Archive | December, 2012

Seeing Idle No More in Les Misérables

28 Dec

“Damn their warnings, damn their lies. They will see the people rise!” (Upon These Stones – At The Barricade, Les Misérables)

In a few hours, I’m going to see Les Misérables. As I know the musical by heart, I’ve been thinking of the similarities between this story of revolution in mid-1860s Paris and the Idle No More movement.

One of the central characters in Les Miz is the barricade. Building a barricade to create a barrier between ‘us’ and ‘them’ is both the physical representation of the deep divisions that exist in social equality and a tool to demonstrate that business cannot continue as normal.

Just a few days before Les Miz was released, The Barricade made her own appearance in Canada. The CN rail blockade outside of Sarnia by Aamjiwnaang First Nation has been up for a week. Another blockade has been set up by Garden River and Batchewana First Nations, near Sault Ste. Marie.

I suspect that more roads and railways will be blockaded as Harper’s outrageous and callous non-response to Chief Spence’s hunger strike continues.

Idle No More has, for a variety of reasons, sparked the imagination and creativity of thousands of people for whom mere existence is resistance. Chief Theresa Spence’s hunger strike has created a single, unifying point around which Indigenous people and allies have organized.

The round dance flash mobs, the coordinated actions, the blockades and barricades, the use of social media and the unified message are all signs that maybe Idle No More will be different than past movements. Maybe Idle No More will become the moment where Canada is forced to honour the Treaties and negotiate nation to nation with Indigenous people. Maybe. Hopefully.

Revolution, as a concept, has been en vogue in the West since the the Arab Spring. From Time Magazine naming The Protester as person of the year in 2011 to the successes, failures and popularity of Occupy Wall Street, it doesn’t take a supreme cynic to see why the time is ripe for Les Miz to make her silver screen debut.

Of course, despite its content and the powerful call for justice, the movie was not created to spark revolutionary activity. Like whatever-the-hell-the-latest-Batman-movie-was-called, Les Miz is a movie out to make money and win some gold-plated statues.

But what if we watched Les Miz and saw the injustice of our own system? What if Fantine had died along the Highway of Tears or if Valjean had a Treaty card? Would Idle No More get stronger? Would there be a broader support among non-Indigenous people for Stephen Harper to change how he interacts with First Nations?

I don’t think that the parallels between Idle No More and Les Miz should be overblown. Les Miz is fiction and chronicles rich white students trying to whip up a revolution that ultimately fails. The Indigenous sovereignty movement on Turtle Island has always existed and isn’t fiction. It’s the real, centuries-old story of resistance, cultural and traditional protection and reclamation.

But I do believe that a value exists to popularizing stories of revolution. As a friend said to me after he saw Les Miz, the times today are different when the musical was first performed. The mid-1980s West, laden with Thatcherism and Reganomics was not a time where revolution was en vogue. In such a context, Les Miz was less real and more fantasy; a set of stories tied to beautiful music. You watch the musical, cry and then leave.

But times are different. Canada looks different. From the Occupy Movement to the Printemps Érable, people have seen that government can be stopped if you find the right tactic.

Are the times different enough? While movie-inspired protests seemed to peak most recently with the use of Avatar-inspired motifs, I’m not under any illusion that Les Miz will change the world.

Instead, let’s use the popular imagery to talk about the Treaties, Idle No More and the need to radical action to take back our democracy, take back our country and cultivate a system justice and peace for all.

Burning Rex Murphy’s encyclopaedia: Promoting Idle No More

18 Dec

Screen shot 2012-12-18 at 9.36.52 AMSometimes I forget that Canada is a massive country where people are separated into silos.

Idle No More has reminded me that there exists massive gulfs between people, experiences and awareness.

I don’t actually fault the folks who aren’t aware of their ignorance. After an aggressive social media campaign, flash mobs, rallies, blockades, coordinated actions, letters of support from national unions and a hunger strike, the media coverage has still been significantly lacking.

How can someone know what’s going on if none of their friends are talking about it? How can they talk about it if there’s an effective media blackout?

