Sunday, March 29, 2015

Student Blog #9: Empathy as a Tool for Social Justice

A couple weeks ago, my peer Whitney Loerzel wrote an excellent blog on the importance of critical thinking as a tool for social justice. She states: “Critical thinking is not some meaningless intellectual exercise. On the contrary, there are numerous examples of individuals using critical thinking to create a better, more just world”. Critical thinking allows for creative thinking. In this blog, I wish to build on Whitney’s thoughts and suggest another creating thinking process, one that is retrospective in nature and expressed through empathy.

My thoughts on empathy as a tool for social justice have been lingering for some time, though I have not identified it as such until very recently. This identification was spurred by my recent conversations with peers and friends, both in Canada and Guatemala, concerning the pervasiveness of child marriages in that country. This topic recently came to my attention through a New York Times article written by Stephanie Sinclair entitled “Child, Bride, Mother”. In Guatemala, 53 percent of women age 20 to 24 are married before age 18, and 13 percent before age 15 (Sinclair). This norm, prevalent in more than 50 countries, strips young girls and women of many of their human rights, fuelling a cycle of social, economic and political oppression.

Conversations with my peers and friends in Canada on this topic have been interesting and insightful. Everyone acknowledged the gender injustices surrounding this prevalent norm but when the big question of “What can we do to change this?” was pressed, the most common response seemed to be: “I’m not sure, those are big issues. I am just happy to be living in Canada.” I have to admit, I shared the same feeling in that moment. However, my feelings soon shifted after talking with some of my female friends in Guatemala. This topic is very personal as many of their friends or families are part of this statistic. Patriarchy (“machismo”) manifests itself in many aspects of their daily lives and is a constant struggle. Accurate empathetic insight into their struggles re-engaged me as an individual which was followed by a sense of responsibility.

This example is not used to make claims of some people being more empathetic than others. Rather, it is to highlight the gap or distance between perspectives on social justice issues as a lived reality as opposed to a topic of conversation. This gap, I feel, disconnects us as humans and strips away important perspectives that have the potential to stimulate empathy.

I believe empathy has a critical role to play in creating positive social change. Cultivating empathy requires us to step outside of ourselves and experience the world through other perspectives, particularly those of the grassroots. This personal interaction requires us to not only think critically, but understand the needs and conditions of those around us- near and far. In brief, I believe that empathy fuels connection. Connection, in turn, builds solidarity that can lead to social change.  I encourage everyone to not only critically engage with social justice issues, but explore their own empathy as a tool for social justice.

-Rebecca Tatham

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Student Blog Post #8: Indigenous Knowledge, Culture and Building the Social Economy

This week in class I am leading discussion on Priscilla Settee’s, “Indigenous Perspectives on Building the Social Economy of Saskatchewan."

I am by no means an economist or a political scientist like many of my classmates, but I find Settee’s work incredibly compelling. Perhaps more compelling to me is her conviction to Indigenous values and their application today.

I come from the college of archaeology, a place where I regularly learn about Indigenous people’s culture and history. I genuinely love learning about the cultures of the first peoples that inhabited Saskatchewan and being part of their recovery and protection.

I am quite familiar with Saskatchewan’s 14000 year history of inhabitation and can inform you as to why a specific projectile point or tool is better than another. I hope to someday be employed by a field that protects  Indigenous people's material past from being destroyed by the hand of the multi-billion dollar pipeline projects.

Yet modern indigenous culture and the culture Settee argues for is completely foreign to me. There has been a disconnect in my mind because I associate the material remains I see with individuals from 4500 years ago and not the culture that lived on and exists today.

I must ask myself why? Is my privilege as a middle class white male unchecked? The short answer to this question is without even realizing it until putting myself and my own experience under the microscope: yes, it is.

I now consider this a great failure on my part as a student, a human being, and a citizen of this wonderfully multifaceted cultural landscape we known as Canada. As I enter my career I hope to remedy this situation and open pathways of access for Indigenous peoples into the archaeological process and share their history as equals. I believe a better understanding of Saskatchewan's history can genuinely be beneficial for all involved and begin a discourse that will bring our multicultural mosaic together as equals.

-Kevin Nyborg

Education and Pedagogy

Last week, students in INTS 400 Critical Perspectives on Social Justice and the Common Good had a fruitful discussion on the role of education, pedagogy and "how we learn" in modern universities.  The discussion originated in response to this article from conservative commentators Barbara Kay and Adam Daifallah.  I brought the article to class in order to ask the question that the article accused us of never asking: do universities teach students "what" to think rather than "how" to think? 

The discussion was impressive.  Students reflected on their experiences, discussed the broader state of education (including difficulty of access) and how students tailor their arguments to different academic situations.  

I was impressed with the high level of intellectual responses from the students.   After class a student sent me this poem which I found to quite adequately reflect how many students (including myself) felt as we were navigating our education.  Well done class! 

There is something I don't know
that I am supposed to know.
I don't know what it is I don't know
and yet am supposed to know,
and I feel I look stupid
if I seem both not to know it
and not know what it is I don't know.
Therefore, I pretend I know it.
This is nerve-racking
since I don't know what I must pretend to know.
Therefore I pretend to know everything.

I feel you know what I'm supposed to know
but you can't tell me what it is
because you don't know
that I don't know what it is.

