1. Again, on Justice
In the last couple of weeks my news feed has been filled with commentary about the Jian Ghomeshi case. As the case has progressed, there has been a nation-wide discussion about re-traumatizing survivors of sexual assault in court, about the shortcomings of the adversarial justice system, and about how we need to make changes to the court system so victims can get justice.
And part of me wants to ask, did this country just notice the justice system is broken now? When the numbers of African-Canadian women incarcerated are rapidly increasing, and Black incarceration has increased by 80 percent since 2003/4, and 23 per cent of the prison system is Indigenous people, did people just think we always did it? According to an Elizabeth Fry report, “82 per cent of all women and 90 per cent of Aboriginal women serving federal prison sentences had histories of physical and/or sexual abuse.” Do these women not count when we talk about a national crisis around sexual assault and how these cases are treated by the courts?
When the Supreme Court denied the right of Indigenous defendants to have juries with Indigenous representation, and when Indigenous and Black defendants are regularly convicted by all-white juries, there isn’t national outrage about injustice.
Do people think it’s not traumatic to come from racialized communities and reserves that have high rates of violence, that Black and Indigenous women aren’t victims, that there isn’t threat to these women when they go to court?
Yes, the victims in Ghomeshi’s case are traumatized, but do people not think that in communities where there is constant contact with the justice system — when the doors in your house are broken down by the police when you’re a child, when your parents are taken off to jail, when you suffer surveillance and violence from police, when you are charged and coerced to testify against people in your neighbourhood — that those people aren’t traumatized too? Do people think that when those girls or women give “misleading testimony” on the stand and get jailed for perjury that they shouldn’t also be treated with empathy and understanding?
Do people think Black bodies aren’t interrogated on the stand, that Black men aren’t scrutinized for “gang tattoos” based on flimsy testimony of police that are used to justify increased sentences and being put in maximum facilities? That jurors don’t look at tattooed Black and Indigenous men and judge them incapable of remorse, or clearly guilty based on their associations, and who they communicate with, and how they are perceived to act in court, or while arrested or interrogated. That people aren’t convicted based on what their body looks like, or assumptions about how they behave or what guilt looks like?
Do we think Indigenous and Black women aren’t repeatedly dismissed by the court system, that our stories aren’t doubted, that histories of sexual abuse, and foster care, and addiction, aren’t used all the time to discredit and discount those testimonies? Does everyone think that all those women doing time because their boyfriend kept drugs in the house, or stored weapons, and now they’re charged as an accessory, aren’t experiencing violence and abuse and trauma that leads them to be confused, or scared in their testimony?
Tim wrote on Monday about Sean MacDonald’s talk on wrongful conviction, where he spoke about the ways Legal Aid clients are exploited and marginalized in the system:
MacDonald said he refuses to enter a guilty plea for a client who says he is innocent, but there are plenty of lawyers who will, and the practice of lining up multiple Legal Aid clients — a Legal Aid certificate earns a lawyer $800 or $900 — can be monetarily rewarding: “all he or she has to do is check a box [guilty], and that’s the end of it; you can make thousands of dollars a day like that.” Lawyers call the practice “the dump truck.”
Is this not a reason to change the system? But,as MacDonald said, that’s the “underclass” and it’s not like they were going to contribute to society anyway, right? So who really cares if a record makes it hard for them to get employment? Legal Aid is underfunded and over-burdened, so that clients are much more likely to have a lawyer seeing their file for the first time 10 minutes before court (if that) than having a Marie Henein combing through emails and messages, but that isn’t seen as a crisis in defence law.
When poor defendants can’t get representation, and don’t get bail, and wait years in jail on remand, this isn’t seen as a problem with the system, and when most often those advantages go to the Crown, and it’s the poor defendants who end up convicted, that’s just how the system works.
When it’s the “underclass” being traumatized and denied justice by the court system, it’s just supposed to happen, they probably deserved it, and they’re used to being arrested and going to court and being jailed anyway, so it’s not a big deal. As though going to court is only uniquely awful for some people, for middle-class people, for white people. As though you can’t go to court for cases every day and see mothers fainting, children crying, people screaming, and families and communities ripped apart. But that reality isn’t in the media.
Having a conversation about sexual assault as a country is necessary. Recognizing the ways the justice system fails women, particularly victims of sexual assault, is important. But it’s not really a national conversation when we continue to only notice when the injustice is towards people that look like the reporters and the writers, who they can identify with, whose experiences they share.
