Bill C-31, an Assault on Refugee Rights and Canadian Values

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How do you feel about your tax dollars being used to pay for cancer treatment and wheelchairs for a refugee? If you believe, as generations of Canadians before have, that compassion and respect are fundamental national values; you probably feel pretty good about it. Canada is after all a country which (with the exception of First Nations peoples) was built by immigrants and refugees fleeing oppression and deprivation in their home countries in search of a better life.

Without compassion and a sense of fundamental humanity shown towards the original Canadian refugees, this country likely would not exist as it does today as one of the most affluent and stable countries in the world. It might not even have continued to exist at all, riven by internal divisions and without a tolerant and inclusive national identity, it may have been swallowed up by its larger and more aggressive Southern neighbour.

Care and compassion towards new Canadians is a national strength and a source of moral pride, but new legislation by the federal Conservative government poses a direct threat to this admirable Canadian legacy.

Bill C-31, which passed through Parliament and is now in front of Senate represents a fundamental attack on the basic human rights of refugees in Canada

Bill C-31, which passed through Parliament and is now in front of Senate represents a fundamental attack on the basic human rights of refugees in Canada. The bill cuts all extended-care health benefits to refugees and asylum seekers, including access to prescription drugs, vision and dental care, and physical mobility devices such as crutches and wheelchairs. Only those refugees with diseases which may be considered infectious will receive medical care, a policy which in effect says “we don’t care if you get ill or die, unless your illness may catch onto us”. Such a callous, “shut the door behind you” attitude is not representative of the values that make Canada great nor does it represent the type of moral country Canada should aspire to be.

At the forefront of the growing protests against this cut to vital health services to refugees have been doctors, the ones who have experiential knowledge of the circumstances and needs of Canada’s refugee community and the ones who would be forced to deny refugees lifesaving medical care if they appealed to them. As Dr. Mark Tyndall, the head of the infectious disease treatment center at Ottawa Hospital put it, “We are launching into an uncontrolled, disastrous, human health experience by arbitrarily denying life-saving medical care to some of the most vulnerable and traumatized people in the whole world.”

The counter argument by the government and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney is that refugees will now simply be receiving the same level of free medical care as the rest of Canadians. As Kenney put it, refugees will now have access to the same level of care as low and middle income Canadians also adding “I wonder why these doctors aren’t raising the same questions about [the medical benefits] taxpaying Canadians receive.”

His comments at a glance seem to be a crude attempt to pit Canadians against refugees by suggesting they are receiving a free ride on their expense, while drawing a false equivalency between the circumstances of established income-earning Canadians and oftentimes destitute refugees starting from scratch in a new country.

This policy will effectively condemn people with serious illnesses to death, regardless if they are women or children or if their disease would be easily treatable with the correct medication

The fact is that not providing these healthcare services to established Canadians has minimal effect, as most Canadians receive health benefits through their employers and otherwise have the means to afford them, whereas denying them to refugees is catastrophic as they often lack the legal status to work as well as the base of financial resources to pay for healthcare emergencies. This policy will effectively condemn people with serious illnesses to death, regardless if they are women or children or if their disease would be easily treatable with the correct medication.

Despite being among the most vulnerable and suffering people on the planet, in the new Canada if refugees can’t pay they will die even if help is readily available for them. As healthcare worker Mado Mushimiyamana put it, if refugees will consciously be denied lifesaving care “You should let them die where they are rather than come to be killed silently in this country.”

What does this type of policy say about the future of Canada and the kind of country it wants to be in the 21st century? The hard-earned reputation of this country as a tolerant and humane place is potentially threatened by this type of callous and cruel policy targeted towards the most vulnerable people in society. To the credit of Canadians everywhere there have been large protests throughout the country led primarily by medical professionals decrying the federal government’s assault on the human rights of refugees and asylum seekers, but it remains to be seen whether this will be enough to turn back the tide. Canadians need to take a stand and make clear that their country is better than this.

