Saturday, 25 February 2017

Othering: What it is and why it matters

Othering is the process of casting a group, an individual or an object into the role of the 'other' and establishing one's own identity through opposition to and, frequently, vilification of this Other.

When former CPC Cabinet Minister Tony Clement tweets like this:

He is using the term "illegals" to talk about people. Human beings. Sons, daughters, moms, dads... People. Just like you. Families. Just like your family. 

Othering is a linguistic and psychological strategy to make someone seem different from you. It is a technique employed when someone in a position of authority wants to make the majority forget that these are people being spoken about. 

Armies make up names for the enemy. "Jerry" "Huns" "Gooks" "Wops" "Krauts" "Nips" "Yanks"... Because it is a lot harder to kill a person with an individual identity, a personality, a family, a life story... And often, in wartime, that someone on the other side was more than likely just a kid, same as the kids in the army fighting them. Discipline would become a problem quickly if the soldiers meant to do the killing realised the person they were killing liked playing the same sport, or listening to the same music, or missed their Mom just as much... 

No. If one group wants to demean another group, possibly violate their human rights, they have to make sure their own people, their audience, doesn't get to see this "other" group as people with faces and families and favourite songs and comfort foods, and talents, and hobbies, and all the other things that make them more like us than different.

Now, prominent right wing speakers, from the GOP in the US and the CPC in Canada, are using the term "illegals" to dehumanise a group of people who have had a overwhelming lack of choice in their circumstances. Yes, they chose to flee rather than stay put and be killed. Or jailed. Or persecuted.  Although, that is not much of a choice by most rational standards. Some are fleeing war. Some are fleeing oppression because of sexual orientation, or religion, or ethnic group. Some are fleeing poverty and gang violence. But they have made the terribly difficult decision to move, to leave their homes and the lives they knew, because staying put was unsustainable. 

We cannot "other" people. We all share this fragile planet. We are all human, With glorious skills and tragic flaws. Every individual deserves to be evaluated as an individual. Not as part of some homogeneous lump of humanity. We are all different, and all very much alike. Resist those who stereotype or vilify based on race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, country of origin, skin colour, and all the other things we cannot change about ourselves. Look at people as individuals. Look at people with an open mind, just as you would like others to see you. 

Call out those who "other", who try to judge based on stereotypes, who want to turn us against people and divide us. Don't let anyone talk you into hating someone just because of where they are from, or how they pray, or who they love. Go ahead and be angry at assholes, at abusers, at those who prey on other people, those who revel in making other people miserable, at bullies, at those who hurt others... But do it on an individual basis. Because every racial, religious, ethnic, sexual orientation, skin colour, education level, socio-economic level group, every "group" you can think of, has people who can be identified as being in that group who are amazing, wonderful humans, and also those who are nasty, deceitful humans. And their group membership has nothing whatsoever to do with how they will treat you. That is internal and individual. 

Othering matters because it justified what happened to Jews in WWII. Othering matters because it is inextricably linked with gay bashing. Othering matters because there are people with free-range rage in their souls and they are looking for an anonymous group to vent it on. People who go into churches and shoot people in a prayer group because they are black. People who go into mosques and kill people at prayer because they are Muslim. And, yes, people who bomb nightclubs because the people inside are westerners. 

We have to struggle against othering because every single one of us deserves the right to be evaluated on our individual merits and flaws. We cannot let our fellow humans become faceless objects of revulsion and violence. 

History has shown that ignoring othering kills.
"First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me."

We have a responsibility to call out our MPs, our media, our friends, neighbours, and family when they dehumanize people and label them. It is not ok. It is never just a joke. It is not "just words". If we do not speak up now, who will? 


Thursday, 9 February 2017

M103: Racism and Galloping Paranoia

Private Members motion M 103 has been causing a bit of an uproar in certain circles in Canada. It seems a good time to have a look at it and see what it is, and what it isn't.

What is a Private Member's Motion?

To begin with, what is a private member's motion anyway? Private members are Members of Parliament (MPs) who are not ministers. They are often referred to as backbenchers because they typically do not sit in the front rows in the House of Commons. They are MPs from all the parties that are not Ministers. A private member's motion can address a wide variety of topics. This is, in effect, where your MP gets to represent you, the constituent. This is where local issues can be raised, or attention drawn to issues of importance to specific groups of Canadians.

For example, private member's motions were brought forward to address the problem of derelict and abandoned ships and boats, study how immigration can help maintain the economy of Atlantic Canada  and also to recognise Italian Heritage Month. These are things that various groups of Canadians are concerned about, but are not part of the official government agenda that was announced in the Speech from the Throne at the beginning of each session of Parliament.

