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Linda Besner’s most recent book is Feel Happier in Nine Seconds.

Protesters march to Parliament down Lambton Quay during a climate strike protest march in Wellington on Sept. 27, 2019.

MARTY MELVILLE/AFP/Getty Images

For five nights, crowds sang until dawn. “This was happiness multiplied a million times,” Estonian artist Heinz Valk wrote on June 12, 1988. Technically, it was probably happiness multiplied about 100,000 times – this was the estimated number of people who converged on an outdoor arena in Tallin to belt out the folk songs that had become unofficial anthems of resistance against the Soviet occupation. The Singing Revolution, as it came to be called, turned into three years of collective actions that saw the USSR recognize an independent Estonia on Sept. 6, 1991.

The Singing Revolution is an illustration of “the 3.5-per-cent rule.” In 1988, 100,000 people comprised almost 6 per cent of the Estonian population. In their 2011 book Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict, political scientists Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan examined more than 300 campaigns of resistance that took place between 1900 and 2006 and came up with two significant conclusions: Non-violence works better than violence, and non-violent movements that involve more than 3.5 per cent of the population in strikes, marches, sit-ins or other active public demonstrations are virtually assured of success.

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The unprecedented worldwide climate strikes last month reached the magic threshold in one country, New Zealand, where 170,000 people in a population of 4.8 million came out. Canada’s strikes, estimated at 800,000 people, fell short, at roughly 2 per cent, although they were still the third-largest in the world, behind those of Italy and Germany.

It’s a good start, but one week of protests is hardly the end of the public mobilization required to bring policy in line with science. Chapters of the British climate-crisis protest movement Extinction Rebellion have been springing up across Canada and the world. Oct. 7 will see the beginning of a two-week period of disruptive direct action in 60 cities. (Full disclosure: I’ll be volunteering at the Toronto event.) Extinction Rebellion has taken Dr. Chenoweth and Ms. Stephan’s findings to heart: One of its key messages is to focus on involving 3.5 per cent of the local community.

What does 3.5 per cent of the Canadian public look like? There is some precedent for a protest that big: The Canadian Labour Congress strike of 1976, which protested the introduction of federal wage and price controls, saw an estimated one million people participate – at the time, about 4 per cent of Canada’s population. But as is often the case with numbers divorced from context, it’s not immediately clear whether that’s big or small. Is it more like everyone who believes Elvis is still alive and hiding out in Tweed, Ont., or more like everyone who prefers cherries to raspberries? Statistics should always be taken with a grain of salt (3.5 per cent is the margin of error in some polls), but in an unscientific survey of newspaper reports, Statistics Canada tables and marketing campaigns for breakfast foods, I came up with the following blurry snapshot:

Three-point-five per cent of Canadians are millionaires. Quite a coincidence, since 3.5 per cent of Canadians are children living in poverty. It’s a bit more than the percentage of Edmontonians who speak Tagalog as a first language. It’s the percentage of students at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax who smoke pot once a month, and about the percentage of people over 65 who have smoked it in the past three months. It’s all the vegans in Ontario and all the vegetarians in Canada (a surprisingly low number – I must know most of them). In the world of automotive service, if you are a woman who obtained a certificate in 2014 after a registered apprenticeship, congratulations, you are the 3.5 per cent. You are also the 3.5 per cent if you donate blood, commute more than an hour to work, visited Nevada this year or suffer from heart disease.

In the 2016 census, Black Canadians made up 3.5 per cent of the population, as did Canadians of Ukrainian descent. It’s the percentage of people in the Atlantic provinces who think Jews “talk too much about the Holocaust” (this is actually relatively tolerant; in Quebec, the number is 17 per cent). Put another way, it’s approximately 1.3 million Canadians. This is the number of people who quit smoking between 1999 and 2008 and the number who live in Manitoba. It’s the number of spiders whose labour made possible the yellow silk cape displayed at the Royal Ontario Museum as part of its 2018 exhibit Spiders: Fear & Fascination.

In political terms, 3.5 happens to be the percentage of the electorate who voted for the Green Party in 2015. Far more than 3.5 per cent of Canadians are hoping to see real government action on the climate crisis: 83 per cent say they are “quite” or “extremely” concerned. In the current election, some 10.4 per cent of voters are considering voting Green – that’s more than 7 per cent of the population at large. In our first-past-the-post system, this is likely to translate into a few seats, at most. But if Dr. Chenoweth and Ms. Stephan are right, Green voters who direct their energy into strikes and protests could achieve a greater effect.

The potential for a small minority to exert an outsized influence on history can sound scary. But Dr. Chenoweth and Ms. Stephan remark that for protests to draw the magic number of people, a far greater number need to be quietly in support. It’s a paradoxical message: A small number of ordinary people can change the world if enough of us want them to.

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