How I Became A Left Canadian Nationalist
January/February 2005 Issue of Canadian Dimension
Avery Arable: “Can I have a pig too, Pop?” John Arable: “I only distribute pigs to early risers, and Fern was up at daylight trying to rid the world of injustice.” –Charlotte’s Web
I spent my childhood on a mixed family farm helping raise chickens, cows, barley, wheat and pigs, but I grew up feeling like the black sheep. Growing up the unconsciously progressive child of staunch conservatives – so staunch, my mother currently works for the Fraser Institute – I always felt as though maybe something was wrong with me. My parents often couldn’t help but agree. “The things we thought would upset you didn’t upset you,” they’ve since told me. “But things that we didn’t think would matter made you get upset.”
The problem for me was that from the time I was small I had a certain sense that some things were just wrong. Not morally wrong – I didn’t have enough religion instilled in me to ever make that connection. But wrong in the sense that they were unfair, or unjust, or inaccurate – wrong in the sense that they were things that needed to be changed.
– Roots –
Looking back now, I can joke that I was the product of genes that skipped a generation. My Finnish grandparents always vote NDP, and, after all, they grew up in a progressive society that was the first in the world to give women the vote. My grandfather defended his beloved forested Karelia from the Russians in the Winter War only to have to leave his families’ home, never to return, when the Russians successfully conquered the province. The rest of the Finns all contributed some of their precious gold jewelry and other pieces of personal wealth to ease the transition of the Karelian refugees as they resettled in what remained of the country, a massive national exercise in the voluntary redistribution of wealth. My Dutch grandmother Maretje lied to gun-toting Nazis at her door during the occupation of Holland and hid cheeses for the resistance, working with my grandfather to hide people who otherwise would have been destined for the camps.
Actually, despite our misunderstandings, my parents taught me some valuable early lessons about how to fight for what you believe. When I was still very small – I was colouring pictures of Mary in the basement instead of listening to the services – my parents left their church, explaining to my brother and I that they felt it was wrong for the pastor to preach that Black people and Jews were going to Hell. Knowing I was bright, my parents fought to get me into grade one even though I was technically too young, and went as far as taking me to a child psychologist to have my I.Q. tested and meeting several times with the principal. In the end, they won. Those early examples taught me that, if you don’t like the way things are, you can do something about it, even if the things that I currently work hard to change aren’t the things my parents would have picked for me.
– Reading –
Still, for years I remained confused. School was no help. In books, at least, I found people and ideas with which I could relate. I devoured science fiction – not the endless throwaway sequels so common to the genre today, but classic or near-classic writers of ideas, like Philip K. Dick, Harlan Ellison, Robert A. Heinlein, Roger Zelazny, Ursula K. Le Guin and Ray Bradbury, many of whom were to be found lining my parents’ extensive bookshelves. Bradbury got me hooked on dystopias with Fahrenheit 451, an addiction I still suffer from today, and eventually I sat at the feet not only of Orwell and Aldous Huxley, but also Margaret Atwood, Yevgeny Zamyatin, John Brunner, Samuel Butler, Mikhail Bulgakov and Kim Stanley Robinson. Worlds gone mad, the aftermath of apocalypse, and slides into totalitarianism were stories I couldn’t get enough of. Books honed my ideas and introduced me to social and political concepts through the visceral experience of living imagined lives.
At times, the progressive tendencies I still barely understood leaked out into my real-world expression. As a child, I wrote letters proposing that the old wing of my elementary school be maintained for historical reasons rather than torn down. I wrote a letter to Greenpeace telling the organization how impressed I was with their work to save whales, after watching a T.V. documentary on the subject, and was more than disappointed to receive only a form letter requesting donations in return. I also apparently wrote a letter to George Bush (Sr.) asking him to do something about the plight of the Kurdish people, a fact that still makes my mother shake her head and comment on my consistency. But these small acts didn’t make any sense to me as part of a pattern, and I never attached the word “activism” to what I did.
In fact, the connection between my outlook on the world and social justice was not something I understood. Nothing, and no one, and especially not my parents, explained to me that our fundamentally opposed outlooks on the world meant something, or that there was a spectrum out there somewhere that explained the whole thing.
The rest of the world didn’t do a much better job of educating me, either. During university, I was immersed in critical literary theory, which included Marxism, but with a focus only on how it applied to famous texts rather than how it could be applied to everyday life, as well. I knew one or two people in political science, and I worked at the local coffee shop with someone who lived in the tent city opposing increases in tuition, but it wasn’t something I felt I had much time for while working part-time and finishing my Honours English program in three years instead of the usual four. I was more interested in poetry, the origins of Christianity and WilliamFaulkner’s The Sound and the Fury.
By the age of 21 I found myself safely graduated, happily married, and living in rural northern Alberta with my husband and baby daughter. I was a stay-at-home mother, spending my days changing diapers and nursing with some vague ideas about becoming a writer at some point.
