A writerly subject. Lover of ideas, politics, social justice, and yoga. Schooled during second-wave feminism. Enlivened by my splendid daughter’s insights and energy. Retired after 32+ years as university professor into the creative splendour of time.
While writing my dissertation during the 1980s, I worked on Sounding Differences, my collection of interviews with Canadian women writers. I called them “oral essays” to indicate the way this generative exploration project worked to empower a chorus of voices – a notion . While infused with differentiated power relations, the collectivity of women I interviewed revised the canon beyond the distinguished female triumvirate of Margaret (Atwood), Margaret (Laurence) and Alice (Munroe).
My thinking was not original – but shaped by this earlier second-wave notion of difference as generative of “difficult conversations that can be life-saving” in Sara Salem’s words.
I was inspired by feminist film critic and art critic friends who introduced me to Trinh T. Minh-ha whose theoretical and cinematic work remains an inspiration. In Woman, Native Other (1989), she wrote:
“you and I are close, we intertwine; you may stand on the other side of the hill once in awhile, but you may also be me while remaining what you are and what I am not.”
I may be on another hill further away. But this distant nearness of our “intertwine” is an implication acknowledging the interior diss-identification of an origami fold. A cutting, a grafting that takes.
Mothering, interracial, adoptive,
an origami fold,
of our undying days,
live-long years together,
this rapport between
a 65-year-old mother and
an 18-year-old daughter unfolds.
the wear and tear of
in our bones
On a rip-tide Mexican beach at a sunny Spanish colonial resort
thinking of boredom of deluxe indulgence
of the first tourist t-shirt
glimpsed on arrival –
(without the punctuation)
on the beach
turquoise pools meander between
clipped fuschia & chartreuse
bougainvillea hedge funds
a watery lipless horizon
acres of white empty plates
groan stainless steel and
porcelain bowls of luscious
ceviche, salsa, guacamole,
chocolate chicken mole
delicately tied tamales
steamed to perfection
ice creamed bins, farting
triple layer cheesecake
artful bamboo hidden Japanese sushi rolls
black tureened lobster bisque
careening carnivals of carved fruit
secret fish today, a sea bird tomorrow,
all day every day rainbow hilled
chopped pineapple, papaya, mango, melon
before bed an 8:30pm performance of Michael Jackson lip-syncing,
Aztec psychedelia and swirling moebius looped Mexican skirts
late night drunken songs of weddings
sand between their ears
and everywhere top heavy chef hats working
alongside friendly name-tags of aproned maids
wandering smiles of mojito-laden waiters
all for tips, given or taken away
generous with their time
in conversation, the give and take of
my stilted Spanish the limit case of
we know and not
meanwhile from our fake 1%er perch
atop a white wrought iron fenced stone wall
a man in a bathing suit motions to the air along the shore
hand-woven blankets, t-shirts that name this place
for almost nothing.
Thinking this in response to our few mother/daughter days together in bliss and in irritation, the back and forth of our closeness, as we lie on a rip-tide Mexican beach at a sunny Spanish colonial resort.
Where a young man drowned today of a seizure or a heart attack.
The American couple at the next table, shocked by their loss, tell us the story of his last words in the ocean. On the way back to the boat. About feeling unwell.
The shocked couple at the next table tell us about the guilt of the young male survivors, all friends, the fruitless attempt to return for him.
His lifeless body. His friends who could have done nothing to save him.
The story unfolds as though it cannot not be told.
Over and over and over and over again.
The couple at the next table tell us they are in plumbing and heating. They travel here to this resort annually. In the company of forty of their employees.
They tell us over again and then apologize. And we squeeze their hands. And they tell us again of the telephone call to the forty-year old deceased man’s parents.
That impossible conversation about drowning.
And we listen and talk in this fragility of being here now.
To sit together straining between tables at dinner talking of loss and death and love and compassion….
All tonight’s writing started with this reading thanks to a colleague. The text made me think about the necessary and irritating and incommensurable inconsolable chasms of misunderstanding and pain that are occasioned in the gaps between us.
“This generation is told that diversity is a good thing, it shows that we don’t need radical politics anymore because equality is near. Ultimately it has acted as a very depoliticizing tool. Through certain institutions and people, including the university, the idea of difference was de-radicalized, sanitized, and turned into the neoliberal-friendly idea of diversity. Many feminists have written about the problems with diversity as a concept, including the amazing Sara Ahmed. Diversity can never be a radical notion, or even a political one. But I had never noticed this particular genealogy: that those using the idea of diversity in feminism probably drew directly from these feminists of colour in the 1960s, 70s and 80s who spoke of difference.
But when these women spoke of difference, they spoke of it at two levels: the differences between women of colour and white women, which are, as Minh-ha, writes, awkward, difficult, fraught with tension. And then there are the differences among women of colour, or women of colour in the West and Third World women, or lesbian women and heterosexual women, and so on. In other words, there is a binary at play here that distinguishes different levels of difference. Not all differences are equally valuable. And not all differences should be treated in the same way. Differences between women of colour are very real, but these can act as a source of energy and inspiration. These are the types of differences that propel movements forward, that lead to difficult conversations that can be life-saving. In other words, these differences are very valuable.
