Thursday, March 19, 2015

Just Say “No” to Canada's Expanding War in Iraq and Syria

Just Say “No” to Canada's Expanding War in Iraq and Syria

Call for an End to Conservatives’ Racism and Fear-Mongering

Monday, March 23, 12 Noon, Parliament Hill, Ottawa

(What you can do if you are NOT in Ottawa is detailed below)

Join us for a nonviolent noon-hour vigil to say:

a.    NO to expanding the Harper government's war

b.    NO to the racist, hateful atmosphere the Harper government has been stoking at home by attacking Muslims and First Nations, among others.

c.     NO to the repressive new Bill C-51, which criminalizes large groups of people across the country, authorizes torture, preventive detention, and other repressive measures.


While Stephen Harper is pushing through remarkably repressive legislation, C-51, by fearmongering and stoking the flames of racism, he is also planning to extend and expand Canada's military involvement in Iraq and, possibly, Syria.

The last thing the region needs is more weapons, bombings, and violence. It was the massive influx of American, Canadian, and UK weaponry during the illegal occupation of Iraq that provided the weaponry for ISIS in the first place. It was the torture centres run by occupation forces that gave birth to much of the leadership of ISIS. It has been almost three decades of near constant warfare against the Iraqi people (sanctions that killed 1.5 million people, U.S.-led wars that have killed equal if not greater numbers) that have produced the current impasse.

 Harper's proposal will only further inflame the violence in the region when what is truly needed is massive support for the millions of refugees the conflicts have produced (9 million Syrian refugees alone), measures to strengthen nonviolent resistance both to ISIS and the Assad regime, and a pullout of interfering "western" forces that are responsible for millions of lives lost over the past 25 years in the region.

Canada and Syria: Partners in Torture, and Now in War?

Any attacks in Syria would have to be coordinated with and approved by the vicious Assad regime which, until recently, the Harper government was condemning as oppressive, with former Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird  referring to "The Assad regime’s campaign of terror" and saying Assad must go. (Canada has nonetheless been allied with the brutal torture regime in Syria, which acted as a proxy torturer for Canadian intelligence agencies, as confirmed by two judicial inquiries).

Meanwhile, the Harper government continues to support the leading beheading regime on the planet, Saudi Arabia (a strong ISIS supporter), with a $15 billion military contract.

Hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent on the war already, and still we do not know exact figures, as homeless people freeze to death on Canadian streets, over 100 First Nations communities remain on boil water alerts, and veterans of past wars continue struggling for benefits they deserve for catastrophic physical and mental health injuries.

Women-led initiatives have in some instances nonviolently resisted ISIS and Assad, nonviolent voices are calling out for support (see also “What would Jesus Do”), and billions in bombs will only damage their on-the-ground efforts.

Needless to say, the bombing campaign has not, nor will it, stop ISIS. As The Guardian reported in January, 2015, "the absence of a political driving Sunni communities to consider allying with Isis...especially around Baghdad. Iraq's vice-president for reconciliation, Iyad Allawi, said lack of a political process between the dominant Shias and disenfranchised Sunnis was a 'grave mistake' that mean air attacks achieve little." Indeed, the massive sectarian violence around Baghdad is forcing some to consider joining Isis. Allawi says the last thing the region needs is more weapons; instead, he says, jobs, a stable economy, and ensuring equal rights and protections would go a long way to stabilization.

Indeed, over the past 15 years, some 5 trillion dollars have been wasted globally on illegal wars, endless terrorist drone strikes authorized by Obama, and domestic repression, making the world an even more dangerous place. Dropping more bombs and hiking up racist rhetoric only threatens to add to the huge list of human rights violations and misery oin a mass scale.

Harper’s Fallacies and C-51

The Harper rationale of "fighting them overseas so we don’t have to fight them at home" is fallacious. If the Harper government wants to end terrorist plots, it needs to stop organizing them (all current plots in the courts are in large measure instigated or managed by RCMP/ CSIS/ FBI informants). The Harper government refuses to deny the involvement of an agent working for Canada who has recruited and facilitated the travel of a dozen young people to join ISIS.

Meanwhile, Harper is ramming through the dangerous C-51, which authorizes torture, mass surveillance, racist profiling, and other forms of repression. He and his caucus members have fanned the flames of hatred by attacking Muslims, with one Conservative MP telling Muslim women to  “stay the hell where they came from.”


Homes not Bombs welcomes you to join us for this noon-hour vigil to call for an end to Canadian involvement in the war and to stop aiding and abetting violence abroad and at home. Can’t be there? Try and organize a witness at your local MP’s office, and definitely call them and email them.

Meantime, as we know, the Harper government has ordered all federal departments to monitor EVERY SINGLE demonstration in Canada, no matter how small. That shows how afraid they are of democracy. So even if you are one person with a sign, that WILL be noticed. Two people doubles the effect, and so on.

 Other Things you can do and Upcoming Events You Can Join

1.   1.  Organize a visit to your MP’s office or public vigil to Just Say No to War

2.   2.  Email the Prime Minister to let him know you oppose war under all circumstances, racism, and the repressive new C-51. The Harper government may act like it doesn’t care what you think, but it outspends all previous governments in monitoring protests, emails, letters, media, etc. So every email counts! You can email Harper from this weblink:   OR write directly to, and cc opposition leaders Mulcair, Trudeau, and May at, , and

3.   3.  Join a Chain Fast to End Islamophobia  and Racism (mid April to mid June): For details write to

4.    4.  On Wednesday, May 27, in Ottawa, Join Ten Hours Against Terrorism: A Day-long vigil at Canada’s largest annual weapons fair, CANSEC15 (aka Terrorfest15), which will be hosting delegations from some of the world’s leading torture states. We will be encouraging demos at weapons manufacturers across Canada on that day as well.

Sponsored by Homes not Bombs: Because Canada should build homes, not blow them up,

(613) 267-3998

“There is nothing as vile as the arrogance of the military mind. Of all the plagues with which the world is cursed, of every ill, militarism is the worst: the assumption that war is the answer to human problems.” – Rabbi Abraham Heschel

 “Our strategy should be not only to confront empire, but to lay siege to it. To deprive it of oxygen. To shame it. To mock it. With our art, our music, our literature, our stubbornness, our joy, our brilliance, our sheer relentlessness – and our ability to tell our own stories. Stories that are different from the ones we’re being brainwashed to believe.” – Arundhati Roy

Monday, January 19, 2015

No Chelsea morning for hypocritical world leaders in Paris


When a former U.S. army private awoke in her jail cell just over a week ago -- some 17 months into a 35-year jail sentence -- she could have been forgiven for thinking, in the immediate aftermath of the terrible Paris magazine attacks, that the commutation of her punitive sentence for exercising freedom of speech and conscience was about to be placed on President Obama's desk. Obama, like many world leaders, had just issued stunning, passionate statements about freedom of the press, human dignity, and all the great things that make countries like Canada and the U.S. just so undeniably terrific.

For the now 26-year-old Chelsea (previously known as Bradley) Manning, though, it was not to be. She had had the audacity to challenge terrorism by exposing it, not in a manner that humiliated or denigrated her targets, but simply to inform the public, generate discussion, bolster democracy and hold accountable those who had committed atrocities. "If you had free reign over classified networks…and you saw incredible things, awful things...things that belonged in the public domain, and not on some server stored in a dark room in Washington DC...what would you do?" she had asked in an online chat room.

Her answer was simple: copy those documents and videos on a flash drive and share them with the world through Wikileaks. What she revealed threatened no one's national security, but certainly put the lie to the notion that wars of "freedom and liberation" being led by our great democracies were shams built on massive repression, indiscriminate bombing and torture. Most people outside of the "free world" knew this, usually from first-hand experience, but here were cold hard facts, government cables, and the shocking "collateral damage video" in which two Reuters journalists and nine other civilians are ruthlessly gunned down by laughing American soldiers.

