Monthly Archives: February 2017

12 tangible things people can do right now to help stop BC’s opioid crisis

Last year, the British Columbia Coroner’s office reported that 914 people in BC passed away as a result of the opioid crisis. Today, those numbers are continuing to climb.

In 2016, fentanyl was detected in more than a third of overdose deaths in British Columbia. Fentanyl is a synthetic opiate narcotic that is 50 to 100 times stronger than other opioids like morphine, oxycodone and heroin. Fentanyl can be incredibly lethal in small doses; in fact, as little as two milligrams of fentanyl is enough to cause an overdose death. That amount is as small as two grains of salt.

The prevalence of fentanyl and carfentanil (which is 100 times more potent than fentanyl) in street drugs has meant that the overdose death rate in British Columbia has increased a staggering 79.2 percent since 2015.

In Vancouver, drug users, allies, grassroots organizations, activists and health professionals have sought to mitigate fentanyl’s far-reaching effects. Their collective and tireless work has meant that several steps have been made to ensure the safety of drug users is prioritized. For example, Narcan training (opiate antidote) has been made free and accessible, tight-knit support networks have been created amongst drug users, peer-supervised overdose prevention sites have been established, and criticism of oppressive drug policies has been rampant.

Despite these efforts, what has become most clear is that Canada’s ‘war on drugs’ approach to stopping overdose deaths is not working. In fact, many experts have pointed to the fact that prohibition may actually be contributing to the crisis.

In an interview with CBC, longtime heroin user Danielle Trudeau suggested that access to clean, predictable drugs could help to greatly improve the safety and well-being of drug users. This sentiment is furthered by Karen Ward, an organizer with the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU), who noted, “our overarching demand is to end the war on drugs and for decriminalization, working towards legalization and regulation.” This, she said will ensure that people know “what they are getting.”

Notably, drug users are not the only ones affected by this crisis. Fentanyl’s impact has touched friends, families, neighbours, front-line workers, and loved ones.

In the face of the largest opioid crisis in Canada’s history, many people are looking for tangible things they can do to assist individuals and community members who have been affected. In response to this, here is a list of 12 things people can do right now to support those impacted by the opioid crisis.

1) Donate to community organizations who support drug users: Organizations like VANDU, Insite and the  Overdose Prevention Society  have been working to ensure that the safety and dignity of drug users is upheld. Over the course of the last year, these organizations have saved many lives. Additionally, they have provided harm reduction supplies and educational tools to ensure that individuals are using safely. Recently, VANDU’s rent has increased, which means that additional resources are especially necessary right now.

2) Attend a Narcan training session: The Downtown Community Health Centre has Narcan training available every Tuesday at 3pm that is open to the public. Narcan training is also available through VANDU, many local pharmacies and other organizations in Vancouver. With more people equipped with Narcan kits and comprehensive Narcan training, there is an increased likelihood that overdose victims will be supported during a crisis.

3) Recognize the signs of an overdose: Being able to spot an overdose when it’s happening means that you can more quickly support an overdose victim. Some of the main signs of an overdose include: slow or absent breathing, blue lips and nails, person is not moving, you can hear gurgling sounds or snoring, the person can’t be woken up, their skin feels cold and clammy, and their pupils are tiny. If you see someone with these symptoms, stay with them and call 911 right away.

4) Know the things you can do to prevent an overdose: Some of the ways you can reduce the chances of experiencing an overdose include: using with someone else, starting with a small amount, avoid mixing substances as much as possible (this increases the risk of overdose), using in areas where help is easily available (for example, Insite) and making preemptive safety plans so that you know how to best respond in the case of an overdose.

5) Educate yourself about British Columbia’s current drug laws: The Canadian Drug Policy Coalition suggests that British Columbians get educated about the failures of prohibition. Most of the 914 overdose deaths that occurred last year are a direct result of illegal, unregulated drug markets. Many advocates and drug users are urging the government to consider changing these policies to make drug use safer. This includes developing new guidelines for prescribing opioids, improving access to opioid substitution treatment such as suboxone, and decriminalizing and regulating street drugs.

6) Foster and maintain meaningful community connections: Well-known drug advocate Johann Hari suggests that “the opposite of addiction is connection.” Addiction flourishes in isolation, so taking the time to make a connection can have a huge impact! Isolation can simultaneously create a dangerous situation for drug users (as it means they are likely using alone) and foster a sense of loneliness that makes people more likely to use. Creating strong, inclusive communities can quite literally save a life.

7) Reduce the stigma around drug use: Many advocates and activists have suggested that there needs to be a move away from criminalizing drug users. Instead, it is necessary to consider the lived experiences of the drug user and more readily incorporate the social determinants of health (the social and economic conditions that lead to health problems) into our understanding of drug use. Thinking about a person holistically and removing our value-based judgements from the equation means that drug users aren’t restricted by the ‘addict’ label.

8) Volunteer your time: Over the past several months, many front-line workers have been feeling the weight of the opioid crisis. Donating your time and support to local harm reduction organizations at the street level can help to alleviate some of the stress felt by these workers.

