Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Canadian Labour International Film Festival a Success

Toronto has become a city of film festivals. We have festivals focusing solely on documentaries, on the GLBT community, and many on specific ethnic communities. And now we have the Canadian Labour International Film Festival (CLiFF).

When I first heard about this festival, I couldn’t understand why a film festival would focus solely on labour issues; attending the grand opening of the fest, hearing the speeches of those in the labour movement and seeing a couple of the short films, I came to understand very quickly. The struggles of workers — which involve working conditions, workers’ rights, health and safety, sexism, and racism, just for starters — can be found in all corners of the world. While the details may differ, workers can learn from the triumphs and defeats of others, whether on the other side of the world or in a neighbouring town. And aside from travelling and seeing the evidence with one's own eyes, nothing is more effective than film — to educate, to raise awareness, and to be a rallying cry to support one another.

The inaugural fest kicked off with Six Weeks of Solidarity, about the 1919 Winnipeg general strike. This short film documented an important part of Canada’s history (and in doing so brought to mind some current struggles) and, sadly, what governments and big business will do to try to stifle dissent, protests, and strikes. This film was appropriately followed by Hold the Line, about the 2009 CUPE strike in Windsor and the current attack on pensions.

Expanding to issues of minimum wage, maternity leave, sick days, and the proof that a better world is possible, Poor No More compared the situation in Canada with that of Ireland and Sweden. While Sweden has problems of its own in dealing with immigration and diversity, it appears to have devised a happy medium in which the best labour conditions are achieved to the satisfaction of workers, management, corporate heads, and government. In this instance, the achievement of CLiFF has been to highlight how important a film such as Poor No More is; as production of the film is still being completed, many who were fortunate to see the film here are hoping to see it soon in wide international release.

Another newly completed film shown at the fest was the feature length You, Me & the SPP: Trading Democracy for Corporate Rule. Aside from dissecting this important issue and showing its negative impact on democracy and human rights, this film covers the use at Montebello of agents provocateurs — something that should be fresh in the memories of all Canadians, and that should provoke outrage.

The festival showed other issues and struggles across Canada. Los Mexicanos: The Struggle for Justice of Patricia Perez gave us a glimpse into the lives of Mexican farm workers in Quebec who are victimized by employers but are reluctant to speak out for fear of being deported. Its conclusion was not hopeful, but was balanced by 24 Days in Brooks, covering a successful strike at Canada’s largest meat-packing plant in Alberta, led by a largely immigrant workforce of more than two thousand people. Justice for All? showed the plight of low-income workers in BC, who are stymied by a legal aid system that is woefully inadequate to handle its number of cases. Dear John documented the announced closing of the John Deere plant in Welland, and the bleak future in store for a small city as it loses its main industry.

CLiFF’s international coverage moved across the map. Two films focused on Palestine and Israel: Seeds of Peace followed the fight of one Palestinian man who was fired for his attempts to obtain the same labour rights for Palestinians as Israelis; 6 Floors to Hell gave us a look at the living conditions of Palestinian men who seek occasional work in Israel by day, and spend their nights in the underground parking garage of a shopping mall under construction. Vinegar in the Valley gave an overview of Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers’ movement in the US, from the 60s to the 80s. HERstory: Jeritan followed a group of Indonesian women who move to Macao, China, to work as domestic helpers, where they are underpaid and abused and the system offers almost no recourse. Invisible Force: Women Workers in Pakistan showed similarly poor conditions for the millions of Pakistani women and girls who work in the home for low wages, no benefits or recognition, and, sometimes, dangerous work. Perhaps most disturbingly, Who Killed Chea Vichea? documented the murder of a Cambodian man, a champion of the labour movement, whose death seemed to have been a warning and deterrent to a labour-friendly political party by the corrupt ruling party, and the framing of two innocent men to appease an international outcry over the murder.

On a happier note, CLiFF’s audience-award winner was Tanaka-san will not do Calisthenics, about a Tokyo man who was fired for refusing to take part in daily morning exercises in his office. During the film, Tanaka invites viewers to visit him. Some of the viewers of this film at the festival are planning to do just that; it is their hope that outsiders such as ourselves might be able to have some influence on his case by lodging complaints with his former employer.

