It’s election season, and that means we have the opportunity to use a diversity of tactics to pressure candidates about issues that matter to our communities. One tactic that can be effective (and fun!) is called ‘bird-dogging’. I’ve used this tactic many times because it’s not complicated, it doesn’t necessarily require huge amounts of planning, and it can be really effective for shaping the narrative around important issues.
What is bird-dogging?
To bird-dog a politician is to meet them in public setting - like a BBQ, a public announcement, a meet-and-greet - and ask some pointed and clear questions that they’ll essentially be forced to answer. This definition from MoveOn.org explains:
The term “birddogging” in this context is a hunting analogy; the bird-dog barks at birds hiding in trees or bushes and flushes them out where the hunter can get a clear shot. Similarly, this kind of birddogging is all about getting a politician to stop hiding on the issues and force them to either commit or look foolish dodging direct questions from constituents.
This tactic is popular in the age of social media because bird-doggers can capture their own documentation of their questions and the politician’s responses, and can disseminate it through their movements and to news media.
It can also be a subversion of political power. Politicians pretty well automatically have a platform to which news media and, consequently, the public pay attention. Bird-dogging can divert some of that attention to you and your community, and pull back the curtain on the politician’s carefully crafted messaging. Here are some examples of how (usually very small) groups of people have used bird-dogging to name the real needs of their communities and shift the narrative about some big issues.
NB: this is not a representative sample of activism, it’s just a handful of stories I know about.
Some bird-dog success stories
Mi’kmaq water protectors re: Alton Gas
Darlene Gilbert is a Mi’kmaq grandmother here in K’jpuktuk (Halifax). She has been fighting for Indigenous rights and to see treaties respected for most of her life. Currently, she’s an active part of the fight to stop Alton Gas and protect the Mi’kmaq Nation’s right to defend the sacred Shubenacadie River and all Mi’kmaq homelands. PM Justin Trudeau was in Halifax in the fall of 2018 and Darlene and half a dozen friends met him at a public announcement with some straightforward questions about his performance on living up to the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
Darlene gets some face time with the PM and the news cameras. Watch the whole interaction here.
What I love about this story is that Darlene is a brave woman who tells it like it is, and she took advantage of the cameras and attention on the PM to insert her own issues into the story he was trying to tell. This story got immediate attention from news media and social media across the country.
And Darlene is just one of many grandmothers and water protectors who have dogged the politicians responsible for the Alton Gas project across Mi’kma’ki and across Canada.
Dorene Bernard and Patsy Stephens of the Mi’kmaq Nation demanded some answers from NS Premier Stephen McNeil in Toronto in 2018. Source: Truro Daily News.
The result: These stories contribute to the ongoing story about the government’s failure to live up to UNDRIP commitments and put pressure on politicians to answer to the demands of Indigenous peoples. Thanks in part to these actions, the struggle against Alton Gas has grown to include solidarity actions in Ottawa, Montreal, and Calgary!
People grilling JT re: TransMountain Pipeline
For years young people across the country have been grilling the Prime Minister about his failure to protect Indigenous lands, water, and the global climate from the obvious harms of the TransMountain Pipeline. By showing up in places like the UN, during the ‘Royal Visit’, and any public appearance they can get into, people have been throwing questions about this pipeline at Trudeau for years.
Two people at the UN Peacekeeping Defense Ministial conference in 2017. Photo: Canadian Press
The royals were met by hundreds of onlookers, and one clear message - Stop Kinder Morgan. Credit: Climate 101
The PM went to Nanaimo to talk to people about the Trans Mountain Pipeline. This picture speaks 1000 words about how that went. Photo: La Presse canadienne
That's me! I interrupted the PM’s speech to let him know that while he was supporting this pipeline he wasn’t going to get much else done. Photo: Canadian Press
These sustained actions demonstrated that people across the country were standing with land and water protectors in BC, that there was widespread disappointment in the way the government was handling this issue, and that people want to see bold climate action that doesn’t include a pipeline. The multiple heresies that this pipeline represents have shaped Trudeau’s time in government and are now shaping this election, and that’s in no small part of this sustained bird-dogging.
Bird-dogging can shift the narrative
All of these examples contributed to telling a different story about key issues than the ones politicians were trying to tell, and this was one by using the platform politicians already have to communicate with the public and using it to our advantage.
The effect can be huge when bird-dogging is coordinated
When bird-dogging is coordinated, it becomes the story. This is what has happened with people hounding the PM with questions about the TransMountain pipeline at different times - it's hard for him to talk about anything else because he's so consistently confronted with the TMX mess.
This election season, we can do the same. If candidates are consistently confronted by question about their climate action plans, that will quickly become the leading story of the whole election.
Go prepared with questions and a plan
These actions were successful not only because of the people doing the dogging, but also the people who supported them. These teams are not generally huge, but some thought should go into planning the questions you will ask, and how your message will get heard including how to take and share photos. Sometimes speaking truth to power can be a bit nerve-wracking, so arranging for some moral support is generally a good idea!
Click here to find the Council of Canadians’ election organizing toolkit, which includes some helpful tips about bird-dogging your candidates and party leaders, suggested questions, and more. Take pictures and videos of your interventions, use the tag #hotdogbirddog and tag us in your posts, or just send us an email!
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