L’affaire Bissonnette: pour que la haine ne change pas de camp

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Algérien de naissance, je fais partie de cette génération dont l’enfance a été marquée à tout jamais par la guerre civile dont ce pays fut le théâtre durant les années quatre-vingt-dix et qui a coûté la vie à autant de citoyens qu’en Syrie. Je prétends donc connaître quelque chose de ces tumultes haineux qui déchirent un peuple au nom de la foi, ou du moins de ceux qui s’en réclament. J’ai ressenti quelque fois dans ma vie, au plus profond de moi-même, quelque chose de la terreur et de la colère qu’éprouvent les familles et les proches de ceux qui ont péri lors du drame de Québec.

Heureusement, nous sommes dans un autre pays et à une autre époque. Nous sommes au Québec — terre d’accueil si l’en est — où l’on peut refaire sa vie sans avoir à voir à redouter les atavismes les plus violents. J’ose croire que le drame qui s’est joué à la grande mosquée de Québec au soir du 29 janvier 2017 n’est qu’un funeste accident de l’histoire.

Je ne suis ni juriste ni juge et je ne saurais dire droit si on m’en confiait la lourde charge. Mais comme tant d’autres, je ne crois pas que briser la vie de tant de personnes mérite autre chose qu’un lourd châtiment. Une sentence qui fait exemple sans enlever au bourreau ce que nous pouvons encore partager avec lui : son humanité. Il ne me semble pas que le juge ait ordonné autre chose en privant Alexandre Bissonnette de tout espoir de libération avant 40 ans… toute une vie et bien au-delà.

Toutefois, force est de constater que ce jugement semble être encore plus controversé que l’acte abject, unanimement condamné partout à travers le monde. Les familles des victimes ont immédiatement déploré la clémence de la sentence. Clémence avez-vous dit, quand le meurtrier n’aura à prétendre à une libération qu’au seuil de sa retraite ? Nous avons eu droit à l’imagerie habituelle des familles des victimes indignées qui crient leur colère ô combien légitime. Or chacun sait que l’émotion est rarement bonne conseillère, surtout quand les circonstances sont aussi terribles.

Je ne suis pas pratiquant et je crois bien plus en la justice des hommes qu’en une hypothétique justice divine. J’ai toutefois grandi dans une culture musulmane et, comme tous mes petits camarades, j’ai été initié aux valeurs essentielles de l’islam dès le plus jeune âge, à l’école primaire.

J’aimerais donc rappeler deux préceptes fondateurs de cette religion, le pardon et le repentir. Le repentir dépend de l’autre, mais le pardon dépend de nous. S’il est important de croire en la miséricorde et au pardon de Dieu, n’est-il pas nécessaire de baser les relations humaines sur le pardon ? L’islam n’enseigne-t-il pas que nous ne pouvons attendre le pardon divin à moins de pardonner aussi à ceux qui nous font du tort ? Pardonner à ses ennemis est l’un des enseignements clés de l’islam. Le Coran décrit les croyants comme étant : « Ceux qui évitent les péchés majeurs et que lorsqu’ils sont en colère, ils pardonnent. » (42 : 37). N’est-il pas dit : « Le tribut du mal, c’est son mal, mais quiconque pardonne et se rachète, sa récompense est auprès d’Allah. » (42 : 40). Le prophète ne dit-il pas que Dieu lui a commandé neuf choses, dont le pardon ?

La sentence rendue par le juge François Huot n’est pas inintelligible pour de bons croyants, car la vengeance n’est pas musulmane. Ne laissons surtout pas la haine changer de camp. Rien ne nous y oblige.

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RCMP to conduct review of actions taken at Gidimt’en camp blockade

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RCMP will conduct a review of what took place last week after officers entered a fortified checkpoint on a forest service road in northern B.C. where people at the Gidimt’en camp were barring a pipeline company from access. 

Wet’suwet’en members set up checkpoints preventing people working on Coastal GasLink project from accessing their traditional territory, which sits about 300 kilometres west of Prince George, B.C.

A court injunction granted in December ordered people to stop preventing Coastal GasLink from gaining access to the road and a bridge. RCMP began enforcing the injunction on Monday, arresting 14 people, and sparking protests across Canada.

Reading off a prepared statement in a press conference in Vancouver on Monday, Assistant Commissioner Eric Stubbs said that the review is being conducted as it would for any major operation and that, « to date, we have not yet identified any issues regarding police officer conduct. » 

An RCMP official said that prior to the injunction being enforced, officers developed an operational plan that involved moving police resources into the area because of the location of the blockade and the ‘unpredictable’ nature of what could have happened. (Chantelle Bellrichard/CBC)

But people arrested at the Gidimt’en camp alleged to CBC News that there was an inappropriate use of force by police, with a spokesperson for the camp describing the scene as « chaos all around. »

The Coastal GasLink project is run by TransCanada Corp. and is meant to move natural gas from northeastern B.C. to the coast, where a liquefied natural gas project is scheduled for construction.

TransCanada has said it signed agreements with all First Nations along the proposed pipeline route to LNG Canada’s $40-billion liquefied natural gas project on the coast — but the hereditary leaders say those agreements don’t apply to the traditional territories.

Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs and RCMP have since reached an agreement over the enforcement of a injunction.

RCMP call situation ‘unpredictable’

Stubbs said that prior to the injunction being enforced, RCMP developed an operational plan that involved moving police resources into the area because of the location of the blockade and the « unpredictable » nature of what could have happened.

