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A Dark Night in Albuquerque

Over the past three weeks the world has been watching the protests against racism that have been unfolding in the United States. The sight of hundreds of thousands of Americans in the streets out there protesting peacefully, calling for their country to live up to its promise to its citizens of equal treatment under the law, has been moving to say the least.

In response to this moment, we’ve seen governments, agencies and companies react, making big changes to do their part to be a part of the solution. We’ve seen police chiefs kneeling with protestors, NASCAR ban the Confederate Flag, the NFL make an about face on Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling protests and states and cities taking steps to remove monuments that horror racist figures of history.

It’s been something to behold, that’s for sure and honestly sometimes it’s felt a bit surreal the speed of it, despite how much further there is to go. But the cynic in me, the part of me that expects the worst to appear has been gnawing at me too. It keeps saying that something bad will come, as much as we want to believe the best will happen. Well last night we saw an ugly example of what that worst could look like. It manifested itself in Albuquerque, New Mexico at a peaceful protest to remove a controversial sculpture that features conquistador Juan de Oñate. That lead to this scene, which speaks for itself:

For those of us who are not from the United States, scenes like that are just the kind of thing we’d never accept, so many parts of that are unacceptable. First off, the idea that you would have heavily armed vigilantes arriving at any protest is something that you normally would expect to only seen in failed states around the world. Yet in the United States, it’s become a more and more common sight, to the point where you had heavily armed “protestors” storm the Michigan State House in May. Those “protestors” faced no consequences for essentially taking over the seat of the elected government of that state for a day and faced no consequences for that act, which is in start contrast to the fully armed riot police that the protestors of the past few weeks have faced in the streets around the United States. While peaceful protestors in front of the White House were sent running with full force of tear gas and rubber bullets because a President wanted a photo op in front of a church, that other group, which was armed to the teeth, didn’t get so much as a slap on the wrist. Heck, they even had their President cheering them on from the sidelines.

That dynamic is impossible to ignore not only for the double-standard that it creates and messages that it sends, but it’s also dangerous when those messages are received and acted upon. For those heavily armed groups in places like Michigan and New Mexico, they have been sent an implicit message that if they haven’t been punished for acting like they have, then they must be justified in doing so. They have been sent the message that showing up to peaceful protests armed like you were invading a small village in some far-off land is cool because you’re doing it. At the same time, it’s sent the message that they are alright to act in policing roles, taking the law into their own hands on a regular basis. We’ve seen that happening along the U.S./Mexico border for years now, with these groups “patrolling” the area stopping people at gun point with little to no consequences for their actions.

That has been stewing for a long time and it was inevitable that it would lead to something like we saw last night. And that video made it clear what happened. There you saw peace protestors protesting in the streets. This armed vigilante group surrounded the statue in question, which honours a 16th-century despot who massacred hundreds of indigenous people in that region, all in the name of manifest destiny and racial superiority. Yes these “everyday citizens” decided to “protect” that, which blows my mind. But they didn’t put their bodies between them and the crowd, oh no. This militia group was armed to the teeth with semiautomatic rifles, handguns, wearing camouflage fatigues and military-style helmets. As the Washington Post reported on this, they have a Facebook group that shared “materials encouraging people to arm themselves, promoted military training on infantry tactics and “ambushing,” and shared multiple posts opposing the leveling of monuments to Confederate figures in the South and Oñate in New Mexico.”

It’s clear that their intents were showing up there, looking to intimidate those exercising their constitutional rights to protest. We’ve seen that scene play out many times over the past years, but you just knew that eventually it would go beyond that. You just knew that eventually some militia group, who are not professional police & don’t know how to keep their cool in the face of stress, would end up shooting some innocent person. And last night it happened.

New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham made it clear how she felt about those responsible for what happened. In a statement she said that “the heavily armed individuals who flaunted themselves at the protest, calling themselves a ‘civil guard,’ were there for one reason: To menace protesters, to present an unsanctioned show of unregulated force. To menace the people of New Mexico with weaponry — with an implicit threat of violence — is on its face unacceptable; that violence did indeed occur is unspeakable.” Imagine the elected leader of any government needing to point out that “an unsanctioned show of unregulated force” was a menace to the people. In almost any other democracy in the world you wouldn’t need to point that out, because it’s so bloody obvious. Yet the United States keep showing itself to be different, not just when it comes to the culture of arms in certain segments of society but the fact that these people felt totally justified in using them to protest a statue honouring a 16th century racist.

