Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Review: Brotherhood to Nationhood

[Peter McFarlane. Brotherhood to Nationhood: George Manuel and the Making of the Modern Indian Movement. Toronto: Between the Lines, 1993.]

The fact that I graduated high school in Canada without knowing the name of George Manuel is pretty disgusting.

Oh, I know, there are lots more substantive things to be said about how conventional history is taught, how it normalizes the standpoint of property-owning, ostensibly straight, white men and reduces to tokens anyone else that it doesn't disappear entirely. I certainly agree that the memorizing of places and dates and the names of great leaders is not what history should be about, too -- a fixation on certain social movement leaders is a device sometimes used to either co-opt or demonize the dominant memory of a movement, in fact. And I didn't take the optional OAC* history credit my high school offered in Native Studies, so perhaps I would have learned his name there.

I shouldn't have had to, though. I did take a number of history courses in high school and I did pretty well in them, and if they could make me remember the name of a trivial, uninteresting-to-me figure like, say, Clifford Sifton a decade and a half later, surely they could've slipped in some post-Riel Rebellion indigenous leaders, too. And if the tokenizing, demonizing, co-opting, misrepresenting, oppression-erasing and -legitimizing, patronizing system of conventional history as taught in public high schools was going to tell me the name of a single indigenous leader in Canada in the 20th century, it could have chosen worse than to teach me Manuel's name. But even one was too many, apparently.

George Manuel belonged to the Shuswap Nation, whose lands lie in the interior of what is now British Columbia. As a militant leader on the local and provincial level, he became a part of the group of leaders that founded the National Indian Brotherhood, which was reorganized and renamed the Assembly of First Nations in the '80s. This organization represents the interests of that portion of the indigenous population that state-dictated blood quantum racism decides have "status", and the governments of the more than 600 reserves that are the only currently state-recognized land base of the 50+ nations indigenous to what is now Canada. His presidency took the NIB from a new, shaky organization that existed mostly on paper, was deeply in debt, and could not get the lowliest Department of Indian Affairs official to return its phone calls to an important force in national politics. He was also the founding president of the first ever international coalition of indigenous peoples, the World Council of Indigenous Peoples. He was largely responsible for popularizing the idea that indigenous peoples constitute a "Fourth World", with its own social conditions, focus of struggle, and need for solidarity among those in similar situations.

Many leaders that rise to prominence in social movements tend to be more privileged than those they are leading, in some sense or other. For example, much of the leadership of "Third World" anti-colonial struggle in the middle of the twentieth century consisted of Western-educated elites from each country. I don't point this out to dimish the importance of either these struggles or the contributions of leaders with privilege, but it is one element of what can be a very tricky discussion of what leadership is, whether it is necessary or useful at all, and how it is/can be/should be connected to whatever gets defined as "not leadership".

This was not, however, an issue for Manuel, at least not in any conventional sense. He grew up on the small reserve of land that the settler state had left to his people. His formal schooling ended at grade two and his longest-term paid employment other than in political organizations was as a "boom man" at a sawmill. But one way in which his experience was uncommon among indigenous people in Canada in his generation was in his access to his traditional culture. He was raised by his grandparents, and they had grown up before colonization truly came to the remote areas of British Columbia -- the Shuswap people of that era traded a bit with white folk but more or less lived as they pleased, and as their ancestors had for thousands of years -- and had experienced its brutal onset in their lifetimes. Manuel was eight years old before he heard a word of English spoken. As well, the up-side of a nasty ten-year battle with tuberculosis that gave him a permanent limp was that he was able to get out of the residential school system after only two years, so he had a much shorter exposure to the brainwashing of the state-funded churches that ran the schools. In later life he observed that in "learning to see and hear only what the priests and brothers wanted you to see and hear, even the people we loved came to look ugly" and he described residential schools as "the laboratory and the production line of the colonial system."

Though I have heard criticisms of more recent national leaders of the indigenous movement in Canada becoming professionalized, bureaucratized, and distant from the people in the communities, this does not appear to have happened for Manuel. He was willing to lobby if that was what a particular situation called for, but he never lost site of the idea that any power that indigenous people might have in Canada would come from a mobilized grassroots. He placed great emphasis on talking to ordinary people, to elders, to youth. He felt it was important to get money from the state to fund the kinds of work that needed to be done, but his vision of the legitimate demands of indigenous peoples did not waver. He never allowed himself or any of his staff to be paid more than $18,000 a year. He organized direct action himself when he felt it was appropriate, supported those that chose to do more militant actions, crusaded vigorously against any attempt to extinguish aboriginal title to the land or to compromise on fundamental principles, and refused to condemn armed struggle. When he moved back to leading the provincial organization in British Columbia after six years of leading the NIB, he was quite deliberate not only in shaking up and revitalizing the above-ground organization and mobilizing the communities but also in setting up an underground organization, just in case. He was under no illusions about what the state was capable of.

The book itself is decent. It's a very straightforward biography, perhaps a little excessive in its adulation of the subject but only slightly hesitant to talk about some of his less savoury characteristics, particularly Manuel's shortcomings as a husband and father. The book seems to be based on both interviews and archival material. I read it because such biographies can often be a good way to get an overview of the general political situation in a given era, which is particularly important when it comes to movements that have not been written about enough, like twentieth century indigenous resistance in Canada. I would imagine that its coverage of the politics could have been more sophisticated, but at least it gave me something to start with. And at least now I not only know his name, but a little bit more, too.


[begin trivial footnote]

* -- OAC stands for Ontario Academic Credit. Ontario was one of the last, perhaps the last, jurisdiction in North America to have five years of high school for people intending to go on to university. Some time in the '80s they pretended to get rid of it by changing its name from "Grade 13" to "OAC", and changing the rules so that a small proportion of students that who were lucky enough to be good at school and were in a hurry could finish in four years. Most of us couldn't be bothered, at least the school I went to. The renamed Grade 13 was not actually abolished until a few years ago.

[end trivial footnote]

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

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Meandering Reminiscences of LA

The weather the last two days has been giving me flashbacks of living Los Angeles.

I don't know why weather that is above 30 C (that's 86 F) should cause that. That's not an unusual temperature in Ontario in the summer so I grew up experiencing it every year. In fact, last summer after we settled in Sudbury was particularly hot. The feel of the heat isn't even that similar to what you get in southern California -- it is rarely as humid down in SoCal as it can get here, for instance, and there are almost no thunder storms. And we've had a broader range of weather in the past week and a half than LA has all year -- it snowed here ten days ago, if you can believe it, and it is 31 C now -- so the feel is much different than a neverending string of days in the 70s or 80s Farenheit, with little chance of rain.

There is something to be said for LA's climate, I'll give it that.

But still, today as the hammer of the heat has beat down upon my heavily lotioned neck, as I have pushed L's stroller, as I carried his stuffed dog to free up his hands for throwing stones in a stream, I have been thinking of LA. Perhaps it is also relevant that it is about one month short of a year since the movers carted off our stuff and we checked into a hotel near LAX to allow us to catch a flight to Pearson the next morning. Okay, not exactly the anniversary, but certainly right now counts as being smack in the middle of the anniversary of the long-but-short stretch of stress that preceded the move.

In any case, I have been thinking about LA. I remember the cab ride from LAX to the house we initially sublet, how L's tremendous patience with travelling finally snapped and he yelled and yelled and yelled. I still feel a little bad about putting the cabby through that. On that trip, I remember driving down one street lined with trees heavy with pinky-purpley flowers. Fallen petals were dense enough to leave a little magenta drift down the middle of the road.

I have been thinking of my long trip down Hollywood Boulevard the day after we arrived. I had to pick up the truck we were renting to get all of our stuff out of storage at LAX. Palm trees and blossoming trees and a characteristic heady scent of flower-derived perfume and diesel had been enough to tell me I was Someplace New even though much of LA's built form looks like East Hamilton, but it was the presence of a group of Latino men hanging around at the entrance of the rental place and offering to hire out as movers that really brought it home that this was a smiliar place but not the same. I lived the previous decade in urban Ontario, so racialized class divisions are nothing new to me; this strategy for responding to being on the oppressed end of those divisions was.

Our first trip to the grocery store was full of similar little markers. Armed security guards patrolled the store, something I'd never seen before. Of course, the bank machines offered English and Spanish, not English and French, and spelled it "checking" instead of "chequing." And it became pretty clear, pretty quick that although Hollywood/West Hollywood is a relatively multi-racial community for a rich neighbourhood in LA -- much more so than Beverley Hills or Brentwood or the upscale section of Santa Monica, for example -- I would bet the people working at the store probably had long bus rides to get to and from work.

