On July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong became the first human to step on the moon. He and Aldrin walked around for three hours. . . . They picked up bits of moon dirt and rocks. NASA, The First Person on the Moon
A friend recently asked me about the process of writing poetry for me.
I had not thought about it until then. In an instant, it struck me that I am not a disciplined poet. I do not write poems at some fixed hour during the day. I have no motivation to construct an anthology of my poems, even though I may have written a few hundred of them in the last fifty years.
It is a whole other thing with my fiction-writing exercises, where I actually try to sit down and concoct a story . . . and evidently there is a structure to this process. I have a story skeleton that I work on continuously. I mean, I find a kernel of an idea that I want to pursue and I build around it. Then I take a quasi-disciplined approach to it. I build the story chapter by chapter, shuffle episodes around and start working on the chapters themselves. Then there is research, checking the authenticity of use, the historical and geographical appropriateness, the scientific truth as well as the science-fictional, and the possibilities of fantasy. And the character development, which is so important for reviewers and other doxies (ok, maybe I should have used paramours!) of the publishing trade. And of course, once the process has started, my own editing commences almost simultaneously.
But how do I write poems? Do I sit down, do I stand up? Am I lying down? I think it begins with some indignation, a sense of remorse, a feeling of hurt or an absolute pleasure or sense of happiness that I feel I must expatiate on. I am probably walking when it happens. I probably have headphones on when it hits me. And that kernel of an idea sits in me. Indolent. I do not touch it . . . but I do write it down in a draft file, on my phone or somewhere else. Then I eventually get back to it at some point and look at it, and still nothing registers . . . until eventually, someday, I hear a SOUND. And a rhythm that associates with the note I wrote. I hear in my head a resonance . . . a beat . . . and the words start to happen.
Boom-boom-shock, Boom-boom-shock, A boom-a-boom-a-shock –
The man walks by
by the window framed,
a dirty window, finger stained,
he is headed he say,
headed for the top, the mountain top,
Boom-Boom Shock and the wind blast hit,
he’s seen his past,
a shadow turn, like a follow spot,
the clouds stop,
he whip around and what’s he see?
A child that’s him, following he,
And so on.
Ok, I just did this as an exercise right here – and it needs to be edited, don’t you think? No, it does not, because it is not an essay. It is not something I want to sell. It came out of me and it stays. Because I am not telling a story (but I could). I have a brush and some paint – like Pollock, I hear a thump in my head and the brush goes to work – because it is a poem that got triggered by a phrase and a beat in my head.
That is what comes out. Just like that – the signal for the line in the hidden file has found a beat to follow. A beat mother. The rhythm has started, it matches the beat, and that is a beginning. That is the beginning! It is the mother at the top of the mountain who starts to melt, and that is the process! And if that is a school, so be it. It could be Frank O’Hara or Amiri Baraka. It is the school where social context combines with music, dance, rhythm and beat. It is a school that sees poetry as written for a purpose and that purpose is triggered by the context – not by “person-ism,” not because it is academically taught and digested, not because it must follow rules.
It goes on like that and then it starts varying. I adjust my non-existent headphones and I add castanets, maracas, timbales, and I try to change the beat . . . in my head. If it does not work, I switch back and I slow it down and make it twist, turn. But it is the thump, the bassline that I hear the most. It is the sound, the beat in my head that finally takes over – because in it is a tempo that I must follow, otherwise the words fall off the cliff. Lose their meaning.
I am not a rapper, nor do I absorb hip-hop any longer . . . not as I did before, as when I first encountered Gil Scott-Heron or Run DMC. I like to listen and I like to imbibe. But I do have a lineage. It is not in the poetry of words, which is full of metaphors, of aphorisms or aphrodisiacs that vibrate my endorphins and ease my pain. You see the rhythm that comes from within?
But what I do have is a sense of injustice, a sense of ruling-class bull-shit that is peddled in the most liberal democratic namby-pamby manner (yup! I am aware that word may soon get proscribed) . . . and I do have a long-standing sense of theatre as it has evolved . . . and when I write that down, I wait with patience to hear that beat in my head. And when that beat comes out, I could be hearing the first bar of The Bengal Citizens United Collective’s mind-shaping and shifting song “Nijeder Motey Nijeder Gaan” . . . I could be hearing Carlos Santana starting up “Soul Sacrifice,” fifty years back or for that matter the first bar of “Jail House Rock” or the yelping of the Stones in “Sympathy for the Devil.” It does not matter . . . but the idea, the beat, the percussion, cuts me to the bone, as Baldwin said, and the words start to cascade.
So I tell my friend who asked that question: Wait for the beat in your head, and all will follow.
Was all that money I made las’ year
(for Whitey on the moon?)
How come there ain’t no money here?
(Hm! Whitey’s on the moon)
Y’know I jus’ ’bout had my fill
(of Whitey on the moon)
I think I’ll sen’ these doctor bills,
(to Whitey on the moon)
Gil Scott-Heron, pre-eminent spoken word performance artist
Introductory note: The term “conflict” play is occasionally used as a form of shorthand to describe the nature of the plays depicting the Israeli occupation of Palestine. The Palestinian community at large rejects the description of their reality as a “conflict.” This is because the term suggests that the Israeli occupation is merely a matter of “dispute,” as opposed to an active system of oppression against Palestinians. The term “conflict” also negates the fact that Palestinians have no state nor military to formally engage in war, either with Israel or with another country. “Conflict” is put in quotation marks to reflect the power imbalance that has led to Palestinian dispossession and statelessness.
Palestine/Israel “conflict” plays
While the Palestinian/Israeli “conflict” has not historically been a popular dramatic focus in the West, today’s North American theatre audiences have access to an increasingly wide array of plays on the subject. From My Name is Rachel Corrie, which has had productions mounted around the world since 2005, to the Tony award-winning Oslo by J. T. Rogers that premiered in 2016, and Montréal’s own Birthmark by Stephen Orlov that hit the stage in 2018, a number of Western artists have been drawn to create theatrical productions centred on this Middle Eastern hotspot.
And what’s not to love? For theatrical and artistic purposes, everything is there to entertain and engage a Western audience. This is a longstanding issue with two distinct sides, high passions and seeming mutual disdain, resulting often in tragedy and death. For the purposes of storytelling, the drama might as well be the Middle Eastern equivalent of the Montagues and Capulets in Verona. And all too often, the ongoing situation between Palestinians and Israelis is given almost the same casual treatment as those feuding families made famous by Shakespeare.
As a Palestinian-Canadian, I exist in a broader North American cultural context in which film and television often portray Palestinian people as “terrorists” and “backward.” At best, the Palestine/Israel “conflict” is tapped as a source for punchlines, particularly in American adult-oriented television comedies. Consider the nonchalant jokes and references to “Jews and Arabs” fighting, in shows like American Dad (Season 2, Episode 6) and Big Mouth (Season 3, Episode 4), or the stereotyped feuding in Netflix’s Sausage Party, where a bagel and a piece of pita bread fight over space on the same store shelf.
Of course, film and television are extremely different from theatre as artistic mediums, but they play an important role in shaping public interest and worldviews, as does theatre. Put succinctly, most people in North America have been inculcated with views depicting Palestine/Israel in reductionist and monolithic terms. In relation to theatre, this means that many audience members already arrive with a preconceived mindset about the situation in Palestine/Israel: Arabs are Arabs, Jews are Jews. The two hate each other.
These reductive assumptions permeate audiences, even if people might readily acknowledge that there is much more complexity and history behind the matter, and far more diversity within each group. The power of a simplistic and dualistic understanding of Palestinians and Jewish folk is all too familiar. If the two peoples are seen as opposite sides of the same coin, or interconnected like the sun and the moon, it becomes easy to claim that their troubles are of their own making. (In the Shakespearean version, the Montagues and Capulets kept their mutual hatred going for its own sake.) For Palestinians in particular, who collectively lack a state and cultural capital, and whose history is not well known in the West, this situation also exacerbates a reality in which their voices and stories are invisible.
Understanding this Montague-Capulet trend makes the number of recent critically acclaimed theatrical productions about Palestine/Israel so fascinating to examine. I believe that critical acclaim for a number of productions is partially due to the fact that, like Romeo and Juliet, many of these plays never break through the dichotomy of two warring homogeneous groups. For example, Oslo, a play about the Oslo peace process of the early 1990s, establishes the assumption of unresolvable division between the two groups right at the outset, in the show’s introduction. They are cast as being completely irrational opposites, thanks to the casual remarks made by Norwegian diplomats claiming that they alone can bring the “conflict” to an end:
HOLST: What, make peace in the Middle East?
LARSEN: Why not?
MARIANNE: Because it’s the Middle East, Terje. They don’t do peace.
LARSEN: Ah, but my friends, look at what is happening in the world. The grip of history is loosening. The Berlin Wall has just fallen; the Soviet Empire, disbanded. My God, if Leningrad can revert to St. Petersburg, anything is possible.
MARIANNE: Terje, if the Americans can’t force the Israelis and Palestinians to make a deal, what chance has Johan Jorgen?
LARSEN: But we have what the US can never have: the appearance of neutrality.
But beyond this, the topic of Palestine/Israel itself seems to be treated as something edgy and artistic. Over and above the Capulet/Montague rudimentary assumption, Western audiences are primed to immediately see controversy in anything related to Israel/Palestine. In some situations, this creates a sense of intrigue. Oslo was highly acclaimed in New York City. However, in other instances the spectre of censorship hangs heavy, particularly when pro-Israel interests are threatened.
A 2006 production of My Name Is Rachel Corrie was put on hold indefinitely and then ultimately denounced by the New York Theatre Workshop. The writings of the American university student who was killed by an Israeli bulldozer while trying to prevent the demolition of a Palestinian home in Gaza in 2003 were purportedly deemed too political and insensitive for the public. Sadly, the plays that seem to spark some of the most intelligent and thoughtful conversation on the Palestine/Israel situation are met with avoidance.
Ultimately, when it comes to staging Palestine/Israel, the Capulet/Montague reductionist model of two unmovable sides is harmful because it serves to foster stereotypes about Jewish folk and Palestinians, negatively impacting both communities. Moreover, labeling the entire topic “controversial” is also damaging, as it discourages substantial discussion about Palestine/Israel and undermines the legitimacy of such debate. The impact is particularly detrimental to Palestinians. It has to be acknowledged that failure to transcend reductionism or controversy in staging Palestine/Israel in the West leaves the history of Palestinians and their stories largely untold, and facilitates anti-Palestinian violence and racism.
Orientalism and the invisibility of the Palestinian people in the arts
Palestinians, as a stateless people with a dispersed refugee population, are a significantly marginalized group in the global context today. Their unique experience, complex identities, reality, and culture are either denied in the public narrative or are conflated into a larger Arab/Muslim one in reductionist accounts. The Palestinian-American literary critic, Edward Said, called the tendency of Westerners to present Palestinian and Arab culture as backward and barbaric “Orientalism.” But there is more than just racist Orientalism at play when Palestinians are unseen. It is a remarkable dismissal of Palestinians as a people that have stories to tell about their oppression and dispersal, and a history before this occupation and violence became normalized. When plays rely on reductionist accounts or are deemed too controversial, Palestinians as real people disappear, because their narratives are invisible.
This invisibility is often quite literal, as Palestinian characters are lacking in many popular productions of Palestine/Israel. It is ironic that in plays widely considered to be sensitive to the Palestinian experience, such as Reading Hebron,My Name is Rachel Corrie, Wall, and Seven Jewish Children, Palestinians are treated in abstract terms. Never is there a physical representation of a Palestinian on stage in any of these shows. Instead, Palestinians are discussed as a theoretical people, or worse, a theoretical “other.” The only acknowledgement of Palestinian existence is through the eyes of Jewish or white characters and their reflections on how the “conflict” affects them personally.
In this context, Canadian playwright Stephen Orlov goes a notable distance in his play Birthmark, which premiered in Montréal in Fall 2018. Birthmark tells the story of a university-age Jewish Montréaler named Nelson and his Palestinian female counterpart, Karima. As Nelson determines to move to an Israeli settlement in the West Bank, his father reveals that this may not be possible as his real birth mother may in fact be Karima’s mother, a Palestinian. When the play was produced by Teesri Duniya Theatre, it sent a powerful artistic message by Palestinian actors, and sparked a wider conversation. Palestinians in this show are physically present to engage in the dialogue it seeks to foster.
While plays like Birthmark lead the way to important dialogue and conversations, they also reflect a pattern: when Palestinian narratives are told, they are often situated next to non-Palestinian, Jewish narratives. The presence of Jewish narratives is not problematic in and of itself. After all, Jewish voices are as diverse and complex as Palestinian voices. An issue arises, however, when Western audiences typically engage with Palestinian narratives only on the condition that such narratives be juxtaposed with Jewish ones. Why would Shakespeare ever write a monologue about the Capulet family history, when all you need to know is how they relate to the Montagues?
Birthmark is an important marker to begin centring another question: how are Palestinian voices positioned in the arts, and specifically in theatre?
Absence of Palestinian voices in theatre
As a McGill intern at Teesri Duniya Theatre in the summer of 2018, I extensively researched plays dealing with Palestine/Israel, and searched for Palestinian narratives and playwrights in North American and other English-language theatre. Taking advantage of the McGill University Library, Bibliothèques Montréal, the scripts and articles available to me at the Teesri Duniya Theatre Office, and Google, I searched for any theatrical scripts in English involving Palestine and Palestinians since 1948, the date Israel was established. The difficulties in doing such research and claiming a reasonable degree of accuracy need to be acknowledged here. Many stagings and renditions of plays and theatre remain unaccounted for because the scripts are unpublished or the stagings are too small to attract ample media exposure.
Nonetheless, a striking pattern emerged from this research. The majority of popular productions on Palestine/Israel (such as the ones I have discussed in this article) are not written by Palestinians but by artists of Jewish and/or white European origin. To boot, most have plots that focus primarily (and sometimes almost entirely) on characters of Jewish and/or white European origin. This holds true regardless of whether the show takes a view that is sensitive to Israel or Palestine. Indeed, My Name is Rachel Corrie, Via Dolorosa, and Reading Hebron are all examples of plays that heavily filter Palestinian struggles through non-Palestinian characters.
In my view, My Name is Rachel Corrie is the most notable of such productions because of its effort to depict the violence happening on the ground. Staged in theatres across Canada (in Edmonton, Winnipeg, Toronto and Montréal), this play is one of the most widely performed Canadian productions on Palestine/Israel. It recounts the real-life diary entries of a white American activist (Rachel Corrie) who was run over by an Israel Defense Force bulldozer while protesting against the destruction of Palestinian homes in the West Bank. Although the play has sparked necessary criticism of Israel’s occupation and shed light on the tragic death of Rachel Corrie, Palestinians are excluded from the stage and their voices are left unheard.
What is most concerning is that, as a result of a lack of Palestinian representation in both Israeli-sympathetic and Palestinian-sympathetic performances, it is tacitly implied that the average theatre-goer can comprehend “both sides” without actually engaging with Palestinian-told stories.
This is not to say that there are not a handful of examples of Palestinian-written and performed dramas. Palestinian artists do exist and have shared their craft. In the Canadian context, notable examples include Dima Alansari, who co-wrote Return Home, and Rimah Jabr, who co-wrote Two Birds, One Stone, both productions having been first staged in Toronto, starring their respective playwrights. Other momentous Palestinian theatre productions in the English-language include I am Yusufand This is my Brother, written by Amir Nazir Zuabi, first performed in London, UK, which received positive reviews from The Guardian, and the remarkable Tales of a City by the Sea by Samah Sabawi, which has won a number of awards and has been performed globally, in the West Bank, Malaysia, Australia and Canada.
However, Palestinian-created works, even those with relative success, continue to be relegated to the periphery of Western theatre. Many Palestinian-written plays have short-lived productions and tend to be housed in smaller theatre companies with established mandates that welcome Palestinian narratives. And, within the popular culture of theatre, large-scale productions that maintain Western popular conceptions of Palestine/Israel, like Oslo, dominate as the hegemonic voice of Israeli-Palestinian reality and a future “peace.”
Constraints placed on Palestinian artists
There are a number of major constraints that must be taken into consideration when looking at Palestinian artists generally, and more specifically in the West.
The first is the significance of the Nakba (“the disaster”) of 1948, an Arabic term used to refer to the mass forced removal of nearly a million Palestinians from their ancestral lands and homes. This has defined Palestinian reality in relation to dispossession, and has brought with it a widespread Palestinian diaspora. Storytelling is integral to Arab culture, and Western-style theatre dates as far back as the 1850s in Palestine. It was clearly thriving up until 1948 with the theatre movement supported by the Union of Palestinian Artists and the Union of Theatre Troops. Renewed growth of theatrical movements within Palestinian culture has been disrupted by the Nakba and dispossession.
Part of this relates to the constraints placed on Palestinians living in Israel or under Israeli occupation in the West Bank and Gaza since 1967. The thing about the Western theatre model is that it requires, well, a theatre (or at least some sort of venue or stage), and an audience that is physically able to congregate in one spot. An art form like theatre depends on people being able to gather together for both practices and performances, and comes with spatial requirements. The Israeli occupation imposes restrictions on mobility, access to space, and free expression, which limit Palestinian cultural and artistic freedom. With a heavy Israel Defence Force presence pervading the West Bank and surrounding Gaza, it becomes difficult for Palestinians to congregate in any capacity… and these restrictions pose challenges to artists who may find that the nearest artistic venue involves crossing numerous checkpoint barriers.
Post-Nakba (post-1948), the Palestinian community has been fragmented and dispersed, with at least 5.5 million Palestinians becoming refugees. All this has had profound consequences for the arts. As a diaspora of refugees, the global Palestinian community lacks the financial foundations needed to generate extensive artistic projects in its respective local communities. This is a problem across the board. Palestinians also face unique challenges that can deter artistic endeavours, depending on the context and the country in which they reside, especially since most Palestinian refugees are without citizenship. In Lebanon, for example, where there are roughly half a million registered Palestinian refugees, restrictions have been placed on Palestinians, limiting them from owning property and working.
Despite these challenges, there are still some Palestinian theatre groups that have emerged, like the El-Hakr Theatre and the Freedom Theatre. These groups focus on Palestinian cultural and protest productions. There are also smaller Palestinian theatre troupes that tend to partner with Israeli artists and companies. A number of these productions have found a degree of success. For example, the Freedom Theatre has performed globally across the Mediterranean and Europe.
In the North American context, and others, there is another daunting obstacle blocking Palestinian theatre: censorship. As suggested by the 2006 response to My Name is Rachel Corrie by the New York Theatre Workshop, the possibility of censorship – even self-censorship – is very real in Palestine/Israel productions, in large part due to the notion of controversy attached to them. Both censorship and self-censorship are damaging, adding to the countless renunciations of Palestinian art. In 2006, Brandeis University pulled an exhibit of the art of Palestinian teenagers depicting their experiences with anti-Palestinian violence. Even the sale of a children’s book, P is for Palestine, at a New York bookstore was threatened with a potential ban in 2018 for featuring the Arabic word intifada (“uprising”) in its examples of words associated with English letters.
Palestinian art faces censorship for being “political” even if it attempts to be an “apolitical” celebration of Palestinian culture and heritage. The mere idea of a Palestinian person has been rendered political. Jewish and Israeli art also encounters censorship, notably when Jewish/Israeli artists take a stance that is sensitive to Palestinian concerns. However, the ways in which Palestinians are censored at the core of their existence make Palestinian artistic expression both an individual and collective struggle for Palestinian artists. As such, censorship is a form of modern cultural erasure for Palestinians.
Finally, there is also an active physical threat that Palestinian artists face globally. Palestinians are acutely aware that speaking out and becoming visible makes them a target – not only of political slander against their work, but even more crucially, of potentially violent physical attacks. In 1987, Naji al-Ali, widely considered to be one of the best Palestinian political cartoonists, was shot and killed while standing outside the London headquarters of the Kuwaiti newspaper, Al Qabas. Juliano Mer-Khamis, a mixed Ashkenazi Jewish and Palestinian artist and founder of the Freedom Theatre, was assassinated in the Palestinian city of Jenin in 2011, and his killer has yet to be identified. These events are extreme, but they are not unheard of. Nor are they isolated cases. Even in the North American diaspora, Palestinian artists are aware not only of the prejudices against them, but of the forces placing their personal safety in jeopardy. Despite this, Palestinian artists, much like many other members of the Palestinian community, engage in active resistance, expression and protest through their art.
There is so much to unpack and learn about Palestinian voices in theatre and the scarcity of such voices. There are clear systemic limitations that prevent Palestinian narratives from coming to the fore on the topic of Israel/Palestine in North America. Theatre, too, has been complicit in the marginalization of Palestinian voices, despite providing needed insight and fostering debate in some cases. Right now, my hope is that more people will begin to see the same patterns I do as a Palestinian-Canadian artist, and that this article might be a first step in overturning the near invisibility of Palestinians in theatre.
 See Jack G. Shaheen, Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People (New York: Olive Branch Press, 2001).
 Edward W. Said, Orientalism (New York: Pantheon Books, 1979).
 Written by Jesse Sherman, Reading Hebron follows a young Jewish man as he investigates the Hebron Massacre.
 Written by David Hare, Wall is a monologue play that deals with the topic of the Israeli Security “Wall” around the Palestinian Occupied Territories.
 Written by Caryl Churchill, Seven Jewish Children is a short play written in response to the 2008-2009 Israeli military strikes on Gaza.
 Written by David Hare, Via Dolorosa confronts the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through Hare’s recollections of his 1997 journey through the two nations.
 Chris Jones, “With ‘Oslo,’ TimeLine Theatre Reaches for a Moment the World Changed,” Chicago Tribune (September 9, 2019).
 Nathalie Handal, “Introduction,” in Naomi Wallace and Ismail Khaladi (eds.), Inside/Outside: Six Plays from Palestine and the Diaspora (New York: Theatre Communications Group, 2015): 10-11.
 Hazem Balousha and Oliver Holmes, “‘Our Memories have Vanished’: the Palestinian Theatre Destroyed in a Bomb Strike.” The Guardian (August 22, 2018).
 Associated Press, “Lebanon: Seize Opportunity to End Discrimination Against Palestinians,” Human Rights Watch (June 18 2010)
 Golbarg Bashi, P is for Palestine: A Palestine Alphabet Book (New York, 2017)
 Mark Levine. “A Year after Juliano Mer-Khamis’ Murder, It’s Time to Board the Freedom Bus,” Al Jazeera (April 4, 2012).
[Editorial note: The Serai team approached Rahul Banerjee in India for an understanding of what has transpired at Bhima Koregaon recently and to provide some perspective of British colonial rule on the west coast of India. Most readers are perhaps unaware of this town in western India and its two-century long history, especially in relation to Adivasis (Indigenous Peoples)* and the Dalit (“untouchables”) movement against the caste system. However, Bhima Koregaon today has evolved into many other things. It has become a lightning rod for discussions in India on civil liberties, the confluence of the rights of Dalits and Indigenous Peoples and the use of preventative detention to control the civil liberties of journalists, writers, poets and others who are opposed to the policies of the present government in India, run by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
Rahul was able to collect and translate short pieces in Hindi from Shankar Tadwal and Subhadra Khaperde and round them off with comments to create a whole piece in English.
* NOTE: The term Adivasis means original inhabitants or those who were there from the very beginning. There are certain nuances involved in the use of this terminology and in understanding the Dalit-Savarnas angle, which requires further consideration. The article goes a long way in explaining these nuances.]
The Battle of Bhima Koregaon and the Dalit Mahars
The Battle of Bhima Koregaon was the last battle of the Third Anglo-Maratha war on January 1, 1818. The Peshwa of Pune who was on the run with his forces, hotly chased by the British, decided to attack Pune to try and ward off the inevitable defeat. When the advance Peshwa forces neared Pune and were to cross the river Bhima (which had almost run dry at Koregaon village), they met a reinforcement contingent called in by the British to meet the threat of the Peshwa. A battle ensued that was inconclusive because the Peshwa’s troops withdrew after learning of the approach of even greater British reinforcements. About 250 of the Peshwa’s troops were killed, and 50 of the British. Eventually the Peshwa’s forces were subdued and British rule was established in Western and Central India, where the Marathas had ruled earlier.
This battle, although inconsequential at the time, assumed importance later for an entirely different reason. The British erected an obelisk in Koregaon as a memorial for their soldiers who died in the battle. Their names included 22 who were from the Dalit Mahar caste, which was considered untouchable and lowest on the caste hierarchy by the upper-caste Hindus known as the Savarnas. The British used to employ Dalits as soldiers in their armies across India, as part of their policy of subduing the Savarnas. This policy changed after the revolt of 1857 (often referred to as the First Indian War of Independence), as the British thereafter decided to rely on the traditional martial castes considered more reliable.
The Dalit Mahars were obviously opposed to this change, and petitioned the British to renew their recruitment, but to no avail. Then in 1927, a Mahar leader named Ambedkar visited the Koregaon monument and held a big mass meeting, commemorating the Dalit Mahars who had died in the battle as the first martyrs of the battle against the Savarnas. Drawing on the sordid history of the oppression of the Mahars by the Peshwa’s troops, a narrative was created that the battle – instead of being one between the British and the Peshwa – was an assertion of the Dalit Mahars against the Savaranas. Since that time, the Mahars and subsequently all of the Dalits have celebrated January 1st at Bhima Koregaon as a commemoration of the first rising of the Dalits against the Savarnas.
Tribal revolts against the British
While the Dalits, as outcastes of the Hindu social system, saw it to be beneficial to their cause to serve the British as their foot soldiers, the tribespeople who were outside the Hindu social system fought fiercely against the British. From the late eighteenth century in the early years of the British rule, up to the time of independence in 1947, the tribespeople in India rose up in revolt time and time again. In fact, the Bhil people of Khandesh and Nimar in central India fought a dour battle that far outlasted the revolt of 1857 and was only quelled in 1860.
Known as the Great Bhil Rebellion, this seriously jeopardized the north to south route from Agra to Mumbai, which passed through the Bhil homeland. The exploits of Birsa, who led the Munda tribe in revolt, and Sidhu Kanu, who led the Santhal tribe in the nineteenth century, are also legendary. The other large tribe in central India, the Gonds, continually troubled the British through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, up to the 1930s when the Gudem Rampa rebellion took place in Andhra Pradesh. Tribespeople in the northeast remained restive as well throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, with the Kuki rebellion from 1917 to 1919 viewed as the most serious military challenge to the British since 1857. The main cause of this tremendous opposition among the tribespeople was the encroachment of their forested habitats by the British for the purpose of generating revenue from them in various ways.
The Indian Forest Act and how colonization got legalized
A very harmful law was the Indian Forest Act in 1864. Applying the principle of res nullius, which means that a particular property has no owner if there is no documentary evidence of ownership, the British refused to recognize the customary community rights of the tribespeople over the forests in which they resided, and turned these lands over to the Forest Department created for this purpose. Yet another law that disinherited the Adivasis from their main resource of land was the Land Acquisition Act in 1894. Using the principle of eminent domain, this law empowered the government to dispossess any given private owner of a piece of land for some public purpose, in exchange for a paltry compensation.
Once the British overcame the resistance of the tribespeople, they unleashed the non-tribespeople of Hindu society as traders and farmers into the tribal areas to facilitate their exploitation. The Hindus treated the tribespeople like they treated the Dalits – with disdain and oppression. In many tribal areas in present day Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Gujarat and Rajasthan, this invasion by non-tribals led to a demographic change, and the tribespeople became minorities in those areas in which they had once been rulers. This combined with loss of their traditional nature-dependent livelihoods adversely affected the lives of the tribespeople. Their traditional nature-centric culture, too, was devastated.
Independence from British rule did not really improve matters for either the Dalits or the tribespeople as a whole. The new constitution did provide for affirmative action in the form of “reservations” in proportion to their population for the Dalits and tribespeople in law-making bodies and government institutions. This provided some access to power and opportunities to a small number of members from these communities. However, the Constituent Assembly that finalized the new constitution was not elected by universal adult suffrage, but was the same as the one formed by the British in 1946 with members from among the elite feudal, capitalist and professional classes, mostly owing allegiance to the former. Ninety-two percent of the members of the Constituent Assemblies were from the Savarna castes.
Thus, they authored a constitution that retained the colonial and anti-people character of the 1935 Government of India Act formulated by the British, greatly discounting the new liberal democratic features such as the provision of fundamental rights and the affirmative sections for the Dalits and tribes. Approximately 250 articles out of 395 in the constitution were taken either verbatim or with minor changes in phraseology from the 1935 Government of India Act, and the basic principles remained unchanged
The independent Indian government in fact continued the policy of the British of promising liberal natural justice on paper and suppressing it in practice, to pursue a policy of extraction of resources to fuel modern industrial development. The British, when introducing the first Government of India Act in 1858, had guaranteed to the people of India inter alia that due regard would be paid to the ancient rights, usages and customs of India when framing new laws, and that these laws would be administered equally and impartially for the benefit of the people.
Almost immediately, however, these principles were breached. The Indian Penal Code was enacted in 1860 and the Code of Criminal Procedure in 1861. These laws, with some minor amendments only, are still in force today and have been codified in such a manner as to provide the administration with a handy means of suppressing organized public dissent. The Indian Forest Act, too, in its 1927 version that effectively converts the tribespeople into trespassers in their own backyard, continues to be in force to this day. The Land Acquisition Act was also retained and widely used to displace people in independent India, particularly the tribespeople, in the pursuit of modern industrial development.
The biggest drawback of all was that grassroots democracy through the establishment of local self-governance was negated. Therefore, although the local self-governance system of Panchayati Raj was included in the Directive Principles of State Policy, these principles were non-justiciable. This meant that, unlike fundamental rights, the traditional rights and conventions of self-administration could not be enforced through the courts. Basic rights, such as for free education, health and nutrition services and the means to a dignified livelihood, were also made non-judiciable. Thus, provisions that could have created a healthy, aware and articulate population and provided people with an institutional structure for implementing their development according to their own genius and so curtail the power of the ruling classes were ignored totally by the governments, both at the centre and in the states after independence.
This paved the way for the persistence of a form of internal colonialism and feudalism. Matters were compounded by the fact that fundamental rights were not easily assured either, given the tremendous expenses involved in approaching the high courts and the Supreme Court for redress. While the erstwhile princes, landlords and the capitalists often went to court to obstruct the path of justice for the poor, the latter, especially the Dalits and tribespeople, could hardly afford to do so and thus had to bear with the illegal actions of the ruling classes enacted directly or through the organs of the state.
This in effect meant that the checks and balances forming a basic part of a liberal democratic set-up were disturbed in favour of the executive, consisting of the council of ministers and the bureaucracy. The party system ensured that the council of ministers and its leader, the prime minister, would always be much more powerful than their fellow legislators. Moreover, the “first past the post” electoral system ensured that the Indian National Congress, despite garnering only around 40 percent of the votes cast, got more than 75 percent of the seats in the law-making bodies.
In the initial years after independence, this overwhelming majority of the Congress party and the charisma of its leader, Nehru, meant that the opposition was not very vocal or effective in monitoring the actions of the government. Parliament was reduced to being as ineffectual as a debating society. Moreover, preventive detention laws were enacted to silence the protests of people’s organizations and their leaders outside parliament, and thousands of such people were jailed. To make matters worse, the press was not so combative or investigative and did not have much of a reach, given the high level of illiteracy.
Thus the government and the bureaucracy rode roughshod over democratic niceties to push through a process of modernization at the cost of the ordinary people, by using colonial repressive laws and by flouting the progressive aspects of the constitution. The bureaucracy, which continued in its colonial mindset, was a power unto itself, as it not only framed all the laws but also interpreted and administered them to the detriment of an illiterate and unaware populace. The Dalits and tribespeople, situated as they were at the bottom of Indian society, suffered the most from this oppressive and repressive dispensation.
Why did this happen?
It was because of Brahminism. This has been defined by the Dalits as the ideology of caste oppression codified by the Hindu Brahmin law-giver, Manu. It has been foisted by the minority 7% elite of Savarna castes on the rest of the toiling castes who identify themselves as Bahujans, including the so-called “other backward classes” (OBCs), Dalits, and tribespeople, who together constitute 75 percent of the population. The Muslims constitute 16 percent of the population, and the followers of other religions comprise the remaining 2 percent; they too, except for a few elites among them, suffer from the adverse effects of Brahminism, which has been internalized by them.
Consequently, the history of India since independence has been one of constant mass mobilization by the Bahujans against Brahminism and oppression by the Savarnas.
The acceptance by the Government of the Mandal Commission Report in 1990 brought about a major new counterthrust from the Savarnas, now solidified in a rule by an openly Brahminical party. The so-called “Socially and Educationally Backward Classes Commission” headed by B P Mandal was constituted by the Government to consider whether affirmative reservations could be extended to OBCs. It had recommended in its report published in 1980 that, in addition to the Dalits and tribespeople, the “other backward classes” should also be provided reservations in government jobs and educational institutions. The government of the then Prime Minister V P Singh implemented the Mandal Commission Report, immediately arousing a huge mass backlash from the Savarnas, who resorted to arson and violence on the streets.
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) seized this opportunity to begin its mass mobilization for the construction of the Ram Temple (at the site of the Babri Masjid mosque in Ayodhya) as a stepping stone to the establishment of a majoritarian Hindu state, which has for long been the aim of its ideological parent, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). A long march across the country was launched by the BJP under the leadership of its leader L K Advani, which ultimately led to the demolition of the Babri Masjid on December 6, 1992, by a mob assembled by the BJP. The BJP has bolstered its strength since then by uniting a section of the OBCs and Dalits with the Savarnas and co-opting the former into the Brahminical project of creating a Hindu majoritarian state. As was the case with the Congress earlier, the national and international capitalist class and the media are solidly behind the BJP.
Right from the time of independence, there has been considerable discontent and unrest among the popular masses, especially the Dalits and tribespeople, protesting their oppression and the devastation of their livelihoods. From the late 1960s, in tandem with protests elsewhere in the world, student unrest also added to these protests, which became more widespread. Most of this discontent has been expressed through mass protests on the streets and through the formation of political parties by oppressed sections of the population, to try and get power through the ballot. However, there have also been armed insurrectionary movements to either overthrow the capitalist state or secede from it. The former armed movements are in the tribal heartland in Central India; the latter are in the tribal areas of the northeast, which of course date from the time of independence itself. There is also the armed movement of the Kashmiris for independence.
To counter these armed movements, the Indian state has at times enacted draconian laws that violate the principles of human rights and civil liberties. The legitimacy for these draconian laws is derived from resolutions passed from time to time by the United Nations Security Council, for the suppression of terrorism. Currently, the most draconian one frequently used is the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, which was initially enacted in 1967 but has been amended since – in 2004, 2008, 2013 and most recently 2019 – making it one of the most violative of the United Nations Universal Charter of Human Rights.
Back to Bhima Koregaon
The bicentenary of the Bhima Koregaon battle fell on January 1, 2018. Dalits from all over the country congregated in huge numbers, and some two hundred thousand people attended the commemoration ceremony at Bhima Koregaon. When returning from the event, the Dalits were set upon with stones by members of two Hindu majoritarian organizations, leading to the death of one Dalit youth and injuries to others. There were massive protests by Dalits after this in various cities of Maharashtra, which was then ruled by a BJP Government.
Afterwards the police began an investigation into this violence, and instead of indicting the Hindu majoritarian organizations and their leaders who had done the stone pelting, they came up with another story altogether. They said that the underground organizations conducting the armed movements against the state in the central Indian region had conspired to cause the violence and claimed that this was part of a larger conspiracy to assassinate the Prime Minister of the country, who was heading the BJP Government at the Centre.
Subsequently, on the basis of emails found by the police, many people have been implicated under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act as supporters of the organization engaged in armed movements in the tribal regions of Central India who were providing them with legal and communication support. The police have clamped them into prison alongside thousands of others, most of whom are tribespeople who have been accused of conducting armed movements from the central Indian and northeastern regions.
