Is the disappearance of solidarity our most imminent threat?

Notre-Dame Basilica

Notre-Dame Basilica

On the morning of November 9, 2016, many NWSA members packed their bags and went to Montreal to attend the National Women Studies Association conference. I was one of them. Our families and friends joked, “Please come back,” because for several weeks, Americans who feared a Trump presidency swore they would leave the country if the unthinkable happened. The unthinkable did happen. And I, along with my fellow members, had to somehow get our dispirited selves together and make the trip.

Arriving in Montreal felt like a breath of fresh air: we were greeted by narrow streets, ivy covered brick walls, flowers on the balconies, the sound of French, French cuisine, Chinatown, Notre Dame. The conference focused on the theme of decolonizing, the tensions facing indigenous communities, transnational views of political issues, and so on.

On Saturday, my friends from the South Asian caucus and an African-American professor went for lunch in the old town and walked up to Notre Dame. A woman who was at the entrance said the church was closed; it had closed just 5 minutes back. We asked if we could just step in for a few minutes since we were leaving back to the U.S. the next day. She said in a hostile tone that the church was closed and would open for Mass at 5 pm. So we spent some time taking pictures and went to the gift shop adjoining the church. The woman there said she would be closing in 10 minutes. She repeated this a few times. I said, “We heard,” and she said, “in case you are caught off guard.” I was surprised at her choice of words. One of my friends bought a tiny statue of the Virgin of Guadalupe, and we left feeling we were not welcome.

My friend Fawzia, a fan of Leonard Cohen, wanted to stay for Mass where a tribute was being paid to him. The rest of us left back to the hotel. Later that evening, a traumatized Fawzia called us and we ran to meet her in the conference center. She was visibly shaken. She said that after we had left, she had hung around the steps of the cathedral for a while and went up to the guard who asked her to come back in 15 minutes, and that the Mass will be in French. So Fawzia stopped at a store across the church and bought something and went back after a few minutes. The guard again intoned that the Mass will be in French. At this point, a stream of people were entering the church. When Fawzia joined the line, the guard stopped her and said “Not you. The Mass is in French.” At this point Fawzia spoke to her in French that she was planning to stay for the Mass and why was she letting the white people enter but not her. Another guard then joined her and came close to her with his hand up and told her to go away. Fawzia immediately said she would not and why were they being racist. A third woman joined the guards and blocked Fawzia’s way. The first guard said she found her aggressive and the second guard threatened to call the police. At this point Fawzia said they could call the police if they wanted. She took out her camera and began taking their pictures. The first guard quickly shielded her face. The other two continued to block the entrance. People who witnessed the scene passed by even though Fawzia said loudly to them that she was not being allowed into the church and only white people were being let in.

She took a cab and burst into tears and told the cab driver what happened and wondered if this was what Montreal was like. The cab driver said he was sorry she had this experience.

Our collective illusion that Canada was somehow going to be a reprieve from our fear of the beginning of the nightmare that had unfolded in the U.S. was just that—an illusion. The reality, as our Canadian feminist friends reminded us, was the history of white supremacy in Canada and the U.S. alike. Canada was also fighting the fracking war; immigrants who were people of color have had a rough history there; indigenous populations continue to face a wall that Fawzia and her friends were up against. The wall is that of white hegemony; the Anglo-French war of old resurfaces from time to time in Montreal and immigrants get caught in its midst.

The hands that pushed her away are the hands that push away migrants heading into European countries, the hands that push away the disenfranchised, the impoverished, the asylum seekers, the refugees. It is important to recognize the wave of fascism that we are currently seeing in the U.S. –with the Trump Presidency being heavily endorsed by the KKK and neo Nazi and white supremacist groups—is now giving the nod to right wing forces in France, Belgium, Germany, and Hungary. Turkey has already noted the progress of demagoguery in the U.S. and is engaged in a wave of arrests of journalists and intellectuals. Putin is happy that he has an ally. The makers of Brexit also have in Trump an ally so the unwanted minorities can be deported or eliminated. Transnationally, racism and xenophobia are ruling out inclusion and democratic processes.

The following morning, at 7:30, a few members of NWSA and the local South Asian women’s group held a protest outside Notre Dame. The held a pink sari as a banner on which they had pinned the sign of the South Asian Women’s Community Center and signs that read “Love Not Hate,” while one of the members took pictures and a video to be sent to media outlets. Fortunately, the protest ended peacefully. There was no police presence or arrests.

