We published this article with Pilcrow Magazine to accompany our 53rd episode, “What are Canadian Police Trying to Hide?” 

There is a scene in the Wire where Major Howard “Bunny” Colvin lectures one of his sergeants for not understanding policing. Good policing isn’t about fighting a war, it’s about building relationships with people in the neighbourhood. If you decide to fight a war, Colvin claims, then the people on your beat become the enemy.

“And pretty soon, damn near everybody on every corner is your fucking enemy. And soon, the neighbourhood you’re supposed to be policing, that’s just occupied territory. You follow this?”, he asks the sergeant.”

Major Colvin made me think of Desmond Cole’s harrowing Toronto Lifepiece, where he writes of being baselessly stopped and questioned by police over 50 times. In Toronto, the practice of “carding” — stopping somebody ‘voluntarily’ and taking down their information to put in a secret police database — has disproportionately affected neighbourhoods of colour, even when controlling for crime rates. This is not community policing, this is occupation.

Yet, there is no ‘national conversation’ about policing and incarceration in Canada. Journalists shamefully ignore these issues, and my own reporting experience is a testament to that.

I am a Vancouver-based radio producer and reporter who cares deeply about poverty, health care, and social justice. Like any reporter who fits that description, I often find myself in the Downtown Eastside. There, I have heard numerous stories from drug users, sex workers, and the homeless. These people all have long relationships with the criminal justice system, but I am ashamed to say I have reported very little on it—well, the Canadian criminal justice system, that is. It seems like the problems in the United States are much more profound.

There is a ‘national conversation’ in the United States about the causes of mass incarceration and the disproportionate criminalization of people of colour. On my radio program, Cited, I have played a small role in that conversation by producing numerous documentaries and interviews that wrestle with criminal justice reform. I’ve learned that the ‘super-predators’ scare locked up African American juveniles based on the lie that there was a “demographic bomb” of irredeemable teenage criminals who would ravage America’s streets. I’ve learned that tough sentencing guidelines from the so-called ‘War on Drugs’ criminalized poor African Americans, while caucasians continued to consume illegal drugs at just a high a rate. I’ve learned that ‘three strikes’ laws, which ballooned America’s prison population, were built on a media lie of rampant inner city violence.

Yet, when I examine the statistics, it becomes clear that the Canadian criminal justice system is an even more flagrant perpetrator of racial injustice. According to the latest research, Indigenous adults make up 4% of the Canadian population but 18% of the people in federal custody, and 24% of the people in provincial and territorial custody. In two provinces, Manitoba and Saskatchewan, Indigenous adults make up over 70%of the prison population. This disproportionate incarceration is dramatically higher than African Americans in US prisons. As Maclean’s pointed out, African Americans are incarcerated at 3 times the national rate, whereas Aboriginal Canadians are incarcerated at 10 times the national rate.

You may be tempted to say that Aboriginal Canadians are a special case of a particularly brutalized people, suggesting that these staggering figures have more to do with the colonial past than the current functioning of our criminal justice system. However, the problems have only gotten worse since the final residential school shut its doors. In 1996, the federal government instituted sentencing reforms aimed at reducing the Aboriginal inmate populations. The rates have skyrocketed since those ‘reforms.’

Further, this problem is not limited to Aboriginals, as Desmond Cole’s case makes clear. Black Canadians are imprisoned at three times the national rate. In 1992, Ontario created a commission to investigate systematic racism in their provincial criminal justice system. The commission found that people had a widespread belief that all players in the criminal justice system — from officers, to judges, to prison guards — treat Black Canadians unfairly. Further, in 2000, the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty conducted a surveythat found over two-thirds of black youth reporting being assaulted or threatened by police. Further, in 2002 a Toronto Star investigation uncovered systematic bias in traffic stops and arrest records.

So, why is there no ‘national conversation’ in Canada like in the United States? First, we simply do not have much data. In the 1980s, the federal government ceased collecting law enforcement data related to ethnicity and policing. We know the number of Aboriginals in custody, but that is about it. Scholars are partly to blame. Up until the 1990s, Canadian criminologists were arguing whether knowing detailed crime statistics would only “foster racism.” This is why there have only been a handful of major books related to race and the criminal justice system, while American sociologists and criminologists could fill libraries. Today, Canadian scholars have changed their minds and come to the conclusion that this data is essential. Still, major bodies of scholarship on the issue of race and criminal justice have been slow to form—partly because police forces across the country still refuse to collect or disclose racial statistics.

