Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Protest CN Rail's Support of Colonialism and the SPP

I mentioned in an earlier post that a good solidarity action for people in Montreal who are supportive of indigenous struggle and of the days of action that will be happening on June 29, July 1, and beyond would be to focus on CN Rail because of their recent decision to go out of their way to target with lawsuits activists from the Mohawk Nation who have taken direct action in support of land claims by blocking railway tracks.

Well, it seems that other folks have had the same idea (and, in fact, it tickles me to have heard it rumoured that what I wrote was one factor among many encouraging folks in Montreal to go in this direction).

I received an email with the following announcement and background:

-- Support indigenous struggles for sovereignty, dignity and self-determination on Turtle Island

-- Oppose CN Rail's racism and colonialism

SUNDAY, JULY 1st, 1pm (sharp)
Picket and Demonstration
Montreal Central Train Station
metro Bonaventure
(enter via the metro, or via the street at 895 de la Gauchetière West, between University and Mansfield)

** Meet at the large departures/arrivals sign in the main lobby of the train station. Bring your banners, placards, flags and other symbols of dissent. **

-- We demand that CN Rail drop their racist lawsuit against Mohawk activists at Tyendinaga;
-- We stand in support and solidarity with indigenous struggles for sovereignty and self-determination all over Turtle Island;
-- We denounce CN Rail's role in the corporate North American Competitiveness Council and the Security and Prosperity Partnership (SPP).

"When justice fails, block the rails!"

CN Rail is a multi-billion dollar company, headquartered in Montreal, whose tracks and installations occupy native lands from ocean-to-ocean.

CN Rail is currently pursuing a multi-million dollar lawsuit against three Mohawk activists from the community of Tyendinaga who were actively involved in the defense of their land. CN is threatening more lawsuits against other indigenous communities and activists who block CN rail lines.

CN Rail and their executives are targeting indigenous community organizers who have effectively brought the issue of land rights violations and native sovereignty to the forefront. In the context of appropriated native territory, which their tracks sit on, CN Rail's actions are colonial and racist.

While CN uses the courts to attack native activists, their CEO -- E. Hunter Harrison -- is a member of the North American Competitiveness Council, a key promoter of the recently formed "Security and Prosperity Partnership" (SPP) between Canada, the United States and Mexico. The SPP continues the imposition of the neo-liberal North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), combined with paranoid "Homeland Security" policies.

The SPP is an attack on all working and oppressed peoples, especially the indigenous peoples of "North America". The SPP leaders -- George Bush, Stephen Harper and Felipe Calderon -- will be meeting later this summer, from August 20-21, in Montebello, Quebec (just 90 minutes from Montreal).

"Canada" is a country built on stolen land and genocide: we come together on July 1, in solidarity with native protests across Turtle Island, as non-natives in opposition to Canadian colonialism and racism. Join us for an anti-colonial anti-Canada Day!

Organized and endorsed by:
Block the Empire-Montreal (BLEM)
Indigenous Peoples Solidarity Movement (IPSM)
No One Is Illegal-Montreal
Tadamon! Montreal
La Pointe Libertaire
and others.

(to add your group endorsement, please contact noii-montreal(at)resist.ca)

INFO: 514-848-7583, noii-montreal(at)resist.ca

If you live in Montreal, please get on out and take part in this action in solidarity with indigenous struggle!

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Review: Fleeing the House of Horrors

[Aysan Sev'er. Fleeing the House of Horrors: Women Who Have Left Abusive Partners. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2002.]

There's something weird about life experiences that manage to be both intense and ordinary. I'm thinking about things like sexuality, violence and mental 'illness', and there are probably others. Now, all of these, particularly the first two, also exist in a strange, ideological space of texts (words, images, videos, etc.) where they are divorced from real people's real experiences and can be cynically mined for narrative intensity in a way that both takes advantage of and heavily obscures their actual intense social power. But what I'm really talking about is how they are lived: For many (violence, mental 'illness') or practically all (sexuality) people, these kinds of experiences can be a powerful presence in our everyday lives, an intense source of shape for our days and our very selves. Yet precisely because they are so powerful -- that is, they can elicit such powerful reactions of various sorts from other people and from institutions -- we carefully guard their visibility to others and their presence in the narratives we construct about our lives (even at times the ones we tell only ourselves), or we must navigate high levels of social surveillance, regulation, and often punishment, or both.

Sharing stories can be a way to build individual and collective power for people facing oppression, violence, or exploitation; it can pierce isolation and spread strategies. Doing this via texts rather than depending on it to happen person-to-person can be particularly important for these intense-yet-ordinary phenomena, where isolation is so common and the stakes of making a bad choice about sharing can be so high. For people who do not experience the oppression in question but wish to support those who do, such texts can be key to the learning that is key to acting as an ally. First person stories of oppression may not in and of themsleves be sufficient knowledge to guide the action that will change the circumstances that produced them, but they are definitely necessary.

Fleeing the House of Horrors is a work of feminist sociology. It is an academic book that adheres to disciplinary norms as modified by years of feminist insight and agitation. It is based on detailed interviews with 39 women in Ontario who had successfully left a relationship with an abusive male partner.

The book spends the first few chapters setting the stage in terms of past research and academic writing in the general field of male violence against women, including controversies within the field, various theoretical frameworks, and a look at what is known about incidence. Then, like any good social science text, it spends a chapter talking in detail about the study's methodology, including, like many a good feminist text, situating the author and talking a bit about her experience of doing the study. The rest of the book is spent analyzing the interviews, with attention to the nature of the abuse experienced by the women, the experiences of the women's children, survival strategies used by the women, the impact of both positive and negative social support systems, and aggression by the women themselves. The book ends with a proposal for a simple model "about what works in terminating abusive relationships and establishing more functional lives" [p. 176].

I read this book because, as I've mentioned before, in the near future I'm going to have to start doing some writing related to violence against women and I am trying to educate myself. It is also a topic which evokes something of a visceral reaction in me, and one that I think is of great political importance, so this is definitely an area where there is a confluence between my work-related reading and my desire to shape for myself a good political self-education. These things have shaped my reading of this book.

The most powerful part of the book is the material at its core: the voices and stories of the women themselves. As well, I think the author does a good job (with a potential exception noted below) of balancing the inclusion of the voices of the women themselves as individuals telling their own stories in all the specificity that implies, with the skilled drawing out of themes and potential commonalities across the interview pool. The stories are utterly heartwrenching, and the strength these women demonstrate in their efforts to survive and thrive is profound. As a source of the kind of gut-level sense of context that I will need for the writing that I will be doing, and as a politically important glimpse into experiences that I do not share but which are nonetheless connected to privileges that I experience, the many chapters describing the content of and analyzing the interviews themselves were extremely valuable.

As powerful and useful as this book is in its use of the interviews in more traditional feminist ethnographic ways, I also couldn't help wondering what might be learned by beginning from the experiences of women in such situations and exploring the ways in which these women's lives have been ruled and regulated by using feminist sociologist Dorothy Smith's institutional ethnography approach.

Another reason I chose to read this book was because it summarizes some important pieces of the academic literature around violence against women. While it is unlikely that what I write will take its primary cues from academic approaches, I still feel that it is important for me to have some awareness of it, and I may wish to draw upon bits and pieces. This book was exhaustively documented but reasonably concise and accessible, so it was quite useful in meeting this need.

At the same time, it was in reading the chapters providing theoretical context that I felt some political misgivings. I also feel some misgivings about these misgivings -- this makes it several mainstream feminist books in a row where I have felt the need to include a criticism of this sort in the review. Obviously silence on the subject is no answer at all, I just hope I'm also being as effective and upfront as these books deserve in extracting from them and naming what I need to learn and what I have learned as I am in naming my concerns with them.

So. The problem has to do with the ways in which the book does and does not attempt to understand the specificities of the experiences of women with different social locations. There is a recognition of variation in access to resources, some of which are directly connected to class but other which are more social in nature and have a more complicated relationship to class. This is very important, though it stays focused on class as understood in distributive, though not purely economistic, terms rather than considering class as undersetood in relational terms. There is also some recognition that things like racial background, cultural background, experience of migration, and so on have potential significance. Interpersonal racism and lack of social networks due to migration to Canada are recognized at the individual level as potential shapers of experience, but by and large the variable given most attention as a potential determinent of group-level experience is culture. On the one hand, this impulse has positive aspects because it seeks to recognize specificity in experience. The author is also explicitly wary of the ways in which culture talk can feed into racism in the dominant society. On the other hand, its conceptualization of culture does not seem to go beyond the standard, liberal multiculturalism approach, which dehistoricizes culture and attributes to timeless "patriarchal cultures" things which may also be connected to class relations, racialized community formation within a white supremacist state, and other things. (For a much more sophisticated approach see, for instance, "A Question of Silence: Reflections on Violence Against Women in Communities of Colour", Himani Bannerji's contribution to this book.) Though changes in this area may have made less of a differnece in the analysis of the interviews than I had initially feared, simply because the author stays very close to the level of immediate, personal experience in her analysis, it does have a big impact on what larger social changes we might decide to aim for in trying to resolve the underlying oppressions, so it is still of great political importance.

