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CanadaÕs Dirty War Over Words


“Some must speak and some must be still, so we can listen to the voices of the just and to the silence of the sinners”. Admiral Emilio Massera, member of the first military junta during Argentina’s “Dirty War” of the late 1970s and early 1980s.

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.

There was some irony in my having arrived in Vancouver from New Zealand en route to speak on globalisation and the criminalisation of dissent at an Ottawa teach-in entitled “Global Cops: The Corporate Security State’s Assault on Democracy” only to see these virulent attacks on Sunera unfold before my eyes.

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.

The days I spent catching up with her in Vancouver were accompanied by constant hatecalls, a nationwide media feeding frenzy and Canadian politicians of all hues denouncing her for her supposedly “hateful” speech.

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.

Her work on colonization and race in relation to the immigration policy, the construction of the Canadian state and Canadian national identity is incisive and important. Instead of disappearing off into ivory towers, Sunera has used her position as an academic to be a true critic and conscience of 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.

Witness, for example a column by Ross Mclennan in the Winnipeg Sun (October 5, 2001) describing Sunera Thobani as a “hysterical spittle-spewing… feminist equivalent to the Taliban”.

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.

Many people in Canada clearly prefer brown people living in Canada to be seen, but – especially if they are women – not heard. Now, in response to Sunera’s “War Frenzy”, some of Canada’s true PC brigade – the deniers of racism and sexism – are trying to claim that the attacks on her had nothing to do with her race or gender.

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:

“Whereas the racialisation of immigration constructs immigrants of colour as posing a threat to the nation’s social, cultural, and linguistic order, the gendering of immigration comes to define women of colour in particular a burden on the nation’s resources. …

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”)

Charles Hutzinger, president and CEO of Imperial Parking, the largest parking operator in Canada and the fourth largest in North America, and recent immigrant to Canada from the USA urged alumni of UBC to withhold their contributions as long as Sunera Thobani was employed there.

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.

In late October, the RCMP finally told Sunera’s lawyer, Clayton Ruby, that they would not be proceeding with their investigation of her speech. While the RCMP would have been crazy to pursue this investigation further, the mere fact that they were prepared to contemplate charges on the basis of her talk was meant to send a message to others. It will surely have had a chilling effect on some who might otherwise have spoken out in support.

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.

Hers was hardly a lone voice when it came to criticism of US foreign policy. While in Canada I heard other people use much stronger language and images in condemnation of US policy. But they were mostly white men and I did not see any columnists or letters to the editor telling them to “go back to wherever it is they came from”, accusing them of being “hatemongers” or any of the other abuse that Sunera faced.

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?

Fortunately, as well as the outpouring of political and media bile against Sunera, she has also received support from many academics, unions, activists and public from within Canada and outside. A friend who teaches at Karachi University has used Sunera’s speech with her students as an example of writings by women of colour who speak out against imperialism. University academics as far away as New Zealand have sent Sunera messages of support.

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.

From Canada’s Bill C-36 which allows for preventive arrest and defines “terrorism” so broadly as to cover many of the protest actions at the Summit of Americas in Quebec or the anti-APEC mobilizations in Vancouver 4 years ago to the similar draconian amendments to New Zealand’s Terrorism (Bombing and Financing) Bill which the government is trying to rush through without any genuine public debate or scrutiny.

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.

It does not take laws or an Argentina-style military junta to march us off down the road of further criminalising dissent. It does not take people being bashed and bundled into unmarked cars by secret police – although Canada’s state security agencies do a good line in that – witness the nabbing of Jaggi Singh at APEC in Vancouver in 1997, and again in Quebec City during anti-FTAA mobilizations this April.

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

In its section on Canada, the New Zealand Security Intelligence Service document prepared for the APEC 1999 Summit in Auckland explicitly linked what it calls “Canada’s liberal immigration policy” with a “fluid and increasingly complex security environment” there. For many years, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service has been justifiably criticized for its intimidatory treatment and harassment of many Canadian Muslims as objects of suspicion.

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.

The features of Canadian state formation were historically based on the subordination of indigenous peoples, Quebecois, and Acadians, and on alliances with the British Empire and later US imperialism.”

“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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