Running a full week in Toronto, from November 22 to 28, each night’s films — all free — were followed by audience discussion, during which more than one person expressed a wish that such an important event draw higher attendance. Yet the festival’s founder, Frank Saptel, a dedicated board of directors, and a small body of volunteers have, in a very short time, created a significant and successful event. Aside from the week-long event in Toronto, the inaugural fest is truly pan-Canadian, taking place in more than 50 cities in every province from west to the east, in every territory, and even in one location in the US. Positive feedback from both organizers and participants ensures that the word will spread, pointing to even more participating cities and more seats filled next year.

Toronto’s biggest and most well-established film festivals are now household names. But even as CLiFF debuts, it has become the most significant event of its kind. No other film fest addresses concerns relevant to such a large portion of the population. Indeed, when we look at the larger issues – working conditions, pensions, and benefits under attack – we might argue that we are all affected. For even those of us not directly involved in these struggles need to ask ourselves what kind of country we want to live in. It is the labour movement and its unions which have shaped our society, from the 40-hour work week, minimum wage, sick days, maternity leave, safety regulations, and health care benefits. And it is these things which are currently under attack. While our tax dollars are being handed out freely to bail out large, poorly managed, privately run corporations, we are being asked, under the guise of “recession”, to surrender the benefits which have become rights. These attacks must be stopped, and in order to stop them, a sleeping public must be awakened to these threats.

Modern technology is on our side. In the year ahead, CLiFF’s larger vision will be to invite us all to pick up our cell phone cameras and become filmmakers ourselves. Rather than limiting itself to professionally produced features, CLiFF will be looking for workers, students, and individuals with stories to tell. Stay tuned to www.labourfilms.ca.

Letter from André Shepherd, Iraq War Resister in Germany

Being a supporter of American war resisters in Canada, I heard about André Shepherd's case a year ago, and sent him a letter of support. I got this email just today. It's a great summary of his past year and the status of his case, but more than that, it's a great summary of all that is wrong with American military strategy. It gives me hope for a positive outcome in his case - and in the cases of all the war resisters here.

(Emphasis in bold is mine.)

Dear Friends and Supporters:

Wow what a year this has been! I cannot believe that so much time has passed since I first applied for asylum. I would like to take this time to thank each and every one of you for you love and support during this difficult but exciting period.

First I want to give everyone an update as to where we stand. As of right now, the Federal Office in Germany is continuing its fact finding mission in order to reach a decision as to whether or not I should receive asylum. I realize that many of you are wondering why this decision should take so long. We must understand that a decision of this magnitude cannot be taken lightly. Remember that a yes decision would pretty much be a de facto admission that the War on Terror is illegal and immoral. The ramifications of such a decision would be huge, especially since it would come from a strong ally of the United States. A move like that could provide a safe haven for the War resisters in Europe, it would be a huge embarrassment for the Administration, and could potentially put more pressure on the American Government to pursue War Crimes against humanity instead of continuing the ongoing persecution of War Resisters for making a sound moral decision. If the German Government decides no, then we are in a rather curious situation since as of this date there continues to be evidence that this war was one of aggression, and that it violates American, German, and international law. It would be interesting to see the explanation as to how such a decision could be reached, as well as the World´s reaction to such a decision. I understand that this is a potential political time-bomb given the long history of friendship between the two nations. Nevertheless I believe in true justice and that friends should be able to tell each other when they are in error.

Over the last year I have traveled the country giving talks and making appearances in order to raise awareness on this very important issue, as well as having a strong media and internet presence thanks to the help of very dedicated people. Looking back I feel as though we have been successful; however we must continue our efforts to reach the general population. It is difficult for the average person to fully connect to the Wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan mainly because they are so far away. Our job is to get the people to realize just what is happening on the ground in those countries, so that we may be able to put a stop to the madness that reigns there. I must continue to stress that the peoples of those lands do not hate us because of our beliefs and “freedoms”. They are opposed to us simply because we have invaded their lands. It would be the same situation if some invading force made their way into your hometowns. You would fight tooth and nail in order to get them out, and that is what is happening in these countries. I am not happy that our soldiers are dying for reasons that have yet to be disclosed. No one should have to die for nothing, especially not under false pretenses. My heart bleeds for every man woman and child who has to suffer on all sides of the conflict, because we are all victims of some very twisted policies. In order for us to help spread the message, I charge each and every one of you to please spread the word about this asylum case and to urge your friends and colleagues to contact the German and American Governments to withdraw from these lands NOW! Only with a united front can we even hope to achieve success. That is why we are continuing to ask for your support in this very important cause.