A private member's motion, even if adopted by the House, has no binding authority. There can be discussion and debate, but the government is not required to enact any new laws as a result.

If a private member puts forward a motion, other private members can register their support for it. In the case of M 103, it was proposed by Iqra Khalid, a Liberal MP representing Mississauga - Erin Mills in Ontario. She is on several parliamentary committees looking at human rights and justice, both in Canada and internationally.  This issue fits well with her interests and responsibilities as a Member of Parliament. Her motion has been supported by other MPs, including Ron McKinnon (Coquitlam - Port Coquitlam), Raj Grewal (Brampton East), and Salma Zahid (Scarborough Centre).

The motion has been successful and has been put on the order paper, which means it is on the agenda to be presented and discussed in the House of Commons on Wednesday, February 15 for ONE HOUR. For a more detailed discussion of Private Member's Motions, please go here.

What does M 103 actually say?

The text of the motion is as follows:

That, in the opinion of the House, the government should: (a) recognize the need to quell the increasing public climate of hate and fear; (b) condemn Islamophobia and all forms of systemic racism and religious discrimination and take note of House of Commons’ petition e-411 and the issues raised by it; and (c) request that the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage undertake a study on how the government could (i) develop a whole-of-government approach to reducing or eliminating systemic racism and religious discrimination including Islamophobia, in Canada, while ensuring a community-centered focus with a holistic response through evidence-based policy-making, (ii) collect data to contextualize hate crime reports and to conduct needs assessments for impacted communities, and that the Committee should present its findings and recommendations to the House no later than 240 calendar days from the adoption of this motion, provided that in its report, the Committee should make recommendations that the government may use to better reflect the enshrined rights and freedoms in the Constitution Acts, including the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Let's parse this. (A) The government should recognise the need to quell the increasing public climate of hate and fear. OK, that seems pretty straightforward. Six men died while at prayer in a mosque in Quebec City on January 29, 2017. There have been a number of attacks on mosques and against Muslims, most particularly against women wearing the hijab. Hate crimes against Muslims in Canada have more than doubled in the past 3 years. Is there a problem? Yes. Should the government look at it? Yes. Should the government look at ways to protect Canadian citizens? Absolutely. 

(B) Condemn Islamophobia and all forms of systemic racism and religious discrimination and take note of House of Commons' petition e-411 and the issues raised by it. Ok, so what is petition e-411? It is an electronic petition sponsored by Pierrefonds-Dollard MP Frank Bayliss. This e-petition received some 70,000 signatures. What does it say?

 Petition to the House of Commons
  • Islam is a religion of over 1.5 billion people worldwide. Since its founding more than 1400 years ago, Muslims have contributed, and continue to contribute, to the positive development of human civilization. This encompasses all areas of human endeavors including the arts, culture, science, medicine, literature, and much more;
  • Recently an infinitesimally small number of extremist individuals have conducted terrorist activities while claiming to speak for the religion of Islam. Their actions have been used as a pretext for a notable rise of anti-Muslim sentiments in Canada; and
  • These violent individuals do not reflect in any way the values or the teachings of the religion of Islam. In fact, they misrepresent the religion. We categorically reject all their activities. They in no way represent the religion, the beliefs and the desire of Muslims to co-exist in peace with all peoples of the world.
We, the undersigned, Citizens and residents of Canada, call upon the House of Commons to join us in recognizing that extremist individuals do not represent the religion of Islam, and in condemning all forms of Islamophobia.

It says that Islam is a religion of peace and the actions of a very small group (ISIS, etc.) do not represent the majority. No more than the KKK and the Westboro Baptist Church represent all Christians. 

The motion asks that the government officially state that systemic racism and religious discrimination is wrong, and also acknowledge that Muslim DOES NOT equal ISIS terrorist. That seems pretty straightforward.

So the petition and motion are asking the Government of Canada to declare itself non-racist and non-prejudiced based on ethnicity or religion. Sounds like something most thinking rational Canadians could get behind, doesn't it? After all, to suggest that all Muslims are alike, some sort of heterogeneous Borg, is as absurd as suggesting that all Christians, Jews, Sikhs, Buddhists, or whatever, are like all others that share their faith. 