9) Show solidarity: Attend community meetings, marches and forums that focus on the fentanyl crisis. Importantly, showing support, raising concerns, and being visible demonstrates to the Ministry of Health that the opioid crisis is something that British Columbians care about, and want to see the Ministry work harder to resolve.  On February 21st, VANDU is organizing a demonstration as part of a national day of action on the overdose crisis. The protest aims to bring awareness to the issue, and to urge the government to end its war on drugs and harmful policies that are fuelling this crisis. For more information about this event, check out the Facebook page.

10) Spread the word: Many Vancouverites are uninformed about what is happening with regards to the opioid crisis, or are unsure about how they can help. Keeping people up to date and offering tangible solutions can influence community involvement, empathy, and understanding.

11) Promote harm reduction tactics: Safe injection sites such as Insite, the Overdose Prevention Society (AKA the pop-up tents that have been organized by Sarah Blyth, Chris Ewart and Ann Livingston), and a number of other organizations have been working tirelessly to ensure that drug users are able to use safely. Harm reduction will not eliminate the fentanyl issue, but it will mean that people will be supported in the event of an overdose. You can promote these spaces by referring people in your community to them, donating to them (here is a GoFundMe page for the Overdose Prevention Society) and advocating to ensure their doors stay open.

12) Write your Member of Parliament to express your concerns: Your local MP can shed light on the opioid crisis in parliament. Putting pressure on your MP to address the opioid crisis, and the many systemic issues that have contributed to the high number of overdose deaths, may mean that it’s considered more quickly, and with more urgency, by the federal government.

Indigenous and settler students hold UBC president accountable for reinstatement of Furlong

Dear Dr. Santa Ono,

We are writing this letter to demonstrate our opposition to the reinstatement of John Furlong as the keynote speaker at the University of British Columbia’s upcoming 18th Annual ZLC Millennium Scholarship Breakfast on February 28, 2017. As both Indigenous and settler students studying at UBC on the unceded, ancestral, and traditional lands of the xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam) peoples, we are deeply troubled by your decision to reinstate John Furlong as the keynote speaker. This action affirms him as an important contributor to athletics in Canada while neglecting survivor testimonies that state he abused Indigenous youth at the Immaculata (Residential) School near Burns Lake, BC, in 1969-1970.

As many Indigenous and non-Indigenous scholars, writers, artists, and activists at UBC and across the nation have explained in their work, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada has only begun to articulate the deep-seated and present day manifestations of settler colonialism. We recognize your decision to not only invite but celebrate this man at UBC to be completely in opposition to the foundational efforts of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. This act is also a direct assault on the contributions made by Indigenous and non-Indigenous scholars at UBC and across Canada who identify the ongoing colonial violence of institutions such as UBC as obstacles to Indigenous sovereignty and self-determination. It is essential to understand that your choice to re-invite John Furlong not only displays a visible disregard for the sexual safety of students on campus, but also, like residential schools, communicates that violence is justifiable when enacted by colonial figures on Indigenous bodies.

On September 12th, 2016, you spoke at the First Nations House of Learning in Sty-Wet-Tan Hall to announce that construction had begun on the Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre, located across Main Mall from Koerner Library and the Office of the President. In this speech, you stated that with the construction of the IRSHDC, UBC is committing itself “to assisting survivors and communities in navigating the extensive and complex archives of the [Truth and Reconciliation Commission] and we are dedicated to providing curricular support and public information about this complex and important history […] This will help to form the basis for more productive interactions in the future.” By reinstating Furlong as the keynote speaker at the upcoming Scholarship Breakfast, you have violently silenced the voices of survivors and deeply troubled the commitment you made on behalf of the UBC community to the survivors of Canada’s residential schools, some of whom are likely attending our university. There is nothing ‘productive’ about your decision, rather it is a decision that condones violence against Indigenous peoples by erasing their voices. If we, as a campus, are truly going to be able to have productive and healing conversations under the banner of Truth and Reconciliation, we must start with listening to the peoples most affected by Canada’s colonial past and present. UBC has a responsibility to uphold and respect relationships with Indigenous peoples, specifically stated in the memorandum with xʷməθkʷəy̓əm. In this time of truth and reconciliation, it is of utmost importance that these relationships take priority. As students attending UBC, we expect better guidance from our president.

Respectfully,

Concerned UBC Students

Show your support by signing our open letter to Dr. Santa Ono.

UBC’s Second Chance to Stand for Justice: the 2017 BDS Referendum

By

Two years have passed.

In the past two years the world has been marked by attacks, peace deals, attempted and successful coups, tragic diasporas, referendums and elections. Often times change has been for the worse, yet sometimes for the better.

Those who have been following the Middle Eastern vicissitudes may agree with me that the recent developments between Palestinians and the State of Israel taste bittersweet much like the past two years. While there are reasons for hope, the call for action remains urgent.

The generational displacement of over 7 million Palestinian refugees [1] is stagnant in its status of ‘permanent emergency’.

The Gaza Strip is still what Noam Chomsky famously called “the world’s largest open-air prison” [2], whose people have been collectively punished by a brutal blockade since 2007.

Amnesty International continues to report arbitrary arrests, unfair trials and extrajudicial murders of Palestinians, often involving children. [3]

While over 5000 more houses have been demolished in the West Bank, evicting countless Palestinian families, the population of Israelis living in the illegal settlements has been increasing by 4.1% annually, more than double the rate of the rest of the country. [4]

Furthermore, the Israeli parliament recently approved a bill to legalize the Jewish-only settlements in the occupied West Bank, which runs contrary to international law. [5]

If Prime Minister Netanyahu seems to have no intention to stop them, someone else, finally, might.

