Canada’s 150th Birthday? Think Again…

Now that the party is over and the fireworks are done, let’s see what exactly we celebrated.

Quite often, but especially every year on Canada Day I find myself thinking about my country, and how lucky, happy and grateful I am to be living in this peaceful, rich, vast and beautiful country.

I remember one year I even wrote a personal essay, expressing my appreciation for my adoptive country and my pride in being Canadian. I have lived the last thirty six years of my life in Canada. It has been very good to me. It’s allowed me to use my full potential and live a rewarding, safe and satisfying life.

Now that I know a little more about Canada’s history, I still feel very lucky to be able to live here, but proud?

That’s a different matter.

This year especially, when the country is celebrating its 150 anniversary, I find the narrative about who we are, false and misleading.

Canada is not 150 years old. The Confederation is. And the confederation was the joining of four of British colonies into the Dominion of Canada. We are celebrating the beginning of the unification of four British colonies. This is a celebration of the colonization of the land we live on.

What is never mentioned in the celebration narrative is the invasion, occupation and appropriation of the land of many different indigenous tribes. Europeans arrived on the shores of North America thinking it was East Indies, and discovered a land that they didn’t know about. Christopher Columbus did not discover America. He discovered that there was a vast and rich landmass he had no idea about.

The Past

The British and the French arrived in the present day Canada in the 15th century and occupied, colonized and fought over different parts of it for a few centuries.

The various tribes who had lived here for thousands of years before them were used, traded with, infected with diseases, fought against, negotiated with, massacred, legislated, and driven out of their land. The British and the French signed hundreds of treaties with various indigenous tribes in Canada, (see the list of these treaties in Thomas King’s The Inconvenient Indian) making promises they often didn’t intend to keep, only to breach the treaties, and force the indigenous people to give up their land and relocate again and again.

The colonizers harassed and oppressed the indigenous people for centuries. At various times they a) forbade them to speak their language; b) forcibly took their children away from them, converting them into Christianity, keeping them away from their families for years, physically and sexually abusing them, (According to King “Up to 50 percent of them lost their lives to disease, malnutrition, neglect and abuse.” ) reserved the prerogative to decide who has the right to call herself/himself an Indian. The end result of all this brutalizing is that the indigenous tribes in Canada were left alienated, impoverished and traumatized.

The Present

In 2008 Stephen Harper apologized for the suffering the residential schools had caused the aboriginal people. He didn’t apologize for the confiscation of land, massacres, breach of treaties and relocation of aboriginal tribes. He only apologized for the residential schools, without offering any compensation for the survivors and their families.

It is interesting to know as an aside, that shortly after the apology, in a G-20 summit Harper declared “We have no history of colonialism in Canada.”

To use Noam Chomsky’s term, “Look yourself in the mirror.”

Meanwhile the surviving colonized indigenous people suffer shockingly high disease, high school dropout, incarceration, systemic social and institutional discrimination, poverty, addiction and suicide rates.

Disease – Amanda Klasing reported in The Globe and Mail on August 30, 2016: “… there are currently 158… drinking water advisories in 114 First Nation communities. This statistic doesn’t reveal the full extent of water problems facing First Nations communities.”

High School Dropout Rates – Caroline Alphonso, in an article entitled “Hope for Marleah” in the Globe and Mail states: ”Indigenous students in Keewatin-Patricia District School Board graduate high school at less than half the rate of their non-Indigenous classmates…The challenges are similar across the country, and should horrify Canadians.”

Incarceration – According to Statistics Canada “In 2015-2016, Aboriginal adults were overrepresented in admissions to provincial and territorial correctional services, as they accounted for 26% of admissions while representing about 3% of the Canadian adult population.”

Racism in the Police Force – According to some estimates, around 4000 indigenous women were murdered or went missing since 1980. Most of these cases were not properly investigated by the police.

Suicide – Furthermore, a  2016 CTV News report says “According to a 2000 report from the Canadian Institute of Health, suicides among First Nations youth (aged 15 to 24) was about five to six times higher than non-aboriginal youth in Canada.

And the abuse continues.

The residents in North West River in Labrador are worried that the multi-billion dollar hydro-electric project in Muskrat Falls, which has contaminated the land behind the dam with heavy metals, “…could lead to flooding, spreading the contamination to the land and waterways they depend on for fishing and hunting. “ When the NunatuKavut and the Inuit tried to demonstrate and blockade the project, their elders were arrested in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, Labrador, taken 800 kilometers away and jailed in St. John’s, Newfoundland.

Alberta tar sands which is one of the most destructive and contaminating oil excavation projects on earth is located on the traditional lands of the Beaver Lake Cree Nation and the Athabasca-Chipewyan First Nation. Despite these nations’ vocal opposition, and celebrities like Leonardo DiCaprio, and public figures like Archbishop Desmond Tutu drawing attention to the degree of devastation it causes to its environment, the project continues in full force.

