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!”
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.
- 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.
- Watch and listen to her big rally speech last Sunday to 1500 enthusiastic supporters. Her talk begins about 5:30.
- Interested in looking at the NDP video ads from their excellent campaign? Here are some of them including “Kick the PC Habit” campaign.
- Everyone was looking for the Notley Crue t-shirt invented by NDP campaigners. You can order them here.
- Or you can buy the “Keep Calm and Notley On” shirt off my back but I’m not selling!
How do we read and interpret twitter?
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.
The pianist Valentina Lisitsa described her twitter campaign against Ukraine:
…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.
The Case of Stephen Salaita, academic
Compare this to an excerpt from Stephen Salata’s “How U of I Destroyed My Career,” an article published in the Chicago-Tribune where he describes the genesis of his 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.)
And several articles have explored Salaita’s tweets including an intriguing analysis by Joseph Levine, a philosopher who asked in the New York Times “Did Salaita Cross the Line of Civility?” Levine takes up one of Salaita’s tweets that were condemned as anti-Semitic:
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.
More recently, the distinguished American social historian Joan W. Scott published “The New Thought Police” in The Nation where she had this to say about the genre of twitter:
“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 blog post emerges in fact from a facebook conversation with a friend, a distinguished writer who objected to the PEN Canada press release objecting to the cancellation of the Valentina Lisitsa’s performance. The concern was that the press release did not adequately characterize or respond to the level and effects of anti-Ukraine invective in Lisitsa’s tweets, invective that corresponds with how hatred demeans ethnic and racial groups in poisonous ways.
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)
— Janice Williamson
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.
This is Bella’s Story
In September of 2014,the Melina Laboucan-Massimo wrote a brilliant article in APTN about her 25-year-old sister’s inexplicable and tragic fall to her death from a 31-story Toronto condo in the early morning hours of July 20, 2012. The title“It felt like there was no end to the screaming sadness: one sister’s take on #mmiw” articulates her crushing loss:
“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.
Beyond Apology and Reconciliation
In an interview marking Columbia University anthropologist Audra Simpson’s return as alumna to McGill University to deliver the first annual Indigenous Homecoming events, she spoke about the challenges she faces as an indigenous scholar of Haudenosaunee descent:
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.)
In a recent CBC-TV holiday interview, Stephen Harper responded to a question about a missing and murdered Indigenous women inquiry:
‘Um it, it isn’t really high on our radar, to be honest … Our ministers will continue to dialogue with those who are concerned about this.’
His evasion was rightly interpreted as disrespectful to the Indigenous women. Many groups and individuals found the Prime Minister’s comments offensive. And many have begun to work on their own healing and solutions including some Liberal Senators who are sharing legal arguments to anyone who wants to take Canada to court to establish an inquiry and raise the public profile of these deaths. Melina Laboucan-Massimo has given the government some good advice:
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.
#WomensLivesMatterButSomeLessThanOthers #BlackLivesMatter #PalestinianLivesMatter #IndigenousLivesMatter #BlackLivesMatter#PalestinianLivesMatter
#IndigenousLivesMatter #BlackLivesMatter #PalestinianLivesMatter
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.
“…we have to study our lives…”
But this recent interview reminds me of this Adrienne Rich quote from her 1978 poem “Transcendental Etude” from her collection The Dream of a Common Language: “Nobody told us we have to study our lives, make of our lives a study.” I might have read this two years after I left a very sad and bad marriage and three years after my father died by suicide. My own sense of myself had collapsed. It was a hard time. Of course.
“…make of our lives a study…”
I worked at various jobs and returned to university part-time to study. Reading and writing and my friends and the Women’s Liberation Movement saved my life. I might have read this Rich poem in 1978 but I think it was later when I saw Adrienne Rich and Nicole Brossard give a talk in Toronto on my birthday in 1981. Then I was reading Adrienne Rich and Nicole Brossard in earnest. And writing a dissertation about feminist poetics was my translation of the phrase by Adrienne Rich. There was nothing academic about it.
It’s worth repeating: “Nobody told us we have to study our lives, make of our lives a study.”
Recently this line emerges in an interview discussion of anti-racist pedagogy and it reminds me of a way to upend the kinds of tensions that can emerge in classrooms where diversity informs the writing and lives of students. Peggy MacIntosh wrote about white privilege and male privilege in a famous 1988 essay. And I’m reminded how white privilege, the women’s movement and hard work helped me get a university job. Peggy MacIntosh is still at work at 79 years developing the anti-racist work she wrote about decades ago. In this interview, she reminds us how compassion and probing the limits of our understanding can be key to our work in the classroom. It is difficult to live up to the ideal but try try again is a teacher’s thematic.
Q: “You seem to relate to the idea of privilege in a very compassionate way. But isn’t that hard, since the effects of privilege are so unjust? Isn’t it natural for privilege to make people angry, rather than openhearted? I imagine Tal Fortgang in a college seminar, and the rancor that must accompany conversations about privilege in the classroom. How do you defeat that?
Peggy MacIntosh: The key thing is to let people testify to their own experience. Then they’ll stop fighting with each other. One of my colleagues at SEED says, “Unless you let the students testify to what they know, which schools usually don’t let them do, they will continue to do just what the dominant society wants them to do, which is to tear each other apart.” The students who are sitting there fighting with one another aren’t allowed to have their lives become the source for their own growth and development. Adrienne Rich wrote, at the beginning of women’s studies, “Nobody told us we have to study our lives, make of our lives a study.”
