“25 000 tuques” : A symbolic stitchwork

Blog, Quebec Hub

Fall 2015. In the wake of the waves of migration caused by the war in Syria, the Canadian government announces its intention to welcome 25,000 Syrian refugees by February 2016. Suspicious and fearful of possible threats to national security in a context where several jihadist attacks have made the news in the West, citizens use social media to express their opposition to the government’s project. Outraged by «xenophobic» comments, actress and author Danielle Létourneau has an idea. «I thought, us – my gang, me, those I do not need to convince on Facebook – we will get together, we will knit them [the refugees] hats and we will put a letter inside. There are lame people in life, but us, we are happy that you are arriving. We are relieved for you, we will welcome you. You can turn to us, we are that population. (Interview with Danielle Létourneau, November 28th, 2015)

She then launched the Facebook page «25 000 tuques» on November 18th, unaware that in but a few weeks, she will have helped create a citizen movement that will be mentioned in fifty articles and media reports – even quoted by the US President Barack Obama – and to which hundreds of people from across Canada would take part. A simple invitation to knit, launched from the social media platform Facebook, will have mobilized communities and individuals from all over Quebec, but also in Ontario, British Columbia, Alberta, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and even the United States. In addition to citizens, the movement will have rallied museums, businesses and community organizations that have contributed in various ways, be it through the organization of knitting events or the establishment of drop-off points to repatriate the hats, etc.

A phenomenon based on solidarity and with a rapid expansion thanks to the Internet, which accelerates the growth of «mediation and matching devices» favoring organizational donations (Naulin and Steiner, 2016), «25,000 tuques» can be analyzed with the notions and concepts of the «sociology of social movements» from the book of the same name by Erik Neveu (six editions with the last one being from 2015). The analysis presented here is based on the content of the «25,000 tuques» Facebook page and interviews conducted with Danielle Létourneau at two different times while the movement was in full swing (November 28th, 2015 and December 12th, 2015).

«25,000 tuques»: A social movement?

First, we can consider «25,000 tuques» as stemming from «collective action» since the study of its evolution shows that the project is a carrier of an «intentional acting-together» and a «logic of appeal”, which are the two criteria on which the notion of collective action is based (Neveu, 2002, pp. 9-10). In fact, knitters, museums (from that of Civilization in Quebec, and the McCord, in Montreal, amongst others) and everyone else who got involved in «25,000 tuques» “joined forces […] around a «cause»»(Neveu, 2002), that of the warm welcome of Syrian refugees, thus countering the derogatory comments made about them on social media platforms or in the media .

As we have seen, these aforementioned comments were the spark that instigated the project. In several of the interviews she gave to the media about «25,000 tuques», Danielle Létourneau referred back to this when asked to explain the origin. Hence, in one of the first media articles on the subject, she says: «I was looking for something symbolic that would not be a petition, a concrete gesture that would express more than just a signature, to try to counter the fear they had, which seemed quite unjustified.» And again: «The real threat here – we must admit – is the cold, not the terrorist threat» (Lebleu, 2015). In naming this «fear» (fear of the other, fear that there will be «terrorists» among the refugees, etc.), the instigator identified in some way the «opponent» of the «25 000 tuques» movement since «a social movement is defined by the identification of an adversary» against which the appeal activity unfolds (Neveu, 2002, p.10). The slogan on the «25 000 tuques» website also seems to be a nod to this «adversary»: «Because in Quebec, the only real enemy is the cold» (# 25 000 tuques, nd).

Also, the «frame analysis», from Goffman (1991) and taken again by Neveu (editions of 1996-2015), can also be solicited in order to obtain a finer understanding of the «25 000 tuques» movement. This analysis is part of another broader one, that of «the symbolic construction of social movements” (Neveu, 2002). As Neveu (2002) demonstrates, associating a certain language – which has symbolic dimensions – with collective action helps to legitimize it. Thus, the «perception framework» approach refers to what enables individuals to «locate, perceive, identify, classify events in their environment, their lived experience and the world» «(Goffman, 1991 in Neveu, 2002). The legitimization of the cause, but also the solidarity between its members, is built through the use of common perception frameworks, such as the use of certain proverbial or mythical notions and references, certain stereotypes, etc. (Neveu, 2002).

