Tag Archives: Canada

Jagmeet Singh’s Charm Offensive

His nice words don’t quite square with nasty realities

✎  Wayne K. Spear | October 5, 2017 ◈ Politics

T

HE HEADLINES trumpeting Jagmeet Singh’s NDP leadership win each conformed to one of two themes. Either his victory as a “non-white” candidate was unprecedented, or it could be credited to the very-much-precedented appeal of charisma, GQ-worthy style, and handsomeness. The American papers in particular didn’t fail to notice that another Trudeau had arrived on the scene, ending the Prime Minister’s cornering of the charm market. Nor does the ringing of familiar bells end there. Kesh and kara aside, the new NDP leader is political boilerplate: a lawyer from Scarborough who speaks (cautiously) in both official languages and who celebrates Canada’s diversity and wholesomeness in, no doubt, focused-group-tested terms.

Jagmeet SinghCanada’s newest GQ leader

But, of course, he isn’t just another politician. He’s Sikh, and he is now leader of a federal political party, and as such he’s nullified a barrier to political office we should be glad to see nullified. The Charisma War can now begin, and how discouraging this prospect must be for the Conservative leader, Mr. Scheer, whose New York Times headline said: “Canada’s Conservatives Choose Andrew Scheer as Their New Leader.” In the meantime we all know how these battles are going to be fought, and that is with the ammunition of buttery words shot at the hardworking families of the middle class. Gone are the days when a political party might actually have something to fight for or about, such as proletariat revolution or tooth-and-claw capitalism. It’s three parties for the middle class, comrade. So who do you think has the nicest suit?

There are still things in this world for which and over which people fight and kill and die. The recent history of the Indian and Pakistan Punjab, birthplace of Jagmeet Singh’s parents, comes to mind. Since the British withdrawal from the region in the 1940s, the Punjab and Kashmir regions have been among the world’s most dangerous and volatile. The sectarian hatreds of two nuclear states and their diverse internal populations have engendered horrific violence, and while it may be true that none of this registers with the average Canadian, some of the old-world baggage has found its way to places like Brampton and Surrey and Vancouver. Canadians ought to care about that, more than they do.

There was a time when obscure causes like an independent Sikh state of Khalistan (obscure from a Canadian perspective) made headlines from Halifax to Vancouver. On June 23, 1985, Sikh terrorists associated with Babbar Khalsa put a bomb on Air India Flight 182 as well as on a plane bound for Japan—the latter detonated at the Japanese airport, killing the baggage handlers—one member of Babbar Khalsa having vowed that “we will not rest” until they had killed 50,000 Hindus. There are Sikh nationalists who to this day celebrate as a martyr the man behind this crime, the largest-ever mass murder of Canadian citizens, Talwinder Singh Babbar.

What has this to do with Jagmeet Singh? Nothing, really. But at the prospect of questions about Khalistan and Sikh extremism and the “martyrdom” of Talwinder Singh Babbar, the charming bespoke Jagmeet Singh fade into the curtains to be replaced by a cagey and defensive and lawyerly Jagmeet Singh? Why does he demand that all questions along these lines be submitted in advance and all transcriptions of his answers vetted prior to publication? Probably all the reasons one asks for these things: to prepare an answer, to avoid surprises, to make the best possible impression.

Screen Shot 2017-10-05 at 10.52.32 AMA headline from Sikh Siyasat News

To his credit, Jagmeet Singh appeared on the October 2nd episode of Power and Politics despite Terry Milewski’s refusal to grant Singh’s terms. There, Milewski asked, “Do you think that some Canadian Sikhs go too far when they honour Talwinder Singh Babbar as a martyr of the Sikh nation?” Singh argued, falsely in my view, that Sikhs and Hindus co-exist “in peace and harmony, and we need to celebrate that.” (I ask you: how on earth can you square this idea with the Flight 182 bombing?) Pressed further, he said:

So, it is so unacceptable that violence that was committed—the heinous massacre that was committed—is something that Sikhs, Muslim, Hindus all denounced, the violence as perpetrated against innocent Canadian lives, is something we all denounce. I regularly denounce it on the anniversary. It’s something that we all collectively are opposed to. There is no question about this, that innocent lives were killed and it is completely unacceptable and needs to be denounced as a terrorist act.

