1. A Free Country

Tim wrote yesterday about the controversy over the lyrics to the Stanfields’ song A Free Country.

As Tim anticipated in the last line of his commentary, the coverage of the story invites accusations of “political correctness gone bad.” After all, the reaction is clearly ridiculous: an obviously satiric song written to criticize attitudes under Harper is taken “at face value” drawing complaints of insensitivity towards newcomer populations from ISANS, an organization working to settle immigrants. The artist is compelled to defend his work, drawing outrage about how the left polices thought, the death of irony, and the hyper-sensitivity of the “social justice” crowd.

And yes, the complaint is obviously based on seriously misunderstanding the lyrics and the point of the Stanfields’ song, which is adopting the voice of what Tim calls your “racist uncle” to critique Canadian policies and attitudes. But perhaps the response by ISANS and the complaint by the client who heard the lyrics on the radio seems less absurd in the context of commentary about immigration actually recently published in Canadian newspapers.

Embedded in the sense of the ridiculousness of the critique of the song is, I think, the sense that “of course” CBC wouldn’t be playing content that is blatantly xenophobic. “Obviously” anyone should understand that the song would be ironic, because what respectable, mainstream outlet would actually support those views? Of course people should have recognized it was satire. Decent Canadians don’t believe those things.

Except that on June 4, the Vancouver Sun published an editorial by former Canadian ambassador, senior fellow at the Fraser Institute, and former spokesman for the Centre for Immigration Policy Reform, with the headline “Canada replacing its population a case of willful ignorance, greed, excess political correctness.”

Holy shit. The Vancouver Sun basically ran a “white genocide” column from a former Canadian ambassador. https://t.co/3o7wCX48O7 pic.twitter.com/xMW1IEZzSK

— ishmael n. daro (@iD4RO) June 14, 2017

Metro has a great summary here.

The article blames immigrants not only for putting a strain on education and health care systems and pushing up the housing market, but also for traffic. Apparently non-white people take up more room on the road, and white immigrants just teleport from place to place, because the article specifically identifies the “problem” as “four out of five newcomers are visible minorities.”

If Canada continues along its present path as described by Kaufmann, we will become one of the first and perhaps the only country in the world to voluntarily allow its population to be largely replaced by people from elsewhere.

Is this what Canadians want for their children and their descendants? Almost certainly not.

And yet we are letting it happen through a combination of wilful ignorance, political and financial greed and an excess of political correctness.

Are we prepared to do something about it? Sadly, it appears that most Canadians are too supine or short-sighted to do so — at least at this juncture.

Doesn’t that sound a lot like Landry’s lyrics, “I don’t think much of strangers, much of you or your kind, you best fit in or you’re free to find a better place to be”? Perhaps immigrants might therefore be forgiven for being confused about whether those lyrics were genuine. Sentiments that may have seemed “obvious” satire for their extremism even a few years ago have become part of mainstream discourse.

Treating this story solely as being about some touchy whiners who don’t understand irony misses the broader context of how these opinions are being normalized in Canada, and treated as a reasonable part of public debate. Part of this normalization is the constant focus on how “liberals” respond to speech as the problem, while accepting racist and xenophobic attacks on racialized people as reasoned dialogue.

Suggesting CBC not play a song is therefore worse than advocating a white Canada.

Image from counterweights.ca

And of course, “Canadians” means white Canadians. I guess “voluntarily” allowing your population to be “replaced by people from elsewhere” is bad, but forcefully killing and removing Indigenous people so settlers can steal land is fine!

Hilariously, coming from the right wing Fraser institute, Black and brown immigrants pose a threat to Canada because:

We will also have to contend with the fact that many will bring with them values and traditions that may differ in key respects from those of most Canadians, such as gender equality and concern for protection of the environment.

Would that be the same Canada where the removal of former Greenpeace director Tzeporah Berman from the Alberta Oil Sands Advisory Group was met with the following statements:

Progressive Conservative caucus leader Ric McIver said the decision was long overdue.

“After months of talking down Alberta and the hard-working people in the oilsands, we are happy to see that Berman has been asked to leave,” said McIver.