Since today is Thanksgiving in the United States, I wish to take the time to thank everyone for their tireless efforts in helping me fight this battle. Through donations of time, effort, and money we were able to achieve things that one year ago I did not dream were humanly possible. From the Winter Soldier Conference in March, to the Ethecon event in Berlin last weekend, we have spread our message to people from all walks of life. I am especially pleased that we were able to speak to schoolchildren about what it really means to be a soldier. This is very important since these children must make a decision that could potentially affect the rest of their lives. I want to make clear the importance of giving people the proper information so that they can make good decisions concerning their lives. For far too long we have been told what to believe and what to think about the world around us. It is time for us as human beings to wake up from our slumber and to see the world for what it really is by using our own minds. I wish to especially thank Connection e.V., Military Counseling Network, Iraq Veterans Against the War (in the U.S. and Europe), Tübingen Progressive Americans, the DFG-VK, Stop the War Brigade and Ethecon for helping spread the message of peace. There have been many other organizations and individuals that I have not listed that have also made major contributions to the case. I wish to express my deepest appreciation to all of you and ask God to bless you in the future.

Unfortunately the American War on Humanity is continuing. President Obama is set to send an additional 38,000 soldiers to Afghanistan, as well as going back on his promises to withdraw from Iraq. The death toll in the conflict is steadily rising and soldiers from many countries are dealing with mental trauma from this unjust war. The peoples of these lands are still fleeing their countries in search for a safe haven, and basic services are way below acceptable levels for a functioning society. When looking at the situation it is very easy to get discouraged. However there is reason to hope. The voice of opposition is growing stronger by the day, as our ranks are continuing to be filled with people from all over the world who are fed up with the crimes that are continuously being committed. We must continue to press on. Only when we stand together as one and demand that this comes to an end, will we be able to heal the wounds of the past, and be able to start building a better world for our children. I wish you all good luck and God bless you in all of your endeavors.

Sincerely André Shepherd

Friday, September 4, 2009

District 9 looks at how we treat the aliens among us

District 9 is one of the rare summer blockbuster films with some depth. It is a fantastical account of a period in earth’s history, beginning 28 years ago, when a giant alien ship appeared over Johannesburg, South Africa. A comparison with Independence Day (1996) is tempting, but beyond the ship and its gruesome, slimy aliens, the parallels soon disappear. District 9 is much more realistic, owing to the documentary-style technique used to bring the viewer up-to-date on what has transpired over the years as earth has attempted to cope with the arrival of the aliens, leading to a present-day crisis.

Rather than bringing a race of superior intellect and technology, hell-bent on our destruction, the alien ship hovers silently and apparently dormant over Johnannesburg until humans cut their way through the hull, finding over a million inhabitants who appear sickly and impoverished. Thus begins a ground-based resettlement effort which creates a refugee camp within the city: District 9 (D-9).

It is at this point that the film shows its brilliance and originality. The writers have a heyday illustrating the human tendency toward bigotry and racism. Treatment of the aliens is both hilarious and disturbing as history repeats itself. Historical footage shows the aliens being settled into a camp - which quickly becomes a slum, surrounded by barbed wire. Interviews with Johannesburg’s human residents reveal the discomfort with – or hatred of – immigrants, and resentment that “our” tax dollars are being spent on others (a timely issue, in the midst of the current debate over universal health care in the US). Interviews with “experts” add an objective and dispassionate overview of how badly things transpired - 20:20 in hindsight.

That the film is set in South Africa is refreshing – and fitting, as the humans call for segregation of the aliens. Apartheid-style signs appear, warning that aliens are not welcome in certain areas. While the majority of the human population invents and uses a derogatory term to refer to the aliens, the documentary footage is even complete with a minority of human activists staging a rally, complete with placards, calling for fair treatment of the aliens. But as tensions escalate, the government settles on a plan to relocate the entire alien community to a new camp away from the city.