On the bright side, in the past two years Palestine has formally become a member of the International Criminal Court (ICC) [6] and its first embassy as a state has been inaugurated in Vatican City.

Recently, the United States abstained on a United Nations Security Council vote, allowing a landmark resolution to pass calling for an end to the illegal Israeli settlements. Despite the Israeli administration’s history of ignoring hundreds of resolutions (223 just in the past 10 years), the abstention of the US ambassador has reignited world attention regarding the settlements and their ongoing violations of international law. The Security Council has demanded to “completely cease” the settlements in the occupied territories as they “have no legal validity and are dangerously imperilling the viability of the two-state solution”. [7]

But the Obama administration, who supported the abstention (though not much else during the past 8 years), has passed the baton to a government whose hardline position has already been set forward since the campaign. Trump has loudly announced his support for  right-wing Zionist lobbies, such as American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), and condemned Obama’s abstention vote as shameful. His appointment of David Friedman as the new American ambassador to Israel is even more worrisome.  On the Israeli political spectrum, Mr. Friedman stands on the far right. He believes the settlements are legitimate, dismisses the two-state solution, and  pledged that Trump “will order his UN ambassador to veto every resolution hostile to Israel” [8].

Lastly, and perhaps most devastatingly, Mr. Friedman supported Trump’s campaign promise “to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem – and thereby formally recognize the city as Israel’s capital” [9].

If Trump’s inauguration has kept you up at night, his approach to this issue will be unlikely to ease our nightmares.

What may have the power to do so, however, is the response of global civil society, communities of citizens, including our own.

Two years ago, UBC students were called upon to voice their opinions and give justice a chance through a simple important act: a YES vote in the BDS referendum presented to the AMS by the SPHR. Too many acronyms in one sentence? Worry not: plenty of material has been written and published that will quickly bring you up-to-date or refresh your memory on what happened to the 2015 referendum at UBC (see links in the end of the article).

BDS – Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions

What you should know right now is that BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) is a civil society–based, Palestinian-led movement that uses economic boycotts as a non-violent political tool to pressure the Israeli government and achieve three goals:

  1. An end to the illegal occupation of the West Bank and Gaza including a dismantling of the Apartheid Wall
  2. Full equality to Arab-Palestinian citizens in the state of Israel
  3. The right of return for Palestinian refugees

Founded in 2005, BDS has now spread across the world, with endorsements that ranges from governmental bodies to academia, including hundreds of universities and student unions.

In Canada, major student associations such as those at the University of Toronto, McMaster, York, Carleton, University of Regina, Trent, Ryerson and more, have already endorsed BDS through student referendums.

When UBC students were called to vote, in 2015, too many of them did not answer. With 3493 “yes” votes against 2223 “no”, the referendum did not meet the quorum of 4130 votes (8% of total electors) [10], and BDS did not pass. Whether too few people cared or too few people knew, the 2015 results have not discouraged those who do care, now more than ever.

Our Second Chance: the 2017 Referendum

Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights (SPHR) at UBC is preparing to give students another chance to take action by calling them to vote on what is, for now, the same referendum question asked in 2015: “Do you support your student union (AMS) in boycotting products and divesting from companies that support Israeli war crimes, illegal occupation and the oppression of Palestinians?”

The question has been officially submitted to the AMS with the support of over 1000 signatures on February 10, 2017. We will keep you informed as the process of signature counting and question validation unfolds.

As the SPHR Vice-President explained to us, the implications are to be understood clearly:

  1. The request is non-binding and does not ask UBC as an institution to divest, but it is addressing the Alma Mater Society (AMS), which currently does not actually engage in business with Israeli companies that are involved in the occupation and exploitation of Palestinian territories. It would thus be a guarantee for future purchases, meaning that there would not be any changes for the students in the services offered by the AMS. Moreover, the endorsement of the BDS by our Alma Mater Society would be a direct expression of the student body’s opinion, making us stand united, however symbolically, in solidarity with the human rights of Palestinians.
  1. A “yes” victory would entail a “holistic recognition.” Endorsing BDS is an anti-oppressive choice that goes beyond the struggle of Palestinians but embraces higher values of justice and decolonization that could make Palestinians, Indigenous people and visible minorities on campus feel more supported and comfortable in an environment of students that care for each other and for the world. It would be the first exemplar step of solidarity to give hope for other struggling groups, making it evident that, if we want, we do have some power in our hands to use for the best of our community.

Because it is true: in a world where power so often equates money, BDS is powerful, as much as the boycotts against the apartheid regime in South Africa were. This is why the Israeli government has been actively working against the BDS campaign, to the point of setting up a specific “task force” in August 2016 [11]. Besides its power, BDS has another point of comparison with the struggle against South African apartheid which holds particular relevance to the UBC community. In 1987, like in 2015, UBC students failed to participate in a vote to “ban the sale of South-African linked products in SUB”  [12], and a referendum that would have expressed the student body’s solidarity and active commitment to justice did not pass.

