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How woke can you go? In 2021, the answer was ‘very’, apparently

A look at the most hilariously woke Canadian social-justice meltdowns of the past year

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When the holidays arrive, I often take the occasion to write solemn think pieces that survey the human condition in all its many facets — as with my 2019 Christmas essay about how Ambrose of Milan’s response to the Massacre of Thessalonica in 390 A.D. shaped the western Christian tradition. But writing those thumb-suckers takes a lot of “emotional labour.” So this year, as yuletide approaches, I’ve instead acceded to my editor’s request that I write a trashy listicle cataloguing the most hilariously woke Canadian social-justice meltdowns of 2021. “It is easier to look wise than to talk wisely,” Ambrose sagely advised. Here are some social-justice enthusiasts who had challenges on both fronts.

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— In the popular journalistic sub-genre of That’s-So-Racist, my favourite 2021 specimen was an April 21 Globe & Mail feature calling out mother nature — specifically, Toronto’s supposedly un-woke ravine system, which many city-dwellers (including me) have flocked to during the COVID pandemic. The reason this article was such a doozy is that, in the course of reporting on the claimed “barriers” allegedly faced by non-white ravine visitors, Globe co-authors Oliver Moore and Alex Bozikovic don’t seem to have bothered actually setting foot in any ravine, let alone interviewing people they meet there. Instead, their 22-paragraph opus relied on the claims of a blogger and an academic, neither of whom could identify a single act of ravine-related racism.

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— On a more lurid note, let us turn to a certain April 26 interview aired on CBC Radio’s q (they made it lower case a few years back, in a bid to decontaminate the brand for the post-Ghomeshi era), in which host Talia Schlanger spoke with author Ben Philippe about his new book, Sure, I’ll Be Your Black Friend . Philippe therein described the “Game of Thrones-style” race war that plays out in his darkest fantasies, including this passage that Schlanger read aloud for CBC listeners: “When this race war hits its crescendo, I’ll gather you all into a beautifully decorated room under the pretense of unity. I’ll give a speech to civility and all the good times we share; I’ll smile as we raise glasses to your good, white health, while the detonator blinks under the table, knowing the exits are locked and the air vents filled with gas.” Schlanger, the Jewish grandchild of Holocaust survivors, followed her reading with this comment to Philippe: “I wanted to say to you that I’m so sorry that your experience of the world made you feel that way.”

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— Sticking with the Holocaust theme, this list would not be complete without a nod to the Uncle Leo of Canada’s 2021 federal election, University of Toronto public-health professor (and former Ontario COVID-19 Science Advisory Table member) David Fisman. On August 29, Fisman tweeted out his startling discovery that a Conservative Party campaign slogan contained exactly 14 words. This, he suggested on Twitter, was a clear arithmetic allusion to a 14-word white supremacist slogan once coined by an American white supremacist named David Lane…because why *else* would anybody construct a sentence with 14 words? In the days that followed, Fisman persisted with this theory even when it was pointed out that a Liberal slogan trotted out days earlier was also 14 words; and that the Conservative campaign tweet that Fisman had quote-tweeted showed O’Toole doing a meet-and-greet with a group of non-white — and therefore presumably non-white-supremacist — voters. (By way of aside: One of David Lane’s many repellent ideas was his belief that America is heading for an apocalyptic race war pitting blacks against whites. If Lane hadn’t already died in prison, this would seem to make him a prime candidate for a CBC q interview.)

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— Segueing from those who see imaginary Nazis under every bed to those who need a refresher course on the horrible things that real Nazis actually did, we shift our attention to the Conseil scolaire catholique Providence, a body that oversees French schools in southwestern Ontario. On September 7, Radio Canada reported that the school board had held a not-at-all creepy-sounding “flame purification” ceremony, in which 30 children’s books deemed racist were publicly immolated, with the ashes used to fertilize a tree (in a bid to “bury the ashes of racism”). The outcry was intense, and the school board admitted that the whole 1930s-style book-bonfire thing had been a mistake. But the scandal re-awakened anew later in September when a follow-up Radio-Canada investigation concluded that the self-described “Indigenous knowledge keeper” who’d helped conceive the pyro-stunt — Suzy Kies, then a co-chair of the Liberal Party’s Indigenous Peoples’ Commission — was a boring old white person who traced her heritage to France and Luxembourg. Kies got turfed by the Liberals. But she still has her side gig making Indigenous-themed beaded earrings, which are, as of this writing, still for sale on the Art Gallery of Ontario web site for $150 a pop.

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— Kies was part of a 2021 trend, as educational organizations figured prominently in the year’s biggest woke farces. That includes the Toronto District School Board (TDSB), which canceled a speaking event starring Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Nadia Murad, on the basis that paying heed to her account of being held as an ISIL sex slave in 2014 might promote “Islamophobia.” This decision was especially notable given that, around the same time, the same school board was paying activist Desmond Cole $16,000 for a four-part Zoom lecture series that purported to instruct TDSB senior staff on anti-racism, but which contained (in at least two of the four lectures) lengthy digressions about the evils of Israeli “settler colonialism.” Nice work if you can get it.

