Journey to Freedom Day

Dear Mr. Jason Kenney,

I am writing to express how pleased I am at the creation of Journey to Freedom Day to commemorate the Vietnamese boat people who travelled to Canada in the 1970s.

I always did think that Canada had an unreasonably negative view of refugee boat people, and it’s absolutely wonderful to see that we are changing our policy in this regard. I look forward to you scrapping the “irregular arrival” designation that you introduced in 2012 in order to remove certain rights specifically from refugees who arrive by boat. The fact that it was arbitrary and up to your discretion never seemed entirely ethical. I applaud you in reversing this stance, which I assume will be a part of Journey to Freedom Day celebrations.

I also look forward to the Government of Canada apologizing to the Tamil boat people, who of course are the modern-day equivalent of the Vietnamese boat people. We really didn’t treat them very well when they arrived in 2009 on the MV Ocean Lady and in 2010 on the MV Sun Sea. I congratulate our government in recognizing the parallels with the Vietnamese boat people, and for learning from the past. Journey to Freedom Day is long overdue. It is a day that we can be proud of, a day signalling our return to a more humane and generous attitude toward refugees.

Kind regards

Concordia University and the fear of Muslims

On February 27, 2015, the Quebec French language television network TVA sent a Montreal news crew to pay an unannounced visit to the library of the Muslim Students’ Association at Concordia University. The small team arrived, hidden camera in tow, determined to report on several books in the library’s collection espousing radical and controversial views by Muslim writers. TVA was determined to obtain comment from the Muslim students they encountered who ran the library, and to hear them defend the books.

The threat of Islamic radicalization and terrorism is a national obsession these days. The federal government is preparing to pass its wide-sweeping and deeply flawed anti-terror legislation amid much fear-mongering and inflated rhetoric. We are fighting a war against an Islamic terrorist organization in Iraq, while at home those of us who are not Muslim have a growing fear, disdain, and distrust of those who are.

Although perhaps no place is as corrosive as the Conservative caucus, things are particularly troubling in Quebec. In the last month a judge has denied a woman access to the courts because she wore a hijab, the Bloc Québécois created an offensive ad aimed at women’s right to wear a niqab at citizenship ceremonies, and, as mentioned, Concordia’s Muslim Students Association library was bombarded by a news crew. And then there’s the case of Adil Charkaoui.

Until recently, Charkaoui ran an Arabic school at two Montreal CEGEPs (colleges), but had his contracts suspended after a young man who had twice attended the school travelled overseas to allegedly join ISIS. Despite the tenuous connection to the influence of the school, suspicions were raised because of Charkaoui, who in 2003 had his own run-in with anti-terror legislation. It is something the media consistently cites by way of explanation, yet consistently neglects to contextualize. Charkaoui was detained for two years without charge or trial, before being given over to another four and a half years of intense surveillance, as part of a security measure that has been criticized by human rights organizations like Amnesty (the Supreme Court of Canada ruled it unconstitutional in Charkaoui’s case in 2007, though the system remains). He has been exonerated, and yet we judge. His time within Canada’s Kafkaesque security apparatus continues to be used against him, to shroud him in scrutiny and guilt.

Why have we become so fearful? What, and who, has made us this way?

What was the motivation behind investigating the Muslim Students’ Association library? Let us be impartial for a moment and look at Concordia University’s own library, a quick glance at which turns up yet another list radical and controversial books. Lurking amid those seemingly innocuous shelves are three copies of Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf, for example—two of which were signed out and being read at the time of writing. And it’s not just Concordia. The province’s national library, the BAnQ, has four copies of Mein Kampf. And Toronto? That city’s public library system has fifteen copies! Are we teaching our children to be anti-Semitic fascists? Are we in favour of genocide?

Hitler’s words have a place in our libraries because we understand the historical significance and gravity of ideas, from the transformative to the downright vile. We understand that ideas and words have altered, and continue to alter, our world, and that it is vital to understand why and how. It is this conversation that keeps civilization rolling.

This is not to say that every idea should be given a platform on our library bookshelves; the idea is not to include every book written by a white supremacist. It is reasonable to judge a book based on its historical or cultural significance when deciding whether to grant it shelf space. It is also reasonable to assume that this process of curation is not only being done, but being done by those who are knowledgeable and invested in the area of study, indeed in the idea of study. An open mind is important, particularly in a university setting where the study and analysis of primary sources is a central and necessary activity. The rest of us have a role in keeping this curation process in check, sure, but surprise attacks by news crews packing hidden cameras is in no way how this should be done.

