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“Pride has always been a fight for justice”

A look back on queer women's activism in Toronto and U of T

“Pride has always been a fight for justice”

On the corner of Bloor and Brunswick you can see a three-storey, nondescript, red-bricked building. A Rexall occupies its lower level, while a walk-in clinic and a family lawyer advertise their services from the top floors. 

The building was also the site of one of the most important moments in the history of queer women’s resistance in Toronto. 

Before its eventual gentrification, 481 Bloor Street West housed one of Toronto’s most famous watering holes. Nicknamed “the Brunny,” it was a popular Friday night spot among U of T students.

Forty-five years ago, a group of four women, now known as the “Brunswick Four” — Pat Murphy, Adrienne Potts, Sue Wells, and Heather Elizabeth Byer — attended an open mic night at the bar. Potts and Murphy took to the stage and sang “I Enjoy being a Dyke” to the tune of “I Enjoy Being a Girl.” They were ordered to leave, and, after they refused, they were harassed, assaulted, arrested, and charged by police for having supposedly instigated a “lesbian riot.” 

Potts was punched in the back of her head, and was later thrown down by one of the officers. Another one of the four was threatened with criminal punishment on false charges, all for having the audacity to sing.

They were ordered to leave, and, after they refused, they were harassed, assaulted, arrested, and charged by police for having supposedly instigated a “lesbian riot.” 

That same year, 13 students arrived at a U of T classroom for their first lecture of the semester. Their class, taught by Professor Michael Lynch, was entitled “New Perspectives on the Gay Experience,” and was the first of its kind to be offered in a Canadian university. This garnered negative press, including a snub by the Toronto Star, whose editors refused to publish a story on the class for fear of “[aiding] the aggressive recruitment propaganda in which certain homosexual groups are engaged.” 

The attention was distressing for the administrators at St. Michael’s College, which was, and still is, deeply affiliated with its Roman Catholic roots. Following a confrontation with the college principal — one that Lynch dreamed about for years afterward — he was presented with a choice: either keep silent or leave the university entirely. Lynch ended up transferring the following year. 

It’s important to be mindful of the fact that in 1974 — the year that both incidents took place — the legality of homosexuality was fresh in Canadian minds. It was only seven years prior that Pierre Trudeau famously quipped that “there’s no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation.” And it was only in 1973 that the The American Psychiatric Association declared that homosexuality is not a psychiatric disorder.

Neither Canada, Toronto, nor U of T were safe spaces to exist as a queer woman. Making my way along the Dyke March on June 22, past the rumbling engines of the flag-bearing Dykes on Bikes, the political and often hilarious protest signs, and the easy, gentle shows of affection around me, I couldn’t help but marvel at the quiet revolution that has taken place. Mind you, it’s still not easy being a Canadian queer woman: it’s hard, and there are plenty in the community who still struggle. But it’s definitely easier than before, and it came about only through sustained pushback from countless women over the years. The privileges of today were won by the battles of yesterday. 

1974 was a pivotal year for queer women organizing in Toronto. Up to that point, efforts had been focused on creating safe spaces for the community, a stark contrast to the politically charged activism of the gay male community. Tom Warner, writing on the response to the Brunswick Four event, notes that it “indicated a radical change in the consciousness of gays, lesbians, and bisexuals, and of a hardening resolve to fight back.”

And fight back they did. The 1980s brought with them a wave of social and political conservatism with the rise of the political “New Right” in Canada. Police officers capitalized on their looser leashes, and started regularly conducting bathhouse raids as an intimidation tactic against the LGBTQ+ community. 

The biggest of those raids took place on February 5, 1981. Officers raided four of Toronto’s five bathhouses, taking 306 men into custody on charges of prostitution or indecency, making it the third largest mass arrest in Canadian history. Crowbars and sledgehammers were used to create significant damage to the bathhouses. The community protests which began at Wellesley and Yonge the following night came to be known as the “Canadian Stonewall.” That name was well-earned, considering the police brutality and the fact that over 300 arrests were made that night. 

While these raids disproportionately affected gay men, queer women also had a strong presence at the protests and felt, more than ever, the need to create a strong resistance.

Moreover, while transgender people were visible participants in both the protests and in the community, activists and legislative reformers only started to focus on trans-specific issues around the mid-1990s, following increased pressure for change. 

Just a few months after the raids, Lesbians Against the Right (LAR) was born at the 519 Community Centre. As its name suggests, LAR was primarily intended to counter the rise of right-wing social conservatism. Unlike previous groups, LAR was a political entity first and a community space second. Its primary goal was to “organize lesbians autonomously from other movements and to bring [their] lesbian feminist politic to the gay, feminist, union, anti-imperialist and other movements for social change.” 

On October 17, 1981, LAR, in conjunction with other queer organizations, held Toronto’s first lesbian march. The Dykes In the Streets March saw around 350 women march down Yonge street, chanting slogans like “look over here, look over there, Lesbians are everywhere!” and “we are the D-Y-K-E-S” over and over. A pamphlet published after the march described it as “magical. Nobody wanted to disperse.”

The march passed by important lesbian landmarks around Toronto, but it culminated at Old City Hall. This was a strategic choice. An article written for The Body Politic, Canada’s first, and, at the time, most prominent LGBTQ+ publication, said that the final stop was meant to highlight lesbian resistance to “police harassment, lesbian solidarity with gay men on the bath raids protest, child custody cases of lesbian mothers and the exclusion of lesbians from the Ontario Human Rights Code.”

The LAR closed in 1983, and the Dykes In the Streets March only lasted a year. It was not until 1996 that the first annual Toronto Dyke March took place. However, the 1981 march was an important acknowledgement of the frustration of queer women, and a striking, bold moment of resistance. 

