Keeping Watch


March 2022 / Toronto

“When someone shows you who they are believe them”. This quote, often attributed to celebrated and well-loved African-American poet and author, Maya Angelou, appeared time and again on my various social media platforms as primarily Black, Asian and Arab people found themselves gaslighted, contradicted and called out, for raising concerns about the treatment of Black and racialized people, primarily international students attempting to flee the devastating war in Ukraine.

From the beginning of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, as many residents started to flee to the border hoping to get into the surrounding countries to be free of the violence, images and testimonials from Black, Asian and Arab/North African students about differential treatment by Ukrainian and later Polish security forces began to surface. There were conflicting reports at first but as the days of war went on and the rush to borders intensified, the images and the recounting of racist treatment became more prolific. We saw lines of white soldiers and police pushing back Black students, preventing them from boarding trains. We saw large groups of Black and Brown individuals corralled off to the side as white Ukrainians and others were processed through the borders or got on the trains. We heard the heartbreaking stories of Black babies and their mothers waiting at the border for days with little protection from the cold.

The early alarms of this racism were first dismissed by Canadian media and many non-Black, non-racialized people on my various social media feeds. It was not until white spokespeople from organizations like the Red Cross and later the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees acknowledged the differential treatment of non-white people at the Ukrainian borders, did some of the accusations against Black folks here in Canada of spreading misinformation die down. Somewhat.

I was surprised over the weekend to see a forty-tweet thread about ‘whataboutism’ as a tool of Russian propaganda said to be propagated by anyone who called out the racist treatment of students and others from Africa, Asia and the Middle East in Ukraine and bordering countries. It was as if the author and her supporters were telling those of us concerned about Eastern European racism as evidenced by the treatment of Black and Brown people trying to escape the unrelenting violence of the war against Ukraine, that we couldn’t support Ukraine and its people while at the same time calling out the racism that is prevalent and on full display as the surge to the borders continue. They were basically saying, ‘this is not the time to talk about anti-Blackness or racism’, a sentiment too often heard by Black people.

It was especially disappointing to see the head of one of the Ontario nurses associations join forces with an Ontario Conservative MPP in publicly castigating a Black nurse for sharing factual information about the treatment of Black African and Caribbean students at the Ukrainian and Polish borders. Even with confirmation that this nurse was correct in the information shared and that her concerns were well placed, the head of the association and the MPP refused to remove their defamatory statements about the Black Toronto nurse from their feeds. This is wrong and must be corrected.

During the Council’s staff meeting last week the notion of being able to carry two truths at the same time in the context of Ukraine was widely discussed. We support Ukraine’s right to defend itself with all the support it requires from Canada and the rest of the world. And we acknowledge and call out and seek solutions to the racism being practiced by Ukrainian and other security forces in the region.

Canada’s quick and comprehensive immigration response to the Ukrainian crisis is welcomed. However, it isn’t lost on many of us in the sector, that this, doors wide open approach- the waiving of visa fees, flexible and open work and study permits, two-year temporary residency, expedited renewals of visas and permits for Ukrainians already in Canada- were only made available to a European population fleeing conflict. We know that there are thousands of Afghans still waiting to be relocated to Canada. There are refugees from the ongoing conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea. Yemen is being bombed as I write this. And the Palestinian crisis continues unabated. Haiti that has been felled by natural disasters and extreme internal violent conflict can certainly use these kinds of supports.

Why the differential treatment of these refugees vs others from the Global South? Race and racism. Islamophobia.

We heard it from the various western media (including Al Jazeera English) commentators covering the Ukrainian invasion. Their disbelief that there was a war resulting in refugees is because they believed in white supremacism and in European exceptionalism. We saw it in the language they used to describe Ukrainians - ‘civilized’ ‘white’ ‘blond and blue-eyed’ ‘Christian’ ‘netflix watching neighbours’ ‘educated’ ‘European’ as opposed to the ‘uncivilized’, ‘terrorist’, ‘Muslim’, ‘Black/Brown’ people of the places where this violence and upheaval is expected to occur. We heard it from the leaders of the border countries who only a few years ago had shut their doors and borders to Syrian, and other Middle Eastern and African refugees. As they swung open their doors they commented on the Christian whiteness of Ukrainians who were known to them and ‘not terrorists’ like other refugees who had come knocking on their doors.

Some OCASI members have stated that Canada in its apparent leadership role in supporting Ukraine militarily and financially, should also be speaking up and against any differential treatment of individuals based on race and religion. We concur. No one from the federal government to date has spoken out against this blatant racism as far as I know. And if they have, they need to continue to do so, as the UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi has done.

Other members have asked us to make the case for Canada to open its doors to the international students who have fled Ukraine and are now in limbo, so that they can complete their studies here. They have suggested that we (Canada) can extend the two -year open visa recently announced for Ukrainians to the international students as well. We agree.

As we continue to advocate for open borders for all refugees and work with Ukrainian and other community organizations here in Ontario and Canada to ensure as many people as possible arrive here and have their settlement and integration needs met, we must remember that we must also fight the xenophobia here and the racisms there and here at home.

