Stratford Festival Forum explores oppression and how it shapes individuals and society
For the panelists at Saturday’s Stratford Festival Forum, ‘Freedom from Oppression,’ the concept of oppression isn’t something that exists in some places, and not others.
Published on: July 29, 2018 | Last Updated: July 29, 2018 5:29 PM EDT
Originally published with the Stratford Beacon Herald
Be it oppression rained down on a people by an authoritative regime, or oppression through poverty, cultural assimilation, and institutional norms, the concept is ever-present wherever in the world one might be – some just choose to ignore it.
“Because we were stateless and the country didn’t recognize us, there was never going to be a pathway to citizenship,” said Bhutila Karpoche — the NDP MPP for Parkdale-High Park and the first person of Tibetan heritage elected to public office in North America – referring to her childhood in Nepal.
“…And so my parents made a very conscious decision and left the country and we were so fortunate to come to Canada and build a life here. And we finally, in some way, felt that it was the end of one kind of oppression – which was that finally we had a pathway to citizenship in Canada, and with that came rights that were enshrined in the Canadian constitution, and we would be protected in many levels.”
Yet in coming to Canada, Karpoche said her family found themselves under a new kind of oppression; one that newcomers to this country face on a daily basis — having to work for low wages with little job security and few worker protections, all while living in cramped quarters.
It was those experiences, Karpoche explained, that led her first into the world of community activism, and then into politics to better represent the plethora of diverse communities in Toronto’s Parkdale-High Park riding within Ontario’s halls of power.
A member of Vancouver’s Indigenous community, Christina Gray also struggled with cultural and institutional oppression growing up. Her father a survivor of Canada’s residential school system, and her mother one of the founders of a social housing community in Vancouver, Gray saw first-hand how the assimilation of her people’s cultures and the treatment of Indigenous people by the Canadian legal system resulted in alcoholism, addiction, physical and emotional abuse, segregation, and poverty.
So Gray went to law school and became a human rights lawyer as a way to help Indigenous people across Ontario and at a national level overcome assimilationist policy.
“I’ve talked to people all over Ontario who experienced human rights issues, and my job was to give them legal advice, so I’m very familiar with that kind of oppression. And then when I was working at Aboriginal Legal Services, it was more on a national level of doing interventions at various courts and trying to change the law to make it more equal for Indigenous peoples in the criminal justice system specifically. So I’m really familiar with trying to fight for equal treatment for Indigenous peoples… in Canada,” she said.
“…Indigenous peoples have had to fight to have inclusion of their rights in the constitution when it was changed in the 80’s – it wasn’t given. So all along, Indigenous people have had to fight for their inclusion and fight for their rights, and it isn’t any different today.”
The final panelist, Eloge Butera, is a lawyer who works in the office of the Minister for Public Safety and is a former Rwandan refugee. Having experienced the lead-up to and the atrocities during the Rwandan genocide in 1994, Butera is strongly attuned to the warning signs of authoritarianism and has a deep understanding of the oppressive tools used by governments to take power, such as instilling hatred against one group of people.
Though many populist political parties have risen to power using such tools in the last few years, including that of the United States’, Butera urged people take a step back from the doomsday scenario many perceive and re-evaluate our democracy and society as we know it.
“We have taken a habit to… judging electoral outcomes as the only indicator of what is changing in those places, but never fully interrogating the oppression generated by poverty, by the absence of women in public spaces… Today, everybody can see the American dream and they know they have the appetite to come and live the way we do here. And when people are asking for that, they are also asking for leaders that will come and be decisive in delivering that.
“…I think we need to put a bit of water into our wine about how much a doomsday reality is unfolding in the world out there. How much of our own reality do we need to revisit? …In that context, we need to be able to sell the benefits of the freedom we enjoy here… Losing that is what scares us… The voice of the people is narrowing, but it’s narrowing for people who are seeking efficient government. And us who are engaged in public life need to make the case to you that efficient government can still happen with honest and thorough debate.”