A crowd of nearly nine hundred high school students rallied at the Manitoba Legislature building today and marched through the city demanding an end to racism.1 The march was organized by a coalition of student leaders under the name Students Together Against Racism Today – or START. The march was organized in response to the Maclean’s article which labeled Winnipeg as Canada’s most racist city. 1. http://www.winnipegfreepress.com/our-communities/herald/Winnipeg-students-take-action-against-racism-293875051.html http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/manitoba/student-led-anti-racism-march-hits-downtown-winnipeg-streets-1.2973594
February 15th marked the 50th anniversary of Canada’s adoption of the maple leaf flag, an occasion that was made a national holiday in 1996.1 While I never knew about “flag day” before, it struck me this year because I had attended a number of events just prior to “flag day” in which the “red and white” featured prominently. At the national #Shutdowncanada protests on February 13th as well as the 8th annual Memorial March for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women on February 14th inverted Canadian flags were prominent symbols.
I should say, only indigenous people who were flying inverted flags, which, seemed like a much more appropriate symbolic gesture than if I – as a white settler – were to fly an inverted flag. As it was, the presence of inverted flags (there were both Canadian and US flags) were poignant symbols that alluded to the underlying issues of colonialism and the ongoing legacy of unilateral use of sovereign violence. In addition to the direct impact that the Canadian flag turned upside down likely has for many people, those flying them had added additional messages. For instance, one flag read “Out of Order since 1763” referring to the (broken) nation-to-nation agreement between the Crown and Indigenous groups in the Royal Proclamation of 1763.2 Another inverted flag, featured in the image above and carried at the Winnipeg March for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW), pointed to the relationship between colonial and gendered forms of violence. An elderly Indigenous man and women held the sign through out the march, in this photo they happen to be standing across the street from “Colony Square” – a shopping centre on Portage Avenue in Winnipeg’s downtown.
Canada’s flag day celebrations received $250 000 in government funding, while the Memorial Marches continue to be organized on shoestring budgets in some of Canada’s poorest neighbourhoods. Still, some CBC commentators lamented the fact that, “the government has poured money into ad campaigns about the War of 1812 and the 200th birthday of Sir John A. Macdonald. The 1812 campaign cost more than $5 million; the Sir John A. ads cost more than $4 million. For the celebrations of the flag’s 50th, there’s a much more modest $50,000, plus another $200,000 for provincial celebrations.”1
While Harper may not be sponsoring inverted flag day anytime soon, this symbol has made it into the growing cultural and artistic resurgence surrounding indigenous and ally resistance across Turtle Island. For instance the US based Indigenous hip-hop group “Savage Family”3 prominently features inverted American flags in their music videos, and the Toronto based group “Test Their Logik” often performs their song “Turtle Island” at rallies and marches across Canada, which criticizes the colonial symbolics of Canadian nationalism.4
While the February 13th #shutdown Canada protests failed to significantly hamper the Canadian economy as planned, a legal strike by some 1,800 locomotive engineers at Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) represented by the “Teamsters Canada Rail Conference” (TCRC) union.1 Although there is no explicit connection to this strike and MMIW protests, it reveals an interesting overlap of issues as well as a shared recognition of a key pressure-point in the Canadian economy. Kellie Leitch, Minister of Labour and the Status of Women, who recently intervened in attempt to salvage negotiations between CP and TCRC tweeted that the strike would impact the economy to the tune of $205 million USD per week. Other estimates put the cost of the strike to the Canadian economy would be upwards of $504 million per week.2 Leitch also stated that the government would “take swift action to protect our economy,” pointing to the likelihood that back-to-work legislation will be introduced by the government at the start of the week.3 Leitch is also one of two federal cabinet Ministers (along with Bernard Vallacourt) who will be meeting with Assembly of First Nations Grand Chief Perry Bellegarde to discuss MMIW on February 27th.
