Friday, March 28, 2008

Call For Submissions: Upping The Anti #7

Got something important to say about struggles for radical social change? Think about submitting here:

UPPING THE ANTI: A JOURNAL OF THEORY AND ACTION is a radical journal published twice a year by a pan-Canadian collective of activists and organizers. We are dedicated to publishing radical theory and analysis about struggles against capitalism, imperialism, and all forms of oppression.

We are currently looking for story ideas for ISSUE SEVEN, which will be released in October of 2008. If you have an idea for a story you would like to see published in our journal, please send us a one page pitch by Monday, April 14, 2007. In addition to the pitch, please submit a short writing sample (max 1,000 words).

In your pitch, please provide a brief description of the topic of your investigation, your main questions, an account of how you will address these questions, as well as a brief biographical note.

Before submitting a pitch, we encourage you to read back issues in order to familiarize yourself with the kind of writing that we publish. We also encourage you to have a look at the UPPING THE ANTI writer's guide (PDF).

Pitches should be for original stories that have not been submitted or published elsewhere. We discourage simultaneous submissions. Please do not send us a pitch that you have simultaneously sent to another publication.

Although we will consider all pitches, we are especially interested in stories about contemporary labour organizing, feminism and women's struggles, dis/ability, international solidarity work, mobilization strategies, marxism and anarchism in the 21st Century, activist interventions in art and culture, and struggles around questions of sex and sexuality

We will review your pitch and provide you with feedback. After a pitch has been approved, writers are expected to submit their story by deadline. Deadline for first drafts for ISSUE SEVEN is July 1, 2008.

Please submit all pitches and direct all queries to

For more information about UPPING THE ANTI, visit

As well, here are links to the pages for the first five issues, if you want a better picture of what the journal is all about: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5.

Obligatory "About Me" Post

Though it risks being perceived as narcissistic, this post is just a bit of blog housekeeping: The piece of text I've used for "About Me" purposes on this blog since I started it is one I've never really liked, notwithstanding that I've edited it a time or two over that period. It was written for another purpose, resides on another site, and has always chafed. I am finally getting around to replacing here's a little bit about me:

Son of the white settler middle class in southern Ontario, Canada; spiced with early intervals in Scotland; raised in an apolitical liberal (puritan) home in a conservative small town. Has lived in industrial cities in Ontario most of his adult life, barring eight months in Ottawa and fifteen months in Los Angeles. Earned a piece of paper from a university saying he knows a little bit about biochemistry and worked in a few research labs. Turned to activism and writing in the midst of all of that, and hasn't looked back.

As a politicizing student, quickly arrived at an instinctive, book-based anarchism. Has been on a journey -- to unlearn the faux-objective, overly intellectualized, and disembodied place from which he saw social change at the start; to undo the deep training to ignore the political nature and relevance of his own everyday/everynight; to escape the false certainty and begin to heal the stunted humanity that come with privilege; to learn to see that his self exists in particular ways that were created by the social relations into which he was born and through which he travels; and to fully internalize that it is from there that all politics must start. Is an autodidact -- that is, almost none of his political learning has been in institutional settings with pieces of paper at the end, but it has still been very much social, through formal and informal listening, reading texts penned by other people on other journeys, participating in struggles for change, screwing up, and participating some more. He shies away from political labels, but is informed by diverse streams of anti-capitalism and anti-authoritarianism, opposition to the colonial past and present of the canadian state, and a commitment to lifelong exploration of anti-oppression politics. His earliest involvement had an environmental focus, and over the years has been involved in social movement spaces that were responding to student issues, right-wing governments, poverty, homelessness, racism, war, occupation, colonization, media issues, and more. Currently active with Justice and Freedom for John Moore, the Sudbury working group of the Media Co-op (aka Grassroots: Sudbury's Media Collective), and a member of the national advisory board of the radical political journal Upping The Anti.

Has been paid to pump gas, to enter data, to lift textbooks, to sell magazines, to wash dishes, to write articles, to write research reports, to develop community, and to teach. Has organized, facilitated, leafleted, written, researched, interviewed, spoken, listened, outreached, accompanied, broadcast, trained, occupied, blockaded, supported, copied, processed, recorded, picketed. Hosted and produced political spoken-word radio for three years. Has published over a hundred magazine-style news articles, a couple of poems, some op-ed pieces, a bunch of book reviews, a number of community-based research reports, and various and sundry other things. And tons o' blog posts. Became his son's stay-at-home parent starting at age nine months.