It is imperative to underline the importance of this vote on unceded Coast Salish Territories, where many of us are settlers on stolen lands. We have a responsibility to understand the consequences of colonialism and to embrace concrete acts of solidarity to join the political, cultural and human journey of decolonization. We must listen to the  voices of the Indigenous peoples as guidance along this path. Many parallels can be drawn between the struggles people face on occupied Turtle Island and the occupied Palestinian Territories; I here gladly announce that separate articles will follow to delve more deeply into understanding those similarities and differences, and what we can learn from both to stand in solidarity with their peoples’ resistance.  

In such an unpredictable transition phase for world politics, it is the most urgent time for our generation. We must raise a strong voice of consciousness and resilience and listen carefully to those whose voices have been systematically oppressed.  

Two years have passed, but we have a second chance to embrace justice. Let’s not waste it.

Stay human…and stay tuned, more is to come.

I warmly thank the Vice-President of SPHR for their availability and the Talon’s editorial collective for their valuable contributions to editing this article.

Special thanks to Chuka, Eviatar, Laura and Scott for their time and inputs.


Here is more info on BDS from the 2015 campaign:

A Guide to BDS for the Rest of Us

Calling All Students of Conscience: Vote YES on Israel Divestment

The Talon’s Statement in Support of BDS at UBC

Independent Jewish Voices: UBC students should support BDS

To Exist is to Resist: a look at Palestine solidarity activism at UBC

References:

[1] Institute for Middle East Understanding. “How many Palestinian refugees are there?” last modified December 11, 2005. https://imeu.org/article/how-many-palestinian-refugees-are-there

[2] Chomsky, Noam. “My Visit to Gaza: The World’s Largest Open-Air Prison”,Truthout,  November 9, 2012. http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/12635-noam-chomsky-my-visit-to-gaza-the-worlds-largest-open-air-prison

[3] Amnesty International. Report 2015/2016: Israel and Occupied Palestinian Territories. https://www.amnesty.org/en/countries/middle-east-and-north-africa/israel-and-occupied-palestinian-territories/report-israel-and-occupied-palestinian-territories/

[4] Lazaroff, Tovah. “Settler Population was 385,000 by end of 2015”, Jerusalem Post, October 6, 2016. http://www.jpost.com/Israel-News/Settler-population-was-385900-by-end-of-2015-469607
[5] Democracy Now!, “Israel Approves Bill to Retroactively Approve Settlements”. Democracy Now!, February 7, 2017. https://www.democracynow.org/2017/2/7/headlines/israel_approves_bill_to_retroactively_legalize_settlements

[6] AFP, “Palestine formally joins International Criminal Court”. Al Jazeera, April 1, 2015. http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2015/04/palestine-formally-joins-international-criminal-court-150401073619618.html

[7] Beaumont, Peter. “US abstention allows UN to demand end to Israeli settlements”. The Guardian, December 23, 2016. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/dec/23/us-abstention-allows-un-to-demand-end-to-israeli-settlements

[8] Maltz, Judy. “What do we know about David Friedman, Trump’s pick for Ambassador to Israel?”. Haaretz, December 16, 2016. http://www.haaretz.com/world-news/u-s-election-2016/.premium-1.752378

[9] Ibid.

[10] AMS. “2015 Referendum Results.” March 27, 2015. https://www.ams.ubc.ca/2015/03/2015-referendum-results/

[11] Peter Beaumont, “Israel to crack down further on foreign pro-Palestinian activists”, The Guardian,  August 8, 2016. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/aug/08/israel-to-crack-down-further-on-foreign-pro-palestinian-activists

[12] Jacob, Evelyn. “Students defeat proposal”. The Ubyssey. Vol LXIX; N. 34.  February 3, 1987.

sticks and stones can break your bones but words words words…

By

I’m kind of apprehensive about writing this, and posting it anywhere public, but here I go anyway: “Freedom of speech” is kind of overrated.

I hope that declaration was both reductionist and sensationalist enough that at least three of you will stick around long enough to hate-read this and hear me out.

The English philosopher John Stuart Mill argues for freedom of speech as one of the primary rights of man that social arrangements should provide, defining it as the liberty to express your thoughts without unjust persecution from governments. However, the idea of freedom of speech predates even classical liberalism – it is thought to have originated in Athens, as part of the origin of classical Athenian democracy. Much like other aspects of Athenian democracy, freedom of speech resonated strongly with the thinkers of the Enlightenment and beyond, and inspired countless revolutionary developments. Notably, freedom of speech was included the 1789 Declaration on the Rights of the Citizen in France, and is also part of the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States.

This well-known bit of context, straight out of my own ninth grade Social Studies class, is here as a reference for why everyone disagrees with my opinion immediately. When I suggest that “freedom of speech” is overrated, it is perceived as a direct attack on the successes of freedom of speech, and all the positive social change that was ushered through enabling individuals to express their ideas without persecution. I am told that I am “no better than a fascist,” by the types of people who are less targeted by fascism (and other extremely authoritarian right-wing supremacist ideologies) than myself, no less. Someone inevitably quotes Evelyn Beatrice Hall – misattributed to Voltaire or someone else of similar character/reputation  – with the whole “I disapprove of what you’re saying but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Occasionally, if the debacle goes on for long enough, there’s a pretty ironic suggestion of banning “the infringement on others’ free speech.” As in, we should ban what I just said, along with, like, banning the demands for trigger warnings on works with sensitive content or any other element of so called “repressive PC culture”.

