Ottawa insiders, added credibility to those behind-the-scenes advocacy efforts.”
A visit to the CMA web site shows a wealth of email, letters and inquiries collected under the headline “Reactions to the MAP Cuts.” Below that, CMA organizers put a link to the petition on petitiononline.com, the same site that hosted the ‘bring back the school dances’ campaign. The anti-Map cuts petition had 8598 signatures.
When it comes to politics and the power of gestures like petitions, some people will be understandably cynical. Add to that the fact that petition sites will allow virtually any concern space. Jenkner offers pause for thought. The Internet has changed the scope of petitions and accelerated the speed of transmission. Now there is nothing to prevent them from reaching around the world, so it’s exciting to join a campaign with, potentially, world-wide geographical scope. For me it’s rewarding to act in solidarity with others, to find out who those others are, and to feel that I can advance a cause with so little effort on my part.”
Brian Rose, at the Halifax Chamber of Commerce agrees. “That’s why I love . They are a way for people to express their opinion. If we could get everyone doing it, not just the No side, then so much the better. You do something once, you say ‘hey well that didn’t hurt. Maybe next time I’ll actually go out and vote, or I’ll go to a rally.”
Seeing the issue from inside the provincial legislature, Preyra believes there’s always worse that can be done. “It beats apathy. It beats sitting at home and stewing about it thinking ‘those people are so out of touch with us.’”
It may hold more “symbolic purpose,” as Preyra calls it, than real power, but that counts for something.