The following is an excerpt from the interview I did with Rosemary Brown, a long-time white ally in anti-racism work in Toronto and Calgary. She talks here a little bit about her involvement as a student in England and then about her experiences as a militant with the Canadian Party of Labour in Toronto in the 1970s:
SN: How were you involved, politically, as a student in England?
RB: As I said, there was this group, this Left – I don’t even remember what they called themselves. Socialist something or other. They set up tables. You’d go and there would be books and literature, and it was all issues I was interested in even though I didn’t want the heavy theory, but there would be books on issues and things like that. Talk about not knowing what you’re doing, but just following your nose. I volunteered to help them on their book table. There I am, pulling out stuff on the PLO and – because as an American, oh my God, I’ve been brought up to be so anti-Arab and Palestinian. My whole world view of Israel and Palestine was so brainwashed, it was so manipulated. Again, pulling out stuff on the PLO was so good, because it was like, “Poof! Oh, God, here’s something I haven’t really thought about!” You’d be putting out this literature and you’d meet people, and I would go to their meetings. It was through that group we tried to raise the issue of “SOAS [SN: School of Oriental and African Studies, an educational institution in London that was historically very much part of the British colonial apparatus] in the past historically,” the anti-apartheid work, the anti-Vietnam demonstrations. But I wasn’t an organizer. I would poodle around in this group and I would sit at this table, and I would go to things and I would protest, but I wasn’t an organizer. I just wasn’t, at that point. I was still learning, I guess, how to do things.
SN: Were you still put off by the theory at this point?
RB: Yes. Boring. Just boring, to me. And probably some of that had to do with the way that people talked about it. I didn’t feel it was needed or necessary, for me, at that point. I think probably, for me, getting a better handle on theory was later, in Toronto, being involved with the Canadian Party of Labour. You would be part of discussion groups, but it was done so differently. It wasn’t like you just went to these meetings and other people talked about these issues in an abstract level – you had to read this stuff. You had to be part of the discussion and apply it to what you were doing. I went through those study groups before I joined CPL, but you are around people for whom class was the foremost issue. So you were doing things with them, and you’re doing things on racism – how did these connect? All of a sudden the theory became a place to try – I’m not saying it did totally–to put it together, to have a better understanding of what had gone on in the past and why, it was happening today and why. That kind of thing.
SN: What do you remember about your work with the CPL in Toronto?
RB: I just remember being very busy – making, helping put out the party’s newspaper, going to party meetings. Now we are going not just to anti-racism stuff but we would go to party meetings. The study groups continued. And organizing around racism. Anti-racism work, especially around immigration. That was the main thrust of it. Things like the green paper hearings took place then.
It was a whole set of discussion papers that the government had commissioned people to write in order to address immigration and make decisions. These damn papers would be – some of them would be linking increased immigration with increase in disease, or increase in crime. It was just the slant of a lot of this. There was a big discussion within the [Toronto] Committee Against Racism, do we go in and present a paper, which is what a lot of people were doing – do you go to the hearings and oppose what the government is doing – or do you boycott it? Charlie Roach lead the call for boycotting. He said the whole damn process was racist. There was tons of work done around that, organizing the protests around that.
I’m not saying I personally. I’m part of a group. After a while, what did you do as opposed to what the other people did. I can’t remember, except helping to organize things. These protests were very effective.
SN: How big was the party, and what kind of people were members?
RB: I can’t remember how big it was. I think when you looked at the party itself and then who else was involved, to me it seemed big. The big thing that strikes me – this is very important – the sectarianism that existed in Toronto, probably all across the country, among Left parties. Oh God! Different Left parties just hated each other. They never cooperated on a damn thing. Toronto was big enough you could live in your own little world, in your own little party, and not have to cooperate with anyone. Instead of one giant demonstration against the green paper hearings you would have one and you would be sharing the block with another. Crazy! At the time you thought you were so right.
SN: What did you think at the time around how you, as a party with an analysis, very overtly politicized – how did that relate to the broader community? How did you think about that relating to the broader community?