Those of us from abroad may want to ponder what it means to protest in a foreign country; what it means for a conference whose headquarters is in a foreign country to show its support to its members who have encountered racism at the hands of locals; what would be the result if police did indeed arrest protesters on the basis that they are foreign and are disturbing the peace, just as it is currently happening in Turkey and is now looming as a threat in Arizona toward undocumented immigrants who are protesting; why none of the bystanders and the people entering the church intervened, and if the disappearance of solidarity is our most imminent threat; the hegemony of the U.S. over Canada that distorts the picture of racism against a U.S. citizen of color, which has played out all over the world against men and women of color in contested sites in the Middle East.

 

(Photo Credit: Montreal Gazette / Marie France Coallier)

Canada built a special hell for women: the Nova Institution for Women

Camille Strickland-Murphy, left, and Veronica Park, right

On April 24, 2015, Veronica Park died in the Nova Institution for Women. On July 28, 2015, Camille Strickland-Murphy killed herself in the Nova Institution for Women, committed suicide. On October 31, 2006, Ashley Smith, a “troubled teenager,” was shifted from youth custodial services to a federal women’s prison, the Nova Institution for Women, in Truro, Nova Scotia. From there, over the next year, Smith was transferred 17 times, and subjected throughout to full body constraint, shackles, and extended solitary confinement. On October 19, 2007, Ashley Smith hanged herself while seven guards watched and did nothing. The State was “shocked”. Some said, “Ms. Smith’s death should haunt Canada.” It didn’t and, as the corpses of Veronica Park and Camille Strickland-Murphy demonstrate, it hasn’t. The death of women prisoners haunts absolutely nothing. Last week, the families of Veronica Park and Camille Strickland-Murphy sued Canada’s federal correctional service for “negligence.” Rather call it torture. This play unfolds in three acts: the deaths, the after-death, and the darkness gathering.

Act One: Veronica Park and Camille Strickland-Murphy die.

Veronica Park entered Nova Institution for Women on August 14, 2014. Her family says she suffered from mental health issues, which they attribute to having been sexually and physically abused as an adult. She took to self-medicating and became addicted. In prison, she continued to self-medicate. Prison staff responded to her “situation” by throwing her, three times, into “segregation”, where she spent a total of 22 days. In the weeks before her death, Veronica Park went to the clinic seven times. She was clearly sick. On April 23, 2015, Veronica Park went twice to the clinic, where the nurse recorded a sore throat, cough, body aches and shortness of breath, and sent her on her way. The next day, Veronica Park was found incapacitated, gasping for air. She was taken to hospital, where she was diagnosed with a serious case of pneumonia. By 4:30 pm, Veronica Park was dead.

Camille Strickland-Murphy entered Nova Institution for Women on November 10, 2014. Strickland-Murphy had been in Nova before, at the age of 19. At that time, she had been beaten twice, by other inmates. Her family says that Strickland-Murphy’s mental illness began then, with untreated concussions. She began having seizures, fainting spells, and periods of loss of consciousness. The State responded with “segregation”, seven times totaling 23 days. When Camille Strickland-Murphy returned to Nova, her condition was worse. She was engaging in self-harm, which, again, resulted in segregation In February, she cut her face, and was found in a pool of blood. In March, she set her leg and room on fire. On July 20, she attempted suicide, and was sent to hospital. She was then returned to the Nova Institution for Women. On July 28, Camille Strickland-Murphy killed herself.

Who really killed Veronica Park and Camille Strickland-Murphy?

Act Two: The State abuses the families of Veronica Park and Camille Strickland-Murphy.

When Veronica Park and Camille Strickland-Murphy asked, directly and indirectly, for help, they were sent into segregation. Segregation means no family contact and that one’s security changes from medium to maximum. The families say they were never told about their loved ones’ deteriorating conditions. No one in either family knew how bad the situation was. How could they, when Veronica Park and Camille Strickland-Murphy were in and out of “segregation”? After the deaths, the State met the families’ various requests for information, both on what happened and what follow-ups were going on, with stone dead silence. According to Kim Pate, of the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies, when the Park family asked for more information, “they were told it was protected. It is outrageous.” There’s no outrage here, and Ashley Smith does not haunt the Canadian justice or prison system. The State kills women in prison, and then “protects” information. According to the family, the investigation into Veronica Park’s death didn’t even begin for a full four months.

Act Three: The darkness gathers.