I remember a brutal double murder that occured two streets over not long after we got there. I don't remember being particularly freaked out about it, though I do know that the dominant response in this supposedly liberal neighbourhood involved calls for more cops, etc., etc., and that was a little freaky. It stuck in my mind mostly because one of the victims had been a famous screenwriter many years before and the anti-Communist witch hunts of the '50s drove him out of the business.

For some reason at the parent-toddler drop-in this morning, as I made a stuffed cat name, discuss, and eat the various plastic foodstuffs presented by L, I was marvelling at the number of movie theatres I went to in LA.

There was the one closest to our first place. Just a block north, to Hollywood Boulevard, then half a dozen blocks east to get to the theatres in the mall at Hollywood and Highland. That same complex contains the hall where most of the award shows are shot. A couple of times I took a bus farther east -- I don't remember if it was down Hollywood or Sunset -- to an extremely posh, quite expensive cinema that felt like a fortress on the outside but like a palace on the inside.

I could also walk a block south to Sunset Boulevard and then about twenty minutes west to get to a smaller mall with a cinema that showed mostly independent stuff. The mall also had a bookstore which specialized in books about music, film, and art, and had a sizeable and fascinating selection of graphic novels. And a large queer-focused section for a mainstream store, of course, given that we were in West Hollywood. The mall was just down the street from the Director's Guild of America headquarters, which was occasionally used to show films that the public could see, but I only went in once, for a panel discussion by writers and directors and actors of Six Feet Under during the gay and lesbian film festival that year.

South and farther west of us there was the Beverley Centre -- too far to walk. I don't remember if I ever actually went to a movie there or not, though I know I meant to once or twice and got distracted with writing or reading while I was lurking about in the food court. And even farther towards the ocean is Westwood, the community around UCLA, which is where my partner worked. I went to at least two different movie theatres in Westwood but did not end up going there as often as I had thought I would given the scarcity of human-scale neighbourhoods in Los Angeles. Probably the most memorable event I attended in Westwood was LA's annual book festival, one of the biggest in the world. I had hoped to attend a panel which included Tariq Ali but it was sold out, so I wandered through the countless stalls, chose my birthday present from my partner (a book on the history of hip-hop whose author I'd heard interviewed), people watched, and stressed about the move to Sudbury, which was either possible or probable at that point, I don't remember.

After three months we moved to university housing, which was a decent bus ride south and a little west of UCLA. While living there I once went to a cinema somewhere in the long, long stretch between Westwood and the downtown on Wiltshire, but mostly I stuck closer to home. There were the cinemas in the Westside Pavillion. I went to three different movie theatres in Santa Monica, on or near the Third Street Promenade. And a few times I took the bus down into Culver City to the big multiplex there.

I also have been thinking about the flowers. There isn't much I miss about LA, but I do miss the flowers. The complex we lived in had roses blooming in December, and even the humblest front yard garden displayed far more colour than most gardens in Ontario. I remember one Sunday we went for a walk through Beverley Hills. I suppose the houses were huge and beautiful, but I remember the gardens the best -- numbingly spectacular. And it was all kind of gross, too, of course, if you refused to ignore the relationship between the opulence and greenery there and the poverty and ubiquitous concrete in much of the rest of the city.

I remember how outgoing people were. Though I can't gauge exactly how my identity played out in that, of course. I experienced this gregariousness (compared to Ontarians) from both white people and people of colour, but I obviously have no way to assess to what extent being an early-thirties middle-class white man usually travelling with a cute baby/toddler made my interactions different than, say, an early-twenties working-class Black man wearing hip-hop gear. I have a feeling at least some of the west side white people that struck up conversations with me at bus stops and in grocery stores would've behaved rather differently.

I remember the beach. My early-life beach experiences were freshwater lakes in Ontario and the shores of the North Sea in Scotland, so during our year in LA it never ceased to amaze me that I could take a short bus ride and walk a few blocks and be on a saltwater beach that was golden sand several hundred feet back and stretching as far as the eye could see in either direction. We didn't end up going to the beach as often as I thought we might, but it was still a luxury I appreciated.

I remember the smog. I remember the the hills that framed the horizon to north and south always had a tinge of brown in front of them, even if straight up was brilliant blue.

I remember cars. Cars, cars, cars, cars.

I remember cavernous subway stations that were close to empty any time I went in.

I remember a great weight of isolation. As happened with my eight month stint in Ottawa as an undergrad, while I was experiencing it I was wishing it would end but after the fact I occasionally yearn for it. Occasionally. Perhaps it betrays some underlying anti-social tendencies that I should be ashamed of, but so long as I could have control over the dosage, being completely alone in a sea of hundreds of thousands or millions of strangers, with nowhere to go and nothing in particular to do, is sometimes something that I crave. And then, of course, I would want to be able to snap my fingers and go out for pints and intense conversation with a group of friends.

I remember the suddenness of our departure. In mid-April I was still expecting to be stuck in LA for another year or more, but by the end of June we were gone. I had one last trek through pedestrian-hostile streets from our hotel to a courier depot to drop off our modem for return to the phone company. (Don't get me started on what I remember about that bumbling, incompetent utility!) The courier depot ended up being closed so I had a bite of breakfast at a fast food outlet. I walked back to the hotel, doing my best to ignore the passenger jets flying as little as thirty feet over my head on their way to the runway while I tried to figure out what to do. I ended up entrusting the modem to the concierge of the hotel. Verizon hasn't sent any hired guns after me, so I assume it got back safely. Not that assassins hired by Verizon could find a donkey if they were tied to it.

It's hard to believe it has been almost a year since we left. I continue to have my reservations about Sudbury, of course, and I was always ambivalent about Los Angeles. But I'm glad we went. It did provide some pretty cool memories, even if the rather flat prose of this posting doesn't do them justice. And it did start me blogging, after all!

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Review: Race to Equity

[Tim McCaskell. Race to Equity: Disrupting Educational Inequality. Toronto: Between The Lines, 2005.]

At least in theory, a broad cross-section of the "progressive" political spectrum should be interested in issues of how power is and can be and should be expressed in real-life institutions. We might be interested because of our ideas about how our work in the present prefigures the change we will create, or because we want to make our groups "inclusive" and "accessible". Or maybe it is to perfect our vision for what will happen after the Big R finally arrives, or just to decide what sorts of incremental changes to pursue in the here-and-now. Or all of those. It is useful for all of us to ask: What are we aiming for? How should our organizations be structured? What changes should we seek from current mainstream organizations? How should we go about all of this?

Race to Equity is the story of one man's journey through two decades of pursuing equity work at school boards in Toronto. McCaskell is a gay white man who began his political life in the sectarian Marxist left in Toronto in the '70s. The shifts in how the school boards of the city were challenged reflected the changes in momentum in the broader society: from a focus on socialism as the answer to a more diverse but often tense and narrow identity politics in the '80s and on through to a more wholistic but still quite nuanced anti-oppression politics in the '90s and beyond. Though he does not talk about it in detail, McCaskell was also involved in some of the key queer struggles in the city in those years, including the Right to Privacy Committee which organized against police raids on bathhouses in the early '80s and in some of the militant AIDS activism in later years.

The book's biggest emphasis is on anti-racism, but it integrates discussion of efforts within the boards to address sexism, homophobia, and ableism as well. To produce the book, McCaskell did interviews with a number of the key activists involved with the issue across the decades. According to the endorsement by Alok Mukherjee (who was also employed in equity work by the board of education for part of this time), McCaskell "writes from the double perspective of an insider-outsider; someone who was in the system, but not of it, and who was always alert to the need for community leadership and activism as a precondition for change."

You might expect a book focusing on this sort of insitutional change to be a bit stodgy, but Race to Equity is nothing of the sort. Admittedly, I'm something of a sucker for this kind of book because I happen to find the inevitable bureaucratic intrigue fascinating even while it drives me to pull my hair out. Nonetheless, aside from the odd obligatory summation of this report or that set of recommendations, it reads lightly and does a good job of using the drama over who will prevail in each political skirmish to move the narrative forward.

Part of what is remarkable about the content of the book is how predictable it is, not because the writing is predictable but because mainstream North American institutions are. I have had a little bit of involvement in this kind of change work -- not as someone with much say in the decision making about that whats and the whens and the hows but mostly as a relatively inexperienced observer who contributed technical skills when necessary -- and I have read about it. That background and this book all confirm that even though the details of each situation will vary, the dynamics of progress-in-changing, resistance-to-change, and reaction-against-change seem remarkably consistent. An up side of this frustarting consistancy is that though this book examines one paritcular institution, it will likely be useful to people doing similar work in many other institutions.

