Friday, December 23, 2011

Women and the Egyptian revolution

2011 is ending as it began: with images of thousands of Egyptian women and men standing up against a Western-backed military regime--from a 10,000-strong march of women two days ago, to another mass Friday march today. These make it clear that the Egyptian revolution is ongoing, and that women continue to play a central role.
The Western media are used to depicting Arab and Muslim women as passive victims in need of forced liberation (justifying the war in Afghanistan). While the Egyptian revolution busted this and other myths, the New York Times was still puzzled by the active participation of women against the regime--and claimed they have been otherwise peripheral to the political process. While official political structures have excluded women, they have been at the heart of the revolutionary process--from the movements leading up to the January uprising, to the strikes and protests that have kept it going.

As prominent Egyptian socialist Gigi Ibrahim explained in a talk last March, the Egyptian revolution began after a decade of struggles for Palestine solidarity, civil liberties, and economic justice. In December 2006 women textile workers began a strike in Mahalla:
"Some 3,000 women garment workers stormed into the main spinning and weaving sheds and demanded that their male colleagues stop work. "Where are the men? Here are the women!" they chanted. Then 10,000 workers gathered in the factory courtyard and once again women were at the forefront."  
This built the unity and confidence of women and men to challenge the regime, and triggered a wave of strikes over the next few years leading up to the revolution. It also produced a solidarity movements like the April 6 Youth Movement co-founded by Asmaa Mahfouz.

On January 25, Asmaa Mahfouz released a video that went viral, calling on people to go to Tahrir against the regime. Women were central to the uprising, leading chants and confronting riot police
Through the process of women and men uniting to change the world, they also changed themselves. Longtime feminist activist Nawal el-Saadawi described the mood inside Tahrir Square during the 18 days that toppled Mubarak:
“All the differences between Egyptians evaporated because of the revolution. Muslims and Christians were together, women and men were together. There was equality between all. The revolution washed away all the discriminations that was forced on us by the regime.”  
The January uprising not only toppled Mubarak but unearthed an accumulation of grievances, including women's rights, and the people of Egypt have continued the revolution for socioeconomic change. On International Women’s Day there was a mass rally in Tahrir Square demanding women’s rights:
“Women workers are demanding an end to discrimination in hiring and promotions, and want government-funded child care…On March 8, International Women’s Day, some 1,000 women and their male supporters rallied in Cairo to demand, among other things, that women be allowed to run for president and become judges.”
Women are also playing an important role in the workers movement, whose mass strikes were key to toppling Mubarak and remain central to challenging the military dictatorship. Dr. Mona Mina, a longtime activist and member of Doctors Without Rights, helped organize a national doctor’s strike in May—demanding higher wages for all workers and increased funding for health care—and was recently elected to the leadership of the union, in an election that challenged the Muslim Brotherhood.
As socialist Hossam El-Hamalawy explained, the Brotherhood are not a homogeneous reactionary block as portrayed in the media. Their leadership support neo-liberalism and have tried to call off strikes and demonstrations, but much of the youth of their membership have been part of the revolution and can be won to more progressive politics. When the regime and its allies attacked the Revolutionary Socialists, numerous groups came to their defence.

Just six months ago when I had to chance to visit Egypt, there was widespread support for the military and a belief that "the people and the army are one", though some of the radical street art challenged this notion. But faced with ongoing strikes and demonstrations pushing the revolution forward, the military has lashed out at the strengths of the revolution—banning strikes, burning a Coptic Church in an attempt to provoke sectarian divisions, and attacking women—including forced virginity tests under threats of electrocution earlier in the year. As this video from The Real News show, there has been brutal crackdowns by the military regime every month since the toppling of Mubarak. The regime is a key pillar of US control of the region, so the US has continued to supply it with weapons, and it's only because of the recent international outcry and mass mobilization of women that Hilary Clinton claimed to have been "shocked" by the recent brutal beatings.
But the march of women and the demonstration today show these attacks have only increased the determination of ordinary Egyptian women and men to unite and fight for a better world--of democracy, economic justice, and women's liberation. 

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Bad medicine: Harper's prescription for privatizing Medicare

The Harper government has announced a new funding arrangement for Medicare, which after 2016 will be tied to economic growth in the nominal GDP. According to one estimate, this will translate into $21 billion in cuts to health care funding over 10 years. 
          By unilaterally imposing health care funding cuts on the provinces, the Harper government is putting its own brand on a familiar prescription for privatization: scapegoat Medicare, ignore private health costs, pretend you don’t have any money, and then cut public health care to encourage privatization. 