“Including diverse voices on this panel is important, but to appoint an anti-oilsands, eco-warrior as the co-chair was irresponsible governing from the NDP. We just hope Berman hasn’t tarnished Alberta’s reputation.”

Todd Loewen, environment critic for the Opposition Wildrose party, said it didn’t make sense to allow someone who opposed the oil industry to dictate oilsands growth.

“This government is far too comfortable sending signals to investors that so-called social licence and aiming to please eco-radicals is more important than taking sensible measures to enhance environmental protections.”

(Where is the “free speech” crowd on this one, I wonder.)

White Canadians love protecting the environment! The right wing support for environmental activists is of course legendary, such as the Harper government listing “eco-extremists” as terror threats. Just like all our environmentally nurturing mining companies and oil companies, and of course the way the Indigenous land and water protectors are never attacked by the police, subjected to media smear campaigns, or arrested and incarcerated.

As for gender equality, the logical conclusion to the “Canada is being overrun by hordes of brown people” argument is that white women need to have more babies, and that therefore birth control, abortion, women’s control over their own reproduction and bodies, and access to higher education and careers should be limited. Where there’s anxiety about the changing demographics of Canada, concerns about the white birth rate are sure to follow. And we all know how Canada’s right wing stridently supports reproductive justice.

Image from the Ottawa Sun.

Lest we think this article is just extreme and anomalous, in April the Globe and Mail published an editorial by Geoffrey York, arguing that excess African population “threatens the planet” (not Canada’s massive greenhouse gas emissions or carbon footprint, though, of course.)

As Dr. Isaac Saney responded:

…[T]his utterly anti-black racist tract is embedded in the open white supremacist view that there are too many Africans. York actually states “humanity is increasingly becoming African…The result could be an escalating crisis in hunger, over crowding, ecological damage and rising immigration pressures in Europe and North America and within Africa itself.”

Thus, all the problems of Africa are attributed to the existence of excess Africans, NOT to the global imperial system that has been built on the dehumanization, brutalization, plunder and exploitation of Africans and the African continent…

…Returning to York’s odious and central claim that Africa’s population growth is out of control, one is left with the sickening feeling and reminder that in the last century the world suffered the horrors of that way of thinking. Does not the logical culmination of York’s call for the number of Africans in the world to be reduced lead into the terrible corridors of quasi-genocide?!

Advocating population control for people who aren’t white, whether through immigration bans or quotas, or “reducing” the number of Africans, is now considered to be reasonable material to discuss in the editorial pages of our major newspapers. It may well be ridiculous that Jon Landry has to defend his lyrics; it ought to be more ridiculous that Black and brown people have to defend our very existence in Canada and on the planet.

Before deciding that immigrants who hear these lyrics are just being absurd, perhaps we should think about the defences made of the Confederate flag, the anti-Muslim rallies, the attacks on Black Lives Matter Toronto, the discrediting of Indigenous activists, the editorials published in major news outlets including the CBC denying racism and characterizing activists as violent and threatening, the white editors of major magazines and newspapers mocking Indigenous writers, the leadership candidates for the Conservative party supporting Trump-like policies, the “free speech” advocates who defend any racist speech while characterizing as an “angry mob” anyone who opposes that speech, the comments sections on any article on race or Indigenous issues, the Chronicle Herald story on refugee children, the success of The Rebel…is it so ridiculous that when hearing a song saying “thank God I live in a free country,” people who are the subjects of these constant attacks might be wary enough to take it seriously? There’s a certain white privilege in the easy ability to dismiss the real danger Black and brown people are in, because “obviously” white people don’t really feel that way and nobody could think it was real.

Image from Now Magazine.

Landry points out that this is the first time he’s had to defend the lyrics to the song — perhaps that is less because people are becoming more sensitive, and more because the sentiments he ironically expressed have now become ideas it is acceptable to air nationally.

YouTube video

2. Colonization Road.

On Sunday, CBC is airing Colonization Road:

Since Europeans arrived on these shores, roads have been built to bring settlers across the country, connect them with resources to create industry and ultimately to establish a nation. Many of these interconnecting networks are called Colonization Roads. For Indigenous peoples, these roads embody a powerful and ironic reality; colonization is still so powerful, we name our roads after it. Join Anishinaabe comedian, Ryan McMahon as he travels across Ontario learning about Colonization Roads, the ways in which they have dispossessed Indigenous people of land and access to traditional territories while creating space for settlers in the colonial experiment that has become Canada.

