Thousands of Canadian women looked to the future while acknowledging the past on Saturday as they took to the streets for a second co-ordinated round of protest marches.
The scenes in at least 38 communities coast to coast were reminiscent of the women’s marches that sprang up around the globe a year ago this weekend in the wake of Donald Trump’s inauguration as U.S. president.
Fuelled by anger against his divisive policies and boasts of sexual misconduct against women, hundreds of thousands of people organized marches around the world and used the events to proclaim messages of inclusion, equality and empowerment.
One year later, marchers were out in force again in hopes of extending those messages to an even wider audience.
In Montreal, amid a colourful sea of knitted caps and homemade signs, hundreds of people packed a downtown square for an event organizers characterized as a fight for the rights of women of all races, political affiliations, sexual orientations and gender identities.
U.S.-born Montreal resident Amandah Goldsmith showed up alone, carrying a sign that read “all colours, all nationalities deserve rights & respect.”
Goldsmith was one of the estimated half-million people who converged on the U.S. capital of Washington in last year’s most high-profile women’s march.
Today, citing a rise in right-wing sentiment and increasing polarization in the U.S. that led to a government shutdown on Friday night, Goldsmith said it was more important than ever to take a stand for human rights and ensure that they are preserved in her new home country.
“I’m here to protect Canada because it’s happening all over the world, a fear, and it’s springing from pure ignorance,” she said. “So the more people go out and speak, the better off the world will be.”
Many of Saturday’s protesters said they felt propelled by a sense of momentum they little imagined during last year’s marches.
Canadian organizers said the 38 communities hosting marches, rallies and other events had serged more than 20 per cent from the number that took part last January.
Numerous activists pointed to a shift in the way women’s voices have been heard and acknowledged in the months since the original march.
Many referenced the #MeToo phenomenon, an outpouring of women speaking out against their experiences with sexual harassment and assault. That outpouring was itself the result of powerful men, including Hollywood titan Harvey Weinstein, being called to account for alleged sexual misconduct.
Kristina Snyder, who attended the Montreal event, said such candid conversations about women’s experiences have ensured the movement has a focus well beyond U.S. politics.
“It’s more now about raising women’s voices,” she said. “The election has (something) to do with it, but (the movement) has definitely widened and has a much broader base.”
Rather than dwelling on the successful expansion of their cause, however, activists in Canada and abroad are using the events to focusing on the future.
“This year it’s … moving more into tangible actions,” said Jillian Coey, who travelled from northern Ontario to take part in a well-attended march in downtown Toronto. “Really shifting the conversation into the realm of things that have not historically been talked about or believed.”
In the U.S. the major march organized to honour last year’s event also has its sights set on upcoming elections.
Rather than returning to Washington, American activists are holding a “Power to the Polls” rally in Las Vegas, Nev., on Sunday, launching a voter registration tour and putting out the message that the next step is all about votes.
They say they’re looking ahead to the 2018 midterm elections, hoping to propel more progressive candidates into public office and deal the White House and the all-Republican government a major setback.
Amid the calls for unity and inclusion, however, some groups argued that the loosely organized movement had not allowed their voices to be heard.
In Halifax, where a primary march took place in the morning, transgender and other activists walked through the event wafting pink smoke over the crowd before congregating at a separate event elsewhere in the city.
Jade Byard Peek, a transgender woman of African-Nova Scotian and Mi’kmaq heritage, said she and others felt uncomfortable and under attack at last year’s events.
When she shared her experiences with event organizers, she said she received “near death threats” and was called an “angry black man” on social media.
“There is a belief that we have equity, equality and that everything is all dandy, but even here in Halifax, that doesn’t exist,” Byard Peek told the crowd at the offshoot march dubbed the intersectional women’s event.
—With files by Marie-Esperance Cerda in Toronto, Morgan Lowrie in Montreal and Adina Bresge in Halifax.