Injustice didn’t enter the Canadian court system two weeks ago, but there was no national crisis when the victims are so often racialized women, poor women, addicted women.
I’m not ignoring and discounting the women in the Ghomeshi case, or playing so-called competitive oppression. I’m saying that if we are serious about justice for women, and for victims, it has to be for all women, and for all the ways women are victimized. Feminist conversation about the justice system has to care about the ways racialized women experience court too.
After the Ghomeshi verdict, is anyone going to remember or think about the women and communities who go through injustice and trauma every day? We have to stand with all of those women too.
2. Oh please, let me write about this
People keep contacting me and telling me I should write about Radha Koilpillai’s human rights complaint against Saint Mary’s University for racial discrimination in the hiring process. And I’m like, oh good. Because the only thing institutions love more than women of colour is women of colour who go around calling them racist in print when they’re precariously employed at that same university. It’s not like I’ve ever had my employment affected by that or anything. Like obviously, since there’s a human rights suit against the university for racist employment practices, the right person to write about this is the person also vulnerable to losing her job due to those same practices. Sounds great!
In the Metro article, Margaret Murphy, the vice-president of external affairs is apparently looking forward to the hearing, because racialized people’s painful experiences are super awesome opportunities for institutions to show how not racist they are by denying the reality of people of colour’s experiences of race:
“We will have the opportunity to show that the process was free from discrimination. We have a strong history of respecting and promoting diversity in the workplace.”
Yes, there’s nothing like invalidating the perspectives of people of colour to show how much you respect diversity.
You know the institution is diverse because of pictures like this! (image from smu.ca)
I can’t actually find any information about faculty diversity at Saint Mary’s University. The “Update from the President’s Council Action Team” in December, 2014, formed in response to the “rape chants” at SMU, mentions race once on page 12:
Saint Mary’s continues its ongoing effort to encourage and create the infrastructure for teaching and research excellence in areas related to sexualized violence and critical race studies.
The word racism does not appear in the report. Diversity appears in the heading for the report, and we are told that “The University is committed to accessibility, diversity, and the provision of a positive and supportive learning environment” but any information about actual initiatives for diversity, anti-racism, or increasing hiring of “visible minorities” is not covered.
It’s possible that there is a report somewhere that gives actual numbers of how many faculty of colour are teaching at the university, but if it does exist, the institution certainly hasn’t made it easy to find. I might suggest that a university committed to diversity in hiring should the very least have these numbers readily available along with information on how diversity efforts have succeeded, but maybe I expect too much.
I haven’t been able to attend the hearing, due to duties for the aforementioned precarious employment during the day (can’t skimp on class prep or marking when you’re sessional!), so I can’t speak to the testimony that has been heard so far, and there hasn’t been any media coverage of the proceedings. With the strike at the Herald, another important issue isn’t being covered now. It was a scandal when the rape chants happened at SMU, but there’s little interest in whether universities discriminate in hiring faculty, or the conditions women of colour live with when they work in the university. So while I can’t speak about Radha’s case specifically, I can speak to my own experiences of being a Black woman working in academia.
The first and only Black professor I ever had was Anthony Stewart when I started graduate school at Dalhousie. He ended up leaving the university and going to teach in the United States because of the racism he experienced as faculty. I remember a very early conversation I had with him where he told me that even though universities claim to practice diversity in hiring, the reality is that institutions and the people in them like to replicate themselves. Like Koilpillai, he told me that he once thought that if he was equal with a white candidate, the supposed commitment of the institution to diversity hiring would mean he got the job, but experience had shown him that unless he was far and away the best candidate, he wasn’t going to get hired.
The fact that we had to have these conversations instead of talking about things like research or conferences perhaps shows something about what it’s like to go through graduate school and look for academic employment as someone who isn’t white.
It’s even harder when you aren’t tenured. For all sessional instructors, facing precarious employment and financial instability means you are constantly consumed by anxiety about your job. In the last month, I have spent more time writing job applications (for hoped-for permanent positions, for summer employment, for potential contract positions for next year, etc.) than I have doing any of the actual writing or research that is necessary to make you employable.
