Roundtable: Campus Accessibility

Compiled by Jen Rinaldi

May I ask you to identify your role at York and why you take an interest in accessibility?

Dr. Nancy Davis Halifax: I am an Assistant Professor in the MA and PhD Program in Critical Disability Studies at York. I come to the ideas of access from the perspective of lived experience (I live with my own fluid embodiment) as well as from an equity and social justice perspective.

Kaley Roosen: PhD Student in Clinical Psychology, active member of Psychology Graduate Students’ Association, and Co-Chair for Student Subcommittee Access York (York’s Advisory Board for students, staff, and faculty with disabilities). As a student with a disability, I often find my interests coincide with overall improvements in accessibility.

Sarah Sackville McLauchlan: I am an MA student in Humanities. I am a Blind student, so most of the services I use are related to print-access.

Andrea Smith-Betts: I am a third year PhD student from the Faculty of Education [FOE]. I work as a TA for Human Rights and Equity Studies and the Department of Social Sciences. I am also the YGSE [York Graduate Students in Education] chair for the 2010/2011 academic year.

I am a student with a mental health disability: bipolar, heavy on the depression, with a hint of panic attacks and anxiety thrown in. I am also a student with a physical disability. I have scoliosis, spina bifida, degenerative and herniated disks, pinched nerves, and diffuse degenerative disk disease.

I also am interested in accessibility issues because my daughter has what has been called a severe learning disability. I want to know university services so that when she goes on to higher learning I will be informed and able to help her succeed. As YGSE chair I am also interested in looking at accessibility issues for the FOE.

What does accessibility mean to you?

NDH: Big question–accessibility is many things. We can understand it as a way of framing social, economic, political, geospatial, and cultural rights. Here I understand accessibility from the perspective of disability, though it could mean lots of things for different communities. At least partly it means questioning the dominant meanings applied to the diversity of embodiment.

KR: It means being able to achieve the same level of access to education, resources, opportunities, and events equally across different levels of being/functioning in different individuals. It could mean placing a ramp in a classroom so a student in a wheelchair can access that particular classroom without assistance, or it could mean raising awareness to individuals who run an educational or social event in a venue full of barriers for persons with disabilities.

SSM: It means not having unnecessary obstacles put in the way of my being able to perform ordinary tasks, like reading, getting around the campus, and doing my laundry.

ASB: Accessibility means that anyone and everyone, regardless of those things that distinguish each of us from one another, is supported in their attempt to partake in any and all aspects of university life. This means full participation in what it is to be a student or staff at York. Physical access, be it to a room or use of that room, access to learning in ways in which they excel or best suit them, or access to working or teaching in the best way that person knows how is what is important. Accessibility should mean not struggling to navigate your environment.

Why is accessibility important?

NDH: We need ongoing conversations because it is conceptually complex, and fluid. To understand access and its importance, we also need to imagine what our society could be like if it was truly accessible, and to think deeply about the gaps that currently exist. We also need to understand that it is a process that can be resisted. I think also that this is a university–a place for ideas–and access is one of those really important ideas.

KR: It allows for freedom for individuals who may utilize services differently or get around differently to still reach their full potential as individuals within a community.

ASB: How a community is constructed is what I believe causes some of us to be disabled, not something inherent. Accessibility is important because it is a move toward addressing that which causes some of us difficulty in our participation in our society. I believe that we are all differently abled and if we live in a society that acknowledges this, we all prosper.

How does York seek to be more accessible? In your opinion, are these provisions adequate?

NDH: York has numerous initiatives and some of these are hidden, while others are being implemented. I am a member of Access York and that feels like a wonderful community within York that works toward changing the attitudes and environments to be more fully inclusive.

KR: York seeks to be more accessible through consultation of individuals on specific committees particular to disability concerns and creating policy to implement these suggestions. In my opinion, these provisions are somewhat adequate. The fact that the majority of suggestions for change come from representatives on committees poses a problem in that the majority of persons with disabilities at York do not know how to voice their concerns for change.

Further, at times, the bureaucratic process of creating policy and having multiple official meetings to approve various accessibility changes can be frustrating. At times, a student’s request is simple. By making a simple request go through multiple channels of authorization, a diffusion of responsibility ultimately occurs and the request becomes backlogged.

SSM: In terms of print-access, York provides all my readings and books for me in e-text, which is my preferred format. And they’re really great about getting stuff to me even when I ask at the last minute! So I have to say that York has been great about that, especially compared to some of the horror-stories I’ve heard from some of my friends at other universities! With that said, I’ve been in situations where both my home computer has been down and room 134 [in the library, which offers computers with screen-readers] has been unavailable. And as far as I know, none of the other labs, even the other accessible ones, have computers with screen-readers.

ASB: Though I’ve never had to use the service, I was assigned a counsellor who could write letters for me to give to professors in case I needed support in my studies.

There is a body called Access York. I went to a few meetings where issues of accessibility were discussed. I have also just learned about the Access Centre [student support for accommodation provisions and advocacy].

Are there ways in which campus is not accessible?

NDH: Of course–the university cannot help but mirror aspects of culture. For instance in one of the cafés I noted that the passages between tables was really narrow, too narrow for most persons who use wheelchairs. Also there are tensions around the issues of disclosure and services on campus [often students have to disclose their disability to qualify for accommodations]; stigma is still an enormous part of disability/impairment.

KR: Campus is not accessible in many ways. For one, individuals with disabilities sometimes feel powerless about how to enact change. Given York’s size, communication is difficult between departments. Often, diffusion of responsibility creates an atmosphere where students spend more time finding out how to raise concerns than actually raising them to implement change.

Also, new barriers are being created regularly. For example, new buildings often have inaccessible lecture halls.

Finally, expensive accommodations are frequently not covered. Individuals who need translation services have access to these; however, a student who requires attendant services for personal care must find these services on their own instead of going through the disability services offices.

SSM: First of all, I find the campus very hard to navigate. I find that there aren’t a lot of good tactile or auditory landmarks to tell you when you’ve found the building you want, or to cue you when you’ve missed it! And it’s very easy, I find, to go off in the wrong direction and not realize it.

It also seems to me that there isn’t any Blind-accessible employment at York, because it’s all either print-based and/or done on computers that require the installation of a screen-reader.

ASB: As a TA, I have been assigned rooms on the same day that are very far apart, which causes me difficulty as I cannot walk that far without pain. One room has hard plastic chairs with the attached writing area. These chairs are an insult to my disability in that there is not a chance in hell that anyone with a back, hip, or any skeletomuscular issue can sit there without harm for any length of time. I am in pain by the time I get there. I must then sit perched in pain for two hours. I am in agony leaving. This is not an accessible space for me.

How have you responded to inaccessibility on campus?  What efforts have you undertaken in order to make campus more accessible?

NDH: I do my best and have tried to support student-led and other initiatives. I have been involved in advocating for the benches in Vari Hall, for access to chairs in a classroom. I think access is also something that is done in an intimate and relational manner, and we may forget that at times. I have also been involved in panels and in talking to students.

KR: I have taken accessibility one day at a time at York. I have learned to pick my battles because honestly, it is a full-time job with little benefits and a high burn-out rate. At first, I would raise awareness for specific barriers I was facing. With help from York’s CDS [Counselling and Disability Services], I would run through the confusing lines of communication until I heard a response. Sometimes that meant talking to multiple individuals and even going to vice presidents.

As I have become more aware of accessibility at York, I have started campaigning for all types of access, not just my own. One of my initiatives, which I think is most important, is opening the lines of communication between administration and students with disabilities. Through tabling and speaking to students, I have become more aware of other access issues on campus. Also, through holding venues where students can speak to the Vice President at York, I feel the communication barrier is being punctured.

SSM: I’ve spoken to the OPD [Office for Persons with Disabilities] and the building management about the card-operated laundry system in York Apartments. They’ve gone as far as putting Braille on the buttons, but that won’t help you read the card reader screen. A high-tech solution to the problem isn’t even necessary, when a simple buddy-system with a sighted peer would work fine.

I haven’t done much about getting around the campus and employment because I’m not really sure what to do. Who do I bug and what can they do?

ASB: Currently I am seeking the advice of my friends in the CDS [Critical Disability Studies] program as to how to fight for a more accessible place for me to teach in. A student in the FOE graduate program approached me and asked about how accessible/inaccessible the FOE is. This is something as YGSE chair I hope to bring up in the Grad Executive and Grad Council within the Grad Program in ED.

Have you encountered obstacles in your efforts?

