Canada’s third world nations

Remember when Katrina hit, and the underbelly of American neglect was exposed to the world? The fact that millions of people in the richest, most prosperous country in the world were living in squalor was the subject of much consternation and concerned tongue-clucking. The fact that the vast majority of people affected (and subsequently neglected) by the disaster were from a racial group that has historically been abused and continues to be patronized or ignored by the powers that be also didn’t escape notice. We here in Canada were comfortable, perched atop our high horse, thanking the heavens above that we were simply better than that:

Conditions in one Haida Gwaii hospital are so bad that chemotherapy drugs are mixed in an outdoor wooden shed and the morgue is housed in a temporary trailer. Not only that, but the regional hospital district says water needs to cleared from the main building’s roof by hand and physiotherapy sessions need to be conducted in an old greenhouse.

The problems at the 61-year-old Queen Charlotte General Hospital and Health Centre were detailed to the NDP in a letter from the North West Regional Hospital District, sent in mid May. On Tuesday, the NDP raised the issue in the legislature, pressing the government on why it has let the facility deteriorate to such a low level.

I am not a popular entertainer, and I don’t have an internationally-televised live broadcast to exploit. All I have is this humble blog and my microcelebrity (I got Pharyngulated yesterday! Sniny!) to make this statement: Christy Clark doesn’t care about Native people. Neither does Gordon Campbell, under whose watch all of this happened, but he’s gone. For those readers outside of British Columbia, I should probably explain. Christy Clark is the current premier (akin to a governor in the United States, or a First Minister in many other parliamentary democracies) of British Columbia, having recently been elected after the resignation of the disgraced Gordon Campbell.

Health care is administrated by the provinces, meaning that the premier is responsible for ensuring the funding and oversight of health care facilities meets a provincial standard. It is up to her (or him) to ensure that resources are properly allocated, which means that the extremely sub-standard conditions of the Haida Gwaii (formerly Queen Charlote Islands) are her responsibility.

If this were an isolated incident in which political powers neglect First Nations communities, then I might be content to shrug it off. Shit happens, and sometimes things get missed. But for some reason (more on my suspicions on what that reason is later) it is always Native communities getting a shipment of body bags instead of health supplies; it’s always Native people being the subject of NIMBY protest, and because they receive taxpayer support, everyone with an internet connection thinks that they’re qualified to offer an opinion on the issue, which usually contains at least one racial slur (prefaced by “I’m not racist, but…”) and an admonishment to “get off their asses”.

I’ve spoken before about the need for effective political opposition, and this is exactly what I was talking about. Instead of running around trying to score cheap political points and play games with the debt ceiling, the provincial NDP has found an area where the government is slacking, and has brought it to the forefront. My cap is tipped to them, at least on this issue (although I am no fan of the provincial NDP generally). However, this issue is not simply relegated to the provinces:

Announcing the release of the joint work plan, INAC Minister John Duncan noted that “Canada and First Nations have an enduring historic relationship based on mutual respect, friendship and support.” However, the 2011 June Status Report of the Auditor General of Canada (AG Report) tells a different story. Chapter 4 of the report highlights the ongoing appalling conditions on First Nation reserves, the stark contrast between conditions of First Nation reserves and other communities and the federal government’s repeated failures to address adequately the deplorable conditions on First Nation reserves.

The report itself is pretty chilling, detailing the several ways in which the federal government has failed to take meaningful action on issues of basic necessities to First Nations communities across the country. Their approach is disorganized, slipshod, and shows a complete lack of commitment to actually ameliorating the problems faced by First Nations people. And therein lies the problem: it is convenient and easy to blame Native people for their lack of success, but when the support they receive from the federal government is so woefully inadequate (compared, say, to the amount that municipalities receive), one cannot simply chalk these problems up to being lazy. We’re talking about thousands of people who don’t have clean drinking water. This isn’t asking for “a handout” or special favours – this is ensuring that our citizens have what we would describe as the bare necessities to live.

So, if bringing the conditions of Haida Gwaii to provincial attention represents a successful official opposition, then the complete lack of progress and the widening disparity between Native Canadians and everyone else represents an appalling dereliction of duty on the part of the Liberal Party of Canada (with whom I am aligned) and the New Democrats. Government has a duty to look after the interests of its people, and the opposition has the responsibility to take the government to task when it fails in that duty. This failure is just as appalling as what happened in New Orleans – more so, because it’s happened over the stretch of several years.