Unlike tenured instructors who have some job protection, any possibility of student complaints or bad reviews could endanger your job, so teaching (especially teaching about issues like gender, race, or social injustice) is incredibly anxiety-ridden. You are well aware that you are replaceable, that there are dozens of applicants who could take your job. Nobody wants to take sick days, or storm days, or do anything that could make you look like a less-than-dedicated employee.
In the hopes of maybe getting hired if a permanent position comes up, instructors put in work far beyond what we are paid for, under the belief that if we can show the department how energetic, how hard-working, how necessary we are, they might possibly hire us when the time comes.
These conditions affect every sessional instructor. When you are a racialized person on top of that, the experience of precarious labour also intersects with the expectations of the labour of Black people (or people of colour) in the academy. Because you are usually the only professor of colour in your department, students of colour will seek you out for mentorship, advice, and support. In particular, they need support dealing with the racism they are suffering on our “diverse” campuses.
While the students value having this support and will frequently tell you how much having someone who looks like them and understands their experiences helps them, this labour is not recognized or credited by institutions. And as a professor of colour, you want to do this work. You think of the one professor you had who mentored you, or how you wish you had someone like you to give you advice, and you feel like the struggle of being in the academy is worth it to encourage other students like you to succeed. And it’s not just students of colour — often white students are also grateful to have teachers who can help them understand issues of race or social justice, or who can give them new perspectives.
And as a teacher, you believe passionately in the importance of taking time to encourage your students to ask questions, and talk to you. You give your love, and your time, and your labour, and you give it with as much intensity and as much commitment as full-time staff — and then, at the end of the semester, you’re gone. And you leave the students you care deeply about, and the issues you fought for on campus that you gave energy to, and you start again somewhere else.
I’m leaving out here experiences of racism on campus — the time I went to get into my office after hours to do some marking, and security refused to let me in even when I showed ID, because “If they wanted you up there they would have given you a card. They obviously don’t want you up there,” even though they were changing the system over and the university had specifically requested that new faculty not be given cards that would have to be replaced, but it wouldn’t be a problem since we could use our ID to get in (but not if you’re a Black woman who doesn’t look like she should be up there.)
Or the time I was teaching for years at a university, but because I wasn’t teaching in one semester (but was teaching the next) the IT people demanded the laptop I was given back and threatened to call the RCMP if I didn’t return it by the end of the week. Well, maybe these experiences aren’t racism, who knows without a human rights hearing, I guess. But you have experiences like this, and they sure feel like you’re being sent the message that you don’t belong in those hallways. But it’s not really worth complaining about stuff like that — even if it’s your job to teach about race and social inequality, it’s probably best not to bring it so close to home.
When you are a person of colour, you are already aware of your disposability in society. You nurture youth in your community, and watch as some of them disappear into the prison system. I taught in a program with Black students whom I loved profoundly, and every year I had students who ended up going to prison. One year, two of my favourite students were charged with murder. There are women around you, brilliant, strong women holding their families and communities down, being evicted from their houses. The beautiful children you volunteer for come and tell you about being kicked out of class, about being labelled bullies for not being able to cope with the trauma they experience. The people you hang with struggle on assistance, in abusive relationships, with addiction, with illness.
And even though you’re the professor, you know that it doesn’t take too much to lose everything yourself — you have no pension, you live cheque to cheque, you can’t get sick, you need to find work every semester — and if anything goes wrong, what’s between you and the same experiences? It is not just that your are disposable labour, it’s that your position as disposable labour is intensified by your knowledge that your race makes you replaceable, disposable, and unvalued in society as a whole. Being precarious labour in a society where your race makes your precariously human makes those experiences even more painful.
And then when you finally get a chance to go for a full-time job, after fighting through all the struggles in the academy, and in your community, and in your life, after doing all the things you are told you need to do to nullify the effects of racism (Get an education! Be respectable! Work hard! Keep your head down!,) and after working your heart out in that institution, you are told that it’s not good enough, and hey, we hired the white man from Calgary, and it’s fair because we voted. And of course it has nothing to do with race, because the university respects diversity — respects it so much it will let you work there practically for free. And whatever advantages or special treatment are given to the other candidate — like, giving the vote to faculty who weren’t at the meeting — those have nothing to do with unfairness.
After all, everyone else gets their jobs because of merit, right? Surely the reason that there’s barely any faculty of colour has nothing to do with racism, maybe we just don’t like working for money, or we’re just mysteriously never qualified. Universities so white, to paraphrase the Oscars protest.