The book also provides some simple but often necessary reminders to people on both sides of the (silly-to-me) reform/revolution divide: there are times when having the least-worst candidates in control does make a real difference in terms of how institutions can change in ways that impact the real lives of real people, and on the amount of space there is for using institutional resources to facilitate extra-institutional political mobilization; and almost invariably efforts for change, if they are to win anything substantive, need to have a power base in the community and not just sympathetic folks on the inside. Though I think it is a bit simplistic, there is still some truth to the idea that whatever the ruling class grudgingly grants in terms of institutions to actually meet human needs of various sorts is not out of the goodness of their hearts, but a form of paying to prevent revolution. Now, I'm not sure "revolution" in the classic sense really means much in the rich countries these days, but I think it's still safe to conclude that more good for more people will be accomplished, more baby steps towards justice and liberation taken, more groundwork for whatever sort of transformation we idealistically seek layed, if there are autonomous, unpredictable, persistent groups that refuse to stop existing and refuse to become part of the system, which welcome reforms but refuse to be satisfied by them.

As much good as I have to say about this book, however, it is ultimately a depressing one, though McCaskell goes out of his way to avoid writing it that way. The dumb stubborn power of privilege to thwart change not just through action but through inertia and disinterest is so numbing. And the entire book is a portrait of the huge amount of effort from significant numbers of people required to win even very modest reforms, and how fragile they often are in the face of reaction. Small amounts of progress in this one institution in one city required the work of many lives. And most, though not all, of the victories were wiped out by the Conservative provincial government elected in 1995. McCaskell's account of the rising tide of defeat (even as he emphasized the small victories that were still won, or at least preserved) was physically uncomfortable for me to read. The relative focus and ferocity of the backlash has shifted somewhat, what with changes in government in Ottawa and Toronto, but the momentum of neoliberalism continues resolutely forward in attacking equity, justice, liberation, and any of the other overarching goals we hold dear.

Now that's depressing.

What to do in the face of the direction of today's momentum and the inertia that exists regardless of which way the wind is blowing is not an easy answer. Personally, though I definitely believe that working within particular institutions at particular times with partiuclar goals in mind can be crucial to achieving change -- even radical change, when the times are right -- I think that anyone who has even the remotest inclination to do so should focus at least some of their time and energy on facilitating the collective exercise of power based outside. Small affinity groups of students, opposition caucuses within union locals, cultural renewal and community mobilization on reserves, direct action anti-poverty groups, unschooling collectives, community-based media response teams -- whatever, doesn't matter, just so long as a capacity to collectively do is nurtured in ways that are open to listening, reflecting, changing, and trying again.

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

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Erase Racism Carnival #1

Ally Work is hosting the first ever Erase Racism Carnival! Please go over and check it out...I've only had a chance to read one of the entries so far, but they all look interesting. Definitely a place to go for white folks who want to do the work of figuring our own stuff out!

(Big hint: None of it seems to deal particularly with indigenous struggles, but even so maybe some of you people interested in tacitly/explicitly defending white supremacy in the comment sections of posts related to the Mohawk land reclamation in Caledonia might want to go over there first for some critical background reading and self-education. Okay, probably not, but I thought I'd at least suggest it.)

Monday, May 22, 2006

OPP Allow Anti-Native Violence in Caledonia

From the Mohawk News Network and Solidarity with Six Nations:

OPP condone mob rule
"All hell and shit has broken loose"


MNN. 1:00 Monday. May 22, 2006. Day 83 of the land reclamation. In a gesture of goodwill, Six Nations people took down the barricade on Argyle Street in front of the Caledonia at 6:00 am this morning. Yesterday the Caledonians blocked the road for 6 buses of supporters from Toronto. They also blocked ambulances from going to the hospital. One man died alone because they did not let his family go to his bedside. A car with a reporter and some women from Six nations paper was surrounded by Caledonian men and women. They smashed the windows. The Ontario Provincial Police stood around shoulder to shoulder without moving, just watching, allowing the hooliganism to go on. "We are looking after it," they told the Six Nations people. When Six Nations people went to help the people who were being attacked, they were surrounded by more Caledonians, who shoved and hit them and accused the Indigenous people of instigating the violence. When the woman was hit, the Six Nations men jumped in and about three or four big fights broke out. The OPP continued to allow these Caledonian hoodlums to keep up their attack.

The Six Nations have put up the barricade again.

There is a large police presence. But just standing there. They are not stopping the Caledonia people from coming in. Everytime we try to soften things up and deal with people on the expectation they will behave in a civilized way, look at what happens.

This is public misbehaviour which is a direct result of the way the issues are handled by the Canadian government and the Canadian press. They do not present the legitimate basis of the Six Nations people's complaints. They make it look like we are the law breakers. They are wrong in letting the public no know of our legitimate claims. The blame for this lies squarely on the shoulders of the public officials in the way they are presenting this whole issuer.


Try the Prime Minister, the police, the UN, anyone you can think of who may take responsibility for law and order in Ontario.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Review: Decolonizing Methodologies

[Linda Tuhiwai Smith. Decolonizing Methodologies: Resarch and Indigenous Peoples. New York: Zed Books, 1999.]

I don't know where exactly this journey of mine is going to take me, but I have a feeling that from now until the day I die it will have something to do with knowledge. The medium may change, the genre may change, the particular goals may change, but I think the work I choose to do will always have something to do with the shape and substance of ideas, words, narratives, "facts", stories -- with knowledge.

Everyone has a theory of knowledge. Most of us don't tend to think of it in that way and don't tend to articulate it explicitly, but in order to function in the world we have to have ways of generating, processing, classifying, judging, and manipulating knowledge. There is personal and political benefit for all of us to try and put our own personal epistemological beliefs into words, I think, as well as opening ourselves to challenge based on how we know the world and how we think the world is/should be/can be known. Personally, I know that I have not read most of the things that I would need to read in order to put forth a theory of knowledge that would sound competent to those who write about such things in academia, but given how much of my productive life revolves around knowledge I believe that articulating my current understanding and putting effort into developing it further are things worth doing. Certainly reading Decolonizing Methodologies has challenged me to be more clear about my own understandings of knowledge, and has pushed me in more critical directions.

I see knowledge as something that emerges from the interplay of extra-textual phenomena (the "real world" that exists beyond the grasp of our sense but impinges upon them), material arrangements of power among human beings, and existing narratives (which can be seen as existing patterns and structures of knowledge which are drawn on to organize "new" knowledge). This is in contrast to some ways of understanding knowledge which seem to reduce everything to text, to narrative. It is also in contrast to positivism, still the dominant understanding of knowledge in the Western commonsense and in Western institutions, despite decades of critique by a few elite academics and some social movements, and its de facto rejection by many of the people treated as Other in the dominant systems of knowing and in the world's power structures.

I would argue that the three kinds of factors I have identified (including our own location with respect to them) shape our knowledge, from our gut-level commonsense to academic journals, from dominant metaphysical mythologies to technical know-how, from the structure of coffee-shop conversation to systems of literary symbolism. There is no single way that these factors work together, and it is through complex shifts in the balance among them in any given context that struggles over knowledge (which is an aspect of every struggle, both those that some might see as purely "material" as well as those that are more obviously at the level of discourse) take place.

Research is any activity which draws extra-textual phenomena into existing narratives. It can happen on a very small scale, as with a child dropping stones from a bridge to see what happens; or it can be very formal and can bring some phenomenon into the grand narratives of (for lack of a better word, and intending it to be read with irony) civilization for the first time.

Any entity in society that can do inevitably generates and shapes knowledge, of course in relationship with the above three factors, and in proportion to its power. The drive for profit and the related imperatives driving the state are among the most powerful and important motive forces that shape the overall field of knowledge in which we exist. Though not associated with a particular institution in quite the same way, other axes of power such as whiteness and white supremacy, for example, function in a more distributed way, often invisibly (for those of us with privilege) woven into many interrelated institutional structures and into the commonsense of those who control them. This kind of pervasive power relationship shapes dominant forms of knowledge, and those forms of knowledge in turn reinforce and legitimate those forms of domination.

Any kind of alternative or challenge that carves out space for itself within this hegemonic field also inevitably has knowledge associated with it, and ways of knowing. It can be a project that is formal and deliberate or it can be a product of necessity initially emerging out of everyday survival, though more likely it is both when resistance is at a stage of being collective and visible. It is not only a process engaged in by communities and movements seeking justice and liberation, either: it is most visible in today's North America in the distinctive epistemologies and related knowledge embedded in the right-wing populist movements in the United States, with all of the enhancement of oppression and hierarchy and domination that their agenda facilitates.