This is not to say that differences between women of colour and white women are invaluable, or only cause harm. I have always believed that these differences are also important to discuss, interrogate, try to unpack. But this must be done while bearing in mind that there is a specific hierarchy always there, and not necessarily in the background. And when it is a material and ideological hierarchy, rather than simply vertical divisions, it can be difficult to unite and struggle together for the same causes.
The point is that they saw difference in a very positive light because they understood difference differently than we do today, where the term has been repackaged. Differences between women had to be acknowledged, because they were responding to first and second wave feminism that insisted on universal sisterhood. Difference was therefore something productive, a way of uniting to create a different type of society. This was never framed as something easy, or based on simplistic notions of quotas or tokenism. It was always based on radical political struggle and change. Today we have learned to assume that difference is accepted, and that it is not political. But it seems to me that returning to this more radical understanding of differences could act as a very important source of energy for critical, radical, decolonial and postcolonial feminists today.”
For much of its contemporary history, Beirut has been characterised as the Paris of the Middle East, a cosmopolitan metropolis that misfortune has placed in the middle of a region otherwise hostile to the civilised pleasures of material excess, free-flowing alcohol and exposed female skin.
Of course, Beirut’s Parisian charm has tended to become less apparent during periods of mass sectarian slaughter. In the introduction to his seminal text Orientalism, the late Edward Said notes repercussions of civil conflict in Lebanon on the European consciousness:
“On a visit to Beirut during the terrible civil war of 1975-1976 a French journalist wrote regretfully of the gutted downtown area that ‘it had once seemed to belong to … the Orient of [18th- and 19th-century French Romantic writers] Chateaubriand and Nerval’. He was right about the place, of course, especially so far as a European was concerned. The Orient was almost a European invention, and had been since antiquity a place of romance, exotic beings, haunting memories and landscapes, remarkable experiences.”
The terror attacks in Beirut, “Paris of the Middle East” and Paris, France – tragedies filled with laments for the dead and injured – inspire a predicatable response.
Beirut’s story is one of two suicide bombers. An explosion. A father and his young daughter are out for a walk.Adel Termos notices a second man approaching those who gathered after the first attack at the mosque a. And he acts. This man on the street throws himself on the second suicide bomber. He and his daughter die of course but dozens of other potential victims survive. The story barely surfaces and disappears with the name and number of the victims: 43 anonymous bodies in Beirut dead in the street and over two hundred wounded. But Beirut is so far away on the margins of the orient in “Lebanon, a small Mediterranean country with a history of civil war, [which] has seen deadly spillovers from the Syrian conflict.”
In Paris, three times as many people die and many are wounded in a meticulously executed multiple-site series of attacks. And there is unending international attention to this story. We are appalled over and over and over again as the maps fill up with explosive stars of red identifying the Cambodian cafe, the stadium, the concert stage, the street….
But the wreckage of these two narratives turn on who we recognize as deserving of elegies and our attention. Paris fills us with the romance of where we may have been, European romance and the short-cropped hair of Jean Seberg for those of us who remember, the streets of beloved museums and cafes. Simone de Beauvoir’s cigarette and the eye of Jean Paul Sartre. A bridge of love locks. A photograph of my mother in 1956, bleached blond hair, a beauty, standing in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower. Over the years, Paris remains the cobblestone destination honeymoon destination.
We don’t think about the suburbs of alienated youth, the police actions, the racist legacy of Le Pen and the father/daughter’s inheritance, the prohibition of Muslim dress for women. The will to bomb the Middle East. None of this justifies the attacks. But one of the everyday pivots of life in the city is inequality and non-fraternity along racial grounds.
Our new Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks to the public in the aftermath of this catastrophe in measured tones. None of the fire and brimstone of the Old Testament patriarch who would have us ramping up military action. . Thank you for your measured commentary.
The conversation about the marginalization of those candidates who criticize Israel and identify with Palestine sounds with the passions of diverse voices but only some of them count. Some are silenced and deemed irrelevant in the urgent sluice called “getting elected.”
To some Canadians the Palestinian issues register as “ours” versus “theirs”. To say this is here and that is (t)here is difficult if you are interconnected with familial, historical, religious, or regional ties both here and (t)here – the threads trace the rich histories of our lives. This conversation about whether the issue resonates with a Canadian voter invites us to think through ethnicity, identity, and racialization – and empathy. And we must think through “all my relations” – an Indigenous concept that informs Mayor Natanine’s philosophy about Palestine. To decide to prioritize issues relevant to “here” in an election year is to cut off and exile those with strong ties to “here” as well as a particular elsewhere brought close through actual relations, blood or adopted, or through the imagined relations of knowledge, analysis and empathy.
Where there is no “diversity with equity” the shadow of racism falls. And we must speak out.
You don’t slice and dice justice in the interests of expediency. Why the silence on this ongoing purge of NDPs who have a conscience about Palestine. Not an important election issue? Tell that to the Muslim and Arab Canadians who have been exiled and demonized for the past decade and beyond. Or to anyone who works in solidarity with Indigenous issues and identifies with the Palestinians. Tell that to those concerned about Canada’s extremist foreign policy and uncritical support of Netanyahu’s Israel. Harper just bought Israeli Iron Dome missiles for Canada that were test driven in Gaza massacres last summer. Would a different government order more?
