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Race politics whitewashed Canadian history

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VANCOUVER—Let’s start with the standard take.

In the First World War, Canadian soldiers first saw action in the spring 1915 when, fresh out of training, our volunteer and very green army of “farmers and lumberjacks” was assigned to the defence of the Ypres Salient in Belgium. Over four days, 6,000 Canadians would fall as casualties in a “baptism by fire” as our troops valiantly defended, and even countered, an overwhelming German offensive that included chemical weapons.

John McRae, a Canadian surgeon who was attending to the wounded at Ypres, wrote “In Flanders Fields” — arguably Canada’s most famous poem — at this battle. In his elegy, McRae’s valiant comrades, who are “the dead,” are as unwavering in their purpose as the poppies that, speckling those war-ravaged fields, were in theirs.

This is the standard coming-of-age story of the Second Battle of Ypres, and you will find it in any equally standard Canadian high school textbook. In the 20th century, this story of sacrifice and gallantry became a cornerstone for a new sense of national confidence for a dominion that had earned its seat as an equal among Western nations at the concluding Versailles peace conference, which recently marked its 100th anniversary.

But a century later, it’s a history that, ironically, is out of date.

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Not that there are any factual errors or embellishments. But there is a glaring omission, such as the second half of this story featuring the Indian Army, which has long been edited out by the race politics of the early 20th century.

And in multicultural Canada, a century on from the Great War, the full version of the story has become much more relevant than the abridged version from the 20th century.

Back in Ypres, John McRae wrote “In Flanders Fields” the Canadians “short days ago, lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,” but would “not rest” until their comrades took up their cause.

Those reinforcements were led by Punjabi soldiers from the Ferozepur and Jalandhar brigades of the Lahore Division of the Indian Army.

In the First World War, the Indian Army contributed a million combatants, of which half were from Punjab regiments, to the war effort, and lost more soldiers — 75,000 — than Canada, Australia or the other dominions. They suffered 9,000 casualties holding off the Germans in the First Battle of Ypres in the fall 1914. And again at Ypres, it was the Indians — airbrushed out of the war’s history for 100 years — who would take up McRae’s “quarrel with the foe,” launch a counteroffensive, suffer more than 2,000 casualties and eventually recapture the lost ground to re-establish the collapsed flank.

But there’s yet more shared history to this story.

These Indian Army soldiers were brethren with the Sikh veterans and passengers aboard the steamship Komagata Maru that, a year earlier, had been refused the right to dock in Burrard Inlet by a government seeking to keep Canada a “white man’s country.”

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Whereas in Vancouver the Sikh veterans aboard the Komagata Maru were portrayed as undesirables, in Marseilles — where the Indian Army disembarked two months later en route to the Western Front — Sikh soldiers were hailed as saviours.

The small number of Sikhs living in Canada at the time would refuse to volunteer for service because of the Komagata Maru incident. And for a time, there was uneasiness in India’s senior military ranks that its Punjab Regiments might also refuse to answer the call to war.

Had Canada’s loathsome racism been coupled with violence in Burrard Inlet, much like Jim Crow lynch mobs in the U.S. South from that era, it is possible to conceive of a speculative historical scenario where the Central Powers win the war? The Punjab Regiments were integral to defending the Western Front for the first year of the war while the severely depleted British forces recruited volunteers.

In their absence, the Germans would surely have seized Calais and the northern French ports, and possibly could have taken Paris by Christmas 1914, thus dramatically altering the trajectory of 20th century history.

But the Indian troops did answer the call when war was declared after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria dominoed into the world’s first mass industrialized war. And fortunate it was for the Canadians, because now, back in Ypres in 1915, thousands of Punjabi soldiers had just marched 55 kilometres, through hellfire, from their sector at Neuve Chapelle, France, to quell the German advance and save their brothers in arms.

The early 20th century was still a time when the British War Council was debating whether “barbarous” dark-skinned colonial soldiers should be permitted to square off against their “civilized” European counterparts.

And in Canada, our government was still practising exclusionary immigration policies and wanted to distance itself from association with the Indian Army.

When the Canadian Cavalry Brigade was assigned to fight as a unit within India’s 5th Cavalry Division at Cambrai, France, Canada’s minister of overseas military forces, George H. Perley, wrote to the British War Council to have the Canadian Brigade placed in a “purely British” division.

