The Week's Conversations: Electoral Reform, Desi Dilemma, MMIWG Inquiry, Child Refugees, Britain's Historical Amnesia, blonded RADIO, Growing Up, Anne of Green Gables

A weekly conversation between friends.

Is Electoral Reform Dead? Not Yet

By Katelynn Northam

In June 2015, a third-place Justin Trudeau stood behind a ‘Real Change’ podium and announced that if elected in the upcoming federal election, he’d ensure that 2015 was the last time that Canada used its outdated first-past-the-post (FPTP) voting system.

Well, Trudeau won that election. And for the past year, MPs, civil society and voters who took the Liberals at their word have engaged in consultative processes of all shapes and sizes  to help the government make good on that promise.

Some important context: Most of us in civil society, including Leadnow, where I work as a campaigner, supported moving to a proportional representation (PR) system in which the share of seats that a party gets would more closely reflect their share of the popular vote. The weight of the evidence shows that, among other things, a PR system is the best way to ensure that everyone gets exactly as much power as they deserve. It’s used widely in the Western world, and has been recommended for use in Canada by 14 different commissions and studies over the years, including, most recently, the all-parliamentary committee on electoral reform in December 2016. 

We came closer than we ever have this year to getting rid of FPTP at the federal level. But the fear of change and a distaste for power-sharing carried the day. In early February, the Liberals announced that they’d be breaking their very clear electoral reform commitment. 

Since then, I’ve been asked two questions by people who care about this issue: why did the Liberals break their promise, and what’s next?

I think the why is fairly straight forward — the Liberals made a promise while they were a third place party, and didn’t expect to have to implement it. If they did have to implement it, they would have preferred an Alternative Vote (AV) system (also referred to as a preferential ballot).

The AV system allows voters to rank candidates on their ballot. As the most common second choice among other parties’ voters, the Liberals would be the primary beneficiaries of such a system. So in May, when the Liberals announced they were launching an all-party parliamentary committee to study electoral reform, it’s likely that Trudeau was hoping that the process would produce a strong case for moving to an AV system.

However, the committee’s study almost immediately transformed into a debate between the status quo and PR. Almost no expert witnesses advocated for an AV system, and public voices at consultations held across the country were similarly divided between the PR and status quo camps. If the Liberals wanted AV to emerge as a viable option, the weight of the evidence and public opinion was never even remotely on their side.

It quickly became clear to observers that AV would lack the legitimacy to be put forward as viable alternative to FPTP. With the Conservatives already apoplectic at the thought of changing the system without a referendum, doing so in favour of a system that had no expert support behind it would have been political suicide.

In short — the Liberals didn’t get the answer they hoped for, so they cut their losses.

The shelf life on this story has been longer than I suspect people anticipated, and I believe that’s because it’s not really about electoral reform, but about broken promises. It’s about a willingness to make a commitment in order to win an election, and then dropping it once it becomes clear that such a commitment will actually involve doing something risky; something bold; something that would involve ceding power to other political parties (or rather, agreeing to give parties as much power as they actually earned in the last election).

As much as we wanted to believe that the Liberals were serious about collaboration and doing things differently, in making this decision they betrayed their own brand. And that, coupled with other recent disappointments on Indigenous issues, on climate change, on refugees, and so on, may grow into something potentially toxic for the Liberals over the coming years.  

So when it comes to what’s next, I think there’s a few things to consider.

One is the fact that the Liberals have spent serious political capital with their left flank to break this promise, and that means that they’ll have to tread more carefully in the future on other issues. That could mean good things for progressives who are looking for bolder responses to other pressing issues.

It could also mean that electoral reform comes back in the next election, as it could become a serious ballot issue for MPs in progressive swing ridings, where enough people voted based on the electoral reform promise to reconsider voting Liberal again in 2019.

Another consideration is the landscape of opinion on this issue within the parties themselves. Unlike what the media has portrayed over the last year, MPs don’t have monolithic opinions on the issue of electoral reform. Common wisdom suggests that the NDP and Greens like PR, while the Liberals like preferential ballot, and the Conservatives like the status quo. But many Liberals also like PR — two prominent examples are former leaders Bob Rae and Stephane Dion (who has even developed his own system of PR). In fact, the Liberals’ electoral reform promise came from a broader motion on electoral reform adopted at the 2014 Liberal policy convention in Montreal which called on Parliament to study electoral reform and consider both preferential ballots and proportional representation. 