In September 2012, Fernwood Publishing released his first two books, Gender and Sexuality: Canadian History Through the Stories of Activists and Resisting the State: Canadian History Through the Stories of Activists. In February 2013, he launched a new broadcasting/podcasting project, Talking Radical Radio, which current finds its broadest distribution via The show brings you grassroots voices from across Canada, and gives people involved in a broad range of social change work a chance to reflect on what they do, how they do it, and why they do it. He periodically updates the sidebar of indicate other recent work.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Global Financial Crisis, Canada, and Sudbury

I have been following the growing global financial crisis as it has unfolded over the last year or more. Or at least kind of. I have to admit that I don't really get it -- there's a great quote from Ursula LeGuin's novel The Dispossessed about the mind-numbing ridiculousness of capitalist economics, but I'm not at home at the moment so I can't look it up. However, that's more or less how I feel about the topic. But I have had the sense for some time now that this crisis is really, really important, way back from when the odd lefty article was popping up about how this whole subprime mortgage thing was going to blow up and going to be big and going to be awful while the mainstream media was still pretending nothing was going on.

I've found information on it in a few places I read regularly. Stan Goff posts links to related material fairly frequently. CounterPunch also publishes quite a few articles on the topic. Look back through the archives on both of those sites and you'll find lots of background material. And Lenin's Tomb, though it usually focuses on other things, has had a couple of good relevant posts in the last few days.

In those sources, I rarely encounter any material that mentions the implications for Canada. However, the reason I am writing this post is that today I came across a detailed and interesting article in the Toronto Star (hat tip to P.C. for pointing me towards the article). I recommend everyone read it, because it talks about things that are going to be shaping all of our communities over the next couple of years, and not in good ways.

Now, I don't feel that I have any expertise to comment on where this article gets it right and where it is off base, or where within the best-case to worst-case scenarios presented in this article and elsewhere the truth will actually fall. Is it going to be replay of the Great Depression, or just a hard bump of a recession and then it's back to business as it has usually been over the last quarter century? Who knows. Though based on all I have read, my gut guess is that this is going to be more than a routine downswing in the business cycle.

However, one thing I must say about learning about such things from left sources is that, on average, you do get a bit better predictions about what is going on in the world than if you rely mostly on mainstream sources. You don't get perfection, or anything close. There can still be a tendency to use hyperbole and melodrama to sell copy (or increase hits). But, on average, there seems to be a clearer vision of what's going on in the world than in mainstream sources. An almost embarassingly obvious example of this clearer vision was the entire lead-up to the Iraq War, but the global financial crisis has also been a good illustration.

I say that because of the following experiences: Almost exactly a year ago, my partner and I were in a bit of a panic about housing because the building in which we rent was being sold and we were afraid that could mean we would have to move. It didn't, but it stimulated a lot of worry and thought about home ownership and debt and so on. The net result was that it pushed us to start thinking about buying a house in a much more serious way. One step was to start learning about it all, and part of doing that was that a few months after our initial panic my partner talked to a couple of local professionals with expertise related to mortgages and money and so on (given that neither of us really know a whole lot about it).

The key thing is this: At the time those initial conversations occurred, the subprime mortgage crisis in the U.S. was already happening and it was already clear from things I was reading that the ripple effects were going to be big. Yet when my partner asked about implications for the housing market here in Sudbury, the experts she consulted with at that time -- who presumably have the resources and mandate to be on top of such things -- were of the opinion that it was full boom ahead for the forseeable future.

So we took some early preparatory steps, and consulted again in the New Year, this time with a different person at the same organization. And now, though their message is still much less bleak than some of the things I've been reading, there is a lot more caution and a sense that a downturn is indeed in the works, and the take home message was that if we are fine living where we are, we might as well postpone buying and wait to see what happens.

The article I've linked to says, "The high commodity prices for everything from oil to wheat that have largely insulated Canada from the early phases of the U.S. economic slowdown are due for a fall, pulling down Canada's economic growth rate in 2008." This is relevant to the anecdote above because one of the experts my partner first consulted cited the role of nickel, particularly consistently strong demand for it from China, as the reason why the local economy in Sudbury would continue to be red hot no matter what happened in the U.S., with the side effect that the local housing market would also be red hot.

The article observes a few paragraphs down: "But the speculators' ardour for nickel and soybeans will decline sharply as China finally pulls back on its GDP growth, creating big world surpluses – and price declines – in everything from zinc to cold-rolled steel. Roche forecasts a 30 per cent price drop in refined oil in 2008, and a decline of 20 per cent to 30 per cent for base metals."

That's going to have huge implications for Sudbury, because by far the largest non-governmental component to the local economy is the mining of metals, especially nickel. Obviously a slower housing market is a pretty minor and unimportant impact if this gets as bad as it could, in Sudbury and in Canada as a whole. More people will be living in poverty, and poverty will be deeper for more people. Locally, however much the mine owners, mine workers, real estate developers, and folks in a few other sectors of the economy have described the local economy as "booming" in recent years, Sudbury is a very poor city by Ontario standards. If the mining sector gets hit with a 30% price reduction, that will mean more people in Sudbury are worse off in very significant ways.

