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Canada Day: The real enemy is at home

Rally for Unist'ot'en, Vancouver December 2018. Photo : Michael YC Tseng
John Bell, Left Jab

July 1, 2019

The release of the report from the Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls unleashed a furious debate across Canada. Arguments did not centre on which of the report’s 231 recommendations to implement first. Instead innumerable talking heads wasted endless hours wrangling over whether the report’s prominent use of the word “genocide” was warranted.

It is no coincidence that the same sort of debate is raging in the US. There Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) attacked Donald Trump’s refugee policies – especially the internment of children – as racist. She deliberately used the term “concentration camps”, and provoked howls of outrage from Republicans and the right wing (as if there is any difference).

I say no coincidence, because on both sides of the border the chickens of imperialism are coming home to roost. Both Canada and the US are national enterprises based on conquest, slaughter and enslavement. Both nations are flailing about as their domestic economies devolve into shell games of speculation and environmental self-destruction. Abroad, America’s empire is slowly collapsing under its own weight. Canada, imperialism’s youthful ward, is exposed by adventures like the shameful, botched regime change in Venezuela, the unseemly embrace of neo-fascist forces in Ukraine, and backtracking on decades of relations with Cuba to appease Trump.

More and more people are asking hard questions, and grow tired of talking-point, double-speak answers from the mouths of politicians. Words that were seldom uttered – capitalism in the negative, socialism in the positive – are now everywhere. Political polarization increases apace with the chasm between fabulously wealthy minority and struggling, suffering majority. The average pay among the top 100 Canadian CEOs last year was $10.4 million. Bosses of the 5 big banks gave themselves a raise, an average of 6.5 %. Canadian workers averaged about 2 %, a loss in real terms when inflation is figured in.

If you were brought up the way I was, you were taught that people who build concentration camps and execute genocidal policies are, broadly speaking, the bad guys. And if our countries are up to such things, that makes us the bad guys. Perhaps it is just as German revolutionary Karl Liebknecht wrote in 1915, as Europe’s imperial rivals geared up for world war: “The main enemy is at home.”

No wonder the forces upholding the status quo loudly deny the use of plain language and accurate descriptions. Climate killing fossil fuels become “molecules of U.S. freedom to be exported to the world.” Language can be employed to obscure the truth or expose it. Consciously using truthful words like genocide and concentration camp is the first step to reconciliation and repairing our alienated society.

Concentration camps

Leading the chorus of condemnation of Ocasio-Cortez was Steve King, a congressman from Iowa with a long record of racist remarks and support for white nationalism. In a January interview he pondered: “White nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization — how did that language become offensive?” An opponent of multiculturalism, a big fan of racial profiling, King is on record calling torture of political prisoners in Abu Ghraib prison “hazing”. Despite a history of anti-Semitism he had the nerve to invoke the memory of the Holocaust to attack AOC.

Predictably, most media pundits echoed his words. Chuck Todd, influential host of TV’s Meet the Press led the pack: “If you want to criticize the shameful treatment of people at our southern border, fine. You'll have plenty of company. But be careful comparing them to Nazi concentration camps, because they are not at all comparable. In the slightest.” His soliloquy was as sanctimonious as it was dishonest; Ocasio-Cortez never used the word “Nazi” (although I might have if referring to vermin like Steve King).

OAC is right. Actual historians support her. Facts, not opinion back her up. Mass detention camps designed to terrorize and punish a civilian population predate the Nazis. During the Spanish American War, Spain even called its policy of punishment camps for Cuban civilians reconcentración. British imperialism used them in South Africa during the Boer War, and the “Trail of Tears” death march where the US Indigenous nations like the Cherokee were ethnically cleansed from the east and ended in concentration camps.

Holocaust survivors and scholars had her back. Ben Ferencz, the last surviving prosecutor from the Nuremburg war crimes trials called Trump’s concentration camps a “crime against humanity”. US Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg tweeted: “OK internet. Time to learn the difference between concentration camps and death (‘extermination’) camps. Germany started with concentration camps in 1933. Death camps started in 1941. Never again is now.” But facts and academic research are no match for the “My country right or wrong” insanity that fuels Trump’s supporters.

