Archive for category law
I’ve been hinting for a while that I want to take on the topic of poverty, but have been chasing down more urgent/contemporary topics. It just so happens that at the end of this week I have a brief window to begin laying some of the ground work for what will eventually become my ultimate point. I’ve already tipped my hand a couple of times in topics I wrote back in July, but I haven’t made the point completely explicit yet. It’s not that it will be monumental or groundbreaking – I’m not trying to plant teasers as much as I am trying to apologize for not getting to it yet.
I did my graduate degree in Kingston, Ontario which is a city about 300 km east of Toronto. Kingston was once the capital of Canada and home to its first Prime Minister. More recently, Kingston has become the home of 3 things: Queen’s University, the Royal Military College, and a metric fuck-ton of prisons. There are 7 prisons within the municipal borders of the city, with two more in the outlying area. When a family member is imprisoned, particularly if that family member is the main income-earner, the whole family suffers as a result. I am not interested in trying to determine who is to blame – many criminals go to jail because they made poor decisions and deserve their punishment. The point is that there is ‘collateral damage’ to the family.
It was common enough to see families move to Kingston to live close to where the bread-winner (usually the father) was in jail. These were more often than not single-parent families, meaning that the remaining adult at home worked a part-time job to ensure sufficient time for child care. These were not people who were rich before their spouse was locked up, so it’s not a stretch to picture the kind of economic shape most of these families were in. The TL/DR version of this situation is that imprisonment can be economically catastrophic to young families. There is an additional issue that I have to confess I was totally ignorant of:
The fees levied on prisoners are put there by state legislatures who have found a group few people will stick up for. But this is short-term thinking at its finest. For example, a report on the issue by the Brennan Center for Justice studied Mecklenburg County in North Carolina, which in 2009 arrested 564 people for failing to pay their debts and jailed just under half of them for several days before their hearings. The cost of jailing them — even for a short time — far outweighed the money eventually collected.
“Look at the cost of year in jail for just one person,” said Rebekah Diller, an author of the report. ($30,000 per year is the low end.) “If this only drives a few people back into the system you’re already undermining any revenue you might raise.”
These debts would seem to drive more than a few back into the system. Probation officers are the front line people pushing probationers to pay, and one of their most effective weapons is the threat of arrest. But this drives probationers into hiding if they don’t have the money. “They end up going underground, not fulfilling their probation requirements because they can’t fulfill the court fees,” said Abrigal Forrester, a program coordinator for StreetSafe Boston, which does gang intervention and other work to help reduce crime in tough neighborhoods. If you skip your meetings with probation, you are probably going back to prison.
So imagine this, if you will. Let us suppose that for any of a wide variety of reasons you were so deep in debt that you couldn’t pay your way out. Family connections cannot help you, and bankruptcy isn’t an option. You are then charged with failure to pay your debt and go to jail (apparently this is not possible in Canada, but please bear with me for the sake of argument). While in jail, your debt accumulates interest. Due to a well-intentioned but ultimately myopic “tough on crime” policy, you are charged a fee for your prison stay. When you are released from jail, you are deeper in debt than you were before you went in, but you cannot secure gainful employment because you have a criminal record.
Now of course you wouldn’t turn to a life of crime at this point, dear reader. No, you’d get extra-long bootstraps (on sale, because you’re thrifty) and tug yourself to economic freedom. But perhaps a neighbour of yours who is not quite so virtuous as you would succumb to the lure of breaking the law in order to make enough cash to feed your family and pay down her debt. Perhaps she’s not quite the criminal mastermind she thinks she is, and gets charged, this time with an actual crime. It’s back to prison for her, with the weight of a conviction on top of the still-mounting debt.
This is the experience of a number of people. Even without the initial charge of ‘being in debt’ sending you to jail, putting someone in prison can trap them in a spiral of criminality and recidivism that goes beyond simplistic explanations of the criminal mind and “gangsterism”. I am not trying to suggest that every convict is an innocent victim of circumstance; only that some are, and we can make changes to our social system to ensure that these folks have an easier chance of it. As it stands now, our prisons might be creating more new prisoners, rather than accomplishing their ostensible goal of reducing crime and protecting communities from criminals.
I bring this story up as an example of why I think we need broader, more forward-thinking approaches to crime and justice. I think it would be better to recognize that convicts do not disappear when they leave prison, and that many would, if given the opportunity, prefer to make an honest living than scramble the streets trying to avoid getting caught and sent back. Any program that increases poverty or fails to provide a clear pathway out is ultimately doing our entire society a disservice.
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So this will be a fairly ambitious endeavour for me. All of you are no doubt aware of the rioting that has plagued London for the past week. I am going to try and summarize what I think is an incredibly complex issue in the span of a single blog post. Unlike other Monday think pieces, this one is going to have a lot of links to other articles, because they’re relevant.
The riots were supposedly touched off by protest over the apparent murder of a young black father by police officers. The police claimed that the man had an illegal weapon and fired on them. Forensic investigation subsequently revealed that no gunfire was exchanged – the man had been shot twice by bullets from a police-issue weapon and the gun that supposedly belonged to the deceased, while illegal, had not been fired. In an attitude typical of police, the first instinct was to protect the officers instead of upholding the law. Outraged citizens, mostly black, took to the streets to protest, and that protest turned into a riot.