Bill C-31 should not only be an issue of concern to refugees and their advocates, but to all Canadians who care about their national identity

This country was built in large part by the efforts of refugees fleeing famine, war and disease in their homelands and we would not be what we are today if previous generations had not helped these new arrivals with a leg-up instead of exploiting them and pushing them to the margins of society when they were in need. Bill C-31 should not only be an issue of concern to refugees and their advocates, but to all Canadians who care about their national identity and who sincerely believe in the values which made this country what it is today.

Published at: http://prism-magazine.com/2012/06/bill-c-31-an-assault-on-refugee-rights-and-canadian-values/

Astroturf Muslim Leaders

In the wake of revelations that the NYPD had been engaged in anunprecedented campaign of spying on the lives of average Muslim Americansin the New York and New Jersey areas, a campaign which was not based on any specific suspicion of wrongdoing. The campaign consisted of meticulously documenting every Muslim owned school and business in the NY-NJ area, and even went as far as infiltrating a whitewater rafting trip and recording the number of times each one of the rafters prayed.

A few lone voices from the Muslim community came out in support of the NYPD’s efforts. At a sparsely attended March rally, a little over a dozen purported “leaders” of the American Muslim community came out to make known their support for the NYPD’s violation of their community’s constitutional rights. Chief among these individuals was Zuhdi Jasser, head of an organization called the American Islamic Forum for Democracy (AIFD) who said of the rally, “We are not here to criticize the NYPD” and “We just want the media reports to finally show balance, that there’s diversity, that some Muslims don’t have a problem with this.” The only problem with this proclamation is that the supposed diversity of opinion among Muslims on whether they are entitled to live without unconstitutional surveillance of their daily lives is nonexistent.

Read the full article at: http://prism-magazine.com/2012/05/the-astroturf-muslim-leaders/

Propaganda Thinly Masked as Evidence

In the aftermath of the journalistic failures that helped facilitate the unmitigated disaster which was the Iraq War, one would think that the same publications responsible for publishing gross innuendo and propaganda as objective fact would have learnt their lesson for the future. An article released by AP and published in the Washington Post (among other mainstream outlets) today provides a stark and frankly disgusting reminder that most of our tireless media watchdogs have learnt no such lesson and are fully intending to take whatever information they can to promote the fear-mongering hype over Iran which may lead to another, far more disastrous conflict. An AP exclusive story released today shows a drawing of what is purported to be an “explosive containment chamber” present at an Iranian military site. The existence of such a chamber would ostensibly provide evidence that Iran is developing nuclear weapons and could thus potentially constitute a smoking gun to those seeking to make the case that they are. However to make this extremely consequential case (which the media has in depressingly typical fashion rushed to trumpet), the sole evidence that Iran does possess such equipment constitutes this extremely crude drawing created by an unknown source, and several completely anonymous quotes supposedly verifying its authenticity. Behind the fear-inducing headlines and the cynical manipulation of the public, the actual shoddiness of the journalism must be witnessed to be believed:

“The computer-generated drawing was provided to The Associated Press by an official of a country tracking Iran’s nuclear program who said it proves the structure exists, despite Tehran’s refusal to acknowledge it. That official said the image is based on information from a person who had seen the chamber at the Parchin military site, adding that going into detail would endanger the life of that informant. The official comes from an IAEA member country that is severely critical of Iran’s assertions that its nuclear activities are peaceful and asserts they are a springboard for making atomic arms.”

“A former senior IAEA official said he believes the drawing is accurate. Olli Heinonen, until last year the U.N. nuclear agency’s deputy director general in charge of the Iran file, said it was “very similar” to a photo he recently saw that he believes to be the pressure chamber the IAEA suspects is at Parchin… he had but declined to go into the origins of the photo to protect his source.”

