Journalist, author, and social justice activist Derrick O'Keefe revisits his initial involvement with the anti-war movement in Vancouver, offers a Liberal government foreign policy flashback, and discusses co-founding Canada's new journalistic voice for the public interest: Ricochet Media.
Tracy: I first heard your name years ago when you were part of the Vancouver Stop War Coalition. Want to begin with a few comments about your initial interest in anti-war movements?
Derrick: I was thinking the other day about how the Liberals are now back in power, and through this election I realized something. Some of us who are a little bit older and who have been activists for a longer time were not so thrilled that the Liberals got a majority; we were excited that [Stephen] Harper and the Conservatives were finally gone, but also apprehensive about a Liberal majority again. The younger generations reacted to this like we were crazy to not just be thrilled that Harper was gone. But I’m of a generation where we've been active now for 15 to 20 years within social justice movements, and so when I was first getting politically involved it was when the Liberals were in power. Now this was when they were arming the military dictatorship in Indonesia that was occupying East Timor, and this happened to be the first international issue I really learned a great deal about. It wasn’t a conventional war but Canada was selling weapons to a country that was repressing this small island state in Indonesia. At 18, or 19, I naively wrote a letter to my Liberal Member of Parliament figuring that I could just write to him and explain what was wrong about that, being quite sure he could fix it. Needless to say, I was pretty unsophisticated politically. [Laughter] I grew up in Richmond and my family was a little bit political - we talked politics a bit at the dinner table but that was the extent of it. I had never thought about international relations, the rules of war, or militarism. So I wrote this letter and my MP had someone phone back who said, “Thank you for not sending this to the newspapers; let’s have a meeting and talk about it.” And right away I thought there was something odd about that.
Did you end up meeting with him?
Yes I did - I sat down with this man who at that time was a minister for the Liberal government named Raymond Chan, and he was in charge of Asia-Pacific. While we met, he had an assistant standing there with him and I realized as it unfolded that he couldn’t even justify what Canada was doing in Indonesia in coherent terms at all. And that’s when I understood that this guy was just an empty suit; his justifications didn’t make sense to me at all. So that was a massive wake-up call to me. As just a kid really, I found out that we had a government that was completely unethical, and worse, couldn’t even explain the unethical things they were doing. I think that’s really the moment that sparked my awareness of the corrupt militarism that our governments are involved in. I also bring this up because now that we have the Liberals back in power, a young person in their 20s who has grown up under Stephen Harper and therefore familiar with these types of atrocities committed under the Conservative government, that’s all they know. They don’t remember the Liberal corruption, or this Liberal militarism. Speaking to my direct and active involvement, the Liberal government was also involved in the war in Yugoslavia and I went to those protests; I was against the war and observed that movement as a participant, but it was only a couple years later that I got directly involved. The build-up to the Iraq war was happening and I was politically engaged with it, following all the news and every step. It looked like there was a strong chance that Canada was going to join and participate because George Bush at the time was lining up allies and making the pitch to get Tony Blair from the UK on board. So it was an urgent thing and it was getting to be a large movement against the invasion happening within Canada. It lasted about six months where we would hold one large demo each month at the Vancouver Art Gallery, and it just kept getting bigger: 5,000 people showed up, then 10,000, then 15,000. And then the biggest one, which was in February of that year, was something like 35,000. And that was just here in the city of Vancouver.
What many of the upcoming generations didn’t see, myself included, was that all over the world there were these massive movements in opposition to the invasion, especially after Colin Powell’s February 13th speech. [He is now regretful over that speech.] People were strongly opposed to the war in numbers we hadn’t really seen before. It must have been pivotal being involved.
It certainly was. While being rapid political development for me, I also had to learn the basics of an anti-war rally very quick: how to get the word out and organizing the logistics. But it was quite a political experience for me because this was at a time when it wasn’t a marginal thing to be talking about. It seemed as though everyone was having a conversation about being against war; you could get mainstream politicians to have meetings with you, often even to come to rallies and talk about their opposition. We even had the mayor of Vancouver, Larry Campbell read out an anti-war proclamation at one of the rallies. So it was just a sign of the times; it wasn’t that these were hugely progressive or dissident leaders, it was just that everyone wanted to associate with this cause because it was so vastly agreed upon by the people. So yes it was a really formative experience for sure.