UTSU celebrating in the Toronto Pride Parade. DINA DONG/THE VARSITY

The LGBTQ+ community at U of T was not spared from the roiling waters of 1981. Two weeks after the bathhouse raids, Gays at the University of Toronto (GAUT) organized U of T’s first Gay Awareness Week. Events included self-defence classes, a seminar on sexual choice, and a dance party at The Buttery — “Dance your buns off,” suggested the advertisement for the event. Though there is no current Gay Awareness Week at U of T, LGBTQ+ organizations around campus still host many diverse events, aimed more at members of the community rather than those outside of it.

The most disturbing backlash was a “jeans-burning,” in which jeans were lit up and tied to a signpost by students in what The Body Politic described as an “eerie imitation of KKK cross burnings.” 

 

The event that attracted the most attention was Gay Jeans Day. The GAUT spread pamphlets around campus reading “If you are gay, or support gay rights, wear jeans this Thursday.” 

This induced extreme reactions. Engineering students threw shredded computer cards from a balcony onto GAUT members staffing an information booth. Displays were vandalized, and eggs were thrown at windows and tables. The most disturbing backlash was a “jeans-burning,” in which jeans were lit up and tied to a signpost by students in what The Body Politic described as an “eerie imitation of KKK cross burnings.” 

In an interview with U of T Magazine, Dan Healey, the head of GAUT and one of the event organizers, did not seem to recall such extremes, saying that, “the occasional egg was thrown at the table, but people generally were polite.” GAUT even received student union funding, as eloquently noted in a Varsity article titled “Gays Get SAC Support.” 

Efforts, of course, continued throughout the years. U of T started the Positive Space campaign in 1995, which is now responsible for the small rainbow stickers that adorn many university doors. The Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals and Trans People of U of T organization was formed, followed by the establishment of Canada’s first LGBTQ Resources & Programs office. 

In the broader community, the City of Toronto officially recognized Pride Day in 1991. The first openly lesbian Member of Parliament was elected in 2001, and, four years later, Canada sanctioned same-sex marriage nationwide, becoming the fourth country to do so.

Last Saturday, after meandering past stalls selling overpriced rainbow suspenders, temporary tattoos, and dildos of all shapes and colours, and noting the conspicuous lack of a Progressive Conservative presence against colourful booths from the other three major political parties, I planted my feet in front of the small stage that marked the Dyke March’s starting point.

Following some awkward maneuvering of my camera, recorder, and notebook — “sorry!” I whispered to the couple who kindly smiled at my fumbling — four women took to the stage. A surprising combination of an imam, a lay cantor, an Ojibwe spiritual leader, and a pastor, each spoke of, and for, acceptance of queer women in their respective congregations. 

Toward the end of her speech, Imam Teresa Rogers said that “pride has always been a fight for justice.” Scattered applause rang out from the crowd. I think that, looking at queer history in Toronto, this rings true. Queer women activism is not about anger, though it is at times angry. It’s not a privilege, as those who, for some inexplicable reason, want a straight pride may argue. It’s about being able to freely be, without fear or prosecution, and that, in my opinion, is true justice. 

Who is fighting for our future?

Youth protests reveal the lifeless reality of on-campus climate activism

Who is fighting for our future?

Fridays for Future is a movement started by 15 year old Greta Thunberg, who sat for three weeks outside of the Swedish parliament to challenge their inaction on climate change. Her courage and determination sparked an international student activism movement.

In Toronto, the Fridays for Future school strike for climate change action began on May 3 at Queen’s Park. It coincided with Doug Ford’s meeting with the recently-elected Alberta Premier, Jason Kenney, as they discussed their objections to the recently-enacted federal carbon tax. The strike concluded at Nathan Phillips Square, in front of City Hall.

These protesters highlighted the fact that even if they collectively decided to recycle, stop using straws, and go vegan, it would not be enough to contest the amount of damage that large-scale carbon emissions have done to the earth. Just 100 businesses alone have contributed to 71 per cent of our world’s global emissions since 1988.

Statistics like this can leave some feeling hopeless, but it ignited a movement among thousands of students around the world. These students refused to let the world decide their future. They refused to be left with the scraps of a dying planet. The march on May 3 was just a glimpse of their potential for enacting change. This is a continuous fight on all fronts, and it is being led by those who will be affected the most.

In 11 years, the damage to the Earth caused by climate change will be irreversible. It is the terrifying end to a story that began with the birth of the industrial age. From the early eighteenth century to now, generations have witnessed the development of what the National Centre for Climate Restoration calls a “near- to mid-term existential threat to human civilization.”

It may seem excessive to phrase it that way, but it is the unfortunate, daunting truth. Scientists around the world have made it clear that if we do not stop the current trajectory of greenhouse gas emissions there will be permanently detrimental consequences.

We already see some of these consequences today, with frequent wildfires on the west coast, record-breaking hurricanes, floods with tolls on thousands of lives, and a severe lack of crops, a major instigator behind the modern refugee crisis.

As reported by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the international goal is to reduce warming to under two degrees Celsius and afterward to not allow warming to rise above 1.5 degrees Celsius. It seems impossible, but in order to even begin the process, “every sector of the economy needs to get to zero emissions if we are to stabilize our climate” according to Akshat Rathi, reporting for Quartz.  

It is an intimidating task laid before all of humanity, and yet the response in political spaces has been lackluster.

U of T has witnessed a small protest campaign centred around divesting from fossil fuel companies led by the climate activist group Leap UofT. However, the scale and reach of the movement, unfortunately, does not compare to that of Fridays for Future and is only the second campaign of its kind on campus, following the UofT350 campaign. The truth is, we are nowhere near leading the charge. We are not doing enough.

Just before the march began, the voices that spoke from the microphone placed at the top of Queen’s Park were young, innocent, and enraged. They screamed, they begged, they chastised, and they joked at all those who claimed to work for the betterment of their future.