Beneath the layers of incendiary hype, what you have here is basically nothing. Taking the assumption that this is a democracy and not a totalitarian country and that there are thus minimum standards for evidence and journalistic integrity, it should be noted that the serious accusations being made here are based completely on anonymous sources, many of whom are acknowledged to be openly hostile and belligerent towards Iran. A few simple questions come to mind; such as, who made this drawing? On what basis is their information verifiable? How can their credibility be judged when they are completely anonymous? Who is their (again, completely anonymous) “source” who gave them this information? Who is the former IAEA official who has given their opinion the drawing is authentic, and on what basis has their opinion been formed?

This is not nitpicking, these are all absolutely basic and necessary questions that any news outlet should immediately ask before publishing information that may have massive consequences not only for their own credibility but for the lives of millions of people. If the drawing had been made by Benjamin Netanyahu, which for all one knows based on the dearth of available information it might have been, that would impact its perceived value and its effectiveness as a tool for furthering the cause of beginning a war with Iran. Stacking anonymous source upon anonymous source and ultimately pulling out a crude sketch of something claimed to be a threat to civilization is not anything resembling journalism, its crude propaganda. This type of sensationalist, utterly hollow drivel had no place being in the pages of the Washington Post or any of the other major publications where it ran today; but remarkably it was there.

Those with an avowed agenda to campaign for war against Iran have uncritically and enthusiastically used this story to help further their cause, regardless of how embarrassing the “evidence” itself is. This type of thing does real harm to those who are legitimately interested in knowing and acting upon the truth and making decisions based on fact, rather than anonymously authored cartoons leaked by equally anonymous “officials” of an anonymous state. Those who tirelessly campaigned for the war in Iraq which killed hundreds of thousands and created millions of refugees are using the same crude tactics they did to engineer that catastrophe. Colin Powell famously showed sketches of Saddam Hussein’s supposed mobile bio-weapons factories, providing pseudo-evidence in lieu of actual evidence but achieving his goal of terrorizing and cowing the populace and the international community into going along with the neoconservative agenda. We all know now that those mobile weapons factories never existed, and yet the very same individuals who manipulated the world using such tactics are attempting to do the same today with Iran. It perhaps can be expected from neoconservative ideologues whose commitment is not to the objective truth but rather to their own narrow interests that this “story” would have gotten attention, but it is incumbent upon those with an interest in seeing a peaceful resolution to this conflict that such blatant propaganda not be allowed to poison the public discourse.

Lone Wolves and Collective Guilt: Kandahar to Toulouse

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In the litany of crimes those perpetrated against innocents, particularly children, are rightly seen as the most heinous and the most deserving of soul-searching as well as reprimand. The past weeks have seen murderous rampages take place in disparate parts of the globe, perpetrated by individual gunmen against innocent civilians. In the streets of Toulouse a young man named Mohammed Merah gunned down three Muslim French military servicemen, and then proceeded days later to a Jewish school where he killed four people, including a 7 year old girl. A week before the horror unleashed by Merah in France, another young man, an American in Afghanistan, conducted a massacre of his own. Robert Bales murdered 17 Afghan civilians, mostly women and toddlers in a prolonged massacre in a village in Kandahar. After executing them in their homes in the dead of night and at point blank range, he proceeded to drag the bodies into a pile and set them alight. It is thought that at least one of his victims, a two year old boy, was burnt alive with the bodies of his family members.

What the perpetrators of these two heinous acts had in common was that they were both young men with a history of violence and mental illness. Merah was documented to have been suicidal and was described during a prior psychiatric evaluation as a “polar introvert” who said he wanted only to “sit in his corner alone” – a portrait of a young man mentally disturbed by growing up poor in a broken home without a father. Robert Bales as well showed a history of potential mental illness. Suspected to have suffered personality altering brain injuries in a vehicle accident in 2010, he was also believed to have suffered from PTSD due to repeated combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. Both men have had run-ins with the law apparently unrelated to any type of ideological motivation, Merah for armed robbery and Bales for aggravated assault.

