by C. DERICK VARN
(Andrew Loewen is an editor at Briarpatch Magazine, an independent, award-winning Canadian magazine of politics and culture.)
You have recently taken a job as editor at Briarpatch Magazine. What do you make of the left-end of the spectrum of Canadian journalism now that you are a part of it?
Well, Briarpatch is unique for a few reasons. It was founded by women as an anti-poverty newsletter and resource (with appropriated social services supplies) and has always been a publication rooted in grassroots organizing and struggle. As editors, we work with organizers, activists, and those directly affected to publish their stories and perspectives alongside more experienced writers.
The second thing is that the magazine’s editorial commitment to addressing Canadian settler-colonialism goes back to its earliest days in the 70s, when Indigenous struggles in Canada were not a priority for, say, social democrats or party communists. It’s a proud and deeply humbling legacy to be a part of.
The third thing is that it’s the only radical publication I’m aware of in Canada or the U.S. that has an agrarian base, a real connection to the land and the agricultural question. It’s sort of bizarre to have a national leftwing magazine based in southern Saskatchewan, but it’s part of our scrappy charm.
Finally, unlike most Canadian periodicals and leftist magazines in particular, we’ve never been bankrolled by a foundation and at this point we’ve been stripped of almost all public funding. We’re sustained by stalwart support from organized labour (primarily through ad sales) and above all by our committed readers.
As for the left end of journalism in Canada more broadly, it’s arguably even thinner than in the U.S. That might be surprising, but the historic role of the CBC and the low population density mean there’s few outlets and almost no resources for independent investigative journalism at this point. Corporate media consolidation, the neoliberal turn within the CBC, and politicized defunding of independent publications like Briarpatch have exacerbated things. Leftwing media reflects the state of the left: it’s embattled, spread thin, and lacks capacity and resources — it’s weak but it’s essential.
What do you think Americans misunderstand about the Canadian “left”?
I think we’d have to parcel out what’s meant by Americans. If we mean left-liberals, I don’t think they think about “the left,” let alone a Canadian one. Some may have a vague sense of how reactionary the governing federal Conservatives are, especially on climate change, but they likely know little of the neoliberal trajectory within Canada, including the hollowing out of social-democratic institutions (often at the behest of social democrats themselves, in true Third Way fashion).
There’s a lot of nostalgia among social democrats in Canada, meanwhile, and I think it’s appropriate to think of most social democrats as moving through the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Most people seem to shuttle back and forth from denial to depression and back again. Acceptance of the triumph of neoliberalism can mean fatalism or radicalization, depending on the context. Much of the left has tended to treat Stephen Harper the way liberals treated George W. Bush, as a magnetic villain responsible for all our ills. In truth, the Harper regime is basically the logical outcome of a settler-colonial petro-state like Canada. Harper is viewed as antithetical to Canadian values but, in effect, he’s closer to being Canada personified. He exemplifies Canada as it is. Like any nationalism, there’s a severe disjunction between Canadians’ national mythology and the reality of the country.
But, you asked about Americans, not Canadians (sorry).
If American radicals think about the Canadian left at all, they might be familiar with the well-known Marxist political economists at York University in Toronto such as Leo Panitch and Sam Gindin, or David McNally, but aside from these white male academics, I doubt the Canadian left is on their radar.
What do you think are the most popular misconceptions about the Idle No More movements?
Initially, last winter, many of the young Indigenous people mobilized were rising up and becoming explicitly politicized for the first time. It’s been an incredible groundswell of Indigenous pride and resistance. A resurgence. Many longtime Indigenous activists, meanwhile, weren’t so keen on the name Idle No More. Like most settlers, I’m not in a good position to comment, but I think it’s fair to say that for the newly galvanized, there’s been a learning curve in terms of what it will take to make concrete gains and really do battle with the settler state.
This said, it’s hard to overestimate how monumental a political intervention Idle No More has been in the Canadian public sphere. People are talking about colonialism, treaties, dispossession, genocide, like never before. Consequently, all the simmering, latent racism toward natives in Canada heated back up to a boil. Settler racism in Canada is vicious and unabashed in private, and it became more public again with Idle No More.
Initially, among new activists, there was a lot of talk about getting the government “to listen” and “stop ignoring” Indigenous voices. People are now digging into more sustained, long-term, and more land-based strategies, as encouraged by the Indigenous Nationhood Movement. This itself builds from the resilience of Indigenous land struggles that have never ceased.