They spoke on a range of issues in quick, concise speeches. Topics included fast fashion, the effect of the meat industry on global emissions, the Green New Deal, and why divesting from the corporations leading in greenhouse gas emissions was vital for the fight against climate change. All this, when they should have been busy being kids.

Signs are one of the most important parts of a protest, and at the Friday for Future protests it was no different. One replaced the faces on the popular ‘distracted boyfriend’ meme with Doug Ford, money, and our dying earth. Another displayed earth imagined as an ice cream cone with the caption “Noo, I’m melting.” Then there were those with simple, heartbreaking messages, such as “I want to meet my grandchildren.”

That is the core message of Fridays for Future: to let the world see who would be left to deal with the ramifications of a dying earth. At the heart of protest signs covered in memes and the innocence of various misspelled words were children, standing in front of adults who have determined their future, begging for their lives.

As the world faces the consequences of negligent production and selfish policies, children, armed with seemingly more knowledge and worldly understanding than our public servants, are rallying. The question to be asked is where do we, the students who should be empowered by the privilege to learn more, question more, and fight for more, stand. We, as fellow students, must follow in the footsteps of the brave, impassioned students at Fridays for Future in combating climate change. This movement is for all of us, and we must do a better job.

It can be comforting to see youth rising against the injustices of the world. It can make you feel hopeful that the future will be filled with bright minds ready to challenge any obstacle that comes their way. You must not forget that this is not what they should be doing. At the end of the day, it is upsetting to see so many children forced to protest in the streets, because instead, as dozens of signs read, they should be at school.

Nadine Waiganjo is a second-year Social Sciences student at University College.

Rosa Luxemburg: living flame of revolution

Toronto New Socialists host Professor David Camfield

Rosa Luxemburg: living flame of revolution

In the late afternoon sun on February 10, the Toronto New Socialists welcomed Professor David Camfield to speak on socialist revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg. Slight and soft-spoken, with a ring of curly hair haloing a narrow face, Camfield teaches in the Department of Labour Studies at the University of Manitoba. He is also the author of the academic books We Can Do Better: Ideas for Changing Society and Canadian Labour in Crisis: Reinventing the Workers’ Movement.

The audience, mostly middle-aged, sat on fold-out chairs. A man in a Democracy Now! ballcap shook hands with everyone around him, and others called greetings to one another across the room. The person who sat next to me turned and asked if I was involved in any organizing.

A hundred years after Luxemburg’s murder, I was glad to spend an afternoon discussing her life, ideas, and continued relevance today.

Luxemburg’s life

The event began with a land acknowledgement, then flowed into Camfield’s introduction. He briefly outlined Luxemburg’s life and her role in the German socialist movement. Rosa Luxemburg, he explained, was a leading figure in the dominant Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD), until the outbreak of World War I. It may seem anachronistic, but the SPD was the greatest socialist success of the early twentieth century prior to 1917. In fact, in 1912, it captured 34.8 per cent of the vote to become the largest party in the country.

Luxemburg, who held a PhD in economics, was an influential speaker, organizer, and theorist of the booming German socialist movement. Her major economic work, The Accumulation of Capital (1913), examined the intrinsic connection between capitalism, nationalism, militarism, and imperialism. She was committed to revolutionary principles, and as such led the radical wing of the SPD. She frequently clashed with the reformists, especially future party leader Eduard Bernstein, who hoped to achieve gradual changes while maintaining the existing capitalist system.

These ideological schisms deepened as war preparations began in Germany and the country tilted ever closer to outright militarism. In the German parliament, where women were not able to vote, Bernstein’s SPD voted to approve the war. Devastated, Luxemburg rightly recognized Bernstein’s and the SPD’s support for the war as an enormous betrayal of principles and left the party. In response, she helped found the Spartacus League, which was dedicated to revolutionary struggle and systemic overthrow — not Bernstein’s policy of compromise.

Luxemburg was heartbroken by the division of proletariat and the turn toward nationalism instead of the international solidarity of the working class. She protested fiercely against the war and was arrested in 1916 for her agitation. She spent the duration of the fighting in prison.

After the war ended, Luxemburg continued to work with the Spartacists, who grew increasingly frustrated with the stumbling Weimar government. Without her foreknowledge, some Spartacists launched a premature revolt in Berlin in 1919. Though she recognized the time was not yet right, Luxemburg took to the streets.

Leaders of the reformist SDP responded by unleashing the Freikorps, a proto-Nazi gang of thugs, to subdue the crowds. They murdered Luxemburg in the street on January 15, 1919.

Lessons for today

Our world today, Camfield reminded the audience, is markedly different than that of Luxemburg’s. As such, some aspects of her analyses are absolutely temporally bound. For one thing, capitalism today is vastly different than it was in the early 1900s. Unions and left-wing political organizations were robust and relatively powerful in early twentieth century Germany, unlike today, where the contemporary power of unions has been drastically co-opted by bureaucratization and far-left political parties are relatively sterile. Nevertheless, posited Camfield, Luxemburg’s writings and theories still contain some relevance for the twenty-first century.

He narrowed this into five main points.

First, he said, Luxemburg’s theory that capitalism leads to complete social breakdown — with a final stage of intense regression and destruction — is clearer than ever: our world is literally melting from climate change, as driven by corporations.

Second, an advanced society with cooperative production is entirely possible and compatible with democratic principles.

Third, leftists must also remember that the start of a new order requires a social revolution — not gradual change. Real change cannot happen under capitalism, he reminded listeners, and reform will always be handicapped by the system that created it.

Fourth, this social revolution must be precipitated by a massive process of self-emancipation: in other words, the revolution must be led from below, not above.

Finally, Luxemburg’s commitment to internationalism rings particularly true today, when ultranationalism is rising and countries close their borders to migrants.

Rosa Luxemburg shouldn’t be deified, but neither can we afford to forget her. 

Editor’s Note (February 26): This article has been updated to clarify the contents of Camfield’s statements and the breadth of his academic work. 