How can Stephen Harper feel the necessary heat if he’s only hearing from people who he decided long ago he disrespects?

All news isn’t created equal and how we see the world is linked to whose version of events we read. And sometimes, we must look at the mouthpieces who exist in a world that many of us would consider to be foreign. Their insights, while oftentimes entirely laughable, are sometimes helpful.

To be able to understand why Harper thinks he can get away with refusing to meet with Theresa Spence, we need to look into the abyss of his cheerleading crew. Many of these privileged few have a platform like a national new program or newspaper from which to rant. So, let’s use Rex Murphy.

Three days before Idle No More took root across Canada on Dec. 10, Murphy wrote a love-letter to Stephen Harper and disguised it as a column. In Rex’s famous lilt, a combination of an angry great-uncle and Stuart McLean, he insists that the criticisms that are heaped upon Harper (mostly online) are unfair. Harper has been elected for seven years, says Murphy, and Canadians should have noticed that his “secret agenda” has not revealed itself. Harper, he says, has “not, contra naturum, transformed Canada into a gulag or prison house for the poor, artists, liberals, greens or whomever he sees as his opponents.”

Murphy’s flowery use of an encyclopedia (and an old Latin textbook) throughout does more than just obscure the debate about Harper. Like a magic trick, Murphy forces the audience to focus on his supreme intellect while his other hand is hiding the secret to his magic: that he’s practiced over and over on how to use an encyclopedia.

In the wake of the Idle No More protests, Murphy’s obtuse verbal diarrhea exposes just how far apart the two solitudes of this issue are: those Canadians who are aware that there exists a problem (or who live and experience it) and those Canadians who not only refuse to acknowledge it but who actively try to hide it.

Murphy’s column finishes with these lines:
So why is it that people are not content just to disagree with him, to label him simply wrong or misguided but must revile him? Why is there such fervour of suspicion about “the agenda” and so much invective and worse directed at him? I don’t know.
[…]
They make Mr. Harper, in their own white-hot minds, bigger and more scary than he is or could be.

I doubt Theresa Spence, who’s life hinges on Harper meeting with her, would agree with his flip analysis. I also doubt that the millions of Indigenous people in Canada who rely on Harper to uphold the Treaties but who have no clear recourse to punish him when he doesn’t would agree either.

Murphy’s analysis demonstrates the dangerous level of ignorance that has managed to infest the brains of many Canadians.

Sorry Rex, Harper is pretty big and scary. Not sure what a white-hot mind is (must have been a saying from some decade I didn’t get to experience) but in my mind, the power and danger that Harper yields should scare us. It should scare everyone who believes in Indigenous rights, the rights of refugees, the rights of unionized workers, women, pensioners, young people, etc. etc.

It’s obvious: Murphy is so far removed from reality that he lacks the necessary shame to avoid making such a claim about Harper. But as the voice that dominates CBC Radio across Canada every Sunday afternoon, we should also fear his influence to contort or obscure our issues.

He’s part of the problem that our society is so siloed and fractured.

There are great debates that we all need to have, together, but we need to have these debates on a level playing field. With men like Murphy and Harper in substantive positions of power, leveling this playing field is an enormous task. And, while I think that Murphy’s online rantings at the National Post are mostly background noise, it’s important to pause and remind ourselves the damage that such a narrative can do when it remains unchecked.

Indeed, Murphy’s audience, the comment section trolls that many of us have trained ourselves to avoid, need to be brought into the discussion. We need to cut through the rhetoric and challenge this encyclopaedic Trojan horse if we’re going to have any impact in shifting the national debate on our Prime Minister.

Put simply, we have a great deal of work to do. If our movements are ignored, obscured or made the object of fun by folks like Rex Murphy, then we have to tell our own stories and amplify them ourselves.

Queen’s and mental health: rendering the root causes invisible

16 Dec

It seems fitting to write about depression at this time of year.

While there are lots of triggers for depression, capitalism has ensured that our bank accounts either drive or exacerbate our emotions. During December, this translates into weeks of anxious planning to try and meet the expectations of people around us, most of whom have also been infected with the capitalist virus, eating their brains and removing the little voice that says “this obsession with accumulating shit is probably going to kill you and everyone you love.” Add to these stresses the difficulties of being a student and you have a potentially explosive situation.