This was before online, independent media outlets had the influence we see today. This is media that focuses more on people than on institutions in making a difference. And most of it is shared on social media. What’s great about putting the focus on movements is that it draws people out in these huge numbers. So rather than feeling like you have to join the UN to make a difference, witnessing these demonstrations helps us to understand there are other ways to influence politicians.
Yes, and even though the direct involvement of these politicians only lasted about six months, Canada and the Liberal government did say in the end that they weren’t going to send troops into Iraq. So they stepped aside on that but they later helped the US out in other wars, as we saw in Afghanistan. But yes it was a very empowering thing to see the numbers we saw. I would also add that because this is 2003 that we’re talking about, the internet was there, but not in the way we see with social media and the reach of independent media today. There were email lists that could help with getting the word out, so the internet was able to help on the organizational side of things, but it couldn’t do what it does today on transmitting information from everyone’s pocket smartphone all over the world. So it was different then, than in the Arab Spring or with the Occupy movement, where things happening internationally could travel much faster. This being said, that rally at the Art Gallery against the Iraq invasion was an interesting moment in time because the mainstream media actually covered our protest. The morning of that big February 15th rally where there were 35,000 people or so, it was a Saturday morning and The Vancouver Sun had put it on their front page including a map with directions showing people how to get to the rally.
Yeah I remember taking the bus down, seeing The Vancouver Sun article and thinking, “Wow, we’re in for a massive crowd.” This mainstream, corporate paper was actually telling people about this opposition movement. Of course that was a one-off thing. Once Canada had decided not to go into Iraq and on conducting their foreign policy more subtly, then it became harder to educate people on what was happening.
Which is the sticky part of speaking out, they then just get better at hiding their intentions. Talking about the news and media, let’s come back to the present day and discuss Ricochet Media. You launched this public interest journalism outlet just over a year ago. Talk a bit about how it came to be.
Yes, the initial idea and discussion around Ricochet included launching a French language version, and while a few Quebec francophone activists were chatting about this, they approached a few of us and suggested a bilingual publication. So we started talking about it in 2012 which was when the Quebec student movement was happening. This was one of the biggest social movements in recent history in North America. We watched The Maple Spring unfold and we were all really disgusted by the mainstream English language media and the way they were dismissing the Quebec students as spoiled, entitled kids, and other weird dismissive suggestions that there was no big deal [about their fight.] Yet there were days when around 200,000 people would have a rally in Montreal, and there would be nothing in the English media throughout the rest of Canada. So we translated some of the material that they were writing for various publications because it was ludicrous that this movement wasn’t being covered.
So eventually we got to talking about starting our own thing that would be bilingual. The idea behind it was as a platform for information and to have a stronger alternative media. But also it was for a political or intellectual project where progressive people in Quebec and English Canada could pay attention to and interact with each other. We thought a great deal about problems all throughout Canada and how people are divided. An important part of this is that we have to pay attention to Indigenous issues, and make sure we all have an equal footing. If there’s French Canada, English Canada, then there’s the forgotten third part of us: the foundation of the country which is the Indigenous peoples. They want their own sovereignty, their own political power, and their own Nations. So that was a little trickier to figure out because we didn’t have those natural networks or affiliations. We knew and worked with Indigenous activist groups in different parts of the country, but I had never collaborated with Indigenous editors which is a sign of how they aren’t adequately represented in most media outlets - independent media included. So that was the third component that we were only really able to add over the past year. We’ve been formally launched for just over a year, but we now have two Indigenous editors, one in French and one in English. Eventually we hope to go beyond just French and English because there are a lot of Indigenous languages that people are working to preserve. But for now we have Indigenous Nations in Quebec being covered by an editor in Montreal, and another editor out here who obviously has a lot of ground to cover. Part of the challenge with Indigenous journalism is that these important stories are within these small remote communities that sometimes you have to fly into or there may not be direct roads into. So you can imagine even the mainstream media which is cutting all their reporters budgets, struggle to be able to send journalists to cover these stories.