Speaking of Hitler and libraries, it is worth remembering the night of May 10, 1933, when nationalist university students in Berlin, aided by the Nazi party, burned 20,000 university library books. The event is by no means a perfect analogy (that particular bonfire destroyed books by Jewish writers as well as by such important thinkers as Albert Einstein, Helen Keller, Karl Marx, and HG Wells), but the control and suppression of ideas, the attraction of censorship, is indeed most worthy of contemplation.

The thing about the politics of fear is that it is often so effective. After the TVA news report, the Muslim Students’ Association was called to meet with Concordia University’s dean of students, and agreed not only to remove a number of books from their library, but to allow Concordia library staff to review all of the books in their collection.

Professional review is good, and by all accounts the books in question deserved a sober second thought. But the climate in which this is all taking place is not one of collaboration, but of censorship. We must resist the urge to allow one ideology (that of fear) to suppress another (that of knowledge).

As for TVA, raising concern about the library’s collection is not so much my issue—it is the method of it all: the surprise visit, the hidden camera, the stealth. All of this points to an assumption of evil, of an urgency to root it out, to catch it in the act. It is apparently inconceivable in this frame of mind to, rather, simply pick up the phone or send an email—you know, to arrange for an interview. Like a normal journalist.

The assumption of evil cannot be our starting point. We have to put an end to this fever, to this epidemic of fear. Religious intolerance, assumption of evil, finger waving and inflated rhetoric, censorship—all this dances dangerously close to the darker decades of the 20th century, to places we should not want to go.

Harper takes bold action with new anti-terror legislation

OTTAWA—Prime Minister Harper announced today the Conservative Party’s highly anticipated new anti-terror legislation, Bills C-51 and C-52, aimed at combating a rise of extremist activity that the Conservatives say threaten peace and security both in Canada and around the world.

The approach is two-pronged, focusing on both foreign and domestic policy. It also eschews what early analysis suggested would be a focus solely on security measures. Today Harper said his party had looked beyond these sorts of “quick-and-easy solutions” to instead come up with more long-term solutions.

“Let me be clear, we are committed to ensuring the freedoms of Canadians, and will not sacrifice these in the name of security,” said Harper. “We are aware of proposals to increase the mandate of CSIS to include police-like powers, to essentially lay the groundwork for a secret police force. However, we feel that such measures would be going too far. They would simply be inappropriate to the situation. Canadians are looking for long-term solutions, not stop-gap measures.”

Other measures were announced today alongside the new legislation, including support for collaborative efforts between police forces and Muslim communities.

“A system based on fear and suspicion only leads to animosity,” explained Aisha Khalaf, spokeswoman for the PMO. “We believe that building trust and communication between police and local community leaders is the best early-warning system, not just for identifying extremist activity, but its underlying causes as well. It is important that we understand the concerns and needs of the Muslim community, and respond effectively and appropriately.”

Khalaf stressed that these measures are part of the government’s short-term strategy, and not tied to the Act, out of recognition that extremism is in no way a problem exclusive to the Muslim community.

Bill C-51: What’s in the legislation?

The anti-terrorism legislation, officially named the Promoting Peace and Security Act has been broken into two separate bills—Foreign Measures (C-51) and Domestic Measures (C-52)—to be debated separately in the House.

On the foreign policy front, the bill redirects future Canadian military action toward peacekeeping efforts. “Like many Canadians, we are now aware of the inefficacy of American-led foreign military interventions,” said Harper. “Let me be clear, this is not a retreat in the face of threats by Islamic State (ISIS) and other groups, but rather a recognition that recent military efforts in the region have simply exacerbated global insecurity. The result has been to stir up resentment, rather than establish lasting peace and security.”

“Clearly the solution does not lie in continuing the kinds of American-led military interventions of the past,” he said.

The new bill commits at least half of military budgets and resources to peacekeeping efforts, under the direction of the United Nations. “Peacekeeping is a proud Canadian tradition, and one of Canada’s greatest contributions to global security,” said the Prime Minister. “We have forgotten this tradition in recent years, and this legislation will correct that.”