The full interview is here
– Janice Williamson
About fifty AAS:UA members (Association of Academic Staff University of Alberta) attended Dr. Len Findlay’s “piss and vinegar” talk (his words) on a recent May afternoon. This fraction of the four thousand plus membership didn’t fill the large theatre, but my appeal to attendance is no more than an ironic pause to reflect not only on our frantic disciplined pace but on our collective demoralization, topics investigated by our speaker. Findlay, Professor at the University of Saskatchewan and Chair of the Academic Freedom & Tenure Committee at the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT), ended his talk by inviting us to consider the contributions of the indigenous Idle No More and Quebec student’s Red Square free-tuition movements.
“The anxious academy means the death of pleasure,” announced Findlay reminding us about the changing university and the tendency to encounter bitter competition over collegial well-being in a new world of academic stars and scarce resources. He voiced the collective “metastatic self-loathing and performance anxiety across the faculty” and the extraordinary demands for increased productivity where nothing is ever enough. He spoke of the discourse of marketplace. And today’s model of student consumer shopping for grades and credentials came to mind. He also advised the faculty members vulnerable to corporate expectations to not confuse filling out the ever-changing SSHRC electronic cv with living a life. “We need a life as well as a cv,” he urged us.”Recover your swagger.”
When Findlay tracked the growth of the neoliberal university and Canadian state, I became a time traveller reflecting on how dystopian the academy would appear to my earlier academic self who remembers Findlay’s talks from thirty years ago, experienced first as a graduate student and then as a faculty member always uplifted by his eloquent hilarity, piercing wit, and spirited critiques. Upon reflection, I feel most distressed that my junior colleagues, the diminishing numbers on tenure-track and the increasing contingent of limited-term and temporary intellectual labourers, will never experience a university workplace that, while not ideal, offered possibilities of genuine collaboration and collective engagement beyond today’s idealized and individualized competitive trajectories in our increasingly corporatized education machine. The “fracked university”
The violence and resource economy of Findlay’s image of “the fracked university” seemed especially fitting here in Petrostate Alberta where the government sucked post-secondary funds out of twenty-six institutions across the province only to reinject money on their terms under the homogenizing umbrella of a master narrative called “Campus Alberta” that intentionally confused varieties of education from technical training to liberal studies. Findlay described “The Lukaszuk” as a magic sleight of hand that makes theft look like a gift. Remember that long winter, spring, and summer of our discontent when the government eviscerated post-secondary education of $147 million – almost a third of it from the University of Alberta – only to advocate skills training and cherry pick where to reinsert the money: first $42 million was allocated for a new University of Calgary Engineering building along with other targeted reinvestment that challenged the autonomy of post-secondary institutions. Shortly thereafter, UofA’s fundraising began for a Leadership Institute named after a PC Premier, an initiative that has become the mysterious legacy of our university President.
Recent conversations by the Provost about the possibility of creating American-style autonomous colleges (Read: the Leadership Institute) point to how corporate funding can be funnelled into specialized areas in lieu of generalized operating grants, once again leaving many key areas of the university like the Faculty of Arts struggling in our educational work. Note here also how corporate rather than public interest shapes our educational priorities.
It is no small irony that this high-flying North Saskatchewan River-side Leadership Institute residence results in the destruction of the charming shabby heritage home that housed the Faculty of Arts Parkland Institute, the productive critical space inspired by engaged political economy and the Alberta-wide research network that “exists because of wide-spread concern about rapid changes within Alberta’s and Canada’s political and economic culture…. The language and assumptions of the marketplace have expanded corporate power and challenged the role and ethos of the public sector and the commons.” Director Trevor Harrison explores”Who Controls Knowledge” here. The Parkland Institute, long known to have been a thorn in the side of our President, lost a home and gained two sub-first floor rooms in the Humanities Centre next door.
Our Dream Queen President has for some time been one of the most highly paid university administrators in Canada, moonlighting for years on the board of a Canadian bank and recently appointed to the board of the Canadian corporation Magna International Inc. No matter, the higher she flies, the more money she costs, the more advantageous her reflected glory as we hang onto her gilt coattails. Oxygen thins up here.
The appeal of high salaries in the neoliberal scheme of things was underscored by Findlay. And later while writing this, I looked up Canadian university president salaries. In 2011, the Canadian university administrator with the highest base salary at $1,041,88 went to David Johnson who would be plucked from the University of Western Ontario by the Harper government to the ether heights of the Governor General of Canada. Aside from GG Johnson’s many other excellent qualities, was his top-dog extraordinary salary a decisive prestige factor in the eyes of our federal Prime Minister who operates our country like a CEO managing consumers not citizens?
Drawing on comparative data from the long course of his career, the now retiring CAUT head James Turk concludes that the collective abilities of the Canadian university presidents at this moment of inflated financial compensation add up to less talent. And in this era of corporatized market inflation, Findlay provides an accounting of the exorbitant costs of internal university senior administrators and the parallel sky-rocketing costs for their external consultants. Reading from one of the consultant publications – a small thin $75 booklet – Findlay illustrated the expensive transformation of snake oil into banal bullet-points of Canadian-Tire-like “tools” and how-to lists for university improvement. The account reminded me of the way the neoliberal project infects institutions on many continents. Last year Tarak Barkawi wrote a short Al Jazeera article that outlined some effects:
The upshot is to soften the resistance of faculty to change, in part by making people fear for their jobs but mostly by creating a generalised sense of crisis. It becomes all the easier for some academic “leaders” to be drawn up into the recurrent task of “reinventing” the university.
