Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Why the Parti Québécois expelled SPQ Libre

A five-year long attempt to reform the Parti Québécois as an independentist and “social-democratic” party ended abruptly on March 13 when the PQ’s national executive decided not to renew recognition of its left-wing “political club” as an authorized grouping with the party. The decision, which effectively expelled Syndicalistes et Progressistes pour un Québec Libre (SPQ Libre)[1] from the party, was promptly approved by the PQ’s conference of constituency presidents.
The PQ leadership’s move coincided with a weekend symposium sponsored by the party on the theme of reorienting Québécois toward individual enrichment in place of collective enrichment — part of an ongoing campaign to win the hearts and votes of disaffected followers of Action Démocratique du Québec. The far-right ADQ, which the PQ replaced as Official Opposition in the December 2008 general election, has since slipped catastrophically in opinion polls and now ranks just below the left-wing party, Québec solidaire.
In 2005 the PQ had amended its statutes to allow SPQ Libre to join the party as an officially recognized “club”. Party leaders, including former Premier Bernard Landry, hoped to use SPQ Libre to forestall support for Québec solidaire, which was then being formed through a fusion of left-wing organizations. SPQ Libre member Monique Richard, former president of the CSQ, was elected President of the Parti Québécois and later elected as a PQ candidate to the National Assembly. Other prominent SPQ Libre members included Vivian Barbot, former president of the Quebec Women’s Federation (FFQ) and later a Bloc Québécois MP; former PQ minister Robert Dean; and Marc Laviolette, former president of the CSN (and current SPQ Libre president).
The PQ leadership’s surprise decision to expel SPQ Libre may have been provoked by the latter’s publication on the eve of the party symposium of a major document entitled (in translation) “To grow rich sustainably is to grow rich collectively”. It argued that Quebec’s enormous achievements toward overcoming its historic development lag within Canada had been achieved since the 1960s through state action in the interests of the Quebec nation collectively, and that this — not individual profit-seeking — should continue to be the trajectory and hallmark of a sovereign Quebec. The document said the only other option, which it described as “the federalist approach” — but was clearly the direction being mapped by PQ leader Pauline Marois and her executive — was to “lighten the tax burden of the better-off while crossing our fingers [in the hope] that the monies released would not go the path of tax havens but be reinvested in Quebec.”
The group’s expulsion sent a clear signal to the media, the ADQ, and the PQ membership and potential funding sources that such talk was no longer acceptable within the party.
Québec solidaire a lifeline?
But it also raised a new question as to where the now-homeless SPQ-Libre and its supporters might find a lodging. Québec solidaire was quick to respond with a statement issued March 14 by QS leaders Amir Khadir and Françoise David. They linked the expulsion of SPQ-Libre to the pressure on the PQ of the looming confrontation between the government and the Common Front of public-sector unions, whose contracts expire at the end of March. David noted that PQ leader Marois had recently criticized the Common Front wage demands as “somewhat high”. The PQ, said David, equated wealth creation with the abandonment of social justice, “the necessary ingredient of collective prosperity”.
“To defend the public sector union members, to press for recognition of the work done by health-care personnel and an end to their impoverishment, would displease our economic élite,” said Khadir. “The PQ desperately lacks the necessary political courage to stand up to these powerful interests.”
Journalist Paul Cliche, a QS member and long-time left activist — he led the Front d’Action Populaire, or FRAP, a municipal party that challenged the electoral machine of Montréal Mayor Jean Drapeau in the early 1970s — issued his own statement: SPQ Libre members could “console themselves, for there is another sovereigntist party, one resolutely progressive and turned toward the future, which is ready to welcome them — Welcome to Québec solidaire, comrades....” And indeed, the existence of SPQ Libre, with its orientation to working within the PQ, has been an ever-present reminder of the incomplete nature of the left regroupment process that gave birth to Québec solidaire.
SPQ Libre clings to PQ
However, a QS-SPQ Libre fusion, while it would help give Québec solidaire a stronger presence and influence within the labour movement, is not on the immediate agenda. In a statement issued March 18, SPQ Libre leaders declared their intention to continue working as individual members within the PQ and urged their supporters to get elected to PQ constituency executives and become delegates to the party’s next convention, in 2011. The statement holds out the hope that the party membership will somehow challenge and reverse the leadership’s rightward turn.
A parallel statement issued on the same date by SPQ Libre said that as an independent organization its “mandate” would expand, action within the PQ now being only one component. And in an act of pure hubris, it appealed “to independentists, progressives and trade unionists, whether members of the PQ or Québec solidaire or without a party” ... “to join our ranks”!
