Monday 28 January 2013

Canada's Keep-out-the-Roma Policy

Romani victim of Nazi medical experimentation attempting to make seawater
potable, Dachau Concentration Camp. Retrieved from
Asked how many Jews Canada should accept from Europe after (not before) WWII, a Canadian official famously answered “none is too many.” This answer is now well-known in Canada since the publication in 1983 of the eponymous book, None Is Too Many, by Irving Abella and Harold Troper. Many Canadians knew that Canada wasn’t very enthusiastic about admitting European Jews before WWII, even when Canadian officials were aware of their persecution by Adolf Hitler and the Nazis. But it was a shock to readers of Abella and Troper’s book that even after the war, when the concentration camps had been opened and the bodies of the dead revealed to the world, there were still people who didn’t want to admit any Jews to Canada
Very few people during and after WWII knew that another minority ethnic group in Europe had also been slaughtered:  the Roma, or Gypsies, as they were then known. No one knows how many Roma were slaughtered in the Holocaust, but 500,000 is a common estimate. They were treated just as the Jews were: rounded up, sequestered, concentrated, starved, sent across the continent in cattle cars to extermination camps, brutalized and murdered, as in the mass gassings of Roma in Auschwitz. One Roma victim was an 11-year-old girl whose picture is the symbol of the restored Westerbork concentration camp in the Netherlands. Westerbork is where Dutch Jews and Roma were concentrated before being deported to their deaths, 1,000 people at a time every Tuesday morning. This little Roma girl was photographed peering out of a cattle-car door, wearing a white scarf that her mother fashioned for her out of a pillow-case because she was ashamed to be seen with a shaven head. (Anne Frank was deported from Westerbork too.)
Romanian Ghetto in Baia Mare, where the Mayor ordered a wall be built around the Roma to seal the
settlement off from the rest of the city.  The website cited offers many more pictures like this one.
Retrieved from
Now, it seems, the slogan “none is too many” has been resurrected. Canada has a new immigration law, Bill C-31, called Protecting Canada’s Immigration System. In keeping with  long-standing practice, the government is cracking down on countries that produce “too many” refugees. Our new law states that certain designated countries of origin (DCO), mostly in Europe, are democracies and therefore highly unlikely to produce refugees. People arriving in Canada from those countries will be “fast-tracked” and sent back if not found to be refugees, without the rights to appeal of refugee claimants from other countries. The legal community says that means that many refugee claimants will not have time to prepare their cases or even find legal counsel.
One person opposed to these new rules in Gina Csanyi-Robah, a Canadian Roma of Hungarian ancestry. She is opposed to these measures because Hungary has been designated a DCO, yet Hungary is a country where many Roma live and where they are persecuted. The standard prejudice against Roma is that they are nomadic wanderers who never settle down and don’t send their children to school. The reality is that for centuries they were chased across borders whenever they did try to settle down, although sometimes they were enslaved, as in what is now Romania, where Roma who displeased their masters might be crucified. In “democratic” post-Communist Hungary, many Roma are—or would like to be—permanently settled in their homes, going to work every day and sending their children to school. But that’s difficult when there are racists burning them out of their homes and murdering them. This isn’t a government practice, as under the Nazis, but the Hungarians who intimidate the Roma don’t seem to be very worried about being punished. And about 50 per cent of Roma children are in special-needs schools where they are unlikely to receive more than a primary education.  
Nowadays, the Roma are supposed to be citizens of whatever European state they live in, and if that state is a member of the European Union they are supposed to have the right to move freely around Europe like everyone else who is a European citizen. They are entitled to live for three months in any European country and longer if they can support themselves. But that isn’t what has happened: instead, in the last few years France and Italy have rounded up legally-resident Roma and deported them back to Eastern Europe. And some of the new democracies like the Czech Republic and Slovenia have used various spurious criteria to claim that Roma who were born there and/or lived there all their lives were not citizens in the first place, though these measures did not always succeed.
Meanwhile in Hungary, the far-right political party, Jobbik, makes explicitly racist statements about the Roma, and paramilitary groups attack them. And according to The Economist (January 12, 2013) it’s not only Jobbik that is prejudiced against the Roma. A founding member of the ruling party, Fidesz, called Roma “animals” and described them as “unsuitable for living among people.”   
So why, under these conditions, does the Canadian government claim that the many refugee claimants from Hungary, among whom are a significant number of Roma, are just here to collect social welfare benefits or free health care? It’s not enough to say they don’t need to come to Canada as they can move to other parts of Hungary or Europe, when anti-Roma sentiment is widespread and other European countries round them up and deport them. Canada is a party to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. According to this Convention, if you are persecuted for reasons of “race,” nationality, or “membership in a particular social group” you can claim refugee status in a country that is not your own. Many Roma are persecuted in Hungary and it’s not at all clear that the Hungarian government or the European Union is willing to protect them from mobs of Jobbik fascists and the others who consider them unworthy of life in Europe. Yet it seems as if our government –which has accepted Hungarian Roma refugees in the past—now wants to put a stop to their entry to Canada.  Maybe it’s not “none is too many” but it sure sounds like “any more is too many.”
Sources: Some of the information about the situation of Hungarian Roma and the effects of Bill C-31 is from several articles in the Canadian Jewish News in December 2012 and January 2013: many in the Canadian Jewish community feel a sense of obligation to the Roma, who were their companions in death 70 years ago. I also relied on a chapter by Helen O’Nions, “How citizenship laws leave the Roma in Europe’s Hinterland” in a book I am co-editing with a colleague, Margaret Walton-Roberts, called (tentatively) Slippery Citizenship.

