Colin Hall Interview Transcript

Oct. 18, 2000
Colin Hall
Suite #2 Ė 328 24th  Ave. SW
Calgary, Alberta T2S 0K2
403-245-2850
E-mail  panic@tao.ca
 

Dave Beckwith:
So, the questions that we start off with are like, so what is it that you do and how did you get started?

Colin Hall:
All right. Right now I'm sort of hung up between two organizations that are falling apart, and  one of those is the communist party of Canada. I've been a member of them for about 5 years now. We had a club in Regina that was not particularly active but really close, and just you know, we didn't really organize too much but we got to get together and talked about being communists. Since I moved to Calgary it was really a big change because the club was really active they did a lot of public events, you know, organized public lectures, stuff like that. In the last couple of months our organizer just quit the party on us. And so, things have kind of been falling apart and we're just sort of handling that transition now between whether we're all going to go off into different organizations, or whether somebody is going to step up and be that organizer now. I don't want to, maybe with a different organization I think I might, but I don't have much invested in the communist party, it's not like I have a lot of sort of CPC pride or anything like that. The other organization I work with is in a very similar state. It's called the direct action solidarity network, DASN. And what we used to do was publish newspapers called the student activist. The idea was for each campus in Canada to have their own newspaper. There was you know, most of them have a left leaning, or at least private media like alternative press. What we're trying to do is get a campus paper across Canada that would be radical and sort of a link, because we came from this student movement, kind of romantically back in the late 90's that was in Canada quite strong, and very active but very separate. I think a lot of it was sort of the geography of Canada. Everyone is so spread out, so what we're trying to do with the paper is just bring everyone together and just get the thing going that way. So, we had a couple of setbacks and a lawsuit that went bad and all sorts of bad things happened. And now we're just sort of getting it back together and doing some phone conferences and trying to gather up some shreds.

DASN was a national organization?

Yah. So, other than that, this summer I was active in organizing for the world petroleum congress, Keith probably told you quite a bit about that.

Well tell me some more about it.

The organizing for that was really interesting because there was about, I would say 5 or 6 major organizations that were all organizing for the same thing and all doing it in completely different ways and really wanting to integrate their different struggles and their different methods, and objectives that they had, but it didn't really ever come together just solidly. The organization I did most of the work with, I forget what the name of it was now, the end of oil coalition, maybe, and that was pretty much just organizing for one day, just one direct action day. That was about the extent of it, and it went well, it was fun, there was a huge police presence so we weren't able to accomplish much in the way of sort of shutting things down,

You went left and they were already there, you went right and they were already there.

Oh, yah. Well, but we showed up it was like six o'clock in the morning and we all showed up to start this march, and there was more cops than there was activists by far, they had us well outnumbered. I think largely because they were so scared. There was such media madness around it, they were so scared that we were going to slap on, you know, black bandannas and go out and smash them, that they basically gave us an escort around the city as we did little street theater things here and there and stopped at different oil companies and did a little guerrilla gardening, all sorts of little fun good natured stuff. The cops pretty much just stuck around and hung around with us, you know?

What's guerrilla gardening?

If there's a public garden with a tree or something like that, you go up and plant a row of vegetables.

Good.