One important feature of the way knowledge works in our society is how easily it can be disconnected from its origins. If knowledge is generated for some local purpose, even one related to resistance, but it is somehow found to be useful by institutions which are driven by capital and the state, then it will be used. And if it already exists as knowledge in some context completely outside of Western domination (if any such still exists on the planet) then it is commonly seen to originate, to come into existence, only at that point in time when it enters this totalizing field associated with liberal-democratic capitalism.

Decolonizing Methodologies is a short, incisive book that sets out to examine ideas of knowledge and research from an indigenous standpoint. The author is a Maori woman from New Zealand and an academic. In the first half of the book, she draws on both indigenous traditions of knowledge and critical thought from the Western academy to draw a brief history of Western knowledge and research and how they have been totally intertwined with imperialism. The so-called Enlightenment and the period of imperial European expansion began at roughly the same time. She describes how the structuring and expansion of knowledge that began with the former and continues today has always been and still is inherently imperial; and how the functioning of the latter has always involved as a major component not just men with guns but also struggles and practices of domination related to knowledge.

One way of seeing Western imperialism, most egregiously in the Americas, Australia, and New Zealand, but in other parts of the world as well, is as lands and peoples forcibly incorporated into Western ways of knowing. In this process, the imperatives driving the creation of knowledge were very much rooted in Western imperial expansion. Responsiveness to extra-textual phenomena (what could be simplistically described as "accuracy compared to the real world") was only relevant as it affected imperial interests. That way, European adventurers and travellers and missionaries and soldiers could bring back tales (or even supposedly rigorous research) that created knowledge about indigenous peoples that bore only a very twisted resemblance to what indigenous peoples were actually like and how they saw themselves. This knowledge could then be used to position those peoples as Other -- as either less human or non-human, depending on the peoples in question and the imperial needs at the time. Creation of knowledge was also central to the practical task of exerting European imperial domination over lands and peoples. This was true not only on the practical level of "casing the joint", but such knowledge creation allowed peoples and lands and artifacts of cultures to be completely redefined from the ways that indigenous peoples defined them and into commodities -- "people" became "slaves," land which was integrally and organically connected to a nation of people in spiritual ways became property that could be sold, sacred things became collectible items. Even today this continues, with indigenous knowledges and even the genes of indigenous peoples being pulled into the predatory field of Western knowledge, and appropriated by companies or governments for profit or other kinds of material gain. And cultural traditions are pulled into Western knowledge in ways that profit from bored, disaffected, affluent white people looking for spiritual renewal in a kind of gross consumeristic way. Ultimately, Western ways of knowing have displaced indigenous ways of knowing across most of the territories of the Americas and Australia.

Indigenous ways of knowing, associated closely with indigenous ways of being and doing, have been attacked and undermined for centuries by religious missionaries, government officials, and paternalistic liberals among the settler population. Things like banning ceremonies, stealing the children of indigenous nations and forcing them into residential schools or into non-indigenous homes, banning or otherwise discouraging indigenous languages, introducing mass media with content that is entirely settler-controlled, and a million other things have contributed to colonizing people's minds. The ultimate goal -- and it is seldom claimed explicitly by any but the far-right these days, but it still informs state practice regardless of what state representatives actually say -- is the dissolution of indigenous nations, which contrary to settler commonsense are still often functioning collectives grounded in indigenous ways of knowing and being and doing. This is the goal because cohesive indigenous nations can mount resistance in ways that atomized, isolated people whose nations have been completely dissolved could not. Indigenous nations can be seen as collectives which follow imperatives other than those which dominate settler/Western societies and they provide a basis from which the legitimacy and functioning of ongoing imperial domination, land theft, exploitation of resources, and so on, has been challenged for 500 years and will continue to be challenged. Many indigenous peoples see the recovery, strengthening, and new production of knowledge grounded in their own traditions and histories to be a central part of this project of transforming the existing relationships of domination which oppress them.

The second half of the book articulates a program for indigenous research based mainly in groundbreaking work done by the Maori people in New Zealand. This is a step towards a more deliberate approach to knowledge production that is grounded in indigenous communities, and that serves the goals of decolonization, cultural renewal, and an end to imperial domination. Her vision includes learning from what is useful in Western traditions of research, particularly feminist and critical traditions, but prioritizes indigenous ways of knowing and being and doing, and indigenous aspirations for the future.

So I don't know yet what all of this means for my own journey. On an immediate level, it is relevant to my social movement history project, because 8 of the 50 participants are indigenous people. Of course I have all along intended to be very careful in respecting the voices of all of the participants, but this book gives me a much broader perspective on the oppressive history of well-meaning white guys seeking to build knowledge about/from indigenous peoples. I don't know if this will really change my practice, nor will it prevent me from making mistakes, but it certainly has encouraged me to take extra care in doing things I was going to do anyway -- preserving the standpoints of the indigenous participants as I figure out how to present their stories, and contextualizing their words in other knowledge that has been produced from indigenous standpoints and out of indigenous struggles.

In the longer term, it has given me new ways to think about how I want to spend my energies after my current project is complete (which still feels like it is an eternity away, but I know that there will come a point when I'll blink and then be unable to believe that I have to think up something else to do). Being shown the ubiquity of predation and domination in Western knowledge production really makes me pause. What choices can I make that will allow me to do the writing that I wish to do, both creative and analytical, in ways that contribute to knowledge (and being and doing) that resists predation and domination, in ways reflected not just in the content but also in the ways that the texts thus produced end up functioning when they are released into the world?

I don't know.

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

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Why Do I Blog?

A couple of months back, in blogs and in real life, explicitly and via multi-jump paths of association tracked by my heat oppress'd brain, I kept running into this question. Courtesy and completeness would dictate naming each occasion, linking to each post, identifying each conversation, but I can't remember most of them -- I think at least four or five of the blogs under the "Interesting Blogs" heading in my sidebar nudged me in this direction, through asking it or answering it or just making me think of it, plus a number of incidents in the world of the flesh. In any case, the question has been percolating since then, with several false starts using pen and paper, and I have finally pushed on through to finishing a rough attempt at an answer.

I started blogging in May 2004, just after moving from Hamilton, Ontario, where I had lived for a decade, to Los Angeles, California. I was at the same time taking on the role of full-time stay-at-home parent of a nine month-old. I knew nothing about blogs, blogging, bloggers, bloggery (isn't that still illegal in 13 states?), or any other more fantastic construction beginning with those four letters. In fact, when asked last December what blogs I read that inspired me to head down this path, I was at a loss, though on further reflection I think I had read some of the Z Blogs a very little bit before I started writing one of my own.

My intent was two-fold: Most importantly, it was about me writing. I knew that having something to write for, no matter how few the readers, would encourage me to engage in non-project writing that was a little more polished and thought-through than what I still write in the pages of journals meant for no eyes but mine. But given the informal, ad hoc nature of blogs it wouldn't have to be as polished as if for actual publication, and I could set my own schedule and determine the form and content with little external constraint. In the face of the shocking shift in circumstances I was just starting to deal with at the time, and of being in the swampy middle of a huge multi-year project, it would allow me a way to access the exquisite pleasure of having written -- of finishing something, of accomplishment -- after only minutes or hours of work, rather than having to wait months or years. It would help me think through ideas that interested me, and give me practice talking about them. And all of this was particularly important at the time, because my project was at a stage that involved little writing and lots of mind-numbing interview processing.

A distant secondary consideration had to do with vague notions of maintaining contact with people left behind -- not as a replacement for all the other mechanisms technology has given us, but as a sort of low-pressure virtual presence that might not say much about what I'd been doing or how I'd been feeling, but would talk a little about what I'd been thinking.

Though I knew the most likely focus for the content was politics, whether shaken and stirred with pop culture or theory or book reviews or parenting or some other mixer, or just served neat, you will notice the distinct absence of any explicitly political intent -- or, perhaps to put it more accurately, any political intent to do directly with the broader world, rather than the more self-focused political benefits like developing ideas, developing voice, and craft-related self-care of a certain sort.

I gradually learned about blogging, both about political blogs as a collective phenomenon and about how I could best use the medium to meet my own particular needs. I have been able to discern several other kinds of obviously political intent in the blogs which even remotely interest me, which may overlap in any individual blog:

  1. Engaging with mainstream politics in a way that holds some hope of actual influence, at least at the aggregate level. This occasionally involves investigation, most often commentary springing from and/or amplifying aspects of the dominant media's treatment of issues. Obviously the subject matter and the hope of aggregate influence mean that this model does not really work very well for politics that go much outside of the liberal or social democratic end of the mainstream, though there are certainly liberal feminists who fall into this category.