Friday 18 January 2013

Book Note: Kamal Al-Solaylee’s Intolerable

The chances are very high that like me, most readers of this blog know very little about Yemen. All I ever knew about Yemen is that it used to be divided into “socialist” and non-socialist spheres, that it reunited in 1991, that it’s reputed to be one of many Middle Eastern sites of terrorism, and that it sort of went through an Arab spring in 2011.
You can rectify this a little bit if you read Kamal Al-Solaylee’s Intolerable: A Memoir of Extremes, published in 2012 by HarperCollins. Kamal is a Canadian citizen who was born in Yemen and grew up as the youngest child in a huge Yemeni family (11 siblings in total: seven girls and four boys) in Aden, Beirut, Cairo and Sana’a, the first and last cities in Yemen. He came to Canada in 1996, as a highly qualified immigrant with a Ph.D. in English from Nottingham University. Kamal managed to very quickly work his way up through various odd jobs in the arts and journalism to a full-time job at the Toronto newspaper, the Globe and Mail; later, he became a professor of journalism at Ryerson University in Toronto, a position he holds today. Here is a picture of Kamal from his Ryerson University Website.
Kamal is gay. Part of the book (cover depcted at left) is about his coming out, in a society is which homosexuality is deeply frowned upon. As he writes about his mother and seven older sisters, you wonder if they knew he was gay or whether they just knew he was different; not that many little boys, for example, want to go fashion shopping with their sisters, let along sit around with fashion magazines ahead of time picking outfits they think their sisters should wear. Perhaps his sisters knew but didn’t know, as to admit he was gay in conservative Arab society might be unthinkable. In any event, Kamal spent his adolescence in Cairo but did not know how to connect with the gay scene there until he visited one of his sisters in England and called a gay hotline for advice on where to meet other gays when he returned to Egypt. For a couple of years he enjoyed the gay scene but then his father, unable to make a living in Cairo, relocated the family back to the city of Sana’a in Yemen. Kamal had no choice but to go along, even though Yemen is a country where gays can be publically flogged or even hanged. He doesn’t say much about fear of exposure in Yemen, but if you think about it, the pressure must have been unbearable. Indeed, his old-fashioned mother encouraged him to “escape” when he received a scholarship to England, so maybe she did –sort of—know the danger he was in, even if she couldn’t admit it to herself.
Kamal Al-Solaylee's faculty photo, retrieved from
The fact that he is gay is probably one reason why Kamal is so sympathetic to his sisters. When they lived in Cairo, the whole family would go to the beach and the girls would wear bikinis. Later on though, as the Muslim Brotherhood gained strength in Egypt, Kamal’s oldest brother because very religious, far more so than their secular, anglophile father, who had owned real estate in Aden before it went socialist. The brother put more and more pressure on the sisters to conform to Islamic dress and codes of modesty.  Once they returned to Yemen, the sisters had no choice to conform and gradually, as their options for independent living narrowed, they voluntarily turned to Islam for comfort.
I was interested most in what Kamal wrote about being gay, and about his mother and sisters.  But the book also conveys a sense of what life was like for prosperous and secular Arabs during the years he grew up. Kamal and his sisters attended Catholic schools: this was not a problem, as the most important thing was to get a good education.  His oldest sisters had good jobs; no one said women should not earn money. The family was close-knit and unmarried brothers and sisters all lived at home with the parents.
The book also conveys a sense of what it’s like to live in a state of warfare. The Al-Solaylee family left Beirut for Cairo when they couldn’t stand Lebanon’s civil war any longer. Then in Yemen in 2011, they encountered warfare again, as they lived through bombing raids. Electricity was rationed, gas and fuel were scarce, and people moved from the central city to the suburbs to avoid being bombed. However much we read about, it’s hard for us in Canada who have never experienced war (I never have) to grasp the day-to-day troubles, even if everyone in your family stays alive. 
Kamal Al-Solaylee’s book is a good way to learn about real life in the Arab Middle East.

