Wednesday, March 5, 2014
612 Markham St, Toronto
Since February 12th, when demonstrations against the Government of the
Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela turned violent, Venezuela has been in
the spotlight of media around the World.
But what is really going on? Is the mainstream media telling the whole story?
Come to this open discussion, facilitated by progressive Venezuelan
and Latin American activist, to learn about what is really happening.
The Latin American and Caribbean Solidarity Network (LACSN), the Hands
Off Venezuela Campaign, the Hugo Chavez Peoples Defense Front
This is an interview by Camila Uribe-Rosales of BASICS with Oscar and R (who prefers to remain anonymous), two Latin American youth who migrated to Canada from El Salvador and Mexico, and their experiences in the Canadian education system.
O: I was born in El Salvador. My parents migrated here. I didn’t speak the language at all as a youngster, and I remember I was about 7 years old. You definitely feel outcasted. I remember feeling that the only people that really knew me and the only place where I felt safe was at home amongst my family. I would go to the classrooms. Kids would laugh at me.
R: The first school I went to, there was no ESL program at that school. There was one Latina. Actually she was from Spain, she wasn’t Latina, and she refused to speak to me. I remember very clearly that she said she would be considered low class if she was to speak Spanish to me.
O: There was one particular incident where there were these two girls that were speaking and they were talking about my skin colour. Something along the lines that “We shouldn’t judge him because of his skin colour, like it’s not his fault.” And I was like “Really? Like why is that even a problem?” I didn’t even know that that was an issue.
R: I remember being picked on a lot. People would come to me and sing Daddy Yankee songs, like that was cool or that I would feel at home or something, and people bullying me. It was very hostile. A lot of people tried to fight me and I didn’t really know why.
At one point, I went to Mexico to celebrate Christmas. And so when I came back, the teacher had a set-up with chunks of desks, like she had four here, four there, whatever. And when I came back, my desk was at the corner closest to the door. And everyone else’s was at the opposite corner, packed away from me. And so when I walk into the classroom the teacher says to me, “Look, we just really feel you shouldn’t be here, because you’re Mexican and we don’t want to catch swine flu. And so we wanna ask you not to come back to school.” I got completely bullied. I was harassed. People wrote this on my Facebook and made videos about it.
R: I got kicked out of the school because, well, I was in a classroom and the priest walked in and he started to ask people the commandments. And so I didn’t know them in English and so he threw a set of keys at me. And I picked them up and I walked to him and I gave them back to him in his hand. I mean, he was a priest and I was just coming from Mexico. And so he once more asks me for a commandment which I don’t know how to say. And so he throws the keys at me for the second time, and I pick up the keys and I throw them at him. And so I was like arrested [sic] by a teacher, and they took me to the office and they were just screaming at me. Like I understood what they were saying. They were saying I was stupid or I was gonna burn in hell, that Mexicans were violent, that it was all because I was Mexican. That Mexican people were horrible.
Then I arrived at Downsview which is where I completed my high school. There was a lot more Latinos at Downsview and things were a lot more enjoyable in the sense of students. I remember at one point we had a group of like 30 friends and we would help each other out. But as soon as I got there I was told by the principal that I would never be able to go to university, and that I would never achieve to graduate high school, because I would never be able to pass Grade 12 English.
And I was bashed out of many classrooms by teachers because I was called a communist, simply because I wanted to speak about things. I remember one time, this teacher wanted to give us a lot of homework for Thanksgiving. And I said to him, “No, this is a holiday.” And he started to argue to me and I said, “Look, this is not a dictatorship. You’re not an ultimate power. You are in a sense elected by somebody and if we all work as a collective and decide to walk out on you, you will be fired.” And he bashed me out of the classroom. He called me very nasty things and started to relate me to a lot of nasty characters in Latin American history. He started saying “Oh, don’t call Pablo Escobar on me,” and stupid things like that.