« This is an area that’s very remote, it’s an area that has a number of people that could swell from 10 to 100 so there’s a lot of unknowns. So we have to be ready to make sure that we can react to what is presented to us. »

He said as RCMP entered the camp, one person secured themselves to the barricade, two attached themselves to the underside of a bus that was blocking access to the bridge, and another was suspended in a hammock off the side of the bridge. 

« The situation was challenging — the protesters reaction to the police ranged from passive resistance, to active resistance to actual assaultive behaviour, » he said.  

RCMP officers climb over a barricade and start making arrests to enforce the Coastal GasLink injunction at the Gidimt’en camp in northern B.C. on Jan. 7, 2019. 1:42

But Wet’suwet’en Hereditary Chief Na’moks said he didn’t consider those actions to be threatening.

« When you discuss a threatening action that would make me think of people being aggressive, and when you’re passively there, I don’t think there’s any aggression there, » he said.

« There is some inhumanity that happened there, I don’t think that our people needed to be treated in the way that. »

People arrested last week said that protestors were put at risk after RCMP pulled people from the gate and pinned them to the ground, and that barbed wire cut atop the gate was flying in people’s faces.

As part of their enforcement action, RCMP also established an exclusion zone, preventing access to the area by the public and media. RCMP have denied they jammed communications, preventing media and public from providing information about the situation at the camp on Monday afternoon.

The RCMP statement said that « the level of trust between the RCMP and the Hereditary Chiefs now in place will continue to play a direct and positive role going forward. »

But Na’moks said « we’re not there yet. »

« I believe there has to be trust built. » he said. « This is too fresh in our minds, too fresh in our souls. »

Stubbs said there’s no timeline as to when the review will be complete. 

He said RCMP will maintain a presence in the area this week and will next week transition to a « significantly scaled down presence, one that everyone is comfortable with. »

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Why did RCMP arrest 14 people at Wet’suwet’en Camp, and what happens next?

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On Jan. 8, 14 people were arrested in the Wet’suwet’en First Nation for allegedly failing to obey a court injunction that required the removal of a blockade.

The Unist’ot’en Camp was set up years ago to manage entry into the Indigenous territory. A blockade, called the Gitdumt’en access point, was set up further along the road. A December court injunction was granted in favour of Coastal GasLink, ordering protesters to remove the blockade.

READ MORE: Rallies held in support of anti-pipeline protesters arrested in northern B.C.

The order was later expanded to include the Morice West Forest Service Road, on which the Gitdumt’en access point was located.

Over the weekend, RCMP vehicles and tactical units were spotted in the nearby towns of Houston and Smithers. The conflict came to a head on Monday when RCMP went to the blockade.

What is the Coastal GasLink project?

The Coastal GasLink pipeline project aims to connect fracking projects in the Peace Region to the upcoming $40-billion LNG Canada plant in Kitimat.

Coastal GasLink is a subsidiary of TransCanada Corp.


READ MORE:
TransCanada name change to TC Energy ‘de emphasizes’ Canada for leery investors: analyst

The pipeline route travels through Wet’suwet’en First Nation territory, and the nation’s elected leaders signed a benefits agreement with the province for Coastal GasLink in 2014.

Protesters say the project infringes on Aboriginal title, citing the 1997 Delgamuukw Supreme Court of Canada ruling. During that case, the court found that the Wet’suwet’en had not given up title to 22,000 square kilometres of territory.

Coastal GasLink has previously said it consulted with hereditary chiefs for more than five years and secured 20 project agreements with elected First Nations councils all along the pipeline route.

The elected officials in the Wet’suwet’en First Nation have signed a project agreement with Coastal GasLink.

WATCH: Pipeline protesters interrupt Morneau during talks about LNG project (Dec. 2018) 






Who was arrested?

While there are some who support the pipeline, activists and demonstrators who disagree with the project were arrested at the Gitdumt’en access point, including Molly Wickham.

One person was released Monday evening on a promise to appear, RCMP spokesperson Cpl. Madonna Saunderson said, and the others were held to appear before a justice. Wickham says seven were released on Tuesday, and six were still in custody.

Saunderson said they appeared before the justice in relation to “alleged violations of the B.C. Supreme Court injunction.”

Wickham said in a testimonial on Facebook after being released that the RCMP had chainsaws to dismantle the blockade, which threatened the safety of those at the blockade.

“They came straight at us,” she said. “A lot of what you’ve seen is not the extent of the violence that happened there.”

Carla Lewis, a spokesperson from the Aboriginal group at the camp, said one person suffered a physical injury to his wrists and everyone at the blockade was “emotionally shaken.”

Hundreds of people gathered in support of the Unist’ot’en Camp and Wet’suwet’en people during their standoff near Houston, B.C., as they protest against the LNG pipeline during a rally at the legislature in Victoria, B.C., on Tuesday, Jan. 8, 2019.

THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito

Were the media blocked from reporting on the arrests?

According to journalists from APTN and CBC, several people were blocked from entering the region.

“We have no idea what’s happening,” Wickham said in her testimonial, noting that no one can get in or out of the region.

Media who were already on the side of the blockade are still there, but journalists attempting to enter were not allowed in.

Saunderson told media at the time that the area was part of a temporary exclusion zone, and no one was allowed to enter.

A sign for a blockade checkpoint by the Gidimt’en clan of the Wet’suwet’en First Nation is shown in this undated handout photo posted on the Wet’suwet’en Access Point on Gidumt’en Territory Facebook page.

THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO – Facebook, Wet’suwet’en Access Point on Gidumt’en Territor

The Committee to Protect Journalists issued a statement regarding the exclusion zones.

