Speaking in Ontario - The first six stops of a 44 city North American anarchist speaking tour

Hamilton lakeshore Well it's well over a year late but I thought I should record the first six stops of the 'Building a popular anarchism' speaking tour which took place in August and September if 2007. At the time they were the only 6 stops, all six were in Ontario and part of the organising project that became Common Cause.


Well it's well over a year late but I thought I should record the first six stops of the 'Building a popular anarchism' speaking tour which took place in August and September if 2007. At the time they were the only 6 stops, all six were in Ontario and part of the organising project that became Common Cause.

This section of the tour came out of meetings I had been having with a small number of anarchists in Hamilton and Toronto about trying to form a new group. At the end of July 2007 we decided at a meeting in Toronto to do this in a very public way in order to get the maximum number involved from the start and doing a speaking tour to any city in Ontario willing to find me somewhere to sleep for the night in return seemed a good way of doing this. For me it also offered a good way of having a look around the province where at that point in time I expected to be spending the next few years if not the rest of my life.

Hamilton and of course Toronto were the obvious places for meetings, we already had two or three people involved in the project in each location. Getting outside of these involved me googling 'anarchism' 'Ontario' and sending off emails to anything that came up with a contact address and seemed half way sensible. We sent a pre-launch statement to Anarkismo.net where we also advertised the meetings as details were confirmed - see http://www.anarkismo.net/newswire.php?story_id=6144

In Hamilton organising it was easy as there was already a semi-regular anarchist discussion meeting happening in the SkyDragon (http://www.skydragon.org/ ), a radical community centre / infoshop type space slap bang in the centre of Hamilton on the amusingly named King William street. The first meeting took place there on the 21st August and from soon after that the Hamilton local of Common Cause started to meet there on a regular basis. The SkyDragon is a great space with a walk in cafe / restaurant on the ground floor which was used for the meeting and further meeting rooms in the basement and on the 1st floor.

It's a long time ago but I remember the attendance as being in the region of 25 or so people. At the end of these meetings I passed around a sign up sheet for anyone interested in actually joining the group that was in formation and 8 people did so at this meeting. Possibly it was after this Hamilton meeting that I ended up demolishing the scotch collection of the comrade I was staying with to the point that the next time we met I'd bought him a bottle of Jameson to help fill the gap. I think it was this date, the following day he decided it would be a great idea to kill the time before my bus departed by hiking around ‘Hamilton Mountain’ which in reality is not much more than a tall hill but on a warm day with my brain banging off the inside of my skull felt like a mountain. It is part of the Niagara escarpment and includes a number of waterfalls although because there had been a drought all summer there was not much water falling.

Hamilton is one of the rust belt cities that are north of the border; the economy was based on the steel industry and heavy manufacturing. Hamilton still produces 60% of Canada’s steel and the view of Hamilton from the Skyway on the QEW is still dominated by steel plants, crossing it in dark allows a clear view of the flames and plasma pouring out of some of the smokestacks. But as with the rest of the rust belt plants have been closing that those that have remained open have massively ‘downsized’ their workforce. The current population is over half a million with education and health becoming the major employers.

The pre-settlement population of the region were the ‘Neutral Indians’, their own name for themselves is lost but the Huron referred to them as Attawandaron. The Neutral term was given by the French as they remained neutral in the war’s between the Huron and Iroquois however when the Iroquois went to war with them in 1650 they were wiped out by 1653. Stephen Arthur’s study of the Iroquois at http://www.nefac.net/anarchiststudyofiroquois gives a good overview of this period although it doesn’t deal with the war against the Attawandaron.

In the aftermath of the American revolution when the Mohawk had sided with the British many of the Iroquois moved north of the border with Joseph Brant and created a new homeland for the ‘Six Nations’ along the Grand River in the former Neutral area. They had been given the land under the 1784 Haldimand Proclamation. In the years since much of that land was lost with the current reservations holding less than 10% of the original amount in a location near Brantford not far from Hamilton. This has been the site of intense struggle in recent years as property speculators have sought to build on contested land. One of the articles I wrote while in Ontario looked at the issue of indigenous land rights in Canada and can be read at http://anarchism.pageabode.com/andrewnflood/first-nations-canada-propert...