International Agreements – The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which was adopted by the General Assembly in September or 2007 with 144 states voting in its favour, had 4 states opposing it. These were the U.S., Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Eventually after a few years these states also completely or partially accepted it. Article 26 in this declaration states:

  1. Indigenous peoples have the right to the lands, territories and resources which they have traditionally owned, occupied or otherwise used or acquired.
  2. Indigenous peoples have the right to own, use, develop and control the lands, territories and resources that they possess by reason of traditional ownership or other traditional occupation or use, as well as those which they have otherwise acquired.
  3. States shall give legal recognition and protection to these lands, territories and resources. Such recognition shall be conducted with due respect to the customs, traditions and land tenure systems of the indigenous peoples concerned.

Yes, we have the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, yes, we have the Multiculturalism Act, and yes, we finally accepted the United Nations Declaration above, but when it comes to the implementation of our beautiful laws, we either neglect them outright, or drag our heels indefinitely by using the loopholes in our civil, legal and judicial systems.

There are many investigations, hearings, consultations, lawsuits, and special inquiries on issues pertaining to the indigenous people in progress at this time. These are drawn out, expensive processes, carried out under British/French laws which were imposed on indigenous people. The government has deep pockets, the indigenous people are poor. The government has lawyers defending its own laws, regulations and injunctions. The indigenous people have to be subjected to the white man’s laws. The government has the police who carry guns. The indigenous don’t. The process is lopsided, inequitable, and unjust.

We take in refugees from half way across the globe and help them integrate into our society, but we neglect the fact that there are many nations who were here millennia before us, whom we’ve severely wronged for centuries in many ways.

Instead we sometimes pay lip service to them, and start another set of meetings, hearings, negotiations, etc. etc.

We have to negotiate with the many indigenous tribes in this vast land in earnest and good faith. We have to fully abide by the UN Declaration in all our dealings with them. And we have to compensate them for their current losses and pay reparations for past offences and mistreatments in a fair and timely manner.

Only then can we celebrate our national birthdays with integrity and pride.

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Thou Shalt Not Kill

 Highway of Death

Sabra Massacre

Let me start by saying I oppose violence in any shape or form for any reason. Human beings have intelligence and language to resolve differences. Resorting to violence to resolve differences belongs to the animal kingdom.

Killing people is the worst kind of violence. I wholeheartedly subscribe to “Thou shalt not kill”.

Now that I’ve established that, let me get to the reason I am writing this.

In the previous weeks there have been attacks on civilians in London and Manchester and Teheran. Before that, pretty recently there were attacks on civilians in other parts of the world.

On November 15, 2015, one hundred and thirty people were killed in Paris, France in a series of coordinated attacks some by gunmen who blew themselves up.

On March 22, 2016, thirty two people were killed in Brussels, Belgium in 3 coordinated suicide bombings.

On April 3, 2017, sixteen people were killed by a suicide bomber in Saint Petersburg, Russia.

On April 9, thirty people were killed by a suicide bomber in Tanta, Egypt.

On May 12, twenty eight people were killed in a suicide bombing in Mastung, Pakistan.

On May 20, thirty five people were killed in four different suicide bombings in Baghdad, Iraq.

On May 22, twenty three people were killed in Manchester, England by a suicide bomber.

On May 24, six people were killed in a suicide bombing in Mogadishu, Somalia.

On May 27, thirteen people were killed in a suicide bombing in Khost, Afghanistan.

On June 3, seven people were killed in London England in a vehicle and stabbing attacks.

On June 7, seventeen people were killed in Teheran Iran in two separate shooting attacks.

The suicide bombings in Russia and Muslim countries are mentioned once in our media and all but forgotten. There’s little to no coverage of individual human interest stories, mourning mothers or crying children, flowers and teddy bears laid on the site of the explosions. It’s the attacks in Europe and the US that get detailed coverage in our media. The news coverage focuses on how “terrorists” kill civilians. Reporters and broadcasters alike often puzzle about the reason why people would do such a thing. Why would a young man or a group of young men, often born and bred in a European country commit such a heinous act? Why don’t they want to enjoy their lives? Aren’t young men usually full of zest for life?

People who are interviewed often say the perpetrators are “sick in the head”, or “want to take away our way of life”. Politicians call the suicide bombings “cowardly acts”, and Britain’s Theresa May called for the containment of “Islamic extremism”.

Let me reiterate: I wholeheartedly believe in “Thou shalt not kill”. I do not condone any form of violence. I’m just examining the reasons for these horrific violent incidents. The obvious reasons are very seldom mentioned in the western media. As Mark MacKinnon states in the Globe and Mail, “We don’t connect the attacks on our cities to anything that’s happening in other parts of the globe.”