“Authorities in Canada should immediately end the arbitrary restrictions on journalists covering the police breakup of the pipeline protest,” said CPJ North America Program Co-ordinator Alexandra Ellerbeck.

“Journalists should be able to freely cover events of national importance without fear of arrest.”

Reports of service down

According to people who were there, the already spotty Wi-Fi connection went down around the time the RCMP arrived.

“Wifi crashed just before police arrived,” Star Vancouver reporter Perrin Grauer wrote on Twitter.

Wickham blamed RCMP for the loss of service.

“They cut off our internet access so that we couldn’t post anything, so at the time of the incident we couldn’t post to the outside world,” Wickham said.

RCMP disputed that accusation in their statement on Monday, saying the area is extremely remote and even police had limited access to communication, other than their radios.

Similar accusations were made against police during the Dakota Access Pipeline protests in 2016.

What happens next?

Lewis said RCMP are continuing to clear the road towards the Unist’ot’en camp as of Wednesday morning.

“Our hereditary chiefs are also meeting with the RCMP this morning to continue trying to negotiate a peaceful discussion and the safety of our people,” Lewis said.

But she said she was worried that the RCMP would continue to arrest people when they get to the camp.

Support from around the country

On Tuesday, thousands marched in solidarity with the Wet’suwet’en protesters.

In Vancouver, hundreds gathered at the B.C. Supreme Court, including federal Green Party Leader Elizabeth May and environmentalist and scientist David Suzuki.

WATCH: David Suzuki attends Vancouver anti-pipeline rally






Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the situation was “not ideal” in an interview with CBC.

The Prime Minister’s Office confirmed the statements to Global News.

“We’re also a country of the rule of law, and when the courts weigh in and say that we need to get things done, we need to move forward, we also have to abide by that,” Trudeau said.

Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde issued a statement, saying: “Reconciliation will not be achieved through force.”

“This use of force against peaceful people is a violation of human rights and First Nations’ rights. Building consensus under duress will make the resolution of the situation in northern British Columbia very difficult. Real consensus will be built when the parties, with very different views, come together in meaningful and productive dialogue,” he wrote in the statement.

© 2019 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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Gidimt’en in northern B.C. anticipating RCMP action over anti-pipeline camp

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Dozens of Indigenous people and their supporters have setup camp in a remote part of northern B.C., using a strategic access point to control who can get into the territory, as RCMP officers setup nearby. 

The camp was built following an interim injunction from the B.C. Supreme Court in December to support Coastal GasLink with starting construction on a nearly 700 kilometre-long pipeline through the territory.

Now, more than a dozen RCMP officers have checked into a hotel in Houston, the nearest town to the Gidimt’en camp, stoking anticipation among those staying there about what happens next. 

Coastal GasLink has said it needs access to the area as soon as possible to meet construction deadlines for its role in an estimated $40 billion natural gas pipeline and transformation plant. 

The Gidimt’en camp is the latest move to assert opposition to the construction of oil and gas pipelines in Wet’suwet’en traditional territory.

« I am very honoured to have all my brothers and sisters here with us to stand with Gitimd’en, » said elder and Gitimd’en clan member Chief Grizzly Mama.

The Gitimd’en are one of five clans that make up the Wet’suwet’en. In total, there are 22,000 square km of Wet’suwet’en traditional territory in this northern region of B.C., an area that was part of the landmark Delgamuukw case where the Supreme Court of Canada confirmed the Indigenous nation’s land rights and title had never been extinguished.

A cooking tent, heated with a wood burning stove, was the first structure built at the Gidimt’en access point camp in December. (Chantelle Bellrichard/CBC)

Coastal GasLink has made agreements with all of the elected Indigenous band councils along the pipeline route and says it’s been consulting with hereditary leadership of the Wet’suwet’en for years about the project. 

But a release put out by the Gidimt’en camp states, according to Wet’suwet’en law, the company « has never received permission from the proper title holders to access any Wet’suwet’en territories. » 

‘This is where we live our lives’

Standing in a cooking tent at the Gidimt’en camp, people mill about making soup, brewing coffee and chatting. Some sit huddled around a small fire outside, snow falling all around them. 

The Gidimt’en access point camp was established a couple weeks ago and has grown quickly to include several permanent structures to accommodate the people staying there.

About 20 km away sits the longstanding Unist’ot’en camp, which was established in 2010 and has long stood in opposition to oil and gas development in the territory.

Chief Grizzly Mama, sitting in the cook tent, said she’s honoured to see support for the anti-pipeline cause. (Chantelle Bellrichard/CBC)

Both camps are opposing the building of the Coastal GasLink pipeline, designed to transport natural gas from northeastern B.C. to a liquefied natural gas plant slated for construction in the north coast community of Kitimat, B.C.

Several of the people at the new Gidimt’en camp have come from Indigenous communities across Canada and the U.S. to support the Wet’suwet’en. They say Coastal GasLink is not welcome to build a pipeline in their territory without the consent of the hereditary leadership.

Cody Merriman is Haida and married into the Gidimt’en clan. He said he’s supporting the camp as part of his obligation to protect his wife’s territory for their two children and the clan’s hereditary leaders.

« This is where we live our lives … this is where my kids learn to hunt, this is where they learn to snare, » he said.  

Coastal GasLink says it needs immediate access

While people go about their day-to-day activities at the camp, they’re also regularly volunteering for shifts at a constructed gate, built on a small bridge along the forest service road that stops traffic for freely moving through.  

