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Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The Criminalization of Activism

In the past couple of days, something has happened in my home town that puts a chill in the air for any activist. Jason Devine, an anti-racist activist associated with the group Anti-Racist Action Calgary, was beaten in a home invasion allegedly perpetrated by some white supremacists who object to his work. A friend, also present in the home, was also beaten and his arm was broken. Jason's wife, Bonnie, was asleep upstairs with their four children, heard the attack and called 911. The police seem to agree the attack was linked to his anti-racism work. Bonnie and the four children were unharmed, thankfully. There is no word on whether the perpetrators have been arrested. Here's the link to the story on CBC.

Since then, the children have been staying with Bonnie's mother, Lori.

The next day, Children's Aid showed up at the Devine house and threatened to take the kids if the Devines don't stop their anti-racist activism. Seriously. They were told that their "activism" was endangering the children. Jason and Bonnie insisted (and rightly so) that they were doing nothing wrong or illegal and that they were the victims here. They were told this isn't relevant.

According to the CBC story, "Alberta Children and Youth Services spokesman John Tuckwell defended the province's intervention.  'The point of criminal activity is irrelevant,' he said. 'The point is, simply, is a child at risk? And that can be from any number of factors.'"

Even Calgary police have said the Devines have broken no laws, and there is no clear reason why their children shouldn't live with them.

What to make of this? I have a long history with the word "activist." I attached it to myself a long time ago, and once even had cards made that said I was an educator, writer, and activist. I wear the label proudly. When I became a school trustee (a life time ago), the communications director for the school board (a red-faced, grey-haired, white guy in an ill-fitting suit) didn't like my description of myself much. In fact, he didn't like me much. So he inserted the phrase, "self-described," on my bio. So I was a "self-described activist." I gave him a major piece of my mind. The editorial comment was meant to be pejorative, and it was. It was meant to dull the impact of the word, and it does. It was, honestly, in my naivete, the first time I understood that some people saw being an activist as a negative thing and the school board was trying to distance itself from me, their democratically elected official. As if running for politics is, in and of itself, not "activist" by definition. Well, that was my first clue I was unsuited to the work. But that's another story.

What do we learn from this? Activists are scary. We don't sit on our asses and watch The Price Is Right. We DO things. This is the nature of the word. Activity can be unpredictable. We stand up for what we believe in. We put up signs and attend demonstrations against things we think should change and in favour of things we support. We make art. We write comic books. We write letters to our MPs, to the editor, to CEOs of big polluting companies, to local coffee shops urging them to use Fair Trade coffee. We participate. We speak up. We demand. We do these things in all kinds of ways. We are not silent, because we know silence is complicity. Jason makes the excellent point that his work is actually intended to make the world a better place for his kids and for all kids. That point seems to be lost.

The really strange thing about this story is that Jason Devine is an activist, and not even a dissenter. Dissent implies going against a majority. Certainly the majority of folks even in red-neck Calgary are against racism. I mention this because we are becoming accustomed to the criminilization of dissent. It would actually be the white supremacists who beat him up who are dissenters. But the criminalization of activism is a whole new frontier. Apparently social services wants us to be sheep, wants us to watch the Price is Right, and in the immortal words of Senator Ruth, to shut the fuck up. If you don't, the State will take your kids.

That's quite an effective threat, one used for generations on First Nations People here in Canada. These families had their children forcibly removed by the State and sent to residential schools simply because they were Aboriginal. Now, apparently, the State will take your kids, or threaten to, if you are an "activist."

Where will it stop? Are yoga teachers "activists"? Are organic food enthusiasts "activists?"

Reproductive Rights folks like us sure are. And again, we're not dissenters. We're in the majority. We're activists. Let's put the kibosh on this one and fast. Let's help the Devines, and in doing so, help ourselves.

Letters in support of the Devines can be sent to the provincial Ministry of Social Services and the media protesting this revictimization of the family, and to the media, the Mayor's office and the Police to call for more action against the white supremacist groups who were the most likely perpetrators of this crime, and better protection for the Devines.

Minister Yvonne Fritz
228 Legislature Building
10800 - 97 Ave
Edmonton, AB T5K 0G5
Phone: 780-415-4890
Fax: 780-415-4859

Go. Write your letters. Be activists.

Addendum: Late today, the authorities decided the Devines could have their children back. How kind of them. See the story.


  1. Good work! Your post is an excellent example of why I keep comming back to read your excellent quality content that is forever updated.
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  2. Thank you for writing this Jane!
    You make excellent points, and with admirable eloquence.

    I was horrified when i awoke to the news about the Devine's harassment by the state after this violent terroristic attack by neo-nazis.

    The situation reminded me of a more common way that the state sides with violence. For example, after a recent wave of attacks on women at UBC, police have warned women not to walk alone. In other words, "they should know better: men are dangerous." How about issuing a statement warning the perpetrators that the police are on the case?

    Anyway, i'm very glad that the Devine family has been reunited, but we should all take notice of how this unfolded... Vigilance...


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