Here is the intersection with neoliberal management culture. Neoliberal managers thrive not by bringing in new resources – since austerity is always the order of the day – but by constantly rearranging the deck chairs. Each manager seeks to reorganise and restructure in order to leave his or her mark. They depart for the next lucrative job before the ship goes under.
One consequence is the mania for mergers of departments and faculties in the US and the UK. In both the university and corporate world, mergers are not only demoralising for staff, but they also break up solidarities and destroy traditions and make staff much more amenable to control from above.
Such projects have little to do with academic excellence or even purposes, and often are self-defeating as the managers and the quislings among the professoriate who assist them have little idea what they are doing.
When I posted an earlier version of this article, news broke about the scandalous firing of the University of Saskatchewan Dean Robert Buckingham Executive Director of the School of Public Health for criticizing the academic plans of senior administrators. Frustrated by months of fruitless internal debate and muzzled Dean Buckingham dared to write a letter to the government “The Silence of the Deans” to protest his muzzling: “Her [the University of Saskatchewan President’s] remarks were to the point: she expected her senior leaders to not ’publicly disagree with the process or findings of TransformUS’; she added that if we did our ‘tenure would be short’.” His concern was the University of Saskatchewan’s new administrative shuffling that reorganized his highly regarded and accredited programme into an administrative area without accreditation. Buckingham’s critiques make good sense and point to Turk’s point that more money poured into costly and expanding senior administration along with their expensive external consultants isn’t reflected in superior decision makers.
But Findlay’s address to the AAS:UA before the Buckingham affair occurred identified some of the problems: “the sad coercions of strategic planning; the venality of internationalization; and imminent intellectual desertification…in non-compliant and/or unprofitable places.” He pointed to the limits of recommendations by the Univeristy of Saskatchewan consultant Robert Dickeson “and his ilk”: “Academic economism and “program prioritization…eat academic value hitherto preserved and producesd as diverse, independent inquiry, distinctive teaching, dissemination and outreach.” And he ended this part of his commentary with the University of Alberta biblical motto Quaecumque vera “Whatsoever things are true.”
Suffocation. When we ask our administrators how to reallocate funds to support our programs that don’t have Petrostate street cred, our corporate overseers respond with the arrogance of late night TV hucksters. Findlay outlines how university collegial governance has been replaced by presidential declarations that “emanate by fiat.” Here at UofA, we were invited to drift on for a few years into the fantasy world our President where our sacrifices in the pursuit of “excellence” would be worthwhile when we assumed our rightful position as a top-twenty world university by 2020. Sloganeering like “Top 20 in 20/20” endlessly proliferates, in Findlay’s words, “mediating hype and cosmic aspirations.” Nowadays interchangeable publicity brands “insult our intelligence.” Rather than “punching above our weight” as the remarkably strong Canadian prairie public university we have been, the rhetoric of hubris steered us into the shoals of international ranking and we plummeted on some scales.
Though for what it is worth, my Department of English & Film Studies is one of two University of Alberta departments to score very high on some international rankings: #22 of the best of all international university English departments as determined by our peers in one influential ranking system. And we are the second or third top English department in Canada. But even if you succeed as top dog, you may fall prey to the limits of this competitive model of academic ranking, and substitute “culture” in the illusory road race of excellence, a strategy condemned by the late Université de Montréal comparative literature professor Bill Readings in his posthumously published The University in Ruins that published almost two decades ago.
A few months ago, at a sparsely attended public address by the UofA President, the incoming chair of our department Peter Sinnema reminded her that while EFS had done what the UofA proposed and edged towards that 20/20 cosmic height in ranking, we have been decimated in the recent budget cuts that especially harmed the Arts Faculty that includes humanities, social sciences, and fine arts. Peter asked how she accounted for the shifting fate of our department. According to the script of competitive excellence we should be on a winning streak. But paradoxically in the recent round of endless cuts, we lost the most faculty of any department in the improvised shock doctrine of Voluntary Severance retirements last year. In response, the cash-strapped Faculty of Arts promised us one new replacement appointment leaving significant holes.
In response to the incoming EFS chair’s question,the UofA President raised her hand, flicked her wrist, and gestured to the Provost to respond about the mechanics of education. The UofA Provost described his last year of travel to three continents investigating how to reply to just such a query. Then he said with a flourish more or less the following: Dream on. Find the funds yourself.
Always ready to take up an imaginative challenge, I conjure up fundraising plots and plans. Imagine Coleridge’s Cave in the fourth floor Humanities Lounge in our English and Film Studies department – once a rare and ideal classroom for informal educational seminars and writing workshops – now redeployed as a meeting room for administrators in their ever-expanding need for space. After-hours after-class Coleridge Cave absinthe could be sold to visitors so stoned that while reclining on repurposed Value Village floor cushions they won’t notice we’ve sold the desks and chairs. Or we might float the idea of a William Burrough’s shooting gallery to appeal to gun-champion Albertan hunters. Or a new “Day and Night” in-house factory commemorating the great almost-forgotten Canadian poet Dorothy Livesay. From midnight to eight in the morning cultural labour could be supplanted by the made-in-Canada manufacture of loot suits for the carefully appointed university president to enhance the 1% status of University of Calgary President recently given a raise. Or why not transform our faculty and departmental offices and those spaces vacated by the budget-cut evacuation of key support staff? Or we might design a literary puppy mill, naming the poodles, the beagles, and mutts we raise after lost authors. Every pooch purchase arrives with a rare first edition or popular bestseller according to your cultural inclinations.
