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Crimes of Canada-Colombia free trade: Agreement fueling death and displacement

By: Miriam Katawazi 

 “Canadian Mining Destroys the Social Fabric!”  Credit: Mining Justice Alliance

“Canadian Mining Destroys the Social Fabric!” Credit: Mining Justice Alliance

Colombian human rights activists claim that the actions of Canadian extraction companies are threatening  the lives of Colombia’s Indigenous peoples.

Amnesty International Canada invited Colombian deputy justice Federico Guzmán Duque and another activist from the National Indigenous Organization of Colombia, who wished to remain anonymous, to Ottawa to speak about the struggle Indigenous peoples in Colombia are facing.

Guzmán Duque emphasized the large number of Canadian extraction companies operating in Colombia through the Canada-Colombia Free Trade Agreement (CCOFTA).

CCOFTA came into force in 2011 and aimed to lower trade barriers and increase opportunities for Canadian investors and exporters to benefit from a wide range of Colombian industries, from mining to manufacturing to oil and gas development. The following year, according to The Canadian Press, Canada provided “new market opportunities” for the export of banned assault-style weapons to Colombia.

Guzmán Duque said the Colombian government calls its mining sector “the mining locomotive” of the economy in order to attract foreign investment. The Canadian International Development Agency (now Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development Canada) helped this happen by sponsoring a reform of Colombia’s mining code in 2001, effectively subjecting small-scale miners and artisans to the authority of large corporations.

He recounted that in some cases, the government uses extreme forms of violence to forcibly take Indigenous land and then give companies the right to use it.

According to Amnesty International, Colombia’s Indigenous peoples currently inhabit much of the land targeted for plantations, mines and oil and gas development. In a 2012 news release, Amnesty stated that “human rights abuses are often committed as a means to forcibly remove civilian communities from areas of economic interest.“

Guzmán Duque said that Indigenous peoples in Colombia have been stuck since 1964 in the middle of an ongoing armed conflict between leftist guerrillas and ultra-right paramilitaries.

“The war is more about profit and business,” he said, adding that Canadian corporations stand to benefit.

According to Daniel Tubb, a doctoral candidate working on mining issues in Colombia at Carleton University, the circumstances in rural Colombia around government seizure of Indigenous land make it difficult for any Canadian corporations to operate without “making things worse.”

But Canadian officials say there is no evidence that the CCOFTA is negatively impacting Colombia’s Indigenous peoples. Both Colombia and Canada are obliged under the CCOFTA to produce an annual report on human rights and free trade between the two countries. The most recent Canadian report by the Government of Canada concludes that “It is not possible to establish a direct link between the CCOFTA and the human rights situation in Colombia.”

However, a 2009 investigative report by MiningWatch Canada and CENSAT-Agua Viva suggested that there are “consistent and clear patterns in key areas where companies risk benefiting from human rights violations and/or benefiting those responsible for human rights violations.” It also noted that “resource-rich regions are the source of 87 per cent of forced displacements.”

In a public statement in 2013, Amnesty International expressed concern that the Harper government fails to “acknowledge widespread, grave human rights violations in Colombia – including ongoing threats and deadly attacks on trade unionists and community leaders seeking the return of stolen lands…in areas coveted for their natural resources.”

In the statement, Amnesty International Canada campaigner Kathy Price said that the Harper government has “deliberately chosen to interpret its reporting obligation in such a way that excludes any examination of the impact of Canadian investment.”

Tubb agrees that this report needs to be taken more seriously by the government. The complex issues surrounding foreign mining companies and local populations, while “stark and apparent in Colombia,” Tubb said, also apply to other regions within Latin America.

Paula Kelsall, a member of Amnesty International Canada, said that Guzmán Duque and other speakers were invited to show the urgency of the situation in Colombia to Canadians. She stressed that human rights in Colombia should be a priority for Canadians, since “Our two countries have quite a close relationship, with a lot of economic ties.”

Amnesty invited the visitors to give a presentation for the All-Party Parliamentary Group for the Prevention of Genocide and Other Crimes Against Humanity. On Feb. 6, Guzmán Duque gave a more detailed version of the presentation at Amnesty International’s office in Ottawa. He explained that displacement is extremely harmful to the wellbeing of Indigenous peoples because of difficulty adapting to urban areas.