Conservatives are also far from monolithic on the issue. Even Stephen Harper himself was in favour of PR before the Conservative merger in 2003, and it’s the case that conservatives historically haven’t fared as well under FPTP as the Liberals. We should also watch how the current Conservative leadership race impacts Conservative opinions on this issue. A Conservative Party led by someone like Kellie Leitch or Kevin O’Leary might be enough to cause MPs with very different ideologies to reconsider the appeal of remaining in the same party. But without a PR system in place, going separate ways would be difficult for those on the right.

All this to say, there is a breadth of opinion on electoral reform within all the parties, and battle lines are less strictly drawn along partisan lines than we might think. 

Which brings me to my final point. I believe that the increasing polarization of our politics may cause politicians to second guess whether our current system is actually good enough as it is. A lot of MPs may feel, and have said to me personally, that they think it has served us well to this point. I think that’s only because we’ve been lucky to have leaders whose approaches to governance have been basically within the bounds of what we think is morally acceptable. And it’s easy to not be worried about abuses of power when you’re the one with the power.

But politics is changing quickly, and we need an electoral system that is equipped to protect us from being swamped by these polarizing forces. The left began to wake up to the need for reform once Harper came into power, and we may be headed for another wake-up call shortly.

So while the Liberals’ broken promise was a setback, electoral reform is far from dead. More people than ever are now aware that something is broken in the way we currently vote. You can’t put that genie back in the bottle, and it’s only a matter of time before we revisit the conversation. Let’s hope that the next time around, our leaders will have the boldness and courage to do what’s best for Canadian democracy rather than what’s best for themselves in the short term. 


The Desi Dilemma

By Ram Sankaran

Last week, an Indian national living in Kansas was murdered in a racially motivated triple shooting. Though the hate crime was covered by several outlets here in the West, it was front page news in India.  As a South Indian Canadian with many relatives in the United States, this news affected me deeply. The murderer, who before the rampage had asked about the men’s visas and told them to “get out of my country”, should sound alarm bells to any and all visible minorities.

My uncle obtained a degree from the University of Kansas, and I have had several relatives attend post secondary schools as Indian students in fairly isolated Midwest and Southern communities throughout the United States. This was mostly in the 1970s and 1980s, and I cannot remember any of them relating to me even a passing reference to racism they experienced there.

That being said, this spring, just a few months prior to Trump’s election, I visited my cousin who is a Ph. D student living in a progressive, wealthy, midwestern university town, where she works in a laboratory. She indicated to me — categorically — that the tone in the United States had changed so drastically, that even some of her educated, affluent colleagues felt free to tell her that she should go back to India (she is, of course, born in the United States and has little to no connection to the Indian polity).

I would encourage all of you to read a recent Twitter thread on the killings by author, Anand Giridharadas. He argues that although racist demagogues like Trump and other copycats (see Leitch, Kellie) may benefit politically when they rile up the old stock populace against immigrants, the more dangerous effects of their dog-whistle politics are of little actual consequence to them. Indeed, they do not live in communities populated by immigrants, nor do they have to face the violence committed by  racists and deranged individuals who believe they are heroes for having the courage to take the action that lawmakers and politicians only talk about.

Politicians may at times label the threats as “Muslims” or “Mexicans” or “undocumented workers” or “foreigners taking our jobs,” but the heroes understand this is all code for that amorphous group of people who are not from here — i.e. brown people.

Vijay Prasad and others have written extensively on the role of “brown folk”, or Desis, in the United States and other Western societies (I am limiting my use of the term “Desi” in this case to refer only to non-Muslims who are from or whose ancestors hail from the Indian subcontinent.) My understanding of much of their work can be summarized as follows: Desis have generally been placed on a privileged space on the racial continuum. Like the Indian victims in Kansas, they are generally highly educated, and highly skilled professionals or business people (like the Gujurati motel magnates), who have maintained relatively high incomes, regularized their status, and whose descendants have similarly prospered. As a result, many have maintained a political and actual distance between themselves and other immigrants, such as Latinos. In their self-reflection they see themselves more akin to the Jewish diaspora in the United States than less affluent immigrant groups.

