Commentary by Phil Gurski in Ottawa
I have come to know the journalist Michael Petrou over the past few years. He would sometimes call me to seek my views on terrorism when he was with Macleans magazine and I relied heavily on his book ‘Renegades’ – the story of Canadians in the Spanish Civil War – for a section of my second book on Western foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq. I happen to think he is a great writer and a solid scholar.
In a recent piece of analysis on the CBC Web site Michael noted that Afghanistan is ‘teetering on the edge of a dark abyss’ and that Canada, which lost 158 soldiers in its decade-long post 9/11 deployment, ‘should join its closest allies and return to Afghanistan.’ He argues that much progress has been made in Afghanistan since 2001 (infant mortality, a fledgling democracy, female school attendance) but that true advancement will be measured over decades. For his part, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau seems to be leaning towards a peacekeeping mission in West Africa (possibly Mali) although even there the government is waffling.
And so the question remains: should Canada recommit to Afghanistan? Great question with no easy answer, especially in the context of the bombing in Kabul on May 31 that killed over 150. I will play the classic Canadian card and straddle the fence (joke: why did the Canadian cross the road? A: to get to the middle), providing views to supporting both a yes and a no response. It is not that I am normally wishy-washy: it’s just that there are solid arguments on both sides.
I fully believe that we cannot abandon Afghanistan. We tried that once – after the ragtag mujahedin kicked Soviet ass (with oodles of outside help it must be added) – and look where that got us. Warlordism, brutality and the arrival of the Taliban, which in turn played genial Afghan hosts to Al Qaeda. Afghanistan became a de facto failed state (it is hard to describe the Taliban regime as a ‘state’) and we know that failed states are prime real estate for terrorist groups (Somalia, northern Nigeria, Iraq, Yemen, etc.). If we don’t want to see the rise of yet another terrorist organisation on the scale of AQ we might want to keep our presence there robust.
Besides, don’t the Afghan people deserve a normal life? Given that the Afghan government appears incapable of providing the conditions for one shouldn’t we offer, on humanitarian grounds if nothing else? We will still run into the problem of Western ways clashing with Afghan culture but surely there are universal principles we can help maintain.
On the other hand, Afghanistan is not known as the ‘graveyard of empires’ for nothing. Many have tried to tame and control the country and none have succeeded. In addition there is the problem of how long. We were there for more than ten years and while, as Michael points out, some progress has been made the place is still a mess and may be getting worse. Will we need to establish an open-ended mission? How much will it cost? Are Canadians willing to accept more casualties in a country far away and little understood? Is the Canadian military equipped (materiel and human resource-wise) to continue multiple tours for our men and women in uniform? What is the end game? How do we measure our success? What is our exit strategy? Does anyone have an answer to these? Carleton University’s Steve Saideman has an interesting blog on lessons learned the first time around.
I fear that this conundrum falls into the ‘damned if we do and damned if we don’t category’. We cannot turn our backs on Afghanistan even if we seek to measure it solely through the lens of national interests and security. Afghanistan needs the help of the international community and that community must respond.
And yet those questions are still there. Furthermore why Afghanistan and not Yemen, the Democratic Republic of Congo or the Central African Republic? Aren’t they as worthy?
Canada may be taking its time with this decision, and that may be frustrating to some, but a sober second thought is indeed required in this instance. If we are both to honour the deaths of those 158 soldiers and prevent 158 more we need to think this through.
Phil Gurski is a 30-year intelligence veteran and the author of the forthcoming The Lesser Jihads: Bringing Islamist extremism to the world.
Commentary by Phil Gurski in Ottawa
Here we go again. I have lost track of how many articles I have read over the last few days, all written in an accusatory tone that when you distill comes down to a very simple claim: British intelligence should have known that Salman Abedi was a terrorist and should have stopped him before he acted. Here is one such article.
The premise goes like this. MI5 was aware of Mr. Abedi’s extremist ideology. Concerned Muslims called authorities on several occasions to register their fears. The government did not act and hence 22 people, including many teen and tween girls, are dead. Hence the government blew it and we have yet another example of ‘intelligence failure’.
What is surprising, at least to me (even if I am biased) is that few if any of those casting the stone of blame have any background in intelligence or terrorism. Think about that for a moment. By analogy, political scientists should blame doctors for losing patients and soccer moms decry generals for losing wars. Make sense? I didn’t think so.