Howard Sapers, the federal prisons ombudsman, released a report last week on how Canadian prisons deal with families after prisoners have died “in custody.” Investigative reports are consistently blacked out. Sometimes whole pages are missing. This repeats the treatment prior to the death, when the prisons don’t inform families. Prisons treat the families callously and worse. One man told the prison he would be coming to view his family member’s body on a certain day. When he arrived, he was told, for the first time, that his family member had been cremated. Later, without any notice, the ashes were couriered to him: “They cremated him and they sent him by Purolator…sending someone in the mail…it’s just not right.” It’s just not right. Sapers’ report is titled In the Dark.

Ashley Smith died, or was killed, nine years ago. In the interim, the darkness has gathered and thickened. In the name of Veronica Park, Camille Strickland-Murphy, and Ashley Smith, no more red flags, reports, inquiries or commissions. It’s time, it’s way past time, for action. Close the Nova Institution for Women. Close all places where segregation and isolation are the protocols for healing. Build spaces that are actually for women. Anything else is just not right.

A report to a family on their loved one’s death

 

(Photo Credit 1: CBC News) (Photo Credit 2: News 1130 / Office of the Correctional Investigator)

We all killed Ashley Smith, Kinew James and Terry Baker, and it’s not over yet

On October 19, 2007, 19-year-old Ashley Smith died by self strangulation while seven prison guards in a Canadian women’s prison, Grand Valley Institution for Women, followed orders, watched and did nothing. By doing nothing is meant committed homicide. That was a decision of a coroner’s jury, December 19, 2013, six years and two months later. As a result of Ashley Smith’s murder, Howard Sapers, the Correctional Investigator of Canada, issued Risky Business: An Investigation of the Treatment and Management of Chronic Self-Injury Among Federally Sentenced Women – Final Report. This also appeared in 2013. Risky Business focused on eight federally sentenced women prisoners “selected for this investigation because they were deemed to be the most high risk and chronic self-injurious women in the federally sentenced women population.” Kinew James was one of those women. Kinew James was in and out of solitary confinement. Kinew James was interviewed in the middle of 2012. In January 2013, Kinew James died, in custody, because nobody answered her pleas for help. An inquest into Kinew James’ death was supposed to start in April 2016, but it’s been indefinitely postponed. Terry Baker was another of the eight most high risk and chronically self-injurious women. On Monday, July 4, in Grand Valley Institution for Women, Terry Baker killed herself. She was pronounced dead on Wednesday. Canada claims to be shocked, and yet for nine years now the State has “done nothing”, killing woman after woman with absolute impunity. What happened to Terry Baker? Kinew James? Ashley Smith? Absolutely nothing. After scathing reports and damning juries, the murder of women living with mental illness continues unabated. Despite sincere, or not, expressions of concern, suicide among women prisoners is part of the plan. It’s the new normal, and it’s too late to protest shock or concern. Shut down the segregation units, once and for all.

Kim Pate, Executive Director of the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies, said: “We know that she was in restraints a number of times; we suspect there were uses of force, but we don’t know that for certain and we have asked the correctional investigator to also look into it … It’s a terrible tragedy for her family, her friends, the women she served time with. It’s a tragedy all around and it’s a travesty, and it should not be happening in this country. It needs to stop. I hope the minister pays attention to this and makes a decision very quickly to end the use of segregation. Terry was a very sweet, gentle young woman except when it came to herself. She had been very self-destructive and self-harming for a number of years,” said Pate. “She’s someone who, when I last saw her in Saskatchewan, she was actually doing quite well. She was involved in a dog therapy program. From our perspective, [this] underscores exactly why we have the position of no women in segregation, particularly those with mental health issues.”

Other prisoners said she was kind and courageous, but in need of help.

The week before her death, Baker had complained to prison advocates about being forcibly bound to her bed for prolonged periods of time. She had a history of self-harming, and a revolving door relationship with solitary confinement. Rosemary Redshaw, former chaplain at Grand View, remembered Terry Baker: “I really liked her. She had a childlike sense of humor and was great to get along with. In the midst of her struggle, she seemed to get help in the time I was there.” Redshaw added that Baker should not have been in prison or in isolation.

None of this matters. Terry Baker is dead, and nothing will bring her back. Her planned death will now be desecrated by a series of reports and recriminations, just like the deaths of Ashley Smith and Kinew James. Remember this: we all killed Ashley Smith, Kinew James and Terry Baker, and it’s not over yet. Close segregation units. Don’t send people who need help to prison. Invest in mental health and wellbeing. It’s not magic.

