Today, May 21st is the day 69 of my indefinite hunger strike protesting Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s cruel new crime law, the deceptively christened “Safe Streets and Communities Act”, formerly omnibus crime Bill C10. This potentially-fatal act of peaceful civil disobedience is an informed reaction to Harper’s burgeoning elected dictatorship. It is a natural reaction hewn out of conscience and personal lived experience.
I was nothing when I washed up on Canada’s shores as a political refugee from Zimbabwe in the summer of 2003. The violence I had experienced and witnessed while fighting for human rights and political change in the Southern African country had mutilated me, physically and emotionally. But Canada nursed and healed me. Canada restored that which Zimbabwe denied me for the first thirty-two years of my life: human dignity. I’m an offspring of a Canada built on the foundation of these unparalleled values enshrined in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms: compassion; fairness; respect for fundamental rights; inclusion; multiculturalism; diversity; democratic governance; and accommodation of difference.
The Safe Streets and Communities Act, termed an “atrocity” by a recent signatory to my petition, seeks to obliterate these values. Together with the other draconian pieces of legislation the Conservatives are currently bulldozing through parliament the legislation seek to create a vindictive, divisive, pro-punishment, poverty-ignoring and anti-minority rightwing Canada. The backward-looking laws seek to create a society that is cowed, uncritical, fearful and divided. They seek to force us into a state of permanent fear; a place from where we’ll clamor for protection from the state. And yet, fear and terror create an intellectual and moral void. It disarms society of its power to question.
On November 23, 2011, I tasted the wrath of the new Canada these dictatorship-style laws propose. That day, Canada became a police state far too eager to criminalize dissent and abuse power, resources and the law. I was part of eight unarmed Occupied Ottawa (formerly Occupy Ottawa) protesters peacefully resisting eviction from Ottawa’s Confederation Park. Between 150 and 200 Ottawa Police officers were dispatched just after 2am to evict us and issue eight $65 trespass tickets. The police applied disproportionate and unnecessary force. I was treated differently than my two white colleagues with whom I made the final stand. I was subjected to cruel and unusual treatment. I ended up in hospital with injuries to my back, legs and left arm. I now experience frequent headaches and memory loss or temporary blackouts. I was recently certified temporarily medically unemployable.
And the Ottawa police had no qualms about spending $16 000 on the four-hour operation. Meanwhile, 600 aboriginal women and girls are either murdered or mission and the feds remains unwilling to act.
Harper recently appointed Vernon White, the man who was in charge of the Ottawa Police that morning, to the senate. I strongly question the senator’s judgment in a situation that demanded sobriety and a quick glance at the Charter. A failure of judgment and Canadian leadership occurred that morning. That’s why I am demanding the senator’s resignation.
My five demands are:
- Parliament should repeal the Safe Streets and Communities Act.
- Senator Vernon White should resign.
- The federal government should invest 100 times the cost of monitoring and dismantling Occupy encampments across Canada last fall to institute a national inquiry into the case of 600+ missing and murdered aboriginal women and girls.
- The House of Commons should democratize and improve accountability and transparency.
- Harper and the Conservatives should stop their ongoing war on Canadians and Canadian democracy.
I am demanding only the minimum of what Canadians should rightly be demanding right now. Harper’s undemocratic rule is impeachable. Since assuming power in 2006, he has willfully turned Canada into a “suicidal state” relentlessly sniping at its own democratic institutions. For example, he prorogued parliament twice, in 2008 and 2009. The potentially-stolen May 2011 federal election deprived Canadians of their sacred right to choose a representative of their own choice.
Crime Bill C10’s journey through parliament was a dictatorship-style abuse of parliamentary process and democratic practice. Conservative majorities in both the House of Commons and Senate passed the bill, a composite of nine pieces of legislation, without the comprehensive debate and oversight our parliamentary democracy demands. The government shut out the voices of ordinary Canadians, elected representatives and expert witnesses who offered progressive options to the harsh provisions of the backward-looking bill.
In the Senate, senators willfully abandoned their key role as sober second thought providers; they simply rubber-stamped Harper’s will. Liberal senator Joan Fraser recently told me that the Liberals in the chamber proposed 16 amendments, including the restoration of judicial discretion. All were rejected along with the evidence submitted by hundreds of witnesses from across the country.
To sell the legislation to the public, the government discarded the democratic route of explaining the straight facts to Canadians. It took a propaganda approach which trumped substance and deliberative democracy. To neutralize progressives and dissenters, the government created a tyrannical, one-party state-style environment where all Canadians were treated as potential enemies of the state. Dissenters, aboriginal groups, activists and civil society organizations opposed to official policy or dedicated to issues were targeted, demonized, marginalized, dehumanized and labeled “enemies of the state”. This climate of fear violates the sanctity of Canada’s democratic and parliamentary institutions, traditions and values.
On March 13, the acquiescing Conservative majorities in the legislature passed the omnibus crime bill into law, clearing the way for a Harper’s long-cherished cherished rightwing Canada. That same day, I appealed to the Governor General of Canada, David Johnston, to use the Crown’s reserve powers to either withhold or reserve Royal Assent to the bill. And on March 27, Official Opposition NDP MP, Paul Dewar (Ottawa Centre), delivered my letter to parliament. I have since communicated the demands to all of Canada’s elected 308 MPs and 105 appointed senators. I’m yet to receive a response.