I have long complained that much of the commentary on what to do about terrorism is written or spoken by people with little firsthand or frontline experience on the subject, so I won’t repeat that here. What I will do, however, is attempt to provide an accurate picture of what really happens on the ground and put that into the context of the U.K.
At any given time, intelligence and law enforcement agencies are engaged in a number of investigations (for our purposes we will limit the discussion to terrorism cases). These investigations are driven by what they know and a need to learn quickly what they don’t in order to assess risk. Not all cases are equally important and not every subject poses a serious threat, but you don’t know the answer to either problem until you carry out the investigation.
There is no model or paradigm to tell you where to focus your efforts because of the high degree of variability and idiosyncrasy.
On top of this, these organisations have finite resources and are unlikely to get substantially more soon (the heyday of the post 9/11 period where money and staff were limitless are long gone). In this light, you have to make decisions on the fly. Most of your decisions are good ones as evidenced by the fact that the vast majority of terrorist plots are thwarted (well above 95% I would guess). Some are not; attacks are carried out and people die or are injured.
So here is a simple way to explain Manchester. Mr. Abedi was ‘known’to MI5 (the U.K. equivalent of CSIS). That puts him among anywhere between 3,000 and 23,000 similar people (I have seen a wide range of estimates in open source).
'Known’ does not necessarily mean ‘investigated’. MI5 has approximately 4,000 staff. That figure is a total number: not all 4,000 are investigators/intelligence officers (I would be surprised if the percentage of those running cases topped 1,000). It takes anywhere from 20 - 40 people to investigate/follow one subject of interest. Do the math.
Even at the low end of radicalised people, you need between 60 and 120,000 officers to investigate them all. MI5, one of the best, if not the best, domestic security services in the world, is hard pressed to carry out 40 investigations at a given time. Remember that terrorists do not always advertise their intent and that risk assessment models are tools, some better than others, not predictors.
That, dear New Canadian Media readers. is the reality. Intelligence services like MI5 are going flat out 24/7, 365 days a year to keep U.K. citizens safe in a very challenging environment. And as for those tips from the community – a great thing by the way – in 2016, the U.K. Channel program, a government counter-terrorism strategy, received almost 4,000 referrals. Do the math there too please. These numbers speak to a serious problem in U.K. society, one that goes way beyond MI5.
So, no, Manchester was not an ‘intelligence failure’. It was a tragedy and a horrible act of terrorism. It was not MI5’s fault. It was not the U.K. government’s fault or the fault of British foreign policy. It was not the community’s fault. It was not Islam’s fault. It was Mr.Abedi’s fault (plus those who aided, radicalised or inspired him).
We need to stop pointing fingers in the aftermath of attacks. And the peanut gallery really needs to do one of two things: a) become more knowledgeable about terrorism and the challenge of preventing it, or b) shut the hell up. The choice is yours. Choose wisely.
Commentary by Aleem Ali in Brisbane, Australia
A few career changes ago, I managed a branding and design agency. Our primary task was to help our clients communicate their organisation, product or service. We worked to create a strong brand so that people would choose our client’s company or service over and above their many competitors.
Since I ran that agency 15 years ago, much has changed in the world. But some things still hold true, and many issues have grown in scale. Talk to retailers, tour operators and educational institutions. Talk to employers. They will tell you that competition is only increasing, not diminishing. And the competition is now global, not local.
Last year, not long after the launch of Welcoming Cities, I received a phone call from the CEO of a Regional Business Council. They outlined their challenge as follows: “We have a large infrastructure project in our community. When the project is complete, we know that we won’t be able to attract enough people domestically to fill all the jobs. So, we need both a national and international solution. But we are struggling to attract people. There is a perception of our community that we are not welcoming. Because of this perception, Australian residents and migrants don’t want to move here, live here, or work here. We need to change that perception. We don’t just want to be a welcoming city; we NEED to be a welcoming city.”
This story, or at least the sentiment behind it, seems to be a growing challenge.
I recently met with Local Government employees of a major capital city. Their focus is on increasing social cohesion and economic participation in their region. They’re concerned by political sentiment and what they perceive to be regressive policies and divisive rhetoric. One of the people in the meeting commented that “Brand ‘Australia’ is damaged. There’s no evidence this will improve anytime soon. We need to do something about it.”
Brand Australia needs some serious help
The compelling and disconcerting truth of this statement struck me. Brand Australia needs some serious help. Our international reputation of a fair go, cheering for the underdog, and boundless plains to share no longer seem to ring true. The growing perception is that we demonise people fleeing torture and trauma, are intolerant of diverse cultures, and newcomers risk vilification. Brand Australia is now associated with a fair go for some, but not all.