The unequivocal response from Lt. Col. R.W. Patterson of the Canadian brigade’s Fort Garry Horse regiment was that his troops wished to stay. “There is absolutely no feeling against working with the Indian troops and our relations with them have been most cordial.”

A century later, that acceptance of diversity expressed by Patterson is not the exception but the norm in multicultural Canada, a country far more diverse and with radically different values.

Homogeneity has been replaced with plurality. This sense of inclusion can be viewed in our government-sponsored Heritage Minutes, one-minute vignettes that tell stories of the D-Day landing, Japanese internment, Vietnamese boat people and more. They are accounts intended to illustrate our shared values across cultural backgrounds.

Canadian textbooks have finally started recognizing the wartime sacrifices of soldiers from diverse and Indigenous backgrounds. These include men such as Francis Pegahmagabow, an Indigenous man who, on the Western Front, won a Military Medal for bravery at Passchendaele, and others from diverse backgrounds who, when denied even the right to enlist, travelled to distant Alberta to join regiments like the Calgary Highlanders.

But yet these are still mostly individual stories framed in sidebars. They are well-meaning, but isolated, pieces appearing on pages earmarked for diversity content in otherwise lengthy textbooks that hold fast to the orthodox Eurocentric narrative — one that remains based on omission.

Our shared moments of valour, such as at the Second Battle of Ypres and other First World War engagements, need to be brought into the core of history curriculums.

Just as the story of this famous battle nurtured a sense of Canadian identity a century ago, its updated version can be repurposed for the same intent in a multicultural Canada that can too often seem fragmented and socially disconnected.

The immigrants growing Canada’s population base today are far more likely to be arriving from countries that were “the colonized” rather than “the colonizers” — and they are more likely to connect with the parts of our collective First World War history that have been omitted by the general Eurocentric filtering of the war’s narrative.

So while this is an argument for historical revision, it’s not one for pulling down an anachronistic statue.

The statue can stay.

But the pedestal needs to be widened if we are to amend for racial exclusion and sparing marginalized groups the Sisyphean burden of repeatedly having to explain what “they have contributed” to this country.

Annie Ohana is an educator in Surrey, B.C., where 32 per cent of the population is South Asian in heritage. Over nearly a decade of teaching high school history, Ohana has found it’s not the war’s timeline of battles that sparks discussion in her classes, but the war’s historiography — the history of its history — that gets students speaking up.

“When it comes to the First World War, the contributions of the Indian Army are barely mentioned, if at all,” said Ohana, “When that history is introduced, the students want to know why it was excluded and why a century later, our textbooks still tell a very Eurocentric narrative about the First World War.”

Steven Purewal is a community historian based in Vancouver who, for the past five years, has collaborated with community partners such as Simon Fraser University and the University of the Fraser Valley to have these intersecting First World War stories included in our history curriculums.

This spring, Purewal published a book — part graphic novel, part illustrated history — called Duty, Honour, and Izzat to document these stories. It has been approved as a learning resource by the Surrey school district.

A First World War era postcard featuring a new rendering from the book Duty, Honour & Izzat, published by Alberta-based Renegade Arts Entertainment.

For Purewal, the omission of Canada and India’s rich shared military heritage has come at a heavy social cost to the 2.5 million Canadians with a South Asian background. It has perpetuated suspicion and the “othering” of Indians despite decades of military service in the British Indian Army and countless sacrifices in wars fought on behalf of the empire.

This racism has surfaced in the ugly debates over admitting turbaned Sikhs into the RCMP or Sikh veterans into Royal Canadian Legion halls.

“If in 1919 the historical narrative reflected what had actually happened in the war and had statues been erected of the shared sacrifices of Canadian and Indian troops in the First World War, Indians living in Canada could have avoided a century of discriminatory treatment,” argues Purewal, who was raised in the U.K. but now calls Canada home. “But Canada back then was still under the spell of racist politicians like Vancouver MP H.H. Stevens, who made odious comments in Parliament to keep Indians out of Canada.”

By its very broadest and simplest definition, history is the recording of events from the past, seemingly hermetically sealed from revisions once rendered. But history is not a looping stock ticker of actors, dates and places. It’s a story.