KR: Yes, there are many times when I have fought for removal of barriers that I gave up on. Access to the front of lecture halls in the Tel Building requires use of a locked elevator which is either broken or the student does not know how to access the key. I wanted access one day when the key was missing. When they did find it, I was told it didn’t work. By the time all this communication occurred, my class was over and I dropped the issue. This is unfortunate given likely another student faced the same hurdle after me.

It can be frustrating. The main frustration: who to contact? I contacted many individuals and everyone was telling me that another person or department handled this. Another issue in this case was ignorance. The individual who contacted me did not understand why I did not just use the stairs. This type of treatment makes a person feel dejected and powerless, which is partly why I gave up that particular cause.

SSM: With employment there are a lot of issues: the cost of screen-reading software, compatibility issues with the software used by employers, employers’ unwillingness to invest in such things for part-time workers, and not knowing who to bug.

ASB: So far I have been having a hard time receiving accommodations for me, such as a room relocation for my tutorial. They switched me, without telling or informing me, to a room that could be considered even less accessible.

Have you found York administrative bodies and the York community (students, faculty, and staff) are receptive to calls for accommodations?

NDH: Yes, and there is a great deal of hidden labour that is related to the calls for accommodation from students, staff, and faculty. I think some of us reach the end of the day and we want to have the changes implemented, but we know we have to wait–that can be frustrating because the need can be so urgent.

KR: Yes, I have found this to be true. I think the problems arise in diffusion of responsibility. I don’t know how many times I heard “yes, I agree that is a problem, but that is a (fill in blank: ministry problem, funding problem, policy problem).”  I think there is a general lack of information and awareness within the York community.

SSM: On-campus employers, no. But York Apartments and OPD have been very understanding and helpful about the laundry issue, if somewhat slow acting. But I find the York administration rather opaque. It’s hard to know who’s in charge of what and where to find them. I think a lot of the York community are still not aware of what accommodations are needed.

ASB: I feel a strong support from the CDS program even though I am in the FOE. Unfortunately it seems that only those who have firsthand knowledge, work with people with disabilities, or live with someone with a disability seem to listen and care. Other students/staff may be sympathetic but it is usually a concerned nod and then on to the next item on the agenda.

How do you feel about having to push for change as one person or a small group of people?

NDH: There is a strong community at York that is advocating for change and I feel I am part of that community. I think that we need to learn from each other and to act as advocates for each other as necessary.

KR: I find it exhausting at times. Sometimes it feels like you are the only one noticing these issues, even though I know that is not true.

SSM: I find it annoying. So much of what we need would, I think, be pretty self-evident if people would just take two seconds to think about it in a non-stereotyped way. And it really bugs me when people refuse accommodations because they don’t want to spend the money.

ASB: I am tired and frustrated and feel unwell. I feel like people think that my concerns are not legitimate. I suspect that because my disabilities are largely invisible, there is an assumption that if I can make it through, I don’t need the assistance. I am tired that the push still has to be so big. I am disappointed in that the only support I really got was because I know people who know how to do this fight. If I was just your average student I would be in misery, not knowing where to go, that I have a right to make it different, and that things did not have to be this way.

What, in your opinion, should be done to make campus more accessible?

NDH: I wonder what would happen if there were a central site that could list the initiatives that are ongoing at York. It would raise awareness of what is being done, what needs to be done, and the importance of community in making it happen.

KR: I think more communication needs to occur between persons with disabilities and individuals making decisions. Somebody at York makes decisions and approves new buildings. But, every time a new building is erected, there are barriers. More money is wasted when these new buildings are retrofitted after the fact. These retrofits can be prevented through simple communication and implementation of Universal Design. It is not enough to put buttons on doors and grab bars besides toilets; there is more to accessibility than this.

SSM: First, whenever they’re going to upgrade to a new system, they should think in advance about whether or not it’s going to be accessible and to whom it might present barriers, rather than trying to retrofit accommodations after the fact when complaints arise.

Second, they can require and help all on-campus employers to have accommodations available to non-print-reading people. So, work-stations with screen-readers, e-text options for paper-work, etc.

ASB: We have to continue to make people’s attitudes more accessible. People without disabilities seem to see our need for accessibility as a pain or nuisance, something that has to be done by law. I want to see a true adherence to the belief that we all deserve, unquestioningly, the right to be able to move about unimpeded.

How might members of the York community help as allies?

NDH: Be aware–of your own attitudes, those of others. Be sensitive. Respectful. Remember that access is only part of the larger horizon of creating a culture of social justice and equity.

KR: I think York members should speak out against barriers and educate themselves on barriers. It can be isolating to be the only individual to speak up when a professor wants to hold class or a social event in an inaccessible location.

SSM: I think the most important thing is to take those two seconds to stop and think, in a non-stereotyped way, about what people really need. And then, when you offer to help, offer it from that space. Beyond that, when you hear about an accommodation that’s needed, help lobby York Admin to get it!

ASB: On-campus groups who support disability rights need to keep fighting for attention. Those of us who struggle need to keep seeing each disappointment that we face as an educative moment. The more we interact and talk, and educate, the more likely we are to build allies at York.

Are there any closing remarks you would like to make?

NDH: This is a great initiative. Thanks for asking these questions, and inviting me to take part. It is an important part of community dialogue.

KR: I have seen improvements at York and none of those would have been possible unless individuals and groups spoke out and made efforts to change. It is rewarding, despite the challenges.

G20 Legal Defense Fundraising

Community Solidarity Network

The G20 has come and gone; the heads of state and finance ministers of the world’s 20 richest countries and central bank governors have left Toronto to further their policies of systematic exploitation and destruction elsewhere. However, our communities are still very much reeling in the aftermath of the G20 Summit.

Following the wave of brutal police repression that swept down upon the streets of Toronto, we are mobilizing in response to this blatant and ongoing criminalization of dissent. Over the course of the Summit weekend 1,105 people were arrested–a number unprecedented in Canadian history. Community organizers were picked up in preemptive morning raids and others were picked up by snatch squads of plain clothed police in unmarked vehicles. Others still were picked up in one of the countless rounds of mass arrests.

Of these 1,105, many were and are still facing criminal charges (some have been dropped already), dozens of whom are facing severe conspiracy charges. The legal battle that now awaits these respected community activists will be incredibly long and costly.

By conservative estimates, legal costs will be in the ballpark of a quarter of a million dollars. In light of this fact, we desperately need your support! We need our friends freed, we need all of their charges dropped, and unfortunately within this capitalist dystopia we will require substantial funds to make this happen.

There are several ways in which you can support our fundraising efforts!

1) You can donate directly to the G20 legal defense fund.

a) To transfer funds, transfer to:

transit number 00646
institution number 842
account number 3542240

b) Use your online bank account or contact your bank directly to transfer funds. Please put ‘G20 legal defense’ in the memo. Write a cheque:

Toronto Community Mobilization Network
360A Bloor St. W.
PO Box 68557
Toronto, ON
M5S 1X0

* Please make the check payable to the TCMN (Toronto Community Mobilization Network).

c) You can also donate directly by using PayPal. The link to this is on:

2) Help us spread the word! We understand that not everyone has the resources at their disposal to make a cash donation. That’s ok! Reach out to your contacts, your email listservs, websites etc. to spread the call for support.

3) Organize a fundraising event of some sort. Film screenings, house parties, concerts, bake sales, and panel discussions are just some examples of potential fundraising activities. Use your imagination!

* If you are organizing an event please let us know! We can help with promotion and provide fundraising merch (t-shirts, buttons, and posters) for the event.

4) Last, but certainly not least, get involved with the CSN Fundraising and Events Committee. Help us plan events, design merch and strategy fundraising initiatives. To get involved with the fundraising committee, to let us know about your upcoming event, or if you have any questions please feel free to contact us at

Safety and Rights of Journalists in Canada

Vidya Kauri

Following the Toronto G20 protests last June, four journalists filed complaints with the Office of Independent Police Review Director, Ontario’s police watchdog. The complaints by Amy Miller, Daniel McIsaac, Jesse Rosenfeld, and Lisa Walter include allegations of physical assaults, verbal abuse, gender discrimination, and threats of sexual violence by Toronto police. All four journalists, now known as the ‘Free Press 4’ group, claim that they did not break any laws and that police knew that they were journalists.