Many are trying to make this riot into a racial issue:
Operation Trident which was set up in 1998 to specifically deal with gun crime related to drug activity within London’s black community — is itself controversial among some sections of the black community. Even though Trident was set up by black activists to tackle so-called black-on-black killings, few of the police officers within the unit are black, and some see Trident as being just another way in which the police can oppress young black men who are already disproportionately targeted for criminal behavior.
Mark Duggan’s death seemed to touch a raw nerve, coming just months after another controversial police-related death of yet another black man, a British reggae artist known as Smiley Culture. A peaceful protest about Duggan’s death turned violent. From then on, the violence has escalated.
It is tempting to compare this outrage to what happened in Los Angeles following the acquittal of police officers in the Rodney King trial. There are certainly many parallels between that situation and London: a marginalized and brutalized minority population who are distrusted and underserved by their government; an attitude by police of extreme racism; lack of representation in the halls of power. However, the rioting quickly grew far past anything that can be attributed to a disgruntled minority group:
The uncomfortable question since the beginning of the disturbances on Saturday night, however, has been the degree to which tensions between different ethnic communities, and wider issues of race and cultural alienation, have played a part in some local areas. The answer, observers warn, is a complex and multifaceted one, in an area where simplistic judgments can be dangerous. “Where communities are already divided along ethnic lines, there is of course a tendency to hunker down,” says Rob Berkeley, director of the Runnymede Trust, which researches issues of race and equality. “But what I’m struggling with is that there is so much that we don’t know. I don’t know if what goes on in West Bromwich is anything to do with what happens in Birmingham, or if the Woolwich riots were organised but the Croydon ones were not.
Most frightening to me is that there are people using the racial tension as an excuse to expand their own small-minded agendas:
Far-right groups have sought to exploit the tensions. The BNP says it will hold its “biggest ever day of action” this weekend and has published a leaflet titled: Looter beware: British defenders protect this area. The EDL claims its supporters are organising across the country and will provide “a strong physical presence, and discourage troublemakers from gathering in our town and city centres”.
While the outrage may have germinated around a seed of racial resentment, it spread so quickly and violently that this is not a satisfactory explanation. A better explanation is needed; certainly one that is better than the line of stupidity coming from Downing street, with Prime Minister David Cameron bemoaning the lack of active parenting and seeking to explain the crime by attributing it to ‘criminals’. The problem, of course, with this line of reasoning is that many of these people probably weren’t criminals before they committed these crimes. Labeling them post hoc as ‘criminals’ is circular, and therefore useless as an explanation. It doesn’t appear to be particularly accurate either:
“Some of the parents were there. For some parents it was no big surprise their kids were there. They’ve gone through this all their lives,” said an Afro-Caribbean man of 22 who gave his name as “L”, voicing the frustration and anger felt by youth and parents over yawning inequalities in wealth and opportunity. “I was on the train today in my work clothes and shoes. All different types took part in the riot. The man next to me was saying everyone who rioted should be gassed. He would never have guessed that I was there, that I took part,” he said.
Many have tried to attribute much of the anger at police to the way they treat minority group members, while others have pointed to the social system, to the power of the welfare state, to raw criminality, bad parenting… many explanations have been thrown out.
So too, it seems, has any pretense at maintaining the liberal democratic tradition:
Speaking outside 10 Downing Street following an emergency security meeting Wednesday, the prime minister noted that the addition of 10,000 police, for a total of 16,000, on the streets of London on Tuesday night and into the morning had helped curtail the violence. “Whatever resources the police need, they will get. Whatever tactics the police feel they need to employ, they’ll have legal backing to do so,” he told reporters.
Anyone who isn’t immediately terrified by the prospect of police having unchecked powers to punish crimes is clearly living in a world of unchallenged assumptions about the credibility of law enforcement.While Vancouver police have been facing heightening criticism for failing to charge more people after the riots here, I applaud them for not rushing to judgment and waiting to have solid evidence before seeking convictions. The UK police seem to be under no constraint of legal due process, and have already arrested and charged hundreds of people:
“Picture by picture these criminals are being identified and arrested and we will not let any phoney concerns about human rights get in the way of the publication of the pictures and the arrest of these individuals,” Cameron said.
The emphasis on that quote is mine. The horror should be all of ours to share.
So if it isn’t race, or criminal minds, or just the thrill of smash and grab, what happened in London to make this happen? We may never know what the one cause that set off the ripple of rioting, and it’s unlikely that there is one cause. Likely, like any other mass spontaneous uprising (like what’s happening in the middle east), there are a variety of overlapping factors that came to a head at one point, causing a tectonic-like reaction. It seems, however, that the most fruitful avenue of explanation is to ask people on the ground what they think. From outside it is easy to attempt to explain, and you can probably find a sympathetic ear for just about any crazy theory. Until the people from the streets start speaking and telling their stories, all we can do is make a handful of guesses and wait for the flames to die down.
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One of the things that blows me away about history and human nature is that there’s really only a handful of stories that get told again and again. While we appear to be facing new challenges all the time, there is so much that even a basic grasp of history and psychology can teach us about just how not-new our problems are.
Pete Townsend certainly seemed to understand this:
This song could have been written yesterday, as far as Egypt and the Middle East are concerned, particularly the seemingly-prescient line “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.”