Tourists, international students, and skilled migrants are vital contributors to our prosperity as a nation. And when it comes to the choice of coming to Australia, or not; perception is everything. If brand Australia ceases to be open, welcoming and generous, then the damage will not only be to our reputation but also the ongoing success of our nation.
The time to address that damage is now. It’s time to refuse small-minded, divisive politics. It’s time to stop waiting for politicians to cast a vision of a generous, welcoming and inclusive Australia and to grow this work ourselves. It’s time to lead. It’s time for community groups, small businesses, educational institutions, peak bodies and corporations to come together. It’s time to welcome newcomers to our shores and ensure that everyone can take part in social, economic and civic life.
It’s time to be deliberate, strategic and collaborative. To put policies and practices in place that value our First People’s, long-term residents and new arrivals. It’s time to rescue brand Australia. More than a branding exercise, this is a renewed commitment to an inclusive, multicultural Australia.
Awarded and recognized for his contribution to the community, Aleem Ali has spent the past 20 years seeding and mentoring the development of various programs. Aleem is currently the National Manager at Welcoming Cities, in addition to lead roles with For the Common Good, and FOUND.
Commentary by Hasan Zillur Rahim in San Jose
The pickup truck was following her. Dr. Sarah felt nervous but tried to convince herself it was just her imagination. He couldn’t possible know she was a Muslim, particularly since she was not wearing the optional hijab, the traditional Islamic head-cover to indicate modesty.
She pulled into the parking lot and got out of her car. The pickup slowed. As she crossed the street to get to her office, the driver, a middle-aged white man, rolled down the window and screamed at her: “Go back home!”
The heat of the man’s hate felt as if it were burning a hole in the back of her head. She ran to the safety of her hospital.
Dr. Sarah was born in Chicago to Muslim parents. After receiving a doctorate in psychology, she began working at a hospital in Silicon Valley in the pain management department as a psychologist, a job in which she has flourished for over a decade. When she reported the incident to her concerned supervisor, she advised her not to drive alone for a few weeks.
A week earlier, an engineer of Asian background, an American citizen, was confronted in the parking lot of a grocery store in San Jose by a driver who screamed: “Go back to where you came from.”
For many residents, the sprouting of bigotry in what is the heart of Silicon Valley, with a diversity of culture, religion and ethnicity rare in the world, is shocking.
“Before, I used to call my friends and relatives in India to ask if they were okay,” said Assemblyman Ash Kalra during a rally organized in response to the growing climate of fear following the election. “Now they call me to inquire if I am safe in Trump’s America!”
Trump has indeed loosened the shackles of bigotry among his supporters, emboldening them to threaten those who don’t look like them, and to hurl insults like, “Go back to where you came from!”
The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) has reported harassment and threats targeting Muslim women and children in Minnesota, North Carolina, New York and California in just the past two weeks alone.
According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, there were 867 hate incidents in the ten days after Trump’s win in November. The advocacy group South Asians Leading Together (SAALT) put out a report in January that documented 207 hate incidents targeting South Asians, Muslims and Middle Easterners in 2016. The report noted the climate resembled the months following the 9/11 attacks, and attributed the spike in hate to campaign rhetoric during the 2016 race.
Here in San Jose, police documeted four cases of crimes targeting Muslims in 2016. There were no cases prior in the years going back to 2011. Experts say the numbers are misleading, and that because victms are often reluctant to come forward, due to cultural or linguistic barriers, or because they are scared, the figures could be higher.
One of those cases involved the Evergreen Islamic Center, where a letter was received just prior to the Thanksgiving holiday that read, in part: “There’s a new sheriff in town – President Donald Trump. He is going to cleanse America and make it shine again. And he’s going to start with you Muslims.” The letter went on to make reference to Nazi Germany, saying Trump would “do to you Muslims what Hitler did to the Jews.”
Still, despite the rising tide of Islamophobia, something remarkable began to happen among members of the local Muslim community in the days and weeks following Trump’s win. Having learned in the aftermath of 9/11 that a culture of shame and silence only promoted the politics of fear, area Muslims instead started forging bonds with community residents at a grass-roots level.
Several members of Evergreen (myself included) joined “Indivisible East San Jose,” one of nearly 6,000 ‘Indivisible’ groups that sprang up across the nation as a response and resistance to Trump’s presidency.
