Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Meme: Women of Colour Feminists in Their Own Right

Over at La Chola I found a meme called Women of Color Feminists in Their Own Right. It came originally from here with these instructions:

I am asking that each of my readers point to one or more books, articles, poems, and/or key female figures of color who have discussed feminism from 1492 to the present. Please choose: one historical figure, one from 1960-70, and one from the present from the U.S. Please also choose at least one from outside of Euro-America. Please include a trackback to this post so we can all see your answers or post a comment with your answers here.

I thought I'd participate since it is a way to draw attention to important thinkers, writers, and activists whose work does not receive enough attention. So as a first step go to the above blogs, look at the important people and works already listed and leave ideas of your own.

In giving my own answers, I've decided to focus on women active in the context of the territory currently known as "Canada."

Historical figure: Mary Ann Shadd Cary, educator, first woman newspaper publisher in Canada, and anti-slavery, anti-racist, and women's suffrage activist in the 19th century in both the U.S. and Canada

1960-1970: (I admit that my timing for this one may be off, since it wasn't until the early '70s that she became more widely known, but very likely that indicates that she was active earlier.) Rosemary Brown, activist and politician, the first Black woman to be a member of a legislative assembly in Canada (elected in 1972, as a member in British Columbia for the NDP, Canada's social democratic party) and the first Black woman to run for the leadership of a federal political party in Canada

Present: Sunera Thobani, academic, writer, and past president the National Action Committee on the Status of Women, Canada's largest feminist organization. (See also my recent (unfortunately ponderously long) review of her latest book.)

Outside Euro-America: (I'm including her in this category on the basis that her nation is occupied.) Patricia Monture-Angus of the Mohawk Nation, Grand River Territory, who is an academic, an anti-prison activist, and a lawyer.(I've written about two of her books: here and here.)

I was also disappointed I didn't get to mention Dionne Brand, whose writing is amazing.

Go here and here to see learn about other racialized feminist activists, writers, and thinkers and their works, past and present.

(And while I'm linking to BFP's blog, check out this post about student and faculty mobilizing to support Andrea Smith, a renowned indigenous feminist, who was just denied tenure by the University of Michigan. I've written about one of her books, and read a few other pieces of her writing, and I think this is an absolutely appalling decision by U of M.)

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz Speaking in Sudbury

Renowned writer, feminist, historian, and social justice activist Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz will be speaking in Sudbury on March 3 and 4 on "Indigenous Struggles in the Americas" and "Memory and the Environment of Poverty."

Here is the announcement:

Writer, Historian and Social Justice Activist Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz To Speak in Sudbury Next Monday and Tuesday.

The Gkendassawin Trail Speakers Series and the Humanities MA Colloquium Series welcome Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz to Laurentian University and Sudbury.

As part of the Gkendassawin Trail Speakers Series, the Office of Native Student Affairs and Office of Academic Native Affairs are presenting a public lecture on "Indigenous Struggles in the Americas" by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, on Monday March 3, 2008 at 7 p.m., in the Fraser Auditorium of Laurentian University.

The Interdisciplinary Humanities MA in Interpretation and Values presents its fourth public lecture of the 2007-08 Colloquium Series exploring "Memory and the Environment" by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz on "Memory and the Environment of Poverty," Tuesday March 4, 2008 at 7:30 in the Senate Chambers on the 11th floor of the Parker Building at Laurentian University.

All are welcome to attend. Admission is free.

Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz is a leading historian of indigenous struggles in the Americas and lifelong social justice activist. She is currently a professor emeritus of Ethnic Studies and Women's Studies at California State University. Dunbar-Ortiz grew up in rural Oklahoma, daughter of a landless farmer and half-Indian mother. She was a key figure in the emergence of the women's liberation movement in the late 1960s and, in 1974, became active in the American Indian Movement (AIM) and the International Indian Treaty Council, beginning a lifelong commitment to international human rights.

Her first published book, The Great Sioux Nation: An Oral History of the Sioux Nation and its Struggle for Sovereignty, was published in 1977 and was presented as the fundamental document at the first international conference on Indians of the Americas, held at United Nations' headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland. That book was followed by two others in subsequent years: Roots of Resistance: A History of Land Tenure in New Mexico, 1680-1980 (a new edition of which has just been published by University of Oklahoma Press) and Indians of the Americas: Human Rights and Self-Determination (Zed, 1984). In the last decade, she has written a trilogy of acclaimed memoirs about her life and political work as it has intersected with major historical moments: Red Dirt: Growing Up Okie (Verso, 1997), Outlaw Woman: A Memoir of the War Years, 1960-1975 (City Lights, 2001), and Blood on the Border: A Memoir of the Contra War (South End Press, 2005).

"Roxanne-Dunbar-Ortiz has defined the term engaged intellectual through a life spent on the frontlines of the past four decades of social struggles. She has never abandoned her roots through the process of becoming one of the most respected Left academics in the United States." James Tracy

"Where were you when Che Guevara was murdered in Bolivia in October 1967? When Valerie Solanas shot Andy Warhol? When Angela Davis was on trial for murder, and acquitted? Vividly Roxanne remembers.." Shulamith Firestone

For more information on her work go to

If you are in the area, please come to one or both of the talks!

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Black Panther History

Check out this "one-hour Black History Month special on the Black Panther Party" broadcast on Uprising Radio, my favourite show from Los Angeles' KPFK.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Review: The Dark Side of the Nation

[Himani Bannerji. The Dark Side of the Nation: Essays on Multiculturalism, Nationalism and Gender. Toronto: Canadian Scholars Press, 2000.]

If I talk less in this review about the new ideas I've gained from this book than I usually do, and less about its importance in understanding what gets called "Canada" than its content deserves, it is more a reflection of the context from which I am reading than because the book is at all lacking in either of those areas.