Terry Baker’s birthday would have been July 15. She would have turned 31

 

(Photo Credit: Office of the Correctional Investigator Canada)

Judy Da Silva: “The bottom line is the river has to be cleaned up”

Judy Da Silva is the environmental health coordinator for the Grassy Narrows First Nation, also known as the Asabiinyashkosiwagong Nitam-Anishinaabeg, in northern Ontario. Judy Da Silva is 54 years old, a mother, grandmother, and activist. Her story is the story of contemporary Grassy Narrows, a tale of industrial violence followed by State brutality with a stream throughout of community activism, organizing and hope.

In 1962, the year Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring was published, Reed Paper, in Dryden, Ontario, began dumping untreated mercury waste into the Wabigoon River. By 1970, the mill had dumped more than 9,000 kilograms, or close to 10 tons (US), of untreated mercury into the waters. Just downstream lay Grassy Narrows, an Ojibwa community that had been on the Wabigoon and English Rivers for centuries. For centuries, they had relied on fishing as a food source and a cultural and economic base. For centuries, the people of Grassy Narrows had prospered. Then the mercury came, the fish turned to poison, and the mercury levels of the Grassy Narrows First Nation population hit astronomical heights. Members of the community recognized early on that they were suffering new and catastrophic symptoms.

Judy Da Silva is 54 years old, and so she was born in that fateful year, 1962. In an interview this week, Judy Da Silva noted: “I have mercury poisoning. It affects me physically. I’m like the age of the mercury poisoning. I was in my mother’s womb when the poison was being poured into the river … It’s like a slow degenerative form of dying … My mom is still alive and she says they roamed the land freely. They fished, they hunted, they lived off the land. They hardly went to the store. They were very independent economically and socially. Now, it’s like our hands have been severed.”

Since the 1970s, a team of Japanese scientists has been studying and documenting the mercury poisoning in Grassy Narrows. Others have as well. The contamination is considered “a prominent example” by scholars, activists, and just plain folk. And since the 1970s, the Canadian government and the provincial government of Ontario have done absolutely nothing to clean up the river. This week a new report said that the river can be and should be cleaned up. Ontario has a new regime, which seems to be more committed to the rights of indigenous populations, and to the need to address the centuries long violence committed against indigenous people. Will the new provincial government clean up the river?

Thursday, over a thousand people, led by Grassy Narrows teenagers, marched through Toronto, demanding justice. Judy Da Silva was among them, having returned from Geneva where she made a case before the United Nations, arguing Canada had violated the Grassy Narrows First Nation’s right to access to clean water. Back in Toronto, Da Silva is of two minds. On one hand, “We are not valuable enough to be considered. We, as Indigenous people, are expendable. And that’s why the poison is allowed to be still in the river. Money is more important than us.” On the other hand, “I always gotta be hopeful. I can’t be a victim. I gotta be a powerful person.”

In the end, “the bottom line is the river has to be cleaned up.” Judy Da Silva joined the women, elders, teenagers, and everyone in the Grassy Narrows First Nation to say: “No more fancy words, no more studies”. They say NO to the murderous racist devaluation of their lives. They say the time is NOW.

(Photo Credit: Legal Defense Fund for Judy Da Silva)

Ghomeshi’s trial: Men are complicated, women are liars

over

Humans are complicated beings; they can surprise, anger, disappoint, amaze or frustrate you by what they do and how they react. That is a common and acceptable narrative when one refers to “men”. The narrative changes and complexity is viewed differently when women are the subject of the talk.

In my years of working with perpetrators and survivors of domestic and sexual violence, I have witnessed many women who have felt compelled to ‘be nice’ to their perpetrator. Many often apologize, authorize contact and seek to get back with him. This reaction to trauma is the result of a ‘social conditioning’ that most women are taught from an early age, which they have internalized to be deferential, fix problems, and avoid conflict at all costs. It leads them to second guessing and undervaluing their own experiences with a question hovering over their heads most of the time: “Maybe I’m overreacting?”

If a woman’s reaction to trauma is anything less than “perfect” behaviour deemed suitable for a victim, people are inclined to dismiss it. And when we realize women’s passivity in dealing with trauma and having difficulty with confrontation, we get frustrated and turn on them. We ask them: Why did you stay in touch? How bad could it have possibly been?

So for Lucy DeCouture, the only one of the three women who was publicly named in the trial of Jian Ghomeshi – the former CBC host who was acquitted of one charge of choking to overcome resistance and four charges of sexual assault related to three women, on the basis of ‘inconsistencies’ and ‘deception’- everything came back to one big question: Why did she keep in touch with Jian?