Visiting my beautiful 86-year-old ailing mother a few days ago, she reminded me why we must speak out: “I gave birth to my voice in giving birth to you,” she said. And it is true. My birthdate in 1951 meant I grew up in an era informed by the Civil Rights and Anti-War movements where change informed actions. The ongoing efforts of the Women’s Liberation Movement made it possible for some women to struggle to speak out about injustice. And over the decades, it is clear that only some women benefitted from this noisy conversation. Many Indigenous peoples have been left behind as the 2012 report on NunavutHuman Development Index indicates.
Jerry Natanine’s words should be our own: “I often side with the Palestinians because of all the hardship they are facing and because nothing is being re-built over there.” Translate his sentence and you find yourself writing about “(t)here.”
reposting…excellent commentary written by Arts Squared ….the environment, petroleum state single resource development and other oil connections underpin issues of postsecondary funding in Alberta that are analysed in this article…
People say ‘Alberta is not an NDP province.’ And I say they are right.… Alberta doesn’t belong to a political party. Alberta belongs to Albertans.
Rachel Notley 3 May, 2015
Why do I think NDP ALBERTA will win?
31% more people voted in the advance polls. 12% more voters registered this election.
A friend quipped: “Because they have a choice and can imagine change!”
Why is Rachel winning? Insert here all of the polls, the articles east west north south about Rachel’s skill, gifts, history, talents.
Here’s the poll that was published the day before the election with huge NDP numbers and a majority government predicted. Will this come true? Who knows.
Hypothetical begins with the same letter as Hope! It is now 1:29pm election day and I can manage hope for a few more hours until we all gather to watch the election returns and come to know what has transpired.
Why will Rachel win? Imagine the wonderful community, the excellent numerous campaign workers and the well-funded campaign and you have a story about the transformation of Alberta.
Will NDP win? The opposition underwhelms —
The PC’s leader Prentice has the charm of a board-room bureaucrat.
The Wild Rose limps on with a leader who might win votes. Fenceposts have been elected in Alberta.
The Alberta Party barely breathes.
The Green Party makes excellent arguments but doesn’t have the voter base.
But NDP Alberta is soaring. (please don’t disappoint, Alberta)
Watch Rachel destroy the Liberal, PC and Wild Rose leaders in debate, watch here.
What is this twitter genre? And how was it used as a rationale for the firing of the highly lauded pianist Valentina Lisitsa by the TSO on the basis of her anti-Ukraine tweets described as bordering on hate speech. Later others would point to pressure put on the TSO by donors who support Ukraine, but much of the public debate has focused on twitter.
In a very different case that parallels Lisitsa’s, the Palestinian American scholar Stephen Salaita was fired from the University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana for “incivility” in his twitter feed that he wrote during the Israeli bombardment of Gaza in the summer of 2014. After the firing or “de-hiring,” access to information legal requests yielded an archive of university administration correspondence that illustrated a concerted campaign to dismiss Salaita by Israeli supporters including a Member of the Board of Hillel, an Israeli-funded organization devoted to the support of Israel. This MoB made a substantial donation to the School of Business at the same university and threatened to withdraw his funds like others who wrote to the university to pressure them.
The Case of Valentina Lisitsa, artist
Globe & Mail writer Kate Taylor suggests “the TSO could have handled it better” but she also intimated that there were grounds for the TSO abruptly cancelling her concert on the basis of her twitter feed. Her comment suggests an unsettling hierarchy of incivility and injury that attends to academic and artist: “If a local university had just cancelled a talk by an anti-Kiev academic I might be outraged, but I am less offended to discover that an orchestra doesn’t want anything to do with someone whose notoriety is likely to prove a distraction from the concerts.” And elsewhere in MacLean’s Paul Wells makes another commentary that doesn’t take issue with the cancellation through its mild dismay: “I’m uneasy about the TSO cancelling Lisitsa’s appearance.”
The genre of twitter itself has been analysed to support the pianist’s discussion of the reception of her tweets as a misreading of literary nuances and rhetorical effects like satire and hyperbole that are not identified in the critiques.The pianist describes the tweets here: “You might find some of them offensive—perhaps. Satire and hyperbole are the best literature tools to combat lies. Bear that in mind when reading.” And this cautionary note corresponds with other analyses of the twitter genre that leave room for excess and even misrepresentation. My own reading of Lisitsa’ twitter feed available in a link available here is that they are vile, disgusting and excessive but they are also part of an ongoing international battle of words and propaganda that tracks the terrible violence of regions of Ukraine under siege. And that is not a space geographically or psychologically for calm reflection by those with vested interests, emotional and familial, in the region. That is not to excuse the nasty characterizations of the Ukraine leaders as coloured pig testicles, but it is an explanation.
In a Musical Toronto interview, the TSO CEO explained why Lisitsa’s concert was cancelled: “this is not a free speech issue, but rather an issue of someone practicing very intolerant and offensive expression through twitter.” Michael Vincent, the interview and the publisher of the digital magazine explains his understanding of the contested twitter feed: “After analysing the document, it is our opinion (we are not lawyers) that they do not cross the threshold into hate-speech, and are indicative of the extraordinarily negative political situation surrounding the Ukrainian-Russian conflict, in which Ms. Lisitsa is involved.”