The bill also requires governments to bring proposals for military activity to Parliament for debate and vote, and provides minimum lengths for such debate. Harper suggested that all post-military activity would also be debated in Parliament, and a watchdog created to monitor corporate activity during reconstruction in post-conflict regions.

C-51 will also pave the way for renewed diplomatic efforts, tying the bill to a House resolution to commit to seeking diplomatic solutions before engaging in military ones, along with a similar commitment to providing humanitarian aid over military aid.

Bill C-52: What’s in the legislation?

C-52, the domestic policy bill, overhauls an entirely different set of Conservative policies. Specifically, the bill provides resources toward the creation of a robust mental health system, as well as toward poverty reduction—including new resources for low-income neighbourhoods, supporting everything from education programs to social housing to harm-reduction projects like Vancouver’s Insite.

The government says it will also be considering comprehensive changes to social welfare programs, making them more robust and effective. The government will initiate studies into these areas, and has committed to follow through with all recommendations.

Harper says his government believes such measures are the best way to meet the needs of “disaffected youth”—those who, for a variety socio-economic reasons, are more likely to be drawn to extremist ideologies, such as those promoted by Islamic State. Providing these youth with equal access to society, says Harper, will vastly reduce the likelihood that they will eventually turn to extremists groups as an outlet for their frustrations.

Ottawa shooting was a “wake-up call”

This, says Harper, was a lesson learned from Michael Zehaf-Bibeau. The government reportedly began drafting their new legislation mere hours after Zehaf-Bibeau’s attack on Parliament on October 22, 2014. However, initial drafts were abandoned when more information about Zehaf-Bibeau came out. Zehaf-Bibeau, who was homeless at the time of the shooting, had reportedly made attempts to enter prison as an attempt to kick a drug addiction—including using a stick to hold up a McDonald’s in Vancouver in 2011.

“A system was not in place to respond adequately to the calls for help that he clearly made,” said Harper. “We intend to build up that system.”

“Would Zehaf-Bibeau have been susceptible to extremist ideologies if his underlying issues of poverty, drug addiction, and mental health had been addressed? We do not think so,” the Prime Minister added.

Allaying suspicions that the Conservatives would be giving CSIS more powers to monitor Canadians and to “disrupt” terrorist activity, Harper pointedly said this would not be the case. “We will be providing CSIS with increased resources, but not increased powers,” he said. The government will also be restoring oversight of CSIS by reinstating the inspector general, the watchdog position the government eliminated in 2012. They will also be introducing regular security updates by the Security Intelligence Review Committee, which monitors CSIS, to all elected Members of Parliament.

“Our government, along with the opposition parties, are committed to addressing the underlying causes of extremist sentiment and activity, in all of its forms, and to find real and lasting solutions to peace and security,” Harper said. “The road to global security is paved through promoting peace, not hated, and not fear.”

Year in Review

Christmas comes early on Parliament Hill. Members of Parliament are off this week on their holidays—and whenever the government is on break it’s something of a reprieve for the rest of us, too. It’s also a good opportunity to look back at all that’s been done, which unfortunately for us means looking back at all the damage that’s been done.

I’ve been keeping track of all the policy changes and other antics that catch my attention, over the course of this second session of the 41st Parliament, and have compiled them on a separate page of this blog (which I’ve called “A government play-by-play,” for lack of a better title). I’ll be doing the same thing throughout 2015.

A government play-by-play: Fall 2014

This session was perhaps not as horrific as some others—there was no widespread gutting of environmental legislation or refugee policy, no tossing of science libraries into garbage bins—but surveying the past few months can be a depressing activity regardless. It doesn’t help that our environment minister has returned just in time for the holidays from the latest UN Climate Change Conference, having helped secure yet another useless agreement.

The last few months were dominated less by new legislation than by Supreme Court challenges to previously introduced legislation (including those involving prostitution, refugee health care, Indigenous rights and jurisdiction, and voting rules)—and of course by the Conservative government’s appeals of each of these. We’ve also entered the last push until election time, which means money being splashed around in a variety of ineffectual ways (or, as with income-splitting, which actually increase wealth inequality). More on this, I’m sure, in the months to come.