One of the things I think about in the Cornwallis statue debate or similar debates over historical memory is how at the same time as people defend maintaining these public commemorations argue for “not rewriting history” with the claims that those arguing against the statues or streets or monuments are trying to remove the past, when you actually use the street or the statue or the monument as a cue to research the racist history behind them, then the same people get upset that you actually engaged with history.

You’d think that if people were such fans of history they’d be glad when people uncover facts about the past, but what people actually want to preserve is the whitewashed, unthinking version of that history — as I always say, the people who often most strenuously defend the Cornwallis statues or the streets named after genocidal explorers most often had no clue what that history was until Indigenous or Black people point it out, and then suddenly it becomes vital to them to preserve a history they never cared about until they know it offends or hurts people who aren’t white.

Which is a long way of saying that right when I saw the story about Colonization Road, I was researching street names in Halifax. I’ve written before about William Grant Stairs and his murderous exploration killing over 1,000 Africans, after whom Stairs street is named. The research by Afua Cooper and other scholars into the legacy of Lord Dalhousie and his views on slavery marks another intervention into historical memory. If we must be surrounded by streets and buildings named after colonizers, we can at least be prompted to dig up the dirt on them is my way of thinking.

So I was reading about the Almon family, beginning with William James Almon (“…Almon’s autopsy on Byles’s second wife revealed that she had died not from a diseased liver but from “the pernicious Practice of lacing & girding herself too tight”) which led me to this book by Greg Marquis, that examines support for the Confederate states in the Maritimes during the American Civil War.

Image from cyclehalifax.ca

The Almon family were committed supporters of the Confederate states:

During the Civil War, [W.J.] Almon went to considerable expense in aiding Confederates who reached Halifax. His commitment to the Confederacy was not financial but intensely personal, like that of his own son William Bruce, who entered the Rebel medical service. Another son, Charles M., a supercargo on two blockade runners, fittingly was given a position in the Nova Scotia customs department by Premier Charles Tupper. W.J. Almon, like other colonial supporters of the rebellion, no doubt viewed Southern society as one built on honour, patriotism, and order…

“Rightly or wrongly,” Alexander Keith also “was identified by the American consul as a leading aider and abettor of the Confederacy.”

Image from keiths.ca

In the chapter “The Race Question,” Marquis examines how Nova Scotia’s history of racism and slavery led to pro-Confederate sentiment. Editorials in Halifax newspapers published pro-slavery sentiments, portraying Black people as lazy, threatening, or “a sort of human leper.”

Along with the sympathy for slaveholders expressed by many in Halifax and the Maritimes, wealthy Maritimers also profited off the slave trade, and from trade with the Southern states. Fear of Black migration to Nova Scotia due to the Civil War was also stoked by editorials, and xenophobic and racist fears of Nova Scotia being overrun by Black people were exploited.

African Nova Scotian oral history has always preserved this memory of prominent support for the Confederate states. Black people, in critiquing the ongoing racism in Halifax and the reputation of Nova Scotia as “The Mississippi of the North” or “The Deep South of Canada,” will frequently cite the support for the slave states as historical evidence for why racism is so deeply embedded in the province. “Remember the rich people in the South End were running blockades for slave owners,” people will say when addressing the systemic racism the city tries to keep hidden. Other Black people refuse to drink Keith’s because of his connections to slavery.

These narratives disrupt Canada’s mythologies of the “promised land” and Canada as a haven for Black people. That these histories are well-preserved in the Black community, but conveniently subject to white amnesia, again suggest that the reverence for history that supposedly justifies why we must have monuments for slavery supporters or committers of Indigenous genocide is misdirection. If we ask at all who Almon street is named for, we are supposed to celebrate a great surgeon, but forget support for slavery. As usual, only some histories are worth remembering.

El Jones is a poet, journalist, professor, community advocate, and activist. Her work focuses on social justice issues such as feminism, prison abolition, anti-racism, and decolonization.

