A Canadian state, devouring its citizens

"Saturno devorando a su hijo" painting by Fransico Goya

Francisco Goya’s painting, Saturno, is a hauntingly fitting metaphor for the austerity measures recently enacted by governments across the globe.

The painting depicts the god devouring his son, whom he suspects will supplant him. According to the myth, Saturn cannibalized every son except for one, Jupiter, who was hidden by his mother. Avenging his siblings, Jupiter eventually did overthrow his father.

I first saw this painting in Madrid last fall, right after the Indignados had been evicted again from protesting in La Puerta del Sol square. Angry arguments and graffiti made the effects of the Euro crisis palpable; forced evictions, soaring unemployment rates, and cuts to social welfare services for the most vulnerable people had charged the atmosphere. People grew restless.

Everyone I met, even of differing political stripes, agreed they felt like the state was eating its people alive.

A similar feeling is settling over Canada right now, with a government that does not represent the majority of voters putting through legislation that will quickly alter the structure of our society. There are numerous examples, many of which have been rammed through Parliament in the form of omnibus bills, which limit the opposition’s time and ability to properly scrutinize, amend, and generally hold the majority Conservative government to account.

Just to name a few: Bill C-31 propagates a culture of exclusion, denying asylum seekers basic health care and allowing immediate deportation to countries that are unilaterally deemed “safe” by the immigration minister. Some, who are part of a group deemed “mass arrivals,” will face mandatory detention, which rings ominous in the context of Harper’s prison expansion plan.

According to the Canadian Bar Association, the omnibus crime Bill C-10 “will require new prisons; mandate incarceration for minor, non-violent offences; justify poor treatment of inmates and make their reintegration into society more difficult” rather than pursuing poverty reduction or expanded resources for “at-risk” youth or people with mental health issues. Meanwhile, the federal government continues a plan of environmental degradation with pipeline expansion and tar sands development.

Saturn has been understood as a tyrant, representing the ruthlessness of hierarchical organization. Since Goya painted Saturno amidst the bitter Napoleonic wars in Spain, some critics have likened it to the jealous state devouring its own children and their freedoms through war. Others have found a hint of remorse in the madness of Saturn’s eyes. 

But what gets me in Goya’s Saturn is his desperation. His eyes are wide and his bloody mouth gapes as if we’ve caught him in the sickening process. His white-knuckled grip on the body he devours suggests fear and urgency. He is bended, spindly, naked – almost vulnerable, if it weren’t for the headless body gripped by his fingers.

Outside the frame, the myth tells us that despite his power-hungry acts, Saturn faced resistance and lost. He was desperate to keep his power, but this greed led him to commit the very acts that incited Jupiter to rise up. Perhaps my metaphor can be extended, then: a shift toward right-wing austerity policies constitutes the cannibalism of a state gorging itself at the expense of its people and its land, but it also breeds resistance.

This year alone, Canadians have seen organized Occupy squats and general assemblies, hundreds of thousands of students rallied in an internationally acknowledged movement, rising independent and social media responses to inadequate, corporate media coverage, pipeline blockades and more.

Most recently, the indigenous-led Idle No More campaign has mobilized indigenous peoples and allies against continued colonization in the form of “attacks to Indigenous rights and damage to the land and water.”

At nationwide rallies on December 10, many opposed the federal omnibus budget bill, C-45, which weakens indigenous sovereignty and environmental protections with changes to the Indian Act, the Fisheries Act, and the Navigable Waters Protection Act, among others

Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence has commenced a hunger strike to demand the restoration of treaty relationships that she says the Canadian government has ignored. 

These examples are only a few of the mounting number of responses to the recent cannibalistic acts of the Canadian state. Maybe my thoughts are just steeped in the current public discourse about the end of an era, but right now I dare to think that the crippling entitlement and apathy of my generation is slipping away as our collective consciousness rises.

The weakness in Saturn’s eyes gives me hope that this regime is going to change.

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