Immigration Minister Jason Kenney, fresh off his attack on Muslim women, was the first Tory to open the campaign against Medicare--scapegoating it for cuts to social services. Suddenly a public education advocate, he claimed that public health care costs are soaring and devouring provincial budgets, Kenney stated that "For some of the provinces, if they continue in that trajectory, there will be nothing left for education, for universities, for anything else." 
            This is a common myth, repeated by the corporate media, that manipulates statistics created by decades of Tory and Liberal cuts at both federal and provincial levels. The relative rise in provincial health care budgets is a statistical effect from greater cutbacks elsewhere. According to the 2011 report, “Neat, plausible and wrong: the myth of health care unsustainability” by Canadian Doctors for Medicare (CDM): 
“The change in share of provincial budgets is not primarily due to increased health care spending. It is the result of decreases in other provincial spending to accommodate political decisions to cut taxes…Deep cuts in federal transfers to the provinces in the mid-1990s were compounded by provincial tax cutting policies in the latter part of the decade, causing significant reductions in total provincial budgets. Provincial revenues have fallen almost $30 billion since 1997, causing decreases in other government program spending through cuts to education, social services, and municipalities…It is tax cuts that have ‘crowded out’ these priorities, not Medicare”
          Overall health costs have increased, but it’s crucial to differentiate between public and private. While Medicare costs have been constant and sustainable over 30 years, overall health costs have increased—from those sources not covered by Medicare. As the CDM report explains: “The real cost driver is precisely the thing that critics of Medicare tout as the solution: private health care. Currently 30% of all health spending is in the private sector, up from 24% in 1975…the overall cost of care has been driven most significantly by the rising cost of pharmaceuticals.”
          If we want to control rising health care costs, we need to control the profit-driven private sector, federally and provincially. It’s estimated that developing a universal public pharmacare program could save $10 billion annually. But federal governments have refused to make this “efficiency”. Meanwhile a year ago the BC government slashed funding for the Therapeutics Initiative—an independent evidence-based review board that helped promote safe and affordable pharmaceuticals. 
          While ignoring the heightened costs of private medicine, the Tories are using the economic crisis to justify cutting public health care, claiming there’s no money to cover it. According to Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, "We all realize that public finances relate to revenues and we can't pretend that we can spend money that we don't have." This ignores massive tax cuts, bank bailouts and military spending sprees. While the new health plan could cut $21 billion from health, the Tories gave a $69 billion bank bailout, are wasting $220 billion on tax cuts, and have been going on a military spending spree—from $30 billion fighter jets, to $25 billion warships--as part of a $490 billion military plan.  

          But the Tories don’t want to debate the spending priorities of the 1%, so they’ve chosen to unilaterally impose cuts to the provinces, to encourage privatization. According to Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq, “This investment also provides the opportunity to put the divisive issues funding behind us to allow us all to focus on the real issue--how to improve the system so you can ensure timely access to health care when needed.” In other words, the government is trying to bury the question of federal funding—which initially comprised 50% of Medicare’s funding—in order to starve the provinces and encourage “timely access” through privatization, a strategy many provincial governments are happy to oblige. 

          This passive aggressive approach is similar to Harper's campaign against abortion: claim to "not open the debate" while imposing cuts anyways. But this is based on a position of weakness: an overwhelming majority of people support public health care, the legacy of a grassroots movement that won Medicare and continues to defend it. Public health care is not a divisive issue, it unites us, as do other issues.  
          The funding is there, not only for public health care but for all the social determinants of health: income and social equality, housing and food security, education and a clean environment. But to occupy health and health care, we need to move beyond the 1% world of tax cuts, bank bailouts, military spending and profit-driven medicine.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Attawapiskat, Katrina and imperialism

In September 2005, hundreds of thousands of people surrounded the White House under the banner "make levees, not war"--connecting the anti-war and climate justice movements in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Of all the people I saw, one captured the moment best and let me take her photo: an African-American woman holding up a hand-made sign saying "No Iraqis left me on a roof to die"-- contemporizing Mohammed Ali's famous quote against the Vietnam War. While the US government demonizes Arabs and Muslims, and spends billions on war and occupation, the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina showed that the major threat was at home--in the form of poverty, racism, environmental destruction, and cut-backs.

     "This is the Native people's Katrina moment", said an Attawapiskat resident in reaction to the current crisis. Both juxtaposed oppression and opulence--from the black community of New Orlean's 9th Ward who were left to die on rooftops in the shadow of the wealthy French Quarter, to the indigenous community of Attawapiskat who were left to die in tents in the shadow of the richest diamond mine in the Western world. Both were symptomatic of a much broader problem stemming from slavery and colonialism. As NDP Member of Parliament Charlie Angus described, in a series of articles that helped highlight the crisis:

"Attawapiskat is the tip of the iceberg for the numerous Bantustan-style homelands of the far north. Years of chronic under funding and bureaucratic indifference has created a Haiti north where dying in slow motion on ice-filled shantytown is considered the norm."