Miller was threatened with gang rape and police allegedly told that she would never want to “act” as a journalist again after they were done with her. Rosenfeld was physically beaten several times when police mistook him for someone else and kept punching him even though he was not resisting arrest. Walter was thrown to the ground and arrested, called a “fuking dyke” and a “douche bag,” handcuffed with plastic ties for 13 hours, denied her medication for nine, and segregated in the G20’s makeshift prison for possibly being a queer. As well, her video camera’s hard drive was erased and the memory card confiscated. McIsaac was also assaulted and arrested.

The scale of physical violence and intimidation in these reporters appears to be unprecedented in Canadian history. The Committee to Protect Journalists, which keeps a record of violations against journalists and suppression of the freedom of the press, has no incidents in its files that resemble what took place at the G20. The lawyers representing the Free Press 4 are not aware of such extreme policing actions in Canada’s history either.

Certainly, journalists in Canada have been barred from, and threatened with danger for, doing their job in the past. However, it is unheard of for police to intimidate, harass, arrest, and abuse without any warning and at the drop of a hat.

The incident that comes closest to this is the Oka Crisis of 1990, a land dispute between the Mohawks and the town of Oka, Quebec. In addition to seizing footage of a confrontation between the Mohawks and police, the Canadian Armed Forces erected a razor wire perimeter which journalists were prevented from crossing. The perimeter was intended to isolate the Mohawks. However, journalists were trapped inside the perimeter as well and the police barred the supply of notebooks, tapes, and batteries into the perimeter. The flow of food and other essential supplies was also limited, thereby endangering the journalists’ health. The Canadian Association of Journalists described the censorship as “one of the worst attacks ever on the Canadian public’s right to know.”

While the police tried to manipulate what the journalists could report and how well they could report, intimidations were never as overt as seen during the G20 Summit, nor was there any physical violence, verbal abuse, or discrimination.

Jackie Esmonde, one of the lawyers advocating for the Free Press 4, highlights the fact that all the members of the Free Press 4 are reporters for alternative media. When police saw their alternative media accreditation, they essentially told these reporters that they did not consider them to be real journalists, that their accreditation was “garbage” or “fake” and that they should get “real” jobs. “These are new forms of media. It’s of concern that they are not seen as legitimate especially since media and ways of reporting are changing. These new frontiers serve a very important function and there has to be protection for that,” says Esmonde.

There are reports of several other journalists, many of whom work for alternative media, who faced the same fate as the Free Press 4. The experience of CTV field producer Farzad Fatholahzadeh, also arrested during the Summit, is slightly different. Once police realized who they had arrested, they fast-tracked his release and dropped the charges.

So, what does all this mean for Canadian society as a democracy?

“It’s fundamental to democracy that the public has information about the state. Journalists and media are essential to that,” says Esmonde. On the other hand, Neil Thomlinson, an associate professor in the Department of Politics and Public Administration at Ryerson University, offers a different perspective.

“Freedom of the press is important so that journalists are able to do their job. However, I don’t think anybody should have the responsibility to ensure that journalists are able to do their job,” says Thomlinson who feels very strongly that journalists do not have a higher calling. “What happened is that they got treated the same as everybody else. The point is nobody should be treated that way.”

Thomlinson says that Canadians have a dangerously complacent attitude in believing that such victimization by the police is always somebody else’s problem until they themselves get arrested.

“It is this attitude that elects a government that can trample over citizen’s rights that are already included in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The current federal government does not respect these rights. We need to change this attitude. ”

In the meantime, Ontario’s police watchdog is conducting a systemic review of policing during the G20 Summit. The Office of Independent Review Director was created in Oct. 2009 as an arms-length agency reporting to the Attorney-General. The review is significant because a systemic review of policing has never been done before. Typically, when the Director’s Office receives a complaint against Toronto Police, they forward the complaint to Toronto Police Services who deal with the complaints on an individual basis and then report their results to the Director’s Office.

It is not known how long it will take the Office to review the complaints. Esmonde says they appear to be moving as fast as they can: “Our hope is that there will be recommendations not only addressing the policing at G20, but there needs to be acknowledgement of alternate media.”

Supporting the Prisoners of the G20 State

Peter Gelderloos

My mind is with the 19 people who were held in prison until trial or released on extremely restrictive bail conditions. They are accused of organizing the protests against the elite G20 Summit of world leaders that took place in Toronto at the end of June. At these protests, thousands of people took to the streets in opposition to specific policies of these 20 leading world governments or in negation of the global political and economic system in its entirety. Protestors enacted their disagreement and outrage in a variety of ways that included protest, counterinformation, and property destruction targeting the Summit security forces and several major corporations.

In all, over 1,000 people were arrested during three days of protest, many of them detained based on their appearance, put in cages, sexually harassed or assaulted, injured, denied food, water, legal and medical attention, and otherwise abused. Of those thousand plus detainees, these 16 are facing the heaviest charges, accused of conspiracy as the supposed ringleaders of the mayhem.

Some of them were arrested in early morning raids, forced half-naked out of bed at gunpoint, assembled on their lawns and handcuffed in the pre-dawn darkness, and hauled off to jail. Others were picked up while biking or walking around town, sometimes by plainclothes cops making lightning grabs, a tactic perfected by the Stalinist police; the cops are internationalists, you see, and their methods for control travel across borders with much greater ease than they allow the rest of us.

None of this should be surprising. Powerful men in suits convening to discuss world problems; heavily armed police kicking down a door and sticking a gun in your face–this is the most ordinary juxtaposition imaginable in a democratic society.

The G20, just like the G8 and just like the International Monetary Fund or World Trade Organization, and just like capitalism as a whole, is an act of exclusion; when the stakes are this high, exclusion is always a violent thing. The governments that compose the G20, like all governments everywhere, base their power on forcibly excluding anyone else from making decisions that affect their lives. When the G20 convene to talk about global warming or financial crises–problems which they largely created, from which they profit immensely, and of which they will escape the worst effects–they are not making decisions in any positive sense, so much as preventing all the rest of us from addressing those problems.

Unfortunately, the policies of the G20, and the tactical question of the protests against it, generally appear as separate issues in the progressive alternative media. But in reality, it is impossible to draw a line between the harmful consequences of governmental and corporate policy, the elitist way in which they determine that policy, and the extreme level of police control that accompany their Summits.

The fact that the global economy functions simply to keep capital moving, regardless of who is harmed in the process, the fact that elite institutions and politicians can respond to capitalist crisis by funneling billions to the banks and kicking normal people out of their houses, and the fact that people who protest this are surveilled and brutalized through a program of counterterrorism, are all aspects of the same truth: being robbed of our ability to live with health and dignity and being prohibited from intervening in our own lives are the same thing. The gun in the face and the televised speech are two motions in the same process.

Because this kind of authority always provokes resistance, another fundamental process of authority is not to beat down resistance so much as to discipline resistors to follow the rules. So, RBC can fund gentrification and oil drilling, British Petroleum can kill their workers and destroy the Gulf of Mexico, border guards can murder immigrants, cops can torture youths, the normal functioning of the Canadian economy can murder over three times as many people through workplace ‘accidents’ as are claimed by homicides, but if protestors smash a bank window or light a cop car on fire, they are denounced as violent.

And above all, this operation is carried out by fellow protestors, who echo the media and Canadian politicians in describing the property destruction that occurred in downtown Toronto as a tragedy. But downtown Toronto already was a tragedy. What more human response could there be to a financial district–an urban space devoid of life, deprived of affordable rents, scoured of autonomous livelihoods, subordinated to the needs of traffic and commerce, held under the eye of surveillance cameras, occupied by police, and plagued with corporate outlets and banks–than to destroy it?

Yet curiously, a chorus of liberals are reproducing the tired lie that only agent provocateurs could possibly be audacious enough to attack the system, that the Black Bloc is comprised partially or entirely of infiltrators.

I can assure these liberals that there are thousands of anarchists in North America who would love to trash a police car or a bank. There are millions of other people who would love to do these things as well. The fact that so many liberals denounced these actions would suggest that liberals, along with rich people, are one of the few demographics who don’t harbor any rancor for cops or banks, or that they are the political equivalent of Victorians, suppressing their appreciation of something that is both healthy and necessary. This level of denial reminds me of the hacks who decried the violence in the Canadian newspapers, speaking of provocations by an irresponsible minority, while the accompanying photographs, careful to always to show only individuals or small groups damaging property, could not hide the huge crowds gathering around the delinquents, composed of unmasked, normally dressed people, taking pictures and smiling as they watched the destruction. Those bystanders knew what anyone who is still human knows well: that a burning cop car is a beautiful thing.