Canada’s reconciliation: unwilling, unready, undeserving

Examining the pitfalls of reconciliation in light of the deaths of Colten Boushie and Tina Fontaine

Canada’s reconciliation: unwilling, unready, undeserving

In 2015, the conclusion of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) provided Canadians with documentation of the cultural genocide endured by Indigenous youth through residential schools. The purpose of the TRC was to lay the groundwork for ‘reconciliation’ where settler Canadians would work to close social, economic, and political gaps with Indigenous peoples created by centuries of colonialism.

Yet in February 2018 — less than three years later — the consecutive acquittals of Gerald Stanley and Raymond Cormier for the deaths of 22-year-old Colten Boushie of the Red Pheasant First Nation and 15-year-old Tina Fontaine of the Sagkeeng First Nation have blown away any remaining mystique of ‘reconciliation.’ Settler Canada, by reproducing the injustices it pledged to address, is not committed to reconciliation.

The ongoing failure of the Canadian criminal justice system for Indigenous youth is only part of the problem. The problem is how systems intersect to make Indigenous deaths possible. The problem is how, even after death, settlers continue to twist narratives and portray death as a normal, expected, and deserved outcome for the colonized.

Stanley’s trial revolved around the purported malfunctioning of the gun that killed Colten Boushie on a Saskatchewan farm. Yet much settler deliberation focused on Stanley’s ‘right’ to protect his property and family from ‘trespassers’ — a deeply ironic ‘right’ given that his farm sits on Treaty 6 land. The Indigenous peoples who signed the treaty, with the Crown in 1876 were unable to fully understand its meaning due to it being written in English; they were told that settlers were borrowing the land, when in fact it was being purchased from them.   

What do we make of the escalatory and disproportionate use of force, including guns, that is frequently justified against minoritized communities? Or of the fact that the Royal Canadian Mounted Police’s (RCMP) investigation of Bouchie’s death negligently destroyed evidence and treated his family as if they were suspect? Instead, Stanley was acquitted, received over $200,000 in GoFundMe support, and is currently pursuing publishers to write a book and explain his ‘side’ of the story.

Tina Fontaine, on the other hand, engaged with the police, hospital, and child and family services, which had placed her in a hotel prior to her disappearance. Her body was later recovered from Red River in Manitoba. Yet The Globe and Mail headlined a story, “Tina Fontaine had drugs, alcohol in system when she was killed: toxicologist.” Indigenous responses later caused the paper to change the title.

Invoking stereotypes of the ‘drunken Indian’ and suggesting that Fontaine’s death was her own fault rather than that of the killer who threw her body into a river, or that of institutions that abandoned their responsibility to protect her is how many absolve the Canadian state and settlers of any culpability. From Boushie to Fontaine, we — the criminal justice system, the police, the child welfare system, the media, and the settler Canadian public — have been shown to protect settlers and defame dead Indigenous youth. Settler Canada is unwilling, unready, and undeserving of reconciliation.

The criminal injustice system

The legal system is central to the pro-death policy imposed upon Indigenous communities — especially when it comes to the nature of juries. Battleford, Saskatchewan — where Stanley was acquitted — was also the site of the 1885 hangings following the Riel Rebellion, the largest mass execution in Canadian history. Eight Indigenous men were hanged and buried after an all-white jury trial, a judge, and Prime Minister John A. MacDonald all expressed antipathies toward them as “Indian rebels.” In 1971, an all-white jury wrongfully convicted Donald Marshall Jr., a Mi’kmaq man, of murder. These historical examples of all-white juries are part of a trajectory that has led to an overrepresentation of Indigenous peoples in the justice system; they constitute 25 per cent of inmates despite being approximately four per cent of the population.

Tina Fontaine’s case, meanwhile, is paralleled by the 1971 murder of Helen Betty Osborne, among countless other missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls, and two-spirit people. Although Indigenous peoples constituted 30 per cent of Osborne’s community, the defence used peremptory challenges — the right to reject a prospective juror without providing any reason — to keep all prospective Indigenous jurors off the jury. An all-white jury subsequently convicted only one of four accused men of her murder.

In light of this history of legal injustice, part of Indigenous resistance efforts is the reclamation of the law as a space for Indigenous youth. The University of Toronto Indigenous Law Students’ Association (ILSA) is one such organization; it “provides a social network for Aboriginal law students and is committed to furthering awareness of Aboriginal legal issues.” On March 1, the ILSA held a panel discussion about the Colten Boushie verdict.

Kent Roach, Professor of Law at the University of Toronto, discussed the various aspects of the trial that contributed to the acquittal of Stanley. First was the issue of Indigenous underrepresentation on juries. According to s. 629 of the Criminal Code of Canada, the jury panel can only be challenged on the basis of “partiality, fraud or wilful misconduct.” This does not account for proportional representation on a jury roll or the actual jury. In Stanley’s trial, the jury was entirely white with no Indigenous representation. Roach advocates for the ability of the accused or prosecutor to challenge jury panels if they fail to be representative based on a fair sample of the community at hand.

A recent Toronto Star-Ryerson School of Journalism investigation confirmed this representation problem. It reveals how, based on an analysis of 52 criminal trials in Toronto and Brampton, 71 per cent of all jurors were white, even though people of colour constitute the majority of the cities’ demographics. Evidently, juries across Canada do not reflect the diversity of the community in which trials are situated. Roach advocates for outreach and support for Indigenous and Black communities to ensure they have easier access to serving on juries.