Shawn Atleo, National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, describes the problem in much the same words I would use:

This isn’t about assigning blame or pointing fingers – it’s about accepting responsibility and saying “my brothers and sisters need my help.” And while Mr. Atleo wasn’t at liberty to say it, I will put into words the general feeling I got from his discussion: First Nations people are treated like the ‘niggers’ of Canada, and we have work to do if we care enough to change that.

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Special Feature: I participate in SlutWalk Vancouver

This past Sunday, I participated in the local (to Vancouver) SlutWalk event. I have spoken previously about the issues that preceded this event, so if you haven’t heard of it you should probably read that post. I will attempt to summarize: a police officer in Toronto suggested that women who don’t want to get raped probably shouldn’t “dress like a slut”. Giving Constable Sanguinetti the benefit of the doubt for a moment, I’m sure what he was trying to say is that rapists are more likely to target women who are wearing clothes that expose skin than someone dressed in, say, business casual (more on this later). What followed was a backlash against the idea that rape victims are “asking for it” through their dress, as though a woman’s job is to not provoke the ravenous male hordes through improper dress.

Obviously, when put into context, this idea is not only wrong but very dangerous. Women are often blamed for being raped, disbelieved by even their own families and the judicial system. This kind of slut-shaming double standard inherently disadvantages women – “slut” is always a gendered term even when used (subversively) to describe men. Inherent in the word slut is the idea that a woman enjoying her sexuality is dirty and immoral. It is leveled against women irrespective of their level of sexual activity – a girl who sleeps with her boyfriend for the first time (or indeed, who has never done anything sexual) is just as likely to be called a slut by those around her as is a professional sex worker. Neither of them deserves the appellation – the word should never be used.

In this post, I will give some of my reactions to the event.

The Good

1. Attendance

I wasn’t sure how many people would bother to come to an event like this. Keep in mind that it was pouring rain at various points that day (this is Vancouver, after all), but there was a crowd of around 1,000 people (my estimate would have been higher, but that’s what the paper said) there. Some were dressed in a variety of costumes: three men in operatic drag, a woman in a Saran Wrap dress, a young woman in a really uncomfortable-looking corset, a guy wearing a tiny t-shirt and silver bicycle shorts (not a flattering look… they kept slipping down), and my personal favourite: bandana man – so named because that’s all that covered his junk. My response to my friend (who I will call “Julie” just for simplicity’s sake) was “wow, who knew people actually cared about women’s rights?”

2. Who Attended

One would expect that an event like this would be almost entirely women. I was pleasantly surprised at the gender mix: still majority women but with a lot of friends, spouses, boyfriends, and people like me who simply care about the issue there. It is a sad fact of the sexual double-standard that these kinds of issues only seem to gain real traction when men start speaking about them, but at least the Y chromosome camp was well-represented. It certainly surprised a couple of knuckle-draggers who showed up expecting a parade of sluts, and were instead confronted by a group of passionate feminist allies.

3. Support

This was not a fringe event where only a few whackos showed up (although there were a few of those, to be sure). In addition to various legal and social support organizations, the deputy mayor of Vancouver Ellen Woodworth showed up and spoke at the kickoff to the march (“As a lesbian, a queer, a dyke… I know the power that words have”). Media were present, and sponsors had donated materials and time to the event. The Vancouver Police were also on hand to block traffic, which was important because there were a lot of people on the streets.

4. The Reaction

Nothing was more rewarding than seeing people’s faces as the parade moved past. People were shocked to see not only the attire, but the word “SLUT” paraded defiantly and openly through the streets. I said to Julie “that is the face of consciousnesses being raised.”

The Bad

1. Messaging

One of the stated purposes of SlutWalk was to reclaim the word ‘slut’, in order to rob it of its power. Ultimately, I disagreed with this part of the campaign. Like with the word “nigger”, I don’t think that re-appropriating words is a useful endeavour. I am of the opinion that people should be forced to deal with the full history and implication of a word like ‘slut’, and to understand that it is a word that cannot be separated from inherent hatred of women. Once people understand not only where it comes from, but how it is used to silence, shame and victimize women, they won’t want to use it. I have never been the target of the word ‘slut’, and so it is not my place to say that women shouldn’t re-appropriate it; my criticism is of the idea of re-appropriating words in general.

2. Failing to understand the point

I spotted a number of signs saying things like “real men don’t rape” and “don’t tell me how to dress; tell men how not to rape” and “rapists cause rape, not women”. Even one of the organizers went up and said “women don’t need to be reminded not to dress slutty; men need to be reminded that they will go to jail!” While I understand the spirit behind the statement, I think it demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of rape and slut-shaming. Men that rape women do not do so because they want to get laid*. They certainly don’t do it because they “are rapists” any more than people commit crimes because they “are criminals”. Failing to understand this is committing a fundamental attribution error.