Meeting once every month, members knock on doors in San Jose’s depressed areas, informing undocumented workers, for example, of their rights if ICE shows up and the availability of free legal help. A few families in dire straits have been escorted to sanctuaries in synagogues and churches.
On a recent Sunday afternoon, Evergreen teamed up with local Christians and Jews as members of “Abrahamic Alliance” at a church to prepare meals for the homeless. For most, this was their first experience with a soup kitchen. Many were shocked to find that in one of the most prosperous areas in the world, there were people for whom a decent meal and a bed to sleep on are luxuries often beyond reach.
As remarkable is the growing outreach and solidarity extended to area Muslims from other immigrant communities. There have been several marches staged to commemorate the Japanese internment and to draw connections between that dark period in U.S. history and its echo against Muslims in Trump’s time. Meetings were held with Internment survivors who spoke of the importance of resistance.
Then there are the acts of individual kindness.
“Just think about it,” said Peggy, who drove an hour from the city of Santa Cruz with several friends in a show of solidarity with Evergreen following the recent threats. “Would we have even met if it were not for Trump? No! This is the silver lining in the dark cloud that hangs over our nation now.”
For local Muslims, the bridges now being formed in the era of Trump are a case of serendipity, the unintended but cathartic consequences of hate.
Hasan Zillur Rahim wrote this story with support from New America Media’s Tracking Hate Fellowship program. Rahim is a professor of mathematics at San Jose City College and the Outreach Director of the Evergreen Islamic Center in San Jose.
Republished in partnership with New America Media.
Commentary by Jagdeesh Mann in Vancouver
Anyone who has travelled to subcontinent knows it is not always such a salubrious destination. Incredible India, as the country sells itself in tourism brochures, can be incredibly chaotic, unwieldy, hot, dusty, venal, bovinely, and polluted – and then you accidently end up drinking the water.
Given his weakened state since returning to Canada, Canada's Defence Minister, Harjit Sajjan, has no doubt picked up a severe political bellyache from his recent week-long trip to the country.
In what should have been a soft PR exercise, Sajjan’s first trip to India as Canada’s Defense Minister, has gone from being an electoral victory lap in his birth country to a slog on Ottawa’s apology circuit.
The trip has brought into question his integrity as a leader, diminished his venerated standing before military personnel, and even dulled his image within the Sikh community.
During a speech at the Delhi based Observer Research Foundation security think-tank, Sajjan veered off script and deliberately inserted a line about being ‘the architect’ of Operation Medusa, a large-scale Canadian offensive in Afghanistan in 2006. It was a false statement: in Kandahar, where Sajjan served three tours while a reservist, he was as a mid-level officer providing intelligence to his commanders.
At his first sitting in the House of Commons on Monday, the minister, looked weary from repeating contrition for the battlefield boast, but failed to provide an explanation for it.
"I'm not here to make excuses," he said to the press gallery. "I'm here to acknowledge my mistake, apologize for it, learn from it and continue to serve."
Not since the cameras showed up at Premier Glen Clark’s house, had a BC politician seemed in such desperate need for a foxhole.
It's not unusual for Canadian immigrants to flash their success when they return to their homeland – Sajjan also made a visit to his birth village in the Punjab on this trip. These blingy displays however tend to be exhibited through heavy gold sets and brand name clothing, and not, as in the Minister case, through false claims of military prowess.
Had it been Sajjan’s only embellishment of his operational role, this errant speech could have been written off as typical politician’s self-aggrandizement. However, he also stated this alternative fact in an interview in 2015.
While this controversy has hogged the spotlight back in Canadian media this week, it was not the only trouble spot arising from his first visit back to India in 14 years.
The Minister’s tour, particularly of Punjab, was notably bumpy as the Chief Minister of the state, Captain Amarinder Singh and his cabinet, refused to meet with Sajjan.
Singh alleged that the minister and his father, Kundan Sajjan, a former executive of the World Sikh Organisation (WSO), are both Khalistan sympathisers. At the height of the Punjab conflict in the 1980’s, the WSO espoused the formation of an independent Sikh state.
The allegation against the minister is baseless and seems motivated by Singh’s bitterness at the Trudeau government. The Canadian government did not permit Singh to campaign last year among Canada’s one million-plus South Asians, forcing Singh to cancel the Canadian leg of his North American tour.
