Accidental Activist

How to Be an (Accidental) Activist

I hope we can all try and put aside any frustrations we may have and replace them with hope, energy, optimism and enthusiasm.

By Ben Bull
Published October 06, 2006

Before the advent of the Crackberry, the Internet and mass media, communication usually took place through conversation, the telephone and by letter.

My Dad's favourite medium was pen and paper, his favourite saying 'The Pen is mightier than the sword.' His preference rubbed off on me and, when I was about thirteen, I joined the ranks of Amnesty International and spent many a weekend hour pleading with governments all over the world to have mercy on people I'd never met.

Years later, the habit stuck and I found myself sharpening my quill whenever I had a battle to fight or a fence to mend.

I recall landing in Canada in the autumn of '95. No sooner had we unpacked than my wife, Susana, became wracked with abdominal pain. A visit to the doctor confirmed a cholecystectomy (gall bladder removal) was in order so we set about booking her appointment.

However, this being Canada, we quickly learned that she'd have to wait a full three months until she was eligible to get the op, because she'd been out of the country for three years.

I wrote to the Health Minister and, while it didn't speed up the operation (Jim Wilson's Assistant took a leisurely two months to reply) my point was duly noted and, my wife insisted, it made her feel at least a little better.

I've had better luck agitating over the phone and in person down the years: Plane ticket refunds, dodgy goods reimbursements and numerous parking ticket recalls - all-in-all I've done OK. But writing is still my favourite mode of adjudication and I love to go wielding my pen whenever the mood - or the rage - strikes.

I won't prattle on about it here again, but to this day it still amazes me how much has been achieved, and changed, since I whizzed off an angry letter to the Spec three years ago.

I imagine the other RTH contributors feel the same way when they reflect upon their own various letter-, email- and article-writing endeavours and consider the influence they are now able to exert.

The reason I'm musing about this now is because an RTH reader sent us an email the other day, asking, "How can I affect change?"

What a great question. Taking action - affecting change - ain't easy. For myself I've had many frustrations with this over the years.

I still heat up when I picture my wife, writhing around in agony, in a country where she'd paid taxes and was soon to raise four children. I feel a deep sadness when I think about all those political prisoners, and the letters that probably never arrived. And I'm all rage when I contemplate my failed appeals to everyone from the Home Depot to the Hamilton Police Force.

But despite all this, there are two things I have learned about taking action:

  1. We do have a voice and we should bloody well use it; and
  2. We really can make a difference (it's just not always easy).

In search of further material on the subject I came across two excellent sources.

The first is a remarkable pamphlet from the Green Party's new leader, Elizabeth May.

Ms. May is an agitator of the highest order. Among her many shit disturbances is the blocking of an aerial insecticide forest spraying project and a successful campaign to clean-up the Sydney Tar Ponds.

Prior to winning the leadership of the Green Party this year May was awarded the Officer of the Order of Canada, and served as Executive Director of the Sierra Club of Canada, for 17 years.

I've reproduced some excerpts from May's brochure, How to Be an Activist, below. After you've read it I hope you'll take the time to go through the whole thing and maybe follow it up by reading her new book, How to Save The World in Your Spare Time (Key Porter Books).

The second source is our very own Digital Kayak columnist, Adrian Duyzer. Adrian provided me with a well thought out six-point plan on how to take action. It includes some concrete suggestions and great links to help you on your way.

Finally I had a little scoot around the Internet and uncovered a few more handy links that might just give you the push you need to put pen in hand, pick up the phone, or start tapping away on your keyboard.

I hope you will take the time to read through these tip sheets. Most of all I hope we can all try and put aside any frustrations we may have and replace them with hope, energy, optimism and enthusiasm. And the conviction that with just a little (and sometimes a lot) of effort, we really can make a difference.

Excerpt from How to Be an Activist

  1. Refuse to be intimidated. If you are told that a subject is too technical or scientific for you to understand, don't believe it. You may not be an expert, but you can read and understand what experts have to say.

  2. Be creative. Every campaign and issue has its own dynamic. Let your creative juices flow.

  3. Don't take no for an answer. If you want to meet an elected official, call every day. Drop by the office and get to know the staff. Be persistent.

  4. Ask lots of questions. Get to the bottom of the issue. Do your homework.

  5. Use the telephone. It is a great research tool and better than writing. Find the person who knows the answer and make sure they send you the information.

  6. Be unfailingly polite. Being persistent is not the same as being rude. You may be in this for the long haul, so don't burn any bridges.

  7. Leave no stone unturned. Think about who knows who. How can you expand your network? Your allies may come from unexpected places, so do not make assumptions. Ask people for help.

  8. Give Credit. When someone in government does something you approve of, be sure to give public credit and thanks.

  9. Believe in yourself. You can accomplish anything if you don't care who gets the credit.

  10. Pace Yourself. Remember that politics is also personal. Watch out for burn-out. You'll need the support of friends and family. Build love into your campaigns.

How To Take Action

  1. Write or email your city councillor about something that bothers you.

  2. Write or email your member of provincial parliament (MPP).

  3. Write or email your member of parliament (MP).

  4. Write a cabinet minister whose portfolio relates to your concern. You can use Google to learn who the right minister is. For example, if you have a concern regarding transportation, search for "Canada Minister Transportation". Google will reveal that the correct office is 'Transport Canada', headed by the Minister of Transport, Infrastructure and Communities, Lawrence Cannon. You can then use this resource to find the Minister's contact information.

  5. Use the power of the pen. Letters invariably get more attention than emails. The offices of cabinet ministers are required to respond in writing in a set time period to letters (but not emails).

  6. Use the power of the CC. Send carbon copies of letters you write to multiple levels of government, and make sure you note the CCs on the letter you write. Annoyed by public transportation in Hamilton? Write the mayor and CC your councillor, your MPP, your MP, and the cabinet minister for this portfolio.

Some Useful Links

Ben Bull lives in downtown Toronto. He's been working on a book of short stories for about 10 years now and hopes to be finished tomorrow. He also has a movie blog.


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