Further, the 9/11 attacks created an opportunity for some Desis to emphasize their ‘non-Muslimness’ to their advantage, in an attempt to ingratiate themselves with the American economic and foreign policy elite. Don't be scared, we may be brown, but we aren't dangerous. Let us in and we will prosper.

Desis are a notoriously fickle and divisive bunch, so this parsing of themselves from other brown groups is not surprising. As most Hindu Desis know, one’s caste can be gleaned by a last name. Then within the high castes there are many sub-categories, and more sub-categories within the caste itself. Are they Brahmin? If so, are they Ayangar Brahmin or Ayar Brahmin? What is their local deity? How do they make their paisam? Et cetera, et cetera.

Most of the general population is clueless as to these particulars. “Do you speak Indian?” remains a common question asked without a hint of malice, and often with evident goodwill and curiosity. The types of interactions Desis have had and the relative lack of discrimination we have faced has resulted in what I term The Desi Dilemma: Given the relatively high social standing Desis hold in society in general and within non white communities, what level of commitment should Desis have to other non white marginalized groups? To rephrase: “Racism is not a big problem for me, why should I do shit for you?”

To me, the killing in Kansas should, to anyone with a modicum of common sense (an attribute Desis pride themselves on almost as much as the post secondary achievements of their children), resolve this dilemma.

There is, however, still a moronic view out there that if the murderer simply knew these fellows were Indians, they would have been fine. Some of the idiots who endorse this view believe that if Desis wear identifying markers, such as bindis, then the racists will not attack or abuse them.

Really? The racist with a gun in his hand is going to have the sagacity to see and recognize a bindi before he shoots, and then move on to a different target?

For argument’s sake, let’s inhabit the dream world of the purveyors of this argument for a second. OK bindi, no problem — move along, I have someone else to shoot. Does this not leave the problem of the other target?

Desis rightfully pride themselves on their educational credentials, entrepreneurship, ingenuity, and the transmission of language and cultural values to their children. They boast of their contributions to the fields of engineering, medicine, information technology, and business. However, at some point they will have to reckon with Gandhi’s dictum that knowledge without character is dangerous. Does it show character to appease murderers and racists in a misguided effort at self-preservation? Does such shameless opportunism mixed with cowardice exhibit even a semblance of moral responsibility? Does it not make more sense to understand conclusively that we are all in the same boat, and that we should build more cross cultural and religious alliances to neutralize these threats?

The Kansas killing highlights what all Desis need to know: your education will not protect you, your class not protect you, your income will not protect you, your political alliances will not protect you. The racist will not ask you or your children whether you celebrate Deevali before pulling the trigger. They will not check your income and your taxes and charitable and political contributions. They will not check your club memberships or your Rolodex. They will not care that you follow college basketball and drink whiskey. They might ask if you have valid immigration status, and if you do, like in this case, still pull the trigger. They will shoot and, in the image of the Western heroes they seek to emulate, ask no questions later.


Will the National Inquiry Into MMIWG Also Fail Families?

At the end of January, a First Nations woman in Thunder Bay was hospitalized after an 18-year-old man threw a trailer hitch at her from a moving vehicle. "There's young men, on the weekends, they will throw beer bottles at you and yell out 'bogan' or 'squaw' or 'whore,'" said Deanne Hupfield, who grew up in Thunder Bay. "I never thought to call the police. It happened to everybody, not just me."”

That this type of violence is commonplace in cities like Thunder Bay, Saskatoon, and Winnipeg is alarming, and provides further evidence of the fact that racism against Indigenous people is deeply embedded in our institutions and throughout society. And if we’re honest with ourselves, many of us hold biases or fears that cause us to turn a blind eye to the constant disregard to the human dignity of Indigenous people across Canada. I mean how else do we explain how long Indigenous communities have gone without clean drinking water, how many Indigenous children are placed in dysfunctional provincial care systems, or how difficult it is for many Indigenous people to access health care? Our general apathy has led to inhumane treatment; it has led to death.