This shortcoming shows up in other ways as well. For example, in outlining some different theoretical frameworks to approach violence against women, there was at least some limited engagement with a few different approaches -- including (to my surprise) traditional Marxism, primarily via some of Engels' work; radical feminsim; and socialist feminism -- but no women of colour feminisms.

And it does show up to a certain extent as a potential for missed insights in the analysis of the interviews. For instance, there was a recognition that racism could in theory limit access to professional supports, but she noted with a certain puzzlement that despite many of the women talking about negative experiences with professionals (courts, police, government, welfare, social service agencies, shelters) and half of the sample being women of colour (all Black or Latina) none mentioned experiences of racism as being a problem in that context. Sev'er speculated that this might be a reluctance to share such things with her as a white woman. I would add that this would probably be compounded if the interviewer was not in a position to recognize certain kinds of problems in accessing services as being related to racism in the absence of the interviewee actually using the r-word, which I suspect might be the case. In contrast, there were a number of crucial points in the text where she responded to some element of gender oppression not necessarily based on the label the participants attached to it, but based on the actual experience they described. (A particularly concerning statement that may be illustrative of where the author was at is her opinion that "no ethnocultural group (with the exception of the Native Canadians) gets isolated and scapegoated in terms of its propensity for committing crimes (general or against women.)" [p. 22]. It is astounding to me that a politicized, lefty, feminist academic based in a city with as significant a history of anti-racist struggle as Toronto could make such a ridiculous statement in a book published in 2002.)

So. Despite a failure to fully engage with the sources of specificity for women's experiences, and thereby probably restricting the relevance of the analysis to only parts of some women's experiences rather than their totality, it is, as I have said repeatedly, a powerful and useful book for this particular white man to have read. Whatever it may have missed, it is relentless in drawing the reader's attention to the fact that women all around us are experiencing these things everyday, and employing many different tactics in their courageous efforts to survive and, perhaps ultimately, to thrive. It is truly an important excavation of one crucial area of intense-yet-ordinary experience.

Yet that very fact makes the reading of it a bit weird. I mean, how could it not? In making such invisible aspects of daily life for so many women visible for all to see, it should give most readers more than a touch of vertigo as it pierces the socialized pretense that 'everything is okay' that so often guides our behaviour even when we know intellectually that everything is far from okay. But it's not just that, I don't think -- there's also something weird about plucking these experiences from invisibility and plunking them down in a context of academic discourse. Oh, I agree there are important reasons for doing such a thing, and certainly the author's feminism means that she refuses to follow the malestream academic tradition of detachment, so the affective dimensions of her participants' experiences and of her own experience of doing the work remain visible. But even in its feminist variants, the requirements of academic writing are such that they leech away the intensity that the writer surely feels and the reader should feel. And when the proper response is grief, rage, and action, that's a little weird too.

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

Friday, June 22, 2007

War Resisters and Tactical Choices

Yesterday evening, I went to hear, speakers organized by the local chapter of the War Resisters Support Campaign.

According to its web site, the WRSC

is a broad-based coalition of community, faith, labour and other organizations and individuals that have come together to support U.S. soldiers seeking asylum in Canada because they refuse to fight in the illegal war in Iraq.

The Campaign works on two fronts: we support the material needs of war resisters when they arrive in Canada; and we campaign to persuade the Canadian government to provide sanctuary for U.S. war resisters.

The speakers at the event last night were a 22 year-old war resister from Florida and the national coordinator of the WRSC, who himself came to Canada as a resister of the Vietnam war many years ago. The person who emceed the event was a former president of the local labour council.

There were a couple of events of this sort shortly after I moved to Sudbury, but I didn't manage to make it to either of them, and I have read a bit about it before, but this was my first chance to encounter the WRSC directly. I probably don't need to say that I completely support the goals of the campaign and agree that there needs to be some political solution found that would allow U.S. war resisters to stay in Canada indefinitely. Interestingly, the coordinator of the group shared that they had recently been lucky enough to slip a question into a poll being done by a major polling company in Ontario, and something like sixty-four per cent of Ontarians also agree, with only twenty-seven per cent thinking we should ship 'em back to the U.S.

The event itself was pretty good. It started on time and didn't go late, which might not sound like much but it is rare enough for activist events that I noted and appreciated it. I wish the resister who was present had spoken at a bit more length, but it was definitely interesting to hear what he had to say. Unfortunately, there were a few highly politically questionable things said at the front of the room -- for better or worse they went unchallenged, by me or anyone else. I asked two questions in the fairly lengthy discussion period, one asking for clarification of consequences to the resisters if they are sent back, and the other seeking some elaboration of what kind of action the WRSC was looking for beyond the less accessible but still important lobbying and legal work that they are doing.

The reason I am writing this, though, is because the event made me reflect on the kinds of choices that we inevitably have to make in the course of social change activity, and in particular the tactical, strategic, and ethical dimensions of decisions that we make around how we present ourselves and how we frame our issues.

In what I have observed and heard about the WRSC's activities, there are at least a couple of areas which would involve such difficult balancing for me. For one thing, the campaign makes use of the reservoir of uncritical smugness among liberals, left-liberals, left nationalists, social democrats and others about Canada being in some sense politically superior to the United States. I've written about that plenty before and won't go through it all again right now, but it is a stance that drives me crazy and that, even when it has some minimal basis in policy positions and political practices, the differences are usually small and the smugness still functions to make it harder for Canadians to examine more critically our own society's functioning and our own role in the world. I get the sense that this left nationalist smugness might have come out a bit more heavy-handedly last night than is the WRSC's deliberate intent, but I can't imagine how the campaign could not be counting on making some political points by at least passively appealing to that sentiment, which exists among a fairly broad cross-section of the Canadian public.

(An interesting aside is the fact that the dislike of Canada by the U.S. far right and the smugness of Canadian liberals both have a long history connected to the issue of Canada giving shelter to people fleeing the U.S. From the mid 20th century to the present, those people have been draft dodgers and war resisters, but in much of the 19th century they were escaped slaves. However, even in the 19th century, the self-image derived by white Canadian liberals from this activity was largely detatched from reality. For one thing, before slaves fled the U.S. to come to Canada -- after slavery had been abolished in the northern states but before it had been abolished in British North America -- there was a period of time when there was a small but real flow of African people to the U.S. from the colonies that later became Canada to escape slavery. More importantly, if you look at the conditions in which Black communities lived in Canada in the 19th century, it's not pretty -- segregation in many places, poverty, broken promises from the Canadian colonial governments, racism of all sorts, and so on. Refuge "under the lion's paw" was a sufficiently unpleasant experience that huge numbers of African-descended people returned to the United States after the Civil War was over rather than remain here. But evidence of how unwelcoming a place Canada actually was didn't stop white Canadian liberals from feeling smug and superior. It is also interesting to note that when the Trudeau government was making arrangements for the benefit of draft dodgers and others wishing to avoid participation in the U.S. slaughter of the Vietnamese people in the '60s and '70s, participants in the African American freedom struggles of the same era who sought refuge here were shown no welcome whatsoever by the Canadian state and often dirty trickery was used to return them to the U.S. government that was attacking them.)

The other choice by the WRSC that I would find difficult to abide by is the decision to keep their work and their message very tightly focused. From what I understand, they try to avoid talking about Canada's involvement in Afghanistan, though that did happen a fair bit last night. They are not keen on other issues being visible in their events, even, from what I understand, to the extent of discouraging announcements about upcoming community happenings on related themes. There is no effort to link the plight of war resisters to other struggles around status and borders, such as those being waged by No One Is Illegal groups in a number of cities across the country. I get the sense that they particularly don't want to be associated with tactics and analyses that might risk making the WRSC come across as less 'respectable' in the eyes of 'ordinary Canadians' (whatever that means).

I'm kind of divided about this. On one level, my gut reaction is to dislike it. I mean, groups have to have a focus, and I think it's silly to be dogmatic about what a group must already 'get' and support before deciding to participate beyond very basic and vague similarities in values, but up-front decisions to avoid talking about certain things, to avoid making linkages that present themselves, to place such single-minded emphasis on "respectability" rubs me the wrong way. It seems to cut off potential for broader movement building and for various kinds of growth and learning, and all of those things are important to me when I'm involved in social change activities. Moreover, the notion of "respectability" smuggles in all sorts of potentially oppressive baggage -- do we want to start from a place of reaffirming all of that stuff?

