Montréal -based activist Stefan Christoff sits onstage at a wooden bench in La Sala Rossa on The Main. A small crowd has gathered on a chilly Sunday evening in April. The show is starting late. A lanky, bespectacled man in his thirties, Christoff wears all black from his shoes to his turtleneck to his tousled hair. His thin figure is likely the result of a manic schedule. He rubs his eyes like a child blinded by the morning light and turns to the crowd.
“I don’t do this very often, I’m kind of nervous.”
The audience applauds, offering supportive cheer. Christoff takes a deep breath and dives into the black and white keys, head bobbing, torso swaying and fingers flying through a haunting, visceral soundscape.
“Music is based in the heart, it’s a spiritual activity. I view it as a meditative space where I can communicate all the stuff that I see and everything that I’m going through,” said Christoff at the European Deli on The Main, the same spot where he organized his first action over a decade ago — a demonstration against police brutality.
A charismatic radical, Christoff can often be found with megaphone in hand, rousing an unruly crowd in English et en français. Over the past year he has labored on a more intimate endeavour, his first studio album.
Duets for Abdelrazik, a benefit record, is “a meditation on the fact that we live in a country where the government’s actions led to the torture of a Canadian citizen.” Christoff speaks of the case of Abousfian Abdelrazik, an exiled Sudanese- Canadian jailed on the recommendation of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) and tortured in Sudan.
This is solidarity music.
The album pairs Christoff with a diverse group of international artists, including American saxophonist Matana Roberts, a friend and personal hero. The six-track recording was done at Hotel2Tango, an analogbased studio in the Mile End.
“I think there is a mystical power to the arts,” said Christoff, “one that communicates our struggle in a way banners and speeches can’t.”
An impressionable youngster from British Columbia by way of Toronto–Edmonton–Vancouver– Seattle then back to Vancouver, Christoff spent his summers in Italy with his mother, an artist. In high school he was profoundly inspired by the Native Youth Movement, a militant group that marched through the school’s halls in opposition to Canada’s colonial history. Christoff arrived in Montréal an 18-year-old high-school dropout with a backpack full of anarchist literature and punk rock music. Prior to the Duets album, Christoff was involved in media strategy for Abdelrazik’s campaign.
As a contract writer at the Hour, a defunct Montréal alternative arts and news weekly, Christoff highlighted the intersection of arts and activism in his “Cultural Crossroads” column. When the paper slashed its staff in early 2011 he transitioned to full-time freelancing and organizing.
The popular Artists Against Apartheid concert series is another venue in which Christoff married the arts and activism, resulting in one of the most visible elements of the Canadian movement for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions of Israel.
“If people start talking about an issue on the metro, that is a turning point in a grassroots campaign,” said Christoff. “But the arts communicate political moments in history in more lasting ways.”
Christoff gained some notoriety in Québec City in April 2001, organizing against a free trade summit between North and South American leaders. He continues that struggle in a research position for bilaterals. org, a global website documenting the rise of bilateral and multilevel trade accords. Of all his efforts over the last decade or so, Christoff is most proud of a community-led campaign that challenged Canadian immigration policy and secured passports for 1,000 non-status Algerians.
As a result of his activism, Christoff was the focus of a CSIS investigation in the run-up to the G20 meetings in Toronto in 2010, in which government agents showed up at the homes and workplaces of several of his friends. The ordeal is featured in the CBC documentary Enemies_of the State, which first aired in October 2010. That same month Christoff was set to attend the World Education Forum in Palestine but was denied entry by Israeli border agents, presumably for his political views.
Though Christoff has not returned to the Middle East since, he was engaged in solidarity demonstrations during the Arab Spring. He visited Occupy Wall Street and conducted workshops during Occupy Montréal. His involvement with the Printemps Érable has been as an activist adviser, or, as he put it, “as an elder.” He recorded drumming from the Québec student protests and hopes to produce a collection.
“I think that without the music and the red squares — the artistry — the movement wouldn’t be the same,” said Christoff. Both the struggles in Egypt and Québec have inspired piano meditations, available for listening on Christoff’s soundcloud. com/spirodon web page.
In a surprising turn of events, Abousfian Abdelrazik was removed from the United Nations Security Council blacklist late last year. “Technically he’s free, but I don’t know if he’s free in his mind,” said Christoff. Duets for Abdelrazik was released this summer at the Suoni Per Il Popolo music festival in Montréal.
Five of the six artists accompanying Christoff on the album performed at the release shows, including one musician brought over from Egypt. For Christoff the arts are a window into the soul of society and the basis for our collective memory. He is particularly fond of a quote from Métis leader and Canadian folk hero Louis Riel, who said, “My people will sleep for one hundred years, but when they awake, it will be the artists who give them their spirit back.”
-Joey Grihalva is a nomadic journalist from the American Midwest. He is currently working on a book about environmental justice.
This article appeared in the September/October 2012 issue of Canadian Dimension (Québec Students Teach the World a Lesson).