Enter the central character of the story - Wikus van der Merwe (Sharlto Copley), representing “Multi-National United” (MNU), a NATO-like organization in charge of overseeing and policing D-9. Wikus is assigned to head the team responsible for the relocation. Hand-held cameras record the difficult process – and provide a glimpse that the MNU is not as benevolent as the world might like to believe. Some of the actions by MNU paramilitary constitute war crimes – an uncomfortable reminder of Iraq, Afghanistan, and Palestine (to name just a few). Riding the line between amusing/disturbing are the MNU’s attempts to obtain signed consent forms from each alien in order to carry out the relocation – and the revelation that the MNU intends to use lies, coercion, and blackmail to obtain the signatures.

It is during one of these home visits that Wikus is accidentally infected with an alien substance – and the action begins. His body quickly begins to transform into that of an alien… and the film transforms into a desperate chase, an action shoot-’em-up, and a sci-fi thriller in which Wikus and an alien companion attempt to escape to the ship in the sky and thwart an MNU plot to use Wikus’ body and DNA to activate superior alien weaponry.

D-9’s twists keep us guessing to the end, and the action is intense and engrossing. But the film’s ingenuity and depth get lost in the action. The immigration and prison camp parallels to our real history are completely relevant to current wars and occupations around the world, and it is when Wikus starts to become an alien and finds himself on the other side of the D-9 fence that we consider our prejudices and human rights atrocities through his eyes. But we haven’t the time to really think through the implications, as we are too busy shielding ourselves from the rapid-fire, graphic violence.

The box-office success of this film bodes well for a sequel – as does the plot. The aliens are eventually relocated to District 10, but we are led to wonder what will happen next. We leave the theatre a bit shell-shocked by the action and violence. What we are hoping for is a return to the thought-provoking analysis into ourselves: the ways in which we regard and treat immigrants, how we handle refugee camps, and what we accept in the actions of our governments and armies. Can we do better with District 10?

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The Death of Neda Agha-Soltan: YouTube's Most Important Moment

Last Saturday, I watched a woman die. It was not something I set out to do, and had I known what I was going to see, I probably would have opted not to watch. But I was checking FaceBook updates as usual, and clicked on a link posted by a friend, urging me to "watch before the video was deleted". I hadn't scrolled the entire post into view; had I done so, I would have seen his warning that the video was quite disturbing.

Disturbing was an understatement. I've never actually seen someone die. It was so disturbing that I had to immediately stop what I was doing and try to find ways to take my mind off what I'd seen. It wasn't the kind of visual to induce nightmares, but had me close to tears.

In Hollywood feature films, we've all seen countless people die. But - and this is where I think film-censorship paranoia has it wrong - I believe people are fully capable of separating film fiction from real life. I remember seeing the Arnold Schwartzenegger blockbuster Total Recall, in which the crowd cheered loudly when one of the villains got his arms amputated by a fast-moving elevator. The one-upmanship in action movie violence has reached complete absurdity. We laugh because although the on-screen visuals become increasingly realistic with advances in film make-up, computer technology, and special effects, it also moves farther from reality in its scale. The more excessive film violence becomes, the more it seems to mimic video game shoot-'em-ups.

But watching this video of the protests in Iran was unlike anything I had seen. I was unprepared for the true horror. This is the morbid fascination of car wrecks: it comes from our wonder at knowing that this is reality; this is what death really looks like. And unlike film fiction, we want to help, as fellow human beings, we need to. But we are helpless to do so.

I wondered if the video should be freely available for all to watch. For a brief moment, I thought others might be spared my own discomfort or grief if the video were taken down. Then I remembered a conversation I'd had only the night before. Sitting around with friends, discussing films, we got onto the subject of "torture porn". This seems to be a phenomenon of the young - teens and twenties - who provide Hollywood with repeat business by attending films like Saw and its disgusting sequels. I know of no older adults who are willing to watch any of these films.

Two years ago, I was lucky to see a screening of the documentary For the Bible Tells Me So, about gays and religion. It follows the stories of half a dozen gay men and women and their coming out to strongly religious families. The saddest story is of a woman who responded harshly to her lesbian daughter's coming out; before they could reconcile, the daughter committed suicide. The film director included police photographs of the suicide, which drew revulsion from much of the audience. In the following Q&A, the director was questioned about his decision to include the photos in the film. He tells of agonizing over the decision, until he had a chance meeting with a stranger on the NYC subway - a mother whose daughter was with friends, seeing one of the Saw sequels. The mother urged the director to include the photos - because young people need to see what death really looks like.