A symbol of suffering and long-distance solidarity

In addition, we must remember that it was a photo broadcasted by the media, that of a little boy, dead, on a Turkish beach in September 2015, which became the symbol of the tragedy of the migrant crisis. As Danielle Létourneau put it, «it’s because people do not realize that those who are coming are people: as long as there are no photographed dead children on a beach … If we do not humanize them, then all of a sudden they are strangers who are entering» (Interview, November 28, 2015). From this point of view, the symbolic photo served the purposed of «humanizing» the crisis and generating sympathy in those who were distanced from it. When the Canadian government announces that it will host 25,000 refugees, the prospect changes: the wave of migrants is no longer just a distant event; it is a tragedy that is transported «here». Thus, the process of symbolic construction of a cause also happens, and surely enough, by the media that are stakeholders of the interactions of the social movement (according to Neveu, 1999, 2002).

In the case of the establishment of a social solidarity movement, it is interesting to note that «if the media makes it possible to feel a » long-distance suffering», according to Luc Boltanski’s (1993) formula, organizational donations offer, as far as they are concerned, the opportunity to act, to do something to give free reign to the expression of sympathy, of solidarity with those who suffer. The media, carriers of long-distance suffering, and the charitable organizations, actors of giving at a distance, are two sides of the same politics of pity»(Naulin and Steiner, 2016). Even though «25,000 tuques» is not a charity as such, it is an «organized» movement that acts as an intermediary for the citizens to make a donation and be part of a «long-distance solidarity» (from the title of the book edited by Naulin and Steiner, 2016).

A collective action based on hospitality

The development of a language specific to a social movement serves to justify its actions. In the case of «25 000 tuques», the use of the tuque as a symbol of welcome is used from the beginning to explain the choice of the field of action (helping refugees). «It is not a big action and it is symbolic: babies born in Quebec have a tuque on their head in their first hours! So, a handmade tuque with a word of welcome …» (Facebook page, November 18th, 2015). Also, because this solidarity movement is «symbolic», the instigator of the movement, Danielle Létourneau, must specify that she does not really hope to reach the number 25 000 and that she prefers not to count knitted tuques for the cause (Facebook, November 19th, 2015).

The whole «frame of perception» of the «25 000 tuques» movement is therefore based on the symbolism of the welcome. On several occasions, while the movement is in full swing, the instigator of the project must «reframe» the action, as questions such as «why knit for refugees and not for homeless people?» “Can we knit a scarf and mittens too?”, “Do you also collect used coats?”, etc., are asked. By taking care that the movement’s message remains clear, Danielle Létourneau provides answers such as the following:

«To keep the spirit of 25,000 tuques, please note: here, we give handmade TUQUES for this project. Not your old tuque or your surplus. Why do we stick to this? (Even if you can add a handmade scarf or mittens, at worse, make a friend who will knit the tuque …) Because there is the importance in the act of taking the time to do it, and of thinking of someone. Of MAKING for someone. The gesture of giving a coat is just as beautiful, but does not have the same meaning. Because we’re not going to add another organization that simply doubles «a job» that someone else is surely doing better than myself and is better equipped to do it. Because the symbol is stronger if it is not diluted. […]” (Facebook page, November 20th, 2015)

«The arrival of a new wave of immigration, especially when it is made up of refugees from countries at war, is an important and serious event. Quite urgent. There is an immediate burn to soothe. It takes gentleness, and a lot of it. It’s nothing, a tuque, but … it’s a start. It does not detract from the importance or the severity of the pain of our citizens who are in a tough situation. […]” (Facebook page, November 21st, 2015)

«There are people who knit all year long for Accueil Bonneau. When there are people who chastise me and say, «Why don’t you knit for the homeless?» I respond, «Because people already do it, you might not know it, but do not critique me, congratulate them.»[…]» (Interview with Danielle Létourneau, November 28th, 2015)

