After pressure to ban the group Pride Toronto stood its ground and today Queers Against Israeli Apartheid took to the streets.
For more information about this march and some of the violence directed towards the group (missed by the video), click here.
Read about the initial controversy with B’Nai Brith and Pride Toronto, first featured on rabble.ca here.
In a recent Toronto Star review of “Iron Road”, the writer commented that “for Chinese railroad workers and early migrants to Canada, the new movie Iron Road rivals in significance to what The Pianist means to Jews living with memories after the persecutions during World War II – both dramas give a face to those nameless and voiceless who perished en masse in history.” Unfortunately, Chinese railroad workers and early migrants are more likely to be rolling in their graves, given Iron Road’s misrepresentation and whitewashing of history, whether intentional or not.
That this film might lack in historical accuracy is clear from the start with Chinese workers speaking Mandarin; most migrant workers spoke Toisanese or Cantonese and not Mandarin. But frankly, this isn’t a big deal really, especially when compared to some of the other inaccuracies.
At the start of the film, James Nichol, the son of a railroad contractor, travels to China to recruit workers for the construction of the railway. Travelling up river to the protagonist Xiao Fu’s home village, he asks Xiao Fu about why they were going there to recruit workers. She explains that people there are in destitution after war against the Manchus (I assume they are speaking of the Taiping Rebellion*) and famines. While it is true that there were conflicts within China and other problems that caused great hardship to the Chinese people, it’s a glaring omission not to mention European and Japanese imperialism in China. The local economy of China was destroyed after the Opium Wars, with the carving up of the country into ’spheres of influence’ and the subsequent influx of Western commodities and capital. This in conjunction with massive indemnities forced on to the Chinese government left many Chinese workers and peasants in poverty. Thus, it could be argued that Chinese peasants were left with no choice but to take up work in North America because of the actions of Western capitalists. The Western capitalists should not be seen, as portrayed in the film, as benevolent individuals giving opportunities to the poor Chinese.
The portrayal of these individuals as benevolent can almost be seen as having undertones of ‘white man’s burden’. As stated above, Chinese workers were not being ’saved’ and given ‘honest work’, they were put in that position by these very people in the first place. Whether or not conditions in North America railway construction were shown as poor is besides the point.
Undertones of ‘white man’s burden’ would not be the only example of racist stereotyping. An early scene also alluded to a sort of despotic relationship between triads and the Chinese people, further substantiating the idea that White capitalists were saving Chinese people from destitution of their own making. This fits neatly into traditional Orientalist landscapes that portray Chinese communities, whether in North America or in Asia, as havens of crime. The quite frankly racist imagery is completed when another white contractor comments, “you will find that business is done quite differently here”, juxtaposing the West as the moral antithesis of the East. Ironically, at this time period, triads were not necessarily criminal gangs, and were instead, a major component of the Chinese revolution that overthrew the Qing Dynasty. That said, to be fair to the screenwriters, the gang was not identified as triad.
The problematic representation of history did not end with scenes set in China. Upon arrival in British Columbia, Chinese workers were taunted with racial epithets. However, the lack of critical explanation of how these views emerged leads to assumptions that such behaviour was natural examples of simple xenophobia. In truth, race as a social construct requires institutional legitimization. In the case of discrimination against Chinese workers, a major cause was the dissemination of racist propaganda by Onderdonk, the chief contractor for the Canadian Pacific Railway, presumably to deter solidarity between white and Chinese workers. The movie appeared largely uncritical of the actions of the railroad company. The only wrongdoing apparently was that of bookkeepers committing fraud by continuing to collect the payrolls of deceased Chinese workers. Not much attention was given to how the railroad company contributed to poor work conditions or the differentiated pay between Chinese and white workers.
Lastly, there is a lack of critical perspectives on the Canadian Pacific Railway. This criticism is not only being directed towards this film, as this type of discourse is fairly common. The railway has often been celebrated by white Canadians and Chinese Canadians alike, as an engineering masterpiece that united the Canadian nation. Indeed, it is sometimes argued that discrimination against Chinese should be addressed for the Chinese played an important role in the construction of the railway – as if equity was something to be ‘earned’. What is not recognized though is that the Canadian Pacific Railway allowed for the dispossession of First Nation lands and the continued development of the Canadian colonial project. It is imperative that we are critical of the treatment of Chinese railroad workers; however, it is just as imperative that we, the Chinese community, recognize our role in the subjugation of other peoples – whether or not blame can be assigned.
Raymond Massey, a producer of the film, stated in an interview that “this is our way of saying sorry”. It is clear that this is completely consistent with the kinds of disingenuous apologies given by the Canadian state – whether it is regarding residential schools or the head tax. This film is, at best, well-intentioned but ignorant. At worst, it is a part of continued attempts to erase the history of oppression in this country, masquerading as an enlightened voice.
*Ironically, European powers gave military support to the Qing dynasty during the Taiping Rebellion. Considering how the Qing had hunted down Xiao Fu, it’s strange how receptive she is to these foreign contractors.
Note: This is a review of the two hour cinema version and not of the miniseries.
Roma kids in Belgrade. Source: _sid_ on flickr
Europe’s Forgotten Homo Sacer (1)
Between June 4th and 7th citizens of the 27 member-states of the European Union will elect representatives to the European Parliament. Absent from the voter lists, however, will be millions of internal exiles. Despite having lived in Europe for as long as any other peoples currently residing and working in the European Union (EU), they remain invisible, undocumented, and overlooked. These are the Roma people, commonly known as Gypsies.