You may know what I don't know,
but not that I don't know it,
and I can't tell you.
So you will
have to
tell me

R. D. Laing

Friday, March 20, 2015

Student Blog #7: The Importance of Critical Thinking

There was a recent news article that caught my attention and caused me some concern. This particular article was discussing a recent mail out that was sent to an MP’s constituents that contained information related to Bill C-51. A survey was included in which individuals were offered two options regarding their opinions on Bill C-51: they could either agree with the bill, as it is imperative to take additional action to protect Canadians from terrorism, or they must disagree with implementing Bill C-51 because, “terrorists are victims too.” I laughed to myself as I read it: what a blatant example of the fallacy of the false dilemma this argument is! The fallacy of the false dilemma (or false dichotomy) occurs when an individual presents only two opposing views when in fact other possibilities exist. In regard to Bill C-51, one might have perfectly valid reasons for not supporting this legislation, such as its impedance on privacy rights and civil liberties, which have nothing to do with sympathizing with terrorists. This example immediately brought back “fond” memories of Vic Toews who in 2012, used a false dichotomy when he told Canadians that they are either with Conservative government or, “with the child pornographers”, in regard to Bill C-30. I am sure many Canadians were delighted to be categorized as being “with the child pornographers,” simply because they opposed the content of Bill C-30.

As ridiculous as these two examples are, we may not realize that we encounter fallacious arguments on a regular basis. For example, how many times do we witness a straw person argument in our lives? A straw person argument (commonly called a “straw man” argument, but I am a feminist after all) is one that misrepresents your opponent’s position in a way that makes it easier to attack and refute. The ever-present red herring, the deliberate raising of an irrelevant issue, seems to be a staple in argumentative discourse. However, our discourse need not be mired in fallacies. Invalid arguments, although very easy to make, are also easy to detect with the right tools. Thus, the concept of critical thinking is necessary to eradicate such fallacious arguments.

Critical thinking is the process of assessing claims and arguments with rational, cognitive thought. A critical thinker does not accept unfounded claims and is familiar with common fallacies. I presented you with the fallacy of the false dilemma, the straw person, and red herring, but there are many others. There are the fallacies that contain irrelevant premises, such as the genetic fallacy, the fallacy of appealing to popularity, tradition, emotion, and so on. Other fallacies are those with unacceptable premises, like begging the question or deploying a faulty analogy. Critical thinking is also about embracing new knowledge through discovery, and is tremendously important when evaluating and forming opinions.

Why is critical thinking so imperative? Firstly, far too often fallacious arguments slip through the cracks and are deemed valid. It becomes dangerous when people of power use fallacies to win support and make policies. Without the power of critical thinking, individuals accept invalid claims and arguments that undermine truth. Secondly, there is a risk of basing one’s beliefs and opinions on biased, unsupported, and/or fallacious claims. What you stand for and whom you are depends on the kinds of knowledge that you deem to be valid and worthy of acceptance. If you do not think critically about the reasons for accepting claims, you risk allowing others to form your opinions and beliefs for you. Every day, individuals are bombarded with information. The media, through the advancement of technology, now permeates our lives so completely that it is nearly impossible to ignore. Social media is another entity that offers the user an abundance of information and opinions. With all this information streaming into our lives it is important to be able to assess what is valid and worthy of our attention.

I equate social justice and the common good with individuals making and accepting arguments grounded in evidence. A good and just society is one that seeks truth and turns away from claims that lack credible evidence. Critical thinking is the tool that separates truths from falsehoods. A just world requires a foundation of trust, and if claims and beliefs are based on invalid or inaccurate premises, how can the good or justice prevail? Relying on unfounded claims to form opinions most certainly hinders the common good.

Critical thinking is not some meaningless intellectual exercise. On the contrary, there are numerous examples of individuals using critical thinking to create a better, more just world. It has empowered women to no longer accept that they somehow are subordinate to men and thus should be afforded lesser rights. Thinking critically has also made clear that skin colour has no bearing on the value of a human life. In my own life, critical thinking has changed the way I look at and consume food.

I have been vegan for several years now and this choice, despite what so many people think, was one the easiest decisions of my life. I critically assessed the arguments that supported an animal-based diet against those that opposed consuming such a diet. After evaluating arguments, I came to the conclusion that the arguments made in favour of a vegan diet could not be ignored, such as the appalling treatment of animals, the damage to the environment, and the waste of resources that goes into livestock production that result from an animal-based diet. Critical thinking gave me the tools to discover that I could lead a perfectly healthy and enjoyable life foregoing any animal products, a decision that has greatly increased both my physical and emotional well being.

If more people thought critically about the world around them, I truly believe that positive change would ensue. If politicians, for example, could no longer rely on unfounded claims or the politics of fear to win support, and would be forced to convey concrete and factual claims to the public. Individuals would support their own arguments with logical, factual evidence and would accept nothing less from others. The media would be required to conduct and present truthful reporting. Most importantly, the world would be truth seeking, rather than retreating into falsehoods.