The anti-pipeline group says logging companies and others are given access to move through the area without issue. 

This gate is the second of its kind to be constructed on the planned pipeline route.

Merriman said they’re not sure what to expect from the RCMP in the days ahead. He said he realizes what they’re doing is being characterized as unlawful activity.

« And I think back … you know what, the RCMP lawfully assisted in taking our kids to residential school, » he said.

« My argument is, whatever is lawful, doesn’t mean it’s right. »

CBC was unable to reach the designated spokesperson for the RCMP by deadline. 

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Le camp de la paix israélien perd son principal ambassadeur, Amos Oz

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Le romancier israélien Amos Oz est décédé la semaine dernière des suites d’un cancer à l’âge de 79 ans. Connu autant pour son oeuvre littéraire que pour ses écrits politiques, il formait avec A. B. Yehoshua et David Grossman un trio d’écrivains qui s’étaient imposés comme les porte-parole du camp de la paix israélien.

Amos Oz a acquis une renommée mondiale avec la publication de Mon Michaël en 1968, mettant en scène le personnage d’Hanna, une jeune mère malheureuse dans sa vie de famille, pourtant idéale en apparence. La solitude existentielle des personnages d’Oz, qui n’est pas sans rappeler le vide intérieur des héros camusiens ou tchékhoviens, est une caractéristique que l’on retrouvera tout au long de son oeuvre.

Mais l’oeuvre littéraire d’Amos Oz renferme également une dimension politique bien assumée qui aborde de front la « tragédie » du conflit israélo-palestinien. En effet, selon l’écrivain, le qualificatif « tragédie » (au sens grec du terme) s’impose ici, car il s’agit bien d’un conflit entre deux légitimités et non d’un affrontement manichéen entre le bien et le mal.

La pensée politique d’Amos Oz est d’ailleurs explicitement articulée dans des livres tels que Les voix d’Israël ou Comment guérir un fanatique. Elle est également décelable dans des romans comme Une histoire d’amour et de ténèbres ou Judas, qui l’abordent en filigranes.

Né dans une famille très campée à droite et partisane du « Grand Israël », Amos Oz, après le suicide de sa mère quand il était adolescent, amorça un périple intellectuel qui le mena à se rebeller contre son milieu d’origine. Il finit par rompre avec le conservatisme de son père, changea de patronyme (de Klausner il devint Oz, qui veut dire courage) et s’installa dans un kibboutz de gauche.

Bien qu’il adhérât pleinement au sionisme (mouvement national juif), il n’oublia jamais la question palestinienne et le sort malheureux des réfugiés de la guerre de 1947-1949, qui viendront régulièrement hanter ses livres.

Trouble-fête

Dès 1967, alors que les Israéliens vivaient encore l’euphorie de la victoire de la guerre des Six Jours, le jeune écrivain n’hésita pas à jouer au trouble-fête en mettant ses compatriotes en garde contre l’idée de s’accrocher aux territoires nouvellement conquis. La perspective de dominer un autre peuple l’horrifiait au plus haut point. C’est ainsi qu’il commença à militer pour la rétrocession des territoires occupés et pour la création d’un État palestinien aux côtés d’Israël. Il participa d’ailleurs, en 1978, à la fondation du mouvement La Paix maintenant, principale organisation israélienne à militer pour la paix.

Contrairement à la droite irrédentiste israélienne, il n’acceptait pas l’idée selon laquelle les Juifs possèdent des droits « historiques » ou « bibliques » sur la totalité de la terre d’Israël. Il ne pouvait accepter ces arguments dénués de fondement universaliste.

Mais face à l’extrême gauche antisioniste qui n’a jamais accepté l’existence d’Israël, Amos Oz se sentait aussi le besoin de défendre le droit du peuple juif à l’autodétermination.

Dans un long article intitulé en anglais « The Meaning of Homeland » (« Ce que signifie une patrie »), écrit en 1967, il défendit la création d’Israël sur une partie (seulement) de la Palestine par la métaphore suivante : « La justification [du sionisme] en ce qui concerne les Arabes qui habitent sur cette terre est celle de l’homme qui se noie et qui s’accroche à la seule planche qui peut le sauver… Cependant, il n’a pas le droit naturel de pousser les autres qui se trouvent sur cette planche à la mer… Telle est la justification morale du partage de cette terre entre ses deux peuples… »

Le sionisme d’Amos Oz était donc beaucoup plus modeste que celui de ses opposants de droite qui veulent reconstituer l’ancien Israël biblique. À ses yeux, il fallait uniquement redistribuer les terres afin que tous les peuples puissent avoir une patrie — dans le cas des Juifs, il s’agissait aussi de se protéger des persécutions.

Certes, Amos Oz était mondialement respecté. Mais le sionisme de gauche auquel il adhérait ne lui permit jamais de gagner les faveurs d’une frange influente de l’intelligentsia internationale qui rejette l’existence d’Israël — comme le mouvement de boycottage d’Israël, par exemple, qui s’est donné pour but la disparition de l’État hébreu.

On ne lui pardonna pas non plus d’avoir critiqué les extrémistes palestiniens (le Hamas en tête) pour avoir détruit la gauche israélienne en semant la terreur dans le pays. Car aux yeux d’une certaine gauche radicale qui n’a jamais perdu ses réflexes staliniens, les islamistes du Hamas ne sont rien d’autre que des « résistants » qui ont raison de vouloir liquider Israël.