Evidently the current government is perpetually ready to take swift action to protect the economy, promoting the same forces that are directly implicated in violence to Indigenous women, communities and the environment. The fact that Leitch is advocating for the economic bottom-line over and against both Unions and Indigenous peoples is not surprising. Colonial-capitalism requires both class-based and race-based violence in order to push for its endless objectives. What is somewhat remarkable (fortunate?) is the overlap in timing of the MMIW actions and the TCRC strike, and the fact that they both identify the shared tactic of putting economic pressure on the government and corporations by disrupting the business-as-usual flow of capitalism. The President of the TCRC Union, Doug Finnson calls the failed negotiation a “Crucial wake up call for Canadian workers…” he continues,
“No one is more disappointed in this situation than us. At the late stages of bargaining the Minister [Leitch] became involved in what we hoped would result in a positive development, it wasn’t. Blame became the practice and the workers are once again being blamed for not accepting the US style of labour relations imported into CP. Apparently, Canadians who express their rights to collective bargaining are subjected to different set of standards and expectation than the corporate friends of government. It seems lost on the Government that the Supreme Court has supported workers rights in this area and it seems lost on the Government that the workers at CP are under attack every working day. Disappointment in our Governments clear favouritism towards the corporate position is only exceeded by our determination to never give up the fight to protect the rights and working conditions of our fellow workers.”4
Based on this statement, Finnson’s position resonates with the Women leaders of MMIW by indicting the “US style of labour relations” whose neoliberal governance model of “public-private-partnerships” includes back-to-work legislation as well as increased policing powers that “serve and protect their oil, land, and resource assets.”5 Of course, Mr. Finnson does not take a stance against environmental violence or the fact that the rail lines have been carrying an increasingly large amount of bitumen from the Tar sands, a key part of the Harper government’s economic action plan. The question of racism is also left un-addressed in relation to the CPR strike. Again, this is a foundational aspect of colonialism and the ongoing prejudice that has served to create substantial social divisions. However, might the commonalities of these struggles be a way to begin to heal the problems that still exist? Could indigenous communities and Unions find a new basis for alliance in the current political climate?
The #Shutdowncanada event took place at significant transportation routes on February 13th 2015. The facebook page called for “communities across Canada to blockade their local railway, port or highway… Don’t buy, don’t fly, no work and keep the kids home from school… The goal is to significantly impact the Canadian economy for a day and demand there be an independent inquiry into the 2000+ cases of missing or murdered indigenous women.” 1 The event was planned in coordination with annual cross-Canada memorial marches for “Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women” (MMIW) that take place on February 14th. The facebook page dedicated to this event indicated nearly 7000 people were “attending.” Although, by all accounts, the numbers in attendance were much lower.
I won’t wade into the task of picking apart the reasons for the lower turn out, other than to say that the disparity between online support and real-life engagement is an issue activism is constantly grappling with. I think it is important to acknowledge that these events involved the clear naming and symbolic targeting of colonial-capitalism as the primary underlying reality that makes violence against indigenous women acceptable and profitable. That these events have made their way into public discourse, is a powerful indication that this broad antagonism has started to be pinned down, and that people are finding ways of acting against it. Beyond blockading the economic flow that undergirds the colonial-capitalist state, these events also call for greater self-reliance through building community capacity and forming new and healthy alliances. For instance, while calls for a national inquiry have been ignored by the government, families impacted by this violence have started a grass-roots website “It Starts With Us” which includes a community data base that honours women and girls who have been subjected to violence and facilitates community organization.2
This efficacy of grassroots mobilization was clearly on display during the February 14th as memorial marches around Canada which succeeded in bringing attention to the issue of MMIW. Unlike the #Shutdown Canada actions, the memorial marches had broad public support and were in many cases (such as in Winnipeg) facilitated by the local police force.3 As one of the organizers from the Winnipeg event said in her closing address, “this event is not supposed to be a platform” for politics, rather “it is about the families [of MMIW].” This was a powerful reminder that when such events get brought into the mainstream, there is a danger of awkwardly politicizing, and then progressively depoliticizing the lived realities of indigenous people who continue to be directly and violently affected. This was perhaps the significant difference between the #shutdowncanada event and the memorial marches.
By aiming to disrupt the transportation routes needed to support the smooth flow of capitalism, #shutdowncanada events drew attention to the interlinking processes of colonialism and capitalism – an interwoven system of violences that continues evolve and be enacted in new forms. The need to maintain the focus on murdered and missing indigenous women while also confronting the status quo politics of colinal capitalism has generated debated both within indgenous communities and more broadly. For instance, many commentators question whether increased policing or a national inquiry into missing and murdered woman can actually address the actual nature of the ongoing violence. This point was made by Zhaawanongnoodin (Coleen Cardinal) during a recent roundtable of indigenous women leaders published in Rabble.ca,
