Monday, September 15, 2014

Stopping Harper's long awaited Iraq War

As hundreds of thousands of people across Canada marched against the Iraq War in 2003, Harper demanded war. The mass movement stopped Canada from officially participating in the war, but Harper’s support continued. After first copying the Australian Prime Minister’s speech supporting the invasion, Harper wrote to The Wall Street Journal that Canada not joining the war was “a serious mistake. For the first time in history, the Canadian government has not stood beside its key British and American allies in their time of need.” Harper vowed that “in our hearts and minds, we will be with our allies and friends,” and has worked since then to support US war in Iraq—first indirectly and now directly.

Iraq Slaughter + Intervention in Syria = ISIS
In 2003 we were told there was no option but war to stop Saddam Hussein and liberate Iraqis. This ignored the role of the West in supporting the dictator, and the capacity of Iraqis to fight for their own liberation. The only “weapons of mass destruction” were those of the West—from sanctions that killed more than 1 million people before the invasion, to war that killed more than 1 million people after the invasion. The US leveled Fallujah, tortured in Abu Ghraib, massacred in Baghdad, raped and killed in Mahmoudiya, and armed sectarian death squads as a strategy to divide and conquer—planting the seeds for ISIS to grow.

The Arab Spring showed that people in the region can fight for their own liberation, and their greatest obstacle is Western military intervention. The West highjacked the Libyan revolution, supported Israel and counter-revolution in Egypt, and armed Saudi Arabia and other dictatorships. While the Saudi dictatorship beheaded at least 8 people last month, it is immune from criticism because it does the West’s dirty work—repressing resistance in Bahrain and arming extremist groups in Syria, which have now spread into Iraq as ISIS. Canada has been part of this process: joining the bombing of Libya, supporting the new Egyptian dictatorship, selling $10 billion in weapons to Saudi Arabia, and unconditionally supporting Israel.

“Canada continues to condemn the repugnant killing of innocent civilians, including women and children,” said Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird, justifying the latest bombing of Iraq. Where was that condemnation when the US was killing a million Iraqis, or when Israel was killing thousands of Palestinians? Where’s the condemnation of the West’s role, via Saudi Arabia, of creating ISIS, or the condemnation of the impact of bombing? As Phillis Bennis wrote, “the airstrikes defeat the important goal of ending popular support for ISIS, and instead actually serve to strengthen the extremist organization.”

War on soldiers, refugees and the planet
While Harper was forced to admit the 2003 Iraq War was “absolutely an error,” he has refused to support the troops who came to the same conclusion. For ten years Iraq War resisters have come to Canada instead of committing war crimes in Iraq. For that they have the support of international law, a majority of Canadians, two motions in Parliament, ten court decisions, and the legacy of welcoming Vietnam War resisters (both volunteers and conscripts). But the Harper government has ignored the courts, scapegoated war resisters for a refugee backlog the government created, flagged resisters as “criminally inadmissible,” deported resisters to be jailed in the US, and re-written Canadian history and a government website regarding Vietnam War resisters.

The attack on US Iraq War resisters parallels the campaign against Canadian veterans, and against refugees fleeing war zones. While Harper has wasted millions celebrating the war of 1812 and pledged half a trillion dollars to militarism, he has cut veteran disability pensions in the midst of a surge of suicides, restricted the arrival of Syrian refugees and cut refugee health. As a recent Federal Court ruled, “The 2012 modifications to the [Interim Federal Health Program] potentially jeopardize the health, the safety and indeed the very lives, of these innocent and vulnerable children in a manner that shocks the conscience and outrages Canadian standards of decency...I have found as a fact that lives are being put at risk.” If Iraqis fleeing ISIS try to make it to Canada, they will encounter barriers accessing healthcare, barriers to citizenship for them and their children, and unsafe working conditions—like the Iraqi refugee who fell to his death six weeks ago from a scaffold in Toronto.

Iraq is still dealing with the depleted uranium fired in civilian areas in 2003, which will contaminate the country for generations, and another round of bombings will make things worse. The US military is the largest consumer of oil in the world, and a new bombing campaign will add to global carbon emissions and increase demand for Canada’s tar sands—which are killing local indigenous communities.

Alternatives
Years of Harper’s rule have dropped his popularity, making an uncertain military intervention risky. Like the war in Afghanistan, he is using extensions to mask the duration, and euphemisms to mask its nature. As Thomas Walkom wrote, the government promise of no boots on the ground is “a curious pledge in that it left open the question of where exactly Canadian troops operating there will place their feet.” Like the early days in the lead up to the last Iraq War, the Liberals support Harper and the NDP is unsure. But like those days, this can change with popular pressure. The memory of the 2003 anti-war movement and the Arab Spring is not gone, and while there is currently confusion around Iraq there’s been a surge in solidarity with Palestinians and Indigenous communities here—which can reorient people to the imperial threat to Iraq.