Between these two commentaries falls a shadow. The editors observations gives a context for the invective, hyperbole and excess. But even if we condemn the tweets themselves as something between disgusting and just this side of hate speech, there is another argument to be made about the way twitter circulates and is perceived as a genre.
…there was another me: not a musician but a regular human being – a daughter, a mother, a wife. And this human being was watching helplessly how the country of my birth, of my childhood, of my first falling in love – this country was sliding ever faster into the abyss. Children die under bombs, old ladies die of starvation, people burned alive…
The worst thing that can happen to any country is fratricide war, people seeing each other, their neighbors as enemies to be eliminated. This is what has befallen my beautiful Ukraine. My heart was bleeding. You all saw on TV screens all over the world a magnificent revolution, the people of Ukraine raising in fury against their corrupt rulers, for a better life. I was so proud of my people! But the ruling class doesn’t let go easily. They managed to cunningly channel away the anger, to direct it to other, often imaginable, enemies – and worse, to turn people upon themselves. Year later, we have the same rich people remaining in power, misery and poverty everywhere, dozens of thousands killed, over a million of refugees.So, I took to Twitter.
In the weeks before my move, I watched in anguish as Israel killed more than 2,100 people during its recent bombing of Gaza, 70 percent of them civilians, according to the United Nations. Like so many others, I took to my Twitter account. I posted tweets critical of Israel’s actions, mourning in particular the death of more than 500 of Gaza’s children.
“A partisan political blog cherry-picked a few of those tweets from hundreds to create the false impression that I am anti-Semitic. Publicly disclosed documents reveal that, within days, University of Illinois donors who disagreed with my criticism of Israeli policy threatened to withhold money if I wasn’t fired. My academic career was destroyed over gross mischaracterizations of a few 140-character posts.steven salaita poster legal size 30 Dec 11-14 (1)
Salaita spoke on his recent visit to UofA and elsewhere about his twitter campaign. A video of his January 13, 2015, afternoon talk on “Palestine, Digital Activism, Academic Freedom & The Decline of the Public University” is available here. (And a second talk corresponded with his most recent book: The Holy Land in Transit: Colonialism and the Quest for Canaan that analyses the rhetoric and myths of settlement in both North America and Israel and “patterns that connect Indigenous writing in both locations.” This video and a short essay will be available soon.)
Let’s cut to the chase: If you’re defending #Israel right now you’re an awful human being. 11:46 PM – 8 Jul 2014
The entire opinion piece is worth reading but I will only focus on the final lines which justify the “incivility” of Salaita’s twitter about the devastating bombardment of Gaza:
expressing moral outrage in this way — intentionally breaching civility by refusing to merely engage in calm persuasion — is itself part of the very process by which social-political perspectives shift. If it ought to have been true that only awful human beings would support this attack, how do we move society toward that point? One way is reasoned argument, no doubt. But it’s also important to exhibit the perspective, and not just argue for it; to adopt the perspective and provocatively manifest how things look from within it. When you do that, something like Salaita’s controversial tweet is likely to come out.
“The medium of Twitter is complicated because it provides a public space for private, personal expression. In one sense, it is no different from a speaker’s rostrum at an antiwar rally or any other highly charged political event. In another sense, though, because the public is not physically present, the dialogue can be imagined as limited to one’s followers or, in an even more restricted way, to those interlocutors who are tweeting back. As a result, it may feel like a protected site, one where it is safe to express deep feelings that otherwise must be kept under wraps. A similar assumption figures in the notion of “hidden transcripts” described by the political scientist James Scott. Hidden transcripts are criticisms of the powerful by their subordinates, fantasies of revenge uttered to a small circle (family, friends, trusted members of the group) only outside the hearing of their superiors. (Slaves are one example he cites.) Scott notes that the powerful have hidden transcripts as well: private opinions held beneath an outer mask of civility. Indeed, critical commentators on civility in the 18th century noted that it consisted of an “outward show,” somehow inauthentic, masking the reality of one’s attitudes and being. Mirabeau noted in the 1760s that civility only presents “the mask of virtue and not its face.”
Twitter disrupts this careful separation of the hidden and the acceptable, blurring the boundaries by offering a public forum for venting private feelings. In so doing, it makes the hidden visible and seems to reveal the “true” nature of the tweeter—the reality ordinarily concealed by the rules of decorum and politesse. They may not realize it, but those, like Wise, who take tweets to be indicators of the “real” nature of the tweeter (and so the ultimate proof of his or her unfitness as a teacher and colleague) are also acknowledging the limits, if not the inauthenticity, of civility as a form not only of political but also of intellectual exchange. For some members of the UIUC faculty, as for the chancellor, the tweets exposed the underlying premises of Salaita’s scholarly work, the hidden transcript of his articles and books. The tweets became not an easily compartmentalized instance of extramural speech (and so of the First Amendment right of the scholar as citizen), but the key to the entire body of his work and to the unacceptability of the politics that informed it.