There’s no question this Indigenous resurgence, what people call Idle No More, is the most important thing happening in Canada. But as you’d expect, there’s a variety of tendencies and differing perspectives within the resurgence, some more legalistic, others more militant, etc. But the baseline anti-colonial struggle is shared.
The legacy of Indigenous resistance to an ongoing system of colonial domination in Canada gets more profound the more you investigate and explore it. It’s totally awe-inspiring. It’s tough to explain in the vocabulary of the left how it is that 1500 Indigenous people (mostly Cree) rallying in Edmonton last December felt just as powerful to me as the quarter million people I marched with in Montreal during the student strike. It seems crazy to say that that first Idle No More rally had as much power as a rally 200 times its size, but I mean it. There’s centuries of power and resistance in the drumming and singing. It’s not something I expect most leftists to be able to grasp. It has to be experienced.
For Americans, it’s worth underlining the fact that the history and structures of colonization in Canada, from the Treaties to the Indian Act, are very different from those in the US, even though the overarching realities of dispossession and genocide are shared. And we have to recognize that Indigenous struggles cannot simply be folded into the broader framework of a political left.
These Indigenous nations are rising against the entire structure of settler-colonialism, which has always included the institutional left, whether social democratic, socialist, or communist. The Canadian left has a disgraceful history of complicity with settler-colonial oppression. Idle No More has presented an opportunity for the left to reckon with this and throw off any vestiges of the Canadian nationalism that was so pronounced in the 60s and 70s (as typified by the Waffle movement that broke off from the left wing of the NDP). This is happening in real if uneven ways, and it’s very encouraging. The institutional left needs to be fundamentally transformed in this process.
Do you think of Idle No More as fundamentally separate from the concerns of Occupy?
Yeah, there’s very little connection, other than the divisions within Occupy centered around the name itself, with the emergence of the “(Un)Occupy” moniker in some cities. The spectacle of white college kids in Canada occupying inner-city space created some rancor. It was tough because many of the Occupy activists were newly politicized and, as subjects of a colonial education system, many were just genuinely naïve. Given the police repression, infiltration, and logistical problems, it was easy for certain personalities to dominate and for things to get toxic.
What do you make of Harper’s ability to keep left opposition in Canada at bay?
The Harper Conservatives have been extremely successful in advancing an agenda and concrete policies well to the right of what most Canadians suggest they would like. Harper’s crew took majority control of the government in the last election with less than 40% of the popular vote, with 61% voter turnout (under proportional representation, the federal NDP would have even fewer seats than they currently do, incidentally). A majority government, especially one as ideologically committed as the Harper Conservatives, can further consolidate power and do absolutely staggering and systematic damage in very short order, and that’s what Harper has done with these sweeping parliamentary omnibus bills — it’s what catalyzed the resurgence we now refer to as Idle No More.
The Canadian left has a weak basis for social movement building and extra-electoral organizing. The trade union movement, meanwhile, is so flat on its back I don’t think it’s accurate to call it a movement for the most part. We have a round table discussion on organized labour in the last issue of Briarpatch that tackles this head on.
It’s difficult to see how things are going to get better for some time. There’s a tremendous amount of grassroots building to be done. There’s great hay to be made, but it’s going to happen at a pace, in a different temporality even, than the gratification we want for being righteous, for being desperate, or for having a smart analysis.
If we’re honest, I think everyone on the left is basically at a loss, from social democrats to radicals.
Part of the trick for radicals is building spaces and relationships that are affirming and welcoming while also rigorously intelligent and strategically oriented. We need to finds ways to be hopeful and loving and yet analytical at the same time. It’s an endlessly human project. There’s good reasons why building a serious left is so fucking hard. Radicals, me included, need to take emotional intelligence, humility, and empathy much more to heart if we’re actually striving for a mass politics and not just righteous enclaves.
Even a project like The North Star, which I admire, is deeply symptomatic of that subsection of the left overwhelmingly comprised of opinionated white dudes (and I know the terrain well!). After Mark Fisher’s quite problematic critique of identity politics and call-out culture here, there was a flurry of responses from other men. White dudes talking to other white dudes about how the world really is, confident in the value of everything they type up in a day, while many of the people under discussion — namely racialized minorities and women — quite rightly don’t give a shit about these little Marxist circle jerks.
One of the best things for Marxist dudes to do in my opinion (and this includes me), is just shut up and go do some groundwork, do some actual organizing with people. Spend some time doing politics alongside women, following their lead. Some of the most outspoken Marxist dudes, on Facebook and such, couldn’t organize a sock drawer if they had to.