Let’s change the conversation

I have written a fair amount about refugees, for reasons that are easy to explain. These are ordinary people who, by virtue of plain bad luck or in some cases from sticking to their convictions, have been forced into unimaginably vulnerable positions, often into extreme danger—their needs so immediate as to even negate attempts at pity. They are also a warning system of sorts to a complacent world: you know something truly awful is going on when people start fleeing their homes and everything they know. And so when we turn our backs on them it strikes me as a particularly deplorable affront to our common humanity.

Well, we have been turning our back on them a lot lately—or at least our government has, and so, too, the rest of us by association. This month we did it again.* I have tried writing about this particular item a couple of times, but I can’t seem to find the right words. Not that this time it’s any more or less deplorable than anything else we’ve done, it’s just that it’s all beginning to feel absurd. How do we talk rationally in the face of such irrational behaviour? How do we talk sensibly about the nonsensical? How do we talk about compassion in the face of such contempt? It becomes an exhausting and utterly depressing game of catch-up.

For a long time I have avoided the elephant in the room. And the elephant is this: that our government hates refugees, plain and simple. I’m a fairly reasonable person—it is important for you to understand this. I choose my words carefully, and I am not prone to hyperbole. But this is the conclusion I have come to. Our government hates refugees, and they are doing a heck of a job convincing us to hate them, too.

We have let them convince us about a lot of things. We have learned that refugees are not using the correct, legal channels to enter our country. That they aren’t playing by the rules. That they are jumping the queue (indeed, that there is a queue). That some deserve assistance and some do not. That alarming numbers are fraudsters, even criminals. That they are taking advantage of our generous system. That they are a drain on our economy. That they receive better health care than Canadians. That cuts to their benefits are not only justified but will save us money. That our old system was threatening to make us the doormat of the world. That Canada is taking in its fair share of refugees.

Flat out lies. All of it. Each one is a big fat lie.

But the problem with exposing lies is that it doesn’t seem to be getting us anywhere. It is getting us nowhere because the government is controlling the conversation. They have taken control of it, in fact, systematically and deftly. And here we are, running around, trying to defend a system as it falls apart around us.

We need to control the conversation and turn things around. We need to set the agenda. This is not a discussion about who deserves what. And there is no economic argument. These things aren’t even relevant. It’s like trying to explain the religious significance of a Fudgsicle. It is irrelevant and it is absurd to do so.

Our response to refugees must instead come out of, and be a part of, a discussion about who we want to be—as national and global citizens, as members of community, as moral and ethical beings. Who do we want to be? Who do we really want to be? What kind of a society do we want to live in? What values are important to us? Do we, on a fundamental level, want to be governed by greed, or by compassion? The essential equality of all human beings and our responsibility to each other—these need to be the touchstones against which all policy is tested. Not economic benefit, not merit, not fear. Those are just Fudgsicles.

When we go to court to prevent pregnant women and young children from receiving medical treatment, we cannot, must not, ask ourselves if it is worth spending our money on them. It is imperative that we ask ourselves, instead, if we really want to push people into even more vulnerable and marginalized lives. If it is worth putting their lives at risk. If it is worth dismissing their basic humanity.

This has be our approach to anyone who is marginalized, whether a refugee, or Indigenous, or suffering from a mental illness, or driven into poverty or crime or addiction, or of a gender that confuses us or an ethnicity that frightens us.

We cannot think in terms of “us versus them.” It is a cancer. Refugees are not merely refugees—they are human, and they are just like us. It is a very simple concept that we can’t seem to get through our frighteningly thick skulls. If we cannot help them, then we are incapable of helping ourselves, because the two are fundamentally interchangeable.


{side notes}

Earlier this November, the federal Conservatives made an astoundingly reckless gamble, risking—and narrowly avoiding—being found in contempt of court. Why? Because they’ve refused to comply with a Federal Court order to reinstate health care for refugees. Earlier in the year the court deemed the Conservatives’ gutting of the refugee health care program “cruel and unusual,” and unconstitutional, and ordered the policy reversed. The Conservatives responded by appealing the decision, spending hundreds of thousands of dollars of public money to do so. They eventually agreed to comply (temporarily, pending the appeal), and to be fair they did restore some of the cuts. But for the most part they were just lying through their teeth. They only restored some benefits to some categories of refugees, quite selectively.