Rape is an issue of control and respect. Rape is the result of someone believing that their own wishes supercede the rights of another person, and that the victim deserves her/his treatment for whatever reason. Rape, like all violence against women, is the product of the idea that women do not have the right to sexual self-determination. The word ‘slut’ is a manifestation of that idea. It is the idea that needs to be fought, rather than focussing on “rapists” – as though that was a group in and of itself that must be identified and punished. A man who doesn’t rape because it’s illegal will rape as soon as he thinks he can get away with it. Better to make fewer men that think rape is acceptable.

3. Failing to address the fallacy

There was a particularly powerful moment during the introductory speeches, where one of the organizers said “I am a woman, a colleague, a friend, a girlfriend, and a person deserving of respect.” She then removed her pants, revealing a short sequined skirt, followed by the words “I am still a woman, a colleague, a friend, a girlfriend, and I am still a person deserving of respect.” It was a perfect demonstration of the fact that regardless of a person’s apparel, she/he should be treated as a self-determining individual whose body is her/his own. However, as great as the demonstration was, it skipped over an important point.

While it is difficult to get exact numbers on this (since many sexual assaults go unreported, particularly in places where they are not taken seriously), I hope those of you who are skeptically-minded will allow me to get away with the following assertion: places that have strict dress codes for women do not have lower rates of sexual assault. While it is my suspicion that these places have higher rates of assault, at least we can conclusively state that covering women head to toe does not eliminate the risk of sexual victimization. The fallacy committed by Constable Sanguinetti was not that he was impolitic in his wording, it’s that the original statement is nonsense. The way that women dress is not related to their risk of being raped, at least at a population level.

I am reminded of the old joke about the two hikers that run afoul of a bear. While the first hiker starts running, the second quickly starts putting on his running shoes. “You fool!” calls the first hiker “Those shoes aren’t enough to outrun a bear!” The second hiker says “I don’t have to outrun the bear, I only have to outrun you.” There is no standard definition or quantitative parameters for what “dressing like a slut” means. It is entirely subjective – the things that are worn by the women I work with would be considered pornographic in many Middle-Eastern countries. The problem is not the clothes; it’s our attitudes towards women and sexuality.

This point was not adequately addressed by the speakers, and I think it was a real missed opportunity.

The Ugly

1. The Racial Double-Standard

Vancouver is a city with a large East- and South-Asian population. Black women and aboriginal women are disproportionately more likely to be victims of sexual assault (including rape) than are white women. Neither of these facts would have been apparent while looking at the crowd. Like most feminist and social activist causes in North America, SlutWalk Vancouver was attended by white people, organized by white people, and focused on issues that do not include race. One of the speakers was Angela, a woman who works front-line for a victim support service in Vancouver’s downtown East Side (DTES). She began talking about the work that she and her colleagues did while dealing with assault victims, and whenever she talked about defending women from rapists, her every sentence was greeted with enthusiastic applause and cheering.

When Angela pivoted to point out that there is a racial component of the word “slut” that is largely ignored, that women of colour don’t particularly want to take back the word “slut”, that this wasn’t an issue of wearing a little black dress but of not being beaten and subsequently ignored by the legal system, the reaction was far more muted. I think I might have been the only person who cheered.

There is a common theme in the intersection between race and feminism. Feminism is well-tended by white women, and many women of colour recognize that there is a need for shared mutual struggle. However, when issues of race and racism – particularly the fact that PoC are disproportionately affected by sexism – come up, there is significant hesitation to face those head-on. Aura Blogando calls this ‘white supremacy’ – I think that characterization is perhaps a bit strong. I think of it more in terms of “white blindness”, or more familiarily, privilege. White women are very enthusiastic to address those issues that are germane to themselves, but more reluctant (it seems) to bring issues affecting PoCs to the fore except in very tokenistic ways (for example, the organizers of SWV noted correctly that Vancouver is built on unceded Saalish territory, but didn’t say word one about the fact that Aboriginal women are more often the victims of assault).

By completely dismissing, or at least not making a point of raising, the issues associated with race, SlutWalk Vancouver allowed white people to feel good about themselves for standing up to one injustice, without having to deal with the related injustice in which their own (unexplored) attitudes play a role. This criticism should not be interpreted as an indemnification of white people, merely an observation that these issues tend not to become publicly-relevant until they affect the majority (in much the same way as sexism issues don’t get treated seriously until men complain about it too).