O: I remember this one professor, he was white, but I remember one of the first slides. He showed a little caricature, and he said, “Oh its scientifically been proven that those students that wear hats backwards, there is a correlation with lower grades.” So I purposely would bring in a cap. I wouldn’t always put it on backwards, but I would always bring it in, as a form of resistance. And you know, that’s bigotry right to the end because it’s based on absolutely nothing, and yet you’re claiming it to be scientific evidence, as a professor. I don’t know if he was joking but even if he was, like who jokes around about that? Why, out of everything, pick that? And I think that’s definitely targeting racialized groups. They don’t understand the culture that it even comes out of.
R: I was incarcerated [sic] by a principal. It was in high school and the teacher said we could do whatever we felt like doing, but our teacher had written on the board that we had to do a shitload of work, like a crazy amount of work. He had been absent and he hadn’t taught any of the material he wanted us to do, and so I was like “Wait a second, this guy never comes to class, never teaches the material and expects us to perform like a super student.” And so I said to the students “Look, if we all walk out of this classroom, the teacher can’t fail us all. If all of us get up and walk out right now, he’s screwed.” And so, we all got up… Well it took some convincing, took me a little more convincing. And so we all got up and started walking out, and the principal grabs me. Grabs me by the shoulders and yells, “Everybody get back into the classroom!” Everybody gets freaked out. Everybody started heading back in. And he says, “You’re coming to the office with me!” By the way, that class was very crucial to me. That was Grade 12 English and if I didn’t pass I wouldn’t graduate. And so he took me to the office and made me sit in a corner of his sketchy office. And so I said, “No, I’m an adult. You’re not gonna treat me like this. You’re not gonna segregate me, you’re not gonna outcast me because I was speaking about my rights.” And he was literally like, “Shut up, I don’t wanna hear you, go in your corner.” And so he locked the door and locked me in. And he left me in that office for two hours, just sitting there. And I remember kicking the doors and getting angry and screaming. I started writing step by step how I was segregated, and comparing it to acts of genocide which have happened in our society. Like I was locked in an office as a student for fighting for my rights! And I drafted this to the director of education. He looked at the paper and said, “Oh yeah, this is a good principal, don’t worry about it.”
At one point in my life, I was like, “Fuck this. These guys are all racist. I’m never gonna win against them. There’s no one like me. I’m a nobody. I’m not gonna go to university,” and I started believing it. And it’s really hard without teacher support, it’s really hard as a student. And it’s quite frustrating because you don’t have control over them. If a teacher wants to be racist to you, he will be racist to you. And to know that you can’t do anything about it, that you report it to the Director of Education and he does nothing about it. It’s frustrating. It’s heartbreaking.
You don’t feel like you belong in the school, all your teachers are white, and they talk about white behavior, and they’re all racist towards you, and it’s like well, what am I? A fucking alien? Am I the weird one? We talk about why there is so much violence in youth, why there is so much anger…fuck, what do you think this frustration builds to?
O: I feel like a lot of times we have to resort to those things [violence], or fit into the stereotype that was being projected onto me. As a young Latin American male, you’re like cholo, gangster, like you have to do that. You have to be a drug dealer, beat people up, treat women like shit, be a scumbag, machista. Even with all the bullshit that we have to go through, I imagine it’s much, much more difficult for a Latina.
R: My girlfriend was told to take parenting classes five times because she was told by a guidance counselor that all she needed to do was go to university to find a husband. And that once she found a husband that what she would do for the rest of her life was be a mom, so she might as well take a lot of parenting courses. And so it took her two extra years to graduate high school because of that, because the courses she was supposed to take were not given to her because she didn’t need to be smart. All she needed was to find a good husband, so she was given almost a semester and a half of the same subject. Just because she was Latina.
R: There was definitely a lot of pride in the land where we came from and I never wanted to turn my back on mi gente and my community. I was blown away by the lack of community that I experienced here. Coming from a little colonia back home, it was all like one family and that was something that I lost. Every time you try to explain to people who we are as Latin Americans, we aren’t listened to. Like I feel that we are a minority and not even recognized…things like the constant need to remind people that we’re not Spanish but Latin American, and the constant need to remind people that we’re not all Mexican. We’re not all the same. It’s important for us to come together; I remember one of the chants in El Salvador that is used all over Latin America. “El Pueblo unido jamás será vencido” [The people, united, will never be defeated] and I truly believe that.
by Ashley M.