Anarchists are great organizers: some of us participate in the community groups you admire, set up the alternative media you rely on, arrange housing and logistics for the protests you attend, carry out the direct actions that revitalize the campaigns that are important to you. It should be safe to assume that at least sometimes we could manage to commit a little property destruction without the help of police infiltrators.

It might also be safe to suggest that those dissidents who mirror the police and politicians in their sycophantic denunciation of ‘violence’ share some other points in common with the authorities. Namely, they assist in the same project of democratic government, which is to convince people to participate in their own exploitation, whether through elections or profit-sharing or whatever other gimmick, and to insist on the validity of rules that will always be applied more harshly to us than to the elite.

The pragmatic justification is that the violence distracts from the real issues, but it is long past the point where we have to recognize that the media will never talk about the issues, except to allow them to be reframed for the benefit of the economy and the government. This police operation only works if dissidents participate. If we continue to focus on the reasons for fighting back against the system by whatever means, and there will always be an uncontrollable diversity of means in a diverse struggle, then there will be no distraction, except for the distraction of the corporate media, which is ever present. Either the media will pull their hair out about our violence, or they will turn the spotlight on the latest celebrity news, the latest politician’s speech. To talk about anything else, anything real, is up to us.

To talk about broken windows when the G20 come to town is to participate in a policing operation that has our doors broken in and guns pointed in our faces, regardless of whether we justify this collaboration with a discourse of nonviolence or one of security. It is to contradict even that most tepid of progressive clichés: people over profit.

To consider questions of guilt or innocence in the case of these 19 people facing conspiracy charges is to indulge in all the hypocrisy of a judge, a prosecutor, or a cop. It doesn’t matter that most of these people were already arrested when the property destruction occurred, and it doesn’t matter that they didn’t lead any conspiracies because we anarchists don’t have leaders, and we certainly don’t need them to carry out a little bit of vandalism.

What matters is that when all those workers died, when all those people were evicted, when all that money was taken from us by the banks, when all those bombs fell, when all that air and water were poisoned, no one in power was punished and it didn’t matter whether rules were broken or followed. To speak of rules and laws is to perpetuate one of the greatest lies of our society.

What matters is that a great many more banks and cop cars will have to be thrown on the trash fire of history before we can talk about a new world, so we’d better stop getting so upset by such a modest show of resistance.

What matters is that the $1.3 billion security budget that accompanied the G20 Summit is not a concern of the past. The police still have all that new crowd control weaponry and training, and they still have yet another experience of grinding their boot in our face and getting rewarded for it, while we have yet another experience of putting up with total surveillance and control, of being disciplined to get used to it.

This is their vision of the future: cops and security cameras everywhere, preemptive arrests for simply planning or talking about resistance, people with masks or spray paint or eye wash for the teargas being treated as terrorists. We can either get used to this future, and continue to believe in the validity of their rules, or we can fight back. For just as there is no difference between dispossession and disempowerment, there can be no line between opposing what the G20 stand for and showing solidarity to those who have been arrested for fighting against it.

One of the best ways to keep up the pressure on the banks, the oil companies, the war profiteers, the media, and the politicians, is to support those who are facing charges for organizing resistance.

Because none of us are free until all of us are free.

Introducing Toronto FreeSkool!

FreeSkool is a do-it-yourself community learning project that veers away from tuition and bureaucrats to imagine and create the kind of world we want to live in, premised on utopian visions of cooperation and mutual support. FreeSkool is inspired by anarchist philosophy, anti-oppression principles, consensus, and egalitarianism. We believe in sharing skills, ideas, and curiosities outside of state and capitalist institutions, free of prohibitive costs, grades, and hierarchy. FreeSkool is a project in liberatory learning fuelled by love.

Come learn with us! We’ve got a whole bunch of amazing classes and workshops starting up this fall. Discuss radical elements in popular fiction, alternative sexualities, and animal liberation; cook up delicious vegan meals; and share knitting skills, among other options.

For our most up-to-date list of classes and workshops check out our website:

See something you like? Email the facilitator directly for more information or to enroll in the course. Something missing from our class list that you’d like to facilitate? Email us a proposal!

See you in the streets! And the classrooms!

Love & Rage,

~~Toronto FreeSkool

Myths and Realities about 490 Tamil Refugees on MV Sun Sea

No-one is Illegal Vancouver

Myth 1:  They are illegals who are jumping the queue

There is no ‘queue’ for refugee claimants. Refugees are forced from their homes in emergency situations due to human rights abuses committed during wars, military occupations, or persecution against a minority group. We cannot expect refugees to wait for Canada to select them from overseas. We must understand that they undertake long and dangerous journeys to protect their lives and the lives of their families. According to the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees, to which Canada is a party, there are no penalties on refugees who arrive irregularly and without pre-authorization.

Myth 2: They are terrorists

There is no evidence to substantiate this. Rohan Gunaratna, the government’s primary source, has already been discredited by lawyers as well as an Immigration and Refugee Board adjudicator for being uncredible. Last October, when the 76 Tamil asylum seekers came on Ocean Lady they were similarly labeled as terrorists and security threats. However by Jan. 2010, they were all released from detention when Canadian Border Services Agency admitted they had no evidence of a terrorist connection.

Furthermore, officials are just relying on stereotypes of Tamils as all being associated with the Tamil Tigers to create unnecessary racist hostility and mistrust of asylum seekers.

National security laws in the post-911 climate have directly targeted and marginalized immigrants, refugees, and racialized people. These laws and policies are less about protecting society than creating a culture of fear.

Many of these policies–such as Security Certificates–have been struck down in the courts after years of human rights and anti racist campaigning. The rhetoric of the ‘War on Terror’ serves as a convenient distraction from the reality that people’s daily lives are increasingly unsafe and insecure due to global neoliberal economics and war-mongering that leads to mass displacement, poverty, and human rights atrocities.

Myth 3: The situation is getting better in Sri Lanka

According to a 2010 Amnesty International report, in the past 12 months the Sri Lankan government has continued to jail critics and clamped down on dissent. Some 80,000 Tamils remain in refugee camps, while 400,000 displaced Tamils survive in communities where homes and infrastructure were destroyed.

The government continues to extend a state of emergency, restricting many basic human rights, and thousands of arbitrary detentions are justified under the guise of detainees being suspected Tamil Tigers. This past month, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon appointed a panel to investigate war crimes and genocidal acts committed by the Sri Lankan government against Tamils.

Myth 4: They are a burden on tax payers

The biggest resource expenditure has been the government’s choice to spend thousands of dollars in an unnecessary security operation, including resources spent on incarcerating women and children. Only a tiny fraction has been spent on the health and well-being of the migrants, whose lives are worth more than dollars. Furthermore, scapegoating migrants for being a financial burden lets the government off the hook.

All residents continue to receive inadequate access to necessary social services because of misplaced government priorities–choosing to bail out banks and sink billions into the police and military–not because of the lack of resources to provide a social safety net for all in need.

Myth 5: Canada has a generous refugee system; we cannot keep accepting people

Despite border panics, only a small minority of asylum seekers make claims in the Western world. There are about 20 million refugees worldwide and most migrate into neighboring countries of Africa, Middle East, and South Asia. Canada accepts fewer than 20,000 refugees per year, which is less than 0.1 per cent of the world’s displaced population.

Furthermore, Canada’s system is not generous. Deportations from Canada have skyrocketed 50% over the last decade, with 13,000 deportations in the past year. With the Conservatives, the number of approved asylum claims has dropped by 56%. Minister of Immigration Jason Kenney’s recent refugee reforms create two tiers of refugees, establishing a hierarchy based on nationality. There are countless structural flaws in the system, designed to make it near impossible to claim asylum. Immigration and Refugee Board members are political appointees; certain avenues such as the Pre Removal Risk Assessment have acceptance rates of 3-5% while others such as the Humanitarian and Compassionate claim do not have to be processed prior to deportation. In addition, the refugee system has been termed a ‘lottery system’ because acceptance rates can vary from 0-80% depending on the judge. The Safe Third Country Agreement between the US and Canada creates a ‘Fortress Canada’ by disallowing up to 40% of asylum seekers.

Myth 6: It is not our problem

The Canadian government has recently been forced to apologize for racist and exclusionary historical measures including the Chinese Exclusion Act and Komagatamaru incident. These apologies and the rhetoric of multiculturalism are hollow when current policies and practices perpetuate racism and exclusion. The recent backlash that repeats the tired-old refrain about ‘illegals’ and ‘criminals’ has meant that right wing neo-nazis such as Paul Fromm and the Aryan Guard have resurfaced publicly and are being given a platform to spew their hate about sending the boat back. Is this really the side that we are on?