Yah. So that's sort of been the last little while. The past couple months, and even beyond that, I sort of lowered my activities considerably, no, probably the fall of 99 or around that time. I was working at the student union in Regina as a hired organizer there, it was a paid position and it was nice and I got a lot of work done, but I found that, more often than not what was happening was I was making people really angry. That wasn't you know, my intention at all, but in trying to take an organization like a bureaucracy, like a student union, and turn that into a tool for organizing and incentive for change on campus, I was having to sort of move around a lot of obstacles. Those obstacles were people and people got really pissed off and it just got all around really bad so I started thinking, you know, there's gotta be a better way to do this. At the time I was taking a lot of Buddhism and religion classes, and got a minor in religious studies, and so I started just exploring that. I'm training to be a yoga teacher right now. I want to do two things, I want to bring yoga down to people who can't afford it, because it's really needed right now, really expensive, and it's mostly for business people and executives. I'd like to make it available to people, you know, if I can do yoga classes in shelters or you know, out at the Sarcee Reserve, just south of the city here. I'd also like to bring it to the African community. You know, one of the sort of revelations I had working with the student union was that you can have really good intentions and be working really hard toward a goal, but your action isn't coming from just acting purely out of compassion, you have different things going on in your mind, you're making people angry pretty much, is what you end up doing, and creating more division than there even was to begin with. And the idea is that the bridge goes down, you know, brings people together. The activism that I would see in the circles that I was in, it was just the opposite, it was building up more walls and alienating ourselves even more so than we were before you know. So yoga and meditation, hit the people. A little bit, I was talking with a friend the other day and saying you know, I think for the work that we're trying to do, you would have more luck as a priest than as a communist, you know? Because you've really got to get to people's hearts, you've really got to get people to change the way they experience the world and it's nice when it does happen but it is pretty rare that that happens from reading a book or a pamphlet or a newspaper or hearing a talk or something like that. It does happen, but it's pretty rare. A lot more likely that people can have this experience in interconnection with the world and with other people, with other classes and races and animals, have that experience and do it through meditation and through yoga.

So there are 2 organizations that you're attached with. Neither one of them is really going in that direction.

The communist party is certainly not, certainly. And they won't. That's why I'm not really too willing to invest much energy in them. The direct action solidarity network has a lot more potential for it, people are just younger, more open minded and just willing to give it a chance. It's a whole group of people who have already come to the conclusion that they don't know how to do what they want to do. That 's the point of real organization, getting together, you know, basically do what you're doing right now. Gather information from different places and compile it so that we can all have a look at it. You know? So that's one of the influences I want to bring to that organization, we were joking on this phone conference the other day that my position with DASN now is as a Spiritual Guide! This was a joke, but,

Monsignor.

I don't think I want to be the monsignor.

Okay! So how did you get involved in the what was it, the CP, clubs or...

Initially, indirectly through the communist party. It was through sociology classes I took at university, started reading up on Marxism, and

That was in Regina?

Yah, U of R. I think what did it for me was getting to a point where I felt like I had a really good understanding of why things were so bad and what a few of the steps we could make things better. Just way too many nights sitting down and telling people about it, and talking about it and I felt like you know, okay, there has to be something more here. So me and my friends formed an organization called the Students International. It was pretty much, pretty well a discussion group, but we did a pro-choice rally and you know, it was really just sort of testing the waters in what we could do and what we could get away with and  really that's my experience. I think that was you know, 96 and 97. So it hasn't really been that long, I'm just sort of you know, finding my way in this stuff right now.

And from that you got involved in the world trade stuff?

Yes. Yah, well that, I think that just comes sort of naturally with the territory, you know, with the student activist newspaper, part of what we're trying to do is bring communities together and so when we hear of big protests going on that's a huge part of the program.

So, let me get the steps right, you were working at the student union in Regina, then you came here and got involved with sort of a local group here, or?

No, actually, one of the reasons I got into so much trouble at the student union was I was using student union money to fund the student newspaper.

Well, it was a good idea, right?

I thought it was a great idea, and you know, it's like an extra campus paper, what could be so bad about that, but, obviously there's people that thought the money could be used for better things. I don't know what better things they had in mind, but. So, for me it was this really young and naïve this international group where I wanted international proletarian revolution. That was the goal for me.

I'll drink to that!

Yup. From there I went to the student activist newspaper just as a coordinator, and from there to the student union, from the student union to the communist party, from the communist party, now to that sort of interzone, looking for that, I don't know whether it's going to be the direct action solidarity network or another organization or just as a free lance, you know, yogic floating shit disturber. We'll see.

So that's sort of what do you do and why do you do it. Any more to add to those questions?