(C) Request that the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage undertake a study on how the government could (i) develop a whole-of-government approach to reducing or eliminating racism and religious discrimination including Islamophobia, in Canada, while ensuring a community-centred focus with a holistic response through evidence-based policy-making. This sounds a little more complicated. But it isn't really. "A government-wide approach to reducing or eliminating racism and religious discrimination". In crafting legislation, in hiring, and in conducting the business of governing, the government should be aware of ways in which racism and discrimination can creep in, and take pro-active steps to prevent this. That doesn't sound crazy or extreme. We are all Canadians and this is the government for all of us. Why shouldn't we expect equal treatment regardless of ethnicity or faith? And the motion says "including Islamophobia", not exclusively Islamophobia. Just as "Black Lives Matter" does not mean other lives don't matter. But one group is currently having a rough time, and so we should be particularly aware of their situation. 

"While ensuring a community-centred focus with a holistic response through evidence-based policy-making." This is an arduous sentence, but not incomprehensible. "Community-centred" - actions at the grass-roots level, real actionable policies to decrease discrimination within communities. "Holistic" - looking at the big picture, carrying this initiative through right across the country. "Evidence-based policy-making" - Using best practices and models to formulate policy, finding metrics to evaluate progress, and basing policy decisions on fact and science rather than emotion and conjecture. In short, creating rational fact-based policies across the country that focus on community as a building block to enhance acceptance and inclusivity and combat discrimination. Pretty hard to argue with that.

Request that the standing committee on Canadian Heritage undertake a study on how the government could (ii) collect data to contextualize hate crime reports and to conduct needs assessments for impacted communities, and that the Committee should present its findings and recommendations to the House no later than 240 calendar days from the adoption of this motion, provided that in its report, the Committee should make recommendations that the government may use to better reflect the enshrined rights and freedoms in the Constitution Acts, including the Canadian Charter of Rights and freedoms.  This is a long one. But fairly easy to understand. This part of the motion asks for a study to be done to better understand the drivers behind hate crimes, as well as to discover how vulnerable communities could be better supported. Then it places a deadline on the report of 240 days, or about 8 months. Finally, it directs the intention of all of these ideas towards better implementing and upholding the constitutional rights and freedoms of all Canadians.

What is the controversy around M 103?

The CBC tried to explain the controversy, quoting Rebel media and National Post contributor Barbara Kay who is concerned that criticising Islam could become a hate crime. This, she says, would infringe on people's freedom of speech and possibly lead to a blasphemy law similar to that in Sharia law in some Middle Eastern countries. I find this quite interesting in the wake of efforts by our previous Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, to criminalise criticism of Israel. At the time, if I recall correctly, Ms Kay thought this was a good thing. It all depends on where you stand and what you value, I suppose.

So, the leap was made from "We should all try to be nice to each other" to "They are going to impose Sharia Law and women will have no rights!" How did this happen?

Clearly, there is no mention whatsoever of Sharia Law in the motion. None. Zip. Nada. So how did this become about imposing Sharia Law in Canada? This is a classic example of galloping paranoia. There is also no mention of making Islamophobia illegal. Unlike when Harper wanted to make criticising the State of Israel illegal. Rational discussions between people who have the theological education to be able to speak about Islam objectively are not being threatened. What is being threatened is people's freedom to be ignorant assholes and hurt others in the process. And that really does not seem like a bad thing.

If you look at the comments following the CBC article cited previously, it is appalling that Canadians are spewing such ignorant and hateful nonsense. And it gets worse. Much worse.

The fake news and blogs are filled with vitriol:

Justin Trudeau to create Islamic State in Canada

Islamophobia to become a crime

Muslim lawmaker pushes Sharia blasphemy law

And there are so many more. This is shameful. This is not how civilised people in modern, civilised countries treat their neighbours and community members.

If you have read this far you know that this motion strives through education and research, to reduce hatred and violence in our communities. And not just for Muslims. Because many groups in our country are subject to discrimination. Indigenous people. Sikhs. Jews, Blacks. Asians.... Back in the day, immigrants from eastern Europe were vilified and persecuted. Before that, the Irish and Italians had a rough ride.

It's 2017. Isn't it time to put racial, ethnic and religious discrimination where it belongs: in the past?

This motion is not about about Sharia law. It is not about creating an Islamic state in Canada. It is not about suppressing people's rights. It is about upholding them. The right to live in safety and peace. The right to respect and consideration. The right to equality before the law. Nowhere in this motion is it ever suggested that Muslims should be given special privileges. It only urges that Muslims, and every other vulnerable group, have the same rights as white Canadians take for granted. And that doesn't cost any of us us anything. You don't lose anything by ensuring others have the same rights. Remember, human rights are not pie. The portions do not get smaller as they are shared among more people.

Saturday, 4 February 2017

I Am Tired

I'm tired. 

I'm tired of hate.

I'm tired of injustice.