Thus, Brahminism, which has been ascendant in India from ancient times, was not only instrumental in the oppression of Dalits and tribespeople in British times – it has continued to rule this country after independence and is now openly dominating it through a Hindu majoritarian party whose goal is to establish a Hindu State. However, the mass organizations of the Dalits and tribespeople across the country are fighting this diabolical plan of the BJP and the RSS with all their might, and have not been subdued by the use of the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act and other draconian laws designed to crush them.
Savarnas: The Hindu caste system in India evolved from the second millennium before the Christian era. A few Savarnas involved in religious, intellectual, military and trading pursuits began relegating the vast majority of the population, known as Shudras, to do the physical work as farmers and artisans. Some of them were labelled outcastes, relegated to do the menial work of skinning animals and cleaning toilets. The Adivasis were driven out of the plains and continued with their subsistence lives in the forested hilly areas outside the Hindu caste system.
 The main provisions of the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act are as follows:
1. Organizations and Individuals can be notified as unlawful and terrorist and their names put in a schedule, and any persons associated with them are culpable. Even corresponding with them is an offence. If the names of persons are mentioned in the correspondence of these organizations and individuals, then they too become culpable.
Apart from such activities as counterfeiting, bombing, murdering, etc., which are patently terrorist acts, even rioting and “inciting and spreading violence, enmity and religious disharmony” are considered to be unlawful activities.
Anticipatory bail is not available to the accused.
The quality of evidence required to incriminate people is not required to be of a high standard, even though it may not stand scrutiny during trial. Such evidence is considered prima facie to be sufficient to arrest people and deny them bail.
In the past year we have seen hundreds of kangaroos flee bush fires in Australia, half a billion birds and reptiles perish, and many people lose their homes or in some cases, their lives. As well, violence continues to erupt all over our own continent of North America, among humans who have lost their cultural grounding. We are being forced to realize that our lives, our bodies, belong to the earth and its shifting life conditions. We have often presumed to be separate from the web of nature. We are not. We too are wild. Water and flesh, cells and blood, we are of that physical world, that matter which a Western-European mindset has constantly sought to dominate.
Since the Industrial Revolution, we have steadily distanced ourselves and our cultures from the places that have allowed us a shared reverence for our surroundings. In the 1930s, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal structured a valuable and wide-reaching bureaucracy that brought great relief and recovery to US society after the Depression. Canada followed a similar development after World War II, but neither country has known how to limit institutional control. By the end of the 20th century, bureaucracy had become technocracy, with increased government and corporate codification and control of individual lives. A “modern” and urbanizing society leading to more and more people being distanced from the birds, the herds and the forest; distanced too from their own learning and meaning and its resonance with all that lives. With computer technology, this tendency to control has increased, as Philip Cross, a Munk Senior Fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, pointed out in his article in the Financial Post on March 27, 2019:
Condemning people to conform to a life shaped by algorithms and regulations ignores how individuals respond differently to the fundamental question posed by Goethe “On what terms is life worth living?”
“I want to tell what the forests were like”
While coordinating the Taos Conference on Writing and the Natural World for Recursos de Santa Fe in 1991, I had the privilege and joy of meeting the poet W.S. Merwin. Our conversations and his poems reflected the degree to which life is worth living and the earth worth caring for, but he felt there was little reason to be optimistic for the planet. We were already late, too late perhaps, in our awareness.
Today I go back to lines from his poem “Witness” where he ponders telling “what the forests were like.” His disquieting conclusion is that “[he] will have to speak in a forgotten language.” (W.S. Merwin, The Rain in the Trees, 1988)
These words were moving for me then, but are frighteningly real now, echoing the loss of great swaths and depths of land and water, unprecedented extinction of species and the undermining of our own bodies, our own breath, our own communities.
But in spite of the damage to so much habitat, in 2020, in this lifespan where we are still surviving, it is crucial for us, our children and those who follow to restore a relationship with the earth that is worthy of our hope, worthy of their very new lives. Their newness in some ways is their wildness, as is the naturalness of their growth and their responsiveness to the world.
For that vitality to stay alive in them, to keep the presence of human breath and tenderness valued in their societies, they will need to know the beauty of the earth and their belonging to it, to be able to co-habit with the wild animals, breathe the oxygen of forests, wonder at the myriad forms of life among the birds of the air, the insects and planets, the stars and berries. They will need to learn from the diversity of nature’s intricate workings.
Richard Louv’s moving book, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit-Disorder, vividly documents the difficulty of doing this for today’s children. However, the generation whose dilemma Louv spoke of in 2006 has now reached adolescence and includes some of the young people who are speaking out and marching with Greta Thunberg, gathering together to lead the way to change. For the living world to oxygenize their lives spiritually and physically in this new millennium, the need for places, people and stories that nurture and cherish wildness remains. They are hungry for it.
The challenge, though, also remains, deep within a cultural mindset that views nature as indifferent to us, like the avalanche that thunders down upon a few vulnerable mountain-climbers’ bodies. Mind, money and machine are deployed to dominate its force. Mind over matter and now money over matter are the tenets that organize our society’s presumptuousness to push for this impossible ambition.
The communal spirit is alive
Our dominant mindset does not account for or value reciprocity with nature. It ignores collaboration with the life force manifest in the wind as sailors and poets may know it, or in the whitewater as kayakers may know it, and attaches little value to the movement of the deer as traditional First Nations’ hunters know it. The peoples and their traditions, stories and works of art that witness such meanings are often overlooked or dismissed… considered too difficult to quantify or too sentimental or superstitious for a culture that still prefers the often blind drive of exploitation to the rapport (that “sympatico”) with life-engendering forces.
That reciprocity with nature is alive in the acequia tradition* in northern New Mexico, where for 400 years villagers, farmers, and in modern times, city dwellers, have gathered every spring under the helpful eye of the local comisiando (elected water commissioner), to clean las acequias, a network of narrow irrigation ditches that carry the runoff from the mountain snows to thirsty gardens, trees and farms. Community-owned, the acequias nourish not only the soil, food and flowers of the land, but our own kinship with the water and one another as well. It is a moving commons.
Ancient petroglyph sites in the Americas also mark people’s relationship with place: their hunting experiences and rituals, their social structure, their knowledge of water sources, solstices and even supernovas. In the American Southwest, the rock art reflects worldviews 1,000 to 6,000 years old connecting them (and us, thankfully) to the land and to our long and varied human history with one another and our fellow animals. Yet, as a professional guide leading archaeologists and respectful visitors through these sites, I have witnessed “protection” policies in some National Parks – the only natural commons many citizens know – that are maintained by a law enforcement staff more skilled in bureaucratic or military organization than knowledgeable about this history or the variety of life forms they are hired to protect.
Wild life – our life – sprouts and bleeds, breathes and speaks within the physical world. But caught up in our attempts at control, we are deeply afraid and thus inclined to keep extending this fissure in our cultural mindset even to our very own protected spaces. Our efficiency and management succeed all too often in separating us from our limited heritage of the wild.
This land of solitude and solidarity
Growing up in a semi-rural city with ranching relatives not far, I was fortunate to experience how small, settled populations can live together with the gentle and demanding freedoms offered by earth-based values and practices. In spite of the horrors of historical conflict in the American Southwest, these values have held through respect and shared reverence for the mountains and deserts, along with a quiet joy in how we live with their beauty, the climate, the terrain and the wildlife. The well-developed traditional insights of the Native, Hispanic and Anglo peoples in the area are finely attuned to the complexities of the region’s climate and habitats, and remain today carriers of regeneration. New agrarians, young ranchers and farmers collaborate, based on their elders’ knowledge and that of ecologists, to offer us healthy food.
It is a reflection of the general society’s cultural dichotomies and of the debilitating urban-rural divide that this quieter way of life has rarely been visible to those from the more urban East coasts of North America who have often only seen the violence engendered by the harsh conditions and the depictions of cowboy, Indian or animal ruthlessness pictured in films. In reality, as of the 60s, the area had been subject to oil and gas development but in more recent years, fracking has led to more western land being lost to that industry. Then in the 1980s, the adobe architecture of Santa Fe Style became popular, leading to a new influx of real estate developers and the migrant wealthy from Hollywood, Chicago, Boston, New York and particularly Los Angeles. Many of the recent arrivals had never known the tacit bonds of the culture they were coming to, and often set about appropriating its beauty, homes, land and art to enhance their own image, putting this land of solitude and solidarity in the wide-open spaces at risk. The palpable sorrow felt among many is not that there is no last frontier but that the cultural habitat is being lost along with the landscapes threatened or destroyed by real estate and fracking.
The Trump administration has worsened the situation, taking over public lands and First Nations’ sacred sites for the purpose of industrializing the land for uranium mining and the oil and gas industry. The threatened areas include Bears Ear National Monument, where an agreement between the federal government and five First Nations (the Navajo, the Hopi, the Ute Mountain Ute, the Ute of the Uintah and Ouray Reserve, and the Pueblo of Zuni) was developed in exemplary collaboration with Obama’s administration. Having been a main focus of Trump’s destruction of public lands, the protected land of this iconic area has now been reduced by 85%.
“The end of living and the beginning of survival”
What are we to do then, at this time of the end of living and the beginning of survival (Chief Seattle)? How are we and our children to know the earth?
Protect migration corridors and National Parks. Tend gardens. Clean the acequias and the St. Lawrence shore. Wonder and wander in meadows. Learn about the soil and birds, insects and flowers. Respect peat bogs and tidal marshes. Restore natural corridors in cities for children’s play. Embrace the wild within us. Defend the commons we know. Cherish. Speak. Walk. Act. Care for the fragmented landscapes and littered shores. Together.
The places that shelter natural habitats and their species are the same places that shelter the possibility of our experience of the sacred, our deeper intuitive knowledge of what it is and how it is to be alive – alive in these bodies, alive with this earth. These places that we often call “refuge” or “sanctuary.” Sanctuary, as the dictionary says, is a place recognized as holy. Space that not only aids the birds’ survival but our own.
If we allow these shelters to be places where we re-experience and acknowledge, privately and collectively, our life-kindness with the land and animals, we will have found a place where we can be sacred too, where we can breathe with respect for our own wildness as part of a larger breath. We will have found a place to recognize the holy fragility of our own survival.
Is life really worth living if we deprive ourselves of the ground for intimacy with the wild? Sever ourselves from these places where our own intuitions can come to know nature’s rhythms and wildlife on their own terms? If we distance ourselves, as we have, from the people who carry the nuances of thought and mindful tenderness that come from a long practice of attention to the land? Continuing to do so, we risk never meeting the yet unuttered possibilities for understanding and balance that can be the foundation of more extensive, more subtle and bonding knowledge of the planet for our children and the health of our futures.
What are the circumstances that we need to survive, to live again? We need each other and the land that speaks to us of life other than our own. We need the tides and the shores of our planet; we need the forests and the hills, the plains and the rain, the elk, the mountain lion, the jackrabbits, the sea, the snow, the beluga and the bees. Without them, our efforts to renew our world can only limp along, stumble or fail. We are necessary to their survival. They are as necessary to ours.
Scientists prove neuromuscular sympathies between dancers and their audience and animals and their owners, studying as well the health of plants, which flourish when spoken to regularly. Separate from people’s daily lives, we document these experiences in laboratories where spring water is proven to be more beneficial to health than tap water. Much lab work is done to uncover the whys and wherefores of a natural balance. But beyond the laboratory, it is excruciatingly apparent that the earth and those whose lives are led in relationship with it are met with an impenetrable shield of insensitivity and fear.
Rural and Indigenous traditions are deeply rooted
Still, we can trust that many rural and Indigenous traditions are more deeply rooted than we dare believe, as are our own senses. For sentient beings that we are, frequent, direct and respectful experience with the earth’s trees, deserts and waters carries with it a broad complex of subtle and ingenious knowledge, affording as well peaceful hearts, clear insight, and sometimes restored health. The Japanese tradition of forest bathing speaks of this.
In the laboratory, decades at least will be needed to document and indeed substantiate our understanding of this. But time is crucial. Our species’ survival is threatened along with that of others. We must value the intelligence of our senses now, reclaim them, trust them now, revive and nourish them through contact with and understanding of the earth. We must value and collaborate with the store of traditions within the cultures of the Americas that offer articulate ways of knowing that the dominant culture has refused to value.
The Creation Stories of the Pueblo end with the four tribes being sent out upon the earth to sing and dance the Stories to keep the balance according to the dictates of all beings on the earth. Here, the humans are part and parcel of the process with the living earth and are responsible to it. They are entrusted with restoring its imbalances to coherence and beauty. Fortunately, the Corn, Deer and Buffalo Dances, along with other rituals held in the village plazas, still allow the 19 Pueblo communities and their friends who gather there to do so.
In our larger North American society, though, too few people have access to such rituals in a longstanding commons. Having lost our restorative ways, we find ourselves, sometimes complicit, pressured by a society based on power and control, ironically more and more fragile, dependent on money, more and more desperate, while government, corporations and industries exhaust the edges of our own and the earth’s resources. Many of us eye the brink of despair, sensing our own disassociation from the renewable resources of life, knowing unwittingly the disastrous consequences of our collective violation and pillaging of them.
Protecting the commons where it can still be found
Fortunately, in their reporting over the last two years, The Guardian, the CBC, NPR and others have begun to recognize and validate the grief that all people, not only the young, are experiencing in these times of the earth’s upheaval. Such recognition is beneficial as Greta Thunberg continues to give voice to the necessity to act. The September 2019 climate strike allowed many to express their own grief, as did 19-year-old Stacey Petrov from Wagner College. “… we’re grieving our home,” she says. “We don’t see endangered animals and think, oh, that’s so sad, they’re gonna die. We see ourselves as endangered animals because if this doesn’t get fixed in the next five years, we are going to die, or there’s going to be mass chaos.” It is imperative to counter despair by protecting the commons where it can still be found.
Vigilance, though, is called for as both generations try to earn the trust for the future we carry. People flocking to fragmented wilderness areas seeking discovery, transformation, wonder and wisdom must remain wary of a tendency to see “nothing” in the wild. In our hope for refuge and renewal, it is crucial to refrain from the presumptuous attitudes of the greed deep in our past and current history, usurping other traditions and using them to make exorbitantly expensive “spiritual products” that only further the impoverishment of our spirits. This tendency is the great hazard inherent in our society’s materialistic drive. We must shake off our presumption that we know it all because we have managed to package and sell it. Instead, with deliberate restraint, humbly, carefully, we must begin again to value both traditional and scientific ways of knowing, and let the recognition of our holy fragility lead us to reciprocity with the earth.
The personal integrity of our lives as living organisms, as human animals, is inextricably related to the integrity of our action, our intervention, in the world. Like a fractured spine, our culture cannot be expected to hold itself together, let alone sustain the intricacies of human muscle and tissue, if we continue to dichotomize our relationship to ourselves and to the land. If we insist on straining our resources for the purposes of power and domination, our bodies, our children, the animals, the tides and craters of our scoured earth will continue to suffer until we become deliberately attentive to the myriad life forms still alive with us on this continent.
*Note: las acequias was affectionately translated as “the beds for the water” by Estevan Arellano (Embudo, New Mexico), beloved historian, farmer, translator and scholar who died a few years ago. His work is still the main reference for las acequias traditions.
Bob Carty’s Arctic report and how it froze my heart
Scientists do not write in the first person, since their findings seek to reflect processes that unfold beyond the vagaries of human will. When they say that the explanations they pursue are “objective,” one of the things they mean is that their models are as free as possible from the “subject,” with all of her or his subjective preferences, desires and biases. However, the climate crisis we now face has been breaking down these distinctions between object and subject, because we are now beginning to directly and personally experience climate change as never before.
Most of us are already aware of the difference between weather and climate. As NASA puts it:
Weather is what conditions of the atmosphere are over a short period of time, and climate is how the atmosphere “behaves” over relatively long periods of time.
Climate is measured in centuries and millennia, but the weather is what we experience over the period of a day, a season, a life.
Contemporary climatologists and meteorologists must create models to reach backwards to the beginning of the industrial revolution (and much further in the past), so they can extrapolate forward into the next century. That is no easy task. Are we heading to a world that is 1.5-Celsius degrees warmer? Maybe 2 degrees or 3 degrees? No one knows for sure, especially if we are unable to curtail our current destructive practices.
Speaking personally, I am a 77-year-old man who was born in rural England, raised in New York City, and who has spent the last fifty years in Montréal – with a year off in the Netherlands (more about that a little later).
I completely believe the scientific consensus that greenhouse gases and other pollutants will bring such heat to the atmosphere that, without radical change, our children and grandchildren will live in a dystopian world. The air around us will produce great negative change in the atmosphere, and the biosphere will suffer terribly.
Climate change now means the disappearance of land and of coast and of animals. It is clear as well that for present and future generations, weather and climate are coalescing, “revealing” themselves objectively and subjectively in the atmospheric disturbances right before our eyes.
This kind of synchronicity only happens at certain historical moments. The same type of convergence occurred at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution when climate was obviously altering, although today’s scientific forms of measurement were not available. People nonetheless perceived the change strongly in their own lives – in the polluted rivers, the coal-blotched towns, and the workers with poisoned lungs and cancerous skin.
The industrial revolution continues today, but many of its ugly externalities have been displaced to countries beyond Europe and North America. Still, even if sometimes unseen, the global transition we now face is not unlike the one 200 years ago, despite technological trappings that disguise the real state of things.
Empirically, I cannot readily speak of the climate, but I can look back at my own lifetime of experiencing the weather and recall a number of occasions when alterations in nature really became evident to me. In my mind’s eye, I can see a whole set of moments that represent my own first-person sense of climate change.
As with many others, my reading of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in 1962 prompted me to begin opening my eyes to the gravity of our interventions against nature. The book analyzed the impact of pesticides on insects and began with an epigraph citing remarks made by Albert Schweitzer in the 1950s to a beekeeper whose bees had been destroyed by pesticides: “Man has lost the capacity to foresee and to forestall,” said the Alsatian theologian. “He will end by destroying the earth.”
Looking back, there was one personal epiphany that stood out, representing the environmental destruction we have not been able to forestall.
In 2000, a very gifted CBC producer, the late Bob Carty, made a radio documentary about how warming temperatures and thinning ice in the western Canadian Arctic were affecting people south of the polar belt. In his lucid way, Carty described going on an icebreaker and observing a weather feedback loop.
Warmer arctic temperatures were melting ice whose white surfaces had reflected solar energy. There was then a greater amount of dark water that absorbed the heat of the sunlight in the western Arctic. This absorption in turn continued to melt more ice. Each moment in the loop – ice melting, dark water, more ice melting, more dark water – reinforced the next.
This process is known as the ice albedo effect. Carty recorded the sounds of the ship breaking ice with its prow and gave a very direct explanation of the self-reinforcing dynamic taking place on the surrounding ice flows. I remember sitting in my Montréal kitchen listening to the radio and feeling completely stunned by the gravity of what Carty’s mild voice was so vividly describing.
His report froze my heart.
True, all through my various wanderings I had been aware of changing weather. In the late 1970s there was a hot and weirdly “brown” autumn in England, when normally green fields looked more like arrays of tweed jackets. When my wife and I lived in the Netherlands in 1989-90, I worked at Radio Netherlands (RN), and we had brought our ice skates with us. That winter, though, the canals surrounding the area where we lived only froze over twice.
Meanwhile, back home in Montréal, winters were becoming shorter and shorter until there were only 8 weeks left when you could count on playing outdoor hockey.
But it was Bob Carty’s radio report that stood out for me as a metonymy symbolizing all my other misgivings over a number of years.
From la canicule to 2020
In June 2003, my wife and I hiked in the Pyrenees. It turned out to be l’été de la canicule, the summer of the great heat wave, when temperatures in Europe were higher on average than they had been since 1540. We were at altitudes above 5,000 feet, and it was supposed to be about 20 degrees Celsius in the abandoned village where we spread our sleeping bags in the evening. Instead it was 30 degrees Celsius at 8:00 p.m.
The close and uncomfortable heat of the still air made the broken walls of the village houses seem all the more bleak. The next day we walked to a higher altitude, up to beautiful meadows, and completely by chance met a Spanish photographer who was an expert on alpine flowers. When he told us that all the glaciers he had visited in the French and Swiss Alps were drastically melting, I felt deeply depressed. What he spoke of was imposingly real.
It was around this time that I was using the naturalist Edward O. Wilson’s book, The Diversity of Life (1999), to teach a graduating class at Dawson College in Montréal. The emphasis in the text was on biodiversity, and near the end of his argument, Wilson stressed that “extinction rates are already hundreds or thousands of times higher than before the coming of man.” He sounded the alarm: “I have said that a fifth or more of the species of plants and animals could vanish or be doomed by the year 2020 unless better efforts are made to save them.”
Wilson wrote that the plants and animals of the world are caught in a vise: “On one side they are being swiftly reduced by deforestation and other forms of direct habitat destruction. On the other side they are threatened by the greenhouse effect.”
On a cold day in the autumn of 2004, as I stood waiting for a traffic light to change on the corner of de Maisonneuve and Atwater in downtown Montréal, I suddenly had a mental vision of all the ice fields in Greenland melting in my lifetime. The moment was hardly rational – but for the first time I had a deep personal feeling that such a profound change could happen very quickly.
I was thinking about this idea at the time, probably because of a random article I had been reading about ice melting at the bottom of ice sheets and the resulting water then reducing the coefficient of friction far below the ice surface, to the extent that whole glaciers would start to slide into the sea.
James Hansen is the famous American atmospheric physicist who had a run-in with his own government. In his 2009 book, Storms of my Grandchildren: The Truth About the Coming Climate Catastrophe and Our Last Chance To Save Humanity, Hansen told the story of trying to persuade powerful officials in the U.S. government that our climate is changing. In making his case, he focused on the Arctic and its ice.
Hansen explained how climate change consists of “forcings” – solar energy, greenhouse gases, and aerosols – and “climate feedbacks” such as ice, snow, clouds and water vapour.
His estimates of what we really need to do are now a decade old but they bear remembering. In 2002-2003, to his considerable discomfort, Hansen found that Scientific American insisted on distorting his commissioned article, “Can We Defuse the Global Warming Time Bomb?” His criticisms of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) were not welcome, and the editors were intent on reflecting an IPCC perspective that in Hansen’s view minimized likely sea level rise, accepted far too high levels of global warming, and failed to envisage alternative scenarios.
He withdrew his article from Scientific American and published his own version, free of editorial interference:
My inference [in 2003] was that global warming (…) should be kept to less than 1 degree Celsius. That limit implied that CO2 would need to peak at about 450 parts per million – or perhaps 475 ppm, if substantial but plausible reductions of non-CO2 forcings were achieved. (As mentioned earlier I’ve since revised that target limit downward to 350 ppm.) [Hansen, p. 76]
Hansen was greatly concerned by rising temperatures and their effect upon ice. He has estimated that during inter-glacial periods in the past, warming of between 1 degree and 2 degrees Celsius produced major water level rises. He came to believe that we must limit CO2 to 350 parts per million.
Destroy The Power Of Ahab
Fast forward to right now.
January 2020 was the warmest month on record for the global climate. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) of the United States government has recently issued a bulletin report:
The January global land and ocean surface temperature was the highest on record at 2.05 degrees F (1.14 degrees C) above the 20th-century average. This surpassed the record set in January 2016 by 0.04 of a degree F (0.02 of a degree C).
The four warmest Januaries documented in the climate record have occurred since 2016; the 10 warmest have all occurred since 2002.
On Feb. 11, 2020, the Mauna Loa Observatory on Hawaii reported its highest ever February measure of CO2: 416.08 ppm.
Greta Thunberg reacted to this news on her Twitter account:
The saddest thing is that this won’t be breaking news. And basically no one understands the full meaning of this. Because we’re in a crisis that’s never been treated as a crisis.
While writing this article, I have been in contact with climatologists from the Nordic countries. They have told me that Norway, Sweden, and Finland have all been experiencing surprisingly warm winters, with very little snow. One of these experts is Aarne Granlund of Finland. After a visit to the Arctic four years ago, Granlund wrote these comments on his blog:
Science measures that the cryosphere – frozen water in its multiple forms – is now melting and thawing at rates which are unimaginably fast and in quantities which are beyond understanding. The ice sheet on Greenland is losing mass; sea ice on the Arctic Ocean is shrinking both in volume and in extent. The previously present ice in the ground called permafrost is melting too. Permanent features of the landscape are unraveling. If you want to follow these changes, look at what your national meteorological service says. You’ll find the trends there. Talk to scientists on social media. See for yourself on Earth Nullschool, Climate Reanalyzer or some other online climate and weather visualization service. NASA has great communications on this issue. (“How To Witness Climate Change,” Nov. 4, 2016, Aarne Granlund)
Aarne Granlund takes climate change personally.
Greta Thunberg takes climate change very, very personally.
And this intensity is the principal source of social change right now.
On September 27, 2019, half a million people marched in Montréal with Greta Thunberg to demand action on climate change. I was there as part of a delegation from the non-partisan Green Coalition, a Montréal group that has been fighting for the environment for more than 30 years. The event was inspiring and fun, but also chastening, because it was clear that the half a million individuals would disperse to their own lives – and perhaps very little would change, despite all the good will.
Nonetheless, a critical mass of committed people is definitely emerging worldwide and the source of this particular upsurge was one Stockholm teenager sitting down, holding a sign in the street only a year or so ago. Thunberg and many others are “forcing” (to borrow a term from Hansen) a massive, global coalescence of energized individuals.
The challenge will be to create an enduring movement. And governments will have to face hard policy choices head on. For Canada’s extraction economy, that means changing the entire way we do business. Storms of My Grandchildren ends with James Hansen making two firm demands: 1) there must be a continually rising price on carbon emissions; and 2) “coal emissions must be phased out rapidly, and the horrendously polluting ‘unconventional’ fossil fuels, such as tar sands and oil shale, must be left in the ground.”
For Canada, the imperative is absolutely clear: no tar sands production whatsoever.
At this time, Albertans do not want to accept that they are clinging to a dying resource industry. In “clean” Québec, with its plentiful hydroelectric power sources, citizens are purchasing more and more SUVs, oblivious to their own blindness. Their government, meanwhile, pursues natural gas projects without any true regard for the environmental crisis.
At the same time, the captains of global capitalism want to save their ship – even if the rest of us perish in the process. We are like the mesmerized sailors of the Pequod in the grip of Captain Ahab’s monomania. Herman Melville wrote Moby-Dick as the tragic epic of the American empire, and we are living out that drama right now. Those pages are in our veins.
We know how the story reaches its climax. The whale will hit the vessel. When that happens to us, first person climate change will shift from singular to plural, “I” will become “we,” and a huge social struggle will likely emerge whose outlines we are just beginning to see.
At this point, though, the research and the news stories keep coming in.
On Feb. 12, Benjamin Storrow of Scientific American filed a report: “Global CO2 Emissions Were Flat in 2019 – But Don’t Cheer Yet.” Storrow points out that while coal emissions are down in Western Europe and North America they are actually going up in China and India. Companies maintain their supply chains, but shift the dirty work of fossil fuel production elsewhere. Methane-producing natural gas projects are also going up around the world at a frenetic pace. Storrow ends his article with an observation from Glen Peters, research director for International Climate and Environmental Research in Oslo, Norway. “There is little in sight,” says Peters, “to tell us we are about to reduce emissions at the rates necessary for 1.5 degrees Celsius or 2 C.”
Peters’ judgement, in fact, is that “the world is headed toward a global temperature rise of 3 C.”
Such an outcome would produce a very serious rise in sea levels.
As I am filing this story (on Feb. 15, 2020 in Montréal), I am looking at yesterday’s front page of the daily newspaper Le Devoir. The headline reads (my translation): “Record Heat in Antarctica; More than 20 degrees Celsius on the World’s Coldest Continent” (“Record de chaleur en Antarctique,” par Fabien Deglise, Le Devoir, le 14 février, 2020.)
On Sunday February 9, 2020, Brazilian scientists registered a temperature of 20.75 degrees C on the Antarctic Peninsula – the warmest ever. True, it is summer in the southern hemisphere, and the peninsula has the most moderate weather on the continent, but the usual temperature is zero or just below at this time. And the continent’s average annual temperature is -57 degrees C. The report in Le Devoir pointed out that the annual loss of glacial ice sheet in Antarctica had increased sevenfold from 1979 to 2017, and if all the ice melted on that continent, world sea levels would rise by 60 meters!
We have reached the point of interdependency described by the poet John Donne:
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were…
Each man’s death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.
The belling is tolling for us all, and we are at a moment of involvement, both passive and active, when first person climate change must become a plural WE.
We are different, though, from the sailors on the Pequod. We know that Melville named his prophetic ship to remember the elimination of the Pequot Native American tribe. When you sail on the Pequod, genocide is never far off, and we unconsciously sense that proximity. Ishmael’s knowledge, his science, is available to us because the Ishmaels all around us are telling us a tale of destruction every day.
Ahab’s mad narcissism is truly the driving force of the world as it is organized today. We should be able to see that reality.
Melville’s epic tale forewarns us. We must arise and destroy the power of Ahab – before he kills us all.
“In its encounter with Nature, science invariably elicits a sense of reverence and awe. The very act of understanding is a celebration of joining, merging, even if on a very modest scale, with the magnificence of the Cosmos. And the cumulative worldwide build-up of knowledge over time converts science into something only a little short of a trans-national, trans-generational meta-mind.” ~ Carl Sagan
Teesri Duniya Theatre has been producing politically prophetic plays examining critical and contentious issues that promote social change. The company’s maxim is “Change the World One Play at a Time.” The article below discusses the vital role this company has played in transforming the theatrical landscape and in supporting a process of social change.
Teesri Duniya Theatre was established in 1981 by Rana Bose and me as co-founders. Others involved were the cast and crew of the company’s launch production, Badal Sircar’s Julus. At the time, there was no other South Asian theatre company in Montréal, and the notion of political theatre, mention of Indigenous people, and cultural plurality were confined to obscurity in the Canadian theatre world.
Canada remains acutely aware of its bi-colonial heritage divided by language, which leads it to produce bi-national performances, in English or French, with self-definition and self-interest as its major concerns. In the Canadian art world, Indigenous people are studiously ignored, and cultural diversity has until very recently been perceived as subsidiary. With Canada coming to acknowledge cultural pluralism with the institutionalization of multiculturalism in the 1970s, and Québec becoming more secular with the Quiet Revolution of the 1960s, we saw the emergence of a relatively more radical drama attempting to analyze its post-colonial status in terms of class, gender and ethno-nationalism. Even though multiculturalism was relegated to a secondary status, it gave birth to many culturally diverse theatre performances with political consciousness that were unafraid of intervening in the process for social change.
Teesri Duniya started out as one of the very few theatre companies in Canada with a decidedly political mandate. The company’s maxim, “Change the World One Play at a Time,” derives substance from the fact that theatre by its very nature is a subversive attempt to challenge oppressive powers and affect change within society. However, it is necessary to distinguish this political theatre from the readjusted colonial political drama of dominant cultures, namely due to the fact that the two have evolved from different historical experiences and hold different world views. Similarly, it is necessary to distinguish it from several newly recognized culturally diverse theatres and practitioners whose politics merely display a show of performative pro-diversity that does not truly address social issues or enact social change.
Political theatre is inextricably tied to change in its alignment with social justice and struggles against powers that deny human beings their individual and collective dignity. It is primarily concerned with power – how people, communities and organizations struggle for it against the dominant culture of the oppressors. Theatrical performances serving to equalize power imbalances could be considered a site of subversion, where the struggle for human dignity and justice is staged with quality and aesthetic. One can imagine that social change itself is a political performance, one in which transformation is witnessed as reflection, representation through a dialogical exchange critiquing social, political, and economic conditions that keep people imprisoned in poverty, underdevelopment, and cultural oppressions. In many cases, political performance does not only offer awareness but advocates an alternative course of action.
The idea of “performance as change” arises from three primary streams of theatre practice: 1) the power of theatre and the role of culture/counter-culture in struggle for justice; 2) critical questioning of performances that primarily emphasize the upper classes at the expense of what afflicts the deprived majority; and 3) replacing conventionally prevalent presentation of issues with a more radical and sharp-edged examination. There is an active interface between performance and desired change, demonstrating how theatre could be politically transformative rather than a stagnant cultural amusement.
With those ideas, Teesri Duniya produces politically relevant theatre dissecting a number of uncommon, contentious and life-affecting issues including issues ordinarily ignored by conventional theatres. Our plays address themes such as minority and Indigenous rights, discrimination, torture, gender violence, genocide and human rights. Doing so, these plays highlight the role of theatre as a campaigning vehicle for change.
I would like to illustrate some examples of the type of changes that have been accomplished by Teesri Duniya.
Changing the Narrative
Despite the institutionalization of multiculturalism as a state policy, Canada continues to function as a bi-cultural country treating multiculturalism as a minority component and concern. Bi-cultural hegemony continues, forcing artists of colour to attune their cultural representation in accordance with the tastes of producers from the dominant groups and available patronage. Dominant Anglo and French producers consider minorities “exotic beings” and their presence suitable primarily for colourful festivals, folkloric dancing, one-night variety theatre, religious rituals, exhibits, and food shows. Emphasis is placed on visibility but not necessarily on the aesthetic and high artistic quality of their creative work.
Teesri Duniya is among the many art organizations that, through its active challenging, changed the “exotic” representation of multiculturalism from food, costumes, ancient habits, and reminiscences of cultural roots to a cultural framework for telling stories of peoples, cultures, and communities eclipsed by the dominant national theatres. It used multiculturalism as a context to create stories concerned with social justice. It critiqued culture along with other determinants of human development e.g. race, class and gender. This was an important change resulting in the development of culturally sensitive stories, de-marginalizing visible minorities, and reforming casting practices.
Reformed Casting Practices
Under the guise of quality and excellence, colour-blind casting in theatre is a Western norm. For big theatres, colour-blind casting has become a powerful excuse to use white actors for the parts written for non-whites, but never the reverse. Behind the facade of colour-blind casting, many Anglo-French (particularly French) companies use white actors to represent non-white characters simply by the usage of heavy makeup or an outright painting of their faces. This practice is justified by the long-standing excuses of an actor’s abilities, range, and artistic freedom. Teesri Duniya defied colour-blind casting practice and encouraged other companies to do the same. Colour-blind casting promotes an assimilationist view that the dominant culture is a unified whole, denying visible minorities their particularities, political standings, and personal values.
There is no such thing as colour-blindness. When audiences watch a play, they do not only see the actors’ colour, but are concurrently made conscious of social, historical, political and cultural differences. For this reason, at Teesri Duniya, we practice multicultural, multi-ethnic casting and present plays that tell stories about culturally diverse communities.
Career Development – Artists
Redefining the multicultural narrative has created conditions necessary for artists of colour to succeed in their field by creating works written for them, with them in mind, and subsequently played by them. Teesri Duniya has prepared many artists for entry into the industry and featured numerous artists of colour who are rarely given the opportunity to act in mainstream productions. Some of these actors include Tova Roy, Shalini Lal, Prasun Lala, Anurag Dhir, Amena Ahmad, Maya Dhawan, Ranjana Jha, and Aparna Sindhoor of South-Asian descent; Emilee Veluz, Cecile Cristobal, Elizabeth LaFranco and Carolyn-Fe Trinidad, of Asian descent.
With the Québec premiere of Anusree Roy’s play Letter to My Grandma, Teesri Duniya played a formative role in launching the career of South Asian actress Saher Bhojani, who graduated from the National Theatre School (NTS). Bhojani said that during all her years at the NTS, never once was she taught anything on her culture.
Arab-Canadian actor Abdel Abdelghafour Elaaziz played his first English lead role in the play Truth and Treason (2009). Since then, he has acted in many plays and films both in French and English. Actor Mohsen El Gharbi made his English language debut in our play The Poster and has since performed both in English and French as well as written and staged his own new plays. Natalie Tannous, an Arab-Canadian actress, launched her career in State of Denial, and has been a busy actress performing and travelling across the country since then. Filipino-Canadian actress Emilee Veluz played a character of her own culture in Teesri Duniya’s production of Miss Orient(ed) for which she won the best actress award and has since been quite active. Similarly, after performing for the first time in Miss Orient(ed), Carolyn Fe-Trinidad formed her own production company called AltaVista Productions, and has won awards, appeared in commercials and acted on major stages.