In order to be a critical thinker you must refuse to go through life in blissful ignorance, accepting unsupported claims and fallacious arguments. Critically engage with the world around you, and live with a passion for learning and a hunger for new knowledge. Take control of your own learning, don’t let someone do it for you; that is, know how to properly access facts and knowledge for yourself. Demand evidence and know when a valid argument is actually being made. Know the structure of a valid argument (that the premises support the conclusion), and when making an argument, always make sure you have sufficient and supportive evidence. Familiarize yourself with the basic fallacies and when evaluating claims for yourself always ask, “Is this a valid argument?” Whenever partaking of any information from the media be aware of any biases or conflicts of interests, and know what source your information is coming from (FOX News will provide a very different entertainment experience from BBC News).

The more I learn, the more I realize I know very little, as there is always so much more knowledge to acquire. A critical thinker never stops or fears learning. She or he is always prepared to embrace new territory, and move forward, rather than retreat into ignorance. It is important to examine your own life and challenge your own beliefs through a lens of critical thinking. Are your beliefs supported by evidence and truths?  Or, are you allowing falsehoods and fallacies to structure your life? A healthy amount of skepticism is often necessary when listening to opinions and arguments. Do not isolate yourself from different points of view; instead actively seek out opinions that are different from your own. If your views cannot stand up to criticism, then they were never strong enough to be held in the first place. Changing a strongly held belief is not a sign of defeat, but rather the mark of a truly open-minded critical thinker. Critical thinking, although a very simple act, has the power to change the kind of world we live in.

-Whitney Loerzel

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Bill C-51 and Human Rights

Yesterday, thousands of Canadians took to the streets in protest over Bill C-51: the Anti Terrorism Act.  You can see some pictures here.  You can read about the government of Canada's rationale for the Act here and a brief summary of the criticism here. The government claims that C51 is necessary to give security agencies more power to combat the threat of terrorism while civil liberties advocates argue that C51 could be used to crack down on legitimate protest.  What are your thoughts on the Bill and its relationship to social justice and the common good?  Will C51 make Canadians safer or will it undermine basic civil liberties across the country?

Friday, March 13, 2015

Student Blog #6: #KXL Why Now?

I recently read an article in the Huffington Post titled “Obama Declares Venezuela a Threat to U.S National Security” (Mason and Rampton 2015).  The United States is an oil-rich country that loves to take heavy oil (or crude oil, dirty oil, etc.) from a so called, ‘strong’ ally (if it ever was) and use it domestically. However, the U.S is the number one purchaser of crude oil from Venezuela.  Yet, if this failing relationship continues, a strain on imports from that country, no matter how unlikely, could happen.  This short introduction brings me to the main point of this article: America, finish building Keystone XL!

If you are reading this article I can assume that you have some knowledge on the debate surrounding KXL. But let’s quickly recap: The Keystone Pipeline has been planned for about six years now.  This multi-year debate on Keystone XL is actually just phase four of the project.  This project began in the early 2000s when I was just a little tot in school. Since then, oil prices have risen as the ‘War on Terror’ began and Canada’s (well Alberta’s) northern oil sands began to interest companies that needed to transport oil out to the Gulf Coast to ship it to China or another overseas country.  Phase one was approved under the Bush administration in 2008.  Phase two is also now complete. Phase three has been put into construction.  Phase one runs from Alberta to Steele City, Nebraska, Phase two runs from Steele City to Cushing, Oklahoma.  Phase three continues this down to Texas, where it branches off to two ports.  There is a heck of a lot that goes on between those places however.  Phase four is where the current controversy arises.

KXL would duplicate Phase one, however, with a shorter, more direct route and a wider pipeline.  This pipeline does not just carry Canadian oil. American crude oil would join the Canadian oil in Baker, Montana.  The main debate for anti-KXL activists would be that the pipeline is dangerously bad for the environment (along with other issues).  Supporters of KXL, including myself, argue that oil is an essential commodity to grow the world economy and that the pipeline is a safe way to move oil to refineries.  Furthermore, the pipeline would improve both countries politically, socially, economically and whatever other word you can think of that ends with ‘ly’.

The Sand Hills region in Nebraska presented a problem with environmental concerns.  KXL was originally planned to go right through this beautiful region, which also supplied eight states with clean drinking water.  TransCanada, a Calgary based company, immediately proposed fourteen different routes the pipeline could take, including one that completely avoided the Sand Hills region.  In November of 2011, the Nebraska Legislature passed two bills to allow TransCanada to alter the route.  A year earlier, in 2010, the U.S Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued a report stating that KXL would pose no real threat to the environment as long as all safety procedures are followed.  A few months following the TransCanada route change in Nebraska, TransCanada issued an environmental study stating that “based on extensive feedback from Nebraskans, this reflects our shared desire to minimize the disturbance of land and sensitive resources in the state” (Reuters 2012).

Now, I understand defending TransCanada’s claims with their own claim is problematic, however, the Federally regulated EPA’s report is clear.  The environmental risks are minimal.  However, the potential of an oil spill also looms large for anti- KXL activists.  A spill would obviously pollute the air and any water it contaminated, however, the main issue of water contamination was avoided when TransCanada re-routed the pipeline around Sandy Hills.  Moreover, as many scholars have suggested, if there was a leak around the “Ogallala Aquifer” (the Nebraska fresh water reserve), it would not be bad enough to penetrate the aquifer.  It is obvious that a spill into fresh water would take a lot of money and time to clean.  A spill would affect wildlife and agriculture in the area of the spill and that would be devastating for many ecosystems.
Yet, the argument that KXL could negatively affect these ecosystems is overstated.  Look, I completely understand that a pipeline is not going to save our environment.  However, it is not going to necessarily hurt it and that is my point.  There are already numerous pipelines that go East-West or North-South through and around the Sand Hills of Nebraska.  Although they are minor compared to the proposed size of KXL, they are still there moving oil daily.