Harper wants to bury the memory of Iraq, ignore the needs of refugees and find an outlet for tar sands and military spending—through a war that will further inflame the region and the climate. Instead Canada needs to
1. Stop supporting the latest war
2. Stop arming and supporting repressive regimes like Saudi Arabia
3. Stop the tar sands that fuel wars and devastate Indigenous communities
4. Support US Iraq War resisters and Canadian veterans healing from past wars
5. Support refugees access to status, healthcare, and good jobs

6. Divert the $490 billion in military spending into social, economic and ecological alternatives.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Photo essay: Toronto marches with Gaza


Israel’s latest attack on Gaza has killed nearly 2,000 people including hundreds of children, and has attacked hospitals and UN compounds. But Palestinians are continuing to resist the attack and siege on Gaza and occupation of Palestine—and are inspiring solidarity movements around the world.

Thousands took to the streets of Toronto as part of a global day of action, which included events in almost two dozen cities across Canada this past weekend. 


The Toronto action—a rally outside the Israeli consulate and march to Dundas Square, passing by Bed Bath and Beyond to call for a boycott of SodaStream—was organized by Palestine House, Canadian Arab Federation, Coalition Against Israeli Apartheid, Queers Against Israeli Apartheid, Canadian Peace Alliance, Toronto Coalition to Stop the War, Al-Quds Committee, Independent Jewish Voices, International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network-Canada, Women in Solidarity with Palestine, and Canadian Voice of Women for Peace.


As Judy Rebick reminded the crowd, Canada has a shameful history of turning away boats of Jewish refugees fleeing the Holocaust, and the commitment "never again" includes stopping the current killing of Palestinians. People of all ethnic and religious backgrounds, ages and abilities joined the march, demonstrating the growing Palestine solidarity movement. 


There is a disconnect between Parliament and the street: while there's been an outpouring of support for Gaza across the country, the Tories and Liberals have predictably supported Israel, but the NDP has been silent—prompting occupations of NDP offices. The rally chanted, “Harper, Trudeau and Mulcair: bombing Gaza isn’t fair,” and called for people to visit notinmyname.ca to send a message to their MP. As Dundas Square, the crowd erupted into chants of “Harper, Harper, shame on you.” As part of Harper's agenda of militarism, he has cut funding to Gaza and defunded organizations that support Palestinian human rights, supported Israeli war crimes from Lebanon to Palestine, and tried to demonize the Palestine solidarity movement. But the tide is turning.


Across Canada there are growing connections between indigenous solidarity movements from here to Palestine. As the rally chanted, "Turtle Island, Palestine: occupation is a crime." Harper’s blanket support for Israel reflects his similar belief that Canada has “no history of colonialism,” and indigenous sovereignty movements are helping make the connection between resisting colonialism abroad and at home.


The upcoming Peoples’ Social Forum will be an important opportunity to build these struggles,  including the demands of the Palestine solidarity movement: stop the assault and end the siege on Gaza, boycott Israeli Apartheid, and end Harper’s complicity.



Monday, July 21, 2014

Visualizing reproductive choice

Last month saw the release of two important artistic projects that visualize reproductive choice: the American movie Obvious Child, and the Canadian book One Kind Word.

Half of pregnancies are unplanned, and 40% of these end in abortion. In the US more than a million women have abortions each year, but this is not reflected in mainstream film. As writer/director Jillian Robespierre explained, “We did write this script in response to a slew of movies that came out about unplanned pregnancy that always resulted in childbirth. It was frustrating, and instead of waiting for that movie to be made we decided to make it ourselves. I didn’t want to show the same film where the woman is struggling with the decision—I’ve seen that film before—and it’s not that this didn’t happen with this character, but we didn’t want to show the same story.”

Obvious Child
In 2009 she teamed up with comedian Jenny Slate to make a short film that went viral online. They then got funding to make a feature-length film that premiered at Sundance and was released in theaters last month. Obvious Child (the title of a Paul Simon song used in the film) is a romantic comedy about a stand-up comic who breaks up with her partner, loses her job, then has an unplanned pregnancy—and choses abortion. It has been falsely characterized as an “abortion comedy,” but as Slate said in an interview on CBC, “It's about this woman's journey from being passive to active, and learning how to stand by her decisions and still be herself, which means still be funny. Now that she's making a very adult decision, which is to have this safe procedure, can she still be irreverent and playful? Is her nature still hers when it's paired with this choice?”

The film follows the conventional story arc of a romantic comedy, is very irreverent and playful when it comes to the main character, but is very normalizing when portraying abortion. The filmmakers consulted Planned Parenthood to provide an accurate portrayal of a clinic experience—from counseling, to the procedure and recovery room. It shows the ongoing fear of stigma and importance of support. Refreshingly, the film doesn’t give a second of screen time to the anti-choice, though it does reference financial barriers and government restrictions.