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— Not to be outdone, District 20 of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation (OSSTF), headquartered in nearby Burlington, instituted a new internal voting system that explicitly allots voting power on the basis of skin colour — such that the voting power of non-white members is grossed up to ensure it represents the same (or greater) overall voting power as that of white members. (By way of example: If there are 15 white members voting, and five non-white members voting, the vote value of non-whites members is tripled so as to bring the net racial vote balance to even strength. Details are spelled out in the animated YouTube video that OSSTF produced to sell the plan to its own membership. Google “OSSTF District 20 on Why White and Non-White People Should Have Different Voting Rights.”)

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Oh and it gets better: When rank-and-file union members complained that this system amounted to reverse racism, the union’s president, Cindy Gage, responded by denouncing critics for using language that could cause “harm” to non-white union members. These critics were also reported to a school principal on the accusation that they were creating an unsafe space. (When the scandal became national news, the union responded by deleting its Twitter account, and Gage made her own tweets protected. I guess union bigwigs sometimes feel “unsafe,” too.)

One of the slides the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation has used to explain its weighted voting system.
One of the slides the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation has used to explain its weighted voting system. Photo by OSSTF

— One of the most infamous cancel-culture dramas my city has witnessed was engineered by Toronto Star editor (and social-justice TikToker) Evelyn Kwan, who became instantly famous for taking down a pho noodle stall that she observed was staffed by a (prepare to gasp audibly) white cook — a coup that she followed, in March of this year, by campaigning on the Star TikTok channel to get Dr. Seuss books pulled from Toronto library shelves. It’s all very heroic. But going into 2022, Kwan and other cancel-culture enthusiasts will be facing a less target-rich environment, since some of their potential victims have lately taken to skipping the mob formalities and are now simply canceling *themselves*.

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— This includes the venerable Toronto-based comedy group The Sketchersons, whose members were horrified to discover that, according to their January 25 statement, “In our sixteen year history, we’ve had 86 cast members. Only 10 of them have been BIPOC. Only 5 of those people have been Black. Our troupe has benefited from a system that was built upon white supremacy.” The Sketchersons then announced that they’d be disbanding until they could find a way to reconstitute in a less white-supremacist manner. The final line of the group’s January 25 self-destruction note also informs us that they’ve “donated the money from past virtual shows to BLM Toronto and we urge our audience to do the same.”

— Also in the self-canceling category is a well-known Canadian poet named Nathaniel G. Moore, who just this month announced on Facebook that his latest published poetry collection will be his last because “I can’t participate, as a white, male creative in a system that hides misogyny [and] doesn’t stand up for voiceless workers.” (He also instructed all the other “white male poets in Canada who continue to think they are special” to follow his example and quit as well.)

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— And then there’s the self-canceling Church-Wellesley Village business association . In 2005, amid much celebration and fanfare, the association put up a statue of Alexander Wood (1772-1844), dubbed a “gay pioneer” on the accompanying plaque, in the heart of Toronto’s gay village. But in June of this year, that same business association demanded the removal of its own statue, based on the fact that Wood had once helped raised money (on the personal request of a First Nations chief, I should add) for a new school that would serve an Indigenous community in Sault Ste. Marie.

The academy that Wood helped finance was by no means a residential school. Indeed, its construction predated the residential-school system’s inception by decades. But in light of “recent findings at the former Kamloops Indian Residential Schools,” the association chair wrote, “leaving the statue in place would send a clear message to our 2-Spirit community that racism is being allowed to continue — and in fact being iconized.” If Wood’s statue does come down, it likely would set a new Canadian speed record (just 16 years on its pedestal) in the field of woke statue cancelation.

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Toronto’s Alexander Wood statue.
Toronto’s Alexander Wood statue. Photo by Veronica Henri/Postmedia

— Needless to say, 2021 also brought all sorts of new demands about how we’re supposed to talk and what words we’re allowed to use . Prominent trans activist Florence Ashley opined in June that we should all be careful not to use male and female terms when discussing our dogs and cats, because “gendering animals serves to normalize bioessentialist conceptions of gender. When we gender animals, we forget that sex is assigned. We begin to believe that sex is literally *in* the body.” (Imagine thinking such a thing!) And just this month, we learned that Ontario’s public service has compiled a list of discouraged terms that includes “pipeline” (offensive to Indigenous people, apparently) and “low-hanging fruit” because (and I am not making this up) “though there is no direct connection, the term can be problematic for those who witnessed lynchings.” A separate list created by CBC Ottawa in recent works similarly warns of “words and phrases you may want to think twice about,” including “spooky,” “lame,” “brainstorm,” and “grandfathered,” all for reasons that are too ridiculous to repeat.

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— Words are getting banned so fast, in fact, that some of us don’t even have time to learn the new ones before they’re relegated to history’s racist dustbin. On December 11, Shree Paradkar, the Toronto Star ’s “Race and Gender Columnist,” dedicated a whole column to the revelation that she is “saying bye-bye to ‘BIPOC,’” an acronym that entered common progressive parlance just a few years ago, and which many ordinary Canadians don’t yet use or even understand. Paradkar complained that “as with POC or person of colour, BIPOC got swallowed up, quickly lost nuance, and got spat out as a racial identifier to say ‘not white.’”

Alas, Paradkar didn’t inform us what new term she’ll be using in place of BIPOC. Maybe “BIPOX,” in the style of “Latinx”? Or “People Once Described as BIPOC” (PODABIPOC)? Whatever it is, I’m sure it’ll have “nuance” beyond measure, and that in 2022 we’ll be lectured in great details about how to use it without offending anyone. I really can’t wait.

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