In the past forty years the US and its allies including Canada, Europe and Israel have meddled in the affairs of many countries in the Middle East and Africa. Most of these countries have rich reserves of oil or are on the route of profitable oil and gas pipelines. Most happen to be majority Muslim countries.

In 1982 the Christian Phalangists at the request and with the help of the Israeli Defense Forces surrounded and massacred up to 3500 Palestinians and Lebanese Shiites in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Lebanon.

In February of 1991 the US bombed and killed tens of thousands of retreating Iraqi troops, who were withdrawing from Kuwait, on what became known as the Highways of Death. This act which one US pilot described as “Shooting fish in a barrel” has been called “one of the most heinous war crimes in human history.”

In 2001 the US attacked Afghanistan, to eliminate Al-Qaeda. Tens of thousands of Afghani civilians were killed as a result of the US invasion. Today, 8400 US troops are still stationed in Afghanistan with their commander asking for more.

In 2003, the US invaded Iraq, a sovereign country some 11,000 kilometers away from the US, claiming Saddam Hussein had “weapons of mass destruction”. Total Iraqis killed since the beginning of the US invasion to now, according to varying sources and body counts, range from 175,000 to 500,000, many of whom were innocent civilians. It was proven later that Iraq never had the “weapons of mass destruction” that George W. Bush and Tony Blair claimed it possessed. American and other foreign troops are still in Iraq claiming to support Iraqi forces in their fight against ISIS. Whereas according to various leaked documents, US has funded ISIS indirectly through its allies, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. The US and other European leaders justify their actions with lies which are by and large reported in their countries as facts.

Since 2014 US has meddled in the internal affairs of Syria, a sovereign country 10,000 kilometers away from it, by first funding the rebels trying to overthrow Syria’s leader, Bashar-al-Assad,  then conducting airstrikes in Syria, and later invading it with ground troops. This is all done in the name of defending human rights, and fighting ISIS, which US itself helped create. And by the way, flagrant violations of human rights in other countries, including Saudi Arabia, West Bank and Ghaza, go unnoticed.

In each incident of “terrorism”, usually less than a 100 people are killed. In each incident of the US or its allies invading a country thousands or hundreds of thousands are killed, and many many more injured, left homeless and forced to flee. Let me repeat again that I am a pacifist. I oppose killing a human being under any circumstances. In my view one person killed is one too many. I am in no way justifying the killing of civilians in Europe, because the numbers are lower than those of the killed civilians in the Middle East. I am just drawing a comparison here in an attempt to present my view of the reasons why young men are killing themselves and others in Europe and elsewhere in the world.

The above are just a few examples of the world’s richest and most powerful country and its cronies riding roughshod in a number of much smaller and weaker countries. The US and its allies have much more money, are incomparably stronger militarily, can destroy however many villages, cities, bridges, roads, installations, museums, schools, hospitals they want with impunity, while their own citizens sit in the security of their rich countries and enjoy their high lifestyle.

There is no way the victimized countries can retaliate in kind against the US and its gang. In most of these smaller countries the previous rulers have been murdered and new puppets of the west have been installed to govern. They obviously don’t have the local support to rule the country in any meaningful way, especially when there are thousands of foreign troops stationed in their country. No matter how much justification the western governments and the US try to sell in their false narratives to the world, the fact remains that the US and its allies are the bullies of the international playground. They invade, kill and destroy at will and with impunity.

Now let’s think. About the words we use. And about the narratives we’ve been conditioned to believe.

Who is the “terrorist”? The superpower who invades, bombs, kills and obliterates with impunity or the lone young man who has no way to register his discontent other than blowing himself up? Committing suicide goes against every instinct of self-preservation, especially when you’re in your twenties or thirties and full of love for life. How desperate do you have to be, not to see any way out of your predicament, but to commit suicide?

Who commits the “cowardly act”? The one who sits in the safety of his office and drops drones on innocent civilians or the one who sacrifices his life to make the voice of those innocent civilians heard? The highly trained, well paid pilot who flies expensive military planes and bombs foreign cities that pose no threat to him, or the displaced, disenfranchised, hopeless immigrant/refugee, or child of an immigrant/refugee, –often on the run from his own country because of the havoc created there by the rich western countries– who embraces certain death to protest the grotesque carnage done to his people.

How did “Islamic extremism” come into existence? Maybe Theresa May can look at the list above for a quick review of what her Christian country has done or condoned in a number of Muslim countries. How would she brand Britain’s actions? To use her own religious terminology they could be called: “Christian lies”, “Christian violence”, “British exploitation”, “US-British collusion”, to cite a few hypothetical examples.