Here is another fact to consider: we are all dependent on oil!  From the natural gas or coal power plants powering our homes, to the electric car you are thinking about buying or your stove at home, they all have one thing in common: they need oil.  A large portion of Canadian GDP is determined by how many barrels of oil are sold.  Provincial and Federal economies all, to some extent, rely on oil. Where does North America get that oil from? You guessed it, by train from Canada and developing countries around the world.

Well Mr. President, why not drastically eliminate your dependence on moving oil by train and approve this pipeline? If you google which is the safest way to move oil, pipeline beats rail every time.  There were over 1000 rail accidents last year in the U.S (over 100 deaths) and only eleven pipeline accidents.  The last human fatality due to pipeline accident was in 1988, my eldest sister had not yet been born (she is 25).  Pipelines are safe and it is as simple as that.  There are thousands of reports, articles, and essays to defend this point. Ideally, the Barack Obama administration would use the small economic gain from this pipeline to end some of their dependence on third world oil and maybe actually help develop those countries.

KXL would also create jobs.  This is a key point pro-KXL supporters bring up.  The U.S State Department released a report in 2012 stating that 40,000 jobs would be created during the construction of KXL.  Although most of them are not permanent, that is still 40,000 jobs America! The President, in 2013, publically stated that KXL would maybe produce “2,200 permanent jobs” (Reuters 2013).  The President clearly was not pleased with his State Departments findings, even still, isn’t 2,200 jobs better than zero?  This is an essential reason why public opinion polls all support the KXL in the U.S.  The Republican Party received a majority in the Senate in the 2014 fall election partially because of its support of KXL.  The Republican led Congress and Senate then passed KXL in January and sent it to the President for approval.  President Obama vetoed the bill just two weeks ago and the Congressional override did not produce its needed two thirds majority to support the project.

It is looking more and more unlikely that KXL will pass and this is problematic for both of our countries.  As Canadian Ambassador Gary Doer stated “the choice is to have it come down by a pipeline that he approves, or without his approval, it comes down on trains” (McCarthy 2013).  The U.S is already using Canadian oil, receiving millions of barrels of oil daily.  Much of that oil comes through pipeline and crude oil will be used no matter what, so it is our challenge to make it as safe as possible.

KXL would drastically improve both of our nations’ economies. It would bring more Canadian oil to the U.S, thus eliminating its dependence on third world countries.  KXL would produce more jobs for both countries and ultimately make the movement of heavy oil safer.  Those summary points, in my eyes, drastically improve our common good.  There is no liberal way out of this debate, either you agree with me, or you think KXL is dangerous.  To those against, I strongly encourage you to really think about this issue and why we depend on oil, or what good oil can do for our society. KXL would do wonders for the common good of both Canada and the United States.

-Wyatt Carleton
Twitter: @WACarl10

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Addressing inequality

Perhaps it is a measure of how far our society has moved away from addressing issues of inequality, but this week the International Monetary Fund released a report stating that declining unionization is fuelling income polarization in developed economies.  In their words:

"we find strong evidence that lower unionization is associated with an increase in top income shares in advanced economies during the period 1980–2010"

Union activists have been making this fairly obvious argument for decades. It is fascinating that the institution associated with neoliberal structural adjustment programs throughout the world is now recognizing that unions play an essential role in redistributing wealth.  What is your take?   

Friday, February 27, 2015

Student blog #5: Transportation Tribulation

I dreamed a dream last night. In this dream, there were hardly any cars. There was no driver training, no driver exams, and no extensive hours of practicing to become a diligent and effective motorist. People were spending their time doing other things. Like engineering safe and efficient bullet trains. Or building eco-friendly solar powered buses. Or spending more time walking, running, and cycling places.

A little ambitious for North America? Most likely, but it’s my subconscious and I’m entitled to do whatever I want in there. Yet imagine if people were able to pool their resources together to create a transit system that all could share in. Imagine a system that benefited everyone beyond just addressing issues of mobility. With more developed public transport there would be less traffic in cities, which would reduce street congestion and engine emissions. There would be less need for vast parking lots, which would give opportunity to build more condensed infrastructure and allow for additional parks, community gardens, or recreational areas. There would be less vehicular collisions because finding a “safe” option home from the pub would be the only option. That is not to say there would not be unfortunate accidents with a highly developed public transit system, but these just might pale in comparison to our current mode of transportation (check out the statistics of American motor vehicle accidents in comparison to public transit and the Japanese high-speed rail safety record).

So what is a significant downfall of creating a communal system of mobility? Independence. Or rather lack thereof. How could people conveniently drive to 7-Eleven whenever a taquito craving hit, or leave five minutes early for school because that last “snooze” makes all the difference? In fact, this notion of convenience is often what drives us to drive. People who can afford cars can do a lot at the whim of a fancy, with a vehicle that takes them wherever they want to go whenever they want to go there. This is a great freedom, and why would there be a demand for a better public transit system when it is much, much nicer to commute and run errands in the comfort of a climate controlled Escalade rather than waiting for a transfer on a muggy side-street or in minus 40° weather.