The following meeting was at the Concord Cafe in Toronto. This is a commercial cafe that has a substantial back room they are willing to allow for the use of meetings. Again I think there were over twenty people at the meeting, one of the few other things I remember was that it was one of the few dates where there were questions about Irish republicanism. I think this was because a couple of the people from the journal Upping the Anti had come along, I certainly talked with a couple afterwards and they very kindly gave me some back issues.

Toronto has a population of 2.5 million making is one of the biggest cities in North America. At the time of settlement the area was inhabited by the Huron who had displaced the Iroquois around the start of the 15th century. The warfare between the Huron and Iroquois was used by both French and British colonialism to recruit allies with the French arming the Huron. European guns greatly increased the intensity of the way so that by around 1650 the Iroquois had not only retaken the Toronto area but had driven the Huron out of Ontario and into Quebec.

Toronto started to grow in the aftermath of the American Revolution when defeated loyalists and escaped African Americans moved north of the border. During the British – American War of 1812 the town was captured and much of it destroyed. In 1837 there was a republican insurrection in Toronto in support of the Lower Canada Rebellion but it lasted only a few days until British troops arrived to put it down. Two of the leaders of the rebellions were executed in Toronto in April 1838. During the Irish ‘Famine’ of the 1840’s huge numbers of mostly catholic Irish migrants arrived in the city. Southern Ontario also had an existing substantial Irish protestant population many of whom were loyalists so there are a number of Orange lodges in the area including one Mohawk one!

Those meetings got the easy two cities out of the way, both were organised by people I already knew and in cities that were quite nearby. The next date was more adventurous as I'd received some positive replies to my emails but getting around was going to take some travel.

The first of these stops was Ottawa (Sept 16), the capital of Canada, about eight hours bus ride from where I was living. The organisation of this was slightly sketchy but seemed solid enough, however when I got into town on Coach Canada and found the place I was meant to be staying the guy putting me up had forgotten I was coming! This turned out to be not that big of a deal, he put people up a lot and I'd simply been forgotten in the crowd. It was my first experience of what was to become a familiar hazard, sleeping in a strange basement and then waking up in the middle of the night and not knowing where the light switches were.

The venue for the meeting was the Jack Purcell Community Centre which appeared to be a fairly mainstream centre but obviously open to anarchists using the meeting rooms. Once more we were tying into a semi-regular anarchist discussion group, this time with a little bit if business revolving around some serious local drama at the start. The exact details escape me but I recall it being around some dick head seeking revenge on another activist by turning informer, they also got denounced from the stage of a punk gig / fundraiser I got went along to that evening.

I don't remember this meeting being that well attended but I still have a copy of the contact sheet and a dozen people had signed that so it must have been all right. After the meeting we went out to the picket line at a university on the edge of town and as above later that evening I went to the gig / fundraiser. I also visited the Exile infoshop (http://www.exilebooks.org/ ) while I was in town, again the chat there was dominated by the local drama.

Walking around Ottawa was strange as I suddenly came across the parliament building which I hadn’t been aware was built to resemble the Houses of Parliament in London. Pre-settlement the Ottawa area was inhabited by the Odaawaa who included Obwandiyag or ‘Chief Pontiac’ of ‘Pontiac rebellion’ fame.

The next day I caught another Coach Canada for the 8-hour journey to Sudbury (Sept 17) which is at the point where Ontario expands northwards and westwards. This was an interesting trip as the road was far enough north to be outside the heavily settled border zone, there were long spaces where no habitation was visible punctuated by groups of what were obviously summer houses ('cottages' in Canada speak) around occasional lakes. On first moving to Canada the casual references to people going Cottaging for the weekend had me puzzled. I was more familiar with the British use of the terms which as Wikipedia explains refers to ‘anonymous sex between men in a public lavatory’.

Apart from the climate in winter the other thing stopping settlement that far north was the poor quality of the soil. Thin, boggy, infertile and little more than a thin cover on the solid granite beneath. The pinewoods the bus passed through were often scraggly, presumably for lack of nourishment from the thin soil. As we got nearer Sudbury the rocks got bigger, in Sudbury itself the routes of roads divert to get around vast granite outcrops and the garden of the house I was staying in was dominated by a granite boulder as big as the house down the back of the garden.