What foundations is “our way of life” built on? Invasion of a continent, appropriation of its land, and murder or subjugation of its indigenous inhabitants? Use of slavery for free labour? Colonizing other countries and plundering their wealth? Owning and using nuclear bombs, –the US is the only country who has actually used its nuclear bombs– allowing our friends to own them, but screaming blue murder when those we don’t like want to have them too? Selling arms to those who will further our interests? Sending troops into sovereign countries to depose their rulers, slandering them with lies? Limitless economic growth? Polluting our earth to the point of no return?

Maybe it’s the time to think again about “our way of life”.

I don’t have a panacea. But one thing is clear. If we keep doing what we’ve been doing, we’ll keep getting what we’ve been getting.

It’s got nothing to do with Islam or Christianity.

It’s got everything to do with power and money.

A Habitat for Democracy

Once in a blue moon, there appears a human being that against the instinct of self-preservation, follows his own radar of humanity, throws caution to the wind, speaks his mind and acts according to his conscience.

Garo Paylan is one of these rare human beings. The Egyptian paper, Al-Ahram weekly calls him the voice of the voiceless. A Turkish politician of Armenian descent, he is a member of the Turkish Parliament and was elected in 2015 to represent the HDP, People’s Democratic Party, a pro-Kurdish, pro-minority and pro-LGBT party, which he is a founding member of.

What he stands for and advocates is participatory democracy, where everyone, regardless of gender, sexual orientation, ethnic background, religion and belief is equal, and is treated with respect. That is a tall order in a country where the president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has changed the constitution to give himself unlimited powers, arrested, suspended and laid off tens of thousands of journalists, teachers, academics, police officers, judges and army personnel and regular civilians.

What complicates the problem of achieving democracy in Turkey even more, is that it is a country that holds a lot of political clout in the world. As a result big powers are reluctant to step on its toes. Germany tries to get on its good side, because it wants Turkey to keep the thousands of refugees that have landed on its soil, instead of shipping them to Europe. The US is Turkey’s ally, both because of its military bases there, and the oil pipeline passing through Turkey. So although the reports of human rights violations get more egregious by the day, no country is willing to do anything about it.

In this oppressive political atmosphere, Paylan confronted the Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu about the latter’s using racist language against Armenians.

In April 2016, he gave a speech in the Turkish Parliament in which he read the names and showed the photographs of Armenian intellectuals and MPs, who were rounded up on April 24, 1915, and later, murdered. He demanded that their murders be investigated, their bodies found, and be given a proper funeral. Regarding the massacre of 1.5 million Armenians that followed this event, Paylan said: “There was a time when we made up 40 percent [of the population]. Now we are part of one thousandth. So something happened to us…I call it genocide, you call it whatever you want. I know very well what happened to my grandparents and ancestors. Go ahead and call it what you will and let’s all confront it together.”

As a result of his action, Paylan a) was suspended for three sessions of Parliament; b) On May 2nd the pro-Erdogan AKP party attacked Paylan in the parliament and beat him up, kicking and punching him over 100 times during a 10 minute brawl, and c) a lawsuit was filed against him for defaming his country. According to Heyemaysor.com January 17, 2017 it states:  “the use of the word ‘genocide’ in the Mejlis [parliament] is humiliating for the Turkish nation, republic and legislature.”

In November 2016 the co-leaders of HDP –the party Paylan represents—Selahattin Demitras and Figen Yuksekdag were arrested on terrorism related charges. 10 other party members were detained.

It is in this political climate, that Garo Paylan risks life and limb and reports to work in his country. He also travels the world pleading for the case of democracy in Turkey.

In his visit to Toronto on April 30, Paylan talked about changing seasons in the political climate of Turkey. He referred to the few years before 2015 as a spring, when new ideas were allowed to thrive and new political parties were allowed to form and participate in elections.

But the present is a cold winter.

Paylan said even if Recep Tayyip Erdogan, declared today that the Armenian Genocide happened in Turkey, it wouldn’t mean a thing. Erdogan is an autocrat and as long as Turkey is an autocracy, even gestures of reconciliation don’t matter. The leader has all the power and is accountable to no one. He can say whatever he wants one day and change his word the next. Only a democratic Turkey can accept the responsibility for the genocide of 1.5 million Armenians, and democracy needs a habitat to flourish.

When asked with all the dangers he faces in Turkey, and in light of the assassination of Hrant Dink, the Armenian editor and journalist, in Istanbul in 2007, why doesn’t he just leave Turkey, Paylan answered in his usual poetic language, that we are a wounded nation. Our wound was sustained in Turkey and it can’t heal anywhere else. It has to heal in its own habitat.

He is well aware of how difficult it is to achieve his ideals in his country, but his answer to the near impossibility of his mission is, “We have to at least try?”