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  1. El Jones makes it sound racist to argue that the arrival of refugees creates a strain on the health care system. The arrival of some 2,000 people in NS certainly does put a strain on the province’s health care system. That is true whether the newcomers are refugees or not. El Jones brings up ISANS. Good grief that Director of theirs has one smirk of a smile.

  2. I agree with a lot of what you wrote today El; I think its good to get a different perspective that one can use to examine their own views and beliefs. In a broader sense, I think the “Free Country” issue shows that context does matter, and we should be more open to examining the perspectives and intent of those of either side of these issues.

    On Alberta Oil Sands Advisory Group bit, I’d be hard pressed to consider political spin from a politician as proof of the suppression of free speech. From the linked article, “The advisory panel on Friday recommended a series of escalating measures, including financial penalties, to ensure greenhouse gas emissions from the oilsands remain within a mandated 100-megatonne limit.

    Environmental advocates Karen Mahon and Alison Ronson, along with oil executives Christa Seaman and Lloyd Visser, were also taken off the panel.”

  3. I do not disagree with the contents of the article; but I wish to point out that continual discussions both for and against immigration issues has no different effect on resolving the issues than the media coverage of “Black” issues, “First Nations” issues, Holocaust issues and the list goes on. In the end can we ever move on if the topics are always being discussed in news media? Will resolution ever occur? “Lest we Forget” is a traditionally revered topic that arises every November, and for good reason. Perhaps it is right that sensitive issues concerning our culture are never allowed to die out in the Press…. some people that are interested will read the articles and join/rejoin the discussion and those that are not interested will not… thus it is so now; so will it be in the future.

  4. I already pointed out yesterday that there is also a linguistic aspect to this song by the Stanfields. If you are an immigrant whose mother tongue is not English, and whose culture does not use much irony, or has different types of humour, then it might be very difficult to detect the original meaning of the song. Do not assume that everybody’s comprehension level of English is the same, and help them understand instead of calling them stupid.
    And as El says, if you already encounter rejection, racism as an immigrant, yes, then you might be even more sensitive to words like those.

  5. The birthing/immigration question is an interesting one. France, through tax breaks and excellent social support very strongly encourages having children. As a result their 2014 birth rate was 1.99. Canada,which lags behind in the tax breaks/social support for families is only at 1.6 and instead relies very heavily on immigration to replace/increase our population. It seems the right is not content with either situation but if you don’t want to become the next Japan you have to make it very worthwhile for (all) Canadians to have children or bring in people who will do it for you.

    1. “bring in people who will do it for you”? You think it is in Canada’s interest to “bring in people” whose practice is that women have one child after another? Like we are seeing now? These aren’t free women, they are slaves who give birth to one kid after another

  6. History is stories. The more stories the better the history. Everyone deserves to have their stories told and acknowledged and respected.

    History should not be written by the “victors” alone.

  7. My objection to the Free Country story isn’t that “when hearing a song saying ‘thank God I live in a free country,’ people who are the subjects of these constant attacks might be wary enough to take it seriously”. I get that – not from lived experience, but from empathy. My complaint is that after people are wary and take it seriously, they decide to make a big fuss before they take a minute to assemble information and facts. For example, the CBC article: “Gerry Mills, executive director of ISANS, said she hopes the lyrics are meant to be sarcastic, but she doesn’t think they are.”

    I don’t think everyone who heard it should be doing a Google search, because if the people who are subjects of these constant attacks did a Google search every time they’d never have time for anything else. But once you decide “I need to complain about this publicly and be interviewed by the media”, yeah, you should do a Google search or something. If you still want to complain, great. In this case, if you then want to make the conversation about “Should a broadcaster be sure to provide context for content that is satirical”, I’m on board. I’m just baffled that the conversation is predicated on “IS THIS BAND RACIST? I THINK THEY ARE”.

    1. I didn’t see the story as making a “big fuss”, I saw it as clarifying the intent of the song – exactly what you’re asking for. By doing it on the same public broadcaster that had originally played it, there is a good chance that others who had questions about the content but didn’t complain or research it had their questions answered.

      I also found it interesting that the songwriter said that when playing the song publicly, he always gives an introduction explaining the context. That suggests the irony isn’t as obvious as perhaps it should be.