Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Voices Carry When They Carry

Share |

By Melanie Janisse


These last couple of weeks, Toronto has been an open book. I look around at my neighborhood with the archeological unearthing of decrepit water mains and giant holes along the road like a mouth full of cavities.

Lacing the exposed blue rubber of temporary water supply are the Portuguese and Brazilians in their outrageous soccer colors, creating a ruckus with honks, tires squealing, battling bar stereo systems facing out to the street and just about any other noisemaker you can imagine. And then there is the fence. I biked down to the G20 site Friday, just before the whole thing began, and was met by the fence and its thousands of keepers. Oppression hung about in the air. It was in such stark contrast to my soccer-happy neighbourhood that I really wanted to diagnose Toronto as having a mood disorder.

The remainder if the weekend was a combination of wanting desperately for Portugal and Brazil to lose, so my street corner would again become only moderately boisterous, and having my heart break over and over again as footage rolled in from journalists and citizens in the epicenter of the G20 nightmare. I marvel over the vast contrast in the authorities' reactions to the noisy gatherings of citizens. Soccer fans hold up traffic and cause a bit of trouble in the name of the beautiful sport, and they are mostly left alone by the police. Those opposed to the G20 Summit gather in protest in our city centre, which has been turned into a police state in anticipation of the demonstrations. When it really matters, it seems that our constitutional rights may be waived for us. Say, if we disagree with capitalism and the current state of things culturally and politically, or if we disagree with billion-dollar fences and policing that we, as citizens of this city,did not ask for. But it is totally okay to form happy mobs in the streets if our team wins. So never fear; just never do it when it really matters.


Poet and sound artist Angela Rawlings and I met this week to discuss our separate journeys to Belgium over the past little while. (Please read my next column for some of these lovely meanderings.) I could not help but notice that Angela was deeply involved in witnessing the series of events and protests that took place over the weekend of the summit. Her Facebook page was one of the best places to look for up-to-the-minute reportage and commentary on the protests. Angela and I spoke of many things, but one topic that really grabbed me was the common struggle to sing. We are both well spoken, able to speak in public, and in many other ways we use our voices well. But when it comes to singing (especially in front of others), I find that my throat clams right up. When I was visiting Belgium a few weeks ago, my host was in the middle of studying for a series of jazz guitar exams. He thought it would be a good idea for me to try and sing along and handed me a score for the tune "Watch What Happens."

Over the next few minutes, I went through a feeling of vulnerability so powerful that I could actually feel my throat close up. It did not help that he kept beginning the song and I honestly had no clue where to begin the words, how to soften my throat, let go of fear and self-consciousness and begin to believe that it is possible to return to a place where I could share, however imperfect, my voice. I wished so much that I could trust this man to encourage me, not judge my constrictions, not laugh as I muddled through a frogs rendition of the tune, my own trip-ups.

I guess I bring this up because the events of this weekend have clammed up my throat with grief, confusion and anger. It seems to be in the air, this constricted throat and a complete lack of words. Add on to this the impossible task of beginning to share what is difficult, emotional and never simple. Angela and I could hardly wrap our words around the events of the G20, could hardly speak of our grief, as we individually grappled with the exact meaning of the deep scar the fence has left on our psyches, the reality that our country was dealing with the horror of where our leaders stand on civil liberties, freedom of speech and notions of democracy.

We began to speak of sound therapists, finding voice anyhow, using sound to describe, even if it remains an imperfect place laced with fear, blocks and confusion. I hope that we all continue to talk about the events of the G20, the state of our political and civic landscape. I hope we all continue to find words and use them so that we never have to experience a fence of oppression and fear in our country again.


I wanted to leave you with some thoughts and actions of some of the poets, writers and folks in the literary community. I for one was so inspired by how active many people became in the face of the G20.

Maggie Helwig organized a prayer vigil on a street corner.

The Steel Bananas Collective has dedicated an entire blog to the events of the G20.

Margaret Atwood wrote a piece in the Globe.