Though it is short, The Dark Side of the Nation takes the reader, particularly the reader who has not yet encountered Bannerji's work, through several crucial applications of her distinctive marxist and anti-racist feminism (related in its philosophical roots to Dorothy Smith's work). Her main target in this volume is Canada, and particularly the white liberal conceits around race, nation, and gender through which white Canadians largely define ourselves. Particularly important is her understanding of official multiculturalism as a practice of social control, her dismantling of liberal notions like "diversity," and even her troubling of the term "women of colour" as an effective space for resistance.

My muted reaction is not because I think this work isn't valuable, but just because it is not all that new to me. Much of her general take on race and gender can be found in an earlier book, which I read years ago and then re-read last year and reviewed. The current book develops her analysis of multiculturalism and the Canadian nation much more fully, but even this was only somewhat new to me because the take on multiculturalism in the book by Sunera Thobani that I recently reviewed drew heavily on Bannerji's and developed it in new ways. And, finally, the chapter called "A Question of Silence: Reflections on Violence Against Women in Communities of Colour" -- the essay of most direct relevance to the chapter of my own work that currently teeters on the brink of completion -- was originally published in a multi-author collection, which I also read years ago then re-read last year and reviewed.

So the interest that this book might hold for you depends entirely on where your own path of reading has taken you. If you have not encountered Bannerji's work before or if you are new to critical analyses of Canada that talk about relations of oppression on the bases of race, gender, and class, this might be a book for you. It is perhaps not as attentive as it could be to the place of indigenous peoples in understanding Canada (though it does not omit this), and there is one place where it is summarizing the process of Canadian state formation that it comes across as surprisingly schematic for a thinker as powerfully original as Bannerji, but its political and literary clarity makes this a great place to start, or to continue, to develop a critical understanding of Canada.

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

Rethinking Political Parties

I've always been quite ambivalent about political parties. I've never been a member of the 'eat your ballot' set -- having a tool, however poor, by which events can be influenced and then not taking the fifteen minutes it takes to use it has always struck me as silly. However, I have never belonged to a party and never felt even close to being convinced (and people have tried) that sinking energy into some party or other is the most important way to create change.

I want to point people towards the first part of a multi-part essay called "Rethinking Political Parties" by long-time British radical Hilary Wainright. I don't agree with everything she has to say. For instance, she seems to focus on identifying "assumptions that underlie habitual political responses" in existing organizations in order to figure out how to move forward. I think that's useful, but I think that it is also essential to look at not just "assumptions" but at the actual forms of organization and how they influence the shifts in a group's politics over time regardless of initial intent.

However, in asking questions about how power works, what agency is, how knowledge is produced, and so on, Wainright is wrestling with the sorts of questions I think we all need to be reflecting on if we want to direct our actions in ways that don't just result in more of the same.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Coverage of Sudbury Event Commemorating Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women

More than 70 Sudbury residents, both indigenous and settler, gathered yesterday in Memorial Park to honour the memories of indigenous women who have been murdered or gone missing in Canada and to voice a challenge to the ways in which the Canadian settler state is complicit in the violence experienced by indigenous women.

For a short news video of the event, click here. (The site on which this is posted is new, and I'm not sure how long that link will work.)

Here is an article from today's Sudbury Star:

A voice for missing women; Thursday ceremony spotlights hundreds of murdered natives
By Rachel Punch

Savannah Trudeau often doesn't feel safe when she's alone and, as a young aboriginal woman, those feelings are justified.

Hundreds of First Nations women - including about 30 in Ontario - have been murdered or simply vanished in the last few decades.

It's a statistic Trudeau, a 20-year-old from Wikemikong, finds frightening.

"It makes me think I have to have somebody there beside me at all times in case something goes wrong," Trudeau said. "I kind of feel scared walking downtown, not just in Sudbury, but anywhere."

Trudeau was one of about 75 people who rallied Thursday afternoon at Memorial Park to raise awareness and remember women who have been murdered or gone missing.

"We're just here to represent our sisters who have gone missing. We're here in support," Trudeau said.

Marjorie Beaudry, a Laurentian University student, organized the event.

"It's to give our condolences to all the families that have lost a sister, mother, daughter or a friend. It's also to create awareness to other aboriginal young women to say 'Hey, there is danger out there so be aware and be careful.' "

The story of Robert Pickton, the mass murderer responsible for the deaths of several women who went missing in Vancouver, has raised awareness about the issue there. It's a problem not unique to Vancouver's Downtown Eastside.

Beaudry said an estimated 500 First Nations women have been reported missing across Canada. Others have been brutally murdered.

Kelly Morrisseau, 27, was seven months pregnant when she was found naked and bloody in Gatineau Park in Ottawa in December 2006. The mother of three died in hospital. Diane Dobson, 36, was found dead in a ditch near Windsor in February 1995.

And here is the text of a statement about the need for the white settler population to take up our responsibility to support struggles against colonization and the violence experienced by indigenous women. It was delivered at the event by a member of Sudbury Against War and Occupation.

Good afternoon.

My name is Clarissa Lassaline and I’m involved with a group of Sudbury folks firmly opposed to war and occupation. The fact that Canada exists as an occupation of First Nations Lands has become increasingly important to our thinking about indigenous struggles and white settler solidarity and responsibility. Colonialism is not solely a remnant of an historical past. Colonial and racist relations continue to play out every day across Canada. Theft of indigenous lands and resources is ongoing whether on Coast Salish Territory in the West, or Six Nations in southern Ontario, Grassy Narrows up North, or the KI folks in northwestern Ontario being sued by Platinex for protecting their land against mineral expoitation. And the hundreds of land struggles in-between. Often these attempted take-overs are accompanied by the full weight of the guns of the law, like those that murdered unarmed Dudley George as he was protecting along with others a site sacred to his people. Or the incarceration system that killed ailing West Coast Elder and warrior Harriet Nahanee ….imprisoned for standing up against 2010 Olympic expansions on Squamish land.