RB: Toronto was a very big place so I question how we related to the broader community. At the same time I think some things were very far reaching. When they sent someone like Mike Hirsch into Inglis, in the long run that made a real difference for the people there. You had someone who believed in rank-and-file organization, in politics, in union democracy. One thing that happened to him while he was there is that he finally made it on to a negotiating committee. He was just horrified that the negotiating committee gets wined and dined and this and that, and you’re not suppose to tell the membership what you’re talking about. He just said, “Stuff this.” And he told everyone exactly what was going on. He got in real trouble for it, but in the next election he got elected into the executive of the union. Under his leadership it was a very different style of doing things. To me, the union–people who work at Inglis are a big part of the community, right? Anywhere you were working with other people around issues, I think it made a difference. I think it made a difference to work with Charlie Roach and other people around anti-racism. I think, from the party, the things I learned how to do were analysis, the importance of analysis. Also, how to organize.
Now, it’s also true that it was a very – you get older, and you meet people with very different ideas about it how to organize things, and, yeah, there probably were things that weren’t so great. It was almost too organized, if you know what I mean. Almost rigid, in a way. Maybe there needed to be more flexibility in there. But you felt like you got a lot done. A lot done in terms of connecting with people, meeting people. It also seemed as if you had many situations where things wouldn’t change, wouldn’t be won, e.g. with Henri Fong [SN: a medical student kicked out of University of Toronto for racist reasons] – he didn’t get reinstated back into medical school after all that work. Then there would be other situations – not so much then, but coming to Calgary and working on issues that were centered out of Toronto. Like the issue of the Seven Jamaican Mothers who were being deported. [SN: See Charles Roach’s chapter in Resisting the State for more on this case.] That was a victory. So you could be part of something that helped to make a change or raised consciousness. I also think it is an ongoing process and even if you don’t win specific things people are being presented with alternatives, a different way of thinking. Maybe they ignore it for years but then they use it some day or they think again or they reconnect. I felt like I learned a lot in terms of the practicalities of organizing, I guess is what I’m saying.
The other big thing that hit at that time was that the party placed so much emphasis on racism but it really did not see gender as an important issue. And yet, a lot of women in the party, a lot of women having kids in the party. Bang, there is something about having kids that puts gender issues right in your face. Those discussions were just beginning to happen when I left. Other women in other cities I know joined the party who really challenged the party on its patriarchy, its style of doing things.
What they were coming up against is the same damn thing. For any kind of anti-oppression work, you bring up anti-oppression work with progressives, and because they are progressives they think they cannot possibly be implicated in the oppression. I’m not saying that this woman came and said, “You did this, and he did this, and you did the other.” But she was just fighting resistance among men in the party to even entertain the thought they could be chauvinist or sexist. That’s the kind of thing. That woman from another city ended up leaving the party because of that. I don’t blame her. I look back not on it and I can see why she would have.
I can also remember, in terms of the anti-racism work, working with – I can’t remember the issue, but we were working with some other young people from the community, people of colour, and I remember thinking and saying saying to them something about leadership and they needed to take the lead, because this was their experience. They knew, this was their experience, therefore they–and someone from the party just dressing me down later, that our analysis as a party was what made it important for us to be leading on the issue. I just felt then like that was bullshit. I think all kinds of experiences after that have borne that out, because I think it is people within communities who need to identify what the issues are, and we work as an ally. You don’t lead it, they lead it and you can work as an ally. I’m not saying that you can’t go do things. People go do things, but I wonder how meaningful it is in the long run. There were quite a few workers of colour in the party. That was a positive thing, as opposed to a party that was all white and all middle class. But, boy, the gender stuff.
When we left, the party was still going strong. For anyone who was doing political organizing, the late ’70s were an amazing time. The Sandinistas in Nicaragua, and the Shah being toppled in Iran – it just felt to be such a time of hope. Soweto had happened and there was increased organizing within South Africa, and just a sense that the world was on the move. People, and people’s communities, were on the move. So I still remain connected to the party when we moved here. I don’t know if you’re ready to go on to that. I don’t feel like I’ve answered your question very well. I look back and I can tell you that I was very, very busy, but what did I accomplish? We weren’t involved in electoral politics or anything like that. But the anti-racism work itself took us in many different directions in terms of supporting people who were working around issues like education and immigration and housing. I guess I do respect the party for that, even though that one individual said, “Oh, we’ve got the analysis, therefore….” When I look at the practice, actually a lot of it was supporting communities who were being oppressed.