“There is a fundamental link between the Indigenous people and their land…without this link, they face physical and cultural extermination.”

This article first appeared in the Leveller Vol. 6, No. 6 (Mar/Apr 2014).

Raise the Rates Revival in Ottawa: Local group will mobilize to Toronto Liberal convention

By: Shannon Balla

Anti-Poverty Activists at the Office of Ontario Labour Minister Yasir Naqvi  Credit: Zoe Maggie

Anti-Poverty Activists at the Office of Ontario Labour Minister Yasir Naqvi Credit: Zoe Maggie

On March 22, a bus filled with anti-poverty organizers from Ottawa will head to Toronto to join the mobilization against the Ontario Liberal Party (OLP) Convention. Activists are demanding an increase to social assistance rates and minimum wage. They claim that the current standards leave people in deep poverty, having to choose between shelter and food.

Organized by Poverty Makes Us Sick (PMUS) and the Raise the Rates Coalition, the Ottawa contingent of the mobilization is made up of poor people and their allies, including long-time activists, labour allies, front-line community workers, and first-time protesters.

Raise the Rates was launched by the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP) and CUPE-Ontario, and is being supported in Ottawa by labour and community groups.

The core demands of the campaign are an immediate 55 per cent increase to the Ontario Works (OW) and the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) rates. This would return rates to the levels of funding in place before the Mike Harris government in Ontario. The campaign is also demanding an increase in the minimum wage to $14 indexed to inflation, and full restoration of the Special Diet Allowance and the Community Start-Up and Maintenance Benefit. It is also seeking to ensure there is no merger between OW and ODSP, as was proposed in a Liberal government 2012 Social Assistance Review Commission report.

On Feb. 5 PMUS and other local organizers held an inaugural action for the Raise the Rates campaign. The group briefly occupied the constituency office of Yasir Naqvi, Minister of Labour of Ontario, in solidarity with Toronto-based doctor Roland Wong. Wong’s license was suspended for professional misconduct because he was assisting people on social assistance gain additional access to the Special Diet Allowance.

PMUS organizer Ian Stumpf said “there are so many folks and organizations already making amazing contributions to the Raise the Rates campaign in Ottawa. I think we’ve arrived at the right time to, just maybe, offer a bit more structure and spark some new momentum.”

Stumpf added that “for many of us, these demands are a matter of life and death. Poverty Makes Us Sick looks forward to continuing to grow ties…It’s really important that that the Raise the Rates campaign is growing [because] so is the reach of the apparatus that oppresses us.”

In May, the Coalition will be holding a public launch in Ottawa, featuring guest speakers from OCAP and the UK-based organization Disabled People Against the Cuts. Recent policies adopted by the Cameron government in London have forced thousands of poor people living with disabilities into the labour force and resulted in many others having their benefits cut.

The Raise the Rates campaign identified the possible merger between OW and ODSP as one of the gravest threats facing poor people in Ontario.

This article first appeared in the Leveller Vol. 6, No. 6 (Mar/Apr 2014).

Remembering Ghadar: An untold North American story…

By: Gurpreet Singh

Ghadar party leaders Sohan Singh Bhakna, Mohamed Barakatullah, Bhagwan Singh, c. 1915 Credit: UC Berkley

Ghadar party leaders Sohan Singh Bhakna, Mohamed Barakatullah, Bhagwan Singh, c. 1915
Credit: UC Berkley

Early this year, a journalist friend posted a question to my Facebook wall concerning a Ghadar centenary event. He wanted to know why we were celebrating the heroes of the Indian freedom struggle while being in Canada, suggesting we had divided loyalties. This angered me, but I calmed down and realized that his ignorance was not his fault. Colonial histories blur important stories and connections across borders, especially those stories that challenge the legitimacy of North America’s Eurocentric mythologies.

Rather than remain angry, I offer this explanation of why activists across Turtle Island have organized a series of events to commemorate the 100th anniversary of an important radical movement called Ghadar.

The Ghadar Party was formed in 1913 by Indian migrants on the Pacific coast of Turtle Island. These immigrants supported an armed rebellion to liberate their home country from British occupation. The party was launched in Astoria, Oregon and had a large following in Vancouver. Formed as the Hindi Pacific Association, it became known as the Ghadar Party only after the launching of its newsletter, Ghadar, on Nov. 1, 1913.