But theft of indigenous land and resources, criminalization of their dissent and outright murder is not the whole story. Current state and societal practices and politics reinforce and extend a many-faceted violent oppression against First Nations across Canada. The Canadian State and its institutions – including the justice system, its laws and courts, coroners offices and police forces, and the media – continue to actively perpetrate discrimination, violent sexist and racist behaviour and genocide against Native people. The deliberate inaction of authorities in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside is not the exception but the norm for sex workers in general. The deliberate inaction of authorities in the violence against First Nations women everywhere across the country is the norm. And a verdict of only 2nd degree murder for the brutal butchering of six indigenous women – that too is the norm. Often the killers are never even prosecuted or brought to justice. First Nations women have gone missing from communities big and small all over Canada, targets of sexual and racist violence and hate crimes, unprotected by the authorities responsible and amidst deliberate widespread indifference.

Yet the position that we - the white settler population - have in these widespread violent practices is far from neutral. Our ways, our mostly middle-class values, power and privileges are imposed and maintained by the Canadian state institutions that act with impunity in our name and on our behalf. We have a responsibility. Responsibility lays with us to stop ignoring what the state apparatus does or doesn’t do, stop collaborating with it, condemn it, demand a better way of doing things for everybody that values the life of everyone equally. We need to learn for ourselves how to decolonize our thinking and practices so that we can begin to work as allies of First Nations peoples, not as their oppressors. Otherwise, violence against indigenous people, particularly aboriginal women and young girls, will continue just because they are aboriginal people.


Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Canada's Spy Agency "Uses Information Obtained By Torture"

The watchdog of CSIS, Canada's spy agency, has found that it uses information obtained from torture, in the face of multiple domestic and international obligations to absolutely reject torture.

It should be noted that the Security Intelligence Review Committee, the body responsible for oversight of CSIS, is just another piece of the state and not any kind of external source of supervision, and it does not exactly have a reputation for being strict and critical. The fact that it has felt it necessary to scold CSIS in this way is significant.

Here is a news article from Canadian Press reporting on the issue:

Spy watchdog fingers CSIS on torture data
Wed, February 13, 2008
By JIM BRONSKILL, Canadian Press

OTTAWA -- An investigation by the watchdog over the Canadian Security Intelligence Service concludes the spy agency "uses information obtained by torture" -- perhaps its bluntest assessment of CSIS's intelligence-gathering practices to date.

The Security Intelligence Review Committee, which began looking into the issue two years ago, stops short of accepting Toronto lawyer Paul Copeland's assertion CSIS had shown a "total lack of concern" about evidence possibly gathered through coercive means.

But it finds that CSIS's concern has focused on the impact torture might have on the reliability of information it uses, rather than obligations under the Charter of Rights, the Criminal Code and international treaties "that absolutely reject torture."

Questions about Canadian reliance on data extracted from suspected terrorists through brutal methods have arisen in high-profile cases.

Copeland's complaint to the review committee, which reports to Parliament, stemmed from evidence CSIS entered in the case of client Mohamed Harkat who is slated for deportation to his native Algeria under a national security certificate.

CSIS contends Harkat, a former pizza delivery man, is an Islamic extremist and collaborator with Osama bin Laden's terrorist network -- a charge he denies.

During bail proceedings for Harkat in 2005, Copeland questioned a senior CSIS analyst, identified only as P.G., whether he ever asked if information he handled was obtained through torture.

P.G. insisted he would usually try to corroborate such material through independent sources.

Copeland was left with the impression the spy service made no effort to determine whether information was extracted by torture.

In its report, delivered to Copeland, committee member Aldea Landry noted CSIS is required, before entering a foreign liaison arrangement, to address the country's human rights record.

It should be noted that Harkat has never had the chance to defend himself in a fair and open trial. He remains under indefinite detention based on a secret trial, with no chance to know or try to refute whatever evidence CSIS might have against him, and under a process with no resemblance to what Canadians would normally consider adequate due process for depriving someone of their liberty.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Sudbury Residents Honour Indigenous Women Murdered or Missing in Canada

An important event happening in Sudbury (and several other cities across the country) on Thursday:

For Immediate Release
Sudbury Residents Honour Indigenous Women Murdered or Missing in Canada

SUDBURY, ONTARIO, February 14, 2008 – Hundreds of Indigenous women in Canada have been murdered or have gone missing over the last 20 years. All too often, the authorities have done little or nothing in response.

A coalition of concerned Sudbury residents, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous, seek to change this. On Thursday, February 14, between 1 pm and 4 pm, community members will gather in Memorial Park for a rally, conversation, speeches, and drumming. At 2 pm, they will honour missing Indigenous women with a Strawberry Ceremony.

At 6:30 pm at the main branch of the Sudbury Public Library the coalition will screen the film Finding Dawn. This documentary, directed by Métis filmmaker Christine Welsh, illustrates the deep historical, social, and economic realities of colonization that contribute to the epidemic of violence against Indigenous women in Canada.

In this cross-country day of action, Sudbury residents will be joining Indigenous women and allies in Vancouver, Toronto, London, Sault Saint Marie, Edmonton, and Winnipeg to mark and memorialize the deaths and disappearances of women from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside as well as the many other Indigenous women missing across the country. In coordination with the national No More Silence network, they will come together in defense of Indigenous lives and in protest of the complicity of the government of Canada and its institutions – the police, RCMP, coroner's offices, and courts – in the ongoing violence against First Nations peoples.

Indigenous communities are overpoliced and Indigenous women make up the fastest growing prison population, yet the deaths of First Nations women consistently go uninvestigated and their killers unfound. A recent report from Amnesty International on the widespread violence against Indigenous women in Canada confirms that the exact number of murders and disappearances is unknown because police have not kept adequate records. And in cases where they have kept records, ongoing irregularities, gaps in information, and insensitive and racist treatment of the families are the norm.

No More Silence aims to develop a national network of local coalitions of Indigenous women and allies to stop the disappearances.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Review: Exalted Subjects

[Sunera Thobani. Exalted Subjects: Studies in the Making of Race and Nation in Canada. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2007.]

The idea that things do not have to be as they are -- that they have reached their current configuration through a combination of random chance and deliberate action rather than an all-powerful, 'natural' inevitability -- is not a particularly novel one. After all, stated or not, it is a necessary premise for involvement in social change activity that human actions can change the world. Otherwise, why act?