Sometimes, in the moment, says Jaclyn Friedman, “It’s less painful to convince ourselves that we made a poor decision and shouldn’t blame whoever did it because we don’t want to internalize the violation. You then reach for the niceness training as a way to express this denial. Especially as a woman, blaming yourself is really familiar. That script is super handy.” One can see this pattern in DeCoutere’s testimony when she told the packed Toronto courtroom: “As I say this now, it’s outrageous that I stayed and did not leave but that was my reaction.” Later in an interview she said that after giving her testimony she felt like she had to “go up to every person in the world and apologize for ruining the case.”

Among other troubling aspects, the trial of Jian Ghomeshi exposed a double standard, that deep down we have all been taught that a complicated man is a just a complex human being, but a complicated woman is a liar. We need to draw on our innate understanding that no one can be a perfect victim, people are complex, trauma is complicated and reactions to it differ from person to person in different circumstances and should not be scrutinized from outside.

Carissima Mathen, an associate professor of law at the University of Ottawa, says that the frustration and outrage spawned by the judge’s decision is understandable: “Sexual assault law has been stained by sexist myths, unsupportable evidentiary rules, and skepticism of women’s basic truthfulness. Owing largely to the efforts of feminist advocates, Canadian law has formally shed itself of many of those deficiencies. Yet, translating rules into effective enforcement has proved damnably difficult.” However, some have concluded that the judge was left with no choice but to acquit Ghomeshi as a result of the damaging cross-examination of the complainants.

It should be highlighted that in his verdict, Judge Horkins said that while the evidence in the case raises a reasonable doubt, it is not the same as deciding in any positive way that these events never happened. It is also equally important to keep in mind that during the trial Ghomeshi’s lawyer, Marie Heinen, did not ask his accusers the single most important question that was at the centre of this trial: whether Ghomeshi actually assaulted them.

 

(Photo Credit: Kenny Mason / News 1130)

Kinew James? Maureen Mandijarra? Just more Aboriginal women’s deaths in custody

Kinew James

Kinew James and Maureen Mandijarra were two Aboriginal women who went into custody and never came out. They are part of the Commonwealth of Missing and Murdered Aboriginal Women. Canada killed Kinew James; Australia killed Maureen Mandijarra. And the abuse of these two women doesn’t end with their death. Kinew James died in January 2013, and her inquest is finally going to take place in April 2016. Maureen Mandijarra died in custody in 2012, and her inquest is only now taking place. The State honors Aboriginal women with brutality.

Kinew James was a “troubled” young woman. She entered prison at 18, sentenced to six years. That doubled to twelve, thanks to “misbehavior” and to her deteriorating mental health. Subsequent years were a blur of self harm and attempted suicide; frequent relocation as one institution after another failed to help her; and long and frequent periods of solitary confinement.

But she was improving. Kinew James succeeded in graduating from high school while in prison, and, at the age of 35, was looking forward to getting out and moving on. On Saturday, January 19, 2013, Kinew James talked with her mother, and all seemed well. By evening, she was complaining of pains. That night, moaning and crying, she pressed the distress button … five times. The guards ignored her pleas, and are reported to have turned off or muted her alarm. After an hour, a nurse finally went in, and found Kinew James unresponsive. The nurse then waited 12 to 15 minutes to declare a medical emergency.

James died in the hospital, but she was killed long before the ambulance took her away.

Maureen Mandijarra was arrested for public drinking on the evening of November 29, 2012. She died in police custody the next day. Mandijarra was 44 years old. The police brought her in and dumped her on the floor in a police cell. She lay there perfectly still for at least six hours. She never moved, and no one, other than a cellmate, noticed, because no one ever checked. Over three years later, the inquest is now taking place. It’s taken so long because provincial and local police dragged their feet for years, and never provided any reports until recently.

Kinew James’ and Maureen Mandijarra’s stories are not the same story. What is the same narrative is that of State abuse of Aboriginal women. Like the United States, Canada and Australia have invested heavily in the devaluation of Aboriginal women’s bodies and lives. The rising rates of incarceration married to the plummeting budgets for assistance say as much. So do the women’s corpses, decade after decade, year after year. For Aboriginal women, the histories and lived experiences of colonial occupation and violence not only continue to this day. They are intensifying. Since the 1990s, the number of Aboriginal deaths in custody in Australia has skyrocketed, through one Royal Commission on Aboriginal Deaths in Custody after another.

State practices and policies generally criminalize mental illness, alcohol abuse, and poverty; and add additional punishments if the subjects at hand are women. For Aboriginal women who live with mental illness, alcohol or drug dependency, poverty, the sentence is death.