The second panelist, Mi’kmaq lawyer Shannon McDunnough, further spoke of the importance of the jury pool of prospective jurors — especially because they are overwhelmingly white, middle-class, and middle-aged. Many lower-income, and minoritized people cannot afford to miss precarious work for jury duty, as opposed to those who have well-paid contracts. Indigenous peoples often are excluded because of barriers related to transportation, child care, and elder care. The final jury pool thus ends up with a socioeconomic and racial skew. This comes at the cost of alternative worldviews that, in the case of Indigenous peoples involved in trials, can other help other jurors understand what it means to be and live as an Indigenous person. McDunnough stated that jurors are doing a public service, and as such, should be accomodated financially so lower-income and minoritized communities can serve on juries.

In conjunction with more representative juries, Roach advocated for the abolition of peremptory challenges Stanley’s lawyer used them to exclude visibly Indigenous peoples from the jury. Furthermore, he spoke of the need to expand challenges for cause. Prospective jurors were not questioned as to whether the racial dynamics of the case would affect their ability to impartially decide the case. Prospective jurors should be vetted for subconscious racism and challenged for cause if they are deemed partial, especially when the victim in question is Indigenous.

A jury is ideally representative of the wider community and must deliberate and come to a unanimous decision. Yet if a jury is misrepresentative and impartial to racially loaded cases, the biases in the decision-making process favour accused killers like Stanley at the cost of Indigenous victims, and they disadvantage Indigenous individuals when they are the accused. This only serves to further alienate Indigenous communities that are already disabused of the criminal justice system, which has continually failed them.

The ILSA, in solidarity with other Canadian law schools raising awareness about the Boushie and Fontaine cases, backed up its panel with a teach-in on March 14. Law students and faculty alike walked out of class and sat together at the Jackman Law Building atrium for discussion. The purpose was to educate people on how institutions   such as the police, jury selection, and child welfare systems collude through and with the legal system to create results such as the acquittals. Speakers mentioned the need for more Indigenous perspectives and legal traditions in the study of law and the need to keep conversation alive about the Boushie and Fontaine cases outside the classroom.

One step in the direction of legal pluralism and equity is taking place at the University of Victoria, which recently announced that it will offer the world’s first Indigenous law degree. Students in the program, expected to initiate in September of 2018, will earn two professional degrees in Canadian common law and Indigenous legal orders. This initiative is a response to the TRC’s 50th call to action, which calls for the development of Indigenous law institutes. According to Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Law John Burrows, “Indigenous law looks to nature and to the land to provide principles of law and order and ways of creating peace between peoples; whereas the common law looks to old cases in libraries to decide how to act in the future.”

The law and the criminal justice system has historically been a colonial operation that favours settlers at the expense of Indigenous peoples. For some, it is a site in which serious reform is required to build equity; for others, legal pluralism and Indigenous traditions are the way forward. The work of ILSA suggests that, in light of the Boushie and Fontaine cases, Indigenous youth are at the forefront of reclaiming and re-imagining the space of law to create a justice system that serves Indigenous peoples.

DARREN CHENG/THE VARSITY

“Stolen children on stolen land”

The death and life of Fontaine also illustrates how the criminal injustice system interlocks with a wider network of colonial infrastructure to facilitate the exploitation and degradation of Indigenous lives.

In Manitoba, where Fontaine grew up, in the province’s Child and Family Services there are 11,000 children who have been removed from their families and are currently in the child welfare system. Of those children, 10,000 are Indigenous — a staggering 91 per cent. The First Nations Child & Family Caring Society estimates “ there are three times the number of First Nation children in foster care than there were at the height of the residential schools system.” When the present-day child welfare system is tearing families apart even more rapaciously than under residential schools, it amounts to an escalation of colonial warfare against Indigeneity. While we, as settlers, may have the impression that Canada ended its genocidal practices in the last century, numbers show that the destruction of Indigenous communities is ramping up, not winding down.

At Toronto’s “Justice for Tina Fontaine” rally on March 3, speakers called out the system for what it is: a child welfare industrial complex. One mother whose son was put into the care of the state at a psychiatric hospital decried the many actors who profit from Indigenous children being taken from their homes: “Native women did not have children to be meal tickets for lawyers, psychiatrists, judges, child welfare employees, directors, executive directors, and managers.”

Others benefit from the industry as well: the hotels paid to house foster children; private foster care agencies contracted by the government; non-Indigenous foster parents who earn allowances; and not least, sexual predators and human traffickers.

Another speaker at ILSA’s event, an Inuvialuit woman named Crystal Lee, lamented that Fontaine’s death was a deliberate outcome: “Canada failed Tina long before she was murdered.”

One of the most common reasons given for apprehending Indigenous children is caregiver poverty and substandard housing. These conditions are, unsurprisingly, the product of the Canadian government, which has repeatedly been found liable of discriminating against Indigenous children by starving them of equal funding compared to non-Indigenous children. A sinister formula thus emerges: make reserves unfit for living, seize the children, profit from the children, continue decimating Indigenous presence, repeat. This is the colonial pipeline that whisked Fontaine from her family and ultimately discharged her body into the Red River. This is why the TRC zeroed in on child welfare as its first call to action. How can Canada possibly pursue reconciliation when there will be no intact future generations with whom to reconcile?  

Resistance efforts

Although they are in the crosshairs of these colonial systems, Indigenous youth are surging to the front lines to push back. The rally for Fontaine at Nathan Phillips Square was organized by Madyson Arscott, a grade 10 Ojibwe student only a year older than Fontaine was when she died.

Later on the afternoon of the protest, other young activists established the Soaring Eagle’s Camp on the front lawn of the Old City Hall courthouse. Inspired by sister camps in Winnipeg and Calgary, the occupation commemorates Boushie and Fontaine and highlights the “continuation of Canada’s colonial violence towards Indigenous peoples on Turtle Island,” according to their pamphlet. The site of the month-old camp is intentional, explained Gein Wong, who has been present since day one: “There’s a lot of Native folks, or Indigenous folks, who are charged in the city with whatever charges. They actually go into here and have to go to court in this building. And so, for that reason, it’s important to have a presence here because this is where the justice system is, where it is actively operating.”