C’est aussi pour cela que ses proches pensent qu’il ne fut jamais mis en nomination pour le prix Nobel de littérature. Qu’importe, il nous lègue une oeuvre monumentale qui vaut toutes les distinctions du monde !

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The hidden history of the German POW camp in the heart of Amherst

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A Nova Scotia member of Parliament is highlighting a little-known part of Amherst’s First World War history — a prisoner-of-war camp that operated right in the middle of town.

A century ago, the Amherst internment camp held more than 850 Germans, making it the largest POW camp in Canada at the time.

The camp is long gone, but artifacts from the people who lived and died there were passed through the generations and can still be found in local homes.

One of those homes belongs to Bill Casey, the MP for Cumberland-Colchester. His father lived across the street from the camp when it operated from 1914-1919, and somehow ended up with a carefully carved wooden ship made by a prisoner.

The wooden ship made by a prisoner during the First World War is one of two artifacts that have ended up with Casey’s family. (Submitted by Bill Casey)

« It’s beautiful. It’s a work of art in every way, » Casey told CBC Radio’s Information Morning.

Casey’s long fascination with the camp and the prisoners who lived there inspired him this week to stand up in the House of Commons and acknowledge its history.

A ‘very dilapidated’ camp

Some of the best detail of what life was like in the camp comes from an unlikely source, Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky. He was arrested in Halifax while en route to Russia and thrown in the camp.

In his autobiography, My Life, he writes about the « very dilapidated iron foundry that had been confiscated from its German owner. »

This week, Bill Casey, MP for Cumberland-Colchester, acknowledged the history of the camp in the House of Commons. (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)

« The sleeping bunks were arranged in three tiers, two deep, on each side of the hall. About eight hundred of us lived in these conditions. The air in this improvised dormitory at night can be imagined, » wrote Trotsky.

Casey says Amherst was likely chosen as the camp’s location because it provided much-needed space. The German factory had several large buildings and was close to the rail line. Today, the site is home to a concrete plant.

Intricate workmanship

The prisoners handiwork can still be seen around town in the number of buildings they helped construct, said Casey.

But their real legacy is the intricate handcrafts they made from wood and bone, he said. His family happens to have two — the wooden ship and an army tank that at one time was used as a jewelry box by Casey’s grandmother.

When Casey posted about his family’s heirlooms on social media recently, he was surprised to learn how few people know about the camp. He said it’s time Canadians remember the prisoners who were there. 

« These were just sailors doing what they were supposed to do, » he said. 

Casey doesn’t know the name of the prisoner, or prisoners, who crafted his ship but he’s learned it’s a replica of the Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse, which was defeated by the British early in the war.  

While he works to restore it, he’s also diligently doing his research to find out who built it. 

« It may have been a number of prisoners made it, but I don’t know how they did it with no tools, » said Casey. « Everything about it is intricate. Everything is accurate. Everything’s to scale. »

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Construction ‘boot camp’ led to coveted trades jobs. But according to city documents, some say it came at the cost of racial taunts and humiliation

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Annemarie Shrouder looked out over the sea of white, middle-aged male faces gathered at the convention of Ontario’s building and construction trade unions, and stated the obvious.

“I don’t see a lot of visible minorities or women,” the Toronto-based diversity and inclusion expert told almost 300 delegates and guests at the meeting in Niagara Falls this month.

About 70 past and current Hammer Heads participants who rallied outside the Star last week say they did not experience abusive behaviour or racist language in the program as alleged by other past participants in complaints to the city.
About 70 past and current Hammer Heads participants who rallied outside the Star last week say they did not experience abusive behaviour or racist language in the program as alleged by other past participants in complaints to the city.  (Richard Lautens / Toronto Star)

With more than 100,000 skilled trades people in Ontario set to retire over the next decade, “getting people into the trades is only part of the equation,” she noted. “The more important part is making sure the people you have, and those who will arrive, feel safe, are seen and stay.”

Shrouder’s keynote address comes at a time when a union-sponsored pre-apprenticeship program has come under scrutiny from both the City of Toronto and the province for allegations of abusive behaviour and racist language.

Hammer Heads, which helps disadvantaged young people gain access to jobs in the construction trades, lost its contract with the city in July 2017 following complaints from participants about program director James St. John, according to internal city documents obtained through freedom of information legislation.

That same month, the provincial Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities put its funding renewal of the program “on hold” when, according to ministry documents obtained through a separate freedom of information request, it “became aware of allegations … Hammer Heads staff had subjected participants to comments of a harassing nature, racial slurs and intimidation.”

After a ministry review, the province signed a new contract with the program this May, subject to Hammer Heads’ board of directors obtaining an independent review of its operations to be submitted to the government this week, according to an internal ministry memo.

St. John declined an opportunity to speak to the Star, but through a spokesman denied he is abusive or uses racist language and said the city has refused to produce “concrete evidence of any allegations” or a “report of an investigation.”

James St. John has defended his Hammer Heads pre-apprenticeship program, saying no other city-funded program achieves its success rate for helping young people get jobs in the construction trades. He is shown at the Building and Construction Trades Council of Ontario convention in Niagara Falls earlier this month.
James St. John has defended his Hammer Heads pre-apprenticeship program, saying no other city-funded program achieves its success rate for helping young people get jobs in the construction trades. He is shown at the Building and Construction Trades Council of Ontario convention in Niagara Falls earlier this month.  (Andrew Lahodynskyj for Toronto Star)

St. John is the head of the Central Ontario Building Trades Council, which represents more than 50,000 skilled trades people in the GTA from 21 unions, including electricians, plumbers and iron workers.