Second, Canadians simply have not had their problems dramatized in the same way. There has been no TV shows like the Wire to demonstrate the way that Canadian drug laws criminalize the inner-city poor. There have been no ground-breaking books like The New Jim Crow or Netflix documentaries like 13 to connect the legacy colonization to current incarceration rates. I have no answer to this, other than to implore writers (and readers) to take on these stories. CBC’s recent Missing and Murdered podcast demonstrates that Canadians will follow these stories, if journalists decide to produce them.

Finally, I think perhaps the most important impediment to this conversation is our national myth of multiculturalism. Imagine a hypothetical newcomer moving to Canada. They will be told that we are an open, tolerant, and accepting people. Why wouldn’t they believe it? Indeed, research indicates that recent immigrants have the most positive attitude towards the criminal justice system. However, the feelings of recent immigrants quickly sour after living in the country and seeing the truth. As Desmond Cole says in his Toronto Life piece, “it has become a matter of survival in a city where, despite all the talk of harmonious multi-culturalism, I continue to stand out.” The longer racial minorities live in Canada, the more negative they become.

White, middle-class Canadians are suspended in a state analogous to this hopeful newcomer when they just arrive. Like the newcomer, they have fully embraced the national myth of multiculturalism. However, unlike the newcomer, they will never actually face the brutal racism of our criminal justice system. The white, middle-class Canadian will not even investigate it. Instead, they will righteously condemn the United States. ‘Thank goodness we are so tolerant and multicultural here in Canada!’ All the while, this white middle-class Canadian is blind to the very same pattern in this country.

It is time that Canadians finally have a national conversation about racial discrimination and their criminal justice system. The first and most difficult task will be to free ourselves from our fantasies. To again quote Major Colvin, “this is the world we got, people, and it’s about time all of us had the good sense to at least admit that much.”

We published this article with The Tyee to accompany our 48th episode, “How to Buy a Politician” 

A BC Liberal win in Tuesday’s election would mean little hope for significant campaign finance reform, according to Dermod Travis of the nonpartisan watchdog group IntegrityBC.

“They quite like the system as it is, and for obvious reasons,” says Travis. The BC Liberals have raised almost $120 million in donations between 2005 and 2015. In that same time, the NDP raised $42 million.

According to Travis, parties are spending more per capita on B.C.’s provincial election than the Democratic and Republican parties spent in the 2012 U.S. presidential race. “In a way, we’re actually worse than the United States,” he says.

An overwhelming majority of British Columbians believe the current system of unlimited donations has to change. In one poll, 76 per cent of respondents agreed with the statement that the Liberal government is “only interested in helping its political donors and big business.” In another poll by Insights West and the Dogwood Initiative, 86 per cent of respondents said they support bans on corporate and union donations.

Premier Christy Clark has said the BC Liberals would appoint an independent panel to examine campaign financing after the election.

However, Travis says the party is giving the panel four years to report and only plan to enact the recommendations if the legislature votes for them unanimously.

“She’s always very good at hiding the fine print,” Travis says.

F. Leslie Seidle of the Institute for Research on Public Policy has studied the history of campaign finance reform in Canada and the U.S., looking to find when and why governing parties decide to make changes.

In many cases, Seidle says parties have enacted campaign finance reform out of self-interest. For instance, in the face of rising election costs, Pierre Trudeau’s Liberal government set federal contribution and spending limits in 1973.

“The main reason why spending limits were put in was because the political parties were facing the rising cost of TV advertising,” says Seidle.

Following the federal reforms, most provinces followed suit and enacted their own spending and contribution limits.

“Once there were two models in the country, particularly the federal model, I think it’s fair to say it became part of the Canadian political culture,” says Seidle. Just two provinces, B.C. and Saskatchewan, have yet to introduce some limits on political contributions.

