'We're Just Getting Started': Facebook Activist
Christopher White, founder of Facebook group that sparked weekend rallies, on his cyber-allies, his politics, Michael Ignatieff, and more. A Tyee interview.
More than 20,000 Canadians rallied against the extended prorogation of Parliament on Saturday. In cities and towns from Halifax to Victoria, citizens of all political stripes called for democratic reforms to the way Canada's national assembly does business.
The unprecedented demonstrations were the first public manifestation of a fast-growing online movement called Canadians Against Proroguing Parliament, which was created just three weeks ago by a sardonic University of Alberta graduate student named Christopher White. The waifish 25-year-old sat down for the following interview with The Tyee's Monte Paulsen in Edmonton last week.
Q. How did this all begin?
"It was the day I got back to Edmonton from the Christmas holiday. I slept in a bit. I was still in my pajamas, reading the news online, when I learned that Stephen Harper had asked for another prorogation.
"My first reaction was outrage. Here it was, happening again. It was so irresponsible, so undemocratic. And the worst part was, I could already feel the apathy starting to creep in.
"I looked at a couple other articles, and found a blog post Andrew Coyne had written on Maclean's. He brought up this idea of the Long Parliament of 1640 in England, when the Parliamentarians defied the King and kept the Parliament going when he was out of the country.
"And I started wondering, 'What if our Parliamentarians sat anyway?' It just seemed like a really great idea."
Q. How did you get from that idea to a Facebook group?
“Well, I'm not particularly politically active -- I've never been a member of a political party, or anything like that -- and my friends aren't either. I didn't know who to call, or the right channels to go through, or, really, what to do.
"So the easiest thing to me seemed to be just to do it up as a Facebook group and see where it went from there."
Q. Why Facebook? Had you started Facebook groups before?
"I was afraid someone would ask me that," White chuckled.
"Yeah. One. It was a few years ago. It was about a character from 'The Legend of Zelda.' It was called, 'Tingle Makes My Special Place Tingle.' We had five members. We've since dropped down to two."
Q. Well, your next group attracted a few more.
"Yeah. . . So originally the Facebook group was called, 'The Long Parliament.' The idea was simple: Write your Member of Parliament. Tell them to go back to work on January 25th.
"But then I realized that 'The Long Parliament' seemed kind of obscure. So I changed its name to the much less vague, 'Canadians Against Proroguing Parliament'.
"Right when I changed the group name, people started joining. The weirdest thing was, the first few were people I'd never heard of. I wondered who they were. So I sent notes to them. And for the first little bit, sort of as a matter of principle, I greeted everyone as they came to the site. I thanked them. I discussed the issue with them.
"Then people started joining like, every minute or so. By the end of the first day we had, I believe, over a thousand. By the end of the second day I think we were over 10,000."
Q. What do you think motivated all that support?
"Harper said Canadians didn't care. It's almost like he dared us to do something.
"I think people follow that too often. They hear that Canadians don't care. And so even if they do care, they figure, 'What's the point? The majority of people don't.'
"The Facebook group helped us find one another. And once we found one another, we knew that Harper was wrong. Canadians do care."
Q. Why do you think your group grew so quickly?
"Yeah, it wasn't the only Facebook group about prorogation that started that day. There were quite a few.
"I was getting email from the creators of some of those groups. They said, 'Oh, I noticed your Facebook group has a lot more members, we should work together.'
"They went back to their members and said, 'Go join that other group. We'll shut this one down.' And that's part of how we got a lot of people together."
Q. How did Shilo Davis become involved? Did you know each other?
"She started one of those other groups. Hers was called, Canadians Against Suspending Parliament. And very early on, I believe it was in the first couple hours, we started discussing what we could do together.
"The rallies were her idea. She said, 'What do you think about rallies?' I said, 'Sure, that sounds like a great idea.' And so I sort of became the group guy while she organized the rallies."
Q. And all the local chapters?
"It was basically whoever said, 'Yeah I'll organize this,' they jumped in and they got the ball rolling in their own communities.
