Canadian Historian Defends “burn it all down” as a Metaphor

Canadian Historian Defends “burn it all down” as a Metaphor

by Collin Wynter

On June 30, 2021, Harsha Walia, Executive Director for the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA) came under fire for tweeting “Burn in all down” in response to a Vice News article about the apparent arson attacks on Churches in Canada: 

The Vice News piece was entitled “More Churches Up in Flames in Canada as Outrage Against Catholic Church Grows”. In their report they note that:

In less than two weeks, at least seven churches—all but one Catholic—have been found on fire across Canada. Catholic churches across the country have also been defaced, many strewn in blood red hand and foot prints. Some have had stuffed animals placed near the entrance, while one church in Saskatchewan had the words “we were children” painted across its doors. 

As of July 7, True North has recorded 25 churches having either been razed or vandalized:

This panic came to a breaking point over the weekend, when prominent statues were knocked over and at least 25 churches in Western Canada were either vandalized or completely burnt down. 

Walia made her twitter account private to protect herself from a mix of abuse and critique about her statement. Ezra Levant, founder of Rebel News, still had access to her account and on July 6 reported about a series of tweets that she posted to defend herself. She claimed that she locked her twitter account because of “receiving over 200 trolling messages.” And that she has been reported to the: 

vid, rcmp, csis, cbsa, employer, provincial and federal govt and w/ dozens of calls for me to be charged for ‘terrorism’ and ‘hate crime. [sic] 

She also attempted to persuade her followers that her tweet to “burn it all down” was a metaphor expressing “rage & sadness”.

Iconic Rex Murphy, columnist for the National Post, chimed in with a common sense column questioning:

Does “burn it all down” sound like a reasonable call to action from any group or organization? Anytime? From a civil rights organization, it is immensely discordant. And during an extremely tense and deeply emotional time it is dangerously irresponsible. Many more churches indeed, have burned down since.

Even though Walia is under critique and scrutiny, she also has her supporters. One such organization is the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs (UBCIC). They expressed their support and commendation of Walia for her “leadership.” 

It should be noted that “burn it all down” is not one of the 94 points listed in the Truth and Reconciliation commission.

Sean Carelton, historian at University of Manitoba, editor of Active Historian, as well as editor and columnist at Canadian Dimension, also came to Walia’s defence. His first effort was re-tweeting UBCIC’s previous statement with the claim that he was:

Standing with @harshawalia. Right wing pundits, bootlickers, and anti-Indigenous racists are trying to twist things to shift the conversation away from dismantling the power, privilege and profit, they continue to derive from the colonial status-quo that’s their playbook.

This was not the only tweet supporting Walia. In response to United States “right wing media” (ie: Fox News) weighing in on the matter, Carleton created a series of 16  tweets to explain the “long history of that [emoji fire image] phraseology in struggles for social justice.”

Carleton begins his thread with highlighting the influence of anarchist Mikhail Bakunin, who is referenced in Routeledge encyclopedia of Philosophy as the following:

Bakunin was the leading proponent in the second half of the nineteenth century of a variety of anarchism rooted in a Romantic cult of primitive spontaneity, and one of the principal ideologists of Russian populism.

The next several tweets centre around the Wobblies part of the International Workers of the World (IWW) movement. Carelton notes that the IWW was also a singing organization who sung songs about “arson” metaphorically. While in actuality arson was used against the IWW:

[Arson] was how bosses and hired thugs tried to destroy the Wobblies (e.g. by actually fire bombing their offices) to stamp out the union which sought to fan the “flames of discontent”

He also cites the constitution of the IWW which declares that: 

the goal of all industrial workers should be building “the new society within the shell of the old.” 

Carleton’s expose carries on with a Fox News report claiming that a Black Lives Matter call to “burn down the system” was a twisting of their words. He contrasts that with a piece by Teen Vogue on the Proud Boys group stealing and destroying BLM signs from Churches.

There is no mention in Carleton’s thread about the burning and looting that occurred during BLM protests or from riots involving antifa.

Carleton attempts to finish his historical narrative by using an anthology entitled Burn It Down, that features abolitionist Sojouner Truth and indigenous rights activist Leanne Betasamosake Simpson. The editor of the anthology, Breanne Fahs, argues that: 

we need manifestos in all their urgent rawness- their insistence that we have to act now, that we must face this, that the bleeding edge of rage and defiance ignites new and revolutionary possibilities is where new ideas are born.

Carleton’s coup de grace, though, comes from a song by Nickelback- Burn it to the Ground. A connection perhaps to the misunderstood IWW. However, unlike the IWW song Solidarity Forever, Nickelback sings about getting boozed up and causing a ruckus. 

Overall, Carleton’s attempt to justify an executive director’s poor decision to make a public statement of “burn it to the ground” fails. He claims it was meant to be a metaphor. But when churches continue to burnt after such a statement, it is the duty of the legal system to investigate any perpetrators.

Walia should at the very least be suspended from her position at the BCCLA and investigated to the full extent of the law. As any other citizen of Canada who would- even in poor taste- publicly state something that could be considered incitement to violence. As noted at the beginning of this piece, as of July 7, 25 churches have been targeted with several razed.  

Oh and nobody listens to Nickelback. Not even Nickelback.

Published by Collin Wynter

Exploring rights of our freedom of expression and justice

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