But unlike the global reaction to the Charlie Hebdo attacks, Manning's picture (and most of her revelations) rarely appeared front and centre in newspapers around the world in a show of defiance against those brutal authorities that were punishing her for speaking out. Her case was not trumpeted by brave media and mass rallies of global citizens chanting "Je Suis Chelsea"; her revelations were not printed by the millions and funded by government (the French government spent over a million euros to print the post-attack issue of Charlie Hebdo, knowing that the front cover would be flipping the bird to many of its Muslim citizens); the symbol of the flash drive was not held aloft as the real way to defeat terrorism (as pencils were in the Hebdo case); self-righteous publishers and columnists were not saying "if you don't like her revelations, just don't look at them" (most preferred to either ignore them, treat them as isolated instances or make personal attacks against Manning).

Instead, Manning was hustled away for three and a half decades while those whose crimes she exposed (including Bush and Cheney) continued gloating about their decisions, even after the damning U.S. Senate report on torture, one whose revelations were quickly banished to the back pages after the Paris attacks. (Manning herself was subjected to over three years of pre-trial solitary confinement, often refused clothing, in conditions that the UN concluded constituted "cruel and inhumane" treatment.)

French government terrorism
Manning's plight is worthy of consideration in the wake of the Paris attacks, since it reminds us of a basic truism: when our side commits the terrorist acts, they aren't seen as terrorist, and are always justified (if they are even deemed worthy of justification) for reasons ranging from support of oppressed women to bringing democracy to foreign lands. But when somebody else does it against us (read the "free world" or the Eurocentric "West"), they are simply cruel, barbaric and evil. Neither can be justified or defended, whether it is the terrorist attack against the Charlie Hebdo offices and kosher Paris grocery or any number of a lengthy series of terrorist acts committed by the French government: the French terrorist bombing of a Greenpeace ship in New Zealand, the French government's criminal open-air testing of nuclear weapons in the South Pacific (knowing such actions were leading to the slow but sure genocidal destruction of the region's residents), or the 1961 Paris police massacre of over 200 demonstrators calling for peace in Algeria, after which over 11,000 demonstrators were detained in, among other locations, the same stadium where two decades earlier, Jews bound for Nazi extermination had been held.

Another truism that arises is that such attacks will inspire a barely contained sense of joy in the offices of intelligence agencies like CSIS, the RCMP and their brother agencies across the planet. In addition to blanket coverage that unquestionably parrots their opinions and press releases (and helps to deflect from their blood-stained reputations for complicity in torture), these agencies will see new legislation passed at home and abroad that further legalizes the dangerous practices in which they have long engaged, placing human rights in grave peril through increased surveillance, kidnapping, rendition to torture, drone strikes and other insidious tools of repression. In an Orwellian moment, the attacks on free expression will allow governments to suppress free expression with new laws resulting in more pre-emptive arrests for alleged thought crime.

We already see the results in Paris and throughout France, where tens of thousands of armed men patrol the streets and scores of individuals have been rounded up under suspicious circumstances. As the Globe and Mail's European correspondent Mark MacKinnon reported earlier this week, "dark-skinned" individuals who allegedly say something viewed as "uncomfortable" are brazenly nabbed in Paris cafes by heavily armed police. Journalists who try to cover such kidnappings are told to stop filming and leave the scene, "That is, if you're with us." The us-versus-them dynamic is clearly as evident here as it was post 9/11.

Then there was the swift sword of vengeance from French authorities, who quickly tried and convicted a drunk driver of "glorifying terrorism," for the uncomfortable, indelicate act of telling a police officer, while clearly under the influence of alcohol, that he allegedly agreed with the two brothers who spearheaded the Hebdo attack. He will be in jail for four years. Another individual received a one-year sentence for allegedly proclaiming, "I am proud to be a Muslim. I do not like Charlie. They were right to do that." While certainly problematic and insensitive, do such statements seriously deserve draconian punishment? No one in France, or anywhere else on Planet Earth, was subjected to such punishment for publicly celebrating and glorifying the assassination of Osama bin Laden, a clearly illegal act of terrorism, especially considering he was unarmed and could have been easily arrested, detained, and put on trial to face the allegations against him.

Scores in France have been arrested for "defending" terrorism. They have also been picked up for alleged hate speech and anti-Semitism. One can guess with a certain probability the colour and religion of those who have been nailed. Rarely discussed is the problematic, selective use of free speech celebrations. Given that the definition of anti-Semitism is now so broad that it includes any criticism of Israeli government policies, it is a perfect way to clamp down on any discussion of Palestinian rights, especially at a time when the Palestinians are being punished for seeking a war crimes inquiry at the International Criminal Court. Indeed, Canada has been clear that Palestinians will face "consequences" for even pursuing a rule-of-law solution.

A racist magazine
If the French were really concerned about hate speech and images, why are they officially subsidizing Charlie Hebdo? As Teju Cole writes in The New Yorker, asking if it is not possible to condemn the terrorist act without condoning the activities of the victims:

"in recent years the magazine has gone specifically for racist and Islamophobic provocations, and its numerous anti-Islam images have been inventively perverse, featuring hook-nosed Arabs, bullet-ridden Korans, variations on the theme of sodomy, and mockery of the victims of a massacre. It is not always easy to see the difference between a certain witty dissent from religion and a bullying racist agenda, but it is necessary to try. Even Voltaire, a hero to many who extol free speech, got it wrong. His sparkling and courageous anti-clericalism can be a joy to read, but he was also a committed anti-Semite, whose criticisms of Judaism were accompanied by calumnies about the innate character of Jews... Blacks have hardly had it easier in Charlie Hebdo: one of the magazine's cartoons depicts the Minister of Justice Christiane Taubira, who is of Guianese origin, as a monkey (naturally, the defence is that a violently racist image was being used to satirize racism); another portrays Obama with the black-Sambo imagery familiar from Jim Crow-era illustrations."

Meanwhile, as Reporters Without Borders, among others, pointed out, many of the world leaders who rushed to take part in what, in some respects, uncomfortably resembled a Nuremberg-like rally -- beware of mass gatherings organized with the support and participation of governments involved in war crimes -- are responsible for grave violations against freedom of the press in their home countries. To take our closest neighbour, for example, the U.S. under Obama has cracked down with more uses of the Espionage Act to silence and jail whistleblowers and journalists than all presidents of the last century combined. For talking about U.S. involvement in torture and other crimes, folks like James Risen of the New York Times are facing time in prison.

These prosecutions are part of a larger pattern that has physically targeted media which seek to expose U.S. atrocities. It is no secret that the U.S. has targeted Al Jazeera outlets in Iraq and Kabul for bombing, even though the network always informs militaries of its exact coordinates. Six weeks after the network wrote to U.S. military officials in 2003 to inform them of their Baghdad office location, a U.S. missile hit the Al Jazeera office, killing reporter Tareq Ayyoub. Former U.K. Home Secretary David Blunkett wrote in his 2006 memoir that he clearly advised Tony Blair to bomb Al Jazeera's Baghdad TV transmitter in 2003. At the same time, Fox News called on the Bush administration to "take out Al Jazeera," reminding viewers that, "To those who will decry this as censorship, they should be reminded of President Bush's injunction shortly after we were attacked two years ago: In the War on Terror, you are either with us or with the terrorists."

Assassinating Al Jazeera journalists
The assassination call emanating from Fox News was not simply wishful thinking. It was state policy. That strategy was confirmed in the infamous (though little discussed) Al Jazeera bombing memo, details of which had been published by the U.K.'s Daily Mirror. During the commission of U.S. war crimes in Fallujah in 2004, George W. Bush and U.K. PM Tony Blair apparently discussed the idea of bombing the Al Jazeera offices in Qatar in retaliation for their honest coverage of what had been taking place in Iraq. A memo relating to that discussion had been circulated but was ultimately quashed with the arrests of two U.K. men (one a Labour Party researcher, the other a civil servant), both eventually sentenced to three- and six-month jail terms for violating the Official Secrets Act, this following a completely secret trial. Meanwhile, the British government threatened most of the U.K. press with official sanction under the Official Secrets Act as well.

Reporters without Borders issued a statement at that time, declaring:
"We are also shocked by the British government's decision to ban the British press from publishing any information about the content of this memo, classified 'top secret.' Invoking the 1989 Official Secrets Act and threatening to take newspapers to court is disturbing in a country that is usually careful to respect press freedom."

