VIU professor leads Nanaimo March on Washington

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Above: Hamdi Aweys gave an impassioned speech on the plight of women in her home country of Somalia. 📷 Paul Marck

By News Editor Aislinn Cottell

Sonnet L’Abbé, poet and professor at Vancouver Island University, had never organized a protest march. She didn’t necessarily identify as an activist, albeit having attended several such events in the past. A human rights advocate, definitely, but leader of the rallying cry? Maybe not so much.

All this changed when a friend on her Canadian Writer’s group inquired, in November, as to whether anything was being organized for the Women’s March on Washington in Nanaimo. L’Abbé assured her that, in such a large community of writers and leftists, something was bound to be put together. She went home to Ontario for the holidays, and thought nothing more of it.

When she returned, she realized that nothing was, in fact, happening. She reluctantly sat down to write an email conveying the unfortunate news, but stopped.

“I couldn’t do it,” said L’Abbé. She decided to take up the torch.

Despite her resolve, she still didn’t know how to organize a march. Hitting Google, she searched past successful marches in Nanaimo, and came across the name of Bill Eadie, an organizer of several such well-received events. She made contact.

“He talked to me for an hour. I was calling out of nowhere, saying I don’t know what I’m doing–tell me about running demonstrations in Nanaimo.”

Eadie told her that, for Nanaimo, 100–150 people was a good turn-out. L’Abbé contacted her friends, and found a few willing to pitch in and help organize.

“I said, well, whatever we do is going to be better than nothing. If we get 50 people, I’m going to be happy. If we get 100 people I’m going to be happy.”

On Inauguration Day, the night before the march, 600 people had RSVP’d on the Facebook event page. And at 10 am on January 22, nearly 1000 protesters gathered in the Diana Krall plaza downtown.

“It was phenomenal. People said it was the biggest activist event they’ve seen in Nanaimo, if not ever, then in the last few decades.”

Almost a thousand protestors marched through Nanaimo in solidarity with the Women’s March on Washington. 📷Stephanie Blumensaat
Almost a thousand protestors marched through Nanaimo in solidarity with the Women’s March on Washington. 📷Stephanie Blumensaat

L’Abbé says the city was very cooperative, although given, she had originally advised them of an approximately 150-strong crowd. The march went off without incident, however, and many passing drivers honked in solidarity as the stream of people sang and chanted their way through town to Maffeo Sutton Park.

At the park, 11 speakers took turns at the microphone, including Snuneymuxw elder Eleanor White, Somalian WUSC sponsor Hamdi Aweys, and Nanaimo MP Sheila Malcolmson. Many issues were addressed, but one that L’Abbe believes is crucially important, beyond resisting Trump, is that of intersectionality.

“What we’re marching about, in terms of human decency and respect, is not only a gender issue, it’s also a deeply racialized issue. That that doesn’t get lost in the celebration around pussy hats is extremely important,” said L’Abbé.

“The Women’s March on Washington was led by three women of colour. The discussion about amplifying the voices of marginalized women…those conversations have a wider audience now. There are women who might not have been active or politicized before, who are now more interested in hearing from people who have experience in the struggle.

“As a new activist, I don’t expect one march to turn into a policy change. But the community building, and the visibility, and the way a march energizes people, is all really important. In that respect, the Nanaimo march was a success, and the global phenomenon of the marches was a success.”


Aislinn is a third year Bachelor of Arts and Science student majoring in creative writing and minoring in chemistry. New to The Nav team this year, she’s enjoying finding out about all the interesting things happening on campus. Her hobbies include reading, drawing, Netflix, and the copious consumption of coffee.