Total Fitness Studio doesn’t look like your typical mainstream gym, and doesn’t follow the same model. With a small studio in the heart of Scarborough, it promotes healthy living with fun — “Move it to lose it!”
This fitness studio removes the veil of expensive machines as the only way to be ‘healthy’ with realistic and sustainable exercises that are meant to use one’s own body weight. It doesn’t feel like a business, but a place to have fun working out.
It’s easy to fall into the trap of getting fit with expensive machines. Too often, people are bombarded by aggressive gym advertisers and salespeople interested in signing up gym memberships but not really looking at people’s health or financial issues. People end up continuing to pay these fees, without actually going to the gym anymore with lack of motivation.
High membership fees and personal training costs also create a hierarchy of those who can afford to pay these exorbitant fees and those who are struggling with their health but are not able to pay for these luxuries.
But fitness is a $2.2 billion business in Canada according to the Fitness Industry Council of Canada and nearly 5.4 million people are enrolled in health clubs in Canada. The fitness industry both creates and feeds off the fear of gaining weight and counts on people as consumers that need to purchase a particular body type.
“The view that some weights are unacceptable and that body weight is malleable has led to a large diet industry in North America, with estimated annual revenues of $35 to $50 billion,” write Marion P Olmsted and Traci McFarlane in an article in the scientific journal BMC Women’s Health. “Our current cultural preoccupation with thinness extends beyond the health risks associated with obesity.”
The fitness and diet industry place blame on those who ‘choose’ to eat unhealthy food or develop unhealthy habits. The cycle of poverty or the socio-economic factors that contributes to the lack of access to ‘healthy lifestyles’ is ignored, as is an holistic, overall approach to health. The financial burden and mounting societal pressure that people face don’t factor in; neither does the concept of a community that fosters self-care, love and acceptance along with mutual support.
Not everyone has the means to afford organic food nor the money to afford a gym membership, which is more often than not, seen as the only way to get fit within the thinking that drives the business of fitness. This is where Total Fitness Studio comes in.
“I started this gym in hopes of helping others, looking back at the lack of money to afford going to a gym, while also being overweight and struggling to become healthy,” says Lisa, the personal trainer and co-owner of Total Fitness Studio. She went through a journey of losing 200lbs on her own.
Lisa is not looking to make a buck, only to make enough money to keep the gym open. “I want to make a positive, transformative change in people’s lives,” she says. “It’s a risk in the business world, but is it not better to try?” If you want to get in touch with Lisa, give her a call at 416-709-3710.
People before profits! Health before greed!
by Pablo Vivanco
1. The students marches are from the right-wing of the student movement
Unlike in places like Chile, there is no single or united student movement in Venezuela. Not only are students groups highly decentralized, but they are also divided along political lines.
Another unique feature of the student groups identifying with the opposition is that they do not organize around accessible or free education (since education has been made accessible to the sector of society that was previously excluded, resulting in an increase of 1,809,432 post-secondary students from 1999 to 2014).
The most recent opposition student demonstrations began in the western city of Tachira near the Colombian border. On the third day of student demonstrations about insecurity on the campus, the State Governor’s house was attacked and four people were subsequently arrested (two of whom weren’t students). These arrests led to student demonstrations in other cities – all of these demonstrations were not shut down by police – which led to the February 12th demonstration, where three people died.
On February 12, however, its important to know that there were thousands of Bolivarian students and youth marching for ‘El Dia de la Juventud’ (Youth Day), on the other side of Caracas. When speaking about the ‘student movement’ the logical question that has to follow is ‘which one’?
by Pragash Pio and Hassan Reyes
Several hundred people gathered at Toronto’s Dundas Square on February 22 in response to violence in Venezuela which started at the beginning of the month.