Which is why it is so important that Canadians dignify Indigenous women and girls who have been murdered or missing, and their families, by listening to the participants of the National Inquiry into Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG). Canadians must hear the stories of these women and their families, and take actions that ensure the safety and well-being of Indigenous women and girls.

But it seems the Inquiry process has, in the way of other great bureaucratic endeavours, struggled to move forward. There’s still no official start date (a recent news release from the Inquiry states it is “set to begin in May”), declared locations for hearings, or an established procedure for how the hearings will proceed. Families and organizations like the Canadian Native Women’s Association (CNWA) have found it difficult to get information from the Inquiry and to participate in the ongoing consultation process regarding hearing procedures.

This is particularly problematic because the Inquiry itself will not be taking the lead in determining where to hold hearings, but will wait for communities to invite the Commissioners or appointed listeners. This presumes communities understand they must contact the Inquiry and can easily do so. In a recent interview, Francyne Joe, interim president of CNWA, said the Inquiry had requested CNWA share information about impacted families so the Inquiry could reach out to them, but of course this is a breach of privacy. She raised concerns regarding the fact that families must contact the Inquiry via their website or email, when many don’t have access to the internet. (The Inquiry’s suggested means of sharing information through an e-newsletter, Twitter and through their website is similarly exclusive.)*  

The slow start is at least partially due to the Inquiry’s desire to create hearing procedures that operate on a families-first, trauma-informed basis, and aim to prevent re-traumatization and create an atmosphere conducive to sharing sensitive information. However, with a clear end date of December 2018, hundreds of families impacted across the country, and millions of Canadians who should take time to listen to and engage with the Inquiry’s findings, the Inquiry must get to work soon, and ensure that communication is easy, accessible and open.

Further reading:

Pamela Palmater - “Colonial hatred is still killing us, and the only solution is collective resistance.”

The Current - “Reconcilliation is a two way street: Indigenous youth want ‘more than canoes’” (includes good commentary on why LGBTQ and two spirit persons should be a part of the MMIW)

REdress photography exhibition, a tribute to MMIWG, comes to Alberta libraries this month

*The urban-rural digital divide continues to be a problem in Canada, meaning reserves often do not have good coverage. However, internet access is also problematic generally for individuals living below the poverty line, or who are homeless/do not have a stable living situation.


Women Strike

Striking is not a privilege. Privilege is not having to strike.”

Today is International Women’s Day, “A Day Without a Woman,”and the International Women’s Strike.

On a day that has traditionally been hijacked by commercial sponsors, it is refreshing to see it used towards ends that are “at once anti-racist, anti-imperialist, anti-heterosexist and anti-neoliberal.”  This year we should use the day to remind ourselves of the unpaid labour women do, of the misogyny and violence they face, and of the social oppression that affects their standard of living and access to healthcare, education and employment.

While I doubt this strike will see the level of engagement of the recent Women’s March, I remain hopeful that it will be the first of many strikes that mobilize people across the USA to stand up for the human dignity and social security of all.


Child Refugees in Europe

Lauren Collins' article on Europe’s child-refugee crisis in The New Yorker is devastating, but essential reading. The protagonist of her story is a twelve-year-old refugee named Wasil, who, after being kidnapped and held hostage in Afghanistan, was sent away by his mother to seek asylum in the UK. She recounts his journey from Afghanistan to Iran — where he and other migrants were attacked by thieves — to Turkey and Bulgaria. He then crossed hundreds of miles on foot to Serbia, passed through Slovenia and Croatia, and spent a month squatting in a derelict train station in Italy. Finally, he reached France, and spent several months living in the notorious, and now-demolished Calais Jungle.

This epic journey, Collins explains, is actually typical among the hundreds of thousands of unaccompanied child-refugees in Europe:

“Unaccompanied minors are the de-facto vanguard of the greatest migration since the Second World War—its innovators and its guinea pigs...Minors have some of the best chances of making it where they want to go but some of the worst experiences getting there. Homeless and parentless, they live on the extreme edge of the refugee experience.”