Friday 11 January 2013

Rape Culture and Cultural Relativism

Every feminist blogger in the world is probably writing about the rape of a 23-year old woman student in New Delhi in December 2012.  Like everyone else, I am outraged by this rape. As one of the Indian activists I heard on the Canadian Broadcasting Company said, it was particularly cruel and violent. It appears that a group of men who were on a private party bus tricked her and a male friend to join them, and then raped her to death, damaging her internal organs with metal tools.  It is sad, though, that it took such a violent rape to galvanize Indian women and men to action. The same woman I heard on the radio said that this was no “ordinary” rape, by which she meant the day-to-day rapes that Indian women experience, often by relatives or acquaintances.
Protesters in New Delhi, India on 27 December 2012 after a brutal gang rape on 16 December 2012
caused the death of a young Indian woman. Retrieved from
If any good comes out of this rape, it is the mobilization of women in India and elsewhere to demand that the police and the courts take rape seriously. There are still places in the world where, if a woman reports a rape to the police, they will then rape her in turn: as “damaged goods” she is fair game.  
This brings me to debates about cultural relativism in human rights, which have annoyed me since I started publishing on human rights in 1980. Some people claim that human rights are a “Western” invention and imposition on the rest of the “non-Western” world. This is factually incorrect in all sorts of ways. Non-Western countries at the UN voted for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 (Canada only voted for it at the last minute, having lots of doubts!).  Since then most countries of the world have signed onto a long list of human rights documents. And there are human rights and women’s rights activists all over the place. In 1980 a male African scholar at a conference told me that African women didn’t “need” rights because men treated them so well. I went home and asked an African student what she thought of that: she replied that her brother-in-law had beaten her pregnant sister to death, and then took custody of the infant who survived the beating. Nowadays, there is a huge African feminist movement and no scholar could get away with saying such a ridiculous thing about women not needing rights.
 One way around the argument that the “West” imposes human rights is in effect to argue its opposite, that all “cultures” have human rights, they just have different conceptions of human rights. That’s what I heard a bunch of my male colleagues saying at an academic conference in the late 90s. It was unbelievable. A group of distinguished white men, all well-known scholars of human rights, argued that all cultures protected human rights. When I stood up and criticized them, pointing out that there are very few cultures in which women enjoy human rights even in principle, let alone in practice, they shushed me! But if all cultures have human rights, then women are not human. Women exist in all cultures but in very few do they have rights. Even in the West, women’s rights are very recent. My mother’s generation, for example, were expected to follow their husbands blindly wherever they went; were not able to get credit in their own name; and in Quebec, where my own mother lived, were not even able to have emergency surgery without their husbands’ permission. This actually happened to a friend of my mother: her husband was away on a business trip and she had to find him (without email, etc.) before she could have surgery.
Catharine MacKinnon's law faculty photo,
retrieved from
Of course, you could ask where does rape fit into this? One of my all-time favourite feminists is the American legal scholar, Catharine MacKinnon. She was one of the first scholars to argue that rape is torture. I remember her sitting with a bunch of male suits at a conference at Banff in Alberta in 1990. She talked about “Linda Lovelace,” a pseudonym for a woman renowned in the 1970s as a pornographic actress (this was at a time when many rebellious North Americans idealized “free love”—which often meant men sexually exploiting women as much as they wanted). Linda Lovelace was actually the victim of a cruel, sadistic pimp, not a willing actress in a sexually liberating age (see reference below).  Catharine made some of the men she was sitting with very uncomfortable, describing in excruciating detail what happened to Linda Lovelace. 
If human rights really are a Western cultural idea, then I say “Go for it!” Human rights protect everyone from torture. And torture is what rape is, for many victims. The Indian student on the bus was a torture victim. It used to be thought that only agents of the state could commit torture; so the policeman who beat up a prisoner at the station committed torture, but the same policeman who went home and beat up his wife was just committing a private crime. Catharine MacKinnon—and others like her—showed us that private citizens can and do torture each other.  The women who are demonstrating and blogging all over the world against rape are not victims of Western cultural imperialism: they don’t need Western women to tell them rape is torture. We have to change all cultures that encourage, condone, or tolerate rape. A culture based on the suppression by torture of a huge part of its population is not a culture worth preserving.
Update, January 18, 2013: One of the commentators on this blog said s/he had expected more depth on this topic. It's hard to go into much depth in a blog. For more on what I think about cultural relativism, see my article "Cultural Absolutism and the Nostaliga for Community," published in Human Rights Quarterly in 1993, vol. 7, no.2. It's available on line for free from Scholars' Commons (Wilfrid Laurier University) but I haven't figured out how to put the link on yet.  Also, I published an article "Universal Women's Rights since 1970" in Journal of Human Rights, 2012, vol. 10, no,4, but it's not free on-line.
Reference: Catharine MacKinnon, “On Torture: A Feminist Perspective on Human Rights”, in Kathleen E. Mahoney and Paul Mahoney, eds. Human Rights in the Twenty-First Century: A Global Challenge,Boston: Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 1993, pp. 21-31.

