Thursday, April 27, 2006

Hometown Psyops

The town I grew up in is soon going to be invaded by the Canadian Armed Forces on a psychological warfare operation or "psyop". This makes me sad.

The way I see it, this is one small part of the overall campaign by big corporate Canada, the military and its associated industries, and the religious conservatives and other forces of the political right in Canada to enhance and perhaps go beyond neoliberalism domestically and abroad, to integrate Canada ever more tightly with the United States economically and militarily, and to transform the "Canadian way" from quiet complicity in war and empire to open cheerleading.

My friends at Homes Not Bombs, in a media release for an event last year, quoted extensively from a United States Air Force document. While this document is from a different branch of a different service, it serves to define what "psyop" means and shows how military institutions in Western countries (and probably elsewhere) approach their interaction with non-hostile civilian populations. I think it's probably naive to think that this document has no insight to offer with respect to the institutional mindset of the Canadian Armed Forces in this instance.

This document says that psyops "support US [or in this case Canadian] national and military objectives through planned operations to convey information to target audiences. PSYOP provide a low-cost, high-impact method to deter adversaries and obtain the support of friendly or neutral target audiences."

Apparently, the military should "use transmission medium or media which are reliable and readily accessible by target audiences. US [or Canadian] forces must ensure message media are tailored for the local populace. Media can range from leaflets, to posters, to radio, television, and digital broadcasts [or, one presumes, local weekly newspapers]. Planners should ensure transmission media can reach and be understood by the target audience."

A category of psyop called "Military Operations Other Than War," such as will grace my hometown, are useful because they "support the elements of US national policy objectives, national security strategy, and national military strategy; gain and sustain foreign popular belief in, and support for, US and multinational goals and objectives; increase foreign popular support for US and multinational military operations; diminish the legitimacy of the adversary political system."

The document advises that "Commanders should consider community relations activities as a fundamental part of building public support for military operations. Public affairs operations bring together [armed forces] people and the civilian community... Effective community relations create mutual acceptance, respect, appreciation and cooperation between the [armed forces] and civilian community." It continues, "Public affairs operations support a strong national defense, in effect preparing the nation for war, by building public trust and understanding for the military's contribution to national security and its budgetary requirements. These operations make taxpayers aware of the value of spending defense dollars on readiness, advanced weapons, training, personnel, and the associated costs of maintaining a premier aerospace [or other] force."

The town I grew up in is a sleepy little burg in southern Ontario. The town itself had maybe 1200 people when I was growing up, and the entire township now has a population of about 9000. There was a small grocery store, two small-town hotels, one other restaurant (sometimes), a non-chain convenience store, one bank, two or three gas stations, a small K-to-8 public school, an aesthetically bizarre mixed-purpose shop that a high school teacher I had who grew up in much more urban circumstances (Hong Kong) labelled 'the ugly pants store', a dozen churches, and one pond (upon which, every winter after it froze, was placed an old car so that the town could have a pool to guess when it would crash through the ice in the spring).

According to the area's weekly newspaper, in mid-May, "close to 700 reservists will descend on" this township and the one immediately to the south of it -- which, coincidentally, is where my partner grew up.

The article continues:

From May 12 to May 14, military vehicles, including vans and jeeps will be on the ground along with blue and green vehicles carrying 'enemy forces.'

Any weapons and blank ammunition exercises will be conducted outside of town but troops will be on the streets of [this town] interacting with the community.

The arenas is [sic] [several area towns] will act as base operations for the troops as they conduct their exercises.

Later, the article says (under the continuation headline "Interaction part of exercise"):

While here soldiers will set up road blocks and patrol through each community, interacting with residents to gather information.

'We encourage the local population to come up and talk to the soldiers,' Capt. Bregman said.

Each arena will house public displays to keep the community informed of the operation.

Outside of town, troops will set up road blocks and assume sentry duties at locations such as the [insert local landmark here].

Weather and aircraft availability permitting, the reservists hope to perform a helicopter landing at [one town's] arena again in May.

We are then informed that this is in preparation for some of the reservists heading off to Afghanistan in the fall, and the article closes with two paragraphs of deceptively bland summary information about Canada's role in the Western occupation of Central Asia.

This operation is characterized in the article as "training."

I think it should be obvious from an informed reading of this news article what is really going on. While training may be part of the purpose of the operation, winning the hearts and minds (i.e. brainwashing with their own tax dollars) of ordinary Canadians for the agenda currently being pursued by the Canadian military and its institutional allies is a big part of this and other missions like it around the country.

And what exactly is the Canadian military doing in Afghanistan right now?

As Justin Podur and Sonali Kolhatkar have noted, certain Canadian generals' recent "comments can be understood as media operations intended to legitimize a more aggressive military role for Canada in the world." As the current dude in charge of our military, General Rick Hillier, bluntly put it, "We are the Canadian Forces, and our job is to be able to kill people."

The role of the US-led multinational occupation force in Afghanistan "is not peacekeeping, but rather the illusion of peacekeeping so as to make the installation of a US-friendly regime palatable to Afghanis," according to Kolhatkar and Podur. They go on to describe in detail the constructive things that other nations could be doing to support the reconstruction of Afghanistan after deacades of strife, but which the United States, Canada, and the rest of the West are not doing in any meaningful way.

They conclude:

Because the real reasons for intervention are not genuine help and solidarity, Canada’s deployment in Afghanistan has little relationship to what the people of that country actually need. Instead, under the guise of helping Afghanistan, Canada is actually providing a kind face to US contravention of the laws of war... Where the US military leads in the “war on terror,” Canada follows. The Canadian engagement in Afghanistan enables Canada to be a useful tool of American imperialism, a junior member of the “winning team.” The price of accommodation with empire is high for all involved. Those whose sovereignty is violated get the worst of it, facing hunger, disease, bombs, torture, and death. But for the accomplices, there is a steady diet of fear and racism, as well as the erosion of democracy, ethics, and even basic logic. That Canada is experiencing such erosion is evidenced by Major General Leslie being able to hold up a claim that killing young men overseas is worth dying for.

As this article notes, the Canadian military is not operatng (domestically) in a vacuum. There are a number of other powerful institutions in Canadian society that seem to be pursuing a similar agenda.

In other words, this psyop against my hometown is not just about drumming up popular support for Canadian complicity in U.S. imperial ambition in Afghanistan (while ignoring the very real needs of the Afghani people). It is about transforming the domestic political scene too. Soldiers on our streets are an embodied reinforcement of the media hysteria about "terrorism" and the supposed "clash of civilizations" and all of the other hype of fear and war and racism that permeates the media these days -- they are a physical and psychological assertion that all of that stuff applies to us too, and not just to the U.S. The agenda of changing the nature of Canada's support for U.S. war and empire -- the basic reality of that support has never wavered -- is tied to an agenda of neoliberalism, decreased social spending, and other right-wing goals.

This is particularly sad when I think about what the forces of the right want that agenda to mean for my hometown, its environs, and other parts of the country like it. This is an area that could never be considered left or even particularly open to the left, but there is diversity of opinion in the area, and historcally both Liberals and Conservatives (who, as I've written before, were both small-l liberals until relatively recently in Canadian history) have gotten elected at the provincial and federal levels. My partner's grandfather was the mayor of a nearby town for many years, and he was a member of the NDP.

In the federal election this past January, a Liberal -- a former local politician and reputedly a closeted gay man -- lost to a scary fundamentalist Christian conservative Conservative (who also happens to be the father of someone I played basketball with in high school). What the right in Canada wants to do is turn where I grew up into a carbon copy of analagous areas of the United States, where opinion might be similarly diverse but various factors mean that no-one who is not on the far right and preferably religious has much chance of getting elected. Anyone who reads the blog regularly knows I am no fan of Liberals or liberals, but it is still heart-wrenching to think that where I grew up might turn into a consistent base for oh-so-much-more-reactionary forces, and stay that way for a generation or more.

