Rick Salutin: Is dissent alive and well in Canada?

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Rick Salutin used to be a respectable columnist at The Globe & Mail. Then he got fired, and happily (as he tells it), became “unrespectable” again.

But the fact that the left-wing dissident ever had a weekly column in a national mainstream publication speaks to the evolution of dissent in Canada, he argues.

“Think about the media for a minute in the 1960s,” Salutin told a crowd of over 100 people who gathered at the Ottawa Public Library for a lecture on the health of dissent, hosted by Prism Magazine on April 21.

“Jeez, think about TV or any newsroom... there were no women; there were only white men, they all wore white shirts and ties, and the range of opinions was quite narrow. There was nothing like the range of opinions that you can hear in public discourse in the media now. You heard almost nothing about race, nothing about gender; it wasn’t until very late when you heard about women’s rights. You might have heard a little about poverty but not a lot. You heard nothing about the environment,” he explained.

That shifted and for the twenty years he wrote for The Globe & Mail, Salutin says he “pulled no punches” and tackled a range of issues still considered touchy, including the rights of Palestinians, an issue that proved to be his most challenging. “It has been the most difficult one for me to write [about].” Salutin says many of his columns were so critical and leftist, he regularly anticipated being fired.

But when it finally happened, Salutin says he thinks the motivation was dollars and cents, not suppression. “I think it was a marketing plan,” he laughs, admitting he never asked the paper to explain. He now writes for the Toronto Star.

While many in the audience for the event "was probably preoccupied with bad news", Salutin says increased diversity within media is just one example of why he’s relatively optimistic about the current state of dissent.

He notes that the “list of things one couldn’t say in public” used to include simply musing that it was okay if Quebec left Canada, "one would have been called a ‘traitor’ for that." The term ‘capitalism’ used to be another no-no. In fact, during the Cold War, Salutin points out that anyone who was seen as being critical of the way things were, accused of taking 'Moscow gold,' or on the payroll of the Soviet government.

“That stuff never reached most of us,” he jokes.

And so while things have greatly improved since those days, Salutin admits they remain far from perfect, especially with “Stephen Harper and his merry band” in power.

Salutin offers a list, or “litany" of suppression, that includes: “calling environmentalists subversives and agents of foreign powers; the robocalls circus; the very ugly harassment of mainstream religious groups and organizations; the defunding of useful organizations that largely provided assistance to new immigrants; shutting down the Canadian Arab Federation for its advocacy regarding Palestine; the persecution of Rights and Democracy [a human rights organization closed down in Montreal]; the attacks on Richard Colvin [the diplomat who blew the whistle on Canadians handing over prisoners to be tortured in Afghanistan]; changing documents into their opposite by adding ‘not’; harassing review boards like in nuclear energy; . . . calling Jack Layton, Taliban Jack; and proroguing parliament twice to avoid defeat,” he pauses to deadpan that all of this is “boring you to death with suppression.” Then to round out the list, he ticks off the dilution of the long form census as a way “of killing the evidence.”

Salutin acknowledges that it appears the current government is trying to wear everyone down, but he reminds the audience that historical context is important. “This kind of epidemic of repression and suppression is usually a reaction to advances that have been made in the other direction. That is why they are called reactionary. It is hard to keep this in mind, but the ‘Harperites’ feel as though they are the ones who have been under siege.”

But current suppression represents a continuum which political parties have followed for years, says Salutin. On Israel, for example, Salutin points out that it was former Prime Minister Paul Martin’s Liberals who initiated a shift away from balance towards a pro-Israel stance. The current Conservatives only “capitalized” on that, he argues, as has the new leader of the NDP, Thomas Mulcair.

Generally, the Canadian, and other, political systems have “moved in an inhumane and neo-liberal direction,” he says.

Compounding this shift, Salutin criticizes the “law-ification” of dissent. “I’m a dissenter on the Charter,” he explains. “It leads us down the road where they are in the US where you have no hope for people actually making any kind of positive change, the system being able to change under its own steam, no hope that anybody can get together in anything, so what’s left? You go to court.”

Rather, Salutin believes it’s critical to engage people in a political process that transcends the traditional electoral model of winners and losers.

He points to Spain where the May 15 movement has inserted “a new layer” of citizenship engagement into politics. These activists have mobilized for ongoing citizen involvement, fanning across neighbourhoods to meet and discuss larger issues, not just specific topics that enflame briefly and are then forgotten.

With economic and social issues back on the agenda, Salutin says a real opportunity exists now for engaging with people beyond the typical axis of power to mobilize around issues that move beyond human rights and identity politics.

Key in all this is that people on the left remain positive, look for allies everywhere, and to beware of seeing things as “us versus them.”

Salutin points to the Internet as another source of democratization – but which must be guarded against attempts to limit its reach and power.

Hope reigns because things could be a lot worse, concludes Salutin, with a shrug and a smile.

This article was originally published in Prism Magazine and is reprinted here with permission

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