     Both government responses seemed incompetent, but were ideologically-driven: first ignoring a tragedy that affected poor and racialized communities, then scapegoating them as criminals (for accessing food or allegedly mismanaging funds), then cramming them into a sports complex, and then trying to forcibly relocate them. Both emergencies became opportunities for disaster capitalism. As Robert Lovelace explained

"The tragedy at Attawapiskat was not only predictable it was planned. The current government has promoted an ideological solution to the "Indian problem" ever since the Conservative's incubation as the Reform Party. Their strategy needs a tipping point to convince the Canadian public that it is the only, and more importantly the final, solution. If it not Kashechewan or Attawapiskat, it will be some other community taken to the depth of despair. The plan is to dissolve Reserve communities through offering them up as private property to individual band members and turning Bands into municipalities. One more step away from the legal titles and rights protected under Section 35 of the Canadian Constitution and one more step toward complete economic and social chaos in Indian country."
     To push its austerity agenda the Harper government claims to have no money and demands ordinary people pay for the economic crisis. The accusation that the people of Attawapiskat mismanaged funds is part of this broader narrative, with a specific racist focus on First Nations. The specific accusation of mismanaging $90 million was demolished by this article, and it's worth putting the $90 million into the broader context of government spending. 
     While the Harper government claims that $0.09 billion was generous for all the needs of Attawapiskat, it spends $1.4 billion on subsidizing the tar sands--which destroys indigenous lands. It plans on spending $10 billion on prison expansion--and will incarcerate a greater number of indigenous people if its draconian Bill C-10 is passed. And the Harper government plans on wasting billions on oil wars abroad--from $15 billion on fighters jets (the potential real cost of $30 billion is too big to fit on the graph), to $25 billion on naval warships. 
     Harper justifies the massive military spending on the claim that "the major threat is Islamicism", and that we need to continue the occupation of Afghanistan into its second decade. But to paraphrase--no Afghans left the people of Attawapiskat in tents to die.

     Another justification for militarism is that it can impose democracy, women's rights or development on communities who supposedly lack the ability to do so on their own. The inherent paternalism in this motive has accompanied Canadian military interventions from Afghanistan, to Haiti, to Libya, and builds on the colonialism on which Canada is based. Because the poverty and oppression that produce humanitarian crises are themselves products of colonialism and imperialism, sending more troops does not solve the problem and instead reinforces the denial of self-determination, whether in Haiti or Haiti north. So if the NDP does convince Harper to send the military to Attawaspiskat, it will become a photo-op to justify military spending and wars abroad, while doing nothing to decolonize at home. Instead we need to support the people of Attawapiskat to meet their own needs, as we collectively challenge the tar sands economy, the war and austerity of the Harper government, and colonialism. As Lovelace explained:

"The antidote for poverty is self-determination and no one can give you that. You have to stand up and take action yourself to make it happen. Colonialism does not give way on its own; it must be defeated through vigorous and enlightened opposition...Only through a convergence of our own self-determination and a willingness of Canada to decolonize can real change take place."

Saturday, October 22, 2011

How do we build the "occupy" movement?

Fuelled by the economic crisis and inspired by the Arab Spring, the Occupy Wall Street movement has spread around the world. 
    Today marks one week of the movement across Canada and Quebec. Like all movements, there are a series of debates emerging that will determine its direction and success. Is occupation a tactic or a principle? Should the focus be on the internal procedures of those actively occupying, or outreach to broader communities and struggles? How do we build a movement of the 99%?

     The occupy movement marks the re-emergence of the anti-capitalist movement. Building on years of struggle against war, climate chaos and economic crisis, it identifies these and other issues as symptoms of a massively unequal system that benefits the one per cent.
     The 99% includes poor and working class people, students, racialized and oppressed groups. The very issues at the heart of this new movement--police brutality, racism and other forms of oppression, the struggle to pay tuition and defend good jobs--creates barriers for most of the 99% to maintain a permanent outdoor occupation with police presence and long meetings during working hours.
     That is why the main strategy of the one per cent so far has been to wait for those actively occupying to become isolated. How do we build the occupy movement into a real movement of the 99%?

