“Ask Kai: Advice for the Apocalypse” is a column by Kai Cheng Thom to help you survive and thrive in a challenging world.
Have a question for Kai? Email email@example.com.
The Canadian federal election is coming up, and as a young queer person, all I feel is dread and despair. None of prime ministerial candidates seem remotely equipped to respond to the enormous existential threats (environmental, white supremacy, migrant crisis) that the world is currently facing. I know that I should use my privilege as a Canadian citizen to try and influence the direction of the country’s leadership, but honestly, it all feels pointless and soul-crushing. What should I do? Should I even vote at all?
Politically Anxious & Queer
My own heart echoes in resonance with the feelings you’ve laid out in your letter. Since mid-2016, I have been predicting the end of the world like a queer Cassandra and I see little in our political, environmental or social context to dissuade me from this belief. (I know, I know—one doesn’t write in to an advice column to get more doom and gloom, so please bear with me. This is just to say, I hear where you’re coming from!)
Yet in times of great crisis, there is also potential. In times of great trouble, there is also change. To be able to move forward, we must have the courage to embrace possibility: The possibility that we have more power to transform the systems we live in than we have been led to believe. We owe this courage to our communities, and to ourselves.
In her acceptance speech at the 2014 National Book Awards, renowned speculative fiction author Ursula K. Le Guin said that “we live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable; but then, so did the divine right of kings.” This powerful statement always reminds me that we should never underestimate the will of the people—meaning us, we are the people!—to be free. In more practical terms, I think this means that every small act of political engagement, from voting to civil disobedience, takes us a tiny step closer to the world we want to live in, even if we cannot see it.
Does this mean that the electoral system we have today truly offers marginalized people—LGBTQ2 people, Indigenous people, people of colour, migrants, sex workers, disabled people, poor people—a path to freedom? The truth to this is more complicated than a simple yes or no, but in my heart of hearts, I don’t believe it does. While I certainly believe we should vote as a harm reduction measure (more on that in a moment), our engagement with this current global crisis of climate change, government austerity, and rising white supremacy must also be more direct. We must take matters into our own hands.
Canada is a colonial nation-state built upon the genocide of Indigenous peoples, eugenicist social engineering and the exploitation and internment of migrants. These legacies are borne out today in the vast disparities in access to essential resources, such as water, shelter and healthcare, experienced by marginalized populations today.
In contemporary times, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has recently appealed a court ruling in order to deny billions of dollars in compensation to Indigenous children harmed by racist child welfare policies; meanwhile, his potential Conservative successor, Andrew Scheer, has a long-established history of opposing women’s and LGBTQ2 rights. This isn’t even getting into Trudeau’s apparent penchant for blackface or Scheer’s disturbing history of allegedly misrepresenting himself to the public. Other political parties, such as the NDP, may hold more progressive views, but are unlikely to acquire significant power—and since they’ve never been in power before, it’s hard to know if they would live up to those views if they did win.
It may be particularly noteworthy for queer and trans folks who are thinking about voting to know about the respective parties’ platforms and track records on LGBTQ2 rights: The Liberals have promised more funding for LGBTQ2 community services and expanded labour rights for queer parents. The Conservative Party has committed to protecting LGBTQ2 rights in law (but party leader Scheer has also previously voted against a bill to expand protections for trans people). Meanwhile, the NDP has pledged to ensure that gender-affirming surgery is covered by public health care and to create a dedicated path to resettling LGBTQ2 refugees, as well as to ban conversion therapy and blood donation discrimination.
So when I encourage you to vote, PAQ, I do so with the caveat that in my opinion, voting is a measure of harm reduction: Vote for the person least likely to perpetuate further harms against you, vulnerable people in your community, and the planet. Or choose the candidate, either for member of Parliament or prime minister, who speaks most closely to your own views and values.
Whatever way you choose to go, PAQ, I’d encourage you to be kind to yourself and try not to get caught up in anxiety about voting the “right way” to protect queer community from potentially hostile leadership because voting is the short-term battle. We have a much longer war ahead when it comes to protecting queer and trans rights and lives, let alone saving the planet from socio-economic and environmental crisis. While voting is an important harm reduction measure, there is a great deal more you can do to shift the root causes of the challenges queer and trans people face in society.