Similarly, the British attempted to prosecute foreign office official Derek Pasquill for revealing information about the U.K. role in the rendition to torture program, but eventually dropped the case given the prosecutors' conclusion that "documents to be disclosed as part of legal proceedings would have undermined its case that the leaks were damaging" in the first place. The New Statesmen's editor concluded:

"This was a misguided and malicious prosecution, particularly given that a number of government ministers privately acknowledged from the outset that the information provided to us by Derek Pasquill had been in the public interest and was responsible in large part for changing government policy for the good in terms of extraordinary rendition and policy towards radical Islam [sic]."

The U.S. discussion about bombing Al Jazeera is part of that country's long tradition of seeking to squelch a free press by whatever means necessary. Recall that President Richard Nixon, who kept an up-to-date enemies list for neutralization, fretted about what he should do with critical columnist Jack Anderson, whose stories about Nixon's war crimes and illegal acts got under the impeached president's skin. A White House memo reported, "We examined all of the alternatives and very quickly came to the conclusion [that] the only way you're going to be able to stop him is to kill him."

Canada's new laws
Meantime, the Canadian government continues to provide all-out support for the Egyptian dictatorship, which has crushed any notion of press freedom, including the jailing for over one year of Canadian Al Jazeera correspondent Mohamed Fahmy. The Harper government has similarly supported post-coup regimes in countries like Honduras, where being a journalist can get you killed for questioning state abuses. Harper has also been less than willing to operate in the sunshine of transparency and freedom. In 2013, the Halifax-based Centre for Law and Democracy ranked Canada 55th out of 93 nations, behind Colombia and Mongolia, among others, with respect to government openness and respect for freedom of information.

It is in this fearsome environment where the act of speaking certain words and writing of uncomfortable truths is becoming increasingly risky (though certainly no less necessary). In this context, the Harper government, whose leader declared an "international jihadist movement" has "declared war on any country like ourselves that values freedom, openness and tolerance," is set to introduce even more repressive measures that mock those stated values. These include lowering even further the threshold to make preventive arrests, reducing personal privacy and easing the sharing of personal information with intelligence agencies (exactly the kind of thing that led to the torture of numerous Canadian citizens). Also on tap is having Canada's national police force -- one complicit in torture of Canadians abroad, harassment of and violence against female officers at home, and various other crimes -- lead a campaign against those who are angry about such injustices (i.e., those who have become "radicalized.")

Even before such legislation is on the books, growing numbers of young men are being picked up and charged with terrorism-related offences, three last week in Ottawa, for allegedly wanting to join the fighting in Syria. Details remain very sketchy, and it is likely the government will invoke "national security confidentiality" to prevent full disclosure of the case against them. The men have already been declared guilty by much of the media and unwelcome in certain communities as "radicalized" individuals.

In an eerie Kafkaesque moment, individuals under potential new laws against glorifying terrorism will likely face the prospect of secret trials for a very simple reason. If it becomes illegal to "glorify" terrorism (whatever that means, and however broadly that is defined), then receiving pubic disclosure of the case against you will become impossible, for said information will, if made public in court, violate the very law which brought you there in the first place.

The events of the past week also serve as useful arrows in the quivers of governments who need headline-stealing events they can point to as rationales for repression. Canadian officials in speeches and parliamentary presentations lovingly recall the convictions of individuals in the 2006 Brampton case every time they testify in favour of new restrictive laws (recall the one in which two government informers, paid between $400,000 and $1.5 million apiece, essentially entrapped a group of misguided men -- some with some pretty sick opinions -- into a bombing plot, resulting in numerous life sentences). Similarly, the French government, as it seeks Patriot Act-style legislation in the coming weeks, will also now have a fallback. In the words of Humphrey Bogart, they'll always have Paris.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Looking Back on a Canadian Journey to Selma

(an edited version of this story first appeared in NOW magazine)
By Matthew Behrens
            When Dr. Martin Luther King issued a call for clergy to descend on Alabama for the 1965 Selma-Montgomery march – a landmark 5-day event marking its 50th anniversary this year with numerous celebrations and a major motion picture – Rev. Ed File was working as superintendent of a North Winnipeg United Church mission. File, who as a seminary student had first heard King speak at Boston University before the civil rights leader became an international figure, had no second thoughts about entering the cauldron of violence and racism that characterized daily life for African Americans south of the Mason-Dixon line.
            Indeed, still fresh news of the high-profile murder of three northern civil rights workers during the previous year’s Mississippi Freedom Summer failed to deter File and others (including the late Toronto priest and MP Don Heap) from joining the Selma march. In fact, those tragic events spurred him to take up King’s challenge. “Those three young people had been very much in my mind, a feeling of solidarity with them and what they had done and suffered as a consequence, and how important it was for more of us from the North to go down and join in what they were doing,” File says from his home outside of Belleville.
Ed File in the late 1960s, during the grape boycott of the United Farm Workers
King’s call came after millions of people had been horrified by the televised images of what became known as Bloody Sunday. A group of marchers led by, among others, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee’s John Lewis (now a U.S. Congress member), was brutally beaten and tear-gassed at the infamous Edmund Pettus Bridge on March 7, 1965. News coverage of those events interrupted a major network screening of the film Judgment at Nuremberg, and were as shocking then as last summer’s paramilitary attacks on peaceful protesters in Ferguson, Missouri, following the police shooting death of unarmed African American teenager Michael Brown.
            File immediately sprang into action, contacting a fellow pastor who, after having worked in a Winnipeg church adjacent to File’s, had headed south to Louisiana, where he was subjected to damaging attacks on his church after heavy involvement in demonstrations against segregated beaches.
“We had kept in touch and when I called him he was working in Philadelphia,” File recalls. “I told him, ‘I feel the call that I’m meant to go to Selma and I believe you’re feeling the call too, although you probably aren’t feeling it as strongly as I am’.” File laughs, figuring that after a significant bout of first-hand violence, another southbound journey was not necessarily top of mind for his Philly friend. However, arrangements were made and, after flying down separately, they met up at the home of a white Montgomery family hosting a number of marchers. 
Upon their arrival, they were greeted with the news that James Reeb, a white Unitarian minister who had also answered the call from Boston, had just been murdered after eating in a black-owned Selma restaurant, the only one that would serve marchers.  Shortly thereafter, “the phone rang, and someone made threats against the family for having white marchers staying in their house,” File recalls. “The owner of the house calmly went to his closet, pulled out a gun, and put it by his front door.” While the image seems inconsistent with a movement often characterized as purely nonviolent, such moments were more frequent than most realize. Indeed, as documented in Charles Cobb’s recent book This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed, the civil rights movement was also populated by numerous armed self-defence groups, like the Deacons for Defense and Justice who, from time to time, intervened when local or federal officials refused to provide necessary protection for demonstrators or during voter registration drives.
While there were tensions across the generational divide of the civil rights movement – younger people, especially women, were shouldering a significant share of the burden while relative elders like King enjoyed the lion’s share of the credit – they were smoothed over during the course of the march itself. File recalls joining the march shortly after it began in a large park where he and his associates gathered quite close to King and set out for the day’s walk. The only tension he saw was white violence directed against African Americans and, especially, white clergy.
“They were screaming lots of negative, nasty things, especially to white people like me. As ministers we always wore our church collar, and the police would yell at us, ‘You’re a phony!’”
While Selma was one of the last large-scale southern marches of the civil rights era, File says there was no real sense of the event’s place in history at the time. Rather, it was another one of countless marches, rallies, and campaigns that had been part of social justice movements for decades focused on full citizenship rights for African Americans. For File, it was part of a continuum that would keep him busy to the present day, agitating for everything from nuclear weapons abolition and First Nations solidarity campaigns in Ontario to peace actions in Japan and Taiwan, a country with which he has had a close connection for over 35 years.
Like many participants in the civil rights movement, File’s role in the struggle was part of a larger vision for transforming the world. Just before he left for Selma, he was preparing to take on a new job that would train clergy from across Canada in social development and community empowerment at the ecumenical Canadian Urban Training Project for Christian Service (known as CUT, where he worked for the next 20 years). The Toronto-based CUT program, which also developed regional organizations in the Atlantic and BC, as well as a First Nations leadership training program, led File to Taiwan, where he worked with community groups for decades, beginning when the country was under martial law. “The people we trained there played a major role in getting rid of the dictatorship and forming opposition parties,” says File, who just received the first ever Taiwanese Human Rights Association Award.
Fifty years on from Selma, File sees the seminal demonstration as “just one engagement that I could be involved with that I felt called to, and over the years I have had the privilege to be involved in so many other projects like that.”  He also sees similarities between grass roots civil rights activists of the 1960s blocking highways and staging sit-ins and today’s youth-led campaigns, like Black Lives Matter, that have engaged in similar activities, from occupying the St. Louis airport to thousands flooding the Minneapolis Mall of America just before Christmas.
“I try to see things in the framework of the teachings of Jesus and the ethical ideals of the world’s great religions,” he says. “Those ideals are permanent through the centuries, and people who are touched by those or see them as the focus of their lives see that it is an ongoing struggle for justice in what we used to call the civilized world. I see steps that we had taken toward making societies more civil are being backed away from. It’s horrendous what humans are doing to each other all over the world when we have the resources to be inclusive and to have equity for all.”
As File contemplates seeing the new motion picture Selma (starring David Oyelowo and Carmen Ejogo), he starts humming the lines of one of his favourite songs, “When the Saints Go Marching In,” and concludes, “The saints were marching in Selma, in South Africa against apartheid, with Gandhi, with so many others, throwing nonviolence against violence. And the saints are marching still in Ferguson, in Washington, in New York, all around the world.”