Any recommendations that attempt to alleviate peoples’ mental health that doesn’t address this context will never be sufficient.

Instead, like a knee that’s been torn open by a fall, pusing and bruised, bloodied and full of sand, a recommendation to address mental health that doesn’t address the root problem is like taking a bandaid and sticking it into the middle of your dirty knee.

Even if the bandaid if of the highest quality, it’s not going to fix you up.

This was the mental image I held while reading the report “Student Mental Health and Wellness, framework and recommendations for a comprehensive strategy” from Queen’s University. It was released at the end of November and, with Idle No More exploding across Canada and my own exams to prepare for, I’ve only gotten to reading this report now.

When I saw “comprehensive” I was hopeful that indeed, this report would be comprehensive. But, like is so often the case when university administrators try to fix students’ problems, the report fails to address any of the root causes of the deteriorating mental health of students.

Of 55 recommendations, not one mentions tuition fees or oppression as having anything to do with depression. Not one.

Instead, the report is full of pilot program ideas and recommendations like ensuring that pharmacists on campus are paying attention to their clients, creating an “adopt a grandma/grandpa” program, or changing the name of Campus Security (because if you’re in crisis, a private security guard at Queen’s may be your best supporter!)

Pretending that tuition fees are not either the primary factor or a driving factor of students’ mental health is at best ignorant and at worst, a dangerous lie.

Administrators like Queen’s president Daniel Woolf are the loudest advocates, the most shameful cheerleaders of high tuition fees in Ontario. Their advocacy is driving their students’ depression. It’s embarrassing that they would even enter into such a discussion, let alone stand behind recommendations that obscures students’ real experiences.

While I was at Ryerson, we held sessions for students who were failing their courses to intervene before they would be forced to leave their programs. The most common reasons for students struggling were these: personal tragedy or crisis during the semester (death of a parent/fire/etc.), being in a program that they should not have been in (for a variety of social and familial reasons) and a variety of stresses driven by financial pressures. For students in the first category, the university’s policies made it nearly impossible for them to stay on track academically. Their crises were usually exacerbated by the fact that their tuition/living expenses surpassed $15,ooo.

Students in the third category were the highest represented at these sessions, and it was no surprise. With the highest tuition fees in Canada, high costs of living and no room for mistakes, Ontario students are under more stress than any generation before them or any other student in Canada.

God forbid you fail a class: that will cost you more than $1,000. Lose a semester and you’ve essentially thrown 80 $50 bills down a sewer grate.

What 19-year-old should have to study under such stress?

What university administrator can look at the faces of their students and not feel an overwhelming sense of shame?

Oppressive structures are also a driver of depression: institutional racism, transphobia, sexism, homophobia, ableism and social isolation (especially for international students who are also paying three to four times the tuition fees that domestic students pay). When the intersection of these oppressions are considered in tandem with the economic segmentation of Canadian society, marginalized students are dealt a double set of barriers prohibiting their successful persistence in higher education.

Pretending that these structures don’t exist is rendering them invisible, further marginalizing the students this report claims to help.

I should stress: some of these recommendations are useful and will help some students, if implemented. After all, even the most cynical exercise in public relations can sometimes produce a useful recommendation or two.

But if anyone in the university community thinks that Queen’s is addressing students’ mental health by pretending financially-driven depression and systemic oppression are not two of the biggest factors driving students’ mental health, they’re wrong.

The focus on mental health at Queen’s was sparked by six student deaths on campus in 2011, three that were confirmed suicides. In response, students were frustrated and outraged with the lack of supports on campus.

As if existing in another world, President Woolf wrote in a letter that was accidentally leaked that he looked forward to leveraging these tragedies to encourage corporate donations from companies like Bell Canada.

You couldn’t invent a response as blunt or offensive as this.

Talking about mental health is not easy and addressing students’ mental health is even harder. These issues are multifaceted. But if the drivers of student depression are not only ignored, but encouraged and exploited by university administrators, they must be held to account.