     The Occupy movement has been inspired by the Arab Spring, but the corporate media have perpetuated a distorted view of the Egyptian Revolution: that it was a spontaneous event, organized purely over social media, that drove dictator Hosni Mubarak from power only through the occupation of Tahrir Square, and that is over.
     Firstly, the Egyptian Revolution was a product of a decade of struggle in which occupations was one of many tactics. When the Iraq War began thousands occupied Tahrir Square, and then built other movements--from political movements for civil liberties, to economic struggles over wages.
     Secondly, while social media played a role at the start of the uprising, the state and corporations turned off all internet and cell phones, yet the revolution grew because people used  more traditional methods--meetings in neighbourhoods, workplaces and faith groups which are more accessible to a broader layer of the population.
    Thirdly, while the mainstream media were focusing on Tahrir Square, the revolution was spreading to the factories. It was when workers across Egypt began mass strikes that Mubarak was driven from power.
   Finally, while Mubarak is gone and Tahrir is no longer occupied, the Egyptian Revolution is continuing the deepen through mass strikes and protests, and occasional occupations like at series of campus occupations last month.
     The ongoing Egyptian Revolution demonstrates that societal change is a process, not an event, in which movements rely on a variety of tactics--including occupations--and where the success depends on the active participation of the working class. Had the Egyptian revolution remained confined to Tahrir Square it would not have succeeded. It needed Tahrir to spread.

     The Arab Spring inspired Wisconsin workers and students to occupy their state building for three weeks against budget cuts. Some were disappointed when the occupation ended, but it was part of the process of radicalization that triggered the occupy movement, which has gone through different phases.
     In the summer, people in New York launched “Bloombergville”, a protest camp to oppose mayor Bloomberg’s budget cuts. People camped for weeks, but without outreach to broader community and labour allies the occupation was isolated and disintegrated.
     Occupy Wall Street learned the lessons and has been successful because of outreach beyond the park.
     As a participant to both occupations told The Real News,
“what the unions and community groups bring along with them is a lot of people who have been organizing in marginalized communities and a lot of people who are hardest hit by economic crisis and also racism and sexism and all the other oppressions that we all face. So they bring those struggles here, and they also bring concrete demands because they fight around those concrete demands all the time. That’s incredibly important for this kind of movement to ground itself in very concrete struggles that are actually taking place all the time.”
     As a result of labour solidarity, bus drivers have refused to transport arrested protesters. 

     Despite claims by the Canadian state the occupy movement is not relevant here, people across Canada and Quebec know better.
     Canada is built on occupied Native land, and there has been growing solidarity with First Nations people--and participation from aboriginal activists in the occupations--fighting for self-determination against a government that denies its own colonial history, ignores missing and murdered aboriginal women, and maintains brutal conditions that spread illness and suicide on reserves.
     For years people across Canada and Quebec have also mobilized against Harper’s regime of war, Islamophobia, tar sands and austerity--and against the local “one per cent”, from the BC Liberals to the Toronto regime of Rob Ford.
     In the context of a global economic crisis, social democracy is incapable of delivering reform--and people have watched governments elected from the left (from Barack Obama in the US, to George Papandreou in Greece, to David Miller in Toronto) impose the same neoliberal agenda.
     The “orange wave” for the NDP, riding on the wave of inspiration provided by the Arab Spring, expressed people’s hopes of a better world--rather than support for the NDP platform that vowed to continue the military budget. The recent Ontario elections were much more about competing party platforms, and as a result drew the lowest voter turnout in the province’s history.
     But the occupy movement shows this is not because of apathy. Thousands of people have joined the occupy movement—the first political experience for many—as they look for an alternative outside the dominant institutions of the system that can’t offer real change.

     But like all movements there are fault lines that could fracture the movement.
     On the question of demands there are two potential dangers. The media are asking for a few simple demands that the system might accommodate, eliminating the systemic critique at the heart of the movement.  On the other hand, some participants are calling for no demands in a way that reduces the movement to the procedural form divorced from the radical content and the movements that inform it.
     A related problem to the exclusive focus on procedure is that it reduces the movement to the minority able to occupy for long hours, isolated from broader communities and struggles.
     This can give rise to seeing this group as the agent of change--through a frenetic calendar of events that the majority of people don’t have the ability to participate in, or elevating the occupation from a tactic to a principle. 
     As the temperature drops, it will become more unsustainable to maintain outdoor occupations, and prioritizing this over outreach beyond the occupation will cut the movement off from broader struggles. At Occupy Toronto there have been efforts to build beyond the park--joining the Ryerson Social Justice Week on day three, and marching with labour and community allies against the local 1% regime of Rob Ford today.
     As we’ve seen from Tahrir to Wisconsin, occupations are simply one tactic in a broader movement for change. The main strategy needs to be the active participation of masses of people—in the streets, campuses, and workplaces. Only through self-emancipation can we create a world for the 99%, by the 99%.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Ford faltering: build the September 26 Rally for Toronto

As Toronto Mayor Rob Ford confronted a second wave of deputations against the cuts, cracks are emerging in his austerity agenda. He has been forced to reduce and delay some cuts, while members of his executive are speaking out against others. This is a result of months of growing opposition, and the Rally for Toronto on September 26 can magnify the resistance for the weeks and months to come.