In the middle of writing this, I fell asleep for a few minutes only to awaken in the midst of a classic nightmare where I was surrounded by a glistening and quickly enclosing web pinned to edges of the outdoor path where I was walking. An invisible spider spun intricate threads to imprison me. Such is the psychological struggle of comparing these two cases. For I can sense very quickly my own bias. And also the point of conflict.
My response was to comment about the mythmaking that occurs on the Russian side and on the Western side – I was thinking in particular of the papering over of the corruption of the government in place now and the fascist histories of government officials and parties reported regularly on progressive sites. In reply, writer/philosopher Stan Perskey reminded me of his March 23 analysis of Ukraine where he makes this sensible call for a measured reading of Ukraine:
The point about all of this is relatively simple: there’s a big difference between recognizing and worrying about the role of extreme right wing groups in recent events in Ukraine, which any sensible person ought to do, and the exaggerated description of those events as a “fascist coup.” It’s a description that’s been offered by Putin and his spokespeople, as well as by many Western leftist formations, and it’s inaccurate. Again, there are real questions here that need investigation, and I’m not brushing them aside for a moment, but I refuse to buy into a histrionic account that seriously distorts what most of us see as reality in order to denounce U.S. imperialism or justify Russian policy.
While the case of Stephen Salaita and Valentina Lisitsa are different, Salaita’s passionate engagement in Gaza’s bombardment that led to his twitterfeed that some found anti-Semitic corresponds with Lisitsa’s fervour for Russia’s role in the Ukraine invasion – her own discussion of nationalism suggests her intensity and even her blindnesses perhaps. However impassioned twitter speech genre should not be read with sensitivity to the genre and context. And there is no question that it should not be the grounds for firing a scholar or an artist.
(note: this post is still in progress and I welcome any corrections, commentary or critiques)
Two events in the past week remind me of the strength in collective action. This is one of them and the most significant in terms of public awareness.
A demonstration in 23 different centres from coast to coast to coast across Canada began with plans for a demonstration April 2 in Edmonton in front of the law courts where the trial of the accused murder of Cindy Gladue had ended in a shocking acquittal.
Gladue, an Indigenous woman, mother of three and sex worker, had bled to death in a bathtub in the Yellowhead Inn, a hotel in north Edmonton along the route from Saskatoon to Jasper, named for explorer and fur trader and explorer Pierre Bostonais nicknamed “Tête Jaune” for the blond streaks in his hair. has become a symptom of the contempt for the missing and murdered Indigenous women. So many of the signs “Colonialism kills” “We are human” etc. addressed the dehumanizing and deadly process of systemic racism. And this deep analysis of how this trial could come about in 2015 was there on the tip of everyone’s tongue. As the 1000 or so demonstrators headed south to Jasper Avenue from the Law Courts en route to City Hall, three Asian pedestrians approached the throng eager to cross the road.
In memory of Bella Laboucan-McLean.
In mourning with her friends and family.
Too many women. Dissent. Descent. Misattributed homonyms: a writing day filled with missteps, false starts. Thinking about a young woman’s body falling through space. Almost no one notices. Plummeting for no good reason. The rage that arises in thinking about the mystery of her descent. Or as the Prime Minister says,”It isn’t really high on our radar, to be honest.”
Those who know her climb out of immobilization and despair, writing beyond themselves to change the world.
“The day I found out that my sister Bella had been found dead on the terrace of a high-rise condo near Toronto’s waterfront, without an explanation of why or how she fell, was the day I understood what it feels like to grieve so deeply and so immensely that nothing else matters.
It felt like there was no end to the screaming sadness.”
Naomi Klein’s haunting tribute to Bella was first presented at a public event supporting the #mmiw (Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women) and published yesterday in the Globe and Mail. Klein writes how Bella’s death went unreported and it remains a mystery undocumented by the five witnesses. A shameful absence of police protocol and documentary testimony:
Five people, other than Bella, in an 800-square-foot condo. All of her belongings still inside: Purse. Wallet. Shoes. Phone. Yet no one in the apartment calls the police. It is not until 12 hours later, when the cops are going door-to-door trying to identify the body, that one of those five people picks up the phone to report Bella missing. Everyone who was there claims they saw nothing. Knows nothing. No one will be a witness.
Despite finding these accounts questionable, the police put out no media advisory. It was two weeks before a single story about Bella’s death appeared in the local media. “I can’t make anybody talk,” the investigating detective told the Toronto Star.
Bella’s story and the title of Klein’s tribute – “How a Cree woman fell to death, and no one saw anything” – rehearses the theme of Canadian settlement with its near genocide of Indigenous peoples. The destructive historical and ongoing actions are twinned with the travesty of silence and complicity – the inaction and perpetually wilful blind eye that ignores the suffering of individuals and communities on reserves, in villages and cities.
British cultural critic Sarah Ahmed reminds us that many racialized women like the missing and murdered Indigenous women in Canada live in a world where everyday life is at risk while others take for granted not having “to be inventive to survive.”
