Making their priorities clear

A government, like any organization, has to manage a number of competing interests simultaneously. The economy must be watched and occasionally massaged, health care has to be funded, as does a military, as does scientific research, as does infrastructure like roads and bridges. It’s a massive undertaking, requiring a wide variety of non-overlapping competencies and skills simply to keep going, let alone to improve.

Unfortunately, I live in a country whose government is a quasi-Soviet cult of personality, convened somewhat ironically around a man who has none. Stephen Harper runs what some refer to as a ‘tight ship’, but what is actually a gaggle of completely incompetent buffoons who, if the need was urgent, might be able to muster enough collective brainpower to run an alarm clock (provided the clock was small and it was okay if it lost a little time now and then). As a result, they seem to take not only their marching orders, but indeed their nouns, verbs, and syntax wholesale from the Harper machine.

This works incredibly well for a political party: [Read more…]

The revolving door of white privilege

One of the most fascinating case studies to consider when trying to underline the point that race is socially constructed (rather than an emergent property of biology) is the gradually-shifting definition of ‘whiteness’. ‘White’ was a label that has seen many redefinitions over the years in North America, as people who were previously forcibly excluded (e.g., Italians, Irish, Jews) were gradually and begrudgingly included under that privileged umbrella. It is an open question as to what extent political expediency versus demographics versus socioeconomic power played in this reclassification, but one cannot ignore the fact that it happened.

Canada is not immune from this reclassification pattern either. While the original political power in the nation of Canada was divided between those of English and French descent, the threat of American expansion and the promise of abundant resources forced the government of Canada to open its doors to large numbers of immigrants. As that (mostly and intentionally white) immigration happened, the definition of ‘white’ faced some serious pressures, both political and economical, prompting a shift that matches the one happening in the USA.

It is this history that makes the following story worth a brief comment: [Read more…]

Picking your battles (and picking them stupidly)

If you follow Canadian politics news, you may have noticed that a copy of a third-party forensic audit of Attawapiskat First Nation was leaked to the press yesterday. The news wasn’t exactly good* – a large majority of expenses had no supporting documentation, which is certainly a suspicious state of affairs. The fact that the band has been under co-management and that the number of un-documented expenses dropped after 2010 (when Theresa Spence took over as chief) has not stopped the crowing of the critics of Chief Spence’s attempts to elicit federal assistance from a government that seems more interested in sending accountants than resources. They see this as further evidence of their central thesis: that the problems experienced by First Nations are the result of their own incompetence as opposed to anything that the Government of Canada has to step in and address (because fuck the Auditor General, right?)

To their credit, the only response from the Harper team so far has been to say that they agree with the findings of the audit (they’ve had a copy of it for months now), but their supporters have been bleating their triumph to the skies. Which makes me wonder: is fiscal responsibility really the moral high ground you want to stand on? The whole argument right now is whether or not the incompetence and shady practices of Chief Spence and her clique have resulted in a situation where her people are suffering, and she is to blame by virtue of her lack of fiscal responsibility.

Again I ask you, Harper supporters: is this really the hill you want to die on? [Read more…]

SERIOUSLY?! Season 2, Episode 1

Xavier and I got together this weekend and hit the ‘restart’ button on our video podcast, after leaving it idle for the end of 2012.

As I mention at the end, we are going to try and get another episode up next week, but since I’m going to be in Kamloops and Kelowna this weekend, it might be a bit tricky.

Here’s a link to the story about the racist statue.

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Connected by a common thread

Because of the way in which the conversation has been traditionally framed and understood, we face a serious reluctance to identify all but the most egregious examples of racism in common parlance. To be sure, there are those of us who make a habit of exploring the racial component of every human interaction under the sun (and what exactly do you mean by ‘under the sun’?). To discuss racism properly is to be involved in a constantly-evolving conversation that explores all angles of an issue without falling too definitively hard on any one position (at least without acknowledging the other positions).

When racist behaviour carries with it the (apparently immense) threat of being labeled ‘a racist’, the emotional stakes are quite high before a claim will be accepted as having any merit at all. Absent a fMRI and sworn testimony by a panel of psychics, people are prone to deny the racist component of any behaviour they may have exhibited, and will jump to the immediate defense of any admired person who is thus accused. On comes the search for a loophole – any loophole – that provides enough cover to escape having to confront the harm that those behaviours have.