Only in failed states do you see heavily armed, “regular” citizens taking the law into their own hands and shooting at unarmed people, and typically that happens around issues that are more important that protecting a bloody statue. In normally functioning nations, you would call those people vigilantes or even terrorists. Yet in the United States, the current occupant calls them “good people” when they march armed to the hilt, threatening and menacing everyday citizens in places like Charlottesville and Lansing. Of course this problem and mindset pre-dates Trump and has long been simmering in American culture, but the past four years has accelerated it. By giving tactic head nods of approval to these militias and their members, a message of approval has been sent to them. They’ve felt emboldened and supported by the highest elected offices in the land, which you knew would eventually lead to something like what happened last night. The question that remains is that will we see more scene like that from last night in this moment, or will it be enough to snap people out of this heavily armed stupor? Like many things that we’ve seen in the past few weeks, while my instinct is to be cynical of what might happen, I’ve been proved wrong by the actions of the vast majority. I hope they deliver in that sense again because for all the promise that this moment holds, it could all turn the other way fast if the wrong things happen. I pray that good things come here, just as I pray that the law of the land throws the book at the person who shot an innocent protestor for simply exercising their constitutional rights on a dark night in Albuquerque last night.


Talking the Re-Opening & the Re-Naming of Russell with Kristy Cameron

Yesterday I joined Kristy Cameron on CFRA’s “Ottawa Now” along with Katlyn Harrison on the “Political Heat” panel. We talked about the latest developments in Ontario’s Re-opening from COVID-19, how is it going so far, how much are people going to be willing to do, the proposed extension of the CERB & the debate around the calls to change the name of the municipality of Russell. You can listen to the audio below starting at the 17:00 minute mark.

Of Empty Words and Unicorns

This week we’ll see something happen in Canadian politics that will be as close to a “normal” event as we have in a long time, although being the age of COVID-19, it won’t be that normal. This week we’ll see the first debates of the Conservative Leadership Race, which will happen virtually. The French debate will be first on Wednesday followed by the English debate on Thursday. In an interesting COVID-19 twist, the four candidates will be kept apart, all in separate rooms at the debate venue in Toronto while people watch online.

It’s a set up that former Harper staffer turned Erin O’Toole national campaign manager Fred Delorey described to the CBC as “almost like Hollywood Squares”, which I have do admit is quite fitting. Given the way this race as evolved (or devolved, depending on your perspective), it’s had all the quality and depth of a bad 80’s TV game show. And if you think that’s an exaggeration, the O’Toole campaign managed to prove the latest news they have generated. Let’s start with two tweets that his campaign release which left a mark:

Yes folks, this “True Blue Conservative” is going to “Take Canada Back”. From whom you might ask? Well last time I check it wasn’t “taken” by anyone. Canadians elected another government made of Canadians, one that just happened to not be Conservatives, so nothing was “taken” to take the country back from. That’s called democracy, something that O’Toole seems alright with when he wins. But anywho, that plays into this attempt at “othering” other parties as some how “less Canadian”, an amazingly tone-deaf thing to do in this precise moment.

He didn’t stop there, he got most specific. A few days later he tweeted that “unlike the Trudeau Liberals”, he will always, always, ALWAYS “fight for Canadian values and Canadian workers.” You see, the Liberals will sell out Canadians to shadowy “foreign interests” and don’t give a damn about “real” Canadian workers. Remember, he’s a “True Blue Conservative”, so he’d never let Canadian workers down on that front. That’s just not his style, as I’m sure that tweet is meant to assure. But then something came out just a day later, that pointed to a wee problem with that whole message:

Oops! It turns out that Mr. “True Blue Conservative” who bristles and excoriates “others” for “selling out Canadian workers” was himself, well, selling out Canadian workers. Or more precisely put, was offshoring part of his leadership campaign about “standing up for Canadians” by hiring… ummm… Americans. According to his campaign they hired an American firm to help because “of a lack of availability of Canadian conservative political call centres”.