Monday, December 22, 2014

No room at Canada's inn MATTHEW BEHRENS | DECEMBER 22, 2014

Usually lost in the bustle of Christmas commercialism is the reminder that when Jesus' parents were looking for a place to stay, there was no room at the inn. For refugees worldwide, that same demeaning sign is hung at the entrance of far too many countries: you are not wanted, you are not admissible, you are undesirable, you are dangerous, you are alien, you are illegal, you are a virus, you are a threat.

Earlier this year, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees reported that the global number of refugees had surpassed 50 million for the first time since the end of the Second World War, with half of them children. Were this group the population of a single country, they would comprise the 24th largest on the globe. To take but one example, over 40 per cent of the population of Syria (9.5 million people) has been displaced by war and repression. That number is equivalent to the total combined population of Manitoba, Nunavut, Saskatchewan, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Newfoundland and Labrador, the Northwest Territories, Prince Edward Island, the Yukon, and British Columbia. Some 86 per cent of the 3 million Syrian refugees who have left the country are hosted by so-called "developing" countries like Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Pakistan, while Canada in 2013 committed to accepting a paltry 200 "resettled" refugees.

The refugee crisis that emerged during and after the Second World War was met with a global response that put into place institutions and conventions dealing with the massive numbers of those displaced and forced to flee. While imperfect, they were a step forward. Today's callous response to a global crisis of similar proportions was captured by a stunning photographtaken earlier this year on the border of Morocco and the Spanish enclave of Melilla. It featured a lazy sunny afternoon in which golfers blithely teed off as asylum seekers attempted to access the golf course, and, hence, Europe, by climbing a dangerously high razor-wire fence. Every year, thousands of individuals rush the fence but few make it over. The photo did not capture the severe police beatings of those who did not make it over the fence, but it was symbolic of the desperate measures migrants are forced to take due to a combination of repressive measures and indifference.

Walls and fences
The barbed wire of Melilla is but one of an increasing number of walls and fences going up all over the globe to prevent migrants from finding safety. Like most "solutions" rooted in fear and racism, these barriers only make the world a more dangerous place for the most vulnerable, for whom staying in an abusive environment is impossible. They range from the U.S.-Mexico border, where hundreds die annually trying to make the dangerous desert crossing, to Fortress Europe, where, in the Mediterranean Sea, at least 25,000 migrants have drowned trying to cross since 2000. As columnist Shannon Gormley recently pointed out, "between 2007 and 2013, the [European Union] spent about three times more on keeping migrants out than on helping asylum seekers and refugees who were already in."

A life-saving operation launched by the Italian Navy last year, which reportedly had rescued as many as 150,000 migrants in distress on the Mediterranean Sea, was recently replaced by a joint European Union mission, Triton, with two-thirds less funding than the Italians were putting forward, no search and rescue capacity, and a limited mandate of operation within 30 miles of the Italian coast (anyone further out will drown). Journalist Gwynne Dyer reported a spokesman at the British Foreign office as justifying these changes because "Ministers across Europe have expressed concerns that search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean have acted as a pull factor for illegal migration, encouraging people to make dangerous crossings in the expectation of rescue."
In other words, as Dyer concludes:

"So letting lots of them drown will presumably discourage others and save more lives in the end…The EU, of course, is acting with its usual combination of cowardice and confusion… the EU is really talking about killing people here. Or letting them die, if you prefer, but it comes down to much the same thing. How long before they start actively killing refugees fleeing from war, hunger and climate change along Europe's Mediterranean sea frontier (and along Australia's northern sea frontier, and the U.S. border with Mexico, and probably South Africa's northern border too)? Ten to fifteen years, at a guess. We'll all have got used to the principle by then."

In the U.S., Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) maintains at least 34,000 immigrants in jail simply because of a quota set by Congress. Similarly in Canada, immigration detention remains a national scandal that was criticized by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, whose director of International Protection denounced "unnecessary suffering, with often serious consequences for health and well-being, in particular when people are held for long periods. It also increases anxiety, fear and frustrations, and can exacerbate past traumatic experiences." Canadian Border Services Agency detained over 10,000 migrants in 2013 (over 200 of them children), many of them in penal institutions, contributing to the myth that refugees are a criminal class of people.

Expendable people
Refugees become an expendable political football that gets kicked around to please various constituencies, and the Canadian government acts no differently. Indeed, Canada's record on refugee acceptance and protection continues to fly in the face of internationally accepted standards, and the government's repeated, vicious attempts to paint refugees in an unflattering light have had an effect on public thinking. Over a third of Canadians polled in August mistakenly believe Canada accepts too many immigrants.

The rate of refugee acceptance hovers around 40 per cent, a number that has more to do with systemic barriers and impossible expectations built into current immigration legislation than the legitimacy of most claims. Lack of access to competent counsel, inability to understand often complex rules and regulations, impossible deadlines, and clear bias on behalf of numerous Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB) adjudicators are just some of the reasons why individuals fleeing persecution still find themselves labelled "failed" refugee claimants.

The Harper government, by making it increasingly difficult to gain asylum in Canada, then uses the number of "failures" to bolster its unfounded claims that many refugees coming here are not bona fide. And while Harper continues to tout the line that individuals wanting to access Canada must wait in line and "follow the rules," there are exceptions for those who are rich. Indeed, Canadian permanent residency is open to the highest bidder, and Immigration Minister Chris Alexander recently announced that Canada will sell 50 spots to millionaires who want to become permanent residents. Additional exceptions will be made for individuals who are not Muslim. Indeed, the Harper government confirmed last week that with the tiny number of Syrian refugees it plans to consider, it will focus on Christians and other religious minorities and not, as the Toronto Star noted, the "Sunni Muslims who have borne the brunt of Syria's civil war and who form the bulk of the millions who have fled."

Meanwhile, Canada maintains a ridiculous registry of so-called "safe" countries that it does not believe are capable of producing refugees. Among those is Mexico, where the record of violence (60,000 murdered in the drug wars), forced disappearances, and torture (up 600 per cent over the past decade) is astounding. When three Mexican nationals were granted asylum in Canada for exposing an alleged plot to launch cyberattacks on U.S. nuclear facilities, Immigration Minister Chris Alexander chose to appeal their acceptance in Federal Court (and in a rare rebuke from that court, Alexander's appeal was thankfully turned down).