These statements, notwithstanding their defiant tone, confirm the hopelessness of the SPQ Libre strategy. As they relate, the group had complied with the PQ registration and filing requirements; its members had been “good soldiers”, running as PQ candidates in elections, publicly voting in favour of the party’s election platforms, loyally attempting to advance their positions within the party structures. Where they spoke out independently, as in newspaper articles published in their name, it had been to support strikes, oppose the war in Afghanistan, criticize cutbacks in healthcare, etc. — “current matters that are not contentious within the PQ, at least we hope so”.
In party debates, they had achieved “more victories than defeats” — winning party support for a resolution on nationalization of wind-power generation (soon disavowed by the party leader), another resolution to make French the sole language of instruction in the publicly funded junior colleges, proposals in favour of electrification of urban and inter-urban transportation, etc., while suffering defeat on such issues as ending government subsidies to private schools, or a proposal to allow a referendum on popular initiative, independently of government policy.[2]
But they had been accused of conducting their debates publicly instead of confining them to the party’s institutions. Fair enough, said SPQ Libre, but “it is hard to develop coherent thinking in two-minute interventions in the Constituency Presidents Council or the National Council, which meet only twice a year and where we had only one and two delegates, respectively.” And SPQ Libre was seldom invited to participate in party consultations. Furthermore, there was no attempt to use the new technologies to facilitate internal debate. “By new technologies, we don’t mean Twitter [which is offered on the PQ website]. Sorry, we’re willing to be concise, but 140 characters, that’s not enough for us!”
And now, despite all the efforts of SPQ Libre, the PQ seemed determined to “appease Capital”. Why was Pauline Marois questioning the wage demands of the Common Front? “We deplore the absence of any reference to the union movement in the new PQ discourse.... Any use of the words “ouvrier”, “travailleur” or “populaire” seems to be banished. Understandably, the existence of a political club including the word “syndicalistes” in its title could grate on some ears.”
More hope in the Bloc?
In short (although SPQ Libre does not say so), the Parti Québécois is what its left critics have long maintained: a bourgeois party, wholly committed to upholding capitalism, incapable of envisaging any reforms that might offer a perspective beyond the narrow horizon of neoliberalism. The PQ’s fundamental raison d’être is to use the resources of a “sovereign” state to enhance the standing and wealth of a narrow class of homespun Quebec capitalists who themselves are inextricably tied through investments and outlook to the economic and social system that oppresses the majority of Québécois. This party cannot be the vehicle for a truly independent and progressive Quebec.
It may be that many of SPQ Libre’s original members had already drawn that lesson. Although it boasted an initial membership of about 800, the group was down to some 400 or so by this year, and had just filed a list of 313 party members’ names with the PQ while promising a dozen more to follow. Québec solidaire already includes some former SPQ Libre members, and can hope for more in the future. Other members have simply been absorbed by the Parti Québécois; for example, Monique Richard, the former president of SPQ Libre and now a PQ MNA, did not oppose the club’s expulsion.
While continuing to hold individual memberships in the PQ, the SPQ Libre leadership seems to hold out greater hope for the federal Bloc Québécois, judging by a major article in the March issue of the monthly journal L’aut’journal. Pierre Dubuc, who doubles as the journal’s editor and SPQ Libre secretary, used the occasion of the Bloc’s 20th anniversary since its founding to score some points against the PQ leadership and to outline an optimistic perspective of a new rise in the Quebec independence movement in response to trends within the Canadian federal state. Dubuc praised the Bloc as a party more conscious of the federalist threat to Quebec than its sister party in Quebec City, the PQ, attributing this firmness in part to the presence of leading trade union figures in its parliamentary deputation. Dubuc is a talented journalist and a perceptive observer of Quebec and Canadian politics with a remarkable facility to articulate the historical perspective that informs the Quebec independence project, and his article, which I have translated below, merits careful reading.
There is one notable omission, however, in Dubuc’s comparison of the Bloc with the PQ. As I explained in a previous post, while the PQ is waging an Islamophobic campaign for a complete ban on public service employment and provision of government-funded services to anyone wearing conspicuous symbols of their religious faith (such as the hijab or Muslim headscarf), the Bloc supports what it terms “open secularism” and is more receptive to accommodation of public displays of the beliefs of religious and ethnic minorities. Dubuc’s L’aut’journal, however, has itself been conducting a retrograde Islamophobic campaign of its own. Louise Mailloux, a regular columnist in the journal, has written many articles not only attacking “reasonable accommodation” of minority religious beliefs, and in particular Muslims, but viciously attacking Québec solidaire leader Françoise David for her party’s support of “open secularism”.
Differences of this nature, on an important question of principle, could prove a major if not insuperable obstacle — at least in the short run — to a fusion between SPQ Libre and Québec solidaire.
-- Richard Fidler