I guess that a non-partisan Canadian call centre could not be trusted with the vital job of that “one small project”? Lord knows that many of those centres could use the work right now. Or if that was not an option, how about a simply, old-school option: campaign volunteers. You know, those people who give their time to a campaign that they support and care about. The idea of using volunteers to do calls is far from new and there are all kinds of digital options to help volunteers make calls from their homes. You would think that with the funds it took to pay that American firm for that “one small project”, they could have paid for a software license and some headsets for a group of volunteers to make those calls. But no, instead they “stood up for Canadian workers” by hiring offshore. That’s a “True Blue Conservative” if I’ve ever seen one. But folks that’s not all the O’Toole campaign put out there that’s questionable, as this next tweet shows:

Forgive me if you’ve heard that fairy tale before; a Conservative is going to balance the budget all without raising taxes. Global’s David Akin perfect tweet on this summed this up with one work: Unicorns! Yes, we’ve reached the magical thinking portion of the Conservative Leadership campaign, where you can cut your way to balance, all without ever raising a tax (unless you put in “user fees”, which totally aren’t taxes, right?) and none of it will hurt. None whatsoever. It’s magic, it’s just that those dastardly Liberals and others refuse to share it with the masses, unlike those Conservatives mages who share their magic far and wide. They’re so close to being magically promiscuous that it makes the social conservatives in the corner nervous about the number of Hail Mary’s they’ll need to say for penance.

Of course, this is complete and utter trash. This approach has been promised many times during elections and after the votes were counted, like unicorns they were nowhere to be found. This has been the basics of the Conservative playbook forever, with the most recent examples of it being Jason Kenney in Alberta and Doug Ford in Ontario. Kenney promised to bring back big days with little pain and that’s just not happened. In Ontario, Doug Ford ran on promises like that no civil servants would lose their jobs as his government found efficiencies. In case you weren’t clear about that pledge, he tweeted this that’s still up to this day:

“Not a single person will lose their job”, only to see thousands of people lose them after the election as Ford’s Conservatives started to hack and slash at programs and funding all over the place. It shouldn’t shock people to find out that many of the same people who helped to bring us that paradigm of promise keeping are the same people now behind O’Toole’s campaign and these promises. And just as the unicorns haven’t arrived at Queen’s Park, if he were ever to become Prime Minister, I doubt they would ever arrive in Erin O’Toole’s Ottawa.

And even with that, even with how craptacular that week has been for O’Toole, it’s still the best week out of the four candidates in this race. That speaks volumes about the current state of this leadership race and will be on full display on Wednesday and Thursday nights. We’ll see what those debates bring but something tells me that this week will be an even rougher week for this race, as Canadians tune in hoping for a thoughtful debate. Sadly the odds are more likely that they’ll see a weak Canadian parody version Saturday Night Live’s “Celebrity Jeopardy” skit than a true discussion. But such is the state of the Conservative Leadership race, the clown car that keeps running, even though the tires are all flat and the trunk is on fire. It makes for a sight to see, but doesn’t help Canadians have a better country.

Talking about The Calls for Police Reform on “The Arlene Bynon Show”

This morning I joined Arlene Bynon on “The Arlene Bynon Show” on Sirius XM’s Canada Talks 167, along with Alise Mills. We discussed the growing calls for police reform in Canada, the need for concrete actions, how it is that we spend on policing, what we ask of police to do that maybe others could & what other options can we look at. You can listen to it all below.

Dashcam Video as a Rorschach Test

In Canada we have been watching the events of the past few weeks in the United States with many emotions. Most of us have reacted with disgust at the video of the murder of George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis Police and most have joined in calls for racial equality. As the discussions have continued more focus has been put on things here at home. The fact is clear that we’re not some bastion of perfection when it comes to these matters and we have started to see discussions about how to deal with this.

At the same time this was happening, Chief of Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation Allan Adam came forward to describe a recent incident he had with the RCMP in Fort MacMurray, Alberta. He described an incident where they tried to arrest his wife and then grabbed him with “one officer holding him down while he was hit by the other.” That lead to Chief Adam looking like this after the fact:

Source: Calgary Herald:

That was the result of the RCMP stopping Chief Adam and his wife for the heinous crime of having expired license plates. According to the press release from the Wood Buffalo RCMP on the arrest, that the arrest itself and those injuries were no big deal. In fact, the release stated that they had determined that the actions of the officers in this case were “reasonable and did not meet the threshold for an external investigation.” They acted like that was a normal result for having done such an awful thing as having the plates on your truck expire, which of course did not add up at all.

During a press conference, Chief Adam called for the release of the dashcam video of the incident, clearly confident that it would show that this was far from normal. That video was release late yesterday and well, it speaks for itself:

I know that so many saw that video last night and had a horrified reaction. The sight of that second officer rushing in and clotheslining Chief Adam like something straight out of a low-level undercard of a crappy WWE event in Tulsa on a Tuesday evening. The difference is that even in WWE, the person being clotheslined knows that it’s coming & the person doing it isn’t trying to hurt them. They surely don’t then jump on them and start punching them as someone else holds them down. No, that was more like a cheap imitation of a UCF event, with some dude hyped up on steroids beating the crap out of the person they are fighting.