It also saddens me to think, with my activist hat on, about responding to this militaristic incursion if I were still living there. Something as simple as handing out leaflets against Canadian militarism on an urban street corner can be scary enough. Talking about peace and anti-imperialism tends to bring out the angry nutters, at least often enough that I would never want to do it alone. But think about doing that in a small town. If you were to live in my hometown and one day you decide to stand in front of the grocery store and hand out leaflets against the presence of the military, you become known for the next thirty years as 'that weirdo who hates Canada' by all the people in all the social networks you count on in your community.

And I also think about the starting point. To a certain extent, I think those of us active in urban areas tend to understand the consciousness of the people in our communities a bit simplistically when it comes to issues of peace and anti-imperialism. I think, for example, that though there are advantages to wearing our militancy on our sleeves at certain times and places, we might manage to be more effective overall if we allowed our understanding of "diversity of tactics" to extend towards what seems to be moderate as well as in more overtly militant directions. But even with that said, from my experience of that area growing up, it's still a different ball game. People there are most definitely not stupid, but the ways in which information flows in our society mean that you are quite likely to be talking to people who have never in their lives, or even in the lives of their ancestors, come into contact with ideas or stories or people that credibly present opinions to the left of social democracy. In East Hamilton, for example, you have a history of leftist agitation going back at least to the days of the Knights of Labor in the late 19th century, so you may not be met with support, but often enough where you are coming from is not completely alien. But where I grew up, and in much of rural and small-town Ontario, there is no history of that kind of idea, that kind of attitude, being present in the environment as a serious alternative. So you are starting from a lack of opportunity to access information outside of dominant channels (other than right-wing Christian sources), and often from a pretty big gap in terms of worldview.

This isn't to say that responding to the imperial and neoliberal agenda behind the presence of the military in my hometown would be impossible. But I really don't know how I would do it if I still lived there, and I doubt too many people, if any, will be doing it at all. And this means that lots of people whose actual values are not consistent with the full scope of the right-wing agenda being pushed by the presence of these troops will have their consciousness nudged towards greater acceptance of it.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Which Side Are You On?

Here is a great post from Sketchy Thoughts called "Detoxing From Canada" on the possibility of choosing alliance with anti-colonial and anti-imperial struggle over blind complicity in oppression.

Kersplebedeb writes:

The Mohawk people at “Douglas Creek Estates” are reclaiming their land, not mine. Indigenous culture is not my culture. Their struggle is their struggle, and they will take the lead and set their terms and define their own strategies. This is just normal.

Nevertheless, as must be obvious from the past weeks on this blog, i am not neutral or disinterested about what happens in Caledonia. I see the Mohawk struggle as an inspiring front in the war for a better world. While thousands of settlers may have rallied against the Mohawks in Caledonia last night, there is no “racial divide” which forces non-natives to take such a bigoted stand. It’s a choice.

What follows is an explanation for why i think even settlers should choose to support the Mohawk reclamation.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Six Nations Solidarity Petition

Here is a petition that you can sign which demands:

We request that the Canadian Goverment immediately Remove all Police and Military Presence in the Area of Caledonia and The Six Nations Reserve. That all Six Nations Land be returned to its rightful owners and all development attempts cease now!

I received it from a respected activist (though he might not necessarily use that term himself) in the Aboriginal community in Hamilton, Ontario, which is the major city nearest Caledonia, where the occupation is taking place. In this mass-distribution mailing he added the following:

Iesewatera, swiioh:hake (eye-ee, say wuh day luh, swee yoh haw gay)

I wish you well, on your journey.

(Around the "Wheel of LIFE"- Mentally, Physically, Spiritually and Emotionally.)

tanon SKENNEN, tiot:ken ( dohn noe SKENNOH, dyut gohn)

and PEACE, always,

Konoronkwa, tiot:ken (Guh nuh lohn Kwaw, Dyut gohn)

I love You, always,

tanon, nia:wen, Sohnkwiiote:son, Konoronkwa, tiot:ken

(dohn noh, neeyaw wuh,Sohn gwyuh dee sohn, guh nuh lone kwuh, dyut gohn)

and, thank you, Creator, I love you, always.

Please sign it! I'm not sure it will be open to signatures after April 25th, but give it a shot anyway.

Caledonia Occupation Context

Here is a good summary of some of the background to the struggle by Six Nations people in Caledonia by Toronto-based activist Justin Podur of The Killing Train.

I would correct the second last paragraph -- the Mercier Bridge to Montreal was blocked by Mohawks from Kanewake Territory, and in Tyndinega they blocked to rail lines that go through their territory.

Anyway, it's short but well referenced and good context.

Monday, April 24, 2006

Quote: Alliance and Appropriation

What needs to be provided by non-Aboriginal people is an articulation of their role rather than a repackaging of Aboriginal thought. To do otherwise is to appropriate both Aboriginal experience and Aboriginal writing. This particular appropriation is dangerous as the appropriation is masked behind standard Canadian liberalism (equality as sameness for all). It is masked under a false and misleading understanding of Aboriginal Peoples that is gained solely from academic readings and not from lived experience. You cannot quote from an article that I have written in the same way that you can quote from a piece by a non-Aboriginal person. It is time non-Aboriginal people began to take seriously the issues of their appropriations of Aboriginal thought; afterall, it's colonialism dressed up 1990's.

-- Patricia Monture-Angus

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Review: Looking White People in the Eye

[Sherene H. Razack. Looking White People in the Eye: Gender, Race, and Culture in Courtrooms and Classrooms. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1998.]

One of the difficult things to convey to people with privilege who have been raised in the liberal individualist atmosphere of North America is the idea that we bring stuff with us into every encounter we have with other human beings. We tend to get upset at the suggestion that the presence of our body and/or our voice brings with it anything other than what we have explicitly defined to be "me" -- that we cannot, by individual fiat, escape history and the present.

I have written recently about one way in which the legacy of damage bestowed on each of us by our experiences of oppresson and privilege impacts our social change groups. But beyond that kind of socially derived individual damage, we also trigger by our presence certain scripts or narratives. To create and legitimate and justify and naturalize the interlocking systems of privilege and oppression that structure our society, a bunch of stories have evolved. These stories get internalized, and help shape our emotional and intellectual landscape, how we react to things in gut and head, especially those of us that are not forced to face experiences that contradict these stories every day. They define what is expected, what is assumed, in social and institutional settings. Each of our bodies/identities trigger particular stories in other individuals and in the operation of institutions when we are present in those spaces. The ways in which these scripts shape encounters and relationships between people are certainly not absolute and deterministic, but they are lot more powerful in setting the bounds of what can and can't happen than most of us would like to believe.

Looking White People in the Eye is a book about the ways in which some of those scripts shape encounters between members of dominant and subordinate groups in specific institutional locations, particularly within the legal system and in classrooms.

Looking examines the process and consequences of sharing stories in both settings, and particularly the ways in which different ways of knowing that are connected to experiences of dominance or subordination shape how stories are heard differently. Razack suggests a pedagogy that foregrounds not only differences in experience, but differences in the ways in which we learn about the world, so that there is greater space to understand, for example, how people of colour and white people might hear a shared experience of racism differently.

The book then goes on to look at scripts and material realities related to race and gender in court cases related to sexual violence; race, gender, and nation in refugee hearings related to sexual violence; and disability, race, and gender in sexual violence cases. It uses actual court cases to explore how the scripts linked to these various facets of identity shape the experiences of accuseds, victims, applicants, and others. Razack closes the book with a discussion of the ways in which some white feminists have responded to calls for complexification of analysis and practice along lines of class, race, and ability with a sophisticated, politically correct-sounding backlash that amounts to a refusal to seriously engage with their complicity in the oppression of other women.

Enough of this book challenged me to see things in new ways that I can't hold it all in my head at once. Because of that, I don't think I can try to respond to the ideas of the book as a unified whole. But also because of that I want to respond to a number of the ideas that drew my attention.