On the other hand, I can also see the position that the point is not to perform some sort of narrow vision of political perfection, it is to win a specific issue. So you do what you need to do to win. There is broad, if passive, support for the goals of the campaign among the Canadian public, and it does make some sense to maximize the chances of turning that passive support into a victory of some kind. I can see the argument that, say, modest changes in how the campaign structures its events will not do much of anything practical to bring an upsurge in broader movement activity, but they might be enough to nudge media coverage in directions that have costs in terms of public opinion, so why take risks with the potential that exists for a narrow but very real victory? Why risk turning the public perception of the issue into something that might mean that, say, a conservative Liberal representing a rural southern Ontario riding might feel unable to support it? Why risk fragmenting the broad coalition that is the underlying support of the campaign?

And when I look at issues that have the same shape in different contexts, my reactions vary. For example, I remember when I lived in Los Angeles coming across some analysis written from the perspective of someone who wants revolutionary social change but who was very critical of the tendency for the sectarian marxist grouplets to try and outdo one other with maximalist programs that might help them recruit a few more militants because they sound oh-so-radical but that do little or nothing to build a broader movement that might actually move society in the directions that they want. Instead, they should restrain their impulses to spout off in ways that sound radical but serve little purpose beyond their own sectarian recruiting, and actually pay attention to building the movement in which they are operating. I can definitely agree with that.

On the other hand, you sometimes might hear people be critical of basic elements of other people's dress and deportment at demonstrations as something that could alienate potential supporters and hurt the movement. And I'm not talking about debates over things that I would see as being substantive questions, like the political significance of streetfighting in a given instance, for example, but just about older liberal types being critical of younger people who do things like yell. And wear ripped clothes. And walk on the street even though we -- gasp -- didn't arrange beforehand with the police. And have piercings. I have no patience for that, and even if it could be demonstrated that such dress and deportment issues might turn a few potential supporters off -- and I'm not sure it could -- I would still have no patience for it.

I could go on but I don't think I will. This actually ties into some important broader arguments about how movements develop and how social change happens, and I don't have the time or inclination to get into that now. It is also something that it is very dangerous to address in the abstract, disconnected from actual circumstances and actual potential consequences. Sometimes, I think, it makes sense to hold back, even to hide self to a certain extent, for the sake of a movement achieving a goal. Other times, it does not.

In general, my gut feeling is that it is important to actively preserve space for different experiences and analyses in most types of social movement groupings, but that it is not useful in the long run to insist on not talking about certain things as the primary tool to do that. And in general, while I can see the value of narrow focus and strict framing to achieve a particular, winnable goal, I think my own preference is to devote my energies to spaces which encourage participation from multiple analyses and standpoints but which do so by an openness to dialogue, to linkages, to being associated with the supposedly disreputable.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Two Sudbury Events

One of them is in support of U.S. war resisters who are seeking refugee status in Canada, and the other is a small effort at settler solidarity with indigenous struggle via providing an opportunity for people, especially settlers, to educate ourselves a little bit about some important history in advance of the June 29th national day of action.

First, the "Soldiers for Peace Speaking Tour"...I haven't been involved in this but I certainly intend to go to the evening event and hear what they have to say:

Le document en français suit le texte en anglais.

Soldiers for Peace Tour, 2007
U.S. war resisters speak at Laurentian

The War Resisters Support Campaign of Sudbury welcomes American War Resisters Chris and Stephanie Teske, and Brandon Hughey, who will speak at Laurentian University on Friday, June 22, at noon, in room C-205 of the Classroom Building. They will also speak on Thursday, June 21, at 6:30 p.m., at the main branch of the Greater Sudbury Public Library (downstairs), on Mackenzie Street. Mayor John Rodriguez will introduce them in a personal capacity at the Laurentian presentation this Friday.

Chris Teske, a native of New York State, served twice in Afghanistan and was honourably discharged from the American army in 2004. In early 2006 he was involuntarily recalled from civilian life to serve in Iraq. When his objections to the war fell upon deaf ears, he and his wife Stephanie arrived in Canada seeking refuge within weeks.

Brandon Hughey arrived in Canada in 2004. He is one of the first Iraq war resisters to arrive here. In their struggle for sanctuary in Canada, he and fellow war resister, Jeremy Hinzman, have received leave to bring their cases before the Supreme Court of Canada.

As the tide of American public opinion turns against the war in Iraq, it is important that we hear the voices of Americans whose knowledge of and objections to their country’s “War on Terror” have lead them to live in a precarious exile here in Canada.

For more information, please contact Alan Shandro, ext. 4328, or Aurélie Lacassagne, ext. 4326, Department of Political Science, Laurentian University.


Tournée « Soldats pour la Paix », 2007 :
Paroles d’objecteurs de conscience américains

La Campagne d’Appui aux Objecteurs de Conscience de Sudbury accueillera les objecteurs de conscience américains Chris et Stéphanie Teske, et Brandon Hughey à l’Université Laurentienne le vendredi 22 juin 2007, à midi, dans la salle C-205 de l’Édifice des arts. Ils offriront également une présentation ce jeudi 21 juin à 18 h 30 à la succursale principale de la bibliothèque publique du Grand Sudbury, rue Mackenzie (salle du sous-sol). Le maire John Rodriguez accueillera les invités à titre personnel à l’université ce vendredi.

Chris Teske, natif de l’état de New York, a servi deux fois en Afghanistan et a été rendu à la vie civile par l’armée américaine en 2004. Au début de l’année 2006, il a été rappelé contre son grès pour aller servir en Irak. Voyant que ses objections à la guerre n’étaient pas entendues, lui et sa femme Stéphanie sont arrivés quelques semaines après au Canada pour trouver refuge.

Brandon Hughey est arrivé au Canada en 2004. Il est un des cinq premiers objecteurs de conscience à la guerre en Irak arrivés chez nous. Dans leur bataille pour trouver refuge au Canada, lui et son collègue objecteur de conscience, Jeremy Hinzman, ont été autorisés à plaider leur cause devant la Cour Suprême du Canada.

A l’heure où l’opinion publique américaine devient de plus en plus critique à l’égard de la guerre en Irak, il est important que nous puissions entendre la parole d’Américains dont la connaissance et leurs objections à la « Guerre contre le terrorisme » menée par leur pays, les ont menés à un exil précaire au Canada.

Pour plus d’informations, veuillez communiquer avec Aurélie Lacassagne, poste 4326, ou encore avec Alan Shandro, poste 4328, Département de science politique, Université Laurentienne.

And then the indigenous solidarity event, which is being organized in part by the anti-war/anti-occupation group of which I am a part:

An Evening of Solidarity With First Nations Struggles

Heard about the Day of Action called by the Assembly of First Nations for June 29th?

The land reclamation by the Six Nations people in Caledonia, Ontario?

Other aspects of indigenous struggle?

Want to learn more about the history and show support in the present?

Learn about one past struggle by coming to a screening of the film...

Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance
Wednesday, June 27th, 7 pm sharp
McNaughton Room, 4th Floor
St. Andrew's Place, 111 Larch Street

The evening will also include drumming and some introductory words from Ojibwe Elder Barb Riley on the importance of land claims. Sponsored by the March 17th Anti-War Committee and the First Peoples National Party of Canada.

For more information no this latter event, please contact me.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Railways and Colonialism Redux

A while ago, I wrote a post titled "Railways and Colonialism" that started out talking about CN Rail bringing civil suits against Shawn Brant, the band council of the Tyendinaga Territory of the Mohawk Nation, and some others, because some people blocked a rail line as part of an action in support of a land claim around which the government has, as always, been stalling, delaying, postponing, and avoiding. I went on to talk about the historical role of railways in colonialism in Canada and to speculate a bit about what some recent events in this regard mean, as well as suggesting that there might be value in some sort of solidarity action directed towards CN.

This post has received a fair amount of attention from government, police, and railway officials (judging by the domains of origin of some of the traffic) as well as activists (juding by the sites some folks have travelled over from). Now, over the history of this blog, I have received far fewer comments that disagree with me than I might have expected, even given the site's generally modest traffic. The category of posts that have most consistently received such comments is those talking about solidarity of various sorts with indigenous struggle, which is interesting and perhaps worth exploring at another time. This particular post, however, had received no comments in disagreement until today. Though they disagree, they seem to genuinely be seeking dialogue, so I wanted to respond thoroughly.

I, ummm, got a bit carried away. So I decided, since writing this took a fair chunk of time I was going to put into the next post I have planned, to reproduce the comment as a post. So here it is...everything below this line is from the comment:


Hi Monty and Steve, thanks for stopping by and thanks for commenting. You have stated your positions in a fair bit of detail, so I will try to be as thorough as I can in responding to you. In fact, this reply has gotten absurdly long, so as well as posting it as a comment here I am going to put it up as a post on its own as well.