Egyptian forces swinging electrified batons and shouting the battle cry “God is great” swiftly chased off dozens of activists Monday who had refused to end four weeks of renewed protests at Cairo’s Tahrir Square. Hundreds of riot police backed by armoured vehicles and soldiers moved in to tear down a camp of dozens of tents after a group of activists — some of them relatives of people killed in the national uprising that toppled ex-president Hosni Mubarak in February — refused commands over loudspeakers to go home. Some in the crowd, whose demonstration aimed to pressure the country’s military rulers, hurled stones at the police.
Just a side note: anyone who isn’t immediately terrified by the prospect of a police officer shouting praises to his god before charging into a crowd of people with the intention of hurting them… there’s something wrong with your head. Of course, many of you who have been reading this blog for a while will remember how much emphasis I put on what is being called the Jasmine Revolution. Anti-government protests started in Tunisia, and rapidly spread throughout the Arabian peninsula. I was admonishing you to pay attention to what was going on, because it will have profound implications on the future of the planet.
While I have stopped talking about the developments there (short attention span? more sexy news items?), my opinion of them hasn’t changed and I have been watching as closely as I can. I hope you have been too, because it hasn’t become less important. The story above, of police tamping down on protesters, should resonate with those of you who’ve been paying attention for two chief reasons. First, because it happened in Tahrir Square, which is the site of the original anti-Mubarak protest that captured the world’s attention back in February. While I don’t really believe in totemistic attachments to geographical locations (I don’t think that places have souls), but the symbolism of police beating protesters in that particular place is powerful.
The second reason has to do with who is behind the attacks. The police now work for the military council that forms the government. If you remember, during the original riots the military refused to take a side in the conflict and protected the protesters from pro-Mubarak gangs. The people of Egypt praised and thanked the military for upholding their sworn duty to the people of Egypt. Things appear to have changed now:
“They beat people with sticks and electrified batons. I don’t see why they had to use excessive force like this,” she said. State radio reported later that 270 people were arrested, describing them as thugs and criminals.
Also interesting is the fact that protesters are now being described on state radio as “thugs and criminals” – precisely the same language that Mubarak’s government-controlled state radio used to describe protesters in February. It attempted to delegitimize the protests by claiming that they were simply a handful of malcontents who were only there to cause trouble. Of course that wasn’t the case at all – they had real concerns about government conduct and human rights abuses. The same is the case now:
Many activists are skeptical that a military council headed by Mubarak’s longtime defence minister can deliver on promises of democratic reforms before returning the country to civilian rule. They also accuse it of dragging its feet with prosecutions of regime figures and say it has so far failed to weed out Mubarak loyalists from the judiciary, police and civil service.
What I find fascinating is the level of hypocrisy and myopia we see in human beings when they (we) gain power. Now that the military is running the show, they are adopting the exact same pattern of behaviour as those they helped to oust. They are using force to quell political protest – in direct violation of the stance they took less than a year ago. They are lying about the motivation of dissenters – which they must know doesn’t work because they were there on the streets the first time it failed. And perhaps most chilling of all, they are doing it with the name of their god on their lips – not a good sign in what is trying to become a secular democratic state.
There are two potential explanations I can conjure for this phenomenon. The first is cynical – the military had been looking for an opportunity to supplant Mubarak’s rule but for some reason couldn’t until there was public hatred for him. Now that he (Mubarak) is out, the army can take over permanently, and was just using its temporary political powers as a ruse for long-term despotism. The second is perhaps a bit more optimistic – that human beings in power will inevitably become corrupted by that same power. When someone sees themselves as representing the ideals of a nation, then any personal opposition to them is tantamount to treason. In such a scenario how could you see legitimate criticism as anything other than sedition?
While that doesn’t sound terribly optimistic, it does tell us what we have to do as a society to ensure that our political organizations are stable and sustainable – we cannot allow power to become consolidated in the hands of a few individuals. Power must rest with the people, and the governmental organizations must be responsive to the people’s needs. Without that kind of underlying philosophy, even those that we once thought of as heroes will quickly turn villain.
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There was once a time when I could have been accurately described as ‘pro-police’. I recognized that in order for a society to progress, we needed to have some way of enforcing law. A society without laws quickly degenerates into violence, and it was thanks to the tireless efforts of police officers and other members of the justice system that we were such a peaceful place to live. I would openly and unashamedly take the police’s side when debates came up in our high school (we had a pair of police officers on constant patrol on our campus). However, as I’ve become a bit more aware of the world and the nuances of the argument, my knee-jerk support for the police has diminished quite dramatically. While I have not yet gone quite to the extent of labeling police indiscriminately as a gang of threatening thugs, events like the travesty that was the G20 summit are moving me in that direction.
I still believe in the principle of rule of law, and I doubt that will ever change. However, I no longer see police as being reliable arbitrators of law. Again and again, we see examples not only of police abusing their power to circumvent justice for themselves, but of such abuse actually undermining justice for others:
The Richmond trial of five men accused of running a multi-million dollar ecstasy lab has been thrown out of court because of what a provincial court judge says were repeated Charter of Rights violations. In January 2007, Mounties uncovered nearly 100 kilograms of ecstasy and nine pill presses in two Richmond homes following a year-long investigation. Tin Lik Ho, Qing Hou, Shao Wei Huang, Yi Feng Kevin Li and Kai Lai Kyle Zhou were all charged with producing ecstasy and possessing ecstasy for the purpose of trafficking. But in a 30-page provincial court judgment, Judge Paul Meyers issued a scathing indictment of the RCMP’s handling of the case. ”The police officers who were in charge of this investigation, from start to finish, violated so many Charter rights of the accused persons, that one might have thought that the investigation took place before the Charter of Rights had been enacted,” Meyers wrote.
