On October 4, 2017 Parliament unanimously passed Bill S-231, Canada’s first ‘press shield’ law for the protection of journalistic sources. Coming amid a series of serious press freedom violations in Canada, the bill’s passage was a rare bright spot in a generally gloomy time for the rights of journalists.
Getting a press shield law passed was a key goal for the nonprofit advocacy group Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE), where I worked as Campaigns and Advocacy Coordinator during the S-231 campaign. The victory was the result of a year-long organizing effort from the entire CJFE team and our many allies and supporters, and a vivid illustration of how individual and collective action can make a difference.
The success of the campaign also showed the power and versatility of the Marshall Ganz approach to achieving social change. I began studying the Ganz method with Olivia Chow and the Institute for Change Leaders in January 2017, just as the campaign for a press shield bill was heating up, and immediately applied what I learned to my work at CJFE. I believe many of the lessons from the 12-week course at Ryerson University were crucial to the campaign’s eventual success.
At the heart of the Ganz approach is a storytelling framework called the “Public Narrative.” The Public Narrative answers the “why” questions of organizing—why I care about this issue, why you should care, and why we need to come together to take action now. I learned to talk about my own personal beliefs about the importance of free speech and press freedom, and the anger I felt when I heard, to take one example, that police in Quebec were spying on journalists.
This approach roots the policy goals of the campaign in relatable human emotion and establishes shared values with the community that you are organizing. This helps to motivate them to join in and take action. It was also a useful reflective exercise to help me remember why I cared so deeply about free expression in the first place, and what experiences in my life led me to get involved.
The course also provided the tools to put that passion into action. The foundation of this was the “organizing sentence” that clarified the campaign plan. This should be measurable, specific, concise, and time-bound. Our organizing sentence was this:
We are organizing people in cities across Canada who care about press freedom and civil liberties to join the Day of Action for press freedom by using public education campaigns and media coverage to put pressure on the federal government to pass a press shield law during this legislative session of the House of Commons.
This sentence was a starting point, which in turn helped to guide and focus future organizing. The next step is to develop a more detailed strategy. You do so by identifying the actors involved in the issue, mapping out who has power, and what form that power takes. This technique helps you to visualize the strategic landscape and guides future action as you plot how to empower allies, undermine opponents and move neutral parties closer to supporting the cause.
Our key allies in the campaign were progressive groups, labour unions, human rights NGOs and media organizations. Opposition forces included law enforcement, intelligence agencies and certain sections of the judiciary. The strategy was to organize our allies to raise awareness among the public about threats to press freedom and the need for a press shield law, counter-arguments put forward by opponents, and simultaneously apply pressure on the federal government to support the bill.
Once the strategy was in place, the Ganz approach is to formulate tactics that hit the “sweet spot”, i.e. those that advance our strategic goals, develop individuals’ skills and leadership, and strengthen the organization’s capacity. The tactics we used were three-fold:
- Regional rallies where groups used creative communications to underscore ongoing involvement in the issue space and public vigilance on the issue of civil liberties.
- Social-media ‘selfie campaign’ actions where individuals and groups took a photo holding a card emblazoned with campaign messaging and posted it to social media with the #ProtectPressFreedom hashtag.
- Distribution of a lobbying guide to supporters in the public, along with an online letter-writing tool, to keep press freedom on the parliamentary agenda.
Together these actions helped to shape media narratives around the state of press freedom in Canada and the Trudeau government's record in defending it. At the same time, they increased public awareness of Bill S-231, linked it positively to an issue of growing public concern and directed public pressure on Members of Parliament and government officials with the ‘agenda power’ to ensure Bill S-231's passage. By June 2017 the Liberal government had publicly agreed to support the bill.
The Ganz organizing framework as taught by the Institute for Change Leaders provided the tools to help make this victory possible. I learned to harness the power of narrative to move our community to action, to clarify the most important components of our strategy, and to develop tactics that advanced our campaign goals and grew our organization. Above all, I learned first-hand the power of effective community organizing to build power and win real change.
Duncan Pike is the former Executive Director of CJFE and a facilitator with the Institute for Change Leaders.
PHOTO: Matt Currie. Rally from the February 2017 'Day of Action' for press freedom in Toronto.