Which is similar to researchers in universities - they get paid almost nothing to do this very important work. I have a good friend completing her Ph.D who is going into Northern Indigenous communities and she always comes back with these revolutionary stories that I wish everyone could cover or hear.
Yes so especially for Indigenous reporting, we’re putting extra efforts on fundraising for that. We want to be able to pay for these travel expenses and get the coverage that is so important to have. So that’s Ricochet, and even though it’s a media project, a lot of us that founded it see it as a political project as well. The Canadian Left or our progressive movements have been strong here and there - there are pockets of it - but it’s such a vast country that it's hard to communicate and build relationships with colleagues in Canada in general. Atlantic Canada is actually our weak spot - we don’t have many journalists from that region aside from one or two freelancers, but I haven’t been out to Halifax in many years. It’s a huge place, so it’s a big challenge.
Speaking about Indigenous issues, in the last few years we’ve really seen these communities gain a lot of ground and influence. I look to Idle No More as a major united voice that has changed a lot of people's ‘hearts and minds’ so to speak.
Yes for sure. It was December 2012 when Idle really took off and I was working for rabble.ca at the time. I remember those first few weeks of Idle No More where people were following it on social media and a few independent sites were reporting on it, but the mainstream media was indifferent. There was a turning point in maybe the first or second week of December when all of a sudden activists that I’d never met or heard of before were all over social media bombarding the mainstream press, which is a great tactic. I wrote an open letter to Peter Mansbridge as a piece that was addressed to him, the CBC, and The National saying simply, “Hey guys, this is unprecedented. There’s a huge Indigenous protest going on and you’ve got to get on top of it.” And eventually the pressure became such that something had to be said, largely because of social media and how people were making those connections. So they definitely got the message from a number of people at Idle and elsewhere putting the pressure on them. I’m sure even some of their own journalists inside were saying, “Hey we’ve got to cover this.” And eventually it became the top story on the news for about a month. So the mainstream media, to its credit, did actually open the door and let some of those voices in to tell some of those stories. So certainly Idle No more has had an impact and this has really changed in Canada.
Similar to many others around the globe, you’ve been influenced by Democracy Now!. You host a weekly radio program where you discuss some of these media and social issues. Want to talk a bit about what you call Democracy North and comment on the importance of radio?
Right, so it’s just a weekly roundup of a show we do. There are four or five of us that host one or two mornings each. It’s a 7:00am morning news and talk show on Co-op radio, and we call our weekly roundup podcast Democracy North just as a little respect to Amy Goodman and Democracy Now!. Earlier when we were talking about the Iraq protest, I was thinking how Democracy Now! was fairly small in 2001 to 2003, and it was in that year of the Iraq war when they really took off. Because everyone realized that the mainstream media had been lying or omitting the information that people needed, that ended up working in their favour. When they were small, only a few alternative radio networks like Pacifica Radio were broadcasting them, and then they just took off to now being broadcast on over a thousand radio networks. So they do well. But radio is very important. We have our show on Co-op radio here, and it would be great to have a daily show of the quality and reach of Democracy Now! here in Canada. But it’s harder because of the problems we were just talking about, like the spread out country and also fewer well known individuals that would donate and back a progressive media project. But it’s certainly needed.
I want to talk to you about the division between the Left and Right. It seems as soon as someone cares about human rights and community, they’re automatically pegged as a Leftist. The problem with this is that many people don’t want to listen to a ‘Leftist’ or a ‘Progressive’ simply because they feel the Left only wants to raise taxes on them, and attacks their hard work ethic. Yet Leftist parties, or leftist individuals don’t discuss often enough that it’s not about raising taxes, it’s about better allocation of taxes. We should not be spending the people’s money so freely on subsidizing multinational corporations that are causing harm, abusing their workers, and taking their profits out of the country with them. Big government is just as bad as big corporations.