(Photo Credit: CBC News

Canada must stop sending Aboriginal women to prison!

Canada is addicted to the incarceration of Aboriginal peoples, and in particular Aboriginal women. According to a recent report by Howard Sapers, the Correctional Investigator of Canada, for the first time ever, more than 25% of inmates in Canadian federal prisons are Aboriginal: “In federal corrections, 25.4 per cent of the incarcerated population are now of aboriginal ancestry.” Sapers describes the number as “quite shocking.” No one is shocked. None of this is new.

Nationally, 3723 of the 14624 prisoners are Aboriginal, but that doesn’t tell the real picture. In the Prairie provinces, 48.62% of prisoners are Aboriginal, and in the Pacific provinces, 31.09% of prisoners are Aboriginal.

For women, the situation is predictably worse. Of 683 women prisoners, 248 are Aboriginal. Over 36% of women prisoners are Aboriginal.

None of this is new. The State need to cage Aboriginal women is longstanding and publically acknowledged. Study after study, book after book has said as much. The State has tinkered with criminal codes, settled with individual prisoners, given lip service to the ongoing ravages of colonialism. All the while, the State continues to disappear Aboriginal women and girls into prisons where they are routinely tortured.

The line of incarceration of Aboriginal people, from 1996 to 2016, is one of almost unbroken ascendance. Thirty years ago, Aboriginal people comprised 10% of Canada’s Federal prisoners. Then the numbers began rising and never stopped: 1996-1997,14.6%; 1997-1998,15.7%; 1998-1999, 16.9%; 1999-2000, 17%; 2000-2001, 17%; 2001-2002, 17.6%; 2002-2003, 18.3%; 2003-2004, 18.5%; 2004-2005, 18.2%; 2005-2006, 18.7%; 2006-2007, 19.6%; 2007-2008, 19.6%; 2008-2009, 19.7%; 2009-2010, 20.6%; 2010-2011,21.5%; 2011-2012, 22%: 2012-2013, 23%; 2013-2014, 22.8%; 2014-2015, 24.4%; 2015-16, 25.4%.

Year by year by year, the State has stolen Aboriginal women’s lives. Aboriginal women are “over-represented” in Federal prisons as they are in maximum security and in solitary confinement. Aboriginal women are the citizens of over-representative democracy. It’s time, it’s way past time, to end the carnage. Canada must stop sending Aboriginal women to prison!

 

(Image Credit: Flat Out)

Canada’s meager response to the current refugee crisis

Palestinians pay tribute to to Syrian boy Aylan Kurdi

Palestinians pay tribute to to Syrian boy Aylan Kurdi

“The true measure of the moral level of a society is how it treats the most vulnerable people,” –Noam Chomsky

As the woefully unprepared Europe struggles to handle the overwhelming influx of migrants who have endured perilous crossings arriving at its borders, Canada’s response has been terribly disappointing for a country that is proud of its record of compassion.

A week ago, the photograph of the three-year-old Aylan Kurdi lying dead on a Turkish beach, which woke up the world to the refugee crisis, also awakened the Canadian election campaigns. While the Canadian public ‘decisively and suddenly’ wants the government to start accepting more refugees, Canada’s federal leaders are still contemplating what Ottawa can do to help. The conservative Ottawa dithers, as Harper tries to approach this issue with the same unsentimental approach he brings to governing. As he stated in 2006, “My strengths are not spin or passion, you know that.”

The Liberal and NDP leaders who have also recognized this issue as a game changer in the upcoming October elections are trying to offer few specifics on how Canada could contribute as they still haven’t formulated any solid strategy.

Harper states that he has a target of settling 10,000 Syrian migrants over the next three years and 23,000 Iraqis by the end of this year. However, while pressing the necessity of ‘taking the military fight to Islamic militants responsible for the carnage’ to deal with the root of the problem, Harper said “We have plans to do more, but I would say repeatedly that as we are doing more, we can’t lose sight of the fact that refugee resettlement alone cannot, in any part of the world, solve this problem.”

Harper is concerned about security issues that could follow accepting refugees from the world’s current epicenter of ethno-religious violence. He suggests that these refugees require proper screening. But proper screening takes time and is a long bureaucratic process. As the NDP leader Mulclair said on Tuesday: “You shouldn’t have people in this desperate situation falling into a bureaucratic trap, where they’re being asked to produce identity papers as if you had time to renew your driver’s license when you were walking across the desert with your family”. He suggested that officials should be sent to the refugees in the camps and the Canadian military could help bring the refugees to Canada.