The Punjab Chief Minister’s rebuff, however, did little to help Sajjan’s mandate of advancing Canada-India relations, or of re-energising stalled Canada-India free trade talks which were first launched in 2010.
However, Sajjan’s most agonising moments during the week-long trip may have been in his circumspect responses to questions about the Ontario NDP provincial government recently passing legislation recognising the 1984 Delhi killings of Sikhs as an act of genocide. By some counts, as many as 30,000 Sikhs were killed by Hindu mobs in a four-day murderous frenzy.
In 2011, Surrey-Newton MP Sukh Dhaliwal was the first federal MP to petition for the recognition of the 1984 killings as an act of genocide, receiving support then from the current Minister of Innovation, Navdeep Bains. Dhaliwal was denied a visa to India in 2011, retribution for him spearheading this motion.
The failure of the Indian government to prosecute the government officials who organised the mobs has been a source of much pain for Sikhs worldwide for the past three decades. Sajjan however distanced himself from the motion.
In a stumbling response, he highlighted it was brought forward by a private member of the Ontario legislature (Harinder Malhi), insinuating the motion was politically motivated during an election year in the province. He further added that this was not his position as a member of the federal Liberal government.
Sikhs who were hopeful Canada’s most recognisable cabinet member would help resolve this long outstanding social justice issue were clearly disappointed in these answers. Left in the wake of Sajjan’s India trip are gnawing questions about how much of his cultivated image as Canada’s ‘badass’ minister, and a comic book hero for justice, is truth and how much is hyperbole.
Afterall, why would he distance himself from a social cause as glaring as the Delhi killings? And why would a veteran break the military code about boasting and take credit for the sacrifices of other soldiers?
After nearly 18 months in office, it seems all we have learned about the first term MP from Vancouver South is that it’s hard to gauge exactly where the soldier ends the politician begins.
Jagdeesh Mann is executive editor of the Asian Pacific Post. This article has been republished under arrangement with the Post.
Commentary by Phil Gurski in Ottawa
My late mother had a lot of great advice for me, much of which I followed and much of which has helped me immensely in life. One maxim that she shared with me has been ignored however. That would be the time she said it is a good idea never to engage in conversation on religion or politics, as both topics tend to lead to argument and acrimony.
Sorry mom, that one I have ignored in my career as an intelligence analyst and my post civil service activities as an author and public speaker.
Religion is obviously a sensitive issue and one that many people take seriously to heart. As a matter of faith and not fact, it is hard to speak objectively and dispassionately about religion and easy to offend and insult the deeply-held feelings of believers and practitioners. Furthermore, there are often significant differences within a given creed: how can we expect to gain agreement as holders of different religions when those who on the surface subscribe to the same fundamental convictions cannot?
The 'true' interpretation of Islam
One thing is certain: there is no monopoly on what is the 'true' interpretation of Islam. There are several reasons for this. First, it should surprise no one that a faith that is over 1,400 years old has spawned different views. Second, as a global religion Islam has been and is practiced by billions of people from different cultures, histories, language families and experiences. Furthermore, over a millennium and a half a few dominant sects have arisen: the majority Sunnis, the minority Shia, and a few others (Sufis, Ahmadis, Ibadis, etc.), each of which with their own traditions.
When it comes to the link between religion and terrorism no faith dominates the headlines like Islam. Opinions on the role Islam plays in violent extremism range widely from 'Islam is a religion of peace' to 'Islam is inherently violent'. As with most things in life the truth is somewhere between the extremes.
At the risk of gross oversimplification one particular brand of Islam has become very problematic. That brand goes by several names – Salafi, Wahhabi (the latter is a subset of the former) – and one state in particular has been very active over the past few decades in exporting this ultraconservative, intolerant and hateful version around the world: Saudi Arabia. Countries with long moderate traditions – Bosnia, India, West African nations, and Indonesia among others – have seen their citizens enveloped by a faith that is foreign to their lands. There is a very real connection between Salafist Islam and violent extremism: no, one cannot be reduced to the other but there is a link.
Making a change
Thankfully, at least one nation is hitting back. The youth wing of the Indonesian group Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), the largest Islamic mass movement on the planet, is seeking to re-interpret Muslim laws and practices from the Middle Ages to have them better conform to the 21st century. This move should be welcomed and supported.
NU has a tough road ahead of it. The Saudis and their allies have a decades'-long head start and oodles of cash. Nevertheless, this is indeed good news.
