Dictating Freedom I: Histories of Racism, Research Time, 25/08/2016

Contemporary Canada embraces immigration from all corners of the Earth. This is a part of the Canadian state, government, and wider culture that I love. 

Canada hasn’t always had such an open attitude to immigration from parts of Earth that aren’t Western Europe, as you can tell by examining many terrible injustices in our history. Canadians should never forget that Canada was specifically founded as a country for white people only.

I was certainly no Stephen Harper fan, but I was glad he
formally apologized for Canada's expulsion of Sikh
refugees in 1914. However, there are plenty of Canadians
who maintain that non-white immigration must be
Chinese and Indian immigration to British Columbia sparked race riots in 1907 – white Canadians held parades demanding the refusal and expulsion of Asian migrants from the country, vandalizing Chinese-owned businesses. Canada had already installed a tax on Chinese immigrants, and had legislation since 1885 specifically aimed at discouraging Chinese people from moving to the country.

The most visible incident of Canadian racism against Asian immigrants was the refusal of the passengers on the vessel Komagata Maru in 1914. The ship, carrying nearly 400 Punjabi migrants, was refused permission to dock, and sat in Vancouver harbour for two months. On its return to India, 19 of its passengers were massacred by British troops, and the rest imprisoned.

Most infamously, Canadian authorities turned away the St Louis, a ship carrying 907 European Jewish refugees, who tried to settle in Nova Scotia in 1939. Hundreds of these rejected Jews later died in the death camp network. 

Both Canada’s Prime Minister at the time, William Mackenzie King, and Quebec’s most prominent politician Henri Bourassa, were well-known for their rabid hatred of Jews. The year 1910 saw an anti-Semitic pogrom in Quebec City, where rioters vandalized many Jewish-owned businesses.

So I’m rather glad things have changed.* So much so that I consider Canada to have become a leading edge in forging a new concept of nation and national community that breaks from the tradition of requiring or forging ethnic-cultural unity. We seem to be the country in the world closest to becoming post-national.

Colten Boushie, a young man murdered while
trying to get his flat tire fixed. This must never
be our Canada anymore.
* A great deal has not changed. Alt-right racist movements have taken hold in Canadian online culture, racist violence continues against indigenous Canadians, encouraged and abetted by police and elected officials. And Quebec continues to suffer hideous racist violence against Muslims and Jews.

Etienne Balibar wrote the essays that became the book We, The People of Europe in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when the European Union still appeared the true leading edge in overcoming nationalism. The optimism of this time lay in the EU’s supra-national institutional framework.

Here was a set of institutions that had the potential to forge a new cultural identity. A new image for people to identify themselves, which was designed explicitly as an antidote to the poisonous nationalism that fuelled Europe’s previous centuries of war. 

The identity of the European citizen (with a personal and community level ethnic heritage) would build a community of multicultural brotherhood. The identity of the federation citizen.

But Balibar identifies problems set in European institutions from the start. All the particular errors of institutions and governance that set the fall of the European dream in motion can fit into two broadly defined categories. 

Democratic deficits in the pan-European institutions. We’ve probably heard the most about this through the last few years of anti-EU activism from both the democratic and nationalist sides. The concerns and mandates of the EU’s democratic institutions like the European Parliament are too separate from the daily concerns of Europe’s people.

Nigel Farage has become the most effective nationalist
saboteur yet of the European Union.
Deeper than that in a policy context, the European Union’s parliament didn’t even have to be that visible in daily life to earn its legitimacy. Support for a united Europe depended on an implicit deal that many throughout the continent expect to be honoured. European union (as in, a union of Europe) legitimates itself as it produces guarantees.

Guarantees of economic and military security, yes. But also forums for democratic participation – the same civil forums that nation-states have historically provided when they dedicate themselves to democratic governance. Europe had to functionally supplant the democracy-facilitating role of nation-states for the whole continent at once.

Hypocrisy in European citizenship. I’m going to continue this in greater detail tomorrow, but I should introduce it here, having already given the Canadian historical context I come from.

As Balibar sees it, the EU made a serious mistake in letting its member states keep control over citizenship. The EU imported all of its member states’ citizens to become EU citizens at the federation’s supra-national level. But it imposed no demands on members to open their citizenship rules beyond their national definition.

Sorry, I should say, their ethnic-national definition. Because plenty of European member states have citizenship laws that still discriminate on ethnic grounds. Many Turkish-Germans are not citizens, for example, despite being third or even fourth generation Germans. 

From Gegen Die Wand, a wrenching drama film about
the experience of Turkish-Germans and Turkish
immigrants to Germany.
Probably the most horrifying example – Roma have virtually no citizenship rights in Hungary, Romania, and many other central European countries, marginalized to the point of cultural genocide since the actual genocide of the Holocaust. 

Canada has contributed to this, since the Harper government’s designation of all EU member states as “safe countries” instantly and permanently invalidated the refugee claims of thousands of Hungarian Roma. It destroyed their one chance at building a dignified life. 

So for all the idealistic talk and hopes of the European Union to build peace among this continent of peoples perpetually at war, it still left an underclass. Immigrants, migrants, and minorities. The exclusionary powers of the nation remained when dealing with these groups.

What hope is there for a European Union that could not end the entrenched racism of European culture and institutions? . . . To Be Continued 

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