Thursday, June 9, 2016

Mohawk Institute: the "Mushhole"

My class toured this historical "museum of conscience" with a survivor of the school as a guide. It operated as a residential school from 1828 to 1970. We weren't in the original building because it had been burned down and rebuilt twice. Some schools were burnt down and not rebuilt, choosing instead to ship the inhabitants elsewhere. This site persisted. The roof leaks now, so there was water damage, but Wynne promised some funds to help restore the building. They plan to furnish the empty rooms the way they were when it was operational.

There's part of me that so loves old buildings that I can divorce myself from their history enough to notice the trim work, carved pillars, and tin ceilings marred by fluorescent lights. I would gladly offer my labour to restore it, but it smelled like they might have a mould problem from the water damage that would require a professional to clean.

There was too much to see and discuss in one short visit. I suggested to my class that maybe the institute could make it an overnight trip once they have beds and desks. Then tour groups could experience sleeping in an open room with nothing but mush for breakfast (overcooked oatmeal). But I had no takers keen to spend a night in there. They had a better idea though: an audio headset for self-guided tours using the voices of a variety of survivors discussing their lives as visitors walked through different rooms:
  • the front hall where children were dropped off, some with parental expectations of better days, three meals and an education, but others as virtual orphans, not to see their moms again for a decade;
  • the intake room where hair was cut and a number tattooed on their little hands, their only ID for their time there; stories of older children telling the younger ones not to forget their real names;
  • the dining hall and kitchen with long tables on either side, one for girls and one for boys, all with numbered chairs with siblings separated to keep them from talking their language; 
  • the makeshift stage area where a bizarre man in a stuffed red costume showed up one day each year with a small present for everyone, a ruse to indoctrinate them into the Christian church;
  • the cupboard under the stairs where children were locked for days with only bread, water, and some salt, in close proximity to the sleeping quarters, all the better for the children to hear the wails of the punished (without any prospect of a Hagrid coming to save the day); 
  • the clothes washing room where boys would peek through the windows at the girls;
  • the clothes folding room table with numbers carved beneath to show who liked whom (46 + 27) and many romances attempting to blossom without the benefit of enough contact to say hello; 
  • the boiler room full of unspeakable tales; 
  • the window where children would wait for their parents, day-by-day, every June, with a few still waiting as September rolled around again;
  • the grounds where the youngest collected eggs that they rarely got to eat; 
  • all liberally peppered with some laughs to ease the tension - stories of digging through the local landfill for boxes of candy with the cellophane broken rendering them unsellable, or the rare treat of being chosen to go mow a lawn or rake some leaves for someone in the city. 
A talk by a younger guide whose grandparents had attended brought a few surprises. Hitler had used the early reservation system and residential schools, solutions to the "Indian problem," as a template for the "Jewish problem" almost a century later. I had no idea. 

But even more thought provoking was being referred to as "you people," as in, "How long have you people been a country now? 160 some years?" That one sentence shifted my thinking considerably. After reading John Ralston Saul's Fair Country and Comeback, I had gotten a lovely impression that Canada is one big family just waiting for us to return what we stole so we can finally see that we're all in this together. But that line made me realize that, for this guide at least, being united under Canada is not an option. She's from North America, not Canada. 

I started understanding it all something like this: It's like if two siblings are sharing a place, and the brother's a jerk to the sister, and the sister gets her own place. It doesn't really matter how much the thoughtless brother apologizes, because it's not just about that. The sister has her own path that's separate - will always be separate - from her brother's path. It was a pipe-dream to think they'd live together forever. They're family, but have always been independent of one another. 