Asking a conservative what this story represents will yield a very different response than if you ask someone who actually understands what she/he is talking about. A conservative commentator will point out that this is a prime example of the “hug a thug” mentality that liberals have – prioritizing the rights of criminals over the rights of decent, hard-working Canadians. This judge is clearly a liberal activist that doesn’t care about seeing criminals punished for their crimes, or of drugs spreading through communities where they destroy the lives of the young and innocent.
Someone with a slightly more realistic understanding of the legal process will recognize that this is the sign of a healthy legal system (the abuses of the police notwithstanding). Undoubtedly, these men are dead to rights – the drugs were found in their homes along with the method of manufacture. This was not the case of a handful of pills trying to make a quick score, or some guys who just really really like to get high – these guys were mid-level traffickers of a restricted substance. They absolutely belong in jail. However, in their handling of the case, the RCMP decided that their apparent guilt justified shredding the charter. While judges regularly look the other way for slight abrogations of legal rights in clear cases of guilt, Judge Meyers’s report details the extent to which these particular officers decided that they were above the law.
The reason why this ruling is good is because there are countries in the world in which those accused of crimes are treated as already-guilty. We don’t like those countries – they tend to use that justice system to lock up political dissidents. Neither the presumption of innocence nor the presumption of guilt will result in a perfect system; however, one will ensure that fewer innocent people are imprisoned for crimes they didn’t commit. We can always produce evidence of guilt – evidence of innocence is almost impossible by definition.
What’s more interesting than the finding that drug prohibition causes gang-on-gang violence is our inability – or is it unwillingness? – to learn from repeated demonstrations of this connection. For some reason, we seem to think that what’s happening in northern Mexico – where drug-trafficking gangs are at war with each other and with the Mexican army – is somehow different from what’s happening in Winnipeg, where drug-trafficking gangs are at war with each other and with the Winnipeg Police Service. There is a difference in scale, to be sure, but not in kind. Drug prohibition enriches organized crime, and police crackdowns on drug suppliers provoke gang-on-gang violence over market share.
We know from abundant evidence in other counties that the kind of drug enforcement strategy we use in Canada is not particularly effective at actually reducing crime. This analysis from The Mark suggests that, to the contrary, it actually increases the rate of violent crime as market forces inexorably drive up demand whenever supply is interrupted. If we were trying to reduce crime, we’d change our strategy – we’d do what it took to actually protect the populace against its dangerous elements. However, it is clear that we are not interested in reducing crime, which raises the question of what it is we are trying to do.
It is when we betray the liberal principles of crime prevention and harm reduction that we begin to see the corporatization of law enforcement. For-profit law enforcement strategies only serve those who make profit from crime. If our interest is in doing whatever it takes to ‘punish’ criminals by locking them up, we’ll see more examples like the Richmond case where the rights of the people become a secondary interest to serving and upholding law enforcement’s sworn duty to protect and serve the people.
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It seems like it’s been forever since I enjoyed a solid bashing of religion (note: it has been, in fact, 3 weeks). My apologies for those readers who like me to get up on my soapbox and stick it to the religious establishment – it seems as though it’s been racial topics swimming around in my brain for a while. I’d apologize to those of you who are fans of my free speech stuff, but statistics suggest that you don’t exist .
A common complaint about anti-theists like myself is that we rail against a type of religiosity that nobody really believes in. After all, the complaint goes, most religious people just want to keep to themselves and exist quietly without harming anyone. Who am I, therefore, to rail against the evils of their religion? They don’t force their beliefs on me, so why should I try to force my non-belief on them?
Of course every anti-theist reading those words has just breathed a tired sigh and rolled their eyes for emphasis. It is, of course, not at all the case that religious people just want to be left alone to worship in peace. Anyone who thinks that is either not paying attention or finds the lie more comforting than the truth (but Crommunist, why can’t it be both?). Religious believers are constantly agitating for their beliefs to be mandated as laws that apply to believers and nonbelievers alike. The entire story of the gay rights, women’s rights, and black civil rights movements are perfect historical examples of religious people staunchly refusing to keep their beliefs to themselves.
How about some non-historical examples?
Opposition parties and minority groups in India’s Karnataka state are angry that the Hindu scripture, Bhagvad Gita, must be taught in schools. The state authorities recently directed schools to teach the Hindu holy book for three hours a week. Education Minister Visveswara Hegde Kageri said that those who did not want to learn the Gita should leave India. Opponents of the move say that the state government order violates their constitutional rights.
So the funny thing about India is that they’re supposedly a secular country. But according to the education minister, it is only those who “want to promote religious ideologies of foreign countries” that believe that secularism includes the right to be free from religious indoctrination in public schools. I wonder if Minister Kageri knows that Hinduism has its origins in a foreign country too. Probably not. After all, that would require him to have the same quality secular education that I had, rather than the feeble interference of a backwards theocracy. Because it’s clearly too much to ask that the education minister be, y’know, educated.