Immigration and refugee issues are not simply about Canadian benevolence or charity. We need to rethink what function and whose interests the state border actually serves. The current trends of global migration reveal the ways in which patterns of Western domination and corporate globalization have enriched some countries by creating economic and political insecurity that forces people indigenous to their lands to migrate.

The Canadian government continues to maintain economic and diplomatic ties with the government of Sri Lanka, instead of supporting those who have survived the brutality of that government, which makes us complicit in their displacement.

Also, we must always remember that Canada is a settler country, built on the theft of Indigenous lands and the forced assimilation of Indigenous communities. On what basis is a colonial government denying colonized people their right to livelihood? Finally, we must challenge the idea that some are more worthy than others to a life of dignity; instead we should reaffirm the universal value that people have the freedom to move in order to seek safety and to flourish.



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Norman Finkelstein’s Reflections on the Turkish Flotilla Incident and Canadian Discourse on Israel/Palestine

Compiled by Jesse Zimmerman

Norman Finkelstein is an American political scientist and an author and commentator on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He has published many books that have been deemed controversial such as The Holocaust Industry: Reflections on the Exploitation of Jewish Suffering, Beyond Chutzpah: On the Misuse of Anti-Semitism and the Abuse of History, and his latest This Time We Went too Far: Truth and Consequences of the Gaza Invasion. Finkelstein was denied tenure at DePaul University, which he has attributed to bias against his views. His mother survived the Warsaw Ghetto, the Majdanek concentration camp, and two slave labour camps, while his father survived the Warsaw Ghetto and the Auschwitz concentration camp. Finkelstein has cited the ordeals of his parents as being the reasons why he speaks out to condemn the policies of the state of Israel and Zionist ideology. I managed to conduct an interview with Norman Finkelstein in his home in Brooklyn, New York in the summer of 2010.

Could you introduce for our audience what your last publications were? The Holocaust Industry and what exactly is meant when you say the ‘Holocaust Industry?’

The Holocaust Industry is a little old now. It came out literally one decade ago. …It was mostly as the subtitle says; it was personal reflections on the exploitation of Jewish suffering. I was pretending to write a scholarly tome. …Mostly it was about the misuses of the Nazi Holocaust. It’s being used as a political weapon to immunize Israel from criticism of its policies and at the time it was also being used as a financial weapon to extract what were called ‘Holocaust compensation for needy Holocaust victims.’ And I think I was able to document that that was simply a shake-down racket, an extortion racket by some Jewish organizations which made false claims against the Swiss Banks and then false claims against Germany in order to extract monies which they said would be earmarked for Holocaust victims but which actually never reached the victims of the Nazi Holocaust but were kept by these crooked organizations.

And after that I wrote the book–I can’t remember the sequence of the books but I think the next major book was Beyond Chutzpah: On the Misuse of Anti-Semitism and the Abuse of History and basically I focused there on what’s called ‘the new anti-Semitism,’ trying to show that the new anti-Semitism was neither new nor was it about anti-Semitism. Israel periodically orchestrates these public relations campaigns, or I should say Israel supporters–Israel and its supporters orchestrate these public relations extravaganzas about a new anti-Semitism whenever Israel comes under international pressure to settle the conflict with the Palestinians diplomatically, or whenever Israel commits some sort of horrendous human rights violation, or sequence of violations, they start playing the anti-Semitism card.

Sort of like the attack on the Turkish flotilla that happened recently?

Well, the attack on the Turkish flotilla, they didn’t really play the anti-Semitism card very much, but they did at least in the initial phase is what they did during the initial attack on Gaza which is that they controlled all news dissemination for the most important days, namely the first week of the attack. In the case of Gaza they sealed off Gaza to any foreign journalists. In the case of the Flotilla bloodbath, what they did was they imprisoned all the witnesses, took all of their photographic evidence, and then simply bombarded the media with a monopoly on visual images and testimony as to what happened.

Your latest book, that’s already hit the bookshelves?

Well it hasn’t hit the bookshelves because it’s only available online. It’s not going to be available through bookstores. The actual title is This Time We Went too Far: Truth and Consequences of the Gaza Invasion and mostly that’s about trying to give an accurate depiction of why Israel attacked Gaza between Dec. 27 2008 and Jan. 18 2009. Why Israel attacked, what actually happened during the Israel massacre of Gaza, and then the aftermath, the political repercussions, most importantly the breakup of American, and actually Jewish support for Israel.

Would you say that the Jewish support for Israel’s more divided than some people think?

I think Jewish support for Israel is drying up now, in particular among the younger generations. If you go to the Israel Day parades it consists mostly in the United States, at any rate, it consists mostly of Orthodox Jews and senior citizens. Orthodox Jews are only 10% of total American Jewry and so it’s only a tiny component of American Jewry which is any longer willing to rally or publicly commit itself to Israel.

Could you give us some reflections on the [political situation in Canada]? As I’m sure you know our Prime Minister Stephen Harper is a big-time Israel supporter. Do you see any alternatives in Liberal’s Michael Ignatieff, the NDP’s Jack Layton, or anybody else?

I follow the Canadian scene fairly closely. I have a lot of Canadian friends and they forward me quite a lot of the material on what’s happening in Canada. As in most places, not just in Canada, though in Canada it’s more pronounced, there is a very large discrepancy, or I should say gulf, between public opinion and the opinion of the governing party, or the dominant political parties in Canada. If you actually look at public opinion Israel’s standing in Canada is not very good. The last public opinion poll that was taken “whether Israel has played a more negative or positive role in the world today” the Canadian opinion went against Israel. Actually I was quite surprised because if you look at the countries where the influence of the pro-Israel lobby is strongest in places like France, Canada and elsewhere (and Germany) where the lobby is strongest actually, public opinion is not strongly supporting Israel and that’s true in Canada as well.

Do you think it might be because a lot of these pro-Israel organizations, their tactics are becoming more noticeable? Groups like B’Nai Brith Canada and other ones?

Israel is a case of truth in advertising; there’s just so much you can hide and conceal about its policies before people begin to wonder what’s going on. Now it’s true that the Canadian press is awful, but there are alternative sources of information. People can get information through the web and even in the awful mainstream media nonetheless some of the truth creeps in and people’s eyebrows begin to get raised and people begin to wonder ‘well, you know, what’s going on here?’ In the case of Israel it seems to be a relentless succession of quite ghastly crimes and so even in the mainstream some of the truth creeps in.

University campuses are where a lot of the battle takes place as well. At York University there’s ‘Students Against Israeli Apartheid’ as well as many other groups including a ‘Not In Our Name,’ a Jewish group that’s recently started up at York. But we also face off against groups like Hasbara Fellowships and you’ve heard the case of Hasbara Fellowships where they fabricated an anti-Semitic incident? What do you think the motivation of these groups might be?

The motivation is fairly straight forward; they want to change the subject. They don’t want to talk about what Israel is doing; they want to claim that their opponents or their critics are anti-Semitic, or self-hating Jews, or Holocaust deniers. And they want to turn themselves into the victim and Israel and its supporters have, you might say, mastered the art of self-victimization.

If you take the case, for example, of what happened in the Mavi Marmara, the Turkish vessel that was assaulted by Israel. It was quite extraordinary how they managed to turn an Israeli commando raid in the dead of night in international waters on a humanitarian convoy bringing aid to a hungry population in which ten people are executed by Israel, they managed to turn themselves into the victims. They claimed that what actually happened that day was some Israeli commandos were en route to a Hebrew Halloween party, they were carrying these paintball pistols and by some twist of fate they found themselves on this boat, and the people on this boat consisted of…Muslims who wanted to lynch them. If you read the Israeli press that is literally how it’s being depicted, that there were these poor, innocent commandos who somehow, by serendipity, found themselves on the deck of these Muslims praying for martyrdom and that they were tricked, duped into a lunch party. And it’s the same thing at Canadian Universities trying to turn things on their head and turning themselves into the victims.

Could you give us some of your reflection on Michael Ignatieff? And I’m sure you’ve heard about the recent situation within the NDP… [R]ight now Libby Davies, an MP from…British Columbia, got in[to] trouble for encouraging a boycott on Israel and calling the occupation the longest occupation in the world, which is factually true. Can you give us some of your reflections on Ignatieff and the NDP’s behaviour?