There is a battle for the soul of Islam and we should all hope and pray that the majority moderates (i.e. normative Islam) comes out on top. The further marginalisation of Salafi jihadism will suck some (but not all) of the oxygen from the terrorists and perhaps lead to better relations between Muslims and non-Muslims. Besides, I think we can all agree that seeing less of the self-styled yet clownish preachers of hate like the UK's Anjem Choudhury on our screens and tablets will be a very nice change indeed.
I wish the Indonesian efforts every success. The world certainly needs less hate.
Phil Gurski worked for more than three decades in Canadian intelligence, including 15 at Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), and is the author of the Threat from Within and Western Foreign Fighters (Rowan and Littlefield). He blogs at http://www.borealisthreatandrisk.com/blog/
Commentary by Phil Gurski in Ottawa
We live in a world where fear is easy to spread. There is no shortage of evidence that bad things happen and that there are some bad actors in a lot of places.
The rise of the 24/7 news cycle and the ubiquity of social media have a lot to do with this. Sometimes, this fear is disproportionate to reality. The fear of violent crime is a good example: statistics in this country and others show pretty convincingly that violence of this nature is at historic lows and yet people still rank fear of violent crime high on their list of anxieties.
Terrorism fits here as well, as I have often said.
While there is no doubt that terrorism exists and we are reminded of it daily (less so in the West and more so in countries like Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia), we still have to maintain an objective perspective. Even if terrorism occurs more frequently today than it did, say, 40 years ago (although historical analysis might even differ on that point) it is still a rare event.
It is impossible to claim that terrorism is more rampant than non-terrorist crime for instance (shootings, domestic violence, etc.) let alone other kinds of death (disease, car accidents, etc.).
Terrorism is different from other forms of violent deaths because of its inherent ability to cause fear. That is why we call it terrorism – it instills terror and fear. That in essence is what the terrorists are trying to achieve, making us afraid of what they can do so that we will make decisions about things (foreign policy is a primary goal) under duress, decisions we would not normally make.
Some fears are natural – fear of snakes or spiders – and may go back a long way in the history of humanity. Others are manufactured. War and terrorism would fit here. If a fear is manufactured there must be a manufacturer and an audience (or recipient) of that fear. The audience, I would argue, has a choice of whether to accept or embrace the fear. It is as simple as that.
In other words, we play an enormous role in our own freedom from fear. We can simply choose not to be afraid.
I am not trying to oversimplify the terrorist threat or the challenge in dealing with it. This is indeed a hard problem that has always defied, and will most likely always defy, simple solutions. We will not 'defeat' terrorism anymore than we will 'defeat' crime in general.
But we can 'defeat' the goal of the terrorists by refusing to be cowed by their actions and their propaganda. We can decide not to allow them to make us afraid.
I'd like to end with a quote by the Swedish Prime Minister in the wake of this month's terrorist attack in Stockholm (an Uzbek terrorist drove a stolen beer truck into a pedestrian mall, killing four and wounding 15) as it really sends a strong message about fear: "I believe today’s [gathering] was a clear message from Stockholm and Sweden that we intend to keep our open, warm and inclusive society. That was the message. Terrorism will never defeat Sweden.”
Would that we all elected to not give in to fear and terror and tell the terrorists that they will never win.
by Sean Howard in Toronto
There is next to no public space in St James Town. The most densely populated community in all of Canada has no public land. So when Poonam Sharma and Community Matters wanted to create an art installation, they had to gain approval from the owner of the towers. No easy feat. But they persisted, first with a small trial project and then with another until, some years later, they have a number of art projects across the properties we call St James Town.
Poonam Sharma is hard to say no to. She has devoted her life and art to engaging local communities through the folk art and rich traditions that are to be found amongst Toronto’s highly diverse immigrant communities. For one of her latest installations, The Mosaic Project, she teamed up with the St James Town based organization Community Matters. Seven artists worked together to create an intricate mural on an exposed stairwell in St James Town.
Poonam designed the mural to represent eight different traditional folk arts, uniting them into one mural while keeping each distinct. She chose the eight, mostly South Asian folk arts, as they best represented the cultural heritages that make up the St James Town community. Having seven artists was a critical part of Poonam’s approach. It was about getting people in the community to be witness to the art and the artists.
Pressure on Folk Artists
Poonam sees many pressures on folk artists. Folk art is often a private or family endeavor kept behind closed doors. She wanted to bust through this and show that folk art is something to cherish and be proud of.