Sort of why do I do it, I don't know, I'm worried, you know. A big part of it is worry. I want to have a family at some point and you know, I just, I worry. I worry about what things are going to be like in 20 years. This is sort of the first generation that has come up for quite a long time that's had it worse than the generation before, and I just whether wonder the next generation is going to be worse yet. So yah, I worry about the future, and a big part of it for me, too, is I, h yah, I just get kind of sad because there's so much suffering you know, everywhere. I surround myself with people who see it so it doesn't, I don't get angry, but, you just walk downtown and it's everywhere, homeless people, people you know, throwing garbage away, huge SUV's rolling down downtown and people eating half a burger and throwing it away, like that, it's just, there's a lot of wreckage and a lot of suffering. I just feel like, you know, I'm privileged, I got it really easy, I got a clean house and I got a great partner, great family, all sorts of support, great mother-in-law, and for me just to sit back and enjoy it would be really selfish, really ignorant of me. So, I feel like I'm almost indebted, I was given this, all this that I have as, you know, it's almost like a trade off, here you go, take this, you know, what are you going to do with it.

Well, of all the people who understand that the world doesn't work right, only some see that they need to do something about it. That is sort of an interesting question for me, asking organizers why, what gave you the crazy idea that it should be changed?

Well, I mean, history gives a few examples that you can, you can step up and you can make a change. It's happened a lot before and it's happened in a lot of different ways, so take your pick. And so that for me was a big factor.  I just, I think it's important not to sort of draw a line between those who do and those who do not because this changes so fast, you know. Five years ago I just, honestly, I just wanted to play basketball and drink beer. That was it.

A lot of that going on.

Yah. All I wanted. And then one year later, I want a revolution. I don't know how, I have a rough idea of how it happened, but it just happened, and I could walk down the street and say how could you, with all this privilege how could you not do something? That's not going to help them to do anything, there are better ways of setting an example.

In terms of what you do, who you are working with, whoís your network?

Historically I see myself sort of working with, I'm not sure who! Peace workers, you know, mostly American activists, you know like I hear stuff like you turn to out of this field, an affinity for that style of organizing, and you know, I also feel a really strong affinity for people like Lenin, I feel him a really inspiring character in history. The people who are alive today, they're, they jump out at me at every turn. You know, a really drunk homeless fellow last year around here for a bit, he's always drunk every time we talk he starts to cry. But we're doing this world petroleum congress and he happened to be staggering around where we marched and he saw us marching and he turned around at attention with his fist up in the air and started screaming about revolution and I feel, I feel like I'm with him. You know? Labor organizations, I really feel an affinity for the union movement. It has its problems for sure.

Who are the activists that you work with?

The Canadian Union of Postal Workers, CUPW I've worked with quite a bit, the postal workers union here in Canada, I love them. Back in Saskatchewan there's a union called the RWDSU, a fairly small union, the retail, wholesale, and department store union. I was a member of that for about five years, had such a tiny budget, but they caused more trouble than almost any other union I've ever come across, it was fantastic.  I think that's, in terms of my personal experience those are the ones that I've worked with and those are the ones that I can personally vouch for.

Part of it is just to figure out, you know, what the links are, the directions that work and that kind of with WTO and direct action groups. Do you connect with any of those? Do they seem helpful?

You know what, not particularly. Most of the links that I saw happening, most of the people who I was really feeling solidarity with, in particular with the world petroleum congress were really student activists, that was about it.

In terms of organizing into a group, what have they done, what is it that you're supposed to be a part of? Itís not a mass based organization, what are people in?

Well in Saskatchewan, the Saskatchewan federation of labor is a pretty good place to be. And they push things. The Alberta federation of labor is also strong but then you know, the union here in Alberta has taken many many hits over the head. It hasn't been historically strong. Well, a fantastic question. Where do people go, yah. Community organizations, you know.

Like what?

Well, we have the Mission Community Organization here. And they're not a radical organization by any stretch. But there are pretty regular meetings about zoning laws that are happening here, whether or not we're going to tear down houses like this to put up condos, stuff like that. And it's important work. I don't think it's revolutionary.

And the Mission is the neighborhood we're in?

Yah, that's the one we're in.

And does the Mission Community Organization have staff for organizing, or is it a volunteer neighborhood association?

To be honest, haven't had anything to do with them. It's a problem in Calgary. Even if people should get the inkling that they want to get involved or that they want to do something there isn't really a place to go. There is a place called the Arusha Center and they have a barter network that they run, to set up an alternative economy and they trade you know, poetry for getting someone to mow your lawn and,

That's great.