Their shameful actions are hurting the students who pay their outrageous salaries.

And this deeply depresses me.

Image

Support Chief Theresa Spence

12 Dec

ChiefSpence

Have you written to Stephen Harper yet?

Idle No More: non-Indigenous responsibility to act

10 Dec

Today, thousands of Indigenous activists and their allies will march, demonstrate, blog, tweet or starve to get their message to Stephen Harper: enough is enough.

Normally, enough being enough isn’t enough and it hasn’t been for centuries.

Enough is the point at which people united, absolutely refuse to be subjugated. They refuse to be dominated, colonized and re-colonized. Enough looks different than a protest.

In Canada, I don’t think any social movement has reached the breaking point where “enough” truly has been enough.

But Idle No More could be the spark needed for a movement is built to truly say “enough.” Idle No More could be the rally call, the inspiration. The parental shove into the lake that all people who fight to uphold and honour the Treaties need.

Idle No More is a movement that was called after the news circulated that First Nations leaders were denied entry to the House of Commons to discuss the federal budget bill. This bill makes sweeping changes to hundreds of regulations that will affect all Canadians and Indigenous people in particular.

Born on social media networks, it calls for peaceful protests in towns and cities across Canada, and online.

Resistance will take many forms. From mass rallies, protests outside politicians offices to Attawapiskat First Nation Chief Theresa Spence’s hunger strike, activists will challenge the decisions of our unaccountable and undemocratic government.

When I say “our,” I refer to Canadians, descendants of settlers and for who, on this land, the current government is the only (federal) government we have. When Stephen Harper breaks his promises, lies about fighter jets or sells a part of Alberta to China, our political system works such that, while we may disagree, this government has been elected and they have the authority to pass this massive budget bill. We should voice our opposition and have a range of legal and less-than-legal options for how to do this.

But for Indigenous communities, this relationship is different. The lies of the federal government aren’t part of the regular [dis]functioning of their government system. It’s a break in the legally-binding Treaties that were signed between national governments.

When considered in these terms, the actions of the Harper government aren’t just another example of our broken democracy, it’s a break in the formal and legal responsibilities that the Crown has with Indigenous people.

These responsibilities are the flip-side of the rights that the government seems to have no problem helping themselves to: access and exploitation of land and resources for example. But there are no rights without responsibilities and the current lot has shamefully ignored the “responsibilities” aspect of the Treaty arrangements.

When Joe Oliver or Jim Flaherty refuses to meet with First Nations Chiefs in Ottawa, that’s a high insult. That is an action that signals that our government has no interest in meeting with the representatives of the people on who’s land we live, we pillage, we profit and we steal.

Of course, this isn’t really new in the relationship between the Crown and Indigenous people. What might be new, though, is the nationally-coordinated, sophisticated response that will coalesce around Idle No More.

Canadians: we have a responsibility to honour the Treaties, understand the Treaties and demand (vocally, physically, however we can) that our government honour the Treaties too.

I’m sure that today isn’t going to be the last that we hear of Idle No More and I’m excited to watch how the campaign unfolds in the communities that I’m connected to.

But, just as it will take unity and solidarity among First Nations people to fight for their rights, non-Indigenous activists have a role to play too. This is our government and we are partly to blame for allowing the current pack of wolves access to the hen house.

I hope you can participate in an Idle No More event either today or in the coming days. But more important than that, I encourage all non-Indigenous people to:

Know the history and the stories of elders of what has happened on this territory.

Place decolonization at the centre of all progressive/social justice organizing you do.

Read and understand the Indian Act and how this racist piece of legislation is used today.

Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Be humble. Walk softly. Be kind. Be bold.

Allegations of allegations of racism and debate obscuring at the CFS general meeting

5 Dec

Racism, accusations of racism and white people.

This trio has stymied many an activist, especially when he or she believes the stakes to be high enough to warrant pulling out this special collision of criticism. When the three collide, accidents are bound to be made.