Bloc Québécois celebrates 20 years of resistance
by Pierre Dubuc
“We are resisting Canada’s attempts to reduce Quebec to the rank of a province like the others. That’s what we are: resisters! That’s what a great Québécois, a great sovereigntist — Pierre Vadeboncoeur — said about the Bloc, and he was a thousand times right. For the time being, we are resisters. But yesterday’s resisters will be tomorrow’s winners.”
With these words Gilles Duceppe, the leader of the Bloc Québécois, closed the party’s General Council meeting held on the occasion of the Bloc’s 20th anniversary. It is the use of this beautiful expression, “resisters”, which admirably describes the role played by the Bloc in Ottawa, that has offended [Foreign Affairs Minister] Lawrence Cannon, [Opposition Liberal leader] Michael Ignatieff and other leading lights among the federalists.
The use of the word “resister” no doubt reminded them too much of these words — “Tonight, here and throughout my journey, I found myself in an atmosphere similar to that of the Liberation” — pronounced by General de Gaulle on the balcony of [Montreal’s] City Hall before his famous cry: “Vive le Quebec libre”, Long Live Free Quebec.
The then Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson, and today’s politicians, do not like to be compared to an army of occupation. But they’re as thick as thieves when it comes to multiplying the legal and constitutional obstacles to Quebec’s accession to national independence.
What’s more, following the 1995 referendum, Stephen Harper tabled a bill advocating partition of Quebec’s territory in the event of a victory of the sovereigntist camp. As for Michael Ignatieff, he greeted the imposition of the War Measures Act by Pierre Elliott Trudeau in 1970 and says the Québécois should rejoice at the British Conquest because it brought them democracy.
Who is naive enough to believe that these habitués of dirty tricks — the 1995 “love-in”, the sponsorship scandal, etc. — would not be tempted by a power grab should the Yes side win in a coming referendum? As the old adage goes, “It’s always the dominant class that puts the bayonet on the agenda.”
To prevent possible excesses along these lines, we have only one response: the broadest possible mass mobilization. And the only real organizational base in a position to orchestrate such a deployment is the trade-union movement. This was demonstrated anew on March 20, with the demonstration of 75,000 people of the Common Front in the streets of Montreal.
Is it the ongoing association with the hard-line federalists in Ottawa? Is it because they have a close view of the workings of the federal machine? Whatever it is, the Bloc Québécois seems to have a better grasp of this elementary fact in our liberation struggle than its sister party in Quebec City. Its trajectory since its founding 20 years ago is remarkable in this regard. From a nationalist coalition of Conservative MPs — remember, the Bloc is a split from the Progressive Conservative Party — it has evolved into a nationalist party in which the social-democratic forces are strongly represented.
The Bloc and its leader have woven some tight links with the trade-union movement, and a fair number of its MPs come from it — in addition to Gilles Duceppe himself, there are the likes of Pierre Paquette, Luc Desnoyers, Francine Lalonde and Yves Lessard. And it does not seem that this proximity with the union movement has been a millstone; the Bloc has won all six elections in which it has participated.

The Bloc’s presence in Ottawa has placed a log-jam in Canadian politics, preventing the formation of a majority government. For decades Liberals and Conservatives succeeded each other in office, the Conservatives allying with Quebec nationalists in order to succeed. It was only with the support of Maurice Duplessis that John Diefenbaker was able to form a majority government, and Brian Mulroney could not have been elected without the assistance of René Lévesque when he exchanged sovereignty for the “beau risque”.