Seidle doubts the BC Liberals would see significant reform in their own self-interest. “It seems as though the Liberals have made a calculation that it is in their interest to keep on receiving these large contributions,” he says.

Seidle also notes that major scandals linked to political donations have sometimes forced reforms.

However, the links between big political contributions and special treatment by governments are usually not so obvious. “The term is undue influence, but it’s not always easy to prove,” says Seidle. “You can’t necessarily conclude that A caused B, but if you put A against B, people can draw some dotted lines… In many cases, they are probably right,” he says.

Seidle wonders if BC Liberals donations are already becoming scandalous in the eyes of the public, noting the increased concern over campaign finance this election.

“Scandal is in the eye of the beholder, in a way,” he says. “For some people, they would consider the ongoing funding of the Liberal party to be scandalous.”

Travis tracked 177 donors who account for $55 million of the $120 million the BC Liberals raised between 2005 and 2015 and connected them with government decisions.

“I can link each of them to government supplier payments, government transfers, government grants, government incentives, infrastructure projects in excess of $15 billion,” Travis says.

For instance, Travis says, the Liberals granted Kinder Morgan environmental clearance for its Trans Mountain pipeline after the company donated more than $700,000 to the party. Imperial Metals, another major donor, did not face fines or penalties after the Mount Polley mine disaster.

“It’s gotten so bad that I don’t think they’re ashamed of it any longer,” says Travis.

Seidle is slightly more hopeful than Travis that a BC Liberal win could still mean some changes to contribution rules. However, he says British Columbians should watch any BC Liberal initiatives closely to see if their proposed contribution limits are too high.

If the BC Liberals, or any other party, are serious about significant campaign finance reform, Seidle says it should not be difficult to come up with a system.

“This is not rocket science. They can look at the federal model, and more-or-less copy it. As some of the other provinces have done,” he says.

Note: This is post accompanies episode #45: The End of Civilization Ecovillage

The charitable association Gaia Trust, managed by Danish co-housing activist Hildur Jackson, commissioned American ecological researchers Robert and Dianne Gilman to study 26 different models of intentional communities in order to identify best practices for sustainable living. The Gilmans’ report, written in 1991, coined the term ‘ecovillage,’ defined as a:

human scale full-featured settlement in which human activities are harmlessly integrated into the natural world in a way that is supportive of healthy human development and can be successfully continued into the indefinite future.

They fall under the broader umbrella of intentional communities, or planned communities that typically maintain a common social, political, or religious lifestyle. According to numbers I pulled from the Fellowship of Intentional Communities (FIC) during December 2016, there are 990 intentional communities in the United States, with the highest proportions in California, Oregon, and Washington State. In Canada, 30 of 82 listed intentional communities are in British Columbia. However, it should be noted that these figures are not scrupulously verified or regularly updated. For instance, 3 of the 82 listings are clearly not intentional communities—they are educational or event spaces. Further, 38 of the listings are labelled “forming” or “re-forming.” Of these listings, some have since formed but not updated their listings, while others probably never will form. In sum, these figures should not be considered as precise statistics, but merely as an approximation based on the best attainable data (table 2.1).

Table 2.1 Canada’s intentional communities, according to data I collected and analyzed from the Fellowship for Intentional Communities. *Includes land-shares

Despite the limitations of the available data, certain broad trends can be identified. For instance, as already stated above, a preponderance of these listings are in British Columbia. After further analyzing each of the listings, I roughly categorized them into their ideological commitments (figure #2.2). Cohousing and land-shares are typically little more than cost-sharing arrangements, which is why the majority are categorized as  “unclear/no particular ideology.” Although they include consensus decision-making for important matters, they rarely follow a clear social, political or spiritual lifestyle. Alternatively, communes feature a much tighter commitment. Typically, they are avowedly primitivist (a theory that rejects modern technology), religious (all of the religious communes are Christian) or they follow some form(s) of spiritualism (paganism, shamanism, earth worship, yoga, etc). Ecovillages, although by no means completely uniform, follow a broad framework defined by the Gilmans’ report and key planning principles set out by the Global Ecovillage Network. These data reveal that majority of Canada’s intentional communities with salient political ideologies or spiritual commitments are ecovillages. The figures are likely similar in the United States, though I have not analyzed the 990 listings. Put simply, it is no exaggeration to say that the ecovillages represent the largest and most significant communal utopian movement in North America today.