He never answered the question, “Do you think that some Canadian Sikhs go too far when they honour Talwinder Singh Babbar as a martyr of the Sikh nation?” But he did answer two questions that Terry Milewski didn’t ask. Again I am reminded of Trudeau.

Sir John A. Macdonald: a morally unremarkable man

By the time I have finished this little essay of mine, the Twitter storm which is its occasion will have passed, and a new and equally useless storm will be underway. Only a fraction of people take notice of Twitter, and only a fraction of the fraction treat it as more than a frivolity. The chief utility of Twitter, as any self-aware user knows, is to pass some time as tiny bursts of whatnot stimulate your vision, like roman candles.

A recent vote of the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario has put forward the motion to remove the name Sir John A. Macdonald from all public schools in Ontario. Needless to say the idea was met with horror and outrage on Twitter, as all such proposals are. There is however a swelling of the call for such undertakings, and from a broader segment of the population than would have been likely even a decade ago.

Here are the more common arguments I have found against the motion:

– The Slippery Slope, Erasure Argument: No one is safe once the principle of removing names of the objectionable takes hold; soon all names from the past will be erased and forgotten, and Canadian history will disappear
– The Presentist Argument: Of course Sir John A. Macdonald was a racist, etc., but only by the standards of the present. By the standards of his day he was unremarkable, everyone at that time being a racist, etc.
– The Balance of Good Argument: Sir John A. Macdonald is a founding father whose positive achievements outweigh whatever ill he may have done
– The Revisionist Argument: It is wrong to re-create history to suit the tastes of the moment.

It is worth noting that, with few exceptions, the arguments against retracting the name of Sir John A. Macdonald concede that he “bears responsibility for the Indian Act and for residential schools” and for associated views “that are repugnant by today’s standards” — these are John Ivison’s words, from the August 24, 2017 edition of the National Post. I say “worth noting” because only twenty years ago it was common to find defences of this very same Indian residential school system in the pages of the National Post and elsewhere. It would be a matter of small trouble to produce a dozen examples, but one will I think suffice:

March 21, 2001
Healthy skepticism
National Post
In the past five years, Canadians have been led to believe that church- and government-run Indian residential schools systematically stripped Indian children of their identities. In 1998, Jane Stewart, then the federal Indian Affairs minister, conferred the federal government’s official blessing on this view when she expressed “profound regret” over the fact that residential schools “separated many children from their families and communities and prevented them from speaking their own languages and from learning about their heritage and cultures.” Ms. Stewart was no doubt taking her cue from the 1996 report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, which describes residential schools as inherently “abusive” institutions that continue to cast “a deep shadow over the lives of many Aboriginal people and communities.”
Statements of claim being churned out by law firms on behalf of Indian litigants similarly allege that residential schools tried to “kill the Indian in the child” and engaged in “organized cultural genocide.”
Challenging this view requires courage …

etc., etc.

The common opinion-editorial view of only twenty years ago—that surely these well-intentioned residential schools couldn’t have been all that bad—is not without its present advocates, but there is no doubting that opinion on this issue has shifted. Today even the most reactionary commentator (Conrad Black comes to mind) will as a rule clear his throat with a qualifying phrase such as “of course there were some bad apples” or “although it’s true that terrible crimes were committed” before launching a defence. Few writers are willing to take the position that the Indian residential school system was on balance a good idea, with respect both to intentions as well as to execution. What has brought about this change? Above all else it is the result of a vigorous and sustained campaign led by the people who knew these institutions from the inside and who in many cases left them broken and diminished. In the 1990s and early 2000s, when I was working at the Aboriginal Healing Foundation, the fear was not of the erasure of Canada’s history but rather of its restoration. Against this effort of abuse survivors, to restore the historical record, stood the government and church lawyers and a good deal of the media.

