Beyond bad apples (Dec 16, 2015)

"Some of the worst racists carry a gun and they carry a badge authorized by you, Commissioner Paulson, to do the work. We need you to confront racism in the ranks."

This indictment was delivered on December 9, 2015 at the annual meeting of the Assembly of First Nations by Grand Chief Doug Kelly, leader of the Sto:lo Tribal Council from unceded Coast Salish Territory in British Columbia. Grand Chief Kelly told the Commission of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, Bob Paulson, that indigenous peoples experience racism everyday at the hands of his police force and pushed the Commissioner to take action on racism in the police force. The Grand Chief went on to indicate his dislike of the “politics of the last decade” which included the RCMP releasing controversial reports that indicated Aboriginal men were to blame for the violence experienced by Aboriginal women. Statistical data that is being actively challenged by the Assembly of First Nations and being ripped apart by advocates, researchers, and journalists alike. [1]

“Shame on you Mr. Paulson. You want to earn trust? You start by owning the truth, and apologizing. And doing more than apologizing. You start acting on the direction of government about reconciliation.” Grand Chief Kelly ended his comments and indictment of an organization that will take a central role in the coming months as the new Federal Government takes aim at a massive overhaul of the justice system while laying the foundation for an national inquiry into missing and murdered aboriginal women.

The RCMP Commissioner then took the stage. He first admitted that there are racists in the police force. An admission that appeared to catch the media off guard as his comments were characterized as “candid.” He then added, “I don’t want them to be in my police force.” The commissioner asked the leaders to “take confidence in the systems that are in place” and new disciplinary mechanisms that can be used. The commissioner asked the leaders in the room to call him if when there is a racist in their police force. While social media feeds quickly filled with comments that indicated there was nothing surprising about saying that the police force has racist officers, there is still a need to dig into this exchange at this particular political moment in Canada. I will do so briefly below and hope to add links to other pieces that are written in the coming days as I hope there will ongoing analyses and responses to this encounter.

Let me first take a small step back. The intent of this blog series is about unsettling, about unsettling Canada as a settler state but also about unsettling exchanges like the one between the Grand Chief and the Commissioner. Before unsettling this exchange, I want to offer further context especially for those readers outside of Canada.

Grand Chief Kelly’s comments were delivered after the new Federal Government (under the Liberal Party) indicated plans to implement all Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) recommendations. The TRC released its preliminary recommendations earlier this year after years of investigation into residential school abuses, alongside the contemporary outcomes of settler colonialism including poverty, incarceration, and violence—when it was first released the government at the time (under Stephen Harper) did not respond so six months later some response from the state was long overdue. In addition to committing to implement the TRC recommendations, the new Federal Government agreed to a national inquiry into missing and murdered aboriginal women which was announced the day before these exchange between the Grand Chief and Commission.  While the exchange happened during a week of what were seen as positive announcements from the Federal government, the comments were also delivered one week after the CBC (a national news outlet) announced that it was closing down ALL comment fields associated to stories about Aboriginal peoples. The broadcaster indicated these comments fields are overwhelmingly filled with racist responses that are so “hateful and vitriolic” that the news outlet temporarily suspended all comments.

This is but some of the context that surrounds the exchange between Grand Chief Kelly and Commissioner Paulson. For some, the past week would present as a “mixed bag” with stories about racism being countered with commitments to address racism. But a mixed bag analysis would be predicated on the presumptions being made by Paulson himself—that racism is not systemic and the racism we speak of in Canada is not the product of setter colonialism. But rather that actions can be used to address individual acts of racism. In the case of Paulson’s comment, this was evident when admitted there were racist police on the force and that he didn’t want them.

Agreement, there are racists. But isolated. He did not want them. Them is a limited and tangible amount.  

This point was made that much clearer when Paulson then asked the room of Chiefs to call him if they have a racist that needs to be dealt with because (a) there are systems in place and (b) trust the systems because they have recently been improved. While it is important to note that this is the first time the Commissioner had addressed the Assembly just as it is important to recognize racism in one’s organization. The issue here is that incidents of racism are not isolated to a few individuals. In agreeing that there are racists in his police force and asking for others to be reported, Paulson careful avoids calling his police force racist. There is a need to not limit this discussion to racist police officers but rather direct attention to the racist systems.

It is the systems in Canada that are racist. And the concern here is that when systemic racism is bundled up into a narrative of a few bad apples then we can avoid the systemic nature of the actions. Grand Chief Kelly himself, “why do I keep having to deal with these bad apples” before he indicated that not all police are bad. And this is the problem with the bad apples metaphor, it misses the mark as even Kelly himself appears to move away from the systemic nature of racism while calling out the Commissioner on systemic racism. Kelly was fierce in his critique but then hedged his bets to not appear to indict all police. We need to talk about systems not people. People make up systems, agreed, but if we talk about the system, we can start to have a meaningful dialogue about how entrenched the practices are such that upwards of 80% of the jails in my province are filled with Aboriginal peoples (when they only comprise 20% of the overall population); that over 1200 Aboriginal women and girls have been killed or are missing in Canada and that there are literally tens of thousands of Aboriginal children that are the custody of the state. These are systems of oppression.