And it is based on the weaving of often conflicting pieces of information into a coherent narrative, one that reflects parts of all of us and, when told in a captivating way, one that nurtures social cohesion.

In the world’s first “post-racial” society, Canadians can make history by “making history” that aligns with our modern values — inclusion, embracing plurality and collaboration.

And as we select, revise and discover new perspectives to our old stories, these new versions will not only speak to who we are today but will also inform who we ultimately want to be.

Jagdeesh Mann is a media professional and journalist based in Vancouver. Follow him on Twitter @JagdeeshMann.

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Canada elections and political ads on Facebook

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Facebook users in B.C. and Alberta have been bombarded with political ads supporting pipelines, while Ontario users of the social network are seeing attacks on Premier Doug Ford and his education policies, a CBC News analysis shows.

As the federal election approaches, industry groups, partisan advocates and unions have spent large sums of money to get their messages in front of Facebook users. But new political advertising rules that came into effect last month seem to have slowed down the spending spree.

CBC obtained 35,000 ads published this year on Facebook’s new ad library, which the social media giant created in an effort to be more transparent and regain public trust after being accused of enabling foreign actors to interfere in elections.

The archive of ads offers a glimpse into the political messaging being crafted for Canadians in an election year.

And it shows how advertisers are making use of Facebook’s ability to target audiences by location, delivering tailored messages on local issues.

In Ontario, for example, three teachers associations have been running ads critical of provincial government cuts to education. Facebook users in Alberta have been shown ads by the Canadian Taxpayers Federation urging politicians to deny equalization payments to provinces that oppose oil pipelines that would travel through their territory.

“This shows how political groups are able to use Facebook to target messages,” said Stuart Soroka, a professor of political science at Michigan University who used to teach at McGill University in Montreal.

“Facebook is an extension of what we saw in the ’90s, a capability to run regional TV ad campaigns thanks to technical changes.”

An ad from the Canadian Energy Pipeline Association that was targeted at Facebook users in B.C., Ontario, Nova Scotia and Newfoundland and Labrador. (Facebook)

Facebook’s public ad archive expanded to Canada this year in response to Bill C-76, also known as the Elections Modernization Act. Adopted late last year, C-76 forces online companies like Facebook to disclose the political ads on their platforms and the people or groups that paid for them.

Although Facebook lets advertisers target their ads to specific audiences based on gender, age, location and interests, it doesn’t disclose what groups an ad was meant for.

It does, however, disclose what kinds of users saw the ad. So by looking at ads that were shown disproportionately to one group, you can get a rough idea of the types of messages that were aimed at them.

To find ads that were targeted by location, we looked at those that had at least 95 per cent of total views in a single province. The graphic below lists the ten most frequent words in ads that were seen overwhelmingly in specific provinces.

Canada elections
These word clouds show the 20 most frequently used words in ads that were targeted at users in specific provinces and territories. The bigger the word, the more frequently it appeared. Northwest Territories and Nunavut are excluded because there isn’t enough data. (CBC News Graphics)

The top two words in Alberta-targeted ads are “pipelines” and “equalization” because of a campaign from the Canadian Taxpayers Federation with the slogan, “No pipelines? No equalization!”

“Energy” and “move” were popular words in ads targeted in B.C., mostly due to ads from the Canadian Energy Pipeline Association (CEPA) promoting pipelines as a solution to climate change and as a contributor to the economy. CEPA ran more than 1,250 ads nationwide, 280 of which were seen only in B.C., making it Facebook’s biggest political advertiser in the province.

The province has resisted the expansion of the Trans Mountain pipeline, which would increase the volume of Alberta crude carried to a port in Burnaby, B.C.

CEPA spokesperson Carla Minogue said the ad campaign is national in scope, and the high numbers for B.C. are not related to Trans Mountain resistance, but to reach users in Metro Vancouver. She said CEPA is also targeting users in the Greater Toronto Area.

“We want to reach people who are neutral in the pipeline issue and that’s where they tend to be,” she said.

In Ontario, “education,” was a top word due to the nearly 200 ads run by three teacher associations: the Ontario English Catholic Teachers Association, the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario and the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation. All of their ads denounced the province’s recent cuts to schools.

However, they were all outdone by North99, an advocacy group that used petitions and surveys in Facebook ads as a way to collect contact information from users.