Some unpleasant truths follow from the preceding. The first is that there is no getting around the fact that history is forever being re-written, that (as Auden put it) the words of a dead man are modified in the guts of the living, and that “erasure” at one time or another is our universal fate. It is unlikely that a majority of Canadians know more about Sir John A. Macdonald than could be written on a Dentyne wrapper, and that even this small amount of knowledge would contain errors. No amount of statuary or school naming is likely going to help. Furthermore it is as easy to purge oneself entirely of inherited values and prejudices, and to apprehend the past in its purity, as it is to stare at the back of your own eyeballs. We celebrate heroic men and women of the past precisely because they did something exceptional: they defied the standards of their time (often suffering for it) and remained mostly unsullied of the gewgaw and falderal all around them.

We are living through a time when the very notion of objective truth is under obvious and stunning attack, but anyone who has studied the past knows that there is always some degree of war going on against truth, particularly against unpleasant and inconvenient truth. Thirty years ago I had bitter arguments with university professors over matters that would be uncontroversial today. Often the argument bogged down in banal human factors like aesthetic tastes. For example, I recall taking the position that Duncan Campbell Scott’s poetry should not be isolated from his work as a senior bureaucrat, a proposition that threatened to sully the enjoyment of his work. It is the case however that very few artists would come out of a thorough scrutiny of their lives with their reputation enhanced, and the same is true of politicians and editorialists and activists and of homo sapiens in general. The effort to suppress truth is often a rational effort, but in the interest of preventing dangerous lies to take root it ought to be resisted and repudiated.

The truth about Sir John A. Macdonald contains a good many unpleasant facts, but it happens that the facts are more unpleasant for some than they are for others. For some the unpleasantness of a history is abstract, and for others it is Uncle Roy, who never came home from the war. Or it is your mother, who got on a train in Łódź never to be seen again. Sir John A. Macdonald is not regarded, even by his defenders, as a man of the heroic mode, but he is regarded as an abstraction, and a powerful abstraction at that: he is “the father of Confederation,” the man who made Canada, and likely this is why the call to remove his name invoked the wrath that it did. He is bound up in an Anglo-Canadian nationalism which walks softly but carries a big hockey stick. I am tempted to say that no Indigenous person can feel in her bones what many Canadians feel about their symbols, but doubtless there are some who can. In any case, for a great many Indigenous people, Sir John A. Macdonald is a man who caused the suffering of our dead and living relatives, a man who described people not unlike us as barbarians and savages. Yes, by the standards of his day he was morally unremarkable, and that is precisely why we find him so hard to take.

Sonny Daze Meets the Orange Menace

The two August Leaders, one the President of America and the other the President of that country somewhere in the vicinity of America, clashed in a fierce battle of handshake. The Orange Menace grimaced, jerking the arm of his rival. Sonny Daze stood his ground, dreamily smiling, his core muscles taut with alacrity. The Orange Menace worked the resolute limb, twisting and yanking as if extirpating a root. Yet the mighty tree could not be felled. The Orange Menace has met his match: he who spends an hour each morning at his hair now contends with he who also spends an hour each morning at his hair. One lives for the camera, the other for the camera lives. Each adoration craves. The Orange Menace applies brutal force in service of dominance, while Sonny Daze has charmed his way to this mountaintop.

– I am King of this Mountain, says the Orange Menace.

Sonny Daze does not speak. He adopts a Yoga pose and gazes dreamily into the cameras.

– I have done more in 100 days of being President than any President in the history of the world of Presidents.

Sonny Daze says nothing. He puts on a fringed buckskin jacket and portages to the river, dropping his canoe into the water. He paddles his vessel toward the cameras.

