Archive | September, 2013

Scoring political points with Québec’s secularism charter

10 Sep

Contrary to what the mainstream English press will have you believe, Québec is not the most racist place in Canada. Racism is sewn into the fabric of Canadian society Québec is just one piece of that fabric.

English politicians have been quick to score political points by capitalizing on easy and age-old divisions: when they condemn Québec, the Parti Québecois or Pauline Marois for being racist they’re saying: “Look at them!” Or, in other words, “Don’t look at us!”

Indeed, the Parti Québecois’ Charte de la laïcité is a gift to Canadian politicians. The Ontario government has jumped at this opportunity and condemned the charter before it was even released.

This condemnation is pretty vacant when you consider that just last Friday, the Ontario government challenged its own responsibility to give OHIP coverage to two migrant workers who were injured on the job. Ontario believes that foreign workers (who are mostly racialized), once injured and unable to work, should be kicked off the provincial health plan.

The Ontario government also hasn’t declared its support for Ian Campeau’s Human Rights challenge to change the racist name of the Nepean amateur football team from The Redskins to something that isn’t racist. Nor have they condemned the National amateur football association for refusing to comment, or for resisting the change in the past.

Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi jumped into the ring, too. He received wide media coverage last week for having opposed Marois’ planned legislation. Though, rather than acknowledging how far his own community has to go in combating racism, he focused only on Québec. Calgary is one of the most active cities in Canada for white supremacist organizing, one of the few places where white nationalists still try to march annually on Hitler’s birthday.

There are blind spots in English Canada to institutionalized racism and it’s not good enough for politicians to only condemn the most outward expressions of white supremacy. The quick political points scored will only amplify anti-Québec sentiment and Québecers who see this will be rightfully outraged

Canada was built on white supremacy and white nationalism. The supremacy of the Catholic and Protestant churches, tied into the genocide upon which the country was built, is woven into every single Canadian structure. But Québec’s origins, as they relate to its society today, are different from the rest of Canada.

Québec’s history of conquest by England, the push to control all aspects of Québec society by the Catholic Church and the repressive nature of that control has no parallel experience in the rest of Canada. The forced subjugation of French-speaking Québecers at the hands of English capitalists created an unequal society where Québecers were less educated, more poor and more marginalized than most of the English minority in this province.

Québecers’ institutional relationship with religion is also different than in any other region of Canada. They spectacularly and swiftly rejected the influence of the church over their lives through the quiet revolution. But the break wasn’t entirely clean and the role once played by the Catholic Church still influences how many Québecers understand religion and its relationship with the state.

The PQ’s charter advances a secularism that is born from this experience. It’s a kind of secularism, a White, post-Catholic secularism, where public schools still have crosses attached to them and where a crucifix is an image of culture, not of religion. It’s paradoxical, but it’s deeply Québécois.

This political context means that any attempt at creating a secularism charter made by a governing political party is going to be completely bungled, racist and offensive.

While many people had hoped that the charter would have at least stopped public grants to private religious schools, the charter is silent on this. It also exempts, of all people, the politicians themselves from being forced to hide their religious symbols if elected. The PQ: protecting those in power, while oppressing and marginalizing workers.

I have progressive friends who argue with me that public institutions should have no outward expression of religion. This blanket assertion gets messy when you consider how deep Catholicism still runs throughout, and how burning every last vestige of the Catholic Church from Québec is impossible. This is especially true considering the widespread sale of churches in the province: sometimes it makes more sense for a city to buy a church and turn it into a library than simply burn it down. The stained glass is probably old and beautiful and so it’s restored. It also probably has a depiction of Jesus’s beard being plucked off, or Jesus in agony upon the cross.

Just like the quick political points that Wynne and Nenshi hoped to score, this Charter is more about polls than it is about proselytization. If it were about freedom from the annoying folks who try to convince me that Scientology is the way to find salvation, the PQ would just ban proselytism from public spaces. But surely, no one ever converted to Islam solely because they learned Grade 6 math from a woman wearing hijab.

This debate has little to do with religious freedom. The Parti Québécois knows that this rhetoric is popular among enough people that it might deliver them a provincial majority. And besides, demonizing a turban is way easier than balancing the province’s desire to exploit its natural resources and satisfy foreign industry with peoples’ outrage in the aftermath of Lac-Mégantic, for example.

Secularism, when wielded as a blunt object, will marginalize people who are already marginalized. For religious observers, wearing religious symbols is not a choice and they will either be systematically excluded from the public sector, or oppressed into turning away from some elements of how they express their religion.

The legislation is rooted in white supremacy, where the religion, norms, cultures and practices of the white dominant are fine, but the religion, norms, cultures and practices of the mostly racialized other are offensive. In fact, according to Bernard Drainville, the MNA who presented the charter, they’re so offensive that they need to be stopped in particular to protect children in schools.

But the analysis of this has to be thoughtful and careful. It’s not enough to just call Québec racist as if every other province doesn’t struggle with its own racist structures. Canadian critics, especially mainstream journalists, need to avoid applying their own province’s history and current context to analyses of Québec.

The enemy of my enemy is never my ally: A critique of the CFS disaffiliation drives

5 Sep

“16 schools want to leave CFS,” declares Ethan Cox at his rabble.ca and Canada.com blogs. 16 schools — sensationalized even from the press release it references, issued by the students organizing the disaffiliation petition drive.