A student was offended by the comment, but I was just saddened by finally getting that we're on parallel paths that won't merge - maybe aren't really meant to merge.
And the day brought a clearer understanding of the intergenerational effects of the schools.  So many studies have found evidence of things like childhood trauma being linked to later drug and alcohol abuse, and moving during early adolescence (when teenagers on reserves are shipped off to high-school) correlating to a higher incidence of suicide. We know that a rough childhood is hard to get over. When both parents grew up restricted from forming bonds with other children, they can struggle to relate to each other much less their children. When it's suggested that people should just forgive and forget the past, just get over it already, it makes no sense to me.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Avoiding the Lesser of Two Evils

It's not my country, but what happens in America affect the world. And we're right next door. The Left Forum had a panel discussion a couple weeks ago with Glen FordChris Hedges, and Jill Stein, chaired by Linda Thompson, that's worth a listen. It's two hours long, and a feat of tolerance for all the chattering and cell phones in the audience, so I summarized some highlights below.

In a nutshell, Clinton is just as scary as Trump, so everyone who hoped to vote for Sanders, should vote for the Green Party or any independent party if Sanders doesn't win in the primaries. The Greens are unlikely to win, but it will send a clear message that there are enough Americans who care about reform, that they won't fall for the ideology that there are only two parties running. Here are their arguments heavily condensed and slightly paraphrased:

Hedges on the Façade of a Two-Party System:
"Once the neo-liberal ideology is no longer able to hold the loyalty of a population, those regimes will collapse. Mechanisms that defend power are no longer willing to work on its behalf. That process of revolutionary change is slow and often invisible. The facade of the superstructure remains in place. That is precisely where we are in American history. It’s incumbent upon those who care for the socialist society, that we step outside these structures, even if we remain a minority, so that we provide an alternative to this power.  
Nationalism is a disease which has infected both parties. It deifies the military. It sucks people into its orbit; it has at its disposal powerful forms of indoctrination that stokes the kind of proto-fascism we see at Trump rallies. Democrats are as culpable as Republicans at creating this toxic environment. Clintons are built on loyalty to corporate power and white supremacy. They passed the three-strikes law, massively expanded sentences, expanded the prison industrial complex, pushed through the first trade agreement. John Ralston Saul called Bill Clinton's administration a corporate coup d'état.  
Sanders was okay with Israelis bombing Palestinian communities. He's an AIPAC wind-up doll. He's been in the pockets of the Clintons for a long time; he campaigned for Bill Clinton in 2004. He's got a faustian bargain with the Democrats, and he's naive to think he could compete fairly in the primaries.  
We owe it to our children to step outside this system and begin to fight back. We'll never achieve power through political parties. All of our energy has to be invested in movement. We have to knit groups together (anti-fracking, black lives matter, fight for the minimum wage...) and carry out sustained acts of civil disobedience. The ability to reform from within the structures of power has been taken from us.

Stein on the Lesser Evil Agenda:
"I'm most horrified by a political system that gives two lethal choices and says pick between them. This is a reflection of inherent dysfunctions in this system. Both are minority parties, so it's important that we seize this moment. A report from NOAA last week discussed an Oh my God report confirming that we could expect nine feet of sea level rise by 2050 if we don’t take profoundly different action by then. Instead we get drill baby drill on steroids not only increasing, but accelerating.

While agreement in Paris was being forged, and Obama was celebrating, they were behind close doors, signing on to the end of the oil export ban which massively increases oil exploration. We have a choice of a corporate vision with a smile or without a smile. Both parties are funded by same predatory banks, fossil fuel giants, and war profiteers. It’s clear we can’t keep going in this direction. Climate meltdown has a deadline. By 2050 all of the coastal US cities will be under water and 600 million people will be refugees. The greater evil is the economic meltdown we’re looking at. Banks are bigger than ever.

