I have taken to identifying myself in recent columns as “one of the most protested political staffers in Canada’s history.”
I am not sure this is a title to which anyone really wants to lay claim, but I’m putting this out there and if you know someone who has been the press flack/communications director for more protests than me, I will happily give up the title.
Working in the Mike Harris government from 1996 to 1999, I was the point-person for the second OPSEU Day of Protest, which resulted in calls for my Minister’s resignation (over an episode which was completely my fault, which made the whole nightmare even more painful).
I was the point person on the Doctor’s strike which saw obstetricians withdraw their services one day per week. (It was during those meetings that I learned from a negotiator, “Take it or leave it is not a choice.” I still live by those words.)
I was the point person on numerous Teachers’ actions at the Ministry of Education while Ontario brought in equal per-pupil funding, standardized curriculum, and standardized testing. Most notably, I was on Comms for the illegal Teachers’ strike that kept two million kids out of school for two weeks; more about that later.
At Corrections, I was on Comms for a Correctional Officers strike. That was a surpisingly quiet affair, as the prisons simply lock down the prisoners and assign managers to the CO positions for the duration. (This was where I first heard the term “lockdown,” and I never heard it used anywhere else until government started using it during COVID).
A much bigger deal was the opening of Ontario’s first privatized prison in Penetanguishene, the only Town Hall meeting I ever managed that needed police dogs.
I was held hostage by Teachers at what was supposed to be a positive event in Don Mills – a team of police had to come and extract the Minister and me.
I crossed a picket line of 2,000 protesting teachers surrounded by a SWAT team of police in Guelph, and perhaps most disastrously, I was exposed to an Anthrax scare in the Ministry of Education building. The powdery white substance which flew into the air when an envelope was opened turned out not to be Anthrax, but the stress of the quarantine gave me instant, overnight shingles: an ugly red rash and blisters running down the left side of my body. In a panic, I thought I was succumbing to Anthrax.
When I called the Ministry the next morning to check in on whether anyone else in the quarantine had developed a red rash and blisters, the fellow who answered the phone told me blithely,
“Oh, that was just a hoax, didn’t you see the press reports?”
“OF COUSE I SAW THE PRESS REPORTS!” I hissed through clenched teeth. “I wrote the fucking PRESS RELEASE!!”
Ah, the good old days!
In 1997, people who protested hated politicians and the policies they introduced were admired and encouraged – certainly by the media, who loved the drama, and also by many residents and voters.
In 2020, when the same citizens were told they couldn’t gather to protest, not even to go to church, the vast majority acquiesced without a peep.
Personally if I had a choice, I’d go back to the good old days of giant crowds and raucous protests. I felt safer.