And as lots of writers who are talking about the financial crisis from a left perspective have observed, we are in a poor position to respond. Whether you cite Naomi Klein's latest book or marxist writers whose analysis focuses on class struggle, it's no secret that crisis of whatever origin is an opening for intensified class struggle. There is evidence that the financial crisis has already been an opportunity for intensified class struggle from above in various contexts, and there's no reason to think that won't continue globally and in Canada. Perhaps the most worrisome aspect of this is that popular movements in Canada are not in great shape. What are we doing to be ready to respond to this intensified attack, if and when it starts to happen in earnest?

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Review: Group Politics and Social Movements in Canada

[Miriam Smith, ed. Group Politics and Social Movements in Canada. Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview Press, 2008.]

An important motivation for taking on my current central project is the relative lack of accessible and engaging material looking at Canadian social movements, either in the present or historically. In the long years that I have been working on it, the ways I think about the work have changed, but how I talk about it hasn't always kept pace with the shifts. There are lots of great and new-to-me facts in Group Politics and Social Movements in Canada, but it was its capacity to stimulate me to better clarify my own approaches to the topic that was the most useful result of reading this book. And I suspect others with more general interests would also find it useful, though I worry a bit that the dubious aspects of how academics talk about social movements might mislead eager activists who are searching for answers.

The best part of this book is, as I said, the information it contains about Canadian social movements. The information is by and large solid and useful, and it talks about a lot of different movements, including some that are rarely get much attention. In some ways, therefore, it is a great read for folks just beginning to learn about this area, and still useful to those who are more experienced.

But not in all ways. I am much more ambivalent about the analyses which were used to organize all of this great information. The fact that I feel comfortable making such a statement about a book that includes a fairly broad range of analytical frameworks may put my credibility at risk -- I admit I may be indulging in the sort of overdone criticism that is only possible of something close to one's own areas of interest and experience. But I do not withdraw the statement. Certainly the essays varied, and certainly a sympathetic reading can extract useful insights from almost all of them. However, my feeling is that, with rare exceptions, academic social movement theory is far from the most interesting and useful way to talk about movements, and at times it can be downright offensive. For me, this book raises some basic questions about how social movements get talked about in academic contexts, and how those of us outside of academia should be relating to that material.

As is common in collections of this sort, a central purpose in the editor's Introduction is to outline an overarching framework to provide some unity to the diverse content and approaches in the individual essays. Judging by those essays, authors were also given some explicit guidance in relating their contributions to this framework of frameworks. Smith approaches this task by briefly describing the history, strengths, and weaknesses of the main schools of thought around which academic approaches to group politics and social movements have been organized. These include pluralism, three derivations of marxism (marxism, neo-marxism, canadian political economy), historical institutionalism, neopluralism, different strands of social movement theory (including new social movement theory, resource mobilization theory, and the political process model), and rational choice theory. I'm not going to bother explaining all of those terms here, but suffice it to say, while there are useful things that can be learned from many of them, I find none of them particularly satisfying as frameworks for talking about social movements. And that includes, by the way, the variants of marxism that are presented, which all sound much like the sort of plodding, structuralist, orthodox, inflexible marxisms that you might learn about in undergraduate sociology courses.

In any case, given that the relative utility of these different approaches is the focus of the Introduction, and that the authors seem to have been instructed to touch on this theme, it serves as one of the unifying elements of the book. I have no problem with paying attention to analytical or theoretical concerns, even in some circumstances to things whose connection to the practical concerns of social change are not universally obvious. But I have to ask, is this really the most important question?

Generally (though not always) it was the essays about topics with which I was least familiar that I enjoyed the most. For instance, Sally Chivers' "Barrier by Barrier: The Canadian Disability Movement and the Fight for Equal Rights" was only the third or fourth piece I've ever read about disability-related social movements in Canada. A major piece of writing work I did in an earlier incarnation of me involved significant attention to disability issues and was done under guidance from a group of activists who identified as having disabilities, so I have a basic sense of some of the ideas involved, but what I was writing had little to do with social movement activity. Beyond my own patterns of attention, the movement in Canada has been less visible than in the U.S., and I think relatively little has been written about it. Chivers' article presents some key theoretical concerns, most importantly the idea of disability as socially constructed, and goes through some of the relevant history in Canada, and it feels from where I stand like a solid introduction.

Along the same lines -- that is, interesting to me at least in part because I came to them with less background -- was "Populist and Conservative Christian Evangelical Movements: A Comparison of Canada and the United States" by Trevor W. Harrison and "Nationalism and Protest: The Sovereignty Movement in Quebec" by Pascale Dufour and Christophe Traisnel. I don't think I've ever read anything on modern, right-wing Christian movements in Canada, and though I am not quite as ignorant about the sovereignty movement, I don't know nearly as much as I should.

