Canada’s Dirty War Over Words

My October visit to Canada was overshadowed by the vicious demonisation and vilification of a friend. ZNet has already posted a copy of University of British Columbia academic and social justice activist Sunera Thobani’s speech and her paper “War Frenzy” reflecting on the controversy that followed her talk.

The day I landed in Canada she was speaking at an Ottawa women’s conference on violence against women, in opposition to colonialism, imperialism, US foreign policy, and the war which the US was about to launch.

Sunera Thobani is an impressive activist and scholar. For several years we have worked together to clearly oppose the corporate globalisation agenda promoted by APEC (the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum) when some NGOs and unions in Canada and beyond sought to merely reform it and to steer the growing opposition to its neoliberal ideology towards lobbying for seats at the table for civil society.

For speaking the truth about US foreign policy she has been variously attacked as a nutty professor, an ungrateful immigrant, a brown bitch and a terrorist sympathizer or a combination thereof. Many of the ravings against her remind me more of playground racist abuse than adult thought processes.

The backlash was extraordinary in the sense that many others have made similar points to those made by Sunera but have not attracted anything like the same opprobrium and personal attacks. But predictable in the sense that when you scratch the liberal façade of Canada, you find plenty of rabid racism. And Sunera is a woman of colour living in a society founded on the attempted extermination of Indigenous Peoples and maintained by denial of that genocide.

Sunera’s observations about Canada in an article she wrote in the Canadian Journal of Women and the Law last year were borne out by her own recent treatment:

The racialisation of immigrants on the basis of their cultural, social, and linguistic characteristics would mean that all people of colour – regardless of their actual legal status, their birthplace, or the length of their residency in Canada – would come to be ideologically constructed as immigrants/outsiders.” (from “Nationalizing Canadians: Bordering Immigrant Women in the Late Twentieth Century”)

After an “anonymous complaint”, Sunera’s speech was even investigated by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police for potential violation of section 319 of the Canada Criminal code – inciting hatred against an identifiable group – in this case the American people. The brave boys of the RCMP could not bring themselves to inform her directly about this- she found out after a police officer spoke about it to the media.

Sunera’s speech, bits of which had been selectively quoted and distorted by various news organizations across Canada, who helped to whip up the frenzy, was remarkably measured.

Others, while purporting to be concerned about freedom of speech and the backlash against Sunera, exhorted people to be “very careful in our speech”. Looking at what she actually said, I do not know how anyone could accuse her of using words carelessly. But that was never the point, really, was it?

There is much focus on the expansion of the powers of state security and intelligence agencies in the wake of September 11 – and rightly so. The cynical opportunism of governments, spy agencies and their apologists to cash in on September 11 knows no bounds.

But in the mobilizations against these law changes, the underlying ideology of national security and the way that “threats to national security” are constructed should not be overlooked. Nor should we overlook the fact that the process of demonisation and vilification of critics is an equally important step in the legitimation of the criminalisation of dissent as is the passing of legislation itself.

The authorities already have a head start when it comes to activists of colour. This is hardly a post-September 11 phenomenon.

In the Canadian context, in “Whose National Security?: Canadian State Surveillance and the Creation of Enemies”, Laurentian University academics, Gary Kinsman, Dieter K Buse and Mercedes Steedman note that “national security” rests on notions of the interests of the “nation”, “which is delimited by capitalist, racist, patriarchal, and heterosexist relations.

“Democratic rights, if they are to be concrete rights, must be based on the expression of forms of social difference and the freedom of expression and association of oppressed groups. Unfortunately, national security in the Canadian and other contexts operates by precisely attacking the democratic rights of these groups”.

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