I think I want to deal with some of the things that Steve said first.

"Perhaps you should spend more time analyzing your own community and putting your energy into fixing the economic imbalances and social issues created by your own leaders..."

Excellent advice. You seem to have assumed that I am an indigenous person, but I am not. I am a settler and I am white. I wouldn't necessarily be as quick to put all the blame on leaders, but the basic point that I should be focusing on addressing the injustices that are of most benefit to rich, powerful, mostly-white people is exactly right...that's a lot of what this site does, and it is one way to see the kinds of social change activities I'm involved with in real life.

In fact, this makes me think of something I once read from Tim Wise, a white anti-racist activist in the United States. He was talking about the tendency for many white people in the U.S. to react to African American demands for justice with exactly the sort of comment you have made, that they should take responsibility for their own communities and their own leaders and so on. Wise remarks that it is amazing how infrequently the white folk who say that take their own advice: what we as white people need to be doing is taking responsibility for what we, in particular but far from only our elites, have done historically and do in the present to create and maintain racial oppression and white privilege.

I would add to that by saying that in this case -- the ongoing indigenous struggle against colonization within the Canadian state -- that your 'take care of your own backyard' advice is so ill-informed as to be almost insulting. The vast, vast majority of indigenous struggle against the devastating impact of colonization does indeed happen within their own communities, at both individual and collective levels, and most of us who are not part of those communities never see it. The thing is, addressing colonization by confronting the colonizers is not instead of internal healing, it is part of exactly the same process -- an essential part.

And I would add that saying that these problems were "created" by indigenous leaders is very misleading and ignores a great deal of the history. Of course you'll find some indigenous leaders making bad choices -- you find some leaders of every background and in every community making bad choices. But to say that is the cause of all of the problems that indigenous people face is laughable. And even in many instances where leadership is part of the problem, I suspect a lot of that can be linked to the impact of mechanisms of colonization as well.

Anyway, I may come back to some of the other points you've raised -- calling hypothetical one-day blockades "terrorist" is pretty ridiculous, for example -- but now I want to move on to Monty's comments.

Monty: You pack a lot of stuff into a few words, as Steve says. I think I'll try to address the overall points and maybe not every individual question, and if there is anything crucial that I miss then feel free to ask for clarification.

One of the things you seem to be asking is about where, in the minds of indigenous people and their allies, this struggle will be taking Canada and what it will be like once we get there. Obviously there is no single answer to this: indigenous peoples, just like any peoples, have many different visions for what the future might look like once this country has been decolonized. But the beginnings of arriving at an answer to this has to come from listening to what indigenous women and men themselves have to say. As just another "ordinary white guy" I have some things that I might like to see in that future, but I'm just one person, and even setting aside for a moment the inevitable resistance by settler elites and the ordinary settlers who support them, it will not only be a big process to figure out what that future is going to be but it will be one in which I/we have to engage respectfully and with care.

That said, I can probably make a few observations. Your use of words like "mortgage" and "ransom" makes me think that maybe you're thinking that large sums of cash are the primary goal of indigenous struggle, and I'm not sure that's true. Certainly one common goal of indigenous peoples is for the settler state to actually keep the promises it has made over the years, and some of that would take some cash. But I think a big part of what many nations want is a big chunk of their land back: the land they never surrendered, the land they agreed in treaties to share in ways much different than the settler state has understood and enforced by violence. How much? Where? When? What are the practical details? Obviously all those have to be answered, but any just future involves recognizing the existing rights of indigenous nations to their own land. There are lots of other ways that colonization is an ongoing, present-day process doing violence to indigenous communities, and I think ending that violence would be pretty high on the agenda too...and if you want more information about the nuts and bolts of those things, I would suggest finding some books and articles and so on by First Nations authors and really listening to what they have to say. In fact, that's good advice for any settler who admist that they, as you say for yourself, "really know nothing" and that they "want to stand shoulder to shoulder with First Nation's people." In any case, getting the settler state and settler social relations more broadly to take the boot off the necks of indigenous peoples is also a key goal.

You also express some more individual-level concerns. On a certain level, I find these very understandable. Like I said, I too am an "ordinary white guy". I have a pre-school-aged kid, and the idyllic life of golden opportunity, of each generation doing better than the one before, that seemed to still be the promise for (white) Canadians when I was a kid no longer seems to be the case. The days of the eternally booming economy that, at least in the mythology, trickled down to everyone are long over...the post-World War II social democratic compromise is long gone, the environment is in bad shape and getting worse, and good opportunities are harder and harder to find. Of course, for lots of people, including most indigenous people, they've always been hard to find and there are lots of other problems with that mythology too, but the sense of the world not doing ordinary working people too many favours and of declining opportunity is, I think, very real.

That said, I have to strenuously disagree with the notion that "an average income white guy from Saskatchewan" is someone who "got no breaks." Now, bear with me here...I'm not trying to say you've got nothing to complain about or to stop complaining...most of us ordinary people have real reason to complain, and we should do so vigorously, but I'll get back to talking about complaints in a few paragraphs. In the meantime, though, I have to say that I think that for us "average white guy[s]", white privilege is most certainly a "break". As a white guy, I don't have to face the same shit from police as I know that African Canadian and indigeous people often have to face. As a white guy, I know that the colour of my skin won't make it harder for me to find a job or an apartment. As a white guy, I didn't have to go through a school system that told lies about my people, my history, my culture, and systematically devalues my people and their ways of knowing and being in the world. Not to say that you or I are immune from having to deal with barriers of various kinds, limited choices, hard and exploitative work, and inadequate income, but in all of those areas we are likely to face much less than indigenous people and people of colour, especially from comparable class backgrounds, experience.

This makes me think of Tim Wise again. He writes:

I am not claiming, nor do I believe, that all whites are well-off, or even particularly powerful. We live not only in a racialized society, but also a class system, a patriarchal system, and one in which other forms of advantage and disadvantage exist. These other forms of privilege mediate, but nevery fully eradicate, something like white privilege... But despite the fact that white privilege plays out differently for different folks, depending on these other identities, the fact remains that when all other factors are equal, whiteness matters and carries with it great advantage" [Tim Wise, White Like Me, p. ix]

Search the net for "white privilege" along with names like Tim Wise, Inga Muscia, and Robert Jensen, if you want to read more about it.

Your sentence about the casinos is actually a good segue for me into my next point...I'm pretty sure that the "Indian casino" thing is in the U.S., not here, though I could be mistaken. Even there, it is of benefit to very, very few nations, so it creates this illusion that all indigenous people are now rich while leaving the lives of the overwhelming majority completely unchanged. And in terms of Canada, what I do know is that at least two casinos have opened up in Ontario in my memory. I'm pretty sure they aren't owned by indigenous people. In fact, from what I understand, they are officially under the banner of the provincial government's lottery corporation, but it's a large U.S.-based corporation that manages them and makes the big bucks from them. In other words, being inidigenous doesn't help, but being rich enough to own the right kind of major corporation could get you into the casino business.

And that's the thing: whatever barriers you face, whatever opportunities are being taken away from you, you are looking in the wrong place if you are blaming indigenous people and people of colour. It is a tiny minority of rich people, who are mostly white, that are benefiting the most from the changes in our economy that are making it harder and harder for ordinary people to make ends meet. They are the ones we should blame. They are the ones we should be pushing for change.

The issue of different social movements with different bases working together is a very tough one. Just because two different movements have the same chief opponent doesn't mean their interests automatically coincide. But with effort, they can. And the fact is it is that small grouping of elite, mostly-white people at the pinnacles of our economy, the state, and everything else that benefit both from the colonial oppression of indigenous nations in Canada, and the increasing exploitation of white working people. What we settlers, white and non-white, need to do is challenge those elites (even as we constantly challenge racism and other oppressions in our own communities and movements as well). Too few opportunities to make a decent living? Only collective struggle for social change can change that, to make the ways in which we all create wealth more responsive to the needs of ordinary people. Not enough spots in universities and university educations becoming too expensive for a lot of people? We need to struggle for more resources for higher education. And so on. And while we do those things we need to educate ourselves about indigenous struggle, challenge ourselves and each other around personal and systemic racism, and build links with their struggles and support them and work cooperatively where possible. It's not easy, but I see no other path. (And, I would add, the illusion that if the government would just butt out a little bit that all that would matter in this country is individual effort, and that there is no such thing as collective injustice against which we need to struggle, is one that can most easily be maintained as part of privilege, especially white privilege.)

The question of struggle brings me to the other major concern that you raised, and that is tactics -- how people might choose to struggle.