But what about those people who cannot afford their own automobile? In a society structured so that not everyone can attain the level of financial security necessary to purchase and maintain a vehicle, the options of getting around become acutely limited. Especially in a city where the importance of well-developed public transportation can be summed up in one callow phrase: “People can just carpool more.” To be sure, individual car-culture plays an important part in the economy because people use their vehicles to drive to work (or use them for work).  Yet, there are also those who struggle to make it to their jobs with a system that does not cater to public commuter needs. A lack of effective public transport means that people who cannot afford a car to commute hours of their day to making transfers, meticulously planning routes, or limiting themselves to employment close to home if there are no routes in their area.

And what about the environmental costs paid for a little convenience? If decimating the Northern boreal forest to make room for extractive industry, pipeline spills, or using unquantifiable amounts of precious freshwater is not enough to scare you off from the oil dependency necessary to sustain individual transportation—think about all the fracking currently underway next to the Yellowstone Caldera (also known as “Supervolcano”).

Sure, most of us would say we value all citizens in society and value the environment. But do we value them as much as instant-taquito-gratification? Of course, there are complex personal, political, and economic challenges to building infrastructure for a highly integrated public transit system, taking much time, forethought, and investment. These questions, however are not an obstacle.  Rather they should push us to seriously reconsider how we organize our communities, not just on larger social levels but at the personal level as well.  Addressing these challenges would point us in the direction of more sustainable methods of transport, rather than continuing to build up a system that disadvantages some and promotes environmental exploitation.

The need for mobility is a reality, but like all needs, there are a plethora of alternatives for how to meet it. Individual car-culture is no different. Yet, is car-culture a necessary life requirement? Are we willing to re-think how our current desire for independent mobility ripples through the rest of our social and environmental world? Are we willing to relinquish some present-day personal convenience and freedom for a healthier future? And are we willing to seek out and invest in sustainable alternatives? Perhaps the goal of revolutionizing our mobility-needs seems out of reach, or entirely unfeasible.

But I encourage people to tear down those normative boundaries of what is possible, and what is permissible. And even if you do not agree with my hypothetical vision of transport alternatives, I encourage you to come up with your own vision for more sustainable methods of mobility. I encourage you to dream.

-Michelle McLean

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Student Blog #4: An Unexpected Combination: torture tactics and celebrity worship

Earlier this week, an article appeared on The Independent United Kingdom with the headline “If Amal Clooney wins the 'Hooded Man' case, the embarrassment for the UK would be huge” and featured a large photo of a very stern and intimidating looking Amal Clooney. This article is about the case of the Irish “hooded men” who state that they were tortured 1971 by authorities in a British Army camp. As someone going to law school in the fall, the article peaked my interest and left me with two interesting takeaways.
First, regardless of the outcome of this particular case, it is very important for a number of reasons. The decision will further define what is considered ‘torture’ and what is considered ‘inhuman and degrading treatment’ in international law. There is currently a large grey area between the two legal concepts and the more that cases like this call for a distinction, the more precedent is set for the future. A clearer definition of torture will not abolish it all together – it very well could push it further into hiding – but it would still force lawmakers to be explicit and not rely on legal or political grey area to avoid prosecution.
If the legal team representing the surviving men are successful, it will also have grave implications for the UK. Proving the British government lied in the court of law and engaged in torture tactics against Irish citizens will not bode well for what has historically been a turbulent relationship. Any discussion around torture tactics calls into question notions of the common good and whether or not there can be a version of it that allows the blatant disregard for basic human rights. Further, if torture tactics were considered to me permissible within the common good, would the governments be nervous to be associated with these types of actions?
Finally, as a sociology major, I found the framing of this article to be particularly interesting. Amal Clooney is an incredibly successful human rights lawyer that anyone living a privileged life likely has not heard of. Yet, she became known in the media when she married Hollywood actor George Clooney. Suddenly, everything she does makes headlines. This is not necessarily a bad thing – she is doing amazing work and deserves airtime over some other things I see regularly – but it is an interesting change. It invokes many commentaries on our society, from celebrity worship to the fact that a successful woman did not receive wide public recognition until she married a famous man. Even this specific legal case – which has been in the works for some time – did not receive wide media attention in North America until Amal Clooney joined the legal team. More importantly, in the article she was constantly referred to as “Amal Clooney and the rest of the hooded men’s legal team” as if she has been leading it since the beginning.  Based on her celebrity, she has become the figurehead of this case, despite only recently joining the legal team. Why was the article photo not of the men at the center of the case? Would this article have reached me in Canada before Amal Alamuddin became Amal Clooney? It is hard to say. What is important is to consider these socially constructed undertones in the media and keep what is important at the centre of our analysis: striving for a better understanding of the common good and ensuring justice for those people victimized by the state.