I don't know if YouTube did remove this video in the hours after I saw it. All I know is that countless people have begun to post links to it (possibly different links or using different online video providers). But a couple of days later, YouTube had added a link at the top of every page, leading to other videos on the situation in Iran. While YouTube will remove videos it sees as inappropriate, apparently nothing speaks more loudly to YouTube than a video that draws hundreds of thousands of hits.

I've used YouTube practically every day in recent months. It's become the leading source for all video - home movies, music clips, comedy, news, and film (much of it unauthorized). But the death video of Neda Agha-Soltan in Iran is a turning point for YouTube, and for all online video. It is significant in so many ways: a symbol of injustice by Iran's government, a visual record of the protest movement, another sign that cameras and cellphones are ushering in an era in which crimes by the state will not be covered up. And it is a real look at death itself - something we cannot and should not ignore. We don't all need to watch it, but for Neda's sake - and for our own - the option to witness this death is important. It reminds us that these world events we are watching are not just academic debates; they involve real human beings, just like us.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

On "Immigrants" Who Protest in Canada

As our headlines have turned to the turmoil in Iran over concerns about election fraud and the resulting protests and violent action to suppress the dissent, I have watched with increasing concern the distress of my neighbour, who is Iranian. Normally very quiet on FaceBook, she was suddenly posting frequently throughout the day - photos, video clips, news reports and politcal analysis, and personal accounts from people there.

On Sunday, I joined her for a rally at Mel Lastman Square in North York. It was a wonderful demo: peaceful, well-organized, and lively, and attended by thousands, including families with children. There was a nice vibe, although I can't say "happy"; this was, after all, motivated by worries about family, friends, and simply, the millions of Iranians who are protesting, and some of whom have been killed by the authorities there.

The demo ended with something I haven't seen at a demo before: a request from the organizers to clear the square. I assume it was an effort to honour an agreement for the use of the square - an attempt to make the event successful and free of controversy in every way. People started to wander slowly toward Yonge Street and the subway, although many, deep in conversation and/or socializing, and were in no hurry. As we waited on the sidewalk for my neighbour's friend, a number of the protesters - many with placards - began a march south along Yonge. My neighbour remarked that she didn't approve. She was worried about the reaction from the general public to an impromptu march - a vocal and visible protest taking to the street without permission from the authorities.

It has taken me a couple of days pondering this to realize how much it bothers me. This is a common reaction, attitude - even strategy, from many minority groups: be good, don't stand out, don't annoy or offend the general public. What would they think? The strategy to avoid anything which might create a negative reaction is natural, but it is also a reflex to the bigotry or racism that every visible minority faces.

Few in Canada know this phenomenon better than the Japanese Canadian community. Thrown into prison camps during WWII as "enemy aliens" (although 75% had been born here), they decided that they had been victimized because they were seen as a visible minority - and let's face it: nothing gets under the skin of racists faster than a visible minority that congregates, speaks a different language in public, and displays different customs or signs of their heritage. So when the Japanese Canadians were released from the prison camps, they made a conscious decision to assimilate into the white majority: don't speak Japanese in public, don't congregate, excel in school and work so that there will be no basis for criticism. As a result, there are no identifiable Japanese Canadian communities in the cities where they settled after the war.

Another example of the "don't stand out" strategy is seen in the gay community, from gays with "internalized homophobia". This is more common among gays who are just coming out and do not yet have the confidence to thicken their skin against homophobes, and who do not understand the historical struggle which has won whatever acceptance we may have in society (varying widely depending on where one lives). The common intent here is to avoid any behaviour or action which may earn disapproval from the straight population, to the point that gays should not be seen to behave any differently than straights. Again, this reaction is natural, but is borne out of fear - a fear which gays live with constantly while in the closet, and which, for some, never goes away. No one has the right to judge us - especially based on sexual orientation, and thus, we should not be fearful of celebrating who we are. It is only the bigots who are offended.

And this is the crux of the problem: too many of us are governed by our fear of bigots. During the biggest Tamil protests, the racism in newspaper comments and online discussions was rampant. "They shouldn't come to our country and protest." "What does this have to do with Canada?"