Two sharply divided groups formed and faced off across Yonge Street. On one side, a group of 100 activists responding to the call from the Hugo Chavez People’s Defense Front rallied in support of the Bolivarian revolutionary and socialist process, the Maduro government and Venezuelan sovereignty. While denouncing the violence that has claimed 10 lives thus far, they agreed with the calls from Venezuelan popular movements that the violence and rioting is being organized by right-wing extremists. This pro-Maduro pro-’Bolivarian’ group held signs saying #WeAreMaduro and #HandsOffVenezuela.
On the other side, a larger group of 500-600 people rallied against the popularly elected Maduro government, denouncing the supposed “human rights violations” taking place there. The group, mostly comprised of Venezuelans who have left Venezuela since the Bolivarian Revolution and students in Canada to study English, not only held signs saying #SOSVenezuala and #PrayForVenezuela but also held signs denouncing socialism and the influence of “Cubans.”
Initially the conflicting slogans and the abundance of Venezuelan flags may have been confusing, with even veteran activists walking into the wrong group, but the underlying message were as different as day and night. It was a standoff between those who wished to defend and preserve the popular gains in Venezuela under Chavez, and those who were calling for American intervention in Venezuela.
Mistaking riots for popular democracy
The declared grievances of anti-Maduor ‘anti-Bolivarian’ protesters could be broken down into two parts: first, that President Maduro is a dictator, repressing peaceful opposition students and media; and secondly that problems of social and economic insecurity are a result of the administration’s “corruption” and “mismanagement.” Incidentally, these arguments mirror the language of the anti-Chavista Western media as well as Venezuela’s extreme right-wing.
These claims may emotionally resonate for some recent Venezuelan emigrès, who often came from the wealthy elite who immigrated to Canada to keep their economic privileges from being redistributed in Venezuela, but the facts on the ground are completely reversed.
Following the attempted coup d’etat against Chavez in 2002, in which corporate media played an active role in organizing, the government and grassroots movements have placed significant emphasis on the democratization of media. This has included the creation of hundreds of community radio and TV stations. Nonetheless, the private corporate media still controls over 70% of the all media. Not surprisingly, the private media outlets are often openly against the government. Still, the only restrictions placed on media, similar to those placed on media in Canada by the Canadian Radio and Television Commission (CRTC), relate to not falsifying information, calling for violence, displaying nudity at certain times, etc.
More importantly Maduro, and Chavez before him, have both had resounding popular electoral mandates that have been repeatedly tested through free elections. Out of 19 elections in the last 15 years, 18 have been resounding victories for the ‘Chavistas’, including two elections in the last year. Former US President Jimmy Carter even classified the election process in Venezuela as “the best in the world” following the 2012 re-election of Chavez.
On the other hand leaders of the opposition, such as Leopoldo Lopez, Antonio Ledezma and Maria Corina Machado cynically claim to be in favour of democracy and human rights, while glossing over their history of involvement in the 2002 coup as well as human rights abuses and corruption before the Bolivarian process began. Today they also reject the democratically-elected administration and structures, calling their supporters to engage violence instead to topple a legitimate government.
Pro-Maduro activists noted that Venezuela is one of the few countries to actually have an electoral recall mechanism by which citizens can remove the president. Note that Canada doesn’t even have such a democratic tool, even for likes of Rob Ford. This was an option that the opposition actually tried to use against Chavez in 2004, but failed as the majority (58%) voted to not recall Chavez. 10 years later, the very same opposition has abandoned all democratic options and turned to violence because it knows it cannot win against Maduro’s popular mandate.
Several pro-Maduro activists declared is the reasons for this record of electoral success is that the administrations of Chavez-Maduro have empowered and drastically improved the living conditions of the majority of Venezuelans. Under Chavez, and now Maduro, Venezuela has made incredible economic and social progress: halving unemployment and poverty; more than doubling GDP per Capita; creating free public universal healthcare system; and doubling access to higher education through free tuition, according to the Guardian’s “Data Blog.”