-Justine Shenher

Greece, Syriza and the "Grexit"

If you are not following the situation in Greece, you are missing one of the most important political and economic events since the great recession in 2008.  The election of Syriza in the last Greek election was a clear demonstration by the Greek people against the austerity provisions imposed by the Eurozone.  Since the election, Syriza has been in intense negotiations to get a new deal on its outstanding financial obligations to the Eurozone.  So far, Germany has relented (which Phillipe LeGrain at Foreign Policy has described as outright bullying) and Greece (and Syriza) are in a bind. You can read about those tensions between democracy and globalization by the great Leo Panitch here. The people at the Socialist Project have put together a great Hot Topics tab on Greece here.  So what do you think, should Greece leave the Eurozone? What would be the implications of such a move?

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Malcolm X

Today is the fiftieth anniversary of Malcolm X's death.  Looking at the twentieth century it is difficult to find a more inspiring leader rallying against the forces of oppression in the name of social justice.  In the words of Zaheer Ali "Malcolm X wielded history like a sword in his verbal assaults on American racism and European colonialism. He understood that a nation is first founded, not on land, but on the stories that it tells — and silences — to justify its existence."  

Thursday, February 19, 2015

World Day of Social Justice

Friday, February 20 is the United Nations Day for Social Justice.  It seems only fitting to discuss this important day here.  This year's theme is Ending Human Trafficking and Forced Labour. The UN defines forced labour as:

"takes different forms, including debt bondage, trafficking and other forms of modern slavery. The victims are the most vulnerable – women and girls forced into prostitution, migrants trapped in debt bondage, and sweatshop or farm workers kept there by clearly illegal tactics and paid little or nothing. In June 2014, governments, employers and workers at the ILO International Labour Conference (ILC) decided to give new impetus to the global fight against forced labour, including trafficking in persons and slavery-like practices."

The importance of ending forced labour and modern slavery is essential to a just and good society. Clearly this is a topic that should concern us all.  The Government of Canada has a National Action Plan to Combat Human Trafficking.  The Official Opposition's Isabelle Morin has also released this resource on the issue.  What do you think of the Government of Canada's plan? Does it address the issues raised by the UN?  Are there limitations?

Going forward, I think the UN's definition of social justice is something worth repeating here:

"Social justice is an underlying principle for peaceful and prosperous coexistence within and among nations. We uphold the principles of social justice when we promote gender equality or the rights of indigenous peoples and migrants. We advance social justice when we remove barriers that people face because of gender, age, race, ethnicity, religion, culture or disability."

These are important principles and really centre our attention on how social justice can guide our political consciousness.    

Wednesday, February 18, 2015


There can be no greater threat to justice than war.  War is the breakdown of all that is just or good in the world.  That being the case, the situation in the Ukraine is troubling.  The calls for war from separatists, the intrusion of Russia into the Ukraine and NATO's ever eastward push are all concerning.  You can read about the breakdown of the latest ceasefire attempt here.  Needless to say, the situation in the Ukraine will need to be watched closely.  One hopes that cooler heads will prevail and that all sides can come to mutual resolution that respects sovereign borders and peace.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Resources in Social Justice

Students always have questions about where to access resources for the study of social justice and the common good.  It is difficult to navigate all the resources available and depending on topic it can really seem overwhelming.   Thus, I'll try and regularly update suggestions for some good resources. Here are a few that I regularly examine:  
  • Studies in Social Justice:  An open access journal with a ton of great articles.  Definitely worth a look. 
  • Socialist Project: An eclectic mixture of current events, scholarly pieces and expert commentators on a host of progressive issues.  Check out their Hot Topics tabs and the Bullet for expert commentary.
  • Labour/Le Travail: One of Canada's most progressive journals on labour history and working class politics. 
What would you add to this list?  There are of course hundreds.  Let me know and I'll post regularly. 

Idle No More and grassroots justice movements

Probably one of the most important social movements in the past three years has been Idle No More. Dedicated to building Indigenous grassroots struggles, Idle No More has raised awareness of Indigenous issues and pushed for a more inclusive anti-colonial politics across Canada and the world. Read more about the Idle No More movement here.

The Idle No More newsletter is also very informative.   Here is an excerpt from the website:

"The goal of the #INMroots newsletter is to share news stories that promote Indigenous rights and sovereignty and the protection of land and water.   The newsletter will share our stories, actions, and honour resistance while celebrating the world that we are protecting."

Take a look.  What do you think are the most important struggle for Idle No More in the year to come?  

Monday, February 9, 2015

Student Blog #3:The education system under nondemocratic rule

The education system under nondemocratic rule

Having grown up in a country that used to be under an authoritarian government for almost 20 years, I have come to see how the arguments given by Jeff Noonan can be related to countries like Chile. Why and how does a country have a totalitarian government for so many years? Why do people not revolt against an autocratic ruler or the nondemocratic military rule?

Those are the kind of questions I asked myself when my high school history teachers discussed how the military government rose to power in Chile in 1973. Teachers sometimes provided bias answers to these questions based on how they and their families were affected by the military government. Until now I have not been able to fully understand and answer these questions.  Over the past month, Jeff Noonan’s book Materialist Ethics and Life-Value provided me with some really good answers.

First of all, Noonan (2012) notes that education is a primary way in which citizens of a country learn “how to test and then go beyond established limits” (69). I believe this argument allows me to answer the two questions I proposed at the beginning. First, during the Pinochet years, civic classes were prohibited in all schools and the history of the country was taught until the 1950s, right before the country started moving towards electing socialist governments. Almost everything was taught under the vision that capitalism was a superior system to communism and the USSR were an evil that needed to be stopped.

