Harsha Walia: On the Principles of DIY Activism

Interview by 
Helen Polychronakos
Harsha Walia

Originally published in Room Issue 38.3 (September 2015) 

If you’re involved in social justice movements in Vancouver, unceded Coast Salish Territories, you can probably conjure an image of Harsha Walia holding a megaphone or waving a banner. Her repertoire is wide-ranging: she organizes with the Annual Women’s Memorial March Committee, protests against pipelines, advocates for Palestine, and stands in solidarity with Indigenous struggles. Trained as a lawyer, Walia also co-founded No One Is Illegal (NOII), a group that supports migrants facing detention, deportation, and other human rights abuses in Canada.

In Undoing Border Imperialism, she writes about the brutality of borders and laws that consider some humans “illegal.” Though Walia’s name is on the cover, the book is multi-authored. Her theoretical chapters and instructions for DIY activism are interspersed with poems, stories, and testimonials by people who have lived the turbulent and often violent experience of transnational migration. A round-table discussion showcases the perspectives of NOII organizers from across the country. This decentralization of authorship echoes Walia’s politics. Anti-capitalism, anti-colonialism, and anti-patriarchy structure her principles.

Where does your passion for social justice come from?

I grew up in India. I grew up very much absorbed in the cultural narratives and the political narratives of the political struggle for formal independence for India. I’m very much a product of the time when there was a lot of pride in talking about struggles for freedom, and there was a lot of pride in resistance. My grandfather was involved in the struggle for freedom. I mean, everyone was. He was involved in transporting people across the border of what became India and Pakistan. The partition of India and Pakistan was very violent. It led to millions and millions of deaths and displacements of people. Even after formal independence and post-partition, he helped transport people across safely. That’s definitely informed my understanding of borders. South Asia has a legacy of colonially imposed borders or partitions.

That goes a long way to explaining your understanding of colonialism and borders. You’re also involved with the Downtown Eastside Women’s Centre, and you advocate for Palestine. How do these different issues come together for you?

The different issues are deeply connected because we live in a system that I think is underwritten by three main forces, both locally and globally. One is capitalism. The second is colonialism and imperialism, which is the really racist ideology that subordinates Indigenous communities and communities of colour. And the third is different systems of oppression. Whether it’s patriarchy, or hetero-patriarchy, or trans misogyny, or ableism, these systems of oppression allow some to access privilege over others. These three forces are not separate. What’s happening in Palestine is a form of colonialism. This is a system that’s connected to  what’s happening in [Vancouver’s] Downtown Eastside, home to an impoverished community, disproportionately Indigenous—particularly Indigenous women who have been displaced from land, women who are subjected to colonial violence, to gendered violence, and are forced into street economies. There’s more Indigenous children in the child welfare system than there ever were in residential schools, so that legacy is ongoing.

What is the most pressing issue for migrants in Canada today?

I think the main issue for people with various degrees of precarious status is the lack of permanent status. We have had a range of laws in the past four or five years that have created a deliberate system of permanent temporariness—whether one is a temporary worker, whether one is a grandparent, whether one is a spouse, whether one is a child, whether one is a worker. We have created a system where migrants have been denied full, permanent legal status—and everything that comes with that: the right to unionize, the right to access social assistance and pensions, the right to access health care, education, EI. People say that migrants drain the public purse when actually, for example, migrant farm workers pay EI, but can’t actually access EI. So they are actually subsidizing the system for Canadians. Even undocumented people pay taxes—I mean, everyone pays sales taxes on things they purchase in a store.

Do you think that things have gotten worse under the Stephen Harper government?

Yes. I mean, they have definitely gotten worse under the current government, but it is important to note that the temporary foreign worker program pre-dates Stephen Harper. The Stephen Harper government has expedited the model of managed migration. This is a model and a system where people’s status is not stable. Stephen Harper has made status temporary for parents who are sponsored. They come on a “Super Visa” and don’t have full status. Spouses who come to Canada have to come on a conditional sponsorship. That makes women very vulnerable. So women are essentially being forced to stay in potentially abusive relationships just to access status, because their status is contingent on their partner for at least two years. 

The mainstream media keeps quoting people who believe that migrant workers take jobs away from Canadians. How could we engage in a more productive discussion of migrant workers?

One thing is clear: temporary foreign workers, migrant workers, are being exploited. They don’t have full legal status so if they try to leave their employer or unionize or file a legal complaint, they are at risk of deportation. It’s a legal program of indentured servitude.

