Poor People's Levee Tour 2012
People are joking about the world ending this year. Even Steven Point, the current Lieutenant Governor of BC, made comic reference to it yesterday during his speech at Government House.
I was there with the Poor People’s Levee Tour, the 15th year that Art Farquharson has organized to bring people from Victoria’s streets to visit various elected representatives. The tradition of the Levee is from the French, it recalls a time when the Lords and Ladies of the Manors would open their mansions on New Year’s Day and allow the peasants and labourers an opportunity to touch their world.
In Canada it’s about municipalities opening their doors and offering food and good cheer to whoever wants to visit. The past few years Art has sequestered a school bus, hired with financial help from local unions, and our presence at the Levees is met with various levels of guarded enthusiasm.
Which Levees we attend depends on what fits into our schedule.
In previous years we specifically travelled all the way to Langford. They were very kind to us and even provided takeaway boxes complete with toothbrushes, wool socks, and other necessaries that the street community definitely appreciated. Then, one year, the municipal officials realized that some of us on the bus were also the same characters inhabiting the local woods in an effort to prevent the further destruction of wilderness to accommodate the already disastrous Bear Mountain mega wealthy development. We were no longer welcome at Langford’s Levees and, in fact, they stopped offering the annual open house.
We always start our journey at Victoria’s City Hall, which consistently opens at 9 am. There’s good substantial food offerings, and this year we were enthusiastic about meeting the newly elected councilors.
Government House is also always included in the Levee Tour. It’s a huge mansion on a hill with a magnificent view, and the ballroom is filled with people and food. There’s music from the Naden Band, and bagpipes, and this year we were present for the Lieutenant Governor’s speech.
Levees evoke mixed emotions in me. Realizing that governments at all levels are founded on genocidal policies, specifically the theft of an entire nation of land and resources, I choose not to endorse them in any way. The socialist in me, who wants to believe that some level of organization is necessary if we are to get out of this mess and distribute land and resources fairly, attends the Levees with some hope and optimism. When greeting the elected or appointed officials I offer a friendly smile and handshake, and a genuine “Happy New Year.” I don’t feel it’s the appropriate time or place to express my opinions about policies, priorities, agendas, bylaws that so often serve the wealthy and alienate the poor, or impose unnecessary environmental damage. I feel our collective presence speaks volumes enough. But listening to Steven Point, a First Nations man, defending and even praising Canada’s military and foreign policy, it was all I could do to prevent myself from either yelling out, or barfing.
Unlike me, most people in the crowded ballroom seemed quite enamoured with Steven and his message. He told stories about meeting young men and women in clean uniforms, with shoes shined and standing at attention while their parents watched on proudly. It just doesn’t get any better than that, he said, and encouraged us all to consider 2012 a year to empower youth in service. He went on to talk about Canada’s role in the world, how helpful we are, how we do so much good for people overseas, how we’re so welcomed everywhere we go as a consequence. I thought of all the dead civilians and polluted earth in Afghanistan and Libya, of a Canadian government who pulled us out of the Kyoto Protocol and insists instead on expanding the earth destroying tarsands, of Canada’s refusal to sign the UN inspired Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People.
What the hell is he talking about, I wondered?!! He had been so friendly, so gracious, shaking those hundreds of hands as we entered this pretentious mansion that costs taxpayers (last I checked which was several years ago) a half million dollars a year to upkeep. I’m not even sure that anyone, aside from security, even lives in the building. My friends and I joke about turning it into a hostel. The massive ballroom would make a great gay bar and disco.
I edited photos on my camera as Steven continued, I happened to be right near the stage but I could no longer look at him. I’m a native man and so I love tradition, he said, and Canada’s connection to the monarchy is what distinguishes us as a nation. Just prior to acknowledging the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee this year (her 60th year on the throne), Steven reminded us to be kind to one another, and to Mother Earth. Nice words, but entirely incompatible with his previous message. Either we embrace the tradition of colonialism and imperialism and continue to send our young men and women overseas to serve whatever empire sits atop the capitalist heap, or we can be kind to each other and the earth. We can’t have it both ways.
Luckily I was able to quietly slip out of the ballroom as voices filled it with the song I’ve heard many times, having grown up with British immigrant parents. I entered the mansion’s main lobby just in time to witness those who were resting there, perhaps uncomfortable in the crowded ballroom, rise to their feet or stop where they stood to close their eyes, strike a stately pose, and sing – God Save Our Gracious Queen …
I was in search of a throne of my own, and arrived at the massive downstairs loo (I’m certain it’s larger than my apartment) as they reached the chorus: Long to reign over us,
God save the Queen.
You know, it’s one thing to wonder what goes on in the heads of the devoted loyalists who so lovingly and adoringly cling to the hierarchy and makes true equality an impossibility, it’s quite another to ponder the power of a culture to so indoctrinate a man whose own people were tortured and all but annihilated. I guess his ability to so convincingly regurgitate the colonialist teachings is what made Steven eligible for the job.
Some of us discussed this, back on the bus and heading to the next Levee. Art, a professional tour guide, provided us an interesting bit of history as we drove the scenic route along the ocean, along King George Terrace to look at the views. Apparently Elizabeth’s father George was offered the throne when his own brother chose instead to marry an American divorcee. The monarchy wouldn’t stand for such an arrangement and gave Edward the choice, and he chose love over power. Awww. What a different world we might live in had he chosen otherwise. I remain convinced that nobody should have such power, to determine the fate of an entire planet.
Our final stop, at Oak Bay, elevated my spirits somewhat. As I shook hands with their new Mayor, Nils Jensen, I remembered something important about him. “The last time we met,” I said, “you told me you’re a Street Newz reader. Are you still?” His face smiled and he all but apologized that he hadn’t crossed paths with a vendor recently but yes, he’s still a fan.
As I munched on the vegan cookies I’d brought with me (there’s so rarely food I can consume at these events, though Government House had their lovely vegan soup again this year and there was some fruit at City Hall this morning), I recalled the day. In Victoria I’d heard similar praise for the Street Newz, and the importance of hearing the voices of the street community. Is it possible that we who live in poverty or are homeless would be worse off if not for the influence of our little paper to remind of our human presence?
The bus departed Oak Bay, and I walked home. They were headed back downtown to attend a People’s Assembly (Occupy) Levee outside at Centennial Square, but I’d had all the socializing I could handle for one day. I needed some down time, some space to process all the mixed emotions that the Levee tour had sparked.
It’s officially now 2012. My rent went up again, another 4 per cent, food and other expenses continue to increase, but we’ve got nearly enough funding to keep our little paper alive for another year. And if the world doesn’t end next December solstice, we poor and often ignored people will gather again on New Year’s Day 2013 to remind others that our existence carries on long after they’ve forgotten the peace and goodwill they’re so enthusiastic about for a few days during Christmas time each year.