There were other essays that felt like they were on to something interesting but something about the academic place from which they were written made them less effective than they should've been. (And by this I mean something specific to these essays, not the more general problems which I will deal with below). For instance, Michael Orsini's "Health Social Movements: The Next Wave in Contentious Politics?" had some interesting things to say about health as a current and future focus of social movement organizing. I would've preferred if he had had the space to talk about his three examples -- AIDS organizing, organizing around multiple chemical sensitivity, and environmental justice organizing connected to asthma -- in more depth, but I understand the limits in a collection like this. What was more of a problem was what I perceive to be the need academics face to frame their work in ways that emphasize, and sometimes overemphasize, its importance, as illustrated by the essay's subtitle and various passages within. Though posed as provocation rather than conclusion, it did not feel like the evidence presented was enough to support even the question as put; when read in the context of my own particular and ever evolving understanding of social struggle, it really felt overdone.

I'd place the first essay of the book in the same general category, though for different reasons. "Business Interests and Civil Society in Canada" by Peter Clancy is an effort to understand in concrete terms the ways in which business exerts influence over Canadian society and politics. Or, to put it in language that I doubt the author would use, it is a start on one corner of the work of removing capital from what Dorothy Smith has described as a "blob ontology" -- an internally amorphous something whose actual workings are left mysterious -- to something that can be more effectively challenged because we know how it works. Sure, this essay does only one very specific level of that kind of critical analysis, but that doesn't mean it's not useful. However, it was very clearly not written with an eye to providing maximum utility to anti-capitalist challenge, and was more oriented towards fitting into academic discourse -- way too much attention to categorizing things and to fairly uninteresting questions like "whether business politics should be considered within or outside civil society proper."

For almost every essay in the collection I could talk about the things I found genuinely useful and then contrast that with particular disagreements with details, with analysis, with framework. I could go on outlining my specific criticisms of each -- the essay on the labour movement that claimed "an anti-racist feminist Marxism that sees capitalist societies as organized by gender, race, sexuality, and other relations as well as by class" which proceeded to demonstrate a marxism only very modestly changed by its encounters with each of those things; the essay on anti-racism organizing that failed to engage with either radical anti-racist critiques of multiculturalism from people of colour or radical indigenous anti-colonial politics; the essay on feminism that didn't seem to have much new to say -- but that would probably come across as excessively grumpy on my part, and it would risk distracting from the genuine value of the book. However, I do wish more of the essays had followed the lead of Kiera L. Ladner in "Aysaka 'paykinit: Contesting the Rope Around the Nations' Neck", which flatly refused to engage with social movement theory. Instead, Ladner drew on indigenous epistemologies based on narratives to talk about struggles against colonization in a way that seemed much more openly concerned with advancing those struggles than many of the other essays.

The more important thing to think about, though, is not specific problems with specific pieces of writing, but what the collection as a whole demonstrates about more general problems in academic approaches to social movements. I'm not the first person to point out that there are very basic problems with taking social movements as the central object of study, and that much more useful-to-movements knowledge can be produced by starting from standpoints within those movements, making relations of ruling the object of study, and orienting knowledge production to what would be useful in their struggles. Attempts to thoroughly apply this insight take you to very different places than this book goes.

However, I don't think we need to completely abandon knowledge production that takes movements as its focus. We just have to understand that there are significantly better and worse ways of doing that. Even focusing on movements themselves, a lot of what can make that kind of knowledge production more useful is related to the standpoint from which it starts, which is in turn expressed through how your questions are oriented. The key criterion is, of course, whether the questions are useful for movements themselves. In a lot of cases, in the essays in this book and in academic studies of social movements more generally, it is not at all clear to me that the questions asked are more than marginally useful to movements. For instance, as an activist and as someone who writes about social movements, I really have trouble understanding why I am supposed to care about the vicious discursive combat that has occurred between those who think resource mobilization is the key and those who see political opportunity as more important.

Another way to think about the same thing is in terms of audience -- what does your writing say about who you are writing for? I think there are lots of ways you can usefully answer questions of audience. Writing about movements for activists is great. Writing about movements for ordinary people whose daily struggles have not yet found much collective expression can also be important. Writing about movements for students can also be quite useful, and I think that is why this book was produced. But though I suspect students are the main market for this book in terms of whose pockets the dollars will come from to buy them, the question "What would it be useful for students to know?" does not directly organize what is presented but is filtered first through the gatekeeping of academics whose answers about what matters about social movements come from much different places.