Instead of a response calling for full legal status for migrant workers so that they are no longer vulnerable, the outcry has generally been about loss of Canadian jobs. This is reminiscent of the days of the China Town riots in this city, when the Knights of Labour were claiming that Chinese workers were stealing white workers’ jobs and that Chinese workers were undercutting white wages because employers were paying Chinese workers less. We may not have that same kind of overtly racist rhetoric right now, and we may not have race riots, but it’s the same underlying logic.

There are two productive responses that Canadian workers and Canadian unions could have. The first is to not scapegoat migrant workers. Migrant workers are not the ones that are responsible for undercutting wages or for unemployment—it’s the system of austerity and neo-liberalism. We have a system that’s putting more money into police and prisons and military and bailing out banks and corporations, rather than ensuring that people have steady jobs, and good decent healthcare and education and childcare and living wages. Labour unions need to hold the state and capitalism responsible, not migrant workers.

The second response is to call for full labour rights and full residency rights and full status for migrant workers. Once they have permanent residency, they’ll have to get paid the same wages as other workers. Lifting up the wage floor for everybody is the response.

How is No One Is Illegal different from NGOs and charities?

NOII is a social movement. NOII and social movements in general are different than NGOs and charities primarily because they are organized around a different set of principles. In a charity, for example, there’s not a relationship of horizontality. Charity is based on this model of the idea that some people are less fortunate, and some are more fortunate, and that that is somehow natural. Charity is fundamentally about maintaining those systems of power that are hierarchical. The idea is that wealth will trickle down, from the rich down to the poor, rather than fundamentally transforming the social conditions that create such disproportionate inequalities of wealth and social power. So for me that’s a big difference. Charities maintain the status quo. 

NGOs are slightly different. Most NGOs have an awareness of the need for political and social transformation. And NGOs understand root causes: that poverty is not inevitable, oppression is not inevitable, that these are man-made systems that can and should be transformed. But NGOs do often become bureaucracies. Not all NGOS, but structurally NGOs are not very fluid. For example, if you want to work with a NGO, unless you have a job there, you have to volunteer. You’re not necessarily involved in the decision-making process of the NGO. You’re not necessarily empowered to change the organization. 

Social movements are different. Not to romanticize them, but in principle they’re structured in such a way that every participant in a social movement has some level of empowerment and control over how the social movement will come to fruition. And I think this is critical, because the amount of agency and the amount of control each of us feels in our own lives, and the amount of agency and control we feel in social movements usually determines our commitment.

As you’ve suggested yourself, that’s a beautiful vision, but sometimes it can be idealistic. The social movement of Occupy, for example, was structured around the same principles, as a non-hierarchical organization. But critics suggested it was unfocused, and asked: What are your goals? Who are your leaders? How do you respond to such criticism?

For me the challenge with movements like Occupy was, I would suggest, different. It didn’t incorporate an analysis of oppression. So for me, some of the failure was this idea that all voices are equal. But with an analysis of colonialism, capitalism, and systems of oppression, we understand that we are supposed to elevate some voices above others because those have been voices that have been traditionally marginalized. If we don’t do that, then we reproduce power. And in Occupy we saw some of the dominance of cis white middle-class men reproducing power. There were a lot of incidents of racism and sexism in the Occupy movement. So for me, social movements are non-hierarchical, but that doesn’t mean that we don’t strive to lift up certain forms of leadership. To me those are not contradictory. Facilitating leadership means that we are creating conditions of equality, because if we presume equality, the same kinds of hierarchies that exist in society will be reproduced. So in order to actively work against patriarchy, you can’t just presume equality, you actually have to lift certain voices up.

The criticism of not having leaders? I actually don’t feel that a movement needs to have leaders. For me, there’s a difference between leaders and leadership. Every person in a social movement exhibits different forms of leadership. Traditionally we still see leaders that fit certain archetypes: really charming public personas. Leadership is different. Leadership is built on fostering the different skill sets that every individual brings. There’s a lot of leadership that goes into facilitation and the emotional labour that sustains a movement. Social movements would be nothing without the gendered labour of women to build the community that fosters social movement. When people feel their voice is valued, that is an inherent form of leadership. I believe in group-centred leadership. 

I can see that in the way you structure the book. You intersperse the theory and the “activism toolkit” with voices of people who’ve experienced border imperialism. What was your intention in putting those stories and poems in there?