In addition, we presented directors Arianna Bardessono and Deborah Forde with directorial debuts in Truth and Treason and State of Denial, respectively. Bardessono won the John Hirsh prize. Deborah Forde has directed many plays since then and continues to mentor young artists across Montréal.
Changing Lives – Aiding Refugees
While Teesri Duniya has produced over 55 plays professionally that have conveyed strong social messages, it has also produced several participatory and other forms of theatre to inspire social change. Through this, it has expressed educational messages, facilitated reconciliation and encouraged audiences to tackle problems faced by their community.
For example, the company uses techniques of oral history to help the resettlement of refugees. James Forsythe interviewed over 21 Syrian refugee families and presented their stories verbatim in Arabic, French and English in the play To Stand Again. Syrian families were present for the performance and exchanged views with the audience, making it a genuine two-way communication and collective moment of sharing. The entire process helped to heal the trauma experienced by refugees and facilitate their integration into their new homes. Furthermore, through the verbatim play, audiences developed a better understanding of the lives of the Syrian families depicted onstage. As was evidenced, the healing effects of storytelling are important for empowerment, meaning-making, identity formation and even collective recognition of social injustice. It allows both the refugee families and the play’s audience to discover new potential within themselves and experience new ways of perceiving reality.
Teesri Duniya has diversified diversity. Beginning as a South Asian company producing plays primarily in Hindi, today Teesri Duniya is one of a handful of culturally inclusive companies producing plays about diverse communities, cultures and identities that make up today’s world. It selects plays based on their ability to provoke critical thinking, bring communities together and encourage positive participation from this world’s hushed voices. The selection represents relevant plays of the highest possible quality, exploring the human condition at its darkest and most pressing but also at its brightest and most jubilant junctures. Ultimately, the company’s plays point fingers at political powers and examine competing truths rather than mere conflicts.
Teesri Duniya’s contribution to performance as change is well explained in the body of plays it has produced. Notably, on the occasion of its 25th anniversary (2006), the company produced a season of plays titled “Staging Peace in Times of War” in response to the US-led war against Iraq and Afghanistan in the aftermath of 9/11. Under the pretence of destroying weapons of mass destruction, America launched a “pre-emptive” war against Iraq that resulted in the deaths of over 5,000 soldiers, millions of civilians and one dictator. It implanted a proxy government and reduced Iraq to rubble. As artists we had to question: where were these weapons of mass destruction? The company’s response to this line of questioning was to produce my play Truth and Treason, directed by Arianna Bardessono, showing that the “war on terror” was nothing more than a disguise for aggression.
What demonstrated a change in discourse here was the depiction of elements eclipsed by most war-themed plays that offered relatively uncomplicated support for the West-led war, showing soldiers dedicated to peace suffering trauma and disillusionment with patriotism. Some of these plays challenged Canada’s role as a nation of peace and quiet diplomacy. But what was missing in most of them was any representation of Iraqis telling their side of the story in their own voices. What was also missing was the deeper truth. Teesri Duniya filled the void by producing Truth and Treason, which uncovered secrets and scandals hidden in the past and revealed the geo-political powers behind militarized systems of occupation and colonization. Truth and Treason examined the impact war had on the lives of people we did not see on our television screens or stages – Iraqis. In Truth and Treason, Iraqis told their own story instead of having their stories simulated by non-Iraqi characters.
Representation of Iraqi characters brought Iraqi audiences and exiles, enlivening the post-play discussion. Critical and unconventional questions were raised: “Was it a pre-emptive strike or the old itch to fight a new war? Was it a war on terror or the terror of war? Did the U.S. not bankroll the same terrorists, dictators and mercenaries until they turned against them? Can peace be established by militarized means?
There was a genuine two-way communication between Canadian audiences, Iraqi civilians, and exiles, transforming the minds of audiences by listening to voices they had not heard before.
Truth and Treason has been translated into Hindi as Dhokha by Uma Jhunjhunwala and extensively produced in India under the direction of Azhar S Alam.
Commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide, my play State of Denial, directed by Liz Valdez, is a story of two women – an Armenian and a Rwandan – who, while trying to reveal each other’s secret, end up revealing their own. Attention is drawn to hidden identities – what people had to do to survive in order to tell. The play examines Armenian and Rwandan genocides in one paralleling story. In a similar fashion, Counter Offence is a story of conjugal violence in which the struggle to end violence against women intersects with struggles to end racism.
My play Counter Offence, first produced in 1995, directed by Jack Langedijk, changed the political discourse in many ways. First, dramaturgically, it was a play where virtues collided – the struggle to end violence against women came in conflict with the struggle to end racism. Second, in terms of representation and diversity, the characters in the play were South Asian, Iranian, Afro-Canadian, Anglophone and Francophone. A theatre critique commented that it was refreshing to see the metro platform on stage. Counter Offence, like plays by Rana Bose, expresses diversity of cultures in the same story – a major departure from conventional representation by mainstream writers where minority cultures show up every now and then. It is worth noting that representation of diversity came naturally to me and Rana Bose, both visible minority playwrights.
How did Counter Offence change political discourse? In one of the post-play talk-back sessions, an Iranian-Canadian audience member challenged me by saying, “every community beats its women, why are you singling out Iranians?” I responded by saying, “If every community beats its women, why do you feel singled out? This brought laughter and triggered off a lively discussion between Iranian men and women in the audience.
Counter Offence was an imaginary story based on realities. Imaginary stories help reduce sensitivity or shame associated with topics or taboos like conjugal violence. They allow people to express deeply felt personal experiences without feeling exposed. As a result, after the performance of Counter Offence, group-to-group discussions broke out between men and women in the audience, offering an environment for positive transformation. People felt comfortable enough since they did not have to reveal any of their own personal biases during the discussion.
Counter Offence was subsequently translated in French as L’Affaire Farhadi, and in Italian as Il Caso Farhadi. It will be remounted in Montréal at the Segal Centre in March 2020.
Counter Offence was followed by international success with Bhopal, a play about the 1984 Union Carbide pesticide factory explosion that killed or disabled tens of thousands of people in the Indian city of Bhopal. Since its premier (2001), Bhopal has been translated into French, keeping the same title; into Hindi as Zahreeli Hawa, by iconic Indian director Habib Tanvir; and into Punjabi as Khamosh Chiragan di Dastaan.
Other notable productions of changing discourse have been Letters to my Grandma by Anusree Roy; Where the Blood Mixes by Kevin Loring, on residential schools; Corpus by Darrah Teitel, a holocaust story highlighting ethical dilemmas in depicting trauma, family pain and dark history; The Refugee Hotel by Carmen Aguirre, which brings to life the consequences of exile; the French language translation of Where the Blood Mixes, as Là où le Sang se mêle; and Birthmark by Steven Orlov, examining Israeli-Palestinian conflict and youth radicalization in Canada.
Habib Tanvir said, “what I have to say, theatre is the medium.”While artists might lack the economic power to implement changes, they possess the ability to influence feelings and ideas through their performances. Politically engaged theatre is a medium where artists with stories act as activists, to achieve a better world. Politicized performance leads to empowerment of artists and audiences, galvanizing them to resolve problems, and generating lasting impacts.
Je me souviens lorsque j’étudiais le chant classique au Collège Ste-Croix. Thérèse, ma professeure, me répétait sans cesse de relâcher ma mâchoire pendant que je chantais. Elle était si rigide et si tendue qu’elle rendait ma voix chantée voilée! Une voix qui chuchotait, un peu gênée, qui ne prenait pas vraiment sa place, qui n’avait pas confiance… C’était ma voix chantée de ce temps-là.
Ça m’a prit des années à comprendre le mécanisme du chant. J’ai réalisé à quel point j’étais tendue. Je devais apprendre à relaxer toute cette partie de mon visage afin de perdre cette voix voilée pour, finalement, atteindre ma voix pure et dévoilée.
Thérèse me disait : « Regarde l’arbre là-bas, au loin, et chante pour lui, pour qu’il t’entende. N’aie pas peur… Chante! Fais en sorte de projeter ta voix jusqu’à lui pour qu’il puisse t’entendre! Oublie tes problèmes… Chante! Libère-toi! Apprendre le chant et le maîtriser c’est le travail d’une vie. Chanter, c’est prier deux fois.» C’était en 1990. Et je n’ai jamais cessé de chanter depuis ce temps!
Par la suite, ma voix est devenue plus grave, et, j’ai commencé à chanter avec ma gorge. Ma voix se fatiguait et je m’épuisais. La joie de chanter n’était plus présente. Un jour, après plusieurs années de recherche, j’ai finalement trouvé une coach vocale qui enseignait la même technique que Thérèse.
C’est avec Julie que j’ai réparé ma voix. C’était comme si j’avais perdu mon chemin et que je retournais à la maison… Comme la confiance en moi n’a jamais été mon fort, cet aspect fut difficile à travailler. J’y suis arrivée! Avec beaucoup de travail, encore et encore, chaque jour de ma vie.
J’ai découvert ma voix pure chantée avec toute sa puissance et sa force. Quel choc, j’en avais des frissons! Elle sortait de tous bords, tous côtés, un peu comme le cheval sauvage qui court de toutes ses forces dans les champs pendant qu’on essaie de le dresser.
C’était comme si je venais de prendre position, comme si je m’affirmais, comme si je disais pour une fois dans ma vie : « Helloooo! Je suis là, j’existe ! J’y suis arrivée. J’ai réussi! » Maîtriser ma voix chantée, pure, dévoilée, pour arriver à une meilleure interprétation de mes chansons et prendre position, c’était là ou j’étais rendue!
Des secrets sans réponse
Pendant que j’étais animatrice à la radio de CKUT, à l’émission Native Solidarity News, j’ai pris connaissance des événements qui honoraient les femmes autochtones disparues et assassinées du Kanada. Cette cause m’a touchée profondément puisque, dès mon jeune âge, j’ai failli plusieurs fois être kidnappée. Étant adoptée, je pensais que c’était mon père qui venait me chercher.
Un jour, j’ai ouvert la porte de la voiture de ce parfait étranger et j’ai mis mon pied à l’intérieur de sa voiture. Tout à coup, je ne sais pour quelle raison, j’ai senti à l’intérieur de moi une sensation désagréable. Un danger soudain. Je ne sais d’où il arrivait. Je suis sortie au plus vite de sa voiture! Tout ça s’était passé devant ma maison familiale. Pourtant ce monsieur était si gentil avec moi!
J’avais l’impression qu’il me connaissait! Il me suivait depuis un bon bout de temps. Beaucoup de secrets cachés ont entouré ma vie. Des secrets sans réponse. Il est certain que je me suis identifiée à la cause de ces femmes disparues.
En 2014 on parlait de Loretta Saunders, qui avait disparue. Cette jeune métisse de la Côte Est. Tout le monde cherchait son corps. Elle était métisse, comme moi. Cet événement m’a fait revivre les cauchemars que j’ai vécus avec tous ces hommes inconnus qui m’ont pourchassée pendant plusieurs années. Sa disparition m’a particulièrement troublée.
Did You See Me
C’était en juin 2014 et je me promenais avec mon petit chien. Tout à coup, j’ai eu une inspiration musicale soudaine! Comme ça, de nulle part, une mélodie sortait de ma bouche. Ma voix dévoilée prenait position. La même mélodie revenait sans cesse. Je chantais pour Loretta, je lui parlais! Je me sentais connectée avec quelque chose de plus fort que moi. Probablement une connexion avec mon Créateur et Loretta. Je devenais comme un canal d’énergie entre eux et moi. C’était intense! Je n’avais jamais vécu cette sensation auparavant.
Les mots qui sortaient de ma bouche semblaient être un cri du cœur pour ces femmes disparues. Ces femmes que l’on n’a pas retrouvées. Ces femmes qui ne peuvent pas nous raconter leurs affreuses souffrances et leurs histoires inhumaines, sans cœur…
Tout à coup, je suis retournée chez-moi en courant comme s’il y avait le feu. Arrivé à la maison, j’ai installé mon micro je n’ai cessé de chanter la mélodie avec les mots qui sortaient de ma bouche. Je n’arrêtais pas parce que je savais que je perdrais toute cette inspiration. Une fois tout mon équipement installé, je me suis concentrée et j’ai demandé à mon Dieu d’amour de chanter avec moi! Ensemble, nous avons créé, ainsi qu’avec Loretta, la chanson « Did You See Me ».
Les larmes coulaient le long de mon visage. Tout en chantant, je me retenais pour ne pas pleurer. Je ne voulais pas perdre le fil de cette précieuse inspiration musicale. Puis je me suis arrêtée. Plus rien. Aucun mot ne venait à ma bouche. C’était terminé! L’enregistrement était final. Cette chanson, à part l’écho que j’ai rajouté, est à l’état brut, avec intensité et force. Cette chanson parle pour toutes ces femmes et filles autochtones disparues et assassinées du Kanada.
Ma voix sera toujours présente pour elles. Que leurs esprits soient en paix!
For more information on missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls:
There are many people who relate the concept of “class” to level of income. This is understandable given that a majority of people see “class” as an extension of an archaic English approach towards social “classification” based on upbringing, education, social standing, behaviour, etc., which emerged out of a baron/landlord and tenant relationship rooted in land ownership, inheritance and land exploitation at a pre-industrial stage of development. This affliction of class attitudes, however, was not confined to the countryside and still persists in large cities of the UK, with infinitely boring and goofy behaviour patterns that the English themselves laugh at endlessly. The definitions of class, however, have changed significantly since the mid-nineteenth century and are grounded in the evolution of industrial production.
Some have also identified inherited wealth and the lack of taxation on inheritance as additional elements in defining class divisions. Inherited wealth is less of a significant factor in equality when it comes to developing countries, but remains of consequence in the old industrialized nations. However, this income (sheer interest from funds long bestowed down the family lineage) and the resultant inequality provide a “class” basis for social segregation. Thus, affiliations and beliefs about class, rather than definitions of class, have come to influence the discussion.
Class has always been defined as a relationship to production and capital. In the mass production industrial realm, the owner of a business (typically in an industry that manufactured commodity goods) acquired wealth by personally running a productive enterprise, hands on. In the current world we live in, however, confusion is compounded because traditional manufacturing has taken flight overseas, leaving behind service, leisure, soft skills and runaway profit-making ventures, often based on speculative capital and leading to escalating compensation for “C”-level executives (CEO, CIO, CFO, COO, etc.). Such executives, who move around amassing 300 to 400% more compensation than the average worker, cause increasing confusion regarding class, the super rich, etc.
Why am I bringing this up? Because class is frequently used in a casual manner, and for the past several decades the issue of identity has often been conflated with class to compound matters further and confuse the unity of the poor and the disenfranchised. In the past, this conflation and the resultant confusion ensued in the growth of extreme right-wing movements that led to WWII and the advent of fascism in Spain, Germany, Italy and certain other regions of Europe. The spectre of another such rise seems apparent today. It has terrified even arch-conservative philosophers like Francis Fukuyama (The End of History) to limp along to new conclusions about the Bush era, the Iraq war and the neocon rise and to suggest that the “war on terror” could very well have given birth to a new wave of “identity-bound” intolerance, requiring a “softer” remedy. Sinister as his conversion is (it seems that our government in Canada has also been somewhat inspired by such ideas in seeking a “soft-coup” approach overseas), it is one more deflection from the essential problem that there is a 1% that owns capital and there is a 99% that does not!
Identity movements that matter!
In the sixties and seventies, the women’s movement and the black consciousness movement were the harbingers of social forces asserting identity as an important and potent weapon in uniting largely ignored or deliberately sidelined sections of the population – uniting against unfair and exploitative relationships practised by the state or against the policies of the state when it came to waging war against other nations in the name of “freedom and democracy.” Thus identity was and has been a significant unifying force against the main adversary, the state and its policies. In both the great wars, the poor mobilized against war based on the understanding that the rich fought wars for resources and expansion. Hatred and intolerance thus became handy tools for inciting divisions among the poor. Genocidal extermination was carried out against Jews and the Romani, and the killing of communists and socialists became acceptable practice in Nazi Germany. It became fair game to cite identity as an excuse to exterminate those who struggled for justice and fairness, against class exploitation. In that context, identity slowly became the basis for disuniting those opposed to fascism.
Most of us today live at the junctions of identity and class. “Identity” is generally billed as unifying as a social category, be it race, gender, gender orientation, sexuality, disability or similar factors; and regardless of whether one is poor or rich, identity stands on its own. “Class” usually involves economic factors, including wealth by ownership of the means of production, which enable access to superior health care, housing, education and social status. British filmmaker Ken Loach wastes no time establishing where he stands on “class” being fundamental to understanding social change. See http://politicalcritique.org/world/uk/2018/ken-loach-class-struggle/.
That post-modern thing!
In the aftermath of the Vietnam War (in the mid-seventies), a certain triumphalism emerged in left-wing academic corridors. Despite carpet-bombing, defoliating and napalm bombing Vietnam, the United States suffered devastating losses – 60,000 soldiers. The Vietnamese won. The United States was defeated. This had unfortunate consequences for political philosophy, as some came to realize. A period of intellectual slackness emerged as academics found ways and means to define social conflict in terms of identity alone, and the question of class conflict was put on the back burner or regarded as an implicit given, or simply defined as being defunct! While courses on “class” and the economic basis of class continued to be offered, the sexiness of certain excursions into the world of post-colonialism evolved into studies in post-modernism.
European philosophers with obscure credentials appeared and disappeared, finding ways and means of dismissing the class nature of social conflict. Often slotting the subject under post-modernist discourse, academic circles were very busy promoting various non-class notions of struggle. At some point, these courses and their various proponents leap-frogged their ideological tendencies and secured a position as “cultural Marxists.” Many never agreed to such a label, but ideologues from the Right found it very convenient to bash them for their excessive zeal for “correctness.” The results have been disastrous, as we all know. There has never been anything in the annals of Das Capital that suggested a “cultural identity” chapter! But, of course, there has always been a sound basis for “de-hegemonizing” mainstream political and cultural discourse, which has conspired to raise concepts like “freedom, democracy, western civilization, elections, law and order, parliamentary forms of government” as sacrosanct, and assigned an elevated notion of superior rule to them. Many identity-bound movements have consciously or unconsciously bought into such political discourse and hardened their positions on a non-class approach. This is where the disenfranchised and marginalized slotted themselves separately. Whether black or brown or yellow, transgendered, transsexual, gay or two-spirited, the question is: who rules? Look up the Capital chain, friends!
One of the horrendous distortions of the new identity crises is found among certain white folks who feel oppressed and depressed about their current state of affairs and have the idea that they’re becoming a minority in certain urban centres! The white supremacist movement has come out, shedding its Klan-hoods and sporting short-sleeved shirts and MAGA caps. And they’re not the only distortion. There are also the men who claim they feel they’re oppressed!
New realizations are imminent!
Irrespective of the distortions and deflections, the good news is that some of the irreconcilable differences and tensions between class and identity seem to be waning. With the utter failure of the concepts of free trade, globalization and deregulation, there may be new realignments of identity and class due to forces beyond the control of the common person. Flattening economic opportunities (due to intellectual and technical mobility on the web and functionalities related to it), deepening inequality and corrupt political systems where politicians are bought and sold like cattle are upsetting the confidence of the 1%.
Mythic beliefs in the old world order and the conviction that the apple cart can never be kicked over and the dream of the “self-made man” still holds true have suffered some serious fender-benders. Class and identity are gradually unifying in many contexts, and even the fact that poor and working-class people supporting Trump have not always done so based on a sense of white privilege but out of extreme frustration with joblessness and poverty has some bearing on the complex relationship between class and identity.
Je voudrais dire wliwni(merci!) de vivre à Montréal,
qui est en TERRITOIRE MOHAWK NON CÉDÉ!
I would like to say wliwni(thanks) for being able to live in Montréal,
which is in UNCEDED MOHAWK TERRITORY!
Nd’aliwizi Mali-Sozi. Je m’appelle Marie-Josée.
N’wal8wzi, ni kiow8? Je me sens bien, et vous?
N’plachm8n8dwa. Je parle français.
Nd’iglism8n8dwa. Je parle anglais.
Nd’aln8ba8dwa. Je parle abénaki.
Il y a deux ans déjà, j’ai commencé à apprendre la aln8ba8dwaw8gan (langue abénakise), cela a duré un an. Puis, l’année dernière, les cours ont repris. J’avais envie de partager avec vous un peu de mon apprentissage de cette langue, qui m’a été si familière dès le premier cours. La aln8ba8dwaw8gan (langue abénakise), j’en suis tombée amoureuse! C’est vrai! J’avais l’impression que je retrouvais ma langue maternelle! Pourtant, j’ai été adoptée très jeune, par l’intermédiaire du père Boyle, jésuite. Je suis métisse anishnabe, algonquine. En poussant davantage mes recherches généalogiques, je suis certaine que je trouverais aussi des racines abénakises.
Je viens d’une famille adoptive non raciste. Ma mère est née à St-Henri, mon père à Hochelaga-Maisonneuve. Il a été lieutenant dans l’armée canadienne, positionné en Angleterre pendant la deuxième guerre mondiale. La division raciale n’existait pas dans notre famille tant au sujet des minorités qu’à celui de la iglism8n8dwaw8gan (langue anglaise).
« Moi, je ne suis qu’une Métisse à tes yeux, une adoptée, sans carte, sans preuve, sans communauté, avec parents adoptifs et religion catholique, en plus, qui parle français tandis que toi, tu parles majoritairement anglais avec tous les droits possibles. » Est-ce qu’on doit vraiment avoir une barrière entre nous? Que dire sur la séparation, entre nations, provoquée par les langues ainsi que tout le reste? Pourtant, toi aussi tu as été adopté. Tu as retrouvé ta famille, comme moi.
Avant même que les colons arrivent au Québec et au Canada, les différentes nations autochtones s’entretuaient. Par la suite, les colons s’installent. Certaines nations se sont alliées avec les Français de France et d’autres avec les Anglais d’Angleterre. D’où la division entre les peuples autochtones, leurs langues et leurs religions! Résultat? Langues parlées : français, anglais, autochtones. Religion choisie : catholique, protestante, traditionnelle. Et j’en passe…
Donc, pour qu’un Autochtone soit reconnu comme un vrai Autochtone, le gouvernement lui demande de prouver le pourcentage autochtone qui coule dans ses veines. Cette loi augmente la division, la discorde, la rupture entre les nations. Une loi totalement inacceptable! Comment le prouver? C’est une situation grotesque et déchirante. C’est ridiculiser les Autochtones! Le gouvernement a créé le chaos entre nous pour, encore une fois, nous isoler, nous détruire, nous exterminer!
En plus on entend les discours sur la réconciliation entre non Autochtones et Autochtones. Je suis bien d’accord, mais que fait-on de la réconciliation entre les nations autochtones ainsi qu’entre les Autochtones et les Métis? A quand cette réconciliation? Rien n’a changé entre nous, ou si peu. Donc, parler de métissage est encore plus compliqué. Vous pouvez comprendre un peu mieux comment je peux me sentir dans tout ce casse-tête… Je ne le répéterai jamais assez : Je ne suis ni l’une, ni l’autre. Ni autochtone, ni blanche.
Même si je suis impliquée dans la communauté autochtone de Montréal depuis plusieurs années et que j’y ai travaillé, je reste, pour certains Autochtones, une Métisse – ou plutôt une non Autochtone, qui veut s’infiltrer parmi eux. Il est certain que ça me blesse, mais je dois comprendre qu’il y a beaucoup de gens qui se disent métis à Montréal et qui ne le sont pas. En plus, certains Autochtones qui vivent dans des réserves – même s’ils ont leur carte d’Indien – sont métissés et donc rejetés, intimidés, par les gens qui les entourent. Selon eux, ils sont autochtones! Éventuellement, vu que la pression est trop forte, ils quittent leur communauté sans savoir où aller… Ils vont vers les grandes villes. Ils sont perdus, déchirés. C’est tellement compliqué!
Avec toute l’expérience que j’ai vécue pendant toutes ces années avec tous les Autochtones que j’ai rencontrés et qui vivent, ou vivaient, à Montréal ce que je considère le plus difficile, c’est l’intégration. De faire partie d’eux, partie d’un tout! Comme une famille! Je n’ai pas grandi dans une réserve. Donc, je n’ai pas connu les enjeux auxquels ils ont fait face. Ils ont eu des vies très difficiles. J’entends leurs histoires, mais je n’y étais pas. J’ai été élevée en banlieue de Montréal. Ma mère voulait que j’étudie afin d’obtenir des diplômes pour pouvoir travailler. On avait une maison. Je n’ai jamais manqué de rien!
Nous, les Autochtones ainsi que les Métis, nous, on travaille fort pour aller mieux physiquement, mentalement, émotionnellement et spirituellement en se réappropriant nos langues, nos traditions ainsi que nos croyances spirituelles traditionnelles. Mais, les dégâts sont irréparables et la guérison sera longue!
Nd’aliwizi Mali-Sozi. Je m’appelle Marie-Josée.
N’wigi Molianek. J’habite Montréal.
Wlinanawalmezi. Prend bien soin de toi.
Adio. Au revoir.
À propos de l’artiste
Auteure-compositrice et interprète de musique indie-folk, Marie-Josée Tremblay est aussi photographe, réalisatrice, comédienne et peintre. Artiste pluridisciplinaire d’origine algonquine, elle s’inspire de ses expériences vécues allant même au-delà. Après avoir sorti un album CD « Searching for you » honorant les femmes autochtones disparues et assassinées, elle a réalisé un album EP « Ni l’une Ni l’autre » regroupant les musiques de son premier court-métrage. Marie-Josée est impliquée dans la cause des Femmes Autochtones Disparues et Assassinées depuis plusieurs années. Elle a également réalisé quatre courts-métrages avec la production Wapikoni Escale Montréal et UQAM. Elle a composé les musiques sur ses courts-métrages « Ni l’Une Ni l’Autre » et « Le Battement de ma Ville », 2015 – 2016. « Un Matin Tranquille » et « L’Envol » ont été sélectionnés au Festival Présence Autochtone de Montréal, 2017 – 2018.
There is a spot I have gone to for a half century. Almost the exact centre of the continent named, in English, North America – Latinized version of sailor Amerigo Vespucci’s first name in its feminine form as with Europa, Africa and Asia – it has offered a view to the edge of the earth in every direction since the land was scoured clean by retreating glaciers of the last ice age. If plants had citizenship, the many varieties of the Poaceae family, buffalo grass and big and little bluestem would be the founding populace of this long fertile plain the size of Spain, France and Germany combined. Yet its very magnificence – its fertile and almost perfectly flat extent – has proven, in our time, to be its greatest vice.
Today, eager, for it has been much too long since my last visit, I have taken the unpaved highway that brings me here in a direct line from the airport. To catch the local news, I have the radio on. But not the GPS. No need, I’m a homeboy on familiar turf – though with every return, as I change, as the land changes, my response to this spectacular panorama changes too. The family farm, the village I was raised in, our one-room school are not far away, and city boy now, I am often moved to reminisce. At other times, as amateur geographer, I think of how twenty thousand years back this place was part of our earth’s most extensive biome, the Mammoth Steppe, stretching from the Pyrenees up, east, across half the planet and down to here. Still devoid of any vegetation above waist height, my special spot lingers as a reminder of how that globe-girdling zone might have felt for the first homo sapiens who trod upon it in central Asia – some, as the earth warmed, turning toward the setting sun, but others toward sunrise. Amateur historian, I wonder how their descendants, those first humans here, felt as they migrated south into the unknown, and much later, a mere four centuries ago, what they thought when after no contact for millennia, these long separated ex-citizens of Asia and Europe met again.
As a rule, Indigenous people welcomed the newcomers and at first, life was little different. Though climate change and human predation had killed most large mammals, the remaining herds of bison outnumbered people; all were still afoot, and they co-mingled. Then the horse and rifle arrived. Innovative Métis traders piled their Red River carts with nature’s bounty, pemmican, food to fuel their travel across the vast land. Then the railroads were built, and that last wild quadruped, its hides shipped to eastern industry, was soon gone – replaced by its domesticated Bovidae cousin, cows. With them came the plough, and for a century, houses, barns, fences and lovingly tended trees began to clutter this view, as they did when I was a child. Not so today. Like the bison, their hunters, and the high-wheeled wagons, these too have vanished.
Cruising along, window down, car yawing from side to side as they are wont do on gravel roads, it would have been easy for me to fantasize that this landscape is the unspoilt one of ancient times, but I am focused instead on a radio program about a rural shooting that happened a few days ago. The incident occurred not far from here, and though only a brief item on national broadcasts, a local station has given the incident more time. Its tragic particulars are riveting, so I am not paying much attention to the view… until I realize it has been several kilometres since I crossed, at right angles, a mile road measure of distance here or saw a parallel one. Even these are gone, ploughed up. I stop, to get my bearings, yes, but more to listen to the news report. Details emerge. During an altercation on his property, farmer Gerald Stanley killed Colten Boushie, a young, unarmed Cree man, with a single pistol shot to the back of the head. As I check my phone’s map, a bright green tractor comes into view, rushing toward me at a jogger’s pace.
Afloat on huge double-chocolate-donut tires, driver invisible behind tinted windows, cab high as a house roof, chimney two long pipes spewing black smoke, it pulls toothed cultivator-seeders wide as a tennis court. Turning, the mechanical malice of this manoeuvre triggering a mini earthquake, it retreats toward the horizon, leaving behind a swath of tilled earth fresh and eager as a hopeful lover… and me, alone. Feeling lost despite the GPS, my thoughts in the wake of the deadly violence of the shooting and the anonymous tractor’s equally violent passage turn from the indulgent abstractions I usually reserve for this place to the dark and very concrete: death. Death on a social scale, since although this vast field will grow a crop, no farmer or farmstead can be seen… an entire population has been eliminated. And death on an individual scale, as one human has eliminated another with a semi-automatic handgun, a military weapon designed and manufactured for that purpose alone.
“Canaries in a coal mine” is the insightful term an anthropologist acquaintance used in referring to both men. The term was first employed when miners began to carry caged birds into the deep pits. Their resistance to toxic gas was low, so if one died, the humans knew they were next… and got out. In modern usage it can mean advance warning, but in the way she employed it, I think the metaphor of a noxious atmosphere applies and has the added benefit of being inclusive: all are in danger – a view seldom held with regard to this type of confrontation (one so symptomatic of tensions here).
Her comment reminded me of a remark made by my aunt, now almost a hundred, as we stood here: “Where has it all gone?” she queried in a tone of profound loss, referring to the world of her own youth when a half dozen family homes with barn and outbuildings clustered around could be seen. Why is what she said so resonant? Because this is what all the communities of the grassland nation, Indigenous, Métis and non-Indigenous settlers entreat…“where has it gone?” Whether their demands are for land rights or recognition or good police work or justice, the common thread is one of lack. There is a sense, part of a much larger mood, one extending far beyond this place, that the human spirit here is engaged in a desperate struggle.
This particular shooting and the subsequent trial – once again ending with the shooter’s acquittal – has proved a tipping point. Polarization of opinion seemed the norm, with those of non-indigenous heritage, the settler farmers, on one side, those of Indigenous heritage, many from reserves or living in cities, on the other, and the long-suffering Métis, still fighting for recognition, in a complex relationship with both. Between these groups, mandated to serve each equally, lay the RCMP and the federal and provincial legal systems and courts… all accused of bias. Tracing my family roots back to the time of the Hudson’s Bay Company, I am in some way connected to each community, first, by marriage, to the Indigenous one, and subsequently to the Métis and European ones. I know, with varying degrees of insight, the origins and history of the opinion they have of themselves, as well as their attitude toward those they see as the other. Fully understanding the many tensions, much less having any idea how they could be reconciled seemed impossible… and truth be told, was I in any way qualified? That is for others to judge, but I found the canary-in-the-coal-mine metaphor and its implications apt. The very atmosphere of the land of grass has been rendered toxic, and all who breathe it are in equal danger.
Government data reveals the tremendous differences between the opposed communities. For the Indigenous peoples, often confined to reserves or living a displaced existence in cities: an incarceration rate six times that of the settlers; high incidences of tuberculosis in the North, long eliminated amongst the population of the South; and thousands of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. For the Métis, who organized a resistance to undemocratic territorial rule and formed a nation long before official confederation, many of the same statistics apply, most often reported in terms of deprivation and lack: lack of housing, lack of potable water, lack of adequate health care, lack of schools, lack of justice.
But what of the third group, the settlers, human tools of the state-building apparatus, who came here after the reserves were created and the resistance defeated? Is their presumed lack of problems the legacy of colonialism and the implied superiority of the colonizer? They do have the best land, better houses, bigger vehicles and more money. They live longer and get better educations. Yet if we accept the coal mine metaphor, they too inhale its poisonous vapours. The view that they as a group are vulnerable, as individuals, families and communities, is seldom advanced, most probably because the same selective amnesia that has obscured Native and Métis history now withholds many truths about them. I submit that this expedient myth is a grave error, and if reconciliation is sought – for it must be and will be, if there is to be a path forward – this group must be looked at and approached from the perspective of their weaknesses. In the same way that an individual farmer, innocent or culpable, was the perpetrator of a killing, as a group they are the perpetrators, innocent or culpable, of a state-sponsored industrial invasion of the land – one of global dimensions – and this, as many see it, is an equally serious offence. Why study the perpetrator? A look at most violent crime reveals that it is the perpetrator who often suffers from far more profound pathologies than the victim.
The land. As I sat at my grade three desk in our one-room school – grade two on my right, grade four on my left and grade five behind – our teacher ran her palm over the unfurled map behind her and described the fertile prairie we lived on as the “bread basket to the world.” Our wheat, plus oats and rye, were exported to make its pasta and pita and panini. At this, the farmer’s children sat up straight and we all looked out through the tall windows at their homes, most less than a kilometre apart and within walking distance of the school. The original homestead grants were I60 acres, a quarter section, a half-mile by a half-mile, and some still lived on them. This surveyed unit was the nation-building block that federal governments used to tempt settlers a century and a half ago, and for a crofter or peasant struggling on a few acres or arpents, it was a gift heaven-sent.
My grandparents, aunts and uncles raised a family on such parcels. Then, my schoolmates’ farmer folks, like everyone, fell victim to national economic policy. The level, treeless prairie was ideal for industrialized agriculture. Survival of the fittest became the order of day and farms, the machines that worked them, the investments needed to fund all this got bigger. Families who could not ‘cut the mustard’ sold out. The snug one-room hubs of rural pedagogy closed. Children spent hours on the bus each day, driven to amalgamated institutions with libraries, laboratories and cafeterias, newly built at the edge of selected towns.
The urban/rural demographic of my grassland nation was reversed. It has had a population of one million my entire life, and when I was a youngster, the sign at the perimeter of the central city where we did our Christmas shopping read 250,000: only a quarter of its population in that city. Today, leaving that same city, the sign in my rear-view mirror read 750,000. Now only a quarter of that million people remain in the countryside. Although agriculture seems more efficient since fewer people work more land, analyses reveal that this ‘efficiency’ demands a great quantity of agrichemicals and more caloric input from petrochemicals to power all the labour-saving devices. Since these technologies are so complex, they also require an equally complex infrastructure, often metropolitan. Thus labour input is deferred to city factories where the gas and oil are refined and the herbicides, fungicides, pesticides and all this machinery are produced. Nearly the same amount of human and caloric input goes into a bushel of grain or a pound of beef as it did a half century ago… it is just that, in another demographic turnabout, much of this effort is now urban.
What is it like to live on these isolated places, no distance walkable, no neighbour in sight, where winter snowdrifts can block every road? A recent article about grassland nation was titled Four out of five prairie men have unhealthy lifestyles, including the country’s highest obesity rate. Life on the farm means driving – tractors, trucks and cars – to the field, to town, to a neighbour’s, on a grid of mile roads that date from the original homestead survey. One-hundred-kilometre-per-hour journeys that cross thousands of uncontrolled intersections. Fatality rates in crashes are double the national average. Some junctions are infamous: almost an entire youth hockey team died tragically when a bus returning from a game collided with a semi this year at the exact spot where a family of six lost their lives two decades previous. Not far away, twenty-two railway workers were killed in another truck and bus collision.
