At the Sydenham Street United Church on Thursday night, a large crowd of seniors, young parents and students gathered underneath rainbow yarn that had been strung across the ceiling.
The group was packed into pews for a panel and community discussion on “Trump and the Rise of Authoritarianism,” one of the first activities hosted by the Building Bridges Not Walls Collective.
The atmosphere was familiar, with the hosts referencing many attendees by name. The event opened with a sing-along led by a community member, who encouraged the audience to participate.
Moving along to the panel, the four speakers were David Pugh from the Queen’s Department of Languages, Literatures and Cultures, and Burcu Baba of the Gender Studies Department, as well as two members of the Kingston community.
The key word of the night was fascism, with speakers comparing President Donald Trump’s first weeks in power, and the global turn towards the far right to examples of fascist regimes. Pugh was the first in the series of speakers and opened the night with some historical context.
“These are early days to try and evaluate the Trump administration,” he cautioned, but listed elements of the current situation in the United States that are “reminiscent of the fascism of the 20s and 30s”, such as the volatile mixture of nationalism and populism, the scapegoating of minorities and Trump’s disregard for legality.
Trump’s emphasis that only he could fix America’s problems, Pugh said, echoed the old Italian slogan of “Mussolini is always right.” However, he also made note of key differences between the circumstances of the 1920s to those of today.
Despite the similarities, he argued that Trump’s administration wasn’t likely to develop into what we now imagine as a fascist regime, stating that we shouldn’t expect “concentration camps or mass rallies in the style of Nuremberg.”
The next speaker, Baba, noted that she was forgoing academia in her speech and choosing instead a personal approach. She spoke of her immigration from Turkey in 2008, and how her original plans to return were derailed by the emergence of illiberal democracy in the country.
She began her story with the assassination of Hrant Dink, an Armenian journalist who’d been vocal against the Turkish government in the early 2000s. Baba described Dink as “a uniting force for the people [and] a danger to the system because he had been demanding peace.”
She said that his death and the ensuing half-hearted investigation had been “a breaking point” for her, but spoke admiringly of his funeral, which took place in Istanbul and saw over 200,000 people walking in the streets in mourning.
“Despite the rising authoritarianism,” she said, “there was always resistance, and I found hope in that resistance.” Her story set the tone for the rest of the night, with subsequent speakers veering away from academic positions and instead deciding on an emotional approach.
Following Baba, two more speakers added their thoughts, including Aric McBay, an activist, author and local farmer. The speakers focused on stories of Indigenous resistance and rebellion against fascism.
They included call and response in their talks, with the audience chanting “stand up, fight back.” Both encouraged community members to be active in the “fight against authoritarianism”.
McBay and other speakers praised Indigenous protest movements such as Idle No More, encouraging people to take inspiration from groups “that have been fighting all along.”
“Part of our job in Canada is to keep the attacks on immigrants, women, and Muslims, from becoming normal,” McBay said. “At the same time we must recognize the places where evil has already become normalized, with Canada’s treatment of Indigenous peoples.”
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