Under Harper, Canada’s fine art of democratic conversation is being disappeared in broad day light. We’re living our own Nixonian moment. All kinds of dirty tricks, including Goebbels-style propaganda, McCarthyism and cold-war-style red–baiting, are party of the political game.
This is not democracy!
The Conservatives’ “rush job” on Bill C10 is the new normal in Canada. It sought to stifle the numerous inconvenient truths about the law. The Safe Streets and Communities Act is a legislated assault on Canadian society, the judiciary, the youth, our core values and the future. Here’s why:
- It violates the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, particularly the right to be protected from cruel and unusual punishment; the right to equal protection before the law; the right to liberty; and the rights of Canadians convicted overseas.
- It seeks to and will radically stir the Canadian justice system away from the prevention and restorative measures that have proven to be humane, effective and cheaper, towards punishment and exclusion.
- In this era of massive public sector lay-offs and senseless budget cuts to essential services, at least $19 billion will be diverted from public goods to implement the law.
- The law’s mandatory minimums sentences undermine the judiciary. They take away judges’ discretion and limit alternative sentencing measures. They send the wrong message to society; they give the impression that judges do not know how to do their job, and that they need political direction and oversight. And, by requiring judges to consider lifting the publication ban on young offenders, the law enlists the judiciary’s hand in stigmatizing the offenders for life.
- The law’s sweeping changes to Canada’s youth justice system is an assault on our future. Longer and tougher sentences on young and first timers will punish our youth. They grow tomorrow’s hardened criminals who, upon re-entry into society, will make our communities and streets more unsafe even for those the Conservatives’ tough-on-crime agenda purports to protect.
- The law will grow mega jails and a war on drugs in Canada which, together with new tougher sentences, will punish vulnerable and disadvantaged communities. The majority of those who will face tougher sentences, extended periods in custody before trial and extended ineligibility for parole, are those with mental health issues, blacks and Aboriginals.
- The law will further divide Canadian society. It creates a minority that’s economically well-off, live in gated communities and feels safer every moment the police takes its “war on drugs/crime” into the heart of the vulnerable and disadvantaged groups described in (6) above. Already, the government rules through whipping up unnecessary moral panic against marginalized groups, criminals, terrorists, suspected war criminals and “the other.”
- There’s an implicit yet undeniable New Jim Crow–style racism is imbedded into the law. More blacks and aboriginals, already oversubscribed in the incarcerated population, will populate the law’s inevitable mega jails. Aboriginals already constitute 4 per cent of the Canadian population, but up to 22 per cent of the country’s prison population. Canada experienced a 50 per cent increase of black inmates in the last 10 years. The Conservatives’ disdain for statistics and evidence is legendary. But what kind of society are we allowing ourselves to become? Most of the inmates are incarcerated for crimes rooted in poverty, economic inequality, lack of opportunity, inadequate social services and historical prejudice. The Safe Streets and Communities Act legalizes racial discrimination in every aspect of social, economic and political life. Felons are discriminated against in access to education, the right to vote, employment, and public benefits.
This is not my Canada. My Canada embraced a wretch that grew up in dire poverty and the state-sponsored violence of colonial and post-colonial Africa. Canada believed in me as an equal member of the human race. She encouraged me to unleash my passions and non-Canadian professional skills and experience in the service of my adopted country.
In 2004, I volunteered for the late NDP leader Jack Layton’s successful run for parliamentary office.
From December 2003 to April, 2008 and volunteered and worked for the Canada Africa Partnership on AIDS (CAP AIDS), a registered Canadian charity that claims to support HIV/AIDS work in Africa. From May 2008 to August 2008, I served as the charity’s executive director. Through my seven years of loyal service to this charity, and my numerous public speaking engagements in Toronto, London, Guelph, Vancouver, Vancouver, Kingston and Ottawa, I added value to Canada’s contribution to the global HIV/AIDS pandemic.
Over the years, I’ve carved a unique Canadian identity as a globally-conscious, activism-oriented progressive political blogger.
My hunger protest is a journey of hope. Our collective spirit of hope is enshrined in the values etched in the Charter, particularly: compassion, respect for fundamental rights and the rule of law, multiculturalism, inclusion, diversity, fairness and accommodation of difference. In these values lie our collective security, not in the Safe Streets and Communities Act.
As I continue with the hunger strike, I hope to embolden Parliament to give the law the real sober second thought it deserves. I hope to remind our legislators that a hunger strike in a democracy is a sign of imperfect democracy. It betrays an invisible police-state lite.
I hope to reach out to more of my fellow Canadians. And to humanity. Now is the hour to build societies that nurture hope instead of extinguishing it. It’s the moment to remind ourselves that an injustice visited upon a vulnerable individual or community, is an injustice visited upon all of us. It’s an injustice committed everywhere.
Canadian democracy is living its greatest hour of need, and we’re all being called upon to defend it. Surrendering to Harper’s flouring tyranny is not an option. Our democratic institutions, values and freedoms must be defended by any peaceful and democratic means necessary.