Another core objection I have to the ways that social movements often get talked about in academic contexts (amply illustrated in this book) is the refusal to talk about them in ways that emphasize connection and intersection. In some ways, this is inherent to starting your writing by focusing on a movement -- even if you intend to be open to interconnection, the mere act of taking that focus in the context of a document of limited length and in terms of a movement that itself is socially organized to have a centre and a periphery determines what falls more easily to the centre of your writing and what is less likely to be given voice. I've felt this in my own writing and I don't expect that I'm going to be able to overcome it in any easy, straightforward way. Academic norms, however, take this from ongoing political problem and shift it into an unnoticed fact. An example: There is no easy answer to how to write about, say, queer movements in Canada in the '70s, '80s, and '90s in a way that is thoroughly anti-colonial and anti-racist and anti-capitalist but that doesn't lose focus on those movements as they actually happened. You can't avoid that problem. But a focus on movements as discrete entities and the tendency of the academy to put everything into discrete silos means that something that I would see as a political question that inevitably has to be dealt with in some way can be dismissed as being "not really appropriate" for this type of document with this type of focus.

The essence of how my understanding of my own work has changed over the years is implicit in what I've already written: I started out with a very clear focus on movements themselves as objects of study, objects to be dissected and understood. My goal in doing this was not academic abstraction, but to help those of us organizing in the present to make better decisions. But I didn't necessarily understand what that meant when I started out on this journey. As I have travelled and learned, it has become clear to me that I don't want to abandon talking about movements -- their histories are important and often erased -- but I need to do it in a very different way, a way that resists oversimplifying silos, a way that is open to seeing connections, a way that is as much about the societies in which movements occur as it is about the movements themselves. Figuring out how to do that is a long-term project, even longer than the writing of the particular book that is my focus at the moment, and I'm not sure I'm going to be able to hold my book up when it is done and say, "This is it! I've done it!" in any final and decisive way. But I know I'll be able to say that I've started doing it.

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

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Sudbury Vigil Against War

Should've posted this sooner:

Sudbury Vigil Against War

Wednesday, March 19
4:30 pm
Canadian Military Recruitment Centre
Brady and Paris

To coincide with protests around the globe on the 5th anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, Sudbury Against War and Occupation (SAWO) is organising a vigil to oppose the wars and occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Come out and join us. Bring your signs, banners and music makers.

Hope to see you there!

Music Video

Hmmm...I've never tried to embed video before, but here goes...

I'm posting this in the spirit of using this tiny platform to promote creators-of-things that I know personally, which I do from time to time -- the white-guy-with-dreads playing bass in this music video is my brother. (He also plays heavy metal bass, classical violin, celtic fiddle, and a bunch of other things, and sings a mean Folsom Prison Blues, though you don't get to see any of that here.)

And I suppose I should mention that the band is called The Urban Monks...

Friday, March 14, 2008

Winter Soldier Hearings

I don't have time to tune in at the moment, but I'd recommend that anyone who does take a listen to the testimony from the historic Winter Soldier gathering in Washington D.C., which is happening from today until March 16th and being broadcast live. This is apparently the largest gathering ever of Iraq Veterans Against the War, and it focuses on the testimony of veterans and others about the realities of the U.S. occupation of Iraq. It is a contemporary version of similar hearings that were held during the Vietnam War. It is hosted by KPFA, a Pacifica station.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Review: Body Evidence

[Shamita Das Dasgupta, ed. Body Evidence: Intimate Violence Against South Asian Women in America. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2007.]

Most of what I read these days is not about me, and usually I feel perfectly fine about that. It is, after all, one of the benefits of written texts that they are a means for transferring information about one local set of experiences into lives shaped by quite different sets of local experiences. And I happen to think that in our current world nothing is unconnected from anything else, so any book is in some way related to me figuring out the world and my place in it.

In reading this book, though, I felt a bit like I was trespassing some place I didn't belong. It faded significantly by the time I was done reading, but not completely. And I'm not sure why this particular book, of all the not-about-me books I read, evoked that reaction.

One possibility is that it is a legacy of racist and sexist socialization on my part. I believe that the longstanding imperialist trope in Western thought of the need for white men and women to save brown women from brown men is not really the opposite of the seemingly contradictory tendency to ignore racialized women and their experiences altogether, but in fact quite complimentary to it. The "this is none of my business" reaction from at least part of my gut is more in tune with the latter form, but both forms flow from the ways in which we are taught to see racialized women as passive objects in one sense or another rather than active agents with whom we have a responsibility to engage as agents. So that might be part of what is going on here.

However, I engage with a lot of texts by and about racialized women, and usually do not react like that. So I am inclined to think that this latent tendency created by my training into white masculinity was activated in part because of features of this specific book.

My sense is that, in many ways, this is a very important book for activists, academics, and service providers responding to interpersonal violence experienced by South Asian women in North America. The eighteen chapters cover a broad range of material, from the general contexts that shape how such violence is experienced to more detailed examinations of facets such as mental health impacts on survivors, body image, the use of culture by courts, the experiences of queer South Asian women, and specific case studies of organizing against violence.