Table 2.2 Canada’s intentional communities, by ideology, according to data I collected and analyzed from the Fellowship for Intentional Communities.

Note: This is post accompanies episode #45: The End of Civilization Ecovillage


A sketch showing Robert Owen’s ideal utopian community, the “parallelogram.”

Robert Owen, a wealthy textile magnet from Manchester, came to see the deleterious effects of industrialization on his workers. Chris Jennings (2016) charts Owen’s paternalistic efforts to improve their lives, including an experimental textile mill with impressive daycare, education, housing, and something called an “Institute for the Formation of Character.” This mill became a tourist attraction, and made Owen the most popular man in Europe, according to Friedrich Engels. Owen was disillusioned with English politics, and thought the best way to bring about his reforms would be through aggressive propaganda efforts. Owen gave popular speeches and published pamphlets arguing that humanity was inherently good, but corrupted by society. We could have “the emancipation of mankind,” he claimed, as well as wild productivity gains, if people would work in co-operation and mutual aid instead of competition. He said everyone in the world must gather together in small cooperative colonies, or “parallelograms,” that would be founded on perfect equality, education, science, and reason. There would be no private property, no institutionalized religion, and no inequality between the sexes. Jennings says that Owen’s communism is much like the end state of Marxist thought, but without the revolution. Therefore, Marx and Engels ultimately repudiate him. Despite their criticism, Owen was remarkably well-received by other mainstream critics (in Jennings, p. 111). He even delivered a 3-hour address to Congress and to the President, in which his explicit purpose was to convert the United States to socialism. Inspired by the success of America’s Shaker communes, Owen decided to put his ideas into action, traveling to the United States in 1824 to build the first parallelogram, New Harmony. Hundreds of diverse people flocked to New Harmony, including intellectual elite and unskilled labourers (critically though, few skilled labourers and craftspeople). Owen did not have very specific plans for how to manage the community, nor did he do much managing in the first place—he was often out on propaganda tours, inspiring others to build their own parallelograms. Between 1825 and 1826, there were nine other small Owen-inspired communities formed in the United States (126). Back at New Harmony, the enterprise was hemorrhaging cash, only sustaining itself thanks to Owen’s largesse. Once he pulled his support, under financial pressures, New Harmony turned to factionalism and infighting. In 1827, three years after it began, New Harmony disintegrated, and the Owenite movement faded into obscurity (Jennings pp. 134-144).


A sketch showing Charles Fourier’s ideal utopian community, the “phalanx.”

Jennings (2016) continues his history of American utopianism through the story of Charles Fourier, a French merchant who railed against commerce because he thought it debases and corrupts individuals (126). Like Owen, he believed that the solution would be to build co-operative utopian communities, he called them “phalanxes,” which were essentially small cities within a self-contained apartment building. However, Fourier had bizarre prose and fanciful ideas (in one famous footnote, he claims when the polar ice caps melt, the ocean will taste like lemonade), which meant his work did not have the immediate impact of Owen’s. He was popularized by journalist Albert Brisbane, who renamed the ideas “associationism,” and scrubbed them of their more fanciful elements. The core principle of Fourier’s thought, according to Brisbane’s translations, is that labour had to be attractive, and in accordance with the natural passions of individuals. Fourier desired to free human passions; he believed that one’s passions were their destiny, and any attempt to squelch those passions would only lead to ruin. This was a communitarian scheme “grounded entirely upon the vital, spontaneous expressions of the individual” (Jennings, 208). These communities would be decentralized agrarian communes, emphasizing leisurely “work as play,” enabled by a simple lifestyle. Not surprisingly, Marx and Engels ultimately came to view Fourier as “apolitical,” “peculiar” and “ridiculous,” not unlike their criticisms of Owen. Despite these criticisms, Fourier’s ideas became wildly popular. Fourier’s embrace for individual eccentricity (in contrast to Owen’s thorough anti-individualist communism) made him a “middle-road” between Owen and laissez-fair capitalism, according to Jennings (181). After a financial panic in 1837 and a financial crisis in 1839, people flocked to Fourierist phalanxes. By 1845, there were 33 separate phalanxes in the United States. Oved (1988) asserts Fourierism reached an “apex of massive influence that no communal theory in the United States had achieved” (p. 10). However, it quickly receded because most communes failed economically, while the broader economy recovered. Even so, strands of Fourier’s theory would re-emerge in the counter-cultural ‘back-to-the-land’ movement, and the global ecovillage movement.

