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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 20, Number 2, October 2007

Social change with the click of a mouse

By Murray Dobbin

With the concentration of media, with people’s lives increasingly overwhelmed with work issues, and laws restricting what NGOs can do with their money, taking part in democracy has been getting more and more problematic. Many people simply cannot find the time to join a civil society group or a political party. Influencing political events or the direction of the country seems an impossible task for the average citizen.

But in the US and Australia, and now Canada, the advent of social media is giving citizens another way of engaging in the democratic process. The most famous is MoveOn.org in the United States, a powerful online movement with over 3.3 million members that mobilizes on a wide range of issues to influence Congress. The organization describes itself as "a service–a way for busy but concerned citizens to find their political voice in a system dominated by big money and big media." Its founder, Joan Blades, says: "The powerful thing about MoveOn is that it is not a one-way broadcast media. The Internet, when used best, is a two-way media."

Kathleen Ruff agrees. She is a long-time Canadian human rights activist, a former head of the BC Human Rights Commission, and also a former head of the recently cancelled Court Challenges Program. Last spring she founded RightOnCanada.ca—the web site and e-mail campaign vehicle she hopes will become a useful tool for Canadian social and political activists. The motto of RightOn Canada is to "Campaign to put human rights back on Canada’s agenda."

The focus on human rights is no accident. No Canadian government in the past 20 years has paid human rights the attention it deserves. Here’s just a partial list of the human rights failures of successive Liberal and Conservative governments:

  • seeking to overthrow a world moratorium on terminator seed technology
  • helping to sabotage a UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples
  • blocking international action to control export of asbestos to developing countries
  • weakening a UN Convention on Forced Disappearances
  • failing to meet our obligations under international human rights law to address high levels of inequality and poverty in Canada.

As a model for her project, Ruff also has in mind MoveOn’s equivalent in Australia, GetUp.org. In spite of Australia’s very right-wing prime minister, GetUp has stopped the Australian government from reinstating a policy of detaining children under its Migration Bill, freed Australian David Hicks from Guantanamo Bay prison, and forced the government to increase funding for the ABC (Australia’s CBC equivalent). In a recent campaign to engage in the national elections, GetUp raised $100,000 in 24 hours from its 300,000 members.

In the few months it has been active, RightOnCanada.ca has taken on the issue of terminator seeds (in co-operation with the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network), the issue of greater economic and social integration with the US, and the police provocateurs at the Montebello summit in August. Terminator seeds are genetically modified seeds deliberately engineered to become sterile after one harvest. RightOn has also campaigned against bulk water exports and the "harmonization" of standards for pesticide residue on fruits and vegetables with the US. The project now has 4,000 subscribers who have sent nearly 20,000 e-mail letters to government and opposition leaders. It typically takes less than two minutes to send letters to the politicians involved.

Social activists across the country are overwhelmed, faced with myriad struggles (national, provincial, and local) that they are asked to get involved in. Many progressive Canadians feel isolated and are not able to find the time to be members of activist groups. RightOnCanada.ca may just be the political tool needed to help people get involved.

Murray Dobbin, a Vancouver author and writer is acting assistant director, BCTF Communications and Campaigns Division.

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