  2. Engaging with radical politics (which I am using broadly to include things like lefter leftiness than social democracy, anti-oppression, anti-imperialism, anti-capitalism, liberation politics of various sorts, radical feminism, etc., etc.) in the context of an existing community or public in order to stimulate and/or direct debate within those who identify with that community, as with the Z blogs. The conditions for this are rare, and there are obviously issues of gatekeeping.

  3. Building and seeking community with those whose experiences of oppression and/or politics overlap with your own -- mutual consciousness raising, political and personal support, and the creation of safe corners in a hostile blogosphere and a hostile world.

  4. Seeking to engage with those who disagree and using blogs as a forum for debate and consciousness raising not through affinity but through critical challenge, perhaps through a blog devoted to such activity, like Ally Work, or through something the now blog-departed Tenacious once described along the lines of allies doing the hard, thankless work of following the trolls to their lairs and doing battle in the comment sections there.

  5. The presentation of some kind of radical politics through more creative or artistic writing.

How do I fit in? Well, my practice has evolved a bit over the last couple of years. It was October or November 2004 when I got around to installing a hit counter, and I joined the Progressive Blog Alliance at around the same time. We moved back to Canada in July of 2005 and soon after I joined Progressive Bloggers, a Canadian web ring.

My posting includes not only pieces of original writing (when I can manage them) but also links to other pieces that have caught my attention or are on a topic that interests me, and occasionally low energy investment recommendations for action like signing an e-petition or donating money to something. While in Los Angeles I would do posts that I have learned subsequently are called "link farms" -- a post comprised of links to multiple interesting articles and posts on other sites -- but my time usage has shifted slightly over the last year and I rarely do this kind of post any more.

In terms of the blogosphere as a site of community, I don't tend to seek it out but neither do I reject it. I have enjoyed getting to know a few fellow bloggers a little bit but I have not invested any energy in trying to initiate such connections. I generally respond to comments on my own blog. I only comment very occasionally on blogs I read regularly, and a little more often I'll post a challenging comment to something that catches my eye on the feed at the ProgBlogs main page.

My membership in PBA and PB, the fact that I post links to other writing and the odd action recommendation, and the fact that I do occasionally drop a challenging comment or two on other, more conservative sites might indicate the growth of a more deliberate, externally-focused political intent in my blogging. It might, but not to any great degree, I don't think.

I joined the blog rings because I thought they might be a good place to connect with interested readers, and perhaps to connect with things that I might be interested in reading. Mind you, even though the winner will likely end up as Prime Minister I have less than no interest in following the frequent, detailed musings about the Liberal leadership race that seem to occupy so many of my PB colleagues -- frankly, I'd nominate the porcupine that L and I saw at Science North last week if I could -- but I still find some interesting things, and I think injecting less mainstream stuff into such spaces can't hurt even if there is no evidence it directly helps much of anything. So, yes, there is some external political intent, but it is pretty low energy and low expectation. Even my visits to the comment sections of other PB members (or elsewhere) are very sporadic, and I generally don't attempt sustained conversation in most circumstances -- it would probably be useful but I still can't help feeling I have better ways to use my time.

Even the links and action recommendations I post are a case of investing minimal effort -- I'm just typing in a few words about something I would've read anyway -- for minimal expected return. Petitions and letters and donations aren't irrelevant, and in specific circumstances can be important tactics, but they should not for a moment be mistaken for the heart of the work that needs to be done.

In terms of the categories I listed above, my politics don't qualify for (1). I'm not part of any sort of organization or non-blogs-only online community for which I could do (2). My identity (experiences of privilege and oppression) are not those which most often used (3), and though I think it could be a useful enterprise I'm not sure that the virtual approach would really be one that would personally fit me very well in terms of the kinds of support that would feel useful. (4) intrigues me and does strike me as useful political work that I would be able to do, but I'm not sure, given my limited time and energy, it would be the most worthwhile outlet. And my writing is usually a bit too literal (at least in this space) to count as (5).

Frankly, for me, this site is still mostly about the writing, and only indirectly about changing the world. I have great respect for those who use blogs to create their own community and even more for those who persistently and politically insert their voices where said voices are unwelcome but desperately need to be heard. But for me, I don't see much scope for actually creating change using the openings that are available to me online. In all the myriad of ways that "real life" can be political, from parenting choices to direct action to healing your own trauma, I think it is vital for me not to exacerbate the human-connection-killing impacts of patriarchy on men and neoliberalism on all of us by harbouring illusions that a plastic box and a glowing screen is more than an occasionally useful tool for doing political work (broadly understood) in the context of other flesh-and-blood human beings.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Free Marxist Stuff! Woo!

Just saw via Lenin's Tomb that back issues from 1964 to 1999 of the annual series Socialist Register are available for free online.

I admit, I am unlikely to do more than browse this treasure trove of Marxist thought -- I have way too much to read already -- but I do find the series interesting enough that I have read about half of them that have come out since I started reading stuff like this. The Register doesn't tend to be particularly connected to actual social change work on the ground, I don't find, and I remember thinking that some of the pieces in their issue on "identities" a few years back were particularly weak, but I always learn from it and am always glad that I took the time to read it.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Random Thoughts on "Activist Lawyering"

A friend and I have been having an intermittent email dialogue on what it means to be an "activist lawyer" or a "radical lawyer." My interest in this conversation comes from the fact that one of the participants in my project has applied his professional skills as a lawyer to the cause of social change in Toronto and internationally for many years. My friend's interest is because she has been politically active for a long time and she is currently in the middle of law school.

You might have noticed that I haven't put up any original writing in the last week. I have something almost ready, but I read it over just now and it doesn't quite grab me the way I want it to so I'm going to let it sit for another couple of days. In the meantime, though, an email I wrote to my friend on this topic this morning might be of sufficient general interest to be worth sharing. Here it is:

Thanks for sending me your thoughts, and for forwarding that other email from _____. All of this is definitely helping to clarify my own thinking. It prompted me to go back and have a look at Staughton Lynd's book Living Inside Our Hope, where he talks in a few places about his decades of experience as a lawyer (and also as a historian, so I got distracted reading stuff about E.P. Thopmson as well).

I think one difficulty that I see emerging from our discussions on this issue so far is how we have been understanding the word "activist." In things that both of us have written, and in stuff you've forwarded me from _____ as well, we seem to be starting from a very privileged, middle-class version of what "activist" can/should/does mean. At various points all three of us have understood it to mean something like applying lefty politics to the lawyer's individual conduct in the course of representing an individual client, which has then been argued against by saying that to whatever extent that change in conduct makes a victory by the client less likely than if a strictly technical approach to lawyering was followed, it is unethical and should not be done -- don't sacrifice the client for some abstract greater goal that the client may or may not agree with. Fair enough.

I have had the sense from what you've said and from what you've forwarded an extreme wariness of the idea of an "activist lawyer" or a "radical lawyer." Often it has seemed the discomfort has been invested in questioning the appropriateness of linking those modifiers to the noun "lawyer." However, I think it might be better to use that wariness to deconstruct what we are assuming the word "activist" to mean, and to put together a broader and more liberatory definition. The idea of an activist waging a single-handed battle against Goliath, of activism understood largely as individual expression, is an idea grounded very much in privilege, I think. Rather, I think the modifiers "activist" or "radical" make much more sense if understood as indicative of being a member (loosely defined) of a larger collective or movement that is seeking certain goals. If understood in that sense, then being an "activist lawyer" or a "radical lawyer" is not at all inconsistent with focusing on the technical quality of the representation in a particular case or with genuine, collaborative listening to clients whose experiences of oppression have given them a much greater sense of political realities than the lawyer herself. Being an "activist" or "radical" in that sense means being part of a movement, and filling a role within the larger visions of the movement.

It also goes back to a point I made in an earlier email, that the tendency to narrow the idea of "lawyering" to "what you do in the courtroom" or "what you do with your client" is a symptom of precisely what makes me wary about the law, and about the ways that capitalism constitutes society in its functioning: the tendency to fragment, to separate, to make that which is whole and organic fit into arbitrary little boxes. Staughton Lynd choosing to live in a working-class neighbourhood, choosing to deploy his skills to the advantage of rank and file workers rather than of international union presidents or of capital, choosing to incorporate practices of radical listening and (in Lynd's vocabulary for something the latest email from _____ described beautifully too) accompaniment into both his lawyering and his work as a community-based historian -- all of that is part of "radical lawyering" it seems to me. He has chosen a social location in which to ground his practice, he has chosen to be part of a (admittedly at present loosely defined) movement, he has chosen to allow these collective realities to shape his lawyering even if, in the "courtroom moment" or the "giving advice to clients moment" he is informed only by technical considerations.