I'll tell you what it has to do with Canada: the crimes and injustice seen on the other side of the world affects us to our core - just as much as if it were happening here. Election fraud? Censoring of media? Suppression of free speech? Criminalization of dissent? Genocide? If we value our way of life, then we have an obligation to speak out about these things, regardless of where they are happening. And we certainly should not be criticizing anyone who is speaking out about them; we should be giving them as much support as is humanly possible. The real irony is that the people who decry "immigrants" making protests are often the same ones who support war on the basis that our soldiers are "protecting these freedoms".

We are all immigrants in this country, except for the First Nations, and I have never heard First Nations people tell anyone to go back where they came from. (I wonder why not. They certainly have reason.) For the rest of us, this idea that people should not protest problems in other countries is ludicrous. We should all hop on a plane whenever we want to comment on anything negative that happens in another country?

Back to the Iran protest: Iranians are Canadians too. They live here; this is their country. They have as much right to rally and protest here as anyone. They are doing the rest of us a service in calling our attention to a very serious matter - something we should all know about. They are calling for change, and raising their voices for a better world. And in doing so, they are - perhaps unknowingly - calling for a better Canada, a Canada in which we don't sit on our asses and ignore the problems of the world around us. Each time we ignore that call - as the majority of us did during the big Tamil protests - we move a little further from the country we should be. We move from the peacekeeping nation, one of the best places to live - to a place where people don't care. We're fine; screw you.

We're all immigrants. We came from all corners of the world. We need to work at maintaining those ties. When we see injustice or wrongdoing, be it in Sri Lanka, Iran, Palestine, the US - we need to speak out. When the country of our ancestors is affected, we educate others. When a crisis strikes a country we know nothing about, we need to make an attempt to learn about it. It takes some effort. But when we can say we got involved - particularly involving a place we don't know, we make our own country a better place to live. There is nothing more patriotic.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Genocide is not a "Fair Weather" Issue

Since the Tamil protests began, there has been much confusion over whether they deserve support from the rest of the population. I can't tell you how many times I have read or heard, "I support them, but..."
• "They are flying those red flags."
• "Aren't the Tamil Tigers terrorists?"
• "They shouldn't block traffic."
• "Isn't there some other way they can protest?"
• "This has nothing to do with Canada."

Let's start with the facts. For decades, the Sinhalese majority has been persecuting the Tamil minority, and that persecution includes murder. Supposed "safe zones" have been bombed, including hospitals. The Tamil population is trapped and has nowhere to turn. As more and more are murdered, their relatives here in Canada grow more desperate.

Is genocide right or wrong? Speak to anyone about the holocaust, and in this day and age it is inconceiveable that anyone would defend genocide. No, genocide is always wrong, period. Full stop. There are no "ifs", "ands", or "buts". Genocide is not a political view. It has no pros or cons. There is no debate. It is simply and categorically wrong, and must be opposed and stopped at all costs.

Genocide is not a "fair-weather" issue. We do not oppose it only when we have time, only under certain conditions, only when we like the victims - or approve of their politics.

We do not decide to support the victims of genocide who we like, and turn our backs on those we don't. If you saw an elderly neighbour being attacked by a mugger, would you intervene, or would you first gauge how much you like that particular neighbour? Would you walk away because you don't happen to agree with her political views?

Oppose genocide, now, and always. Speak out against it. Support its victims, no matter who they are. Stand with the Tamils. Write to the newspapers. Call your MP. Tell Stephen Harper to get off his bloody ass and challenge the government of Sri Lanka, with economic sanctions if necessary. Don't let your complacency allow another murder.

Anti-Tamil-Tiger Propaganda Muddies the Real Issues

Papers, blogs, Facebook, and all manner of online sites are abuzz with discussion of the Tamils' plight. I'm encouraged to read that while many Canadians remain uninvolved in the struggle, they are at least aware (or becoming more aware) of the situation. But of course, there remains a stubborn group which insists that Tamils should not be supported because of the actions of the Tamil Tigers (LTTE).

Like so many rebel groups, the Tigers have a history of rebellion against opression, and they want an independent state. That is understandable, which is not to say that anyone should condone some of the things they have done. But it is important to understand that the Sri Lankan government is guilty of decades of oppression, violence, and murder. That is not the story we hear, however.