Trudeau, the leader of the Liberal Party, has pledged to take in 25,000 Syrian refugees if the party wins in October and has pushed the Liberals into the middle ground suggesting that Canada needs to keep in mind the importance of training the Iraqi fighters to stand up against ISIS, along with helping to ease the suffering of refugees. “We have a federal government right now that thinks military action is the only solution to the humanitarian crisis in the Middle East,” Trudeau said in Vancouver. “And we have an opposition party that takes the opposite extreme position that there is never a military role to play in solving challenges like the crisis in the Middle East.”

Recently it came to light that Aylan Kurdi’s family’s refugee application had been rejected in June by the Canadian Immigration Department, which allegedly drove the family to attempt their fatal voyage to Europe. Canada’s immigration minister, Chris Alexander, suspended his re-election campaign to investigate why the Kurdi family’s refugee application was rejected. Alexander claimed that “Canada has one of the most generous per capita immigration and refugee resettlement programs in the world”, saying that “the government was planning to accept 23,000 Iraqi refugees and 11,300 Syrians”.

In the wake of elections, the refugee crisis can become yet another rhetorical device to win the electorate, and then be shelved in the forgotten land of election promises. It is up to the public to remind the Canadian government of its moral responsibility following the election and pressure it to live up to its international image of an inclusive, peaceful, and immigrant-friendly society.

 

 

(Photo Credit: aboutpathankot.com)

In Canada two Mexican women workers win a victory for women workers everywhere!

Since 1973, Canada has run the Temporary Foreign Worker Program, or TFWP. Initially designed to bring in `high-skilled’ and specialized workers, in 2002 it was revised in order to bring in “low-skilled” workers who now make up the overwhelming majority of TFWP workers. Eight years ago, two Mexican sisters took on the injustice of the TFWP and, last week, won a landmark victory for women workers everywhere.

In August 2007, two sisters, now known as O.P.T. and M.P.T., left Mexico to work in Canada under the Temporary Foreign Worker Program. They were employed by Presteve Foods Ltd, in Ontario, owned at the time by Jose Pratás. At the time Pratás was 74. O.P.T. is now 36 years old, and her sister is 30.

According to both sisters, Pratás immediately started making explicit sexual advances towards O.P.T. and then demanded sex. Whenever O.P.T offered resistance, Pratás would threaten to send her back to Mexico. This was no idle threat. Under the TFWP, “temporary workers” are attached to their employers. In the Spring of 2008, O.P.T. fled Presteve, moved to Windsor for a bit, and then returned to Mexico.

In the Spring of 2009, the CAW-Canada union, now called Unifor, filed a brief with the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario, on behalf of 39 Thai and Mexican women workers employed at Presteve. Then things moved both quickly and slowly. Pratás was charged with 23 criminal charges of sexual assault and five counts of common assault, all involving women “temporary foreign workers”. In March 2010, Pratás pleaded guilty to one count of assault, and received a conditional sentence and some probation.

Ultimately, of the original 39 claimants, only O.P.T. and M.P.T. were left to challenge the power of Presteve Foods, Jose Pratás and the entire Temporary Food Works Program.

Last Wednesday, the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario handed down its decision and awarded O.P.T. a record $165,000 as compensation for “injury to her dignity, feelings and self-respect”. The Tribunal also awarded M.P.T. $55,000. Pratás and Presteve Foods, now owned by Pratás’s son, must pay the two sisters $220,000 for having created a “sexually poisoned work environment”.

After the hearing, O.P.T. said, “I want to tell all women that are in a similar situation, that they should not be silent and that there is justice and they should not just accept mistreatment or humiliation. We must not stay silent. [As a migrant] one feels that she or he has to stay there [in the workplace] and there is nowhere to go or no one to talk to. Under the temporary foreign worker program, the boss has all the power – over your money, house, status, everything. They have you tied to their will. It has been 8 years to obtain justice but 8 years and justice is finally here today.

If we don’t do what they say, they have the power to deport. We are obligated to work. Not as people, but as slaves. We endure wage theft, verbal abuse, physical abuse, and our bodies are injured because of the stress of the work. They push and push us. How can you say that we are free when in practice we have no right to leave?

“But how can we leave, if we cannot work for another employer. They harm us, and then they send us home. There is racism underlying their treatment of us. How is this allowed in Canada? That happened to me eight years ago, and the system is still the same. Treat us with dignity. Not as animals. But as human beings who merit respect.

