Archive | August, 2012

Social isolation: my contribution to SpeakOUT poetry

30 Aug

Yesterday, I registered for French classes at Université Laval. So, this semester, despite not really feeling like a student (at all), I’ll have the equivalent of a full-time course load: 2 classes at Laval and 1 through the University of Saskatchewan. Part of the reason that I registered for classes is to be in the space where I can just meet people.

It’s been tough in Québec, where I can’t come close to expressing what’s on my mind. Especially during a provincial election, where all I want to do is debate and discuss politics with people around me.

I wrote this for SpeakOUT Poetry in Toronto about social isolation. This experience has been a really important reminder for the need to build community and opportunities for people to come together, spend time together and work together.

And every time a social service is cut and a family has less access to a community centre, our social fabric is damaged.

Who’s interests are served when the people can’t unite and organize?

Québec’s fragile democracy: the canaries that have died

27 Aug

I’m always on the look out for signs that our democracy is suffering. Luckily, such a hobby means that I’m constantly busy and frustrated with what I see. I wrote this about the threat to our rights to protest that have been obvious both during the student protests of this past year and in Toronto during the G20. Our civil liberties have been under attack since Sept. 11 2001 and those organizations that track this attack are doing really important work.

Democracy is premised on a couple of things: citizens being educated enough to know what’s going on, citizens being allowed to have and demonstrate their own opinions, and citizens having access to run, vote or spoil their ballot during general or special elections. There’s also a bunch of shit that the press is responsible to do, and that it’s mostly failing at, but that’s the subject for another post.

Québec’s election has been fascinating for a lot of reasons, but the persistent assault on democracy is one of the most interesting.

The biggest culprit of playing fast and loose with democracy is the Parti Québecois. Last week, they announced that they would prohibit some Qubécers from running in provincial and municipal elections based on whether or not you can pass a French test, details to be worked out later.

Some facts: in a democracy, all citizens should be allowed to seek office. No political party should be able to declare who can/not run for office. In a free and fair election, people have the right to elect whoever they want regardless of if the person is an old white dude who doesn’t represent people who aren’t old white dudes, someone lacking style, someone with too much style, someone who speaks a language that is not one of Canada’s official languages, and so on. That’s the beauty of democracy. The winner was supported by the largest group of people who voted.

There was an instant backlash. There are some ridings in Québec where English or Cree are the dominant languages and where someone could easily be elected whose French may not pass a language test.

One argument I heard was that it just makes “sense” to ensure that people could speak French. But, I was left wondering: how many sitting MPs would have failed a French test? How many MPs would fail an English test, outside of Québec? Who’s in charge of this new, highly political French test? How hard will it be? (would I pass?)

In response to the backlash, the PQ announced that it would only apply to immigrants (who would only be voting if they were citizens, so, it’s unclear how they’re level of “Anglo/Franco/Allophone-ness” would be measured). It’d be an easy way for the PQ to get rid of a Liberal candidate who could threaten the local PQ candidate.

The PQ is in that grey area that separates majority governments from minority ones, so it’s not surprising that schemes such as these would be pulled out as a way to bolster their support.

Nipping at their heels is Québec Solidaire. They’re the progressive alternative to the PQ and a political party that is also destined for something big, in relative terms. They’ll be fighting for a few more seats, but the places where those seats will be won will likely come from support where the PQ has a chance at winning.

Enter assault on democracy 2: the spectre of “strategic voting.” Similar to every election in Ontario where the NDP has threatened the Liberal votes, the PQ has managed to spin the message in the media that a vote for QS is a vote for Charest. (Although, a vote for the CAQ is a vote for the PQ, says the Liberals. You see how this works?)

Strategic voting attempts to convince people to suspend their critical faculties, hold their nose and vote for someone they wouldn’t vote for normally. They do this because the option of having Charest in for another four years is a worse outcome than voting for the PQ even though your heart belongs to the Khadir-David dream team.

No one should vote under duress but that’s exactly what this argument does. Scare people.

It’s total bullshit.

Luckily, it probably wont work. Especially not with QS. They’re building a movement. If they have 10 people elected or two people elected, the power of QS is the daily work of building a political movement that isn’t just seeking power (like some social democratic parties out there), but that seeks to overhaul the entire system. That isn’t to say that you shouldn’t vote for QS either. Vote for that candidate who makes your heart jump. Then hound your MNA as much as you can later on.

