A march that began as a protest against a newly minted American president has morphed into a broad pushback against long-standing systems and a call for empowerment for all marginalized groups, advocates and organizers said Friday.
As dozens of communities across Canada – including Vancouver, prepare to host rallies marking the anniversary of last year’s historic Women’s March on Washington, those tasked with organizing the events said they feel a sense of momentum that they could not have predicted when they first took to the streets in 2017.
At that time, more than half a million women converged on the U.S. capital in protest of freshly inaugurated President Donald Trump, whose secretly recorded remarks about taking sexual liberties with women fuelled accusations of misogyny both before and after his election.
Participants in those original marches say their fears about the incoming administration have come to pass, but say other social forces have put wind in their sails and made them feel their cause is further ahead now than it was a year ago.
On Saturday’s one-year anniversary of Trump’s inauguration, at least 38 Canadian communities from coast to coast plan to host marches, rallies or other events.
Sara Bingham, co-executive director of Women’s March Canada, says the high number of planned events is just one sign of the momentum that believers in the cause are feeling.
“It’s incredibly positive and optimistic and exciting,” Bingham said of the mood among local organizers. “They’re mystified and amazed that they can affect change in such a quick way.”
Bingham and other activists point to a shift in the way women’s voices have been heard and acknowledged in the months since the original march.
They all reference the #MeToo phenomenon, an outpouring of women speaking out against their experiences with sexual harassment. That outpouring was itself the result of powerful men, including Hollywood titan Harvey Weinstein, being called to account for alleged sexual misconduct.
Marches both in Canada and abroad are focused on the future.
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.
Organizers south of the border cite last year’s women’s march as the catalyst for many subsequent political actions, including successful pushback against many proposed cuts to the U.S. health-care system.
“The march set the tone for the resistance,” said U.S. activist Linda Sarsour. “If you look at so many of the fights that happened this year…it was led by women.”
Bingham said that though Canada’s political landscape is less overtly contentious, there is no lack of inequities to speak out against.
She said women’s marches around the world are adopting a model dubbed H.E.R.S., which stands for Health, Economic security, Representation, and Safety. Those guiding principles, she said, make it possible for more communities to mobilize around issues that are most important to them.
For Frances Olimpo of Toronto, that issue became the welfare of refugees. The 36-year-old attended the Women’s March on Washington last year fuelled initially by anger at Trump’s election, but returned home with a different focus.
The route she walked with the hundreds of thousands of men and women on the streets that day took her past outpourings of support from total strangers, including children offering lemonade to out-of-town visitors and Washington residents throwing their doors open in solidarity.
She said those sights stayed with her throughout the following year and motivated her to find ways to keep up her activism.
“If anything, it inspired me to do more for my community here in Canada,” she said.
Bingham said she and thousands of others across the country are committed to the women’s movement and foresee long-term gain for their shorter-term pain.
“Activism turns into a movement,” she said. “And that, in effect, causes changes systemically.”
Michelle McQuigge, The Canadian Press