Back to the trenches: Nanaimo Women March On

After starting at Maffeo Sutton Park, protestors march Commercial St. (Spenser Smith)
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Before attempting to encompass the success and importance of the 2019 Women’s March in Nanaimo, it’s imperative that one understands where the march began. How far our community has come in just three short years is incredible, but there’s still a lot of ground to cover.

The first march in 2017 was ignited by the United States presidential election in 2016, and carried out on inauguration day. The Women’s March on Washington rallied in hundreds of sister cities across the world. Berlin. London. Paris. Nanaimo. Then the voices took to the streets, armed with empowering posters and loud shouts of protest in hopes that together it would serve as a catalyst for change.

The changes called for were broad and incorporated all matter of political and personal inequalities that had too long gone disregarded. Chants carried: “Women united will never be defeated,” and “Girls just want to have fundamental rights.”

Protesters across the world took to the streets to show camaraderie with Washington. Since its inception, The Women’s March mandate has remained firm: “We must create a society in which women—including Black women, Indigenous women, poor women, immigrant women, disabled women, Jewish women, Muslim women, Latinx women, Asian and Pacific Islander women, lesbian, bi, queer, and trans women—are free and able to care for and nurture their families, however they are formed, in safe and healthy environments free from structural impediments.”

Nanaimo Women March On’s mandate doesn’t part far from the transformational need for change that rose in 2017. “Nanaimo’s third annual women’s rights demonstration marches in solidarity with others across the globe for transformative social change in non-violent resistance to gender-based violence and oppression.”

The march has been considered a grassroots movement—a movement in which the people in a distinctive area or community act against political or economic movements. Certainly, with rural and urban groups popping up across Vancouver Island, Nanaimo is no exception from the grassroots category.

In 2017, poet and VIU professor Sonnet L’Abbé took up the torch and organized Nanaimo’s first march. To this day it’s still considered one of the biggest activist events Nanaimo has ever seen. At the time, L’Abbé said of the march’s success:

“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 [2017] Nanaimo march was a success, and the global phenomenon of the marches was a success.”

The succeeding year’s march had a different air to it. Still angry and impassioned, protesters took the Nanaimo streets once more. This time, however, they came prepared for the long haul. It was clear that the pressure had to be kept on. For the most part, the problems that the march presents cannot be solved within a year, so there is always a reason to take up arms. Year, after year, after year.

The marches between each city are not only connected by broad national inequalities but localized concerns as well. For Nanaimo, it means giving voice and political power to the concerns of a diverse community of women and to bring together people of all races, religions, ages, genders, and abilities.

Nanaimo gathered on January 19, 2019 to provide non-violent resistance to oppression. The march assembled to combat concerns such as action and justice for missing and murdered Indigenous women, sustainable funding of women’s organizations, homelessness and poverty, senior vulnerability, LGBTQ+ rights, and disability rights.

Nanaimo supporters included people from all walks of life and completely debunked the theory that the Women’s March amplifies the division between men and women.

“Without men at these events and working for change, we will not be able to have change,” said Joy Gugeler, the previous VIU Status of Women chair. “As an organization, we hope that no matter how people identify they feel welcome. We work for change.”

“Our powers of empathy should invite us to march for the people who we might only know as statistics right now, but when you see them marching beside you, you can’t help but feel like it’s your struggle.”

sb. smith, a local disability activist, sits in her walker on Nicol St. and waits for other protestors to catch up. (Spenser Smith)

This year’s march gathered on a Saturday at Nanaimo’s Maffeo Sutton Park at 10:30 am. Despite the recurring showers, attendees were in exceptional spirits and took off from the park downtown towards the Nanaimo Entertainment Centre (the Caprice Theatre) room that had been generously donated so that participants wouldn’t have to assemble in the outdoor conditions—an immense improvement from the year before that enabled comfort and attention for those who attended.

Changes to the program, too, involved accessibility. The concerns of previous years allowed for this year’s march to be more inclusive of disabled people by asking them to set the pace and lead the march, and giving a platform during the speeches.