Why not multi-faceted representations and mappings of the indigenous sites and stories that lie buried beneath our institutional cellars as a response to the Truth and Reconciliation meetings held in Edmonton last month? This is a collaborative multi-media teaching project I’ve just begun with a colleague. But unfortunately for my department’s economy, my entrepreneurial imagination specializes in educational engagement best constructed beyond simple market terms. We are a public institution.
Over and over we are told how our universities vacillate between market forces and corporate models and metaphors. On the promise of high-paying international student as funding sources, Findlay notes that universities promote and students target only certain disciplines and professional programs making recruitment “a homogenizing revenue stream used to remake priorities, redistribute resources.” All business and no time to play with social science, humanities, and arts ideas. “Consumer sovereignty and market logic as the new chronotype in the global present where institutional memory and collegial governance used to be,” says Findlay.
And what is more important to our future than an educated youth? Our students, impoverished by tuition costs in a rich country, should be supported by the state. Findlay points to the way Danish left and right political parties see their country’s free university tuition as sacred. Elsewhere University of Saskatchewan anthropologist (Sandy) M. Ervin also makes an eloquent argument about student debt and, “the elephant in the room….Solidarity with the young is needed more than ever. We have unloaded enough on them with climate change and toxic wastes without adding debt feudalism that only benefits the banks further restraining our young people.”
And Findlay reminds us we’re watching the reinvention of a public university as the site of bifurcation: privileged spaces for corporate funding and other thinking spaces as expendable dumping sites. Findlay spoke of a recent University of Saskatchewan event where corporate donors from a mining company shunned an indigenous woman who queried the ethics of their mining practices. How do we insist on genuine philanthropy beyond the corporate strings that demand too much of public institutions?
Findlay reminded us of UofA’s first motto Lux and Lex – light and law – and the centrality of knowledge and its shaping. He might also have addressed the University of Alberta’s most recent university “promise,” a phrase lifted from a speech by the university’s first president Henry Marshall Tory. “Uplifting the whole people” is abbreviated from the sentence: “The people demand the uplifting of the whole people.” Note the change trajectory in the truncated slogan: the phrase transforms the public agency of “the people demand” to an act of charity in the “uplifting” university. The university website insists this “promise” “is not a temporary marketing slogan but an enduring expression of who we were are, and aspire to become” but its origins might be just that. In searching for the institutional promise, one stumbles across the work of former Procter and Gamble “top brand builders” Edward Burghard whose goal is to be the “spark that reignites the passion in the global business community for Brand America.” He goes: “In simplest terms, a brand is a promise, it sets an expectation of a benefit. The dynamics of the brand promise are charted by the promise gap: “Brands with positive promise gaps exceed their customers’ expectations, while those with negative promise gaps let customers down.” The UofA promise gap may be negative as the impulse to “uplift the whole people” – an appeal to Albertans – occured around the intensification of the rhetoric of internationalization that tended to undervalue domestic international students.
Nowadays “the people” – the public citizens who fund us find little reflection of themselves here at the University of Alberta. Canadian Studies erased. Canadian historians disappeared – 3 or 4 of them gone. Canadian literary scholars in my department decimated over the years and more recently by the mismanagement caused by voluntary retirements, a program that pretends ravaging the curriculum at the university stands in for management and planning. And almost no hirings in sight. Nowadays our department doesn’t define all-American Studies symposiums as “American Studies” – the specification seems redundant in the absence of much curricular or faculty exploration of our Canadian location.
At this AAS:UA gathering, we ate together, we listened, we laughed, we talked. Then I went to my office to finish some thinking work on a presentation about women public intellectuals in Canada. I wanted to scream for more public rabble rousing among faculty. Findlay insists on the importance of the “non-binarism” at the heart of activism and excellence and reminds us that if the university can be an object of study, the work we perform about the university in our professional associations and elsewhere also constitutes intellectual work that matters.
A collective of sometimes competing interests, the AAS:UA represents a university transformed into tenured academic faculty, academic librarians, contract teaching-focused staff, sessionals and other temporary employees, research academic officers, and faculty service officers – seven groups in total. Findlay exhorted all of us to “intergenerational politics” wherein we “make allies of our students” and find common cause to make change. The bifurcation of the university into competing interests – exploited consumer students, expensive indulged faculty and the exploited untenured – eliminates the contribution of intellectual labour to the university, the , the critical engagement of students, and the centrality of education to the mission of the university. Look how infrequently “education” appears in the public documents produced by universities, Findlay advises.
I could expand these notes by recounting how the speaker linked the university to the values of the neoliberal Harper government, but my note-taking stopped at this point as details of this sorry revelation are too familiar. So I conclude by reading a poem that begins: “Hurled his roadster straight through the great books / of his country….” right through to its end…”He was no bean-shooter, no dope fiend, / no bindle-punk. Just a hep cat with healthy hungers. Regular citizen with dreams of berries and bim.”