     Stopping the cuts is not an event but a process, which has been building since Ford took office. As I wrote in April
"On his inauguration on a cold December day, 150 people protested. On his first council meeting, a temper tantrum about “left-wing pinkos” by his invited guest Don Cherry sparked protest by councillors, while thousands of people across the city got "left-wing pinko" buttons that they continue to wear with pride. In March organizers of International Women's Day confronted Rob Ford about his cuts to public services, and that weekend thousands marched for public services and jobs…On April 9 unions joined with student and community groups to bring 10,000 people into the streets of Toronto, transforming Ford's motto "respect for taxpayers" into "respect for communities, public services and good jobs".
     Many people saw the election of Ford as a sign of a right-wing surge across the City that could not be stopped. But by bringing thousands of people into the streets just a few months into his mandate, the April 9 demonstration showed there was mass opposition to austerity and division, and this mood has continued to grow. 
     Instead of dividing the city, Ford’s boycott of Pride in June backfired and isolated him. In July a petition by Toronto Public Library Workers Union became a lightning rod when Margaret Atwood called on her supporters to sign. On July 28 the first marathon deputations spoke overwhelmingly against cuts revealing that the so-called “Ford Nation” of citizens demanding austerity was non-existent. Instead August revealed a “Jack Nation” as thousands of Torontonians covered City Hall in a rainbow of progressive messages to honour the life of Jack Layton and pledge to continue the fight for a better world. In September hundreds gathered at local organizing meetings—the Stop the Cuts meeting in the west, and a town hall meeting in the east—to discuss the cuts and organize against them.
     Left councillors have reflected the growing anti-austerity sentiment—like Adam Vaughn’s critique of KPMG—while Ford’s inner circle has started to crack, from Karen Stintz opposing library cuts to Jay Robinson opposing arts cuts.

     The specter of mass cuts, and the months of activity building against it, has produced a clear opposition to cuts in every ward, while Ford’s popularity is plummeting. Ford is responding in two ways. Firstly by backing off or delaying some cuts, hoping the anti-austerity momentum will dissipate or turn on itself before the November budget process begins. But the deputations made clear that there is a tremendous mood of unity. As Roy Mitchell said in his deputation, after presenting Ford with the “unity award”:
“Your work in unifying us ensure that we will not fight amongst ourselves. Library supporters see the value in day care, people who support livable wages also support the arts. Affordable housing is no less important than children getting healthy food at school. We have learned that the only way to make our city work is to safeguard these services and support each other in saving them.”
     Ford's other strategy--and central pillar of austerity in addition to attacking communities and services--is to attack workers and blame them for the recession. As Ford claimed recently, “the gravy is the number of employees we have at City Hall.” It was the attack on striking city workers that Ford rode to office, and his early actions included contracting out garbage workers and taking away transit workers right to strike. These attacks on jobs is part of the attacks on services.
     On Monday September 26 at 5:30pm at City Hall, there will be a mass Rally for Toronto—to save city services and defend good jobs. This is an important event in the growing process of resistance on both fronts—to reinforce the united anti-cuts opposition that will need to continue to build towards the November budget process, and to defend the jobs of working people who provide the services Torontonians care so much about. The bigger September 26 the more united and confident people will be to build all the campaigns against the cuts that will be necessary in the weeks and months to come. Posters can be downloaded from, a promotional video has gone viral and momentum is building.

See you in the streets!

Saturday, August 27, 2011

photos: continuing Jack's legacy

More than 10,000 people united to honour the life of Jack Layton and to continue his legacy. 
Many media commentators have been irritated by the "political" or "partisan" nature 
of the ceremony, as if you could separate Jack's personality from his politics, 
and as if politics played no role in why people mobilized in such large numbers. 
But it was because of the personal and the political that there has been such an 
unprecedented response to his passing. His last letter calling for love, hope 
and optimism especially hit a nerve. 

These words, along with thanks and messages of change were some of the more common words 
written all over City Hall in a rainbow of chalk in multiple languages. As people have returned 
after the rain to rewrite messages, the content has shifted to specify what kind of hope 
and what kind of change. As people move from the initial shock and grief to think 
of why Jack meant so much to him, and what continuing his legacy means to them, 
the messages have come to reflect the movements ordinary people have built--
movements that shaped Jack and that Jack shaped: 
from the pro-choice and gay rights movement, to the anti-war and labour movement, 
to supporting healthcare and the environment. 

The historic election results for the NDP, a reflection a popular surge to the left and which gives 
the potential to magnify social movements, gives people the confidence they themselves 
can change the world. 