But I feel like I have come to a much more focused appreciation of that idea in the last couple of years, mostly through reading my own eccentric mix of history and theory. For instance, it still blows my mind to have an appreciation of how the features of social organization that are most fundamental to our world today might be completely different had the course of certain peasant struggles in Europe four or five centuries ago gone differently. Or that the barriers around employment that some women began to overcome through feminist struggle in the '60s and '70s were not relics of some flat, primordial patriarchy -- something that gets simplistically and often implicitly associated with the broad, subordinating category of 'the primitive', which we are in turn taught to associate with the West's past and the rest of the world's present. No, it was in part because there were active, deliberate campaigns waged by elites and by non-elite men to exclude women from guilds in Europe during the period of the transition to capitalism.

Those are just examples. For me, given my reading and writing, a lot of reflectin of this sort has specifically to do with what is currently called "Canada." The shape that this part of the world has in my head -- its past, its present, its people, its institutions -- has been changing incrementally for years away from the crude propaganda poster drawn in crayon that the formal school system and the mass media originally created in me.

Though Thobani is the first to admit that this book is only a first attempt based on looking at certain key moments in Canadian history rather than a comprehensive reinvestigation of its entire span, Exalted Subjects is also one of the most relentless volumes I have yet read in advancing the idea that "Canada" and "Canadians" have been made, and exploring how that has happened. At the centre of her argument is a process she labels "exaltation," in which the subjective experience of belonging and legitimacy by national subjects and the socially organized relations that create belonging reinforce each other to allow the national subject to experience her/himself and to actually function as an order of human beings actively exalted above all Others.

The first chapter talks about the initial act of exaltation, and the one upon which all subsequent experiences of exaltation are premised, in the moment of colonization. "Canada" and the identity "Canadian" are grounded in the assumption that they are entirely legitimate, and that their legitimacy is based on the rule of law. In this chapter, Thobani examines "claims to the lawfulness of nationality, highlighting the violence that upholds it" [35]. She goes through the founding lies and the founding violence against indigenous peoples that have made "Canada" possible. She traces the supposed legal basis for the colonization of Turtle Island, and points to the violence at the initial imposition of colonial relations, the violence inherent in creating the imported and imposed European law as the highest authority over this territory, and the violence required on an ongoing basis to maintain colonial relations in the face of indigenous peoples that continue to resist.

In this discussion, she makes the interesting point that the transition in Europe from religious law to secular law was in fact partially prompted by the needs of colonization: The colonizers initially justified their barbaric treatment of indigenous peoples and enslaved Africans by the fact that those they were brutalizing were not Christians. However, as colonization proceeded and non-white peoples converted to Christianity, another approach was needed to legitimize white supremacy. That was most easily found by moving away from laws that saw everything in overtly religious terms to the supposed objectivity of secular, state administered law, which proceeded to find other bases for subordinating racialized people.

More recently, she says, Canada's Indian Act has been central in creating "Canadians":

The Indian Act was as much about enhancing the domain of nationals as it was about controlling Aboriginal peoples. Constructing the nation as white required Europeans to come forth and multiply as Canadians, and to this end, the state endowed them with the rights to enter the country, to settle the stolen land, to live and work on it. The state upheld the legality of the national's ownership and the Aboriginal's dispossession of the land, and herein is rooted the proprietary relationship among law, state, Aboriginals, and nation(als), racialized in all its permutations. The national subject came to know itself as a lawful subject, an exalted member of the nation. It experienced its humanity as being of a different order than that of the Indian.

You can see this in a lot of the anti-Native rhetoric from certain settlers responding to indigenous actions such as the land reclamation in Caledonia, Ontario.

The second chapter traces some of the evolution of citizenship in Canada. It points how the creation of a "White Canada" was not an accident, but based in both colonization and in the active and deliberate exclusion of non-indigenous racialized peoples from the territory claimed by the Canadian state up until the late 1960s. Though the liberalization of immigration law that occurred at that time is usually constructed in the liberal myth-making of Canada as the attainment of a race-neutral form of citizenship, she argues that it is an institution that remains associated with whiteness. The greater legitimacy the institution of citizenship acquired through liberalization has in fact strengthened its utility in dismissing the claims of indigenous peoples, who are permitted the same liberalized claim to citizenship as all other groups even as their pre-existing claims to justice and to the land are erased. Shifts in the role of the state in regulating the lives of people once they have arrived in Canada which began to be applied after those entering the country came to be primarily racialized -- whether that is through constructing these new entrants to the country as one form or another of migrant workers or through the deprivation of rights of social citizenship through sponsorship regulations -- have also helped to keep whiteness at the centre. It is notable in this section how Thobani foregrounds the tripartite relationship that is at the heart of Canadian society, with non-indigenous racialized people still largely subordinated to "white Canada" but still deeply complicit in the colonial dispossession of indigenous peoples. She also makes some interesting points about citizenship and belonging not just as legal categories but as a product of social rituals that are enacted everyday -- social rituals in which white nationals frequently perform their own exaltation and mark racialized people as Other.

Among the rituals and rites of citizenship can be included the affective recitations of national anthems; the raising of flags; the public pledges and oaths of allegiance to the sovereign; and the celebration of national holidays and the parades, plays, firework displays, street parties, family dinners, and so on, that mark these. The political practices associated with elections, referendums, voting, and so on, are clearly integral to producing forms of affiliation that are central to civic integration; they become the sites where members of the collective perform their own belonging and recognize that of their compatriots.

