Members of Vancouver’s Turkish-Canadian community came together this June to commemorate the first year anniversary of Turkey’s Gezi Park protest and civil unrest by dedicating trees, showcasing artwork and building bridges of solidarity and understanding with local communities struggling to preserve environmental green spaces.
Last summer, environmental protestors in Istanbul objected to the Turkish government’s plan to demolish Taksim Gezi Park and construct a shopping mall in its place. Excessive police force to disperse the protestors, including tear gas and water cannons, led to thousands of Turkish citizens joining the protests and condemning the government’s use of violence. Many citizens were arrested and injured, and some lost their lives. The prime minister of Turkey called the protestors çapulcu, which means looters or thugs. In defiance of that label, the demonstrators embraced the term and its Anglicized equivalent, chapulling, and redefined the word to mean “fighting for one’s rights.” That message has spread around the world, including here in Vancouver.
“I felt very proud,” says Feza Sanigok, 45, a business director and former president of the Turkish Cultural Society of Vancouver. “When I was growing up, any demonstration was either ethnically or religiously motivated. But my countrymen were coming together as a society for a unique cause, not driven by traditional organized movements, but completely spontaneously, completely grassroots.”
Sanigok first became aware of the protests through his sister, who lives in Istanbul and participated in the protests. He initially thought the protests were an isolated incident, but as he learned more about the cause through social media, the goals and the spirit of the protests moved him deeply.
“For the first time in my life, I’ve seen so many groups from all walks of life coming together around a very simple concept of protecting a beautiful shared green space. That was a big awakening and surprise for me,” Sanigok says.
Bringing the Turkish spirit of protest to Vancouver
Inspired by the courageousness of the protestors and angered by the police brutality and government response, Sanigok wanted to show his support. In June 2013, he and several others, staged a rally outside the Vancouver Art Gallery, discussed the protest with local media and gathered over a thousand signatures petitioning the Canadian federal government to demand a formal response from the Turkish government.
They also started the Gezi Park Vancouver Project, a campaign to plant one tree in each North American city honouring the memory and spirit of the protests. The first tree in this campaign, a beech tree that is native to Northern Turkey, was planted in Kensington-Cedar Cottage’s John Hendry Park in November 2013.
On June 7, Sanigok and the Turkish-Canadian community gathered by Trout Lake to mark the first anniversary of the protests, reaffirm commitments to freedom of protest and speech and promote environmental preservation. They also unveiled an art project titled, Without You, We Are Incomplete, which narrates the story of rights and resistance captured through emotions and body movement inspired by the Gezi demonstrators.
The community was joined by a First Nations group who gave their blessings and support to the cause.
“We connected with the First Nations people, as they are the ones fighting for the green spaces here in BC, either up north or here in the Coast Salish lands,” Sanigok says. “We found [our environmental and activist efforts] were no different than their efforts. There is a lot of learning and exchange of experiences.”
In return, the community pledged their support to ensure the people’s rights and concerns are heard and that they are properly consulted on projects that might affect the environment, such as the Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline project.
“Local struggles anywhere are really universal struggles,” says Sanigok.
To learn more about the Gezi Park Project in Vancouver, visit