Husband is a word with ancient roots, its original meaning perhaps ‘tiller or keeper of the soil.’ This is a reciprocal relationship. You feed it your various physical, mental and sacred labours, and it feeds you, your body, mind and soul. I look out over the immense field. Its harvest will belong to no one I can see or anyone from this parish or this province. A transnational may own this land, the planted, patented hybrid seed and the future harvest. Much of it may not even be healthy food for humans. If it is corn, it might be used to make corn syrup for processed foods, or ethanol; if soybeans, to fatten livestock; if potatoes, for potato chips.
This cannot be dismissed as an aberration caused by greed. What is happening on grassland nation is a story all too common. Farmers took their cues from the wider society and its material pursuit of material success. This yearning is what most North Americans, and indeed most of the world’s peoples, feel. Worse still, while farmers strive to feed the urban population, Canada’s unhealthiest regions and those with the worst access to doctors are rural. Profitably working these immense tracts of land that are as level as a factory floor necessitates many toxic chemicals. The once nurturing acts of seeding and weeding can and do prove injurious or fatal to the human bodies tending the crops. And the mind? If you are not husbanding it, does the land give back? I spoke with farmer couples that decided to quit. They could not go on poisoning the soil and did not want their children to.
These great distances also affect the soul. Rural life is an attributed risk factor for male suicide, and farmer suicide rates are the highest of any occupation. Though this “land of grass” has a violent crime rate twice the national average and triple its urban areas, if there are problems, the thinly spread RCMP often cannot respond in time. For this reason, farmers arm themselves. Gun-related crime and illegal discharge of firearms are common offenses. The radio program on the Boushie-Stanley confrontation stated clearly that the weapon was a pistol. These are not meant for hunting deer or taking out a wolf that menaces your cattle. For such tasks there are rifles of various calibers to suit every budget. No, this weapon’s sole intent is to shoot humans at close range, and the restricted firearm used to kill Colten Boushie is one more typically found in the hands of a big-city criminal. Gerald Stanley’s legal counsel commented that, “Mr. Stanley wishes he had never owned a gun…” and I have no problem believing this is true. On the news he appears to be a decent man. Killing another, as every moral culture recognizes, is the ultimate act of separation, the supreme defiance of, or, sadly, definition of, community. This tragic event represents an absolute form of social division and for the most part is being treated as such.
Yet forgotten is the time not long past when the Cree and Métis were strong, the new immigrants were vulnerable, and co-operation, mutual tolerance and respect were the norm. My great uncles were taught to survive here by its Ojibwe and Saulteaux residents. I was able to work in the far North – on snowshoes all day, living in tents at minus 60 – because my Cree compatriots showed me how. Little recognized is a third demographic volte-face: the Indigenous and Métis populations, though often confined to infertile or unfarmable land, are ascendant, their numbers increasing at a rate four times faster than the rest of Canada’s population. As well, they are better educated than in the past, and more politically powerful. Aware of their problems, they are increasingly equally aware of their strengths. The dispossession of both communities and the settlers’ occupation of this land of grass were inextricably entwined. Is their rise, their growing prominence, being taken into consideration? Could they be, in effect, this land’s new post-modern immigrants?
Perhaps it is time for a meeting of minds. The great bison hunts, birth of an independent Métis state, creation of the CCF, first functional socialist party in North America – this grassland nation witnessed and nurtured them all. Certainly the Cree of Norway house, cultural cohorts just beyond its western boundary, have found a solution in their new medical centre. After a quarter century of planning, they are building a hospital facility that will combine the best aspects of their traditional practices, including a sweat lodge and a family birthing unit, with new practices employed by their own people trained in Western medical methods and the latest technology. It took time, but it proves it can be done. As Grand Chief Garrison Settee commented, “it will happen slowly and gradually, but I believe this vision the people have, for transformative change, […] can be a reality.”
For more on exhibits and books by Clayton Bailey, go to:
“In this quiet place, simple folk knelt down and caught a glimpse of the eternal.”
(from the screenplay)
Traditions can be looked at as auras of history. Specific traditions associated with individual families are formed by memories but change with time. What was originally shared and memorialized becomes increasingly mystifying, even to descendants within a group, as over time the initial reason for the creation of the tradition is forgotten or just partially retained. Versions of the original details are changed according to new perspectives, different values, or deep emotions felt by later generations eager to tell in an invigorated, dramatic way what they remember.
In Julie Dash’s 1991 film, Daughters of the Dust, the Peazant family, whose members feature in the film, have unique traditions formed by their isolation, because they have lived on a sea island offering little contact with others. They formed their tradition of cultural practices based on memories of their ancestors, certain Ibos whose descendants became Gullahs, or Geechee.
The memories that make up a tradition can be as small as a piece of jewellery or a recipe for red rice. The details are beloved and are never considered trivial to the people whose traditions they helped form. They can be symbolic as well as instructive, as were the indigo stains left on Peazant women’s hands as they worked on indigo plantations. Or, deeper still, it could be a Gullah tradition that preserved the legend of the Ibos, their ancestors who rebelled against being brought to the Caribbean and then to the Sea Islands to work under slavery. Gullah lore describes the Ibo Landing inlet where proud Ibos were said to walk on water or develop wings and fly back to Africa, or commit suicide by diving into the sea, rather than submit to the indignity and injustice of slavery. Some chose, however, to stay in order to survive.
Storytelling that passed down knowledge from generation to generation of the Ibo act of resistance became widespread, part history and part mythology, and many a storyteller has been moved to re-create its lore, claiming one inlet or another as “the real Ibo Landing.”
Julie Dash has enlivened the tradition by creating her tale, in film, of Peazant family members who came together from near and far on August 19,1902 to reach a joint decision on whether or not to leave their island, possibly for good, and migrate north for the sake, once again, of sheer survival. Times had changed and opportunities to make a living and gain an education were where industry was growing, in the big cities up north.
In making her film, Julie Dash has acted as one of the griots, traditional storytellers of her culture, narrating through cinematic poetry as a way to preserve history in the face of change. It was a feature film not welcomed at first by Hollywood, which was a rejection that could have prevented the making of the film at all. That is a story in itself of struggle and is told in her book, Daughters of the Dust: The Making of an African American Woman’s Film by Julie Dash, with Toni Cade Bambara and bell hooks. It also includes a commentary by Greg Tate (African American columnist, author, and musician), as well as the screenplay, two family recipes very typical of Gullah culture, and a brief list of Gullah translations.
2. Beyond the Pale
A pale, ghetto, favela, or neighborhood across the tracks, is not settled exclusively by realty-market forces; it is often created by laws, racially or religiously targeted, and policed by selective enforcement of those laws according to stereotypes. Forming black ghettos has been a phenomenon initiated by fear. The rich fear the black poor without knowing much about them, and, moreover, they do not want to know much about them. Hence W. E. B. Du Bois’ concept of black folks’ double consciousness, knowledge of matters both black and white, acquired in their capacities as caregivers and hired hands whose work is to minister to all sorts of needs of the wealthy.
Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust was ghettoized by Hollywood’s incomprehension of it when she tried to raise support for the creation of the film, then again for its screening at festivals after it found funding by other means, then for commercial screenings through distributors and for its marketing to the public.
As Toni Cade Bambara puts it in her Preface to Daughters of the Dust [the book], the motion picture industry “invisibilizes” cultural workers from Chicana/o, Native American, Asian American, Pacific Islander and African American communities. The list gets longer and the issues increase as international filmmakers in Africa, China, Japan, South Asia and the Middle East produce their own films for export. The taste of U.S. audiences for foreign films, even of European origin, diminishes as soon as subtitles appear. Those films are usually relegated to art theaters with a smaller seating space.
Bambara tells us, “Dash’s decision to cast her film with the USA Independent Black Cinema Movement calls our attention to her capsulization of film practices developed since the 1960s.” This path, especially focused on black women, was Dash’s act of going beyond the economic and psychological Hollywood-created Pale to which filmmakers, especially women filmmakers of color, were and still are confined. Sometimes those boundaries were not even articulated by prospective producers to themselves, much less to the filmmaker. They were taken for granted as a barrier against that which is automatically unsuitable.
“Hollywood studios were generally impressed with the look of the film,” Dash comments in Daughters of the Dust [the book], “but somehow could not grasp the concept. They could not process the fact that a black woman filmmaker wanted to make a film about African American women at the turn of the 19th century — particularly a film with a strong family, with characters who weren’t living in the ghetto, killing each other and burning things down. And there weren’t going to be any explicit sex scenes, either. They thought the film would be unmarketable,” she said.
“I always knew,” she wrote,” I wanted to make films about African American women. To tell stories that had not been told. To show images of our lives that had not been seen…
“I was told over and over again that there was no market for the film … I was hearing mostly white men telling me, an African American woman, what my people wanted to see. In fact, they were deciding what we should be allowed to see. I knew that was wrong.” (Daughters of the Dust [the book]
Those were the walls of unawareness, incomprehension, fear, and possibly even repulsion that contributed to Hollywood’s reticence to accept Dash’s film. They did not believe it could appeal to large audiences. They miscalculated.
Daughters of the Dust ‘s strengths were hard to arrange into categories, as its characteristics were far from conventional. The film invited viewers to consider, possibly for the first time, Gullah women and the cultural inheritance they are entrusted to preserve. It was not a documentary, an educational piece of ethnography, but in bell hooks’ words, in dialogue with Julie Dash, a “work set within a much more poetic mythic universe” (Daughters of the Dust [the book]).
There was a mysterious quietude about the sight of Peazant family members strolling meditatively along their endless-seeming beach front or frolicking with abandon on the strand, completely at home. The idea of black farmers and fishermen in 1920 being at ease, wearing their formal, handmade finery on their special-occasion day, brought an intriguing contrast of refinement seen against the barrier island’s coastal ruggedness.
Arthur Jafa’s stunning cinematography was full of hypnotizing visual poetry and was accompanied by subtle music (a harp rippling or a delicate flute blending with rhythmic hand beats on talking drums). As one group of family members or another came into view, a variety of atmospheres was revealed in the background: ocean, beach, woodlands with trees unique to the marine setting, the swamp with its Ibo relic, and finally the river inlet.
One of the most striking, quintessentially mythic images in the film is the sight of that relic, a wooden statue, male figurehead from a slave ship (perhaps representing an escape in itself from the “Wanderer” that brought the last captured people to Ibo Landing). The figure floats slowly, supine, through the water. The Peazants would see it in different parts of the swamp, and in different lights, any time they strolled beside the water or walked in it, shallow as it was. The figurehead would be permanently staring at the sky, motionless yet seemingly impelled to drift, borne along by time, a constant memory to the Gullahs of their Ibo heritage.
There is, too, throughout Daughters of the Dust a physical beauty of the Peazant women, each unique, with different skin tones and styles of how they wear their hair, how they dress, and how they carry themselves with a graceful air of self-possession, something that runs in the family. We see them walking in a line down the beach, picnicking, standing in a circle as they share a secret. We see them in fleeting close-ups as they move through the woods or lean against a tree. We see them in moments of stillness, observing a spouse a few feet away, and we often see Eula in three-quarter view. She is the young mother-to-be who has married Eli Peazant, and whom her sophisticated relative, Yellow Mary, refers to affectionately as a truly “back-water” Geechee girl. In Eula’s close-ups we see an exceptionally expressive face, her eyes full of urgency and her mouth tightening as she speaks with all the eagerness and sincerity she feels.
The aesthetic elements of the film aren’t discrete phenomena, as singled out here. They are a whole that has been elegantly woven together. One of its threads is a blue indigo theme, with flashbacks to a time when Gullah women pounded indigo plants into blue paste that plantation owners would have workers make into indigo fabric dyes. The matriarch, Nana Peazant, wears an indigo blue dress, and symbolically Julie Dash shows Nana with hands dyed indigo blue. We see, too, Eula’s unborn child (before she is actually born) as a spirit already taking her place as the family’s newest member, dressed demurely as she soon will be in life, with a blue ribbon in her hair.
Other references to Peazant textiles are quilts made by the women and seen frequently as young and old stir under quilted covers whose close-ups look like undulating mounds, soft squares that mimic ocean waves.
The clothing worn by both the men and women exhibit a typically 19th-century sense of finesse, the women in long dresses with various decorative, white, criss-crossed appliqués worn at the neck and halfway up their brown arms where they reach billowing cotton sleeves. Simpler versions of those long dresses are worn by the girls, but with bits of intricate embroidery added and simpler versions of the men’s formal clothing are worn by the boys, well tailored suits with white, collarless shirts and no ties under either jackets or vests.
On that day in 1902, the Peazants’ story takes place between two bookends as it were. First is the arrival of a barge steered slowly through the inlet by men using stripped wooden paddles, splashing as they move closer to Ibo Landing. Arriving are the glamorous and somewhat wealthy Yellow Mary and her “even yellower” companion, Trula. Soon they are joined for a short ride by the photographer, Mr. Snead, and Viola Peazant, who has hired him to apply his advanced technological skills with the camera and all its paraphernalia to photograph the family and memorialize the day of decision-making when they will determine who shall migrate north and who shall stay behind.
The other bookend is the departure of most of the Peazants, as they are being rowed out of the inlet slowly. They have a similar barge and similar boatmen, but now there is the air of a processional, a journey more than to the North but to another realm, the Unknown. Those who will stay behind look on with the deepest apprehension and resignation as they watch their loved ones leave, possibly never to return.
Only one young Peazant is no longer present at the departure. She is Iona, who has eloped before anyone can stop her. Haagar, her mother, has tried, but Iona has ridden away on horseback with St. Julian Last Child, a lone Cherokee survivor on the island after the rest of his tribe has been forced to migrate to Oklahoma. Now he and Iona have mutually fallen in love, and with their elopement a new link in the chain of tradition has been forged — one of transcultural exchange and harmony, it is hoped. (See Daughters of the Dust [the book].)
All of the beauty of the film was finally recognized when Julie Dash attended a PBS (Public Broadcasting System) retreat in Utah and met the director of program development for American Playhouse, the group that agreed to provide most of the funding for Daughter of the Dust. They had the means to enable shooting to begin and to see it through to most of its completion.
Dash’s step-by-step, matter-of-fact descriptions in her book of how all the obstacles to making the film were overcome, and of the patience it took to reach her goal, reveal the tremendous dedication to the story she wished to tell and to the actors and crew she had assembled. It exhibited amazing persistence on her part, as it had taken years of creation from a roughly hewn concept, to ten years of research, to fundraising, to the first shooting, then five years more of shooting and additional fundraising until the film made its debut at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah, in 1991.
Its feature-film opening at the Film Forum in New York took place on January 15,1992. It sold out every show of a long run. Julie Dash was the first black woman to accomplish filmmaking at this level. Daughters of the Dust became a classic narrative film, garnering many awards along the way, and after 25 years it has been completely restored for new generations to see.
In one of their many conversations after Yellow Mary’s arrival at Ibo Landing, Yellow Mary told Eula where she and Trula would head when they went north. It was Nova Scotia. “Nova Scoria will be good to me,” Yellow Mary mused. Something, however, intervened. For the sake of newcomers to Daughters of the Dust, what that was shall be for them to witness onscreen for themselves.
Many black citizens of the United States, mindful of their history in general and of the Great Migration north from the southern states, which was in full swing by 1910, know something of the concentration of black immigrants settled in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick but not the full story by far. According to historical records, the first black person to arrive in Nova Scotia did so in 1604, and there have been numerous waves of black settlement there ever since (one during the War of 1812, and another, for instance, with the migration of many people from the Caribbean islands circa 1950.)
Yellow Mary can be inferred from the screenplay to have had a large measure of black cosmopolitan traits at heart, which Eula seems to draw out of her with wide-eyed curiosity. One of their conversations in Daughters of the Dust seems to go against the stereotype of black Canadians as simply black folks who crossed the U.S.-Canadian border and brought an unchanging U.S. culture with them, without the transcultural changes that migrations entail. This afterword celebrates in a small way, via the beginnings of a list centering on nine black women filmmakers, some of those changes that black Canadian film culture has developed with U.S., British, and Caribbean infusions, but combined with a many-stranded European and Indigenous Canadian cultural history plus growth uniquely its own.
AFRICAN CANADIAN WOMEN FILMMAKERS
CHRISTINE BROWNE (b. 1965 in London. Kittitian Canadian)
KAREN CHAPMAN (2nd generation Canadian – British Columbia. Afro (Guyanese) and Indo-Caribbean heritage)
MARTINE CHARTRAND (b. 1962 in Montréal. Haitian Canadian)
JENNIFER HODGE DE SILVA (b. 1951 in Montréal. African Canadian)
ALISON DUKE (b. in Canada, lives in Toronto. African Canadian)
SYLVIA HAMILTON (b. Beechville, Nova Scotia. African Nova Scotian)
STELLA MEGHIE (b. in Toronto. Jamaican Canadian)
CLAIRE PRIETO (b. 1945. Trinidadian Canadian)
FRANCES-ANNE SOLOMON (b. 1966 in London. Trinidadian heritage, Caribbean British Canadian)
As we observe that the multitudes of heritages operate in competition with each other (“mine is bigger than yours…”), we find that ramifications of this scramble for influence pervade a multitude of cultural, political and economic spheres. In what follows, I’ve jotted down ruminations regarding some of them.
Language: “my language is bigger than your dialect”
When studying languages and dialects (as I have been doing now for several decades), one quickly becomes aware of a fundamental fact: despite widespread conceptions to the contrary, there are no superior or inferior languages. We only need to look at the prestige of the classical languages, in particular Latin. When I decided in 7th grade high school to enrol in French rather than Latin, my mother huffed contemptuously, insisting that knowledge of Latin was the best foundation for all other languages. I suppose what she meant was that learning Latin gave you a firm grasp on grammar, teaching you grammatical concepts such as case, aspect, modality, etc. But many other living languages can do that also, including German, with its four different cases. (Growing up in Germany, I had already learned about the concept of case in primary school).
This obsession about Latin (widespread in my family to the present day, as in many other families) is really an obsession with cultural prestige: educated people should know Latin. (Why? Wouldn’t knowledge of living languages make cultural exchange and open-mindedness so much easier?) Furthermore, this obsession has cost speakers and writers of English dearly, as it is at the root of a number of nonsensical prescriptive grammar rules, such as “Don’t split an infinitive.” Why on earth not? (“Don’t say ‘to boldly go where no one has gone before’.”)
This “rule” can be traced back to precisely the obsession with classical languages. Here, the infinitival construction (as in many modern languages) was made up of the verb stem plus an infinitival word ending (a suffix). And since one cannot generally insert an adverb or some other word into a word, it is clear that in Latin, infinitives will never be split (and the same goes for Spanish, French, and German…). English, however, developed the to infinitive at some stage of its evolution, expressing the infinitive by a separate word to. Hence the possibility of a split infinitive construction. Language stigmas remain a social marker for those who wield power and privilege in a society.
We don’t need to look as far back as ancient Greek or classical Latin. In 1996, the Oakland School Board in California passed a resolution that recognized the dialect spoken by many African Americans as a legitimate linguistic system and thus a language, not a “mere” dialect.
The resolution had a very practical aim, namely to rectify systemic problems in the educational system that statistically disadvantaged African American students, by correctly putting its finger on a language issue: their home language was sufficiently different from the variety of English taught in schools to warrant the latter being taught as a second language. Furthermore, it determined that the teaching of Standard English should not lead to the eradication of Ebonics (as the Oakland School Board named the variety of English more commonly known by linguists as African American English or inner-city English).
In spite of having widespread support among linguists, the resolution created an uproar in the media, partly due to misconceptions and misunderstandings, and released a tsunami of slurs against this speech variety. The latter was frequently denigrated as “slang” or “bad/deficient grammar” despite the fact that linguistic research has long shown this language variety to be based on a systematic mental grammar as rich and coherent as that of any other variety of English.
Linguist Wayne O’Neil from MIT characterized the reaction as follows: “Why the outrage over the Oakland resolution from the media and from the politicians? In my own view it has to do with the fact that in the United States – as in many parts of the industrialized world – language prejudice remains a “legitimate” prejudice: that is, one can generally say the most appalling things about people’s speech without fear of correction or contradiction. The exercise of this prejudice in the United States is often, but not only, a shield for racism (and classism), thus allowing the holders of racist views a freedom no longer readily acceptable in civil society.” O’Neil also adroitly notes that the lower the social prestige and standing of a speech community in a society, the less valued their particular speech variety will be. (O’Neil 1998:42)
In other words, the prestige of a language or a dialect is defined purely in terms of economic power and socio-political considerations. The ramifications of these social classifications can be disastrous for children who happen to be born into a stigmatized language variety. (See Perry & Delpit, 1998.)
Art: who gets funded?
Confined to my bed nursing a minor indisposition, I am privy to a concert rehearsal in the next room: a piano, a santur and a gheychak are vying for acoustic space. This is my initiation to the gheychak, an instrument I still have not seen, as my first experience of it is an aural perception through a wooden door. As I marvel at its beautiful, sandy and haunting sounds, I drift off to sleep, emerging intermittently from oneiric flurries. I awaken fully only when the rehearsal is breaking up. The next day repeats the experience, my cat and I happily self-imprisoned and cuddled together in a thick duvet, daydreaming and dozing through sequences of astonishing mixes of sounds and timbres.
A few days later, the concert takes place in a popular basement hangout in the Mile End that has an indistinct Greenwich Village feel. The music starts and – now experienced with all my senses awakened – is splendid. It is unusual not only in its timbral combination, but also in its indefinable genre, with features of jazz, of contemporary music, of electronica, and original arrangements of classical pieces. Imagine hearing an Indian raga played in a trio with a piano, or the airs of Erik Satie’s Gnossiennes with a gheychak. As the name of the series, Confluence, evokes, there is a flowing together of different traditions. It is a truly inclusive music – disenfranchised from the usual categories and ethnic labels.
The echo of the santur and the gheychak still haunting my mind, the following week I attend a conference at Université de Montréal entitled La musique, reflet de notre société? Interesting talks by three invitees. The first speaker ends with something to the effect that if you want to learn about Russian society of the 20th century, listen to Shostakovich; if you want to learn about Tibetan society listen to… and so on. During question period I ask: ‘If you want to know about our Québécois contemporary society, what do you listen to?’ My question, as I explain, addresses the fact that we listened to an hour of talks on music and our society, and not once was any reference made to the considerable cultural diversity of our society. In fact, it was all about Eurocentric music: la musique sérieuse is apparently limited to music based on Occidental traditions.
My question, still essentially unanswered, is later echoed by another member of the audience who brings up the crucial aspect of power, privilege and funding: “Who decides which music is taught in music departments? Who decides which projects are funded by art councils? Who has the power, and who gets the money?” So here is the (trivial) question: is the “bigger” your musical (cultural) heritage, the bigger the budget you may tap into?
And while there have been efforts to acknowledge cultures not rooted in Europe, with special programs and grants reserved for art and music from other parts of the world, not all musicians are interested in being relegated to the category of world music or parcelled up and typecast as producing “ethnic” music.
Where does this leave music that is not riding on a particular identity or genre?
Laïcité and religion: I’ll keep my cross but you take off your turban
I overhear a conversation at a dinner gathering: one person reports that in Montréal, the mosques are all full to the brim while the churches are all empty. An argument instantly breaks out. “How do you know this? When have you been to a mosque?’” “Everyone knows this, It’s obvious,” and so on. Without getting involved, I say to myself, “Of course the churches are empty, silly. Montréal is the city of a thousand churches and they have all been deserted since the Révolution tranquille. Mosques, on the other hand, have presumably been built on an on-demand basis in recent decades.”
Rethinking the conversation later, I am struck by another question: Why does it matter? Let’s say it is true. Who cares? Why should we care? Why should it bother anyone whether non-Christian religions are building and filling mosques or synagogues or temples? Yes, the Québécois suffered immensely under the rule of the Catholic Church for centuries before liberating themselves not only from their English oppressors but also from the Church, in one fell swoop. But why should Muslims praying in mosques in large numbers bother anyone? It is not like there is any danger that the Muslim religion will overcome them and force them back to piety. The irrational fear of “the Other” is indeed most pronounced when it comes to Muslims. This way of stereotyping also glosses over the fact that not all Muslims are practising; there are secular Muslims, just as there are secular Jews and Christians.
In the wake of the controversy around Loi 62 last year, I did an informal survey in the writing class I was teaching, asking students how many Muslims they thought lived in Québec. As I expected, the percentages were grossly overestimated (between 20% and 10% of the population). As a matter of fact, Muslims account for fewer than 2% of the Québec population, although the percentage rises to over 9% in the Greater Montréal region. How many wear a niqab, or a burqa? First, only half of Québec Muslims are women, and only a tiny percentage of them cover their faces. The number of women who might be covering up entirely has been estimated at less than 50 to at most 100!
Loi 62, proposed by Québec’s Liberal government, just like its cousin La charte des valeurs proposed by the Parti Québécois a few years earlier, has nothing to do with religious neutrality and everything to do with political strategy. It is a divisive ploy under the cover of laïcité that has done more harm than good to the unity of people living in Québec. (As in other areas, Québec is copying the follies of its European French colonial roots only too willingly.) It is also very transparently an electoral ploy: the polls tell us that over 90% of Francophones and over 60% of Anglophones support Loi 62, which would restrict these few women from receiving public services. Politicians anxious for voters are thus ruthlessly exploiting widespread prejudices among the population, while at the same time exacerbating divisive tendencies.
I recently revisited the magnificent novel Cassandra, written in the early ‘80s by East German author Christa Wolf. In it, Wolf does something quite extraordinary: she retells the myth of Cassandra and the Trojan War by giving the narrator’s voice, in stream-of-consciousness, to Cassandra herself. In Wolf’s Cassandra, the Trojan War was first and foremost about control over the Hellespont (commonly known as the Dardanelles). The story of Paris and the beautiful Helen are recast as a mere cover used in order to stir up warmongering. Cassandra recounts in great detail the changes to Trojan society in preparation of the war: the increasing patriarchal constellation excluding women from decision-making processes, the stirring up of hatred against the Achaean people, the gradual dissolution of rational thought and argument, and crucially, the increasing emphasis on state security (Eumelos’ police state).
Cassandra herself is portrayed as a person who dares to question these developments and the loss of sense and meaning in society as a whole, and who has the courage to see what is obvious and state it. For that she is persecuted and cast out, settling among women of marginalized ethnicities, with whom she ends up feeling happier than inside the city walls and the palace of Troy. Wolf manages to write about an ancient myth, one of the oldest literary works of Europe, in terms that are more lucid than most mainstream representations of contemporary wars. In other words, she attempts to undermine a popular mythic belief, and may well underscore the contrary perspective.
Yes … plus ça change plus c’est la même chose. Needless to repeat here that the Iraq war had nothing to do with liberating the Iraqi people from a brutal dictator with weapons of mass destruction, nor did the lasting Afghanistan invasion (the “good war”) have anything to do with liberating women from the Taliban, but was all about geopolitical control. And what to make of the warmongering toward Russia and Iran? A population must be well prepared – manipulated through demeaning stories and images, fear mongering, and ethnic alienation – before it will accept its leaders’ warmongering and warfaring that is so destructive to its own society, in terms of security, economy, ethics, etc. Whence the very pragmatic function of the profound Islamophobia in Western societies: to ensure the population’s acquiescence toward decades-long wars against Muslim countries.
Multiculturalism and diversity
Let us return to Québec, which is an interesting example regarding the question of heritage. As Charles Taylor (2010) argues, multiculturalism, which Canada has made its societal trademark, eschewing any other distinct cultural identity for itself, is understandably ill-suited for Québec with its existential need to protect its francophone identity. In other words, Québec cannot abstain from its particular cultural heritage in a way that the rest of Canada can. For this reason, Québec favours interculturalism and integration. But this differently framed model (mostly differing in terms of framing, according to Taylor, op. cit.) should not lead to the kind of ethnic cultural protectionism that we so often encounter here. The perception of diversity as a threat to the French language (protected by existing laws) and to Québécois cultural heritage is sad, and often becomes ugly. In a disturbing Le Devoirarticle, Christian Rioux compares diversity to a fish counter at the supermarket that mainly offers exotic but low-quality imported fish and only rarely has local varieties. This is hardly an isolated rant, but the evoked smell of none-too-fresh fish did make it stick out.
In Québec’s Charte des valeurs and its cousin Loi 62, the size of heritage comes out neatly: take off your hijabs, kippahs and turbans (if you want jobs), but our big cross on the mountain and the smaller one in the National Assembly stay put; they are not religious symbols, but purveyors of our (“big”) cultural heritage.
Identity politics versus class struggle
Evoking a cultural or religiously distinct enemy is not restricted to external wars, but is equally of importance internally as a way to subdue the masses – the so-called 99% – before the thieving 1%. Ideally, frustrations are redirected toward the Other, scapegoating immigrants, refugees and underprivileged visible minorities by right-wing demagogues. Non-rightwingers are more nuanced about it: certain members of visible minorities are admitted into top circles, provided they take on the modus operandi of the existing elite. The others are accepted as “minorities,” honoured in rhetoric only. (Remember Hillary Clinton’s reference to certain Black youth as “superpredators,” while her husband ensured that the private industrial prison complex would prosper with a steady population drawn overwhelmingly from African Americans? Remember Obama’s acting as “deporter in chief?” Often the liberals get much of the “dirty work” of the conservatives done with no or little resistance, since they manage to couch it in “nicer” terms.)
Identity politics itself has been manipulated in terms of separating identities and causes – divide and conquer applies everywhere. So while the rightwing approach involves overt scapegoating, the liberal approach is to superficially grace various identities (LBGTQ, women, Blacks…) while preventing genuine class struggle from occurring. For the privileged class, the idea is to maintain their privilege for themselves. For the disenfranchised of the dominant class (i.e., the white working class), the idea is to find a scapegoat.
So, returning to the theme of this issue, the calculation of the size of one’s heritage is directly correlated to the proportion of power and privilege one enjoys in society.
[NOTE: A different and shorter version of this essay, with another title, has appeared elsewhere.]
Kabari ani? How are you? Hoori. Good.
I introduce Morga, an invented language, with the above phrase, in my forthcoming novel, Land for Fatimah. In the book, Anjali, the Indo-Canadian protagonist, has taken up a posting in Kamorga, an imaginary east-African country. Despite her five languages (as calculated by her Canadian boss), she is struggling with Morga.
Living as I do between different languages and cultures makes for a stimulating and interesting existence, though not necessarily an easy one. There are some questions that confront me as a minority writer writing in English, and I take them up in this essay.
What do you do when a lot of the reality you portray takes place in a non-western culture where English is only one of the languages?
My solution: sprinkle your prose with words from other languages. As I explain in “A Note on Language” in Land for Fatimah, “I strongly believe in using non-English words and phrases in my fiction to bring home to the reader, directly and tangibly, the fact that s/he is reading about a non-Anglo culture.”
Growing up in India, I learnt my first language, Marathi, at home. I was sent to an English school right from kindergarten. Hindi, the language of the state I lived in, became my second language at school. In the Indian Constitution, Hindi is the designated language of the Central Government, and so is English. In addition to these two, India has 20 other “official” languages. Generally speaking, every time you cross a state boundary, you are in another “language territory.”
I was in my early 20s when I came across an essay by a Hong Kong-born writer of Chinese origin who described English as his principle language. Thanks to him, I found a way to describe the place of English in my life.
When I became a journalist, I exuberantly introduced some Hindi words into an English article. (I worked for English publications.) I was challenged by my editor, who came from southern India and knew little Hindi/Urdu, which are north Indian languages. Her reaction also reflected the complicated language politics in India. Reluctantly, she allowed me to retain a few words, with the English translation in brackets.
This was around the time that Salman Rushdie “decolonized the English language” through the innovative use of that language, which included sprinkling Hindi and Urdu words throughout “Midnight’s Children,” his groundbreaking novel that won the Booker Prize. He did not explain the “foreign” words.
Zoom to Canada in 2012. Guernica Editions had accepted my manuscript entitled Bombay Wali and other stories. (Bombay Wali means a woman from Bombay.) Characteristically, it contained some Hindi, Urdu and Marathi words. I suggested putting an asterisk next to the words and explaining them in footnotes. My editor, Michael Mirolla, rightly protested. Some words then would have had five asterisks or more! A makeshift solution was found in explaining a word here and there in the main text and adding a glossary explaining other words and phrases. In Land for Fatimah, we italicized the “foreign” words and phrases, as is customary, and put the translations right next to them.
I have asked myself if naming my book A Woman from Bombay instead of Bombay Wali could have resulted in more sales. I don’t have regrets, but the thought lingers.
The language issue is somewhat easier to tackle than style. “Use the active voice, short sentences and don’t overdo the adjectives.” This advice, commonly doled out to writers, always made me uncomfortable. True, it is intended more for non-fiction, but it permeates everything. But how can I actualize it, given the complexity of Indian cultures – and now diasporic cultures – that I write about?
When you’re dealing with a layered, mediated history, things are rarely clear-cut. Indian mythology is circular, dense, dazzling and inconsistent, but still influential today, while Indian culture also reflects a myriad of other influences, including western.
“Use ‘very’ sparingly,” was another piece of advice I received. Really? India is a “very” country, was my internal response. As for adjectives, I tend to gravitate towards a string of them to describe something. (See example in paragraph above!)
As a writer, an important goal you are supposed to strive for is finding your voice. Finding my voice while following the instructions mentioned above feels akin to breathing deeply and evenly while doing a complicated yoga pose!
Lately I came upon an essay by Rahul Varma, artistic director of Teesri Duniya (Third World), a “diverse” theatre company based in Montréal. The essay spoke to me:
“Hierarchy is associated with cultural hegemony, where artistic excellence is mediated by race and dominant culture. As a consequence, the excellence of visible minorities’ art is judged from the Occidental viewpoint that upholds standards of the dominant group, pre-supposing visible-minority art, which is different in form and content [emphasis mine], as inferior. Their art world is stereotypically perceived as informal, low-status and folkloric, their cultures exotic. Folklore has a nostalgic appeal to the Occidental mindset on account of its exoticism, which feeds into its stereotypes of what visible-minority art should be. ‘Othering’ is not just a political phenomenon, but extends into the domain of the arts.
This is why a hegemonic process immersed in Occidentalism fails to equitably evaluate racialized companies, which refuse to attune to the stereotypes and nostalgia of the dominant group.”
Post-colonial theory began to explore these themes decades ago, and diaspora literature and writing has spawned other related analysis. Style is not only shaped by race, class, gender, nationality, etc. – artistic tastes and standards are also set and applauded, or denigrated, by elites. In Maharashtra, my home state in India, dalit literature – which later came to be recognized as a dynamic and innovative force – was initially rejected by the established Brahmanical literary circles as unacceptable in terms of language usage, style and subject matter. There is a similar trajectory for black writing and culture in the U.S.A.
My own writing style had changed after living for two decades in Canada. While Bombay Wali reflects Indian English, idiom and usage, Land for Fatimah is more of a hybrid. This evolution, in my case at least, has been natural rather than imposed.
Along with language and style, there is the actual content of literature to consider. Naben Ruthnum, in his penetrating, long-form essay, Curry, Eating, Reading and Race (Coach House Books, 2017), describes the evolution of what he terms “curry books.” He writes about “books with various brown hands, red fabrics, clutched mangoes and shielded faces” that he, of Mauritian-Indian ancestry, growing up in Kelowna, British Columbia, Canada, turned away from as a child.
An established Indo-Canadian woman writer whom I know, whose back-cover book photograph included the statue of a Hindu god, remarked: “We are not even religious, but my publisher insisted on that photo.” This indeed is peddling exotica.
Delving into “curry books” as an adult, Ruthnum found greater variation and talent in them than he had expected, but nevertheless, there were recurrent themes of South Asian immigrant lives in the West with the nostalgic pull of the motherland, and the “pure-if backward East in opposition to the corrupt-but-free West.”