– Look upon my tremendous works! says the Orange Menace.

Sonny removes his buckskin jacket and rends his shirt. Bare-chested, he dashes four miles westward to a couple busied at their nuptials. Henceforth and forevermore shall he be immortalized on the mantelpiece photo where this day will be eternally commemorated.

A jealous and enraged Orange Menace takes to Twitter in an effort to regain the world’s attention. Sonny Daze puts on a faux Indian headdress. It is the War of The Manchildren, a force of personality against the force of personality, a clash of surfaces, a contest of brands, a struggle of perception against perception. They are different and yet the same. They are what you want them to be. They are yours and you must love them, if for no reason other than they are created for you and in your image.

Who will emerge victorious in this battle of the vanities?

– Look upon my mighty works, says the Orange Menace.
– Strong Together We Middle Class Better We Good We, says Sonny Daze.
– I will smite America’s enemies! says the Orange Menace.
– Love We Middle Class Together Good Together Canada Strong, says Sonny Daze.

They take their places. The battle proper has begun. Now we will see and judge them by their works.

The sky darkens as the Orange Menace lifts his adamantium scimitar heavenward. The mighty instrument draws an electric stream from the firmament. Energy ripples from the Orange Menace like an angry stone thrown into water. He shouts a primal scream

– Yyyyaaaaaaawwwwwwwwaaaaaaoooooooorrrrrrrraaaaaaaaggggggggaaaaa!

The Orange Menace points his scimitar to the West. He issues a tremendous bolt of energy with a roar that splits the Earth. The bolt in an instant strikes the ground at 719 Church Street, in Nashville, Tennessee, 666 miles distant. When the smoke dissipates, the Orange Menace gestures with pride toward the awe-inspiring deed.

– Look upon this hole, which by my own hand I now designate the future Fred D. Thompson Federal Building and United States Courthouse!

With a nice and supple hand, Sonny Daze takes up the Unicorn-feathered holly wand, gifted to his father by a once-Potentate of the Levant. He raises the wand to a swell of birdsong. Of a sudden, the air is redolent of neroli and mandarin. Across the world the humble pause momentarily their toil to hold the hand of a neighbor. The cameras chatter. Sonny Daze points his wand north to the Langevin Building of Ottawa, Canada, 565 miles away. A stream of glowing pixie dust issues from his magical tool, crossing Maryland, Pennsylvania, New York, and the US-Canada border into Ontario at the eastern edge of the Great Lake. Up goes the pixie dust, along Highways 401 and 416, turning east at Highway 417 where it exits at Bronson Avenue to travel north toward Wellington via Queen.

When the pixie dust arrives to its destination of Parliament Hill, Sonny Daze tucks the Instrument of Dreamy Wonder in an inner pocket of his suit jacket, designed specially for this purpose. He pauses dramatically, before saying

– I hereby re-name the Langevin Building “The Building Where Governmenty People Do Governmenties Stuff.”

The people cheer. Look at his eyes, he is so dreamy, they say.

Not to be outdone, the Orange Menace next names the Department of Veterans Affairs community-based outpatient clinic, in Pago Pago, American Samoa, the Faleomavaega Eni Fa’aua’a Hunkin VA Clinic.

Not to be outdone outdone, Sonny Daze renames National Aboriginal Day “National Indigenous Day.”

Not to be outdone outdone outdone, the Orange Menace renames the Department of Veterans Affairs health care center, in Center Township, Butler County, Pennsylvania, the “Abie Abraham VA Clinic.”

Sonny Daze renames the ten dollar bill the “Indigenous People Are Wonderful Bill.”

The Orange Menace re-renames French Fries “Freedom Fries.”

This goes on for hours and then days, with no clear victor emerging. Incapable, or perhaps unwilling, of anything of substance, they lock themselves into a shambolic war of pandering gesture. Their tribes applaud them, as the cameras record every word and facial expression. Meanwhile, for the rest of us, life goes on.