– Radicalizing –
That was, until September 11. My husband and I had been discussing for some time how militaristic the new U.S. president, George W. Bush, seemed to be, a fact that worried us. So, when my husband called me from work to tell me what had happened, and I turned the T.V. from Treehouse to CNN to see the towers falling over and over, the thought occurred to me almost as quickly as the horror of it all: this will spark a war. I was certain that George Bush, who had already been pumping more money into defence, would respond by attacking another country, and I was terrified of what that could mean.
Having no other real outlet and with my home computer handy all day, I turned to the Internet. I had been lightly involved in a discussion forum or two, one of which was basically a fan site for the reality T.V. show, Big Brother. There, like everywhere else, the discussion turned immediately to the terrorist attacks. Inevitably, someone asked the most common question being asked at the time: Why do they hate us? When I answered by posting a piece by Noam Chomsky I had found online, I found myself suddenly banned from the forum. When I contacted the site moderator, I got a snippy reply that my comments were “insensitive” and “inappropriate” – despite the fact that others were advocating bombing the “sand niggers” back to the Stone Age. Ironic, to say the least, on a forum devoted to a show with such an Orwellian title.
But that censorship didn’t stop me. If anything, it added fuel to the fire, because I began searching for the people who shared my positions and the information that supported them. I spent my days debating issues online as the U.S., Canada and the world began to polarize into left and right around me. I found myself falling solidly on the Left. And I started taking part in on-line actions, including petitions.
I also watched Bush go to war. I’ll never forget seeing the glint in his eye and the smile that almost seemed to play across his face as he said, “Through this crisis, I see an opportunity.” I knew as never before that I had to stop him. The innate sense of injustice that I’d felt since I was a child rose up in my chest again, and I decided to do everything in my power to contribute to efforts for peace.
– Serendipity –
In a serendipitous fashion, around that time an e-mail arrived in my inbox from Eli Pariser, founder of 9-11peace.org. 9-11peace.org was behind an anti-war web petition that gathered hundreds of thousands of signatures, a petition I signed. Eli needed a volunteer to edit his e-mail newsletter, which already had 17,000 subscribers. I applied, and with my English degree and background working for non-profits, got the position. It became my task to research and write bi-weekly e-mail newsletters on U.S. foreign policy and peace. Immersed in the work, I spent hours doing on-line research on topics like the first Gulf War, women in Afghanistan and the conflict in the Middle East. Over time, our circulation grew, and we took on some volunteer researchers. MoveOn.org, the extremely influential U.S. on-line advocacy organization, was interested in the site and eventually moved it onto their own site as Peace.MoveOn.org. By fall, 2002, MoveOn had offered to pay me for my work and also asked me to take on a new e-mail bulletin on domestic U.S. policy issues, as well.
But the more involved I became with the organization, the more I felt like an outsider. I was committed to peace, but I was the only Canadian among the American staff. MoveOn was always a pro-Democrat organization, but I’d thought their grassroots nature would help them stay open to other perspectives. It didn’t, and that became a major sticking point for me, because I certainly didn’t consider myself to be a Democrat. Worse, it became apparent that often what was comfortable for MoveOn was too conservative and too American for me, and what was comfortable for me was too left and too Canadian for MoveOn.
– Schism –
Probably the best example of this schism in perspectives was when the executive director, Peter Schurman, contacted me to ask what would happen if the U.S. invaded Canada. He said it would obviously be because of U.S. imperialism, so he wanted an idea of how to organize grassroots actions in Canada. I launched into a long description of how upset Canadians would be, how much economic control of Canada the U.S. already had, whether there would be resistance and where it might be, how it might be both similar to and different from 1812 – only to realize eventually that all he actually wanted to know was how many Canadians would vote Democrat. Here was one of the most well respected, anti-war, grassroots organizations in the U.S., and the executive director was basically okay with a U.S. invasion of Canada, as long as most Canadians would vote Democrat – or at least support his Democrat-friendly organization. Once again, I felt the need to find others who shared my opinions and positions. I began using my skills at on-line research to look for more information on Canadian identity and Canada-U.S. relations. I found an article by Robin Mathews on-line, which expressed many of the things I’d been struggling with, and I e-mailed him, beginning a long and informative correspondence that continues today. At some point he expressed the need for some way to act on the issues, for some kind of centre or organization that would not shy away but rather tackle them head on. The idea struck me as a good one.
– Sovereignty –
I also continued to read widely, delving into work by Gordon Laxer of the Parkland Institute and the discussions on Canadian sovereignty in Canadian Dimension. Here were the explanations I had been groping for, which described a nationalism based not on race or ethnicity, but rather on the ability to set unique Canadian policy; a civic nationalism, which could recognize the different sovereignties in Canada while critiquing and resisting corporate globalization and American imperialism. It was an idea and a cause that seemed urgent at a time when Canada was being asked to join the United States in Iraq and when Canadian border and security policy was being “harmonized” with U.S. policies that withdrew civil liberties and institutionalized fear of the other.