I can appreciate why that quote that appeared in the mainstream media about armed struggle gives you cause for concern. No matter where you approach it from, armed struggle is an path that inevitably comes with tragedy and destruction. Which shouldn't be taken as a blanket condemnation of how others have chosen to resist in different times and places, just a statement of fact about what it entails -- even renowned anti-colonial writer Frantz Fanon, who saw no choice but armed struggle for decolonizing Africa in the mid 20th century, wrote at length about how awful it is for all concerned. I don't feel it is my place, particularly, to pass abstract judgment on how indigenous people in Canada choose to resist their colonization. I can say that I hope that armed struggle of the kind the quoted statement implied never has to happen, and given the facts on the ground, I seriously doubt it would be to the advantage of indigenous people to go that route. But it's not my decision.

What I think we as settlers need to do with that statement, however, is to think about where it must have come from. Going down that kind of path, even talking about going down that kind of path, is not something that anyone does lightly. How bad must conditions be for something like that to be said? Pretty bad, I think. And the fact that it got said, even in a heated moment and a context in which I wouldn't be surprised that the speaker now wishes he had kept his mouth shut, should be a cue for settlers to learn more, to listen more, and to figure out what kinds of changes we need to be pushing for on our end to move towards real justice.

As well, you need to look at how that statement has been used in the media. One guy said one thing from a place of understandable desperation and anger -- one thing that is, practically speaking, not connected to what's actually going on on the ground -- and it is used by the dominant media and settlers of various political persuasions to demonize all indigenous peoples and all efforts to struggle against colonization. I can't help but think that the ease with which that statement was used to mobilized anti-native resentment is not only about a very real desire on the part of ordinary people to avoid acute violence but also a result of the lingering stereotype of "savage" that is still associated with indigenous people in the white settler imagination.

As for using direct action as one component of the overall struggle against colonial oppression in Canada, I'm all for it. Obviously how and when and by whom is complicated, but if direct actions of the sort I have heard talked and written about so far occur on June 29th, I will have no hesitation about talking, writing, and acting in support.

Both of you use the word "terrorism". As I said, I find it ridiculous in this context. In this context, that word functions to demonize resistance that is unlikely to do much more than cause some fairly minor inconveniences and cost a few big corporations a few dollars. Its use also distracts people from paying attention to the violence wreaked on indigenous communities by all the many nasty aspects of colonization day in and day out, which is not minor and not hypothetical. Why are you not writing about that violence? Why are you not calling it terrorism? Why are you not outraged and organizing to force the government which suposedly represents us to get its boot off of the necks of indigenous peoples?

"At this point in my life I am ready for a good fight, so I say bring it on, let's finish what was started by our ancestors then we can rewrite the treaties, divide up the land."

Dialogue such as you have initiated and I have agreed to by responding is always a bit of a balancing act between engaging with it in ways that won't alienate people unnecessarily so that the dialogue can continue, versus the responsibility to name oppressive statements when they occur. And on this one I have to fall on the latter side, even if it risks alienating you: That statement is perfectly horrible, colonial, and racist. (Not to mention kind of inaccurate -- from what I understand it, and I am certainly not an expert, the settler state has largely already unilaterally rewritten the treaties to renege on its obligation, something it can do because it has most of the guns and the settler majority lets it get away with it, and the vast majority of the land has already been unjustly stolen and divided.)

"Then again what kind of comments would you expect from a average white guy in Saskatchewan?"

And that -- which, for people reading this in the post rather than as a comment, was the very next sentence -- is a cop out. Sure, it's a pretty common sentiment, but nothing about being an "average white guy" requires you to openly embrace such colonial nonsense. It's a choice we make every day, to accept it or to work against it. Do you support the acute and structural violence wrought against indigenous people over centuries and still in the present, or do you oppose it? If you oppose it, what are you going to do about it? That's not an easy question; I find it almost paralyzingly difficult. But it is a critical question for those of us who are settlers to answer as we struggle towards the other world that we know is possible.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Organizing Against Deployment to Afghanistan

A coalition of Quebecois groups that oppose war and empire have been conducting a letter-writing campaign directed at soldiers in the Canadian Forces who are currently stationed at CFB Valcartier, of whom 2000 will deploy to Afghanistan later in the summer. As of yesterday morning, more than 3000 letters have been sent, providing soldiers with "a dissenting point-of-view about [their] deployment that we hope will prompt [them] to reconsider [their] participation." The group has also set up a support phone number and an email account for soldiers who are considering resisting deployment.

For the full text of the letter, click here or see below.

The letter is usually sent with a list of citations by war resisters from Canada and the U.S., found here.

For the top page of the campaign's website, look here.

The email containing this information (which I have so far received from at least three different sources) advised that the coalition wanted people to "Please forward and post widely; especially post to any contacts you have in the Canadian Armed Forces, whether based at CFB Valcartier or not." As well, "If your group, collective or organization would like to endorse and support the mailout campaign, please get in touch." If either of those applies to you, please go ahead and do it!

And here is the full text of the open letter:

For several months you’ve been preparing for your mission to Afghanistan, and you will be leaving shortly for Kandahar. During your training, you’ve been told again and again that your mission is to stabilize Afghanistan, to win the hearts and minds of Afghans, to liberate women, and to establish democracy. We are writing this letter to offer you a dissenting point-of-view about your deployment that we hope will prompt you to reconsider your participation.

The Afghan people have never attacked Canada or Québec, and had nothing to do with the attacks of September 11, 2001. Still, Defence Minister Gordon O’Connor -- who used to work as a lobbyist for corporations and public relations firms who profit from war – recently stated that your presence in Afghanistan is “retribution” for 9-11. [Edmonton Journal, January 21, 2007]

The Canadian government defends its involvement in Afghanistan in the name of women’s liberation. However, the Afghani government that you are defending is comprised of warlords who are just as brutal in their treatment of women as the former Taliban regime. In the words of the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA):

“The corrupt and mafia government of Mr. Karzai and its international guardians, are playing shamelessly with the intolerable suffering of Afghan women and misuse it as their propaganda tool for deceiving the people of the world. They have placed some women into official posts in the government who are favored by the warlords and then proclaim it as symbol of "women's liberation" in the country.” [RAWA Statement on International Women’s Day, March 8, 2007, www.rawa.org]

Your deployment in Afghanistan means complicity with the civilian deaths and other activities – like the transfer of prisoners to potential torture and death – that are tantamount to war crimes; here are some examples:

  • this past April, US airstrikes killed at least 57 civilians in Herat Province, more than half of who were women and children [International Herald Tribune, May 12 2007];
  • earlier, in Nangarhar Province, another 19 civilians, including an infant, were killed indiscriminately by US troops, who forced journalists to erase their videotapes of the incident [CBC News, March 4, 2007].

Canadian troops too have been involved in civilian deaths:

  • in March 2006, soldiers shot dead a taxi driver riding near a patrol [CBC News, March 15, 2006];
  • in August 2006, a 10 year-old boy was shot and killed [National Post, August 23, 2006];
  • in December 2006, an elderly Afghan man was shot and killed [CTV News, December 13, 2006];
  • in February 2007, there were two separate incidents involving the killing of Afghan civilians by Canadian troops, including a homeless beggar [Canadian Press, February 17, 2007, CBC News, February 17, 2007 and CTV News, February 19, 2007].

The Afghan mission is based on lies. Canada’s military role in Afghanistan – which began in 2002 – is directly linked to George Bush’s “War on Terror”. 2500 Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan means 2500 more US soldiers in Iraq, despite widespread opposition to that war. The “War on Terror” has been a failure, and has meant less safety and security in the world, particularly for the civilian populations of the Middle East. According to your commander in Afghanistan, Major-General Andrew Leslie: "Every time you kill an angry young man overseas, you're creating 15 more who will come after you." [CBC News, August 8, 2005]

The “Taliban” was declared defeated back in 2002 by George Bush and Donald Rumsfeld, but more than five years later, they’re inexplicably back and stronger than ever. It’s clear that as long as there are foreign forces in Afghanistan, there will be thousands of average Afghans motivated to actively resist those forces. In North America, the mass media brands all opposition to foreign occupation as "Taliban", that dangerously serves to marginalize all Afghani resistance.

Canada’s role in Afghanistan is a trap. It means on-the-ground Canadian soldiers become “cannon-fodder” for the illogical and unjust policies of generals and politicians.

As armed forces soldiers, you know better than anyone the potential consequences of resisting orders to participate in this mission. But you can refuse to participate in this war. Already, one Canadian reservist has refused to serve in Afghanistan. Daily, US soldiers resist orders to serve in the Middle East, and many have come to Canada to seek refuge.

We write this letter in the spirit of dialogue and debate. We write also to offer our concrete support, in confidence, if you do decide to consider resisting deployment to Afghanistan. Our contact information is below; don’t hesitate to get in touch.