A couple of years ago, on my walk home from work through the University of Toronto campus, I passed a student who was leafletting on the sidewalk. (As is my habit, I stopped to take a leaflet, but stayed right there, looking at it. If it is something that truly interests, me, I thank the person, but if not, I make a point of handing it back.) I stood there for a moment, puzzling over it. It was text heavy, and I was not willing to read the whole thing right there, but neither could I determine what its aim was or who was behind it. What was clear was that it was a propaganda piece against the Tamil Tigers, complete with a glossy, full-colour photo of a murdered civilian - a crude shock tactic.

Amusingly, the student appeared to be a little bit uncomfortable to have me scrutinizing the information in his presence. He first tried to distance himself from the subject matter. A moment later, growing more uneasy, he told me, "I'm just being paid to hand these out."

I did take it with me, intending to look into its origins more closely, but by the time I got home, I was too disgusted by the photo and threw it out.

Here's the thing: in a city like Toronto, you can find people leafletting any day of the week. Leaflets from activists are always done on the cheap: paper photocopies, often one quarter of an 8 1/2 x 11 for maximum economy, run off by volunteers. The anti-Tiger leaflet was a two-sided, full-colour photocopy, on good quality paper. Who had money to print these and hire a university student to distribute them? It certainly wasn't from any volunteer-run activist organization. It also wasn't a message from any social- or political-activist organization I've ever seen or heard of. In other words, someone with time, money, and an agenda went to some effort to implement this. And it's not anybody on the political left.

I am thankful my experiences with activism have taught me how to analyze this experience. But what is the average person to think? Should it be any wonder that people are confused now, as to whether to support the Tamil community?

I now question every claim I hear about the Tamil Tigers. Supposedly, they have been doing some awful things. But where is our information coming from? As communications have been restricted by the Sri Lankan government, the government is in control of most of the news that is being fed to our media.

We have a duty to use independent resources on the internet, and to speak to the Tamil population to get the other side of the story. It's not hard to find Tamils to speak to; they are out on the streets every day.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

For us, an inconvenience. For them, life or death.

I just got home to read headlines about Tamil protesters blocking Toronto's Gardiner Expressway, in both directions. If you need attention, that's a pretty good way to get it. Pretty good trick, but you need the numbers to pull it off.

Fortunately for the Tamil community, they do. Weeks ago, as I walked home from work, I came across one of the earlier protests in which the community did a march around Toronto's core. I saw them straggling up Queen's Park Crescent, a quiet area where pedestrian traffic is light. I thought they were walking home from a rally. But as I continued east and hit Yonge Street, I came across them again. Carrying flags and concentrating on the west side of the street (but spilling over to the east side and complemented by cars driving up and down Yonge), they formed a chain accented by their red flags - a strong presence as far as the eye could see both to the north and the south, and impossible to ignore. I was thrilled, and a little envious that even the largest protests I've been part of have never achieved that effect.

As the protests have continued, occupying University Avenue, I've read the inevitable racist comments in the online papers. "These people don't have the right to come to our country and protest." "They shouldn't be allowed to block our streets."

Way to miss the point, people.

Have you thought about the things that bother you about government action or inaction, and have you ever done anything to try to effect change? Have you made any effort to raise awareness about injustice or wrongdoing? Or are we just too comfortable with our lifestyle - too busy to protest?

Ask yourself why so many people are part of these protests. Why are so many members of the Tamil community taking the time and making the effort to get out on the streets?

Now ask yourself if you would get off your ass and do something if your relatives were in danger. Would you act if they were being killed? Would you protest if your people were the target of genocide?

No doubt, tomorrow there will be more angry letters to the editor from people who were stuck in traffic as a result of the protests. For me, I'm ok with many hours of gridlock if it results in more people speaking out about the apathy of governments like Harper's - apathy toward the killing campaign being waged on the other side of the world. Wake up, people.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Harper and Kenney to Close the Door to Gay Refugees

The erosion of Canada's reputation as a diverse country, welcoming of immigrants, took another step backward today as Immigration Minister Jason Kenney appointed an anti-gay conservative to the IRB. Doug Cryer, former director of public policy for the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, says churches have the right to denounce homosexuality.

I have very dear gay friends who have immigrated to Canada, fleeing discrimination and persecution in other countries. They are part of an (until recently) increasing movement of gays who are coming to Canada in search of a better life, a life without worry and fear. Gays who are applying for immigration now can look forward to an IRB influenced by bigorty, hatred, and a lack of sympathy and understanding of their situation. In examining refugee claims by gays, the IRB should be focused on determining whether persecution is a threat. How can a board member focus on that if he believes homosexuality is a sin in the first place?