I would also add a couple of other factors that might contribute to "activist lawyering" or "radical lawyering." First of all, I think an openness to non-conventional tactics might be part of it. There is some history of integrating proceedings in courtrooms with mobilization in the broader community. Presumably, there are times when this sort of extra-legal support can be helpful and other times when it is not. I would imagine most "regular lawyers" would not be interested in such mobilization at any time, but an "activist lawyer" or "radical lawyer" would possibly have an analysis of when such mobilizations were a good idea, and would endorse them and even help organize them on such occasions.

As well, presumably one's lawyering -- and here I mean it in the narrow sense -- is informed by one's analysis of the law, which is presumably integrated with one's larger political analysis. Staughton Lynd's participation as a lawyer in community and movement efforts to socialize segments of the Pittsburg steel industry in the '80s were dependent on (a) him having political goals that include social control over the means of production, and (b) him having an analysis of the current legal framework that could be applied (and argued and expanded) to help make that happen. Lots of lawyers would not have either of those. It seems to me this is why the Christian Right has developed its own law schools in the United States in the last few years: to have environments in which lawyers-in-training are affirmed and reinforced in having particular political goals (their version of (a)) and there is effort put into developing and popularizing within the ranks of the legal profession arguments and analysis which can help shape the law in directions consistent with those goals (their version of (b)).

(Staughton Lynd, by the way, is a veteran activist in the United States, and was a minor icon in the New Left back in the '60s. He was an academic historian working in the south and he got involved in the civil rights movement. He did things like serve as one of the coordinators of the Mississippi Freedom Summer in 1964. He ended up leaving the academy, became a lawyer, and spent thirty years involved in workers' struggles in that capacity, and has more recently become involved in supporting the struggles of prisoners. He visited Hamilton back when I was doing a radio show, and I had the pleasure of doing an hour-long interview with him. In fact, his concept of "long-distance runners" in social change, which he talks about in the book I mention above, helped me when I was initially defining how I wanted to focus my social movement history project.)

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Quote: Southern Ontario

When you're from southern Ontario it's hard to escape, even living 3000 kilometres away. Geographically, it's almost an island, surrounded as it is by five miniature oceans that create systems of oppressive weather; humidity in the summer and impassable snow drifts in the winter. Culturally, there is this legacy of unbridled Protestantism; the pronoun I is strongly discouraged. The first time I visited a Hutterite colony in Alberta, I felt right at home and I realized: this place feels like southern Ontario. Lots of explicit rules but even more of the implicit type, and all emotions suppressed right down to the level of the water table. It's a bit like a club or a sect that you keep thinking you really should leave.

-- Marion Douglas

Yep...that's where I grew up...

Friday, May 12, 2006

More From Orkin

And as a follow-up to the op-ed linked in my last post, here is a letter by lawyer Andrew Orkin published in today's Hamilton Spectator on how the law actually applies to the Mohawk reclamation efforts in Caledonia, and how the Canadian settler state is flouting its own laws:

Re: 'Natives are subject to the law' (Letter, Brent Whetstone May 9, 2005).

Indeed. But there is much more to "the law" applicable in Caledonia than traffic laws or the terms of an injunction arising out of a one-sided ("ex parte") quickie hearing. And while governments know this, it appears that they aren't telling people in Caledonia.

The Crown's Treaties with the Iroquois, including those of Albany and Montreal in 1701, the Silver Covenant Chain and the Two Row Wampum are part of applicable Law. The Royal Proclamation of 1763 is part of the Canadian Constitution. So is Section 35 of the Constitution Act of 1982, which recognizes and affirms Aboriginal and Treaty Rights.

These laws bind the governments of Canada and Ontario, and the rest of us. Our own Supreme Court repeats that they MUST be upheld, because "the honour of the Crown is at stake".

The Haldimand Grant is part of this law. Its "surrender" or "sale" in whole or part by the Iroquois may well be non-existent, fraudulent or invalid (even according to non-native Canadian law). I suspect the federal Crown knows this, but had simply planned over the intervening 160 years that the Iroquois would be assimilated and disappear.

The Iroquois Confederacy is centuries or millennia old. Its leaders, clan mothers and members (all reasserting their nation in Caledonia) are still telling us that in their view their own Iroquois structures and laws have never been legitimately displaced by Euro-Canadian ones. They are reminding us of solemn nation-to-nation Treaties that are no older or less important than the Treaty of Paris between England and France of 1763 (the ongoing basis for Quebec being part of Canada).

It is far from clear that the Iroquois Confederacy members re-occupying their lands are legally in the wrong.

If they are, why has the federal government spent the last 20 years or so frantically evading having to account to the Six Nations Band Council in Court for the Crown's (mis)handling of the vast Haldimand Grant that it holds in trust for the Iroquois people?

It is time that Canadians remind themselves of ALL of the applicable law, not just the bits that seem to justify our occupation and takings of others' lands.

The only alternative is the use of overwhelming military force against the Iroquois, to conquer them. But Canada's legitimacy and reputation would take a severe beating if the colonial and oppressive nature of its relationship with aboriginal peoples was thus laid bare.

Respect for the law is not a one-way, natives-only street. Non-natives and their governments must respect the law too, and all of it.

Andrew Orkin

Caledonia Op-Ed

This article, which is posted on Z-Net but I think originally appeared in the Ottawa Citizen, is by Andrew Orkin, a prominent attorney based in Hamilton, where I used to live. I have never met him but I know friends who know him. I also remember that years ago when a few of us were talking about options for finding a lawyer in some activism-related court proceeding, his name came up. I had never heard of him, but one of the people I was with had -- my friend said something to the effect that it would be great if we could get him because his courtroom reputation would intimidate the presiding Justice of the Peace. We didn't end up getting in touch with him, and frankly I don't even remember what the specific matter at hand was or what we did end up doing, but I doubt it would've made much difference because though he is not Aboriginal himself, Orkin's primary interest and expertise is in disputes related to Aboriginal peoples.

Anyway, the linked piece says, among other things:

Canada, it now seems to me, is a colonial country that is still insistently in the very depths of its colonial experience. It is not meaningfully discussing or commencing its long-overdue decolonization any more readily. Rather, it is still engaged in ignoring, perpetuating and entrenching, or even denying it. Wilson, Dussault and their fellow [Royal Commission on Aboriginal People] commissioners reported a decade ago that "We have before us an agenda of decolonizing the relationship between aboriginal and non-aboriginal people in Canada -- an agenda that the experience in other societies demonstrates is not an easy road to follow."

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Long Quote: Trading The Other

[T]he people and their culture, the material and the spiritual, the exotic and the fantastic, became not just the stuff of dreams and imagination, or stereotypes and eroticism but of the first truly global commercial enterprise: trading the Other. This trade had its origins before the Enlightenment, but capitalism and Western culture have transformed earlier trade practices (such as feudal systems of tribute), through the development of native appetites for goods and foreign desires for the strange; the making of labour and consumer markets; the protection of trade routes, markets and practices; and the creation of systems for protecting the power of the rich and maintaining the powerlessness of the poor. Trading the Other is a vast industry based on the positional superiority and advantages gained under imperialism. It is concerned more with ideas, language, knowledge, images, beliefs and fantasies than any other industry. Trading the Other deeply, intimately, defines Western thinking and identity. As a trade, it has no concern for the peoples who originally produced the ideas or images, or with how and why they produced those ways of knowing. It will not, indeed, cannot, return the raw materials from which its products have been made. It no longer has an administrative Head Office with regional offices to which indigenous peoples can go, queue for hours and register complaints which will not be listened to or acted upon.

...Maori indigenous culture is being prepared for trade in the 'new right' economic framework that dominates the New Zealand scene. These include the commodification of such things as: treaty rights, identity, traditional knowledge, traditional customs, traditional organizations, land titles, fauna and flora. While all of these items previously have been the subject of efforts to remove, control and assimilate, the 'new' attacks are aimed at what remains of the indigenous estate and are a very sharp reminder of how control over the agenda, the terms of reference, and the processes for settling the unsettled business of indigenous matters is still held and determined by the colonizing majority. Indigenous peoples who have actively resisted moves to create regional free trade areas as part of the global market place are viewed as a major barrier to free trade. Trading the Other is big business. For indigenous peoples trading ourselves is not on the agenda.

-- Linda Tuhiwai Smith

And though Smith is Maori and she cites the example of her own people, I'm sure examples from North America would differ only in detail.

Courts Encourage Child Abuse

Despite so-called "fathers' rights" rhetoric about men being treated unfairly by family court, the legal system and the political system continue to refuse to really deal with the endemic violence of men against women and children.