The Soaring Eagle’s Camp draws on the legacy of other direct actions in the city. Last July, the alarming suicide rate among Indigenous youth, particularly in Pikangikum First Nation, led to the formation of the Ground Zero camp in front of the Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) Toronto office last summer. This camp was in fact a re-occupation of INAC; the camp’s first incarnation took place in April 2016 following the Attawapiskat suicide crisis. The second Ground Zero camp lasted 157 days to create public awareness about the loss of Indigenous youth and demand the federal government to increase funding for First Nations communities. The camp ended only due to the harsh late December weather.

Yet the members of Soaring Eagle’s Camp share the view that their camp is distinct from previous actions. According to Wong, “What’s notable this time around is that it’s all young, new generations that’s actually stepping up and organizing, with the guidance and the support of the folks who have done it before, and the elders. That is powerful to … have new generations step in.

This ethic of youth solidarity rippled through conversations with other members of the camp, who emphasized the importance of young Indigenous people showing up for other Indigenous youth. When Arscott addressed the crowd at the Fontaine rally, she concluded her speech with a request: “I want each and every one of you to say something with me for the Indigenous youth in the crowd. Ready? You are worth the effort. You are worth the effort. You are worth the effort.”

DARREN CHENG/THE VARSITY

Reconciling reconciliation

For reconciliation with Indigenous peoples to occur, the meaning of reconciliation itself must be reconciled by settler Canadians. Is reconciliation just performative rhetoric, or is it substantive action that requires us to recreate our workplaces, classrooms, and institutions in the image of Indigenous worldviews, knowledges, and governance structures? What are settlers willing to give up so that justice socioeconomically, legally, and politically for centuries of colonialism may be served?  

Kennes Lin, a Youth Leader for Canadian Roots Exchange (CRE) an organization dedicated to developing relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous youth, and a student at the Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work, shared her perception of reconciliation, prior to the verdicts, as a non-Indigenous person. “As a first-generation immigrant settler, I viewed ‘reconciliation’ as a responsibility to learn about the truth and unbiased history of the land I am living on, and to be self-aware of how my role as an immigrant meant I have been implicated as a settler colonizer in the project of colonization. I viewed ‘reconciliation’ as a need for me to understand my positioning first, and then to reach out and bridge the gaps in relationships with Indigenous folks.”

Following the verdicts, Lin said she is more critical of what ‘bridging the gap’ means. “With the verdicts as blatant evidence of overt and covert racism, ‘Truth before reconciliation’ to me now means being more targeted in addressing racism. While reconstructing is needed, I don’t view it as in my place to be doing it it needs to be from First Nations, Metis and Inuit communities themselves. What I can do is to target institutional racism, as a way create space for decolonizing reconstruction work to happen.”

As for the role of non-Indigenous youth, Lin notes, “what you can do always depends on what you know yourself to have the capacity to do if rallies are for you, go to them. If writing policy is more you, that works too. There’s a lot of work to do in all areas of deconstructing and reconstructing.”

Max FineDay, member of Sweetgrass First Nation and Co-Executive Director of CRE, defines reconciliation as the process of restoring the original relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples. As with any process, there are failures; the two verdicts, while deeply disappointing, are not entirely surprising for FineDay. “Time and time again, the justice system shows that it fails, just like education, like health. The systems upon which Canada was founded do not serve Indigenous peoples.”

FineDay also speaks of the high suicide rate among Indigenous youth compared to non-Indigenous youth. “Canada is not the great country of justice and human rights and equality that we like to think we are. We are coming to a crossroads. Indigenous youth are the fastest growing demographic in the country. We have Indigenous youth now who are in 20 years going to be professionals in the workforce. Or if we don’t go down the path of reconciliation we’ll build more prisons, there will be more suicide, we’ll lose more people to violence. Youth are critical because we have an opportunity to stop the cyclical violence that has been happening for centuries.”

FineDay added that Canadians in Toronto or Ontario should not be smug and view anti-Indigenous racism as exclusive to prairie provinces like Saskatchewan and Manitoba; rather, it exists and must be addressed everywhere. In Toronto, more than four in five Indigenous families live in poverty.

“When I went back to my community and knowledge keepers [following the verdicts], they told me, Âhkamêyimo which means ‘persevere.’ This work is hard but it’s valuable. It’s incumbent upon all of us, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, to work for those who have come before us, who have worked towards reconciliation long before it was trendy, to ensure that Indigenous peoples can see justice,” he reflected.

In the context of Tkaranto the Mohawk origin of ‘Toronto’ the restoration of the original settler-Indigenous relations is governed by two treaties: the Two Row Wampum and the Dish With One Spoon. The Two Row Wampum is an agreement reached in 1613 between the Haudenosaunee and Dutch settlers to co-exist in peace, friendship, and respect: the two rows of purple wampum beads symbolise two vessels, a birchbark canoe, and a European ship travelling down the same river in parallel, never interfering in the other’s path. The Dish with One Spoon is a covenant among the Anishinaabe, Mississaugas, and Haudenosaunee to share and protect the territories around the Great Lakes and St Lawrence, as represented by the ‘dish.’ According to this treaty, we take from the land only what we need, we leave enough for everyone else, and care for the land and one another without resorting to violence.

If Canada is to reconcile with Indigenous peoples, Canada must first resolve what reconciliation means for itself. The Boushie and Fontaine verdicts this year indicate that Canada’s current reconciliation process does not work for Indigenous peoples. Canada can either continue a performative reconciliation that inflicts systemic colonial violence onto Indigenous youth or commit to a process of justice and restoration as imagined by Indigenous youth. Unless the latter occurs, colonization will continue to be the defining relationship between settlers and Indigenous peoples.

Yelling in the library

An activist learns to speak up

Yelling in the library

In the fall, U of T will welcome hoards of eager frosh waiting for the university experience to turn their lives upside down. This summer series of personal essays delves into the minds of seasoned upper-year students, and everything they never expected to learn.

