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Omar Khadr and a Divided Canada

During the 2015 federal election, Jason Kenney and the Conservatives attempted to drive a wedge between Canadians when they introduced the ‘niqab ban’, which sought to block a Muslim woman from wearing a face veil while taking the oath of citizenship. Political pundits and editorial boards across the country lined up to denounce this policy, which was declared illegal by the Federal Court of Canada.

And yet throughout the course of the election, partisans relied on this issue to provoke anger, employing racist rhetoric and dog whistle tactics to score political points. By the end of the election, polls suggesting that Canadians overwhelming supported the ban. At the time, one couldn’t help but feel troubled by the apparent lack of concern regarding our country’s constitutionally protected right to the freedom of religion and conscience.

Last week, that sense of division and anger returned with fury following the government’s announcement that it would be offering Omar Khadr an official apology and $10.5 million in compensation for his wrongful imprisonment at Guantanamo Bay. Once again, the country’s political pundits — from Colby Cosh to Roméo Dallaire — have banded together to defend the government’s decision, which falls in line with the Supreme Court’s unanimous ruling that Khadr's human rights were being violated at Guantanamo Bay.

And yet, recent polls suggest that the majority of Canadians are against the settlement. This won’t surprise anyone who has spent any time on social media over the past week, which has become a vicious playground for racist memes, crass political cartoons —see the Edmonton Journal — and dangerous attempts by the alt-right to provoke anti-Muslim sentiment (not to mention the Conservatives’ bald attempt to squeeze this story for every political point it’s worth).

The story has once again revealed a rigid gap that divides Canada when it comes to difficult questions regarding our Charter and the place of religious freedom in Canada. As Cosh points out: “Have you heard anyone confess to having a total change of heart on the subject of Khadr, either way?”

For what it’s worth, we’d like to remind readers that our country’s constitution — The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms — was designed in order to ensure the protection the rights of all Canadians, even (and especially) the rights of those who have been deemed guilty or unworthy by the court of public opinion. Indeed, that is the express purpose of an independent judiciary.

Over the course of the past 15 years, the facts of the Omar Khadr case have been poured over, clarified, and made available for the public (click here for a detailed overview of those facts). Though a number of important questions surrounding the details of the case have not — and cannot — be answered, the legal reasoning that led to the government settlement is, like it or not, beyond debate.

Not that this will stop the onslaught of attacks by the Conservatives, who have already gained much from this scandal. As Cosh writes:

“I would expect Canadians who are forming their views on Khadr now, or sincerely revising old views, to see through the attacks on the legal settlement. But, of course, the Conservatives assume that almost nobody will make the effort—that their Khadr quips will remain as bright and stinging at the time of the 2019 election as they seem to some now. And they might be right. That’s politics for you.”

Wild Flowers of the Rockies

It’s a little bit baffling to me that you rarely hear about wildflowers even when you know people who hike quite a lot. Perhaps because the season is so short? Or maybe because they don't understand the significance of what they're seeing? Anyways, you have the opportunity to correct that for the next month or so, because it’s wildflower season in the Albertan Rocky Mountains.

The meadows in the Rocky Mountains are, for the most part, completely natural occurrences. This is in contrast to the (more famous) European flower meadows, which are almost all the result of human intervention in the landscape; usually they are cut for hay or used as pasture, keeping the area continuously de-forested and weakening competitive grasses. And don't let anyone tell you we have a comparatively limited diversity of species (there are hundreds, more than you could identify) or that the displays aren’t sufficient to re-create the spinning scene from Sound of Music (they are absolutely panoramic, no fear there). While some of our flowers might not be as bright and showy, there should be more than enough colour and variety to please even the most plant-blind among us.

Of course, our best wildflower hikes are in Waterton National Park, which hosts over half of Alberta’s known flower species, over 170 of which are classified as rare. However there are closer (and quite easy) hikes in Kananaskis (try Ptarmigan Cirque for easily accessible high alpine habitats) or around Banff (take a stroll around Johnson Lake which is known for its orchids in Mid-June to early July) and Jasper. My favourite so far has been Healy Pass (a 19 km hike accessible from the Sunshine parking lot), but that’s probably because I haven't made it to other sites like Helen’s Lake or down to Waterton.