The government’s breakdown of what they restored and what they didn’t is a bit wonky, so I made up my own. For starters, mine actually indicates the three main categories of refugees. The government, insisting on preferential treatment to the bitter end, begins their breakdown with the two categories of resettled refugees, then tucks their least favourite category—the main one, ordinary refugees—further down the list, calling them “non-designated country of origin refugee claimants,” whatever that means.

An attack on our democracy and our values

Last week Canada suffered an attack in our nation’s capital, at our very centre of government. It was an attack on both our democracy and our values as Canadians.

No, I am not talking about the shooting that left one soldier dead. That attack was horrendous and violent, and much has been and should be said about it. Our leaders have expressed resolve not to let that attack change our nation, but the truth is, Canada has already changed.

The day after the shooting, the government resumed sitting, and the Conservatives tabled their latest budget bill. It was yet another omnibus budget. This may hardly seem newsworthy, but it needs to be said again and again: the Conservative’s omnibus budget bills are nothing short of an affront to our democratic system. The Conservatives have made a habit of stuffing their budgets with a vast array of non-budgetary items, ensuring that none get the scrutiny they deserve and require. Debate in the House is limited, and the only examination a budget gets is from a finance committee, which for obvious reasons is inherently ill-equipped to scrutinize unrelated matters.

Prior to the Conservatives taking power, budget bills hovered in the range of 50 to 120 pages. The controversial 2012 omnibus budgets weighed in at 425 and 443 pages—the latter, it was noted, being roughly the length of Crime and Punishment (my partner suggests War and Peace as more apt, given that no one can get through it). This most recent omnibus budget surpasses those two, at 458 pages.

Pity the poor refugee

Buried somewhere in those 458 pages is a change to how Canada treats its refugees—to once again make things more difficult for them. There is currently a safeguard in place to allow refugee claimants to access social assistance, in that provinces (who administer social assistance) are not allowed to impose a minimum residency requirement for eligibility. The omnibus budget bill will remove this safeguard, opening the door for provinces to deny refugee claimants much-needed financial assistance during the months or years that it takes to have a claim accepted.

For refugees who come here with few, if any, resources, social assistance is one way of ensuring that they integrate into society and do not remain marginalized. It is a humanitarian and compassionate measure that we as a nation put in place deliberately. Why did we do this? Because we believed in not just equality of opportunity but the value and dignity of every person and the right to a decent, prosperous life. We believed that it was important to help our neighbours, no matter their place of origin, and to build inclusive, supportive communities.

These are Canadian values, or at least they should be.

After Wednesday’s shooting, Prime Minister Harper addressed the nation, saying that attacks “on our institutions of governance are by their very nature attacks on our country, on our values, on our society, on us Canadians as a free and democratic people who embrace human dignity for all.”

He was not talking about what I wish he was talking about.

What’s wrong with being radicalized?

At times of violence and fear, we search for words to describe what has happened and why it has happened, and what kind of person could be responsible; words to describe victims and perpetrators and motives. The more this discussion becomes politicized, however, the more meaningless and empty these words become; the more open to manipulation and the more useful for justifying actions and overreactions. The word “terrorism” comes to mind, a word that journalist Glenn Greenwald has pointed out is “utterly devoid of objective or consistent meaning.”

Much has been said lately about “homegrown terrorists,” as well as “radicalized” youth, and it is the latter word to which I am taking issue. Both government and media have taken to talking about “radicalization” in discussions about violent extremism. This, however, is a misappropriation of the word, something I find troubling as both someone who works with language and who is political active.

If asked, I’d be comfortable identifying as a radical myself, and would be happy to talk about my own process of radicalization. Many of my friends have also been radicalized. I’m not talking about religious extremism, however. Being a radical is, in fact, a proud political tradition, and a proud democratic tradition. I admire past and current activists, trade unionists, feminists, abolitionists, and the like, who were and are, themselves, radicals.

The word “radical” suggests deep convictions toward political change. It suggests political dissent, and a critical resistance to and suspicion of political traditions and conventions. Radicals believe in the necessity of a fundamental shift in how we view our societies and each other, so that we may live in healthier, more egalitarian communities.

Misappropriating the word “radical” is a means of doing the exact opposite: of not just promoting and prioritizing the status quo, but actively suppressing political dissent. By corrupting and demeaning the word “radical,” we are corrupting and demeaning a proud tradition of progressive—and yes, radical—political change.