Second, we later learned of that external forces such as the United States supported the Pinochet government. As Noonan points out, when a society is incapable of solving the problems in their own country, countries like the United States often come to intervene and “help” solve these problems. However, I see this as what Noonan says: “obey and succeed, challenge and be destroyed.”[1] Given that in the 1970s Chile was under the government of Salvador Allende, a member of the Socialist Party, the US saw this a threat and, therefore intervened to remove the elected government of Chile.

Returning to education, if an authoritarian government controls the education system it prepares people to obey, and therefore, to not be able to challenge power and authority. In the case of people that challenged the system, they were tortured, kidnapped or even killed. People were living in fear, thus they were scared to challenge the government. This led Chile, and other South American countries to have military governments for many years.

There are many things that could be said about this topic but I will leave you this for you to apply the situation to Noonan’s propositions about liberalism and how the money-value system works. Are people from other countries being treated as mere instruments for the sake of the ruling power system? Is there a way to prevent the intervention of other countries? And how does the education system reinforce a system that allows for such intervention?

-Felipe del Campo-Donoso

[1] Jeff Noonan, Materialist Ethics and Life-Value, 2012: 159.

Social Justice in the News: Doctor Assisted Suicide and Peace Activism

Almost daily there are issues in the news that touch on issues of social justice and the common good. Today there are two issues that caught my attention.

First, was the decision by the Supreme Court of Canada on Friday about the complex issue of doctor assisted suicide.  There are no clear answers to this question, but the Supreme Court has placed the issue firmly into the public domain.  The CBC has done some good reporting on this issue here. National Post columnist Andrew Coyne has written a very good column questioning where the Supreme Court decision will likely lead.  Spiritual leaders have weighed in with some very important questions pertaining to how doctor assisted suicide challenges the common good.  Meanwhile the social movement Dying with Dignity has defended the decision and outlined some of the important issues moving forward. Also, the John Gormley show (podcast) had a very good discussion (with Saskatchewan callers weighing in) on the importance and challenges arising from the decision.  If you see other viewpoints, please let me know and I'll post them here.

The second issue arose right here in Saskatchewan.  A group of peace activists with Peace Quest are marching on the provincial legislature today demanding an end to school programs that give educational credit for military training. You can read about that here. Where do you stand on this question? Does military training in high school curricula contribute to the common good? Or does it violate principles of social justice?

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

The Right to Strike and the Charter's Notwithstanding Clause

What a busy few days in Saskatchewan politics.  On Friday, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that the Saskatchewan government's essential services bill violated freedom of association rights in the Charter of Rights.  In coming to that conclusion, the Supreme Court ruled that there is a constitutional right to strike.  You can read my early thoughts here.

In response to the SCC's decision, today the premier of Saskatchewan floated the idea of using s. 33 of the Charter to override that decision and keep his unconstitutional bill.  This raises some interesting questions about the politics of human rights and justice in the Canadian context.  A few early thoughts.

Section 33 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms

For those who have never heard of s. 33 of the Charter, you're probably in good company.  The reason for that is that it has hardly ever been used.  S. 33, or the Notwithstanding Clause, was inserted in the Charter during the negotiations of the constitution in 1981-1982.  The clause came to read as follows:

  • 33. (1) Parliament or the legislature of a province may expressly declare in an Act of Parliament or of the legislature, as the case may be, that the Act or a provision thereof shall operate notwithstanding a provision included in section 2 or sections 7 to 15 of this Charter
In essence, the clause allows any government in Canada to override a judicial decision that strikes down legislation if it violates the fundamental freedoms in s. 2 (religion, expression, assembly or association) s. 7-14 (the legal rights) or s. 15 (equality rights).  By all accounts, Prime Minister Trudeau hated the notwithstanding clause but he compromised in order to entrench the Charter in the constitution. Those pushing for s. 33 included Saskatchewan NDP Premier Allan Blakeney and Manitoba Conservative Premier Sterling Lyon both of whom were concerned about the erosion of Parliamentary sovereignty by so-called "activist" judges.  The premiers won this struggle and s. 33 was entrenched in the constitution.

There were early signs that s. 33 might be used aggressively. Stung by its defeat in opposing the constitution in the first place, the Parti Quebecois government of Rene Levesque immediately returned to Quebec City and imposed s. 33 on every provincial law passed by the National Assembly. Quebec used it again in 1988 when the Supreme Court overturned Bill 101, the Charter of the French Language.  

Outside of Quebec, the Conservative government of Grant Devine also chose to use s. 33 in order to maintain back-to-work legislation against striking dairy workers.  Unlike in Quebec, however, Devine used s. 33 proactively before the case went to court.  In other words, Devine stacked the rules of the game in his favour by stating his legislation would stand no matter what the courts did.  In the end, Devine's draconian tactic proved unnecessary as the Supreme Court concluded in the 1987 "labour trilogy" that there was no constitutional right to strike.

Although there were a few minor examples of governments using s. 33, the Quebec and Saskatchewan examples remain the most prominent and both occurred in the early days of Charter jurisprudence.  By the early 1990s, few government's were willing to risk being seen as overriding the fundamental rights of Canadians.  To date, it has never been used by the federal government.