Third sign: The Director General of the Québec election has deemed that the red square is a political sign.

Yup, a patch of red felt is a political sign.

Here’s some things that aren’t political signs: Nike shirts, NHL team ball caps, hemp pants, expensive jewelry…

Clothing can make all sorts of political statements. Buttons can too. Short of partisan political material at the polling booth, however, this limit to freedom of expression is another example of how fragile democracy is. The carré rouge is a political symbol but it doesn’t belong to or signify the support of any political party. Just like many people who wear shirts that say Québec Libre with a Québec flag on them may vote PQ (or ON, or QS or CAQ…whoever), people wearing a carré rouge may be more likely to vote for a particular party (or, more accurately, most unlikely to vote Liberal). But demographically speaking, certain kinds of people may also vote for someone based on their age, their language, their sex.

Why signal out young people, the folks who are wearing the carré rouge the most?

People’s electoral convictions must be strong for a democracy to work. The DGE’s attempt to argue that the carré rouge is a partisan symbol is targeting youth who have been politicized through the Printemps Érables and who are exercising their democratic right (many for the first time). What’s worse is that poll clerks are vested with this authority and, on today’s first day of advanced polls, have been reported as barring electors from entering the voting area if they’re wearing a carré rouge.

Yes, democracy is fragile. It’s fragile everywhere but obviously so in Québec.

I didn’t get to write about things like this during the Ontario election, but it’s not because it was a great election. In some ways, Québec is a reminder of what an election looks like when the parties actually stand for something different. HST off [fill in the blank] seems like a ridiculous common chorus from where I sit today.

But with the province on fire politically, it’s the citizens’ responsibility to ensure that democracy is protected.

Even if we’d fail the French test.

DISCLAIMER: Like with many of the other things I’ve written, me focusing on this issue does not mean that I don’t think that other provinces are bastions of democracy or that Québec is the closest it’s been to a fascist state since the 1930s. Just saying that so that it’s clear.

UPDATE 1: Ethan Cox has told me on Twitter that the DGE has said that voters will be allowed to wear the red square. Poll clerks cannot. Too bad that this had to be tested on day one of voting. Great news, though.

Bizzaro racism

23 Aug

After writing my last post about white privilege I figured it was time to talk about the usual, predictable corollary to that discussion. So predictable that I should have pre-empted the (few) criticisms I received but rolling it all into one big white privilege mega post. But, as I promised when I wrote that, there would be more. And so, my loving readers (I assume you’re loving, anyway), here’s more.


Yes. What about racism against white people?

The concept of “reverse racism” comes from a social theory that many of us are familiar with: the “bizzaro world” theory. In this theory, an alternative universe exists where everything we know to be true is the opposite. Bizzaro Nora is quiet, demure, blonde and pleasant. Bizzaro computers are boxes with cats inside. Bizzaro lawns are red. Bizzaro bowling occurs in the opposite direction (a slight difference, but important to all who bowl). Bizzaro cars have square tires, and so on.

And thus, the existence of “reverse racism” can be understood. It’s bizzaro racism. Yes, in this world, white folks are not way overrepresented in politics, business and those powerful positions. The vast majority of us have to struggle to find money to eat, work three jobs to get by and see no reflection of people who look like them reading the TV news, being Prime Minister etc.

Bizzaro racism is a thing in the bizzaro world. Just like the other bizzaro oppressions:

  • Bizzaro classism: rich people face daily oppression just because they’re rich. They become socially isolated because of this systemic oppression that they live in elaborate dugouts under the earth’s surface.
  • Bizzaro sexism: the women have taken over and have blocked men from becoming engineers, doctors, scientists. They, on average, make 71 cents for every dollar women make. They spend their days at home, cleaning their kids, making food and watching NASCAR racing.
  • Bizzaro homophobia: This is also called heterophobia. The few people who ‘inter marry’ are maligned. Their children are rejected from daycare. The ones who can’t conceive are blocked from adopting. The gays have taken over and the fabulous have oppressed the drab. There is glitter everywhere.
  • Bizzaro ablism: The escalators only fit wheels. Signs are written in a font that you can’t quite understand. No one wants to hire someone who can’t read braille.
  • Bizzaro transphobia: What? You’ve never lived between genders? You can’t understand people, so you’re effectively unelectable.


