Activists speak on the “trauma” of liberalism

Students and community members gather at U of T's Multi-Faith Centre.
Students and community members gather at U of T's Multi-Faith Centre.

On October 15, with the Canadian federal election just around the corner, students and community members gathered at the Multi-Faith Centre to hear a series of speakers on the provocatively-titled theme of “resisting [liberal] democracy.”

“You’d think we were asking for the bloody moon!”

The first speaker, Deena Ladd, came from the Workers’ Action Centre, a labor rights organization with a particular focus on the struggles of racialized women. Her talk emphasized the struggles of Toronto workers, noting that over 50% of jobs in Toronto and Hamilton are unstable, temporary or part-time, and noted that these positions generally don’t even allow workers to take unpaid sick days. Ladd told the story of representing a woman who had spent years packing salads in a supermarket, not getting a raise and not getting to take sicks days off for the good of her and produce-seekers alike.

Ladd also criticized conditions for workers employed by temp agencies. She told the story of Angel Reyes, who worked for almost five years as a garbage sorter. Reyes was hired through a temp agency, meaning he did not get the same pay and benefits as his fellow employees. He was fired by his employers without notice when he shared his story with the Toronto Star, and is now suing both his employer and the temp agency.

Ladd did not directly denounce liberal democracy in her talk, but she did emphasize how hard it is to make gains for struggling workers in the current political environment. She noted the strong reaction from right-wing voices against last summer’s 75-cent increase in the minimum wage. “You’d think we were asking for the bloody moon!” she complained. Ladd noted that the fight for a $15 minimum wage is making progress in Canada in the U.S., but attributed this success to movements, not politicians. She hailed the victory of the University of California system adopting an internal $15 minimum wage, and is eager to push for U of T to do the same.

“His first word was ‘radio check.’”

Tracey Mann of No One is Illegal, an organization committed to fighting for immigrant and First Nations rights, spoke second and took on the issue of liberal democracy directly. She defined liberal democracy as being based in private property rights, political rights and civil rights. She denounced private property entirely and noted that political and civil rights are not easily accessible to the poor and undocumented. She noted there are between 150,000 and 200,000 undocumented immigrants in Toronto.

Mann denounced the current Canadian political and legal climate as hostile towards immigrants. She criticized Bill C-51 for criminalizing certain forms of environmental activism and C-24 for labelling immigrants as uncommitted to citizenship if they need to return abroad to visit family members. She also spoke of squalid conditions in detention centers, telling the story of a mother whose son spent his infanthood in detention, noting “his first word was ‘radio check.’”

Mann’s talk focused on one story in particular. On December 20, Lucia Vega Jimenez was caught travelling without a fare by TransLink police. TransLink has an agreement with Canadian Border Services, so, due to what Mann denounced as racial profiling, Jimenez was turned over and put in a Vancouver detention cell, where she hung herself eight days later.

“Where’s our law?”

“The word ‘democracy’ is violent and traumatizing,” said Black Lives Matter organizer and York Federation of Students VP Campus Life Alexandria Williams. She went on to note that what is known today as democracy was built with slavery and colonialism.

While noting she was more than happy to celebrate “Stephen Harper’s Going Away Party,” Williams focused her talk on Bill C-51 and the NDP and Liberal relationships to it. She expressed her support for the NDP voting down the proposed security legislation, but denounced their failure to discuss anti-black racism in their critique of expanding the Canadian security state. As for the Liberals, Williams said “basically, fuck Justin Trudeau.” The comment was in response not just to Trudeau’s support for C-51, but concerns he expressed about absent fathers and misogynistic lyrics in “certain types of music” that Williams saw as thinly-veiled anti-black racism.

Williams noted that African-Americans are killed once every 28 hours by police or vigilantes. She criticized the parliamentary parties for supporting various security laws that ignore the obvious insecurity and disproportionate incarceration rates faced by black people in North America. “Where’s our law?” she asked. Williams encouraged attendees to become familiar with what she described as an “uprising in Baltimore,” emphasizing that movement’s demands, which include no longer being called “enemy combatants” by the police.

“I don’t actually exist.”

Sabrine Azraq of Students for Justice in Palestine (UTSC) focused on how even the language surrounding the Canadian and Israeli states is colonial. “I’m a demographic threat,” she said, noting how she and fellow Palestinians are described in certain pro-Israel documents. Her co-presenter Abu Bakr noted that Israel refers to much of its Palestinian population as “Israeli-Arabs,” obscuring the reality that they are a distinct, colonized nation. “In order to exist, I need to fuck with the system,” Azraq explained.

Bakr elaborated on Azraq’s criticisms, focusing his talk on how Western rhetoricians often frame Palestinians and Israelis as equal adversaries. He views this paradigm as ridiculous, noting that Palestine lacks an airforce and navy, and argues that even by Canadian and American standards Israel meets the definition of a rogue state.

Azraq elaborated on how her identity is policed and disallowed by both the Canadian and Israeli states, which she noted are both settler colonialist entities. In Canada, she asked how someone like her could meaningfully vote when her choices are “three white Zionist men.” “Don’t tell me to vote,” she added. “That’s violent.” She also went on to say that while doing student union work, she had a poster on her door advertising her pro-Palestinian activism. After complaining to school administrators about threats she’d received from a confrontational Zionist, she was simply advised to take the poster down and keep the story a secret.

Meanwhile, when visiting her family in Palestine, Azraq has to take an elaborate, indirect route that includes her having to go through Israeli checkpoints. She denounced the absurdity of having to seek the permission of European teenagers to visit her home.

“When it came to choosing between our peoples’ lives and waiting in traffic…”

Coty Zachariah, a Mohawk and black-Nova Scotian activist with the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) Aboriginal Caucus, discussed the non-parallel experiences of First Nations and settler Canadians, noting the tragedy of people living on a reserve two hours from Toronto not having access to water that doesn’t give them leukemia. He also recalled the Oka Crisis, in which Mohawk protestors defending their land from being turned into a golf course were confronted by local police and the Canadian army. “When it came to choosing between our people’s lives and waiting in traffic, they chose to take our lives,” Zachariah exclaimed.

At Zachariah’s school, George Brown, a student union executive complained about reading a First Nations land recognition statement (which is common practice at student union events), saying “they should just get over it already.” This prompted Zachariah to get involved in student politics. He eventually found himself lobbying at Parliament, where a Conservative MP kicked him and fellow CFS activists out of his office after just five minutes. A Liberal MP, meanwhile, made fun of Zachariah for not coming in a fancy suit.

Zachariah noted his troubled relationship with liberal democracy. As a CFS activist, he encourages students to vote and genuinely believes in working to have student perspectives heard in Parliament. On the other hand, he struggles in relating to an electoral system in a country where native artifacts and inclusion-quotas are merely used to “redwash” a system that doesn’t care about people like him.

Bemoaning the present hopelessness of Canadian democracy to First Nations, Zachariah exclaimed, "My people didn't land on Canada, Canada landed on us."

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