Sudbury is a decaying mining town with a population of around 150,000 and as became clear at the meeting one of its major problems is the pollution the mines have left behind. There were very large deposits of Nickel-Copper in the area and the town went through repeated boom – bust cycles are demands for nickel has gone up and down. In 1978 workers at Inco, the town’s largest employer had a nine-month strike in response to cutbacks, Vale Inco remains the biggest single employer.

The guy who picked me up on arrival had actually driven to Sudbury from Alaska, I think he said the trip had taken five weeks? The meeting took place at Myth & Mirrors, a community arts space on a little triangle of ground. Again I've no clear memories of the meeting and the discussion but from the contact sheet at least 17 people attended.

The people I was staying with were French speaking, about 30% of the population of Sudbury speak French as a first language. Prior to moving to Ontario I hadn’t realized there were French speaking populations outside of Quebec, in fact there are a few across Canada.

There are also two Ojibwa reservations in Sudbury. The Ojibwa made strong use of early contact with Europeans to obtain guns with which they were able to force the Sioux westwards and the Fox southwards giving them control of Michigan, northern Wisconsin, and Minnesota along with the northern shores of lakes Huron and Superior. As the settlers expanded westwards the Ojibwa used "Peace and Friendship Treaties" with them to allow the shared use of resources, however as at the time the Ojibwa had no concept of exclusive ownership of land the later treaties signed when the settlers were staying rather than passing through are still argued over in the courts. During the Indian Removal policy of the 19th century the US government tried to force the Ojibwa west of the Mississppi, later this shifted to a policy of forcing them onto reservations. There are 130,000 Ojibwa today which a little over half living in Canada, the remainder in the USA.

Our founding conference was to take place towards the end September and there was time to do a final two dates. This involved another longish journey via Toronto to Windsor (23rd September), the smaller Canadian city (pop around 220,000) right across the river from Detroit. The Greyhound station is close to the water and right across from downtown Detroit so as we approached I made the mistake of thinking the skyscrapers meant Windsor was a lot bigger then I expected. Then I saw the river and realised my mistake.

This meeting took place in someone's house, the first time I'd done a meeting in someone residence in long years, probably back to 1990 in fact when the venue had been the cottage off Cork street I lived in at the time and the meeting had been the one that saw me joining the WSM. The Windsor meeting took place in the front room on a warm autumn evening and included four IWW members who had crossed the border from Detroit. I got talking to one of them afterwards and got my first clue about how rough life in Detroit was, little realising that within a few months I'd be on that side of the river doing another meeting.

The rest of the audience and the organisers I remember as being relatively green orientated, I think maybe there were 12-15 people in total. There was food and after the meeting we drank beer on the front porch and chatted on what was a warm autumn evening.

The final stop of the tour was Waterloo (24th September) a relatively short distance but because of scheduling long enough bus journey from Windsor. This was the only meeting to take place in a college of the schedule, in the Wilfred Laurier University. There were over 20 people at this one, I think it had tied into the college anti-war group as few of them knew much about anarchism. After the meeting we headed to a student bar across the road where I had some of the local beer and talked with an older anarchist from the city about a large collection of North American anarchist publications (several yards worth) that was archived by another friend of his. We also talked about a commune which is 30 years old, the Dragonfly, where perhaps that archive was housed (I’m a little hazy on that detail), I’ve since found a history of it online at http://www.backtotheland20.ca/node/11

Waterloo is actually built on part of the Iroquois Haldimand tract referred to in the Hamilton entry above. That section of the tract was sold quite quickly after 1784 to the land speculator Richard Beasley who in turn sold it to Mennonites who arrived in the area from 1804.

A general problem of our Ontario tour was the failure to get the previous generation of anarchists to turn out for the events. Almost everyone at every meeting were people like myself whose activism dated from the period after the first gulf war or was more recently. At the time I thought this failure odd and couldn't work it out, later I came to understand it as part of a general North American pattern of each generation losing contact with the generation that went before and the massive loss of experience and re-inventing the wheel that results.

In terms of its purpose the Ontario tour was successful. We got the number involved in the formation process of what became Common Cause from single figures up to 50 or 60. Of course the majority of these would drop out but it helped CC gain the momentum which took that group through its birth pains and the first months of publication. When I have the time I’ll probably write a blog that looks at the formation of Common Cause as a topic in itself.

For the complete index of blog entries on the tour, links to interviews etc see http://anarchism.pageabode.com/node/397 Common Cause

WORDS Andrew Flood (Follow Andrew on Twitter )

  


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