So in all of it, the good bad and ugly, I think SlutWalk Vancouver was a success. People from many different walks of life were present to raise consciousness about an issue that I think is very important, and hopefully a conversation will be sparked about not only the word “slut”, but how we think of women in our society in general. I was proud to participate, and look forward to more opportunities to do the same.

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* I will no doubt be criticized for making the generalization that it is only men that rape women, or that only women are raped. I fully recognize that men rape men, and less frequently women rape men or other women. Rapists are not exclusively male, and victims are not exclusively female. I also recognize that transpersons are caught in a tricky gender classification limbo, and are disproportionately more likely to be victims of sexual assault and rape than are cispersons. It is not my intention to diminish these cases, and I hope I do not come across as dismissive of this very real issue.

Special post: Crommunist goes to America

So this whole past week I was visiting two of my good friends in the Northeastern United States. One, a friend from graduate school, lives in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The other, a friend I’ve known since I was a kid, lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I talk about things in Canada quite a bit, and was excited to get a bit of a perspective on the differences between living in Vancouver and being in a major American city.


I’ve never been to Philadelphia before, and I wasn’t really sure what to expect. My preconception was to think of Philadelphia as a mostly white industrial city, but I was surprised to learn that it has one of the oldest black communities in the country. In our touring around town we came across the African American Museum of Philadelphia, which had a very cool interactive display that detailed some of the stories that comprise the history of Philadelphia. I was happy to see a number of couples of various ages and racial backgrounds there (at 2:00 on a Wednesday afternoon). It was particularly eye-opening to hear some of the stories of how black entrepreneurs, politicians and activists had to struggle simply to achieve basic human recognition.

Because of its lengthy black history, Philadelphia has a huge black population. In fact, the city has roughly an even number of white and black residents. There is a thing that is common among black people (at least in places where there aren’t a lot of black people) where we will recognize each other with a reverse head tilt (also known as “the black guy nod”). I kept catching myself having to inhibit my instinct to perform this action every 5 or 6 seconds, as I’m sure I would look like a total spaz.

Here’s me at the Liberty Bell:

The bell is a profound symbol of liberty and was used by the Abolition, Suffrage and Native rights movements alike. There is a certain irony present in the fact that a nation founded on liberty took more than 100 years to recognize the equal status of women, and another 50 to recognize certain ethnicities:

I really enjoyed my time in Philadelphia, minus the fact that the city seemed to be completely bereft of people having any fun (except the gay bars). It was then off to Boston for the second half of the trip.


I’ve been to Boston once before, back in 2008. The city has a feel that is not very dissimilar to being in a Canadian city – it’s clean, people are friendly, and there is government-funded health care. There were far fewer people of colour in the city, but more than I expected and definitely more than I see in Vancouver. The “black guy nod” might have made an appearance once or twice in a moment of distraction when I forgot I wasn’t at home.

Boston has a deep connection to the history of the United States. The whole city is structured to allow even casual tourists the opportunity to connect with history. As I might have mentioned before, I find cemeteries fascinating. Boston has old cemeteries in the middle of the city that you can visit. It was there that I learned that one of the first victims to be shot in the Boston Massacre was a black former slave named Crispus Atticus. We also saw a tomb marked with the name “Freeman” – usually the name of a freed slave (but not necessarily a black slave).

Part of tourism in Boston is what is called the “Freedom Trail” – a self-guided footpath through the city that highlights a number of sites of historical interest. Part of the trail is the Black Heritage Trail – a side-trip that showcases a few sites of import to the African-American community in Boston, one of which is the Abiel Smith School:

Sadly, I didn’t have time to go inside the museum, so I’ll have to save that for either a later trip or a few afternoons spent poking around with Google to see what I can see.

Anyway, for a history nerd like myself, walking through Boston was great. Philadelphia too. While my agenda was to party (hence last Wednesday’s post… for which I apologize), I’m glad I was able to learn something and get to connect physically with sites that marked major events in world history. As I said, it will take me a couple of days to get back into my groove, but expect me to go back to my regular post quantity and quality starting next week.