Until these systems of oppression are dismantled, there will continue to be a group of individuals that experience privilege as a direct result of the disenfranchisement of Aboriginal peoples. This is not the result of a few bad apples, it is a result of ongoing complacency and apathy that allows oppressive systems to thrive. Apathy and complacency on the part of so many; these same individuals will call for an inquiry or justice system reform but will not actively take up the discussion of unsettling the very systems that execute and sustain oppression. In the absence of this type of solidarity work—work that unsettles—settlers and others can find themselves believing that the situation in Canada is simply a case of a few bad apples. These are the same individuals that say “this is not my Canada” when they read about oppression. To them, I say, “this is literally your Canada.” If we are stuck with the metaphor of bad apples, then Canada is an orchard that has been rotting since its colonial inception.

[1] For example of investigative journalism, see the following piece from the Toronto Star.

Posted on December 16, 2015 .

Introduction to Unsettled (Sept 24, 2015)

In the closing pages of his book Red Skin White Masks, Glen Coulthard argues: “For Indigenous nations to live, capitalism must die. And for capitalism to die, we must actively participate in the construction of Indigenous alternatives to it.” [1] I start with Coulthard’s text because it's grounded in a holistic critique of Canada as a settler state. Coulthard’s critique of Canada as a settler-state narrows to name the enemy: capitalism. He does not apologize for this, he does not try to skirt the fact that the enemy is big, instead he names it and offers solution: reject capitalism and seek out alternatives because anything less threatens life. Without dedicating endless pages to the practices of solidarity and allyship, Coulthard makes his call to settlers and indigenous readers alike. Such is the case for Harsha Walia as she reminds us that the terms of resistance involve alternative acts and dreaming. She writes:

I think that the notion of dreaming in a time when we are told that it is foolish, futile, or not useful is one of the most revolutionary things we can do. To have our lives determined by our dreams of a free world—instead of reactions to a state-imposed reality—is one the most powerful tools of decolonization. I dream of a community and a world where our lives can be determined by our own means. To live in a world where our actions are guided by mutual respect, and the understanding that our struggles for decolonization are different yet connected. [2]

This blog will be about dreaming and thinking about alternatives to the current state of things in the settler state which is a collective enterprise predicated on solidarity.

Fredy Perlman joins the anarchist tradition when he made his call for solidarity achieved through a collective rejection of capitalism. He stated, “the task of capitalist ideology is to maintain the veil which keeps people seeing that their own activities reproduce the form of their daily life; the task of critical theory is to unveil the activities of daily life, to render them transparent, to make the production of the social form of capitalism activity visible within people’s daily activities.” [3] Thinking about Perlman with Coulthard, we have texts that demand we actively unveil capitalism and the correlating violence. Coulthard’s text seeks to push a Marxist analysis in Canada precisely because the colonial context necessarily reshapes an analysis and critique of capitalism. Perlman highlights the capacity for subjects to unveil. Walia, dares us to dream a new world, a world without border imperialism in which no one is illegal — a status that is fraught with state interventions but with capitalism's fingerprints clearly evident. From the three together there is a call to reject capitalism, to move in solidarity and dream of a different world guided by alternative sensibilities that reject coercion and violence.

Changing Suns Press takes its name from a passage from Pierre Clastres, a political theorist and anthropologist committed to better understanding how social organization can occur without coercion. Looking for another way to think about state power and societies that live without a state, he starts Societies Against the State with a provocative question: “Can serious questions about power be asked?” He illustrated in his own work that, yes, the question can be asked. Asked, and answered. People can live without the coercive powers that most often govern our daily lives.

This is the starting point to be Unsettled.

This blog is informed by the blended analysis of Coulthard, Perlman, Clastres and perhaps most of all Walia--who calls for us to dream a better world. The blog will explore contemporary events and practices that, at times, will illustrate the challenge of seeking out alternatives; the blog will also investigate the ways in which groups and individuals are actively carving out practices outside of the coercion and violence that are enacted daily through the practices of global capitalism and North American settler-state.

I have called this blog “unsettled” to mark a space that lacks resolution. Resolution on many fronts: I write this blog as a settler living in Canada. As a settler living in Treaty Four Territory, I also write as someone that teaches regularly about the ways in which treaties have not been honored in Canada and the continued occupation of unceded territory across Canada and through the Americas. The blog will focus primarily on issues in settler states with attention to alternative practices that can address the varied forms of structural inequality and systemic racism that facilitate ongoing oppression. In so doing, I will attend to Perlman’s analysis that demands we unveil the practices but join in Coulthard’s call to not only name capitalism as the primary enemy that sits at that gate but also the need to identify alternatives — to resist, to act, to dream — lest all we are left with is endless critique which becomes its own economy carrying varied levels of violence.


Posted on September 24, 2015 .