Yes, the bizzaro world looks different than the one we live in. But, it’s not perfect either. Oppressions were reproduced by the formerly oppressed (as happens all too often) and white people are uniting to fight for a more equal society.

In our current existence, in non-bizzaro Canada, reverse classism, reverse ableism and so on don’t exist. They don’t exist because oppressions are a function of power. Racism is a social construct that intends to maintain the power of one group of people over other groups of people using race as a differentiator. When people fight against racism, they fight against a system that overtly (think the “neutral race” argument over the $100 bill) and covertly (think the mass underrepresentation of racialized folks in government and the overpopulation of racialized folks in jail) creates a social hierarchy of race. Incomes are racially segmented. Access to power is racially segmented. This is racism.

This shouldn’t be confused with times where peoples’ feelings can be hurt. Yes, white folks can be treated poorly by other people. They can be called names. They can be bullied. This sucks and shouldn’t happen, but it’s not tied into a broader social oppression. This matters because when an oppression is systemic, the oppressed can see it everywhere and their existence becomes a series of moments where they must challenge these racist (or other -ist) norms, or find a way to cope. When a white man is called a fuckface by someone who intends to denigrate him and hurt his feelings, that’s called harassment or abuse or someone being an asshole. It’s not reverse racism.

We should condemn people being assholes, generally, but we should never call a situation where someone’s being an asshole reverse racism. Until reverse classism means that there’s shame associated with being rich, or reverse homophobia means there’s shame in being heterosexual, there’s no such thing as reverse racism.

And, someday, when anti-racist activists have convinced the masses to rid our system of privilege offered to white people based on race, we’ll have a nation that will value and treat everyone in a way that is more equal.

It won’t resemble all of bizzaro world, hopefully. One oppression won’t be replaced by another oppression.

And I won’t have to be demure.

White privilege

17 Aug


I spend a lot of time calling out white privilege on Twitter. As it isn’t the job of racialized people to teach us white people about how we’re maintaining a system that keeps (some of) us up and (many of) them down, I do what I can to take this issue on, where I see it.

To appreciate this post, you’ll have to imagine a Twitter flame war i had last night: four white folks. Me, a classmate and friend of mine (let’s call him Kye) based in a mid-sized town in a square-shaped province, the daughter of a mayor of a provincial capital (let’s call her Missy) and a hopeful candidate for a city councilor position in the same city (let’s call him Mr. Smith).

I’ll spare you the details of the flame war and leave it at this: Kye argues that white privilege exists. Missy’s brain leaks out of her eyes at the suggestion that she didn’t work harder than everyone else in the world to earn her nice material objects. Mr. Smith comes in at some point saying that the system isn’t as racist as Kye says it is. I agree with Kye and use the most obvious example of white privilege and supremacy I can think of: Canada’s prison system. Mr. Smith says that people go to jail as a result of bad parenting. I point out that he’s suggesting that racialized people must then be worse parents than white folks, which is a racist assertion. Conversation dies off.

Nothing is really resolved and it was probably a huge waste of time. A huge, but important waste of time.

White privilege is only invisible to white people. If you can’t put your finger on racism, you’re experiencing white privilege. Unlike racialized folks, white folks can go through life not really thinking about race (like, I just don’t see race, you know?) We can do this because our dominance renders our “race” invisible.

But, as Jesus teaches the children, just because you can’t see something, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.

When I get really annoyed with an issue, I resort to making a list, so, to help white folks understand what is white privilege, here’s my angry list.

(Disclaimer: there’s a ton of well written and accessible things out there that are better than what I write. If you’re genuinely interested in this, please Google the topic and read through what you find. Unless it’s on a racist blog or Sun TV.)

Some signs that you benefit from privilege:

1. Your white skin has never caused people to pause and think, damn this person may be (fill in the blank for whatever societal ill or stereotype you can imagine: lazy, slow, unemployable, a janitor, a nanny etc.)

2. You’ve worked jobs (even if they’re shitty jobs) because of a family connection. You know that time you filed papers in your father’s law office for a summer? That’s an example of privilege.