In the popular responses to these two men and their crimes we can see a marked double standard in regards to who besides them is responsible for their actions. In the case of Bales, the media has been quick to identify him as a deranged, lone, and decidedly isolated individual whose actions have occurred in a vacuum and are a result of his own personal moral failings and mental defects. The identification of Bales as such means that no community is responsible for him and thus no action needs to be taken outside reprimanding him personally; he is alone and apart from any society which might own him. For Merah however, there has been an exuberant rush to identify him and his actions; again, the actions of a young man documented to be mentally disturbed, as the collective responsibility of his community no matter how much that community expresses its disgust and outrage at his crimes. Merah’s claims of affiliation with groups such as Al-Qaeda have been viewed with deep skepticism by French authorities; as the grandiose boasts of a mentally ill young man should be, however media and political figures with an interest in utilizing his crimes to further their own agendas have taken it upon themselves to do so despite this. The actions of Merah, a solitary, sick individual, have been utilized to put all French Muslims on the defensive and to cast an aura of collective guilt and responsibility the way the crimes of Robert Bales never have been. Indeed, the enthusiasm with which pundits around the world have used Merah’s crimes as a bludgeon to smear Muslims everywhere has been disgraceful if nonetheless predictable.

The argument that Merah’s actions fit a pattern and as such must be indicative of a broader communal failing among Muslims whereas Bales do not does not stand up to even the lightest scrutiny. While young Muslim men in disparate places on the globe have committed acts of terror against civilians, countless young men fitting the rough description of Bales; young, white and American, have committed similarly unconscionable acts of violence against innocents on a regular basis as well. From the young men of the so-called “kill team” in Afghanistan who killed Afghan civilians for sport, keeping fingers as keepsakes and taking smiling trophy photographs; to the men who gang-raped and murdered a 14 year-old Iraqi girl in Mahmudiyyah after killing her family, the litany of crimes committed by men whom one could claim belong to the “white American community” is readily comparable to those committed by their Muslim counterparts in both number and scope. The notion that perhaps these crimes are indicative of some sort of collective failure or guilt which would require drastic remedy is rarely entertained, in each case the perpetrators are a mere aberration to be explained away. In no way is the community to which they belong responsible for the creation of these violent, destructive young men, no matter how steady a stream of Robert Bales’ are created. In the case of Muslims however, there is a frantic rush, a need, to associate every Muslim individual who commits a crime with the broader community. Which communities should carry the burden of collective guilt for the crimes of their members can be seen to be wholly selective, if the Muslim community not just in France but around the world is responsible for Mohammed Merah then someone correspondingly must be responsible for Robert Bales, Steven Green, Calvin Gibbs, and the countless other Americans who have also carried out criminal acts of violence.

Robert Bales has been condemned by his society for his actions just as Mohammed Merah has by his. The difference between them is that only in the case of Merah are there demands for soul-searching and greater scrutiny, while the conditions which created Bales continue to remain unreflected upon and unaddressed. The cynical hypocrisy and double standards represented in these two cases is done with specific intent; the actions of individuals can either be brushed aside as anomalies regardless of the frequency with which they occur, or used as a weapon to attack a specific community as required. What we see here clearly is the latter, a reflection of a double standard which continues to exist against Muslims around the world today.

Bahrain Commission report details deadly pogroms against migrant workers

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Amidst the violence of Bahrain’s revolution, an uprising broadly characterized by violent clashes between pro-democracy protestors and government security forces, a different and equally disturbing narrative was taking place throughout the country.