At the last meeting of the Canadian Federation of Students, this collision played out on Twitter. Representatives from the Dawson Students’ Union claimed either the entire CFS, the national executive or about 100 delegates said that Québec’s student movement is racist (the variations on a theme are from DSU representative Morgan Crockett’s Twitter feed). Crockett neglected to be less ambiguous, instead fanning the rumour mill online and repeating the claim rather than identifying the source or providing context, leaving questions about whether or not anyone actually said anything close to this.

Technically unrelated, though perhaps related to this tactic, the motions that her students’ union served were rejected by other students there. Two DSU reps were unsuccessful in their electoral bids for National Executive positions.

She argued that saying that the students’ union general assembly model privileges the involvement of people with privilege was tantamount to declaring an entire province’s student population as racist.

With 300 delegates at a General Meeting, characterizing anything other than a motion being passed as something that “the CFS” supports is a lie. Thanks to the system of motions passing and failing, determining what it is that the CFS supports or opposes is really easy to figure out.

Last May, for example, the CFS lauded the Québec student movement, encouraged civil disobedience against Law 78, organized two casseroles protests to join with local Gatineau students during the five-day meeting and made a donation of $30,000 to defend students who were targeted during the protests.

So, if Crockett is to be believed, all of the work in May was done to support what many of the same people now think is a racist movement?

I can’t do the necessary mental gymnastics to get myself to believe that.

Crockett didn’t explain the source of the comments, so we’re left to either ignore her, challenge her or believe her. Unfortunately, folks at ASSÉ chose to believe her.

In response to Crockett’s Tweets, Jérémie Bédard-Wien from ASSÉ wrote “Racism and perceptions of the Quebec student movement.” It assumes that Crockett’s Twitter ranting characterized some actual position or discussion. He finishes his article with this: “However, to discount general assemblies or, more generally, structural change on that basis is not only mistaken: it is a political smokescreen used to draw attention away from awkward, yet necessary debates about direct democracy. Because the Quebec example is not one of racism.”

I have yet been able to find proof of anyone discounting general assemblies or structural changes within the Canadian student movement as being necessary to build something similar to what transpired in Québec this year. There were no motions calling for the use of or reorientation towards a general assembly model at the meeting.

Crockett is a vocal critic of the other student federations in Québec, and I suspect ASSÉ has identified DSU as a potential member. However, as membership in ASSÉ and CFS would be possible, I see no reason for the approach taken by Bédard-Wien in his article.

The other question is the one that is at the heart of the debate: the role of anti-oppressive structures in decision making versus the open, general assembly model that will undoubtedly reproduce society’s oppression when in action if oppression is unaddressed. Our societies (here, I refer to Canada, the society I have the most experience with, and Québec, my new home) were built to maintain white privilege and white supremacy. Structures that we create are naturally going to reproduce this inequality.

But identifying this as a fact doesn’t say that the people who participate in these structures are all racist. Claiming so could be seen as an annoying distortion, perhaps leveled by someone frustrated with another aspect of a general meeting in which she (or he) was participating.

Gender speaking lists and identity caucuses try to mitigate the influence of oppression reproducing itself. Where CFS has work to do in other areas, it remains a leader in its approach to ensuring that decisions are discussed and motions are amended in spaces where people of various shared identities are able to meet, organize and be heard.

Rather than being dismissive or even defensive when claims of racism or exclusion are leveled against us or organizations in which we are involved, progressive people should step back and take the time to reflect. This is not a criticism of Bédard-Wien.

For him and ASSÉ, my criticism is this: I don’t think his article reflected the solidarity needed between the two organizations. Allegations like this deserve a phone call to the CFS Chairperson and a demand for clarification, not a response to a fabricated or exaggerated story.

But the more than 300 student representatives present at this general meeting have a responsibility too. They must ensure that the characterization of their meeting was how they experienced it.

The stories about the good, the bad, the inspiring and the frustrating add to the collective history of the student movement on this territory. Don’t leave it up to a few people with Twitter accounts to erase your story and alter how you experienced your meeting.

After all, if someone claims you’ve said people are racists and you don’t respond, the vacuum of voices will respond for you.