If you're a gardener, you may be surprised at how many plants look familiar to you. Some of these species have been introduced to the home garden (Veratrum nigra is highly sought after) and others belong to well-known genera (Aquilegia, Lilium, Thalictrum, Ranunculus, Trollius, Clematis). And as much as I sometimes scoff at those high-minded people who say it’s impossible to garden without having seen plants in the wild, there is something to be said for observing the harmonious plant communities and the subtle patterns of the thickets and meadows you will come across.

Just remember, absolutely no picking of the wildflowers, and please do not tramp across the meadows for selfies or other photos. They are sensitive habitats and should be respected as such.

Happy flower hunting!

The Revival of James Baldwin

Over the past few years, there’s been a renewed popular interest in the work of James Baldwin, the American writer, novelist, and poet who died in 1987.

Back in 2013, Ta-Nehisi Coates declared Baldwin the greatest American essayist — two years later, Coates would pen Between the World and Me, an acclaimed memoir directly inspired by Baldwin’s work. In 2016, director Raoul Peck released I Am Not Your Negro, an award-winning documentary based on one of Baldwin’s unfinished manuscripts (Tom Powers’ interview with Peck on Q is worth a listen). This week, it was announced that Barry Jenkins, the director of Moonlight, is working on an adaptation of Baldwin’s 1974 novel If Beale Street Could Talk.

One major reason for Baldwin’s newfound popularity is the incredible prescience of his writings, and the ongoing relevancy of his observations on the societal effects of intransigent racism in America. Indeed, though he has been dead for 30 year, readers today will find it difficult to shake the distinct sense that Baldwin is writing for a contemporary audience.*

Take, for example, this short letter Baldwin wrote to his nephew in 1962, in which he describes the implacable barriers that arbitrarily limit the ambitions and opportunities afforded to young black people America. Like the language used by contemporary anti-racism and Black Lives Matters advocates, Baldwin’s prose contains a sense or urgency, candor, and boldness:

“This innocent country set you down in a ghetto in which, in fact, it intended that you should perish. Let me spell out precisely what I mean by that for the heart of the matter is here and the crux of my dispute with my country. You were born where you were born and faced the future that you faced because you were black and for no other reason… The details and symbols of your life have been deliberately constructed to make you believe what white people say about you. Please try to remember that what they believe, as well as what they do and cause you to endure, does not testify to your inferiority, but to their inhumanity and fear.”

Another interesting aspect of Baldwin’s writing deals with the fact that, although he wrote contemporaneously with the Civil Rights Movement, and was close to some of the movement’s key leaders, he saw himself as a witness rather than actor in the struggle — a complex and morally challenging role that required a critical distance from the church, the NAACP, and other civil rights organizations. However, this distance placed him in a unique position to interrogate with unique clarity the ideals and limitations of the philosophies espoused by the likes of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X — figures whom he both admired and, in many ways, disagreed with.

In his essay, The Fire Next Time, for example, Baldwin describes the time, in 1962, when he was invited to Elijah Muhammad’s mansion in Southside Chicago to discuss the Nation of Islam’s radical plan to separate black and white America:

“It was very strange to stand with Elijah for those few moments, facing those vivid, violent, so problematic streets. I felt very close to him, and really wished to be able to love and honor him as a witness, an ally, and a father. I felt that I knew something of his pain and his fury, and, yes, even his beauty. Yet precisely because of the reality and the nature of those streets — because of what he conceived as his responsibility and what I took to be mine — we would always be strangers, and possibly, one day, enemies.”

Finally, though Baldwin’s work is primarily about race — “The history of America is the history of the Negro in America,” he famously stated — it is grounded in a humanistic philosophy, one that somehow transcends the cynicism that colors much of his work. As a witness, Baldwin’s primary purpose is not to advocate for change, as Coates points out: “He is not here to flatter you. He is not here to make white people better. He is not here to change the world.” Instead, his primary purpose is to observe and explore the depths of the universal human soul:

“— this past, this endless struggle to achieve and reveal and confirm a human identity, human authority, yet contains, for all its horror, something very beautiful. I do not mean to be sentimental about suffering – enough is certainly as good as a feast – but people who cannot suffer can never grow up, can never discover who they are. That man who is forced each day to snatch his manhood, his identity, out of the fire of human cruelty that rages to destroy it knows, if he survives his effort, and even if he does not survive it, something about himself and human life that no school on earth – and indeed, no church – can teach. He achieves his own authority, and that is unshakable. “

Click here for a PDF of one of Baldwin's most famous essays, "Notes of a Native Son."