The group’s 300 ads were shown mostly in Ontario and were highly critical of Doug Ford’s government.

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Northwest Territories and Nunavut are excluded due to a lack of data. (CBC News Graphics)

But North99’s output was topped by Fair Path Forward, a Facebook page run by Canadians for Clean Prosperity, an advocacy group that supports a carbon tax as a solution to climate change. It ran 450 separate ads aimed at Facebook users in Ontario, the highest total in any province so far.

“Clean Prosperity will be running ads until the election starts, and our goal is to educate Canadians about why a carbon tax is a fair, effective and affordable way to address climate change,” said spokesperson Max Fawcett.

Big spenders

Facebook also discloses how much advertisers spent on ads. The biggest spender in Canada was a group called Shaping Canada’s Future, which describes itself as a “free enterprise oriented” group. It gained notoriety in June when it ran TV spots critical of the federal Liberal government during game 5 of the NBA finals. The group has spent close to $190,000 this year on Faceobok ads alone.

The group ran all of its 61 ads in June, just before the new rules about political advertising kicked in. Facebook requires that ads about social issues or politics contain a disclaimer and disclose the organization that paid for them. None of the ads by Shaping Canada’s Future had this disclaimer, despite being political, and were taken down by the social network.

Shaping Canada’s Future has so far yet to respond to CBC’s request for comment.

Unifor, Canada’s largest private-sector union, spent more than $130,000 on 41 video ads since June urging Canadians to vote with workers in mind.

The federal Liberal and Conservative parties were the fourth and fifth biggest spenders, respectively.

New rules discouraging advertisers

Since the new advertising rules came into effect last month, the number of political and issue ads on Facebook dropped significantly, from roughly 14,000 in June to 9,500 in July.

Ads posted in June were not subject to third-party rules, which means the groups running those ads were not obligated to register with Elections Canada and publicly release their donors and spending.

One advertiser contacted by CBC said it decided to stop running Facebook ads following the introduction of the new rules out of caution. The Canadian Taxpayers Federation, which had run ads supporting pipelines and opposing inheritance taxes and the Liberal government’s media bailout, ran 330 ads in June, but only one in July.

“Because this is the first time this is happening in Canada, we did this out of an abundance of caution,” said Aaron Wudrick, national director of the federation. “We’ll see how things go and we might reassess in the future.”

Methodology

CBC collected data on more than 36,000 ads using Facebook’s Ad Library API. We searched the API by advertiser ID numbers, which were published in Facebook’s daily Ad Library Report. Major non-political advertisers (those that sell products or services and ran at least 50 ads or spent at least $30,000 in 2019) were excluded from the analysis. These advertisers were mistakenly classified as political by Facebook’s algorithms because their ad texts may contain words associated with political issues like “environment,” “guns” and “economy.”

Data analysis was done using the Python programming language. Word frequencies were found using the Natural Language Toolkit.

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Americans Are not Happy About Politics

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Americans Politics: Sometimes I wonder what I would be thinking about all day if I weren’t thinking all day about politics.

I sort of fell into this line of work. I wanted to write for a living and to live in a city where my friends were, which turned out to be Washington, D.C. I was less than happy working in a golf course conference room for a fledgling import-export company, living at home and pretty regularly sobbing alone in my bedroom. (It was post-crash America, and I’m decently confident that this scenario meant that I was better off than about 90 percent of recent college grads.) A guy I knew who worked at a political magazine maneuvered my résumé out of a pile, and a course was charted that has led me here, to 2019, where I think about politics all day, every day. I fantasize, occasionally, about becoming an archaeologist — I think I would like all the camping, plus the time spent in cool, musty museum labs with papyrus and pottery shards.

Up until recently, these fantasies of “something-else-besides-politics” were logical because it seemed like a lot of the country wasn’t very interested in politics. It made me feel sort of useless — who really read this stuff outside of D.C.? Was it making a difference? But now things are different — people are paying attention. Perhaps it’s because of President Trump — a 2017 Pew Research Center survey found that 52 percent of Americans said they were paying more attention to politics since his election. My colleague Geoffrey Skelley recently wrote about just how much attention likely Democratic primary voters were paying to the Democratic primary — a lot, it turns out. Forty-five percent of people in one survey done this year said they were paying “a lot” of attention to the campaign, compared with only 28 percent of people who said the same thing in a similarly-phrased poll question from 2015.