But we actually have the power. Alice Walker said that the biggest way we give up power is not knowing we have it in the first place. If we don’t fight in the halls of power, then we’re basically raising the white flag of surrender, and we’ll be bulldozed by the stroke of a pen. The great news is that we have the power to stand up. If you take just people locked into predatory student debt, locked into economic servitude, and those people are 43 million strong, that is a winning plurality in a presidential race. There's only one party who will bail them out if that word gets out. It doesn’t take a whole lot of motivation to see it can be erased with a stroke of a pen if they vote Green. We’re in the polls now where Sanders was six months ago. As Bernie’s campaign begins to fold in a path of sabotage, we can’t have a revolutionary campaign in a counter-revolutionary party.

We need coalitions. Change is not going to happen under Clinton. We need to stand up now if we want to decommission nuclear power plants on the coast because they will flood out. We should be telling supreme court what to do. We did it in the 60s. We brought troops home; brought in clean air act and clean water act. Don’t accept that we’re powerless. We are powerful. And we have the numbers it takes to win the battle. We just need the courage of our convictions. There's an attitude of cowardice that is unleashed when we’re told to accept voting for the lesser evil. We need to have courage. It’s time to forget the lesser evil and fight for the greater good like our lives depend on it, because they do. 
The lesser evil paves the way for the greatest evil and makes it inevitable. People can’t mobilize themselves; witness the beating Sanders is getting. That party is being hijacked. Through the policies of the Clintons, we got the makings of Trump. We got the right-wing populism which is a response to the economic desperation of the people caused by Clinton. In terms of the nuclear threat, the Obama administration withdrew from the anti-ballistic missile treaty which was the main tool to move towards nuclear disarmament, and now the Obama administration is leading a trillion dollar movement towards nuclear war. We know what Hillary will do. She wants to take an airborne attack. Trump is risky, but Hillary is certain death.

Thompson on Some Problems with the Left:
Che Guevara said that revolutionaries are motivated by great feelings of love. The left is bad for getting too intellectual and has problems expressing that love. People have to feel safe abandoning the lesser evil and going for the unknown. Unity is the key. There are lots of little tiny groups of activist that have to unite. 
A lot of the problem isn’t Trump, it’s the corporate media and the 1%. The left-wing media is to blame as well. Amy Goodman has blacked out Jill’s campaign as much as the right-wing media does. There’s a section of Democracy Now where you can say what you want to see on their show. Ask them why she’s not covering these parties. We can’t let them get away with this anymore. Call for a revolution.

Hedges on the Prison System and Fascism:
We have to stop talking about people within the system of mass incarceration and focusing on non-violent drug offenders. There are round-ups of everyone in the room in a drug deal. 94% of the people incarcerated never go to trial. They slap all sorts of charges on you that you didn’t commit. They tell you, if you go to trial, you’ll be charged with all of it, and you’ll never win. But if you accept the plea of 11 years, we'll cut this and this. 80% of the people in the prison system shouldn’t be there. The whole system lynched them. My students with the longest sentences went to trial because they didn’t commit the crime, and they punished them with 30-year sentences. 
Fascism rises out of a political vacuum. We have to stop getting conned into the personality. We have to see the system for what it is. In terms of fossil fuels, war machines, etc., there will be no difference between Trump and Clinton. Read Democracy Incorporated by Sheldon Wolin to get an understanding of how inverted totalitarianism works. Neither Clinton nor Trump will set up a reasonable environmental policy. In this system there’s no way to vote against Exxon Mobile. 

Ford on Black Leaders
"Some black leaders are still corporate owned. We can’t just vote for people who look like us. We have to support people with values, people willing to stand up against racism and imperialism. We have to get away from skin-based politics."

Stein added, "The Malcolm X Grassroots Movement put together a plan in the context of an emergency of racial injustice that demands attention."

A commenter added: "Society can’t be dominated by white progressive and white liberals. There are so many overt displays of white supremacy, that black people don’t want to join them. We need to think of a society where you don’t have control of most of the land, because it wasn’t yours to begin with."