Collins also recounts the ever-fluctuating public perception of child-refugees in France, the UK, and other European nations — though there are waves of empathy and support for these minors, there are just as often vicious demonstrations protesting their presence. The latter position is a morally depraved one,  fueled by what can only be racism and Islamophobia, given the exceptional adversity, violence, and danger that these unaccompanied children are forced to endure.

“According to Europol, the law-enforcement agency of the E.U., more than ten thousand migrant and refugee children have gone missing in Europe since 2014. They are obvious prey for human-trafficking groups, who exploit them for sex and slavery. A team of Italian doctors examining unaccompanied children found that fifty per cent of them suffered from sexually transmitted diseases. According to a report by Refugees Deeply, in one Athens park the going rate for a sexual encounter with an Afghan teen-ager is between five and ten euros.”

There were 1.3 million people who sought asylum in Europe in 2015 alone, and it is estimated that a comparable number sought asylum last year. The staggering size of these numbers make it easy to think about the refugee crisis in an abstract, or ‘macro’ manner (Is Canada’s target to process 40,000 refugees in 2017 too high or too low? How can we improve our vetting processes to maintain security?). As we fumble for large, complex solutions to this large, complex problem, politics too often overshadow or gloss over the actual plight of the migrants in question. Indeed, a recent poll suggests that 1 in 4 Canadians want a ‘Trump-style travel ban’.

Stories like Wasil’s are difficult to hear — disturbing even — but they act as a critical reminder of just what is at stake.


Britain's Historical Amnesia

I’m currently living in England, and in the past month or so I’ve been asked several times, “Does Canada have any Indians?”

I understood immediately that they meant First Nations, Inuit and Metis peoples, and tried to explain how there were many different (sovereign) Nations, as well as the treaty/reserve system, which seemed to leave them confused. But I was suspicious as to why I was getting the same exact question — turns out one of the GCSE subjects is “The American West:” a hilariously basic take on Plains Indians, the Gold Rush, and Homesteading.

One thing that’s been reinforced to me over and over again through various conversations, is how poor British history education is. We Canadians may whine about yet another unit on the fur trade, the Spanish colonization of the Aztecs, or how Latin American became a proxy playground during the Cold War, but I do wonder if it has trickled down into a more humble sense of nationalism and our place in the world. The British learn very little (to nothing) about their colonial past and the crimes they inflicted upon civilization after civilization across the globe, and, perhaps consequently, glorify their role as a world power with extreme(ist) innocence. Unfortunately, this historical amnesia leaves them in a poor position to negotiate a world which requires cooperation with now-sovereign equals.


blonded RADIO

Looking for a new musical adventure? Check out the first (and maybe only) installment of Frank Ocean’s new Beats 1 Show, blonded RADIO, which you can listen to on Apple Music, Spotify, and Tidal (does anyone use Tidal?). “Presented by” Ocean, with selections from collaborators Vegyn, Roof Access, and Federico Aliprandi, the playlist is a bit of a whirlwind — one that contains a heavy dose of trap (Migos, Kodak Black), some classic 70s and 80s soul cuts (The Isley Brothers, Sade), a sprinkling of neo-soul (Outkast, Esperanza Spalding, NAO), a 15-minute Prince interlude, Ocean’s new collaboration with Calvin Harris and Migos (which is better than it sounds on paper),  and a scattershot of other interesting cuts. It’s probably also the only playlist to ever feature a track by both Aphex Twin and Celine Dion. In other words, it’s a playlist that has something for everyone.

Oddly, it's not clear just what Ocean’s role in creating this playlist was, nor whether blonded RADIO will become a regular series on Apple Music’s Beats 1. To me, it sounds like a collection of songs that inspired Blonde (Ocean has said that Prince’s “When You Were Mine”, which is on the playlist, is his favorite song of all time), mixed with sounds that seem to orbit around that game-changing album. Much of what Ocean does is wrapped in mystery, so I suggest you simply sit back and enjoy.

You can also sneak a peek at the track listing here.