Stephen Harper thought he could repeat the exploit with his recognition of the Québécois nation and granting Quebec a seat at UNESCO, but that was without taking into account the presence of the Bloc Québécois.
Today, Liberals and Conservatives alike know they can no longer hope to make enough gains in Quebec to form a majority government. So what is to be done? They think they have found the magic recipe in the overhaul of the electoral map. In the last three Throne speeches, Stephen Harper has promised legislation along these lines, but without ever following through. For now.
This week the Mowat Centre for Policy Innovation, linked to the University of Toronto, published a study on the distortions of the electoral map that passed almost unnoticed in the Francophone press but attracted much comment in the Anglophone press.
Canada’s demographic evolution has produced serious distortions in the fundamental principle of any democracy, representation by population. The provinces of Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia, whose populations have grown rapidly over recent decades, are under-represented in the House of Commons. In fact, according to the Mowat Centre, 61% of the Canadian population are under-represented at Ottawa.
Since two provisions of the Canadian Constitution provide that a province cannot have fewer MPs than Senators or fewer seats than it had in 1985, the solution involves adding MPs in the provinces where the population has increased. According to the calculations of the Mowat Centre, to comply with the principle of representation by population it would be necessary to add 11 seats in Ontario, 4 in British Columbia and 3 in Alberta. Ontario has already demanded 21 additional seats on the basis of other calculations.
Irrespective of the exact number of additional MPs granted to these three provinces, it will be sufficient to allow the formation of a majority government without Quebec.
The overhaul of the electoral map has not yet taken place, but the Liberals, the Conservatives and the entire federalist political class are already functioning as if it was a fait accompli. Quebec was absent from the Throne speech and the budget speech, just as it was at the Olympic Games in Vancouver.
Once Quebec has become aware of its marginalization within Canada — the inevitable result of losing its demographic weight, which is irreversible in the short term — you can bet that this will provoke a shock wave as powerful as the one provoked in the late 1960s by the discovery of the decline of French in Quebec as a result of the fall in the Francophone birthrate and the anglicization of the Allophones that produced the riots in Saint-Léonard and the adoption of several language laws prior to the enactment of the Charter of the French Language!
Of course, some voices will be raised to beg for recognition of a special status for Quebec. The voices of those who have already forgotten the rejection of the minimum conditions in the Meech Lake Accord. The voices of those who will not understand that English Canada is no longer prepared to make concessions to Quebec.
After the Conquest, only our demographic weight obliged England to make concessions in the form of the Quebec Act of 1774, to prevent Quebec from joining in the American Revolution. Later, it was only our numerical weight that made Canada a federation instead of a unitary state. Now that this obstacle has been lifted in part, Canada can be built without and even against Quebec.
We have already had the proof of this in two votes on a matter of crucial importance: the extension of the mission in Afghanistan. Is there anything more important in politics than war and peace? Quebec, through its parliamentary representatives in Ottawa, voted in the majority against. But that did not prevent Canada from being at war, from sending its soldiers — including those from Quebec — into combat, from spending billions of dollars on weapons, almost a quarter of it from the pockets of the Québécois.
As Gilles Duceppe was saying, thanks to the Bloc Québécois Quebec resists Canada’s attempts to reduce Quebec to the rank of a province like the others. And we take this 20th anniversary as the occasion to pay tribute to the work accomplished by the Bloc and its leader. But it is obvious that nothing will stop the federal steamroller if we do not put the question of national independence on the agenda, as quickly as possible.
Translated from L’aut’journal, March 26, 2010

[1] The name translates freely as Trade-unionists and progressives for a Free Québec.
[2] An op-ed article in Le Devoir by Jean Baribeau, the SPQ Libre treasurer, however, presented a different balance sheet. The group, he said, had “sparked many debates, had some successes and suffered many defeats”.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Quebec government bows to witch-hunt against immigrants and cultural minorities

With its Bill 94, introduced last week in the Quebec National Assembly, the Liberal government has joined the crusade against Muslims and other minorities. The bill would deny government-funded health care, education and child care services to all whose clothing prevents disclosure of their face, and would bar them from government and public-service employment.

The bill patently targets a tiny number of Muslim women who wear niqabs (which limit facial visibility to their eyes) or burqas (which totally conceal the face). However, as an initial limitation on universality of public services and equal job opportunities, the government’s action has encouraged the loud voices calling for a ban on the hijab or scarf worn by thousands of Muslim women, as well as further dress code restrictions that would affect the rights of other religious and cultural minorities to jobs and services.

The bill is already being termed the “Naïma law” in reference to a Muslim immigrant of Egyptian origin, Naïma Amed, who was recently expelled by the government from French-language classes she was taking in order to practice her profession as a pharmacist. Amed, who wears a niqab, was told repeatedly and insistently to remove it — although she had lowered her veil many times, to be photographed for her student identification card and then on numerous occasions in class at the request of the teacher and despite the presence of the male students. Expelled from one language school, she was studying at another when the immigration ministry found out and interrupted her during an exam to expel her.