Well, Michael Ignatieff is a preposterous fraud; he ran the Carr Centre for Human Rights at Harvard University and basically his role was to serve as an apologist for any and all US crimes. He always pretended to be a profound thinker but his depth of profundity approximated that of a perfectly flat plane. Then he went to Canada with this kind of sense of entitlement that coming from what he thinks is a distinguished family and having a Harvard pedigree that he was entitled to be Prime Minister of Canada. It is a perplexity to me that Canadians have such a low opinion of themselves that they would allow this preposterous carpetbagger to become the Prime Minister of their country. He probably couldn’t even find Canada on a map.

Well, some news with that is that Michael Ignatieff isn’t very popular with the Canadian public. We’re in an awkward situation, you know, people on the Left in Canada because we have Stephen Harper and then we have Michael Ignatieff. And those of us who are activists for Palestinian rights are frustrated right now because of the NDP’s behaviour. Do you have any reflections on why a party that sees itself as a Left wing party and talks about human rights would not take a stance against what’s happening with Israel right now?

In Canada it seems to be a fairly clear cut question of a powerful lobby, which has a lot of money and is well organized. It’s not unusual, in the United States we have powerful lobbies; we have an oil lobby, we have a gun lobby, we have quite a few powerful lobbies which significantly distort American policy and impose policies which are contrary to the best interests of the rest of our society and in the case of Canada it’s pretty much just chasing after money.

And that includes the New Democratic Party?

Yeah, I assume it’s the same motivations because the factual pictures are just not really complicated. The NDP people are quite smart, they have a good history, I think, and surely they know the facts and they know that what Israel’s doing is completely indefensible.

So to conclude, with everything with the situation with the IHH, and the Turkish Flotilla attack, what do you see happening in the near future? What are some reflections on where it’s going on right now?

At the popular level there is clearly a breakup of support for Israel. Its stock is plummeting; it’s become an embarrassment, and those who try to defend what it does open themselves up to ridicule. Internationally Israel is pretty isolated now; it’s going to have to do some pretty significant changes in that blockade because international opinion has been put in several cases, even to the British and the Americans the blockade is no longer sustainable. So that’s going to have to change. And there is a collision occurring now because the Iranians, and the Turks, and boats from the Lebanese port are heading toward Gaza and international opinion is that the blockade is unacceptable, so Israel has a real problem on its hands. The main cause for concern is the regional level, because Israel bungled yet another operation, and is going to be desperate to prove it is still a fighting force, it is still up to snuff, and so it probably feels a great deal of pressure now to do something spectacular. And also since the Hezbollah has said [that] any new war between Israel and Lebanon will be a tit-for-tat war–your city for our city, your airport for our airport, your port for our port–you could see things very easily…getting out of control and I don’t think that we should be indifferent to the fact that Israel is over the cliff. …Now Israel is clearly very worried that the Arab world doesn’t fear it anymore. And so even with this looming Iranian, and Turkish, and Lebanese flotilla, it’s very unclear what Israel will do in order to show the Arab world it’s a substantial fighting force. So, in my opinion, there is some very serious trouble looming.

Ordinary People Doing Extraordinary Things

Jacqueline Bergen

After the police managed to dissolve the marches, violently break up peaceful gatherings at Queen’s Park, incarcerate hundreds without charge, and extinguish the flames from the police cars, I found it rather interesting to see people, rather quickly, continue on with their daily lives. When we were no longer dancing, screaming, and marching on the road, but were now walking on the sidewalk, it became clearer that the G20 was not an assembly of ‘protesters,’ but just ordinary people doing extraordinary things.

It’s not that I didn’t know that the movement consists of simply ‘regular’ people; I simply marvel at how quickly a political movement consisting of ordinary people can grow when the need exists.  When the time comes to speak out, people come out in droves. People know that there is something wrong with not just this government, but any political organization that neither represents the needs of the people, nor respects human life and dignity, nor seeks to silence those whom it supposedly serves.

Perhaps the biggest myth from that weekend is that the G20 ‘radical protesters’ were a bunch of ‘out of towners’ as Mayor Miller sadly referenced, or ‘criminals’ here to cause trouble. When Miller referenced the ‘foreign’ element of the debate, did he forget that Obama is also not from Toronto? It seems quite reasonable that an international congregation of people would come to protest the policies of the G20, which are resisted on a global scale.

The processes of globalization legitimize the ability of the rich to fly around the world to make huge decisions that affect millions of people. Was Mayor Miller suggesting that poor people should just stay where they are, silent, and suffer? Considering that the processes of globalization have laid the foundations for the conditions that have caused war, famine, imprisonment, and massive destruction to environment, what did the leaders attending the G20 think we are supposed to do–just sit back and watch? I mean really, what did they expect?

In this land of so called ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy,’ when do citizens get the opportunity to speak out? To get mad about the bullshit that consumes our daily lives, such as the BP oil spill caused by corporate greed and neglect? If dissent continues to be infiltrated and quashed by the state during our protests, does that not effectively constitute the illegitimacy of free speech by the same state that supposedly promotes democracy?

Where do we have these opportunities to speak out in a meaningful way? The reality is becoming increasingly clear that ‘democracy’ and ‘freedom’ are simply poisoned, meaningless words. The truth of any right legitimized by the state is tantamount to no rights at all. When that which is supposed to be legal is now illegal, does that not effectively dismantle the illusion of all of our civil rights?

I think if most Canadian’s knew how undemocratic our democracy is, more Canadians would protest. The only answer is building a massive social movement that demands change. When our rights as citizens to organize and march were taken away during the weekend of the G20 summit, it became clear that we no longer live in the democracy that our government has gone overseas to promote, such as in Afghanistan. If we can’t get it right here, what are the troops doing over there?

Contested Spaces Worth Defending

Justin Podur

Introductory Note: The Sociology and Equity Studies in Education (SESE) at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) Graduate Student Conference this year took place on Apr. 3, 2010. It had the theme ‘Contested Spaces: The (Re)Organization of Schooling Under Neoliberalism.’ From the conference program: “Contested Spaces’ point of departure is that schooling and education in Canada are inscribed in histories of settler-colonialism, imperialism, and (neo)liberalism. We will consider these terms broadly to provide a space for dialogue on the regulation of bodies and the production of knowledge, and for the imagining and practicing of alternate possibilities.”

Also, this conference responds to the increased attack on disciplines and programming that critically interrogate the state, institutions, systems of power, and social relations. Recent eliminations of programs such as Women’s Studies at the University of Guelph, History and Philosophy at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE), and cuts to equity programs such as Disability Studies and the Transitional Year Program (TYP) at the University of Toronto, are only a few examples. Further, the intervention of the Conservative government into the governing of Social Sciences Humanities and Research Council (SSHRC) grants/scholarships, its consequent requisite to make research legible to business and state interests, and scrutiny of the organization of conferences such as ‘Israel/Palestine: Mapping Models of Statehood and Paths to Peace,’ reveal the ways in which the academy is being actively reshaped by security and corporate interests linked to the state and shifts in this geo-political moment.

Justin Podur was one of the keynote speakers at the conference (Radhika Mongia was the other keynote). Below is Podur’s talk.

There’s a premise: it’s actually worse than we think. Worse not just in terms of how powerful the system is or how deep oppression goes or how far the process of social and environmental destruction has advanced, but actually worse even in the narrow terms that we’re discussing, of academic freedom and the neoliberal education system. We cannot actually get away with saying and doing things that would directly challenge the system on the job. We cannot do that and keep our jobs.

This is anecdotal, but I have several friends who are intense, academically inclined researchers who work full-time doing freedom-of-information requests, studying primary sources, digging in official documents, interviewing people, and trying to analyze things like foreign policy, democracy promotion, the relationship between military and media operations. Other friends theorize about economic and social matters and I’ve learned more from their theorizing than from any university-based theorist. They are among the best researchers I know and I cannot imagine them being able to do their work at any university in Canada. I might be proven wrong, but I think they are going to have to make their work a little less accessible and a little less hard-hitting if they want a place in the academy today. Some of the best and most influential academic studies of the past few years were not done at universities or by people at universities, and again, I couldn’t imagine them passing in the academy–not because they’re not good enough, but because they’re too good.

So, we protect ourselves. We all do it. There are many ways to do it. Here’s mine: I am not a radical on the job. While I like to think that my research on forest fires and climate change isn’t harmful, and has social value, I work according to scientific criteria, not political ones, when I’m working on that. What I do as an activist I do not as part of my job.

