Vladimir Putin’s Proposed Constitutional Changes: A Post-Putin Succession Plan?

By Andrea Chandler

On 15 January 2020, Russian President Vladimir Putin made a surprise announcement in his annual address to Russia’s Parliament. Following a recitation of the country’s recent successes and near-term goals, Putin devoted a sizeable portion of his speech to a plan to introduce significant changes to the Russian constitution. On its face, the proposed changes seemed to expand the role of the government and to link the government more closely to the lower house of Parliament, the State Duma. The language used by Putin suggested a proposal to strengthen the political system’s checks and balances. Debate immediately arose about the speech’s significance: was it paving the way to a greater diffusion of political power, or a path to creating an even more hierarchical system? It is difficult to evaluate Putin’s intentions until more details become apparent about the constitutional reform. But the evidence suggests that this is an effort to further concentrate presidential power and to move even further away from liberal democracy.

To provide context, let us examine the essential existing features of the Russian constitution. It was adopted in 1993, having narrowly passed a referendum during the presidency of Boris Yeltsin. The document is, in many respects, a very democratic constitution. The citizenry are to choose the president in elections and there is a bicameral parliament that contains elected representatives of the people as well as an upper house (the Federation Council) where regions are represented. The constitution contains an extensive list of citizen rights and a Constitutional Court that rules on the constitutionality of laws and government decisions. On its face, then, the president’s power is checked by parliament and an independent judiciary; regions and localities also have self-government bodies in what is purportedly a federal system.

If the system is so democratic, what has enabled Putin to amass so much personal power?

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We’tsuwet’en Sovereignty Stands Against Canadian Supremacy

By Catherine Murton Stoehr

There is a hard disconnect between the actual treaties that the Mi’kmaq, Great Lakes Nations, and Metis forced through strength of arms and today’s “reconciliation moment.”  And it is this: no Indigenous person in the history of this place ever wanted large numbers of non-Indigenous Canadians to live here.  Not out of dislike or insularity but because they knew then, as now, that an element of the non-Indigenous Canadians would steal from, assault, and murder their people with predictable, chronic regularity.

For their part the British, later Canadian, governments never wanted to live in peaceful reciprocity with First Nations, Metis and Inuit people.  We tried over and over again to assert political and legal supremacy over them. It is Canada’s unrelenting, insistent will to erase all Indigenous rights and land holdings that the We’tsuwet’en face today.

Because their violent origins have been forgotten, Canadian treaties’ diplomatic language of “peace and friendship” and shared economic benefits have created a false narrative about the historic relationship between Canada and First Nations, Metis, and Inuit people. Continue reading

End of the Line? The History of Canada’s Precarious Passenger Rail Network

By Thomas Blampied

The saying goes that we don’t really see infrastructure until it fails.

Union Station departure board from last night, showing the cancellations. (Photo by author, 13 Feb 2020)

Over the past week, thousands of Canadians have seen their travel plans disrupted by Indigenous demonstrations blocking both Canadian National (CN) and Canadian Pacific (CP) railway tracks in British Columbia, Saskatchewan, Ontario, and Quebec. The actions are in support of the Wet’suwet’en fight against the Coastal GasLink pipeline project that crosses their territory in Northern British Columbia, as well as the RCMP response to their demonstrations. While many elected band councils have approved the pipeline, the hereditary chiefs have not, laying bare the complexities of the colonial relationship between the Crown and Indigenous peoples in Canada.

Several sympathy protests across Canada have blocked railway tracks.[1]

The most significant of the blockades is at Wymans Road, east of Belleville, Ontario. This level crossing, known to railroaders as Marysville, sits on the edge of Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory. Since February 6, a camp has been set up at the crossing, making it unsafe for trains to pass.[2]

Photo of a VIA train at Marysville on August 24, 2019. This is the site of the blockade and I was standing right where the camp is now. (Photo by author)

Not only is Marysville on the CN mainline between Toronto and Montreal, but it is also the route used by all VIA Rail passenger trains on the Toronto-Ottawa and Toronto-Montreal routes. On February 13, CN announced it was shutting down the eastern portion of its national network because the blockade had caused a week’s worth of freight trains to clog its yards and tracks.[3] Around dinner time, VIA Rail announced that CN was “no longer in a position to fulfill their obligations under the Train Service Agreement” and that all VIA trains across the country were cancelled.[4]

That railway tracks were chosen as protest sites highlights the strong colonial symbolism attached to railway development in Canada, but the blockades also show how precarious passenger rail is in Canada today. While passenger trains once crossed the country, many parts of Canada haven’t seen a passenger train in years. How did this happen? Continue reading

Precarious Historical Instructors’ Manifesto

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We are caught in a cycle where a large chunk of historians in the field are precariously employed. Tenured faculty and university administrators often ask about solutions to precarity from the people who are facing it during faculty meetings or when our professional associations meet, but they rarely act on suggestions. Precarity and those who face it are ignored as a problem of their own doing or, simply, as the state of the field in 2020.