A citizen solidarity momentum

Another interesting element to emphasize in order to deepen the understanding of the «25,000 tuques» movement is that it is a citizen solidarity incentive that does not come from an organization and has qualified itself from the outset as apolitical. However, having grown rapidly, the movement had to think about the best ways to act and whether, to do this, its action should be transferred to or incorporated by an «official» body. It should be known that initially, the idea was that the knitted tuques in each region remain there and be given to local organizations that would be in direct contact with refugees, as explained by the instigator in an interview: «I am still fighting with that. In general, the others want there to be a transportation system, to be repatriated to Montreal and distributed from here. But I think it’s silly, I’m a bit in conflict with my team about that. I say: «No, find the resource on site, we will not make the tuques travel, for the environment, this is not the best option.» We’re not going to start dragging tuques around. (Interview, November 28, 2015)

In the end, just in Quebec, 87 drop-off points will have emerged (# 25 000 tuques, sd). And the «tuque counter» – even if we did not want to count them – saw the number of knitted tuques continue to rise: in mid-December 2015, 3000 tuques were ready to be distributed. The participation of a large number of people in the movement is concrete and real. The next step: how to give the tuques to the refugees? The team around the instigator turns to the Canadian Red Cross and is told that «they do not do that» (Facebook page, December 6th, 2015). A few days later, the Facebook page of «25,000 tuques» finally announces that the Red Cross will collaborate to distribute the tuques to the refugees upon their arrival. However, the organization asks that a new explanatory note, translated into Arabic, be added to the tuques, in addition to the words of welcome already written by the knitters. The collaboration with the NGO also requires a centralization of resources and «25 000 tuques» asks its participants to ship the tuques to Montreal.

There is in this association with an organization a change of direction for the movement, accompanied by a fear of «losing control». «Initially, not knowing that it was going to become so big, I said that ideally everyone was autonomous and everyone would do their best. There are some who have taken it very seriously, especially in the cities where they would be receiving people. […] If the Red Cross had not succeeded in doing what we wanted to do and we were not able to make enough tuques and to make measures that made sense and conformed to what they asked of us, the Red Cross would be withdrawing their participation. […] That’s what I said, it’s contradictory. I really wanted to stay autonomous and always be responsible, except that with the magnitude that it took, it was no longer possible. (Interview with Danielle Létourneau, December 12th, 2015) Thus, for the team at the origin of «25 000 tuques» and for those who have been involved, they must accept that the movement has changed and that it has been «institutionalized» in part. On Facebook, the instigator justifies this new direction by spreading the message that this is the best way to ensure that the tuques get safely to where they belong: on the refugees’ heads. Several comments from people who «follow» the Facebook page of «25,000 tuques» show that they support this decision, saying that the important thing is for refugees to receive the tuques.

Nevertheless, without knowing what form it will take in the future, the «25 000 tuques» movement reaffirms its identity: «So we go on. ‘The little gang’ that started 25,000 tuques will continue to be very careful to remain: an independent citizen movement, secular, without political partisanship, inclusive and with a minimum of monetary transactions in the movement [… ]. (Facebook page, December 24th, 2015).

Finally, one year after the end of the arrival of the 25,000 Syrian refugees in Canada, the knitted tuques («we stopped counting around 17,000 … And that was a month before I stopped receive some”, Facebook page, February 17th, 2017), have not all been distributed. The instigator of «25,000 tuques» – who was trying to figure out how to give the remaining tuques – did not see a failure in this, however, as the movement had a positive impact. «And, if you didn’t know, be aware of it now, last year we made a beautiful gift by keeping our hands busy, we made beautiful gifts by warming hearts, but our greatest triumph, was showing that people of good intentions could occupy space. A lot of space in our world. In the newspapers. In our lives. Even Obama spoke about us [in his speech to the Canadian Parliament]. […] A hateful word multiplies itself to infinity. But the strength of our work can and must speak louder than those words. Of course, actions are stronger. I still have enough boxes of tuques for the Montreal area and what’s left of winter. […] But the agencies will need people to accompany the children with their homework, to give a hand to settle in their parents.” (Facebook page, February 17th, 2017)

In short, the «long-distance» tragedy that was the migrant crisis has created, by becoming a ‘Canadian event’, a movement of solidarity and action on local scales. This action gained its purpose by «humanizing» the welcoming of refugees, according to testimonials from volunteers of the Red Cross as reported on the Facebook page of «25 000 tuques». On the one hand, the «25,000 tuques» movement was aimed at refugees; on the other hand, it was aimed at those who contributed to it because, by generating numerous meetings between citizens and a community spirit, it was able to contribute to tightening the stitches of society.