The recent Bahrain Independent Commission Inquiry (BICI) reveals the broad scope and extremely violent nature of the ethnic pogroms which were reported to have targeted the migrant worker class during the unrest. The stories are recounted with a cold, clinical detachment which belies the scenes of horror described therein:

“…a gang carrying metal bars and knives attacked a group living in a building in Naeem…The residents who managed to escape the building were met by the group waiting at the entrance to the building. This group beat the deceased to death.”…

Continued at Bikya Masr

Take a Dollar, Leave a Penny: Tax Evasion and “Corporate Social Responsibility”

Isn’t it nice how much corporations seem to care these days? The charity walk-a-thons, the grade school volunteer activities, the “community partnerships”, it seems as though a corner has been turned and corporations have finally developed a holistic conception of society which sees them as an active and responsible member. Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) is a concept whose popularity has grown exponentially in recent years, in which companies have purportedly embraced a new vision which calls for their involvement in providing services to the communities in which they operate. These services are provided ostensibly for altruistic reasons, and are often completely outside the normal competencies of the organization as a business. CSR has become an integral part of their overall strategy of many major corporations and its popularity in the business world continues to grow year over year. In many ways, it’s the new craze in business.

On the surface, this would appear to be a positive development. Having corporations going out of their way to ease the burdens of citizens and to promote positive social causes would seem to take some of the harsh edge off of capitalism, and in the process nudge these organizations away from their legally prescribed singular goal of maximizing profits for their shareholders. While there are undoubtedly many decent people in the corporate world, including many of those residing in the C-Suites of major companies, why would they steer their organizations away from the goals for which they have been solely created? In what context are corporations deciding to double as social caretakers despite the intense pressure they are under from their owners to fulfil their goal of maximizing profits?

The answer can be found in the transactional relationship between major corporations and society at large; a transactional relationship where the terms greatly favour corporations to the detriment of their societal stakeholders. In the fiscal year 2010, the largest financial institutions in America paid an income tax rate of only 11%; a rate which is below the legally mandated 35% and is itself vastly overstated due to financial manipulation and the utilization of tax shelters. A recent report showed that 30 of the most profitable companies in the United States have paid no taxes or even negative taxes (in the form of transfer payments from the government) over the past three years. The companies on this list include some of the most prominent in the world, such as General Electric, Dupont and Honeywell. Through the use of offshore tax havens, the manipulation of tax loopholes, and through active lobbying of the government to create additional legal protections to insulate them from paying taxes these companies and others have managed to effectively extricate themselves from the social contract. While they continue to reap huge benefits from public resources and patronage, they do not contribute their share to the continued maintenance of society as they legally are required to, and as all of its productive citizens do.

It is against this background which Corporate Social Responsibility has risen to prominence in recent years. With one hand companies are detracting from the public good on a huge scale by creatively avoiding their obligation to pay taxes; while with the other they are theoretically giving back to the public good through their CSR activities. However what they are “giving back” is a pittance and perversely still serves their primary goal of increasing profits as a result of the self-promotion these activities naturally provide them. Public relations campaigns masked behind a thin yet highly visible veneer of “responsibility” is what corporations have given in return for what they continue to take through their negligence towards the society which makes their very success possible.

While corporations may sponsor barbeques, tree planting days and softball games to show their commitment to causes of social import, they are helping to destroy the very institutions upon which the citizenry relies for its well-being. The result of billions of dollars of taxes unpaid has been the methodical and inevitable destruction of social infrastructure. Cuts to education, health care and entitlement programs have been the natural result of a new economic order where those entities whose income is highest still find ways to pay the least taxes to the societies to which they owe their very success.

Given the rise of Corporate Social Responsibility in tandem with the accelerating decline of government as a competent provider for the body politic, it would be plausible for one to argue that in many ways corporations are gradually positioning themselves as a future alternative to government. Imagine if you would, a corporate government; it would be one in which the people have no say and where the ultimate goal is one which is indifferent at best to the condition of those who would come to rely on it. This is no longer a fantasy vision of a dystopian, necessarily fascist future; this is observably happening and the vision of it is what is inspiring individuals to take to the streets in the protest of that amorphous entity which is “Wall Street”. My advice to those at Occupy Wall Street and those at Occupy protests across the world; distil your message to one main point and make it this: corporations must stop obfuscating by pretending to be our friends and must pay their obligated share of taxes. Ending the legalized criminality of tax loopholes and offshore tax shelters, simply enforcing the social contract, would fill public coffers and would allow government to do its job of building and supporting the social infrastructure upon which we all rely.

