By Kristine Stephenson
I’m walking down Terminal Avenue in Nanaimo’s historic quarter where the sidewalks are packed with protesters. It’s January 21 – the day after President Donald Trump’s inauguration and the day of the Women’s March on Washington.
In Nanaimo, the Women’s March started at the Diana Krall Plaza on Commercial Street and wound its way to Maffeo Sutton Park. This march is one of 30 in Canada and one of 670 around the world. Two or three abreast, women, men, children, and even dogs stride down the walkway. The colour of the day is pink and it’s on their hats, scarves, sleeves, pantlegs and jackets. As cars pass us on the road they honk and passengers lean from windows grinning and waving wildly. We are raucous. We cheer. We wave. We whistle. We are here to seen. We are here to be heard.
At the front of the crowd, First Nations drummers beat on stretched hides the colour of parchment, a female bagpiper in blue marches, and organizer Sonnet L’Abbé walks with megaphone in hand, starting a call and response, “I yell pussy, you yell power.” L’Abbé is a decorated Canadian poet and a professor of creative writing and journalism at Vancouver Island University, but today she is also the ringleader of this ensemble, her first time organizing an event of this kind. The turnout was much higher than expected, and she is electric. Later, as she addresses the crowd, she’ll say, “This is not just about one person. This is about values. We value peace. We value respect.”
While these events may have started in response to issues of racism, sexism, and marginalization raised in the U.S. election, they have empowered the global human rights movement for women as well as immigrant, First Nations and LGBTQIA communities.
To scan the signs of a crowd chanting “Love Trumps Hate” is to see each person’s reason for attendance. Moyra and Jackie, who are affiliated with the Nanaimo Women’s Centre, wear sandwich boards made up of newspaper clippings. Each article tells a story of violence against women, and when I ask Jackie why they came she tells me quite simply, “Cause I’m a woman, and I’m allowed.”
Ten-year-old Danika came from Lasqueti Island with her grandmother, Elvina. Their sign reads, “Make Human Rights Great Again,” a pointed play on Trump’s slogan. In a soft but serious voice Elvina describes her fears of what’s to come. She also speaks about how rallies like this one are necessary for change. “Every one of us stands for maybe 50 others that feel this way,” Elvina says.
The women’s march wasn’t just for women. Kevin, a Canada Post union member, came because he wants to support his community, and he’s hoping this event will inspire a change in “the way we think, the way we treat each other, the way we think when we look at somebody: a change of consciousness.”
James, a father with young girls, came because he believes it’s important to show he cares about the world his daughters will inherit. “As a society, we are only as good as the people that we marginalize,” he says.
As I watched the hundreds of people fanned out around the gazebo I saw a diverse and thriving community who all spoke of “solidarity.” Some wore pink “pussyhats” they had knit for themselves as a symbol of the feminist movement. Others flew gay pride flags from their shoulders. Others waved signs with their own personal message announced in proud bold ink.
While this women’s march may have started as a response to words of hate, on Saturday morning Nanaimo’s downtown was flooded by a group of people devoted to fighting hate with love.