Ruthnum, like Varma, talks about the difficulties faced by the western art/publishing establishment when dealing with visible minority playwrights/writers who buck the conventions of Indian/South Asian diasporic literature and defy convenient labelling. He also talks about the self-censorship regarding subject matter, which immigrant and visible minority writers may practice, given that curry books have established a readership and a formula for achieving success.
On the language issue, Ruthnum says: “There’s ingrained colonialism and empire in the mere existence of any brown narrative written or filmed in a non-Indian language: for the ones in English, the connection is inescapable.”
In acknowledging the inventive use of English, he mentions Salman Rushdie, among others. Rushdie has been acknowledged by many, including Indo-Canadian film director Deepa Mehta, for having a liberating influence and showing what could be done in rendering the Indian reality in English.
Among the lesser-known Indian writers is Alan Sealy, an Anglo-Indian writer who is also, like Rushdie, a Booker Prize winner. I encountered his novel The Trotter Nama (1988) in my youth. His infectious play with language in this book has stayed with me. The influence of countless early Indian writers and poets who confidently claimed English as their own cannot be underestimated.
Reflecting on my own arc, going from a collection of short stories set in India, to a novel set in Africa (albeit with an Indo-Canadian protagonist), to a manuscript of sensuous stories set not only in different places but also in mythological settings, Indian and western, I wonder about market appeal. Where is the coherence of themes and geography that is supposed to help gain a loyal following? And yet, isn’t an imagination that roams freely an asset to a writer, and to literature as a whole?
Right theory, wrong universe, perhaps?
How many times have I had literary journals amply praise a short story and urge me to keep writing and submitting, before rejecting it with the words: “this does not fit our issue”? Far too many. Could the lack of fit be attributed to the language, style and content? This has led me to seek out journals that explicitly publish “diverse” writing, resulting in publication, yes, but also deepening the ghettoization that exists and is perhaps becoming more entrenched in contemporary Canadian literature.
I remember a conversation with a Nigerian-Canadian woman writer at Montréal’s Blue Metropolis Literary Festival a few years ago. It was about her first novel set in Nigeria. “People are interested in my book, but when it comes to buying, they say, oh, we already have the book of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie,” she said.
Adichie is a well-known, best-selling, Nigerian-American woman writer. Worryingly, this sort of quota concept also seems to inform the publishing world.
At the same time, given the greater openness to new cultures in Canada today, one hopes that literature from minority writers is also being better received. When a publisher introduces writers from minority groups, a greater effort at marketing is needed, at least to begin with. Although the mere selection of minority writers might be seen as a courageous step, particularly in new genres for the publisher, real change is elusive without that extra effort of highlighting the writer and the work.
If literature and the arts help open hearts and minds – and there is research that shows that reading fiction helps people develop empathy – then minority artists and writers indeed have something to contribute, in more ways than one.
“Like many writers, I believe that literature not only defies borders, but it brings the periphery to the centre. It draws our gaze to the crevices and the minute, the cracks in the epic, the multiple selves within the individual. It adds labyrinth upon labyrinth to our shared experience of the times in which we are now living.”[ii]
A noble and uplifting statement! One hopes that the ideas contained in it are accepted and applied by the various actors and sectors that make up the Canadian literary landscape.
If you are unlucky enough to live in Bangladesh, Nepal, North West India, the Caribbean or US Gulf Coast states right now, you are probably knee-deep in that old platitude, “What goes up (warm moist air) must come down (torrential rain).” In Canada, on the other hand, you may have been lulled into believing that the laws of gravity do not apply. The universal principle seems to have been waived in favour of the Canadian variant, “What goes up (property prices), goes up. Bloomberg News, housed in New York City, begs to differ.
“As safe as houses,” says the adage. Most people believe it has to do with the solidity of bricks and mortar, but the phrase seems to have been coined as a marketing ploy shortly after the not dissimilar expression, “as safe as the Bank of England.” And “safe” means certain or secure, not physically solid. It was developed as a selling slogan for real estate after the railroad investment bubble burst in the early decades of the 19th century. (Bubbles have that unfortunate propensity, but are rarely recognized for what they are until they do in fact burst.) At that time, housing was not viewed as a profitable investment, but rather as a reliable way of holding one’s wealth that couldn’t easily be stolen.
Recessions can be expected at least once a decade, depressions twice a century. Recession is usually followed by periods of investor caution before new “sure-fire” areas of investment come along, and caution is again scattered to the wind.
Economic crises are nothing new. The infamous 17th-century black tulip and 18th-century South Sea bubbles are simply older versions of the 20th-century dot.com or 21st-century sub-prime mortgage boom – and bust. Tulipmania is the first extensively documented economic bubble, but they all follow a similar pattern. For those not familiar with that story, tulips were introduced to the Netherlands as an exotic rarity from Turkey in 1593. Thanks to skilful speculative promotion, by the time their bubble burst in 1637, a single black tulip bulb was worth more than a wealthy merchant’s house, and many merchants sold their houses to get their hands on them. So heavily invested was the Dutch economy that despite government intervention and commitment to support tulip bulb prices at 10% of their previous peak, the crash that followed flipped the Netherlands into a decades-long recession.
The South Sea bubble took the idea one step further. At least tulip traders had traded tulips. The South Sea Company, which never traded in the South Sea, cut out all pretence and sold mere promises. Based on the economically successfully Dutch East India Trading Company, which did trade products, particularly slaves, Britain’s South Sea Company simply traded debt. How modern! Its collapse in 1720 threw the British and many other economies into recession.
When share prices collapsed in the 1840s’ recession, many people lost a lot of money, even if it was money they had never seen and could not count physically. Historically, housing was rarely viewed as a great investment. As bookkeeping practices started to be standardized in the 19th century, it became easier to follow the rise and fall of markets. House ownership was viewed as a hedge against loss. Homes did not necessarily increase in value but owners did not lose, and people who owned enough of them were guaranteed steady incomes. From the 1840s on, house prices hardly rose, and following a worldwide recession towards the end of World War I, they fell. That recession was followed by the roaring twenties’ investment boom (read “bubble”) which most people now know led to the 1929 crash and the 1930s’ Great Depression. Property prices fell, not dramatically but enough to worry the wealthy, and only started to rise significantly during the 1950s. That rise reflected more than the upturn in the world economy. It was a tribute to successful marketing and to the ability of the movers and shakers of the world to build successful alliances.
In 1935 and 1936, legislation was introduced worldwide to regulate banking and the financial sector. Consumer banking was separated from investment banking, and insurance was decoupled from the banks. Measures aimed at preventing a repeat of the 1929 stock market crash were introduced. They largely succeeded. The financial sector was keen to fight them but needed to avoid attracting public opprobrium.
World War II provided great opportunities for people who had money to invest. The Bush family in the USA, for example, benefitted enormously, and had the McCarthy Committee (the House Un-American Activities Committee) not come along to persecute anyone who was not a friend of Senator McCarthy, George W. Bush’s grandfather would have faced war crime trials for having helped finance the Nazis in Germany. Instead, charges against Bush were dropped.
However, to the consternation of many involved in financial exploitation, from the wreckage of World War II arose an international community becoming incarnate in the United Nations. Through the Bretton Woods institutions, it spearheaded a financing system targeting the rebuilding and developing of the shattered world economy through international financial collaborative support for activities centred on economic growth. The World Bank and the IMF were born.
Their early development credentials were impeccable. Founders and many supporters genuinely saw them as enablers for countries struggling economically: those rebuilding after wartime destruction, and those striving to achieve their first economic advancement. For a couple of decades they did a great job, although they focused more on and succeeded in countries which were already economically developed. These two decades were put to good use by those who had other aims.
The bankers and financiers had new champions in Friedrich Hayek – the inspiration behind Milton Friedman and the Chicago School of Economics. In turn, Friedman provided a social and political model for politicians such as Augusto Pinochet, Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. Skilful political and media manipulation popularized Friedman’s views, ensuring that by the early 1980s, large enough numbers of believers in Friedman’s philosophy of monetarism were in position to ensure that policies based on his philosophy could be ushered in. Espousing the philosophy of Ayn Rand, which she called “the virtue of selfishness,” they managed to place Alan Greenspan, one of her cult followers (and they really were a cult), in a crucially influential position as the head of the US Federal Reserve.
Throughout the 50s and 60s, believers in monetarism were planted in universities, government administrations and political parties. Coalitions with right-wing media moguls were nurtured. Promoters of selfishness became significant opinion formers, blocking naysayers. Institutions were effectively taken over. One global group was essential to that process, and its takeover took a couple of decades. That institution, the closest we have ever come to a world government, was the United Nations Organization.
In its early days, opposing power blocs tried to co-opt the UN, but for years the idealism of some of its founders won out. Enlightened, progressive leaders like Sweden’s Dag Hammarskjold became Secretary General. His mysterious death in 1961 in a plane crash in Africa is worth studying, and an international commission of lawyers is currently doing that. But things changed with the appointment of a former Nazi, Austrian Kurt Waldheim, in 1972. Many UN veterans date the decline of UN morality back to his tenure, claiming that part of the change came about because of him selling favours. During his decade, more people came in whose motivations were driven by self-interest and greed, and the importance of exerting influence within the UN started to be recognized.
By the time Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan headed their respective countries in the early 1980s, most of the elements were in place for a clean sweep. There is much talk nowadays of a revolving door between industry and government. Some examples include bankers doubling as civil servants to help ease banking regulations before returning to banking to reap the benefits, and accountants advising on major infrastructure projects before returning to private industry as consultants on those very projects. While companies have always lobbied governments, often in breach of explicit anti-lobbying legislation, the significance of the UN in formulating or encouraging international policy was not well recognized by major wielders of influence until the 1970s. So drug companies, for instance, schemed to get their representatives onto World Health Organisation (WHO) specialist panels where they could push a particular commercial agenda for a particular drug regime or against a specific regulation. The possibilities for corporate enrichment for very little investment were (and still are) vast.
But the financial world’s influence wielders – successors to those who caused the 1929 crash and then benefitted from it – had a broader vision, not unlike that of the founders of the South Sea Trading Company. They aimed to make debt and debt trading so commonplace that everyone on the planet would eventually be caught up in it. That meant developing and imposing strategies that gave ordinary people no choices.
They were worried by the powerful post-WWII trend where governments and public bodies built and provided housing for their populations. Many still view the 1940s to 1970s as a golden era in public housing and services. Public housing investment and the benefits of having populations decently housed at a reasonable cost to each household contributed directly and indirectly to the post-war boom. In the 1950s, the WHO defined “housing poverty” as a situation in which a household was spending more than 10% of its income on housing provision (later rising to 20%). In London, England, where I am writing this article sixty years later, that looks like a fairy tale aspiration. Households here frequently pay over 60% of their income on housing provision.
In 1976, Canada hosted Habitat I, the UN’s first Human Settlements conference, recognizing the importance of the world’s growing urbanization. It showcased some of the world’s most successful housing practices with no single model dominating. Publicly provided, co-operative, co-owned, private rental, co-housing, self-built, community-built housing models and more were presented, studied and compared. Whole new academic disciplines emerged. The United Nations set up UN Habitat, the Nairobi-based UN Centre for Human Settlements (UNCHS). Governments committed to massively ambitious (and possibly unachievable) programmes like the Hundred Thousand Houses programme of Sri Lanka, launched by then Housing Minister Ranasinghe Premadasa in the late 1970s, subsequently expanded to the Million Houses Programme when he became President in the 1980s. McGill University established its Minimum Cost Housing Group focusing on developing countries. Best practices from previous decades were shared and developed further. Significant progress seemed possible. And despite problems, including potential corruption, public provision appeared to be an efficient way of providing housing on a massive scale.
This put public bodies at odds with the followers of Ayn Rand, Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman, whose long-term aim was to force the world population into debt. Limiting the production of housing – like gold, diamonds or oil – could persuade people that housing was something to strive for. The term “aspiration” was employed. Housing supply was limited, bolstering concepts of scarcity, rarity value and ever-rising prices. Having popularized the idea of shrinking the state, they expressed implacable opposition to state provision of anything (except the military), especially housing. Making private housing desirable by limiting its availability clashed with governments’ enthusiastic support for public housebuilding. They also used softer approaches to transform expectations in developing countries. For example, The East Africa Building Society (a savings and loans bank) set up in the late 1950s to promote individual home ownership, had window displays of happy African families with 2.4 children in front of suburban detached houses with a car in the driveway – the East African variant of the American dream. Subsidies to private provision and ownership had certainly helped boost private housebuilding, but not on the scale the monetarists wanted.
Against this, the UN Centre for Human Settlements was training and advising governments and communities on non-private provision (as well as best practices and technical assistance on regulating private housing). These programmes increased public debt in the short term without imposing it directly on the residents of such housing. It took that unholiest of alliances, Reagan and Thatcher, not acting individually but together as representatives of “big debt,” to achieve that change.
In 1980, Margaret Thatcher introduced legislation in Britain forcing local authorities to sell their public housing at a loss (described as a discount), and preventing them from building more to make up the resulting shortfall (despite initial claims that any income generated would be used to build new housing). Almost without exception, people who exercised their right to buy had to incur debt in the form of private mortgages.
Some final pieces of the international jigsaw were ready to be put in place in 1986. Ronald Reagan, publicly attacking the profligacy of the United Nations and frequently citing corruption or maladministration while suggesting the presence of reds under UN beds, cut US funding to the UN and many UN agencies, saying it would only be restored when the US was satisfied. These cuts came on the back of earlier cuts. As the US was the largest funder (at around 25%), this was significant. The UNCHS slashed programmes that would not have garnered the approval of Reagan and Thatcher. Seminars, courses, training schemes intended to help governments develop the best and most appropriate practices to meet their needs were suddenly suspended for lack of funding. Salvation, when it arrived, came from a perhaps unexpected source.
The organization that stepped forward was the World Bank, ready to restore some of the funding that had been cut. All it wanted in return were a few policy tweaks. Reagan and Thatcher appointees were in place to call the shots. The UNCHS Habitat was to promote private housing provision, to be paid for through household debt, mortgages and loans, preferably through banks, building societies and savings and loans banks. The model was established: housing privately built (possibly with a little public seed funding), privately purchased through private financing from private banks or other institutions. To make the change more palatable, the concept of “affordability” was introduced. This had nothing to do with ensuring whether housing was within the financial means of a household, as the old concept of “social rents” had done. It was simply a mathematical formula that determined that housing was “affordable” if it was cheaper than prevailing market rents for the same area and housing type (often by 20%). In discussions about what this would mean for the poorest in the world, it was conceded that the poorest tenth percentile of the population would be excluded. In many poor countries, that is the majority of the population. In other words, the poor, who were unable to pay mortgages, were ignored. The policy simply didn’t apply to them. Governments around the world started to fall in line.
Keen to be viewed as being on message, like many other academic bodies concerned about their funding in the new world order (in this case, Brian Mulroney’s world order), McGill University’s Minimum Cost Housing Group rebranded itself as the Affordable Housing Group, shifting emphasis away from community and public provision-based approaches towards debt-based models. And for good measure, it developed some concrete housing that could be manufactured in Canada and sold to Mexico, obviously via a private mortgage-based housing system. A complete turnabout.
So now, the poor be damned! There was now one single model, based on individual indebtedness, promoted around the world as UN policy and supported by the World Bank, the IMF and multiple governments.
Around this time, Ronald Reagan, through his Vice President and deregulation czar, one George (H.W.) Bush, deregulated US savings and loans banks in 1988. Fortunes were made overnight by their directors or owners. Fortunes were lost by banks and homebuyers. The resultant financial disaster led to a crash in the bodies providing private financing for private housing. It was effectively a dress rehearsal for the crash of 2008. Logic should have decreed that this would derail the programme, but enough people were now in key positions to defend it, so it continued. Soon afterwards, then President George (H.W.) Bush enacted a rescue programme that he promised Congress would cost the US 168 billion dollars. A decade later, Stanford University’s analysis revealed that it actually cost the US about 1.4 trillion dollars. After a short period during which a few minor prosecutions occurred very publicly (the Bush family members who were involved were spared), many of the crashed savings and loans banks were given government funding and returned to the people who had busted them, leaving them to continue doing what they had been doing before. The ripples settled, and it was back to home-financing business as usual until 2008.
In Japan, following a similar property crash in the 1980s, the public never returned to the reckless and extravagant home-buying practices promoted in its boom, and Japanese consumers remain reluctant to take on debt. In Spain, a similar crash left 3 million families without homes, while 3 million non-habitable homes (homes not completed, below habitable standards, with no services or access, or abandoned during construction) stood empty. It is still far from recovering. In China, entire speculative cities stood empty.
By 2007, US debt that had been transformed and resold in packages (“collateralized debt obligations” or CDOs), with slivers of secure debt mixed with poor risk debt, was being marketed as “sub-prime” mortgages. Home ownership by private debt as the sole model had been heavily promoted. People who could never repay had been granted mortgages. House prices had been driven up relentlessly, and people were panicked into buying because if they didn’t do it then, they would miss the boat. The system could not be sustained. It crashed, taking with it some of the biggest banking institutions in the US and around the world.
Somehow, partly as a result of its then stricter banking regulations, Canada avoided the worst of the 2008 crash. US property prices tumbled. In Canada they dipped before rocketing more recently to astonishing, unprecedented levels. People ended up panic-buying into rising markets, convinced that if they didn’t get on the property ladder immediately, they would be excluded for ever. This fear has driven price increases in major Canadian cities to among the highest in the world. Bloomberg has frequently warned they are unsustainable.
As Canadian housing prices start to slide, pundits for the debt system are being recruited to explain that the dip is a blip. Like paid climate-change deniers, they interpret this as a local micro-climate. But Canada, like China, subject to the same global principles, may be about to rediscover that no alliance, however UNholy, can override gravity. What goes up – overheated house prices – eventually comes down in a torrential market collapse.
“About halfway through a particularly tense game of Go held in Seoul, South Korea, between Lee Sedol, one of the best players of all time, and AlphaGo, an artificial intelligence created by Google, the AI program made a mysterious move that demonstrated an unnerving edge over its human opponent. On move 37, AlphaGo chose to put a black stone in what seemed, at first, like a ridiculous position. It looked certain to give up substantial territory—a rookie mistake in a game that is all about controlling the space on the board. Two television commentators wondered if they had misread the move or if the machine had malfunctioned somehow. In fact, contrary to any conventional wisdom, move 37 would enable AlphaGo to build a formidable foundation in the center of the board. The Google program had effectively won the game using a move that no human would’ve come up with.”
Will Knight, MIT Technology Review, July 31, 2017
Recently, a letter and appeal signed by Stephen Hawkins, Tesla/Space-X/Solar Tile and Hyperloop founder Elon Musk, Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, Skype co-founder Jaan Tallinn, linguist and activist Noam Chomsky and 1,000 other robotic scientists and sociologists warned that the ultimate (mis)direction of Artificial Intelligence could be the convergence of the military industrial complex with disruptive technology. https://futureoflife.org/ai-open-letter/
They forewarn that it could result in automated robo-military warfare that would be uncontrollable. An ultimate unholy alliance. Very much like the chain reaction that Rutherford did not really foresee in splitting the atom, and what Oppenheimer, the father of the atom bomb, lamented in resignation: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lb13ynu3Iac
Facebook founder, Mark Zuckerberg, sounding millennially effluvious, criticized Musk, saying that he was pressing a panic button unnecessarily. This is possibly better understood when one realizes that Elon Musk, a manufacturer of tangible products – be it an electric computer that drives you around, a solar tile that is affordable, or experiments with a public transportation system that can get you to Toronto from Montreal in an hour, on the ground – is clearly someone who has integrated at least some of his entrepreneurial zeal to the idea of creating an economy for all, where work, employment, cash or credit flow, eating, living, education and leisure become a reality for the common person. Meanwhile Zuckerberg deals with virtual, social, flirtatious, emoji-based long-distance fucking as the basis for increasing the stock value of his company. Incidentally, those graduate students who map the floor of the ocean and marvel with starry eyes at the shape and forms of sea creatures, topography, ocean shelves and tectonic peculiarities should wake up when they realize that their studies are funded by naval research. The navy is not exactly interested in the mating behaviour of starfish. Hello!
A marketing and sales force automation company is developing an artificial neural network-based customer relations software module that will mimic a biological brain-signalling system. It will try to gauge customer sentiment through voice recognition, email or optical character recognition evaluations. In fact, this is already happening in other sectors of industry. Such systems are attempting to learn to recognize and identify voices, images, vocal tones and facial expressions, and develop a response that will go beyond a databank-based response system. Innocently disruptive technology, is it not? It will, however, not end there. This is evident to some of us who are concerned or already traumatized, while the rest of us – those who are simply uninformed or unserious – are blissfully busy picking our noses, imagining that all science is good science.
The idea that is now quite current is that data-based analytics – the business of spewing out aggregated responses to input data – is not adequate any longer in the world we are intending to live in. Super computers based on 2-bit binary logic are already somewhat passé. We are on the threshold, we are told, of quantum computers. In other words, computers that can maintain a cubic phase. Or to put it another way, computers that operate in a two-in-one state, based on a composite of two rather than on two separate entities like 1 and 0. Computers that make their own selection criteria while being fed data. They can essentially operate at two wavelengths, with a mind of their own operating outside the realm of binary logic.
The quantum target, so to speak, is to develop machines that can be taught to make their own independent choices, learn the language of emotions and short attention-span reactions, and build the language systems that can create satisfaction (or anger) quotients in a fast-moving world. In short, machines will be taught code – sorry, the language that constitutes the building blocks of code – so that they can interact “without data” in a near intelligent and autonomous format. They will create their own machine language, develop their own “emotion.” In effect, they will be “armed” to create their own code, which could be totally indecipherable to the original code and original intent.
Traditionally, the word “algorithm” has been used to develop rules-based programs that have attempted to achieve a linear, exponential or logarithmic response by mining massive amounts of data. There are obvious limitations to such binary code-based decision-making systems, in terms of both data handling and encroachment on that threshold where emotions, feelings and instinctive impulses can be binarized. The shift to being inspired by biological networks is significantly different. Artificial synaptic connections will release neuron-like signals that will have their own decision-making thresholds. For example (and we are not being mischievous here), if a customer hasn’t yet reached a critical degree of irritation, ploys of counter offers or alternatives may be used to push him/her further (which, incidentally, are quite “human” techniques that any car salesman could warm up to).
The original intent of Artificial Intelligence (AI) experimentation was to attempt to come closer to the functioning of the human brain in decision-making processes. A matter of “handling efficiently” large data, as it has now come to be referred to. Today, with increasing ability to process larger amounts of information, we are looking at adjusting the intelligence of the machine itself.
In other words, if we leapfrog forward somewhat – let’s say, as humans – to a point in time where humanity is on the verge of going criminally insane… and instead of applying biological or therapeutic antidotes to insanity, an artificially intelligent machine may try to adjust the insanity level by adjusting its own ethics and morals (using self-diagnosis), and create a state of “being” that could unleash ummm… a robot apocalypse! Ok! That maybe a bit far-fetched, right? Wrong!
Last month when Chinese scientists sliced a photon and sent its partner into space on a satellite, 1,400 km away, the two started changing spin direction instantaneously in relation to each other when one of them was tweaked on the ground, and for the first time teleportation was no longer a Star Trek script word in hippie physics. And did we talk about it much? Not really. We’ve now become gradually immune to impossible physics being made casually possible. Also, coincidentally, our attention span and landmark achievement retention capabilities are now indescribably fleeting, and our responses are non sequitur, so to speak. Laika, Yuri Gagarin and Neil Armstrong are as resonant in our memory banks today as the explanation of gravity, momentum and buoyancy was a couple of centuries ago. We say, “When it happens, we shall see.” And when it does happen, we say, “Ho hum. So what!”
If there is to be an alliance of the unfettered and scientific with the conniving and domineering camp, then this alliance between artificial intelligence and the deep, dark world of military strategists would qualify as the most unholy of alliances. The imperative of regulating AI is undeniable. For my part, I will choose to delude myself that clearer heads will prevail and the sanctimonious new kids on the block won’t meddle in artificial ethics. I will therefore end on an optimistic note:
“Perhaps it was a passing moment of madness after all. There is no trace of it any more. My odd feelings of the other week seem to me quite ridiculous today: I can no longer enter into them.”
Following the global recession of 2008 to 2009, much has been written about the economic “recovery” of Canada and the return to strength and consistency of the Canadian workforce. But this return is really two separate recoveries – one for those lucky Canadians who maintained or regained their full-time employment and suffered few ill effects in the long-term, and the other for those who endured a near-decade-long rollercoaster of increasingly precarious work, uncertain futures, and shaky financial realities.
This is the “new normal,” so stated by Finance Minister Bill Morneau: a Canada where a large number of people – particularly younger people entering the workforce for the first time and those members of the “working poor” most at-risk in economic turmoil – struggle to make ends meet, jumping between contract jobs, temporary gigs, part-time jobs, and various stages of underemployment.
In July 2014, 18,000 full-time jobs disappeared in Canada, only to be offset by 60,000 new part-time jobs. A similar trend haunted all of 2016, a year in which the number of full-time jobs added to the Canadian economy was considered “statistically insignificant.” At the same time, in a recent survey, 52 per cent of workers in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) reported being employed in some version of precarious work. Precarious and part-time work is on the rise.
The volatile economic conditions of Canada’s precariat populace – and those on the periphery in the working class – is evident in the numbers beyond net job creation, and when we dig deep into the financial livelihood of Canadian households, it becomes obvious that we cannot talk about precarity without also talking about poverty.
When you visualize a precarious worker, it might look like the young freelance writer who scrambles between low-paying gigs and unpaid “exposure” work to build a portfolio – and this is the reality for many people. But precarity goes far beyond to include workers across all sectors, including many of the women who make up nearly 70 per cent of all part-time workers.
The 70 per cent of Canadians living in poverty are part of the “working poor:” people who are working, but don’t make enough to get by. Between 1980 and 2005, the average earnings among the least wealthy Canadians fell by 20 per cent. In 2015, the average student leaving university entered the workforce with an average of $27,000 in debt, and last year, for the first time ever, Canadian household debt was greater than its GDP.
All of these conditions leave many workers and their families on the edge, precariously employed and precariously housed, struggling to buy groceries or pay their hydro bills. And the impact of food insecurity, poverty, housing instability and unemployment increases significantly in communities of racialized and Indigenous people.
How did we get here?
While the emergence of precarious work is mostly spoken of as an unwanted but unavoidable new reality, there are actual proponents of the trend towards precarity, though they prefer to describe it in terms of a demand for flexibility on the part of employees and a generational rejection of the traditional 9 to 5, rather than insecurity borne of economic conditions. This mindset doesn’t just belong to those company executives at Uber and Airbnb who make millions off the budding “sharing economy,” but also members of the Ontario Chamber of Commerce and others who argue that the glut of temporary and part-time work is, in part, simply a result of an aging population wanting to extend workforce participation.
It is difficult to accept the idea that employee demand for flexibility is driving the massive and rapid shift away from the secure employment conditions of previous generations to one where only 2 per cent of workers under the age of 20, and 9 per cent of workers between the ages of 20 to 24, have workplace pensions.
It sits under the same umbrella as the age-old argument used by detractors of collective bargaining that employees, on their own, have the same negotiating power as national and international companies staffed with teams of lawyers, and that regulatory labour standards are burdensome to the point of economic stagnation. It is borne of a similar belief that led to the creation of “Right to Work” laws now so entrenched in the United States. At the same time, this perspective seems to fail to consider how precarious work is emerging in Canada alongside other trends, like the decline in unionization rates that has been occurring since the 1980s, and the fact that close to half of temporary workers are under the age of 30, fewer than half of whom are able to transition to full-time work within three years.
Exacerbating this, while the Canadian economy has shifted away from the traditional job structure, the social safety net systems have not. Employment Insurance (EI) continues to operate based on a premise that most workers are employed full-time with a single employer, rather than the part-time hours and erratic, periodic work that many actually experience. Such a structure disadvantages precarious workers, as many of them are unable to accrue sufficient hours to qualify for employment insurance, or are left to receive fewer weeks of EI overall.
In my own experience, it often feels more common than not to meet people who have jumped from unpaid internship to unpaid internship, then from contract job to contract job. It is especially prevalent among those I know seeking to eke out a life through the arts, journalism or activism they are passionate about – roles that once could be found housed within a single employer who could provide them benefits and sick days. These freelancers and contract workers are part of a larger pool of people in their 20s and 30s, many with substantial debts, who see no future of home ownership, long-term company-based careers or other hallmarks of economic success met by many in previous generations.
The full impact of this unpredictability and insecurity, particularly for a generation of people who are also looking at growing income inequality, remains to be seen, but these trends show the cracks in a system based on each generation achieving the same economic performance as the previous ones have.
What happens next?
In the face of these startling statistics, the future of the Canadian worker seems rather bleak, and without intervention it may well continue to be that way – but it does not have to.
Whatever comes of the consultations and pilot projects around basic income in Canadian communities, it provides a foundation for the critical conversation workers, people outside the workforce, and policy-makers alike must have: what is the value of persons in Canada and what is required for them to have an adequate standard of living?
Luckily, we already have the necessary guiding principles for these conversations. Under international human rights law, people in Canada have a right to fair and paid work, a right to earn their living by work which is freely chosen, and a right to experience just and favourable conditions during employment. Reciprocally, governments in Canada have a legal obligation to meet and fulfill this right.
The shift in this conversation from one exclusively of market and economic growth to one of rights is essential. It is also a shift from viewing human rights as theoretical abstractions to practical, actionable parts of our daily lives. When we create policy that views people in Canada as inherent rights-bearers, and looks comprehensively at their needs through a lens of human rights, we can start to end poverty and ameliorate the conditions of the working poor. When we work to promote stronger labour standards, and view workers as partners within an economy that recognizes their basic dignity, everyone benefits.
Economic rights get very little play in Canada, frequently edged out of our conversations on human rights, where we choose to focus on political and civil life through avenues like freedom of expression and freedom of religion, rather than the right to food or water. Certainly, all human rights have intrinsic value. But Canada is a country where nearly 20 million people in the population are workers; to not treat labour rights as indispensable and urgent is to not value commitments we have previously made to human rights.
It is also not just a question of human rights. Income is the largest single determinant of health. Poverty costs provinces like Ontario somewhere between $10 and $13 billion every year, and estimates place the cost of poverty on the Canadian health care system to be $7.6 billion. Low income, poverty and unstable employment go hand-in-hand with other social ills in Canada that seem to be trending upward: homelessness, housing instability and food insecurity. Just as poverty is bad for everyone who lives in Canada for these social and economic reasons, an unchallenged norm of precarity in which workers are devalued is bad for social and economic stability across the country.
We can do something about it. Provincial shifts towards progressive labour policy, like the Ontario government’s announced intentions to meet the demands for a $15 minimum wage and proposed requirement that employers pay part-time and full-time workers who do the same job the same wage, is a key first step. But it’s not enough, from both a practical lens – how does someone get by on this minimum wage in a city like Toronto where the living wage is closer to $18.50 for many? – and a larger cultural one.
A society advocating for healthy cultural life must value the artists, writers, designers, teachers, and service providers who contribute to a creative, educated and cared-for community.
A feminist society must seek to not only advance the engagement of women in political life, but to build solutions that address the underlying obstacles to the full economic empowerment of women.
A society that seeks reconciliation must do more to address systemic and institutionalized discrimination that leaves Indigenous and First Nations communities to experience wildly disparate levels of poverty and unemployment.
To truly address and end precarious work from consuming future generations in total, we need national leadership on wage standards and income redistribution, poverty and housing, childcare and education. We need a movement for social change as strong as the labour champions who brought us the conditions and systems – like weekends and work weeks capped at 40 hours – we now take for granted. And we need both a government and a community that recognizes the economic, social, and cultural human rights as equal to the civil and political rights for which we claim global and moral leadership.
A eureka moment happens once in a while. But given our irreversible physical decline, we must opt not to run naked down the street, as the discoverer of buoyancy once did. In any case, the potential for embarrassing our watchful neighbours remains a deterrent.
A few weeks ago, as I walked down the immaculately paved blocks in one neighbourhood, the eureka moment happened. I stopped short and looked straight ahead. A run-naked-down-the-street moment had arrived and I had frozen to a halt, mesmerized by the uniformity of the rectangular concrete slabs and the refractory effect on my vision. I realized that my steps were controlled without my acquiescence. I was stepping in line to the equally spaced cement blocks under my feet. In a borough where houses are equally spaced and uniformity or congruence is promulgated by the city’s no-nonsense facade enforcers, I realized how the pavements, houses and the spaces in between have shaped our physical behaviour as well as our political and philosophical discourse, and vice versa. I am sure the rectilinear approach to town planning originates in the logic of linear assembly lines and in turn generates a craving for order and sequential behaviour. When I go to another, less endowed neighbourhood of my very liveable city, I find that the balconies are sometimes precariously inclined, the alleys are like war zones, the pavements are cracked, often missing large sections, quickly patched up with ungainly heaps of tar. I also know that in these neighbourhoods, most folks do not have dental coverage, do not always bow politely as you pass them on the sidewalk, and do not care to stand in a line at the dépanneur. They remind me of where I came from. They let me know that where there is uniformity, there is order and compliance and if per chance there is some break, some discord may happen. Where there is un-uniformity, the potential for discord lurks. A perverse type of extreme rationalization, the logic of the “supply curve meets the demand curve,” and the drive for absolute utilization and control necessitates that every space should be defined, made orderly and also manageable.
Like worms in the soil, we love to slide and wriggle down this wonderful rectilinear cement-way of uniformity. We like space, we like neatness, we like equal distance on each concrete slab and we are proud to have sidewalks that slope gently down at the corners and provide friction-inducing slats for the disabled to gently roll down in their electric wheel chairs, coffee mugs in hand. Water, gas, cable, telephone, fibreglass lines are flagged discretely on the ground with little spray-painted identifiers in regular intervals. We assign moral superiority to our existence here in this remarkably rectilinear sense of organization. We care for each other, or at least that is what we radiate with every breath we exhale. It is a civilizing, relaxing Zen state we have achieved. We like order as an aesthetic. As I walk down the rectangular blocks of uniformity, there is something in me that feels itchy. For some disorder, some divergence, disparity, some disconnection. There is none. This neighbourhood will not tolerate it! I am not looking for poor workmanship, cracked pavements, lack of quality assurance or sink holes and stress cracks. Those are another issue. I am looking for loss of rectilinearity. I cannot find any. I can see straight ahead, two blocks away. Through the trees that don’t have leaves at this time of the year. And I see unending straightness. The streets don’t curve. Block after block. As far as I can see. A master plan based on a certain consensus has occurred here!
There are advanced digital GPS-based theodolites that have measured angles, vertical and horizontal, and brought absolute order. Even on occasions when I travel to the suburbs of this city, the crescents are, as well, theodolite-controlled, curved but manicured. It seems even every blade of grass in the park in the middle of the crescent sways in the same direction, as if the energy of the wind were measured to tilt the blades of grass away in a quantified azimuthal direction. A carefully placed bench under a tree is painted every summer by dissatisfied-looking young students, hired by the borough. Such is the love of order and aesthetics in this society. Chaos is forbidden or painted over. Green. Weedery is impermissible.
I came forty-five years ago from a city where pavements were irregular or non-existent, not a single street was rectilinear, the spaces between houses were practically non-existent, the concept of heritage preservation was barely nascent, green spaces between houses were unknown, and sound insularity between neighbours was an absurd assault on common sense. We could see everyone, always on the streets or balconies; horns blared and people shouted across verandas to people across the street. Streets were curved, cracked, distorted, and in fact my favourite street name was Serpentine Lane. Being a tropical nation, windows were left open, wrought iron balconies had their doors open always and noise levels were acceptable – well above 120 decibels at any time of the night, never mind the day. Ambulance sirens meant nothing. The dead were on their way out. Why delay the inevitable?