That’s one protection. There are others. One other is to use obscure language, which means that anyone watching would conclude you’re irrelevant and therefore no threat. I have heard it many times. Colleagues of mine that I respect a lot saying things that are true and very radical but are basically incomprehensible because they are phrased in in-group language. Certain things can’t be talked about except in abstract language–I understand that. But look at the program for this conference. Look at the titles of the talks. Many, maybe most, are incomprehensible to non-specialists. This would be true at a mathematics conference too, or a computer science conference, but isn’t what we are doing different from that? What is it that we’re doing, exactly?

What role do activists at universities have? What is our role at universities, the role that we know is under attack? What is it that is under attack? What is it we’re defending? Is it worth defending?

It seems to me that what we have at the university is one of three things.

#1: A comfortable job that allows time and resources to do things off the job, whether that’s activism or vacations.

#2: A job pursuing knowledge for its intrinsic value, as one would in any other field from biology to classics to astronomy.

#3: A base from which to pursue profound change in the society, to think through what needs to be changed and how to do it–in other words, a base of opposition to power.

Number three gets you into trouble. Opposing power gets you into trouble. I would argue we aren’t actually doing very much of three. Perhaps that is because we can’t, because things are already so bad that the universities are closed and you can’t do actual opposition on the job. I think that might be true. I don’t know. I think that these spaces are under attack not because of what we are doing, but because we might one day do something with them and those we might one day oppose can’t stand that idea, can’t stand that potential, and have to destroy it. I haven’t found a way to do number three myself. Not on the job, at any rate. But if we start from the premise that we aren’t doing it, then we might think about how we could do it. If, on the other hand, we think we are doing it now, when we are actually just enjoying comfortable situations (in relative terms), we have no reason to think hard about how to do it.

If you accept my premise that we aren’t actually doing effective opposition to power, and that we are under attack more because of potential than reality, then it follows that we should try to increase our effectiveness. I have my own thoughts about that which I will share, but first I want to say a few things about the consequences of our ineffectiveness.

Leftists used to be the smartest people around. They were the source of original ideas of all kinds, from science to health to reformist policy to revolutionary strategy and organizational models. Major debates that were being had in societies had leftists deeply involved. Today, we’re much more marginalized. We live in a bubble and talk to each other. Our society is a little different today, I think–everybody’s in a bubble and talking to each other–there are music scenes, technology fan scenes, parenting scenes–all that have their own blogs and facebook and twitter groups and books and youtubes. But without really thinking about it, we’ve accepted that we’re just another such bubble–and not a very pleasant one, not a bubble many people can stand to be in for very long. And major debates that do go on, go on without us. Major innovations in many fields are happening without us. People don’t look to us for answers in crises. Part of that is that we have been marginalized–but I think part of it is we’re not really trying; we’re not really in the fight.

Another consequence of not being in the fight is an inward focus. That’s one of the buzzwords of today’s activists, self-reflexivity. You’re supposed to be ‘self-reflexive,’ and if you’re not you must be ‘held accountable’;’ if you fail to ‘check yourself’ or ‘check your privilege,’ you must be ‘called on your shit.’ You might be ‘called on your shit’ if you are ‘taking up too much space’ (incidentally, ‘taking up space’ is an impoverished metaphor, assuming as it does that ‘space’ is a scarce commodity). All these buzzwords, if you count the number of times that you hear them at any activist meeting it’ll be in the dozens at least, have in common an intense focus on the internal dynamics of the group and the feelings of the people involved. It is quite possible to focus on them while the world burns, which is more or less what is happening.

I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard, in defense of this kind of thing, the question: how can we change the world if our own organizations reproduce some of the same dynamics that we are against? But that seems to me to be a real question, and not a rhetorical one. And as a response, I have two suggestions. First, the reverse might be the case. If oppression has more to do with structures than with individual behavior, as I believe it does, then it might be impossible to have perfect behavior without changing the social structures. It is important to have high standards of conduct, certainly, but it is also important not to have impossible standards. I have a second response to the question, and that’s a question of my own: how can we change the world if all we care about is our own feelings?

This isn’t an argument for being racist or sexist in activist groups. It is an argument that the internal focus has supplanted the external, fighting focus far too much, and that the result isn’t very interesting, especially since so much of it has become clichés.

It’s definitely possible to act without being reflective about it. But it’s also possible to be self-reflective and irrelevant, and I am afraid that we err toward principled irrelevance over unreflective action. Indeed, unreflective action or speech is swiftly punished–that is the one thing that today’s activists are extremely swift and disciplined about, is punishing one another for not meeting high standards of speech that fit theoretical notions of self-reflexivity or anti-oppression. In any activist space you go to you will find this policing of behavior, and it is actually very oppressive psychological and power dynamics that go on in the name of anti-oppression. It seems that because we can’t say what we want to, to the enemy, we turn on each other.

It’s almost fortunate that we don’t have any actual power, that the only enforcement of these impossible standards is relatively weak social sanction in a small and marginalized ‘scene.’ I sometimes shudder about what would happen if we did have more power. But the result in today’s world is that we’re simply repulsive. People who come and witness these dynamics quickly move on, and it acts as a huge check on growth. Of course we should always be having internal conversations–talking amongst ourselves is how we share with each other, persuade each other, and strengthen each other–but that’s very different from thinking that the focus of our political struggles is to chastise, sanction, and purge our fellow leftists, which drives people away and leaves us talking only to ourselves.

I think this has become an orthodoxy: a set of implicit assumptions about why we are here, what we are doing, who we are, what we have in common, what makes us human, what we should care about. Before the current orthodoxy on identity politics and anti-oppression, there were orthodoxies about democratic centralism and the dictatorship of the proletariat, guerrilla focus and armed struggle, protracted people’s war. Like all orthodoxies, it has plenty that’s valuable in it, it met the needs of a certain situation, and that is why people gravitated to it. But it loses value when it becomes the tool for all situations, and it loses value when it becomes a cliché, which it has.

Maybe it’s impossible to work without some set of assumptions, and maybe I am doing what all academics do: attacking one set of assumptions and trying to replace them with another, and argue that everyone should work according to my assumptions instead. If that’s what I’m doing, I hope you won’t listen to me, because it isn’t what I am trying to do. What I am trying to do is point out that living by an orthodoxy leads to an unhelpful rigidity in thinking and to an inhumane lack of compassion, because you respond to rules and not to people.

So, what to do about it? The danger of a talk like this is that I’ll tell you that everyone should be doing what I think is important. But if you aren’t already taking what I have to say with a grain of salt, then start now. As a research program, I would want to see researchers interested in social change working with an external focus. I would want to see more research on how the system works and where the cracks might be in it, than research on internal dynamics and movement organizations. More research on methods and models of organizing–that might come from anywhere–and less on the contradictions and paradoxes of activist scholarship. I would want to see less of a leftist bubble and more leftists in every single bubble that is out there. More plans and analyses of campaigns that could win reforms today and less about how much oppression hurts.

I have no idea if we can win everything that I think we need to. But I am convinced that we could limit Canada’s capacity to support destruction, whether of people in Afghanistan and Palestine and Colombia and the DRC or of the atmosphere. If we were doing that from the universities, we would probably be facing much worse consequences than we are now at the universities, but there must be a way of doing it that makes repressing us difficult too. If we are in the unusual situation of being paid to think–or, at least, being able to pull together enough money to spend some time thinking–maybe we owe it to most of the world who doesn’t have that luxury, to think about that, some of the time.

This article originally was originally posted on

Going to Bolivia

Janine MacLeod

“Are you going to Bolivia?” I was deep in conversation with the person next to me, and looked up, startled. “Me? Yes. Of course! I’m going to Bolivia.” The question made its way around our large, crowded table at the Red Room bar on Spadina. “Who else is going to Bolivia? It’s time to go!” We all gathered up our bags and coats and made for the door. Our destination was not South, however, but West along Cecil street to the nearby Steelworkers Hall, where a number of local activists were reporting back from a climate change conference which had recently taken place in April, in Cochabamba, Bolivia.