To Use or Not to Use s. 33

Premier's Wall's musing on using s. 33 to overturn the Supreme Court's decision on the constitutional right to strike has certainly set off stirring debate about his legitimacy to do so.  Yet, he certainly has the legal and constitutional authority to use the clause.  Whether one likes it or not, s. 33 remains as much a part of the Charter as any other section.  At its roots, s. 33 remains a tool to balance decisions of the Supreme Court against the democratic will of Legislature.  

That being the case, any objection to the premier's use of s. 33 is not legal or constitutional but political.  By floating the idea of using s. 33, the premier is also taking a political position in opposition to the collective rights of workers' to strike. He is doing so because he believes he is defending the safety of the public. In taking that position, he is very much following in the footsteps of Saskatchewan's last Conservative premier who took similar steps in opposing workers' right to strike.

The problem, as I see it, is that the premier is using an unpopular tool to sidestep what really was a moderate remedy from the Supreme Court. To be sure, the court did constitutionalize a right to strike. That has ramifications beyond Saskatchewan and will continue whether the premier uses s. 33 or not. But what the court also said in SFL v. Saskatchewan was that the province could maintain essential services legislation but not one as restrictive as the one passed in 2007.  If the government wishes to maintain an essential services bill, all it needs to do is sit down with the unions bargain a new one.  S. 33 is simply unnecessary.

Final thoughts

The right to strike is now a constitutional right beyond the reach of any one government in Canada. While he has the legal ability to do so, it is unclear why the premier continues to run roughshod over the rights of workers.  There are certainly better ways to achieve legislative objectives without reverting to an unpopular constitutional clause that will achieve little.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Politics of the Constitutional Right to Strike

I spent the weekend dissecting the recent SFL v. Saskatchewan case by the Supreme Court of Canada. In that case the Supreme Court constitutionalized the right of workers to strike.  My early thoughts on this historic case can be read here.  Do check out for more updates on questions of workers' rights in Canada.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Student Blog #2: Food, Justice and the Common Good

Over the past year or so I have become more and more immersed in ideas and questions about Social Justice and the Common Good (SJCG). It has more or less consumed my academic life.  This interest comes from many classes that have allowed me to explore the subjects in more detail that has humbled me because I have discovered so much, known so little, and realize that there is so much more to learn.

The common denominator between all that I have learned, is the importance that all cultures place on food. When I was first introduced to the idea of SJCG I do not think I would have ever reduced the idea of SJCG to the simplicity of food, other than issues directly related to poverty and hunger. I do think it is disgusting the amount of food we are capable of producing and distributing globally compared to the amount of people who die of hunger each year, yet that is only partially my point.  What I am trying to say is that the accessibility of healthy food offers the possibility of solidarity between all cultures because it is a basic necessity of life.

One of our main texts, Matarialist Ethics and Life Value by Jeff Noonan is a complex book that gives a critical perspective on liberal democratic societies. Noonan argues that we should attribute value to all things in life in a way that is more intrinsic, and thus very different than we currently live. Amongst various terms he elaborates on are what he calls “Physical-Organic Life Requirements.” These requirements are what we need to survive that are common to all peoples. Chief among these requirements is access to food, as we must consume the proper nutrients in order to survive. Therefore a society must develop a sustainable system of food, which is a very basic social rational. Yet we have developed a system that does not place this basic life necessity as accessible to all.

Noonan argues that we have taken our Physical-Organic Life Requirements (universal human needs in order to survive) and created a system that does not allow everyone access to these requirements. The goals of profit, under current economic systems, create a blindness to issues of basic life requirements.  A simple example can help explain Noonan’s thinking here. A banana worker in Ecuador might ignore the fact that her work conditions are completely unfair, the pesticides used are harmful to both herself and her environment, and that it is not a sustainable process. Yet, she will still work at this place because she needs to feed her family today.

Noonan argues that there is a fundamental contradiction in this system because those who are benefitting from the commercialization of these basic life necessities are benefiting at the expense of someone else. Furthermore, under capitalism, food may be distributed throughout the globe but we still limit people’s access based on its price. The fact that everyone needs food is a great opportunity for global cooperation and solidarity, yet it has turned into a system of exploitation through profit margins and the gross divisions of profit between the worker and the employer.

All of that said, I think we use food as a tool for building community and solidarity quite naturally in social settings. Every meal I share with family or friends is a chance for discussion, whether it is an issue in the family, current events, or something totally random and completely over our heads. I do not think that these conversations would happen in the same way if we were not sharing that space together centered on food.

This was no different when I went to Honduras this past summer. I was able to feel at home in a place so much different than where I am from because I was welcomed at the dinner table. The boundaries of difference were eliminated due to the fact that they, my host family, literally shared food with me, a total stranger (at first). This sharply contrasts the experiences of other students where food was not shared so kindly and a sense of community was harder to create.

For me, the community we create around access to food is what makes this a call to make radical change in order to create a system of food that is sustainable and available for everyone. The fact that our system is not sustainable and not available for everyone is the first step to recognizing that we live in an unjust system. If we are not able to create a system where everyone gets what they need to survive, then how are we going to solve more complex issues that are unjust?

I think this is an easy argument to make: We need to change our unjust system of food, and create one that feeds all.

Anson J Liski - 3rd Year Political Studies - SJCG