The Counter-Cultural Communes

Throughout American history, the late 1960s and early 1970s featured the highest degree of communal experimentation. Some estimate that there were at least 2,000 communes in the United States (in Schehr, 1997, p. 45). Communes in the Counter Culture: Origins, Theories, Style of Life by Keith Melville (1972) offers a robust account of the history and ideology of this period in utopian experimentation. Melville charts the co-development and eventual break of two distinct movements in San Francisco between 1964 to 1968: the ‘activist’ Berkeley free speech movement, and the ‘hippie’ movement of Haight-Ashbury. The former, inspired by the civil rights era, emphasized anti-war politics and radical participatory democracy to create systematic change. The latter, inspired by San Francisco’s psychedelics communities and ‘beat generation’ artists, embraced cultural revolution and rejected political revolution (“you tell me it’s the institution/ well, you know/ you better free your mind instead,” sang John Lennon, directly targeting British radicals of the ‘old left’). The activists derided hippies for being indulgent, disorganized, and apolitical; the hippies responded by saying “don’t fight the revolution on the Establishment’s terms” (i.e. political organizing, protesting, voting, etc.), because “politics isn’t something you do, it’s something you are” (p. 62-69). Their central contention was that oppressive cultural norms (i.e. sexism, consumerism, anthropocentrism, the Protestant work ethic, etc.), would not be altered through political changes—a cultural revolution was necessary. Further, they were disaffected by the ‘old left’ politics of the activists, which seemed to collapse the individual into amorphous forces like history or social class. “The communal strategy,” writes Melville, “is a reaction against a theory of revolution that deals in political and economic categories that bear no relationship to everyday life” (78). By the mid 1960s, the movements had completely split, with the hippies abandoning the anti-war movement and migrating to drug colonies (pp. 52-78).

However, LSD was declared illegal in 1966. Authorities disintegrated the hippie movement through a series of raids and high-profile arrests. Nonetheless, Melville (1972) suggests that this period (however brief) imprinted young radicals with two lasting impressions: the state and its culture stifles, but communal living expands possibilities. Therefore, after rejecting the ‘old left’ politics, the hippies “only remaining alternative [was] to begin society in a microcosm” (p. 80). The first high-profile attempt was in 1968, when Ray Mungo (a radical student leader) ‘dropped out’ to a rural farm in Vermont:

The word Vermont popped into our heads almost simultaneously. Vermont! Don’t you see, a farm in Vermont! A free agrarian communal nineteenth-century wide-open healthy clean farm in green lofty mountains! A place to get together again, free of the poisonous vibrations of Washington and the useless gadgetry of urban stinking boogerin’ America. (in Melville, p. 81)

Then, in 1970, he authored the influential Famous Long Ago, which Melville (1972) labels the closest thing to a “manifesto for this communal strategy:”

Here’s a lesson I honestly believe I learned in my lifetime: ideals cannot be institutionalized. You cannot put your ideals into practice, so to speak, in any way more “ambitious” that through your own private life (in Melville, p. 81).

The global ecovillage movement sees this back-to-the-land movement as an early predecessor.


Jennings, Chris. Paradise Now: The Story of American Utopianism. New York: Random House (2016).

Melville, K. (1972). Communes in the counter culture; origins, theories, styles of life. New York: Morrow.

Mungo, R. (2012). Famous Long Ago: My Life and Hard Times with Liberation News Service. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press.

Oved, Y. (1988). Two hundred years of American communes. New Brunswick, N.J., U.S.A: Transaction Books.

Schehr, R. C. (1997). Dynamic utopia: establishing intentional communities as a new social movement. Westport, Conn: Bergin & Garvey.