But to what end is that engagement? Last year, the Public Religion Research Institute found that 69 percent of Americans felt sad, angry or fearful when they thought about what’s going on in the country today. But only 19 percent of people had gotten in touch with an elected official in the last year, just 14 percent had volunteered and a paltry 12 percent had attended a community meeting, like a school board or city council meeting. For all the sadness some Americans feel, and for all our tuned in-ness to politics, we don’t seem to be doing much politically proactive day-to-day.

I write this not to name and shame America, but to identify with its ennui. It’s difficult not to talk day after day about the ups and downs of the election without pulling back every once in a while and wondering who all the talk and writing is for. A recent Gallup survey found that 68 percent of Americans aren’t proud of our country’s political system; according to a Pew survey from July, only 46 percent of people who say they have a generally high threshold of personal trust also say they have confidence in elected officials to act in the best interests of the public — that figure drops to 27 percent among people who express low levels of generalized trust. That’s abysmal, and they’re the kind of numbers that make a person think: If a lot of Americans have decided that they have no faith in the process, then why painstakingly chronicle it? Is political coverage in an age of disillusionment simply a self-contained symbiotic act? Are reporters like me just a little Egyptian plover bird in the crocodile’s jaw, picking at bits of food in its teeth to survive?

I’ll answer “no” for the sake of my job and because of an abiding belief that records of history must be kept — it’s probably some medieval Irish monk DNA at work. But there’s also no innate virtue in political engagement; I won’t plead with Americans to get “more political.” A friend of mine once said that she thought of journalism as helping people understand the world around them in a deeper way. It might just be that people understand American politics just fine — we have the numbers to show that they’re paying attention — it’s just that they don’t like what they see.

Disillusionment played a role in the last presidential election. Indifference, too. Trump and Hillary Clinton were historically unpopular candidates. Trump’s election was a shock in part because pre-election day polls and models were on shakier ground than in years past, thanks to the high number of undecided voters (you can read Nate Silver in depth on the phenomenon here), and a whole lot of people Democrats depended on to elect Barack Obama ended up staying home that November. There’s nothing to say that the 2020 election won’t see similar dynamics.

I’m just one woman, with only the thoughts stirring in my own brain to offer, but I think America’s ennui, its pervasive, high-information sadness, has something to do with the blurring line between what is a “political issue” and what is a “moral issue.” Partisan discourse is so strong, so all-encompassing, that to render judgements about what is a violation of those inalienable rights we are all supposed to cherish, is to take a political stance. Today, the issue of immigration — portrayed on the national stage not long ago in the dry language of H1 visas, pathways to citizenship and legislative solutions — is now a moral morass of separated families, dead children and unsanitary, overcrowded holding facilities. Massacres of elementary school children have become common enough that schools have adapted with the brisk practicality we expect of our teachers — active shooter drills help little children envision what to do in the event their nightmares are made flesh. Writing these sentences will make some readers angry since they will be seen as a promotion of a Democratic Party line — but what’s a political journalist to do when she lays her moral compass on the table, and it points in just one direction on these things?

Americans of both parties oppose family separation. You can also watch a steady, national trend toward greater support for stricter gun control over the past decade. The public expressions about the need for change on our new moral issues are clear, but the political system isn’t built to acknowledge this.

Perhaps people choose not to engage with politics because they know that partisanship’s brittle paradigm will shatter when it takes on the heft of a moral load. It isn’t equipped to handle the problems that plague our consciences. Maybe America is right to feel sad.

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Manitoba Province Election could kick off today

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Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister is expected to announce this afternoon that the province’s election is officially underway.

The election was initially scheduled for October 2020, but Mr. Pallister said earlier this summer he would call an early election for Sept. 10.

Mr. Pallister’s Progressive Conservatives swept to victory just three years ago, and ending 17 years of NDP government.

The Manitoba NDP, now led by former broadcaster Wab Kinew, are running on a platform centred on reversing many of the changes the PCs brought in, particularly in health care.

The election call means a busy few months for politicians and volunteers in the province – many of whom will spend the next four weeks knocking on doors for the provincial election, and then they will keep on knocking for the federal campaign that begins right after.

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