The rites and rituals of citizenship, however, can -- and do -- assume other more overtly malevolent expressions. Among the rites that have also inducted individuals into the national political communities in North America are the ritualized forms of 'national' violence, such as the lynching of Black men in the souther United States, the painting of swastikas on synagogues and the 'Paki-bashing' by ultranationalists; the raping of women in situations of war and conflict; the organized riots and mob violence enacted upon the bodies of Chinese and other aliens. Such rites also include the highly ritualized erasures of the presence of minorities in national historiography and the markes of national accomplishments, as well as the more banal liturgies recited against their presence (why don't they speak English? do they have to wear turbans? why do they have to live in such large families? their clothes and houses smell; they are too noisy; their religions and customs are strange; their marriages are arranged and their costumes gaudy; and so on). The exclusion of racial minorities from housing, employment, access to loans, the repeated questioning about where the are really from, the repeated insistence that they provide documents to prove their legality add to the repertoire of these bonding rituals among nationals.

The third chapter looks at the Canadian welfare state. It builds upon a tradition by white Canadian feminists of critiquing the welfare state as reinforcing patriarchy in the family and creating a sort of public patriarchy for the surveillance and control of poor women by injecting an analysis of racialization and migration. The welfare system as it came to be after World War II also contributed to the exaltation of the national subject through allowing Canadians to construct ourselves as compassionate for giving and as worthy of receiving social supports. The explicit exclusion of most racialized migrants from Canada up until the '70s and the conditions of entry imposed after that point, especially for women who were mostly allowed to enter under the "family class" as sponsored by a man, constsructed immigrants as less worthy of receiving this largesse and less able to access it than white nationals. She argues, in fact, that by its default awarding of power within the family to an adult man and its admission of most racialized women as 'dependents' on that man, while enforcing that dependency by limiting access to social welfare resources for a decade after entry, "Sponsorship regulations have played no small role in the popular construction of immigrant families as overly patriarchal and of immigrant women as family bound, dependent on their families and cultural communities" [138]. Thobani also contrasts the relationship between the welfare state and the families of white nationals versus the welfare state and the families of indigenous people. Patriarchy may have been reinforced in the former, but in that patriarchal form they were supported, while indigenous families were attacked outright first by stealing their children and putting them in abusive residential school situations and later by stealing their children and putting them in mostly non-Native foster homes. By its elaboration of a bureaucratic apparatus that existed mainly through the professionalized caring labour of white women, the welfare state also served to exalt white female nationals in gendered ways by the relationship it created to the lives regulated by these women in their professional capacities.

Multiculturalism is the next target of Thobani's pen. Given its prominence in liberal white Canadian self-satisfaction, multiculturalism as state policy is also a means by which privileged national subjects are exalted. Others have talked before about how multiculturalism in Canada was a state response to the need for immigrant workers in the face of declining interest in moving here by Europeans -- that meant racialized people had to be admitted in larger numbers for the first time, and so the state had to come up with some way to regulate them. Her new twist on this understanding is that multiculturalism also serves as a way to stabilize white supremacy in a new mode for an era of decolonization. After World War II, eugenic and racialist theories that were popular all over, including in white North America, were discredited by global horror at the Nazis. Decolonization struggles across the so-called Third World also unsettled assumptions of white supremacy to a certain extent. And, of course, racialized people entering the labour force in large numbers in the white-dominated countries and showing much greater competency in all areas than traditional white supremacist discourse allowed also destabilized white supremacy. The multicultural response to these things allowed whiteness to construct itself as 'tolerant' and cosmopolitan but still unmistakeably in charge. It constituted the Others as less liberal, less tolerant, monocultural, and in need of being taught by the white folk. And it created a system in which those classified as Other often accepted or even embraced that classification, because the culturaist essentialization at the heart of this new approach to racialization was undeniably a step up from the previous racism and did hold the promise for some (though not much) access to state resources for those people and communities who accepted its terms.

Chapter 5 is a detailed examination of two social policy consultations done by the federal government in the mid '90s, one focused on social welfare and the other on immigration. She traces the discourse in official documents associated with these consultations to show the role of both the state and citizens in constructing who is part of the nation and under what conditions, and who is suspect.

The final chapter discusses the period since 9/11. In that time, the Other against which "Canada" and "Canadians" are constructed has become increasingly identified with racialized Muslims, and increasing importance has been placed upon discourse of culture and civilization. This allows "Canada" and "Canadian" to be tied ever more tightly to the overarching idea of "the West" which has been central in many countries to mobilizing support for the various nasty things -- war, empire, neoliberalism, among others -- conducted under the ideological banner of the "war on terror," thus engineering greater Canadian buy-in to that process. She argues that sovereignty has been rearranged such that, in the case of Muslims who hold Canadian citizenship, that citizenship can now be overridden at will by national interests of the U.S. state. She also points out how the new environment has further exalted white nationals by casting the belonging of racialized citizens under ever more suspicion -- Muslims and those who can be mistaken for them must prove that they are the 'good' kind by overt demonstrations of fealty to whatever the mainstream determines to be true markers of Westerness, lest they be thought the 'bad' kind and arrested under a security certificate, deported to Syria for torture, or subjected in an even more intense way to the everyday rituals of subordination enumerated above.

There are aspects of how the book was put together that could have been more effective. The emphasis on the new concept of "exaltation" felt suspiciously like a piece of academic branding. It's not that it isn't a useful idea, and she does some really powerful things with it with respect to Canada, but I'm not sure it is as huge a leap from already-existing ideas as its packaging tries to imply. Not that I blame Thobani for this -- academics have to navigate the institutional realities that have power over their continuing ability to do useful, radical work, so some level of engagement with the game is a given. The writing also exhibited a particular kind of insistence on political precision and thoroughness that I associate with academia, though I also fall into it myself from time to time. This can make the writing more useful for others with academic or quasi-academic intent, but it can also easily make writing less powerful in a literary sense. As well, I think it is important to keep in mind Thobani's own warning that there remains a lot more to explore -- moments, sources, fragments of the nation.

Those reservations aside, I learned a lot from this book, and think its conception of "Canada" and "Canadians" has something significant to contribute to projects seeking to-the-root justice and liberation in northern North America.

The question I kept bumping into as I read was not in the text itself, but was more a product of taking it up in a way oriented towards using it as a basis for doing, whether that doing takes the form of talking or of writing or of organizing. The question is: What exactly am I supposed to do with these rich, radical insights? What do you do with them in the context of people who really don't want to know about the contingent, constructed, and oppressive realities of "Canada" and "Canadian"?