When a whole world is organised to promote your survival, from health to education, from the walls designed to keep your residence safe, from the paths that ease your travel, you do not have become so inventive to survive. You do not have to be seen as the recipient of welfare because the world has promoted your welfare. The benefits you receive are given as entitlements, perhaps even as birth rights. Racial capitalism is a health system: a drastically unequal distribution of bodily vulnerabilities. Ruth Wilson Gilmore describes racism thus: “the state-sanctioned or extra-legal production and exploitation of group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death.” (2007: 28) Being poor, being black, puts your life at risk. Your heath is compromised when you do not have the external resources to support a life in all of its contingencies. And then of course, you are deemed responsible for your own ill-heath, for your own failure to look after yourself better. When you refer to structures, to systems, to power relations, to walls, you are assumed to be making others responsible for the situation you have failed to get yourself out of. “You should have tried harder.” Oh, the violence and the smugness of this sentence, this sentencing.
Last spring I attended the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) Alberta National Event in Edmonton. The moving testimonials, conversations, and displays drew our attention to the hundred-year deadly history of Residential Schools. And we encountered the individual stories and collective grief in first-person accounts by the now aged survivors, once vulnerable school children, who suffered brutality and abuse often followed by many decades of traumatized silence. But we also learned there is too little funding available to complete the documentation of these events and no federal will to follow up with action. Beyond apology and story, reconciliation demands an accounting. And that takes insight and leadership. And I encountered many Indigenous people who refused to take part in the event, overwhelmed by grief and trauma of their own history and/or resistant to a collective process that did not insist on accountability and redress or an effective reconciliation.
I got a strong sense of the sorts of things mainstream people think about Native people especially after Oka. In this, that we really matter, politically but are so fundamentally unsettling we have to be further managed and in the neoliberal double-edged sword, as individuals somehow do not “deserve” the opportunities that we have earned, that we do not work, etc., or that we do not exist. Or that we are fundamentally “difficult.”
As well, there are specific stereotypes and expectations that attach to us depending upon what nation we are and where we are from. As Mohawk (and in this, Haudenosaunee) people we speak from the long history of relationship to territory and to others in our homelands, and are compelled to speak clearly and truthfully, from minds unencumbered by grief or pathos. And also, to listen to others. So I always found it ridiculous that we, especially we would be perceived as people that do not act or speak according to principles of fairness and reason.
…Now that I teach in the ’States there is the overwhelming and almost hegemonic idea that we are dead! So my very presence upsets and defies that idea but my teaching and research also reveal in a scholarly manner, where these ideas come from and how they are used to undermine indigenous agency and sovereignty.
The active presence of this exceptional scholar in the university is a kind of auto-critique, a reminder of how Indigenous women are perceived and excluded. Simpson spoke about “The Two Bodies of Theresa Spence” at the fourteenth annual Critical Race Conference in Edmonton this past fall. Her talk reminds us that the response to Bella’s death, the delay, the mystery, and even indifference, is no accident no matter the cause. No one noticed. No one reported. Still there is silence. And proud public indifference on the part of our federal government. This deadly colonial nation state is maintained in part not just through the dehumanization of indigenous women, but through their disappearance and death. Simpson reminds us how indigenous governance was transformed beyond recognition when women were disqualified by the Indian Act. Cast out and diminished, they had to relinquish the leadership roles they had assumed, a leadership with key powers. And she reminds us that this early promotion of female leadership in indigenous communities that empowered women was so radically different from the exclusively male governance in colonial and European governance that is perpetuated to this day in Canada federal government where mainly white women politicians tend to be fewer in number and demeaned in the public sphere. (More on this coming soon…still writing this section.)
We need to hold those who perpetrate violence against women accountable. There are at least 1,200 Indigenous women that have been murdered or gone missing. There is no denying that if 1,200 white women were missing or had been murdered there would be uproar and Harper’s approach would be instantaneous and dramatic. … a far cry from his current response.
A better approach would be to support spaces for healing from the legacy of trauma instead of continuing the victim-blaming narrative that we see from the conservative government and the RCMP report from earlier this year.”
Investigating and accounting for Indigenous women’s deaths in this country would have to be accountable so recommendations don’t just stay on the table. And investigating and accounting for Indigenous women’s deaths in this country would have to listen to the community. Melina Laboucan-Massimo notes: “Whether called an inquiry, commission, or “action plan,” this process must first and foremost take its direction and leadership from the families of MMIW” and from “community leadership.”
[And this effort must] “not be tokenistic, as it often has been in the past….An inquiry shouldn’t just focus on confirming what we already know – that there is a problem. It is families and communities of MMIW who best understand the breadth, depth, and root causes of this issue and what solutions could and should look like.”
Indigenous governance and justice systems need to be foundational. If there is an inquiry, it is also necessary to inspect how the police are dealing with the cases of MMIW and to require that the RCMP and local police departments share their files with families, especially when cases are unsolved and are idle like my sister’s case. It is imperative that we develop and implement policies that prevent inaction on these cases, which makes the police complicit in allowing the numbers of MMIW to grow.
What we do need recognition of is that violence against Indigenous women has systemic causes that are colonial in nature. The Harper government needs to recognize the impacts government policies have had and continue to have on Indigenous communities that leave Indigenous women in precarious and vulnerable positions in society.
“Violence against Mother Earth is violence against women.”