Yah, it's good. So there's that in Calgary but other than that, do you know of any?

Sarah Garden, Colinís partner: I don't know, when I asked student activists, there's very little. There's a group from the World Petroleum Congress but they're breaking up because they don't want to admit new members.

Dave: They don't want to.

Sarah: I kind of shook my head and wandered away. Now there's not a whole lot.

Dave: In terms of the network and connections and who is doing what, what do you think it would take to increase organizing in Canada, in Alberta, in Calgary, whatever slice of organizing we're looking at.

Colin: Friendliness would go a long long way. If people would stop being so concerned about being cool and you know, it would do wonders.

A little humility goes a long way.

Yah. Don't worry about whether people don't dress in the standard activist way. It would be fantastic because I think what we were talking about earlier was just that, if people don't look like an activist, or in they don't have the right lingo and they don't have all the right, what do you call those, acronyms? Is that what it is, WTO, and those kinds, cause if they don't know the acronyms, you know, they're not worth the time, you know, itís just another trendy wannabe kind of thing. And a lot of that goes on and a lot of it scares people away and for good reason. I wouldn't want to be part of an organization that discriminates based on the way people dress.

Itís a sort of disdain for people who aren't perfect.

Sure. And working people, too. For the most part. You know, this is something I see a lot of in the left. I'm a socialist and I don't hold it against people if they're not but it's something I see a lot for in anarchist circles is they have disdain for people who work and for them work is important and not just something that they do to get by, but it's actually part of their lives. A lot of anarchists really look down on that.

And that can be deadly.

Oh, in a big way. Because thatís the vast majority of people who really need to be integrated into a movement.

That sense of connection is just missing.

For me, it comes down to friendliness honestly. You know what friendliness is, it's just openness, that's all. You know?

One of the questions I've been asking people is not only what do you do and why do you do it, but what sustains you, what keeps you going?

I feel like I don't have a community in Calgary. The community that I do work with is scattered throughout Canada and the connect that I have with them is over e-mail and telephone. That was the thing, if I continue working with the communist party that would be why, is just to have a group of communists together to have a beer. It's a great thing, you know, just to sort of share that experience and be together with one another, it's wonderful. So I think for me that's a big thing, you know. I've always believed in a mass based national organization, I always again and again just hammered people, solidarity is about being friendly to people. That's what it's about. And if we're not friends with one another, what kind of solidarity are we showing? I don't want to be with co-workers, that's not the idea, I want to be with comrades.

More depth to the relationship.

Yah, because that's what keeps people in the movement, that's what sustains them, it's friends. They don't want to leave the movement because they don't want to leave the friends. Especially that time after a big action, they feel like they want to do something different. You know, I've got friends right now who are experimenting with the NDP, I don't know if you're up on the Canadian politics, but

I recognize the initials.

They were at one time a social democratic organization, a lot of labor support and people have tried particularly in Saskatchewan, again and again to make them a revolutionary organization, make it a labor party, and they've tried so hard and it always fails, always. And all the great old time activists in Saskatchewan, they are all actually NDP'ers. They are all people who poured their life into trying to make that thing work. And they realized it couldn't. So, I look at it in two ways, one it's kind of disrespectful to the anarchist community. In another way, people just have to fight it out, they've got to have that experience, that burn out for themselves.

I see speculation of a new labor party. Are there people that are involved in it here, or?

No, not in Saskatchewan there's the New Green Alliance, which I tried to convince them to name the Red Green alliance. Because what it is is old labor, all burnt out. I also thought of giving it the name The Watermelon Party, they're green on the outside and pink on the inside. They sort of have connections with the green party, but they're also labor based and they do fairly well, there are some ridings where they got over 1000 votes in Regina. So the possibility is definitely there. I mean, even people, I always use my parents as a sort of watermark to guage where things are at.

They live in Regina?

Yah, the south side of Regina. And if my parents will sort of give something some thought then it's probably within reason for the average working community. A new labor party is definitely something hat my parents would look at.