– Janice Williamson
Editor’s note: This Facebook post is republished with the author Linda Goyette’s permission.
I am no longer a journalist, and I do not seek a bully pulpit on any topic, but tonight I want to explain to my family and friends why I give my unqualified support to the Idle No More movement as a Canadian citizen.
I am becoming more and more concerned about the harsh backlash among non-aboriginal Canadians against this peaceful protest movement. I’m not talking exclusively about virulent racial bigotry and hate speech, although it exists in dark places, but more about the willful denial of reality, the blindness to injustice, among many decent people.
These are the people I address tonight. I respect their right to a different opinion, but I hope they will hear me out.
Four Saskatchewan women—Nina Wilson, Sylvia McAdam, Sheelah McLean and Jessica Gordon—and Chief Theresa Spence of Attawapiskat First Nation in northern Ontario found the courage to say that a change is going to come. Thousands of indigenous people across Canada are demonstrating in peaceful ways to tell the country that they will wait no longer for that change. When I see round dances in shopping malls, peaceful road blockades, or a chief on a hunger strike, I see an opportunity to learn more about the deep frustration of my neighbours. I see no threat at all.
The protesters are asking for the country I want for myself, and for my family.
Millions of Canadians do respect First Nations, Metis and Inuit legal rights because these rights are guaranteed in our modern Constitution, frequently upheld by our highest courts, entrenched in our historic treaties, and valued in our intermingled family connections, our friendships, our minds and our hearts.
Many of us badly want the Canadian government to respect Indigenous land, resources, cultural ways, and most of all their right to self-determination.
I feel hopeful—wildly hopeful—that a core demand of the Idle No More movement for stronger protection of our shared natural environment will spread to Canadians of all racial backgrounds and political allegiances. I also hope that the Harper government will think twice in future before it passes omnibus legislation with minimal parliamentary debate or national consultation on the contents.
If the Idle No More movement has allies, and it does, we need to be more outspoken. Our silence in 2013 will be interpreted as complicity, and polite agreement, with everything that is wrong with the relationship between Canada and the founding peoples. Firm support for Idle No More could push the whole nation forward in a new and more positive direction.
We need to stand beside indigenous peoples when they confront an obtuse federal government that consistently undermines their success while it scolds them about local governance. In our homes and communities, we need to challenge the mockery, the simplistic assumptions, the casual and devastating bigotry that diminish Canada and make it a smaller, narrower place than it deserves to be.
As some of you know, I have worked for most of my adult life as a reporter, writer and oral history transcriber with enduring connections to many First Nations and Metis people and their communities in different parts of Canada, primarily in the West. That doesn’t make me an expert in anything, but I have had a rare opportunity to learn from the true experts – the people themselves, their life experiences, their values, their hopes. I have witnessed with my own eyes hardships and injustices that took my breath away, not only in Attawapiskat in 2010, but in almost every province and territory over three decades.
To those comfortable Canadians who complain that their hard-earned tax dollars disappear down a huge funnel to places like Attawapiskat, I say: Visit the place yourself, or any other isolated, northern Aboriginal community, and you might notice that most inhabitants, primarily children and old people, endure substandard public services beyond the imagination of southern, urban Canadians.
They can’t count on clean drinking water, warm housing, decent elementary schools, safe roads, good fire protection or sewage systems—all services that white Canadians in neighbouring towns and cities take for granted. Other Canadians can rely on fairly capable local and provincial governments while First Nations have to contend with the inept budgeting practices of the federal Department of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development, not to mention the restrictive nature of our hideous national antique, the Indian Act. Read it some time. It will change your view of your country.
To those Canadians who allege that all chiefs and band councils are robber barons who “make more than the prime minister,” and run a vast northern kleptocracy, I say: I have never heard an Idle No More activist or an Aboriginal person in any community defend overpayment of band officials, padding of expense accounts, or local corruption. Just as I have never heard any Canadian, anywhere, justify the overpayment of local, provincial or federal elected and public employees, although this also happens with depressing regularity.
Overpayment happens because we allow it to happen. That can change, too. I would like to hear Canadians ask why the president of the University of Alberta, Indira Samarasekera, received $627,000 in the 2007-2008 fiscal year, which includes house and car allowances, performance bonuses and deferred compensation. Her salary had increased 6 per cent compared to the year before.
Folks, she earned more that Prime Minister Stephen Harper and U.S. president Barack Obama that year while Alberta students contended with steady tuition increases. She earned more than any First Nation chief I’ve ever heard of. Yet do we hear waves of public indignation about the continuing high salaries of university and college presidents across Canada? Even a murmur? We do not.
We swallow similar bad news about other elected and public officials who receive sky-high salaries, benefits, and sometimes, huge severance payments after dismissal for poor performance. That’s our tax money, too. We could at least apply our indignation evenly across the country, and we might question the national preoccupation with compensation to chiefs, and how and why that obsession came to be.
Long ago, when I was reporting for the Edmonton Journal in 1980 or 1981, I received a brown envelope from a Department of Indian Affairs finance officer containing documents on the salary and benefits of an outspoken Cree leader Harold Cardinal who was working at the time to assist the northern Dene Tha’ with poor conditions on their reserve. I was in my early twenties at the time, and inexperienced, and yes, I supplied the news story that brought a good man’s hard work into disrepute, fortunately temporarily. I was a little pawn on a chessboard, pushed forward, to do the government’s bidding. Shut him up. Shut it down.