While access to goods and insecurity remain a problem in Venezuela, the Maduro administration has also begun to tackle these problems with new controls against hoarding and withholding of goods (as many store owners were caught doing) as well as price controls and initiatives against price gouging of the public. These have also begun to show positive results, according to scholar George Ciccariello-Maher.
The vast majority of Venezuelans, especially the poor, have continually shown that they approve of the Bolivarian process. At the same time, most observers and even opposition politicians acknowledge that the majority of Venezuelans have very little in common with and connection to the wealthy, pro-American right-wing opposition. As concerned Venezuelano Nico put it, “If the pro-democracy opposition is actually pro-democracy and popular, then they should go and win an election instead of rioting after losing every election.”
Rejecting the riots in favour of popular democracy
Pro-Maduro/pro-Bolivarian activists also pointed out that the riots had all the markings of another American sponsored attack on Venezuela’s Bolivarian Revolution. The Hugo Chavez People’s Defense Front’s statement, supported by a number of different anti-imperialist and progressive groups in Canada, condemned “the violence perpetrated by a small sector of the fascist right-wing in different cities across Venezuela in the last days, in an attempt to destabilize the country in a similar fashion as it was done with President Hugo Chávez, on April 2002.”
Of the 10 people killed in violence thus far, nearly all have been victims of the violence being organized by sectors of the extreme right. In addition, protesters have attacked public property including primary schools and food supply trucks. With strong evidence of continued U.S. State Department involvement since the first 2002 coup against Chavez (Wikileaks release), there is also growing evidence [here & here] that opposition activists are exaggerating claims of “repression,” to support further American intervention in Venezuela.
Police informed BASICS videographer Camila R. that the anti-Maduro group had secured a permit for Yonge and Dundas Square beforehand and that no other political groups could use the space. Activists raised questions about the amount of funds and behind-the-scenes direction that would have been needed to accomplish this.
As activists with Hugo Chavez People’s Defense Front chanted, “Viva Chávez! Viva Maduro!”, it was clear who they stood with, and why. Their only question is where all the other pro-socialist, pro-revolutionary, and pro-democracy Canadian groups stood: With the popularly elected administration of Venezuela, or the emissaries of American intervention?
by Noaman G. Ali
Six Nations of the Grand River | “The introduction of Omnibus Bill C-10 is an attempt to criminalize the hard-working families and entrepreneurs of Six Nations and other territories,” Jonathan Garlow said to over two hundred people gathered at the Polytechnic of the Six Nations of the Grand River on February 22.
“It will disrupt the reconciliation efforts by Canada to restore the relationship of peace and respect with Indigenous nations, possibly resulting in another confrontation.”
The meeting was organized by the Two Row Times newspaper. Garlow, founder of the Two Row Times and owner of a small printing shop in Six Nations, told BASICS the community meeting was held to inform the many families in Six Nations who are involved in and benefit from the tobacco trade about the upcoming Bill and to start a conversation about resisting it.
The law not only criminalizes unstamped tobacco, it also introduces mandatory minimum sentencing that could land ‘offenders’ in prison for at least two years.
by BASICS Team Kitchener-Waterloo
On Jan 3, 2014, the Kitchener-Waterloo Spot Collective announced the relaunching and professionalising of their people’s programs.
The people’s programs, which include the serving of free food, programs for those dealing with addiction, and literacy programs, have come out of the need to deal with the problems the community faces by mobilising the community, says organizer Amber Sinson.
“Our children need food, warm winter clothing and basic needs that are not provided by the state,” Amber continues. “It’s obvious that we must rely on ourselves to solve our own problems.”
The Spot Collective, created in 1998 by street youth and socialist students looking for for solutions to the problems they were facing, has always focused on balancing the immediate needs of the community with solving the root causes of poverty by attacking systemic problems, according to Sinson. The relaunching of the people’s programs is a continuation of this combined approach.
When asked about food banks and other social agencies that provide such services she replied, “They humiliate you and make you feel like garbage, and that it’s your fault you’re poor. They also do nothing to address the issues behind poverty.”
Wesley Gibbons, a person who uses the peoples programs, also added, “You can only get one or two boxes a month from the food bank and most of the stuff is expired.”