This is why Jack's passing has not created demoralization but determination, as both the volume
and content of the chalk messages made clear right from the start: "we will defend the house
that Jack built", "we'll do our best to carry on your work, I hope we make you proud",
"we'll mourn today and continue the fight tomorrow", "you'll live on through us",
"power to the people", and "think we'll turn around? You don't know Jack!"

This collective confidence will inspire upcoming mobilizations, like the September 26 
Rally for Toronto. What better way to honour Jack than to unite all the movements and people 
that shaped him, and that he shaped, into a rally to defend the city he called home. 

Monday, August 22, 2011

Photos: Jack Layton vigil

Remembering Layton's best moments

Today progressives across Canada and Quebec are mourning the tragic death of NDP leader Jack Layton, who died of cancer at the early age of 61. As well as leading the NDP to its recent historic election results, Layton provided a number of lessons about how opposition inside and outside Parliament can work together for peace and justice.
2003 Iraq war protests
In the midst of the largest global anti-war movement in world history, Jack Layton was elected leader of the NDP, promising to help stop the war. Despite Parliament being dominated by a Liberal majority and Tory Official Opposition both intent on war (a configuration much more challenging than today), Layton united the small NDP inside Parliament with the mass demonstrations outside Parliament. This united opposition split the government, forced Chretien to say no to war, and increased the NDP vote by 1 million the next year. Under Layton's leadership the NDP -- especially Olivia Chow -- has continued its opposition to the Iraq war by supporting U.S. Iraq war resisters.
2006 opposition to the war in Afghanistan
In 2006 the anti-war movement again shaped the NDP, which officially adopted a position opposing the war in Afghanistan and calling for immediate withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan. Jack Layton became the target of the pro-war machine, who labeled him "Taliban Jack," a smear which five years later even the National Post had to retract. If the government had followed the NDP position -- which the majority of Canadians support --119 Canadians and countless Afghans would still be alive today. Instead the Conservatives and Liberals have joined to extend the war three times.
2011 historic election
Jack Layton will be most remembered for his stunning electoral success this year, leading the NDP to historic status of Official Opposition, based on historic gains in Quebec, and a historic crushing of the corporate Liberal party. Layton drew on popular anger at Harper's war and austerity, Ignatieff's complicity, and steps towards recognizing Quebec's right to self-determination. Like other electoral gains, there was also the influence of events and movements outside Parliament, as I wrote after the election results: 
"The two biggest gains for the NDP in the past 10 years happened in 2004 (after the anti-globalization and anti-war protests of 2001-2003, when the NDP gained 1 million votes and increased their popular vote by four per cent) and in this past election (after the economic crisis, mass protests in Wisconsin and ongoing revolutions across North Africa and the Middle East, when the NDP gained 2 million votes and increased their popular vote by 12 per cent). Over the past decade, these movements outside Parliament have depleted the combined corporate vote inside Parliament from 78 per cent to 58 per cent, a significant drop of 20 per cent."
2011 filibuster
Layton showed the reciprocal actions that Parliament can have on movements when he led the filibuster to support striking postal workers. This demonstrated that when confronting a Harper majority, the new Official Opposition can magnify struggles outside Parliament -- with a large and confident group of MPs that will continue Layton's legacy.
It's with these memories and others that we mourn today, and organize tomorrow.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Unethical oil

Today, "cog in the Conservative machine" Alykhan Velshi relaunched his website "ethical oil", with a series of ridiculous posters. Based on Ezra Levant's tar sands book by the same name, the posters take aim at "the world's bastards" (Iran, Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, and Sudan). As Velshi argues "When you’re filling up the tank, I think you’re indirectly funding them and their pet projects." The "ethical oil" argument counterposes "foreign oil" with Canada's tar sands--claiming that the latter promotes the environment, human rights, peace and democracy. Below are alternative posters to expose the myth of "ethical oil" and argue that a green economy free of the tar sands is the only viable future for the planet and its people.


Counterposing tar sands oil with other oil is a false dichotomy. The oil economy in general is leading the world to catastrophic climate change, and the tar sands is accelerating this process. According to Greenpeace,
"The tar sands cover an area of land the size of England, which has been divided up and leased to the world’s biggest oil companies...The tar sands use more water every day than a city of two million people and consume enough natural gas to heat six million Canadian homes. Until the oil boom, the tar sands were too expensive to be economically viable. But our global addiction to oil has us scraping the bottom of the barrel. The tar sands generate 40 million tonnes of CO2 per year, more than all the cars in Canada combined...As the fastest growing source of greenhouse gas emissions in the country, the tar sands are the main reason Canada continues to block meaningful global climate regulations. The Canadian government ignores the warnings of the scientific community by aiming for abysmal targets that will leave us at nearly double the science-based target that we need to meet to keep the increase in global temperature below 2 C and avoid catastrophic climate change."