But, I digress.
More broadly, solutions to the crisis of organizational form that has defined the left now for generations still aren’t forthcoming. A notable if partial exception in the West is the student movement in Quebec, which, over decades, has built syndicalist structures of student organization and resistance. Unfortunately, it’s not easy to imagine replicating these structures outside Montreal and Quebec. And outside Quebec many people have a distorted sense of what’s been accomplished in terms of concrete victories — the measurable successes have all been defensive and quite modest, despite the incredible patience, resilience, creativity, and courage within the movement.
Why do you think the Labour movement is flat on its back?
This is an epic question. We can go back to the 50s when radicals were purged from organized labour and unions accommodated themselves to the system in the postwar compromise — the same period when multinational corporations and the finance sector were laying the groundwork for the world we have today. We can also look to the bureaucratization of union structures and the deeply sectional character of unions as organizational forms. In key respects, unions gave up organizing the entire working class and retreated into their sectional interests. The organizing the IWW did in the 1910s and 1920s, before being crushed, is an historic exception. Meanwhile, there’s the restructuring that emerged from the economic crises of the 70s leading into the neoliberal era: the precipitous decline of private-sector unionism that followed from the globalization and increased automation of manufacturing. One could go on and on. But organized labour has basically been losing ground for three decades and counting across the West. And, you know, union density peaked in the US in 1954, right before the AFL-CIO merger.
The established labour organizations, despite being full of good people doing vital work, have no serious analysis or strategy at this point. They’re nostalgic for the postwar compromise and refuse to understand key elements of the postwar economic boom: firstly and most broadly, that it was a unique historical moment that can’t be repeated; secondly, that it actually set in motion the kinds of labour relations and waged hierarchies that permitted the ruling class to harness the crises of the 70s; and thirdly, that it was made possible by the total devastation of WWII and relied on brutal hierarchies of race and gender globally.
On one hand, public sector unions in Canada today are obsessed with costly public relations campaigns in order to bolster and win back public favour, and on the other, they’re fighting legal battles to resist union-smashing government legislation. Real base building and rank-and-file power are not a priority. Industrial action and strategies of broad class mobilization are not only off the table but actively thwarted and resisted by top brass when it matters most. During the Quebec student uprising, labour brass in Quebec acted as a decisive stopper on broader social mobilization — they put down the call for a “social strike.” With more militants and more rank-and-file autonomy in the Quebec labour movement, it might have been possible to challenge or circumvent that socially criminal leadership, to push the student strike into something much bigger.
It’s a shameful state of affairs, not least because unions really are the last bulwark for defending the public services, institutions, and workplace rights that provide the degree of stability and decency that some of us — especially settlers — do experience in this society. It’s so hard to know where to put your energies, whether to work within existing unions or in newer structures like the workers’ action centres. Many of us are so low to the ground in our own lives, struggling to get by, it can seem a luxury to even consider these questions.
Do you think there is any hope of working with the NDP?
I won’t work with the NDP, but I don’t blame friends who continue to try. It’s so easy to be “ultra” about electoral politics, to say “I’m not wasting my energy on behalf of these assholes,” “I refuse to lend legitimacy to this system,” etc., etc., but I think to the extent radicals might participate, it should be for less instrumental and more dynamic reasons than mobilizing for a lesser evil. As is true within unions, there are opportunities for relationship-building, consciousness-raising, and grassroots alliance-building from having some hand in electoral politics, at least locally. I just don’t have the stomach for it personally. The NDP have been a party of soft neoliberalism my entire life and their stance on Israel/Palestine remains unconscionable.
My investment is in building an independent political left, recognizing that if we want that left to grow and become a real force, it will necessarily overlap and intersect with forms of partisanship, centrism, and reformism at different times and in different places. While it’s not an easy lesson to take seriously and put into practice, I think purity is the real crutch of radicalism at the level of organizing — the crutch that truly hobbles. It’s the impure spaces, among non-radicals, where radicals should be doing most of our organizing work. A smattering of goodhearted, conscientious radicals within a broader community mobilization can probably do more to build the left than an autonomous anarchist enclave or another Marxist reading group, you know? Radicals band together for very understandable reasons, for safety, solidarity, affinity, and sanity, in a hostile world. But sometimes we need to curb our investment in radicalism as a badge of identity, or as an intellectual subculture, in order to increase our social impact. Speaking as someone who’s fairly introverted and doesn’t have the energy of many of the organizers I most admire, I find it all pretty tough.