Try speaking loudly on the thirteenth floor of Robarts. The stillness hangs in the air around you, like thick smoke permeating your vocal cords. It takes a second to remember how to form words, a minute to work up the confidence to break the placid surface of the space. The disruption ripples through the rows of students immersed in their studies, like the small waves of a pebble dropped in water.

The halls of my high school were as loud as Robarts is quiet, but they had their own inertia of finely balanced cliques. I was afraid of intruding or offending, so I stayed quiet and largely isolated. I came to university determined not to recreate that silence. I made friends and found activist groups that helped me speak up for causes that matter to me.

[pullquote-default]There were things we could not say, tactics we could not use, histories we could not centre. As my political views shifted, I found myself back in the silence, simmering.[/pullquote-default]

It took a while before I saw the new silence surrounding me, partly because I was part of maintaining it. This silence was ideological. There were things we could not say, tactics we could not use, histories we could not centre. As my political views shifted, I found myself back in the silence, simmering.

I am sitting in lecture, the architecture of the room directing my attention towards the authoritative words of the professor, his words directing my anger towards his authority. From his stage, he informs us that — unlike in historical social movements — people suffering from environmental degradation have no power, so we must count on the elites’ moral restraint to solve climate change. He asks for comments, a semblance of openness, while still the atmosphere whispers, believe him, take notes for the exam.

Heart pounding, I raise my hand.

I politely tell him that before feminism, before civil rights, before unions, the people in question did not have power. Every bit they have now, they won through collective struggle, much as grassroots groups are resisting colonialism and environmental destruction today.

He acknowledges and swiftly discounts my comment and returns to his slides. Question period is for confusion, not challenges. The pebble I cast sinks to the invisibility at the bottom of the water, much as my stomach sinks when I remember my thoughts do not actually matter to the university.

This incident is not isolated, and it is certainly not unique to me. I have become familiar with these kinds of strategies: the polite sidestepping, confident overruling, subtle undermining, aggressive pushback. I know the disoriented, dizzy feeling of teetering on the edge of the chasm between perspectives, unsure of how to explain myself.

As much as I have lived this recently, I have gotten off easy. For me, activism is a choice. I could retreat behind my white privilege, my class privilege, and pretend that no matter how messed up the world is, I will be ok. For so many people, like those who are Indigenous or trans*, activism is a necessity. It is vital to fight against a system which challenges your very existence.

As oppressive systems create a million reasons to speak up, they must ensure there are a million reasons to stay silent. Nevertheless, there are brave people speaking everywhere. Are you too absorbed in your books to notice the break in the library quiet? Do you hear? Or merely glare at them for disturbing your peace? We cannot let each other be like the proverbial falling tree in the lonely forest. When someone speaks out against oppression, it sure as hell better make a sound.

‘We Believe Survivors’

Community marches in solidarity with survivors of sexual assault

‘We Believe Survivors’

Content warning: discussion of sexual assault, suicide

Following the conclusion of Jian Ghomeshi’s trial, which ended with an acquittal, hundreds of people rallied and marched in support of survivors of sexual assault. 

The rally was entitled ‘We Believe Survivors,’ illustrating the march’s intent to support and stand in solidarity with survivors of sexual assault and the women who came forward in the months leading up to the trial. The rally and subsequent march were organized weeks before the announcement of the trial’s verdict.  

“We wanted to make sure no matter the outcome, that there was a space for survivors to recognize and support the women who bravely came forward, all the survivors who couldn’t, and the many more survivors in our community that have been sexually assaulted, and you know just to make sure that they know there is a community backing them and supporting them in this process,” said Jennifer Hollett, a political activist and one of the organizers of the event.   

The rally began around 6:00 pm in the rain and below freezing temperatures.  Supporters were given sheets of paper with chants and messages printed on them. From blocks away, hundreds of people could be heard chanting ‘we believe survivors’ and ‘the system isn’t broken, it was built this way.’   

Influential activists and supporters came to speak to the crowd, including Glen Canning, the father of Rehtaeh Parsons. Parsons completed suicide in 2012, after photographs depicting her sexual assault surfaced and led to her being harassed and bullied. Canning voiced his support for the women who testified in the case and called for an end to victim blaming.   

When Lucy DeCoutere was introduced, she was met with thunderous applause and chants of ‘we believe you’ from the audience. DeCoutere was the first woman to publicly accuse Ghomeshi of sexual assault. DeCoutere said it would be “bad manners” for her to be in the area and not attend the rally, and thanked the audience for their support.   

Following DeCoutere, a woman who only wished to be known as Witness #1, took to the steps in front of Old City Hall. This woman was the first to testify against Ghomeshi in the trial, and she too thanked the audience for coming out to show their support despite the inclement weather.   

The contingent walked north on Bay Street to meet with Black Lives Matter-Toronto at the Toronto Police Services headquarters, where demonstrators have camped out for the past week. As the march passed, cars honked in support and onlookers clapped and stood in solidarity. 

When asked about whether the verdict changed the organizers’ outlook on the demonstration, Hollett stated, “Unfortunately I don’t think today’s verdict surprised anyone. Most people who’ve followed had a front row seat to see the injustice of our justice system when it comes to sexual assault, and a lot of us were hoping for the best, but it’s a flawed system, and it’s just about impossible for survivors to navigate… this is why so many women don’t come forward in the first place, because the women are put on trial, and it’s more about what happened after the assault rather than consent and the violence at the heart of the case.”   

Those at the rally called for legal reform and new rhetoric in the conversation surrounding sexual violence. They also stressed that the courts judge cases where survivors are scrutinized more harshly than the assailants. According to Hollett, ending the stigma surrounding sexual violence “starts as a conversation, but I think it’s a conversation that we need to bring in lawyers and politicians and activists and I know that that work is already starting as a result of this trial.”