I would be remiss not to comment on our own internal political conflicts here in Canada.

For many years, those of us engaged in antiracism work raised concerns that there was a growing public boldness of hate groups in Canada, as the extreme political right found common cause with white ethno-nationalists, Christian social conservatives deeply imbued with notions of white supremacism and patriarchy and your every-day anti-Black, anti-Indigenous, anti-Jewish, anti-Muslim, anti-Immigrant commentators on our airwaves.

The Ottawa occupation last month was described by many as a surprise and ‘not Canadian’. But we saw its genesis in the anti-lockdown, anti-masking weekly demonstrations on the streets of Toronto and elsewhere across the country. The introduction of vaccines and vaccine mandates from government, employers and others saw increased protests.  The signs they carried told their stories- swastikas, ‘Jesus Saves’, anti-BLM signs all signalled an alignment of disparate groups.

Of course there were regular Canadians who had legitimate concerns about how some of the rules were being applied. Early in the pandemic in Ontario for example, mom and pop shops and small businesses were forced to close, while the Walmarts with big enough lobbying wallets were allowed to remain open. People who worked in jobs where work from home was not an option, who earned minimum wage or less were not prioritized or even considered when public policies were being developed and implemented- from school and daycare and public parks closures to availability and safety on public transit, to who could access the federal emergency benefits. And there were others who for many reasons do not want to be vaccinated and believe it is their right not to be as it is in a democracy. Notwithstanding that all rights come with responsibilities.

The announcement of the ‘Truckers Convoy’ four or so weeks before they arrived in the national capital had a different tone from the beginning. It was revealing that none of the people who put themselves forward as leaders were truckers. At the same time that this movement from western Canada started, racialized truckers-primarily Sikh here in Ontario were having daily pickets and protests against wage theft and other nefarious employment practices by unscrupulous employers while other racialized truckers in BC were calling out for better road safety. There wasn’t much national media coverage of these protests by racialized truckers, but it was telling, that this anti-vaccine mandate trucker convoy and its participants, at no time moved to make common ground with these Ontario and BC truckers fighting for fair wages and fair employment practices.
As the convoy made its way to Ottawa and the organizers and ‘leaders’ became known, it was clear that the anti-vaccine mandate pretense of the protest was just that – a pretense. That this mass protest was much more about turning back progressive movement by the federal government. In fact, the so-called leaders came with a manifesto intended to overthrow the recently elected government. The white ethno-nationalists were in full view and in control.

Many of us who have spent the last couple of years of the pandemic watching police and other state security violently respond to protests on Indigenous lands, and against the poor and houseless and their supporters in public parks, found shocking the warm welcome and support offered to these convoy protesters by the Ottawa police and others. Images of police in uniform offering verbal and material support to these occupiers were jarring especially when juxtaposed with the images of police in riot gear and wielding billy clubs, breaking heads of Black and Brown and Indigenous protestors fighting for public good from Hamilton to Wet’suwet’en.

The positioning of the political right was also telling. The politicians who called for protestors to be removed and locked up when those protestors are First Peoples are the same ones who demanded that the Prime Minister meet and listen to the white occupiers with all of their symbols and divisive rhetoric of hate. The attempt to mask the racist and xenophobic underpinning of this occupation through the appropriation of First Nations cultural rituals, the centring of Black and racialized individuals in support of the occupation for daily news cameras, didn’t fool anyone looking at this situation with a critical eye. Those of us from historically oppressed groups know that internalization of that oppression is far from rare. White supremacism is often advanced by those who are racialized seeking to be included in the privilege of whiteness. Patriarchy is held up and advanced by women- Cis and Trans.

We should be concerned as a country. The public support from the leadership of the official opposition in our national government for the occupation and its leadership must be called out by those concerned about growing fascism. The racist/fascist movements here in Canada were already emboldened by activities in our southern neighbour particularly the attempted coup of January 6th. To receive broad and public support from the elected leadership here in Canada will only strengthen their resolve to disrupt the very limited progressive movement by our various governments across the country. The very public support of the police from various services across the country is a big red flag. Charged to protect our collective security and safety, many police officers and military personnel have shown in the last few weeks where their allegiances truly lie. If you were on the fence before, certainly the occupation of Ottawa and its police services enabling of the occupation should make us all rethink how police are managed and funded. It is time for a true reckoning of what role policing has and should have in our democracy.

I sit to write this at the end of the first week of the month. About a week ago on the last day of the shortest month of the year, the month designated to recognize the history, present and futures of Black people; I danced.

Black Joy, the theme for many of us this month of disruptions and occupations was greatly needed. Last week as the Black Coalition for Aids prevention, an OCASI member Agency and its sister organization, ACCHO celebrated their accomplishments and recognized the contributions of three stalwarts of Toronto’s Black Queer communities, joy filled the air. The village turned out in all our diversities. We celebrated. We danced to end out this month of acknowledging Black pain- and lifting up Black Joy!

We Stand in Solidarity with Ukrainian and all other people fleeing conflicts in their homelands.