Here is an example from Britain, which talks about the sickening reality of courts forcing mothers to take children to see fathers who have abused them.

It begins:

Young children dragged kicking and screaming to visit their abusive fathers and mothers threatened with prison if they don't comply ... It's a world away from the image of wronged dads that the campaign group Fathers4Justice implanted in the public mind. Yet, as Decca Aitkenhead discovers, it's the harrowing reality for many families riven by violence or sexual abuse

(Found via PAR-L list)

Saturday, May 06, 2006

Review: Conversations with Edward Said

[Tariq Ali. Conversations with Edward Said. New York: Seagull Books, 2006.]

Most of the books I review on this site, in fact most of the books that I read these days, are about plunging forward -- in my work, in how I think about the world, in how I act in the world. This one, for a change, is a step back from intensity, a chance to breath, a comma in life. It is fuel for an advance, perhaps, but of a different kind.

Edward Said was a professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. He was also the most significant Palestinian intellectual, perhaps the most significant Arab intellectual, to have worked in English, and an important figure of the international left. Tariq Ali, who conducted this interview, is also a prominent life-long leftist as well as a prolific writer of novels, plays, and political nonfiction. I have read some from both of them, and was delighted to receive as a gift this short snapshot of the two great writers in conversation.

I never had the pleasure to hear Said speak. I also have not read Said's principle books of politically relevant theory: Orientalism, Culture and Imperialism, and Freud and the Non-European, though they are all on the football field long to-read list in my head. I have read some of his writings on Palestinian politics. But this book struck me most because it took me back to the experience of reading a collection of his essays. Both that book and this one acted as powerful reminders for me that political commitment is not and should not be inconsistent with the experience and appreciation of the richness of life.

Let me explain. When middle-class white men in North America somehow make our way to the diverse, mutually contradictory, and fascinating spaces that can be imperfectly summarized by a very broad use of the term "left," and when we deliberately incorporate into our lives discrete politically-oriented struggle that we get to call "activism" (as opposed to just "living") because of our privilege, we bring with us our masculinity and the puritanism of the culture that spawned us. These two things in combination can have a number of outcomes. From the former, you can get the masculine tendency to hide any hint of vulnerability, to hide all the sides of self that might reveal vulnerability, to hide the inherent complexities that make any actual human being inevitably deviate from the masculine ideal in its "purest" (most ridiculous?) hegemonic form and in cocktail with whatever optional lefty add-ons we might mix it. From the latter can come a tendency to venerate a certain singlemindedness, a certain inflexible approach to commitment, a certain tendency to equate politics with virtue and then make a competition of it. Together, these can lead to the stagnation of those sides of ourselves that are not most directly about the politics we cultivate, or it can lead us to perform their absence, to deny our wholeness, in any vaguely political spaces.

In this transcribed conversation they talk about Said's health, Ali pokes fun at Said's propensity for dapper dressing, and family reminiscences are an important piece. But as in Said's collected essays it is the willingness to focus on literature and music that really strikes me: Two staunch leftists whose credentials as such (by whatever ridiculous standard you might conjure to judge such things) are impeccable, talk and publish their talk about obscure (to me) points of classical music, the politically troubling brilliance of Rudyard Kipling's Kim, and how everything Herman Melville wrote except Moby Dick was crap, as well as musings on politics, presidents, and Palestine. Yes, I'm sure there are feminist women who would point out that talking about this is still talking about the external, the professional, instead of having self fully and truly present in the conversation. As well, in the grand scheme of the world it is really nothing unusual, and I'm sure there are lots of people out there who are puzzled by my choice to note it in this way. But I still value the feeling of affirmation it provides for the importance of roses and not just bread, the reminder that part of the very reason why we are active is that beauty and pleasure deserve generous space in every life, and we do no one any favours by allowing them to wither or denying their existence in our own.

And part of my appreciation for this particular form of the reminder from this particular source is quite related to my own goals and desires. I am not so presumptuous as to aspire to acclaim or enduring significance on anything like the scale that these two have achieved -- I'll be happy just for the opportunity to keep doing what I want to be doing -- but the shape of their public lives attracts me very much as a goal for myself: political involvement and lots of writing of lots of different kinds.

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

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Review: Circles of Time

[David T. McNab. Circles of Time: Aborginal Land Rights and Resistance in Ontario. Waterloo: Wilfred Laurier University Press, 1999.]

I have heard it said that God is in the details. I have also heard the same quote with the Devil in the starring role. In its methodical description of the details of dealings between representatives of the Crown and specific indigenous groups in Ontario around issues of land between the late 18th and late 20th centuries, this book seems to support the latter assertion -- colonialism is not just some massive impersonal force, but a devilish practice residing in the details of everyday decisions big and small, carried out by settler institutions with disgusting consistency of dishonesty and disrespect from the distant past to the present day.

David McNab is a white man who worked for the Native Affairs Secretariat of the province of Ontario in the '80s and early '90s. The NAS, as far as I could gather from the book, was largely responsible for answering the mail and for doing a bit of research. The actual important interactions between the province and indigenous peoples were handled by the Ministry of Natural Resources or one of the other powerful ministries, at least when they weren't handled by the Ontario Provincial Police. Then, in the Liberal governments of the late '80s, the NAS got drafted into engaging in a few negotiations around land disputes, for which it had no mandate or expertise. Some of it, according to McNab, went fairly well, only to have the province (and the feds, when they were a party to the agreement in question) completely renege on everything afterward. Most of it was unmitigated disaster. McNab left in disgust and became, again as far as I can tell from the book, a freelance historian and a paid consultant or researcher for the Aboriginal side of negotiations and litigation. This book seems to be a moderately reworked collection of some of the research papers that McNab has prepared over the years.

First let me explain the as-far-as-I-could-tells in the above. This book is a useful resource for what it is, but unfortunately the marketing geniuses at WLU Press decided it would sell better if folks thought maybe it pretended to be something else. The information and graphics on the cover go out of their way to maximize the ambiguity about whether McNab himself might be an Aboriginal person. I can think of no other reason why the blurb about him on the back cover and the information in the frontmatter of the book don't mention that he worked on these issues for the Ontario provincial government for many years. The text also works very hard to tie the book to the Oka crisis of 1990. Indeed, it is quite possible that this event was influental in the development of the writer's politics, but it has little to do with the actual book -- it does not talk about any land issues relating to the Mohawk Nation or the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, so I think that is just an attempt to tie into something that potential buyers might have heard of.

So. Despite not being these things that it kind of pretends to be, it is still quite a useful book. What you have here is an insider who came to realize how awfully the settler state treats Aboriginal peoples, so he got out, lent his skills to struggles against the settler state, and in this book puts some of his historical findings and contemporary experiences to paper. Isn't that enough without trying to appropriate authenticity to which you aren't entitled?

The book begins with a look at a particular Aboriginal conception of history, from which the title of the book is derived. It has, apparently, been expounded most fully by the Mayan Nation, whose territories are in Central America, but the ideas of history held by many First Nations in Ontaro are similar. Unfortunately, I didn't understand the explanation, and I read it twice, carefully. This should perhaps not be surprising, since complex philosophical ideas that have to do with the basic elements of a worldview not your own are notoriously difficult to convey in a few pages of text. However, it may also have to do with the unfortunate fact that the book's writing is not particularly good -- competent, but largely technical in its style, and better with bald facts than complex ideas or rich description.

The bulk of the book examines the histories of a number of groupings within indigenous nations in Ontario, particularly with respect to the land and to the treaty processes with the Crown -- i.e. the settler state's efforts to alienate them from their land. As I said, it does not talk about the Haudenosaunee at all, so there is nothing of direct relevance to the current reclamation efforts in Caledonia. One chapter is about the Walpole Island First Nation near Windsor, and most of the rest have to do with different peoples and territories of the Ojibwe Nation, mostly in Ontario's Near North.

The real value of this book is that it covers such a large span of time -- usually from before the first treaty in a given area, which might be the late 18th century or the late 19th century, until the present. The picture that it paints is absolutely and completely disgusting. The consistency of the behaviour of the Canadian state, through different eras and different governments, is striking. Fundamental differences in understandings of how human beings can and should relate to the land helped create situations where First Nations thought they were agreeing to one thing, while the Crown intended all along to interpret the agreements as if they meant something quite different and had the guns to make its interpretation stick. Even within the shoddy framework of the Crown's interpretation of the original and subsequent treaties, it seems like every territory of every First Nation has stories of land being taken without due process, rights denied, decisions made without consultation, on up to the present. For example, in the '80s, the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources was denying the rights of First Nations people to harvest resources in the territories where their ancestors had been doing so for thousands of years, and then giving commercial fishing permits to the white relatives of MNR staff. Even land claims which were very clear even based solely on government documents, without the need to call upon oral history input from First Nations Elders, have gotten delayed and blocked for decades. Often enough in this period (late '80s, early '90s) when agreements were reached through negotiations -- usually against the advice of much of the provincial bureaucracy -- they were abandoned by the settler governments before being implemented. It should be noted for progressive readers that there was no noticeable change under the NDP government of 1990 to 1995. The list goes on and on.