Both Melina Laboucan-Massimo and Naomi Klein link the Harper government’s wilful blindness to more than a thousand women’s deaths with its blindness to the poisoned land and Indigenous communities. Melina writes “Violence against Mother Earth is violence against women. The two are linked” And Klein agrees:
The greatest barrier to our government’s single-minded obsession with drilling, mining and fracking the hell out of this country is the fact that indigenous communities from coast to coast are exercising their inherent and constitutional rights to say no. Indigenous strength and power is a tremendous threat to that insatiable vision. And indigenous women are, to borrow [Toronto City Councillor Adam] Vaughan’s phrase, “the heart and soul” of these movements.
Naomi Klein comments on her participation in the July 2014 Healing Walk around the Tar Sands at Fort McMurray.
Two weeks before Bella died, I had been in the tar sands with Melina at the annual Healing Walk. The gathering is like nothing I have seen anywhere: Hundreds of people walk in silence for an entire day through an unimaginably scarred landscape – by the sprawling open-pit mines, by the massive tailings ponds that kill ducks on contact. Stopping only for prayer and ceremony.
The fifth annual Healing Walk this past summer like all the others that have come before maps out a dead zone in the embodied time of footsteps, a putrid sensual immersion in a poisonous dump of chemicals and unreclaimable wasteland. This annual walk transforms our understanding of this place that is often represented by aerial photographs that accompany popular news and magazine stories of the Oil Sands/Tar Sands.
For this industrial site is often appreciated from afar in popular media stories that hire fly over photographer’s at work. The gorgeous large-format camera landscapes of Edward Burtynsky have been widely admired for their visual power. And they work to envision a vision of aesthetically beautiful patterns at a distance from the The artist writes:
“these images are meant as metaphors to the dilemma of our modern existence; they search for a dialogue between attraction and repulsion, seduction and fear. We are drawn by desire – a chance at good living, yet we are consciously or unconsciously aware that the world is suffering for our success. Our dependence on nature to provide the materials for our consumption and our concern for the health of our planet sets us into an uneasy contradiction. For me, these images function as reflecting pools of our times.
However some have noted the limits of this bird’s eye aestheticization of this wasteland into Burtynsky’s artistic image of “reflecting pools of our times” that abstracts us from the embodied experience of the place. The Healing Walk of lung-filled stench and dystopian apocalyptic visual field up close are a counterpoint to the photograph’s “remote sensing and setting up an aesthetic encounter of ‘disinterested contemplation'” (Karen Lang quoted in “Reframing the Canadian Oil Sands.”)
The Healing Walk and the kind of public inquiry into the Missing and Murdered Women envisioned by Melanie both refuse “disinterested contemplation” at a distance. The Idle No More movement invited us to public healing circles and demonstrations in shopping malls and city squares in the dead of winter. Chief Theresa Spence who maintained a diet of fish broth for weeks made her own body vulnerable in our names in her unanswered plea for dialogue with the Prime Minister.
Each of these actions, Healing Walk, hunger strike, inquiry linked to accountability and action, requires us to not only empathize with the trauma and narrative line of Indigenous women’s deaths and impoverished communities but to link our embodied witnessing with investigations and actions that change the world and all our relations.
Five witnesses continue to refuse to speak about the indigenous woman’s body falling from a Toronto condo balcony. Disinterested and distant, their silence seems cynical and even culpable. Our collective refusal to join with the family’s of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women echoes a similar comfortable disinterested distance that projects the trauma and suffering elsewhere rather than on our complicit silence. Similarly Canadians disengagement and distance from an awareness of the devastation at the source of our Tar Sand’s energy plan The political voice of Idle No More has identified over and over again the struggle. And we murmur agreement or turn our wilfully blind eyes.
Investigating and accounting for Indigenous women’s deaths in this country would have to come to terms with “root causes” – a concept that our Prime Minister disregards as “doing sociology.” Like George Bush, Stephen Harper likes to think with his gut – an anatomical organ that other Stephen – Colbert – reminds us has its own lethal illogic. In his brilliant in character evisceration of George Bush in his presence at the White House Correspondent’s Dinner, Colbert developed this theory in relation to Bush’s record:
We go straight from the gut, right sir? That’s where the truth lies, right down here in the gut. Do you know you have more nerve endings in your gut than you have in your head? You can look it up. I know some of you are going to say “I did look it up, and that’s not true.” That’s ’cause you looked it up in a book.
Next time, look it up in your gut. I did. My gut tells me that’s how our nervous system works. Every night on my show, the Colbert Report, I speak straight from the gut, OK? I give people the truth, unfiltered by rational argument. I call it the “No Fact Zone.” Fox News, I hold a copyright on that term.
And here we are reminded that our Prime Minister Harper eschews any facts in favour of fiction, ideology in lieu of scientific evidence, wishful thinking in lieu of thoughtful policy.
How many hands do you have to hold over your ears to make yourself deaf to the voices. Our federal government’s law and order policies and policies are not just ideologically misguided, they are lethal.