For one thing, I appreciated her critique of liberal ideas of "rights" and "autonomy." That's not completely new territory for me, but her insistence that under the liberal framework, any degree of heightened autonomy or choice enjoyed by one class of subjects is inherently (but covertly) connected to some denial of same for subjects elsewhere in the system took it to a new level for me. This is disguised by a framework that treats individuals as abstracted, isolated, and without context. Looking uses the example of the greater autonomy over the last several decades for middle-class white women to sell their labour for professional salaries. This hits home for me because of my own situation, though admittedly in most cases that autonomy has not been gained through middle-class white men agreeing not to access some of the privileges we have historically felt entitled to. Rather, it most often is made possible by both low-wage child care and broader structures in the economy which end up decreasing the autonomy and options of working-class women, particularly working-class women of colour. I would like to see the idea of zero sum autonomy under liberal capitalism explored more fully. Can exceptions be found? Does technological increase in productivity infuse greater overall potential for autonomy into the system, say, even if capital tries to squeeze it all into profits? More importantly, how can anarchist notions of autonomy be theorized in ways that do not fall into this pattern? A clue to some of this may be found in Razack's suggestion that theorizing choice and freedom should begin not with the abstract liberal subject but with attention to constraints -- who is constrained, to what extent are they/we constrained, in what ways are they/we constrained, who is complicit in the constraints of others, and that sort of thing.

Complicity is a big theme in Looking, and the idea that we need to foreground our complicity in domination in how we theorize ourselves and how we act in the world. It argues that we tend to mobilize narratives that construct our selves as innocent of complicity. A recurring example in the book is the way in which, through much of mainstream feminism, some white women theorize oppression as being solely or primarily a question of patriarchy. This means that violence against women, for example, becomes only something that men do to women, while the ways in which white, middle-class North American women are complicit in and benefit from the colonial violence against Aboriginal and Third World women gets erased. Another example: Encounters between white people and people of colour often get narrated by the former as opportunities to learn across flat difference, to assume a stance of liberal openness to diversity that bequeaths virtue and therefore innocence, and the ways in which domination and subordination structures all such interactions is erased. At its most extreme, the unitary category of "woman" and the theorization of innocence from complicity creates and is reinforced by white women attempting to "save" their sisters of colour. Often enough these efforts are connected in some way to real oppressions experienced by women of colour but these real experiences get built into symbols in North America in ways that distort them, make them oppressive, and put them to work for people other than the women whose experience they are supposedly about -- framing it all in narratives of "saving" vanishes white North American complicity in imperial, colonial, and racialized domination. Razack points out that one of the biggest barriers to people in dominant groups really hearing the experiences of those in subordinate groups is not necessarily because of the challenge to our prejudices about those in subordinate groups but because of the ways in which truly understanding what was being said would challenge how we understand ourselves.

The emphasis on white women at points in the above paragraphs, by the way, flows from the book itself. Much of the text is intended as intervention in debates around feminist law reform, so Razack often addresses white feminist women and mainstream feminism (in a critically supportive way, while never losing sight of the fact that the spaces in question tend to be dominated by, both materially and at the level of discourse, able-bodied middle- and owning-class white men). An obvious question for me as the specific person who is ingesting this text through my eyes and activating it in my brain, is what does it mean for me, as a middle-class white man?

Well, for one thing, the strategies that middle-class white men have for avoiding dealing with our complicity overlap with but are not the same as those open to middle-class white women. A subject position that provides a basis for false or exaggerated claims of unity of experience of oppression, like "woman" when used simplistically, is less open to us. It isn't unopen to us, however -- the identity of "activist," for example, is something we can easily use to delude ourselves into believing we are in unity with oppressed peoples, including our middle-class white sisters, when we are really off on our own somewhere, feeling righteous anger while enjoying the fruits (and wounds) of domination uninterrupted. That isn't the same thing, though: However common its use might be, it requires considerably more self-delusion because it does not (generally) carry for us the same ubiquitous experiences of oppression (and the concomitant resistance) in the everyday as being a woman in our misogynistic society, even a women with class and racial privilege.

Historically, of course, middle-class white men have adopted a pseudo-worker identity and emphasized the primacy of class struggle, despite our own class privilege. This has often been quite sincere, and the contribution to workers' struggles real, but it has often served as a vantage from which to ignore the claims of white women, women and men of colour, and others (who have frequently been workers as well, of course).

A more interesting-to-me strategy -- interesting largely because it is the one that I fall into most easily -- is that some of us might develop an intellectualized understanding of race and class and gender and disability, one that admits to being a work in progress and that seemingly takes responsibility for complicity, but that somehow manages to make us as actual, embodied individuals who exist in a web of interpersonal and institutional relationships, disappear. We (middle-class white men) are trained from birth to see ourselves as universal, to see "objectivity" as a mantle of authority to which we have a right, so as strange as it may sound it really isn't that hard to be talking explicitly about power relations which deeply implicate us but to totally lose (gut level) sight of our own complicity. And of course this isn't an easy either/or kind of situation. I know how easy it is in the course of just one conversation to waver back and forth from a position of grounding what I say in at least some rudimentary acceptance of privilege and complicity that is rooted in my head and in my gut, to completely intellectualized and abstracted blether that has a real potential to do harm despite (because of?) its radical veneer.

Strangely enough, one sort of question towards which this book has drawn me is about how best, as a middle-class white man, to be a friend and partner and ally to middle-class white women. Which may sound like I'm making race/racism disappear, not a cool thing to do at any time and particularly not in a review of a book such as this, but I think it is quite consistent with examining how we keep our complicity invisible in various settings.

Looking doesn't deal directly with this issue, but one of the things it got me thinking about is the ways in which we narrate our everydays, the ways we theorize our lives in incremental and partial ways all the time in our internal monologue and in conversation with others. Even though most of the time, most of us don't think of what we do in quite these terms, we all do it. Of course it is much easier to theorize in this way from the ways in which we are innocent and the ways in which we are oppressed, than it is to make visible to ourselves and those around us the ways in which our positions of privilege and domination shape our lives. Now, without making any claims about how thoroughly I do it or how successfully I turn it into action, to a certain extent my everyday theorizing of my life involves making visible to myself (when I can) and to others (when I'm not a big chicken) this kind of complicity. Yes, I do manage to abstractify myself out of it at times, and sometimes the "virtue" attached to being politically active and/or engaging in analysis of this sort lets innocence crowd out the attention that complicity should get, but I really don't have much except complicity as a basis for narrating my own life if such narration is to have any political content at all.

White women that I know have, of course, a broad range of patterns of engaging in such self-theorizing, just like any other group. What I have noticed is that in my relationships with middle-class white women, most of whom in my life are feminist, I tend to follow their lead. If they engage in everyday theorizing that makes visible the race and class privileges we both (in gendered ways) experience, I do too. But if they theorize solely from their gender oppression, my own conversational theorizing while with them often tends to go along -- gender is foregrounded, race and class toned down. I don't totally erase the latter two, but when in the course of chatting I say something to do with race and it gets blanked by my companion, or about class and it is met with the kind of display of guilt that makes further discussion very difficult, I often tend to go along with that without really thinking about it. Which is messed up, of course. The trick, as with most of life, is to find balance. I'm very conscious that it can be a nasty and very effective lefty boy trick (sometimes used without realizing it) to avoid having to really listen to and deal with being called on our gender stuff by countering with an experience of privilege shared with the challenger that obscures the relation of domination and subordination between the two that is actually in question -- if you can't invoke innocence, then distract with complicitly shared, or something like that. On the other hand, alliance is not at all the same as reflexively avoiding what might be difficult for both of you in some unconscious deference to or compensation for privilege you have along one particular axis -- that's just bad politics, bad ally work with everyone concerned, and illogical. And it's not that I think this matters because I have some inflated notion of the wisdom of what I might say -- the biggest part of the political significance of speaking in that context isn't the details of the content but the act of taking the risk to not let the complicity stay invisible.

Anyway. I have wandered a bit from the book, I guess. As I hope is obvious, though, I liked it. The best books about this stuff aren't just about the bad things that happen, they say challenging and interesting things about how it happens. Looking is such a book. I'm sure I've missed a ton of crucial content in this review, but it joins that part of my bookshelf that holds books I will dip into again at random moments, in search of challenge, accountability, enlightenment.