I found a brilliant poem by Paul Vermeersch on his website.

Naomi Klein delivered a speech in front of the Toronto Police Services headquarters.

Judy Rebick, too.

Here are some accounts from Angela Rawlings’s Facebook page:

Home from Queen's Park. Was with peaceful crowd of 600–800 protesters pepper-sprayed and smoke-bombed 8 times, advanced on by 300 police + 20 horses in riot gear, threatened with arrest. No reason given for police advancement or force at this designated protest site (and I requested a reason from officer giving orders at the front line). Returned home to mainstream media not reflecting my experience. Dispirited, deeply unimpressed.

Just went to see Queen & Spadina. Civilians have been held for last three hours. Couple with baby was released 45 minutes ago. Man needing critical care was also released. And 10 minutes ago, the police allowed a type-2 diabetic man to leave the protest site; he spoke with media and me upon exit, was extremely shaky and not doing well. Police everywhere. Buses everywhere. No one released yet.

Back from last trip to Queen & Spadina. The cold, underclothed, hungry civilians were released after three hours of detention. Gave one shivering young man my raincoat. Knox and I bought tea for three freezing women. Listened to their stories. Listened to their stories. Witnessed. Cried.

A couple of words from Darryl Salach of The Toronto Quarterly:

As it turns out, the entire G20 Summit event was poorly planned on a number of fronts. Hosting something like this in the downtown core was simply a ridiculous idea and only asking for trouble. I agree with Toronto mayor David Miller in saying that the summit should have been held away from downtown and out at Exhibition Place for example in order to at least minimize the potential for destruction of property and businesses in the city core. The riot cops reacted far too slowly on Saturday at the beginning, which allowed things to get too far out of control, allowing the masked "thugs" to have their way. The police presence looked minimal at best in areas where store windows were broken and the cop cars were set ablaze. There should have been cops marching along side the protesters on Saturday in order to keep things under control. On Sunday, the riot cops resorted to brute force and excessive means in order to control protesters, most of whom appeared to be peaceful and not causing a disturbance, nor were any protesters seen wearing masks or balaclavas. And with the "corralling" tactic used at Queen/Spadina on Sunday evening, arresting innocent protesters and detaining bystanders and local residents for 3 plus hours in the pouring rain was outrageous and a blatant disregard for human rights on the part of police. Certainly these events are a black eye, as well as an embarrassing moment in time for the city of Toronto. The Harper government and other world leaders will tell us that the G20 Summit is vitally important to the sustainability of world economics and other political issues, but you cannot convince me that to spend one billion dollars alone on security alone for the G20 Summit makes one lick of sense. I wonder. Is there another city in this world that really wants to host an event like this? Oh yes, maybe a city in Iraq, Iran or even Afghanistan.

Here are some thoughts from Karen Correra DeSilva (one of the editors for Steel Bananas):

Well, I was covering the protests for Steel Bananas and was extremely surprised at the huge and aggressive police force that stood in our way. On Friday afternoon, after marching with the crowd from Allan Gardens by my apartment, I witnessed two young peaceful (and I stress peaceful) men being torn from the crowd and beaten by police in front of the Tim Horton's on College and Yonge. It all happened so fast. We surged forward toward police yelling "Let them go!" and "Shame!" as these peaceful members of the activist community were hit with batons on the ground. These men weren't arrested, but rather, thrown back into the crowd completely bloodied. I saw other protesters catching them and dragging them away from police while their shirts were smeared with blood. It was a bizarre thing to see because I really have only ever had positive encounters with Toronto Police. To see them beat peaceful protesters, without provocation, prior to any of the broken windows or burning police cars, was unsettling.

I believe this is an ideological war. My best friend Max, who was beaten and detained at the peaceful protests at Queen and Spadina (see this video: of his arrest here, he's in this video sitting and being entirely peaceful) said it best: They treated protesters like a virus. They disconnected them from their families and communities, removed their watches (and in some cases, such as that of Sara Mohr, an MA student who spoke with Steel Bananas, they removed her bra) and detained them in tiny cells where people were pissing on the floor and made to sit in their own piss.