LGBTOUT to receive student levy

‘Yes’ vote signals end of battle to obtain per-student funding

LGBTOUT to receive student levy

After years of trying to obtain student funding, Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals, and Trans people of the University of Toronto (LGBTOUT) has successfully acquired a levy of $0.25 per semester. A majority of students voted in favour of the levy with 1,627 voting yes, and 1,119 voting no. There were 1,691 abstentions.

The referendum ran concurrently with the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) spring elections’ voting period from March 22 to 24.

“To me, the referendum passing is an indicator of an overall improvement in the environment at U of T,” said Nathan Gibson, LGBTOUT drop-in centre director. “To be a queer student on campus and to have the MAIN [sic] queer organization on campus be a levied service group is such a comfort,” he added.

According to Gibson, the funds will be used to diversify programming to better serve the LGBTQ+ community. “It means that our events won’t perpetuate the rampant glorification of white, cis, party culture that we’ve tended toward in the past,” Gibson said. “It means we can start to regain the trust of intersectionally marginalized queer folks who have not felt represented or even welcome in this community for far too long.”

Gibson also suggested that the levy would allow LGBTOUT to subsidize students looking to attend conferences that they would otherwise not be able to, in an effort to support queer students in their equity work.

Inflation indexing

Despite passing the levy, the funds will not be immediately tied to inflation; the second referendum question that would have secured this indexation failed. There were 1,612 votes against the question, 1,328 in favour, and 1,497 abstentions.

“In all honesty I think the failure of the second question was mostly a result of a lack of understanding,” said Gibson, adding that the question could have been clearer and that the campaign could have better emphasized its importance.

The question read “Do you authorize the Board of Directors of the UTSU to request annual cost-of-living increases, based on December Ontario CPI to the designated LGBTOUT portion of the fee?”

“I [don’t] blame anyone for not knowing [the meaning of the question], I probably wouldn’t have if I weren’t working on the campaign,” Gibson said.

He does not believe that the failure of the second question reflects the overall attitude towards the levy increase.

Gibson said that he will likely investigate the processes by which such a change may come about for future years. “[The] most important thing is that the levy itself passed, the increase can happen at a later date,” Gibson said.

If a campaign to tie the levy to inflation were to run in the future, Gibson believes it will be easier to explain because it will the main focus of the campaign “[I hope] that the coming years will bring a further push toward equity and inclusivity on our campus and so when we do attempt to tie the levy to inflation, it will have a better chance at passing,” he said.

Historical significance

The passing of the referendum marks the first time in LGBTOUT’s 47-year history that the club will be levied. UTSU members at the St. George campus will pay the refundable levy in the same way that they fund other UTSU levy groups, such as Bike Chain and Downtown Legal Services.

LGBTOUT has been active since 1969. The club held four referenda between 1999 and 2004 in an attempt to become a levied service group. All attempts were unsuccessful.

In 1999, the response to the campaign was violent and homophobic, prompting U of T to create the Office of LGBTQ Resources and Programs, a forerunner to the Sexual & Gender Diversity Office.

“I’m really happy to see our campus becoming a more welcoming space for queer students and I can’t wait to see what we’re able to accomplish in the coming years!” Gibson said.

#BLMTOTentCity outside of police headquarters

Black Lives Matter demonstrators rally against police violence

#BLMTOTentCity outside of police headquarters

The Black Lives Matter-Toronto Coalition organized a BLMTO BlackOUT Against Police Brutality rally outside the Toronto Police Services headquarters on College Street last Saturday at 4 pm. Supporters of Black Lives Matter had been there since March 19, in a space they are calling #BLMTOTentCity.

The rally was held in response to police action that took place on March 21, which was also the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. Members of the police force removed tents and doused the fire that demonstrators were using to keep warm.

According to the Toronto Police Operations’ Twitter, the action was taken because of safety concerns. Eyewitnesses said that materials were broken, personal belongings were confiscated, and people — including children — were attacked.

“The unprovoked police action on peaceful protesters raising their concerns about Anti-Black violence is an affront to our civil liberties and freedoms,” read part of a statement from the organizers on the Facebook event page.

#BLMTOTentCity began in response to the civilian police watchdog group, Ontario’s Special Investigations Unit (SIU) not indicting the officer who shot Andrew Loku. Loku, a black man, was shot inside a Toronto apartment building last July by an unidentified police officer.

Organizers with Black Lives Matter produced a list of demands which they sent to mayor John Tory, chief of police Mark Saunders, and premier Kathleen Wynne. The demands include: the immediate release of the names of the officer(s) who killed Loku and for charges to be laid accordingly; public release of any video footage from the scene of the shooting; and “the adoption of the African Canadian Legal Clinic’s demand for a coroner’s inquest into the death of Andrew Loku.”

Additional demands include the condemnation of the use of excessive force against a protester, an overhaul of the SIU, a commitment to the end of carding, and the release of the name(s) of the officer(s) who killed Alex Wettlaufer, along with appropriate charges. Wettlaufer was a 21 year old black man who was shot dead earlier this month.

The rally itself showed solidarity with other movements and people of intersecting identities. Among those in attendance were people who had marched in the We Believe Survivors rally, non-black supporters, ethnic and religious groups, and unions; attendees held signs in solidarity with Black Lives Matter. There was also a call for “black and Indigenous solidarity.”

“We stand in solidarity with Black Lives Matter—Toronto because CUPE members face anti-Black racism,” the Canadian Union of Public Employees, Ontario said in a statement of solidarity.  “We support Black Lives Matter because this is about us — about our members, our families, and our communities. But this is also about solidarity against oppression. We are proud to stand with Aboriginal groups, the student movement, and other allies in the fight against anti-Black racism.”

Protesters eventually moved onto the road, which remained closed for most of the day.