Every organization should have an ethical code which governs its actions in order to reduce negative externalities to society, but the rise of Corporate Social Responsibility in the form of proactive public engagement is a significant and potentially dangerous development in the long term. The government is ours as citizens, corporations are the sole possession of their shareholders, and we allow the latter to starve the former at our own long term detriment. Occupy Wall Street, say it loud and clear that corporations must pay their taxes and you will find that most of what else you want will naturally be satisfied with this demand. Corporate tax evasion masked by the sham of CSR is no replacement for a responsible and accountable government, something which we as citizens should never lose sight of as we evaluate the gap between the words and deeds of business leaders and unscrupulous politicians.

The Open Bigotry of the Neoconservative American Right

Executive Director of the Emergency Committee for Israel, dressed in Arabface

The past few decades have seen an admirable amount of progress in making overt racism socially taboo and imposing limits on hate speech in American society. This change is not something that came about through pure enlightened reflection, but as a response to hundreds of years of intimate experience with the evils of racism and from a recognition of what a permissively racist environment can lead to. In a sign of legitimate social progress, in most cases being an open bigot today is something for which an individual can expect to be ostracized and shunned in society. While it may still exist, this type of behaviour is generally not a welcome part of the public discourse any longer.

There is one threshold however which is still crossed on a regular basis by both political and media figures; bigotry and racism against Muslim and Arab-Americans. Try and imagine Noah Pollak, Executive Director of the Emergency Committee for Israel’s Leadership pictured above dressed in blackface, lampooning African-Americans the way he is doing Arabs in the picture. The response would be justifiable outrage and there would likely be consequences imposed on him for wearing his bigotry so proudly in public. For dressing as an Arab however, there is scarcely a response because although he is acknowledging his pride in his bigotry he is doing so in the last remaining space where it is not considered taboo. The same reasons why dressing in blackface is considered wrong exist in this case, and the same motivations and attitudes which would drive an individual to dress in blackface exist here as well.

The example of Pollak casually indulging in racism is indicative of the deep seated attitude of the neoconservative American right towards Arabs and Muslims, and of its role in spreading race hatred in the United States. Far from being a fringe figure or the leader of an obscure organization, Pollak is the Executive Director of one of the most powerful and influential Israel lobby groups in America. That their leader and director, the cream of the crop, their ideological course-setter, dresses up in Arabface and spends his days writing bloodthirsty screeds against Palestinians, Arabs and those who he perceives as supporting them is a good window into the thought process and worldview of the neoconservative right.

Newspaper ad campaign placed by right wing Israeli advocacy organization in American papers.

Another recent window into the ideology of this group was a recent article written by Rachel Abrams, wife of former Bush Administration Deputy National Security Advisor Elliot Abrams and sister of prominent neocon and Iraq War advocate John Podhoretz. In the article she described Palestinians as “shark feed”, and “unmanned savages”, among other things. Again, this is an individual at the very heart of the neoconservative movement in America. The mask slips from time to time and reveals the radical ideologues who hold strong influence in Washington, who have hijacked American policy to send it off into countless wars, and who continue to try and sway American policy in the Middle East, as well as American cultural attitudes towards Arabs and Muslims in general.

This is not about demonizing individuals advocating for Israel in the United States; whatever your opinion on the Israel-Palestine conflict it is a democratic right to lobby for any cause one desires. What the problem is is the increasingly vitriolic and hateful propaganda being used by neoconservatives to push their agenda. Demonizing, caricaturing and attacking Arabs and Muslims by using tactics straight out of the worst of the Jim Crow era, indifferent to, or even trying to catalyze, the same type of destructive influence that type of racism has created in the past. Try and imagine the leader of a prominent Arab-American organization dressed up as a Jewish caricature the way Noah Pollak has dressed as an Arab above, and you’ll understand how potentially deleterious such behaviour can be.

The ideological inspiration to Noah Pollak's bigotry against Arabs and Muslims today.

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