In effect, we were comfortable with lack of distance, inadequate private space; we were used to a certain dis-empathy and lack of order and very much comfortable with chaos as standard. Indiscipline and lack of linearity fortified us. We jumped queues as standard operating procedure. We crowded around counters instead of waiting in line. The concept of “taking a number” was alien. The notion of individual rights and responsibilities was usurped or sneered at because of pride in community, collective and national priorities. After all, overcoming colonial occupation and looting, and the restoration of national wealth and access to a threadbare existence were significantly more important than sound levels in the city, heritage architecture and “waiting your turn.” I also eventually learned, by my sheer act of migration, that democracy as understood by advanced industrialized states was groomed by universalisms that did not have to comprehend the particularisms of neo-colonies and pre-industrial states. Issues of tribe, clan, caste, cultural behaviour and indigenous rituals had no meaning for the logistical layout of cities.
I learned further, in the past few decades, that the same industrialized societies had to advance to post- industrialized societies (by a predatory logic inherent to it) where the chase to advance the bottom line had predicated that technology be exploited to the hilt; basic and commodity skills were no longer necessary, and our societies had to satisfy themselves with temporary skills, changing skills, temporary lives and temporary cities.
Of course, things are changing, and the world is definitely becoming a flatter place when it comes to behavioural norms. In China, railway stations are an example of industrial orderliness through colour- coded LED screens. Everything is digitized. People, laughing and weChatting, move to their respective marked-up lanes on railway platforms, based on colour-coded signals on LED screens. When the train is 5 kilometres away, the lights switch from amber to green, advising the passengers to move to their designated line-up lanes. In China, trains are often hurtling through at 400 km/hour on magnetic levitation technology. So order and timeliness are on the cards! It is not regimentation, as some would opinionate, but digitized automation that channels democratic respect for the space and priority of the one next to you.
But therein lies the point of departure. What is the philosophy of democracy in pre-industrial, industrial and post-industrial societies? Those who were born in a rectilinear, theodolite-controlled democracy have a somewhat aloof but superior sense of human rights and responsibilities. I am talking about the European experience of social development, of industrial and social revolutions. And that includes North America, where cities were developed (with theodolites!) in virgin territories, beyond the control of agricultural barons. As such, here we are insistent upon universalizing our notions as the common ethical and moral standard. There is only one standard for what constitutes rights. Because here, the other issues of social development like colonial displacement, feudal land control and sharecropping, easy access to public toilettes, warehousing and food distribution, clean air and water for our children, comfortable public transportation, education that does not blatantly discriminate based on tribe, caste and skin colour, and sewage and garbage-disposal systems that work mostly in a clockwork manner have all facilitated a sense of uniform calm and order. And thereby, other forms of eking out a living and surviving are no longer central themes of discord. Indigenous people have been shoved out of sight and those who meander around subways are herded away by making the space hostile to them, especially in winter. Gentrification converts poor neighbourhoods to suit the needs of people who no longer cook at home, and yet they need nice pavements to walk on and lounge in cafes that extend onto the pavement. The issue now is rectilinear pavements, distance, space and a non-jostling civility. So our sense of democratic debate is now heavily centred on opinions, fake and real news, rumour massaging, content verification, fact checking and control of emissions from wood fireplaces in city neighbourhoods that have their own competing mayoralties. In India, fake eggs are a bigger news item. Yes, they found fake plastic eggs in a carton of six. So, fake eggs versus fake news – that is the delta between linear and non-linear settlements.
I am satisfied, therefore, to have arrived at a eureka moment of realization about the roots of our democracy, but I will not run down the streets naked, because unlike in the time of Archimedes, there are neighbours and community watchdogs watching out for correctness in public behaviour. I am resigned to the notion that chaos, lack of privacy, green spaces and civil rights cannot be so bothersome in pre-industrial societies. There, rights are of a constitutional nature – meaning the constitution of the body. The biology of existence. The failure of the food chain and the artificial famines. Here, in the theodolite world, rights are of a constitutional nature – meaning the constitution that defines the principles of governance. And that includes amendments to the constitution that undermine those very rights, all too often. So, as we evolve, the notion of rectilinearity, order and livelihood necessitates that we get comfortable with temporary notions of existence.
Co-directed by Leonor Caraballo: (1974 – 2015) and Matteo Norzi
Produced by Abou Farman
Editor: Èlia Gasull Balada
Starring: Ana Cecilia Stieglitz, Filippo Timi, Arturo Izquierdo, Taylor Marie Milton, Guillermo Arévalo
Duration: 91 minutes
“Founded by Abou Farman, Matteo Norzi and Leonor Caraballo in 2013, Conibo Productions aims to promote the creativity and knowledge of the Amazonian Shipibo Conibo communities through a range of media, including cinema, visual arts, music, performance and plant medicine.”
[The co-director died of metastatic breast cancer during the filming, leaving her widower spouse to complete the film.]
A shaman enveloped by the hot Peruvian forest blows smoke in the direction of the dead white woman whose life we see in a circle edit reminiscent of Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist (1970).
On the face of it, Icaros: A Visionbrings together two pathologies, a shaman’s developing blindness and a rich Westerner’s spreading cancer. Both the blindness and the cancer will be victorious, in spite of a healing forest.
For money-making scientists, the forest is the primary site for gaining an understanding of tribal methods. These giant pharmas use the trial-and-error labour of our ancestors to make hyper-expensive medicines that they dangle in front of people who cannot afford them. This pharmaceutical truth is presented in a surreal nine-second sequence of brilliantly calculated neo-experimental film. A forest citizen steps into an elevator (circa 287 BC). The steel doors open, not onto carpets in an institutional hallway but into the forest greenery. Spectrally, this citizen walks into the pharmacy called the forest.
In the main site, in the forest, a child moves her hand in arc-like fashion across a gauze curtain on the window of a wooden building where the guests have their meals. Her hand sweeps us into an evening with a candlelit toad croaking to a god inside a white porcelain toilet bowl, which, due to the camera angle, looks like an inverted Taj Mahal (1632-53).
Brown men sit behind desks signing in a few international guests.
I watch the actors consume Ayahuasca. I get pseudo-high enough to like the Westerners who now appear logical and reasonable.
A man’s leg ends in a cloven hoof; a rat looks up into squeaky clouds of patagium (bat wing membranes); a burning leaf becomes a steel elevator. The light-filled gauze tent sits in a windless forest as a Shipibo shaman with a Beatles haircut (I wonder where the Beatles got it from) exhales more smoke.
And more perfidious illusions: birds with bladder-in-the-throat songs, bats flapping the forest air into a dark resin, singing human voices are layered with electronic beeps and images taken from Magnetic Resonance Image machines (1971). This audiovisual mix is art. The film’s experimental sections are so resplendent that one almost forgets the two pathologies. A floating blue ball follows a secondary actor; the helium (1868) within it communicates with the capillary action (1660) in the trees. The international guests, looking for solutions for personal problems, connect with the veins of awakened trees.
Leonor Caraballo and Matteo Norzi have performed edits that have a high poetic yield. Although the two pathologies provide the basis for the film’s experimental transportations, one is left to wonder which one is more pertinent – the pathologies or the experimental film sections. Perhaps this is the strength of the work: that these two aspects of the film – the semi-detached experimental sections and the pathologies – overlap, connect and overlap again without decorative or superficial subplots. Yet despite this strategic, necessary complexity, I am unable to react emotionally. Oliver Twist (1948) allows one to respond emotionally, while Citizen Kane (1941) has cold, machine-like characters. Icaros: A Vision is super cold.
Ana Cecilia Stieglitz acts with a rangeless physiognomy that is not bereft of emotion, but pregnant with death. Arturo Izquierdo (the man who is going blind) conveys a similar flatness. A man vomits into a bucket. One wishes he’d vomit from the cradle to the grave, but somehow the directors provoke compassion. A woman pukes into a red Walmartian bucket (1950). She is clearing her body to receive the transportation, while in my head, I aerial drone over Marx’s grave in the forest of Highgate, London.
The cancer story is Leonor Caraballo’s life story presented in the shape of a Heliacus implexus. Surrealism licenses me to speak into the shell:
Leo, you’re dead but I’m talking to you. I’m supposed to come to New York to see your film on the 19th of May 2017 at a cinema located at:
But I can’t come due to Donald Trump letting the border-control people off the leash. I am scared to cross the US border. Something went wrong since your departure.
Leo, did you shoot your film here:
Leo, you left when the film was halfway done. Now, Mateo Norzi and your widower-producer, Abouali Farmanfarmaian, have finished your de-sentimentalization of death. Abouali has been looking for your meridians.
The story of the characters oscillates between with the experimental film sections that consist of Rorschachian splatterings, colourful blimp-pitty-blimp radar-ee scans, light-filled lines bending to the gravity of a cancered breast that looks like a negative image of Olympus Mons, a large shield volcano on Mars.
Face down on an MRI sliding bed, the protagonist is graduated in and out of a tight white tube. The machine’s latitudinal red marker lines are superimposed over the old forest in the experimental sections while, from the dark forest, we hear a sound fade-up of the shamans singing. Their voice-music, like a prehistoric, super slowed-down Morse-code (1836) transmission, fills the forest night. Colourful animated dots recede into the white gauze tent. MRI images, eye examination charts, mix with irritated wire-cobras; this complex of images forecast the bad news.
An optometrist tells the shaman: You’re going to go blind. The directors make us aware that today you can see a bat on a summer evening; tomorrow, you’ll just hear its wings. Echolocation. Waves bouncing off cloven hooves. Tomorrow, your cancer will be victorious. The experimental sections connect with the protagonists’ lives.
The directors do not address the death-sadness index. However, they do show: death shorn of its Paseo de los Tristes (1609); death, shorn of its chaplains in the bereavement industry.
We see the phoropter masking the shaman’s face. An eye examination chart (Snellen chart, 1861) stands erected in a large sunbaked area that has beautiful mud walls. Black figures, possibly culturally coded, are on this white board. A shaman throws a stone at the board; these black figures fly off skyward. These images are followed by subaqueous views of river dolphins swimming in brackish water. The fish are captured in nets, and a screen-within-a-screen sequence shows their eyes being pulled out for profit. Westerners. Forest. Shamans. River. Profit.
Icaros: A Vision centripetally pulls us into these hemispheric frustrations with a faintly implied class awareness. Economically poor shamans in need of money have to supply rich tourists the commodity of Relief. The film far surpasses an illustration of supply and demand.
The directors have given us such a shockingly controlled sound mixture bonded to a visual feast that one waits for part two.
In 2017, the worldwide loss of biodiversity is a question of life and death.
For the two million species that we do know, and the millions more who remain unclassified, the human dilemma is part of their millennial drama. We are killing a good number of them, but they remain as nature’s Greek chorus, looking on at us and reacting to what we do as best they can.
The extinction rate now is nearly 1,000 times the background rate of extinction that prevailed before homo sapiens sapiens became the dominant terrestrial creatures. And the “Anthropogenic Age,” characterized by the human reshaping of the whole planet, coincides with what evolutionary biologists call The Sixth Great Extinction. The last such massive destruction of biota was, of course, the elimination of the dinosaurs and of 75% of other living species, which began 65 million years ago.
One of the major contemporary theoreticians of biodiversity is the Harvard professor emeritus, Edward O. Wilson. A specialist on the life of ants, Wilson made headlines two generations ago when he extrapolated his insect research and applied a reductionist schema to human societies. However, he then went on to write the most important and accessible assessments of biodiversity in the English language, and the hallmark of that effort was the 1992 book The Diversity of Life.
Wilson’s latest work is Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life (Liveright, New York/London, 2016), the conclusion of a trilogy that spells out Wilson’s view of our place in nature and the terrible danger we pose to ourselves and the living organisms around us.
In the middle book of the trilogy, The Meaning of Human Existence (Liveright 2014), Wilson explains where he thinks we now stand: “The human impact on biodiversity, to put the matter as briefly as possible, is an attack on ourselves. It is the action of a mindless juggernaut fueled by the biomass of the very life it destroys.”
Half-Earth opens on a similar note: “Humanity’s grasp on the planet is not strong. It is growing weaker. Our population is too large for safety and comfort. Fresh water is growing short, the atmosphere and the seas are increasingly polluted as a result of what has transpired on the land. The climate is changing in ways unfavorable to life, except for microbes, jellyfish and fungi. For many species it is already fatal.”
Among the surviving wild species of animals and plants at the present time, how many will survive in the next 100 years? “If present conditions persist,” Wilson says, “perhaps half. More likely fewer than one fourth.”
Half-Earth puts forward the claim that at least one half of the world’s surface must be kept undeveloped and “that only by setting aside half the planet in reserve, or more, can we save the living part of the environment and achieve the stabilization required for our own survival.”
Right now, though, only about 15% of the world is reserved as natural spaces. And the main reason for the global decline of biodiversity is the loss of habitat that very rapidly becomes exponential. For example, in Canada over the last two generations this country has lost 90% of its urban wetlands.
Wilson’s suggested target of putting aside half of the earth for conservation would consequently mean doing three times what we now do to preserve nature, but he believes that human beings actually need an ambitious environmental goal that will be game-changing precisely to overcome the immense fear that now drives our thinking. “Half-Earth,” as he calls his idea, would definitely ensure the survival of other life forms and ourselves.
The warning voices of Wilson and other experts like him are telling people the unvarnished truth. At the present time, however, the ruling political classes in the world, without exception, are not prepared to do the heavy lifting to really ensure human survival in some decent form.
Examining what political décideurs like to say and what they actually do is crucial to reclaiming the future and to understanding the breakdown of competency at every level of global decision-making. Canada and Montréal, unfortunately, are case studies of what we are all doing wrong.
In 2010, researchers at Simon Fraser University issued a report entitled The Maple Leaf in the OECD: Canada’s Environmental Performance. That study indicated that Canada ranked 24th out of 25 OECD countries for its actions to preserve the environment, with the United States coming at the very bottom of the ranking. Our failure, the researchers said, has nothing to do with any inherent limits to environmental stewardship but simply reflects a lack of strong national policies. In 2016, The Conference Board of Canada gave this country a “D” grade on the environment, pointing out that the United States, Australia and Canada have the highest CO2 emissions per capita among the rich countries.
Even the Scandinavian countries that have high environmental rankings actually have some of the most damaging ecological footprints, principally because their wealth is based on extractive industries.
This is the unsustainable world that we are a part of and help to create every day.
Suppose one looks down from the summits of national policies and examines local decision-makers and their actions on the environment. The result is instructive. Here in Montréal, observers have an opportunity to observe conservation of the environment at the all-important municipal level, and what one sees is a paradigm of environmental negligence. Montréal’s municipal leaders love to “talk green” but the city’s real record on the environment, when closely examined, is appalling.
Montréal: Destroying Biodiversity
The Island of Montréal lies in the quadrant of Québec that has the province’s highest biodiversity. At the same time, the city is the Canadian champion of urban sprawl, and since the end of World War II, poorly planned growth has spread from east to west, destroying farmland and natural space. At this moment, if you bisect the island along a SW/NE axis, the only significant areas of natural space are in the western part of the island.
Furthermore, Montréal only has 6% of its territory preserved as natural spaces. The city’s official planning documents call for the city’s own intermediate goal to be increased to 10% of natural space, or 2,000 more hectares than now exist, for conservation.
Internationally, the city has already committed itself to the strategic biodiversity goals agreed to by Canada in the 2010 Nagoya accord signed in Aichi, Japan, pledging that by 2020, Montréal will ensure that “at least 17 per cent of terrestrial and inland water, and 10 per cent of coastal and marine areas, especially areas of particular importance for biodiversity and ecosystem services, are conserved” (see “The Aichi Biodiversity Targets,” Strategic Goal C: Improve the status of biodiversity by safeguarding ecosystems, species and genetic diversity, Target 11, published by the UN Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity, Montréal, and further information at www.cbd.int/sp2020).
In other words, Montréal in 2017 is 11 percentiles below its international pledge to reach 17% protected natural space by 2020 – so the city is actually 5,500 hectares short of its own pretensions. There is an added irony as well. The headquarters of the UN Convention on Biodiversity is housed in downtown Montréal!
If you take a close look at a map of Montréal and then move your eyes from west to east over the modest swaths of remaining natural spaces, you will see an arc of tension marking the locations where citizens are fighting for conservation and Montréal authorities are blindly promoting the development of the remaining nature areas.
Here is a summary of these places and what is happening there, including indications of on-going legal actions to preserve these natural spaces.
AREA: PIERREFONDS WEST
Next to a nature area called L’Anse-à-L’Orme, there are 185 hectares of wet meadows, once used for haying, but now re-naturalized. Despite the enormous ecological value of these fields, the City of Montréal and its borough of Pierrefonds plan to allow a developer to put 5,500 housing units right on top of land that is an official “eco-territory.” The real estate promoter has even advertised the proposed project as an “eco-city.”
In Dec. 2016, researchers at the Université de Québec enOutaouais, Marie-Eve Roy and Jérôme Dupras, along with the environmentalist Patrick Gravel, made public their study of the area’s biodiversity – the Évaluation de l’ouest du territoire de Pierrefonds-Roxboro. Their conclusion is unequivocal: “The proposed development zone represents a place of very great ecological significance, especially since habitats of this quality and area are extremely rare on the Island of Montréal.”
The summary of the scientists’ findings is telling: “11 species of fauna that are endangered, at risk or subject to be so designated; 122 different species of birds, nine of whom have protected status; 16 species of reptiles and amphibians, including three designated species, two of which are directly in the development zone and 291 plant species, of whom at least nine are designated.”
LEGAL ACTION: The Sauvons L’Anse-à-L’Orme Citizens’ Committee is participating in an on-going motion for an injunction seeking to overturn the residential zoning of land right in the middle of the 185 hectares.
AREA: FURTHER EAST IN PERREFONDS
Further east in Pierrefonds, there is a servitude applying to an extension of Highway 440 where the roadbed has been built without the necessary authorizations from Québec’s Environment Ministry. The Sauvons L’Anse-à-L’Orme Committee is protesting the construction of this road over what had been wetlands.
Again, the local committee is acting legally by filing a motion for an injunction to compel political authorities to go back to the beginning of the development process, hold the proper hearings that should have taken place at the very outset, and in the meantime, restore what they had destroyed.
¨For a video of this area and the various groups involved in this action, such as The Green Coalition and the Sierra Club, see https://youtu.be/lvcRMTC5lDI.
AREA: TECHNOPARC WETLANDS IN VILLE SAINT-LAURENT
Moving one’s view to the east, just next to Montréal’s Pierre Elliot Trudeau Airport, there is a section of woods and wetlands that is a favourite area for more than 150 species of birds, many of whom nest in the marshes and woodland. Ornithologist Joël Coutu has led a citizens’ group called Technoparcoiseaux, fighting to save this precious renaturalized domain. Ironically, one of the main threats to the marshes as they are now is something called “The Hubert Reeves Eco-Campus,” a project that uses the name of the famous French scientist and environmentalist, Hubert Reeves. Preliminary road construction work in this very place began in the autumn of 2016.
The Green Coalition of Montréal is seeking an interlocutory injunction to compel the City of Montréal and the Borough of Ville Saint-Laurent to undo the construction undertaken so far and return the area to what it was previously. Expert witnesses have come forward to document the extraordinarily diverse and valuable bird species living in and around these marshes.
AREA: THE ENTIRE ISLAND OF MONTRÉAL
Connecting all these green areas threatened by urban sprawl of various kinds is a gigantic transport project that will bring inevitable environmental degradation with it – if the project goes through. It is an 8-billion-dollar (current estimates) rail project promoted by Québec’s Caisse de depot, a fund that manages many of the province’s pension funds. This scheme is known as the Réseauélectriquemétropolitain (REM), a kind of electrified SkyTrain for the Island of Montréal. The REM will employ an astronomically expensive technology that costs at least 5 times as much to construct as a more conventional Light Rail Transport system of the type found, for example, in Edmonton and Calgary. The elevated stations of the REM will be made entirely of concrete, and their construction alone will account for a huge spike of greenhouse gas emissions. Because the SkyTrain will use what is known as a “proprietary technology,” a number of existing rail services will become redundant, and the REM will not fit easily into Montréal’s transport infrastructure. The Caisse also happens to own a 30% share in a local company that manufactures precisely this kind of technology.
Although the REM is intended to be a rail connection to the airport in Dorval, the route the train will take is a highly circuitous one through less densely populated areas where Montréal’s remaining natural spaces are located. A former Director General of Québec City has publicly called these spaces the “underdeveloped” sections of Montréal, and has said the REM is intended to bring real estate development into the same “green strip” described in this article.
From the time the REM was first announced in April 2016, critics have pointed out that it cannot possibly make the profits claimed for it, and that consequently only real estate speculation driven by the Caisse could boost revenue. The Caisse also happens to have a land development branch as well. Even so, the project will demand $2.5 billion in immediate subsidies and will clearly require constant public subsidization throughout its lifetime… all for an initiative that actually undermines existing mass transport service.
The well-known chronicler of Montreal’s natural spaces, Sylvia Oljemark, has said that the REM will mean terrible damage for Montreal’s remaining natural areas. Indeed, on Jan. 20, 2017, Québec’s environmental public hearings office (Bureau des audiences publiques sur l’environnement – BAPE) stated that it could not provide a recommendation on the REM project so many vital questions were yet to be answered by the promoters. Almost immediately, the Premier of Québec, Mr. Philippe Couillard, and the Mayor of Montréal, Mr. Denis Coderre, began questioning the legitimacy and the competence of the environmental public hearings office.
The décideurs did not want to truth about the REM to be so expertly and explicitly put before the public eye. A cogent summary of the myriad flaws in this project can be found at http://trainsparency.ca/.
Montréal is a case study of how we have been losing biodiversity all over the world. What has happened here is what is happening everywhere. We are blind to the animals and plants surrounding us and we are destroying life with the focused concentration of a serial killer.
In the particular cases described in this article, it is citizens’ groups that have led the struggle to stop this destruction. The Sierra Club Québec and the Green Coalition have publicly called for a 10-year moratorium on all real estate development in Montréal’s remaining natural spaces. Activists have joined with environmental lawyers to seek the rigorous application of existing laws and regulations at all levels of government, to save the Island of Montréal’s natural areas.
The leadership has not come from politicians, but from individuals acting at the roots of Montreal’s civil society, from those activists relentlessly seeking to bring reason to political structures plagued by ignorance and cronyism at every level. All eyes should be fixed on the fate of Montréal’s natural spaces, since they are clearly part of the larger story of what is happening to our species.
Adapting to Ourselves Means Changing Ourselves
To what extent is the Sixth Great Extinction also our own? That is impossible to know, although we are clearly straining against natural limits by altering the weather, exhausting resources and destroying living organisms that are crucial to our lives. Both individually and collectively we are adaptive systems, but in the anthropogenic age, the external reality we adapt to consists not only of external nature, but also of our own nature transformed by human techniques. Our ecology must take our own complex behaviour into account – in short, we need to adapt to ourselves.
Interestingly, E.O. Wilson’s earliest scientific work was about habitats and habitat fragmentation. The more natural space becomes divided up, the more the overall natural system loses vitality.
In the same vein, conserving and restoring more and more habitats is similarly exponential, but the result is positive and incremental. That is why saving a relatively small group of areas on the Island of Montréal is key to the ecology of the whole area. Freezing destructive development and making the preservation of nature a main priority would be tantamount to resisting and ultimately changing the behaviours that we thrust upon ourselves. We would be enhancing natural areas instead of constantly diminishing them, and in the process we would change the motives, goals and aspirations of the community to which we belong.
These questions of evolutionary choice are absolutely existential, and are clearly looming at the global level.
This sort of crisis is also very local… as we can see right now in Montréal.
“Read Chomsky. Things are dangerous and bad things happen. But you can’t let fear control you, you’ll never get anything done.” Sabeen Mahmud1
There is a needling, pervasive idea that sticks like a film over every burgeoning sexual liberation, that less lust in the world would be a good thing. This notion barely conceals its own politic: less lust in our streets, less internet porn would mean less violence, less distraction, less ongoing war. This theory holds that porn addiction is the world’s greatest threat to human intimacy and that ISIS rapes women because its pent-up fighters need release. This push towards less lust leads to the basic conclusion that intimacy is liberation in and of itself, and that lust moderation will foment renaissance.
But lust moderation does not foment renaissance.
Excess lust in this world is not really the problem. Intimacy between humans is always convoluted, and pornography is never just a representation of cunt. The festering problem in human matters of lust is that bad male power leads to encroachment. Whether pent-up boys in ISIS or the ass-patting exec, the issue is power that does not bow, does not bend.
In this way, less lust begets the hate fuck.
“I want to hate fuck you to wake you up,” said media personality Jian Ghomeshi to producer Kathryn Borel at Canada’s national broadcasting institution, the CBC.
“You know what happens with girls here. You know what kind of offers they make girls here. You know how they try to misuse girls who are new to the industry,” said media personality Qandeel Baloch, one of twelve children from a rural family in the Punjab region, married off as a teenager and left to her fate.
“There were the uninvited back massages at my desk to which it was clear I couldn’t say no,” said Kathryn, upper middle-class girl from Toronto who wrote a memoir about a French wine-tasting road trip with her father.
At twenty-one, Qandeel left her husband and struck out on her own, working her way through university. Settling in Karachi, Qandeel decided to be an actress. She made low-res, soft-core videos of herself writhing on a bed, and gained thousands of followers before proposing to mega-famous cricket star Imran Kahn across all her feeds. Growing in bravery via the negative sexual attention, Qandeel twerked and trash-talked to pierce her country’s social mores. Before long, she bought her parents a new house.
Kathryn accused her famous boss of bending her over her CBC desk and simulating sex against her hip in front of a co-worker. Kathryn made multiple complaints about this three-year-long harassment, both to her union and CBC execs, but no action was ever taken to address her complaints. Kathryn ultimately filed a sexual harassment lawsuit against her ex-boss but right before the trial was set to begin, she decided to accept a peace bond deal because she wanted Jian to be forced to publicly admit that he had done something wrong. Growing in bravery via the negative sexual attention, Kathryn said, “I was essentially forced to either leave the show or allow my boss to lay his hands on my body at his pleasure.”
“This is a challenging business to be in and I did not need to make it more difficult,” Jian said to Kathryn, as apology.
Difficult business all over the world is rather the sublimated fear of the sexually powerful female – her powers of diction, suction and prediction. The hate fuck grows out of this fear of female strength because of its erroneous presumption that she is a submissive. According to various definitions, the hate fuck does not qualify as rape and neither is it a part of BDSM, because “the submissive party has agreed (for whatever reason) to accept the treatment and behaviour of the aggressor.”* Choking, slapping, punching without a safe word – this is what women’s liberation was for? No, the female party who allegedly accepts the hate fuck does not do so ‘for whatever reason’ – this presumed submissive has lots and lots of reasons. We can wade into these reasons; we can hold them in our hands.
“It was death by a thousand cuts,” said Kathryn. “That’s how it felt.”
“The kind of torture he has inflicted on me, you can’t even imagine,” said Qandeel. “Why? Because I was cute, I was young. He was older than me. He didn’t trust me. I don’t know why. I couldn’t connect with him on an intellectual level. Our ideas were very different.”
“At every turn,” Kathryn said, “people were telling me to just swallow it, to just deal with it.”
Reason Number One: The Threat of Pain. Bodily Disconnection.
Qandeel called herself a One-Woman Army when she promised via Twitter to give a strip dance to the Pakistani cricket team if they won against India in the 2016 ICC T20 World Cup. Qandeel stoked her fans’ visions of the sharpshooting cheerleader who thinks she can take the whole team. “You could say that this is my revenge on this country,” said Qandeel. “I don’t do these things happily.”
Reason Number Two: The Imperative Towards Revenge.
“Everyone had their own tailor-made abuse,” said Kathryn about Jian’s workplace harassment. “Abuse that was based on their own insecurities, their fears. He was really good at getting to the soft belly of who you are and sort of attacking that spot. He was really good at playing people off each other.”
Reason Number Three: The Unconscious. The Drama. The Entire Field of Female Insecurity.
When Qandeel posted videos of herself with Mufti Abdul Qafi, a well-known religious scholar for the ultra-religious PTI party in Pakistan, many of her fans thought she had finally gone too far. It was Ramadan when Qandeel posed with the Mufti in a hotel room, wearing his signature hat cocked on her head.
The Mufti immediately went into damage control. He said that he had been waiting for Qandeel in the hotel lobby, but when she didn’t show up on time he went back to his room. He said that Qandeel then appeared at his hotel door and he had to let her in.
“He asked me if I was fasting or not,” reported Qandeel. “I clearly told him I was not. He then asked me what I wanted to eat. I told him I needed a cigarette so he gave me one. Then he shared everything I was having, the cigarette, my coke and tea. He said this would increase our love. What kind of love is he trying to increase?”
“I think of Qandeel Baloch as my daughter!” said the Mufti, horrified.
Qandeel said that the Mufti was hopelessly in love with her. She said she was trying to get a marriage proposal from him in the hotel room.
“Keeping in mind this sacred month,” said the Mufti, “I would say Allah knows well if either of us is lying.”
“All he has said about his other accusers is that they’re all lying and that he’s not guilty,” said Kathryn. “And remember that’s what he said about me.”
Qandeel: “What kind of love is he trying to increase?”
Jian: “I have always been interested in a variety of activities in the bedroom but I only participate in sexual practices that are mutually agreed upon, consensual and exciting for both partners.”
The Mufti: “She wanted to have a meeting to get rid of a magic spell! She put my hat on her head and took a selfie while I was busy on the phone.”
Qandeel: “Why would I ask for a meeting with him?”
Kathryn: “We weren’t equals; we were never equals, and he took every opportunity to remind me of that.”
Qandeel: “In fact, he had told me during a TV program that he would like to lay his eyes on my face before witnessing the moon of Ramadan. He told me, forget about Imran Khan as he is sixty-five and too old for me. He said, I am fifty years old and an age gap of twenty-five years between us is not a big deal!”
Kathryn: “He made it clear that he could humiliate me repeatedly and walk away with impunity.”
Qandeel: “I have unveiled a man who was leading the people towards ignorance in the name of Islam. I will continue to unveil this hypocrite face of religious clerics who are defaming our religion and country.”
Jian: “Sexual preferences are a human right.”
Kathryn: “He rammed his pelvis against my backside over and over, simulating sexual intercourse.”
Qandeel: “Fine, I don’t know how to dance. But look at my confidence.”
Qandeel left Karachi when her passport and other personal documents had been uploaded to social media without her consent. Qandeel’s birth name was released to the world, and her ex-husband was staked out by the media for comment on their marriage. Qandeel at this time received multiple death threats. She asked the government for protection but the government did not comply. Qandeel’s ex-husband told reporters that he had never been abusive. He said that Qandeel left him for another man. He said, “Qandeel used her own blood to write letters to him.”
In the house that she bought for her parents, while in hiding, Qandeel was drugged and choked to death.
Kathryn: “People who want to minimize or interpret damage that is done to someone else’s body because it was clothed, because it wasn’t penetrative, I think they don’t know what they’re talking about.”
Qandeel’s brother said, “It was either me or her.”
Qandeel’s brother said, “I am not ashamed for killing my sister.”
Qandeel’s mother said, “The Mufti incited my daughter’s murder.”
Qandeel’s father said, “My son should be shot on sight.”
Qandeel’s brother said, “Money is important but the family name is more important.”
Qandeel’s mother: “Her whole face was covered in bruises, her tongue was black, her lips were black.”
Qandeel’s father: “We had drunk milk. It had been mixed with sedatives.”
“First I drugged her, then I strangulated her. She didn’t feel a thing.”
Kathryn: “He punched and choked and smothered and silenced them.”
Qandeel: “I’m a strong girl who keeps her stuff in line even when I have tears going down my face.”
“When you live in fear for three years that you might be attacked,” Kathryn said, “that takes a lot out of a person, that takes a lot of energy out of a person.”
“I supported everything she did,” said Qandeel’s father. “I liked everything she did.”
“I would never allow any female in my family to act like you. They don’t need girl power if that’s what you call it. Our girls need girl power from good education, class and respect. That’s girl power. Anyone can wear a short dress and twerk. Well, besides you. You can’t even do that.” **
Qandeel: “I will keep on achieving and I know you will keep on hating.”
Jian: “I have always tried to be a good soldier and do a good job for my country.”
Kathryn: “I would really love an apology, a straight-out ‘we’re sorry that we created and promoted an environment that hurt you so much.'”
Kathryn: “I know the word trauma has been…we’ve been talking a lot about trauma and it’s a big word, but I do believe that I was traumatized.”
Reason Number Four: The Seeming Impossibility of Real Apology, Real Repair.
Reason Number Five: Using Sex to Climb Out of an Antechamber.
Reason Number Six: Loving Lust. Excess Lust. The Power Titillation Brings.
“This is the most appropriate way of responding to the types of nasty ways in which women are shamed and humiliated into submission. Women can disown her now, but in twenty years, she’ll be the one whom all women will point to as the person who freed them.”**
Qandeel: “Love me or hate me, both are in my favour. If you love me, I will always be in your heart; if you hate me, I’ll always be in your mind.”
Jian: “She found some sympathetic ears by painting herself as a victim.”
Kathryn: “I guess my brand of feminism is trying not to end up murdered in a ditch.”
Qandeel: “Boys give me surprises, now long and fat surprises ;)”
Reason Number Seven: Sex, Death and Power are Primally Inverted, Intertwined.
Quotes from Kathryn Borel are taken from her interview with Anne Kingston published in Macleans.ca on May 16, 2016, her Twitter feed, her December 2014 Guardian article, “Jian Ghomeshi harassed me on the job. Why did our radio station look the other way?” and her public statement after accepting a peace bond from Ghomeshi on May 11, 2016.
Quotes from Jian Ghomeshi are taken from his peace bond apology to Kathryn Borel on May 11, 2016 as well as his pre-emptive October 2014 Facebook post about allegations against him of sexual assault.
Quotes from Qandeel Baloch (1990-2016) are culled from her Twitter, Instagram and Facebook feeds, as well as multiple interviews in Dawn.com and Tribune.com.pk. The statements from Qandeel’s mother, father and brother after her death have been published internationally.
Mufti Abdul Qafi’s words are also on the record in multiple sources, notably at en.dailypakistan.com.pk.
* Definition of hate fuck, courtesy of Urbandictionary.com
**These two anonymous comments about Qandeel Baloch were posted in the Comments section of a July 2016 article on Dawn.com, entitled “No One Gives Me Any Credit for Speaking About Girl Power.”
Tamara Faith Berger is the author of three books: Kuntalini, Maidenhead and Little Cat. Her fiction and essays have appeared in ADULT, Apology, Taddle Creek and THIS Magazine. She is the winner of the Believer Book Award and was a finalist for the Ontario Trillium Award for literature. She lives in Toronto.
“Boudoir (/ˈbuːd.wɑːr/; French: [bu.dwaʁ]) is a woman’s private sitting room or salon in a furnished accommodation usually between the dining room and the bedroom, but can also refer to a woman’s private bedroom. The term derives from the French verb bouder to sulk, or boudeur sulk or sulking, and originally was a room for sulking in, to put away or withdraw to.
The Marquis de Sade (1740-1814) in his literary works helped develop a reputation in this small room dedicated to the privacy of female talks. Since the success of his book Philosophy in the Bedroom, the small sitting room or salon has a sulphurous and scandalous reputation combined with those of all exchanges and frolics.”
Women have abandoned the boudoir as the only space to express themselves freely, be it about sex or other secrets traditionally not shared with men. In fact, women decided to abandon this safe space and go public way before this quaint room was even dreamt of by the European aristocracy. A space can be physical or metaphorical. Poetry is one such space, providing women with a forum for railing against the injustices of a male-dominated world, especially in the sexual arena.
The following poetical extracts provide an insight into what women have thought and felt about having their bodies and their sexuality harnessed by others, be it through religious sanctions, social opprobrium or state-enforced punishment. And of course, economics also plays an important part in this conspiracy. A woman in a patriarchal society cannot look after her children without the consent or cooperation of a male counterpart, which, of course, limits her sexual expression. Of course, the pill has softened the blow. But then again, new reproductive technologies, such as the exploitation of surrogate mothers, otherwise known as wombs for hire, is threatening to undo this hard-won battle all in the name of perpetuating some favoured genes, generally patriarchal genes. But that is another chapter in the ongoing saga of sexual subjugation.