Really? Are they activists at all?

No, not even close.

What do they think of you then?

At first they thought it was funny. They kind of got a kick out of it. And now I think they have an increasing amount of respect for it. They understand what it's based in, it's this balance between wisdom and compassion that I'm trying to develop right now. And both of them, it's funny, it was through Christianity that I was able to talk to them, meet them in Christian terms, that they were able to actually understand.

Would you call yourself hopeful?

Oh, yah. Definitely.

Why?

I was a chump. I was really selfish, wrathful for a lot of years. Disrespect for women, you know, just didn't really care about anything. And almost over night I had a big change in my life and it continued on steadily and I just see myself as sort of, I'm a work in progress. I just keep on chipping way at all this stuff that I got put into my head at a young age and I'm winning! And so, I don't' really try to separate what's happening inside my head with what's happening in the world, the same process. So, we are winning, it's slow, for sure. But if you look down close, if you really talk to people it's definitely changing. I think the average person has certainly come around, you know?

What are some of the events that you feel as a win, or as a success or as the magic moments when it worked, what are they?

Examples. A few years back we had a conference for the direct action solidarity network. I was in Montreal and we gathered over two hundred people and we did it with absolutely zero resources, just had no money whatsoever. We managed to get two hundred people from all across Canada to Montreal and had a 3 day conference where we shared workshops, brought in speakers, had bands and everyone left that thing totally changed and with that feeling like yah we can, we don't need a big bank roll to do this. So for me that was a big one. I don't know why I'm so hopeful when I'm challenged to come up with victories!

That's all right. It really is as much a way of acting on the story. And putting up a conference with no money is pretty great!

Yah, it was great!

So, one of the things before the kids come in and throw off our whole program here, as I collect stories and this will be transcribed and put up on the website, I hope we'll begin to have a conversation among the people that are organizing. Weíll meet in June at Concordia in Montreal,

That's where our conference was, it was at the Concordia campus.

Well the Institute in Management and Community Development is there. We're going to get all the people in the community to be part of it. Then, after Canada, my family is going to go to Australia and meet with activists and organizers there and in a lot of different ways, I'll explain in a minute, we're going to connect with organizers in the States. So, in some ways this is a dialogue or a conversation among organizers. So, in that spirit, do you have questions to pose or observations for the others?

Hm. Yah, I do have a couple questions. You know, if I had a chance to meet activists from around the world in my living room, what would I say? I would probably ask that people really just start to appreciate where we are right now rather than thinking about the future or the past so much. In Buddhism and yoga it's called mindfulness and what it means is, you know, you're not judging that this is something I like and this is something I don't like, you know picking stuff apart. But just to start to have an awareness of things as they are now, happening all around us and we make decisions in each of these little movements that are incredible, and it's hard for us to sort of comprehend on a moment by moment basis. I would just ask that activists start to bring a little bit of that spirit back. Also I mean I think for me, I mentioned wisdom and compassion, those are my two guiding principles, and you know, wisdom is understanding the problem and understanding possible solutions for it. That falls into strategy and tactics, that kind of stuff. And the activist movement right now is pretty strong in terms of its wisdom. There's been a lot passed down through the ages. But in terms of compassion, I think we need to start having more compassion for ourselves and certainly treat ourselves well. A great friend of mine in Montreal, you may come across his name, his name is Tom Keefer. He works at Concordia, a fantastic activist. I mean, he's one of those people that's a machine and he's been such an inspiration to so many people, but he's so unbalanced. He can't type anymore because he's got repetitive motion stress, arthritis in his fingers. And you know, once his fingers go, something else is going to go on him. I see a lot of activists doing that to themselves. This has got to be for life. We've got to find a way to integrate our activism into our daily lives and make it sustainable. So that's sort of one thing, people have to sustain to work in the movement. So, don't worry about, you know, it's great to say that the revolution is in you, and to think that way and work that way, but you know, what if it isn't. You know, work in the present moment really think about it in terms of having compassion for yourselves. People think of it all the time in terms of non-violence but I think they do a tremendous amount of violence to themselves.