Judicial rubber stamp
But such decisions are rare in the Federal Court. By and large, the judiciary plays a rubber-stamp role in the assembly line of human misery produced by Canada's deportation bureaucracy. And what a long line it continues to be. From January, 2004 to June, 2014, Canada deported 148,057 human beings and, as the Toronto Star reported, "more than 500 of these people were sent to countries where Canada has an official moratorium on deportations: Haiti, Democratic Republic of Congo, Zimbabwe, Iraq, and Afghanistan," while "Canada has deported more than 1,000 people to 16 of the most dangerous countries in the world."

In an effort to get around the difficulty of deportations to countries like Somalia, Canada has engaged in people-smuggling operations, as documented in a chilling story on CBC's The Current.
Meanwhile, in a classic case of double punishment, the Supreme Court of Canada issued a scary Halloween Eve decision upholding the idea that people with criminal records should not be granted asylum, regardless of their personal circumstances. The case involved a Cuban refugee, Luis Febles, who, struggling with a severe alcohol addiction, committed two assaults in the U.S. for which he took immediate responsibility, served prison time, and subsequently went sober.

At issue was whether the humanitarian considerations of the Refugee Convention would apply in cases like his. The Court dealt at length with the interpretation of one section of the Convention that is now being used in Canadian immigration law to prevent people with criminal records from having the context of their post-offence lives considered in asylum claims. Such context includes, as Justices Abella and Cromwell pointed out in a lonely dissent, "the completion of a sentence, along with factors such as the passage of time since the commission of the offence, the age at which the crime was committed, and the individual's rehabilitative conduct."

Indeed, Febles "expressed remorse immediately after the commission of the offence and turned himself in to the police. [Febles also disclosed his criminal record when he tried to enter Canada.] He pleaded guilty and served his sentence for his criminal conduct. He also admitted that he was suffering from problems with alcohol at the time of the offence. While it is clear that the criminal conduct was serious, what has yet to be determined is whether the crime is so serious that the claimant's personal circumstances since serving his sentence in 1984 ought to be disregarded in considering whether he is entitled to refugee status."

Double punishment
This is a case of double punishment because there is an additional punishment -- that of deportation -- facing Febles that would not apply to a Canadian citizen in similar circumstances. As UBC lawyer Catherine Dauvergne noted:

"There are two principal reasons why we forgive criminals: rehabilitation and atonement. That is, our criminal justice system echoes these two ideas at many levels. A commitment to rehabilitation means believing that people can change, and can return to being productive members of society. A commitment to atonement means that we embrace that idea that those who have 'done their time' or 'paid their dues' should be free to resume their place as members of society."

On the day the Febles decision was released, she said:

"[The] Supreme Court ruled that these values ought not be extended to those whose human rights are in such peril that they have sought refugee status. For those without the ability to seek protection at home, both their rehabilitation and their atonement will no longer be relevant to their ability to find a safe haven in Canada. Once a criminal, always a criminal, is the nub of today's decision….When someone is excluded from refugee status, there is literally nowhere in the world that they can go to start their lives afresh -- to live free from danger and plan a future. Excluded individuals are banished, not only from Canada, but from human society generally."

An equally sickening judgment came out of the Federal Court in November, rejecting the idea that a 12-month bar on accessing what is known as a pre-removal risk assessment (PRRA) was unconstitutional. That case involved an individual who had been tortured in Sri Lanka but whom the IRB declared, without providing any rationale, would not face torture if forcibly returned to Sri Lanka (even though this is often the fate of returned asylum seekers). The Federal Court refused to review the IRB decision, and the refugee sought a deferral of deportation pending the outcome of a humanitarian and compassionate application. Unfortunately, the refugee was unable to file for a pre-removal risk assessment (which would have automatically stayed deportation) because of an arbitrary measure introduced by the Conservatives that prevents anyone turned down as a refugee claimant from accessing the risk assessment for a full year (during which time many are deported). Given the many problems inherent in the system, some outlined above, the PRRA bar effectively removes any opportunity that an individual will have to indicate risk upon deportation. The PRRA is recognized in Canadian immigration policy manuals as a significant tool that, in responding to Supreme Court jurisprudence, "suggests that everyone, including serious criminals and persons who pose a threat to national security, are entitled to a risk assessment."

But in a terrible decision, Federal Court Judge Peter Annis flippantly dismissed the PRRA because so few -- only 1.6 per cent -- have been successful. Again, that is not a reflection of the legitimacy of the claim, but more an illustration of how poorly the system functions for those most in need. He notes that the refugee in question argued that "the PRRA bar is illegal, in that various unsuccessful refugee claimants will be deported before they can seek the protection that the PRRA mechanism was intended to offer, returning them to places where their lives and freedom could be threatened." But he seems unmoved by this, and claims that a risk assessment was already determined by the IRB officer in declining refugee status, even though, as explained above, such decisions are not always fair or balanced. Indeed, as his fellow judge Anne McTavish noted in a decision on refugee health-care cuts earlier this year, the refugee determination process is not as simplistic as is often made out by government claims, noting that being found "unsuccessful" in a refugee claim does not mean one's claim was "bogus."

The challenge ahead, a holiday wish
And so, as followers of Stephen Harper adorn their homes and churches with signs reading "Keep Christ in Christmas," one wonders if this means they will finally open their doors to provide the sanctuary so many "failed" refugee claimants require to prevent further human rights abuses from befalling them.

Writing in December, 1945, Dorothy Day, who founded the Catholic Worker movement, reminded us "it is no use to say that we are born two thousand years too late to give room to Christ. Nor will those who live at the end of the world have been born too late. Christ is always with us, always asking for room in our hearts. And giving shelter or food to anyone who asks for it, or needs it, is giving it to Christ." She notes that for early generations of Christians, "in every house then a room was kept ready for any stranger who might ask for shelter; it was even called 'the strangers' room.'''

Contemporary churches have more than enough rooms for "strangers" in our midst. They have the capacity and, with a bit of faith, the will to stand with those who are most vulnerable in our country. Perhaps a good holiday wish would be this: that the callous and, indeed, illegal decisions of governments and courts must be disregarded as we uphold the higher law of loving our neighbours and respecting the dignity and humanity of everyone who appears on our doorsteps. May all places of faith in this country live out their creed, open their doors, and fill up with wrongly "failed" refugees to the point where the cruel, heartless business of deportation comes to an end.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Communities of Faith Must Open Their Doors to Refugees

November 28, 2014
Communities of Faith Must Open Their Doors to Refugees
The Anne Frank Sanctuary Committee extends warmest wishes to the sanctuary conference happening today in Vancouver.
With sanctuary, we recognize first and foremost a long-standing tradition to welcome the stranger, the oppressed, the persecuted, the wrongly defamed, and place that commitment above the orderly and efficient operation of an often unjust system which treats migrants seeking asylum as so many cattle to be processed, detained, and “removed.”
Canada is a hard place for refugees and immigrants. It has been since Europeans invaded the continent and began our genocide against indigenous peoples. Restrictive immigration laws based on racial and religious background have always been a cornerstone of this nation, turning away Jews when Nazism reigned in Europe, Latin Americans during the dirty wars of the 70s and 80s, Tamils throughout the brutal civil war in Sri Lanka, among many others. It has fallen to citizens to advocate with those who, having sought safety here, are set up for arbitrary detention and deportation. 

From 2006 until November 12, 2013, the Canadian immigration bureaucracy's "Grand Totals of Removals Executed" stood at 116,266. Think of all those individuals, families, and communities traumatized by the sudden disappearance and deportation of a schoolmate, a neighbour, a fellow congregant. The use of the term "execution" is quite apropos: some of those who were part of the "removals inventory" – human beings who have been relegated to the status of the garbage taken out in the night –  wound up dead in the country from which they originally fled. We do not know exact numbers because the Canadian government does not keep track when it illegally sends people off to face torture and disappearance, but we do hear from advocates, family members and loved ones of such tragedies. Shot in the head and found by a roadside. Tortured. Interrogated and disappeared upon arrival.