“The state responding to violence against Indigenous women by ramping up police presence and building more jails perpetuates the cycle of violence. The RCMP already has been identified as being perpetrators of violence towards Indigenous women. Prisons are institutionalizing Indigenous people and have become the new residential school system. The government is going to war on Indigenous people using the police as their enforcers to serve and protect their oil, land, and resource assets. I have only had bad experiences with the police when I need protection. I would hold out on calling the police for help because I feel I am more likely to be subject to racial profiling, assault, or being criminalized or shot by them than being helped.”4
On the other hand, it is because of these persistent grassroots campaigns that MMIW has gradually become an issue that a relatively broad segment of Canada’s population is aware of. This has forced the government to at least acknowledge the issue, although Harper still shrugs it off as something that is not high on his priority list.5 One way in which this issue has forced its way into federal politics is through its influence upon the upcoming roundtable involving the Assembly of First Nations Chief Perry Bellegarde and the Minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Bernard Valcourt as well the Minister of Labour and the Status of Womenas Kellie Leitch. In the lead up to the February 27th meeting Leitch will have her hands full as she seeks to deal with another social force that is targeting the Canadian economy through stopping the transport of goods. In this case it is the Canadian Pacific Railway Strike. See more on this in the following post.6
Later this week #Shutdown Canada (Feb.13) and numerous marches and events (Feb. 14) are planned to put pressure on the federal government to call an inquiry into Missing and Murdered Aboriginal Woman. The lead-up to these events has also been an occasion for a number of high profile roundtable discussions about the nature of the problem as well as the type of action needed to meaningfully intervene. Mostly clearly present in these discussions is the fact that in the past 30 years over 1200 Indigenous women have been murdered or disappeared, a rate of direct violence drastically higher than exists in other Canadian demographics. This issue has garnered international attention including Amnesty’s International’s 2004, “Stolen Sisters” report which denounced the government’s inaction and official indifference – which has stubbornly persisted.1 A recent roundtable discussion of Indigenous women in Vancouver highlights the ongoing connection between colonial and capitalist exploitation that contribute to the devaluation and destruction of indigenous women and communities. As Anishnawbe film maker Audrey Huntley describes, “Violence against Indigenous women that enabled land theft and displacement of the Indigenous population is an inherent part of the settler-colonial project. That’s how Canada was built and continues to exist. Indigenous communities, in particular Indigenous women and children who are the centres of those communities, stand in the way of ongoing colonization of land and resources. Racism is the fuel that feeds the fire and it is at the heart of the societal indifference that is so hard for our community, and in particular for the family members of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, to bear. While the last year has finally brought unprecedented media and public attention to the issue, the violence has not stopped and, in fact, may be increasing. This makes sense given the extractivist and austerity-focused agenda of the Harper government and the impacts that violence on the land has on Indigenous women particularly, and our community and society as a whole.” 2 Later this month (Feb.27) Perry Bellegarde, the newly elected Grand Chief of the Assembly of First Nations will meet with two Conservative ministers – Kellie Leitch, (Minister of Labour and the Status of Women) and Bernard Valcourt (Minister of Aboriginal Affairs) – to discuss the issue of violence against indigenous women. “We welcome their support. We welcome their attendance,” Bellegarde said, expressing hope the ministers will act on what they hear at the meeting. “That’s what we’re all trying to address: a co-ordinated strategy, a co-ordinated approach, an implementation plan to deal with this,” he said. “The feds are there; the provinces are there; indigenous peoples are there; families are there. Let’s map this out.” 3 However, few see this terrain as very favourable to seriously redrawing the map of ongoing colonial oppression and cultural violence underlying the epidemic of missing and murdered aboriginal women. The fact that two former Grand Chiefs of the Assembly of First Nations, Sean Atleo and Ovide Mercredi have become high-paid consultants for the Oil Industry, raises severe doubts that such elite politicking intends to address the fundamental linkages between colonial and capitalist violence.4 Many indigenous people feel that an federal inquiry isn’t enough, or even the right way to address the problem. Such an inquiry would require a great deal of money which some feel would “only tell us what we already know” without changing systems of oppression. At a recent meeting in Winnipeg the director of Ka Na Kanichihk, Leslie Spillet, said, “We’re losing people not just to murders, our kids are killing themselves for Godsakes. Our men are killing our women. Not just non-indigenous men are killing our women. Our kids are committing suicide. We’re in a crisis here.”5 The call is for action now and for the sustained dismantling of the social and psychological violence that is an ongoing part of colonial capitalism. 1. http://www.amnesty.ca/sites/default/files/amr200032004enstolensisters.pdf. 2.http://rabble.ca/columnists/2015/02/this-system-hasnt-killed-me-yet-roundtable-on-gendered-colonial-violence 3. http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/saskatchewan/afn-s-perry-bellegarde-hopeful-ahead-of-meeting-on-murdered-missing-aboriginal-women-1.2952780 4.http://business.financialpost.com/2014/12/10/b-c-heavy-oil-refinery-project-names-aboriginal-leaders-as-advisors/?__lsa=eb36-b249 5.http://aptn.ca/news/2015/02/10/families-missing-murdered-indigenous-women-want-action-instead-inquiry/.