3. No one in your family experienced the Residential School system.

4. You don’t experience racism daily.

5. None of the comments on a mainstream news source’s website are targeted at an identity you hold.

6. You actually believe that your success is the result of your own hard work (hint: it’s not. Ever worked a low-paying shit job? You’ll work twice as hard). I don’t want to rain on your parade, but the folks who made you your coffee are working just as hard (or maybe even harder) than you. Deal with it.

7. When you speak with authority, people *might* criticize your opinion but never who they perceive you to be.

8. You’ve mostly had white teachers, professors and doctors, your whole life.

9. You have a hard time thinking of the last time you witnessed something that you would consider to be really racist.

10. Ah come on, if I haven’t made by point by number 2, you’re not going to be learned by this blog.

I’m really struggling with how to write this properly, because it seems that nothing I say here is good enough to convey some of the points that I’m hoping to make. So I’ll resort to another list.

Things to remember:

1. No one’s blaming you personally (unless you have said or done something that was racist). White privilege isn’t insidious because white people sometimes do racist things. It’s the system. It’s the system that can ensure that Black boys in the GTA drop out of school at a rate of 40%. It’s the system that makes it such that the Aboriginal population in prison in Manitoba is 71% and Saskatchewan is nearly 80% (eighty-fucking-per-cent).

2. When confronted by someone about your white privilege, chill the fuck out. Before allowing your ear juices to pour through your nose, walk away from the computer and suck that shit back in. Think about how your whiteness is playing a role in the situation at hand.

3. It does become your fault when you deny that these facts are indicators of a system that privileges some over others, based on race.

4. When you come to terms that you benefit from white privilege, this does not give you a pass to feel really, really guilty. You’re not the victim and you’re not personally to blame. Convert feelings of guilt into passion for action and confronting this system when you can.

5. Every time someone experiences racism and you don’t, you come out ahead. Think of it as like a star in Super Mario. If you don’t have to contend with that and your best friend does, they have to work harder to keep up with you while you’re givin’er with that 6 seconds of fast-star-juice. Think about that multiplied over a lifetime.

I’m really conscious of wordcount and so I’m going to leave it there with the commitment to return to the issue. White people: use caution when you’re operating in the world. Think about your actions, think about the unintended results of your actions and act to change this system.

I promise you, your life will be enriched when everyone benefits equitably and when everyone is actually equal.

[photo was stolen from these fine folks:]

The song is called Maritime Holiday

15 Aug

A few weeks ago, I wrote this about my thoughts about uranium mining.

At the end, I promised a song had been written.

For your listening pleasure, it’s here:

Buying land and other myths we tell ourselves

13 Aug

I’m trying to figure out how to take a cubic metre of air and sell it to someone.

How much should I sell it for? How should I transport it?

Don’t worry about how stupid a question this is, someone’s willing to buy, for some reason, and I’ll get some money out of it. I just need to package it up right.

* * *

There’s a river that’s running outside my back porch.

Someone approached me to purchase 10 cubic metres of it (so, where the river bends and where there are two rocks that break a path). He’s going to pay me $500 a month for two years, and promises to not walk through my house to get to the back yard.

* * *

Now, I’ve purchased a property up North. I’m going to buy some lumber and build a cottage. I’ll put a fence around it too, for some reason.


Why are my first two scenarios really strange, but my last one is totally normal?

We’ve been conditioned to believe that we can buy land. We can control land. We can stick shit into it, pull shit out of it, cut down trees, plant new ones and control it. Forget about things you can’t control, those rare occurrences like earthquakes or storms, for nearly all the time we need to, we can control the land how we’d like.

Maybe this reality isn’t that weird because there are people with a lot of money who do believe they can control the land. Many of us are also used to our bodies being controlled too. But, we know that even though we may be used to it, it doesn’t make it right.

No one controls the land. We, in fact, owe our entire livelihoods to the land and it controls us. But, we’re so disconnected from the source of production for the items we consume, we forget this.

Land becomes something to parcel, sell, fence off and exploit, rather than that big thing that, you know, gives us food, shelter and the other things we really love. Just like water and air. 

One of the biggest fights of the past few decades is brewing over this issue in First Nations communities. Unlike many of us, First Nations communities have not bought into the idiotic notion that one can “purchase” land. (In the end, we’re going to figure this out the hard way, fellow settlers).