Those interested in participating are invited to come out to meetings Wednesday nights at 6pm at 43 Queen St., after the free food servings. Contact: 226-289-2559.
‘Project Traveller’ and the struggle to defend our communities
By: Kabir Joshi-Vijayan
Rob Ford might be the most (in)famous politician in Canadian history. Every other week a new intoxicated blunder is revealed while the entire local political establishment tries to force his resignation.
Despite the hundreds of hours of sensational reporting, the story is actually unimpressive: a ‘public’ official abusing drugs and alcohol, threatening personal rivals and flaunting his racist and homophobic views is pretty normal.
The tale of a crack smoking Mayor pales in comparison with another municipal controversy, a scandal which has faded from headlines since Rob’s escapades began to dominate.
This involves a force that has committed the most blatant violations of human rights, one that has paid over $27 million in civil lawsuits since 2000 and is now facing two new litigations totalling $65.4 million. This is a force the entire city watched taze the lifeless body of a frightened 18-year old after they shot him nine times – the latest in dozens of killings of largely Black, Brown or mentally-ill victims.
The force being described is of course the Toronto Police Service.
The incident that should have drawn the most outrage in relation to the Ford scandal was the heavily armed attack on the neighbourhood of Dixon and Kipling in June 2013. Over 100 officers with bullet proof vests, flash grenades, battering rams and automatic weapons stormed into three buildings at 5am to arrest 19 men and women.
Doors were broken down, apartments were torn apart and mothers, grandmothers and youth were terrorized and assaulted, including a 67-year-old woman kicked in the face, told by officers to die, and forced to watch as police tried to handcuff her 96-year old mother who had fallen violently out of bed.
This paramilitary operation was called ‘Project Traveller’ and it was targeted primarily against the Somali community. The raid was praised and lauded as having cleaned the neighbourhood of supposed gang members. Police announced to several residents they were there because of Rob Ford, and the Police Chief later revealed that a videotape of the Mayor had been found during the operation.
This is only the latest in dozens of similar operations conducted by Toronto Police, every one of them directed at working-class, racialized communities and arresting primarily young Black men and women. In most cases it is later revealed that well over half of those arrested are completely innocent, (as in ‘Project Flicker’ in Ardwick in 2005, or ‘Project Kryptic’ in Driftwood in 2007). These raids have proven to do nothing to end violence, and in the case of Driftwood, police were back four years later (Dec 2011) to lock up a new generation of youth.
These projects allow police to pose for photo ops in front of seized weapons, drugs and money and attempt to prove to city residents that their $1 billion annual budget isn’t going to waste.
Cops grab any cash they find in raided units without any proof of their illegal origin. Communities which face high levels of poverty, such as Somalis, Jamaicans and South Asians, often keep quantities of money at home. Thousands of dollars are taken – by the police. In ‘Project Traveller’ over $575,000 was looted.
The Rob Ford scandal is also a perfect example of the hypocrisy associated with policing in this city. Although police used incriminating evidence to humiliate Ford and try and force his resignation, they made not one move to charge him.
In Dixon meanwhile, the basis for violently rounding up many of the accused, some of whom are still languishing in jails, was nothing more than them having supposed criminals as relatives, friends or contacts in their phones: this includes senior-aged parents arrested and charged for not knowing that their children were allegedly keeping illegal items in the house.
The Mayor brazenly bought and used packages of drugs in public parking lots and washrooms, spoke for hours on the phone about his criminal activities, and yet police claim they did not have the grounds to arrest, search or even make him answer questions.
In working-class communities like Dixon, even outside of raids, youth are stopped and searched for simply being outside too late or being in too large a group. They are arrested and assaulted for having small amounts of marijuana or for trespassing violations.
From a larger perspective, the same Canadian state that is now spending $12 billion over the next 4 years to build new prisons (such as the new $540 million South Toronto Detention Center), to lock up people at the lowest levels of the drug trade, is the same country where local politicians are charged with actively collaborating with the mob. It is the same country that props up narco states like Colombia through ‘free-trade’ deals and cozy diplomatic relations; the same country that helped build Afghanistan into the largest producer of opium and heroin in the world.