I learned a hard lesson from that experience. I began to watch the situation more carefully. In the following three decades I noticed that each time First Nations and Metis leaders, or activists in the community, demanded their legal rights or a fair share of Canada’s abundant resources, similar official brown envelopes would whiz in the direction of good, bad or indifferent reporters and media commentators. These journalists would dutifully report the news of overpayments–as they should, it is indefensible–but without any context or understanding of how they were being used to silence, ignore and marginalize Aboriginal people in great need.
Does the federal government release similar figures to the media about the plump expense accounts of its own senior deputy ministers? No, it does not. The Harper government encourages significant overpayments to a favoured few, on the one hand, and then spins this information to discredit the legitimate claims of an entire group of people. This is not good governance. This is dysfunctional manipulation.
I don’t blame many southern Canadians for their singular focus on chiefs’ salaries—that’s just about all they’ve heard from the shills in the conservative media for two decades—but I don’t think people understand that federal transfers to First Nations are often significantly lower than provincial transfers to non-aboriginal communities for the same services. The Auditor General and Parliamentary Budget Officer have confirmed this fact again and again, and conscientious people in provincial and local governments and in the media have complained about it.
Try to calculate how much public money your town or city receives for every school and hospital, for all salaries of local public employees, for road and bridge construction, for police and fire departments, for sewer lines, garbage disposal, recycling, public transit and so on. That amounts to many millions of dollars a year, too, even for small communities. Canadians interpret these financial transfers as a right of citizenship, the cost of a civil society.
More than one million people in Canada describe themselves as Aboriginal, and more than 700,000 have First Nations status. The Government of Canada will spent about $8 billion this year for the budget of the Department of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development, including all transfers to more than 600 communities. About twenty per cent of the total goes to departmental administration expenses, but look at the $8 billion. That’s the same amount that New Brunswick will spend this year on public services for its 751,000 people.
To those Canadians who say, “But I pay taxes, and they don’t, so I have earned these services, and they haven’t,” I say in reply: A large majority of First Nations people and all Metis people, now live off-reserve, work for a living, and do pay taxes. It is the Canadian way to provide public services for all citizens, even those without paid employment, such as the elderly, parents caring for children at home, people with disabilities, and people who earn too little in their jobs to pay significant taxes. Some people on reserves, and in neighbouring non-aboriginal communities too, fall into these categories. Why should we resent them? Their gifts to us are beyond the measure of money.
More important, this country is affluent and comfortable by international standards because of the rich natural resources it extracts from its northern and western regions, the traditional territory of many First Nations and Metis people. They have paid and paid the rest of Canada—in lost revenue, over generations—for the miserable level of public services they have received through much of the last century. They have received no fair share of the benefits of a rich nation, and it is time they did.
To the Canadians who say, “But Idle No More leaders should be more specific, they should define their terms, I don’t know what they want,” I say: Where have you been hiding throughout your lifetime? If you don’t know what they want, you haven’t been listening.
The parents and grandparents of Idle No More activists lined up at the microphones at the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline Inquiry after 1974, patiently explaining to the country why their land and sovereignty needed to be respected. Decade after decade, others spoke to parliamentary committee hearings, First Ministers conferences, and every MP and reporter who would listen to them.
Year after year, they testified at hearings of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples and at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and at hearings of the United Nations human rights bodies. In case after case, they took the federal government to the Supreme Court of Canada to press for legitimate recognition of their land claims and treaty and Aboriginal rights. They negotiated the Kelowna Accord with the former prime minister, and then saw the deal collapse.
Their frustrations found expression at Oka and Burnt Church and Ipperwash, Ont., in the protest marches through the streets of Edmonton and Winnipeg, in the railway blockades in B.C. They celebrated many victories and land claims settlements along the way, and found allies, and achieved significant improvements on their own initiative.
If you don’t know about this yet, it is not too late to learn. Rather than demand that other people define their terms immediately in language you are ready to accept, just listen, and remember what you have heard.
It shouldn’t be necessary to say that diverse Aboriginal communities have different definitions of sovereignty, and different interpretations of their relationship with the Canadian state. People are different. Communities are different. No single answer is the total or final answer on any public issue.
The very least Canadians can do is pay attention with some level of respect and gratitude for a largely peaceful protest movement. Other countries would envy us for Idle No More, and its non-violent core values. Their patience is a great gift to this country.
When the percentage of Aboriginal people in schools, colleges, universities, hospitals and jails matches their percentage of the Canadian population, some equality will have been achieved. Equality does not exist now.
I think this is a defining moment in Canadian history, a time when each citizen is asked to make a choice. Where do you stand? Where will your children and grandchildren want you to stand? I have made my decision. I leave your decision to you.
Thank you for listening.
To learn more about. . .