But the breaking point didn’t come until I actually visited the U.S. I was flown down to San Francisco for the first annual MoveOn staff retreat to strategize, discuss progress so far and plan for the future. The more I discussed the way things were in the world with my colleagues, the more I discussed politics, the more alienated I felt. There was no room there for anything more than a two-party system or even for many policies espoused in Canada by the far-from-radical NDP. And, even as the Bush Administration was critiqued, there was a tacit acceptance of the fact that “America is the greatest democracy in the world.”
When I came back to Canada, it was with a new sense of purpose. I had recently read Mel Hurtig’s book, The Vanishing Country, in which he included his e-mail address and invited people to send him ideas on how to “save Canada.” I sent him an e-mail outlining my idea – using the Internet the way MoveOn had in the U.S., but to provide a place to discuss and oppose the new push for “deep integration” with the U.S. Despite the fact that it was a Sunday, he called me the next morning to make an appointment to meet me. I presented the idea to Mel with help from my brother, a computer engineer, and two volunteers. Happily, he loved the idea and agreed to sit on our advisory board and to give us his e-mail contact lists, an important foundation to promote the site.
Thus, Vive le Canada.ca was born, and I resigned from MoveOn.org.
– Vive Le Canada! –
That was in January, 2003. Since then, Vive le Canada.ca, has built a membership of over 1,000 people across Canada, receives over a quarter of a million hits per month and keeps growing – proving, I think, a strong desire among Canadians for a forum where they can discuss Canadian sovereignty and identity. The site has published articles by Robin Mathews, James Laxer, Tony Hall and other Canadian academics, and received national media attention for our campaign opposing Statistics Canada’s decision to contract out a portion of the 2006 Canadian census to U.S. weapons giant Lockheed Martin.
The movement to fight for Canadian sovereignty also seems to be gaining momentum, and the Council of Canadians has gone so far as to release its own pamphlet outlining why the push for “deep integration” in Canada is a bad idea. The Council has promised to unite public opposition to the erosion of Canadian sovereignty the same way it rallied opposition to the MAI and to free trade.
Several points in the NDP platform during the 2004 federal election were also meant to address sovereignty issues, and, in fact, I ran in the riding of Peace River after being approached by the party on the strength of my sovereignty work. It was a difficult decision to determine whether I wanted to make the jump from grassroots activism to party politics, but, since the founding of Vive, I have learned that, in fact, the two are not mutually exclusive. On the contrary, they are inevitably tied together. To reject party politics and embrace grassroots activism is to commit yourself to ineffectiveness, because at some point things come down to a decision made by those in power.
– Vivent les Femmes –
As a woman, and a young woman at that, I also relished the chance to call the other (older, richer, male) candidates to task on their policies and party records. I threw myself into the work, which is, after all, not much different from an activist campaign – you’re trying to educate people on the issues, raise visibility for your own group by getting in the media and build support among other citizens. Far from seeing examples of hypocrisy or corruption, I found instead a diverse group of talented and passionate people who walked the talk every day, and whose opinions were apparently valued by the party.
And, as a female candidate, I experienced first hand the sexism that still exists in party politics. Being a woman is still somewhat unusual for a Canadian politician – let alone being seen as an asset. On the doorsteps, it seemed people would decide that I was a nice young woman – and therefore not equipped to run the country.
Having experienced a campaign once, I am more than ready to run again. It is the ideal outlet for the inner shove forward that makes me raise my hand, step up to the podium, or open my mouth to speak. To that end, I am still involved in the federal riding association as secretary, and, at the time of writing, I am working to rebuild our long-defunct provincial constituency organization as its president. And I continue to serve as president of Vive le Canada.ca, even as I get involved in several more grassroots activist efforts.
The bottom line is that, not only am I happily involved in the work I am most passionate about, my world outlook and my life makes sense to me in ways it never did before. I am living my principles and building my ideas, getting my hands dirty in the deep, difficult and necessary work of making change for the better. I know I am not a lone black sheep, but a member of a large, ever-present and vitally important group of people who feel a similar need to pursue social justice for all and to ask questions similar to those I feel compelled to ask; and I know I am also a member of society as a whole and deserve that place, whatever society thinks of me. I have looked around me and found heroes, mentors and companions to help me on the way, and even though I am only 25 years old, I have also begun to find the power within myself to be all of those things to others.
In essence, I have found community; and I have found the joy of connecting with and helping to build the many communities we all inhabit, locally, nationally and internationally. There is nothing that is more satisfying; and there is nothing that inspires more hope.