One of the artists was quite uncertain about participating and not used to working in public, let alone showing her art to the wider community. Poonam told her to just come for one day and see how she felt.
She came and stayed for all 25 days. She cried when the project was complete as she had nothing to work on now. Poonam grows animated as she recalls telling her collaborator, “Why not!? Apply for stuff!”
Poonam was not the only one to get excited. So many in the community expressed interest and even support for the art and artists involved. It forged new relationships and created something that the community now cherishes. Poonam takes this as a great example of the many benefits of projects like these.
It took over 25 days to complete the mural. At the beginning, people gathered on their balconies to watch. As the days progressed many came down to approach the artists or look at a side they couldn’t see from their apartment. One elderly couple even watched over the piece at night from a nearby balcony, calling out to the artists each morning as they resumed their work.
Poonam calls herself a contemporary folk artist. Her love of traditional arts has led her to learn much about the many disciplines of ancient folk arts, but she wants to use these skills in a new way – to bridge issues and bring communities together. It was a joy to spend some time with her and also to see some of her other pieces hidden around the densely packed towers lifting up into the sky on all sides of us.
Neighbourhood of Nations
One of the daunting things about St James Town is how to enter the place if you don’t live there. Most of the points of entry are private driveways clearly marked for resident use only.
At one of these private entrances is another large mural titled “Neighborhood of Nations.” It was created by Poonam Sharma, Catherine Tammaro and Michael Cavanaugh and tells the story of early Irish Immigrants, Native American culture and the current journey of immigrants arriving to Toronto.
Poonam yearns to see more art on every shared surface in St James Town that tells the story of this diverse and vibrant, but underserved, immigrant community.
This piece is part of a larger series called the "Intercity Project". Sean Howard describes it as a publication "for all the in-between spaces of Toronto — those communities lost to or ignored by politicians, developers and even city planners." He started by speaking to artists in these neighbourhoods, but is open to other voices as well. Find more of his work at medium.com/intercity-toronto.
Commentary by Andrew Lam in San Francisco
In America, when a source of authority says it randomly singles you out, you should always be wary.
On Monday, video surfaced of a Vietnamese American, David Dao, being forcefully dragged from a United Airlines flight departing Chicago for Louisville, Kentucky. Dao, 69, had allegedly refused to voluntarily give up his seat on the overbooked flight.
The video quickly went viral around the world, including in China, one of United’s largest markets, where it broke records for being the most widely shared video on social media. United stocks quickly plummeted, dropping 4 percent early Tuesday.
Many of the comments in China and elsewhere, meanwhile, questioned whether Dao, initially believed to be Chinese, was singled out for his ethnicity. His bleeding face is now the poster child for perceived racism in the friendly skies.
“Reflecting on my three nightmare-like experiences with United,” Richard Liu, the CEO of popular online shopping platform JD.COM posted on the Chinese site Weibo. “I can say … that United is the worst airline, not one of the worst.”
Chinese media also drew attention to an online petition entitled #ChineseLivesMatter calling for a boycott of United Airlines.
Reaction from the Asian American community has been equally swift and stinging.
“There is no justification for inflicting violence on any American who poses no physical threat regardless of race, occupation, or other characteristics,” declared the advocacy group PIVOT, which works on civic engagement issues in the Vietnamese American community. “As an organization that aims to engage and empower Vietnamese Americans for a just and diverse America, PIVOT categorically condemns United Airlines and the Chicago Police for their violent actions.”
According to reports, Dao and his wife were among four passengers selected to involuntarily relinquish their seats to make room for United employees.
In its response to the growing PR nightmare, despite a public apology, United’s CEO, Oscar Munoz added fuel to the growing fire after a leaked email was released showing Munoz referring to Dao as “disruptive” and “belligerent.”
Few in the Asian American community are buying the airline’s defense.
“How exactly were the four people selected to give up their seats on this flight? What is the method of ‘random’ selection?” asked blogger Phil Yu, better known as Angry Asian Man. “Do United computers come with a Random Passenger Removal Generator? Or does a flight attendant just take a quick glance around the plane and pick a poor sucker?”
In another online post, one gate agent wrote it is typically the agent that decides who to bump. “Usually, depending on the airline, it is determined based on the last passenger to check in for the flight.”
Reporting on the incident, Business Insider noted passengers can be “involuntarily denied boarding based on a number of factors.” These include “fare class of their tickets, frequent-flyer status, their itinerary, and when they checked in to the flight.”