As with any book, its particular shape is a product of the political impact being sought by those who produced it. In this case, it is funders, researchers, and those engaged in frontline work with South Asian women in the context of both mainstream and community-specific services that I take to be the intended audience. The intended impact, it seems to me, is to prod, push, and cajole the responses to violence in more positive directions, both through shaping how services are delivered at a very micro level and also by shaping the political agenda of South Asian Americans and of the mainstream women's anti-violence movement in terms of which legislative reforms they prioritize and so on. This intense pragmatism is understandable, given the urgency of the need faced by the women to whose experience it is a response.

However, it also means accepting certain aspects of dominant understandings and strategically choosing not to challenge them. The colonial past and present of the states in North America are not mentioned, for instance, and little open attention is given to the ways in which capitalism has shaped the experiences at the heart of the book. One consequence of this book's version of the inevitable million little choices around when to be silent and how to speak is that they made specificity feel narrow in many places, at least to my outsider's eyes, and I don't think that has to be the case. I think accepting aspects of dominant frames, at least in certain ways and in some essays, means the book as a whole challenges less thoroughly than many of the individual authors might wish the ways in which 21st century neoliberal capitalism and white supremacy organize communities through imposing a very particular understanding of "difference" that can make it harder to see and talk about and struggle against relations of power.

This relates to the very broad range of ways of understanding "culture" demonstrated in the book. I found this range to be personally challenging. Partly it was because it indicates the presence of struggle among South Asian American women on the terrain of their cultures, and this is terrain about which I know next to nothing, so I felt kind of ungrounded in trying to navigate it. Beyond that, though, is the sense that one variable in that range of understandings is different, complicated relationships with the dominant understandings of culture enforced by (white supremacist) projects of ruling in North America. I could get glimpses of that, but have no knowledge base to get more than glimpses. And partly I found it difficult because I was not quite sure what to do with the fact that a hostile reading of some of these essays could twist them to provide support for liberal, multicultural racism. And perhaps that was an important factor in my overall unease reading the book: It is ridiculous to expect in a volume such as this that every word should be hypersensitive to the possibility that it might be misread by white people. That would be a serious burden to accomplishing the actual goals of the book -- that is, centring the violence experienced by South Asian women and resistance to that violence -- and it's not like it would ever be able to prevent that misreading anyway. But that decision not to centre concern about dominant eyes made me more aware that this text was not particularly meant for me.

Anyway. Though I am not anything close to an expert, I have the sense that if you are involved in work around violence experienced by women, this could be a useful and interesting, if sometimes difficult, book. However, particularly for those of us whose everyday experiences do not give us a living, complex, nuanced understanding of South Asian cultures, I would encourage readers to be careful and critical of the frames into which we might be reading this work. And I would encourage that subset of potential readers to seek out other material to challenge our default frames on an ongoing basis.

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

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

A Presentation on National Security Certificates

Earlier today, I gave a presentation called "National Security Certificates: Organizing Against Secret Trials in Canada" as part of a conference called Canadian Security Into the 21st Century: (Re)Articulations in the Post-9/11 World, held at Laurentian University.

I have mixed feelings about the conference as a whole. The first day was mostly non-academic presentations, and tomorrow and Friday are reserved for scholarly material. I went to the first session today, which was basically given by the organizers to the military as a vehicle to sell Canada's role in the occupation of Afghanistan. It actually would've been good to take detailed notes and use that to dissect the military's justifications for the war in a post on this blog, but it didn't occur to me until too late. There was some useful information about what's going on in Afghanistan, or at least the military's particular take on that, but it was mostly a pretty unpleasant experience -- lots of racist-sexist silliness about it being all a noble campaign to save helpless Afghan women and patronizing stuff that amounted to these lesser people having no idea how to do basic things without Western tutelage. There was even one frightening General -- a relic of Cold War fanaticism, I guess -- who kept saying outrageous things, like actually using the expression "red hordes," without any hint of irony, when describing the post World War II purpose of the Canadian army reserves.

In my session there was a graduate student who talked about work on security issues at the municipal level in Sudbury, which was probably interesting but he presented in French and I was too preoccupied with my own stuff to give it the kind of concentration that it would've taken me to get even the basics. There was also someone from the War Resisters Support Campaign, who made some interesting points.

I didn't stick around for the afternoon session. I figure I'll go to one of the sessions tomorrow, in which a friend is presenting, but I'm not sure how much time I can spare, otherwise -- this has been kind of an intense week on multiple levels and I have a lot of work that hasn't been getting done.