In my last column, I shared some thoughts on resilience theory, which is the psychological theory of how individuals and communities can live through enormously stressful events with relatively minimal psychological trauma. While the factors behind human resilience are complex, a general principle we can work with is that having community (people who are fighting on your side) and building a sense of personal agency (fighting for a cause through concrete actions) can build resilience.
This is important because it shows us how to push back against that soul-crushing feeling you described: When facing something so much bigger and more powerful than ourselves as the actual fate of the world, we need to break things down into manageable pieces and find allies to have our backs.
Here’s a story of finding my own resilience that you might find interesting or helpful, PAQ: A few months ago, my boyfriend invited me to come to rally organized by Climate Justice Toronto. Having experienced and been burned out by my fair share of political rallies (which were often violently disrupted by police), I resisted at first, but eventually gave in and went with him.
At first, I went just to humour my boyfriend (he’s the type of wide-eyed, Earnest Good Guy™ who’s impossible to disappoint). I felt jaded and cynical; there didn’t seem to be any point in trying to “save” a planet already so far gone. Underneath cynicism, you see, there is usually fear: The fear of failure. The fear that it’s too late to fix what has been broken. And the fear that one is inadequate to the task of living up to one’s idea of goodness.
At the rally, we sang songs and chanted slogans. We shook our fists and listened to speeches. There was a puppet show and participatory street theatre (organized by young political artists no doubt inspired by Paulo Freire’s admonition in Pedagogy of the Oppressed that protest must also be fun). There were toddlers, teenagers, young adults and elders present. And little-by-little, I felt my hope start to wake up.
You don’t have to go to rallies to be politically engaged, PAQ. You can volunteer behind the scenes for grassroots community organizations such as the Fight For 15 & Fairness (a community group for fair wages and labour rights), SURJ (Showing Up for Racial Justice) or No One Is Illegal (a grassroots migrant justice group with chapters all over Canada). From the comfort of home, you could simply write a series of letters to your local MP and MPP about issues you care about, or take a free webinar on how to fight climate change. The point is that we cannot control the outcome of the election, the climate emergency, the housing shortage or the refugee crisis. What we can control is how we respond to those things.
The so-called “democratic” electoral system that we have today is designed to keep us isolated and small: We watch debates on small screens alone at home, we make our little choice between bad and worse leaders, we mark a box on a tiny piece of paper and cast our vote alone in a booth and go home. Thanks to our convoluted system, our votes may not even count for anything if we happen to be in a riding that heavily swings in one direction or another—and it’s even possible that a prime minister with less than the majority of total votes might win.
Yet when we engage in direct political action—community organizing, community education, political demonstrations and rallies—we come together. We get the chance for our voices to be really heard, if not by the government bureaucrats in their suits, then by our peers and comrades. There is real possibility at the organizing table and at the rally that does not exist in Parliament—because poor people and sex workers and queer people can actually be seen in those spaces.
We can’t control the outcome, PAQ. But we can stand together. The only way to do that is to stay engaged, active and part of the community through voting and beyond. If the government (of whichever party) fails us, as political parties inevitably do, then it’s strong, well-connected, vibrant communities that will have the greatest chance of surviving and fighting back.
We live in the apocalypse. It seems inescapable. But then, so did all the apocalypses that have come before—before LGBTQ2 folks had legal rights at all, before the head tax and internment ended, before there were any public acknowledgments that slavery and genocide had happened here. Some contemporary Indigenous writers and artists have explicitly spoken about how their work—indeed, their lives—have existed in context of post-apocalypse since the ravages of colonization took hold. In a powerful testament to the resilience and strength of Indigenous peoples, award-winning author Cherie Dimaline states: “Everything that we create, write and produce is post-apocalyptic because we survived an apocalypse. We’re the survivors. So if anyone is going to survive an apocalypse or an attack, it’s going to be the people who have already successfully done it.”
This sentiment is echoed as well in the work of Black feminist poet Nayyirah Waheed, who writes: “i don’t pay attention / to the world ending. / it has ended for me/ many times / and began again in the morning”
I look to creators and poets such as Dimaline and Waheed for hope, for a map to the road ahead. In their words, I find strength. Revolutions have succeeded before, and they will again. And if this world should end, we’ll end it together, hand-in-hand.