The fact is the Toronto Police are not a group unto themselves. The physical attacks such as the raids, brutality and daily harassment, go hand-in-hand with social and economic attacks on these same communities from other branches of the system. In Dixon economic warfare means imposed conditions of chronic unemployment, low paying jobs and criminalizing industries such as Khat (a mild stimulant plant leaf no more harmful than coffee or shisha, but widely used among East Africans).
The sitcom/crime drama which City Hall has become over the past year has left us misinformed and distracted from the real issues at hand. Many working people have developed a liking for the slow-witted millionaire in the Mayor’s office, thinking the political establishment’s opposition to him is proof that he is somehow on our side. Bill Blair has been able to look like the poised and honest chief after the public outrage following the G20 and the killing of Sammy Yatim.
It is clear that neither side in this conflict are on our side! We as oppressed and working people shouldn’t have to rely on the Fords of the world bribing us to get us funding and social programs. We must also recognize that violations like the June 13 attack on Dixon are only able to happen because we are disorganized and divided.
It is time to build real mass movements in our neighbourhoods and communities to solve our own problems, raise and educate our children and oppose state violence. Police raids, carding, harassment, violence and mass incarceration will not end by suing, begging or reforming that structure but will only be the result of a strong, united and organized community prepared to defend itself.
by Nicole Oliver
“The strawberry represents love, courage, and women,” explained Wanda Whitebird in Toronto at the 9th Annual Strawberry Ceremony Honoring Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and those who have died violent deaths by colonialism in ‘Canada.’
“Over 600 strawberries and cups of water were handed out,” Audrey Huntley of No More Silence posted on the Strawberry Ceremony Facebook event page.
The Toronto ceremony took place February 14 outside the Police Headquarters in downtown Toronto. From coast to coast, other communities also gathered to mourn and remember beloved sisters, daughters, mothers, and grandmothers who have gone missing or have been murdered in recent decades.
“We stand together on this day to show our solidarity with the community of the downtown eastside in Vancouver where the Memorial March has been taking place for 23 years and because the violence is here too and inherent to settler colonialism”, Huntley shared with BASICS.
Indigenous women are five to seven times more likely than other women to die as the result of violence, cites Canadian government statistics. Still officers of the colonial state, including the police, have a track record of over-persecuting and under-protecting indigenous women. In Canada, Onkwehon:we (original) peoples make up four per cent of the population, yet First Nations, Inuit and Metis women account for 32.6 per cent of the inmates in the federal prison system.
Blu, the event’s emcee, shared with those gathered at College and Bay that “when my Kohkom [grandmother] was murdered – her life was taken and this took something away from me, my family members, from people in my community”. When describing how healing and solutions to end the violence requires the collective efforts of community members, Blu stated, “we ask the men to help, to stand beside us, to support us as we are a community and a community involves everybody”.
Tobacco ties were handed out to participants as the Strawberry Ceremony progressed into a march from Toronto Police Headquarters to the 519 Church Street Community Centre. As an indigenous medicine, tobacco is seen as a plant responsible for acting as a medium for communication with the Creator, with its smoke seen as lifting prayers to the Creator to be heard. When offering tobacco in ceremony it signifies that those involved are to be of one heart, one mind, and one spirit moving forward with the same purpose. Those who took the tobacco ties were asked to “tie them in a place where they will be seen, so that those who come will know that someone has been there before representing not a closing, but a beginning” explained Whitebird.
John Fox, father of Cheyenne Fox, led the march of over 200 community members to 519 Church. Cheyenne Fox of the Sheguiandah First Nation died at the age of 20 in April 2013 after mysteriously and tragically falling from a 24-storey condo in Toronto. After only 8-hours police had ruled the death a suicide. John Fox has been vigilant in pressuring the police to look further into the death of his daughter.