His supporters praise him as a mentor who champions the underdog and uses harsh language and tough love to make sure young people living in poverty or in trouble with the law are equipped to survive the demands of the construction site. They note more than 420 young men and women have gained access to lucrative careers in the building trades since the program started almost a decade ago.

But critics paint St. John as a bully whose racial slurs and verbally abusive behaviour demeans and humiliates young people in his training program, many of whom are Black.

Those who complained to the city said St. John yelled and swore at them and used racial epithets, internal city documents show. They said St. John told them human rights don’t exist on construction job sites and “they had better get used to it.”

Among the specific comments cited in city documents that participants claim St. John made:

“You are black as night so you need to smile so people can see you.”

“You need to shave because you look like a terrorist.”

“You are going to be called n—–, you are going to take it, and not say anything.”

In addition to reviewing more than 100 pages of internal city documents about the complaints by Hammer Heads participants, two former program staff told the Star they were so upset by St. John’s behaviour towards the students that they quit to preserve their own mental health.

“Everybody gets completely humiliated. It’s all about scare tactics, breaking them down so they are too afraid to move, to cough. It’s unbelievable,” said one former employee.

“Even after they have graduated, they think he has the power to rip up their union cards if they don’t do what he says,” said another. Neither wanted their names published because they still work in the trades and fear reprisals.

But some graduates praise the program.

Justin Wedderburn, 29, a licensed tower crane operator who graduated in 2013 and attended a rally outside the Star last week in support of the program, was brought to tears when a reporter told him the city is no longer funding Hammer Heads.

“It’s not right ,” he said. “I’ve got two kids. I can afford to buy a house right now … I was not thinking about any of that stuff before … But now I have conversations about finances and equity. That’s thanks to James.

“It doesn’t matter how much you say he’s racist, the job site isn’t going to change. And they don’t like us,” Wedderburn said, pointing to his black skin.

Hammer Heads graduates Haider Zahid, centre, left, and Justin Wedderburn, centre, right, defend the program, saying it has helped them land good jobs in the construction trades. They were among about 70 current and past participants who took part in a rally outside the Star last week.
Hammer Heads graduates Haider Zahid, centre, left, and Justin Wedderburn, centre, right, defend the program, saying it has helped them land good jobs in the construction trades. They were among about 70 current and past participants who took part in a rally outside the Star last week.  (Richard Lautens/Toronto Star)

“If someone gets in my face and tries to say something about my race, do you really think I’m going to sit there and let them tell me that?” Wedderburn asked. “James is trying to help me understand … Either you can look past it and look towards your career. Or you can let that get to you and you can react. He makes you think.”

The allegations of mistreatment come at a time when the city, in partnership with the provincial and federal governments, is embarking on numerous “community benefit agreements” to ensure jobs that result from public infrastructure spending go to people in underemployed and economically disadvantaged communities.

“These (pre-apprenticeship) programs are very important because we have to level the playing field,” said Patricia Wolcott, the city’s general manager of employment and social services.

“The proven method to success is connections to trade unions and employers,” she said in an interview. “It does not include abusive behaviour.”

The building trades council started Hammer Heads in 2009 as a 12-week “boot camp” to help young men and women between the ages of 18 and 26 gain the social and professional skills to obtain a union apprenticeship in the construction trades. In addition to safety training and academic upgrading, classes of 15 to 20 students rotate through as many as 16 union training centres so participants can try out different trades. Students are not paid to participate, but the program covers all costs including safety gear and equipment.

About 95 per cent of graduates find work in construction and receive at least a year of on-the-job support, according to Hammer Heads.

St. John, who draws a salary from the council, assumed oversight of Hammer Heads in 2011. It achieved charitable status in 2013 and reported $1.13 million in revenue in 2016, with 67 per cent of funds coming from government and 33 per cent from other sources, according to the Canada Revenue Agency’s website. Expenses that year, the latest available, totalled almost $554,000.

Through his spokesperson, St. John said he receives no extra financial compensation for the time he spends overseeing Hammer Heads.

The program’s board of directors has three members who belong to unions represented by the GTA council. Board member Terry Snooks, international representative of the Canadian plumbers and steamfitters union, nominated St. John to head the provincial building trades council at the organization’s Niagara Falls convention. St. John lost the election to Patrick Dillon, who has led the Ontario council since 1997.

Although Hammer Heads is one of the more successful pre-apprenticeship programs in the Toronto area, the carpenters and labourers unions offer pre-employment training of their own, as do other organizations, said Wolcott. Construction Connections, created a year ago by the city, province and United Way, also provides links to the trades and offers support for disadvantaged youth hoping to find work on local transit expansion projects and community housing repairs, she added.


Toronto social services staff began sending young men and women to Hammer Heads in 2009 and started funding program spaces in 2015 through a purchase-of-service agreement. The city paid about $12,000 per student and over three years spent more than $600,000 for 64 spots.

Hammer Heads Facebook page boasts the program has saved taxpayers $3.8 million in social assistance payments and that about 85 per cent of graduates come from “non-traditional” populations.

“Others talk diversity, we achieve it,” the August 2018 Facebook post says.

Hammer Heads has strict performance expectations of all participants with a “zero tolerance” policy regarding attendance, punctuality and other requirements. For example, participants are kicked out if they do not arrive one hour before the program bus leaves for a training centre. Students are also removed if they haven’t completed their homework or other assignments, according to program materials.