Anyway, here is the text of what I presented:


Hello. As __________ said, my name is Scott Neigh. Among other things, I'm a member of a group called Sudbury Against War and Occupation, which is some local residents of this city who are doing what we can to oppose war and occupation, broadly understood, as well the many nasty things that go with them. I want to thank the organizers for the opportunity to speak today about one of those nasty things, so-called "national security certificates," which we regard as a very negative domestic consequence of Canada's involvement in and support of war and occupation.

Now, I say I'm here to talk about security certificates, but that really means I'm talking about people. I'm here to talk about the five men – all Muslim and all racialized – who are currently in the security certificate process. Their names are Adil Charkauoi, Mohammed Harkat, Mahmoud Jaballah, Mohammad Mahjoub, and Hassan Almrei. If you look ______ you will see posters with pictures of these men and a little information about them. So I'm talking about them. I'm talking about their families. I'm talking about their communities. It's easy to hear a lot of the things that I have to say as abstract injustices, as wrongheaded ideas, and even at that level they are bad enough; but they are also things that are being done to people.

Security certificates are a legal mechanism that the Canadian state can use to indefinitely detain non-citizens, including refugees, refugee claimants, and permanent residents, and ultimately deport them. They have existed in Canadian law since 1976, though their form has shifted over time. New legislation was just passed earlier this year, in fact, because early last year the Supreme Court of Canada found the existing security certificate regime to be unconstitutional. However, little is fundamentally different in the new legislation.

Those of us who oppose the security certificate process have a number of grounds for doing so. One version of the quick, bullet point list would be: two-tier justice, secret trials, shocking lack of due process, and deportation to torture.

They work like this: The first thing to keep in mind is, as I said, that this process cannot be invoked against human beings who have access to the legal category of "citizen", and is only used against human beings who do not. To set this process is motion, the Canadian Security and Intelligence Service, or CSIS, recommends it and two cabinet ministers must sign off on it. Then the targeted individual is detained.

Some time later, the certificate is reviewed by a Federal Court judge. The information for the review is provided by CSIS. This information can contain hearsay and all manner of speculative, unverifiable material, as well as information based on racial profiling. The legislation quite openly permits CSIS to submit information that would be inadmissable in a court of law, and even the judge does not get full disclosure from CSIS. Other serious problems have been raised with the ways in which CSIS goes about collecting and compiling information. The detained person and the lawyer of their choice never get to know the allegations or whatever detailed supporting information might exist for them, and only a very abbreviated, highly pruned summary is released. Needless to say, the public is also forced to remain ignorant about why public servants acting in our name are depriving fellow human beings of their liberty. The standard for the judge to make a decision in the review based on this information is far, far lower than the standard of "beyond a reasonable doubt" that is used in criminal proceedings. The only way for this process to end is deportation – which, by the way, the government has shown a willingness to pursue even when their own assessments have determined that the detained individual is at risk of torture or death if they are deported.

The version of the law passed this year makes a number of changes over the previous legislation, though they are largely superficial changes. One of the most visible shifts is the system of "special advocates." What happens is the government, using the device of the security clearance assessment, assembles a list of lawyers that it finds acceptable. So you are starting from a list put together by the very entity that is targeting these individuals and harassing their communities. For the judicial review of the certificate, the detained individual is then assigned one of these "special advocates" by a Federal Court judge – the detainee gets to provide some input into which one, but the final decision rests with the judge. The special advocate then gets to see the secret information that CSIS has submitted to the court (which, remember, is not necessarily everything anyway). And once the advocate has seen the secret evidence she can no longer communicate with the detained individual, except in rare instances when special dispensation is given by the judge. They cannot even ask basic questions like, "Where were you on the night of October 28th?" and so on, which means they are forbidden to engage in most of the routine activities that lawyers need to do to gather information to respond to accusations against their clients. A similar system has been used in Britain, and it has been roundly criticized as a failure. It seems clear that the main impact of instituting a special advocate system in Canada will be to make it less obvious to the casual observer that what you really have is not due process, but a secret trial.

There were a few other changes introduced in the newest version of the legislation, again mostly cosmetic. There are some changes to the rules for speed and frequency of review of the detention, though the experience of the men currently detained indicates that minor shifts in the rules on paper don't necessarily mean much in practice. As well, certain kinds of appeals are allowed now when they weren't before, though other kinds that were previously allowed are now prohibited.

Another highly touted change was that the new legislation states that information believed to have been obtained as a result of torture is inadmissable. There is something profoundly sick about the idea that information obtained from torture has ever been openly acceptable in our legal system, so this change, however symbollic it is, is good. However, it is hard to see how this can actually be implemented in practice in a meaningful way. As long as CSIS gets information from U.S. and other foreign intelligence sources, there is just no way for them to be sure that it hasn't been obtained by torture. Even CSIS's own oversight body, the Security Intelligence Review Committee, admitted in a 2006 report that CSIS could not absolutely guarantee that information from such sources was not tainted by torture.