The Idle No More movement:
- Website: www.idlenomore.ca
- On Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/groups/Idlenomore.official/?ref=ts&fref=ts
- On Twitter #IdleNoMore
- Nine questions about Idle No More, CBC report
- Duncan McCue CBC commentary: The cultural importance of Idle No More
- Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Idle_No_More
- Bill C-45, the fine print of the Omnibus Bill http://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/story/2012/10/19/pol-list-2nd-omnibus-bill.html
http://www.nfb.ca/film/people_of_kattawapiskak_river/An NFB documentary by award-winning Alanis Obamsawin “Still waiting in Attawapiskat,” Canadian Geographic magazine, Linda Goyette with photography by Liam Sharp
- The journalism of Chelsea Vowel
The issues at the heart of this debate:
- 8th Fire: Aboriginal peoples, Canada and the way forward
- Special CBC reports: http://www.cbc.ca/doczone/8thfire/index.html
One of the first things I noticed on my earliest trip to Canada in 1998 was the presence of remarkable Aboriginal art in so many public places. For years after that I admired and bought gifts of Canadian Aboriginal art as the most appropriate Canadian souvenir. As a tourist to Canada, I knew about the historical and contemporary injustices that the Aboriginal people have been subjected to, but my first real life brush with the harsh urban reality of the Aboriginal experience came a week after I officially became an Indo-South African-Canadian.
I live next door to an Aboriginal family with fourteen children, and several grandchildren. They are renting in this very middle class neighbourhood in the eastern part of Edmonton, where the houses are owned by a huge variety of people ranging from professionals to tradesmen.
I moved into my house in the Fall nearly two years ago and for months never saw or made acquaintance with any of my neighbours. Ironically, it was not until my dogs arrived from South Africa that I felt ’visible’ in the neighbourhood with people smiling or stopping to chat to my oversized pups.
Shortly after, the Aboriginal family moved next door and this led to even more neighbourly interactions for me. People began making complaints against the Aboriginal family next door to the police, the bylaw offices, social services, among other places. They complained about noisy trucks, unsupervised children, and delays in cleaning snow off the side walk. The tenants before them did the same things but were Caucasians and nobody came to me to ask me to file complaints against the former tenants.
I was beginning to resent the pressure that I felt to file complaints against the family next door. Not only did it feel hypocritical and clearly discriminatory, it also made me feel that it prevented me from having a normal sociable relationship with my next door neighbours. For instance, if the kids were noisy or broke something in my yard, I felt awkward to approach them fearing that it would seem like I had joined the vocal minority that clearly wanted this family out of the neighbourhood. Living alone and working from home only made this situation worse for me and I was seriously considering moving elsewhere.
Out of an innocuous Friday morning breakfast get together with colleagues, came a suggestion that was extremely useful. I learnt about the Mediation and Restorative Justice Centre (MRJC), which provides assistance for conflict management for individuals and groups. The very helpful staff told me that I need to get all the parties to agree to come to the table for it to be an effective process. So I wrote the letter below to my neighbours and distributed it door to door.
In the past little while we have experienced some disagreements regarding our expectations of peace and propriety in our neighbourhood. I am concerned that these disagreements should not lead to a situation of conflict in our peaceful neighbourhood. Our houses are very close to each other and we all have a stake in making sure that we live as a harmonious community of people.
We have had several formal and informal complaints going back and forth in the past few months. However, the outcome has been unsatisfactory for all involved. It is my humble opinion that we have not had an open channel of communication to resolve our problems.
I am no expert in mediating or negotiating but following the advice of my colleague, who is a law professor, I contacted the Mediation and Restorative Justice Centre for help. This centre can provide professional facilitators to help us resolve our problem as amicably as possible.
I would like to take this opportunity to invite you to phone the Mediation and Restorative Justice Centre at 780-423-0896 (Extn. 200) to speak freely about the problems you are encountering in the neighbourhood. Please quote the reference number xyz for the sake of continuity in our conversations. Once they have heard from some of us, they will decide about how best to facilitate mediation.
Their hours of operation are:
9 – 4.30 (Mon, Wed, Fri)
9 – 7.30 (Tue, Thu)
In the best case scenario, we will be able to resolve our differences and continue to live in our quiet and harmonious space. In the worst case scenario, we would have at least tried to resolve our differences in the most civilized way possible.”
Before I handed out the letter, I approached my next door neighbour to find out if he would be willing to participate in such an intervention. We had often exchanged pleasantries and once I had reluctantly told him about some broken solar lights in my yard, but this was the first time we had a proper conversation.
I told him that the mediation will only be effective if both sides can have their say and thus he should not hesitate to state his complaints too. He told me that the reason he has chosen to bring his family to live in this neighbourhood is so that they can see that another life is possible. He was determined to give his children a fighting chance in a place where check-out clerks can choose not to serve him and get away without any censure; where he gets shadowed and watched suspiciously as soon as he enters a store; where people pull their children indoors if they see them playing with his grand kids; where the police surrounds his house in the middle of the night because some neighbours complained about loud music but the party was happening in the house across his back alley. I was struck by this man’s humility and generosity when he said that he will be happy to talk to the MRJC staff but that he had nothing to complain about from his side.
The timing of this conversation was very significant for me since it had been exactly one week since I had taken my oath of Canadian citizenship in what proved to be an emotionally wrenching experience for me. I found the ceremony my most intense first-hand experience of the power of symbols, identity, and boundaries. My grandparents had fought for the independence of India, which made this a very poignant moment for me. Although I know the difference between identity and citizenship and have struck deep friendships and relationships in my new home, at that moment I could not shake off the feelings of betrayal, loneliness, and the loss of generations of belonging.