Now, this issue is complicated and I’m nearly certain that I will screw up in this post. It will be oversimplified, it will ignore something important that I didn’t know. I’ll likely need a few follow up posts. But I’m going to try.

No one can own land. This is a simple truth that once the scales fall from our Capitalist eyes, we will see one day. But, I’m going to say this in a different way. If you don’t live on reserve in Canada, you can own land. On reserve, the land is controlled and cannot be owned by any individual living there. The determinants of land ownership/transfer/procurement etc. can be read in the colonial and racist Indian Act.

So, the government of Canada (always too ready to play God/Crown/Father in their relationship with First Nations communities) has decided to act on an idea that’s been kicking around for a while now: they intend to change the Indian Act to allow for the private sale and purchase of reserve land. This, they hope, will kickstart economic activity, solve housing crises that exist in many communities and show everyone that though Capitalism all things are possible.

Why is this bad?

1. It’s not being called for by First Nations themselves. It’s a move that’s widely opposed by Indigenous leaders and imperfect representatives (like the Assembly of First Nations).

2. It’s exploiting a problem (or, many problems) that exist on many reserves, to likely end up benefiting corporations who would use every tactic imaginable to purchase lands that could be atop, oh let’s say, a bunch of diamonds, or uranium, or some other metal that will make some dude(s) rich.

3. It will most likely result in even more internal chaos as the struggle between honouring the land, economic development, resource extraction and money gets multiplied by the millions of dollars at stake.

4. Despite the many, many other problems with the colonial and racist Indian Act, it further seeks to change the relationship with the Crown and First Nations (that exists because Treaties were signed that were entered into as bi-national agreements) and erode the rights guaranteed to First Nations through these Treaties.

5. Basically everything that Stephen Harper supports is most definitely evil and will lead to the profit of a few at the expense of many.

6. This is left blank for you to imagine other reasons.

Could this be turned into something useful or scrapped entirely? Potentially. But it will take a massive, united movement from organized First Nations leaders and communities in all regions of Canada.

Harper intends to put this into action one year from September. So, while communities are contending with fighting for access to clean water, protecting traditional lands, promoting and teaching culture, educating their youth and everything else that occupies so many peoples’ time, people will also have to add this to their list to fight.

It will also take a mobilized, coordinated movement of organizations and people standing with First Nations communities in a campaign, taking their lead on the tactics, the message and the goals.

To start, First Nations sovereignty and self-determination should be at the centre of any social justice organizing that you’re involved with (*ahem* amazingly inspiring student movement in Québec, and every other awesome movement in Canada…)

I’m somewhat lost on what I can do personally. I’m totally disconnected from any community right now, let alone working in solidarity with First Nations people and organizations in Québec. So, I’ll try to keep writing, but I invite your ideas and examples of what you’re working on where you are.

Settlers (and settler descendents…I don’t care if your family’s been here since the first colonizers landed) are Treaty people too and, you know what? We’ve benefited way beyond what we were entitled to from those agreements.

We have a responsibility to tip the scales in the other direction by working in solidarity with and along side First Nations people wherever in Canada/Turtle Island we’re located.

My gut feeling is that it’s going to take every trick in our collective toolkits to fight back against this. If not, it will be “the issue” that causes even more havoc for First Nations communities in Canada for decades to come.

Why students in the Rest of Canada aren’t a homogenous mass

8 Aug

Have you read this yet? It’s the subject of this post.

I think it’s necessary for the student movement in the ROC (rest of Canada for you ROC’ers) to examine the difference in student organizing outside Québec. I’m glad Brian Platt took a shot at it (actually, a good shot at it), although I think he missed some important aspects of the student movement outside of Québec.

I spent the last year of my job with the Canadian Federation of Students asking this question: what makes Québec’s model of organizing so effective? How have they succeeded in mass mobilization? While I think Platt makes some reasonable arguments, his main thesis, “anglophone student unions aren’t built for protesting” is untrue. Differences do exist between Québec students’ unions and the ROC but it’s not this simple.

Sandy Hudson and I came up with four reasons for why the Québec student movement has been so successful and what Ontario can learn from it, but that’s a topic for another bottle of wine.