Chief Minister BS Yeddyurappa has been accused by opposition leader HD Kumaraswamy of corruption. Mr Kumaraswamy has threatened to expose land scams allegedly committed by Mr Yeddyurappa, in addition to accusing the chief minister of trying to “buy” his silence on the matter through intermediaries. In reply, Mr Yeddyurappa has rubbished the allegations as “humbug”, and has challenged his rival to stand before Lord Manjunatha and repeat his charge. Mr Kumaraswamy has accepted the challenge.
Okay, I have to confess that this one is just hilarious. First of all, the guy accused of corruption is called “BS”. Second, it happened in the same place as the Gita fight above, which suggests that these aren’t exactly the most… shall we say ‘enlightened’ people on the planet. Third, he actually used the word “humbug”. Fourth, he used it right before he challenged someone to swear his truthful nature in front of a god, as though he has no idea what the word ‘humbug’ means. At least his colleagues have the good sense to be embarrassed by this whole state of affairs.
Malaysia’s civil court has refused a woman permission to leave Islam to avoid being jailed for apostasy. Kamariah Ali, 60, says she should not be tried under Islamic law because she is no longer a Muslim. She follows the Sky Kingdom sect, known as the teapot cult because it built a giant teapot to symbolise its belief in the healing purity of water. But judges ruled that only Malaysia’s Islamic courts could decide on the case because Ms Kamariah was born a Muslim. Malaysia’s Islamic courts have authority over only Muslims – the rest of the population are not bound by their rules.
Where’s my ‘lolwut’ pear?
So apparently in Malaysia, there are two things that are true. One is that you can be assigned a religious belief by the courts. The second is that there are people that actually worship a teapot. Betrand Russel must be spinning in his grave.
Here’s the problem: while these stories are all hilarious examples of people doing stupid stuff because of their wacky superstitions, they’re all being taken seriously by the legal system. Instead of being justifiably bounced out of court or laughed out of office, the wacky “personal beliefs” of the people involved are actually granted the status of law. Why is this problematic? Well, aside from the fact that a secular state isn’t supposed to get involved in matters of faith, religious beliefs have no mechanism by which truth can be demonstrated. The only standard by which the ‘correctness’ of religious practice can be established is by sincerity of faith. I have no doubt whatsoever that Minister Kageri, Minister Yeddyurappa and the court presiding over Ms. Ali sincerely believe in the positions they are advocating. That doesn’t change the fact that from a neutral (read: scientific) standpoint, they’re all wrong.
Seriously? A teapot?
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In my earlier post today I mentioned in passing that I was cynically optimistic about some of the changes I’ve seen in how governments in Canada think of and behave toward First Nations communities. I think when I wrote that I fully intended to explain what I meant, but for whatever reason (read: laziness) I didn’t. I’ll take this opportunity to do just that.
I am all for governments, corporations and other large, powerful entities doing the right thing. I think it’s fantastic when an oil company pledges to clean up a spill, or when a politician crosses the partisan divide to vote for something that is ethically right, even if it isn’t expedient with her base. I’ve tried to be mostly fair with the Catholic Church when it does things that are in line with secular morality. However, in each and every one of those cases, I am immediately suspicious of the motive behind the action. Is the oil company trying to cover up the fact that it caused the spill? Is the politician trying to brand herself as ‘centrist’ or curry favour with a power interest group? Is the Catholic Church not raping children anymore, or just trying to get people to stop equating “Catholic priest” with “child rapist”?
In light of my cynicism (which I think is reasonable and justifiable), it can be hard to get too optimistic about things. To be sure, I am generally optimistic that life will get better over time – that has been the story of humankind throughout history. However, whether a specific story represents a genuine step forward for society or a clever act of obfuscation is a judgment call I often have a difficult time making.
After years of conflict, including a Supreme Court of Canada battle, the Taku River Tlingit First Nation of northwest British Columbia signed a land and resource management and shared decision-making agreement today with the provincial government — the first of its kind in B.C. Premier Christy Clark said the agreement creates 13 new protected areas and provides resource development opportunities and investment certainty in more than three million hectares in the Atlin Taku region. She added that is the size of all of Vancouver Island.
“We are emerging from a dark period in our history with hope and promise,” said Taku River Tlingit First Nation spokesman John Ward. “It’s so great to come out of the darkness and silence we’ve experienced for so many years and be acknowledged.” Ward said the land use agreement gives aboriginals a say on how industry “can access and conduct themselves in our traditional territory.”
It is my cynicism that is preventing me from jumping up and down and doing cartwheels all around my apartment right now (well, that and the fact that I have never been able to do a cartwheel). This kind of thing is exactly how not only the political system is supposed to work, but the legal system. The courts are supposed to overrule the government when it acts in its own best interests rather than those of its people. First Nations people should control their own lands and not only have a stake in how they are managed, but to reap the benefits of resource exploitation. This deal is likely to mean infrastructure and industry jobs for people living in the region – if these positions are structured properly it could mean real long-term development and sustained economic strength in the region.