It speaks volumes of mainstream film that this is one of the few to pass the Bechdel test—two female characters with names, who talk to each, about something other than a man—and rarer still that it be a positive portrayal of one of the million American women each year who chooses abortion. As Slate explained, “In the United States, women’s rights are very much under attack, and it’s enraging to some people to see a woman just make that decision. It’s good to me that the film is ground-breaking in a way, and in another way I look forward to a day when this is just part of a story…I get sent a lot of scripts that I read, and a lot of them have astounding and frankly irritating things that the women are doing—like women being traditionally catty to each other, often written by men. That to me is more shocking than a woman choosing what to do with her body.”

This is just one story—of a 30-year old urban white woman choosing abortion—but it’s an invitation to share others. As Robespierre said in an interview on Democracy Now on the anniversary of Roe v Wade, “Women’s rights are under attack, and there are many states that have put new restrictions on women being able to have safe, positive procedures. I think it’s a really good time for people to tell their stories.”

One Kind Word
While Robespierre and Slate were producing their short and feature-length film films on abortion, Martha Solomon and Kathryn Palmateer—founders of arts4choice—were gathering stories and portraits of women across Canada who have had abortions. Seven years of work culminated in the launch last month of One Kind Word: Women Share Their Abortion Stories. The title is from the personal story of Lori, a clinic counselor who reflected on her own abortion in 1972: “the support I would have appreciated: one kind word from anyone.”

In Canada there is no abortion law, but there are still multiple barriers to reproductive justice. As Solomon and Palmateer write in the introduction: “The iniquities of abortion access mirror the greater inequities in our society. Colonialism and racism can severely affect women’s abortion access and experiences. Low-income women face greater barriers than do affluent women, and access is even more tenuous for homeless, refugee and undocumented women. In many parts of the country, there are simply no providers available; in others, such as Prince Edward Island, provincial health authorities have refused to honour women’s basic reproductive health care needs and do not fund abortion services. Women from PEI who require an abortion must travel to another province and fund the costs of their abortion and travel expenses themselves. In New Brunswick, a woman must have the approval of two doctors before obtaining a provincially funded abortion. Sadly, the Fredericton Morgentaler clinic, the only other option for women seeking abortions in the maritimes, is scheduled to close in July 2014 after years of fighting the New Brunswick government, further limiting the already paltry options for east coast women. In no other area of health care would such an egregious disrespect for people’s basic health care needs be tolerated. Indeed, the problems with access in Canada point to a deep-seated misogyny within our country and our health care system.”

This extends into medical schools, which have insufficient discussion of abortion except for students who actively pursue abortion training. Marginalizing one of the most common medical procedures, which one third of women will chose at some point in their lives, contributes to the lack of abortion providers—a problem that Medical Students For Choice seeks to correct, as Jillian Bardsley explains in the book’s forward.

Women sharing their abortion stories was part of the last great wave of reproductive justice struggles, and part of the new movement. As Judy Rebick writes in the book’s forward, “As part of the movement then, we organized testimonials from women who had desperately sought abortion when it was illegal, or later when it was legalized under such restrictive circumstances that only a small percentage of women who needed abortions got them in safe and supportive conditions. But since the legalization of abortion, there has been too much silence. The anti-choice organizations, who now have a supportive federal government, have continued their vile propaganda, the purpose of which is, at least in part, to make women with an unwanted pregnancy feel guilt if they chose abortion. That’s why I think a book where women go public about their abortions is so important today.”

As Solomon and Palmateer summarize, “In this book you will meet thirty-two Canadian women who have had abortions. They are courageous and brave; they are inspiring; they are our mothers, sisters, friends, lovers, neighbors, teachers, politicians, doctors, and grandmothers… Our participants come from a range of class backgrounds, ethnicities, abilities, and language groups. You will read stories from Latina women, French Canadians, and First Nations women, as well as women from Asian, Indo-Caribbean, and African Canadian communities. Our participants are young and old (and in-between), financially stable and just making ends meet, mothers and childless, in relationships and single, heterosexual and lesbian.”

These stories cover the history of abortion in Canada—from Linda who had a “terrifying experience” in 1968 when abortion was illegal, to Joyce whose experience with a Therapeutic Abortion Committee in 1988 shaped her life as a pro-choice activist, to Mika who had a clinic abortion four months before she participated in the book. The stories cover a variety of experiences in unplanned pregnancies, barriers to abortion, emotional reactions to the procedure, and level of support from family or friends. Regardless of their personal reactions to abortion—from grieving to ambivalence to empowerment—the women have a shared experience of facing barriers to choice and feeling the need to speak out. As Kaleigh says, about both her disability and her experience with abortion: “In having open conversations we actively annihilate shame.”