During the ceremony, I was sitting next to a woman from Sierra Leone who was brimming with joy since now she can try to bring her five children who were still trapped in a conflict zone to Canada. It was a profound and timely reminder of the value of this country called Canada that jolted me out of my personal angst. The incidence in my neighbourhood similarly revealed the juxtaposition of the inherent good and bad in all our experiences.
When the issues started to emerge in my neighbourhood, I was struck by the verbal and emotional aggression in the conversations I witnessed. People denied equally vehemently that they had any racial prejudices, while at least one person suggested that I must have a higher tolerance for such nuisance because of where I come from. There was clearly a class dimension too, adding to the ’othering’ of the Aboriginal family, since they were renting in this street of home-owners. I suspected that I was relatively more acceptable to my neighbours because of what I do, despite ‘what’ I am. To put it mildly, this was an awkward situation where I found myself warding off the pressure to complain on one hand, and on the other hand feeling indignant for myself and the Aboriginal family next door.
I was sceptical about the impact of external mediation, but I was wrong. Very few of my neighbours phoned the MRJC staff and the most vocal voices actually chose not to engage with MRJC. According to the MRJC staff, the ideal scenario would have been to get everyone to talk face-to-face in a session facilitated by a professional mediator. Despite their best efforts, only one person was willing for such a session and another was willing to talk to the neighbour directly.
However, there were a number of indirect benefits of the involvement of the MRJC. I heard back from some of the neighbours who spoke to the MRJC staff and it was clear that they were seeing their perceived problems in a very different light. Aside from the conflict management tips provided by the excellent staff at the MRJC, I believe that the very idea of external mediation gave them a reason to pause and reconsider the source of their annoyance. The failure of the more aggressive people to engage with the process exposed their unwillingness for any solution other than the removal of the Aboriginal family. This clearly separated the majority of the neighbours who were now willing to reconsider their previous position on how bad the situation was and prepared to take their issues directly to the Aboriginal family, as opposed to the small minority whose prejudices have been exposed and who have retreated into a sulky silence, for now.
This may not be a dramatic victory of multiculturalism in a tiny suburb of Edmonton, but there are a number of lessons that are worth sharing. Firstly, we need to admit in this so called post-industrial society that there are many tools of ’othering’ which are used to essentialize difference, and serve to create and maintain hierarchies of humanity. The ‘us’ and ‘them’ is constantly being redefined through real or perceived ethnic, socio-economic, and other differences. However, this is not just happening in North America, but also in European countries, South Africa, India, China, nay all over the world. Secondly, being a disengaged bystander is not a choice and does not absolve us from the responsibility we bear as members of a community to stand up and speak out against an injustice. Most importantly, it is vital to remember that we are not alone when we do choose to wade into such a battle. There are wonderful people – friends, colleagues, neighbours – and institutions like the MRJC within the system that can offer help and guidance.
Finally, perhaps the person was right in noting that my country of origin had something to do with how I handled this situation. I was born in India whose images of grinding poverty and dense population are well known. What is not so well known to the outside world is the fact that it is also home to all the major religions of the world; it has more than two thousand ethnic groups; it is a country that is more diverse than Europe in terms of linguistic, genetic and cultural diversity; it is also home to the world’s largest middle class, which has learnt to survive and thrive despite the murky politics, archaic institutions, and corruption that permeates everyday life. South Africa, my second home, has also taught us that it is possible to confront the truths of our histories and policies and move on to become a Rainbow Nation.
Multiculturalism is not an essentially North American phenomenon; there is a much longer history of nations managing their deeply vibrant and significantly multiple ethnic demographics all over the world. None of these experiments are perfect, but the long histories and unfolding stories of places like India and South Africa can only enrich our understanding of multiculturalism in North America.
For now, our little suburb is quiet again. I have no illusions of permanent peace or battles won, but the incidences of the past several months were a catalyst for revealing significant aspects of the people and the place I have chose as my new home. It also got me closer to understanding what I try to learn and teach as I traverse the fledgling field of Global Studies. Right now I feel cautiously optimistic.
Meenal Shrivastava is an associate professor and the Academic Coordinator of Global Studies and Political Economy in the Centre for Global and Social Analysis at Athabasca University in Alberta. This was originally posted in the FedCan blog as part of the Equity Issues series on ‘interculturalism and pluralism’.
Lizzie arrived at our house the week we moved to Cape Town. Our twins had just turned two, Thomas was three, and our furniture, to the best of our knowledge, was still at sea. Lizzie came as our housekeeper, and within minutes of introducing herself she pulled an apron from her purse and got down to scrubbing our empty home.For the past three years, several days a week, Lizzie has left her own house in a nearby township and come to work at ours. She has told me of her childhood in South Africa’s Eastern Cape where she carried her own slate and chair to school each day — on her head. She has tried to explain her culture, Xhosa, and teach me its language. We’ve discussed politics from Zuma to Obama, and compared our styles of cooking cornmeal, or as it’s called here, “mealie meal.”
Mostly though, Lizzie and I have talked about motherhood. Lizzie has four children, now grown adults, but her tiny house is far from empty. Lizzie, now a grandmother, also cares for ten adopted children under the age of sixteen. Our conversations are usually spontaneous, informal. But one morning we sat down with coffee to discuss being a mother in a city as violent as Cape Town.