Steel Bananas has been flooded with accounts of people with disabilities detained without medical care (including a man in a wheelchair, and a man deprived of his prosthetic leg, both instances confirmed by different protesters who did not know one another and were interviewed on separate days). Sara Mohr was sexually harassed as a police officer watched her urinate and winked, Max Collins was beaten in the face without provocation, and what's even worse, images of these atrocities flood YouTube and Vimeo without the vast majority of Torontonians seeing them.

The Police force and government, by denying their citizens a public inquiry into the actions of police, have proved that they care more about PR battles than they do about the rights of peaceful citizens. This is an alarming precedent set by the Canadian government: The ability to create a law (The Public Works Protection Act) that disenfranchises peaceful citizens in the streets outside their homes, and makes it lawful to beat and arrest them for simply standing on the street. What's even worse, police were seen (and caught on video) beating and dragging protesters out of the peaceful free speech zone at Queen's Park, in order to inflict harm and arrest them.

My faith in law enforcement is completely destroyed, and I no longer feel safe when I see a police officer. They worked as hired goons for a billion-dollar world leader party, and made criminals out of innocent citizens.

Unfortunately, the PR battle waging in the media has kept many citizens divided, despite the fact that they beat and detained protesters and just passersby alike. The media flooded with accounts of TTC drivers in full uniform being detained, or the story of Hanna Booth, whose house was raided by police in error, which they only discovered after they pointed a handgun at her husband's face, and forced her and her 6-month old baby to stand outside terrified. The police became terrorists for the weekend.

As for me, I just don’t know what to do, and so I write. I ask for my voice, for courage and for a good lamp in the darkness in the wake of the G20. I ask for a way to see the truth, even if every corner I turn down someone else is wagging the dog, spin doctoring and covering up the shitty truth. I am reminded of an old Buddhist proverb: "It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness." And so, I guess I will just see you in the corner where we are all desperately trying to get our lighters to work, and I will hope for the best.

Here is ol' blue eyes. If we could only all just live with an open heart:


Let someone start believing in you,
let him hold out his hand
Let him touch you and watch what happens
One someone who can look in your eyes,
and see into your heart
Let him find you and watch what happens
Cold, no I won't believe your heart is cold
Maybe just afraid to be broken again
Let someone with a deep love to give
Give that deep love to you,
and what magic you'll see
Let someone with a deep love to give
Give that deep love to you.
and what magic you'll see
Let someone give his heart,
someone who cares like me
Let someone give his heart who cares like me

Melanie Janisse is a native of Windsor, Ontario where she retains memories of old docks jutting out into the Detroit River and the smell of hops. Melanie began her education by leaving home early and wandering around the abandoned houses of inner city Detroit, and then the intense forests of the Canadian West Coast. Formally she holds degrees form Concordia University in Communications and Literature and from Emily Carr University of Art and Design in Photography. Melanie has resided in Toronto for the past nine years, keeping active as a visual artist, poet, designer and shop owner. Her work has appeared in Luft Gallery, Common Ground Gallery, Artcite Gallery, Dojo Magazine, Pontiac Quarterly, The Scream Literary Festival, The Southernmost Review, The Northernmost Review and The Windsor Review. Her first poetry book Orioles in the Oranges (Guernica Editions) tells the tale of on old Metis legend, allowing it to dovetail with Detroit's gritty modernity in an unforgettable series of prose poems. Melanie is happy to be a part of Open Book: Toronto ruminating about books and book-like things around Toronto.

Photos by Angela Rawlings. Click on any image to start a slideshow

We hope people are happy to see pictures of themselves in Open Book’s image gallery, but if you’d like your photo removed please contact us at and we’ll remove it as soon as possible.

Related item from our archives

JF Robitaille: Minor Dedications


Open Book App Ad