I'm tired of watching the news and seeing another black child has been gunned down by American police for holding a water pistol.

I'm tired of seeing images of First Nation homes no one should have to live in.

I'm tired of hearing about how our Indigenous youth are killing themselves. Being deprived of clean water. Being deprived of necessary medical and dental treatments. Being educated in schools that do not meet Canadian standards.

I am tired of seeing homeless people on the streets of a country as wealthy as Canada.

I am tired of vigilantes and white supremacists and politicians stoking fear of anyone who isn't straight, white and "Christian".

I am tired of seeing homes and communities destroyed in the Middle East by western bombs.
I am tired of the angry and deluded "Jihadists" who kill and maim and blow people up, putting millions upon millions of peaceful Muslims in danger in the process.
I am tired of politicians who use rhetoric to instigate hate and violence and division.
I am tired of violence.
I am tired of reading about the latest weekly mass shooting in the US.
I am tired of finger-pointing and corruption and dishonesty.
I am tired of greed and imbalance and the stock-piling of vast wealth while others suffer.
I am tired of seeing images of children starving to death while there is enough to go around.
I am tired of those with minds too narrow or too indoctrinated to recognise scientific fact over mythology.
I am tired from still fighting for women's rights in 2017.
I am tired of those who would take away women's autonomy of person and put it in the hands of men who don't have any idea what women go through.
I am tired of predators and abusers and "Smile for me girl" callers.
I am tired of gangs and territories and people being afraid.
I am tired of animal abuse and child abuse and people who are so deluded they don't get their children vaccinated against killer diseases.
I am tired of reading about animals found with their muzzles taped shut, starving, or dead.
I am so tired of cruelty and hate and repression and the "me first" attitude.
I am so tired.
We are all so tired.
But this is why we cannot give in to our fatigue: Do we want our children to be fighting the same fights? Our grandchildren? Or do we want to, need to, struggle in every way we can, to make the world better? We have a responsibility to the future, to humankind, to life on this planet, to object, to protest, to speak out and spread the word wherever there is injustice.
So, take a rest. Breathe. And then get up and keep on fighting.

Friday, 3 February 2017

The Quagmire of Electoral Reform in Canada

In 2015, Liberal leader Justin Trudeau said this would be the last election under the broken first-past-the-post system in Canada. Now, in February, 2017, he says nothing is going to change in our electoral system. This is deeply frustrating to those who fervently want to see a system where they can feel that their vote counts, and they have representation in government. This feeling seems to be primarily based in places where progressives find that their riding will always elect a Conservative, thus leaving them unrepresented. Conservatives in progressive ridings probably feel similarly put out when they can't get their preferred party's candidate elected. However, the official CPC line has been opposed to electoral reform. It is seen as a huge threat because if you never get much more than 30% of the vote nationally, the progressive vote must be split in just the right way between the other parties for you to form a government. That is under f-p-t-p, but if any of the other proposed systems were implemented, it would be almost impossible, without a radical shift in the Canadian zeitgeist, for the CPC to gain power.


To combat any change, the CPC called out loudly for a national referendum, knowing full well that such referenda are terrible tools for forming policy. The entire concept is unwieldy, for one thing. To effectively hold a meaningful referendum, the entire population would have to be educated on all of the possible new systems. Here is one attempt to clarify the different systems and how they would work. While it is not really all that complicated, it seems not enough Canadians actually care enough about the electoral process to learn, evaluate, and form an opinion. Only if we all learn and understand could a referendum be remotely meaningful. In ignorance, many people would vote the way their favourite party directed them to vote, or simply not bother to vote at all.

To add to this, there would be diverse and conflicting information about the impact any different system would have on our country. Some would be educated and measured, but some would border on the hysterical. I imagine the CPC would send out their usual biased polls: "Would you vote to keep our well-functioning electoral system as it is, and as it has served Canadians well for 150 years, or would you vote for an untested and more complicated system that could have dire ramifications for the Canadian way of life?" And then ask for money to help them fight this unnecessary, unwanted, and expensive change to Canada.

The CPC undoubtedly knew that the task of educating the general public would be onerous. They knew there is a natural tendency, when dealing with complicated issues, for people to go with the status quo. And with their mighty war chests, they can afford to put on a huge campaign in favour of voting against change. They possibly also felt that if the government's position was defeated in a referendum, this would be a launching point for a vote of no confidence. The Liberal government was, no doubt, also aware of these pitfalls.