On Platt’s piece. First off, there’s a huge difference between students’ unions that are structurally apolitical and politically apolitical (or politically oriented such that they support the government of the day). There are many students’ unions in Canada that are political apolitical, but not that many that are structurally apolitical. Universities like Queen’s, Western, McMaster and others in Ontario, for example, have vast resources, but fail to venture past a Liberal politic in their campaigns. This isn’t to say they couldn’t become politicized. Most college students’ unions in Ontario have also been depoliticized, but it has been more through the co-optation of student leaders, not necessarily thanks to the structures of their students’ unions.

From what I’ve seen, the students’ unions in Ontario that get away with being the least political (or most Conservative/Liberal) are the ones where their executive members are not elected at large. Or, where their representatives are selected structurally by the fewest people. In most cases, the president is elected at large, then he/she either appoints their vice-presidents or they are selected by board members who received fewer votes relative to what someone running for a VP position would receive. This is highly undemocratic and is a structure that keeps a dissenting politic out of the students’ union. The examples of this that I am aware of are at a few Ontario university students’ unions that are members of the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance, with two or three exceptions, and part-time students’ unions with a delegated class representative structure. Some college students’ unions are also organized this way.

Platt argues that the time spent on services is what really stops ROC students’ unions from mobilizing the way Québec students have. This is only the case where there aren’t enough activists involved in a students’ union. Of course, if your one activist is busy signing health opt out cheques and not mobilizing for a General Assembly, it’s a struggle between the two. But services are inherently political. The service centres that are strong in many Ontario students’ unions are what drive students to their students’ unions. Racialized student collectives, women’s centres, disability centres and others help to outreach to students and enable them to access the mainstream student political sphere. Where these services don’t exist, the student union is obviously and persistently less diverse. This is the case in many students’ unions in Québec and the movement is noticeably less diverse than it should be.

University and college services are political and should be organized and coordinated by students. The existence of profiteering health and dental brokers (one of which I’ve had the peripheral pleasure of being sued by, being locked into a contract by, settling with and then being locked in a contract again…some of the signatories to that agreement did get jobs, so at least they sold out for something, I guess), is one of the obvious examples of why students should control their services. A glance at Ontario’s UHIP system can show anyone how damaging for students’ interests and their pockets it can be when administrators control student services. And yes, coordinating these services takes a lot of time. This is why it is critical for active, service-heavy students’ unions to ensure that they are placing as much importance and as many resources into the campaigns work that they have.

I think it is also critical for ROC students’ unions to examine how students have organized in Québec and adopt the tactics needed to bolster similar efforts outside of Québec. Provincial solidarity is a major part and will make organizing in provinces like Manitoba or Newfoundland and Labrador easier (they also happen to be the other two provinces with the lowest tuition fees in Canada). In a province like Ontario, provincial solidarity is not remotely possible in the current state of affairs. This is a threat to the capacity of the Ontario student movement.

But the general assembly model is an important one that students’ unions should work to adopt. Organizing at the grassroots means going into each classroom, asking for them to select a representative and having open GAs at the departmental level where attendance is mandatory for class representatives, and encouraged for everyone else. Starting at this point would not only be constitutionally possible for local students’ unions, but would reach students in the classroom while they’re on campus. Minimizing students’ efforts to get them involved is critical, especially when tuition fees mean that you also have to work two jobs to stay afloat. Professors also become critical at this level, as access to their classes requires a level of support for the movement.

The most important critique of Platt’s piece, though, is that the ROC is not a homogenous mass.  The differences that exist among the students’ unions in Halifax alone cannot be ignored. Writing solely about one’s experience with the AMS at UBC (arguably one of Canada’s most bureaucratic and least political forces out there) and CUSA at Carleton (a service-heavy students’ union where campaigns this year have been eliminated by the current regime) doesn’t effectively capture the reality of the Canadian scene.

I was elected to the Ryerson Students’ Union where I think we did the best we could to balance our services (two businesses, taking back control of our student centre, the pub and the cafe, grade appeals help, health plan and five equity service groups, events etc.), but I know we could have done more. And, these things are always evolving. The current executive is probably doing more than we were able to achieve. While there are students’ unions I would consider to be comparable to RSU in size, scope and campaigns work, I’m under no illusion that RSU represented anything more than itself.

That’s the danger of these generalizations. Both applied to the ROC and to the Québec student movement, they are somewhat helpful, but not really.

Although, at the very least, I’ve just leaked 1156 words on this. Brian Platt gets all the credit for that.