Even when we have been humiliated and mistreated, we have to hang on to our dignity. That is all we have.”

Canada created a system in which workers were tied, handcuffed, to their employers, in which workers were forced into almost complete dependence on employers. Employers then sought women workers, whom, by law, they are allowed to pay less for the same work as male workers in the program. Women in the caregivers’ program suffer the same violence.

O.P.T’s and M.P.T.’s victory is a victory for women workers across Canada and around the world, as they struggle with the violence of `national economic growth.’ We have to hang on to our dignity. That is all we have.

 

(Photo Credit: thestar.com)

Black women prisoners still haunt International Women’s Day

Around the world, women of color, Black women, Aboriginal women languish in solitary confinement. Many die there. Their numbers grow incrementally by the day. BobbyLee Worm, an Aboriginal woman prisoner in Canada, refused to become another abject statistic of prison morbidity and mortality.

In 2006, BobbyLee Worm, 19 years old, entered Edmonton Institution for Women. Shortly after, she was moved to Fraser Valley Institution. The Fraser Valley Institution described itself as “a multi-level facility for women … Programs focus on the particular needs of women offenders, including Aboriginal inmates and those with psychological problems or learning disabilities.”

One of these particular programs was called Management Protocol. Established in 2005, Management Protocol was “a special program for handling women prisoners who have been involved in a major violent incident or threat of incident while in the system.” By 2011 seven women prisoners had been on Management Protocol. All seven were Aboriginal women.

Management Protocol was indefinite and unregulated solitary confinement. Twenty- three hours a day for as long as the prison deemed `adequate’ and `necessary.’ How did one leave Management Protocol? One earned one’s way out. To this day, how one earned an exit visa remains a mystery.

BobbyLee Worm entered prison June 7, 2006. She was a first time offender, sentenced to six years, four months. She spent more than three and a half years in solitary confinement: 23 hours a day in a cell 10 by 8 feet, with no meaningful human contact. For months on end. She was 19 years old.

With the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association, or BCCLA, BobbyLee Worm sued the State for violation of her constitutional rights. Two days after the lawsuit was filed, BobbyLee Worm was removed from Management Protocol. Soon after, the Correctional Service of Canada, or CSC, announced it would shut down the Management Protocol program. In May 2013, BobbyLee Worm and the Canadian prison state settled the suit out of court. According to all reports, BobbyLee Worm was pleased with settlement.

This is a story of State investments and of women’s resistance and refusal. Who was BobbyLee Worm? According to her former attorney, “She was a teenage runaway living on the street, she was addicted to drugs, she was a survivor of serious childhood abuse and trauma and suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and from depression. She had never had the opportunity to have any sort of trauma or abuse counselling, which she desperately needed. And the response of corrections was to subject BobbyLee to one of the harshest and most psychologically damaging punitive measures that they have available to them. And I think BobbyLee’s story is, sadly, not atypical. This happens to hundreds of prisoners across the country every day.”

This happens to hundreds of prisoners across the country every day, and in particular to Aboriginal women and girls.

What was the Management Protocol? For the CSC, it was a major commitment: “When the protocol was designed in 2003, experts advised the CSC that it was illegal. CSC leadership implemented it anyway. In 2008, the Office of the Correctional Investigator recommended that the program be rescinded, and CSC’s own review agreed that the protocol was dysfunctional. But it was only when the BCCLA filed suit that the CSC cancelled it … The law that allowed the management protocol remains on the books.”

The CSC wanted Management Protocol … badly. It wanted cages for young Aboriginal women, especially those desperately in need. Aboriginal women, Black women, women of color who live with that kind of desperate need are told they owe a debt to society, and prison is not enough. They must go into the hole, they must be tortured.

After the settlement was announced, BobbyLee Worm explained, “There were times when I lost all hope. Solitary confinement does one thing. It breaks a person’s will to live. Being locked up like that you feel like you’re losing your mind. The only contact with another human is through a food slot. Days turn into nights and into days and you don’t know if you’ll ever get out.” Debra Worm, BobbyLee’s mother, commented, “As a mother, that’s the worst feeling in the world to know your child is being broken apart but not being able to do anything to save her.”

The British Columbia Civil Liberties Association and the John Howard Society of Canada recently filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the laws governing solitary confinement. Sunday, March 8, 2015, is International Women’s Day. In 2011, Black women prisoners haunted International Women’s Day. In 2015, they still do. And next year?

 

(Image Credit: Erin Marie Konsmo, Media Arts Justice and Projects Coordinator, Native Youth Sexual Health Network)