So even with these changes, the legislation remains discriminatory, with one set of rules applying to citizens and another set to everyone else in a way that just assumes that if you are an immigrant, you are a potential 'threat to national security.' Despite the fancy manoevers of the special advocate system, targeted individuals are subjected to a secret trial and they are never permitted to know or adequately defend themselves against the allegations. Rules of evidence and standards of proof remain absurdly low. Opportunities for appeal remain strictly limited. And nothing has been done to change the way in which, in practice, this process has been used to target Muslim men of colour and their communities.

It is also important to note that before the new legislation passed, a number of the most prominent mainstream lawyer's organizations in the country declared that the new legislation would still be unconstitutional. Yet the Conservatives passed it, and the Liberals voted for it, including our own MP, Diane Marleau. Those of you in the audience might want to ask her why she voted for legislation that she knows is unconstitutional, and that she knows creates the conditions for secret trials and deportation to torture.

SAWO and many other groups across the country are making a number of demands around this issue. We want the secret trials process to be abolished – there is no place for two-tier justice. We want those men currently detained to either be released or to have access to fair and open trials. We demand that the Canadian state end its profiling and harassment of racialized communities. And we demand a commitment that the Canadian state live up to its international human rights commitments and end all deportation that might result in torture.

To these ends, people across the country are taking action. Organizing against security certificates has been going on in a sustained way for at least five years in some parts of the country, and is continuously expanding into new areas. Sudbury, for example, has only seen activity around this issue for the last six months or so. More than 15 cities across the country have seen activity against security certificates in the last year.

Groups have engaged in a number of different kinds of actions. They have provided support for the detained men and their families, both direct material support and political support. They have confronted politicians. Public education has been very important as well, since one of the biggest obstacles to opposing security certificates is that most people don't know about them. The most recent focus for activity, and what has consumed most of SAWO's energy on this issue, has been opposing Bill C-3, the recent legislation reauthorizing secret trials as part of the Canadian legal landscape. Though the efforts to prevent its passage were unsuccessful, more people than ever before know about and oppose national security certificates. Many, many organizations beyond those directly involved in the organizing endorsed the mobilization against Bill C-3. Already detainees and their supporters are preparing to mount new legal challenges, and those will likely provide at least one focus for continuing to build political momentum against security certificates in communities across the country that will eventually become unstoppable.

Now, I can see how some people might object to the position I've outlined. They might say, "Well, yes, this isn't a great process, but for the sake of the security of Canadians, don't we need it?"

I would reply, "Absolutely not." And I reach that conclusion just by looking around me.

I look around the world at how "terrorism," as understood in its narrow and distorted mainstream usage, has been effectively addressed. This is, after all, the very narrow slice of real security that security certificates are meant to address. And what I see is that even in that narrow area, it is ordinary police work rather than extraordinary powers that has achieved results.

I look around me – at my life, at the lives of people I care about, and at the lives of people I don't know but whose interests matter to me – and think about how the security of these lives could be improved in real, practical ways. What I see, the threats of harm that are most frequent and most likely, not only have very little to do with that slice of security usually labelled "terrorism" but could only be meaningfully addressed by courses of action to which the strongest proponents of security certificates are staunchly opposed.

I look at the root causes of whatever risk might exist of acts commonly understood as terrorist in nature being directed at Canadian targets, and I see a consistent refusal by the Canadian state to deal with those root causes.

I look at the political advantages that some powerful interests derive from mobilizing fear and hate and racism.

I look at the history of what "national security" has always been about. It has always been about expelling certain groups of people from the nation, about organizing exclusion, and also about those who have power within the nation retaining that power.

And I look at what security certificates are actually doing. The government has not presented one single shred of evidence that anything done with security certificates has actually done anything to enhance the wellbeing of any ordinary people. And there is plenty of evidence of how the lives of many ordinary people have been affected in very negative ways by security certificates and the larger campaigns of profiling and harassment of racialized communities of which they are a part.

Thank-you very much.


So that's what I said, more or less, plus answering a couple of questions from the floor. The only thing I would add is that a couple of fellow activists in attendance pointed out that I did say a couple of things that they, and I, don't really believe. In one place I argue that "ordinary police work" is a good alternative to the extraordinary powers exerted in security certificates, and in another I demand in an unnuanced way "fair and open trials" for the detained men. Both of these give the impression that I think that the ordinary functioning of the legal system is somehow okay when it comes to "terrorism" and to racialized people in particular, and with respect to its place within social relations more generally. Which is not what I think at all. If I have time (big if) I'll maybe see if I can write a post or two to come up with concise, accessible ways of including those concerns for the next time I'm writing/talking about security certificates.