Matthew Lewis, centre, flanked by Anil Hiddar, left, and Abdul Yousufi, right, were among Hammer Heads current and past participants who ralled in support of the program outside the Star last week. Lewis said he is now "making more money than I have ever made in my life."
Matthew Lewis, centre, flanked by Anil Hiddar, left, and Abdul Yousufi, right, were among Hammer Heads current and past participants who ralled in support of the program outside the Star last week. Lewis said he is now « making more money than I have ever made in my life. »  (Richard Lautens/Toronto Star)

In the noisy rally outside the Star building on Yonge St. last week, about 70 graduates and current students came to the program’s defence after they were reportedly told by Hammer Heads staff the newspaper would be publishing a story that could “shut down the program.”

“If there was no Hammer Heads, we would be in the streets right now selling drugs,” said Matthew Lewis, 24, a sheet metal apprentice who graduated in 2017.

“I am making more money than I have ever made in my life. They taught me the way,” added Lewis as fellow trades people chanted in the background. “It would be hurtful to me if this program was lost.” First year apprentices earn between $18 and $25 an hour, depending on the trade. Fully licensed trades people make about $60 an hour, including pension and benefits.

After the rally, the program emailed a petition to the Star signed by 77 current and past Hammer Heads participants that said they experienced no abusive behaviour or racist language while in the program.

“I will have James’s back until the day that I die because he changed my life,” said Nicholas Paris of the Hammer Heads director.

“They teach you what you are doing wrong. They show you. They discipline you. You need the tough discipline,” added Paris, 26, who graduated in 2016 and is apprenticing to be an electrician. “It’s rough out there. The way he taught us to cope with this, I don’t even care. It’s worse on the construction site.”

Haider Zaid, 27, an electrician apprentice who sports a three-inch beard, said he has never heard St. John tell students they look like terrorists or tell them they must shave their beards.

“I’ve been told at certain job sites I might be required to remove my beard to have a mask fitted,” said Zaid, a 2016 grad who credits the program for giving him the financial means to get married and start a family. “I’ve seen everyone in my group treated fairly — Black, white, brown, any skin colour.”

Dillon, head of the Provincial Building and Constructions Trades Council of Ontario, which is separate from St. John’s council, said Hammer Heads enjoys a good reputation with his members.

Although he said he was aware the city no longer funds the program due to St. John’s alleged “inappropriate behaviour,” Dillon said he did not know the details.

He said he could not make any further comment until the provincially ordered review of the program is complete.

A graduate from the early days who has almost completed his apprenticeship as a steamfitter told the Star he is “shocked” St. John is still running Hammer Heads.

Story Behind the Story delivers insights into how the Star investigates, reports, and produces stories.

“It’s a great program and a great opportunity. And the people who run the day-to-day stuff are great. It is just him. He was such a negative influence,” said the apprentice who didn’t want his name published for fear of being punished by his union.


St. John’s alleged behaviour was brought to the attention of senior managers in Toronto’s Employment and Social Services division in September 2016 by a welfare caseworker who said participants reported they are “constantly yelled at,” according to internal city documents.

“They are asked to lift their shirts up on the first day to make sure their pants are not sagging and are then singled out and yelled at if they are.”

According to internal city emails, both the caseworker and program participants wanted to remain anonymous.

“Clients often express frustration with the program in confidence,” the unnamed caseworker wrote in the note, one of over 100 pages of internal city documents about Hammer Heads obtained by the Star.

“However, when advised that they can bring this matter forward, they are concerned that their placements will be taken away from them and do not wish to put in a complaint,” the caseworker added.

Jessica Foster, manager of community and labour market for the city’s York Humber office, met with St. John on Oct. 25, 2016 to discuss the anonymous allegations.

According to an Oct. 27 briefing document and Foster’s own notes from the meeting, St. John acknowledged using the phrase about youth needing to smile but said it “was not discriminatory, as it was not just one youth he said it to, but that he says it to all the Black youth.”

St. John also acknowledged the phrase about participants needing to shave because they look like a terrorist “sounded like something he might have said,” Foster reported in the documents.

When Foster reportedly questioned St. John about Hammer Heads’ own “Program Participant Contract” and “Discrimination/Harassment Policy” that states the program will “maintain an environment that is free from harassment, intimidation, etc.,” he said he “chooses his words carefully and that the phrases he uses are intended to push their buttons,” Foster said in her notes obtained by the Star.

“Youth need to be able to work through what they will be exposed to,” St. John reportedly told Foster. He said the program is giving youth “the tools they need to succeed on the job,” Foster added in her notes.

St. John told Foster “yelling is a component of the program” and that he pushes their buttons “so youth can work through their challenges,” the documents say.

Subsequent briefing notes later that fall suggest St. John didn’t seem to understand the city’s concern about his behaviour towards participants. According to Foster’s Nov. 8, 2016 briefing note, St. John said he would take the city’s perspective “under advisement” and “try to be more diplomatic,” but remained resolute that his tactics are the reason his program is so successful. He wasn’t sure what this would mean to the program’s future with the city, but suggested the city, and not the program, need to change, according to the briefing notes.

As a result, Foster and Irwin Stanley, director of the city’s west district employment and social services office, met with St. John again on Nov. 15, 2016 to ensure he understood city anti-discrimination and anti-harassment policies.

In an email to Stanley the next day, St. John said he “takes the conversation very seriously” and will “ensure my program complies with all City of Toronto policies.”

But the behaviour didn’t appear to stop, according to notes from city staff who spoke to a different set of Hammer Heads participants in April 2017.