The claim that tar sands promotes indigenous rights has been exposed by indigenous people themselves, who are leading the fight against tar sands. According to the Indigenous Environmental Network,
"Indigenous peoples (known as First Nations) in Canada are taking the lead to stop the largest industrial project on Mother Earth: the Tar Sands Gigaproject...The cultural heritage, land, ecosystems and human health of First Nation communities including the Mikisew Cree First Nation, Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, Fort McMurray First Nation, Fort McKay Cree Nation, Beaver Lake Cree First Nation Chipewyan Prairie First Nation, and the Metis, are being sacrificed for oil money in what has been termed a “slow industrial genocide”. Infrastructure projects linked to the tar sands expansion such as the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline and the Keystone XL pipeline, threaten First Nation communities in British Columbia, Canada and American Indian communities throughout the United States. Community resistance is growing and Indigenous peoples throughout North America have mounted substantive challenges to tar sands expansion."

The actions of the Harper government make the false dichotomy of "conflict oil" vs "ethical oil" obvious. As opposition Harper wanted Canada to join the oil war in Iraq, and as Prime Minister has persecuted US Iraq War resisters (with Velshi an eager participant) for trying to be ethical soldiers refusing to fight for conflict oil. While promoting the tar sands, Harper has extended the oil war in Afghanistan three times, already once extended his oil war in Libya (where NATO intervention is designed to undermine the Arab spring that threatens to overthrow all the Western-backed "bastards"), and plans on wasting billions on oil-dependent fighter jets to participate in further conflicts over foreign oil.


The claim that tar sands production supports worker's rights ignores the experience of workers themselves. Last year a tar sands workers was fired for blogging about the conditions at Fort McMurray:
"We have options for bagged lunches to take to work that includes stale vegetables that are sometimes unwashed (and occasionally are rotten/slimy), green fruit, sandwiches so high in salt it would terrify you, and a selection of donuts/cookies/cupcakes that would make Tim Horton's pale in comparison...All the vents are connected together so that if one person gets sick you are almost guaranteed to get it as well, the only answer is to stuff your vents with towels and live with stuffy stale air. It is not uncommon to have dozens of people ill, and there are occasional outbreaks of flu or cold that can affect hundreds at a time...There is no viable complaint procedure, no responsible person to notify of low quality or dangerous conditions, as camp patrons we are almost entirely helpless and at the whim of these people and they know it. This only reinforces the general resentment (or forced acceptance) of these conditions."

The simplistic and racist dichotomy between inherent Western democracy and inherent Middle East dictatorship ignores Western arms sales to dictatorships, Western political support for dictators (from Paul Martin's support for Libyan dictator Muamaar Gaddafi, to Harper's support for Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak), and Western oil companies profiting from dictatorships (like Canada's Suncor operating in Libya and Syria, as well the tar sands). Meanwhile the Harper government has ignored majority support for a green economy, highlighted last year by Greenpeace's banner drop from Parliament. According to a poll last year,
"over 70 percent of Canadians support redirecting of military spending toward efforts that reduce greenhouse gas emissions, as well as the idea of a World Climate and Justice Tribunal to judge and penalize countries and corporations whose actions have contributed climate change. Over 80 percent of Canadians believe the Canadian government should invest in “green jobs” and transition programmes for workers and communities negatively affected by a shift off of fossil fuels."
Despite attempts to greenwash the tar sands, the majority of people support a truly green economy--and movements uniting indigenous groups, environmentalists, the labour movement and the anti-war movement are working to bring for this democratic and green future to life. 

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Myths and facts about the Muslim prayer space

There’s growing hysteria against the prayer space for Muslim students at the Valley Park Middle School in Toronto. It’s claimed that it gives special treatment to Muslims, undermines public education and imposes sexism on society, and that we should support a supposedly broad-based multifaith coalition that opposes it. But this is based on a series of myths.