The case was widely publicized — and very inaccurately reported — in the Quebec Francophone media. Although Muslim organizations report that at most a couple dozen women among the 200,000 Muslims in Quebec wear the niqab or burqa — the human rights commission recently reported that out of 146,000 people served in provincial health insurance board offices in 2008-09, 10 were veiled — Naïma Amed’s ordeal fueled the growing debate in Quebec over “reasonable accommodation” of minority cultural practices. A Manifesto for a Pluralist Quebec, advocating an “open secularism” that respects freedom of conscience in a context of state neutrality, was countered recently by a Declaration of Intellectuals for Secularism calling for a ban on all personal displays of “religious signs” such as the Muslim hijab in public institutions. The self-proclaimed “intellectuals” who signed it include prominent nationalist politicians, academics and trade unionists.

Bill 94 is draconian in its provisions. Montreal Gazette columnist Don Macpherson asks whether it could be “invoked to refuse emergency medical treatment in a non-life-threatening situation to an injured woman wearing a niqab? Or to bar a girl from publicly-funded schools if she starts to wear the face veil when she reaches puberty, as some Muslim women do?” That, he says, is “what Premier Jean Charest and his justice minister, Kathleen Weil, have implied is the intent of the bill.”

Macpherson notes that the bill

“would establish a ‘general practice’ that during ‘the delivery of services’ by a public employee to an individual, both would have to ‘show their face.’ This practice would apply even when it is not necessary for security reasons or identification purposes. So a niqabi, as women wearing Muslim face veils are called, who requests an income-tax form at a government service counter could be turned away. And the bill provides no specific exceptions for emergencies.”

The bill says an “adaptation” of the practice could be made if “dictated by the right to equality” under the Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms. But, as Macpherson notes,

“The Quebec Charter recognizes a right to assistance only for someone ‘whose life is in peril.’ And Bill 94 would take precedence over every law and regulation other than the Quebec and Canadian charters of rights. But, as its title says, the bill would establish only ‘guidelines.’ It would be up to each department, body, or institution to ensure compliance. So the bill could be interpreted differently from one school board to another. The court system could be clogged with challenges.”

The Official Opposition in the National Assembly, the Parti Québécois, has denounced Charest’s bill and calls for a blanket ban on public employment or delivery of publicly-funded services to anyone wearing a symbol of his or her religious belief. This would conceivably cover not only hijabs, niqabs and burqas but Christian crucifixes, Jewish kippahs and Sikh kirpans.

In fact, the kirpan — a ceremonial dagger worn concealed in the clothing of a Sikh male — was the symbol at issue in a 2006 Supreme Court of Canada judgment that was widely attacked by hard-line secularists in Quebec. When Gurbaj Singh Multani was pulled out of a French-language school because he was wearing a kirpan, he had to enrol in an English private school. When the court upheld his right to wear the kirpan, he greeted its ruling as a sign that young Sikhs could now attend French school and become integrated into Quebec society — a right the school’s decision had denied him. The parallels with Naïma Amed’s case are striking.

(Incidentally, Bill 94’s legislative sponsor, Attorney General Kathleen Weil, forged her legal career as counsel for Alliance Quebec, a federally-funded Anglophone lobby group that fought tooth and nail against Quebec’s popular Charter of the French Language, a.k.a. “Bill 101”.)

It was precisely the need to find ways to accommodate minority religious and cultural practices as a means of integrating them into Quebec society, in which French is the common language of public discourse, that has fostered the concept of “open secularism”. The concept was embraced by the government-appointed Bouchard-Taylor commission on accommodation practices, which recommended in its 2008 report that there be no such ban on the display of religious signs other than for “state agents in a position of authority” such as judges and police officers. A commission official, Pierre Bosset, recently told the newspaper Le Devoir that their recommendation had been directly inspired by a brief to the commission from the Bloc Québécois, the pro-sovereignty party in the federal Parliament. The Bloc’s parliamentary leader, Pierre Paquette, has told Le Devoir that its position remains the same; it is the PQ, which took a similar stance with the B-T commission, that has now changed its position. The PQ claims to advocate “la laïcité tout court” (plain secularism), although it recently voted with the other parties to retain the giant crucifix hanging in the legislature. None of the major parties opposes property and other tax breaks for the churches, including the Catholic church that bars women from the priesthood.

The federal leaders of the Conservatives and Liberals support Bill 94. A spokesman for Prime Minister Stephen Harper says it “makes sense”. Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff says it is a “good Canadian balance”.

What about Québec solidaire, Quebec’s new left-wing party? At its convention last November, QS delegates voted by a substantial majority for a resolution favouring a “model of secularism” that combined neutrality of public institutions with individual freedom to express or display one’s own convictions. And they opposed dress codes that would restrict access to public services or employment, subject to exceptions for religious signs “used as instruments of proselytism”, interfering with a “duty of discretion” or violating safety or job performance standards.