Investigating and accounting for Indigenous women’s deaths in this country would have to come to terms with the misery of increasing numbers of women’s lives spent in prison – 24% of Canadian prisoners are Indigenous though they make up 4% of the population. (And the stats in the prairie provinces are especially appalling: 80% in Manitoba, 60% in Saskatchewan, and 50% in Alberta.) Ask Omar Khadr, another racialized Canadian citizen, imprisoned unjustly over more than a dozen years since his capture, imprisonment and torture in Bagram, Guantanamo and a series of maximum and medium-security federal prisons in Canada.
My shift to another story of injustice with international dimensions is intended to expand our understanding of what is at stake not to avoid a national conversation demanding a response to the missing and murdered indigenous women here. But the worst federal government in our history has a single virtue – a transparent consistency of the most deadly dimensions. And we need to make links between the local and the global to understand the underpinning principles and bigotry that guides our government here and abroad.
Last summer we witnessed the bombardment of the Palestinians in Gaza – another Indigenous people – by a government championed by our own federal officials. While missile guidance systems targeted children in UN safe zones in the most densely populated urban area in the world, the landscape was reduced to uninhabitable rubble. While the cries sound over Palestine, our government leaders clink glasses and reaped awards at elite gatherings with Israel state officials – our leaders symbolic public legitimation of the Israeli assault. These gilt chambered events gave us a vivid glimpse of the radical chasm that separates us from the shattered destitution of city as bomb site.
During the bombing of Gaza, a Mohamed Omar, an editor at Huffington Post Canada asked about the silence of Stephen Harper and John Baird: “Why Aren’t Harper And Baird Angry About Dead Babies In Gaza?” The answer is that Palestinian lives matter less. Philosopher Judith Butler opens her study Frames of War: When Is Life Grievable? with this telling observation: “specific lives cannot be apprehended as injured or lost if they are not first apprehended as living.” Their lives are less grievable like the missing and murdered indigenous women who are always already more zombie-like living dead than fully human. Facebook cats command more interest.
And the powerful movement that emerged after the recent police killings of black men in the U.S. led to the #BlackLivesMatter movement. Hundreds of thousands of people raised their hands saying I testify – I stand in this place bearing witness to injustice and demanding change.
None of us escape the lethal plot of murdered/missing women and environmental destruction. We suffer the shame of silence. Too many Canadians remain unengaged and apathetic, complicit. Or outraged and stymied about what to do. Our inaction seals our collective fate.
Last month the Burnaby Mountain gatherings risked arrest and caught international attention. And it stopped the drilling by Kinder Morgan – a blow to the pipeline plans of the government. We need hundreds of thousands of Canadians raising our hands in solidarity with the Indigenous people in our country. We need to forge alliances and engage in the coalition politics and thinking that link up our individual local interests with larger interrelated networks of connection so that all Canadians see the big picture of international connections and domestic atrocities.
I was spurred on to write this short essay by a number of events including:
Attendance at the 14th Critical Race Conference in Edmonton a few months ago while listening to faculty, students and other young people recount their encounters with racism. And I was reminded again of Audra Simpson‘s“The Two Body of Theresa Spence” outlining how Bella’s death is symptomatic of a lethal pattern, no matter the cause. No one in the condo noticed, it was alleged. No one reported for some time. Still there is silence. The colonial nation statemaintained in part not just through the dehumanization of indigenous women, but their disappearance, demonstrates a lethal indifference.
Reading about the case of Steven Salaita – a young Palestinian American scholar denied his job at the University of Illinois ostensibly because his twitter feed during the Israeli bombardment of Gaza was “uncivil”. Salaita works on Indigeneous people and settler narratives in North America and Palestine. Thinking about the silencing of dissent reminds us that settlement stories on many continents connect us with the violent dispossession, the incarceration and violence against African Americans, the regular intermittent bombardment of Palestinians, and the unmarked category of Whiteness that enables some of us to feel safe and above the fray.
And my own contribution to the #beenrapedneverreported twitter storm following the CBC-Radio host Jian Ghomeshi harrassment and violence against women scandal.
I composed a series of tweets with the #beenrapedneverreported hashtag one late afternoon and called it “writing what matters for our daughters. Before I even finished sending out each individual tweet, a journalist called to see if he could interview me. What a powerful technology and what a quick response was my first thought. And then I reflected on who wasn’t tweeting and who might not be listened to.
A few weeks later, an Edmonton Journal journalist followed up with a short article about local twitter stories. As well as my story, the reporter featured the #beenrapedneverreported tweets of a police woman whose silence was informed by her inside knowledge of how rape victims who report are treated in court: “They’re the ones on trial….So you can see the reluctance of a lot of women to put themselves through that.” The article ended with this:
“Bringing rape to light is a good thing, Williamson says, but she really worries about those voices that aren’t being heard on Twitter. It’s partly why she has used her experience to continue the call for an inquiry into missing aboriginal women.
“Who is doing the tweeting, and who is not doing the tweeting,” she asked. “The women who are definitely not tweeting are those missing indigenous women.”
Today’s writing is provisional and ongoing. A sketch really after a dry spell of teaching and doing other work. So much more to to listen to, to say, to read, to write. Please reply with suggestions, responses, objections and corrections. Dialogue keeps us in community.
For further information, see THIS IS BELLA’S STORY on The Support for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women’s website.