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

Friday, April 21, 2006

Caledonia Occupation

For material on the peaceful occupation by Six Nations people in Caledonia, one good source that seems to be posting or linking to a lot of different stuff is Sketchy Thoughts.

There is also a new feature article on recent events from my friends at IMC Hamilton, including an audio interview with Clan Mother Hazel Hill recorded yesterday.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

U.S. Latin@ Uprising Link


Sorry about the lack of original writing in the last week and change...the combination of being sick plus being out of town (while still sick) was a tough one. I'm back in Sudbury and mostly better, except for the odd nasty cough, and L is better too. I should have some original writing up some time tomorrow evening.

In the meantime, here is an interesting post by Joaquin Bustelo called "Making Sense of the Latin@ Uprising." It takes a look at the recent mass movement in the U.S., which is responding to a piece of horrible anti-immigrant legislation currently on its way through Congress, from a Marxist perspective that seems similar to that of Stan Goff, the owner of the site on which it is posted.

Hunger Strike Over, Struggle Continues

Sara Anderson, the Ojibwe woman and Sudbury resident on hunger strike to demand higher welfare rates in Ontario, has ended her hunger strike after reflection and discussion with an Elder. The following media release was put out by the Hunger Clinic Organizing Committee yesterday or the day before. More detailed and personal communication from Sara will likely be forthcoming in a little while -- right now she is spending some time recovering from her ordeal and, I believe, engaged in further spiritual reflection under the guidance of an Elder.

Here's the release:

Sara Anderson started her hunger strike two and a half weeks ago. She was demanding a significant raise in social assistance rates; the reinstatement of the previous Special Diet Policy; making it easier for people with disabilities to get onto the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP); and making sure that everyone on social assistance who moves is offered a Community Start-Up Fund.

Today Sara decided to end her hunger strike after the advice of a First Nations elder that it was not her time to die. Sara accomplished a great deal in her brave and determined struggle. She brought a great deal of awareness to the desperate circumstances tens of thousands of people on social assistance live every day in this province due to the Ontario government’s social assistance policies, especially regarding the low level of social assistance rates and the slashing of the previous Special Diet policy. People and organizations across the province came to Sara’s support and she received many letters of support from across the province. She was invited by the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty to speak at their anti-poverty March into Rosedale on April 8th and spoke at a media support conference at Queen’s Park on April 13th. She appeared in the legislature on April 13th when NPP MPP Micheal Prue asked a question on her behalf. Although Premier Dalton McGuinty refused to meet with her when he was in Sudbury eventually she did get a meeting with Liberal MPP and cabinet minister Rick Bartolucci.

Last week Sara got the first indication of how taking action can get results. When her OW worker and her supervisor came to visit where she lives she was handed a cheque for an extra $55. This was an interesting amount since it is exactly the difference between what she used to get on the Special Diet and what she is getting now. What took place is that with pressure placed on them because of Sara’s struggle OW was able to restore her Special Diet to its previous level. We were told this was only temporary, lasting only for a month or two. If it is possible for OW to do this in Sara’s case they should do this for everyone who has had their Special Diet cut who has not yet reached the end of the time period for their old form. We already know that there are a number of people in Sudbury who have been cut back from $250 a month on their Special Diet to $10 or $20 a month, and a number of appeals have been launched. Being restored to this higher amount even for a few months would make an important difference in these people’s lives.

In today’s Northern Life (p. 6) we read about Raymond Boucher who has had his special diet slashed by $51 a month. We demand that Raymond Boucher’s Special Diet be restored to its previous rate of $147 a month.

Even more significantly, yesterday, Sara was informed of another instance of how struggle gets results. She was informed that despite the previous rejections of her ODSP application and the appeal hearing set for May 9th that she was now going to be granted ODSP. This will mean that she and her daughter will be able to enjoy a higher rate of support (unfortunately this will still not be enough to live on and meet human needs). All that had been submitted to ODSP since the hunger strike began was a small and not that substantial piece of medical information. With the pressure provided by her hunger strike this technical detail was used to justify not following the usual bureaucratic regulations and to grant her ODSP status before the appeal hearing. If this can happen in Sara’s case it should be happening in all the cases of people with disabilities who apply for ODSP who are routinely rejected from ODSP and often have to wait years to be transfered from OW to ODSP.

Sara’s struggle has been an inspiration to anti-poverty activists across the province. It shows once again that taking action, speaking out, and putting pressure on the government can bring concrete results. Sara’s hunger strike is now over but she has done a great service to the anti-poverty struggle more generally. The struggle to raise the social assistance rates by 40% * which is only back to where they were in 1994 * will continue as will the struggle for the reinstatement of the previous Special Diet policy.

Hunger Clinic Organizing Committee

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Welfare Hunger Strike Update

As I have posted about before (1, 2) an Ojibwe woman living in Sudbury, Sara Anderson, who depends on socal assistance for her income, is on hunger strike to demand an increase in social assistance rates, a restoration of the previous special dietary supplement, and changes that make it easier for people with disabilities to get on the Ontario Disability Support Program. Yesterday, on the 13th day of her hunger strike, Anderson met with her MPP, Minister of Mines and Northern Development Rick Bartolucci. Here is a media release coming out of that meeting:

Sara Anderson Meets with Cabinet Minister Rick Bartolucci

Yesterday on the 13th day of her hunger strike Sara Anderson met with Sudbury Liberal MPP and Cabinet Minister Rick Bartolucci. Present at the meeting were Sara Anderson, Rick Bartolucci and an assistant, and Rick Grylls, President of Mine Mill/CAW Local 598. Sara Anderson is demanding a substantial increase in social assistance rates; the re-instatement of the previous Special Dietary Supplement policy; making it easier for people with disabilities to get onto the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP); and that everyone on social assistance who moves be offered a Community Start Up Fund. Sara Anderson's hunger strike is continuing.

The matters discussed at the Saturday morning meeting included raising the social assistance rates and access to Community Start Up Funds. Bartolucci made it clear that he would not intervene regarding Sara Anderson's appeal of her rejection from ODSP which comes up on May 9th. Bartolucci committed himself to put in writing what he is going to do regarding raising the rates and Community Start Up Funds in a letter which Sara Anderson will receive on Tuesday. If these commitments are not acceptable to Sara Anderson the hunger strike will continue and the Hunger Clinic Organizing Committee will be calling on all anti-poverty and social justice groups across the province to join in a provincial day of action in support of Sara Anderson and her demands. For more information contact XXXX YYYY at 000-0000.


Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Cars On Trains

I have the flu at the moment, and am therefore not feeling particularly able to do much in the way of work, whether on my social movement history project or in terms of blogging that would take any intellectual effort. But I have a little bit of time, so I thought I would do a quick and easy post that I had already half-written in my head, on a completely silly feature of the transportation infrastructure that is in my city and my province.

The duplex of which we rent half is about thirty or forty feet from one of the main trans-Canada rail lines. You get a clear view of the track from windows in the back of the house, and you hear and feel every train that passes -- the first few nights we lived here it disturbed my sleep but now I mostly don't notice. I don't really know much about the current state of Canada's rail infrastructure, so I'm not sure what proportion of trans-Canada rail travel actually goes past our back door. I do know that partial deindustrialization in Western countries and shifts to just-in-time production systems over the last couple of decades have meant rail is not as significant a mode of transportation for goods as it once was. Nonetheless, lots of freight trains go by our house every day.

When we decided to move from Los Angeles to Sudbury, it was not a decision that sat easily with me, and it is one that I continue to wrestle with as part of larger processes of self-reflection. One of the things that made it more palatable to me was the opportunity for greater connection with southern Ontario, which can provide me with things that this city cannot -- existing social networks, both friends and family, as well as opportunities of various sorts. Our decision to get a car not long after moving here was a complex one and I won't explore it in detail. I do appreciate that it rests at least in part on having the economic privilege to afford one, something we did not have during our stay in L.A., and something that many people in our car-centric culture do not have at all and are therefore punished for. It has been important to me to find ways to live that do not involve owning a car, for environmental reasons and complicity in imperialism reasons and because they are money sinks, and one of the prime ways I wanted to do that was by living in a city that made it unnecessary and then renting one when it couldn't be avoided. Though I'm sure a case could be made for Sudbury fitting that definition, we ended up reluctantly deciding that it did not meet it for us. One of the central arguments for me was the importance of a car in keeping connected with the south in a way that was not so inconvenient or unpleasant as to make it unlikely that I would do it.