And then, to piss me off for the remainder of my week, an entirely different “free speech warrior” arrives on his high horse to save me from my opponents-in-debate, smugly suggesting that “you are allowed to say you hate freedom of speech, and I respect your opinions, because I respect your right to your opinions,” with a tone that I have only been able to describe as “the vocal expression of 🙃 .”

I decided to write this article during a week filled with free speech-related events in the first term, ages ago. Namely, there were the American elections that also took over Canadian life, the “genocide awareness project” headed by UBC Lifeline, and a debate over Bill C-16 resulting from the Jordan Peterson fiasco. I had, and still have, my strong opinions about all of these issues themselves (who doesn’t) but I also have strong opinions about how “freedom of speech” ended up playing a role in them. I’m increasingly disillusioned with “freedom of speech” and whether this idea will ever be used to defend what I stand for, namely the safety and wellbeing of those who are already marginalized by our society. This is worded very personally and I would have preferred to be more academic, but I cannot help having personal reasons when the issues that lead to free speech discussions usually affect me in a very personal manner. The stuff that prompted me writing this was personal, including low-key attacks targeting my identities. Also, like, take this informality as my use of pathos or whatever.

I find myself naturally wondering why I should be satisfied with “freedom of speech,” especially in light of recent events – like the election where a candidate used explicit hate-speech like none in his position have in the last few decades, was defended constantly in his right to express these views, won the election, and appointed a severely anti-Semitic conspiracist from Breitbart as a senior advisor. On a less grave scale, people are regularly harassed by the alt-right on all sorts of media, rarely facing legal consequences. There’s, of course, the entire “PC culture” discourse where referring to someone by their chosen pronouns means your freedom of expression was stifled and that you got “cucked by the trans agenda” (and not that you were being a polite person). The “freedom speech warriors” insist that not expressing an opinion in public to not hurt or offend someone means that you’re a victim of the SJW brigade – though I’m not sure how they would react to me feeling genuinely afraid of generalizing a privileged group (or expressing even the vaguest of my leftist tendencies in public where that opinion can be traced back to me) for fear of the hostile reaction that I will face. For fuck’s sake, many of us today understand “freedom of speech” as “your constitutional right to be an asshole,” and presumably we’re mostly not fans of jerks, yet try to defend the ability to be cruel for the sake of it!

I would like to mention that the wonderful editors at Talon thought the “yet” in my sentence was “unnecessary” as there is no apparent contradiction here, which made me think about us as people. Maybe we’re not as opposed to the whole concept of meanness as much as I’d like to think we are.

And here’s the thing: I probably would not mind the unstifled cruelty this much. I’ve lived with cruelty, I can deal with facing more of it. I can, if necessary, dish it right back out. Just as they have a constitutional right to be an asshole, in theory I have the constitutional right to bite back with my own argument (though this is more complex in reality – at the very least in my personal experience certain “extremes” of the political spectrum are better received than others, by which I mean the admittedly right-wing views that I held in the past were responded to in a much more positive manner than any opinion I’ve had in the last six months). Normally I wouldn’t say shit against the right to express your views even if I thought your views were “bad,” but problem is that words aren’t just words. To bring back that esoteric as hell Judith Butler reference: words are always already actions.

Like when Trump decided that calling Mexicans rapists or proposing a “Muslim registry” (among other “deplorable” things) was how he was gonna roll and then when a good number of “definitely not racists” decided that he could say whatever he wanted to as part of his inalienable constitutional right to be an asshole, that was undeniably related to (may I even suggest led to) the rise in hate crimes against racial minorities. I’m not stupid enough to believe that without the guy all the perpetrators out there would be non-racist folk and we would sing Kum Ba Yah holding hands around a campfire, but the fact that Trump could say these things in the first place energized his supporters into taking more action. This is not even counting all the unreported hate-crimes, nor instances that will not count as such but were likely driven by bigotry, nor the types of things that the administration will do against said minorities. Actions with material consequences on human lives, in short. Or, perhaps on a more micro-level, take the pronoun and trigger warning discussions that have swept up academic spaces especially. This may better illustrate the words are always already actions thing, because in this situation the action of misgendering someone, or of recalling someone else’s trauma, literally is as simple as words. In the case of misgendering, it’s words that are correlated with increase in suicide rates among a vulnerable group of people; even if they’re words in passing, the experience of it all is analogous to the Chinese/Spanish water torture for quite a few individuals. For refusing to add trigger warnings, it’s words that could have protected someone from being forced to recall and react to trauma. Yet, academics and students alike insist that they have the right to what they express (or don’t express) when it comes to such sensitive and impactful words. The moment we ask them to moderate their expression, they instinctively defend their words from the big bad coddled millennials.