Last year, a group of historians who, in some way, have or continue to experience precarity in the field organized themselves to pull together shared concerns and possible solutions. Speaking about precarity publicly can, and has, put careers at risk. Releasing this document on Active History anonymously is an attempt to move the conversation about precarity forward and push the field at large towards some concrete solutions. Continue reading

Debating Hate Speech Regulations in Canada: A History

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News story from the Globe and Mail, 28 February 1981, p.5.

Jennifer Tunnicliffe

On December 13, 2019, Justin Trudeau sent out a series of mandate letters to his newly appointed Cabinet ministers, outlining their policy objectives for the upcoming session of Parliament. In several of these letters, Trudeau urged initiatives to combat online hate and counter hate speech.[1] Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault was instructed to develop new social media guidelines requiring all platforms to remove hate speech within 24 hours, and Minister of Justice David Lametti was told to look into measures to support victims.

The letters were sent amidst global concerns over the growth of alt-right extremism and fears over the potential of the Internet as a tool to promote hatred. Last year the United Nations launched its Strategy and Plan of Action on Hate Speech, which argued: “Hate speech is a menace to democratic values, social stability and peace.”[2] Canada’s Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights conducted its own study on online hate, and its June 2019 report recommended that Ottawa formulate a clearer definition of what constitutes “hate,” work to better track its spread online, and develop a legal remedy for victims of hate speech.[3]

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The Settler Playbook: Understanding Responses to #ShutDownCanada in Historical Context

Mohawks of Tyendinaga stand by railway tracks during an action near Belleville, Ontario, Canada, on Thursday, Feb. 13, 2020. Photographer: Brett Gundlock/Bloomberg

Sarah Rotz, Daniel Rück, and Sean Carleton

On February 7, militarized RCMP arrested and removed Wet’suwet’en land defenders from their unceded territories, triggering demonstrations and blockades across the country. With large parts of the country’s rail traffic at a standstill, and shipping vessels unable to move goods, people are seeing that peaceful civil disobedience can #ShutDownCanada.

As solidarity actions spread, Canadian politicians of all stripes struggled to respond. On February 14, Conservative opposition leader Andrew Scheer called the rail blockades and political disruptions “illegal” and said Indigenous land defenders and their supporters should “check their privilege.” Scheer’s statement was ill-informed and arrogant, but it was also predictable. These kinds of statements are standard fare in settler colonial societies like Canada, and they are part of a pattern of behaviour consistent with what Cherokee scholar Daniel Heath Justice has described as “Settlers With Opinions.”

When movements like Idle No More or #ShutDownCanada emerge, when non-Indigenous Canadians are inconvenienced by Indigenous assertions of nationhood and sovereignty, settlers often respond with what Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang call “moves to innocence.” Tuck and Yang define settler moves to innocence as “strategies to remove involvement in and culpability for systems of domination.” These “moves” or “plays” form a key part of the settler playbook: the common tactics and strategies used by settlers to defend the colonial status quo. Violence and coercion are a key part of the playbook; however, settlers also use a number of discursive manoeuvres to maintain the material conditions of colonialism. Exposing the settler playbook can help counter these strategies and advance decolonization. As activists and settler scholars, we offer this short primer to the settler playbook.

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If we had only known… whistle blowers, Florence Nightingale, and residential schools

By Thomas Peace

It appeared of great importance to ascertain, if possible, the precise influence which school training exercised on the health of native children…

The Indian schools in Canada afford a total annual death rate of 12 ½ per 1,000 for both sexes; but the mortality of girls is nearly double that of boys…

Making allowance for native children dying at home, we shall be within the truth in assuming the mortality of native children at school as double that of English children of the same ages [emphasis added] …

Florence Nightingale, Sanitary Statistics, 1863.

In 1863, Florence Nightingale – best known as the founder of modern nursing – published a statistical report on the health of Indigenous students in day and boarding schools across the British Empire. As these selections from her text suggest, the situation looked bleak.

I came across Nightingale’s work over the weekend, after listening to Lynn McDonald on CBC’s Fresh Air discuss the famous nurse’s turn to statistics and her concern with the plummeting populations of peoples whose land was increasingly occupied and commodified by Britain, its emigrants, merchants, and industrialists.