I mean that question in a very specific context. Any act of communication requires, I think, that those who are communicating permit themselves to be fully present in a kind of dynamic tension, in which they are conscious and accepting of what they have in common with the other party or parties, and conscious and accepting of where they differ. Various kinds of things are likely to disrupt this tension. For example, some sort of interpersonal polarization, which amps up rhetoric even as actual positions remain much the same, is a good way to make sure real communication stops. (There are, of course, times when there is nothing wrong with this.) Another common example is when a conversation enters a new area, and the shape of agreement and disagreement differs sharply than in the previous areas, and that provides a shock that makes the tension less comfortable. Yet another, connected in some ways to both of those, is the introduction of a position by one participant which is so contrary to the common sense of the other that listening stops, or at least changes significantly in character. It doesn't necessarily result in conflict -- in many instances it results in what I have seen referred to as 'blanking', in which ideas are not met with open hostility but they are processed at a much more superficial level of consciousness then when true listening is occurring.

Here is a hypothetical example where I am the one who tunes out. Say I'm having an interesting discussion with someone. Say we have areas we agree and areas we disagree, and there really are lots of differences in how we see the world but we like each other so there is a sense of anticipation about exploring the shape of those differences. Then, say the other party introduces the fact that they are really, truly convinced that 9/11 was an inside job and they see uncovering that truth as central to any meaningful social change in the world. At that point, even if I don't want to, and even if the conversation moves immediately to other things, my ability to exist in the tension of agreement and disagreement has taken a hit, and it may or may not recover.

Now, getting back to Thobani -- I think that this kind of analysis of "Canada" and "Canadians" is likely to function as that kind of destabilizer of connected communication with many (especially white) Canadians, because it is so in the face of very powerful, dominant commonsense. I can think of plenty of people I could have interesting discussions with, where we could both exist comfortably in the dynamic tension of agreement and disagreement, but who would react to the introduction of this type of analysis by something akin to 'blanking.' I imagine their internal narrative to be something like, "Wow, that Scott sure has some crazy ideas. Well, he's a smart enough guy, I suppose, but this really has nothing to do with real life, and I have no idea how to address it, so I'll just smile and nod."

How do you deal with the way in which commonsense forged in the life experience of an exalted national gets in the way of hearing this kind of analysis, whether it is in interpersonal conversation or as the basis of some sort of collective political effort? How do you let that inform when you speak up and when you hold back? How do you decide when to risk alienating, and how do you know when to prioritize the connection?

And, really, what does this insight into the commonsense of the exalted national, of which I am one, say about the challenges of turning a good talked line into a walk that means something? Reading the book and being able to spout it back says little about turning this sort of challenge to "Canadianness" into a broader, meaningful, and sustained political practice.

I'm not going to try and answer all of that in this post. It is, really, just one more instance of those of us with privilege trying to wrap our heads around what it means to have it and how to undermine it -- settlers in solidarity with indigenous struggle, white people trying to oppose racism, men opposing gender oppression, and so on. It can turn into a sort of navel gazing that decentres the experiences of oppressed people, but it still has to happen in certain times and places. And as best as I can tell, you muddle through, you mess up, and you keep muddling.

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

Monday, February 04, 2008

Conservative Deception About Security Certificates

In light of a Parliamentary vote scheduled for this evening on Bill C-3, reauthorizing the security certificate process ruled unconstitutional last year by the Supreme Court and amended only in superficial ways, the Conservartives released a statement. This statement is sickening, but revealing in its own way if read in the right light.

I have a feeling this will be a document that will find its way into future discourse analysis by anti-racist scholars looking at the trajectory of relations of white supremacy in Canada, but in the meantime I'll do my quick-and-dirty best to interpret what it is actually saying. Here is the media release interspersed with my comments:

Putting the Safety of Canadians First
February 04, 2008 starts in the title. This title reveals the hierarchy implicit in the mainstream understanding of the word "Canadians." It fairly openly reveals a kind of vicious nationalism by which the human rights of those formally excluded from the category can be trod upon at will -- "Canadians First" and no due process for you if you don't have the piece of paper.

It also reveals who is functionally excluded from "Canadians" even when formally included. Security certificates have functioned in the real world as one component of campaigns of harassment and exclusion by the state of certain racialized communities (comprised largely of people with citizenship) and many enterprising white citizens take it upon themselves to follow the lead of the state and inflict everyday forms of indignity and harassment upon people racialized in those ways. The safety of people treated in this way is most definitely not being put "First", which by the construction in the phrase above implies they aren't really "Canadians." So whiteness is again kept front and centre in what it means to really be a part of the nation.

Today people and goods are able to travel across borders more freely than ever before.

This sentence goes one step further and expels racialized people from humanity. The usage of "people" in this sentence is only fully accurate if you consider only well-off white people with citizenship in rich countries. People who are racialized, particularly those read as South Asian, West Asian, and/or Muslim in recent years, are not "able to travel across borders more freely than ever before." Far from it, in fact. Certainly more racialized people are migrating to white-dominated countries, but that has to do with compulsion of necessity for the migrants and requirements for ongoing capital accumulation in the destination countries. The actual act of crossing borders is becoming less and less free for people from the Global South.

With this increased travel, however, comes the serious risk of terrorism, organized crime and other security risks.

And isn't this just a delightful sentence. It tells us that the "risk of terrorism" is caused by...wait for it..."increased travel." This engages in all sorts of sleight of hand that is standard in dominant usage. It erases the much larger acts of terror engaged in by states, particularly Western states, and focuses attention on small scale 'retail' terror as the sum total of "terrorism." It erases any possibility of actually trying to understand the material basis for even the 'retail' version of "terrorism". And by making the only named cause "increased travel" it invokes racist code which only makes sense if it is understood that the problem is increased presence of brown bodies in Canada -- if the "increased travel" was exclusively rich white British businessmen, for example, this sentence would not scan. But because it can invoke the already existing ideas of danger in the white imagination from the presence of increasing numbers of racialized people in Canada, it has meaning.