I think that any one of these incidents on its own might be the sort of thing that most ordinary folks in their dealings with government would shake their heads at and understand as being one of those stupid things that bureaucracies sometimes do, and we should really make amends for that one mistake and go on our way. But the way in which this sort of thing seems to permeate every dealing between First Nations and the settler state, in the 1980s as much as the 1880s, is clear evidence that it is no accident, no bureaucratic error.

At one point McNab refers to a conference between the federal government and the provincial governments in 1913 which had the aim of clearing up all of the jurisdictional conflict that had surrounded First Nations issues to that point. Indeed, such conflict has been a frequent excuse by both levels of government for why issues are not getting dealt with. McNab then points out that most of the issues on the agenda for that conference remain unresolved as of the late 1990s when he was writing.

Politically, I have mixed feelings about the basis for the book. It is focused on looking at the treaty process. While from the point of view of learning the history, I think this is very useful, I am less sure about the author's view of a return to the treaty process being a basis for future progress. I mean, from the word go, at least as far as settler institutions have understood things, the treaty process has always been about taking, taking, taking. How is going back to that going to be an improvement?

But part of why I hesitate in dismissing this view outright is that, from what I understand, there are First Nations that share this view, or something similar to it, and it's not for me to disapprove of how other peoples choose to struggle. But I think I have a sense of where my confusion is based. I think a simple, technical return to negotations on its own is just a recipe for more colonialism (though I think holding the settler state responsible for meeting its own minimal standards of due process would be a good place to start). But I think what some calls for a return to the treaty process mean -- and I'm particularly thinking back to a much more sophisticated book I read a couple of years ago -- is a return to the Aboriginal understanding of the kind of relationship being negotiated, particularly in the pre-1812 treaties organized around the Covenant Chain. This, I think, could provide a basis for the peoples of northern North America living together in ways that manage to address and transcend colonialism. The big question, of course, is how settler institutions with centuries of built-in settler assumptions can be made to change those assumptions, those ways of being -- including basic assumptions about things like sovereignty and power in the nation state -- when said institutions have accountability mostly to other elite-controlled institutions first, to a white-dominated settler population whose majority consistently demonstrates opposition to anti-colonial struggle that challenges its own complicity second, and hardly at all (as this book demonstrates) to indigenous peoples, except when they take steps like setting up barricades and roadblocks.

So while this book leave somethng to be desired in terms of its writing and its politics, it is still extremely useful in showing the devilish details of how colonialism in Canada has functioned, in particular with respect to the land, and how present-day settler institutions behave in ways quite consistent with how they have always behaved.

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

Quick Minimum Wage Facts

"According to Statistics Canada data for last September, almost two-thirds of minimum wage workers in Canada are women. One in three teenagers age 15 to 19 work for minimum wage - accounting for nearly half of the minimum wage earners in the country, StatsCan says. ... Another 17 per cent of minimum wage workers are age 20 to 24, and nearly half of them are students."

-- Natalie Goldenberg-Fife, "Minimum wage hike is peanuts", The Gazette, May 1/06

(From an email on the OW-Watch email list.)

Monday, May 01, 2006

Review: Thunder in my Soul

[Patrcia Monture-Angus. Thunder in my Soul: A Mohawk Woman Speaks. Halifax: Fernwood Publishing, 1995.]

Patricia Monture-Angus is a Mohawk woman from the Six Nations Territory who is married into the Cree Nation, a legal scholar, and a mother. The period in which she wrote the essays in this book spans her time as an academic in the area of law and the beginning of her time in a Native Studies department.

In the essays she writes from this standpoint about legal education; education more generally; Canadian law, justice, and Aboriginal peoples; Aboriginal women and the mainstream women's movement; and the so-called child welfare system and Aboriginal peoples. Not surprisingly, most of what she writes relates to Canadian law, and her journey from seeing it as a possible way for her people to achieve liberation to a realization that Canadian law has been at the heart of every way in which northern North America's indigenous nations have been oppressed and is therefore integral to the problem and not a site to seek solutions. To a certain extent the book also talks about the ways in which related concepts and issues that European-derived societies link to our legal systems have traditionally been dealt with in indigenous nations in North America. And despite these huge topics, the book is deeply personal -- as Monture-Angus puts it, it is a "reflection on my own struggle to shed the colonized shackles which bind my mind, my spirit and my heart."

I have found this a difficult book to review. I'm not sure why. It is very well written. It is essental reading for people seeking to develop an understanding of the shape of colonialism in northern North America, particularly the role of the legal system and the education system in the process. It is even quite topical -- a fair bit of my reading right now is focusing on Aboriginal struggles not because Caledonia is in the news but because of where my project happens to be at, but if the combination of an acute phase of struggle with me reviewing this right now gets a few more people to read it, all the better.

I think part of the challenge for me in responding to this is a very important difference in language. Most political writing that I read, even most of that which sets itself up as in some sense oppostional to the heritage of the European-derived left, still in a broad sense is connected to the diverse conceptual geneology associated with or derived from that particular family of traditions. This book, on the other hand, is very deliberate in rejecting any link that is more than incidental to that collection of frameworks, and instead links its analysis to the tradtions of Mohawk (and Haudenosaunee and Aboriginal more generally) thought. This is not to posit some Samuel Huntington-like essentialist chasm between "civilizations" -- I'm not sure how appropriate that term is, both because it is a very unstable unit of analysis when you look at it closely, and because I'm not sure its vernacular sense really applies very easily to European-derived societies, given our genocidal barbarism over the last five hundred years. Rather, it is a very sensible demand that if the white-dominated North American left wishes to work in support of Aboriginal struggle, as every tenet of morality and politics says we should, then we have to do it on the terms of the nations we enter alliance with and not expect them to care that their traditions overlap strongly with anarchist this or radical that. They do, and we should care as we get busy seeking diverse sources of wisdom for saving ourselves, but we shouldn't assume indigenous nations have any interest in expending their already overstretched resources in making those linkages for us.

I also get the sense, both from this book and others that I have read, that what gets stated explicitly and what is left for Canadians to figure out for ourselves relates to the Aboriginal concept of respect, part of which seems to me to be about "good boundaries" as we might mean it in terms of interpersonal relationships except as applied to relationships between nations -- "This is how your laws, your institutions, oppress us. This is where we want to go and are going whether you support us or not. It's up to you to figure out how you respond to that."

This approach also seems to have to do with Aboriginal approaches to pedagogy. Monture-Angus writes:

The tradition of oral history as a method of sharing the lessons of life with children and young people also had the advantage that the Elders told us stories. They did not tell us what to do or how to do it or figure out the world for us -- they told us a story about their experience, about their life or their grandfather's or grandmother's or auntie's or uncle's life. It is in this manner that Indian people are taught independence as well as respect because you have to do your own figurng for yourself.

In other words, I think this book (and, like I said, others that I have read that seem to come from a similar standpoint) are oriented towards the political work that me and mine need to do in a different way than I am used to, which makes the task of responding meaningfully and comprehensively seem larger and less clearly structured by the text to which I am responding.

Add to this the fact that I remain convinced that the scope of the changes on the "Canadian" side necessary to bring the relationships into balance, respect, harmony -- or one might say to have them embody justice and liberation -- is much greater than many white Canadians might conclude from examining the Mohawk (or Haudenosaunee or general indigenous) standpoints. I can foresee one possible response from the Aboriginal side: "But what we want is simple..." And that's very true, from a sane perspective focused on valuing human beings and nature. But simplicity and sanity look much different from the inside of a predatory, psychotic system of 500 years duration, particularly when one is a beneficiary of that system. I don't think that we can achieve the relationships we wish to achieve while the liberal democratic, capitalist political economy remains intact -- I just don't believe the forces at work within those structures will allow a relationship among the peoples in northern North America that transcends colonialism, and therefore those forces and structures must be fundamentally changed. And that's a pretty big mouthful to bite off in a single short book review.

In any case, I recommend this book highly. It has been one useful stepping stone for me in trying to understand what it means to be a white Canadian living on stolen land.

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