That’s the optimist in me talking. Considering the number of First Nations bands that have complained about corruption in their leadership, and considering the ease with which groups that have abundant resources but little education on how to manage them get exploited by multinational interests, my inner optimist is losing the arm-wrestling match to my inner cynic. Until we see a sea change in the way we think of First Nations issues, and how First Nations communities are supported/encouraged to grow, I don’t see this as resulting in anything more than more money in the hands of a few people while the general quality of life remains unchanged.
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Canada is a nation that was built by immigrant labour. Under the auspices of French and English immigrants, generation after generation of immigrant populations have left their mark on what has become a great nation. Canada’s birth rate is such that without an influx of at least 200,000 immigrants per year, our population will begin to dwindle. The implication is clear – without immigration Canada will fail.
There are few in this country that will deny these facts. We are lucky to be mostly insulated from the kind of “illegal immigrant” hysteria that has gripped the European countries, and even our friends to the south. A major part of this insulation is the fact that we share our only land border with a country that is (for now) a more attractive target for immigration than our frozen north. We don’t have to worry nearly as much about people sneaking across the border.
All that being said, it is no less true that the United States relies on its immigrant populations for its survival as well. Far above and beyond the jingoistic image of immigrants “doing the jobs that Americans don’t want to do” – which is certainly part of the picture of the immigrant experience – immigrants are and have been an integral part of the development of the United States since the very beginning. There is a strong move afoot in American politics to round up and deport anyone who has come into the country illegally, which on its face sounds like a reasonable idea, until you consider the sheer number of people who are undocumented.
While it might make good political sense to be against immigrants, it makes poor economic sense. Immigrants, even those that haven’t entered according to the rules, provide essential services in many walks of life. Rounding up and deporting them would create huge vacancies in the job market, and while the ranks of the unemployed will fill some of those spaces, the training and skill needed for many of those positions would preclude most on the unemployment rolls from entering without doing lasting damage to the economy. For example, how many unemployed people do you think are capable of winning a Pulitzer?
One August morning nearly two decades ago, my mother woke me and put me in a cab. She handed me a jacket. “Baka malamig doon” were among the few words she said. (“It might be cold there.”) When I arrived at the Philippines’ Ninoy Aquino International Airport with her, my aunt and a family friend, I was introduced to a man I’d never seen. They told me he was my uncle. He held my hand as I boarded an airplane for the first time. It was 1993, and I was 12.
Antonio Vargaz, New York Times reporter and Pulitzer Prize winning journalist ‘came out’ as ‘an illegal’ in the pages of his host paper, without knowing what the consequences of such an action would be. His story is amazing:
I decided then that I could never give anyone reason to doubt I was an American. I convinced myself that if I worked enough, if I achieved enough, I would be rewarded with citizenship. I felt I could earn it. I’ve tried. Over the past 14 years, I’ve graduated from high school and college and built a career as a journalist, interviewing some of the most famous people in the country. On the surface, I’ve created a good life. I’ve lived the American dream.
But I am still an undocumented immigrant. And that means living a different kind of reality. It means going about my day in fear of being found out. It means rarely trusting people, even those closest to me, with who I really am. It means keeping my family photos in a shoebox rather than displaying them on shelves in my home, so friends don’t ask about them. It means reluctantly, even painfully, doing things I know are wrong and unlawful. And it has meant relying on a sort of 21st-century underground railroad of supporters, people who took an interest in my future and took risks for me.
I am the child of a “legal” immigrant. My father emigrated from Guyana in 1978, and has since become financially independent and has contributed to Canada both economically and politically. Even though I am not an immigrant (the technical term for me is “second generation immigrant”), I am acutely aware of carrying the stigma of someone whose ancestors are “not from here”. This is, perhaps, a very small price to pay to be born in a country that has helped me survive and flourish from literally the time I was conceived.
While my classmates awaited their college acceptance letters, I hoped to get a full-time job at The Mountain View Voice after graduation. It’s not that I didn’t want to go to college, but I couldn’t apply for state and federal financial aid. Without that, my family couldn’t afford to send me. But when I finally told Pat and Rich about my immigration “problem” — as we called it from then on — they helped me look for a solution. At first, they even wondered if one of them could adopt me and fix the situation that way, but a lawyer Rich consulted told him it wouldn’t change my legal status because I was too old.
Eventually they connected me to a new scholarship fund for high-potential students who were usually the first in their families to attend college. Most important, the fund was not concerned with immigration status. I was among the first recipients, with the scholarship covering tuition, lodging, books and other expenses for my studies at San Francisco State University.
Immigrants have to work hard to get ahead in this country. That’s a good thing – allegiances easily won are just as easily forsaken. That being said, it is to the benefit of us all to create ways to make getting ahead a little less fraught with pitfalls. Especially in a place in which immigration is the lifeblood of stability, it is simple spite that motivates us to demonize those that weren’t born here – spite that only ends up hurting ourselves more in the end.
Early this year, just two weeks before my 30th birthday, I won a small reprieve: I obtained a driver’s license in the state of Washington. The license is valid until 2016. This offered me five more years of acceptable identification — but also five more years of fear, of lying to people I respect and institutions that trusted me, of running away from who I am. I’m done running. I’m exhausted. I don’t want that life anymore.