Canada's immigration laws increasingly face international condemnation for their failure to live up to basic standards of fairness and legality. In this troubled system, many people fall through the cracks for lack of good counsel, for misunderstanding an incredibly complex set of rules and regulations, for falling prey to greedy immigration consultants, for not having money. Canada's designation of them as "failed refugees" does not take away from the fact that they are, in fact, refugees in need of protection. It becomes our obligation under the law to assist those facing deportation to try and open doors so that their cases may be reconsidered, so that clear errors can be remedied and their lives no longer subject to trauma and the torture of limbo that so many are forced to live under. This is not defiance of the law: it is, in the best sense possible, adhering to those international legal instruments to which Canada is a signatory, covenants that assure the rights of asylum seekers. The lesson of Nuremberg is that when governments engage in crimes against humanity, crimes such as indefinite detention and deportation to torture, it is the duty of citizens to refuse to go along quietly.

Sanctuary has been one of the tools used successfully to keep people in Canada who otherwise would have been deported to face, at best, uncertainty, and at worst, prison, torture, and death. The cases are sometimes long, difficult journeys for the individuals and families, as well as host congregations, but they are the ultimate expression of faith in one another and our belief in truth and justice winning the day. They also provide us with an opportunity to be our best, most truthful selves. The risks to us are small; the rewards are great. We are in the business of trying to save lives, pure and simple.

Writing in December, 1945, Dorothy Day, who founded the Catholic Worker movement, reminded us “it is no use to say that we are born two thousand years too late to give room to Christ. Nor will those who live at the end of the world have been born too late. Christ is always with us, always asking for room in our hearts. And giving shelter or food to anyone who asks for it, or needs it, is giving it to Christ.” She notes that for early generations of Christians, “in every house then a room was kept ready for any stranger who might ask for shelter; it was even called ‘the strangers’ room’’”.

Contemporary churches have more than enough rooms for "strangers" in our midst. They have the capacity and, with a bit of faith, the will to stand with those who are most vulnerable in our country. The Anne Frank Sanctuary committee has been privileged to work in sanctuary for over a dozen years, winning almost all of the cases it has taken on.  We are sick at heart to think of those who did not have the resources or the connections to seek out sanctuary and who are now a world away, struggling to survive.

May the message of today’s gathering be clear: the callous and, indeed, illegal decisions of governments must be disregarded as we uphold the higher law of loving our neighbours and respecting the dignity and humanity of everyone who appears on our doorsteps. May all places of faith in this country live out their creed, open their doors, and fill up with refugees to the point where the cruel, heartless business of deportation comes to an end.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Militarism degrades, disrupts and destroys democracy

Militarism degrades, disrupts and destroys democracy
Matthew Behrens
| November 26, 2014

As the Canadian government plays at fighting wars in Iraq/Syria and in eastern Europe, we see daily examples of how militarism ultimately degrades, disrupts and destroys democracy. Indeed, we are subjected to a  gravitational pull of obedience to martial values that blinds us to a series of uncomfortable realities that are visible in plain sight but unmentionable in mainstream discourse. While a slavish media hangs on every General's word, Ottawa refuses to release the costs of its overseas adventures. Politicians who voted against the Middle East mission now say we must rally around the troops.

It is instructive that Generals speak of modern warfare as taking place "in theatre." It reminds those who are watching the government-supplied videos of aircraft taking off and bombs being dropped that, like audience members at the local movie house or attending a live performance, we must be quiet for the duration of the performance. We cannot stop it midway through and ask questions or protest without the risk of being booed. As in the neighbourhood multiplex films, the wars are all pretty much built on the same good guys versus evil script that has not changed for centuries. Indeed, as Ottawa author Stephen Dale points out in his excellent new book Noble Illusions: Young Canada Goes to War, an examination of the propaganda used to indoctrinate young men to join the ranks of the First World War, militarist tactics stay pretty much the same over time, with only changes in the casting.

The main movie Canadians are now seeing, in limited release, is the ISIL/ISIS charade, which, according to latest figures, has included over 100 "sorties," delivery of close to 1 million pounds of air fuel, and overall operational "success," as described at occasional War Department briefings featuring costumed characters wearing medals and epaulets. Like reasonably trained actors, the commanders spout a script of euphemisms straight out of a video game, recalling with fondness their various operations over the past few years. For example, recent briefings reminisced about Operations Odyssey Dawn and Op Unified Protector in Libya, human rights disasters supported by Canada's three major parties which unleashed the chaos of sectarian violence that has ruined the country and destabilized the region. No one points out that some members of ISIS were in fact allies of Canadians during the Libyan campaign. During these "technical briefings," reporters fall over themselves to thank the Generals for taking the time to speak their well-studied lines, and even when a serious question is asked, it is batted away with the bafflegab that earns military-speak the deserved title of Orwellian.

Canada kills civilians

Indeed, Colonel Daniel Constable, Commander of Joint Task Force–Iraq, told reporters November 13 that "I'm very confident to report that we have no reports on any civilian casualties, no collateral damage" (a dissimulation that means any reports that DO confirm such casualties don't make it on his reading list). Yet a mere 30 seconds later, he contradicted himself by stating, "as we've talked about in previous briefings of this nature, we're not really doing a casualty count at all." In this movie, the civilian deaths are lowly extras who don't get named when the final credits roll. As General Tom Lawson also stated in various media interviews, Canada WILL be killing civilians, but just not at an "unreasonable" level. Media have failed to ask what constitutes "unreasonable," and the Generals likely would not respond even if they were challenged, probably falling back on the claim that revealing such details would aid the enemy by getting into operational procedures.

The role of the media, especially Postmedia's Matthew Fisher, is to write love letters to the military that link the current bombing campaigns to the alleged glory days of prior wars. Media gushed over Canada's first air strikes against ISIS like fathers chortling with cigars over their newborns. Fisher calls the CF-18 bombers "venerable" and then quoted a military source: "We are all proud of the first [bombing] strike."

The Canadian military has over the past two decades dropped bombs on human beings in Iraq, the former Yugoslavia, and Libya. It has directly and indirectly tortured human beings in Somalia and Afghanistan. It has continued to scoop up the largest annual share of discretionary federal spending at the expense of veterans, the homeless, the mentally ill, children without child care, women without shelter from male violence,  First Nations on boil water alerts, and so many other vulnerable populations. But it always gets a free pass. That slavish devotion to the men and women in uniform (the latter a group that is also subject to an epidemic of sexual assault from their male comrades in arms) perhaps explains why it was so easy for an imposter to dress up in war regalia and play a role inside the heavily guarded Remembrance Day ceremonies in Ottawa. Moving freely amongst the dignitaries and sharing sound bites with the media was easy for this individual because, unlike those who wanted to lay a white poppy peace wreath, he would not have been the subject of state security surveillance that day. He appeared to be a soldier, and that was good enough for Ottawa police and the RCMP. 

In a society that increasingly glorifies martial values -- sales of the first-person combat video game Call of Duty top $10 billion, with Quebec's Assassin's Creed creeping up in sales -- those who carry a gun can do no wrong, from the police who get off easy after beating up arrestees to the Mounties who racially profile and trade with torturers. Those at the top needn't be accountable to anyone. The Canadian War Dept. is the only federal institution that can start a new war without having to go to Parliament to approve the open-ended spending spree. Costs of the Ukraine mission are secret and, we are led to believe, will not be released until the end of March 2015. The cost of bombing Iraq/Syria is similarly being withheld.

Radicalized Canadian veterans
Meantime, a handful of Canada's Afghanistan veterans who appear to have become "radicalized" are heading overseas to fight on the ground against ISIS independent of the Canadian military. Although these men will be working alongside forces that have also committed human rights abuses, it does not appear that their passports are being seized or that they will face charges should they return to Canada. No, they get interviews on the CBC and admiring profiles in the print media. They are "our" soldiers.