I have always liked trains. I don't really have many memories growing up of travelling by train in North America. I know there was a trip to Montreal with my mother and a visiting cousin when I was probably three or so, during which I'm told they conversed with each other in broad Glaswegian accents in character as "Senga" and "Saidie," apparently something they did from time to time when they were younger and which would have moritified me had I been a little bit older at the time. I remember a couple of school trips in late public school and high school that involved the train. But for the most part, my early experiences of the train were in Scotland -- we went for four or six weeks every summer until I was thirteen, and stayed with my grandparents. My grandparents lived in a neighbourhood in Glasgow called Burnside, and to get to the train station you had to take the bus or walk down a great big hill to another neighbourhood, Rutherglen. I always enjoyed opportunities to travel around the city, whether it was going with my mother to visit an old friend of hers, to a bagpipe maker with my dad, out on some errand with my Granny, or whatever. These trips almost invariably involved some combination of the light rail system and buses. (It wasn't until I was in university, and I discovered that some of my friends who grew up in the same area of rural and small town southern Ontario as me did not really know how to jaywalk across city streets, that I realized that I also learned that skill on these trips, on the streets of Glasgow.)

So, yeah, positive formative associations with rail travel. As an adult, my experiences with trains have been much less, but have included extensive use of it during one eight-month period of university when I was on a work term in Ottawa and wanted to come back to Hamilton and Kitchener-Waterloo for frequent visits; on a one-month trip to Europe after university was done; and then for a trip to the heavily militarized metropolis of San Diego when we lived in Los Angeles (which was L's first train trip).

So here it is: I like the train. It appeals to me both politically and emotionally. I would rather spend the duration of the trip between Sudbury and Toronto reading or writing or looking out the window than sinking my energy into keeping a ton of steel and glass pointed in the right direction. I live in a city that is a node of significant rail infrastructure of national importance. You might think this was a good match.

Passenger service between Sudbury and Toronto occurs a grand total of three times per week. The only passenger train that makes that trip is the one that goes between Toronto and Vancouver (which, for readers who don't know Canadian geography, is the complete other end of the country, and it's a big country). When I have happened to see it go by, it has only two or three cars, and often enough they do not appear to be full. Despite that, fare between Sudbury and Toronto is (I think) several times that of bus fare.

It's dumb enough that there is this great sustainable transportation infrastructure already here but not organized in a way that people can practically take advantage of. But here's the kicker: One common kind of train car on the freight trains going from East to West has a solid metal frame, often painted yellow, with plain metallic panelling making up the sides. That side panelling has lots of small holes in it, and if you look closely in the right light you can see the cargo.


I have no quantitative evidence for this beyond my own anecdotal observations, but I would put money on my guess that there are more cars that take the train to, from, and through Sudbury every week than there are human passengers.

That's messed up.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Review: Aboriginal Education

[Marlene Brant Castellano, Lynne Davis, and Louise Lahache, editors. Aboriginal Education: Fulfilling the Promise. Vanocuver: UBC Press, 2000.]

Education and pedagogy have always interested me. Though my partner, both of my parents, one of my sisters, an uncle, a grandfather, and a number of friends have all had formal roles as educators of one sort or another, other than helping to lead a very few workshops and one semester as a teaching assistant, I have not. Nonetheless, parenting, writing, and social change activity -- the three main kinds of work that currently fill my life -- are all about pedagogy in some sense, because they all involve deliberate attention to how your actions and choices will shape the consciousnesses of others.

As well, I suspect that one, perhaps two, chapters in the book I am writing will be related to education. One, in fact, will be the very first chapter of the book, and will talk about the experiences of and actions to challenge mainstream education by two indigenous women. It was as part of my research for this chapter that I read Aboriginal Education.

The book contains many of the documents, reports, and pieces of research related to the education sector that were produced as part of the process of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, or derivatives of those documents. A couple of weekends ago, after I had already started reading this book, I happened to be talking to someone I know who recently wrote a Master's thesis on Aboriginal education -- she said she made heavy use of this book as a reference.

The nature of the content varies widely. Some of the papers are quite technical, things like reviews of policies or practices of various sorts across different jurisdictions. As important as such material is, and as historically useful as it is to have it surveyed in a single volume, that sort of thing is rarely interesting reading. However, the majority of the essays deal with ideas about issues of pedagogy and identity and power and resistance, in one form or another, usually in connection with real examples and case studies. I was particularly interested in the essays about concrete experiments in education, from things like the culturally based science curriculum produced by the Akwasasne School Board to some of the innovative efforts in post-secondary education across the country. I also appreciated the history of broadcasting efforts controlled by Aboriginal peoples, and the various discussions related to what exactly it might and can and should and does mean for pedagogies to be based in indigenous traditions and genuinely controlled by indigenous communities.

It is hard to make overarching statements about a collection of this sort. Only two observations occur to me as being relevant to more than one of the essays published here. The first is some curiosity about the extent to which these papers being produced for a state-driven process, the RCAP, as well as the fact that the state is the only potential (if usually reluctant and rarely reliable) source of money for educational efforts controlled by indigenous communities, has resulted in some of the papers reflecting an image of the state and of the potential for the state to embrace positive change that is perhaps more charitable than the evidence warrants. The other has to do with technology -- the book was published six years ago, and I suspect much of the material was written several years before that, but in only one short decade a lot of the references to computer, communication, and broadcast technologies feels a bit dated.

Certainly this book has provided me with much important background information that will be useful when I come to write the relevant chapter some time in the next few months. But I think for a non-Aboriginal person to read this book and mainly go away thinking, "Well, it isn't it nice what they are doing. They are doing some cool stuff with little support," is really missing the point. Educational institutions and pedagogies which are colonial, and which colonized peoples wish to disengage from and/or carve safe niches within, are inevitably reinforcing the colonial relationship in how they educate and socialize the children of the colonizers into habits of privilege and domination. What are we (the colonizers) doing about that?

Don't really know, to be honest, but the question kind of scares me, as the parent of a pre-schooler that will all too soon be a schooler, as a nineteen year veteran of those institutions myself, and as someone with lots of nears-and-dears who do or did work in those institutions.

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

Saturday, April 08, 2006


For the most part, major broadcast network television is Wonderbread instead of focaccia or baguette or even ol' fashioned whole wheat. It is kraft dinner instead of my partner's grandma's sinfully delicious macaroni and cheese. It is the peck on the lips to wish a friend good-bye instead of the passionate buss with someone you have the hots for. It is reading the best you could find in a pinch at the mall bookstore instead of what you'd buy if you weren't three hundred miles from Toronto Women's Bookstore.

I feel this way about Lost. It's not awful, and in fact I enjoyed it at times, but it is a product of a media meat grinder that is massified, filled with gatekeepers with dominant/elite sensibilities, and largely run by managers or committees. Therefore, Lost is pretty bland and shows only realities (or imaginaries) that those gatekeepers deem to be acceptable and perceive to be as widely acceptable as possible to the audience they wish to deliver to advertisers.

The show's presmise is that an airliner flying from Sydney to Los Angeles is blown a thousand miles off course and crashes on a mysterious, perhaps malevolent, tropical island. Many passengers survive, but it soon becomes evident they ain't getting rescued. They must learn to live together and to navigate the strangeness and the violence of their new home.

I recently completed viewing the first sesason on DVD. It started strong -- it had a good lead, in writing parlance, and when you start with a plane crash how can you not? The overall arc of the season was reasonable. It did a good job of walking the line between showing the island as creepy and other-than-normal, while not committing to any particular explanation (conspiratorial, supernatural, or otherwise) for this. Individual episodes consist of both stories on the island and flashbacks to provide backstory for the major characters, and episodes varied a lot in the quality of their writing. At the level of scenes and dialogue, the writing was generally competent but uninspiring, and sometimes contrived. All of which may sound harsher than I intend -- I did watch the whole season, after all, and may indeed continue to watch.