As a society we seem to be very dualist in our collective approach to politics and human rights, acting as though our ideas are definitely distinct from our material/physical reality. We pretend as though people won’t ultimately act on their views, if given the power to do so. Freedom of speech, or rather “your constitutional right to be an asshole,” relates to our conception of this false binary because views catch on when they’re expressed, and they lead to actions, like the rise in hate crimes against visible minorities post-Brexit. I’m not sure why it is seen as a sign of maturity and enlightenment to say something like “you are entitled to your opinion and you should get to express it,” as if one’s “opinion” that being LGBT+ is unnatural and should be eradicated (for instance) is just that: an opinion that stays as such, without affecting the way people interact with others at either a macro- or micro-level. That opinion, when expressed, will have dire consequences. Why is it a sign of maturity and not of ignorance and unwillingness to defend marginalized people, if I am endorsing someone’s right to express that without any checks on what they can or cannot say? If I disagree with that opinion, and would like to avoid the material consequences of it being expressed, it shouldn’t be regarded as the absolute worst thing to do if I suggest that there be some checks on how much of that opinion should get expressed (if any of it should see the light of day at all).  

I had a lot of thoughts in my brain when I decided to write this. I didn’t really touch on many of them. I didn’t touch on the number of times freedom of speech is used to defend the right to not only be an asshole but to also be straight-up factually incorrect and purposefully misleading. I didn’t really touch on the sometimes-insufficiency of “freedom of speech” in how there is an implicit promise that it will not be equally ensured for all viewpoints, and definitely not for all citizens of the state – the state only ensures freedom of speech for the views that it can tolerate, and finds ways of crushing all other dissent. I didn’t touch on the loopholes that are used to violate freedom of speech when it is used to fight against, not with, power and institutions – an example that pops into my head right now is the Nixon administration’s reported use of the War on Drugs as a tool to suppress Black and Leftist voices that they could not openly silence. I also didn’t touch on what a legal suppression of free speech looks like. That’s pretty topical in my home country, where our government has been regularly violating this through the crimes against its journalists, opposition politicians, and any other form of insurgence against the state. I could have made this entire article about that, just to remind some of you this: asking for trigger warnings, or for bans against hate-speech, is not even an infringement on your freedom of speech; stop getting off on the idea of causing pain to people.

Freedom of speech has become everything and nothing. We took the idea of legal freedom, freedom from persecution by the state, and hardcore bastardized that whole notion to somehow also include “freedom from the social consequences of our opinions,” essentially creating the perfect breeding ground for the phenomenon of “I can say whatever I want so I will, because who gives a shit?” Somewhere along the way we forgot why so many thinkers, philosophers, scientists, politicians, and revolutionaries really wanted freedom of speech to be ensured, when they were planning and working for the type of society they wanted to live in; freedom of speech was meant to be a means rather than an ends. The whole point of defending one’s right to express their political thoughts without persecution is so that they can petition for the improvement of people’s lives, and not to be “an asshole” for the sake of it, you know? These thinkers did not so casually dismiss the material consequences of opinions, their intention being people could use their words to promote positive social change. Instead we have, as a society, bastardized this intention by suggesting that any sort of limitation on what one can or cannot say—including something as simple as “warn us beforehand about the content of your expression” or “don’t say shit that is blatantly false just to make life harder for me and my loved ones”—is an infringement upon the basic right to say whatever the fuck you want for the sake of it. We seem incapable of the nuance necessary to consider whose opinions were expressed, and whose existence suppressed.

I’m not making a legal argument here; even if I were, with my “unpopular opinion” I don’t really have the power to call for any tangible change. Besides, “freedom of speech” has not been a strictly legal concept for a long time now, and when I call it “overrated” this largely applies to the idea of minimal social ramifications for saying anything we want, regardless of the very material consequences that words have. So I want to reconsider how we define freedom, where we situate the impacts of our speech, whose livelihoods we consider valuable enough to protect from harm. I want us to consider the truth of the statements whose expression we’re defending. I want us to question our values, think about why we want to enable people’s unregulated cruelty – whether we consider a regulation as part of some social contract, built on mutual respect and values of equality, to be at the same level as regulation through the involvement of a coercive state apparatus. My argument isn’t about freedom of speech as a whole, and I recognize the potential for good that this notion has, but I would like to witness that positive potential in action one of these days. Till then, as far as I’m concerned our societal understanding of “freedom of speech” is still overrated.

Freedom of speech may not have begun this way, but how we engage with it and how we staunchly defend it has enabled it to become the “constitutional right to be an asshole” – at the expense of truth, consideration for consequences, and respect for others’ lives.  I’m afraid that the more we encourage this the more we are allowing opinions to bleed into reality. I’m done with my silence implicitly defending a vague as shit concept if all it’s used for is to spread pain and cement hierarchies.

Special thanksEvery philosophy major dude I’ve ever spoken to, G*d bless

Sex Work in Canada

In a 2014 report written by Canadian Conservative MP Joy Smith, the ardent anti-sex work activist suggests “…prostitution dehumanizes and degrades individuals and reduces them to a commodity to be bought and sold.Smiths misguided statement is reflective of a larger political discussion that has emerged in Canada over the past several years, revolving around the rights of sex workers. Specifically, the argument turns on the ideological question of whether sex work is a legitimate form of labour or an indefensible kind of sexual exploitation. As policymakers attempt to discern the best course of action, little attention is given to sex workers themselves.

This debate has effectively divided politicians and Canadian citizens alike, while further marginalizing those who work in the industry. The catalyst for this debate was prefaced on the landmark Supreme Court case Canada (AG) v Bedford, 2013 SCC 72, [2013] 3 SCR 1101, in which Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin deemed that the three offending provisions of the Criminal Code that dealt directly with prostitution, including, keeping or being found in a bawdy house, living on the avails of prostitution, and communicating in public for the purposes of prostitution, were in violation of Section 7 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and were an infringement on the rights of sex workers to security of the person.

