Democracy requires a great deal of tolerance

In its brief history there have been few serious conflicts among groups in Whistler. There has always been plenty of argument about the direction the town was headed, political debate, including the Social Credit leadership convention in 1986, and some minor differences among various of full- and part-time residents, visitors and neighbours. But on a global perspective, where for many people around the world hatred, mistrust and violence fuel every-day life, Whistler has been fortunately spared.

That’s partly the nature of Canada; we are blessed to live in a peaceful country. But it’s also because when it comes to debate of larger issues Whistler is a relative lightweight. It’s a resort town, after all. People come here to escape the troubles of the world, rather than argue about them. Whistler is not a forum like New York City, where the American Civil Liberties Union last year defended the Ku Klux Klan’s right to hold a rally, and the rally was subsequently rendered inconsequential – not because it was stopped, but because protesters outnumbered Klansmen by about 1,000 to 1.

But Whistler lost a bit of its innocence last weekend when a small group of people protested the Pacific Northwest Economic Region conference. Protesters announced their plans ahead of time, so there was a police contingent on hand to contain the protest within certain parameters.

As protests go, it wasn’t a big event. A handful of people were arrested, one person was pepper sprayed, but there was no violence or property damage.

But for a few hours Saturday Whistler was full of incongruous images. A half-dozen police officers, wearing shin guards and foot protectors, were stationed at every intersection on the protest route, along Lorimer Road from the day-skier lots to Northlands Boulevard and up the boulevard to the conference centre. At the conference centre police had dogs, riot sticks and keyless handcuffs. Some officers carried gas masks and sinister looking tear gas guns were prominently displayed. Overhead a RCMP helicopter flew continuously.

The protesters, a collection of students, aboriginal rights activists, union members and anti-free traders, appeared for the most part like fish out of water. A Communist Party of Canada banner seemed lost against the backdrop of Whistler Village.

And the people of Whistler went about their business, largely ignoring the whole matter. Mothers on bicycles, towing kids in bicycle trailers, pedaled past the police on Lorimer seemingly oblivious. Under tents in Marketplace the opening of a new store was celebrated. Bread was being delivered to The Grocery Store while protesters tried to organize themselves in the parking lot. Regulars in Tapley’s watched the gathering from the comfort of the bar, beverage in hand.

Inside the conference centre, politicians, business leaders, NGOs and private citizens discussed trade. They also talked about tourism, education, the parliamentary system and sustainable development.

But this minor affair was about more than contrasting images. It was about freedom. Freedom of assembly and expression, by both protesters and conference delegates. Freedom of movement, which for a little while was limited in one area of the village, ostensibly in order to accommodate the protest.

The police actions have been criticized as being far greater than necessary, given the feeble size of the protest. But protest organizers predicted a much larger rally and if police hadn’t been prepared for that they would have been criticized.

The protesters’ actions weren’t out of line. The conference delegates had every right to meet. And yet the whole thing sits uncomfortably on Whistler.

Democracy is an awkward thing. It requires great deal of tolerance.

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