The format of written stories (30 in English, one in Spanish and one in French) combined with photos makes an instant human connection to the women and the importance of reproductive choice. As Sheila explains: “Photos complementing our written stories, particularly a collection of women’s photos and stories like arts4choice is producing (rather than an individual story like mine), is even more dramatic in its effect because the visual dimension will help people see and process more comprehensively that we are everywhere, and we are various ages from different racial, class, and cultural backgrounds. Through the photos, they will see people who look like their friends, coworkers, sisters, etcetera. This association of familiarity will help them feel some empathy, or possibly even a little compassion.”

As Solomon and Palmateer conclude: “It is time for women themselves to articulate what kind of abortion care this country requires. We need to ask ourselves: what is it about our experiences that we need to keep, and what do we need to change? We can only do that when we are open and vocal about our experiences, both positive and negative. In this way, we can expand our vision of what comprehensive, feminist, on-demand abortion care can and should look like in this country, and we can also work towards building a stronger, more inclusive, and more authentic conversation about reproductive justice in Canada.”

Obvious Child is in theatres now. One Kind Word was just launched in Toronto and will be launched in Halifax next week, with launch dates in Ottawa and Vancouver to be determined. You can get a copy from Another Story Bookshop in Toronto, or online from Three O’Clock Press or Amazon.


Friday, July 4, 2014

Federal Court rejects bogus cuts to refugee health

More than two years of mobilizing have pushed the Federal Court to reject the Conservatives’ cuts to refugee health. This should encourage further mobilizing to reverse the cuts and challenge the broader agenda.

In April 2012 then Immigration Minister Jason Kenney announced drastic cuts to the Interim Federal Health Program, beginning in June of that year. The government claimed that the cuts would promote fairness, save money and protect public health—but the cuts did the exact opposite.

Mobilizations
There was immediate condemnation by health providers—including an open letter, occupation, interruptions of Tory press conferences, and demonstrations across the country. These led the government to quietly reverse some of the cuts, but this only created more confusion.  

Health providers warned that these cuts would harm refugees and scapegoat them for other healthcare cuts. As Dr. Mark Tyndall said at an Ottawa press conference in 2012, "the government has used this issue to divide Canadians, pitting those who are dissatisfied with their own health coverage against refugees. Canadians are smarter than this. This is an attack on our entire healthcare system."

A year after the cuts there were already dozens of documented cases of refugees being denied essential medical care. Canadian Doctors for Refugee Care and the Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers launched a constitutional challenge, and there was a second annual day of action across the country against the cuts.

The mobilizations pushed some provinces to say they would step in and provide care—throwing the new Immigration Minister Chris Alexander into a temper tantrum about making Canada “a magnet for bogus asylum seekers.” But the reality of the cuts has continued to emerge. According to the study “The Cost and Impact of the Interim Federal Health Program Cuts on Child Refugees in Canada”: “After the implementation of funding cuts, the admission rate of refugee children increased from 6.4% to 12.0%...Shifts in the levels of health care access (hospital to primary-based care or vice-versa) due to affordability and administrative hurdles may make the vulnerable refugee population sicker, eventually leading to overall increase in healthcare costs.”

Court decision
This June was the third annual day of action against cuts to refugee health, and now the Federal Court has reflected public opinion. The ruling by Justice Anne Mactavish found that the cuts threaten the health and lives of refugees: "The 2012 modifications to the [Interim Federal Health Program] potentially jeopardize the health, the safety and indeed the very lives, of these innocent and vulnerable children in a manner that shocks the conscience and outrages Canadian standards of decency…I have found as a fact that lives are being put at risk."

Furthermore, the ruling rejects the bogus rhetoric used to justify the cuts: “It puts their lives at risk, and perpetuates the stereotypical view that they are cheats, that their refugee claims are ‘bogus,’ and that they have come to Canada to abuse the generosity of Canadians. It undermines their dignity and serves to perpetuate the disadvantage suffered by members of an admittedly vulnerable, poor and disadvantaged group."

Keep up the pressure
Anti-migrant racism is a key component of the Conservatives’ austerity agenda: exploiting migrant workers while blaming them for jobs losses, and cutting refugee health while blaming them for healthcare cuts. This scapegoating provides a cover for the Conservatives’ own agenda—from eliminating jobs at Canada Post to cutting $36 billion from healthcare.

The recent Federal Court ruling reflects more than two years of mobilizing, and shows how this can challenge the Conservatives’ cuts and their racist justifications. But the court decision does not restore healthcare: the government has four months to respond, and they are planning on appealing the decision. That the Conservatives have ignored 10 court decisions and two votes in Parliament in support of US Iraq War resisters shows us that this important decision on refugee health is not the end of the fight. 


Continued mobilizations will be necessary to reverse the cuts, pressure provincial governments to follow their words and provide care in the meantime, and challenge the broader austerity agenda.