Terrorist attacks in the United States, Spain, United Kingdom and elsewhere are a sobering reminder that Canadians cannot take their safety for granted.

Very true. Which is why we need to begin talking about why the retail version of terrorism happens and begin to address it by working to end the injustices that make it possible -- end the occupations of Iraq, Afghanistan, and Palestine and work towards just and liberatory relations of production at a global level, for instance.

Authorities in Toronto have already broken up one alleged terrorist cell,

Authorities in Toronto have yet to demonstrate that any of these people is guilty of anything. But in the meantime, it is useful that they did it becaues it allows the Conservatives to write lines like this in their media releases. (The existing link between the ways in which Muslims get racialized and ideas of danger and violence in the white imagination helps this line have the desired effect in the absence of any evidence that the arrested men actually did anything.)

and Canada’s law-enforcement and security agencies work hard every day to ensure Canadians remain safe.

Again, this highlites the fact that "Canada" and "Canadians" are presumed to be white. Certainly the racialized communities that have faced heightened harassment from "security agencies" in Canada since 9/11 don't experience this "work" as being about making sure they "remain safe." And the indigenous and African people who have experienced racial profiling in Canada since settler law was imposed with colonization and Africans first brought here as slaves, and who still experience racial profiling in Canada at the hands of the cops and the legal system more broadly, certainly don't experience this "work" by "law-enforcement...agencies" as being mainly about ensuring they "remain safe."

One powerful tool that the Canadian Government uses to protect innocent families is through the use of security certificates.

Though it has never been publically demonstrated in a court of law, the families of the racialized Muslim men currently detained under security certificates and the families in the communities harassed by the processes of which security certificates are a part -- that is, families that are the opposite of protected by these things -- are summarily excluded from the possibility of being seen as "innocent." Again, its hard to see any explanation for that rhetorical exclusion than the fact that they are racialized.

These certificates allow the government to quickly act when a foreign national is a suspected security risk, guilty of human rights violations, or a participant in organized crime. When signed, a security certificate authorizes the government to apprehend and, potentially, deport that person.

A very deceptive emphasis on hasty outcomes and on real threats. This just is not how the relations created by this legislation function in the real world. In real life, these men have languished under detention for years, and despite all of that time the government has refused to demonstrate any actual evidence of criminal behaviour or serious threat.

A past court decision ruled that the older security certificate system needed to be fixed. Under the new rules brought forward by the Conservative Government, these issues are now addressed

A blatant lie.

and this vital, last resort tool to protect public safety can continue to be used.

See above about who gets completely written out of the assumed "we" defined by this use of "public safety." As well, because they have never shown that any of the detained men have actually done anything illegal, how can they argue that this is "vital"?

Security certificates are only used in the most serious of cases,

Again, this has never been shown -- there have been allegations and there is supposedly secret evidence, but if these cases are so serious, let's make things public and deal with them.

and can never be used against Canadian citizens.

That is, they are fine with trampling the basic due process rights of non-citizens.

With the new legislation, people named in security certificates will still have legal recourse.

But not any that actually meets basic standards for due process.

Most importantly, the new security certificate process will continue to put the safety of Canadian families and communities first.

See again how this depends upon and reinscribes whiteness at the heart of dominant usages of "Canadian".

This is an important new law that deserves a quick decision from Parliament.

This is an important new law that we really don't want to have to talk about any more than necessary, because it seems a lot of people out there don't like it. So to minimize the chances for dissent, we're going to ram it through as soon as we can.

In the past, the Stéphane Dion Liberals have played politics with safe-community legislation. The Conservative Government hopes all parties will work together to ensure the government has the tools it needs to give all Canadians the safer communities they deserve.

If Dion doesn't do as we say, we will use this as an opportunity to attack his masculinity based on racist ideas about what a "real man" does, as outlined above. And see above again about who counts as "Canadians".

So there you go. I'm sure if I took some time, I could do a more nuanced job and wratchet up my sarcasm to unprecedented heights, but I have other things to do. And before any hacks for other parties get all satisfied from this, most of this kind of rhetoric is hardly specific to the Conservatives.

Reading Levels

I'm puzzled.

In the last few years, I've spent a lot of time in the section of our local big box book store that contains books for children and youth. Mostly, this is because this section also contains a table with a track layout and trains from a certain well-known rail-themed franchise. What with my train-obsessed offspring in school and pre-school most weekdays this year, I don't get there as often as I once did, but I was there a few days ago.

During that visit, at some point after mediating between two four year-olds whose trains absolutely had to go in opposite directions around the same track and before improvising a narrative involving a helicopter, a tender engine, and a lost coal car, I heard the thing that puzzles me. I heard a mother vetting an eight or ten year-old child's choice of book based on its reading level.

What puzzles me is not so much the instance but the fact that it is a pattern. In sitting in that section, I have heard exactly that sort of thing countless times. Sometimes the child's book is too easy for the parent's taste, sometimes it is too hard, and sometimes they have not yet made a selection but reading level is the rationale behind Daddy or Mommy pointing them in a particular direction. And this is not just random individuals -- it has state sanction. Not long after L started junior kindergarten this past September he brought home a piece of paper that included, among other things, guidance for parents on doing exactly this sort of supervision. Judging by its design, it was produced at the school board level and probably went home in every elementary school backpack in the greater Sudbury area. I don't remember all of the details, but it included things like the appropriate number of words your child should fail to understand on each page -- not too few, not too many.

I am puzzled because I really don't understand the logic behind this sort of policing.