This short essay is to be understood as just a cameo portrait of the use of poetry by subversive women who wish to highlight their inalienable right to total respect and an equal seat at the table of society. The arbitrary selection of poets reflects the books available in my personal collection.
Down with the double standard!
Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz was a Mexican nun (1651-1695) who ironically took the veil in order to have the liberty to study, and study she did. She was a leading intellectual of her time who was awarded the title of First Feminist of Mexico in 1974. Here is what she thought of men in some of the stanzas of her most celebrated poem:
Foolish men who accuse / women unreasonably / you blame yet never see / you cause what you abuse. … You combat her resistance/and then with gravity / you call frivolity / the fruit of your intents. … No answer at the door / will be a proper part: / say no—she has no heart /say yes—she’s a whore. … Whose guilt is greater in / this raw erotic play? / The girl who sins for pay /or the man who pays for sin? *
Well, you get the point.
The devaluation of women’s sexuality as women age is another subject decried by women’s poetry. The following is an anonymous poem from the Pampas in Argentina:
When I was a good and quick little girl / they treated me like a treasure / … Many suns and many moons I saw / time passes / oh heart / How I have changed. I am not a girl now / I am very old / oh heart! / What is the use of grieving / if nobody will listen / oh heart!*
Gioconda Belli, a contemporary Nicaraguan poet, does not lament her age, she prefers to flaunt it:
When I get to be old /—if I get there at all—/ and look at myself in the mirror / and count my wrinkles /… when my life is wrapped / in blue veins / dark bags under my eyes /… when my grandchildren come / to sit on my knees / creaky from too many winters / I know that my heart will still be—rebellious— tic-tacking, tic-tacking / and doubt and vast horizons / will also greet / my mornings.**
Sulpicia, a Latin poet from the 1st Century BC, is not ashamed of love and she lets the world know it.
At last love has come. I would be more ashamed / to hide it in cloth than leave it naked. … I delight in sinning and hate to compose a mask for gossip. We met. We are both worthy.*
It is not only women with Latin blood in their veins who dare to celebrate their sexuality. There are some anonymous Egyptian hieroglyphic texts (ca. 1500 B.C.) to prove this point.
With candour I confess my love; / I love you, yes, and wish to love you closer; / As mistress of your house, / Your arm placed over mine. / Alas your eyes are loose. / I tell my heart: “My lord / has moved away…*
Infidelity might be as old as the pyramids but it is not the preserve of men. A modern Mexican woman dares to express her anguish in the face of what society sees as a transgression, yet is afraid to reveal her name.
Nobody knows that you exist in my life. It’s pointless to reveal what nobody would understand. … Ernesto, your scent permeates everything.+
A jump to India reveals a similar frustration, but for other reasons. Kamala Das, an Indian poet who died in 2009, is bitter about the disregard by men, at least by her man, of women’s sexual enjoyment.
Lesson you gave was about yourself. You were pleased / With my body’s response, its weather, its usual shallow / Convulsions. You dribbled spittle into my mouth, you poured / Yourself into every nook & cranny, you embalmed / My poor lust with your bitter-sweet juices.++
Bessy Reyna, a new-wave poet from Panama, writes about the hypocrisy of marriage.
While you / come home / open a beer / watch TV / …she / tries to prepare dinner / tidy the house / smile at the children / … and pretend that your escapades / are just a passing game / … and that in spite of everything / she is / a happy Wife. **
Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz incarcerated her body in a convent to achieve intellectual freedom, but such is not the case of most women who join religious orders. An anonymous young woman from the 15th-16th century in Spain expresses her anguish in a ballad.
Since I’m a girl / I want fun / It won’t help God / for me to be a nun. / Since I’m a girl / with long hair, / they want to dump me / in a convent. / It won’t help God / for me to be a nun.*
Returning to India we can see that not all Indian women were as sexually frustrated as Kamala Das was. Indian princess Zeb-un-Nissa (1638-1702), a deeply religious woman, is quite clear.
Though I am Laila of the Persian romance, / my heart loves like ferocious Majnun / I want to go to the desert / but modesty is chains on my feet. / A nightingale came to the flower garden / because she was my pupil. / I am an expert in things of love. Even the moth is my disciple.*
Yes, Zeb-un-Nissa was clear, but she dearly paid a price for it, for her father incarcerated her for rebellion.
Ana María Rodas, a Guatemalan revolutionary poet, knows that the personal is political and she states so bluntly.
Revolutionary: tonight / I won’t share your bed / … You don’t realize, you phoney that in your home you copy oh so carefully the manners of the best of tyrants+++
There is much to be said about the lack of symmetry in sexual relations between men and women. There are, of course, other possible gender combinations, but like reproductive technologies, that is another subject that deserves a separate treatment. Suffice it to say that women have not only broken loose from the boudoir, but have decided not to bouder, because sulking gets you nowhere. To paraphrase E.E. Cummings who believes that “candy is dandy, but liquor is quicker” on the subject of seduction of women by men, I would say “poetry is dandy, but action is quicker” to achieve sexual parity provided that it is not an oxymoron.
* A Book of Women Poets,from antiquity to now. Selections from theWorld Over. Edited by Aliki Barnstone and Willis Barnstone.
** Poesío Feminista del Mundo Hispánico (desde la edad media hasta la actualidad). Antología Crítica. Angel Flores, Kate Flores.
+ Claro que me atrevo. Escritos de mujeres mexicanas.DEMA
+ + Kamala Das:The Old Playhouse and Other Poems, Orient Longman
+ + +Poemas de la izquierda erórrui. Ana María Rodas.
N.B. Montréal Serai is a not for profit publication which makes every effort to acknowledge quoted material following reasonable use guidelines for scholarly research, literary critique and journalistic articles. All translations from A Book of Women Poets… are acknowledged in the body of the book. All other translations from Spanish are by Maya Khankhoje.
An engineer normally does not fiddle around with calculations unless it is part of an assignment for which he/she will be compensated. Or it is part of a discovery or a zany innovation project that he/she has taken up as a personal mission. No engineer takes home calculations for fun or for any morbid pleasure. As an exception, some physicists do. I even know some of them. And I know some mathematics wizards. They do it because for them nerdiness is secretly exhilarating. The last laugh is on those who call them nerds. Nerds have missions, projects. They have to have disruption/separation as a constant source of creativity. They smile gently deep inside their minds as others laugh at them indiscreetly.
But writers? What are they thinking of when they stare at a blank page on a .doc file?
Let’s take doctors. They do not cut up cadavers for kicks, or prescribe medicines to passersby because they happen to notice them go past their windows. Here! Take some fucking Imodium! You look pretty ragged and wasted. Ah! You! You look sad! Let me cut out a chunk of your elbow. It may change your life! Doctors don’t practice their profession at home for kicks. Doctors are serious professionals. They follow a code. Ethical standards are on their minds. They have taken an oath. They must be integrated.
Writers, I am told, do cut, slash, burn-up, tear up and then pound on the keyboard, like it is a holy sepulchre, a temple of sacrifice, an obligation, a ritual. We are mission-less, and yet we must be mission-intense. We, like painters, dab, touch-type or hammer with single fingers and create words and phrases, and sentences and stories for the heck of it. Something may come out of nothing. We do not know if we are solving anything.
A writer must sit down to write. Like a painter. You sit down and build the base on a canvas. Sometimes you do not have a project and yet you pick up the brush and make those strokes. That is the general rule. Even if you have a sketch or a photograph that you are simply going to construct on the canvas, you start with this ritual. Writers and painters are similar. They simply start to “put ink to paper” or “paint to canvas” because the exercise of writing, unlike the exercise of solving mathematical hypothesis or theorems, does not have a problem statement, does not have variables and constants that must be shuffled around to obtain a solution. As I write, right now, I am developing the objective of this essay, because I am of the opinion, or I have been repeatedly advised, that the process is the objective. The solution is an enigma, that can happen any which way. There is no problem to start out with, but there will be a solution! The process, Watson, is what counts! Really?
Writers are actually a variety. From serious, structured, storytellers who construct their stories ahead of putting pen to paper, to naughty, mischievous agenda-less vagabonds who thrill-kill with words. Some write for a living, and very soon it becomes a routine. Others have a penchant for émigré fiction. Tugs from the chords left behind. Still others are experimental dabblers who do not always know where it will all end up. But it is the writer-nerds that I have an affinity for. They are the ones who don’t speak much. They smile softly and then come out with a shocking essay. And that is because in their deepest recesses they have pleasantly satisfying thoughts that they feel they must share, but cannot verbalize in public. Thoughts that could be termed morbid, but could also be the ultimate barrier-breaking, g-spot-rubbing rebelliousness. Or, perhaps the most politically promiscuous sins contemplated in a most reclusive recess of the mind. The personal suddenly becomes the public.
The antechamber curtains are swept aside.
The nerds emerge and become the seditionists. The sinful, bannable nerds who push “law” to its limits. They are the writer-nerds who look for a disruptive turn of events. My writers are seekers of deep thrills. Seditious thrills. Overturning thrills. To be one, one must separate. A complete act of insulation from regularity, standard-ness and repetitivity. Complete distancing from the tools and methods made available to us to produce. Often referred by practicing psychoanalysts and sociologists as “alienation.” The process of separation from the mode of production. It is the mode where we actually lose our humanity and produce per diktat. “Whereas a person’s Gattungswesen (human nature) does not exist independent of specific, historically-conditioned activities, the essential nature of a human being is actualized when an individual—within their given historical circumstance—is free to sub-ordinate their will to the external demands they have imposed upon themselves by their imagination, and not the external demands imposed upon individuals by other people.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marx%27s_theory_of_alienation)
Writers must then separate. From that place where we are no longer in charge and cannot function as humans to a place where we call the shots. There is no ink, there is no canvas, there is no paper, and there is no .doc file. There is no diktat from the owners of the mode. There are only deep thoughts. Like the deep net, it is untraceable, unmanageable and even unknown. Only then can sedition happen.
Rana Bose is an author and engineer, and is conflicted at several levels, but is assigned to be on Montréal Serai’s Editorial Board.
On June 12, 2016, 29-year-old Omar Mateen, an American citizen of Afghan descent, randomly shot and killed 49 people and wounded 53 others inside Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida. This was a deadly mass shooting and the deadliest violence against LGBT people in the US. After the attack, attempts were made to understand why this happened: how could someone have gotten away with bringing an AR15-type assault rifle to a nightclub? Some called it an act of terrorism or hate crime. It seemed easy to blame “radical Islam,” since Mateen had sworn allegiance to ISIS during a 9-1-1 call shortly before the attack. Some insinuated self-hatred, since he had used gay dating websites and had publicly displayed his hatred for homosexuality. Others blamed it on a lack of gun control. There were no clear answers.
Donald Trump, the Republican presidential candidate, capitalized on this by re-emphasizing his earlier call for a ban on Muslim migration to the US. “I said this was going to happen — and it is only going to get worse,” he declared in a statement, leaving many to wonder, “Is this for real?”
In the article below, Rana Bose peels off the layers of our social somnambulism to reveal the underlying fault lines responsible for such disasters.
From a liberal democratic perspective (you can sense my shyness about such a label!), and so as not to waste time on the demagogic hysteria of fascist wall-builders and KKKers blending in with Trumpers, let us list a few things that still seem so unsettled in the discussion about what happened in Orlando.
Is it really about highlighting the need to fight Islamophobia?
Is it really all about confronting homophobia?
Is it about self-denial and self-hate?
Is it really about differentiating between an act of terror and an act of hate?
Is it an immigration problem? Is it an issue of mass shootings involving folks who are not “integrated?”
Is it an issue of which guns to release for sport and recreation and which not to?
Is it about the perils of “multiculturalism?”
Is it about mental health, since Mateen was also reported to be bipolar?
Is this about a malfunctioning “security state” apparatus?
Is it about giving the FBI more “preventative” powers?
There are many questions to be asked, but let’s pause here and ponder a bit. There are merits and complexities to all the questions that have been asked. Arriving at a simple denouement would be an easy way out. Let us frame some answers here.
According to Gregory Herek, social psychologist at the University of California:
“There are similarities between the thinking of James and Edward Westermarck (1908), but the latter went beyond instinct-based explanations in his cross-cultural study of morality. He was willing to assert that societal censure of homosexual practices is due to ‘the feeling of aversion or disgust which the idea of homosexual intercourse tends to call forth in normally constituted adult individuals whose sexual instincts have developed under normal conditions.’ But he thought this explanation was inadequate in accounting for the particularly violent reaction against homosexuality displayed by the Jewish, Christian, and Zoroastrian religions. Their strong hostility exists, he said, because homosexual practices were associated historically with idolatry and heresy, and so were condemned by way of laws and customs.”
My point here is that Islam did not invent homophobia. It is institutions fostered by the majority, based on religio-political needs, which started to define morality in terms of the aversion felt toward the homosexual act of intercourse. As if heterosexuals do not get off on anal penetration!
Freud and others who have monopolized the debates on same-sex attraction as emanating from early experiences with same-sex parents, also influenced by societal aversion and repression in dissolving the Oedipal complex, do not have any time for the religio-sociological basis for homosexuality. Patriarchal societies, male domination and male toxicity exist in all religious formations (except matriarchal Aboriginal societies). Homophobia has often been rooted in a love-hate relationship with homo-eroticism. And the most significant contributor to this delicate feel-but-don’t-touch malarkey has been the Christian church itself. So why blame Islam?
Immigration, domestic violence and integration, you say? Really? I think white America has not discovered the contraption invented nearly two hundred years ago by a German chemist named Justus von Liebig. This fellow managed to apply a fine layer of silver on a sheet of plain glass. This contraption, if carefully used by standing in front of it, may throw light on the fact that “Approximately 1.3 million women and 835,000 men are physically assaulted by an intimate partner annually in the United States.” And less than 1% of them involve Muslims or immigrants.
I am not going to even try and deal with the issue of the sales of guns, the so-called second amendment and all related issues. They have been eloquently handled by others. Ah, yes, there are some cocky and humorous defenses coming up lately. (“Would you blame the diarrhea you had on the meat you consumed or on the cook that made it?”)
The issue at stake is that there is a cancer that lies at the basis of American society and the definition it has of itself: the definition of the Land of Freedom, Land of Opportunity, and the exceptionalist role it must play for World Freedom. That is part of a basic belief system that has long insulated its own population from challenging the pillars of its own society. Therein lies the fault line — an existential tremor waiting to happen.
On a positive note, however, that basic belief system is now under some duress!
Naomi Klein writes in an article entitled “The Best Has Yet to Come:”
“Even writing those words seems crazy. After all, the working assumption for decades has been that genuinely redistributive policies are so unpopular in the U.S. that they could only be smuggled past the American public if they were wrapped in some sort of centrist disguise. ‘Fee and dividend’ instead of a carbon tax. ‘Health care reform’ instead of universal public health care. Only now it turns out that left ideas are popular just as they are, utterly unadorned. Really popular — and in the most pro-capitalist country in the world.”
The world’s economy as a whole has seen a building up of political pressure in those rich, advanced economies – the USA, Britain, France and Germany in particular – for new changes to trade patterns that they believe will renew growth in their economies. These countries have presided over actual economic stagnation since the turn of the century, relieved only by fighting expensive wars of choice financed by national borrowing and allowing reckless borrowing by cash-strapped middle-class citizens to provide any growth at all. These uneconomic borrowing and unproductive financial practices have been supported by changes to bankruptcy laws at the start of the century that keep most debts current, regardless of the ability to pay them down. To once again put off the day of reckoning and attempt to remedy this sluggish situation, the advanced countries have trotted out several treaties negotiated in secret with a variety of “partners.” These agreements drafted by wealthy countries purport to grow businesses and profit everyone by expanding trade between member countries – by taking advantage of relative differences in wages and social conditions that apply within them. Incidentally, they would remove barriers to all development activity and guarantee investor profits at the expense of local economic, social or cultural factors.
Pressure to adopt these treaties is such that essential democratic features of life in all the wealthy prospective member countries have been suppressed. There is almost no public examination of the contents of the treaties, no debate about unusual provisions, no journalistic overview of the processes of adoption. Like the geological forces beneath the earth’s crust that produce earthquakes, landslides, tsunamis and other calamities, the forces released by the final adoption of these treaties will surely produce poverty, exploitation, displacement of populations, environmental degradation, unemployment, disease, disputes, and war, just as prior treaties have. Curiously enough, investors in the partner countries will be protected against all risk of loss. Even the prospective profits of investors will be protected as never before in history, under the most highly favourable rules conceivable. As a result, along with these terrible effects on most people, a new transfer of wealth will take place: from the ones adversely affected everywhere, to the more-than-comfortable, highly wealthy people in the advanced countries. The treaties thus enshrine an asymmetry between the parties affected by these agreements, which is unprecedented in history.
We must stand our ground against this pressure and try to save our democracy and our livelihoods before the fault lines shift.
The following is a slightly adapted version of the presentation I submitted to the House of Commons Standing Committee on International Trade on May 10, 2016, during public consultations on the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
American Capitalism on Steroids
at the expense of all other forms of participation in what should be
varied national economies: a very un-Canadian arrangement
The TPP should be rejected by the Canadian parliament. It is an asymmetric treaty. As much as it benefits wealthy owners and executives of multi-national corporations (overwhelmingly American), it causes loss of life, liberty and living standards for the great majority of others who will suffer under its authority. Corporate profits made anywhere already float beyond fair national taxation laws of the countries in which they do business, with all of the attendant social and political evils that these arrangements create. In particular, the TPP would extend American hegemony and military domination over Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei, Australia, New Zealand, Chile, Peru, Mexico, Japan and Canada. With respect to Canadians, there is no new advantage for Canadian companies, save for those who already exploit and abuse people from less well-developed countries. This applies particularly to our miners. Mining is the industry which, compared to all others except the financial industry, does the most harm to humans: environmentally, culturally and politically, anywhere and everywhere.
The TTP would negatively affect the world’s efforts to protect any of the universal rights of workers, even extending slavery in some of the least advanced countries. The treaty deliberately impairs the democratic, environmental and human rights of all of its signers, as well as any efforts to improve them. This includes the USA and Canada. It would prevent local efforts to slow global warming, a much more important question than the marginal increase in trade covered by this corporate-dictated agreement.
Its principal unstated aims are to restrain the actions of China and Russia in order to secure commercial and national security needs, and reduce their influence in the region covered by the treaty.
To call the TPP a “free trade treaty” is to deceive. Few trade barriers will be removed from Canadians. Most of our international commerce is largely tariff free. Any existing duties allow us to adapt to historical, climatic, social and cultural realities that are essential to our functioning as a rare nation of decent people, sharing and caring for one another, for the last one hundred and sixty years. This “partnership” negotiated in secret would put an end to all that. Barriers to trade can always be removed by transparent multi-or bi-lateral negotiations over time.
If it’s not a free trade treaty, then what is it? It is a forced surrender, by small governments, of the means of governing in the interest of their people. It mandates private capitalist control by the world’s largest, most predatory corporations, to buy and otherwise take over the running of all human services and functions, private, public, co-operative, charitable and even volunteer. Its stated goal would guarantee the maximum profits of corporations (misnamed “investors”) in exchange for minimum services. This would happen regardless of any and all incidental local damage or harm. Always, along with the profit objectives, comes dis-information, religious and cultural propaganda that suits the USA, increasing its control over the social, political and economical life of the nations whose functions would be taken over. To conclude, such ‘agreements’ surrender national rights and much national governance to non-elected rent-extracting capitalists. Such surrenders of national authority historically occur only after wars, where the losers accept colonization by the conquerors. The weapons in the TPP war are American money and an American military-industrial police state, backed up by NATO.
The dispute settlement provisions of the TPP are steps backwards to juridical primitivism. It sets aside systems of justice and peaceful dispute settlement dating back to the medieval period. Three lawyers meeting in camera replace judges and courts. Their decisions would be beyond appeal. As if there weren’t enough opportunities for corruption and dishonesty already in the world, could one design a better method for encouraging and facilitating even more racketeering and crime? Instead of tried and tested judicial systems, a crude denial of due process, transparency and the rights of the weak, the poor, minorities, women and children and all those affected by corporate abuse of environments, customs, cultures, sustenance, social and human dignity. We would suffer troops of mercenaries roving around the world, battling independent cities and towns, making demands, extracting tribute, taking hostages, killing and maiming where convenient. Surely we put a stop to this kind of thing when we organized national governments during the Enlightenment; when we opted for elections to select our rulers who write our laws and select our judges to protect us, care for us and share amongst us. When disputes arise, we settle them according to our own local laws and regulations, with our own local judges who know our customs, who are sworn to enforce our laws. Three corporate lawyers from wherever, to judge our ways of life… in camera? The concept is irrational… absurd! No self-respecting elected representative of a people could willingly enter into such a situation.
Intellectual Property rights: Lengthening of copyright protection is a mechanism allowing rent extraction beyond reasonable limits. Copyright protection beyond sixty years for any work, beyond the span of a human life, rewards greed. Extending patents far beyond the time required to repay research investment deprives people of the right to the benefits of progress. Reducing the freedom of the Internet denies the rights of all people to benefit from the growth of human knowledge. The new restrictions are abusive and harmful.
The trouble already spawned by existing “free trade laws” crafted to benefit American corporate and military institutions located abroad has wrecked the peaceful development of most of the countries that have agreed to their terms. Breakdown of local controls and the loss of small farms and businesses have led to crime and violence, destroying the lives and the livelihoods of hundreds of millions. Lost are the very possibilities of these people for advancing their welfare or security. In the cases of Central and much of South America, and to a lesser extent, Canada, gradual trade liberalization could have been designed to be much less destructive for weaker treaty partners. Protection of workers and farmers on all sides of the changes to trade rules is of the essence. What we see instead is an advancement of control by police and military forces and disrespect for ancient property rights of indigenous peoples and international law protecting workers. These latter rights are more important to people’s advancement than any possible economic profit that may flow to them from further trade. Why extend an agreement to other countries when the main social product of NAFTA in Mexico and Central America has been a flow of refugees to the US because of the deterioration of the laws and the economies of its smaller weaker national partners and their subsequent chaos and militarization? There is nothing positive for non-corporate entities affected by the TPP.
Professor Rodrique Tremblay from the Université de Montréal sums it up best. Speaking about the TPT, (the TPP), the TTIP and NAFTA, he points out that in advanced western countries, corporate profits are way up, while overall wages have been driven down. Corporate taxes and taxes on the wealthiest are way down. While lowering wages and salaries, the USA has compensated by increasing individuals’ access to borrowing and credit in order to keep its economy alive. (www.globalresearch.ca)
There have already been two big US-driven “international trade deals.” Both were kept secret during their negotiations because their main objectives were to guarantee legal protection for the investments of multi-national corporations and megabanks against elected national governments, and to give these corporations and banks immunity from national prosecution and/or inconvenient local laws and regulations.
These “free trade” agreements hardly aim to expand movements of goods between countries based on comparative national advantages. They are instead business arrangements protecting corporations against national governments, their people, their taxes, their customs, laws and regulations; and in cases of disputes, replacing local courts and judges with corporate-friendly ‘arbiters.’
They pursue indecent geopolitical objectives. They erect a worldwide economic and financial order that supersedes national states, retracting all public, non-profit, charitable and co-operative services and enterprises and properties in favour of the private sector, without exception. These treaties also represent an absurd effort to protect the corporate and banking elites – the 1% establishment – against their reform by governments, public administrations and grassroots people (whether formally organized in clans, tribes, purpose-based organizations with legal or traditional charters, or in ad hoc groups). In the case of the TTIP, its principal political objective would prevent the European Union from developing trade agreements with Russia, which the US explicitly states that it wants to colonize. In the case of TPP, the stated objective is to isolate and colonize China. In the eyes of Washington D.C. neo-con plotters, these treaties are part of an ongoing low-key campaign of armed and unarmed high-intensity economic warfare, as much against the states that are not a part of the treaties as against the underclasses of the whole world.
These treaties preserve, encourage and ease access to tax havens that large corporations have been using to avoid taxes in home countries.
They are a big part of why our economies are languishing. When corporate profits are not reinvested in domestic economies or in living wages for employees, but are instead given to executives and shareholders to be hoarded and stashed away, these profits reduce demand. US corporations alone have $1.4 trillion dollars sleeping in foreign tax havens, with more going into mergers and share buybacks all the time. If these monies were repatriated, taxed or recirculated, not only would governments have lower deficits, new services would greatly increase as well: public and voluntary services and private start-up concerns.
The proposed extended patent protection for long-established and entrenched corporations at the expense of start-up companies is scandalous. Mergers and corporate multi-national societies have created monopolies, oligopolies and arrangements that have reduced competition, increased corporate markets and political power, and raised prices.
The TTP and the TTIP are anti-social, quasi-criminal efforts to ruin our planetary environment, and raise the risk of world war.
The Canadian Parliament is urged to reject the current state of the TPP and send it back to new writers who will include representative people from the broad spectrum of all societies involved, who will draft something that is agreeable to all, publicly and transparently debated, voted and accepted.
 Outside the treaties, there are other stated geopolitical objectives that are highly negative: to curb Russian and Chinese intentions in their regions, threatening world peace, and to replace all public, co-operative and non-corporate private property and enterprise with private corporate property and enterprise.
“I was only seven at the time when Pakistan was formed,” said the tall, turbaned Sikh man who now owns a store in the famous Refugee Market (also known as Mohan Market) of Lucknow. “It must have been either the 16th or the 17th of August 1947. New flags were being hoisted in both countries. We were a family of farmers in the village of Naushehara, district Sargoda, now in Pakistan. Our Musalman friends and employees came to warn my father: ‘Sardar ji, tonight, you must leave. Tomorrow or the day after — it is hard to tell — there will be an attack. We cannot be responsible.’ And around 11:30 that night, we all left on horses for the Sillanwali camp, and from there to Amritsar, Delhi, and finally to Lucknow. Even today, sixty-nine years later, my raungtey or the hair on my arms stands on end just thinking of those days.” The Sikh man with an unforgettably proud demeanour narrated this as his eyes welled up with unshed tears.
Toba Tek Singh is a city and a tehsil (district) named after a Sikh faqir (Tek Singh) who is said to have served the population from the water of the well (toba). In 1947, following the formation of Pakistan, this city fell just within the borders of Pakistan. Despite the fact that many Pakistani cities have been renamed to reflect their presence now in an Islamic state, it is a tribute to Tek Singh and the people he served that the name of this city has not been changed.
Today, Toba Tek Singh is better known for Saadat Hassan Manto’s story by the same name – a satirical comment on the insanity of the partition of India on religious grounds:
“Two or three years after the 1947 Partition, it occurred to the governments of India and Pakistan to exchange their lunatics in the same manner as they had exchanged their criminals. The Muslim lunatics in India were to be sent over to Pakistan and the Hindu and Sikh lunatics in Pakistani asylums were to be handed over to India.
The city of Peshawar, located in the northwest border between India and Pakistan, narrates its story as a chorus in Awtar Engill’s Punjabi novelette, Purushpura (land of men):
“I am fortunate that during every divisive period in history, I have continued to witness the growth of friendships. I am however unfortunate that I have seen much of the lives of these god-like inhabitants turn into ashes by the fires of hate. The last British Viceroy of India, Lord Louis Mountbatten, advanced the partition of India by ten months without making adequate arrangements for the safe exchange of populations. Thus took place one of the most violent and insane migrations between two nations. Despite the presence of nine hundred and sixty thousand reserve forces, ten million and twenty thousand people were forced to flee on trains, horses, mules, lorries, human caravans, whatever they could find. 1.2 million men women and children were massacred, and countless young women raped and abandoned. The Hindus and Sikhs who left Pakistan for a free India came to be known as refugees, and the Muslims who left India for a free Pakistan were called mujahirs, while the leaders of both countries – the ones who turned the wheels of the millstone – kept grinding the souls of the poor and the defenceless.
Today, Peshawar is again in the hands of those who like to play with fire. Lessons of hate are being etched into the minds of the innocent, and the ‘learned-wisdom’ of this intellect is ready to kick-start the beginning of another end.”
[Our free-style translation from the original Punjabi, with permission from the author]
The insanity of such divisions is nothing new, and has been repeated many times over, leaving behind entire populations of nations to cope with the resulting chaos, death and destitution. The most notorious drawings of such lines took place at the Paris Peace Conference (1919-1920) where the Big Four – Britain, France, Italy and the United States – took up the task of negotiating with the enemy and tracing new border lines. As Margaret MacMillan writes, “The German-speaking southern part of Tyrol” was awarded to Italy. “Galicia went to Poland, Bohemia to Czechoslovakia. Some three million German-speaking Austrians went with them.” Discussions were held where “the Syrian coast, much of today’s Lebanon, was to go to France, while Britain would take direct control over central Mesopotamia, around Baghdad, and the southern part around Basra.” (p. 384) Regarding the fate of the millions of Jews trying to leave the former Russian and Austrian empires, the “obvious solution” seemed to be “to let them go to Palestine” simply because it was “underpopulated, with plenty of empty space.” (p. 410)
The example of the Balkans remains by far the most insane of all re-organizations. “The British,” writes MacMillan, “were largely indifferent to what happened in the Balkans, as they were to most of Central Europe, so long as British interests, whether commercial or naval, were protected… The Americans, in the Balkans as elsewhere, saw their role as that of honest broker, cutting through the thickets of the old diplomacy to apply the brave new standard of self-determination… How could you draw neat boundaries where there was such a mixture of peoples? How could you leave people together who had come to fear each other?” The borders drawn through the region “left in their wake unhappy minorities and resentful neighbours.” (pp. 122-123)
The Ogaden region – once in Somalia, now in Ethiopia and victim to the madness of a bloody civil war – ended up re-drawing its map at the cost of its people, torn between being Ethiopian and having a Somalian past. Askar, the protagonist in Nuruddin Farah’s novel, Maps, grapples with conflicting identities:
“He now studied the map as reflected faithfully in the mirror before him. So many hundred kilometres to Kallafo, so many to Jigjiga; so many from Jigjiga to Hargeisa; and from Hargeisa to Mogadiscio; so many from Mogadiscio to Marsabet in the Somali-speaking part of Kenya. Maps. Truth. A mind travels across the graded map, and the eye allots the appropriate colours to the different continents. The body takes longer to make the same journey… And there is a big, painful difference, thought Askar, between the Somali situation today and that of the early 1940s when all the Somali-speaking territories, save Djebouti, were under one administration. And so it was again, for a brief period in 1977-78, when the Ogaden was in Somali hands. But the Somalis, government and people, were busy fighting a war on the ground and in the corridors of diplomatic power and no one released an authorized map of reconquered territory. Truth. Maps.”
And now, as we hear prospective leaders of powerful countries boast about building new walls, and as our planet begins to collapse from the scourge of greed that will not end until it draws the last dregs from depleting resources, we are neglecting the basics: the growth of friendships rooted in the religion of humanity, the breaking down of divisions, and the unmasking of our essential needs exposing our essential selves – the beautiful and the ugly – and then offering our mashk (goatskin bag) of fresh, clean water drawn from Tek Singh’s toba.
 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Toba_Tek_Singh  Saadat Hasan Manto, Toba Tek Singh: Stories. Trans. by Khalid Hasan. India: Penguin Books, 2008. An English version of the story “Toba Tek Singh” is available at: http://www.sacw.net/partition/tobateksingh.html  Awtar Engill, Purushpura. Chandigarh, India: Lokgeet Parkashan, 2014  Margaret MacMillan, Paris 1919: Six Months that Changed the World. New York: Random House Inc.: 2001, p. 250  Nuruddin Farah, Maps. New York: Pantheon Books, 1986, p. 242
Spoiler alert: If you are a devoted believer that putting Canadian “boots on the ground” in Syria will actually solve anything, you might want to skip this contribution.
Let’s see if we can dissect the situation:
ISIS commits atrocities in Paris, 130 innocent civilians die. (Plus the many still in hospital.) Hollande proclaims it an act of “barbarism” and declares war on ISIS.
Curious, since France was already at war with ISIS, bombing them along with Canada, US and other allies. We, the allies, probably kill 130 members of ISIS every second day. Thank goodness there are only 42 allegations of incidents causing civilian collateral damage so far during this bombing campaign. The Canadian Air Force may have killed up to 27 innocent civilians in one incident alone, according to the CBC. Not to worry, the geographical territory controlled by ISIS in Iraq and Syria has been shrinking considerably, thanks largely to the Kurdish Peshmerga rebels on the ground.
So the Kurds must be our allies in this war. Turkey, a fellow member of NATO, is also our ally and is fighting ISIS too. But wait! The Kurdish objective in fighting ISIS is to carve out pieces of what are now Iraq and Syria and, yes, Turkey, to create a Kurdish Republic. Which pits them against our ally, Turkey. In fact, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party is outlawed in Turkey, where it has claimed credit for a series of “terrorist” bomb attacks. Turkey has in fact been bombing Kurdish militant positions in northern Iraq and Syria. So, now, once ISIS is defeated, the battle between our two allies will intensify.
Hmmm…which side should we support?
Another ally in the region is Saudi Arabia. Well, it must be our ally; we are selling them $15 billion worth of armed personnel carriers over the next 14 years. But wait — Saudi Arabia, this ally of ours, is helping fund ISIS, their fellow Sunni Muslims! (Ask Hillary Clinton: “Donors in Saudi Arabia constitute the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide.”) And of course 15 of the 19 plane hijackers on September 11, 2001 were citizens of Saudi Arabia. This is the same Saudi Arabia, btw, that is intervening in the civil war in Yemen where, according to Amnesty International, it is targeting civilians using cluster bombs, contrary to all “laws of war.” And lest we forget, in Saudi Arabia (our ally), women are not allowed to drive cars or even wear seat belts, as this might emphasize their female attributes.
Wait, didn’t 159 Canadian soldiers die fighting a war in Afghanistan to defeat the Taliban because the Taliban forbids girls from going to school and women from driving cars? (Btw, the first 4 Canadian soldiers to die in Afghanistan were killed by an errant US bomb attack.) The same Taliban that — in a previous incarnation, as Mujahedeen — we had supported (did that make them our ally?) in their battle against the godless Soviet occupying forces, which among other things were fighting to establish a republic where girls could go to school and women were treated as equals. (Remember when we boycotted the 1980 Olympics because the Russians were in Afghanistan? To be consistent, should Canada not have led a boycott of the Vancouver Olympics because of our own presence in Afghanistan?)
Luckily, Canada seems well on the road to forgetting the casualties, the hundreds of wounded, the suicides and the many soldiers who returned with severe PTSD as a result of our “mission” in Afghanistan. On December 20, in Toronto, Sergeant Robert Giblin, veteran of two tours of duty in Afghanistan, killed his wife and then himself in an apparent murder-suicide. Two more Canadian casualties of our participation in the Afghan occupation? Already Afghanistan has returned to the depressing chaos and corruption that existed before we sent our troops there. Warlords who have succeeded in pushing (pardon the pun) the drug production to record levels once again govern most of the country. Meanwhile, in Kunduz Afghanistan, the US accidentally bombed a Doctors without Borders hospital killing over 40 patients, staff and doctors, apparently even strafing a patient in a wheelchair who was trying to escape the bombing. Even the President of Afghanistan now admits: “The entire NATO exercise was one that caused Afghanistan a lot of suffering, a lot of loss of life, and no gains…”
So, yes, let’s forget about Afghanistan.