Hedges on Fighting for Marginalized Communities: 
Within marginal communities the system of capitalism has created a system of perpetual evictions, which has affected the psychological health of citizens and the cohesive nature of neighbourhoods. In the 30s, people would get up and block sheriffs from bringing foreclosures. Capitalism destroys the cohesiveness that make that resistance possible. Men are in prison and women and children are evicted. Marx called this surplus labour. People are preyed upon. They lock you in a cage to generate $40-50 thousand a year. Whole corporate entities (moving companies, storage companies, insurance...) are built around benefiting from systems of oppression. 
We’re not in those community to see what’s been done to crush those people. None of us could endure that. It gets back to the dark system of corporate capitalism. You have to look now at sacrifice zones - at what we have allowed to be done to the vulnerable in society. We’ve gotten caught up in the boutique activism of personality politics. Feminism should be about empowering oppressed women, but it’s about having a woman president and woman CEOs. The bottom ⅔ of blacks in the country are worse off than when King marched. White liberals are caught in the game of diverting attention from horrific, brutal, cruel forms of injustice. I teach in a prison because I wouldn’t know otherwise. These people are invisible. They vanish. Newspapers don’t even have labour journalists any more. 

Ford added: "It's not just white liberals - it's those who have become collaborators with this corporate system. In every struggle for independence of colonialist power, we have to kill more fellow African-Americans in order to get to the enemy."

Stein: "It's our job, as privileged white people who have enormous benefits from the system, to support the community and struggle in their fights as they define them. They’re already organizing; our job is to help. There have been victories in indigenous land and treaty rights. The support of environmental communities is critical to those victories. This is a model to support."

Hedges: "In the prisons, they are so far ahead of us politically. They don’t think anybody’s going to overcome the lobbyists. They are organizing a mass prison strike. It’s going on right now across the country. It started in Alabama. I will be cross-country on September 9th, the anniversary of Attica. In system of neo-slavery, no prison runs without prison labour. Don’t go to the state house or the capital to protest, go to the prison house to show us you’re there. These people have so much courage. They broke their strike in Alabama by refusing to feed them. They are a highly conscious politically oppressed group who are rising up with integrity to fight back, and we have to stand with them."

Thompson: "We don’t need to reinvent the wheel. We need to re-invigorate the discussion the Panthers started. They already created a 10-point program."

Ford: "We need to decolonize Puerto Rico and forgive the debts."

Stein: "We need to liberate the public airways. The president could instruct federal communication to stop the privatization of airways. When the FCC looked at privatizing internet, there was a social movement that stopped it.

Commenter: "We need to be willing to be under the leadership of The African People's Socialist Party and go to the prisons. It's the only way to be in touch in a vital, emotional way or else it gets too abstract.  A lot of things we debate are moot.  39,000 strikers are protesting a destructive company that gets 1.8 million per month in a template that's the demise of the working class. They shipped call centres to Trinidad.

Hedges: "Workers are reduced to serfs across the board. The problem is multifaceted. It's partly the fault of the unions who made concessions to corporations. But this is what’s going to happen to all of us  It's a reconfiguration of the economy to neo-feudalism with prisons that feed like sharks off them, where a phone call home costs 5 times the actual costs, and prisoners have to pay from their $28/month wages."

Stein: "The media calls Verizon strikers greedy, but it's not just about wages. They're demonized because they're asking for more than living wage. We're moving to a system in which a poverty wage is acceptable; it's important to be vocal to support the strike."

Ford: "It is all about the cost of labour and the race to the bottom driven by the tremendous wage differentials in the world."

Stein: "We need social movements. They are the engine of social change. Political parties are able to unite social coalitions. A real political party is an effort to bring people together under a common agenda. There’s not a conflict between working for electoral parties and social parties."

Hedges: "The next trade agreement will destroy the post office. It says that no government enterprise can exist unless corporations can compete with them. It's the same reason hedge funds run charter schools. Marx explained that in late stages of capitalism, as you disenfranchise the country, you disembowel the state structures in order to make profits."