The thing is, after a few episodes, "This could be cool" was replaced with, "Right. Of course. Sigh."

The first thing is that, despite pretending to be about forty people stranded on a tropical island, it is really about the boys -- about masculinities. Sure, yes, there are entire episodes that focus on the experiences/backstories of particular female characters. But, well, I once read about this simple test to apply to a movie or TV show to get at least a surface sense of how it deals with gender: 1) Is there more than one female character? 2) Do they talk to each other? 3) Do they talk to each other about things other than the men in the movie/show? I didn't really start paying attention to that until a good way through the season, but I think that though every episode passes (1), only a few pass all three. The relationships among men are central, the relationships between men and women (generally existing or potential pair-bonds) are included, but relationships among the women are mostly invisible.

There's nothing wrong with a show focusing on masculinities. Despite its weak writing and uneven acting, I like Queer As Folk, and one of the main reasons is precisely because it tells stories about masculinities and about homosocial relationships that are outside of dominant narratives in some ways. But many of the masculinities in Lost are very canned, and none of them are particularly challenging or sources of learning. Nor do any of the relationships among the men particularly encourage the viewer to think about masculinities or men or relationships in ways beyond the narrow range of the mainstream.

You have the All American Boy (a doctor with unresolved father issues who ends up the unofficial leader of the crew). You have the Southern Redneck Conman (roguishly charming, with a particularly contrived backstory). You have the Liverpudlian Rockstar Junky (a la some Gallagher or other, who seems to get increasingly sexist as the season progresses). You have the Token Black Man (works hard, just reconnected to his eleven year-old son from whom he was estranged for reasons not his fault). You have the Token East Asian Man and the Token Latino Man (who is an entertaining character, if not a particularly interesting one, and who also has a very contrived backstory). The only woman consistently present in every episode is the Girl Next Door Gone Bad (yet more contrived backstory), and she is so present because she is part of a strange triangle of -- well, not really "love" or "lust," which I'll talk about below, but at least "interest" between her and All American and her and Redneck, and of course hostility between the two men. The only remotely interesting-to-me masculinities are the character who is called "John Locke" -- haven't read enough liberal theory to really get the reference -- and who who seems to be modelled rather explicitly on Kurz in Apocalypse Now, and the Iraqi man, "Sayid," who I'll have more to say about below.

There is a certain simple but genuine realism to some of it -- penis waving contests over leadership, over status, would inevitably happen in such a situation. But relationship formation would also happen, in related but separate ways, among the women, and that is mostly not shown. It was epitomized for me in the season finale when they were doing one of those trite but sometimes effective TV things where, in a tense moment, various characters were shown saying things of Deep and Philosophical Import to one another. For various plot reasons, the boys plus Girl Next Door Gone Bad were out being adventurous, so if you didn't want to ignore the other women completely they had to be talking to each other. When it was the turn of the men, you could feel the statements resonate through relationships constructed by the writers with lots of effort over an entire season. When it came to the women safe back at camp, I couldn't remember some of them ever being shown speaking to each other before, so the interaction completely lacked emotional depth.

And no one in the show is presented as queer in any way. Not that a simplistic, liberal approach to representation necessarily makes good sense or good stories. But you know that even if some writer at an early brainstorming session were to suggest, "Hey, let's have four older, butch-ish lesbian feminists coming back to San Francisco from a sexualities conference in Canberra on the plane!" that it wouldn't get past the network gatekeepers and would therefore probably be self-censored by the writers. And there's a whole realm of storytelling out the window -- one element of the processing into blandness, dominant preconceptions of the world, and conformity that is inherent to dominant mass media. And let's face it, wouldn't it be entertaining to watch (Queer As Folk reference) Brian Kinney absolutely loathing everyone around him but somehow managing to seduce a few of his fellow castaways anyway, not to mention the ways in which his hypermasculinity would play into the inevitable boy status contests as the group of strangers started to cohere?

And even in the het realm, as per necessities of broadcast media, sex is largely erased. Yes, there are some romantic tensions -- the quasi triangle I mentioned, a marriage that crumbles, one obvious attempt to establish a new liason that fails just at the point of success, and another seemingly asexual pair bond that forms. In fact, the season finale went out of its way to highlite the status of all of the heteronormative pair bonds deemed to be important, more so than any other class of relationship. But on the whole, the realities of sexuality and romantic relationships were glossed over. Not that everything has to be about sex, of course, but from what I know about how human beings interact, once it was clear that rescue was not imanent, sex would be a profoundly powerful force in bringing people in this intense, life threatening situation together, and in tearing them apart. Even if only a few indulged in new partnerships, it would be guaranteed to rock the group dynamic in ways more and different than what was shown.

I would've come to all of that eventually, I think, but the factor that initially and dramatically pierced my charity towards the show was the handling of "Sayid." Initially, I was interested in what the writers would do with him. The actor, Naveen Andrews, is talented and extremely charming. The idea of what could be done with a three dimensional Iraqi character in a U.S. show at this point in history intrigued me. This was reinforced in the first or second episode when they made it clear that they wanted to humanize him but also make him a potentially challening presence. This exchange occurred before anyone knew much of anything about him:

American character: So you were a soldier, huh?
Sayid: That's right.
American character: Where did you serve?
Sayid: Iraq.
American character: Cool. I had a buddy in the 83rd Airborne who fought there. What unit were you in?
Sayid: The Republican Guard.
American character: [Horrified raised eyebrows]

What a great opening to show something about war and nation and humanity, right?

Except not, of course. Soon enough it became clear that really "Sayid" was intended as a vessel for everything white North Americans think we know about Iraq. He remained compelling as an actor and humanized as a character, but the content to do with his identity as Iraqi or Arab was kept firmly within the bounds of stereotype. Not that I am particularly knowledgeable about those identities, those realities, either, but precisely because nothing about his character stood out as being a challenge to white North American preconceptions, which tend to be shallow and oppressive, shows something about the thinking that went into writing him.

For example, "soldier" and "Republican Guard" got fleshed out to include that he is from Tikrit (Saddam's home town), that he was a torturer during his stay in the military (and therefore managed to be both in military intelligence and in an elite combat unit), and later we find out that his old college roommate became a terrorist and the CIA recruited "Sayid" to infiltrate his old friend's cell. Leaving no stereotype unturned, eh? I wonder why his main element of backstory didn't get to be his troubled relationship with his father or his cursed lottery winnings? And neither the episode that involved flashbacks to his days as a torturer nor the one that used flashbacks to his more recent attempt to infiltrate a terrorist cell showed any particular political insight or nuance, and seemed to be written to be consistent with what little we in North America really know about such things, as opposed to educating and challenging. For example, in the infiltration flashbacks, he gets credibility with this cell by spotting a bug in their house that the CIA has put there specifically for him to find, and in that moment his friend endorses him to the others in the cell by saying, "He's okay. He was a Republican Guard." Again, I too am ignorant of such things, but I'm not so sure that being a member of an elite fighting unit in a secular nationalist regime would bring automatic acceptance and respect in what is presumably a Wahhabist or similar group, at least without some further explanation.

But what really got me was the way the issue of his engagement in torture was handled. In the present-day story on the island he is shown to deeply regret that part of his past. Yet it seemed to take relatively little to get him (through some extremely contrived twists of plot, and at the urging of All American Boy) to torture someone on the island in the present. He is shown as regretting it afterwards, but not with the kind of wrenching depth of self-loathing I would expect from someone who has purged such a horrible practice from his being and then somehow been dragged back to engaging in it, and he gets over his regret extremely quickly. To be even remotely plausible, it should have been written as much harder to make happen, and utterly devastating to him for a prolonged period of time if it did, I think. Or is the fact that he is Arab enough to allow it to be plausible for the writers to dispense with a psychologically realistic portrayal of what it means to engage in torturing fellow human beings? Of course, it may also be a product of the ways in which torture as a practice has crept into a kind of (revolting) sterilized acceptability in North American culture, if the circumstances are seen as sufficiently extenuating.