"It's become very decentralized. . . My views on what this is all about are different from a few other people who have become key to it. And I don't mind that at all."
Q. Different in what way?
"I'm a more loner-ish type, solitary type of person. I kind of came into this thinking, 'How would I do this to appeal to myself? To someone who is not necessarily aligned with any political party.
"And I think the fact that it began as very non-partisan group played a big part in its success. . . We got left-wing people, right-wing people. We got 9-11 truth seekers. We got people who are hardcore about the environment, people who feel very strongly about Israel, one way or the other.
"I'm not, uh. . . I haven't always been completely comfortable with some of the unrelated Harper-bashing that has taken place on the group's pages.
"I would detest the idea of this being co-opted by any political party. This was not done for Michael Ignatieff's benefit. This was done for the benefit of Canadians.
"I do not want to trade a grumpy tyrant for a smiling one."
Q. How do you vote?
"I look at, like, who is the local candidate?
"There are several very principled, very Conservative MPs who I think would be capable of doing a fantastic job. Unfortunately, the man at the helm of that party right now I disagree with. He has proven himself to be someone who will clamp down on dissent.
"So I've voted Liberal and I've voted NDP. . . I've basically tried to vote out whoever was in power. . . I recognize that if every Canadian did this, it would create a very bizarre sort of tennis-match system."
Q. And we'd have 308 competing agendas.
"Which is actually an issue I've come across in this Facebook group. I'm much more sympathetic to Stephen Harper now than I was a few weeks ago."
Q. One of the ideas that has emerged regularly on the group's comment wall is a comparison to Afghanistan.
"Yeah. That quote attributed to Edward R. Murrow in the film, 'Good Night and Good Luck' -- 'We cannot defend freedom abroad while deserting it at home' -- I've seen that posted quite a few times.
"I think that people have reasonably drawn a connection between what's happening in Afghanistan and what's going on here. We're in Afghanistan on this issue of democracy. And yet we have a government here at home that's willing to sidestep democracy for the sake of political expediency. Granted, it's not on the same scale."
Q. Another idea that comes up frequently is, Prorogue the Olympics.
"I'm not very keen on having us be a presence there, or trying to disrupt it in any way.
"I think that the majority of Canadians are going to be tuning in to the Olympics to see our athletes, see how they're doing, and cheer them on. If they start seeing people trying to co-opt is for their own agendas, it think it will turn off a lot of people. And again, I'm just speaking for what I would feel."
Q. Do you think of yourself as an activist?
"I don't think so. I really dislike the fact that people consider themselves professional activists. To me, if you're in a constant state of activating, then you're not very good at it. I mean, the whole point of activism is to effect change, right? So, constantly, just kind of yelling, well, you really should reconsider your strategy, right?"
Q. How do you think people will react to the rallies on Jan. 23?
"This has only been going for a few weeks. And it has gotten so much media coverage. It's almost a set-up, you know? We can't meet whatever the expectation is. It's almost like the Star Wars I thing. We can't possibly live up to the hype."
Q. What do you think will become of this effort after the rallies?
"I think we're just getting started. . . A lot of people, like myself, are getting involved for the first time. I think that's incredible.
"I think we have to keep thinking about how we can make the government more accountable, and also more responsive to the needs of the Canadian people.
"But I'm not going to dictate what we should do. This has come out of the discussion boards. And out of the thousands of face-to-face conversations that will begin on January 23rd.
"If you look at the discussion boards, they're not just about prorogation now. People are asking about electoral reform, proportional representation, Senate reform, should we become a Republic, things like that."
Q. What will you do after the 23rd?
"I look forward to being like Cincinnatus. He was the Roman aristocrat who was called to Rome to serve as a dictator. He fought his fight, accomplished his goals, then surrendered his power and went back to his farm."
Q. You have a farm to go back to?
"At some point, I have to get back to writing my thesis. Also, I was going to shoot a short film in January -- sort of a monster movie, very low budget. That whole plan has been derailed now."
Q. Any advice for those who might aspire to follow in your footsteps? "If you're going to start a Facebook group, have some free time set aside."