To sum it up: We have the ability to make this change. It feels like there are a lot of issues to address, but there's really just one: the neo-liberal agenda to profit off the back of the people. And it's being promoted by the Democrats as much as the Republicans. We need to continue to have candidates run that come out of the movement. And we actually have to vote for them.


Wednesday, June 1, 2016

O Canada. Because it's 2016.

For the 13th time since 1980, the House of Commons is debating changing the national anthem. The first 12 tries were defeated, but this time it might actually pass. The bill just proposes to change "all thy sons" to "all of us."

I think, while we're there, we should go whole hog on this and get rid of "native home" since most of us immigrated here, and get rid of any reference to God to acknowledge we're multi-faith and secular.

AND, if we really want to be inclusive, and since kids in school learn a version of the song that's half French, it would be cool to have a few lines in Ojibwe or Cree. Imagine if the last two lines were in whatever indigenous language is most spoken in each region. So if you travel across Canada to sporting events or visiting schools, you'd hear the various anthem lines particular to each area. It means MORE JOBS for translators, singers, recording studios... to get all those recordings packaged and sent to schools for their morning announcements. Imagine all three founding nations represented in our anthem.

I discussed it with my students and got a variety of responses.  The dominant arguments of my most vocal grade tens went something like this:
"This is all a stupid thing to try to do. People are too sensitive. What's the big deal about "thy sons" anyway? It'll be too complicated if we change it and have to learn a new one. It's just a stupid song. Who cares?"
My grade elevens were all about the changes.

Firstly, if you don't care about the song, then stay out of the way while people debate this.

I think the lyrics of a song that represents our country are very important. Our anthem tells people a bit about who we are and what we think is important. And the anthem links all Canadians, so it should avoid any word choices that clearly exclude anyone.

It might be a chore to learn some new words, but you can always just listen while others sing. The people who will be most affected are children in grade school who actually sing it every day. I think they can cope with a few minor word changes and a couple lines in some cool new languages.

I asked my tens, "If instead of saying "all thy sons command," the original* said, "all white people command," would you feel like that should be changed?"

Of course. Everyone has a problem with that one.

We're much better at detecting racism than discrimination in other areas. I agree that people are too sensitive when some suggest we need trigger warnings and safe spaces set up to accommodate anyone potentially offended by a discussion. But this isn't about the anthem upsetting people. It's about working towards making the anthem as inclusive as possible to build a national community. And it's such an easy and visible thing to do.

When they passed this version into law in 1980, they promised to be open to changes in future. I think the future is now. Anything new is difficult and annoying, but soon enough we get used to it. and in just one generation, everyone will know a version that encompasses the men and women from the three distinct nations who got this ball rolling.

I said as much in a letter to the editor, which says the same as above, but in 200 words and with reference to a recent news piece:
I applaud Wynne’s apology, particularly her insistence that, “Ontario is working to provide the resources and space for Indigenous languages, traditions, teachings and governance to thrive.” The timing is perfect for discussion of a different issue. 
On Monday, the Commons debated a bill to change the lyrics of Canada's national anthem to replace “all thy sons” with “all of us.” Since it’s beyond 2015, and we’re finally beginning to work towards a more inclusive nation, maybe it’s time to make our anthem more fully represent Canada. 
Replacing “thy sons” is a start. We could also consider Canadians who aren’t native and even those who don’t address God in moments of patriotism. 
To demonstrate further inclusion, school children already learn a version that is partly in French. I propose, in light of Wynne’s offer of “space for Indigenous languages to thrive,” that it would be a profound, symbolic action if we included a couple words of the languages of the actual native land when we sing en masse (in addition to “Canada,” of course). Then our three founding nations can be represented in our nation’s anthem. 
Yes, change is difficult. But learning a few new words in a song is a small price to pay for the true north.

* The original 1880 version didn't even say "thy sons command"; it said, "thou dost in us command." See that first link for the history of the song.