I suppose I am a little bit indignant and offended as well, on behalf of my school aged self. I remember deviating from my approved reading level in both directions when I was in elementary school. I went through a stretch that I think more or less lasted an entire school year in which I refused to take anything out of the school library other than Dr. Seuss books. I was a pretty good reader, and I remember the librarian (who happened to be my former kindergarten teacher filling in while the regular librarian was on maternity leave) pushing me to explore other books. She presumably knew I was quite capable of handling markers further along some expert-defined path, and was concerned that I had no interest in doing so. She even went so far as having a talk with my parents to get them to exert some pressure -- they did, though I don't remember having the sense that they were really too concerned. In response, as far as I recall, I pulled exactly the same sort of stubborn routine as L does with lots of things when his mind is made up, and flat-out refused. I was enjoying Dr. Seuss, darn it all!

In the other direction, I remember -- oh, it was probably a couple of years after that, but still somewhere in the first half of my time in that K-to-8 school, finding a book that had no reason to be in an elementary school library. In retrospect, it was probably an undergraduate geology textbook that someone had donated. I signed it out and read bits of it. There was lots that was so far over my head I might've drowned, but I got some satisfaction out of reading it and I still managed to learn things. I still remember that it was in that book that I first learned about plate techtonics. Nobody scolded me for this one, but it was certainly in violation of Sudbury school board guidelines about appropriate reading levels for children.

As I got older, I still did both. For example, I remember one summer in my mid-teens that as I worked my way through the cardboard box full of books I brought along on an interminable family driving holiday, I must have reread one particular novel about eight times. I don't remember whether it was explicitly packaged as 'young adult' -- I read very little in that category at any point -- but that was about where it was at in terms of externally determined reading level. Did this do me some sort of harm?

And in the other direction, how on earth could I have come to a point of being able to write about the things I write about, given that I have never taken a course of any sort related to most of it, without at least occasionally reading books that were over my head? Has this done me damage?

Even worse, it seems to me that it is a short jump from policing the reading level of an eight year-old's book choices to a certain subset of snobby, (actual or desiring-to-be) middle-class parents disapproving of an older youth's choice to read science fiction and fantasy rather than "real lit-tra-tchah" and forcing artificial discussions of same at the dinner table. I like myself a good high brow novel when I can steal the time from work-related reading, don't get me wrong, but I can't think of a surer way to have turned me away from reading as a source of joy than trying to bully me into abandoning the genre fiction that was about 85% of what I read until I was at university.

So I just don't get it. Why are school boards giving the message to parents that they should regulate the difficulty of what their kids read, rather than saying, "Let 'em read what they is cultivating real enjoyment that is the most important part, because if they enjoy it, they'll do more of it"? Why are parents so proactive in interfering with their children's choice of reading material in this way?

My first thought was that maybe it is about efficiency. Perhaps there is some sort of evidence that children whose choices are policed in this way do, on average, develop technical skills related to reading more quickly than other children. And perhaps this is the case. But I still don't see how it would work. Surely children who select books that are too difficult will self-regulate easily enough back to a level they are comfortable with, because (at least for most people) reading something you don't really get isn't much fun. And perhaps it is more likely that kids will get stuck in a rut of reading stuff that doesn't challenge them, but even that doesn't seem like a big danger. After all, if they are reading for enjoyment, they will just naturally come across material of varying levels. And if they do read a lot of stuff that isn't challenging, well, so what? At least they're reading and enjoying it, and isn't that what matters most?

So that doesn't explain it. But it also occured to me that maybe this isn't so much about reading level at all. After all, mainstream education is built not around facilitating autonomous joy in learning and exploration but around external regulation of learning via carrots and sticks to most efficiently fill diverse spots in the labour market and to instill the discipline the labour market requires. Sure, there are exceptions, but these are usually accessible only to the most privileged and the 'best' students (and even they have to do with discipline related to employment, but a different, more internalized and colonizing sort of discipline required in some higher status, intellectually oriented spaces in the labour market). So perhaps this advice from the school board is a genuine attempt to be helpful, and it only makes sense that it would take this form because it is the framework that guides everything else that happens in mainstream education. Perhaps it has the less obvious goal of cultivating parental involvement in general in the education of children. This would be explicitly framed as encouraging parents to help children succeed, I would imagine, and certainly you can see why parents would agree with this framing and participate wholeheartedly just because of the powerful role that navigating formal schooling can have in later material success. However, another way to say the same thing is that it mobilizes parents to participate actively in the practices that constitute what we often simplify and reify as 'the state' -- while this may be of benefit to youth materially speaking, it also drafts parents into reproducing oppressive hidden curriculum, blindspots in critical thinking, and assumptions about the world.

And as for what motivates parents to be complicit in this specific state practice...well, I think part of it is buying into the model of pedagogy based on rewards and compulsions and external regulation and validation that is the basis of mainstream schooling. It may also be related to the compulsion, particularly expressed by people who understanding themselves to be or to want to become 'middle class', to perform markers of legitimacy associated with middle-classness and of success understood in conventional ways. Most if not all of the parents I observe doing this at the book store also bear other, visual markers of middle class status (or well-performed desire), so perhaps this is more of the same. We wouldn't want little Johnny to appear like he is failing to keep up with the Joneses, after all, or to actually fail to keep up because we didn't treat reading as something purely technical and instrumental. (shudder)

I'm still not satisfied with all of these guesses, though. I think I might be missing something fairly basic, but I can't think of what that might be.

In any case, to end, I want to emphasize that my incredulity at level of difficulty as a focus for parental involvement in the reading habits of our children doesn't mean I think we should completely disconnect from this area of our children's lives. I think we definitely should encourage them to try new things and even to challenge themselves. I just think that it doesn't make sense to do so by focusing on a narrow, technical understanding of the sorts of challenges that we can find in the written word, or by such boundary violations as disallowing something they have already chosen or regulating their behaviour to limit rather than expand the range from which they are choosing. So however you relate to this part of their lives, do it in a way that puts them at the centre rather than arbitrary standards of questionable value. If your own relationship to books allows, buy 'em stuff they've never looked at before, have lots of different things at home, model a healthy and expansive relationship to books, be ready with different kinds of things to suggest if they ask, and ask them questions to understand their preferences. But avoid dismissive, "Oh, that's too hard for you" or "Oh, that's too easy for you," because if it is, they are perfectly capable of coming to that conclusion on their own.