Yes so this is right, they shouldn’t have to raise taxes on everyone. Even [Justin] Trudeau in this campaign used that quite effectively. He said they would only tax the top one percent which is creating a new tax bracket that only affects the very top percentage of people, and they actually cut taxes in the upper-middle class range. But yes you could cut more if you used our taxes more effectively, or even just stopped dropping corporate taxes. Corporate taxes have gone down so much in the past 40 years, I think they're at an ultimate low. But you make a good point: the Leftist parties have to make a stronger case about whose taxes they’re raising. They kind of just get into this policy based thing where they tell us, “Well you have to pay taxes because it pays for services.” And when most people are feeling squeezed and they just see their money being taken away from them, the case should be made more clearly about where more revenue needs to be coming from. And the good point that you’re making also: looking at all the things the government wastes money on, and that can certainly be addressed.
Once you actually start talking to people, most educated individuals don’t agree with spending billions on building more jails, or sending our youth off to fight for the hegemony of a corporate state establishing military bases all over the world. Compare this especially to social services that help address mental health or getting the homeless off the street.
Absolutely. I agree, and it’s important to look at and discuss more. On the issue of social services there’s both a moral and an economic argument that needs to be made. For those people you spoke of who are saying that they work so hard, so question why they should have to spend their hard earned money on others who aren’t working, you can talk about it in a dollars and cents way as well. Calculations can be made for both services like Insite and for social housing: if we have supportive social housing, just the savings compared to emergency care, ambulance calls, and everything that is associated with the dangers of homelessness, are helping to reduce what’s being spent currently. So there’s an economic, dollars and cents case for all these things, but it’s important to make that case along with the moral case as well. People should have options for harm reduction, people should have a roof over their heads, and that’s simply a moral thing.
Compassion when we’re socialized to overvalue the selfish individual can be a hard argument. Yet looking at the neuroscience that has come up over the last decade, the selfish argument just doesn’t hold up anymore. On the topic of compassion in politics, what do you think about Bernie Sanders?
Yes, so he’s been encouraging to watch. It’s pretty wild that he’s polling so well, not to mention that he’s holding rallies that draw 10 to 20 thousand people in cities all over the US. I think his popularity is tapping into a feeling that it’s not enough just to tinker with the system or throw out the far Right-wing leaders. What I find really interesting about Bernie Sanders is not only that he’s railing against the billionaires and saying that we need to tax the super rich more - I think that’s great - but the more interesting part of his message is this line where he says, “Even if I'm elected, I’m not going to be able to change the system by myself.” The way he terms it is that we have to have a political revolution. So he’s saying we have to get big money and the power of lobbyists out of politics. And you just never hear a politician say,“I can’t fix everything; the whole system is corrupt.” Because certainly a guy like Trudeau would give you the impression that it's just about getting a new, kinder face in there. He’s not talking about changing the whole system, he’s not talking about throwing lobbyists off Parliament Hill, or looking at the systemic problems of political elections. So it’s positive that there’s a guy like Bernie in the US. However I don’t think that the powers that be will let him become president. I think he’s too much for them unfortunately, but he’s exceeded all expectations. The fact that he has identified with being a socialist, even if some socialists would say he doesn’t have a good enough position on foreign policy to be a socialist, he does talk about it openly. 20 years ago, or 30 years ago that would have just destroyed your chances. Media would have been able to take you down, but the younger generations don’t seem to be so terrified of that word today.
I was going to bring that up. We’ve finally reached a point where that word is understood to have been mostly a fear tactic. Back then socialism was this terrifying thing because of the Cold War and it was thought of as the tyrannical structure of “those bad guys over there”. But now we are having this younger generation of voters who feel that we need more community, more compassion, and more widespread generosity. We know that socialism isn’t just this oppressive force ready to steal all of our identities from us.
That's right and what’s interesting is that the more the Right-wing media in the United States called Obama a socialist, the more popular he got. Of course he said, “No, no I’m not a socialist.” But the more it was said, the more people became unafraid of the word. I think people who liked what Obama stood for, thought, "Oh, maybe socialism isn’t such a scary thing after all."
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