This is beyond ludicrous. What's next - a white supremacist IRB member? Let's not laugh - this comes from the same conservative government with a federal Minister of State for Science and Technology who doesn't believe in evolution. Gary Goodyear is a Christian who has made significant cuts to science research funding. Any conservatives out there who want to defend that one?

I am going to start referring to Harpers conservatives as "republicans". I think it's the most concise way to summarize this government's actions. They are doing everything they can to move this country backward and emulate the disastrous Bush administration. Somebody help us.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Get on side.

Remind Stephen Harper that we live in a democracy! A decisive majority believes that American Iraq-war resisters should be allowed to stay in Canada. A majority in the House of Commons voted to allow them to stay as well. And Harper said himself (on April 13, 2005), "The Prime Minister has the moral responsibility to respect the will of the House."

So why has Harper not acted on his parliamentary obligations? Why is he allowing war resisters to be deported? Why is he acting in defiance of Canadian democratic policy and tradition?

If you're a fan of Harper, you're probably not reading this anyway. If you're not, you're probably already aware that Harper is a Bush wanna-be (way to pick a role model, Steve!) without a compassionate bone in his body. Either way, if you can answer the above questions, let me know. My guess is that he knows he's already well on his way to becoming the most unpopular PM in Canadian history and that nothing short of a miracle will reverse that, so he might as well be true to his heart - or lack thereof.

If you want to make a difference during his conservative reign, if you want to protest our lack of democracy, even if you just want to call Harper on being an asshole - there's no better time to protest than now. This week is a week of action, in which people will be calling and emailing politicians and making donations to the war resisters campaign (legal fees are mounting). Don't allow Harper to deport any more war resisters. Send an email, donate $10, do something. There's so much bad news these days; this is one way in which you can make a positive difference.

Weekly calendar of events (Thursday's is my own addition):

Monday, March 16
Write a letter to the editor of your local newspaper. Copy this text to email different members of Parliament (see Tuesday).

Tuesday, March 17
Call Immigration Minister Jason Kenney to demand he stop the deportation of the Rivera family: 613-954-1064 and 613-992-2235

Don't forget to cc the opposition critics:

Wednesday, March 18
Distribute leaflets (available at resisters.ca).

In Toronto: War resister Matt Lowell's federal court hearing to request leave to appeal the negative decision in his H&C application. Join us for a morning vigil and to observe the hearing if you can. Meet in front of 180 Queen Street West.
8:30 am vigil
9:30 am hearing

In London: protest Citizenship and Immigration Minister, Jason Kenney, 4:00 pm.

Thursday, March 19
Donate to the war resisters' legal defense. (This link is good until March 25; after March 25, go to resisters.ca to make a donation.) Donations will be needed at least until Harper does the right thing and allows the resisters to stay.

Friday, March 20
Meet with your local Member of Parliament and ask them what they are doing to defend Canadian democracy and stop the deportation of the Rivera family.

For other local actions, go to resisters.ca.

As always, with the war resisters updates, thanks to WMTC for the event info.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

I hate you all.

Yes, that's me at the wheel of a Hummer. And if you look closely, I am showing you some disrespect with a hand gesture. Not that it's needed! By driving one of these things, you are basically saying, "Fuck the environment, and fuck YOU".

Who the hell drives these things? It's 2009. There's talk about whether it might be too late to reverse the damage we've done to the environment. There was a gas-price scare, which got the SUV-driver considering whether maybe it was time to rethink the choice to drive a truck... but then oil prices fell. So we can postpone environmental responsibility once again!

By buying and driving one of these, you can save time being nasty to people. It's a tangible, rolling expression of anti-social irresponsibility. Hi! I waste gas and other resources. I am polluting the air as you watch. I am creating a burden for future generations, and setting a poor precedent for third-world countries; why should they care about cleaning up their countries when we don't? While you're at it, wear ivory, drink while driving, and blow cigarette smoke in babie's faces.

The irony of sitting in one of these things was too much to resist, and we giggled the entire time we were photographing ourselves. I'm looking toward a future when we will be able to look back, and laugh at car manufacturers who built stupidly wasteful vehicles, and people who were ridiculous enough to buy and drive them.