And while we're on the topic of racism, I didn't quite get why being a woman from an owning-class Korean family makes it completely natural, with no further explanation or backstory or mention of training in the field that I saw, for one character to automatically know how to turn plants into herbal remedies on a strange island 2000 km from her homeland. Would it be accepted as plausible by writers or viewers, with no need for further backstory, for a young woman from the McCain family (which owns most of Nova Scotia) to be dropped onto an uncharted island in the south Atlantic and to start churning out home remedies? Again, this could be ignorance on my part, but it did make me wonder.

So there you go. It's an interesting premise and a beautiful setting, and it isn't a bad show in many ways. But the realities of being produced by/for a dominant institution in a massified medium means that certain assumptions are made about who are the viewers that matter, about what can and cannot be talked about, and about where detail and nuance are necessary and when they are not. I don't actually expect otherwise, to be honest. But that doesn't mean I'm not going to write about it, and it doesn't mean I'm going to stop desiring more from the media I consume.

Education Quote

Once upon a time twin giants were born. One was evil and one was good. Because they both had the same name people had trouble telling them apart. The evil twin tricked people by saying he was the good giant. He tried to change people so that they would be just like him. He always pretended to know what was right and told children they were stupid and bad. He ate most of the children who met him, but he kept a few favourites and made them fat and arrogant.

The good giant tried to help people. He made children happy and helped them find answers to their questions. The children who met this giant grew strong and wise. As the children grew older and became adults, the good giant remained their friend and they were always welcome at his house.

Of course both giants were named education. We must know the difference between these two giants if we are to stop gambling with our children's lives.

-- Eber Hampton

Hampton is talking specifically about the relationship between indigenous peoples in North America and the various things that the word "education" can mean, but there is definite relevance to other peoples as well.

Friday, April 07, 2006

More On Welfare Hunger Strike

Today the Hunger Clinic Organizing Committee held a media conference in support of Sara Anderson's hunger strike, which is to demand an increase in social assistance rates, outside of an event attended by Premier Dalton McGuinty and Minister of Mines and Northern Development Rick Bartolucci, who is also our local MPP.

L and I attended part of it. It was a small event. A few local labour leaders spoke, as well as Sara herself. It was my first opportunity to meet Sara -- I didn't do much more than introduce myself, because I get the sense she has been harassed by strangers wanting to talk to her over the last week. Despite being a fairly low-key event, I did find myself fairly effected by it, emotionally speaking. I may write more about that later.

Here are a few items just circulated by one of the members of the Hunger Clinic Organizing Committee, which is doing what it can to support Sara in her choice of action.

A brief action report by GK:

We had a media conference and support rally for Sara Anderson today outside Science North where McGuinty and Bartolucci were appearing. We had a number of union and community supporters and a number of media outlets were present. We handed out 250 copies of the leaflet below. While Bartolucci and McGuinty refused to meet with Sara we do know this issue was raised by Rick Grylls the President of CAW/Mine Mill Local 598 with Rick Bartolucci and he delivered a letter from Sara to Bartolucci. We also know that a number of reporters asked McGuinty about this at the media conference after his announcement. He apparently said that rather than raise the social assistance rates they were trying to find other ways to support people on social assistance. We hope that Sara will feel up to going to Toronto tomorrow and will be able to deliver her message at the OCAP rally herself. Meanwhile we hope that all OCF groups can raise Sara's struggle in your communities.

The text of the flyer that was being handed out to the local luminaries going into the event:

Support Sara Anderson on Hunger Strike to Get Social Assistance Rates Raised

Sara Anderson, a 45 year old First Nations mother on Ontario Works (OW), is currently on a hunger strike to help people recognize the desperate conditions in which tens of thousands of people on social assistance are forced to live across Ontario. She is demanding:

* the raising of the social assistance rates by 40%. This would bring the social assistance rates back to where they were in 1995 before the Tory cuts. As Sara puts it with the recent tiny increase by the Liberal government "Welfare rates went up by two percent, but our rent went up by more than that."

* the re-instatement of the previous Special Diet policy which allowed people on social assistance to receive funding for nutrition for themselves and their families. Sara recently had her Special Diet plummet from $75 a month under the old policy to only $20 with the new policy, a $55 cut in her and her daughter's monthly income;

* making it easier for people living with disabilities to be able to get on the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) which provides people with more financial support. As it stands many are routinely rejected when they apply. Sara's application for ODSP was rejected and this rejection was upheld by an internal review. She has an appeal scheduled in early May.

* that all people on social assistance who move be offered community-start up funds to allow them to establish their new home. Sara was only given $90 for her move last fall when she should have been offered hundreds of dollars in start-up funds.

Today Premier Dalton McGuinty and Cabinet Minister and Sudbury MPP Rick Bartolucci are at Science North to make an announcement regarding funding for the Northern Ontario Medical School. They both have been directly involved in and are responsible for the government decisions that have led Sara to go on a hunger strike. While we welcome more funding for the Medical School we ask the following question: what is the point of having more doctors when the level of social assistance in Ontario is so low that it means that tens of thousands of people are being underfed and are suffering from health complications arising from lack of nutrition?

What you can do to support Sara Anderson:

* Sign the on-line petition at (at the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty website) to Premier McGuinty calling for a major raise in social assistance rates and for re-instatement of the previous Special Diet policy. This petition has already been signed by more than 1,400 people.

* Write letters to, or call, Premier McGuinty (fax 416-325-3745 or write Dalton McGuinty, Premier, Legislative Building, Queen's Park, Toronto, Ontario, M7A 1A1) and Sudbury MPP and Cabinet Minister Rick Bartolucci (at 705-675-1914) supporting Sara's demands.


I would add that on the issue of people being rejected when they apply to get on ODSP, I remember hearing from legal clinic staff a number of years ago when I lived in Hamilton that they had received unofficial word from official sources that, at that time, ODSP intake staff had been instructed to reject everything they received and make everyone go to appeal. Don't know if that's still happening, but I wouldn't be surprised to hear it.

And here is a recent article from a local newspaper called Northern Life:

Thursday, April 06, 2006
One week without food, protester's resolve strong

A few words of encouragement from a friend is keeping a Sudbury woman who is on a hunger strike in good spirits.

Sara Anderson plans to take her crusade to the premier when he visits city today. She hasn't eaten since Monday.

Sara R. Anderson, 45, has stopped eating to protest what she says is an inhumane social assistance system.

She hasn't had anything to eat and has stopped taking medication for severe arthritis since early Monday morning.

She plans to continue her hunger strike, "until I get in writing" the Liberal government is willing to make significant changes to the province's welfare rates.

While feeling serious hunger pangs for the first time since starting her protest, Anderson was in an extremely good mood Thursday, mainly because a friend phoned earlier in the day.

"I'm in very happy spirits because my friend Muriel just called and she's a dear, dear friend of mine," said Anderson. "I didn't want to worry her and told her I was doing OK, and she offered me many words of encouragement and that really makes me feel good."

Anderson plans on participating in a rally this morning organized by the Hunger Clinic Organizing Committee outside of Science North, where Premier Dalton McGuinty is visiting to make an announcement supporting the Northern Ontario School of Medicine's Bursary Program.

Anderson says she endured significant physical pain after stopping taking medication for arthritis, but she's developed a pain tolerance and hunger is now becoming more prevalent.

"The hardest part right now is continually smelling a bannock burger, which is a burger made using traditional native bread with a hamburger patty in the middle," she said. "Most natives love these burgers as it mixes today with the past and they taste so good."

Anderson says her protest is about forcing the government to increase welfare rates significantly, but she would also like to see more people with legitimate claims be accepted into the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP).

She was denied a disability pension more than once, even though she has a bullet hole in her hip. She was shot and hit while working as a truant officer about 25 years ago on the Grassy Narrows First Nations near Kenora.

She also has numerous pins in her left ankle after being pushed off a second-floor balcony during a domestic dispute in Winnipeg 15 years ago and hasn't been able to work since, she said.