How, then, is one to explain the qualified support for Bill 94 expressed by Amir Khadir, Québec solidaire’s lone MNA? In a statement posted on the party’s web site, Khadir says the government “has taken a step toward establishing guidelines on accommodation, which comes down to explicitly interpreting the notion of accommodation.” He says “it is reasonable, for example, to prohibit those holding positions of authority, such as police officers, judges or other peace officers, from wearing religious signs”. And he calls on the government to be “more active in ensuring equality of men and women when that equality is threatened by religious fundamentalisms.”

Religious “fundamentalists” are what the government claims it is attacking, when in reality it is the right of minorities to dress according to their religious beliefs. Niqabs and burqas are not in themselves evidence of fundamentalism. True, for many of us, they are symbols of patriarchy and women’s oppression. But for some Muslim women they are simply an integral expression of their private religious belief. In fact, the government’s bill does not “interpret the notion of accommodation”; it recognizes no right to accommodation. Instead, it limits the rights of some Québécois to jobs and services. It does not even mention religion — no doubt in an attempt to immunize it legally and constitutionally as a violation of religious freedom. Any why not allow cops and judges to wear insignia of their religious beliefs; wouldn’t that be more transparent than fostering the illusion that they are neutral in such matters?

Let us hope that the members of Québec solidaire will challenge and correct Khadir’s initial reaction to the bill, which now goes to public debate as it wends it way through the legislative process.

Let me conclude with some quotations from a hard-hitting comment by Sheetal Pathak in the McGill Daily. Her article bears careful reading:

“Why do we want to ban the niqab? It is at least partly because many consider it a symbol of patriarchy. Apparently we think we live in a post-feminist utopia where only the niqab and practices of “other” cultures are symbols of patriarchy. Marriage is a symbol of patriarchy. You know the part where the father gives away the bride, because she used to belong to her father, but now she belongs to the groom? It’s a symbol of an ancient and current practice of what Gayle Rubin called the traffic in women. So, let’s ban marriage! Any takers? No? Hmm.

“Furthermore, feminism and women’s liberation is about choice. Empowerment is about choice. Let’s say it again, folks, CHOICE. It is her body, and her choice how to dress it. In no way is it legitimate for anyone to question her decisions. She should not have to explain her reasons."

Referring to Naïma Amed’s frustrated efforts to learn French, Pathak notes: “After being expelled from CEGEP St. Laurent, she did not give up; she found herself another French class in which to enrol. Subsequently, when denied again, she filed a human rights complaint against the province. These are not the actions of someone who is isolated or unwilling to integrate in Quebec society.” Yet “Quebec officials and politicians, the people who speak for us, refused to allow her to participate in Quebec society — all because of an over-politicized piece of cloth. All in all, wearing a niqab seems to be a tough gig....”

Tough gig, indeed. And Bill 94 will make it that much tougher, as well as fueling the mounting crusade against immigrants and minorities.

-- Richard Fidler

Friday, March 26, 2010

Profs protest university scholarship program promoting Canadian military

Congratulations to the 16 professors at the University of Regina who have sent a letter to the university’s president Vianne Timmons saying it should withdraw from the program known as “Project Hero”. The program, an initiative of Rick Hillier, a retired general, offers free tuition to the children of dead Canadian soldiers. Hillier, as Chief of the Defense Staff, was notorious for his war-mongering propaganda about killing Afghan resistance “scumbags”. In addition to the thousands of Afghans killed by Canadian forces, close to 140 Canadian soldiers have died in that country, and thousands more have been permanently disabled physically or mentally.

According to the Globe & Mail, “Several universities have signed onto the program, including Memorial University in Newfoundland and the universities of Ottawa, Windsor and Calgary. The University of Regina announced earlier this month that it would provide the scholarship starting in September.”

The professors’ letter says Project Hero is “a glorification of Canadian imperialism in Afghanistan and elsewhere.” Instead of “privileging the children of deceased Canadian soldiers,” it says, “we suggest that our administration demand all levels of government provide funding sufficient for universal qualified access to post-secondary education.”

The professors’ action has been met, predictably, by a storm of criticism in the corporate media and denunciation by the Royal Canadian Legion, which purports to speak for military veterans.

The Globe quotes political science prof Joyce Green, who signed the letter: The program “conflates heroism with the death of individuals who are in the military service and we think that the death of individuals is always a tragic matter, but we think that heroism is something different,” Ms. Green said.