The World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth, a response to the failed Copenhagen talks, brought together civil society organizations, Indigenous peoples, and representatives from over 40 national governments to discuss alternative global responses to climate change. Returning activists spoke with great animation about what they had witnessed in Bolivia. They read to their rapt audience from both the People’s Agreement on Climate Change and the Proposed Declaration on the Rights of Mother Earth–the documents refined and discussed at the conference. (To access these documents, see

I had known previously that under the presidency of Evo Morales, Bolivia has rejected neoliberal models of development. I knew that this alternative conference would constitute, among other things, an attempt to decolonize the global response to climate change, rejecting ‘solutions’ that would neglect the needs and priorities of Indigenous peoples, as well as nations of the global South. However, it was astonishing to hear a document bound for global negotiation overtly declaring the incompatibility of capitalism with ecological well-being. Equally so, the assertion that the Earth is a living being which should be accorded rights; that human rights are in fact predicated on the well-being of waters, soils, and other species. It seemed brave and exciting, unhindered by cynicism. As I listened in my blue plastic chair, nibbling at cookies and listening to the enthusiastic delegates talk about this alternative framework of values, principles and directions for global cooperation, I realized that I had to go to Bolivia. For real this time.

I am not really an ideal correspondent on the Bolivian political climate. I am not fluent in Spanish. Neither am I a specialist in Latin American history or politics. I am not even much of a traveller. However, I went to Bolivia to see what it feels like to be in a place where a majority of the population is both politically engaged and committed to proving Margaret Thatcher’s famous diagnosis, “There is no alternative,” spectacularly wrong.

As I wandered the streets of Cochabamba after my morning Spanish classes, I would try to piece together the political graffiti around me. “Take the factories!” said one (this deciphered after pausing to look up the word fabricas in my dictionary). Another spray-painted scrawl, perhaps dating from the famous ‘water wars’ of the year 2000, read: “The water is ours!” On my walks I would often come across parades or demonstrations. In a central plaza, large groups of Cochabambinos might be gathered, reading and debating, around a set of displays covered with press articles and analyses about regional trade agreements. People were selling copies of Bolivia’s new Constitution in the street. Perhaps I was especially primed to see them, but the vital signs of political engagement around me were making Canadian cities look moribund indeed.

Like many North American water activists, I’d first heard about Cochabamba in connection with the dramatic expulsion of Bechtel Corporation from its IMF-mandated position of control over the city’s water supply in 2000. I was interested to learn what kinds of water politics had evolved in Bolivia in the decade following this dramatic rejection of privatization. With the help of a Spanish-speaking friend, I was lucky enough to arrange an interview with Oscar Campanini, regional director of water and health at the organization Agua Sustentable. Formed just after the departure of Bechtel from Cochabamba, the organization provided technical advice and support to other Bolivian communities struggling against privatization. Now, as Bolivia shifts away from neoliberal models of development, Agua Sustentable has been collaborating with the Evo Morales administration to develop an alternate approach to ensuring access to clean water–one based on local control and participatory processes of governance.

Oscar told us that until quite recently, Bolivia had had no legal framework to control industrial uses of water. They were operating with water laws that had not been updated since 1879. As such, he explained, Bolivia’s recent project has been one of creating, rather than transforming, state policies around water. Crafted with the close participation of community groups and organizations such as FEDECOR, a federation of small farmers, the new water laws grant priority to local usos y costombres (uses and customs) when these come into conflict with the water demands of mining projects and other developments. A new water ministry (subject to oversight by prominent small farmer’s organizations) has taken over jurisdiction from the mining, hydroelectric, and other bureaucracies previously charged with monitoring water use. Under the new laws, water in Bolivia cannot be owned or traded as a commodity, or governed by public-private partnerships. It cannot be included in any commercial treaties. In theory, the laws provide a mechanism through which communities can take industrial users to court for contaminating or appropriating water sources in a way that interferes with traditional uses. However, as Oscar explained, the laws have yet to be tested in practice. They have been effective in resolving situations of small-scale conflict, but have not yet been tried in conflicts involving more powerful interests.

I was excited to hear about Bolivia’s new water legislation, not least because some of these provisions, such as the prohibition on commercialization and the exclusion of water from international trade agreements, have been sought after by Canadian water activists for decades. However, I was equally intrigued by the community cooperatives–neither public nor private–that govern much of Bolivia’s water. While portions of Bolivia’s urban centers are served by publicly owned and operated utilities, cooperatives administer most of the country’s drinking water and irrigation systems.

Many irrigation cooperatives operate through traditional Andean processes of communal deliberation. Local ‘water judges’ distribute water to each household in rotation. Communities have maintained this traditional system of usos y costombres for centuries as an act of resistance to colonial lawmaking. Other cooperatives have more contemporary origins. The Bolivian city of Santa Cruz is home to the largest urban water cooperative in the world. Started in 1979, SAGUAPAC now has 96,000 members. This cooperative, like many other, smaller cooperatives in Santa Cruz and elsewhere, uses profits from the water supply system to fund local health clinics and other community projects. Throughout Bolivia, systems of mutual aid extend not only within but between cooperatives, as they offer one another loans, help each other to dig trenches, or share pipes, tools, and expertise.

In many cases, drinking water cooperatives have emerged in the absence of adequate public water and sewer systems. In Cochabamba, for example, the official water supply system only serves half of the city’s residents. The peripheral zones of the city, especially the neighbourhoods to the South, have been forced to buy water from vendors who sell them city water–at dramatically inflated prices–from trucks. Families pool their resources to drill wells, build tanks, and run pipes between their homes. Unfortunately, many of these wells are contaminated to one degree or another, and often can only be used for cooking and cleaning. However, this additional water, while of inferior quality, provides a measure of autonomy from the water vendors. Volunteers check the lines regularly for leaks. Decisions are made collectively in assemblies, sometimes involving 6,000 or more participants. At these meetings, neighbourhoods often discuss not only the management of their water, but other topical political issues as well.

Cochabamba’s southern zone now has 140 water cooperatives, which have organized themselves into a larger Association of Communal Systems of the South. They agitate collectively for the extension of piped city water into their neighbourhoods, hoping at the same time to retain control over the management of the water when it arrives. In the model favoured by the cooperatives, city water would be delivered to the community’s tanks, at which point the cooperatives would attend to its distribution. Oscar explained that Agua Sustentable has been advocating for a form of integration between Cochabamba’s water cooperatives and the public system, in which the state would provide technical assistance, among other forms of support, to the cooperatives.

Critics point out that cooperatives are not immune to inequitable practices. Under traditional usos y custombres, families can sometimes be denied access to water for political reasons. Further, in places like Cochabamba, the relative success of the cooperatives in addressing the needs of people in unserviced areas might take pressure off of the local government to actually extend infrastructure to those neighbourhoods. Further, some critics argue that in their focus on local concerns, water cooperatives might be less likely to invest in environmental initiatives, or to attend to impacts on communities downstream.

Cochabamba’s failure to extend water to neighbourhoods like Zona Sur is routinely blamed on a lack of supply. For years, the favored solution has been a very capital intensive project to bring new water in from the other side of a mountain. I asked Oscar if conservation had been considered as an alternative or adjunct to this diversion project. Were Cochabambinos talking about small scale technologies like rainwater harvesting, greywater recycling, and composting toilets? He responded that conservation seems like it would have great potential to address water shortages in Cochabamba. However, aside from scattered NGO projects, such initiatives have not really been attempted or discussed. Agua Sustentable, along with some irrigators’ cooperatives, work to protect forested recharge areas from urban sprawl, but in general, source protection has not been a priority either. More broadly, he explained to us that social movements in Bolivia have not traditionally concerned themselves with the environment. While there is a widespread and deeply rooted cultural reverence for Pachamama (Mother Earth), this has not yet manifested itself strongly in the political life of the country.

Oscar Olivera, a prominent leader in Cochabamba’s water protests, notes that Bolivia has made great gains in its struggle to expel multinationals and to break free from the neoliberal model of development. He explains that its next struggle, made possible by the first, is to establish a society “in balance with nature” where well-being and democracy can flourish. This second struggle occurs in a space of great tension: between rival factions within MAS, the ruling party; between MAS and traditional elites attempting to regain control of the country’s central government; between the country’s urgent need to develop economically and its desire to cultivate respectful relations with its lands and waters.

However Bolivia manages to negotiate these conflicts, the struggles of its vital social movements have global implications. While I was in Cochabamba this summer, the UN general assembly finally adopted a resolution recognizing access to clean water and sanitation as a human right–a resolution put forward by the Bolivian government. Whether or not its anti-capitalist and biocentric language may be betrayed to some degree by its domestic policies and practices, I think it is important that Bolivia is introducing such ideals into international fora such as the UN and international climate change negotiations. The country’s current presence on the global stage broadcasts that there is not, in fact, an international consensus on the desirability or inevitability of capitalism. From its neighbourhood cooperatives to its progressive national water laws, from its triumphant social uprisings to its bravely radical global presence, Bolivia makes it harder to justify an attitude of defeat about the possibilities for systemic change.