Although the Canada (AG) v Bedford, 2013 case provided sex workers with hope that the political climate was finally going to change, a new bill was enacted in its place that, by almost all accounts, sucks. Bill C-36, The Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act, was based on the highly controversial Nordic Model that has been widely debated by academics, politicians and sex workers. While the sale of sexual services is still technically legal under these laws, it is illegal to buy them, advertise for them, or sell them in areas that might reasonably be near someone under the age of 18 or in close proximity to a school, park or religious institution. Unsurprisingly, human rights advocates have fervently decried these laws as unsafe. By relegating sex workers to the dingy corners of society, Bill C-36 serves to make workers more vulnerable to assault, rape or exploitation while simultaneously perpetuating the prevailing stereotype of the sex worker as a pariah. As pointed out by Laura Dilley, Executive Director of PACE Society, a resource centre for sex workers in Vancouvers Downtown Eastside, the laws currently in place make clients more paranoid, pushing sex work into dark industrial areas where no one is around.

The underlying sentiment prevalent in Bill C-36 is clear: it is our duty as a country to savethese women who actively participate in the sex work industry. What I am still trying to understand however, is what exactly we are trying to save these women fromphysical violence, misogyny, the male gaze, and exploitation? Importantly, agency is not compromised or questioned for women who are not sex workers, but experience these differing forms of cultural violence in multiple and intersecting ways every single day. Considering this, it is increasingly evident that the primary concern of lawmakers is not to ensure the safety of street-based sex workers. Instead, the rights of sex workers have become a vehicle through which lawmakers can exercise their own moral biases and preconceived notions about women who choose to be involved in this industry. It is through condemnations such as these, that the image of the sex worker as repulsive, immoral, and unclean have been conceived, and subsequently, reinforced.

Many Canadian MPs, including the aforementioned Joy Smith, hold a strong abolitionist stance against sex work, citing trafficking and forced labour as justifiable reasons to eradicate the profession. While its clear that human trafficking is a huge problem, criminalizing sex work will not minimize this issue; in fact, it will likely only make it more dangerous for women by pushing sex workers into the shadows and weakening their ability to combat coercion, exploitative labour conditions and violence. Furthermore, there is a clear difference between being trafficked and working consensually. Sociologist Ronald Weitzer helps to illuminate this difference by suggesting “…prostitution involves a commercial transaction and trafficking is a process whereby a third party facilitates an individuals involvement in sexual commerce. There is plenty of prostitution by independent operators that does not involve trafficking.Weitzers sentiment is further highlighted in a report published by Amnesty International regarding the decriminalization of adult sex work. Here, there is a strong focus on the need to differentiate between trafficking and consensual sex work in order to make the profession safer. Importantly, as pointed out in the report, countries with legislature similar to Canada, where the act of selling sex is not illegal, but the act of purchasing sex is, do not discern between these two distinctive groups, and thus problematize the industry for everyone.

In Canada, the Liberal Party has given many the impression that the harmful legislation surrounding sex work will be reconsidered. Despite a lot of talk about honouring Indigenous peoples and creating policies to combat sexual assault, the Liberals have not yet said a word about reforming sex work laws. Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould has suggested the laws need to be revisited, but so far, no actual steps in that direction have been taken.

Beyond the obvious implications this debate has had on women, and on all genders who work within the industry, the lack of respect or agency awarded to many of these workers extends beyond the profession itselfrather, it reflects a broader inequity in which womens rights are still deemed as being lesser within our highly patriarchal culture. This becomes especially obvious when one takes the time to consider broader social trends: women in Canada still make $0.82 for every $1 earned by a man, half of all women in Canada have experienced at least one incident of physical or sexual violence since the age of 16, 57 percent of Aboriginal women have been sexually abused, every 6 days a woman in Canada is killed by her intimate partner, one-in-five women of colour experience racism and abuse within the medical system, a whopping 83 percent of disabled women will be sexually assaulted during their lifetime, 20 percent of trans folks will experience physical or sexual assault, and and each year over 40,000 arrests result from intimate partner violence. In my opinion, what unifies the above issues with the criminalization of sex work is that they all reflect the systemic inequality experienced by women in this country. The lack of immediate concern given towards such injustices acts to preserve the lower positionality of women in Canada more generally, and pushes many towards precarious or unsafe living and work situations to survive.

Notably, the differing types of overt and covert oppression experienced by women leave many with no option but sex work as a viable way to earn a living. In order to ensure the agency and safety of women is prioritized in Canada, Canadian law-makers must begin by restructuring the policies and legislation that directly compromise womens rights and freedoms, such as Bill C-36.

Moving forward, it is important to reframe the way that we collectively think about sex work. Currently, we criminalize, dehumanize and isolate women who participate in underground economies like sex work. Social stigmatization make people understand sex work as a moral failure of the individual, rather than the workings of a larger exploitative system. It is necessary to shift this thinking and locate sex work within an overarching structural framework, where capitalism, colonialism, neoliberalism, ineffectual supports, intergenerational trauma and patriarchy are collectively considered.