But of all those comparisons, none of them come close to what any real policing should look like. I feel extremely safe in saying that they don’t teach that running clothesline maneuver at the RCMP Depot in Regina, or at any other police college in the country. The fact that the RCMP saw that video and determined that that Macho Man Randy Savage move was “reasonable” and what happened there “did not meet the threshold for an external investigation” are surely signs that something is seriously wrong here.

The timing of this release is notable too given other things that happened in the 24 hours before it. In the time the RCMP Commissioner was making the media rounds denying that the RCMP had issues of systematic racism. Naturally when Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer was being interviewed by CTV’s Evan Solomon, he was asked about it. That lead to this exchange, which was so bad but typical Scheer:

That happened before the Adam video came out and I was pissed then. The fact that when asked for his opinion on something, he basically said “Ask Trudeau”, trying to attack him for pointing out the obvious instead of actually contributing something positive to this conversation. He refused to accept what the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and other inquiries have long since found on this topic. It took for that video to come out for Scheer to finally make a short statement on Twitter that acknowledged that something was wrong here, but didn’t come close to even reaching the bare minimum of what a proper opposition leader should do. But we can have that chat another time.

For right now, we cannot lose the focus on this and what happened. We cannot lose focus on the acts taken by the RCMP here and we cannot forget the alleged crime here that brought this about. We cannot forget that this all happened over expired license plates damn it. Expired license plates don’t require someone being arrested, let alone manhandled then clotheslined to the ground with full force.

I know from firsthand knowledge this because I have been stopped before for expired license plates. Over twenty years ago when I was home from university for the summer, I was driving into town one day in the car I used to drive in high school. It had been off the road for well over a year & honestly, the speedometer was a bit broken and it could be hard to say exactly what speed I was going. I was stopped by the local police department for speeding, but I pointed out that because of the particularities of my hometown at the time (two different police forces covering the city), he caught me speeding in an area that was outside of this officers jurisdiction. I knew my rights and pointed that out, so he went back to his car.

But then he came back, telling me by plates were expired, something that he was only able to see because he stopped me when he shouldn’t have. There was no physical way for him to see that my plates were expired by just passing me on the road from the opposite direction. But he stopped me, it happened. But here is the part that is most relevant here to that dashcam video above. That officer didn’t pull me out of my vehicle. He didn’t put me under arrest. He didn’t manhandle me for asserting my rights, even if that made things more inconvenient for him. And it surely didn’t get me clotheslined to the pavement at the side of the road. He gave me a big ticket of about $500 I remember, along with three demerit points.

That punishment was far worse than whatever the mild speeding ticket I would have gotten if I hadn’t asserted my rights, but I would argue that’s part of the point. I wasn’t tackled, assaulted, or arrested that day. I wasn’t punched or battered. But by asserting myself in that moment in a respectful way, that officer felt the need to “put me back in my place”. And he did. That was came back into my mind, as vivid and real as the day it happened.

When I saw that dashcam video last night, that’s what I saw again, a couple of officers trying to put Chief Adam and his wife “in their place”, as they felt it should be. I refuse to believe that if the Mayor of Wood Buffalo, or a provincial cabinet minister were stopped outside of a casino late at night over expired license plates that we would have seen anything close to the same as that. Furthermore, since when do police spend their time rolling through parking lots checking to see if folks license plates are up to date? It’s not like you regularly seeing police doing “plate checks” like they do regular speed traps or ride checks. So when Chief Adam feels put upon, I can see why.

What I also found striking about that video last night was the reaction of so many to it, the visceral reaction to that running assault of the Chief and just how that wasn’t right. It didn’t add up to people watching it and surely didn’t line up with the RCMP Commissioner’s words on the lack of systemic issues, nor Andrew Scheer’s denials by omission. That video has become a bit of a Rorschach test for this moment, a bit like the Floyd video from the US has been for so many others. The major difference is that Chief Adam has lived to tell the tale and too many people who saw that video last night didn’t believe that tale until they saw it live and in colour. His word wasn’t enough, nor was the evidence of the aftermath. It wasn’t until that video came out that it clicked. To borrow from a quote by Will Smith, “it’s not getting worse, it’s just getting filmed.” If 2020 needed a slogan, that would surely be a strong contender. We have got a lot of work to do here at home to do better. If we don’t things will not get better, we will just have a lot of video evidence of our failures and that won’t make a difference on its own. Parliament of Canada, it’s your turn to act because this is your mess to clean up, not Chief Adam’s nor mine.