*  “You would be hard-pressed to find a movie that speaks to the present moment with greater clarity and force, insisting on uncomfortable truths and drawing stark lessons from the shadows of history,” writes A.O. Scott, in a review of I Am Not Your Negro.

Japanese Breakfast

Since we last discussed the Great Indie Rock Revival of 2017, we’ve been treated to new albums from Broken Social Scene, HAIM, and The Drums, and excellent new tracks from St. Vincent, Rhye, and The National. It’s as if all of these beloved bands have suddenly awakened from some collective hibernation. But eh, let’s not let these big names overshadow some of the up-and-coming acts that deserve our attention, too.

Last week, I went to the (Sandy) Alex G concert at a small venue in Toronto. The show — much anticipated by the young and enthusiastic audience — was excellent, though what impressed me even more than the headliner was the a rowdy set by the charismatic opening band, Japanese Breakfast.
Japanese Breakfast is the solo project of Michelle Zauner, formerly of the band Little Big League. In marked contrast to some of the oh-so-serious bands listed above, Zauner’s music is light, exuberant, and quickly gratifying. While her first album, Psychopomp, relied mostly on the familiar formula of guitar-and-synth-based indie rock, the recent singles released in advance of the upcoming Soft Sounds From Another Planet, feature a dreamier, more dynamic  soundscape — auto-tune, drum-machines, and saxophone solos, all thrown into the mix.

Japanese Breakfast is touring North America this fall, and there are some small venue shows in Canada. I’d recommend checking them out before they blow up.


Polaris Prize Long List: Sorry, we give up.

A few weeks back, we decided to try to review all 35+ albums on the Polaris Prize Long List. We tried, but now we’re giving up. It’s summertime, it’s beautiful out, people are traveling a lot… and the timing just didn’t seem right to be listening to The Tragically Hip or The New Pornographers.

Anyways, the Short List comes out tomorrow, and maybe we’ll offer our two cents on that come next week!

Thanks for your understanding. We’re just winging it, after all.


The Week's Links

Indigenous youths keep taking their own lives, and we keep looking away.The suicide rates among Indigenous Canadians are among the very highest in the world. Suicide and self-inflicted injuries are the leading causes of death among Indigenous people under 45.”

Heat Death. The End of Food. Climate Plagues. Unbreathable Air. Permanent Economic Collapse. Poisoned Oceans. New York Magazine has published a stark and terrifying picture of our future world if we fail to boldly tackle climate change. "It is, I promise, worse than you think. If your anxiety about global warming is dominated by fears of sea-level rise, you are barely scratching the surface of what terrors are possible, even within the lifetime of a teenager today… Indeed, absent a significant adjustment to how billions of humans conduct their lives, parts of the Earth will likely become close to uninhabitable, and other parts horrifically inhospitable, as soon as the end of this century."

On an equally depressing note, Earth's sixth mass extinction event is under way, scientists warn. “Scientists analysed both common and rare species and found billions of regional or local populations have been lost. They blame human overpopulation and overconsumption for the crisis and warn that it threatens the survival of human civilisation, with just a short window of time in which to act.”

Asylum seekers who took risky Central American corridor cross into Canada: "It was the happiest moment. I am in Canada, and I am relaxed.... I am not being chased by the police in the United States, I am not being put into detention. I am a free man,"

Video: In Turkey, hundreds of thousands of protesters gathered in Istanbul to mark the end of the 3-week March for Justice on Sunday. Led by Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the head of the main opposition party in Turkey, they protested the government's recent crackdown on dissenters.

Amazon Prime does more for northern food security than federal subsidies, say Iqaluit residents. "A box of 180 Pampers costs about $70 off the shelf in Iqaluit; on Amazon, similar size boxes are around $35."

People do drugs at music festivals. Lots of drugs. With the opioid crisis raging, will Canadian festivals finally embrace harm reduction strategies?

Life has no purpose, or meaning.

Chance the Rapper, MTV News, and the threats to negative criticism: “The relationship between a critic and her subject should be thought of as symbiotic, generative, important. Otherwise, art risks becoming an exercise in self-indulgence (so does criticism). The idea that anything should exist merely to provoke drooling adulation for its maker is, of course, absurd.”

Following last week’s high profile revenge porn scandal, it’s worth revisiting this New Yorker profile on Carrie Goldberg, a pioneer in the field of sexual privacy, using the law to defend victims of hacking, leaking, and other online assaults.
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