Friday, January 14, 2005

Canada’s Long History of Criminalizing Dissent

As a result of September 11 and the United States declaration of a nebulous War On Terrorism, we once again face the chilling prospect of repression of all democratic free speech, especially speech opposing the war and its encroachments on civil rights.

In the past nine months the Canadian State has passed legislation giving itself extensive police powers, powers that go beyond those used in the War Measures Act.
The criminalization of dissent and protest is a direct result of these so called "war powers/anti-terrorism" acts. And it is intentional.

Already the threat of identifying legitimate protest and civil disobedience as “terrorism” has been uttered by Premier Ralph Klein in regards to opposition to the upcoming G8 summit. He has declared that protestors are terrorists, while the federal government spends millions in security and military actions in Alberta to secure the site of the G8 meeting in Kananaskis and surrounding areas.

The history of state repression during war and times of crisis is the story of the free speech movement and the radical labour socialist traditions, which have been repressed by the state.

During World War I the labour movement faced unprecedented assaults by the United States Government and the Canadian Government, which banned membership in anarchist groups and in unions like the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), known as Wobblies.

In the United States The Palmer raids (named for the then Federal Attorney General) were aimed at the labour movement and were an assault on that movement for daring to challenge capitalism. This was even before the Bolshevik Revolution, which added a new dimension to capitalism’s fear of “foreign agitators”.

The Wobblies had been engaging in free speech fights across North America, demanding the right , the same right in fact that the Salvation Army had, to speak on street corners to workers. To voice opposition to capitalism and declare that workers needed One Big Union to challenge the bosses and their government.

Anarchist orator and propagandist Emma Goldman called for the overthrow of capitalism and Eugene Debs, leader of the Socialist Party of America, called on workers to vote for socialism.

Across America local authorities used the police to break up free speech meetings, demonstrations and public lectures. This was even before World War I broke out.

By the time of America’s involvement in WWI the radical left was speaking out against the “Imperialist War”, and declaring opposition to the draft.

Declaring the new immigrant working class from Eastern and Central Europe as unwanted foreign agitators, the Palmer Act in the United States, and the War Measures Act in Canada were used to deport labour activists, socialists, anarchists and Wobblies during WWI.

Eugene Debs, who got over 1 million votes in the American Presidential election, was jailed for advocating that workers refuse the draft. In Canada Wobblies were deported back to the United States or Europe as unwanted radicals as they were in the U.S.

Laws were passed to censor the mainstream press, which it accepted gladly, and to ban out right thousands of workers and radical newspapers and publications.

Hundreds of newly immigrated Canadians from Eastern and Central Europe were arrested and detained in internment camps during WWI since they were identified as members of the “enemy” Austro-Hungarian Empire. Ukrainians and others were then sent to forced labour camps, to build the railroad through the Rockies and to clear the National Parks in Banff and Jasper.

Even after the war ended these laws and acts were still on the books and used to repress the workers movement after the General Strikes of 1919 spread across North America and as a consequence of the corresponding social revolution in Russia.

The Russian Revolution so terrified the ruling classes in both countries, that acts which should have ended with the war were extended to be used in the 1920’s to ban membership in the Communist Party and to deport its members as “foreign agitators”.

Emma Goldman was exiled from the United States under this act, and in Canada Communist Party Leader Tim Buck faced a criminal trial and deportation under the red scare of the 1920’s.

Yet social justice, radical labour and socialist ideals spread as did the movements of workers and farmers against capitalism, in North America and Europe despite the repression. Socialism was the populist politics of the day, and workers fought to not only to win a better deal under capitalism but to overthrow it. The repression they faced was not about some abstract notion of free speech, but about how speaking out against capitalism would not be tolerated by the capitalist state.

The rise of fascism in Europe during the Spanish Republican struggle of 1936-1939, at the height of capitalism greatest meltdown; the world wide depression, led many Canadians, Americans and Europeans to volunteer to defend revolutionary Spain against the Nationalists of Franco and his German and Italian allies. Yet they too faced laws that banned their volunteering to fight in a foreign war. Despite the fact that Canada had previously raised volunteer expeditionary forces to fight against the Bolsheviks during the Russian Revolution.

During WWII the left made common cause with the State to fight fascism, and Russia joined the Allies in defeating Hitler and Mussolini. The same War Measures Act that allowed for conscription and detention in WWI now was used to draft Quebec War Resisters and intern Japanese Canadians as it had been used to intern Ukrainians in WWI.

With the end of WWII the uneasy truce between Russia and America and Britain were over as the race for atomic weapons balance began. America declared the Smith Act and identified communists as foreign agents under the Smith Act. This act made the entire left suspect of collaboration with Stalin’s Russia, the Cold War had been declared in 1948.

It would be a two-decade long struggle, where Republicans and Democrats alike would hound active communists and left wing labour activists. Before Joe Mcarthy began his anti-Communist trials in the late1950’s the Kennedy’s had been active in hounding the Teamsters and other unions, not for racketeering but for being hotbeds of socialism, Trotskyism and communism.

Mcarthyism, or the period of our popular culture known by that name, led the labour movement into an internal internecine battle, between its left wing, which was under attack by both the American and Canadian state, and those more moderate social democrats and liberals who saw unions in partnership with capitalists in rebuilding the world after the war.

In the 1970’s Canada saw the Federal Government under Trudeau invoke the War Measures Act against its own citizens, declaring the FLQ crisis in Quebec an apprehended insurrection, in fact a civil war. Never before had this act been used in peacetime to repress democratic freedoms of speech, assembly, and publication.

This was the last time the act was declared, and subsequently in the 1980’s was withdrawn as Trudeau introduced a formal declaration of human rights and a constitution in Canada.

As a result the Federal Liberal Government on September 11 did not have its old club, the War Measures Act, to use. Like all moments in history, and especially in those times of War, social activism and protest are fermenting this time is no exception.

We have seen the development of a mass anti-capitalist movement around the world in response to twenty years of neo-liberal free trade endeavours by governments and business.

Like the movements prior to and after WWI and during the Great Depression, this movement has arisen in opposition to the excesses and greed of global capitalism. The attacks on the United States on September 11 and its subsequent declaration of its war on terrorism, have been used as excuses by all States to increase repression against advocates of social change and justice.

The State has once again declared in its jingoistic and racist manner that its “Us Against Them”, them being foreign agitators, and the right wing has taken up the cudgel and banner by calling, once again, for the deportation of immigrants.

It’s the same old story. But freedom especially freedom to protest, are only lost if they are not used. Protests and occupations occurred as the government attempted to pass its various anti-terrorism bills- C-42, C-36, ad-naseum.

Federal and provincial New Democrats spoke out and supported popular opposition to these draconian attacks on our civil liberties.

We now face the situation where increasing police powers are being used against us, by intrusion into our lives at all levels. Immigrants suffer racist profiling and summary detention, without recourse to lawyers or contact with their families and subsequently Star Chamber justice. Police and army personnel as well as intelligence services are being mobilized to deny us the right to freedom of speech and assembly.

Even before September 11 anti-globalization activists were arrested and detained at the border. Now under the terrorist hysteria, anti-capitalist activists have been identified as public enemies of the corporate state, apparently far more dangerous to Bush, Chretien and Klein than Osama bin Lada and Al Quaida.

But this has been the history of capitalism and the left for the past 100 years, War is the result of a crisis in capitalism, that crisis has been used as an excuse to smash the workers movement and movements for social change.

Submitted to the Strathcona New Democrat summer 2002

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