“When you attach heroism to the deaths of the military, it makes it very difficult, maybe impossible for us to talk about what’s going on, what the nature of our military engagement is. In other words, it shrinks the space for democratic discussion and criticism of military policy in Canada and in the university.”

Few media outlets have actually published the text of the letter. Here it is:

Dear President Timmons:

We write to you as concerned faculty members of the University of Regina, to urge you to withdraw our university immediately from participation in the “Project Hero” scholarship program. This program, which waives tuition and course fees, and provides $1,000 per year to “dependents of Canadian Forces personnel deceased while serving with an active mission”, is a glorification of Canadian imperialism in Afghanistan and elsewhere. We do not want our university associated with the political impulse to unquestioning glorification of military action.

“Project Hero” is the brainchild of Kevin Reed, a 42-year-old honorary lieutenant-colonel of an army reserve unit in southwestern Ontario, who has said publicly he was inspired by the work of retired Canadian General Rick Hillier. General Hillier, one of the most controversial figures in the recent military history of this country, was the first to introduce “Project Hero” at a Canadian post-secondary institution, just after he took up the post as Chancellor of Memorial University of Newfoundland. Since then, a number of other public Canadian universities have come on board.

In our view, support for “Project Hero” represents a dangerous cultural turn. It associates “heroism” with the act of military intervention. It erases the space for critical discussion of military policy and practices. In signing on to “Project Hero”, the university is implicated in the disturbing construction of the war in Afghanistan by Western military- and state-elites as the “good war” of our epoch. We insist that our university not be connected with the increasing militarization of Canadian society and politics.

The majority of young adults in Canada find it increasingly difficult to pay for their education. If they do make it to university, they rack up massive student debts which burden them for years. Instead of privileging the children of deceased Canadian soldiers, we suggest that our administration demand all levels of government provide funding sufficient for universal qualified access to post-secondary education.

The University of Regina has always been closely tied to our Saskatchewan community, and the strategic plan, mâmawohkamâtowin, means "co-operation; working together towards common goals". We do not think that “Project Hero” is a common goal chosen by those of us who work in the University; it is not drawn from the values of this institution. We think it is incompatible with our understanding of the role of public education, or with decisions made by a process of collegial governance.

In addition to withdrawing from “Project Hero”, we think the issues we raise should be publicly debated. We are calling on the U of R administration to hold a public forum on the war in Afghanistan, and Canadian imperialism more generally, at which the issues we raise can be debated. This forum should be open to all; it should take place this semester, before exams, as “Project Hero” is set to start at U of R in September 2010.

To summarize, we are calling for:

(1) The immediate withdrawal of our university from “Project Hero”.

(2) An institutional deployment of public pressure on both orders of government to provide immediate funding sufficient for universal access to post-secondary education.

(3) A public forum on the war in Afghanistan and Canadian imperialism more generally to be held this semester before exams begin.


Joyce Green, Department of Political Science

J.F. Conway, Department of Sociology and Social Studies

George Buri, Department of History

Emily Eaton, Department of Geography

Jeffery R. Webber, Department of Political Science

David Webster, International Studies

Annette Desmarais, International Studies

Darlene Juschka, Women’s and Gender Studies and Religious Studies

Meredith Rogers Cherland, Faculty of Education

Garson Hunter, Social Work

John W. Warnock, Department of Sociology and Social Studies

William Arnal, Department of Religious Studies

Leesa Streifler, Department of Visual Arts

Carol Schick, Faculty of Education

Ken Montgomery, Faculty of Education

André Magnan, Department of Sociology and Social Studies"

UPDATE: Since I posted this report, I have received the following note:

The 15 signatories are under serious attack by the far right calling on the administration for their jobs (four of are non-tenured). Saskatchewan's federal member of parliament is demanding that they publicly apologize, and the premier of the province, Brad Wall, has denounced them.

The signatories of the letter are asking that you distribute this letter and call for solidarity far and wide so as to generate letters and campaigns of support for resistance to expressions of Canadian imperialism on campus and the 15's right to freedom of expression.

To express solidarity please send letters of support for the Regina 15, and against Project Hero and Canadian imperialism, to University of Regina President Vianne Timmons, Vianne.Timmons@uregina.ca and Vice-President Academic, Gary Boire, Gary.Boire@uregina.ca.

Please send a copy of the letters to jeffery.webber@uregina.ca.

Thank you, and solidarity,

Supporter of the Regina 15

Examples of news coverage, criticism, and threats of attacks against the Regina 15:





Thursday, March 25, 2010

'Free speech' hypocrisy over Ann Coulter

I didn't attend the protests over US right-wing shock jock Ann Coulter's meeting at University of Ottawa on Tuesday night -- I was at the book launch for the new Canadian edition of Ian Angus's book, The Global Fight for Climate Justice (congratulations, Ian) -- but I wonder if there isn't an important lesson for the left in the public uproar over "free speech" that has erupted in the wake of Coulter's cancellation of her appearance.