Sex workers should not be forced to renounce their engagement with the profession, or embody a victim, in order to have their human rights respected. Sex worker rights are human rights.

Silence, fear and cover-ups: The three pillars of UBC

Something is rotten in the state of UBC. We’ve all read the stories about how the university has failed sexual assault survivors, problems with the Board of Governors, Steven Galloway’s firing, and Arvind Gupta’s premature departure. But the problems run much deeper making the institution toxic. This is something I found out all too well last year. I want to share my experience but have chosen to remain anonymous as speaking publicly could have an irrevocable impact on my professional and personal life.

I discovered that the policies in place at UBC are intended to protect the powerful while leaving students to fend for themselves. This is especially problematic for graduate students who work closely with their professors and count on them for support with theses and recommendations.

Last year I was enrolled in a year long class as part of my program and was initially delighted. But I began to notice a lot of problems and many students were unhappy. I’m not one to sit idly by so I took the initiative to try and address these issues with the professors. I was told that no one else was complaining and they weren’t seeing the same problems I was.

I had developed a strong personal relationship with one of my professors the previous year so I continued to reach out to them in hopes of finding a solution. I also confided in them about my struggles with chronic depression and anxiety, which were being triggered. But there was a reticence on their part to address even the smallest of issues. Many times I was promised meetings that never happened and whenever I questioned my professor about this they acted as if nothing was wrong or put the blame on me. I felt that this person who I trusted and thought would be supportive had turned against me because I was being critical of the department.

As the weeks passed the stress of the course took an even greater toll on me. While I had become skilled at managing my mental health this situation was too much for me to handle. I was having difficulty eating and sleeping, was consumed with anxiety about the course, and felt betrayed by my professors and classmates. I even strongly considered dropping out of school.

I ended up deciding to drop the course, which felt like a failure but seemed like the best way to take care of myself. I left or Christmas break and was looking forward to recuperating. But my troubles with the department and my professor were just beginning.

Because I had left he course after the drop date I therefore had to write a letter demonstrating extenuating circumstances so the course would not negatively affect my transcript. In my letter I detailed the problems with the course and my inability to have them addressed properly in as kindly and straightforward a manner as possible. But I was told by my Program Coordinator that Graduate Studies would not accept the letter because they did not want details and I should just say it was due to mental health concerns. After five months, I just wanted everything to be over so I conceded. But I couldn’t help but feel I was being thrown under the bus so Graduate Studies would overlook the department’s problems.

Some time passed and I began to feel better. I was enrolled in some great courses and threw myself into volunteer work that I loved. My professor also seemed to have returned to their cheery disposition and was interested in helping me. I chalked up their previous attitude to stress or misunderstanding. They even agreed to meet with me to help me prepare for a very important interview. I was nervous as it was the biggest interview I had ever done and a number of other students were also applying for the position.

But the morning that I was supposed to meet with my professor (the day before my interview), they didn’t show up. I tried calling and texting them and they eventually replied that they were out of town and had never promised to meet with me. I told them I was disappointed because they had met with the other students and they had fallen through on so many promises to me before. That’s when my professor told me that I had made the meeting up in my head due to my mental health problems.

This was the most hurtful part of the whole thing and something I could no longer excuse. My professor was using my mental health history against me rather than taking accountability for their own mistake. They had betrayed my trust, all while claiming to be an advocate for mental health. I now know that this is gaslighting, or a form of manipulation intended to make someone question their beliefs, perception, and even sanity.

When I began sharing my story with other students I learned that students stretching back years had problems with this professor, the course, and the department. But few people had spoken out because of a culture of fear in the department and this professor holds a prominent position in our field. When I tried to be critical I was mistreated, silenced, and made to feel that I was “crazy”.

After hearing more and more of these stories I decided to look into making a formal complaint. It wasn’t right that a professor could treat their students like this with no consequences. And policy is explicit about not discriminating based on mental health.

I spoke with a former professor who had helped a lot of graduate students at UBC. They said they had heard many cases of abusive thesis supervisors who would sometimes even go out of their way to sabotage student’s careers after they’d graduated. They walked me through how I would make a complaint and said they would support me, but warned me how difficult the process could be.

I also learned another student in my department had made a complaint, which ended simply after the department head denied it. When I found out that all it would take was a professor’s denial I decided not to pursue a complaint. I knew that it would cause me much more harm than it would do anyone good. I felt helpless, alone and defeated.

I can only imagine what sexual assault survivors and other students have had to go through at UBC. Silence, fear, and cover-ups are the three pillars of UBC. Instead of addressing the root of problems, the institution denies them until they become public, and then launch a PR apology. There is very little that students can do if they are being mistreated by a professor, especially if that professor has tenure. Even when students enter into the complicated complaints process it rarely ends up in their favour and leaves them open to retaliation.

In the case of Steven Galloway, he was removed from UBC after years of complaints against him. I wonder the impact on students that made complaints when nothing happened. And even now the Faculty Association and members of Canada’s literary community are behind Galloway, but who is behind the students that have been mistreated?

UBC is where we study, work, live, network and begin our careers. It needs to be a safe and supportive space for students to achieve their best and not be punished when they try to address the problems that prevent this. If UBC is supposed to be an institution of excellence this needs to include the excellent treatment and protection of the students it depends on to survive.