Indeed, the fact that he made no apparent reference to Islam perhaps explains why one Canadian Forces veteran did not make national headlines when he pleaded guilty to firearms and explosives offences after allegedly planning a major attack against a Calgary office building that housed a Veterans Affairs office. When the vet was arrested last January, RCMP found on his premises tactical equipment, hundreds of rounds of ammunition, bomb-making materials, and a variety of deadly chemicals. The man, whose identity is protected by publication ban to protect his wife and child (a courtesy never extended to Muslim suspects), was apparently planning an assault on the building. Unsurprisingly, the cause of his anger was mistreatment as a veteran. The case came to authorities' attention when the man's wife called for help when he appeared to be suicidal. The Calgary Herald reported that officers found the man's car "was packed with 1,000 rounds of ammunition, seven loaded magazines (five of which had been illegally modified to hold 20 rounds), night-vision binoculars, body armour, a range-finder for long-distance shooting and a laser sight for close-range targets."

While it is a possibility that angry veterans will take up arms against their government when they are refused the benefits they deserve, this potential threat does not appear to be high on the federal government's list of safety priorities. (Notably, we learned last week that Veterans Affairs has also held back over a billion dollars worth of funding for vets' services). Rather, they continue to hope veterans will give up and just disappear. The idea of the wounded and disturbed returning soldier does not fit with the script of glory and honour. That is why the Harper government, like Liberal governments before it and, in fact, all governments throughout history that have sent soldiers off to kill and be killed, mistreats veterans, especially those with post-traumatic stress disorder and similar "readjustment" problems. Their frail humanity does not match the recruiting poster of the happy soldier who bravely goes overseas and commits heroic acts while vanquishing the "enemy." We don't want to know that, as former Canadian General (and current Justin Trudeau adviser) Andrew Leslie recently pointed out, a quarter of Ottawa's homeless are military veterans, and some no doubt sleep underneath the War Department near the Rideau Canal.

A silence on Ukraine

Meanwhile, one of the war films that has escaped multiplex distribution is the one in Ukraine, where thousands have been killed by both sides in the conflict. It has served as a convenient excuse for Canada to deploy over 1,000 troops in eastern Europe, where they fly sorties and take part in war games near the Russian border. Postmedia's Fisher excitedly (and without irony) reported on one sortie in which Canadian bombers -- flying over 7,500 km from their home -- target Russian aircraft over the Baltic Sea as "intruders." Interestingly, this deployment seems not to have raised a peep from opposition parties nor peace groups across Canada, even though the implications have global ramifications. The Harper government's obsession with supporting the post-coup government of Ukraine is one that is embraced by those who fondly recall the overseas stationing of Canadian troops in Germany during the Cold War. It also conveniently ignores the disturbing role of neo-Nazis in the Kiev government and crimes that the regime is committing. Human Rights Watch reported that the Ukrainian government has been firing rockets into populated areas, indiscriminate attacks that kill civilians. Hamas justifiably catches hell when it launches indiscriminate rocket attacks against Israel, but Harper allies have free reign.

Indeed, as renowned Russia scholar Stephen Cohen wrote recently in The Nation, the Canadian-backed regime in Kiev "has been committing atrocities against its own citizens in southeastern Ukraine." Cohen says Kiev's "anti-terror" tactics "have created a reign of terror in targeted cities," including a May 2 attack in which a pro-Kiev mob chased anti-government protesters into a building, set it on fire, and tried to block the exits, killing some 40 people. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, recently serenaded in Canada's Parliament, speaks of those who resist his bombardment of their cities as "gangs of animals" and, in a collective punishment approach in clear violation of all known laws and human decency, has declared that he will take "hundreds of their lives for each life of our servicemen." The neo-fascist Svoboda party (which glorifies its Nazi-collaborationist ancestors, refers to gays, Jews, feminists, and leftists as scum, and was called "neo-Nazi" by the World Jewish Congress in 2013) plays a key role in the coalition government. Far-right nationalist militias constitute a foundation of the country's National Guard, one which Cohen notes is escalating "ethnic warfare and killing of innocent civilians."

Representatives of Poroshenko's National Guard were in Ottawa recently to seek out weapons deals in a visit arranged by Arthur Andersen Defence Consulting (the same company responsible for the implementation of massive welfare cutting in Ontario, among other crimes). It is not clear who would pay for such weapons, but if Canadian government policy with other NATO members is any example, it is likely Canadians who will foot the bill. For example, Canada will pay the $30-million cost for Hungarian fighter pilot training on behalf of their far-right wing government in a country where the Roma continue to face severe  persecution.

"Standing with" the right-nationalist government of Ukraine means Canada must not do anything to upset its special relationship, which includes being one of only three countries on the face of the planet to vote against a November 17 UN resolution called "Combating glorification of Nazism, neo-Nazism and other practices that contribute to fuelling contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance." Yes, Canada joined the U.S. and Ukraine in voting against a resolution that also condemned Holocaust denial. Some 55 nations (many of which are NATO members) abstained on the vote, no doubt because they want Ukraine as part of the military alliance. So much for Harper's calls of "never again" when he spoke in Israel. This is not to whitewash the Russian annexation of Crimea nor to dismiss those voices for democracy that were supportive of the Maidan movement, many of whom face a difficult road ahead trying to navigate the many political strands that make up the Ukrainian mosaic. Indeed, Harper and NATO seem not to care whether the government in Kiev is democratic or authoritarian, as long as it accepts EU dictates and joins NATO.

Opening the vaults

While Harper plans to campaign on a balanced budget, the vaults are continuing to open for outrageous military spending. In the same month that national reports were produced on millions of hungry Canadians and hundreds of thousands of homeless, the focus has remained on how we can be a glorious nation at war against barbaric cultural practices. With the backdrop of an isolated shooting of a reservist in Ottawa and the sad killing of a soldier in Quebec, the military and its industry partners smell blood, and blood means big bucks. Canada's special forces are seeking some $350 million in new war materiel and Harper quietly approved an $800-million purchase of Sea Sparrow Missiles (part of a $26-billion rebuild of the Canadian navy). Meanwhile, the CF-18 bombing campaign is proving a useful trailer for the next movie Harper hopes to produce, the F-35 stealth fighter jet show that will cost over $50 billion. Indeed, as the Ottawa Citizen reported November 4, the Canadian government is planning to tell the U.S. Congress (but not its own Parliament) about those intentions to purchase four jets in 2017. The cost of celebrating war continues to pile up as well, with over $2 million spent earlier this year for a one-day commemoration of the Afghanistan occupation and over a decade of bombings, night raids, and transfers to torture.

The real Canadian crisis

Meanwhile, as the hypocrites on the Hill paid solemn tribute to Canada's soldiers earlier this month, Canadian psychologist Antoon Leenars told a group of veterans Nov. 7 in Ottawa that military suicides are at "epidemic proportions," adding that the Canadian War Dept. has done "no credible, peer-reviewed research into suicide." More vets have committed suicide in the past decade than were killed in Afghanistan. Like the civilians who make up the majority of war's victims, countless Canadian vets continue to suffer the ill effects of militarism, as do their loved ones. They represent those inconvenient realities we would prefer not to  notice because as with all systems of sanctified reverence, with militarism, we only wish to see the façade of glory and heroism. Anything else would cut down on recruitment into what always has been and remains a barbaric cultural practice: developing newer and more refined ways of murdering people.

Perhaps the most eloquent recent expression of distaste for the militarist wave in Canada comes from someone who knows at the most visceral level both loss of a loved one in the military and the manner in which the government misuses their memory. Hamilton, Ontario's Andrea Palko, whose beloved boyfriend Nathan Cirillo was killed at the war memorial in Ottawa last month, wrote in a little publicized Facebook posting that, "I loved him deeply, as did all of the family and friends who knew him and we all still mourn him every day. That being said, I feel I should weigh in on this ridiculous 'was he a hero or was he not' debate. My response is this: WAKE UP CANADA. What we SHOULD be talking about is the dismal state of mental healthcare in our country.

"What that deeply disturbed man killing my boyfriend SHOULD make Canadians focus on is how we can PREVENT another event like this through more accessible and effective mental health treatment programs that target the REAL source of this tragedy.

"Stop tearing apart the honour and love bestowed upon a wonderful man who deserves every bit of it and start taking a good hard look at the awful, dysfunctional systems in our nation that this has shown us NEED TO CHANGE.


"I am a very proud Canadian, but the fact that this hero/not business is what the media here and the general public has chosen to talk about, I must say I am very disappointed.