So I’ve decided to come forward, own up to what I’ve done, and tell my story to the best of my recollection. I’ve reached out to former bosses and employers and apologized for misleading them — a mix of humiliation and liberation coming with each disclosure. All the people mentioned in this article gave me permission to use their names. I’ve also talked to family and friends about my situation and am working with legal counsel to review my options. I don’t know what the consequences will be of telling my story.
So anyone who is a rabid anti-immigrant crusader, even if they restrict their condemnation to those that are “illegal”, ask them this: is the world a worse place because Antonio Vargaz was allowed his shot at success?
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There is a particular paradox with my post this morning that I didn’t really go out of my way to point out. That paradox has to do with finding a case that we (as free speech advocates) can sell to the public as an argument for unrestricted free speech rights. Its self-contradictory nature comes from the fact that in a liberal society that respects the rule of law, there aren’t a lot of examples of unpopular speech that the public can really get behind. The most common form of unpopular speech is based in hatred and intolerance, and you can’t really rally too many people behind that message.
But perhaps, with a bit of work, we can convince people of the merit in this:
A Dutch court acquitted right-wing politician Geert Wilders of hate speech and discrimination Thursday, ruling that his anti-Islam statements, while offensive to many Muslims, fell within the bounds of legitimate political debate. Judge Marcel van Oosten said Wilders’s claims that Islam is violent by nature, and his calls to halt Muslim immigration and ban the Muslim holy book, the Qur’an, must be seen in a wider context of debate over immigration policy. The Amsterdam court said his public statement could not be directly linked to increased discrimination against Dutch Muslims.
I will do myself the favour of stating unequivocally that I don’t like Geert Wilders, and will explain briefly why that is.
I do not buy the argument that the forces of Islamism are plotting a gradual takeover of Western society. It’s a fear-driven conspiracy theory carefully stoked in the xenophobic parts that inhabit all of us. It is convenient to our story-telling brains to dichotomize world events into “forces of good” and “forces of evil”. Hell, even I’m guilty of it (kind of… I trust my readers are aware of the sarcastic irony behind my categorization).
The reality is more like a variety of several ideologies, each competing for finite political real estate. The Islamist ideology is indeed fighting for supremacy, but not at the expense of Christianity. Islamism isn’t trying to “take over” any more than communism is trying to “take over” – all ideologies are fighting for dominance. This is where Wilders is wrong – he contrasts Islamic domination with Christian domination, when neither of these ideologies is truly dominant. While modern-day Europe owes a great deal to traditions laid down under true Christian ideological domination, most of the freedoms we enjoy today were despite Christian dominance (or rather, in the face of it) rather than because of it.
That being said, the world would be a much better place under the current situation of formerly-Christian secularism rather than an Islamic theocracy. Islam is, as written, much more hostile to the idea of religious pluralism than Christianity – I am happy to grant that. But the fight is not between an Islamic state and a Christian one – it’s between an absolutist state and a pluralistic one. Christian theocracy frightens me just as much as Islamic theocracy. Insofar as Wilders opposes an absolutist state, I am 100% with him. Where he and I differ has to do with his inability to divorce the ideas of Islam and absolutism. The two concepts are overlapping, but only mildly more so than are Christianity and absolutism.
Now, that covers basically where my position differs from Wilders’. The purpose of this post is to point out that what he said was a critique of an ideology, not the people who hold it. Mr. Wilders has gone out of his way several times to make this distinction – it is the religion of Islam he is criticizing as barbaric and dangerous. To the extent that individuals belonging to a religious group follow its strictures to varying degrees (and each insisting that theirs is the ‘true’ way), individual Muslims may or may not represent threats to secular society, just as individual liberals may or not represent threats to capitalism, for example. The courts have ruled precisely along these lines – criticism of ideas does not constitute hate speech, even if those ideas are religious or belong to a minority group.
It is precisely because this case lies on the balance of opposing concerns – distrust of religious extremism and distaste for intolerance – that it can be such a useful case to bring the free speech argument into the public sphere. You don’t have to like Geert Wilders to recognize that categorizing criticism of fanaticism as “hate speech” has very dangerous consequences that will do more to undermine secular society than all the forces of Islamism ever could.
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I am in something of an unusual position, being an outspoken crusader both for human rights and for free speech. It crops up in my discussions of hate speech as a free speech issue again and again. The reason why I say my position is somewhat unique is that usually those who defend absolute speech rights ally themselves on the side of anti-gay, racist and/or sexist bigots. Their position tends to be “I shouldn’t be punished for saying hateful things.” My position is a bit more nuanced – I think that the definition of ‘hate’ is imprecise, and that while we should take note of it, it is far too tempting for the state to abuse the power to criminalize unpopular speech.
A recent court case has free speech advocates salivating like starving wolves in front of a fresh kill:
A comedian who was fined by the BC Human Rights Tribunal after a confrontation with a lesbian couple at a Vancouver restaurant is appealing the decision, arguing the province’s human rights legislation shouldn’t apply to stand-up comics. The tribunal ruled in favour of Lorna Pardy, a gay woman who testified that Guy Earle shouted gay slurs and other insults at her and her girlfriend from both on and off the stage during a comedy show in 2007. Earle and the restaurant were ordered to pay a total of $22,500 in compensation.
