By pretty much any measure, 2021 was not a good year. The COVID-19 pandemic continued to dominate our lives, the climate crisis deepened, and there was no respite from violent, unjust features of the world that target many, privilege some, and make a very few tremendously powerful and rich.
Yet even in bleak times, not only are there always people resisting in grassroots, collective ways, but some of those people manage to win. Paying deliberate attention to such victories can be a tremendous source of hope, and it can help us to remember how change for the better inevitably happens—not through magnanimous gestures from elites, not through apolitical policy tinkering, but because of critical masses of ordinary people, acting together.
In that spirit, here are a few of the victories won by social movements and communities-in-struggle within the borders of Canada in the past year.
Cops out of schools: Building on the momentum from the upsurge in racial justice organizing in 2020, parents, students, and education workers in multiple cities campaigned to get uniformed police out of schools—and they succeeded in two school divisions in Winnipeg, York Region and Ottawa in Ontario, and Vancouver.
Land Back in Six Nations: A year-long occupation of unceded territory—named 1492 Land Back Lane—near Six Nations of the Grand River by Haudenosaunee land defenders and their allies pushed a property developer to abandon their plan to turn it into a subdivision.
Albertans derailed the plans of Big Coal: After campaigners collected 100,000 signatures from across the political spectrum, the Niitsitapi Water Protectors provided key Indigenous leadership, and country singer Corb Lund weighed in with a video, Alberta’s UCP government reversed course on a policy that would have opened up the Rocky Mountains to a new coal rush.
Minimum wage raised to $15/hr in Ontario: Yes, the provincial Conservative government was playing catch-up on increases they had cancelled when they took office. No, the amount is no longer adequate. And, yes, it is transparent electoral pandering. But the fact that a right-wing premier felt it necessary to make this concession is testimony to years of effective organizing by minimum wage campaigners.
Privatization blocked: When officials in Medicine Hat, Alberta, suggested that the only remaining publicly-owned power company in the province might be privatized, opposition among residents succeeded in getting that option taken off the table.
Worker power: All kinds of workers organized themselves into unions this year—bookstore workers, sex worker advocates, airport workers, the people who make our winter coats at Canada Goose, and many others. More than 20,000 public sector workers went on New Brunswick’s biggest legal general strike, winning two per cent raise per year and significant wage increases for casual workers. And despite the turbulent economy, bus drivers, hospitality and healthcare workers elsewhere made gains through strikes—including in Quebec, where daycare workers and teachers won better pay and services for children with special needs.
Coastal headland preserved: In recent years, the Nova Scotia government made moves to turn an undisturbed coastal headland that had been part of various conservation plans for a half century into golf courses. In 2021, the campaign to preserve the land won.
Climate victories: Students at multiple universities pushed their administrations to divest at least partially from fossil fuels; the ongoing campaign to convince insurers to drop the Trans Mountain pipeline gained ground; and Quebec announced a ban on fossil fuel exploration.
Small COVID wins: In the constant flux of changing COVID supports, guidelines, and regulations across multiple jurisdictions, there were countless small victories where pushback by workers, students and disabled people forced governments to modify their plans in ways that took public safety and wellbeing more seriously—nurses got sick pay reinstated in Alberta, the vaccination of homeless people got priority, and education workers in parts of Ontario prevented hybrid online and offline teaching, to name just a few.
Palestinian refugee family reunited: Advocacy around specific cases of injustice caused by Canada’s immigration system constitutes another area where there are regular victories, but few beyond those involved ever hear about them—like the month-long campaign that pressured the Canadian government to allow Palestinian Jihan Qunoo’s husband and three children to join her from Gaza.
Tenant rights: Along with plenty of ground-level wins from tenants directly and collectively resisting landlords, there were also some policy-level victories. Organizing by tenants pushed the Nova Scotia government to extend rent control for an additional two years and the Vancouver city council to institute it on single-room occupancy units.
Alton Gas project cancelled: Strong, multi-year Mi’kmaq opposition to the Alton Gas project on the Shubenacadie River in Nova Scotia, including traffic slow-downs, legal challenges, and a treaty camp at the site, was a crucial part of what led to its cancellation.
Conversion therapy ban: Though generally framed in the media in party-political terms, there is no way that the federal ban on conversion therapy would have reached the point of unanimous passage in Parliament without decades of grassroots LGBTQ+ organizing.
Urban boundary held firm: In the wake of a provincial government initiative to allow more sprawl in southern Ontario cities, one of Hamilton’s broadest local campaigns in years pushed its council to refuse to expand its urban boundary.
University X commits to name change: The Toronto university, named after Egerton Ryerson, an architect of Canada’s residential school system, was finally pushed to change its name after years of pressure from Indigenous students and their allies.
Beyond this small sample of victories, it’s important that we value the continuing resistance that doesn’t necessarily result in clearly identifiable wins, from everyday organizing by oppressed people that might not become public and visible, to social movement near-misses or defeats that lay the groundwork for future triumphs.
Then there are the struggles that aren’t over yet—the Indigenous resistance to the Trans Mountain and Coastal GasLink pipelines, efforts to support and defend encampments of unhoused people, organizing in many cities to reduce police budgets, and more.
The new year might feel like it will unfold much the same as those before. But celebrating our victories can help us to remember that things can always be different.