Briefly, for those who haven't seen the extensive coverage in the Canadian press, Coulter was invited by the campus Conservative club to address a public meeting as part of her three-city tour sponsored by the ultraright "International Free Press Society". This society is headed by Ezra Levant, a former Tory MP who once republished the infamous Danish anti-Mohammed cartoons in an obscure on-line publication. Angered by reports of Coulter's racist, Islamophobic, homophobic and just plain reactionary views -- she's a commentator on Fox News -- the University student union moved to prohibit posters advertising the meeting and called on the university to ban Coulter's appearance. A Facebook group was formed to urge readers to attend and disrupt the talk, but also to sign a petition "to ban Ann Coulter from our campus". It was publicized by, among others, the International Socialists.

The University did not ban the meeting, but its vice-president academic and provost, François Houle, sent Coulter an email warning her that under Canada's criminal and defamation laws she should be mindful not to make herself liable for "promoting hatred" against an "identifiable group". Whatever his intentions -- the letter could, on its face, be construed as sound legal advice -- Houle's message, not the criminal legislation itself, was seized on by a range of right-wing commentators as an infringement of "free speech". In this polarized atmosphere, between one and two thousand students showed up to protest Coulter's speech, most of them unable to make their way into the meeting room which could accommodate only 400. Coulter's organizers then cancelled her appearance, citing "security" concerns. Student federation president Seamus Wolfe was exultant: "I'm proud students came together to prevent Ann Coulter -- someone who has constantly waded well into the territory of hate speech -- from using a public institution as a soapbox to spread her vile message," he was reported as saying.

The right wing lost no time in turning the incident into an attack on the left and progressive causes, all in the name of "free speech". Typical is the lead editorial in today's Ottawa Citizen, entitled "Mob rules at the U of O". It cites "the spectacle at the University of Ottawa" as an example of the "thuggery of student activists... a growing problem at Canadian campuses". As examples of what it termed "totalitarianism on Canadian campuses", the editorial cited a protest at Montréal's Concordia University that "prevented Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu from speaking", and alleged harassment of "pro-life student groups". And, of course, the recent week of activities on the city's campuses sponsored by Students Against Israeli Apartheid was mentioned -- although in the editorial's version, "no one threatened to assault the organizers or disrupt the event." In fact, last year the administration at Carleton University banned the poster advertising that event, and university and government officials across Canada have harassed students and others who are critical of Israel.

These "free speech" protests are sheer hypocrisy. Where was the Ottawa Citizen, or all the other right-wing defenders of "free speech", when British MP George Galloway was banned by the government from entering Canada for an antiwar speaking tour? Or just last week, when Palestinian MP Mustafa Barghouti was denied a visa to attend anti-Zionist events in Canada? Or the recent government funding cuts to church groups and rights organizations that have assisted Palestinians or been critical of Israel's policies? As Globe & Mail columnist Lawrence Martin notes today (in an exception to most of the news coverage of the U of O incident), for the Tory government, "freedom of expression depends on the type of expression". It's OK for an Ann Coulter. But not for many others, including government officials and whistle-blowing civil servants who don't toe the government's line. Martin cited a whole series of such incidents. The Coulter incident, in fact, gave the real censors of free speech and transparency a pretext to pass themselves off as democrats when the reality is quite otherwise.

I think it was inspiring to find so many students willing to protest the views of Coulter and her Conservative friends. But, for what it's worth, I think the student union and its supporters should have given more thought to the message they wished to convey. The same student leaders have in recent years had to fight for their right to speak out on the campuses and elsewhere in opposition to Israeli Apartheid and in defense of other progressive causes. Why should they place themselves in a position to be portrayed as opponents of the free speech of others? It is one thing to protest the content of Coulter's message, another to call on the university or other authorities to ban her meeting. An effective protest might have included, in addition to the protest outside, an organized attempt to ensure critical attendance at the meeting, where her views could be confronted and challenged.

And we need to be wary of legal restrictions on speech such as the "hate propaganda" provisions in the Criminal Code. More often than not, they will be used against the left, not the right. Hate-propaganda bans give the state further weapons in criminalizing dissent -- as we see when the likes of Jason Kenney, Canada's Immigration minister, threaten to use it against the campaign for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against Israel.

-- Richard Fidler