Being A Grown Up

For those of us still stuck on "adulting" (the new cringe-worthy term to describe this obsession of coming to terms with growing up), a group in Portland has come up with ways to teach millennials some basic skills like changing a tire (and making devilled eggs?). Kendra Tarr from Calgary, Alta., has also been putting together resources for 20-somethings in transition. While many of us continue to question whether we're adults or not, the video below suggests there's no one answer to what successful adulthood looks like, or how or why we need to achieve it...



Commentary from the theread slack: “Last week I watched an Anne of Green Gables clip where she smashes a chalkboard on this dude’s head. I feel like I shouldn’t have overlooked this. She’s bad ass.”

Yes! YES! You did overlook Anne, that gem of a girl, who is everything I wanted to be (and still want to be). I’m looking forward to seeing her again when Anne of Green Gables comes to CBC/Netflix on March 19!


Links From This Week's Thread

The struggle for transgender rights during the Trump era is likely to be a drawn out and difficult one, as Jeannie Suk Gersen explains. On Monday, the Supreme Court announced that it would not decide whether a transgender boy in Virginia, Gavin Grimm, could use the boys’ bathroom at his high school: “the development was a setback for proponents of transgender rights, who had hoped the Supreme Court, which established a constitutional right to same-sex marriage two years ago, would aid their cause.”

A study on Airbnb in NYC has found “Black neighborhoods with the most Airbnb use are racially gentrifying, and the (often illegal) economic benefits of Airbnb accrue disproportionately to new, white residents and white speculators; while the majority Black residents in those communities suffer the most from the loss of housing, tenant harassment and the disruption of their communities.” Hope you think about that while booking through Airbnb in neighborhoods like Harlem and Crown Heights.

Laurie Penny on Uber’s social poison: “Here’s the awful truth: we have entrusted the reorganisation of our social infrastructure to the sort of people who shout at their subordinates and drivers and view women as a collection of parts. We do not owe these people our money or our admiration.”

The Coming Amnesia’: “In other words, essentially no observational tool available to future astronomers will lead to an accurate understanding of the universe’s origins. The authors call this an “apocalypse of knowledge.””

Carolyn Bennett claimed the federal government has dedicated $200 million to improving lives of indigenous children in care, but internal documents suggest this is disingenuous and some funds are going towards programs that “attract mining investments” instead. Cindy Blackstock says that Indigenous Affairs has bungled spending because of pervasive colonial attitudes.

‘Training for N.W.T. child protection workers now includes learning about colonization’

A useful explainer on what will become of the TPP now that the US has pulled out

We probably have read more about Flint’s water crisis than Walkerton’s - it’s unacceptable that we cannot find a way to supply clean drinking water on reserves.

Shot: The Polish government’s glorification and defense of a conspiracy theory may be a preview of the future of the Trump administration. Chaser: ‘White House Rejects Comey’s Assertion That Wiretapping Claim is False’

The man McCormack credited with this unprecedented reduction in HIV transmissions was not a fellow doctor, nor the head of a charity, nor even a politician. Owen is unemployed, a former sex worker, and homeless.”

There is no rosy future for the American economy: “In our era of no more than indifferent economic growth, 21st–century America has somehow managed to produce markedly more wealth for its wealthholders even as it provided markedly less work for its workers. And trends for paid hours of work look even worse than the work rates themselves.”

South Sudan has fallen apart: tens of thousands of civilians have been killed and a formal famine has been declared in parts of the country.

From BLDGBLOG comes a piece on a northern Quebec mining town and how it acts as an architectural trial ground for future Mars colonies.

“The truth of the matter is that pretty much anywhere in the world men tend to think that they that are much smarter than women. Yet arrogance and overconfidence are inversely related to leadership talent … So it struck me as a little odd that so much of the recent debate over getting women to “lean in” has focused on getting them to adopt more of these dysfunctional leadership traits. Yes, these are the people we often choose as our leaders — but should they be?” From an old HBR article that remains relevant.


* the social media image used for this week's post and newsletter "Protest Against Trudeau Abandoning Electoral Reform (Montreal)" by Jeremy Clarke is licenced under CC SA 2.0.

Amy Sanderson08/03/17