Ghadar means “mutiny,” a name the British gave to the Sepoy Rebellion of 1857 that rose up against the British Empire in India. The ghost of this rebellion came back to haunt the Empire when Indian migrants launched the Ghadar newsletter. The paper quickly became popular amongst subjects settled in different British colonies, including Canada. Ghadar had mass appeal and called upon all Indians to bury their religious differences and join hands to fight the British Empire.

Blatant Canadian racism helped ground the principles of Ghadar in Canada early on. Most Indian immigrants came to Vancouver as British subjects for economic reasons. Many were soldiers for the British Empire — predominantly Sikhs — and trusted in the fairness promised by the Crown. But the ugly experiences of migration disillusioned these people and gradually alienated them from the British establishment.

At least two early shocks came in the year 1907. Succumbing to the pressures of white supremacy, the British Columbia government disenfranchised South Asians, much like people of Chinese and Japanese ancestry who were similarly deprived of their voting rights in 1872 and 1895, respectively.

The second shock came when South Asian workers were attacked by white supremacists across the border in Bellingham in September 1907. A number of them fled for safety into British Columbia, which could not deny them entry because Canadian immigration laws and foreign policy fell under the auspices of England at the time, and these South Asians were British subjects. They were met by the Asiatic Exclusion League, which was systematically terrorizing South Asian immigrants in Vancouver.

The British remained indifferent to the complaints of their East Indian subjects whenever there was any racial violence against South Asians in Canada or the U.S. The East Indians soon realized that the root cause of their vulnerability was the foreign occupation of their home country.

In what can be described as the first explicit act of resistance, former Sikh soldiers burned their uniforms and certificates at the Vancouver Sikh temple in 1909 to sever ties with the British Empire in protest against discriminatory policies. This was a very radical step in this time period, as Sikhs were generally considered loyal to British rule. Many Sikh chiefs had played a controversial role by coming to the aid of the British during the first war of Indian Independence, often referred to as the Sepoy Rebellion or Indian Mutiny, in 1857.

The Vancouver Sikh temple leader, Bhag Singh, was instrumental in organizing the pyre of uniforms and certificates. He himself had served in the British army in the past and went on to become a member of the Ghadar party.

Ultimately, it was the Komagata Maru episode that galvanized the movement. The Japanese vessel had brought over 300 Indian passengers from South Asia on May 23, 1914, less than a year after the Ghadar Party was born. These passengers were forced to return to Japan, their last port of departure, after two months under the controversial Continuous Passage Act. This law was passed in 1908 by the Canadian government to make it all but impossible for South Asian migrants to come to the British dominion of Canada by stipulating that you needed to leave your country of origin and arrive in Canada on one continuous journey or else face deportation. The Ghadar newspaper wrote a special issue on the incident, and sent the party’s president, Sohan Singh Bhakna, to Japan to meet with the passengers and hand them arms and ammunition for the future revolution.

The Komagata Maru incident triggered clashes within Vancouver’s South Asian community. A South Asian British spy named Bela Singh infiltrated the Vancouver Sikh temple and shot Bhag Singh, his associate Badan Singh, and five others to death on Sept. 5, 1914.  This led to the assassination of a pro-British immigration inspector, William Hopkinson, by Mewa Singh, another political activist and a follower of Bhag Singh. The temple shooter was an agent of Hopkinson.

When war broke out between Britain and Germany in 1914, the Ghadar Party gave an open call for revolt. Ghadar activists started returning to India with the hope to launch an armed conflict with the help of Germany, whom they saw as their ally against the British government. Many  ultimately faced death and long imprisonments for their revolutionary actions.

The spirit of Ghadar continues, and it is important that it is remembered as a story grounded in anti-imperialism that connected the west coast of Turtle Island with South Asia. The centennial celebrations in this part of the world are necessary to serve our future, as racism and discrimination are still a reality in these nations built on the stolen territory of the Indigenous peoples of North America. These ugly realities contributed to the mutiny of 1913, and both the U.S. and the Canadian establishments need to recognize this rather than simply seek symbolic apologies for historical wrongdoings.

This article first appeared in the Leveller Vol. 6, No. 3 (Nov/Dec 2013).

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