Yet to be sure it is not all algorithm.
Like others, Yu believes Dao was selected in part because United staff assumed that as an Asian he would be compliant. “If the ‘randomly selected’ passenger had been a blonde white lady, and she refused to give her seat, there's no way in seven hells that these cops would have dragged her ass out kicking, screaming and bloody,” Yu wrote. “Such indignities are apparently reserved for 69-year-old Asian physicians.”
He added, “Clearly, they were not counting on this guy to put up a fight.”
I come not to bury André Drouin’s legacy, but rather to praise him. In his way, he made a singular contribution to the debate about immigration in Canada.
Drouin, a former city councillor in the Quebec town of Hérouxville, passed away at age 70 earlier this month. He was famous, after a fashion, for having been the co-author in 2007 of a peculiar (and highly controversial) ‘code of conduct’ for new immigrants that made his community a lightning rod in the debate over immigration and the so-called “reasonable accomodation” of minority cultures.
You remember this one. Hérouxville is a little town with a population that is predominantly white, francophone and Catholic. Still, for reasons of its own, it adopted a code of conduct for new immigrants reminding them that women in the community must be allowed to show their faces, drive cars and write cheques — and that they’re not to be killed in public beatings, or burned alive.
The reaction of the wider world ranged from mockery to outrage — and Hérouxville quickly became a symbol for everything wrong with the Canadian conversation on immigration. Drouin did not coin the phrase “reasonable accommodation”, but he gave it its political currency in Quebec.
As an immigrant who had been in Canada barely five years when the Hérouxville controversy first surfaced, I felt profoundly offended. Where did this guy — who’d probably never met an immigrant or a person of colour — get the right to “prescribe” the outer limits of a society’s welcome? It built up my notion of Quebec as the least friendly of provinces for newcomers.
Today, I think of Drouin differently. In fact, it was the non sequitur of Hérouxville’s immigration stance that inspired me to launch New Canadian Media.
I now believe Drouin did us a favour by articulating a sentiment that rarely gets aired in mainstream media: the notion that immigrants have obligations, too. Assimilation, integration or tolerance — whatever semantic approach you take to the process by which a nation accepts and weaves together newcomers, it is indeed a two-way street.
If the world today recognizes “Canadian exceptionalism” in the area of immigrant integration and citizenship, it’s partly because ordinary folks like Drouin — who had only a small-town bully pulpit — articulated in a democratic fashion fears that a lot of Canadians share, but are loath to voice for fear of ostracism.
I’d prefer Drouin any day to a lurking xenophobe who doesn’t quite know why he “fears the Other” – only that he does. He had the decency to speak his fears aloud, giving his society a chance to confront them.
In fact, I think it’s because of public officials and civic leaders like Drouin that Canada has not produced a Marine Le Pen, a Geert Wilders, a Heinz-Christian Strache or even a Viktor Orban. We largely have a mature discourse on the defining issue of our era — an issue that has proved to be extremely divisive and explosive in every other nation that has confronted it.
This was no accident. Every country that has a high immigrant population needs public forums and institutions where opponents of laissez-faire immigration can have their say, within democratic norms. Coun. Drouin used one of those forums to the hilt.
He wasn’t whistling in the wind, either. Like it or not, Quebec is Canada’s crucible on immigration policy. Recent controversies around finding a burial ground for Muslims, the carnage at the mosque in Quebec City and the earlier firestorm over one builder’s bid to have a condo complex just for people of a particular faith show that Quebec represents the bleeding edge of the immigration debate.
One doesn’t have to drive too far south from the town of Hérouxville to witness first-hand what an alternative to a reasoned, national discourse looks like. There’s a daily drumbeat of executive orders from the Trump White House, but the most dramatic ones — the ones that get reported and dissected endlessly — have had to do with immigration and visas. Why?
I believe it’s because Americans have been uncomfortable with their immigration policy for a long, long time, but have found few in Washington or elsewhere who would voice their fears. This has led to an untenable situation where you have as many as 12 million “illegals” in the country. Clearly, this is a policy that went off the rails decades ago.
Civic leaders like Drouin act as a ‘pressure valve’, staving off an immigrant-baiting political groundswell like the one we’re seeing in the U.S. We’d be far worse off without them.
George Abraham is the founder and publisher of New Canadian Media. Republished in partnership with iPolitics.ca
-- Canada's economic development minister Navdeep Bains at a Public Policy Forum economic summit