“One very vocal student said that James used the word “n—–” many times,” city caseworker Irene Osterreicher wrote in an April 18, 2017 email to Jessica Foster.

St. John reportedly advised the students: “ ‘You are going to be called n—–, you are going to take it and not say anything,’ ” Osterreicher said in the email.

“The student also said that James told the group not to even consider going to ‘human resources’ …because they wouldn’t do anything,” Osterreicher added.

“It does sound like a bunch of complaining — and perhaps some youth who just can’t take the strictness of it all,” Osterreicher continued.

“But when all of the candidates express these concerns, it causes me some concern. I’ve heard these same complaints from other Hammer Heads leads, as you know,” she said in the email, referring to other municipal staff who have overseen the city’s involvement in the program.

The City of Toronto ended its contract with Hammer Heads in July 2017 and no long refers candidates to the program that it says "does not meet city standards."
The City of Toronto ended its contract with Hammer Heads in July 2017 and no long refers candidates to the program that it says « does not meet city standards. »  (Richard Lautens/Toronto Star)

An April 11, 2017 client satisfaction survey of 13 participants who began Hammer Heads in January of that year, showed the program successfully placed participants in coveted trades apprenticeships. But seven of the responses also reflected concerns about the methods used to achieve those results, suggesting the ends may not justify the means.

“The program can be improved by having an instructor that treats/speaks to us with more respect and doesn’t tell us that we are nothing, the industry doesn’t want us there, and without this we will never amount to anything,” one participant wrote in the survey obtained by the Star. “There are certain lines you don’t cross.”

“We were sworn at every day, even on our last one,” wrote another participant. Using the washroom or taking a second bottle of water on a hot day were enough to trigger verbal abuse from St. John, the participant added.

“With these people in charge, I would never recommend this program to any of my friends … I hope you can make a change in this area and keep the program running with better suited people,” the participant wrote in the survey.

As a result of the second set of complaints, internal documents show city staff had heard enough.

On May 16, 2017, city staff notified Hammer Heads it would not be sending any more clients to the program, according to another internal briefing note.

“Clients were to be advised of alternative training options in the apprenticeship and trades sectors,” the briefing note said.

Internal documents show city staff notified St. John and Hammer Heads’ board of directors about the nature of client feedback in a letter July 7, 2017, confirming the city’s reasons for ending its funding.

“We are deeply concerned and disappointed by these issues and regret that we cannot continue to refer our clients to a program that does not meet city standards,” said the letter signed by Stanley, director of the city’s employment and social services west district.

In a July 11, 2017 email reply to Stanley that was copied to employment and social services general manager Wolcott, St. John said he was “shocked and offended” by the letter and said the information the city received from Hammer Heads participants was “100 per cent false.”

“I take great offence to being accused of something that we haven’t done and will have to take action to defend the honour and the integrity of our program,” he said, adding he graduated 86 participants since his November 2016 meeting with Stanley — and all of them would defend the program, according to the documents.

Two weeks later, on July 24, 2017, St. John sent Wolcott another email in which he continued to express outrage at the city’s action.

“My concern is with the disparaging remarks that have been made from the city staff about our program,” he wrote. “We are seeking a full retraction and apology before this matter gets worse and we need to seek damages … I am confident in my information; I hope you are equally as confident in yours,” he added.

When the Star asked about St. John’s alleged use of racial slurs, his spokesman said the Hammer Heads director “does not use those words.”

St. John, whose wife is African Canadian, “uses his background to educate about stereotypes that prevail,” Raj Rasalingam wrote in an email to the Star last week.

Allegations that St. John yells at students “to push buttons” and to “break” them so they will learn to stay silent on construction sites are also “not true,” Rasalingam said.

“Real life examples are used to train students,” he said. “The fact is, the city had not developed specific guidelines that surround their training programs with respect to real life situations.

“No other similar city-funded program achieves the success rates of employment for graduates in the same sector,” he added. “We are confident that our training methods are at the heart of this success.”

In an interview with the Star last week, Wolcott said the city stands by its decision and that her department’s investigation was “very diligent and deliberate and thorough.”

“I am a Black person myself. I don’t believe I have to undergo abuse in order to be successful,” Wolcott said. “It was very obvious why we took our actions … We spoke with him a number of times. If he believes this is the secret to success, we do not share his values.”

The internal provincial documents obtained by the Star say ministry staff met with “individuals” and exchanged correspondence with Hammer Heads’ management and board of directors between December 2017 and May 2018 “to review the allegations and determine if the organization has sufficient capacity to deliver the pre-apprenticeship program in an environment for participants that is free from harassment and racism.”

The ministry completed its review on May 3 and “concluded the organization and its board had taken sufficient steps to address the allegations raised,” the documents say. They noted Hammer Heads has set up anti-racism and workplace harassment policies and the board has committed to appoint an independent third party “to review, assess and report on program activities and experience of past recipients.”

On May 8, the ministry signed a $187,712 transfer payment agreement with Hammer Heads to provide pre-apprenticeship training for 2018-19. Under the deal, the Hammer Heads board is “required” to submit its third-party report to the ministry by Oct. 24, according to the internal documents.

Meantime, Dillon, the newly re-elected head of the provincial buildings trades council, says the trades are taking Shrouder’s message of diversity and inclusion to heart.

“Building trade unions in this province and in this country are working with our contractors … because we believe diversity and inclusion strengthens cities, strengthens the province and strengthens the country,” he said. “We think it strengthens our unions and our industry.”

Laurie Monsebraaten is a Toronto-based reporter covering social justice. Follow her on Twitter: @lmonseb

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