Canada Reads is a literary contest crossed with reality TV. This year's edition, hosted by Jian Ghomeshi, includes among its five finalists Vancouver's own Carmen Aguirre, a playwright, actress and author of Something Fierce, the memoir of a revolutionary daughter. It tells her story of a youth spent amidst the tumult of underground and exile political work aiding the struggle against the dictatorship of General Pinochet in Chile.
Matched up with the five books are five "celebrity" panellists, each advocating for one of the titles. On Monday's opening episode panellist Anne-France Goldwater, a Quebec lawyer, launched this verbal attack: "Carmen Aguirre is a bloody terrorist. How we let her into Canada, I don't understand." The appropriately named Goldwater also insulted another finalist, Prisoner of Tehran author Marina Nemat, saying her story was "not true."
Come again? Had a U.S. Republican presidential candidate somehow snuck onto a CBC show about books?
The attack on the integrity and honesty of torture survivor Nemat is disgusting. So is the attack on Aguirre, and it carries other serious and alarming aspects that should not be dismissed as mere "controversy" or soap opera/reality TV drama.
First of all, the smears against Aguirre are potentially threatening not only to her reputation but to her personal safety and security. In this day and age, "terrorist" is pretty much the worst and most serious thing you can call anyone.
Furthermore, the insult is not just against Aguirre, but can be viewed as a slap in the face to the entire community of exiles and their descendants from Chile and other South American dictatorships. More than 7,000 Chileans and others fled to Canada in the 1970s, escaping brutal coup d'etats, and massacres, disappearances and general persecution of leftists and regime opponents. They made it to Canada only after sustained campaigns by social movements here demanding they be given refuge. Many continued to resist the dictatorships by various means, including -- yes -- in some cases lending support to forms of armed struggle. These exiles (and those who remained, often in perilous underground conditions) were all supporters of resistance movements fighting for democracy and social justice -- not terrorists of any kind. They were and are the victims of terrorism: state terrorism. Many were also victims of torture, just like Marina Nemat.
Perhaps most dangerously of all, Goldwater's crude anti-immigrant line plays into a climate of xenophobia and fear being whipped up by the powers-that-be in Canada today. This has real consequences for many refugees and others at risk of deportation.