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Confronting contradictions

Takeaways from Naomi Klein’s lecture on intersectional justice
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Toronto, like all urban spaces, is full of contradictions: gentrification and the rise of skyscraper condos is rampant while high costs of living and homelessness continue to plague many; the police force is militarized in spite of low crime rates; and the mantra of multiculturalism is a well-accepted myth despite deep-rooted structures of racism.

Yet, it is perhaps these very tensions that drive us to pursue meaningful dialogue and imagine reconciliations and resolutions.

Aimed at hosting conversation about “inclusion and citizenship” in Canada, the 6 Degrees conference was held last week in Toronto, headlined by activist and author Naomi Klein’s “LaFontaine-Baldwin Lecture.”

Klein’s lecture aimed at healing fundamental contestations and contradictions that underline Canadian citizenship: its imagined versus its real history, the interests of the elites versus the marginalized masses, and, most importantly, the need to move from a nationalist framework towards a sense of post-national, intersectional justice.

According to Klein, we must “collectively re-tell” the story of Canada.

To better understand Canada today, Klein urged listeners to recognize the country’s colonial history of extraction. Whether through the fur trade, which exploited skilled Indigenous labour, or the residential schools, which extracted and systematically removed Indigenous children from their families, land, peoples, and resources have been used as expendable commodities by settler elites.

By evoking these memories, Klein and others challenge the nationalist tendency to mask truths and historicize Canada as an innocent and open place.

Klein reminds us that “the crime is still in progress.” Indeed, extraction within Canada today can be recognized in the country’s fossil fuel dependence. While this has huge domestic repercussions — especially through environmental degradation that disproportionately affects Indigenous peoples, as well as the economic costs made clear by the recent oil crisis — the problem is fundamentally global in nature. As in Syria and Iraq, Western wars fought over fossil fuels continue to force mass migration towards the West, subjecting migrants to racialization, criminalization, and detainment. Moreover, as fossil fuel dependence continues to intensify climate change and proliferate natural disasters, millions of people — again largely racialized individuals — will become climate refugees.

Being a Torontonian or Canadian is in no sense monolithic. As the interconnected phenomena of extraction, war, and climate change disproportionately affect and accentuate the plight of marginalized peoples, we are swiftly revitalizing yet another contradiction: between the colonial ‘extractive’ elites on one hand and the colonized on the other.

Klein’s solution is to establish “energy justice” through the steps set out in the Leap Manifesto, which she co-authored with her spouse Avi Lewis. The manifesto demands a green, renewable energy-based economy that compensates and empowers the people most affected by extraction and tackles poverty and austerity simultaneously. In this sense, only intersectional justice — in which environmentalism is considered in conjunction with economic, migrant, Indigenous, gender, and racial justice — can situate Canada in the worldwide struggle to decolonize and re-imagine human relations.

Here at the university in the core of cosmopolitan Toronto, we students, too, struggle for decolonization and intersectional justice. Whether by challenging the corporatization of our education through the ‘PeterMunk OUT of UofT’ campaign or taking part in movements such as Black Lives Matter and fossil fuel divestment campaigns, it is crucial that we continue to actively make our contestations clear in pursuit of a more inclusive, intersectional educational space.

However, the acknowledgement of intersectionality on its own is insufficient. How do we move from collective re-telling to ‘collective re-doing’? Our movements are not inclusive if the most marginalized voices are not given the greatest amplification — too often their voices are essentialized and tokenized.

Consider the fact that 6 Degrees charged entry fees of up to hundreds of dollars, clearly excluding low-income participants. Klein’s lecture itself was symbolically at the centre of two groups at the margins: the Indigenous Smoke Trail Singers, which performed powwow drumming, and a group of Syrian refugee children performing “Singing for Peace” in Arabic, English, and French. While the appearances of these groups may be regarded favourably in terms of visibility, one can also argue that such presentations perpetuate the reduction of Indigeneity to musical performance and the reduction of Syria to child victimhood — in a manner that is simultaneously exploited to praise Canada by singing in both English and French, its two official languages.

Citizenship and justice are not just about including minority identities to make the nationalist narrative more inclusive. They are about collectively allowing the marginalized to own the platforms of communication, rather than merely being offered token representation by those with power.

Climate change demands a global definition of justice in the twenty-first century; it is not confined by borders but conversely undermines them through internationalized natural disasters, wars, and refugee crises. However, inclusion, citizenship, and resolution of tensions here in Toronto — like in any space — will demand the active participation and self-representation of the voices most burdened by injustice. Those in power must yield them that platform.

Ibnul Chowdhury is a second-year student at Trinity College studying Economics, International Relations, and Peace, Conflict and Justice Studies.

Editor’s Note: This article has been updated to clarify the author’s biographical information.