Human Rights Tribunals are the bane of the bigoted set. They are intended to find a way to balance respect for human rights with civil liberties, and are empowered to levy fines against people found guilty of discriminating, propagating hatred, or otherwise violating people’s charter rights in ways that aren’t expressly criminal. While they are an imperfect tool, they represent an attempt to uphold the rights of individuals to live free of persecution and hatred.
The reason why my fellow unrestricted speech advocates are so hot about this particular case is because on the surface, it reads like the story of a comedian who made some off-colour comments about lesbians in the context of a comedy performance, and who was subsequently brought up on charges by some overly-sensitive bleeding heart liberal lesbos in the audience who can’t take a joke. ‘Political correctness gone mad!’ has been the cry. ‘How can we allow these Tribunals to bulldoze over the rights of performers to make jokes? Can we only tell knock-knock jokes from now on?’
Hey guys, ‘Knock, knock”
A maniac that went on a hatred-fueled tirade against two women in the audience that went well beyond the boundaries of his act. A maniac that went on to bodily assault those women when they tried to stand up for themselves. A maniac that completely lost his cool and continued to berate them after his stage show had finished.
Yeah, not so funny a joke now, is it?
If the case had merely been an echo of Michael Richards’ racist tirade against black people, or Tracey Morgan’s recent statement where he said he would stab his son to death if he (the son) came out as gay, then I’d be decrying this decision right along with the rest of my fellow speech defenders. This isn’t that, though. This is the case of a guy who wasn’t content to simply humiliate a pair of women who he claimed were heckling him (this is disputed by the women, who say he began harassing them for the arch-crime of kissing each other), but went on a rampage against them even after he was off stage.
My fellow speechies are holding Mr. Earle up as an example of the overreach of the Tribunal process, but if anything it shows that there are times where clearly some kind of intervention is needed. What occurred at the restaurant was far beyond what one would consider reasonable fare for a comedy show, where the abuse begins and ends on stage. Guy Earle is not the victim of an oversensitive system that bends to every errant whine from a minority group – he’s the perpetrator of a shocking and unacceptable verbal assault that crossed the line from joke to serious when he put down the microphone.
I am not sure what mental deficiency it is that makes my colleagues unable to understand nuance and irony, but it has them hitching their wagon to a horse that isn’t so much dead as it is running in the opposite direction they want to go. If the battle is indeed to bring the free speech argument into the public consciousness – to sell the idea of unrestricted free speech rights to the marketplace of ideas then they’ve picked a real stinker of a human being to make their/our case on.
That being said, if this were a simple free speech issue, I’d side with Mr. Earle in a heartbeat, no matter how despicable a human being I might think he is. What he said on stage may have been defensible speech, but the extent to which he allowed it to go is indefensible conduct. Speech, no matter how hateful, is crucial to the conduct of our society – parasites like Guy Earle undermine the very idea of free speech.
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Charges against a man accused of being a pimp have been thrown out after an Ontario Superior Court judge ruled that a police officer involved in the case fabricated evidence and lied on the stand. The problem involving Const. George Wang only came to light after Courtney Salmon’s lawyer finally found contradictory information in the notes of other officers involved in the case. Salmon had faced pimping charges before, but they didn’t stick.
But it is made infinitely easier when you are being prosecuted by incompetent and crooked police officers. I lived in Peel region for several years, and I have nothing but negative things to say about them. Contrasted against the professionalism that I associate (in most circumstances, with a few egregious exceptions) with the Vancouver Police Department, I found Peel to be staffed almost exclusively by bullies and mindless thugs who were more interested in pushing around and terrorizing young people than with living up to their oath.
And while the title (a reference to a classic track from Big Daddy Kane *trigger warning for sexism and homophobia*) is meant to be amusing, there is nothing particularly funny about pimping. Despite the fact that it has taken on some kind of positive connotation in common language, it’s an occupation that essentially relies on the exploitation and physical/psychological abuse of young women. It’s a detestable thing, and anyone caught doing it should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.
However, what the police chose to do instead was to ignore due process and fabricate evidence. As a result, the case against Mr. Salmon (who is probably guilty) has to be thrown out, at the cost of not only the time and efforts of those involved in the prosecution but the Peel Police themselves. As I pointed out in his morning’s post, when police abuse their powers they undermine their own credibility, which is their most effective law enforcement tool.
“Our whole system of justice is based on faith in police investigating, and presenting their case fairly and truthfully … the community should have grave concerns that the police are not only fabricating evidence, but coming to court and lying about it.” Penman wants the officers involved investigated and punished, but they remain on the job. A spokesperson for the Peel Police Service said they have not been disciplined, despite the judge’s findings.
The tools that run Peel law enforcement are not effective at all, and people are starting to notice:
Defence lawyers who regularly try cases in the area call it the latest example of a troubling and cozy relationship between the police service and the local prosecutor’s office, which has yet to wipe away the decades-old stain of a high-profile wrongful conviction.
With 1,855 officers, the Peel force ranks behind only those of Toronto, Montreal and Calgary. It watches over a sprawling melting pot of new immigrants. “Peel is a petri dish of massive growth and bad planning,” said defence counsel Robert Rotenberg. “They are playing catch up, going from being a small town to being a big city.” In the latest ruling, a judge found that Peel Regional police officers stripped a suspect naked to show him who was boss, and provided false testimony to conceal their misconduct.
Boy am I glad I don’t live there anymore.
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