Commentary | It ain’t all so bad

Despite atrocities, some positive news from 2009

Looking back on the past year, it’s difficult not to think about the disturbing events of 2009 – NATO’s incursions into Pakistan, the ousting of President Manuel Zelaya in Honduras, or the continued Canadian military presence in Afghanistan. While Copenhagen proved to us that mass mobilizations are still possible, it also reminded us how disinterested major political powers are in the democratic process when it comes to dealing with climate change.

Here in Montreal, we watched as the mainstream media’s focus on H1N1 eclipsed any discussion of the impacts the harsh changes to immigration law have on Mexican migrants. We heard little about how the developments in St. Henri around the Turcot Exchange are causing numerous families to lose their homes, after having lived in the neighbourhood for years.

There is no question that it is our responsibility as students and as community members to challenge and expose the injustices that maintain systems of inequality. And in the face of all of the aforementioned realities, both local and international, it can sometimes be hard to stay positive. That’s why it is important at the beginning of a new year for us to reflect on all of the gains we have made over the last twelve months, though it is something we rarely take the time to do.

As internal coordinators at the Quebec Public Interest Research Group at McGill (QPIRG McGill), we have the privilege of participating in and observing amazing social and environmental justice work being done on a daily basis. This past year alone, several long-standing struggles close to us ended in victory.

Adil Charkaoui, his family, and the coalition of hundreds of people rallying in support of him finally won the battle against the unconstitutional security certificate held against him since 2004. This certificate, which the judge ultimately deemed unreasonable, was a clear infringement on his rights, one that held him prisoner in his own home and in jail without charge or a fair trial. The Coalition Justice for Adil Charkaoui, a working group of QPIRG McGill that consists of the Charkaoui family as well as community members and students, was the main driving force behind the campaign to have Charkaoui’s security certificate quashed. Though he still faces the vast challenge of reversing the terrible effects these slanderous and unfounded allegations have had on his life, he is finally beginning to see an end to this nightmare.

The Frente Amplio Opositor Montreal (FAO Montreal), also a working group of QPIRG McGill, has been part of an international movement to close down a toxic mining site operated by New Gold Inc. in Cerro de San Pedro, Mexico. The FAO recently celebrated the campaign’s success in having the mine temporarily shut down. While it is unclear what will happen even in the near future for the people of this community, this is still an important victory for the people of Cerro de San Pedro and sets a precedent for other communities defending themselves against the exploits of multinational mining companies.

Abdelkader Belaouni, an Algerian man who was seeking refugee status and who, having been denied by Immigration Canada, was forced into sanctuary in St. Gabriel’s Church in Point St. Charles for over three years, was finally accepted into Canada. This victory came after a long and difficult public campaign as well as several years during which Belaouni lived in imposed isolation and fear.

Even though the struggle to defeat security certificates is far from over, mines all across the world continue to pollute rivers and destroy communities, and many deportations continue without becoming matters of public knowledge, we must step back and look at the impact that grassroots movements have on such seemingly irresolvable problems. It’s important sometimes to stop and think about what our campus and our community would look like if there were no one to challenge and confront the unjust systems that surround us.

While QPIRG is clearly only a microcosm of the community organizing that goes on in Montreal, it plays an important role, one that is often misunderstood by those who are not personally acquainted with the organization. The original mandate of QPIRG remains the same in 2010 as it was when QPIRG was first established on McGill’s campus in 1988: to establish a link between students and their community through social and environmental justice initiatives. This means research opportunities, event series, working groups, and orientation programming for incoming students.

In planning for 2010, let’s bear in mind that our plans should not only about the university we want, but also the community we want. There is no way to predict what this next year will bring. What we can do, and what we need to be doing, is to work toward becoming students who engage not only in our campus, but also our communities.

Anna Malla is the QPIRG McGill Internal Coordinator and Andrea Figueroa is a U4 Latin-American and Caribbean Studies and International Development Studies student. Write them at qpirg@ssmu.mcgill.ca.