"For those of you who would like to share my words, please do so. I feel as though this is an important discussion that needs to continue happening."

An example of courage that matches any mustered up on November 11.

Matthew Behrens is a freelance writer and social justice advocate who co-ordinates the Homes not Bombs non-violent direct action network. He has worked closely with the targets of Canadian and U.S. 'national security' profiling for many years.

A book launch for Stephen Dale's Noble Illusions takes place tonight (November 26)  at 7:30 pm in Toronto at Friends House, 60 Lowther Ave (Near Bloor and St. George), with special guests Sarah Hipworth (co-editor, Let Them Stay), 95-year-old pacifist and World War II conscientious Objector Frank Showler, and Jo Vellacott discussing conscientious objection during World War 1. More at

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Reflections on a violent day in Ottawa

| October 23, 2014
Photo: Ashwin Kumar/flickr
I often find it hard to feel empathy for Prime Minister Stephen Harper. But when I saw the grim picture of him talking on the phone following the end of his confinement in the locked down House of Commons yesterday, I sensed in him a vulnerability he rarely exhibits. Harper, like his fellow MPs, Parliamentary staff, media, visitors and children in the downstairs daycare, had likely hunkered down behind locked doors, no doubt traumatized by uncertainty when an armed gunman entered the building. Because no one knew who the gunman was after, all were potential targets. For half a day, everyone on lockdown no doubt felt the fear, despair, sadness and fragile sense of mortality that people in Iraq and Syria have experienced daily for decades, an extra punch of which they will soon receive at the hands of Canadian CF-18 bombers.

It's the kind of trauma not to be wished upon anyone, and I hope all affected will get the kind of counselling and therapeutic support necessary to deal with what may emerge as multiple cases of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), otherwise known as the condition that you get denied proper treatment for when you are a returning Canadian military veteran.

Like those in Afghanistan who suffered 13 years of Canadian bombardment (upwards of a billion Canadian bullets fired), night raids, transfers to torture, and the daily indignities of life under military occupation, those Parliamentarians with the power to declare war -- and send somebody else overseas to fight it for them -- felt, in a relatively limited fashion, what it's like for millions of the world's war-weary populations. The image of a cowering John Baird or Jason Kenney hiding in a barricaded office must have proven a stark contrast to the swaggering, macho manner in which these men urged Canada to declare war on ISIS, further fuelling the flames of fear and hatred against Muslims.

Out-of-the-blue violence
Thankfully, most of yesterday's hostages to violence in Parliament went home last night to warm houses with showers, uninterrupted electricity supply, food in the fridge, and the knowledge that this horror is unlikely to happen tomorrow and four or five times for the remainder of the month or periodically for the rest of their lives. But had this happened in Iraq, such relative safety would not be guaranteed, in part due to Canada's role in obliterating that nation's economy, electricity and water supply, and health-care system, first though intensive bombing in 1991, military enforcement of a decade's worth of brutal sanctions that killed a million Iraqis, and renewed support and participation in the 2003 invasion that was made possible by Canadian weapons, technical components, navy personnel and equipment, embedded troops, and high-ranking military officials. It was also out of Iraq's torturing prisons during the occupation that numerous ISIS leaders emerged.

The tragic murder of a young Canadian reservist and the Parliamentary shootout was all the more shocking because of its sudden, seemingly out-of-the-blue fashion. In the same way, on a daily basis in tribal areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan, in Yemen, in Somalia, children in schools, celebrants at weddings, and other individuals and families are suddenly, shockingly killed by a Hellfire missile fired from a remote control-operated drone, likely with the Canadian-built targeting camera courtesy of L-3 Wescam in Burlington, Ontario.

What is being treated as Canada's 9/11 is a day that recalls the comments made half a century ago by the great Malcolm X, who commented that the assassination of President Kennedy was a case of "chickens coming home to roost," a result of a "climate of hate" fostered by a U.S. political and corporate establishment regularly overthrowing governments and assassinating (or plotting against) a variety of leaders from Patrice Lumumba to Fidel Castro. At the time, Malcolm X was vilified for speaking the truth, one that America was not ready to accept, just as many Canadians may be unwilling to do now.

Indeed, how many Canadians reading that last paragraph would step back and say, "That's them, not us"? The horrible sound of gunfire in Parliament must have sounded a small bit of like some opening moments during the Canadian-supported coup against the democratically elected Chilean government of Salvador Allende in 1973, one of many coups Canada has given support to (including more recently the coups in Honduras, Egypt, Haiti, etc.). One reporter gasped that it was simply incongruous to see SWAT teams escorting her through the Parliament in which she worked, and yet Canadian policy throughout much of the world forces her counterparts to walk that ring of heavily armed men on a daily basis.

Rather than viewing yesterday's tragic events as a wake-up call to seriously examine Canada's negative role on the world stage and the inevitable "climate of hate" to which we are contributing, we can expect nothing less than a ride on the Platitude Express, which embarked within minutes of the first bullets being fired.

The Platitude Express
From endless references to the "loss of innocence" to the pronouncements that "things will never be the same" (especially in the "hallowed halls" of Parliament), we are witnessing the cranking up of our self-loving myth machine into high gear.

In this climate, do not expect our finest hour. Yesterday's events will be used as the springboard to call for greater militarization of the national culture and justification for unending war against ISIL/ISIS or any other convenient enemy-du-jour. This will lead to further increases in war spending, despite the fact that the War Dept. was supposed to come up with $2 billion in cuts. The wars in Ukraine and Iraq -- costs for which are being kept secret, without much protest -- will easily double that. These events will also be used to attack anyone who questions Canada's role in wars past or present.

New repressive laws
The events of yesterday will likely also have a congealing impact on Parliamentarians who, understandably, shared a trauma together. Wednesday was supposed to be the Harper government's opportunity to unleash a new round of legislative measures designed to give CSIS and the RCMP even more freedom to trade information with torturers, monitor people overseas, take part in extraordinary rendition programs, and be completely immune from prosecution and oversight by the creation of a special class privilege that would assert the right of CSIS agents and informers not to be questioned about their activities in any court of law, public or secret.

But after yesterday, what opposition leader who wants to appear prime ministerial will feel comfortable saying no to such an agenda? The Conservatives will no doubt frame the issue with the familiar refrain, "you're either with the terrorists or against them."

Perhaps the most immediate impact will be felt in certain communities targeted for racial and religious profiling. While Canadian soldiers have been told to stay indoors and not show themselves in public, individuals of South Asian or Middle Eastern heritage, and certainly anyone who may be a Muslim or perceived as one, may have second thoughts about being out in public. These communities will be the subject of demands from the media and some "community leaders" to "out" radicalized young people, to call in "suspicious" behavior (undefined), and to report their neighbours to CSIS or the Mounties. They will find greater difficulty travelling, and they will learn first-hand about something called the Passenger Protect Program (or no-fly list).

This is especially so since, while we do not know much about the shooter, media have been quick to point out that although he was a Canadian, he was of "Algerian" heritage, and a recent convert to Islam. Both are completely irrelevant factors, but so commonly part of the daily anti-terror discourse that no second thought is given to the consequences of bringing it up.

The game is no longer far away
Glenn Greenwald adequately summed things up by asking why Canada, a nation that has been at war for 13 years and counting, would be shocked that someone might actually (however unjustifiably), do what he felt was needed to fight back. But as a country that wages war but has never suffered from war the way Russia or France or Syria or Iraq have, we have always been insulated against the consequences of our actions, buoyed by a mythology that allows us to wear Canadian flags on backpacking trips through Europe.

By day's end, Harper addressed the nation, his discourse unchanged from the bellicose rumblings of last week as he rammed through a Parliamentary vote to bomb Iraq and Syria: "Canada will never be intimidated…redouble our efforts…savagery…no safe haven…"

After a long day focused on these gripping events in the nation's capital, I have to wonder if this direct experience of fear and trauma will force us to examine our own addiction to violence as the solution to conflict. Yesterday provides us with an opportunity to reflect on our insidious contribution to the climate of hate, and the chance to disengage from our increasingly militarized culture.