I wanted to be very intentional about not reproducing this idea of an individual being associated with a movement. One of the ways I wanted to do that was to include a multiplicity of voices to make it clear that this book was about and in the service of social movements. Often times, writers become celebrity-status people, and we know that writers draw on their communities. None of us exists in isolation.

In the book, you say that borders are illegal, and that they are actually acts of violence. Can you explain that?

One of the most obvious examples is of course the Mexico-U.S. border, where thousands of people are dying. Thousands of people are dying at the Israeli apartheid wall in occupied Palestine. Anywhere that there are militarized borders, people are dying. But borders act as zones of inclusion and exclusion in other ways as well. When migrants come as indentured labourers, they are made vulnerable, and then they die at work sites. Women who come as live-in caregivers or to do domestic labour, seventy percent of them report rape. That’s horrific. And that’s state sanctioned. Borders are a creation of the state, but also of capital: people come as commodities, rather than as human beings.

In Undoing Border Imperialism, you stress an Indigenous-centred point of view. How are Indigenous voices represented within NOII?

NOII is primarily a migrant justice group of people who identify as coming from an immigrant background. We see ourselves as allies to Indigenous sovereignty struggles. We can’t have an immigrant rights movement without having a deep awareness and action in alignment with struggles against colonialism. This entire society and the entire state structure that we live in, Canada, is illegal. We try to make these links about how these struggles are connected, and also not only that they are connected but beyond that, that we as immigrants, we’ve come to reside on these lands. We need to understand our responsibility to Indigenous people, to our host nations, to Indigenous lands and ways of life.

Can you give me an example of how NOII builds that alliance with Indigenous people here?

One of the things that we try to do is build relationships with a lot of different communities. For us, a priority is to build long-term relationships, not just ones that come and go as communities are in crisis. One of the things we try to prioritize is long-term, sustained relationships with a number of communities. The one thing that’s simple but not done enough is translating—so when Indigenous communities write a statement about why they might be blockading, or leading a struggle against a pipeline, we try to translate those statements into non-English languages.

You’ve been criticized for your refusal to condemn the use of violent tactics in social movements. How do you respond to that?

I believe in the idea of the diversity of tactics, which is that in different moments, different tactics are productive and effective. For me, I don’t subscribe to certain tactics always being good or always being bad. It depends on the strategy and it depends on the goal. In certain moments, it could be a peaceful sit-in. At other moments, it might be some kind of creative intervention. And in other moments, the tactic looks like what might be deemed more “violent” or more militant forms of direct action. This is not an uncommon principle when we look at people who live under conditions of oppression. You know, Palestinians who throw rocks at Israeli tanks are deemed violent—but we need to look at it within the context and scale of the occupation. For me, there are two main principles. Number one is that oppressed people determine what kinds of tactics they want to use because they are the ones living and leading the struggle. The second principle is that we have a range of tactics at our disposal, and at different moments it’ll be different tactics and they should be judged in context rather than abstractly. 

Aren’t there forms of violence that are just too much, where you would draw the line?

I think those kinds of questions . . . I don’t really answer them. I’m sure there are. But it depends on the context. It depends on whose struggle it is. I’m not going to tell a Palestinian whether it’s right or wrong for them to kidnap an Israeli soldier.

Neo-liberal ideology, which is at the root of many of the problems we’ve discussed, seems entrenched in societies around the world. How can we be hopeful that change will come?

Neo-liberalism is entrenched around the world, but at the same time there are parts of the world where neo-liberalism hasn’t yet taken ahold. We see this in communities that continue to live on the land, that continue to live traditionally. India has a growing economy, but at the same time forty percent of India continues to live in forests and in farming and peasant communities. In B.C., there is the Unis’tot’en clan. They are living on their land in the pathways of seven different pipelines. They are fighting the fossil fuel industry, they are fighting resource extraction, and they are also simultaneously in the midst of a cultural resurgence. They are just one example of so many different communities around the world that are doing that. I think those communities give us hope when it seems impossible to get out of this lifestyle that we are so used to—the neo-liberal one, the urban one, the consumer one. A lot of them are led by women and elders, so when I look at these examples, I am hugely hopeful.


Helen Polychronakos is the editor of issue 38.3 and a former member of the Room editorial collective. She co-facilitates a creative writing workshop at the Drug Users’ Resource Centre in Vancouver’s Downtown East Side. Her poetry, prose, and non-fiction have appeared in JoylandThe Tyeerabble.caPlenitudeFilling Station, and others. Originally from Montreal, Helen spent several years travelling, working, volunteering, and writing in Japan and Thailand before making Vancouver her home. @HelenEleni

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