Lauren Semple from the Nanaimo Pride Society called the marchers to action:

“We are done waiting for pay equity. Our worth, our validity, and right to safety is valued by our relationship to men, instead of the fact that we are human! We march for women’s ventures which are disappearing, starved of the funding that they need to continue supporting our communities. We march because cis men in government need to stop legislating our bodies and reproductive rights. We march because water is life. And because the patriarchy needs some serious smashing. We march to celebrate, to agitate, to build community and foster compassion and love for all of the women within our movement. And the many, many other reasons why we gather here today: this is why we march!”

Echoing laments rolled from the crowd in support and recognition. The rain intermittently pelted down on the march, but did nothing to quench the curiosity and excitement of the crowd. Supportive honks from those passing by on Terminal Ave added to the marchers’ energy.  

Chants echoed through Commercial Street as the marchers made their way to the Caprice Theater. The historic building’s red and gold tapestry warmed the room and blue shone through the glass skylight above the marchers as they gathered. Dresses from the REDress project, which serve to provoke discussions on the ongoing history of violence for more than 1,000 missing and murdered Indigenous women in Canada, hung on the stage.

Sonnet L’Abbé, professor of creative writing and English at VIU, performs Maya Angelou’s “Still I Rise.” (Spenser Smith)

Warmth and unity spread through the crowd as spirits were reinvigorated by hot chocolate and coffee. After a few minutes of shuffling, the theater seating was completely filled. People lined the walls and Elder Sandra Good took to the stage to begin the speeches that championed 2019’s Women’s March.

“The theme for this year’s march is about finding and continuing to work for the people of Nanaimo against violence,” Good said. “Today we are very fortunate to have women who work for all women here in the city of Nanaimo who are impacted by violence.”

“This is strength. This energy. This passion. When we organize in these numbers and raise our voices together—to me, this is what strength looks like,” Semple later said in welcoming. “This march is a continuation of the incredible work that you are doing in our community the other 364 days of the year. Right here, right now, this room is filled with incredible fighters, activists, advocates, front-line workers fighting for women, fighting for women’s rights, fighting for safety.”

Speakers from local organizations like Lifeline, VIU Disability Rights, Central Vancouver Island Multicultural Society, Women’s Centre, Haven, and Generation Q addressed the issues behind the march.

Indigenous activist and Youth Leader of the Street-Wise Project, Justice Chalifoux, reminded the community of the importance of solidarity with the Sisters in Spirit and the strength of emotion.

“Do not underestimate the power of these feelings, because these feelings are what connect us all as a people. We have to rise up and be loud and make ourselves known. No more silence. No more injustices,” Chalifoux said.

Next to the stage was sb. smith, to remind the community of its inherent ableist manners.

“[Ableism is] discrimination against disabled people, whether intentional or not. Disability is, by nature, an intersectional issue,” sb. smith said. “Disabled women are some of the most marginalized and underrepresented people in society.”

Kyrsten April spoke of The Not-Your-Fault Campaign to reduce victim blaming and encourage the bridging of the gap between survivors and support systems.

“How do we combat this degrading evil? We have to start with love. We haven’t mastered that yet. Like you practice here today, we set an example for what we will not tolerate. We honour ourselves, and we honour one another. And we plant love where those doubts and those insecurities lie.”

Joan Ryan spoke of the vulnerabilities and stigmas that surround senior women. Of the number of women in attendance who had been fighting these fights when they were teenagers, who are now socially isolated members of our community.

Lesley Anne Clarke, executive director of the Nanaimo Women’s Centre, spoke to the wide range of perspectives that feminism holds space for.

“To be a feminist is to support equality, human dignity, and self-determination,” said Clarke. “Feminism is both an intellectual commitment and a social-political movement.”

The march officially closed around 2:00 pm, but attendees remained present: empowered, inspired, and comforted by the community around them and with them.

“I think this year was very successful. It’s great to see so many people out,” L’Abbé said. “I think that the march is a great way for the community that is already here and working in Nanaimo for change to come together and celebrate the work that we do.”

“Thank you for attending, for marching, for making noise today,” Semple ended. “The couple of hours we take every year to march for women’s rights, to march for what’s right, together we can and will change the world. Let’s continue the amazing work we are doing.”

At the end of the day, I am proud of the women in my community, and in my life, for how far we have come and where we are going from here.