The silver lining is that many American workers are not buying it. Horrific images of suffering children are too much, especially when news that private corporations are making huge profits from the concentration camps. Trump officials try to justify denying basic sanitary conditions to innocent children, and people are rightfully sickened. Thousands of ordinary folks try to donate supplies – toothpaste, soap, blankets – to the camps only to have them thrown back in their faces. Workers at Wayfair are striking and protesting rather than collude by selling furniture to the camps. Under pressure, even the Bank of America has said it will no longer do business with corporations running the camps.

All Trump’s supporters can do is try to change the subject, and divert attention to a sterile debate over words. A few argue that its okay to put children in concentration camps because Obama did it too, which is factually correct but not much use for trying to put the rosy bloom back in Uncle Sam’s cheeks.

Ocasio-Cortez won’t back down. “I will never apologize for calling these camps what they are. If that makes you uncomfortable, fight the camps – not the nomenclature,” she tweeted. Millions of Americans are starting to do just that, and in the process many will go from “Trump is bad” to “Wait a minute, we’re the bad guys here”.


The Canadian mainstream reacted in horror to the report from the inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. But with a few honourable exceptions that shock was directed at the word “genocide” the authors deliberately used. Editorials in all the largest papers, led by the Globe and Mail and Toronto Star, denied the use of “genocide”; oh yes, awful things have happened but to suggest that they are deliberate and systemic, including government policy, is just wrong. That would mean that the very foundation of our belief, that sweet peaceful Canada is morally superior to our neighbours is, to use the scientific term, horseshit.

Indigenous journalist Jesse Wente responded: “However, such stances will have consequences, unintended or not. They do harm to the communities that are still seeking justice, and will be for some time to come. They also make it harder for Indigenous communities to trust a media industry that has rarely proved itself worthy of their confidence. Moreover, they undermine the work of the Indigenous journalists they employ.”

It is far easier for talking heads to flap about nomenclature than a 500 year history of empire, violence and racism. And it is easier to yak than to actually act to address the 231 Calls for Justice embodied in the report. It is telling that so many of the report’s demands are the implementation of recommendations of previous inquiries and reports that have been gathering dust on government shelves for decades, like the Creating Choices (1990) report into the treatment of Indigenous women in prison, or the Truth and Reconciliation Report from 2015.

Here is a basic demand: “We call upon all governments, in meeting human and Indigenous rights obligations, to pursue prioritization and resourcing of the measures required to eliminate the social, economic, cultural, and political marginalization of Indigenous women, girls, and 2SLGBTQQIA people when developing budgets and determining government activities and priorities.”

How does that square with government policy that denies clean drinking water for Indigenous communities, and ignores the environmental racism that pollutes First Nations like Grassy Narrows or Aamjiwnaang, near Sarnia? Can government that imposes pipelines and resource extraction on Indigenous territory every prioritize the justice called for in the report?

Or this small step to redress the centuries of racist treatment: “We call upon all media, news corporations and outlets, and, in particular, government funded corporations and outlets; media unions, associations, and guilds; academic institutions teaching journalism or media courses; governments that fund such corporations, outlets, and academic institutions; and journalists, reporters, bloggers, film producers, writers, musicians, music producers, and, more generally, people working in the entertainment industry to take decolonizing approaches to their work and publications in order to educate all Canadians about Indigenous women, girls, and 2SLGBTQQIA people.”

Keep in mind that among the very first cuts announced by Doug Ford’s Conservative government was funding for school programs dealing with Indigenous culture and history. He slashed the budget for Indigenous Affairs by 50%. And he brushed aside First Nations claiming jurisdiction over mineral resources on their lands as “red tape”. Objectively these decisions will deliberately perpetuate the cycles of poverty and violence epidemic in Indigenous communities: the very definition of genocide.

It is Canada Day and the media that excludes Indigenous voices and denies this genocide is full of reports about how wonderful we are and how much the world loves us. Sorry if I give all that a hard pass. I encourage you to read the report and its call for justice. And I challenge you to go beyond that to consider that our country cannot lay any claim to any sort of moral superiority until it faces up to its bloody, racist history and takes concrete steps to redress it.

Seeing the holes in another nation’s patriotic rhetoric is dead easy. Calling out your own is uncomfortable and, at least for the time being, unpopular. But like it or not, as the MMIWG report confirms, we are the bad guys. On Canada Day many Indigenous voices will say, “We have nothing to celebrate. The real enemy is at home.” Listen to them, believe them, and join them.

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