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Canadian Native communities face a new kind of challenge

There was once a time when I called myself a libertarian. After all, I believe that people should be allowed to do what they like, as long as it hurts nobody besides themselves (Scary Fundamentalist is going to poke me for this statement, too). I think that innovation happens when people are allowed to address challenges in whatever creative ways, rather than when they are forced to abide by a strict set of rules. I think that the more free a society is, the better off its citizens are. However, these are principles that have caveats: external regulation is necessary to prevent exploitation and fraud; liberty is not absolute, particularly when one person’s liberty infringes on another’s; it is sometimes justifiable to curtail the actions of a few to benefit the many in the long term. As such, I am not well-described by the term libertarian, and unlike CLS, I am not attached enough to the term to try and reclaim it.

However, the ghosts of my long-dead love affair with Ayn Rand were momentarily stirred when I read this story:

[Brian] Smith had made headlines for leading a grassroots uprising against the elected leaders of the Glooscap First Nation, after learning that his chief and councillors were each collecting more than $200,000 in salary and other payments — for running a community of 87 people.  He organized a petition demanding a community meeting, where Glooscap leaders were made to account for their extraordinary pay and promise more transparency in the future.

“You’re changing the way things are done,” said one email to Smith from an Ojibway supporter in Central Canada, whose sentiments were typical of the messages Smith received after the Glooscap details broke.  “I’m really, really, really happy you are standing firm on this and giving voice to us First Nations people who want better governance. I’m (also) proud that change is going to come from the community level, and from a First Nation person.”

It is a well-understood fact in sociology circles that if you want to engender lasting and meaningful change in a community, the solutions must come from the community itself. As well-intentioned as outside help might be, it stands the risk of being resented or worse, mischaracterizing the problem and failing to take salient details into account. Friends of mine went on a humanitarian aid trip to Attawapiskat First Nation in Northern Ontario a few years ago, to conduct what is known as a Needs Assessment – determining what problems face a community and what resources are needed to address them through dialogue with members of the community. The community expressed a strong desire to have public health education and resources made available. When the team pointed out that there was a federal building staffed with 2 public health nurses and the resources they had asked for, the community pointed out that it was “the government’s building”. Branded as it was with the federal logo and built without consultation from the community leaders, members of the public distrusted the service and assumed it was for the government’s use.

It has been a common practice to see a problem and swoop in to try and solve it. However, as anyone who has been on the receiving end of such an effort knows, this approach is rarely helpful. What is needed is direction from within the community, which fosters a sense of ownership and responsibility for solving the issues. To make it fully effective, such an effort should be supported by resource allocation (from the government or the NGO or whatever external parter is present), but their use must be determined by those stakeholders who use the service, not by those providing it. It seems perverse and exclusionary, but it is the only way to sufficiently address the problem.

With issues of good governance, it seems that members of First Nations communities are realizing this for themselves:

“I don’t have any desire for the federal government to come in and solve our problems,” says Cherie Francis, another Glooscap member angered by what her chief and councillors were being paid. “We elected these people. At some point, we have to step up in our own community and be responsible for our own actions, and our own leaders.”

“I’m glad Indian Affairs is staying out of this,” says Smith, who works as director of operations for the Vancouver-based National Centre for First Nations Governance, an independent group that promotes good leadership in native communities. “In the past, Indian Affairs would have jumped right in. That has changed in recent years. I think the message First Nations people are giving to the federal government is, at the end of the day we want to be more responsible for ourselves. And sometimes you’ve got to learn the hard way what is the right and wrong way of doing things.”

Ronald Reagan lampooned this (perhaps) well-intentioned bungling and over-reaching with his immortal line about the nine scariest words you’ll ever hear: “I’m from the government and I’m here to help”. Of course, as with most conservative calling cards, this drastically over-simplifies the issue. There is absolutely a way for government to help, and sometimes it is necessary for it to do so. However, when it overasserts its role and tries to solve the problem rather than making available the resources required for an organic solution, problems inevitably arise. The opposite approach, a sort of laissez-faire approach where government sits back, does nothing, and waits for problems to solve themselves, does nothing other than allowing the current conditions to continue unabated. A deft touch is required – one that is sensitive to the contemporary and historical forces at work in the situation and navigates the waters accordingly. This deft touch involves active engagement, and exists somewhere between the authoritarian “we fix it” and the libertarian “you fix it”.

This is fertile ground for a much longer discussion, but suffice it to say that the racial barriers, stigma, and long cultural history of betrayal and oppression facing First Nations people in Canada can be addressed, and self-government goes a long way toward starting that process. There is a role for all Canadians to play in this fight, and a role for government as well; provided it stays its hand and acts according to the will of the people rather than its own ideas of how to “fix” the Native “problem”.

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