Most people don’t have time for the kind of near-constant scrutiny and encyclopaedic historical knowledge required to identify all instances of racism. Whereas those of us in visible minority positions are made more aware of racism by the mere fact that we are more likely to experience it, I would venture to guess that within any race-based story there is a subset of even the affected minority group that says “now you’re just overreacting”. Depending on how convoluted or specific the issue, this dissenting group may encompass all minority group members except a few dedicated academics. [Read more…]

Some summary thoughts of my own about the SCC niqab decision

Earlier today, I wrote a quick summary of this morning’s Supreme Court of Canada majority decision that says judges may require witnesses to remove their niqab to testify in court. The majority laid out some specific issues that should be considered when making such a decision, including the broader social context of requiring victims of abuse to violate their religious beliefs in order to see justice, and the “chilling effect” that such a practice may have. In this post, I want to briefly touch on the two dissenting positions, and provide some of my own thoughts and concerns. [Read more…]

Supreme Court of Canada rules on niqab case

Back in the early days of this blog, I talked about an Ontario court case involving a woman who did not want to be compelled to remove her niqab (a Muslim face covering) in order to testify against two of her family members who she accused of sexually abusing her over a number of years. I thought it was an interesting case for those of us interested in how to properly build a secular society that respects personal expression but does not kowtow to every religious cause under the sun. I said this at the time:

For once, I don’t have a clear-cut answer of what the court should do. On the one hand, testifying would have deleterious effects on the plaintiff and possibly cause her to lose her family and social life; it would most certainly deter other abused women from coming forward after they see that the consequence of speaking up is social isolation (and possibly more abuse). On the other hand however, allowing her to wear the veil not only violates the right of the accused to confront their accuser face-to-face, but implicitly assents to the practice of veiling women.

The case found its way to the Supreme Court of Canada, who handed down their decision this morning. I have, on several occasions, expressed my deep respect and admiration for Canada’s Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin, who wrote for the majority in the 4-2-1* decision, finding that while the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (equivalent to the U.S. Bill of Rights) does explicitly defend a person’s right to freedom of religion, it also explicitly defends the rights of the accused. As such, the decision prescribes a series of test questions that must be satisfied before requiring a woman to remove her niqab to testify.

The full text of the decision is here, and my own summary and analysis of the decision follows below the fold. [Read more…]

Who should we fear?

There’s a scene in a particularly cringe-worthy episode of The Office where Michael Scott, the bumbling boss, tries to manipulate the audience into picturing a criminal in their mind. He describes this fictitious person, using increasingly racial language, and then ‘stuns’ us all with the big ‘reveal': the criminal is a white woman. Steve Carell does a masterful job of portraying the sneering arch-liberalism of the Michael character as he tries to demonstrate how racist his audience is, and yet how ideologically pure he is. The bonus of course is in the fact that Michael himself commits various acts of well-intentioned racism throughout the series, especially in this particular episode.

But like most of the satirical edge of The Office, there is a truth to be mined from Michael’s nuttiness: we do have racialized ideas of criminals that exist in our public life. These are not so mysterious when you are aware of how those attitudes came to be, dragged along as part of the overt and noxious racism of the past into the ‘polite’ racism of our contemporary world. Add to these attitudes a capitalist system that foists the burdens of poverty disproportionately upon certain racial groups, and the fact that poverty and criminality are causally linked, and you end up with the repeated emergence of the image of “the black criminal”.

A particularly great example of the pernicious power of this idea comes to us from Brooklyn: [Read more…]

A mysterious and puzzling mystery

There are some things, for all our vaunted expertise and powerful scientific tools, that we can simply not seem to answer. We may never be able to figure them out. They are the mysteries of the universe. And this is one of them:

A new poll released by the charitable organization Samara suggests Canadians are less satisfied with their democracy compared to eight years ago. Last spring, researchers conducted a poll using a question identical to one used in 2004, asking respondents about their level of satisfaction “with the way democracy works in Canada.”

Seventy-five per cent of Canadians expressed at least some degree of satisfaction in 2004. But when asked again in 2012, the number expressing satisfaction dropped 20 points to 55 per cent.

It’s weird. Why would people’s confidence in the Parliamentary system decline so precipitously since 2004? What has changed since then? Anything? I certainly can’t think of an answer. [Read more…]

Is blackness a credible threat?

When I was 17 years old, I received my G2 “graduated learner’s” license. The way Ontario’s system worked (or maybe still does), you could get a permit at age 16, but if you were driving, you had to be in the company of someone with at least 5 years’ experience at a full ‘G’ license. For many people, myself included, that meant I had to be in the company of my parents to drive. Not exactly the freedom of the open road that I had fantasized about. And so when I got my ‘G2′, allowing me to drive unaccompanied, I was well chuffed. Gone were the days of riding shotgun and being forced to listen to whatever talk or jazz station my dad preferred – control of the radio would finally be mine!

My neighbourhood at the time was populated with a large number of young men who would spend their allowance (I imagine) buying really expensive stereo equipment to put in their shitty cars. It was a rare night in Brampton when I didn’t pull up next to someone pumping some obnoxious dance ‘tune’ at a stoplight. In my childish glee, I used to switch over to the classical station, crank my own volume, and blast away some Brahms symphony or a Bach partita or whatever was playing at the time. It never failed to get a reaction – mostly puzzlement, sometimes amusement, occasionally irritation as they realized they were the targets of mockery.

It is, I suppose, lucky for me that I was not 17 years old in Florida: [Read more…]