Like a playbook from a Manning Centre workshop, the release dropped during the first week back to school at most campuses, right in time to feed the student press.

We expect these attacks from the right. We, progressives who work within organizations that are well-resourced and have the potential to seriously disrupt the status quo, face these attacks regularly. They’re easy to understand when they come from the right. They’re harder to square when the come from the so-called left.

I say “so-called” because I don’t think anyone who allies themselves with the right to call for the whole-scale destruction of a progressive entity, especially without building an alternative, can call themselves progressive without being laughed at.

This goes for unions, this goes for the NDP and it goes for the Canadian Federation of Students.

The CFS is impressive for a lot of reasons. After decades of growth, it has the resources to drive higher education policy in many provinces, and can offer students services that do save money. In the 1990s, when the organization was taken over by Liberals, the idea that the CFS would take a position against war, Islamophobia, racism or even call for free education would have been hilarious.

Fast forward a decade and a half and the CFS is on the front lines of each of those struggles. It defends students’ right to choose in the face of extreme backlash. It staunchly opposes war and militarism. It defends free higher education.

I mention these victories to not say that the organization doesn’t deserve criticism, but to try and contextualize the current “attack.” When you get past the petty personal shit (and, I assure you, every single person who isn’t controlled by the Liberal or Conservative party has been burned by or developed beefs with someone at the CFS), there’s simply no current, progressive argument in favour of disaffiliation on which to stand.

Advocating for the mass exodus of membership in the CFS does only two things. Spoiler alert: neither of those things is to build the communist, revolutionary organization that some claim they want.

The first result is that it will open a space for the most resourced campus activists to fill it. While it can be hard for anarchists or socialists to accept, these activists will not be progressive. They will be funded by the Liberal and Conservative parties. They will hide behind the veneer of the left until the left falls apart because it divides itself even further and they will win.

While the dissenters’ press release says that some of the students who are mobilizing to leave the CFS want to create an ASSE-like alternative, they idiotically state: “But even if students have no desire to join a new organizing body, they should still consider terminating their membership in the CFS.”

Real progressive, folks. Damn the CFS and, in its place, we’ll take nothing.

Nothing comes of nothing and nothing isn’t an alternative.

The other natural outcome is what worries me the most. As a former staff person of the organization, I have had more than my share of grievances with the organization. As I know how hard it is to work and make change, build consensus, actually organize and realize a new, progressive project, I also know that writing a blog littered with factual inaccuracies to burn an organization that once burned your friends is way easier.

But these kinds of attacks will actually stop the leadership of the CFS from implementing the reforms, campaigns or new organizing strategies that it desperately needs. Instead, they’ll focus on these disaffiliation campaigns, fight them on the ground and resources for broad-based organizing will vanish.

Well-meaning students who want their national federation to be more militant, will find themselves stuck defending the very existence of the CFS rather than organizing for free education. These attacks stymie the expression of the very politics it claims to promote.

Many of those named on this petition went about “reforming” the CFS through hammering its bureaucracy: its bylaws and policies. It must have been a huge surprise to find out that, by and large, unless you have severe social awkwardness issues, no one cares about bylaw changes.

What students care about is the campaigns, the demands, the militant action and the ability of their national or provincial organization to influence the public debate. Claiming that the CFS cannot be reformed because you un-strategically walked in with a crowbar, swung it at some bylaws and talked about lawsuits in vague enough terms that most delegates tuned out, is living in a fantasy world.

You want to reform the CFS? You have to engage. You have to win the arguments at general meetings and the actually do the work on the ground. You have to lead with campaigns and services and build community — the aspects of the organization that students actually care about, rather than engaging in some spun-out tale about how your former roommate was once called a name by a national office staffer (for example).

You have to work toward progressive change in a good way, with good intentions and with lots of hard work. If you can’t see that the CFS is an organization with the resources to be turned into a dangerously progressive force, your personal rage is clouding your judgment.

I chose to not take on the facts contained within blog posts already written (even though since yesterday, Cox’s blog went from the CFS was suing Concordia Students’ Union to it being the opposite, but what are a few facts when a personal vendetta is on the line?) and I also chose to not focus on another legitimate but issue-obscuring argument (like, why is there not one list of all 15 or 16 schools? Are we talking 16 students at 16 schools? 30 students at 10 schools but different students’ unions? 10,000 students at U of T? etc.) I could do both, and will if there’s enough demand.

I also didn’t investigate the actual ties to the Conservative party (though, it’s worth mentioning that the Laurentian undergraduate CFS rep, presumably included in the disgruntled Laurentian University group, is a former staffer for Tony Clement and Conservative Party activist.) I didn’t do this because it’s well documented. I’ve written about it before and, as more “leaders” emerge from behind the so-called radical left leading this charge, its face will become more obvious.

Just like in 2009, the last time this strategy was attempted, the left may be the face now, but on the ground, the pieces will be set up and knocked down by the right.

Any so-called progressive that’s willing to ally with these forces to settle a score should have their head shaken.

 

Personal disclosure: Until August, I was a member of the Canadian Federation of Students/CFS-Saskatchewan. That’s my only formal interaction with the organization since I left my job there in June 2012. I was previously Communications and Government Relations Coordinator for the CFS-Ontario. I now live in Québec where, contrary to what some Anglophones say in Montreal, I’ve found that no one here cares about the Canadian Federation of Students. I have been asked by several people to respond, not one of which works or holds a position with the CFS currently or ever.