Russia, also one of our allies, sort of, in the battle against ISIS, is using its bombing raids as an opportunity to prop up its ally, President Bashar Al Assad, whom at one point we were intent on unseating for his undemocratic tendencies. No surprise, our ally, Russia, is showing more enthusiasm in bombing the anti-Assad rebel forces, also our allies in the fight against ISIS, than in bombing ISIS itself. Our ally, Turkey, meanwhile brought down a bomber deployed by our ally Russia, for allegedly violating Turkish airspace. Russia, it seems, was bombing Syrian Turkmen rebels, who are supported by Turkey. As spoils in the Syrian civil war, Turkey is hoping to annex that part of northern Syria populated by a majority of ethnic Turks, which is where the Russian plane was downed. Clearly, once ISIS has been defeated, the Syrian civil war will continue to rage. Our allies, the Russians, will be supporting Assad and fighting our allies the Rebels. The Russians will also be fighting our allies the Turks and our allies the Kurds. And the Kurds will be fighting the Iraqis, the Syrian government, the Syrian rebels and the Turks, all more or less our allies. While Turks will be fighting the Syrian rebels and the Kurds, and already have troops fighting in Iraq, the Shite Muslim militia are threatening to attack American troops if they are deployed again to the area.
Eee…I’m a little dizzy. Can anybody distil clarity out of this total chaos?
Once ISIS is defeated on the ground, we will support which side(s)?
Meanwhile, Iran and Israel lurk, ominously silent, in the background. What happens if either of them gets involved? Montréal newspaper Le Devoir recently published reports suggesting Israel was smuggling ISIS oil to help fund the Sunni fundamentalists. Who actually is buying the annual $500 to $800 million worth of smuggled ISIS oil that is bankrolling our enemy? Our allies, Turkey and the Kurds in Iraq, it seems.
Putting Canadian “boots on the ground” or continuing our bombing mission is not going to affect the outcome of this political mess in any way or help the situation one damn bit.
Closer to home, President Obama welcomed President Hollande to the White House and declared undying solidarity with France in the fight against terrorism. “We’re going to defeat ISIS,” promises the US President in his year-end news conference. Meanwhile on December 18, a US aircraft mistakenly kills at least ten members of the allied Iraqi security forces in an airstrike near the city of Fallujah. Obama, remember, is the president of a country where the number of black men incarcerated in the prison system is greater than the number of black slaves at the beginning of the Civil War. The president of a country where an average of one mass killing takes place every week. Where an average of 2 minors (under 14) are killed every week by the accidental discharge of firearms. Where a total of 11,000 citizens die violently every year from guns. And don’t forget, the USA is, of course, our good friend and ally.
Now our ally, Saudi Arabia, successfully emulating the culture of our barbaric enemy, ISIS, has beheaded 47 Shite Muslims for such terrible crimes as demonstrating against the Saudi government.
What a mess. So what should Canada do? We can’t stop the fighting. We should not continue to be party to the killing of thousands of innocent civilians. We should not be part of a military engagement that the Arab world increasingly sees as an occupation, a modern-day crusade against the Muslim religion. We should not be part of a war, which, like the invasion of Iraq in 2003, is driven by lies, jingoism and hypocrisy and which ultimately benefits only the arms manufacturers. Like the invasion of Iraq, this war will end up stoking anti-US hatred, increasing the political chaos, playing into the hands of radicals on all sides, and probably significantly increasing the likelihood of home-grown hatemongers seeking revenge in Canada on Canadians.
So what should we do?
Build a better Canada, a model of integrity and tolerance that can serve as a moral example, an antidote to the hatred spreading through the Middle East. If we are going to spend our nation’s resources, let’s not participate in any military action that does not solve anything, and only results in the killing of innocent civilians. Let’s spend our money feeding, housing and providing schools for as many starving and homeless refugees as we can, both in Canada and in the war zones.
Montreal March 14, 2016: Spring is coming slowly to this Canadian city, but the rain is falling in Macedonia while more than ten thousand refugees huddle in tents on the Greek border, one tragic part of a much more vast movement. New images now haunt the world, of children and women and men attempting to ford the Suva River between northern Greece and Macedonia.
In the long arc of unrest stretching from Afghanistan through Iran and Iraq to the coasts of Syria and Turkey, people are moving westwards. On the waters of the Mediterranean, desperate people come from the south and the east to Europe in their search for refuge, employment and escape from violence.
Last year, more than one million individuals made this larger trek, and at the beginning of 2016 the flow continues, according to the latest bulletin from the International Organization for Migration (IOM):
As winter nears its end, IOM estimates irregular migrant and refugee arrivals are now approaching 130,000 in the Mediterranean. (…) The numbers still fall far short of 2015’s total, when over one million seaborne arrivals were recorded. But with ten months left, it now appears likely that last year’s total will be surpassed, possibly before the end of the summer.
The anguish of parents, the suffering of children, the grim conditions in camps, at sea, and on the road, make the conditions for migrants and refugees truly “biblical” in the words of novelist Richard Flanagan, who has written a series for the British newspaper The Guardian, “Notes on the great Syrian exodus” (March 4, 2016). Flanagan visited Greece, Lebanon and Serbia to report on “the plight of the 5 million Syrians fleeing their country,” a drama that he calls “epic in scale, inconceivable unless you have seen it.”
In Lebanon there are 1.5 million Syrians, a third of whom live in “endless shantytowns,” and “another million Syrian refugees can be found living in culverts, ruins, slums and better quality apartments throughout Lebanon – a nation itself of only 4.5 million.” The Lebanese frontiers are now closed, but “still they come.”
The 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees makes it clear what the obligations of governments are, and it defines a refugee as someone who has fled his or her country “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.” The UN Briefing Paper on forced displacement indicates that globally there are now 27 million internally displaced people within their own countries, and 15 million who have fled beyond those borders, for a total of approximately “43 million uprooted victims of conflict and persecution worldwide.” (http://www.un.org/en/globalissues/briefingpapers/refugees/) These populations include 4.8 Palestinians, 2.9 million Afghans, 1.8 million Iraqis, 700,000 Somalis, 456,000 Congolese, 390,000 Colombians and 370,000 Sudanese.
The UN figures indicate that today roughly one third of all refugees worldwide are Syrian – a truly extraordinary percentage. When Macedonian officials use tear gas and stun grenades against people trying to get through the razor-wire fence with Greece, or French police attack and burn a migrant camp in Calais, what the world sees is an abject failure to address the global migration issue that, like the refugees themselves, will not go away.
There are now right-wing governments in Hungary, Slovakia and Poland, and officials are closing borders in an attempt to repel newcomers. The Balkan corridor has been shut following a deal between the EU and its Balkan neighbours, a bargain that anticipates a Europe-Turkey accord to refuse refugees. However, the prospective EU-Turkish accord is a gross violation of international law. Tony Barber, the editor of The Financial Times in London, has commented that for “selfish, dishonourable, short-sighted behaviour that violates EU values and international law, the prize goes to individual European governments,” but now “we have the shabby deal with Turkey. The EU is to organize illegal, compulsory mass expulsion of refugees to Turkey. In return, the Turks are supposed to get visa-free travel to the EU and an accelerated path to EU membership.” (March 12, 2016)
In the last 24 hours, after desperate people burst through the Macedonian fence outside the Idomeni camp in Greece, the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees’ on-site representative, Babur Baloch, told the BBC:
What we are seeing is a return of chaos whenever there is a unilateral decision to close borders; when there is no co-ordination, when countries in Europe don’t co-ordinate and don’t share responsibility, then we see more misery for refugees. And that’s exactly what we are going through in Greece today. We see more and more people arriving here. There’s no way out. Greece is struggling; it needs support from the EU.
When EU officials in Brussels at 1:00 a.m. on March 8, 2016 first announced their plan to send refugees back to Turkey, they did not tell the truth to journalists about the EU’s own directives on refugee deportations. Article 18 of the EU directive on asylum procedure defines the criteria for a “safe third country” to which refugees can be sent and includes section 18.c requiring that “the principle of non-refoulement [not sending refugees back into danger] in accordance with the Geneva Convention is respected.” Also, individuals sent to a “safe third country” must have the right to claim refugee status there, but in Turkey – believe it or not – only people from Europe are allowed to apply formally as refugees, despite the unofficial presence of so many Syrians inside the country. (See “Is the EU-Turkey Refugee Deal Legal?” by Duncan Robinson, Financial Times, March 9, 2016.)
Interestingly, Gilles Keppel, a French expert on the Middle East, is one of those people favouring an EU-Turkey rapprochement, but in a recent interview with the Turkish pro-government English-language newspaper The Daily Sabah, he sounded a grave warning about what is now happening in the area:
I have been studying the Middle East for 35 years and I have not witnessed such a dangerous period before now. There have never been so many places which were unreachable until now. This chaos will unfortunately continue, unless the situation is realized and a general reconciliation is sought. The EU will not be a stability factor, but become a mere target if it does not take any measure and maintains its political ineffectiveness and lack of capacity despite being a major power in the region.
Another French observer is Pierre-Jean Luizard who is a director of research on the Middle East at the Centre national de recherche scientifique (CNRS) in Paris. Luizard has published a book entitled Le piège Daech: L’État islamique ou le retour de l’Histoire – in English, The ISIS Trap: The Islamic State and the Return of History. He argues that what is now happening in the Middle East is the painful upheaval of a history that goes back to the Sykes-Picot accord of 1916 between Britain and France, which led to the formation of states in Iraq and Syria. ISIS is part of what Luizard calls “un retour brutal – et pourtant prévisible – de l’Histoire,” a “brutal return of history that has been nonetheless predictable.” He says that the anti-ISIS coalition has no political plan for a region undergoing “obvious re-shaping.” Furthermore, he asserts that ISIS wants outside powers to intervene in “its war” precisely in order to confirm its apocalyptic vision of the “clash of civilizations.”
However, the fate of ISIS, which has been under increasing pressure since the beginning of 2016, is only one of several factors pushing and thrusting displaced peoples westward to Europe and beyond. A closer look at ISIS reveals much of importance, nonetheless.
Events are so raw and large in scale that one feels stunned before their impact, even at a distance. Here in Montreal, my wife and I, along with three friends, are sponsoring a Syrian family to come to Canada with their children from a camp in Lebanon, yet we know full well that this action is only a small light in a larger darkness. Canada did announce on Sunday, February 28, that this country had welcomed 25,000 refugees. That is hugely better than the 1,500 taken in by the United States over the last five years, and the approximately 1,800 accepted by the UK in 2015.
The refugee crisis has brought a whole series of contradictions to light, and the fleeing people themselves are symbols of the deeper political strains that are surfacing. It is clear that the “danger,” to borrow Keppel’s word, is global and pressing.
Over these weeks of late winter, I have been watching news develop, consulting my own habitual journalistic sources (Robert Fisk, Patrick Cockburn, Seymour Hersh), and what appears from all the dispatches is a profile of several major geopolitical realities.
“We” created ISIS
Here the “we” is truly multi-lateral and includes: the United States, the UK, France, Russia, Turkey, Iraq, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, as well as the EU and other actors. An important causal factor for ISIS was the immoral and disastrous invasion of Iraq by the United States in 2003. One of the best sources on Iraq in North America is a newspaper that sells for 1 cent an issue, The Catholic Worker, the little-known bulletin of the Catholic pacifist organization of the same name. CW volunteers go to Iraq frequently and write about their visits, gaining information that traditional reporters do not access. The January/February issue of The Catholic Worker has a powerful essay, “Withdraw From War on Terror,” by the veteran American peace activist David McReynolds (now 88 years old). A section of this piece really stands out:
In my view the US should withdraw from the War on Terror. I do not say this because I am blind to the evil of ISIS, but rather because our actions helped create ISIS, and our actions in this war are self-defeating. Briefly, ISIS is a direct result of the US invasion of Iraq.
After discussing the Sunni-minority government of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad and the subsequent post-Saddam Shia sectarianism, McReynolds reflects on the ISIS capture of Mosul in northern Iraq during 2014:
It was as if all the evils of the past, the US “accidental” bombings of Muslim wedding parties in Afghanistan, the cruelty and humiliation of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, the deaths of tens of thousands of civilians in Iraq, were compressed into some hard diamond of cruelty – ISIS. A brutal, criminal summation of all the many acts of inhumanity the US had imposed on the Muslim world. I do not for a moment excuse the evils of ISIS, but the beginning of wisdom is to see our role in the past in creating the present.
A pre-fascist climate now exists in both Europe and the United States
March 1, 2016 was “Super Tuesday,” and for the first time the world noticed that a Mussolini-type figure was succeeding in US politics. Some of the closest friends of the United States and stalwarts of capitalism became deeply worried. The renowned economic commentator Martin Wolf wrote a column for The Financial Times that very afternoon entitled “Donald Trump embodies how great republics meet their end.” Wolf used an analogy with Rome in his comments: “The US is the greatest republic since Rome, the bastion of democracy, the guarantor of the liberal global order. It would be a global disaster if Mr. Trump were to become president. Even if he fails, he has rendered the unthinkable sayable.” And Wolf concluded the piece: “An American ‘Caesarism’ has now become flesh. It seems a worryingly real danger today. It could return again in future.” There were many, many observers who felt similarly. For example, David McReynolds, whose politics are very unlike Mr. Wolf’s, commented well before Super Tuesday, “I am glad I caught the speech Donald Trump gave in which he called for blocking any Muslim from entering the US. It was a speech that clearly bordered on fascism and marks a shift for Trump, from bad to much worse.”
Martin Wolf’s own parents fled the Netherlands to come to England during World War II, so he is well aware that fascism develops gradually, in steps, until it becomes fully entrenched. In the EU, far-right forces have come to power in certain governments, and within Germany itself the Alternative für Deutschland party has gained in the most recent regional polls. That is a bad sign, since Angela Merkel has been by far the best of the European leaders on the refugee issue.
Also, ISIS itself is a form of clerical fascism, so it is no exaggeration to make the observation that fascist ideas are now present in the Middle East, Europe and North America.
Russia and the United States have co-operated to achieve the fragile truce in Syria
One of the striking elements surfacing from news reports is the fact that the US and Russia are deeply at odds yet are at the same time co-operating on certain elements of this crisis. On Jan. 7, 2016, the American investigative journalist Seymour Hersh published an important article in The London Review of Books entitled “Military to Military: Seymour M. Hersh on US intelligence sharing in the Syrian war.” For some time, according to Hersh, the US military has been sharing crucial information with both the Russian and the Assad governments because of American generals’ judgement, in his words, “that Islamic State must be stopped.” The exchange of information had to do with targets and bombing, but there is a division within the top staff. In late February, the American Commander of NATO, in a gambit to get more US troops in Europe, gave congressional testimony in Washington claiming that Russia and Assad are deliberately channelling refugee populations to Europe in order to undermine the EU. The realities on the ground belie that Air Force general’s claim. “The caliphate” is forbidding people to leave its territory and is now using extreme force to impose its will and forcibly keep people within its area.
This winter, The Independent in the UK carried reports from Robert Fisk, who was embedded with Syrian government troops in that country, and from Patrick Cockburn in Iraq. Fisk wrote that during this winter, “For the first time Syrian army Special Forces, Iranian Revolutionary Guards and Lebanese Hezbollah fighters operated together with tanks and helicopters, blasting through 20 miles of villages and open countryside [north of Aleppo] in just eight days.” (Feb. 27, 2016) Along with 5,000 Iranians, another 5,000 foreigners were with the Syrians, including Afghans and Pakistani Shia.
Meanwhile, from Karbala in Iraq, Patrick Cockburn, writing for the same UK paper, reported that ISIS was “under heavy attack from its numerous though disunited enemies, the most important of which are the Syrian and Iraqi armies, the Iraq Kurdish Peshmerga and the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG).” Cockburn pointedly added that these armies on the ground “are not very large, but their fire power is greatly multiplied by the close support they receive from US and Russian air strikes.” (Feb. 24, 2016 – emphasis added) In his recent essay for The London Review of Books, “End Times for the Caliphate?” (March 3, 2016), Cockburn clearly described the US-Russia relationship:
A new loose alliance between the US and Russia, though interrupted by bouts of Cold-War style rivalry, produced an agreement on 12 February for aid to be delivered to besieged Syrian towns and cities and a ‘cessation of hostilities’ to be followed by a more formal ceasefire. A de-escalation of the crisis will be difficult to orchestrate. But the fact that the US and Russia are co-chairing a taskforce over-seeing it shows the extent to which they are displacing local and regional powers as the decision-makers in Syria.
It is important to note that this period of Middle East diplomacy, with John Kerry negotiating for the United States and Sergei Lavrov representing Russia, may not survive the next US election if Hillary Clinton is elected, as seems most likely at this time.
A solution to the greater crisis requires general reconciliation
The phrase “general reconciliation” comes from Gilles Keppel, whose ideas I suspect would be quite different from the tone of the these notes here in Montréal Serai. Nonetheless, the refugee crisis demands reconciliation within Europe – in other words, a true EU to deal with an influx of 1 million refugees and migrants per year to be absorbed over the next few years into an EU population of 500 million. Unfortunately, the EU is showing signs of disintegration at a time when real collective will is needed.
In the Middle East, a minimum of pragmatic stoicism (if not real reconciliation) is also needed. Pierre-Jean Luizard is unquestionably right when he insists that a huge historical shift is now taking place, one that involves exactly the last one hundred years beginning in 1916 with Sykes-Picot. Great powers, states, client states, sub-states should all beware – a giant wave is rolling across the region that will require sang froid to navigate. Events of this magnitude overwhelm even the most confident actors.
The people on the move do not control governments. They endure and persevere. Governments, all governments, need to think of them and strive to imitate their modest, human strength.
In the past, nomads were those who wandered to find the necessities of life, and could be considered hunter-gatherers or pastoral wanderers, each moving around for sources of sustenance — for themselves, in the former case, and for those (animals) on which they were dependent, in the latter. Circumstances (depleted herds, food sources, etc.) were the major forces of their wandering.
Instead, today we see urban nomads resulting from what Ta-Nehisi Coates has referred to as “elegant” forms of discrimination, with his example being the “social engineering” that comes from housing segregation, a weapon that “mortally injures, but does not bruise.”
The groups and individuals that move around today do so less often out of choice than out of necessity to ensure their nourishment and basic needs usually centring on their body/physical, social, mental, or spiritual health. But what is perhaps a major difference from past wanderers is the role played by those of us with power based on class, skin colour, gender, and other privileges to inflict nomadry on others. On their own, these populations would probably stay and thrive happily where they are.
Some wandering thoughts about examples of a few of these contemporary forced nomads seem worth noting, although there are many others that could be included. These forced nomads (and others) deserve much more attention and consideration than I can provide here — and space precludes adding the role of environmental toxins forcing people away from home because housing and drinking water have become serious health risks for too many in Canada and the USA.
Displacements in the heart of Montreal and elsewhere
Indigenous groupsand individuals pushed from social gatherings in public places by gentrification of buildings and parks immediately come to mind. Those of us who live near Cabot Square in downtown Montreal were aware that, for many years, some of the indigenous people frequented this green (though often muddy and littered) area in front of the now-empty Montreal Children’s Hospital (MCH), and used it as a social gathering place, a place of their own on unceded indigenous lands, lands further away from where they had already been forced to move south. When plans were announced that the site would be “improved,” we waited to see the result once the barriers surrounding the Square for many months during renovations were removed.
Well, perhaps the first word that came to – and has stayed in — my mind since the “new” space opened is “deception.” The space, despite being the result of supposed consultations with users and the placing of “community workers,” and despite the supposedly indigenous-friendly café, Cabot Square now is a concrete, barren space lacking even comfortable benches to sit or lie on. And, as others may also have noted, no one seems to be using the area, certainly not as it was before it was gentrified. Also, once the condominiums across the street and the “development” of the MCH are complete, there will probably be even fewer of those seen resting, playing, singing, and socializing.
Where have these urban folks gone? Well, in the cold months of winter, another social space has been in the Atwater metro area that has an entry in the Square, but…
Just as with Cabot Square, this public area has also been “cleaned up” — another way of saying the clearing out of the displaced indigenous and other itinerant and possibly homeless individuals. Those who do seek warmth and shelter from the cold and wet weather are quickly moved along by the police (to where?) as surveillance increases, allegedly to avoid inconveniencing transit users.
Making these forced nomads disappear from view makes their lives more dangerous and, importantly, allows those of us with privileges to more easily forget these concitoyenNEs.
Not so “elegant” discrimination forcing nomadry?
Specifically this relates to parents of children who have or might have Down Syndrome for whom the absence of proper services (health, education, social services, etc.) forces them to move from their homes to other jurisdictions where resources, while still too few, are perhaps somewhat more available. This also causes potential parents who choose not to have prenatal diagnosis so that they can welcome their children regardless of any diagnostic labels that might be imposed on them by others, to become forced nomads. Why do we have policies that necessitate tearing existing connections of families and friends, rather than ensuring that we support all those who are among us – children and their parents – wherever it is that they choose to live and make their homes? Why do the loudest messages from medical professionals, implicit and explicit, encourage the screening of pregnant women to “find” fetuses predicted to have problems after birth, so that they can be aborted and not become “burdens?” Moreover, as genetic screening and testing become even more normalized throughout the world, many (perhaps all) pregnant women risk becoming permanent forced nomads with no place to go for their sustenance if they want to have children without prior selection.
(Parenthetically, I need also to note the forced nomadry of those seeking abortions for an unwanted pregnancy, when these services are either not publicly available at all (e.g., PEI) or not locally accessible in non-urban areas.)
Wandering wheelers and other marginalized groups as urban forced nomads
Forced out of social spaces are also those moving about in wheelchairs, when sidewalks are furnished for café customers but leave no space for wheeling, whether solo or in pairs. And that’s not counting their own needs for accessible cafés, restaurants, office buildings, shops, voting stations, and other locations where they could go for work, supplies, recreation — for basically exercising their democratic rights. Those who are able to get around on their feet can usually proceed side-by-side in conversation with another wherever they go; the single-file-only experiences of wheelers is the result of decisions made by the privileged that make nomads out of too many others.
Other urban forced nomads include trans, queer, and other gender non-conforming folks who are excluded from bathrooms labeled “men” or “women,” “gents” or “dames.” (And also, but perhaps of lesser importance, cis-women at large conferences for whom the “women’s” toilets are invariably insufficient in number during program breaks while the “men’s” toilets remain empty.) Why does the basic need for toilets and sinks, and perhaps space for minor grooming, have to be met in ways that force too many to wander in search of a place to pee? It’s more than a matter of privacy; it’s a question of justice and inclusiveness that should make gender neutrality of these spaces the rule.
And there are young people prohibited from skateboarding and other common activities by heavy-handed policing practices allegedly to make streets “safe.” Moreover, police profiling especially of racialized youth force them to move about rather than occupy public spaces that belong to all, and put them at risk of forced transit into detention or prison where they are already excessively over-represented.
At times, even those with (some) privileges become forced nomads.
Once we shift perspectives, it becomes possible to view the lot of today’s newspaper readers (or TV viewers and social media junkies) who seek more than “bias confirmation” as some kind of forced nomads. If one can no longer easily find printed (or other) material presenting a range of positions and ideas because media become increasingly concentrated and expressive of the politics of but a few large, profit-driven corporations, what “wandering” will be needed to learn of the many grey areas that need consideration in order to avoid fixed pro-and-con diatribes and allow authentic, not impoverished, citizen dialogues? Which also raises the question: where will these discussions occur when freedom of expression on public streets is removed by politicians who label disagreements as potentially “terrorist,” and by heavily-armed police claiming to enforce arbitrary regulations?
Interestingly, even some of those most privileged by education feel the pressures creating nomads when, for example, researchers who recognize the values of work across (artificial) disciplinary boundaries struggle to find jobs and funding (and recognition) not usually granted to generalists in corporatized universities that measure “success” by products generated. Here, too, our understandings of complex and difficult issues are pushed out of institutional homes to wander afield in search of the resources that will nourish them and, through them, us.
Finally on this very short and highly selected list are the impoverished women (increasingly in India) moved from their hometowns or countries to serve wealthy women who have commissioned them to serve as gestational surrogates. By requiring the birthing women to turn over their children right after they are born, their infants become forced nomads taken on journeys elsewhere to grow up.
As with all reproductive technologies used under the rubric of “infertility” treatments, contract pregnancies are at the core of a big international, unregulated industry built mostly on the work of impoverished women who are often precluded from finding sources of income, health, social services and opportunities close to where they live. (These contract pregnancies involve the women’s wombs or their eggs being brokered.) This group of migrant workers, like far too many others who provide live-in caregiving work in Canada and elsewhere or harvest the produce we want on our dinner plates, are clearly forced nomads created to meet the mainly urban desires of the privileged.
Urban forced nomads then and now
For some, being made a forced nomad today echoes the experiences of those who long ago were excluded from the commons, following the enclosure of the common land by those with power and prestige. Gentrification in our cities is a new incarnation of this kind of exclusion, though it is packaged as growth and ways to enrich urban areas — with financial benefits included. But with all that it erases, gentrification also impoverishes. Clearly these new enclosures (outdoor public spaces, metros, hip architecture) reduce the health and well-being of those pushed out as well as those allowed in.
And do we really benefit as a society when knowledge seekers, workers and parents are forced to wander to find a receptive welcome for “out of the box” ideas and creations, to gain income to support families “back home,” or to obtain services for non-conforming children or themselves? Or to seek haven from any of the ongoing racist, colonialist, sexist, class- or ability-based segregational forms of social engineering? Seems like this would be a rather sterile society to me, one that I hope has not already become entrenched.
Hard questions are posed for us, but a pivotal underlying one may be this: do we want to continue to allow (if not perpetuate) what might, without overly stretching the concept, be termed today’s “social eugenics” — actions that seem to fit into what David King has called “a form of technocracy, [that attempts] social management based on the knowledge of a scientifically qualified elite,” although in the examples here, such management is based on privileged and powerful political, corporate and other elites? http://www.hgalert.org/topics/geneticSelection/eugenics.htm
I hope we have not become too numbed by all this to resist in all ways possible “austerity” measures and hate-filled messages about the “others” among us, voiced by those who seek to displace them. Together, perhaps we can recover our common spaces and our interdependent communities, and no longer force anyone to become a nomad.
Almost four decades back, the stories of Vietnamese boat people looking for shelter hit the news headlines. Of late, the migrants/refugees/asylum-seekers/stateless persons have been paying high prices for space aboard unseaworthy ships with small food supplies and terrible sanitary conditions, to flee their respective home countries. Asia has seen, in particular, thousands of Rohingyas, a persecuted ethnic minority from Myanmar, cross the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea in recent times towards treacherous, precarious and uncertain futures. However we brand them – refugees, migrants, asylum-seekers – they remain stateless in the world of nation-states.
The Rohingyas are now the world’s most persecuted minority without citizenship. Currently around 32,000 Rohingyas are registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Bangladesh, living in two camps near the Myanmar border: in Cox’s Bazar and the Kutupalong refugee camp in the vicinity of Teknaf. It is quite difficult to enumerate the Rohingyas in India, given the large number of unregistered refugees and stateless persons in the Indian sea of humanity. Thus, there are many guesstimates. The number of families settled in different states of India is roughly 10,565. According to a variety of available figures, the number of Rohingyas in India could be somewhere between forty and fifty thousand, assuming that each family on an average has four or five members. However, if we take into account non-enumerated refugees and asylum-seekers (calculated based on estimated ratios for other unregistered groups of foreigners to their registered counterparts), the total number of Rohingyas may be as high as one hundred thousand or more.
The word Rohingya is derived from Rohang, the ancient name for the kingdom of Arakan. Historically, Rohingyas belong to a community that developed from people of various lines of descent, including Myanmarese, Arabs, Moors, Persians, Bengalis and others – all adhering to Islam. Though the naming of Rohingya seems to have come about only recently around the beginning of 1950s, the Muslims in Arakan have a long history dating back to the beginning of the Mrauk-U dynasty (1430-1785) of Arakan. Burma, after its defeat by the British, was forced it to sign the Treaty of Yandabo in 1826, which resulted in the absorption of Arakan (to the west) and Tenasserim (Burma’s southern coastal strip) into the British Empire. Eventually, Burma became a province of British India, and the almost open border between Bengal and Arakan facilitated a variety of cross-border contacts. Over time, numerous Bengali Muslims, some of whom were Chittagongs, moved into northern Arakan and began to merge with the Rohingya community. In this way, the distinction between these ethnic groups became blurred due to the ease of cross-border and inter-community interactions.
Since Burma’s independence in 1948, the political demands of both Muslim and Buddhist communities in Arakan were entirely overlooked by the central government in Rangoon. Arakan was not even granted provincial autonomy. In 1962, General Ne Win seized power in a military coup and imposed his Burmese Way to Socialism, which set off a new wave of social unrest and insurgencies in the country. Under the 1974 constitution, Arakan was granted statehood and was officially named the state of Rakhine. The state capital, Akyab, was renamed Sittwe. Many Muslims in the Rakhine State feel that this was the beginning of a long-term policy to exclude their culture and people from Arakan, as in both governmental and Rakhine terminology, a Rakhine was necessarily a Buddhist. The attempt to eliminate the Muslim voice from the everyday business and political affairs of Arakan after 1962 was backed by intense military pressures. Under the government of Ne Win, a draconian military operation known as the Four Cuts policy was introduced.
In 1978, a military operation code named “Ye The Ha” was launched in the mountains of north Arakan around the Sittwe plains, together with an unusual census operation, known as Nagamin or King Dragon, to check identity papers in the border region for the first time. The Nagamin census operation generated controversy amidst widespread reports of army brutality, including rape, murder and the destruction of mosques. As a result, about 200,000 Muslims took refuge elsewhere in fear of their lives. The state-controlled media of Burma blamed the “armed bands of Bengalis” or “Muslim extremists” for attacking indigenous Buddhist villages. Moreover, it was also argued by the military junta that many of those who fled in 1978 were in fact illegal Bengali immigrants who had entered Burma as part of a general expansion in the Bengali population in this region of Asia. The counter-argument was that many displaced persons had either never had national registration cards, or their cards had been confiscated by the immigration authorities during the 1978 operation. This argument that the Rohingyas were deliberately being discriminated against was further strengthened after a tough Citizenship Act was passed by the Ne Win government in 1982. Under this act, three categories of citizens – national, associate and naturalized – were created. Full citizenship in Burma was only for national ethnic groups, such as the Burmans, Mons or Rakhines, or those who could prove that their ancestors had resided in Burma before the first Anglo-Burmese war.
For many Muslim residents, this was a near-impossible task. There were no such records to be found and, in fact, such a law was discriminatory according to international law and covenants. In any case, many Muslims have since been forced to apply for naturalized citizenship, if they had not already applied for citizenship under the earlier 1948 Citizenship Law (in which case they now found themselves reclassified as associate citizens). Since the early 1980s, there have been continuing reports of anti-Muslim persecution throughout the country. After 1982, the continuing destruction or uprooting of Muslim villages and mosques were reported in several parts of Arakan, from Sandoway to Tongup. This was the backdrop to the mass exodus of 1991-92.
The Rohingyas become a stateless population in 1982 with the revised Myanmar Citizenship Law that excluded them from the list of 135 national ethnic groups. The category of non-state persons has come into existence with the concept of citizenship, which on the one hand indicates certain rights, and on the other hand intensifies the miseries of those who are deprived of citizenship rights. In 1989, colour-coded citizens’ scrutiny cards (CRCs) were introduced: pink cards for full citizens, blue for associate citizens and green for naturalized citizens. The Rohingyas were not issued any cards. In 1995, in response to the UNHCR’s intensive advocacy efforts to document the Rohingyas, the Burmese authorities started issuing them temporary registration cards (TRCs), a white card, pursuant to the 1949 Residents of Burma Registration Act. The TRC does not mention the bearer’s place of birth and cannot be used to claim citizenship.
Regional and bilateral initiatives have mostly failed to protect the Rohingyas. For instance, in the wake of the growing international focus on the issue, the Thai government hosted a regional meeting to address the migrant crisis on May 29, 2015, involving 15 nations. These included Bangladesh, Myanmar, Indonesia, Malaysia, Australia and the United States. Several countries wanted the root causes of the flow of migrants to be discussed in the meeting. However, the Myanmar government threatened to boycott the meeting and accused others of being soft on human trafficking. Before this initiative, there was another regional initiative taken in 2002, known as the Bali Process on People Smuggling, Trafficking in Persons and Related Transnational Crime. In 2009, a few Southeast Asian countries agreed to use the Bali Process to solve the Rohingya issue. In fact, all the countries of the region that are affected by the Rohingya issue are members of both the Bali Process and the latter’s Ad Hoc Group.
However, during the 2014 ASEAN Summit in Naypyidaw – the first one to be held in the new capital of Myanmar – the plight of the Rohingya Muslims was left off the agenda. The Government of Myanmar’s decision in March 2014 to expel humanitarian groups and prevent them from providing health care and aid has increased the number of the Rohingyas moving to the other countries.
When the rickety boats carrying Rohingyas, with diminishing food and drinking water, hit the newspaper headlines in May 2015, Malaysia and Indonesia bowed to international pressure and said they would no longer turn away migrant boats. But Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s comments were a massive blow to efforts to ensure an effective regional response to the worsening humanitarian crisis on the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea. Tony Abbott categorically stated that the Australian government wanted other countries to help with resettlement, but Abbott said those seeking a better life in Australia needed only to come through the “front door.” The Refugee Council of Australia (RCOA) has expressed its deep dismay at the Australian Prime Minister’s stand.
There are four dimensions to the Rohingya crisis: the root factors pushing a vulnerable community to undertake dangerous sea voyages and long marches across lands to gain protection and security of life; the economy of human trafficking in the Bay of Bengal; inadequate policies of protection, asylum and hospitality of the respective countries in this region, which fall short of the requirements of human rights protection and humanitarian care; and both the lack of proper international and regional policies toward migration and refugee flows, and the inability of the global protection regime to respond to the crisis. All these elements are present in the humanitarian tragedy that is under way in the Bay of Bengal.
Even a cursory reading of reportage, commentary, essays and articles on the precarious condition of the Rohingya refugees and asylum-seekers will tell us of the growing statelessness of people in protracted conditions of displacement and refugee camps. As nationality issues get more ethnicized and securitized, we shall increasingly witness the phenomenon of growing statelessness – perhaps de jure, but more often de facto. The question is: when will international law recognize this? When will the UNHCR and the international community in general become sufficiently active to raise their response to the level the problem requires? Why don’t the UNHCR and the international community prevail upon Australia so that the latter does not follow practices of warehousing, offshore detention and interception in mid-sea to prevent the boat people from seeking shelter, and then clamping security restrictions on people engaged in protection of the asylum-seekers? And, finally, when will the states of South and Southeast Asia, at very least, move beyond humanitarianism and attempt a regional or at least bilateral solution? Because more often than not, redressing the injustice suffered by the displaced that is caused by statelessness requires the cooperation of several states involved.
Why doesn’t all this happen? This is where we must recognize the unequal nature of power, influence, and responsibility in the global protection regime. In the light of this report and on the basis of the experiences of the Rohingya exodus from Myanmar, which is reflective of worldwide post-colonial experiences, we have to ask: what is the nature of this power, influence and responsibility? To ask this is important because through all these years following the convention on statelessness, the global protection regime has never questioned the dissociation between power and responsibility – primarily for two reasons: first, in the age of majoritarian democracy, it is assumed that responsibility lies primarily with the minority groups to conduct themselves responsibly so that they become acceptable to the majority and the majoritarian state; and second, international responsibility is formally exercised by nation-states, while power is vested with transnational agencies and empires that will exercise power without responsibility and will therefore exercise it discriminatingly.
We evaluate people and groups as responsible or not, depending on how they exercise their power. Often, we exercise moral judgment. Sometimes we do this formally, for instance via legal judgement. The question will be: how do we relate moral responsibility and legal responsibility – not only of individuals but of empires, global powers and other collectives? The current protection regime has no particular idea of what we may term (a) responsible agency, whereby an institution like the state is regarded as a moral agent; (b) retrospective responsibility, when a state is judged for its actions and is blamed or punished; or (c) responsibility as a virtue, when we praise a state as being responsible. Philosophical discussions of responsibility abound. However, in the context of postcolonial experiences, we need a wider view of responsibility in order to explore connections between moral and legal responsibility, and between global and national responsibilities. After all, was it not the original philosophical invocation of the dual notions of power and responsibility that informed political thought?