Victoria: Anarchist book fair gaining momentum, organizers say

Times Colonist. Sept 2:

Thanks to the mindcorroding influence of the Sex Pistols, the word “anarchy” always conjures up (at least for me) images of wild-eyed punks smashing up stuff.

That’s silly, of course. In essence, anarchism, with its long history as a social movement, favours abolishment of government. And, given the B.C. Liberals’ recent hijinks, perhaps the notion is not so offbase.

On Sept. 8 and 9, the Fernwood Community Centre hosts the seventh annual Victoria Anarchist Book Fair (“located on unceded Songhees territory in Victoria,” the press release declares).

Timid types need not be put off – organizers say the book fair is for “anarchists and non-anarchists” alike. I suspect one of the most interesting speakers will be Victoria’s Tom Swanky, who’s written a provocative new book, Canada’s “War” of Extermination on the Pacific. It suggests white colonialists deliberately introduced smallpox to First Nations’ populations in the mid-19th century.

Book fair co-organizer Zoe Blunt says more than 2,000 people attended last year. Publishers and bookstores from Canada and the U.S. specializing in radical literature will be represented. So will indy types such as “zinesters, artists, patch and T-shirt makers and video/new media producers.”

Workshops and speakers examine topics including the proposed pipeline developments in B.C., the Quebec student-protest movement, alternative parenting, activist media and, of course, anarchism. There’s a legal workshop for those who risk arrest with civil disobedience. And there’s a session titled “Baby I’m a Manarchist,” led by members of Calgary “powerviolence” band Lab Rat (it’s an exploration of masculinity in alternative communities). The full schedule is available online at the website

On Saturday afternoon, Tom Swanky will give a 90-minute talk based on his book. He says many First Nations people in B.C. have long believed smallpox was introduced as a way of eliminating them, rather than negotiating treaties or paying for land. Swanky spent a decade researching the selfpublished Canada’s “War” of Extermination on the Pacific. And he, too, came to the conclusion that what happened was genocide.

Conventional wisdom has it that the smallpox contamination – which killed tens of thousands in a short time – was more or less accidental. For those of European descent, the illness wasn’t usually life-threatening, as was the case with First Nations folk.

In conversation, Swanky doesn’t come off as a wildeyed conspiracy theorist. A former news editor for the Quesnel Cariboo Observer, he holds degrees in political science and law. He first became interested in the smallpox epidemic while helping his son, a filmmaker, research a historical screenplay about the Cariboo/Chilcotin district.

Whether one agrees or not with Swanky’s conclusions, few would deny the research that’s gone into the 450-page book – with its 955 footnotes – appears impressive. Swanky interviewed First Nations people, some of whom were initially suspicious of a white man’s motives. He spent years poring over books, yellowed newspapers and archives.

Swanky says smallpox was introduced to B.C. in 1862 by two white carriers, one arriving in Victoria and the other travelling to New Westminster. Selling infected blankets was one way of spreading the disease. He quotes a story about pioneer John McLain who “got a blanket well-infected with small pox” and deliberately left it with a pack horse found by Indians.

“I accomplished my purpose for they all died of small pox,” McLain is quoted as saying in Maurine Goodenough’s history of a First Nations community, Only in Nazko (2008).

Whether one accepts Swanky’s genocide theory (other historians view the notion with skepticism), it’s a certainty his presentation at the Victoria Anarchist Book Fair will be provocative.

Blunt says the event will reflect a genuine anarchist spirit that shrugs off the shackles of existing governing bodies.

“Anarchists reject the authority of Canada, reject the notion of a national government,” she said.

“We don’t accept the legitimacy of [those governing] the country here; along with many radical indigenous activists, we have that in common. We don’t accept the dominance of patriarchy. We reject patriarchy and man’s dominion over nature.”

Blunt notes anarchist book fairs have sprouted up all over North America (including Montreal, Edmonton, Calgary, Winnipeg, Hamilton and Saskatoon) and beyond.

“It’s been gaining momentum,” she said, “and it seems like there’s more every year.”


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