Thursday 3 January 2013

Labour Rights, Miners’ Rights

Labour Rights, Miners’ Rights
Over the end-of-year break I read Jennifer Haigh’s 2005 novel, Baker Towers. This novel is about a family living in the fictional Bakertown, in the coal-mining region of Pennsylvania in the 1940s and 50s. Bakertown is named after the mine-owning family, the Bakers, and Baker Towers is the facetious name for two huge piles of scrap from the mines that dominate the landscape and pollute the atmosphere. Miners are paid partly in scrip, company-issued “money” that can be used only to buy goods at the company store. The father of the family risks being fired when he buys a stove from an independent businessman at a lower price than he would have to pay at the company store; it’s delivered in the middle of the night.  The miners also live in company housing, so if a miner loses his job, his family becomes homeless. Many of the miners die of pulmonary diseases after spending their youth on their hands and knees in the tunnels, digging for coal.
This novel reminds us of what conditions used to be like for miners in North America. It’s only a few decades since trade unions were able to obtain better conditions for men working in such arduous conditions. Yet many governments and corporations treat trade unions as enemies. The Canadian government has recently passed a law forcing trade unions to publicly reveal their officials’ salaries, yet it hasn’t passed a law forcing corporations to do the same. Michigan recently joined many other US states in passing so-called “right-to-work” legislation that is meant to undercut unions’ bargaining power by removing their right to make sure all employees at a company are members of the union. This may sound like a question of freedom but it pits members against non-members, making it much easier for employers to divide workers against each other.
Westland Coal Miners, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, 1942. Retrieved from
In South Africa, the last five months of 2012 were a period of miners’ strikes for higher wages. In at least one instance, police attacked miners and over 20 were killed. The new deputy leader of the ruling African National Congress, Cyril Ramaphosa, was a union leader during the struggle against apartheid. Now he is a multi-millionaire businessman who called for police action against the miners during the strikes, according to leaked emails (reported in The Economist, Dec. 22, 2012, p. 71). Ramaphosa is a far better option to take over South Africa after President Jacob Zuma retires than Julius Malema, the so-called “youth” leader convicted of hate speech for calling for “Boers” (white Afrikaaner South Africans) to be killed (Malema was expelled from the ANC). But it’s still very worrisome that Ramaphosa, a former union leader, should turn so quickly against miners asking for better pay and working condition.
Police officers surround the bodies of miners they shot during a protest
at Lonmin platinum mine, South Africa, 16 August 2012. Retrieved from
Meantime, the Canadian government has announced that the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) will be promoting partnerships between Canadian mining companies investing overseas and non-government organizations (NGOs). The idea is that NGOs have expertise that mining companies don’t have, in matters such as community organization.  So the mining companies, conscious of the reputational risk of merely exploiting resources in less developed countries without doing anything to help the communities where they are based (and whose land they may be using) will be able to avail themselves of NGOs’ expertise in building schools, clinics, etc. But I’ll bet the one kind of NGO CIDA won’t be promoting as potential partners is trade unions. Trade unions possess expertise in organizing workers to demand their rights, including higher wages and better working conditions. Trade unions also know how to organize strikes. This is the kind of expertise the local miners working for Canadian companies really need but I doubt very much that CIDA will provide it.
I’m not all that fond of Marxism after the horrors that so-called Marxist regimes have perpetrated in the Soviet Union, China, and elsewhere, but I still think the slogan “Workers of the world unite!” is a good one.