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Protest is a powerful force for progress

This article was originally published in the Toronto Star on June 7, 2020.

In January 1909, a group of notable Americans signed their names to a statement that called for a national conference focused on the civil and political rights of Black Americans. The “Call” was signed by the likes of W.E.B. Dubois and Ida B. Wells, and it contended that the upcoming centenary of Abraham Lincoln’s birth should be a day of “taking stock of the nation’s progress since 1865.”

“How far has [the nation] lived up to the obligations imposed upon it by the Emancipation Proclamation? How far has it gone in assuring to each and every citizen, irrespective of color, the equality of opportunity and equality before the law, which underlie our American institutions and are guaranteed by the Constitution?” asked the letter.

The unfortunate answer, affirmed over a century later by the voices of thousands of Americans this past week, is clear: nowhere near far enough.

Many signatories of the “Call” would go on to form the NAACP, officially established just a few weeks later. In its 111-year history, the NAACP evolved from a relatively small association focused on litigation against Jim Crow laws, into a national organization with half a million members and tangible political power.

Like many civil rights organizations, it was born from emotion, specifically anger, frustration and disappointment in the deferred promise of 1865 (the passage of the 13th amendment). But over the years, civil rights leaders like Dubois and Wells channelled that emotion into positive action, without which the United States would be less free, less equal and less just a society than it is today.

As protests spread this week across the United States and here at home — protests that have jolted so many of us out of our privileged complacency — it’s important to remember the legacy of civil rights organizations and their roots in protest.

The simple fact is that direct action works: from the civil rights movement of the mid-twentieth century to the Stonewall riots and the origins of Pride, protest and civil unrest has long served as a catalyst for important change. The protests surrounding the murder of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police are no different.

Consider just how much the Black Lives Matter movement has evolved since its inception in 2013. What began as a hashtag has grown into an international phenomenon, the animating spirit of the largest protests seen in nearly 50 years. While its actions were once the subject of controversy, corporations and brands now eagerly endorse their message.

Along the way, Black Lives Matter has remained steadfastly committed to its roots as a protest movement. Local chapters of the movement have now, for seven years, led protests in response to far too many deaths, all too similar to George Floyd’s. With each action, the loose network envisioned by the movement’s founders has grown stronger.

The natural question to ask next is what happens to the Black Lives Matter movement from here? Perhaps the movement will go the way of Pride: corporatized and mainstream, far now from its roots in protest. Like Pride, victory here may not ultimately mean a set of policy changes, so much as a shifting of the Overton window — a victory of the public sense of what’s possible and expected.

But regardless of where the movement ultimately goes, this is coming to a head. We are experiencing a once-in-a-generation paroxysm about the health and safety of Black communities, prompted by both the coronavirus and the latest instances of police brutality.

It is not my place to say what the demands of the protestors should be or what shape the movement should take next, but I feel it would be a tragedy to move away from the basis of the movement in protest.

After all, we have seen, again and again, how the courage and leadership of organizers and protestors alike have sustained the movement through years of growth.

That said, any meaningful, sustainable change that comes next will depend on all of us — how our expectations, our behaviour and our attitudes evolve. And that means, first and foremost, looking inward and addressing, in the words of James Baldwin, the “many things we do not wish to know about ourselves.”


This week on the “Blackout” edition of Political Traction, host Amanda Galbraith speaks with Andria Barrett, President of the Canadian Black Chamber of Commerce to discuss the Black Lives Matter movement, and what can be done to support the black business community. You can learn more about the CBCC by visiting

Dominic Barton is Canada’s bright light in the crisis with China

This article was originally published in the Toronto Star on May 31, 2020.

When it comes to China, the Trudeau government has acted with the deference a pageboy would show a queen. As they have muddled through a long series of skirmishes, from the arbitrary and unjust kidnapping of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor to the trade disputes over canola, soybeans and meat, the objections of the federal government have been muted and overly diplomatic.

For a time, it seemed the COVID-19 pandemic would be no different. The well-substantiated suggestion that China had been less than forthcoming in its disclosures about the virus was dismissed by the federal health minister as a “conspiracy theory.” The minister of foreign affairs twisted himself into a pretzel to avoid even saying the word “Taiwan.” We refused to close our border to flights originating from China. And this week, as Beijing snuffed out the last remnants of the One Country, Two Systems agreement that protected civil liberties in Hong Kong, the most Trudeau could muster was a call for “constructive” dialogue.

But, thankfully, a bright light has appeared on the horizon: plucked from the private sector and appointed Canadian ambassador to China last September, Dominic Barton has gone further than any other Canadian official in criticizing Beijing.

Last week, Barton was in the news for his comments to the Canadian International Council during which he suggested Beijing had accrued “negative soft power” through its belligerent international response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and endorsed a “rigorous review” of the WHO’s response.

By the standard of the Trudeau government, this amounted to surprisingly pointed criticism. More surprising still was the prime minister’s endorsement of this criticism the day after it was reported publicly.

Some had early concerns with Barton, who was appointed to the ambassadorship fresh off his stint as the managing director of the consulting firm McKinsey.

But Barton was a savvy choice. An experienced China hand, and a principled realist, he now uses the qualities that enabled him to succeed brilliantly in business to drive his candid commentary about China.

It is helpful that his concerns are real. In bungling its so-called Mask Diplomacy, China has, indeed, eroded its soft power and further alienated foreign governments. The Netherlands was forced to recall 600,000 faulty masks bought from China; in Spain, 50,000 test kits were tossed out after it was discovered they were only accurate about one-in-three times. The Slovenians bought 1.2 million antibody tests for $16 million dollars, only to discover they were similarly useless. The Czechs have had complaints, and so have the Turks. And, of course, Canada too. The list goes on.

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