MYTH: the prayer space gives special treatment to Muslims and undermines secularism
FACT: the prayer spaces promotes secularism by providing equal access to public education
According to Toronto District School Board Education (TDSB) Director Chris Spence: “As a public school board, we have a responsibility and an obligation to accommodate faith needs.” With its weekends and vacations, the school calendar already accommodates students who pray on Saturday or Sunday, and those who observe Easter and Christmas. Furthermore, as Omar Qayum, a TDSB teacher pointed out,
“At my school we have Christian invocations every year during our Remembrance Day assemblies and during the Christmas holidays through carols- nobody complains! Furthermore, some schools partake in Hanukah, Diwali and Kwanza to honour their Jewish, Hindu and African-American students.”
The prayer space for Muslim students ensures that they are not excluded and forced to choose between their education and their faith. Rather than demanding the canceling of Friday classes or having Muslim students miss class, the Friday prayer space ensures no disruption to non-Muslim students while promoting access to education for Muslim students. This is the essence of secularism: equal access to public services irrespective of religion.
Banning prayer spaces undermines this principle, and there’s a history of such discrimination towards Muslims. As an article in the Ottawa Citizen reminds us:
“It's the same as the flap about civil arbitration back in 2005. For more than a decade, the government of Ontario had a system that permitted Orthodox Christians and Jews to settle family disputes according to their faith's rules provided the outcome did not violate generally applicable laws and principles. Not controversial in the least. Then a handful of Muslims asked to do the same, there was a mighty backlash, and the government scrapped the whole system.”

MYTH: the prayer space undermines public education
FACT: opposition to the prayer space is scapegoating Muslims for government cuts
The Toronto Sun claimed, that “the taxpayers are funding religious schools after all. Or at least one that we know of. If it’s not stopped now who knows where this will end up or how much it will cost.”
Firstly, taxpayers are not funding a separate Muslim prayer space, it is happening in the existing school cafeteria, organized and paid for by the local Muslim community. Secondly, we know of many religious schools that receive public funding: Catholic schools, which segregate boys and girls not only in separate prayer spaces but in separate schools.
Most importantly, the erosion of quality public education is not because of accommodation to religious minorities. Prayer spaces have not reduced education budgets and extra-curricular activities, or increased class sizes, budget cuts have. It’s no coincidence that minorities are being scapegoated in times of economic crisis and austerity measures. Britain’s conservative government is imposing massive cuts to jobs and services, including the tripling of university tuition. At the same time it’s blaming “multiculturalism” and giving confidence to extremist groups like the English Defense League who target Muslims.

MYTH: the prayer space is imposing segregation on education and society
FACT: Muslims are being scapegoated for segretation that pervades society and all its institutions
The hysteria against the prayer space gives the impression that girls and women would be liberated were it not for an optional weekly half hour Muslim prayer at one school. But segregation of the sexes exists in all religions—including the segregation of menstruating women in some orthodox Jewish communities. As Aisha Sherazi, a formal principal wrote recently, “Growing up in a Hindu family, men and women always sat separately…It is up to the Muslim community to have a debate about whether they want to have mixed prayer or not.” But the islamophobic campaign against the prayer space does not open up space for this debate, it closes it.
Furthermore the campaign suggests segregation is isolated to Muslim prayer space. But throughout society women face segregation—in pay, reproductive choice, media images that shame their bodies, and levels of violence. Campaigns in Western countries against Muslims are scapegoating them for these far broader forms of segregation, while denying that Muslim women have any agency in their own lives. In France where less than 25% of MPs are women, the government has claimed to liberate women by banning those who wear niqab from public space.
In Canada the federal Harper government refuses to investigate missing and murdered Aboriginal women, purged funding from women’s groups, imposed a maternal health plan that denies reproductive choice, and told women's groups to "shut the fuck up". As women are segregated into lower socio-economic status, Toronto Mayor Rob Ford's massive proposal of cuts will disproportionately hurt those who rely on city services--from bus routes to dental care. Why aren’t the groups up in arms over prayer space organizing protests against these policies of segregation affecting far broader population?

MYTH: a broad multi-faith coalition opposes the prayer space
FACT:  a small number of fringe groups with a history of Islamophobia oppose the prayer space
Far from being a large multi-faith opposition, the main organized opposition to the prayer space are fringe political groups with a history of Islamophobia: the Jewish Defense League (an extremist Zionist group), the Christian Heritage Party (a fringe right-wing party that calls for a moratorium on immigration from Muslim countries, and that opposes women’s choice), the Canadian Hindu Advocacy (a Hindu nationalist group whose spokesperson claimed that Islamic civilization had contributed “less to human advancement than a pack of donkeys”) and the Muslim Canadian Congress (a small group whose spokeperson Tarek Fatah has become a media darling for supporting campaigns against religious accommodation for Muslims).
It’s obvious that what unites these groups is not their love of public education or their commitment to women’s rights, but their Islamophobia. Despite their fringe numbers and beliefs, the media has helped them spark a hysterical reaction against an optional weekly half hour of prayer that doesn’t interfere with non-Muslims and which allow Muslim students to better integrate into public school—but which like all religions and most of society has some form of segregation. These groups are trying to import the politics of David Cameron and the English Defense League, paying lip service to women’s rights and public education as an excuse to whip up Islamophobia, providing a scapegoat to economic crisis and austerity.