Wednesday, January 25, 2023

Sometimes a good shaming is all you've got

It's hard to talk about Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond. 

I fully believe that the right thing is happening to her as she is held up to the searing light that the CBC's Geoff Leo has shone on her fictions. Pretending to be someone you're not feels especially egregious when high-privilege people fake low-privilege backgrounds. 

I am completely on the side of the betrayed Indigenous women who have had to experience a champion from within turning out to be nothing of the sort. All the worse that Turpel-Lafond purported to speak for them, and to have walked that same difficult road to success that Indigenous people so routinely have had to walk.

But it's still hard to watch. For a settler like me, it's also hard to talk about with my settler acquaintances. I can feel the grand discomfort we feel at watching a person whose past work we still admire experiencing a profound public shaming. 

We engage on the subject ever so carefully, tip-toeing around the astonishing betrayal and in the end, not saying much at all. I have exactly one non-Indigenous friend who I can fully engage with on the shocking subject of Turpel-Lafond, and we put our heads down and talk in low voices as if to hide that we've got strong thoughts on the matter.

And yet, these modern versions of a public stoning are important things to bear witness to. We do need to publicly shame those who engage in such blatant frauds. We do need to talk about the massive betrayal, and to reflect on and share the pieces that Indigenous women are writing about how this has impacted them.

Humiliation is both the way we punish and the way we deter when it comes to faking. It's literally the only way to punish those who come from privilege and fake an underprivileged back story - surely one of the most offensive kinds of fakery, given that the faker lays claim to space, key positions, prestige, money and air time that are routinely denied to underprivileged groups. 

And aren't there just a lot of fakers? That's what is really sinking in for me lately. Fake nurses, fake experts, fake college degrees, so many scammers. Grandparents scammed by fake grandsons. Whole police departments duped by modern-day snake-oil salesmen selling fake post-traumatic stress credentials.

Not that I think of Turpel-Lafond as a scammer. Her fakery feels so bizarre and recklessly self-destructive that my thoughts go toward her mental health instead. I have met people in both my personal and professional lives who have told themselves a made-up story for so long that they somehow come to believe it. 

I don't know if that's the case for her, but what else can explain the crazy risk she took by creating a persona and credentials that didn't belong to her? Did she think about this moment, when it all would fall apart and suddenly all would be revealed? 

Now we are left to reconsider everything Turpel-Lafond accomplished in her many significant years in high-profile positions. None of it is work that should be discounted automatically now that the truth is out, but I can't help but wonder how all of that work might have turned out had a real Indigenous person done it.

It's obvious that Indigenous people are struggling to talk about this one as well. The Union of BC Indian Chiefs issued a statement last fall confirming their support for Turpel-Lafond, who they described as a “fierce, ethical and groundbreaking advocate for Indigenous peoples for decades.”

They contended that issues of First Nations identity are for Indigenous peoples, families and governments to sort through based on their laws, customs and traditions, and condemned the initial CBC stories as “digging into private matters.”

But as other Indigenous people have repeatedly emphasized, she could have been that same fierce advocate without faking her background. Being a fierce advocate for Indigenous rights does not require that one pretends to be Indigenous.

Which Indigenous people went uncelebrated for their own contributions while Turpel-Lafond was receiving 11 honorary degrees under false pretences? 

Who might have authored the report into systemic racism toward Indigenous people in BC's health care system had that prestigious and well-paid work not gone to Turpel-Lafond? 

Who might have been the genuinely Indigenous representative for BC children and youth in a province where Indigenous children continue to be vastly over-represented in child apprehensions? What might they have done with a decade of their own in that vital position? 

What important perspectives from lived experience have been missed entirely in all of her work? What depths of wisdom went untapped because privileged space was taken up by somebody who hadn't had the life she said she'd had?

These things matter. In an era so fake that we can't even believe the things we see with our own eyes, authenticity of the person has never been more important. 

I feel for Turpel-Lafond in what must surely be an exquisitely painful time. But her deception has shaken the foundations of every good thing she did. We have all been hurt by her fakery, and Indigenous people most of all. 

Here's a November 2022 piece from the same CBC writer, this one on the report from Metis lawyer Jean Teillet on another Indigenous faker, Carrie Bourassa. 

People who pretend to be Indigenous feed off the ignorance of the non-Indigenous population, notes Teillet. "The fraudsters enact stereotypes they know will be recognized by the non-Indigenous audience. There is often silent and resentful recognition by Indigenous people that the performance is a stereotyped image of themselves."

Monday, January 02, 2023

We won't slow climate change with niceness

Extinction Rebellion UK says it will prioritize "relationships over roadblocks" this year and move away from public disruptions as a prime strategy for getting the world's attention on climate change. 

That's a warm and fuzzy statement for a new year. But hopefully they aren't going to get too nice. Nobody's going to solve the climate crisis with niceness. 

Of course, one does want to be strategic when in the business of disrupting. Throwing cans of soup at famous works of art - not the work of Extinction Rebellion; that was Just Stop Oil - and other poorly considered attention-grabbing antics may get your unknown organization headlines, but simply being offensive in a public space is not a strategic protest. (Put away the soup cans, go disrupt a fracking operation.) 

That said, we sure as hell won't move this crisis with niceness. Co-operative behaviour is one component of an effective change strategy, just like acts of protest, but systemic change at this grand scale cannot be achieved without anger, shouting, threats, arrests, financial loss, deaths and a lot of other not-nice things.

In the case of the climate crisis, consider the long list of potential opponents who benefit from the current system, a number of them with deep pockets for dragging this out indefinitely.

First, there's the vastly wealthy fossil-fuel corporations, which have enjoyed almost $3 billion US in daily profits for the last 50 years. Then there are the governments that are absolutely dependent on the revenue and jobs. International energy policies so friendly to industry that countries that sign on have to promise not to make energy policy changes without consulting Big Oil first. 

There are the global investors clamouring for endless returns on investment. The billions of people completely reliant on fuel to heat their homes, operate their businesses, get to work, and wage war on real and imagined enemies. The travellers, the tourists, the legions of individualists who have never had a collective thought in their life and are just fine with riding Earth into oblivion as long as they can be "free."

There are mega agricultural operations spread across mega land holdings to serve a world that eats 350 million tons of meat a year. There are more than 50,000 merchant ships criss-crossing our oceans every day just to feed our hunger for stuff. There are trade agreements in all directions that bind our governments' hands even when they're willing to do better.

Every one of those things and so much more is going to have to change if the end of this global story we're living is going to be remotely happy. We need to have so many big, brave conversations. We need big, brave leadership at all political levels - leadership that gets past the typical political urge to pander and please and treats this issue like the global emergency that it is. 

And while we can strive to be respectful in all of that, we can't expect that any of this is going to be nice. 

Extinction Rebellion says part of its decision to shift tactics is because we live in times in which protest has been criminalized. "Thriving through bridge-building is a radical act," the group says.

But really, what big change has ever come about without arrests and conflict with the law? In the case of global emissions, we're talking about trying to stop activities that make people so much money. They're not going down that road without a really big fight. Read sociologist Frances Fox Piven's eye-opening Poor People's Movements for more on that.

While it's certainly important to get your allies in order and build those relationships, there still has to be disruption in a crisis this big. If XR wants to play nicer, then somebody else needs to step up to be the disruptor. Climate change is a disruptor itself, and those of us who want better for our world are going to have to meet its chaos head-on.

Change this big will be very painful for those who benefit from the current system. That can't be sugar-coated. 

For the sake of future generations, let's just go straight to being tough and skip the part where we all think we can settle this like friends. That's just going to drag out the bloody ending that's coming one way or the other.