-- Coalition Guerre à la Guerre (Quebec City) >>
-- Coalition Québec pour la paix (Quebec City) >>
-- Block the Empire (Montreal) >>
-- Rassemblement Outaouais contre la guerre >>
C.P. 55051, 138 Saint-Vallier Ouest, Québec (Qué) G1K 1J0
418 208-7059 * info(AT)valcartier2007.ca *

Please circulate widely!

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Review: Sisters and Solidarity

[Julie White. Sisters and Solidarity: Women and Unions in Canada. Toronto: Thompson Educational Publishing, Inc., 1993.]

As I have learned in the course of writing many book reviews on this site, there are many different ways in which a book can be difficult to review. It might be a loose collection of essays in many different voices about which very little can usefully be said in general and overall, say. Or it might trigger some sort of gut reaction of an intensity, positive or negative, that I know is idiosyncratic and that makes it hard to evaluate the book fairly in other ways. Or it might deal in ideas that engage me but that are in some sense a bit beyond me at the moment, and wrestling with them in print feels exhilirating but also risky and potentially embarassing.

Reviewing this book is difficult for none of those reasons. Rather, Sisters and Solidarity is a dated and unexciting volume containing a mix of useful-to-me content, not so useful-to-me content that is still politically useful in general, and some politically problematic content, and I'm worried that my own lack of excitement about the book itself might come across as lack of sufficient regard for the ongoing hold of patriarchy and other oppressions on the organization of work and on the Canadian labour movement. I seem to remember lugging stacks of this book around when I worked in the textbook section of a university bookstore but, unlike this book, it actually reads rather like a textbook. Which is too bad. But I know that it is important stuff, for reasons quite close to home: it is not at all an issue of openly sexist behaviour by any individual -- a disclaimer I add just in case any colleague of hers happens to stumble across this post -- but my own partner's decisions about her level and kind of participation in her current union have everything to do with navigating structural barriers that are gendered.

The book begins with a couple of chapters on the history of women and unions. Because it is only a couple of chapters, it isn't able to be as detailed as I might like, but it is a useful overview and, though it is fairly conventionally written history, it does introduce some ideas that are worth thinking about as well.

The next chapter is framed as a look at the advantages of unionization for women. This book is actually a drastic updating of a book written by the same author more than a decade before, and in her previous book this chapter was organized as an intervention in a debate ongoing at the time about whether or not unions were good for women. I hadn't realized that had ever been a subject of active contention within the women's movement, and it was interesting to learn that it was. However, by the point this book was written, this debate was largely settled, and in this book the author's focus is a basic introduction to what unions are, with a feminist approach to understanding how they can be of value to women working for pay even though battles against sexism within the movement are ongoing. It covers fairly basic territory so I didn't find it a terribly useful chapter for me personally, but I can see why it would've been useful when the book was being used as a textbook.

The next two chapters look at the status of women within the labour movement, in terms of representation in different kinds and levels of leadership and in terms of union structures and policy decisions. This is obviously some of the content that is dated, but at the same time I think it is good to have this historical snapshot collected in one place even if it is not particularly relevant to my own work. On the down side, these chapters were very tedious to read -- reviewing numbers and policies for twelve labour centrals and a bunch of individual unions across the country cannot help but be dry.

The next chapter looks at women who are not currently union members, and at questions related to organizing. As with the chapter on the benefits of unions, the general observations are not going to be anything new if you have even a fairly basic background in these issues, but I enjoyed the specific case studies related to organizing unorganized women -- the International Ladies Garment Workers Union and the Public Service Alliance of Canada organizing homeworkers, the Canadian Union of Postal Workers' largely unsuccessful attempt to organize cleaners, and strategies for legal change from the Ontario Federation of Labour.

The final chapter is called "Racial Minorities, Persons with Disabilities, and Gays and Lesbians." On the one hand, at least in some sections (though, most troublingly, not much in the two chapters looking at the current situation of women in unions, which were based in the author's own primary research), issues of racism seemed to be integrated more frequently through the rest of the book than in this recently reviewed volume from the same era and on the same topic. However, the presence of this catchall chapter at the end draws attention to the fact that, like that other volume, the most frequent frame used for incorporating consideration of oppressions other than gender is a politically problematic "difference" frame.

Overall, I suspect this book will mainly be of interest to people doing research of one sort or another -- the issues it deals with are still current, of course, but much of the original information that it presents is out of date. But it does make me think that there would be room for a new publication taking an unflinching look at oppression within the Canadian labour movement, past and present, and a discussion of the efforts by gender-oppressed, queer, racialized, disabled, and other workers to truly make it a movement for all workers.

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

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Kids, Colours, and Racialization

L -- the kid who fills my days and who will be four in a couple of months -- has always been fascinated by colours. Ever since he learned how to say the words, he has named them, asked about them, talked about them, pointed them out, revelled in them. Even today, "Which colour of 'X' do you like?" is a common conversational gambit from him when faced with some field of objects, from cars to magnetic numbers to puzzle pieces. For awhile when he was younger his favourite bit of television was an episode of Blue's Clues all about the names of colours and how to make them by mixing other colours. This included colours beyond just the old standards, so occasionally strangers would be somewhat disconcerted by a two-and-a-half year-old correctly using, if not always accurately pronouncing, words like "chartreuse" and "ree-million." He also seems to be quite taken with using colours to draw and paint and so on, which is kind of exciting for me, coming as I do from a family in which people's talents tend to lie in words and/or music rather than visual arts.

So far, when it comes to colours as they relate to people, there have been moments where he/we have noted that different people have different colours of skin, and we have talked a little about that in very matter of fact ways. I have also tried to make the point that talking about colour vis-a-vis people is a more complicated sort of thing than for pretty much anything else without really going into detail yet (because I'm not sure how much more than that he would get at this point), but also trying hard in so doing not to turn it into some sort of tension-ridden taboo subject either. (If other parents have other suggestions on discussing such things with pre-school aged (white) children, I'd definitely like to hear them.)

But colours themselves have meaning. As with words, though we can engage and challenge and subvert and appropriate to a certain extent in our own deployment of them, colours have meaning that is socially produced and we cannot avoid that just by wishing it away.

One obvious example of this is the infusion of the colours blue and pink, and to a certain extent other colours, with meaning related to gender. This is something that is especially obvious and grating if you spend any time paying attention to clothing and toys and so on produced for small children. I have always tended to be resistant to naming favourites of any kind, but when growing up one of the few I would unhesitatingly claim was blue as my favourite colour, with absolutely no awareness of that as anything other than an exercise in isolated individual choice, though I obviously know differently now. There has not been evidence of such a tendency in L's talk of colours or in his drawing and painting, but the one area where I have noticed it is in the piece he chooses to be in a particular game we play sometimes -- after he had been going to pre-school for a few months, it went from completely random to blue most of the time. I noted this but chose not to make a big deal out of it. After all, it isn't so much which particular choices our kids make around expressing gender that matter (at least when it comes to symbollic things like colours) as our capacity to carve out a little more space for them to actually make choices, and to help them see how many of their "choices" are being socially constructed and forced. So I just kept on deliberately not showing favour to blue myself in choosing game pieces and in answering his random colour preference questions and in other ways, and didn't think much more about it. For reasons probably unrelated to anything I have done, his choice of game pieces has gradually moved back towards more randomness, though still a modest preference for blue.

Blue, pink, and gender are hardly the only example, however.

One night last week, we were cuddled up in bed. All the stories were read, the lights were out, and I had recited to his satisfaction a list of exciting things he might dream about, so we were just chatting a little bit before he drifted off to sleep. For whatever reason, the conversation turned to him imagining the different colours the sky could be and then him immediately following that with, "Nooooo...the sky can't be that colour." Sometimes I would agree, sometimes not (as in, "Well, it can be red at sunset, sometimes"). Then he would go on to the next colour.

Then he said, "And maybe the sky could be black." He paused, and I was all ready to point out that the sky was, in fact, black about half the time. Except he continued with, "But I don't want the sky to be black."

At first I thought this might be some sort of fear of the dark thing. That has never been an issue with him, but you never know when something like that might come up. So I asked him why.

L: "Because black isn't a nice colour."

Me: "Uhhh...why do you say that?"

L: "My friend E. at pre-school said black was a bad colour."

So we went on to have a bit of a discussion about that. I asked a few questions first. He had no idea why E. thought that. I would bet E. probably has no idea why he thinks that, either, given that they are three or four or whatever. It ended with me quite firmly stating that I understood that some people thought that, but that I disagreed quite strongly with E. and felt that black was no more "bad" or "not nice" than any other colour. L seemed to be giving this some thought when we moved on to some other topic, and pretty soon it was time for eyes to close and sleep to come.

So why does this matter?

