Saturday, August 06, 2005

Review: The Un-Canadians

(Len Scher. The Un-Canadians: True Stories of the Blacklist Era. Toronto: Lester Publishing Limited, 1992.)

Given that the central focus of my current work is premised on my belief that most people, including most people active in movements for social change, are denied adequate opportunity to learn Canada's "history from below," on a certain level I think that almost every one of the books I have been reviewing on this site is something that people should (whatever that means) read. In this instance, however, I think it is actually urgent. Why? Because what The Un-Canadians describes of the Canadian state's dirty deeds from decades gone by is being repeated today with a whole different set of targets.

The Un-Canadians compiles oral histories of individuals who were targeted by the Canadian state and its security services because of their real or imagined connection to the Communist Party of Canada or to anything that a politically unsophisticated RCMP officer might think was kinda sorta vaguely maybe linked to something the CPC might consider getting involved with. If you belonged to the wrong union, subscribed to the wrong publication, hung out with the wrong friends, or sung in the wrong choir (I'm not kidding) you could end up on the list. That might bar you from travel to the United States, get you fired from the National Film Board, get your phone tapped, get you arrested, result in the RCMP leaning on present and prospective employers to fire you or not promote you, or even prevent you from working in your industry of employment ever again. There was no requirement to show you were an actual threat to national security, and even most party members so treated were just ordinary folk yearning after social justice. Many Canadians don't know it happened here, but it did; it was not as public and theatrical as Joseph McCarthy and his ilk in the U.S., perhaps, but we started earlier and were just as vicious.

It is crucial that Canadians understand this history. It is vital that we foster broad appreciation of what the state that governs us has been and is capable of, the ease with which it can resort to arbitrary humiliation, punishment, and even destruction of lives of ordinary people never formally accused of a crime and given no recourse to due process. It is so important because it is happening again. In the wake of 9/11, it is not leftists but West Asian Canadians, South Asian Canadians, Muslim Canadains that face administrative harassment at the hands of the state -- knocks on the door in the middle of the night, interrogation, pressure to spy on friends and family, names on lists shared between Canada and the U.S., slander in newspapers, arbitrary detention with no due process, "rendition" to countries that use torture. Even among the more liberal-minded among us, privilege-based white Canadian trust of the state and distrust of the different and the brown-skinned allows that hint of doubt about this issue to creep in long enough for attention to drift away without acting, without caring, without even really believing anything unjust is happening. But it is happening, and it is terribly unjust.

Please read this book. Hear the words of ordinary Canadians who got screwed over by an arbitrary and authoritarian state, some of whom still feared consequences enough when the book was written to insist on anonymity. And know that it is happening again. When the Canadian state says "Trust us!" in its secret trials and administrative detention of Muslim men and in its harassment of West and South Asian Canadian communities, use this text as one way to be forewarned and forearmed so you can say, "Given what you've done in the past, why should we?"

(To learn more about secret trials in Canada in the 21st century, here is a list of links compiled by the Campaign to Stop Secret Trials in Canada, which provides the basics. This primer in PDF format, used by the Campaign to educate Members of Parliament on the issue, is a good place to start.)

[Edit: For a list of all book reviews on this site, click here.]


Rick Barnes said...


Thanks for this. So much history, so many people stood up for change, a differing approach and suffered the wrath of "peace order and good government!"

Thanks again.

Scott said...

Glad you found it useful! 8)

Anonymous said...

R.I.P. Len Scher. A great author and man. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Len Scher also directed a documentary based on his book.