talking radical: a history of canada through the eyes of activists

This the third of the four talks I attended semi-recently. Other recent talks: noah richler, u.s. war resisters, and the militarization of canadian culture, and from greece to chicago to toronto, workers fighting back against austerity.

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Scott Neigh, who writes the blog A Canadian Lefty in Occupied Land, has published a pair of books that "enter Canadian history-from-below through the words of long-time activists." You can learn more about these books and who is featured in them at Scott's Talking Radical website.

I attended a book-launch event for Neigh's books because my friend and comrade Frank Showler was speaking. Frank, who was a war resister during the second World War, is a stalwart supporter of the War Resisters Support Campaign - and all peace activism - and I was there to show support to Frank. But of course I learned from every speaker, and from the perspectives of many people in the audience.

Neigh talked about what he learned from interviewing long-time Canadian activists - the connections between the past and the present, the sense of continuity as we continue these struggles, the connections between the individual experience and the larger social history - the proof that our actions matter.

Neigh touched on how history as it is conventionally taught - wars, "great men" - does not equip us to understand social movements. This awareness led him to interview more than 50 activists throughout Canada, and he came to understand how any version of history is always incomplete.

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Frank Showler, who refused to fight in World War II, said that he never thought of his stance as resistance to the government, but as resistance to war. He cooperated with alternative service, and suggested we should more rightly honour those "non-cooperators,", people like Jehovah's Witnesses who refused to participate even in alternative-service programs.

I've heard Frank tell part of his own story before, but on this evening he was much more concerned with the present: how the Harper Government doesn't believe in peace, and is "militarizing the country as fast as they can". Frank spoke of how he and his late wife, Isabel, supported U.S. resisters to the Vietnam War, and how he now supports Iraq War resisters. But, Frank said, "Maybe we should all be resisting much more fully than we ever have before."

Don Weitz has been involved in anti-psychiatry activism for decades, harnessing tremendous anger against the "so-called mental health system". Weitz saw the abuses, the cruelty, the barbarism of this system from both sides - as both patient and practitioner. In his view, psychiatry has not changed all that much since those grim days in the 1950s. Inspired by the US civil rights movement and by the women's movement, Wietz joined others in forming the "mental patients' liberation movement," now usually called "psychiatric survivors".

Weitz recounted the beginnings of the movement in Detroit in 1973, then in Topeka, Kansas in 1974, fueled by resistance to forced drugging and forced ECT (shock therapy), used as weapons of control, submission, and conformity. Weitz said after witnessing the "daily degradation and humiliation" of patients, it was "thrilling" to see people who had always been silent now speaking out.

Weitz now runs a conference called "Psych Out," and focuses on the forced medicating of children, psychiatry's most vulnerable victims.

Josephine Grey is a long-time anti-poverty and human rights activist, now working with the Occupy Movement. Grey focused on her dismay at how even the most engaged young people, those who care about social change, seem to know very little about Canadian history. Grey believes young people need to "completely separate" from the internet and their electronic devices, to go off the grid, in order to organize and sustain movements.

She described Canada as exceptional in the vast disconnect between public face and reality: "No other country does a better job of covering up its ugliness."

I took exception to some of Grey's framing. I cannot question her own lived experience, but I do wonder whether young activists of decades past were so well grounded in movement history, or if there isn't perhaps some romanticizing of the past in this view, or perhaps a general distate for contemporary youth culture. Regardless, all activists need to learn more about the past movements that propelled social change. There's no arguing with that.

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Neigh wrapped up by talking about ways we can think differently about Canadian history.

Foremost, he said, we must focus on struggle. For example, the standard Canadian history of universal health insurance begins and ends with Tommy Douglas. But although Douglas is a key figure in that story, it was not a solo battle, any more than the U.S. civil rights movement was fought singlehandedly by Martin Luther King or Rosa Parks. We can ask ourselves, what role did struggle pay in forming the current health care system?

Neigh reminded us that becoming more familiar with histories of oppression and resistance helps us become less comfortable with colonization, genocide, and racist immigration policies that have shaped Canadian history. Think about this, he challeged us: a few centuries ago, there were no white people on this continent, and no one spoke English. Now the dominant language is English and the ruling class is white. How did that happen? Neigh suggests we should bring our awareness of that question to every picture of Canadian history.

Neigh used another example that I frequently go to. The post-war era - after World War II - is often referred to as a time of great "peace and prosperity". But was it peaceful, and who prospered? Did people of colour prosper? Were gay people free to be at peace? If there was prosperity, what role did labour struggles play in making that possible?

In his interviews, Neigh said, he focused on struggles in which he had not been a direct participant, and this approach holds another key: to "listen across differences". Neigh emphasized something that we often talk about here at wmtc and at my partner's blog: no history is neutral. There's no such thing as having no point of view. When we bring our anti-war beliefs to a baseball game, we are accused of "politicizing" the game, of inappropriately inserting our politics into a non-political event. But the constant and increasing military presence, and the glamorizing of war at sports events is supposedly neutral. No. Official history is never neutral.

Our job is to make visible the invisible point of view in those official histories. We can challenge it every chance we get.

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