"When I have applied for disability, I've been told repeatedly I don't have any substantial disability...I guess a bullet hole and ankle that has caused me severe pain for many years isn't enough."

Her teenage daughter Sheryl has shown remarkable support during the first few days of this hunger strike.

"She's my rock and always has been," Anderson said.

If she feels strong enough, Anderson plans on boarding a minivan with her daughter and members of the local Hunger Clinic Organizing Committee to participate in another rally through Toronto's Rosedale's swanky community Saturday evening.

When informed some people have voiced opposition to her hunger strike and insist they have managed to get by while collecting social assistance, Anderson said negativity from people she doesn't know will not discourage her.

"I'm determined to keep up my hunger strike," she said. "Until I'm given assurances from the government that things are going to change, then I will continue.

"I don't care if some people out there criticize me. This is something I have thought about for a long time and I do believe one person can force changes and I'm not about to give up."

"I haven't changed my daily routine too much," she said. "I'm trying to drink as much water as possible and I'm sleeping a little bit more, but I'm still spending time with friends and my daughter and I'm trying to get outside to get some fresh air when I feel good."

Anderson says she's excited about her brother, a retired band chief from a Northern Ontario First Nations reserve, coming to visit her some time next week.

"It will be great to see him," she said.

Please get involved in struggles to raise social assistance rates wherever you live, and spread word about Sara's action!

Hidden White Normativity

One of the first blogs that I ever read regularly was Paul Street's. He doesn't write so much these days, after moving from a job as a researcher at a major urban civil rights organization in Chicago to go back to teaching university history, but he still has some interesting things to say. I am interested in the ways in which different socially determined experiences shape our instincts, our gut responses, our unconscious, our blindnesses in very particular ways, so I thought I would link to this new article by Street in The Black Commentator: "Race, Place, and Freedom: A Katrina Classroom Memoir."

He starts off like this:

"One of the most important, though most subtle and elusive, aspects of white supremacy," notes the radical black philosopher Charles W. Mills, "is the barrier it erects to a fair hearing. It is not merely," Mills adds, "that people of color are trying to make a case for the economic and juridico-political injustice of their treatment; it is that they are additionally handicapped in doing so by having to operate within a white discursive field." Within that biased field, Mills observes, "the framework of debate is not neutral: it is biased by dominant white cognitive patterns of structured ignorance, an overt or hidden white normativity so that at the basic factual level, many claims of people of color will just seem absurd, radically incongruent with the sanitized picture white people have of U.S. history."

Read it!.

Monday, April 03, 2006

Hunger Strike For Higher Welfare

Today in Sudbury -- the city in which I live -- Sara Anderson, an Ojibwa woman who depends on welfare for her income, has taken the drastic step of beginning a hunger strike to demand higher social assistance rates in Ontario.

I've been out of town for a few days so I'm not clear on the details, but from what I understand she announced her intent to begin this action as an individual acting on her own. Late last week there was a report in a local newspaper about this, which prompted a number of people in the anti-poverty group that I am a part of to get in touch with her. As a result of that connection, the Hunger Clinic Organizing Committee will be supporting her action however we can.

It should be noted that this support does not mean that the group or me as an individual are necessarily encouraging people to adopt the hunger strike, a potentially very dangerous tactic, as a general approach for seeking an increase in social assistance rates. However, Anderson has decided that this is the path she wishes to take, and I think it is important that she be supported in the action she has chosen.

Here is a media release put out earlier today:

Starting Monday morning, April 3rd, Sara Anderson, a 45 year old Sudbury woman on Ontario Works (OW), will begin a hunger strike to demand a substantial raise in social assistance rates. She has announced that "I will stop eating food and taking any medication and will survive only on water." Referring to the recent Ontario budget announcement she states that "Welfare rates went up by two percent, but our rent went up by more than that." She also points out that "My life is not about living, it's about survival." She describes her life as "having become a prisoner of welfare." She is the mother of a 15-year old daughter, who supports her decision to go on hunger strike. Anderson promises to "fight this struggle to the end."

After she pays her rent, Anderson has less than $300 a month to live on and she can't afford any quality of life for herself or her daughter.

After she pays her daughters school bus pass, cable and phone bill and food for their three cats there is barely enough to pay for food. Just to bring people on social assistance back to where they were before the massive Tory cuts to social assistance in 1995 there needs to be an immediate 40% increase in the rates. While Ontario is a wealthy province people on social assistance are forced to live "on bread crumbs." As Anderson puts it "people on welfare no longer have any dignity and are forced to live like animals. That shouldn't happen in this country. That's why I'm going on this hunger strike."

Anderson is also protesting the recent Liberal government slashing of the Special Dietary Supplement which has made it much more difficult for people on social assistance to get the nutrition they need. Anderson has seen her supplement plummet from $75 a month under the old policy to only $20 with the new form and policy. This means that she lost $55 of her and her daughter's monthly income. This cut was the "last straw" that convinced her to go on a hunger strike. To get this new form filled out by a medical professional she had to pay $40 out of her own pocket. These expenses should be covered by OW.

Sara Anderson came to Sudbury in the early 1990s from Grassy Narrows First Nations near Kenora. She has not been able to work for wages since she came to Sudbury because of a series of injuries and disabilities. (For more information on Sara Anderson see Keith Lacey, "Woman Prepares for a Hunger Strike to Protest Welfare System," Northern Life, April 2, 2006, pp. 1 and 7). Anderson is demanding that the government substantially increase social assistance rates and re-instate the previous Special Dietary Supplement.

She is calling on people to sign the on-line petition at (at the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty website) to Premier McGuinty calling for a major raise in social assistance rates and for re-instatement of the previous Special Diet policy.

This petition has already been signed by more than 1,400 people.

Last year Anderson applied for and so far has been refused her application for the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP). This would have given her and her daughter access to more funds for food and living. She has been turned down with the argument that she does not have a "substantial" physical or mental impairment (reported in a letter from Denise Ryckman for the director of ODSP, Nov. 8, 2005). This is despite her physical condition which prevents her from being able to work for wages because of major hip (when she was a truant officer she was shot in the right hip area), knee (she has arthritis in one knee), ankle (her ankle was broken 20 years ago and she has two plates and a pin holding it together and now also has arthritis in her ankle), foot and back problems. She also has history of bad migraine headaches and has been diagnosed with 'depression' and with 'severe post-traumatic stress disorder.' She challenged this rejection of her ODSP application and asked for an internal review which upheld the initial rejection and now has an appeal scheduled in May. Anderson is demanding that it be made easier for people living with disabilities to be accepted onto ODSP.

Anderson moved into her current residence last September. At this time she was given a total of $90 for moving expenses. She was given no offer of a community start-up grant which is her right as an OW recipient. This denied her access to funds that would have allowed her to establish a new home for herself and her daughter. Anderson is also demanding that each person on social assistance be informed of their right to access community-start-up funds when they move. Since she did not receive these funds every month she has to hock much of her furniture simply to pay for the necessities of life.

Anderson hopes that her hunger strike will help people recognize the desperate conditions in which tens of thousands of people on social assistance are forced to live across Ontario. She is asking for people to write letters to, or to call, Premier McGuinty (fax 416-325-3745 or write Dalton McGuinty, Premier, Legislative Building, Queen's Park, Toronto, Ontario, M7A 1A1) and Sudbury MPP and Cabinet Minister Rick Bartolucci (at 705-675-1914) supporting her demands. She is also looking for the donation of a computer so she can access the internet to help to organize support for her demands.

The Hunger Clinic Organizing Committee, a Sudbury group supporting a 40% raise in social assistance rates and the reinstatement of the previous Special Diet policy, is providing support for Sara Anderson in her struggle. While we do not advocate hunger strikes for people living in poverty who are already in difficult nutritional and health situations we certainly well understand the reasons that led Sarah Anderson to decide to go on a hunger strike.

If you require more information or wish to contact Sara Anderson contact XXXX YYYY at 000-0000.


Please contact the provincial government and demand that social assistance rates be raised and that the special dietary supplement be reinstated, and get involved in anti-poverty activities in your local community.