Florence Nightingale (middle) in 1886 with her graduating class of nurses from St Thomas’ outside Claydon House, Buckinghamshire (Wikimedia Commons)

What struck me most in this CBC interview was a sense of missed opportunity in the nineteenth century for a change in policy and approach. At its core, Nightingale’s argument in the report is this: colonial statistics are poor – almost useless – but what statistics she could compile suggest real health problems for Indigenous children attending colonial schools. While she does not directly blame settler colonialism for these health issues, her short report called for reform in how these schools were run.

As the TRC’s final report reminds us in vivid detail, in Canada, reform did not come until the late 1960s – over a century later.

What may surprise some readers, though, is that despite its 1863 publication date – indeed, it was penned several years before residential schools became a systematic, government-led form of oppression and re-education – Nightingale was neither the first, nor last, to call attention to the risks colonial schooling posed for Indigenous students.

In 1822, Continue reading

Remember/Resist/Redraw #21: The 2018 Hamilton Rent Strike and the Fight for Affordable Housing

With the fight for safe and affordable housing becoming a central struggle of our times, the Graphic History Collective has released RRR #21 that looks at the lessons of the 2018 Hamilton Rent Strike. The poster, by Simon Orpana, Rob Kristofferson, and Bjarke Skærlund Risager, situates the 2018 strike in the longer history of housing struggles in Hamilton, Ontario and makes the argument that affordable housing is a human right.

We hope that Remember | Resist | Redraw encourages people to critically examine history in ways that can fuel our radical imaginations and support struggles for social change. Learn more about how you can support the project on our website, and connect with us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

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History Slam Episode 142: Born in Evin

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By Sean Graham

Born in Evin is playing Sunday February 2 at 1pm at Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema in Toronto as part of the 17th Annual Human Rights Watch Film Festival. Following the film there will be a discussion led by Tara Sepehri Far, a researcher in the Middle East and North Africa Division of Human Rights Watch.

In the Evin neighbourhood of Tehran, there is a prison. Both before and after the 1979 Iranian Revolution, it was home to political prisoners in a purpose-built wing which, because of the number of intellectuals imprisoned, became known as Evin University. In 1988, the Iranian government began a 5-month series of state-sponsored executions of political prisoners, including many at Evin. Not all were killed, however, as some prisoners survived and managed to escape Iran to safety.

The story of one of these survivors is the subject of the new documentary Born in Evin. The film follows actress Maryam Zaree, who was born in the prison, try to learn about the conditions here parents endured at Evin, the earliest days of her life, and how she and her mother ended up living in Germany. Faced with family members who do not want to talk about their experiences, Zaree goes on an emotional journey in which trauma, fear, and, frankly, love come together to shape her family’s story. Dripping with humanity, the film invites the the viewer to not only consider what happened at Evin and the state of human rights in Iran, but also about their own personal relationships and how we each deal with trauma in our lives.

In this episode of the History Slam, I talk with Tara Sepehri Far of Human Rights Watch about the film. We talk about the Iranian Revolution, the government’s imprisonment of political opposition, and human rights abuses in Iran. We also talk about Maryam’s story, the challenges of researching Iran, and the role of social media in fostering political debate.

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Stand! Show and Tell (and Sing)

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David Frank

The catalogue of labour history films in Canada is a small one. There is a very good body of work in the documentary tradition, but you will not need a long weekend to screen all of the dramatic films related to this country’s labour and working-class history.[1] To this shelf, we can now add a new film based on the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike, arguably one of the best known events in Canadian labour history.[2]

Stand! is a film adaptation of the stage musical Strike! which was written by Winnipeg-based Danny Schur and Rick Chafe, especially Schur, who was responsible for the music, lyrics, and score. The musical was produced in 2005 and has played on summer stages in Winnipeg repeatedly since then. As the centennial year of the strike approached, Schur took up the idea of making a film adaptation. The producers were able to raise a $7 million budget, a substantial sum for any Canadian film. There was support from agencies such as Telefilm Canada and Manitoba Film and Music as well as from the Canadian Labour Congress and other unions. Shooting was completed in Winnipeg in 2018, under the direction of the Hollywood-based Canadian director Robert Adetuyi and the American cinematographer Roy Wagner.

The subject matter, of course, is well-known, or should be. For six weeks in the spring of 1919 one of Canada’s major cities was caught up in a general strike that attracted support from more than 30,000 workers. Most of the leadership were skilled workers from Britain who were seeking union rights and social reforms, but most strike supporters were not union members at all at the time. Many were hopeful immigrants from Eastern Europe; others were veterans returning from the horrors of the Great War. In the short run, the strike met resistance from the local establishment and the federal government, and the repression produced arrests, bloodshed, and defeat. In the long run, however, the strike entered history as a mythic event that contributed to the growth of union organization and labour political action.

How does the film present historical information and ideas? Continue reading