Well, I can already imagine the mocking from white folks on the right and from many liberals that concern about this is just "political correctness" gone wild. I am certain that whatever interaction was happening between L. and E. about colours had nothing to do with people, and context definitely matters when it comes to the meanings with which colours are socially imbued -- one of the sillier ways in which white people of various political persuasions sometimes try to marginalize talk of race and racism is by removing talk of colour from the realm in which it has social meaning and then implying that talk about racism is exactly the same, and is therefore meaningless or even harmful. "Well, I wouldn't even care if he was purple or green" or "So do you think it is prejudiced if I choose to sit in that white chair instead of that black chair?" and other silliness like that.

In this instance, I would argue that this is not a situation in which the colour is divorced from significant social meaning. I would argue, rather, that this was one example of the small, everyday ways in which racialization, or at least the preconditions for racialization, are propagated in the culture. "Racialization" is a word for the process by which biological markers like skin colour, hair texture, and eye shape are given powerful social meaning through the social construct of "race", which then of course functions as a significant marker for the allocation of various experiences of privilege and oppression.

Whiteness has become normalized; it follows that non-Whiteness has become 'abnormalized.' It is easy to notice the abnormal because of their skin colour. Thus Black drivers are immediately perceived in terms of a particular body and colour image associated almost subliminally with a criminal disposition. Skin colour is the basic marker...[Carol Tator and Frances Henry. Racial Profiling in Canada, p. 27.]

I could be wrong, but I seem to remember reading that negative associations with the colour black existed in European Christian thought even before the processes of enslavement and colonization which gave rise to the modern social relations of white supremacy and associated ideologies of racism, beginning about five centuries ago. Whether or not it was drawing in some pre-existing system of imagery in the European cultural imagination or whether it was starting from scratch at that point, however, certainly now, five centuries later, the colour black has been saturated with a lot of negative meanings that, as these two pre-schoolers demonstrated, exist in discourse independent of the specific relations and ideologies of racism in the present. This free floating association of the colour black with various negatives is ostensibly completely unconnected to people, but that is not how such ideas work in practice at the level of the individual or at the level of the culture as a whole. Just as with blue and pink, we internalize certain socially produced gut reactions to black that are present any time we react to that colour, and it is hard to imagine how general "black is bad" imagery in the culture could be unrelated to the specific, racist ideologies surrounding Blackness in the white imagination -- dirtiness, immorality, danger, and so on. The ideas associated with the colour are both caused by and facilitate the process of racialization imposed on African-descended people. Deeply held gut reactions to black as a colour in the abstract being "not nice" and "bad" are one component of this racialization process.

As to how to respond as a parent, I can't imagine doing much more in that moment than what I did. I think a lot of parents with a lot of different politics are seriously deluded and think we can exert a lot more power than we really can to insulate and protect our kids from the harsh nastiness of the world and the oppressive ideas that are pushed on us. As with any sort of socially constructed meaning that we dislike, disagree with, or vehemently oppose, we can only engage, not determine. Our best bet is to make things visible as best we can and critique them and to be deliberately on and honest about our own political journeys.

But it is still interesting and depressing to have caught this glimpse of a particular idea, politically neutral on the surface but implicated in helping to make certain nasty social processes seem natural, propagating in this way.

Monday, June 04, 2007

Police Commit Violence Against Women


The best place to find out more is, of course, the Women Against Poverty blog. They have a few pics of the action, some links to coverage in the dominant media, and a quote from the Hansard of the House of Commons, in which local MP Olivia Chow gives the action favourable mention.


A collective in Toronto called Women Against Poverty occupied an unused building and demanded government action on affordable housing, subsidized childcare, raising social assistance rates, and other things.

According to one email I received there were over 400 supporters at the action at its peak. The police arrested four of the women who had occupied the building and "not being content to evict the squatters, the cops went on to attack a peaceful group of supporters who were standing on the other side of the street, charging into the crowd on horseback over and over again. Clearly they wanted to eliminate all visible signs of this protest as fast as they could, and to hell with the safety of participants."

Here is a release for a media conference that will be happening later today -- it will address the violence against women committed by the police at yesterday's action as well as the ongoing state support for other forms of violence against women and the kinds of changes in housing and welfare policies that will be necessary to make a real difference in this deplorable situation:

June 3, 2007


Toronto – On Sunday June 3rd, hundreds of women, trans people and their allies marched through the streets of Toronto to 4 Howard Street, one of hundreds of buildings in this city that have been allowed to sit empty and deteriorate until they fall down or must be torn down. Four Women Against Poverty Collective members had already entered the building, claiming it for affordable housing for women by women. We erected a tent city in support of the women inside, but several hours into our peaceful gathering, police used excessive force to move us - giving little or no warning before aggressively clearing our demonstration, and using horses to push women into small confined spaces, creating a very unsafe situation.

Speakers will address the police response as well as the following demands:

• We call on Mayor Miller and City Council to force developers to create safe affordable housing when they: ask for zoning variances, don’t pay their taxes, or allow their buildings to fall apart.

• We call on Premier McGuinty to immediately raise social assistance rates by 40% and to develop a coherent, well-funded province–wide housing policy that has timelines, clear number of units to be built, and accountability components included.

• We call on Prime Minister Harper to develop a coherent, well-funded Canada–wide housing policy and program, and to devote 1% of the federal budget to affordable housing.

Too many survivors of violence and their kids are stuck in shelters, unsafe housing, or abusive homes because they have no place to live. Homeless women face violence every day on the streets. We will continue to demonstrate for change until it happens.

WHAT: Media Conference and Community Meal
WHEN: Monday June 4th, 12 Noon
WHERE: 519 Church St. Community Centre
WHO: Women Against Poverty Collective (WAPC)

The Women Against Poverty Collective is a group of women and trans people who are working together to advocate for safe, affordable and accessible housing for women experiencing violence.

- 30 –

Friday, June 01, 2007

Canada Ranked Eighth in Peace: What Does It Really Mean?


Sounds nice, eh?

It's tricky, though. Even within the broad popular grouping who would have no hesitation identifying with the label "anti-war" it is a hotly contested idea, and a very slippery one.

The Economist Intelligence Unit -- some sort of research outfit associated with the magazine The Economist, whose predelictions you can probably get an idea of from its name even if you are not familiar with it -- and some academics from the field of Peace Studies, with the endorsement of notables like Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Amnesty International, and Dr. Helen Caldicott, have declared that Canada is the eighth most peaceful country on the planet. What exactly should we make of this?

My first reaction, much in tune with one of the underlying themes of a lot of writing on this site over the years, was to sigh at the boost this announcement might give to smug Canadian liberals, particularly given that our neighbour to the south -- the "we are not" that gives meaning to the "we" embraced by so many English-speaking liberals and left nationalists in this country -- was ranked 96th.

I quickly took this initial reaction in check, however, because it bumped up against another one of my political pet peeves: the ways in which "peace" gets treated by the broad spectrum we might label "progressive." My objection is that most people who are anti-war refuse to critically engage with the notion of "peace." Both words in that phrase are important: Some people engage with it but not critically, while others are critical but don't really engage, and very few do both.

On the one hand, you have a group who embrace the idea of "peace" but have little analysis of how that idea can actually function in the real world and are generally resistant to developing such an analysis. The problem is that often "peace" is defined as an absence of acute conflict, which leaves structural violence -- that is, harm and suffering that is the result of domination of one group by another that has been sufficiently successful as to make itself appear normal and just part of "how things are" -- largely invisible. Or, if not invisible, then treated as being less of a problem than acute conflict arising from actions by the oppressed to try and change their circumstances. This reflexive valuing of relative costs and benefits by people who need experience neither can be explicit and near total or it can be heatedly denied and clothed in a more substantive analysis. Often this is accompanied by an insistence that the oppressed use processes of change that have been set up by their oppressor and that are stacked against them, such as involvement in strictly electoral politics. (And I should add that direct action that is explicitly nonviolent can be rhetorically mobilized in a similar fashion as well but, in contrast with some others, I do not believe that action that is explicitly nonviolent inevitably serves this function, but I'm not going to get into that here.)

This leads into the other extreme, the folks who dismiss "peace" but without seriously engaging with it. Often, they make arguments similar to the ones that I have made in the paragraph above. They value resistance, which I think is important. At the same time, they often refuse to see that even though "peace" can be mobilized as an ideology to delegitimize resistance of various sorts, that is not the sum total of what it is and how it works; it is much more complex than that. Even using a fairly conventional understanding of the term, "peace" is a component of what we struggle for and its absence can cause significant harm to ordinary people. The fact is, lots of ordinary people who struggle daily in everyday ways place a high premium on peace for very valid and important reasons, and if we fail to recognize that then we are at risk of disconnecting struggle from real people's real lives. I certainly believe that the path to a better world leads through intensified collective social conflict, but the best direction for struggle in any given moment cannot simply be assumed to be the one that wratchets things up. Social conflict is a complicated thing and its results always contain some ambivalence, and how to act in any particular moment must be determined based on what is actually happening, not on a kind of abstract millenarian desire for that perfect moment of perfectly polarized conflict after which everything will be better. (This can also show up at a tactical level, as with some people who hold this view who sometimes fetishize a particular approach to struggle and end up approaching questions about how to act in ways that are more about a very atomized kind of self-expression than about what is actually most likely to create change.)