Next Friday February 13th, a coalition of groups associated with the Idle No More movement is calling for a country-wide action to #ShutdownCanada 1. The online description calls for “communities across Canada to blockade their local railway, port or highway on February 13th. Don’t buy, don’t fly, no work and keep the kids home from school… The goal is to significantly impact the Canadian economy for a day and demand there be an independent inquiry into the 2000+ cases of missing or murdered indigenous women.” At a number of levels #Shutdowncanada is about the importance of, and control over flows in our contemporary society – the flow of capital through infrastructure (roads, pipelines), the flow of information through mainstream and social media and the ability of bodies to flow through different spaces. Since #Shutdown Canada is about disrupting and changing the day-to-day flow of Canadian society, it can also be read in relation to the issues at stake within the Harper government’s proposed anti-terror legislation – Bill C-51. Under this legislation, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) will be given the power to, not only monitor, but also proactively disrupt any “Activity that undermines the security of Canada.” This includes making lists of any persons who may “engage in an act that poses a threat to transportation security” or promotes “interference with critical infrastructure.” (For the full draft legislation see here 2.) Although Harper has relied on a rhetoric that emphasizes the threat of Islamic fundamentalist terrorism, many feel that the true targets in this legislation are first nations and environmental groups who present a challenge to the conservatives’ right wing, oil-fueled agenda 3. Here are a few examples of how the #Shutdowncanada and Bill C-51 intersect: 1) Flows of Capital: The #Shutdown Canada action is calling for broad and strategic interruption and blockade of road and rail in order to put economic pressure on the government. A number of key provisions within the anti-terrorism act are aimed at identifying these acts as terroristic and proactively interrupting them and criminalizing those involved through amendments to the Criminal Code (section 83.01 pertaining to terrorism 4.) 2) Flows of Information: There are currently more than seven thousand people who have indicated on Facebook that they will be or may be going to this event. The event has also been publicized in a number of mainstream and alternative new sources. Under the new anti-terrorism act, CSIS would be allowed to proactively seize “propaganda” related to such events, and disrupt any websites or social media platforms which actively promote these types events. This means that organizing platform like Facebook will be monitored and possibly interrupted. It also means that discussions on these forums may be used as evidence of “promoting terrorism” which carries up to a five-year jail sentence under the new legislation 5. 3) Flows of Bodies: The participation of thousands of people in such massive, Canada-wide events is an extremely powerful force that has the capacity to significantly impact the smooth flow of everyday life for millions and force a recognition of demands. Under Bill C-51, individuals will be able to be detained without charges for up to seven days. This capacity to detain particular bodies is also aimed at stopping organizers as well as deterring people from putting their bodies on the line for such issues 6. This is particularly true for immigrants, and under this new legislation provisions have been changed in the “Immigrant and Refugee Safety Act” which further jeopardize their legal status for participating in such events. All of these different type of flows involve highly emotional material – missing and murdered aboriginal women, terrorism, environmental destruction, detention – and these affective flows are of a great deal of importance in determining the success of such events. What narratives these emotions get stuck to is an ongoing struggle over the emotional landscape and legal terrain of the country. 1.https://www.facebook.com/events/452509068236441/ 2.http://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/anti-terrorism-powers-what-s-in-the-legislation-1.2937964 3.http://rabble.ca/blogs/bloggers/karl-nerenberg/2015/02/four-reasons-harpers-new-anti-terrorist-legislation-will-alarm 4.http://laws-lois.justice.gc.ca/eng/acts/C-46/page-28.html#docCont 5.http://aptn.ca/news/2015/02/02/first-nation-activists-fear-potential-sting-new-anti-terror-law/ 6.https://www.tworowtimes.com/news/national/will-new-anti-terror-bill-affect-shutdowncanada-first-nations/
A number of youth-led, grass-roots campaigns are encouraging aboriginal peoples to vote in the upcoming federal elections. A Facebook page entitled, “Winnipeg Indigenous Rock The Vote In The 42nd Federal Election Oct 19 2015” already has around 800 members 1. The “Indigenous Rock the Vote” movement is building on a successful “Rock the Vote” campaign during the recent Mayoral Elections that saw the election of Winnipeg’s first Metis Mayor, Brian Bowman. While young people are taking the lead in mobilizing indigenous voters, this should not be read as an implicit endorsement of the Canadian system of governance. Rather, it is one part of a broader strategy to fend off continuing colonial dispossession as it manifests in particular areas. This includes ensuring that people who do decide to vote have the proper documentation to cast their ballot, including proof of residence. This is a particular issue on some reserves where there are no formal street addresses. In the past, this did not pose such a problem since there was an accepted process that allowed community members to “vouch” for the residency of other members of the community. This practice is no longer considered valid by Elections Canada. An indigenous youth organizer from Saskatchewan described the consequences of such procedural shifts as both depressing and confusing. “The most heartbreaking stories that I hear are the elders who found a ride, go where they needed to go to make a vote and then they get turned away and they don’t understand why,” she says. “They’re crushed because they made it out and then they get turned away and it’s a hard thing to explain to them” 2.