Since the end of World War II and the beginning of the Marshall Plan, Europe became more politically and economically integrated and interdependent. The transition to the transnational integration of markets and the free exchange of goods was seen as an essential post-war policy. The United States and Western Europe produced a strategy for the continent to oppose the Soviet Union and its satellite states, who had reached the gates of western Europe and could feel the pulse of western capitalism. What was a largely economic association (known then as the European Economic Community) soon developed into a political body and was renamed the European Union. This body has focused until today on co-ordination of economic growth and universal policy commitments on governance, human rights, culture, and development.
Today, the EU resembles a super-state made up of over two-dozen governments. Beyond the policies of state co-ordination, progress, and growth, strict policies prohibit and restrict migration and immigration from non EU states. Unimpeded freedom of capital and labour within EU borders, however, is encouraged. Undocumented economic migrants and refugees fleeing to the EU are usually interned in camps when caught, deported by member states and organizations like the International Organization for Migration, or join the ever-growing exploited class of workers without rights, status, and protection. (2) “Fortress Europe,” as it is always often called, now exerts immense control over the domestic policy of states, and its influence permeates every sphere of life. Despite this power, the EU has been unable to change the lives of the 12 million Roma who live within its borders. They remain relegated to a status of internal exiles.
Long before the EU was created, the Roma were already “integrated” throughout the states of Europe. Their freedom of movement was not guaranteed by treaties or statutes, but by the reality of their lives. Chased from every corner of Europe and persecuted in every country they settled in, the Roma are met with hostility in lands they have inhabited since the 9th century BCE. Even today, this has not changed, despite the official resolutions, statements, and promises from the EU. Although they share a common Indian ancestry, there are few clear characteristics that allow comparison and identification of each country-specific Roma community with any other in Europe. Dialects, customs, and ways of life vary. The only clear characteristic that all diverse Roma groups have in common is their social status in each country of the EU. In every state, they are poorer, receive less formal education, and more marginalised than their non-Roma compatriots. (3) In many cases, unemployment in Roma communities is over 50%. (4) Access to public health, social assistance, and unemployment networks is restricted and often leads to further persecution.
The genocide of the Roma during World War II, in which 25% of their population was eliminated by the Nazis, is relatively well known. (5) Yet most citizens of the EU do little to address the inhuman conditions that the Roma continue to live in. The cameras and pens of the world press largely ignore the predicament of Europe’s most oppressed minority. Recent events in Italy and the Czech Republic, however, have alerted reporters and citizens about the chronic repression Roma people have been forced to endure. Last May, a wave of anti-Roma attacks dominated the Italian press. These attacks were in response to thefts and rapes that were allegedly perpetrated by Roma youth against what the media called the “domestic population”. In one occasion, a molotov cocktail was thrown into a camp outside Naples. Roma women and children were attacked by far-right gangs, allegedly for stealing. (6) The government responded by proposing radical and drastic measures, including the bulldozing of Roma camps, deportations, arrests, raids, and even called in the army to police certain districts of Rome. (7) Human Rights Watch has often condemned the heavy-handed and repressive policies of the Italian government surrounding the issue of Roma and immigrant rights. (8) Yet media reports surrounding the attacks focused on the supposed criminal nature of Roma populations in Europe and on an allegedly inherent tendency towards illegality. Missing from coverage was the painful history and sub-human living conditions that Roma people are subjected to, and any relation this may have with the thefts.
Neo-nazis and fascists often exploit thefts and crime as a pre tense to launch attacks and campaigns of hate against Roma and other minority groups in Europe. In the Czech Republic, extreme right-wing gangs recently attacked houses belonging to Roma, and in one particularly horrific incident, left a two year old girl burns on over 80% of her body. (9) More troublesome is the fact that nationalist parties throughout Europe have been using the question of immigration and growing minority populations as an opportunity to propose reactionary measures in the forthcoming EU parliament elections. (10) In Italy, Greece, Austria, Switzerland, the Czech Republic and other states, nationalist parties have enjoyed a dramatic ascendance in recent years. They have capitalized on the failed policies of the EU and the resulting anti-immigrant sentiment their failure has generated. Expressing the deep and latent racism of European society, but also flawed EU policies, these parties encourage hatred and propose Nazi-like “final solutions” to the problems that European integration has brought.
The conditions in the Czech Republic became so bad this past year that many Roma people fled the country. Hundreds of them came to Canada. 2008 saw a 993% increase in immigration applications from the Czech Republic. (11) Since the winter of 2007, over 1000 Czech nationals fleeing persecution have sought refuge in Canada, most of them arriving in the GTA. When Canada lifted its visa-requirements for immigration with the Czech Republic in 1994, Canada received over 4,000 immigration requests, the overwhelming majority of them from Czech Roma. (12) These trends reflect the enduringly dire situation the Roma people live in. The European elections will come and go, but the crisis that plagues Europe’s largest and most neglected minority will remain. This crisis must be addressed systemically if the oppression of the Roma, and that of all other minorities, is to be eradicated. Canada remained silent about this issue during its annual Canada-EU summit on May 6th.
The summit, chaired by the Czech president, presented an opportunity to raise the issue directly, however the final declaration of the summit says nothing about the Roma. (13)
We can not allow for the oppression of the Roma to remain invisible. They are now here in their thousands and, like other communities, face a colossal struggle to gain status, find stable employment, and establish a dignified existence. The Roma, like every other immigrant group in Canada, must not be forced to substitute one type of exploitation for another. Only common organization and struggle that will address the greater issues facing immigrants can win justice and freedom for these oppressed communities.
1. This term refers to a classification in Roman law. It is attributed to a banned, exiled, and ostracized person.
4. D. Ringold, Roma and the Transition in Central and Eastern Europe: Trends and Challenges, World Bank, Washington DC, 2000, pp.10-16.