So I understand when Koilpillai can only ask, “Why me?” And now she will have to testify and have her qualifications and competence questioned and maligned. And representatives of the institution who have had none of her experiences will swear that there’s no racism, and the university is committed to “diversity,” it’s just not committed to the actual well-being or truths or lives of women of colour. And in all likelihood the case will be dismissed, because how do you prove racism, anyway? It just happens that white men are always the better candidates, I guess.
And like an idiot, I went ahead and wrote about racism in academic institutions, meaning one more reason to be seen as a “troublemaker” when it’s my turn to go up against the man from Calgary. But like people have been telling me for two weeks, somebody has to talk about this. But, like Koilpillai said, I can’t help thinking, “Why me?”
3. Scott Warnica Fights Terrorists
You may be familiar with renaissance man Scott Warnica as the behavorial modification expert, gutter cleaner, Atlantic Playland enthusiast, and animal welfare advocate keeping our communities safe from snow plows. But did you know that when he isn’t policing hashtags on social media and googling the Code of Conduct for Elected Municipal Officials , he’s deploying his weapons and tactics expertise to fight terrorism:
Scott Warnica is a staff sergeant with the Nova Scotia RCMP and an incident commander with the highly-trained Emergency Response Team — capable of employing specialized weapons, equipment and tactics to resolve high-risk situations.
Warnica knows how quickly things can go bad and how motivated terrorists can be, but said he’s comfortable taking his wife to the Games.
“Most of the terrorist threats occurred after we bought our tickets,” he said. “I think if you keep your wits about you and pay attention to your surroundings I think you’ll be fine.”
Warnica is already planning this trip with his training in mind.
“We have to get from our cruise ship in Sochi to the Olympic park — a distance of 12 kilometres,” he said.
“We’re going to avoid public transportation, avoid a lot of the public areas if we can.”
Scott Warnica believes the games will be safe, but he knows a terrorist would see spectators as valuable targets. His wife said all the talk about the danger is already a win for terrorists, especially because athletes are thinking about it.
See, untrained cowardly civilians like you or I might see a hashtag like #getalife and be too intimidated to write a three-page complaint letter to the mayor demanding the firing of the deputy mayor for meanie tweeting just like Jack Bauer frequently did. But that’s because we lack the deeply honed awareness of our environment and alertness to threats that Scott Warnica brings to all his daily activities.
I bet Matt Whitman (keep your whits about you) has never encountered the extreme hardship of getting 12km from a cruise ship without using public transportation (hashtag REAL power trip,) but that’s because he doesn’t have the police expertise in gathering information and making informed and objective decisions that Scott Warnica has. If it weren’t for heroes like Scott Warnica protecting the community from inappropriate tweets, the terrorists would win.
You or I might of course ignorantly read Warnica’s letter to the mayor and think that the author sounds like a petty, vindictive, thin-skinned bully who whines about improving relations with the police while demonstrating exactly why people think the police are powertripping assholes who try to intimidate anyone who dares voice any criticism, but that’s because we haven’t lived the life Scott Warnica has lived, man.
While we were content cowering at home watching the Olympics on TV, Warnica was taking the fight to the terrorists in Russia. While we might not include our phone numbers in letters we copy to the media, Scott Warnica doesn’t care about your prank calls! If only Scott Warnica could have used his specialized weapons and equipment to resolve this high-risk situation of Whitman’s inappropriate tweets. But I guess he used the weapon of his mind and superior investigative skills to search through years of tweets and the Code of Conduct to stop the threat of Matt Whitman’s social media once and for all. Scott Warnica will ticket his neighbours and try to get them fired at will, dammit, because that’s what freedom is all about.
You or I might — if we had the power to carry a gun, arrest people, and issue tickets — roll our eyes and let a hashtag go. But Scott Warnica isn’t a pussy like us, and he’s going to show us, through the fact that he had the time to sit down and write a 3-page complaint letter about social media, that the hashtag #getalife is grossly inaccurate, untruthful, and totally doesn’t at all apply to him.
At this point, the very patient and kind staff at Pizza Delight, who were cleaning up around me while cheering me on, (“you can do it! You can get it done!”) apologetically told me they were closing and I had to leave.
DEAD WRONG, Part 4 will be appearing on Monday.