The Hornet's Nest

I expect that before the election, Trudeau and his advisors did not realise what a hornet's nest this issue could be. They put themselves in a "damned if you do, damned if you don't" situation. If they changed the electoral model, the CPC and NDP would scream that they only did it to ensure they keep winning every election. The Liberals favoured one model, the NDP another, and the CPC wants FPTP. So no one would ever reach a consensus on what to do. If the Liberals brought in their preferred electoral system, the other parties would talk loudly about dictatorial government, changing this fundamental thing without a plebicite. On the progressive side, there is the strongly held opinion that the last election was, essentially, a referendum on this issue.

By withdrawing from electoral reform, the Liberals now have the other parties screaming that Trudeau broke his promise. Never mind that the CPC got exactly what they wanted all along. Are they happy? No. Of course not.

The Real Problem (s)

Our political system is set up to be adversarial. It's like people cheering on their favourite sports teams. Each party has a philosophy, it's true. But each party (and their followers) have even bigger egos. If one party puts forward an idea, any idea, the other parties will knock it down. Not because it would be bad for the country, but because the other party thought of it.  Governing should not be about power, or revenge, or ideology.  Governing should be doing what is best and right for the country. Governing should be working together with those who have different ideas to reach mutually acceptable policies that improve life for all Canadians. We have seen in the US what an intractable opposition party can do to suspend government's work. The GOP shut down the government there when they didn't get their own way.

Elizabeth May, leader of the Green Party of Canada, sometimes comments wistfully about a time when she first began working in public service, when consultation and co-operation were a major part of policy development. Government members would meet informally with members of the opposition parties and discuss how to create policies that all sides could support, in the interest of the country. And that is how it should work. Not everyone would get exactly what they wanted but significant issues would be addressed with reasonable accommodation. Surely that is better than a small group getting whatever they want and everyone else being unhappy.

The adversarial nature of politics in this country has been developing over a long time. It did not start with Stephen Harper, although he did push the "my way or the highway" approach to governance well along. The US is now further down that path, and no doubt Donald Trump will push it much further. While Harper was careful to not push too far too fast, Trump clearly is out of control and does whatever comes into his head, refusing advice from anyone except a small coterie of the like-minded.

Some form of proportional representation would force greater consultation and co-operation, potentially heading off any reprise of a Harper-style or Trump-style government in the future. Much like in a minority government, no one party would have sufficient power to force through unpopular legislation.  Some have worried that such a system would allow "fringe" parties too much voice and the entire legislative machine would bog down in attending to minutiae. This seems unlikely, as fringe parties are just that. If many people voted for them, they would be mainstream parties.

Ultimately, in an ideal system, MPs would be elected to represent their constituents' interests, rather than toe a party line. Like many Canadians, I have no representation in Parliament by the MP for my riding. He is CPC and I feel he would sooner spit on me than listen to what I think about things. He has been spectacularly unresponsive to letters I have written, and appears to vote with the party on all issues. Eventually, one is inclined to give up and be resigned to having no voice in Ottawa. And I believe a lot of Canadians, of every political stripe, have encountered these feelings. If we are to have a truly representative democracy, all people must be represented.

Which brings us back to the mechanics of making such a change, and why it failed.

There is the non-co-operation of those from the various parties who were tasked with coming up with a plan. CPC said no reform. NDP wanted mixed member proportional representation. Liberals wanted preferential ballot proportional representation. Stalemate.

Then there are Canadians, ourselves. Did we drop the ball when we were asked for our opinions? Did we fail to make the government and our opposition MPs see that we really want this? Or do enough Canadians want the old system to quash the idea? This analysis of the data gathered from seems to suggest otherwise. If, as the article says, about 80% of Canadians believe democracy in Canada could be improved, why has this fallen from the government's legislative plans? More importantly, what can Canadians who care do about it?

Given that a referendum would be a horribly divisive and unwieldy process, how can we let Justin Trudeau know that we are not pleased with his decision? For starters, we can write letters. Both to him and to our local MPs, however unrepresentative they may be. Being deluged with mail, especially real physical mail, has been known to shift political plans in the past. You can find contact information for your MP right here, just by entering your postal code. And remember, letters addressed to the House of Commons do not require postage.

You can also get involved with a group like Fair Vote Canada and see what events and actions are planned near where you live. You can sign the online petition at Lead Now Canada (either the primary national petition, or there are several set up now that are specific to a region or riding, or sign both!)

You can also give the government an earful here. They are asking for our opinions about what they are doing. So, tell them, already!

This is our country and our democracy. We have a responsibility to speak up when we are not happy with the direction our government takes. Bitching and moaning on FaceBook and Twitter doesn't help. Speaking directly to our MPs might.