Paul Burrows: Parent, activist, researcher, amateur (and sometimes professional) historian, sci-fi/fantasy and nerd culture enthusiast, wilderness survival wannabe, former punk, red wine anarchist.
Born in Winnipeg, but I have also lived in Vancouver and Montreal for short periods of my life. A year in Guatemala and El Salvador at the height of the brutal “civil wars” in the 80s was a watershed radicalizing moment in my life – a crash course in Canadian and U.S. imperialism for a hitherto relatively oblivious teenager like myself. Over the years I have been involved in various activist, human rights, and solidarity work: from supporting resistance movements (like the FMLN and the ANC in El Salvador and South Africa), to awareness-raising campaigns on East Timor and Palestine. I still have fond memories of the ad hoc group we formed called “Manitobans Against Gunboat Diplomacy” to challenge the U.S. invasion of Panama in 1989.
Connecting global struggles to settler-colonialism and indigenous resistance “at home” has always been central to my politics. One of the early examples of this for me was working with First Nations and Latin American community activists to organize the “500 Years of Indigenous and Popular Resistance” conference in 1992, not long after the Haudenosaunee resistance at Oka in 1990 had once again brought the question of Canadian colonialism to the fore. I was in my early 20s at the time and it was surprising to me how resistant many “leftists” were at that time to even talking about settler-colonialism here in Canada – where there might be direct implications for ourselves. And those who did talk about it were so-often ignorant and patronizing in the way they constantly attempted to fit distinct indigenous nations and struggles into homogenized boxes, and to frame indigenous struggles as if they were of “secondary” or tertiary importance to economic class and anti-capitalist frameworks. It was easy for leftists to talk about imperialism and self-determination and decolonization in faraway places, removed in time and space. But when it might affect one’s own material and social privileges, the left has never been immune to self-mystification, paternalism, settler ideology, and even reactionary ideas.
My student days at the U of Manitoba were a lively time, full of arguments about heady ideas, full of youthful idealism and youthful hubris. Our activist student group we called the “Critical Path,” and there were inevitable jokes about Sendero Luminoso (the Shining Path) in Peru, and some young feminist friends called our male-dominated group the “Hypocritical Path.” No doubt there was some truth to that. But we did organize some fun events, and bring in some interesting speakers, to “provoke” an otherwise fairly conservative university campus in the 80s and early 90s. Notable guests in the early 90s included: the late-Philip Agee (the CIA’s most-hated “defector”), Mike Albert of Z Magazine, Ward Churchill, Kwame Ture (Stokely Carmichael), and Anishinaane activist Winona LaDuke — not to mention countless Salvadoran and South African activists speaking to the struggles against Central American death squad regimes and apartheid.
Palestine was another issue that the left seemed reluctant to talk about in those days. I wrote my first articles about the topic, and about Canadian complicity, in the student newspapers of those days. The fallout over the Kwame Ture event – where Ture criticized Zionism as a racist colonial endeavor – was indicative in many ways of the left’s impoverished analysis and understanding of the facts, and also of the weakness of its normative arguments. Even later, when the second intifada broke out in 2000, the Winnipeg left didn’t want to touch the issue – and worse still, when it did talk about it, its framing of “the Palestine question” was incredibly weak. This was the main reason why myself, and a good buddy of mine (Krishna Lalbiharie), started a grassroots solidarity group in 2000 called the “Palestine Support Group” – which eventually turned into the Canada-Palestine Support Network (or CanPalNet), and its related project the Canada-Palestine Film Festival. It didn’t surprise us how much the local Zionist organizations hated everything we stood for … but we were a little surprised to find out how many people who called themselves Marxists and socialists and social justice activists were still enchanted by left and labour Zionist mythologies about “deserts blooming” and a “morally righteous IDF,” and who thought that the word “Palestine” itself was too “biased” for a solidarity movement. Thankfully, the left’s perspective on Palestine has changed a great deal since 2000, but in the 90s and early years of the new intifada it was shockingly pathetic.
In 1995 and 1996 I co-founded the Old Market Autonomous Zone (A-Zone) and Mondragon Bookstore & Coffee House collective — two workplaces with activist aspirations and features that I was heavily immersed in between 1995 and 2002. The A-Zone/Mondragon Archive section of this website will eventually house in one location whatever writings, photos, documents, newspaper and magazine reviews, videos, and oral history collections I can assemble. It is hard to over-estimate how much that space at 91 Albert Street became a focal point for activism in Winnipeg between 1995 and 2014 (when Mondragon shut its doors). In this sense, the A-Zone was a kind of living political and cultural “workshop,” a place where ideas and movement practices were constantly being tested, debated, abandoned or re-worked. Countless local and not-so-local people spoke in the space over that roughly 18 year period. Countless organizations used the A-Zone’s offices and communal resources. The names are too many to list here, but some of them will no doubt be found in the future Archive.
Another part of my life has been related to history as a discipline. I have two and a half university degrees in History. Someday, perhaps, I’ll complete the third. I have taught courses in History and Political Studies. I have been an independent researcher. And every step of the way, from the early 90s until the present day, I have written empirically- and historically-grounded essays on diverse topics, and occasionally presented some of these papers at academic and activist gatherings, and even published a few. Some of the workshops, presentations, and conferences I’ve engaged in over the years are listed here, for anyone interested. My M.A. thesis was related to settler-colonialism and Treaty 1 in southern Manitoba, entitled ‘As She Shall Deem Just:’ Treaty 1 and the Ethnic Cleansing of the St. Peter’s Reserve, 1871-1934 (U of Manitoba: History Department, 2009). It is a very preliminary study of a topic – broken treaties, land speculation and land theft, dispossession and ethnic cleansing, and the betrayal of the People of Peguis (and many others) – that deserves far greater attention in Manitoba and across the country.