I would also add that for me an additional reason to give respect to ideas of "peace" is as part of giving respect to people who use that vocabulary and those ideas in ways that recognize the complexity of what is going on and who struggle against the term's ideological and oppressive mainstream usage. In particular, there are definitely important things to be learned from some of the more left leaning proponents of Peace Studies as a discipline. And perhaps more important is the place that "peace" holds in some strands of indigenous North American thought, in particular among the Iroquois nations, whose traditional social relations were (and, to the extent that colonization allows, still are) centred on a complex and wholistic notion of peace far more comprehensive and (when contrasted with dominant social relations in North America) radical than the connotations that word usually holds in English.

So. Peace: be skeptical, but listen.

That means that to understand what this study and this ranking means, we have to examine it in a little bit more detail -- as the post from which I heard of this observed, it is worth wondering whether certain aspects of Canadian state and state-sanctioned behaviour have really been taken account of.

At the heart of this study is a single composite indicator, the "global peace index", which is based on scores established in twenty-four specific indicators.

I have mixed feelings about approaches which produce a single, quantiative readout to describe complex and often very qualitative aspects of the world. On the one hand, I can see how, in certain limited circumstances, within the context of a grouping or community or collective that has worked towards shared political values, it might be useful as one tool among many to get a handle on complicated situations. However, that is not generally how such indexes get used. The ways in which the single, composite indicators get constructed are very, very political, but because it is the sort of work usually done by "experts", the inherently political nature of the task is often disguised. "Experts" mostly ground themselves within ruling relations, and that standpoint usually gets embedded in the indicator, but in ways disguised by the fig leaf of technical professionalism. As well, reducing complex realities to a single number cannot help but be homogenizing. Even without looking at the indicators that went into the composite, you have to ask whether this high rating for peace reflects the experiences of indigenous youth living in Six Nations or Kashechewan or Black youth in Toronto or women in the sex trade in Vancouver, say, or does it reflect the experiences of heteronormative middle-class white 905ers? Because it is hard to see how it could possibly reflect both in any meaningful way.

Still, it is important to look at what the study actually considers. On the face of it, there is some reason for optimism (the involvement of a major mouthpiece of the capitalist establishment notwithstanding.) The study's introduction recognizes some of the complexities of the issue:

The concept of peace is notoriously difficult to define. The simplest way of approaching it is in terms of harmony achieved by the absence of war or conflict. Applied to nations, this would suggest that those not involved in violent conflicts with neighbouring states or suffering internal wars would have achieved a state of peacefulness. While this is in a sense true, it is clearly a limited definition, or what Galtung described as a “negative peace”. A country that is not at war may be governed by oppressive institutions that restrict the rights of individuals and engender feelings of suspicion and mistrust. Indeed, it has been suggested that policies based on the ideas of negative peace do not deal with the causes of violence, only its manifestations, and may be insufficient to bring lasting conditions of peace.

The majority of peace studies in recent years have turned their attention to the concept of “positive peace”, arguing that a more complete evaluation of peacefulness should also account for the conditions which are favourable to the emergence of peace. One obvious drawback of this approach is the difficulty of defining the determinants of a positive peace — although the trend amongst peace researchers has been to include elements such as freedom, human rights and justice. This echoes views such as those of Albert Einstein: “Peace is not merely the absence of war but the presence of justice, of law, of order--in short, of government.” [references in original]

My inner anarchist did, in fact, roll his eyes at the Einstein quote -- seems to me that positive peace, in the sense of social relations that do not depend on massive violence and oppression, would actually be indicated by the lack of need for government. But I don't want to be dismissive, and there is still some potentially good stuff in there.

Unfortunately, I don't think that the nuts and bolts of how the study was done reflect "positive peace" in any way that I would consider to be meaningful. Take a look at the twenty-four indicators and the methodology. The indicators measure important things, for sure. Most, however, seem to deal with the involvement of the state in acute conflict, internal or external; the measures taken by the state to prepare for such conflict; or the level of acute ambient societal violence, like murder rate. There are some indicators that relate to social justice -- rate of incarceration, for example, and level of internally displaced people. There is only one indicator that explicitly considers respect for human rights, and when you look at the details of what that means, it becomes clear that they are considering only political rights in a particular, conventional sense.

Don't get me wrong, I think it is important to understand the level of militarism in a society, the level of acute social violence, the level of direct political repression. But this model is very clearly based on an ideal represented by smoothly functioning liberal-democracy, and the things that liberal-democracy always refuses to take seriously are ommitted or downplayed in this measurement.

Would this scale capture the difference between structural violence against members of a society that is not currently resulting in acute political unrest and resistance -- in other words, successful oppression and repression -- and actual positive peace? I don't think so. Structural violence would only register during periods when it sparked acute resistance, and only then indirectly, with the resistance marked more directly as the "bad thing". The direct political repression with which that resistance would inevitably be met would also register as a "bad thing", but not the oppressive and/or exploitative social relations sparking the resistance to begin with.

Would anything in this index reflect how many or how few people on social assistance in Canada were suffering long term health impacts due to inadequate rates, unless that inadequacy resulted in disruptive resistance? I don't think so.

Would anything in this index reflect the structural violence of, say, deaths due to contaminated water that would be preventable if resources were used more justly, whether that happened in a First Nations community in Canada or in a village in subsaharan Africa? Nope.

Would anything in this index reflect specifically gendered violence, like rape and sexual assault? It would be subsumed under the general rates for violent crime and murder.

Would anything in this index reflect the prevalence of the violence that African American legal scholar Patricia Williams describes as the "spirit-murder" of everyday racism? I don't think so.

Would anything in this index reflect how much of the wealth produced in a given territory by working people is stolen from them by those people whose right to own capital is enforced by state violence? Not at all, unless it is so bad that there is acute uprising.

Would this index reflect in any meaningful way an unequal and unjust distribution of the benefits of positive peace within a society? Again, only if those deprived of those benefits were in a stage of active and militant resistance.

Even taking each nation-state as a self-contained unit, itself a liberal-democratic fiction with significant political consequences, it seems to me there are far too many forms of violence omitted for this to claim to be at all a meaningful measure of positive peace. Certainly, it measures important things, but not "peace" in the sense that I think it is politically crucial to understand it.

And it only becomes worse when you consider not just social relations within a state but global social relations.

Take the example above of a person dying from contaminate water in subsaharan Africa. In terms of the technical resources and wealth existing on the planet today, the vast majority of such deaths are entirely preventable. I would therefore understand them as a form of structural violence, and therefore as a lack of positive peace, if that term is to have any meaning at all. As observed above, this violence does not really register in this index, or if it does it is only indirectly, and only if it has sparked acute resistance and consequent direct repression. Otherwise, this structural violence is understood as "peace."

It gets worse, though, when you really think of what is causing that structural violence. If it registers at all, it is a negative mark against the country in which it occurs. It has no chance of registering as violence related to the rich countries whose diplomats have aggressively pursused particular global regimes of finance, trade, and economics that have forced countries in the Global South to cut social spending -- in other words, have impeded their already very limited ability to mobilize resources to address structural violence like contaminated water. And let's not forget that these diplomats also engage quite casually in very blatant neocolonial interference in the internal affairs of countries in subsaharan Africa. And all of this is in the context of global relations of production that have formed over the course of centuries, so that the people of an extremely resource-rich continent like Africa suffer disproportionate levels of structural violence of all sorts. And countries like Canada and the United States actively resist, in ways large and small, the sorts of changes that would be required to address these centuries of cumulative murder and robbery, thereby ensuring that they continue (a certain level of high profile "aid" that is inadequate and based on a dependency-reinforcing charity model rather than a justice model notwithstanding.)

I do not dismiss the significance of the state that I live in coming 8th in the Global Peace Index. It indicates things about the society in which I live that make me, relatively speaking, happy to be raising a child here. I'm glad that indicators of things like levels of militarism, levels of incarceration, rates of murder, and so on provide this relatively positive outcome.

But the understanding of "peace" built into the index is a very incomplete and unhealthy one. It reflects only part of the peace we need to struggle to achieve. And presenting an understanding of violence and peace in this form, and ranking Canada in this way, gives a woefully inadequate picture of the relationship between the various entities subsumed under the label "Canada" and violence experienced here and around the world -- a woefully inadequate picture that will only serve to reinforce certain systemic blindnesses experienced by many in the broad progressive spectrum in Canada.