Michelle Schell, an Ojibwe woman, shared with BASICS, “I was staying at a Native women’s shelter and I heard a story of a woman who was raped in the backyard…I later found out that this was Cheyenne Fox. The fact remains that she was harmed in a place where she was supposed to be safe. So it’s not just a question of whether she jumped from that balcony or whether she was pushed, but I cannot help but wonder had she not left that place because obviously she did not feel safe after what happened, if things might have happened differently. Either way she may not have found herself in the position of being on that balcony”.
Schell’s insight into Cheyenne’s death speaks to the continued systemic failings that indigenous women are continually subjected to by service providers and agencies set up by the Canadian colonial government.
Since last year’s ceremony, Toronto has seen the unresolved violent deaths of three indigenous women – Cheyenne Fox, Terra Gardner, and Bella Laboucan McLean.
As the march carried forward to the beat of hand drums and songful voices, major intersections were occupied by those who came out to honor the lives lived and the loved ones of indigenous sisters no longer with us. Before partaking in a community feast prepared by the men of NaMeRes, a round dance took place at the intersection of Church and Wellesley. Schell told BASICS that the Strawberry Ceremony is held in front of Toronto Police Headquarters because “it’s symbolic… to make it visible and to let people know that they have failed in so many cases and that they just don’t seem to care”.
Native hip-hop artist Young Jibwe (Cameron Monkman) of Lake Manitoba First Nation created a song featuring Robbie Madsen entitled “Come Home” to raise awareness about Missing and Murdered indigenous women of Turtle island. Young Jibwe was in attendance at the Feb 14 event in Toronto and he told BASICS that “I want to show my respect to the missing and murdered women and acknowledge my cousin Unice Ophelia Crow. She was murdered in Winnipeg in August. She was 19. She was stabbed multiple times on her upper body. I came out to shine light on that. I feel people need to know who she was. She was a great person. It’s just sad that community loses great people”.
In discussing where the solutions to end the violence will come from Schell told BASICS, “I think the answers will come from the community itself; whether it’s an indigenous issue or not we have to stop relying on the government…obviously they don’t listen, obviously they don’t do anything … they keep saying there’s no money, we don’t have it, so we have to look to ourselves to organize.”
by BASICS Team Kitchener-Waterloo
This past September, Kitchener’s Anti Colonialist Working Group – a grassroots organization supporting political prisoners and prisoners of war against colonialism around the world – toured the independent Irish Republican, Brendan Casey, around parts of Canada to speak of today’s struggles of Irish prisoners of war (POWs) incarcerated by the British.
The purpose of the tour — which lasted a week and touched down in Guelph, Kitchener, Hamilton, Toronto, Montreal, and several other cities — was to raise awareness of the reality of the occupation, as well build ties with others fighting colonialism and imperialism.
In the words of one participant, Jason Lamka, “The tour was very powerful and Brendan is a great speaker. We never hear anything in the media about the stops and searches, the internment of prisoners like Martin Corey and Colin Duffy, or loyalist violence.”
Jason added, “From what I understand the purpose of this tour is to break the media silence around what is happening under the British occupation, and for me his presentation did just that. I’m glad I went.”
Brendan Casey himself was also pleased with the tour. “We have met with all sorts of people from Mapuche resistors, to members of the Cuban Federation of Women, to people from Six Nations. People across this whole country seem very political and active and I look forward to coming back.”
Despite the positive reception at the events, the tour was mired by threats of violence in Kitchener from ‘Loyalists’ who support Britain’s occupation of Ireland, in addition to police harassment. Tour organizer Julian Ichim said, “We got some threats of violence from Loyalists; and the police warned the venue that we were hosting a speaker from “the bad IRA” that didn’t disarm and they tried to intimidate the venue into cancelling but that didn’t happen.” Ichim added, “These so called loyalists are idiots and I’m a bit sorry they didn’t show up as we would have made short work of them. Still the slander of the police demonstrates that anyone who stands up against occupation can and will be smeared and criminalized.”
In spite of some of the intimidation and harassment, the tour succeeded in raising awareness of the brutality of the British occupation against those who continue to uphold Irish republicanism, especially for Prisoners of War in Ireland.