Urban (and a few other) Current Forced Nomads

cabot square

In the past, nomads were those who wandered to find the necessities of life, and could be considered hunter-gatherers or pastoral wanderers, each moving around for sources of sustenance — for themselves, in the former case, and for those (animals) on which they were dependent, in the latter. Circumstances (depleted herds, food sources, etc.) were the major forces of their wandering.

Instead, today we see urban nomads resulting from what Ta-Nehisi Coates has referred to as “elegant” forms of discrimination, with his example being the “social engineering” that comes from housing segregation, a weapon that “mortally injures, but does not bruise.”


The groups and individuals that move around today do so less often out of choice than out of necessity to ensure their nourishment and basic needs usually centring on their body/physical, social, mental, or spiritual health. But what is perhaps a major difference from past wanderers is the role played by those of us with power based on class, skin colour, gender, and other privileges to inflict nomadry on others. On their own, these populations would probably stay and thrive happily where they are.

Some wandering thoughts about examples of a few of these contemporary forced nomads seem worth noting, although there are many others that could be included. These forced nomads (and others) deserve much more attention and consideration than I can provide here — and space precludes adding the role of environmental toxins forcing people away from home because housing and drinking water have become serious health risks for too many in Canada and the USA.


Displacements in the heart of Montreal and elsewhere


Indigenous groups and individuals pushed from social gatherings in public places by gentrification of buildings and parks immediately come to mind. Those of us who live near Cabot Square in downtown Montreal were aware that, for many years, some of the indigenous people frequented this green (though often muddy and littered) area in front of the now-empty Montreal Children’s Hospital (MCH), and used it as a social gathering place, a place of their own on unceded indigenous lands, lands further away from where they had already been forced to move south. When plans were announced that the site would be “improved,” we waited to see the result once the barriers surrounding the Square for many months during renovations were removed.

Well, perhaps the first word that came to – and has stayed in — my mind since the “new” space opened is “deception.” The space, despite being the result of supposed consultations with users and the placing of “community workers,” and despite the supposedly indigenous-friendly café, Cabot Square now is a concrete, barren space lacking even comfortable benches to sit or lie on. And, as others may also have noted, no one seems to be using the area, certainly not as it was before it was gentrified. Also, once the condominiums across the street and the “development” of the MCH are complete, there will probably be even fewer of those seen resting, playing, singing, and socializing.

Where have these urban folks gone? Well, in the cold months of winter, another social space has been in the Atwater metro area that has an entry in the Square, but…

Just as with Cabot Square, this public area has also been “cleaned up” — another way of saying the clearing out of the displaced indigenous and other itinerant and possibly homeless individuals. Those who do seek warmth and shelter from the cold and wet weather are quickly moved along by the police (to where?) as surveillance increases, allegedly to avoid inconveniencing transit users.

Making these forced nomads disappear from view makes their lives more dangerous and, importantly, allows those of us with privileges to more easily forget these concitoyenNEs.


Not so “elegant” discrimination forcing nomadry?


Specifically this relates to parents of children who have or might have Down Syndrome for whom the absence of proper services (health, education, social services, etc.) forces them to move from their homes to other jurisdictions where resources, while still too few, are perhaps somewhat more available. This also causes potential parents who choose not to have prenatal diagnosis so that they can welcome their children regardless of any diagnostic labels that might be imposed on them by others, to become forced nomads. Why do we have policies that necessitate tearing existing connections of families and friends, rather than ensuring that we support all those who are among us – children and their parents – wherever it is that they choose to live and make their homes? Why do the loudest messages from medical professionals, implicit and explicit, encourage the screening of pregnant women to “find” fetuses predicted to have problems after birth, so that they can be aborted and not become “burdens?” Moreover, as genetic screening and testing become even more normalized throughout the world, many (perhaps all) pregnant women risk becoming permanent forced nomads with no place to go for their sustenance if they want to have children without prior selection.

(Parenthetically, I need also to note the forced nomadry of those seeking abortions for an unwanted pregnancy, when these services are either not publicly available at all (e.g., PEI) or not locally accessible in non-urban areas.)


Wandering wheelers and other marginalized groups as urban forced nomads


Forced out of social spaces are also those moving about in wheelchairs, when sidewalks are furnished for café customers but leave no space for wheeling, whether solo or in pairs. And that’s not counting their own needs for accessible cafés, restaurants, office buildings, shops, voting stations, and other locations where they could go for work, supplies, recreation — for basically exercising their democratic rights. Those who are able to get around on their feet can usually proceed side-by-side in conversation with another wherever they go; the single-file-only experiences of wheelers is the result of decisions made by the privileged that make nomads out of too many others.

Other urban forced nomads include trans, queer, and other gender non-conforming folks who are excluded from bathrooms labeled “men” or “women,” “gents” or “dames.” (And also, but perhaps of lesser importance, cis-women at large conferences for whom the “women’s” toilets are invariably insufficient in number during program breaks while the “men’s” toilets remain empty.)  Why does the basic need for toilets and sinks, and perhaps space for minor grooming, have to be met in ways that force too many to wander in search of a place to pee? It’s more than a matter of privacy; it’s a question of justice and inclusiveness that should make gender neutrality of these spaces the rule.

And there are young people prohibited from skateboarding and other common activities by heavy-handed policing practices allegedly to make streets “safe.” Moreover, police profiling especially of racialized youth force them to move about rather than occupy public spaces that belong to all, and put them at risk of forced transit into detention or prison where they are already excessively over-represented.


At times, even those with (some) privileges become forced nomads.


Once we shift perspectives, it becomes possible to view the lot of today’s newspaper readers (or TV viewers and social media junkies) who seek more than “bias confirmation” as some kind of forced nomads. If one can no longer easily find printed (or other) material presenting a range of positions and ideas because media become increasingly concentrated and expressive of the politics of but a few large, profit-driven corporations, what “wandering” will be needed to learn of the many grey areas that need consideration in order to avoid fixed pro-and-con diatribes and allow authentic, not impoverished, citizen dialogues? Which also raises the question: where will these discussions occur when freedom of expression on public streets is removed by politicians who label disagreements as potentially “terrorist,” and by heavily-armed police claiming to enforce arbitrary regulations?

Interestingly, even some of those most privileged by education feel the pressures creating nomads when, for example, researchers who recognize the values of work across (artificial) disciplinary boundaries struggle to find jobs and funding (and recognition) not usually granted to generalists in corporatized universities that measure “success” by products generated. Here, too, our understandings of complex and difficult issues are pushed out of institutional homes to wander afield in search of the resources that will nourish them and, through them, us.


Baby-seeking nomads


Finally on this very short and highly selected list are the impoverished women (increasingly in India) moved from their hometowns or countries to serve wealthy women who have commissioned them to serve as gestational surrogates. By requiring the birthing women to turn over their children right after they are born, their infants become forced nomads taken on journeys elsewhere to grow up.

As with all reproductive technologies used under the rubric of “infertility” treatments, contract pregnancies are at the core of a big international, unregulated industry built mostly on the work of impoverished women who are often precluded from finding sources of income, health, social services and opportunities close to where they live. (These contract pregnancies involve the women’s wombs or their eggs being brokered.) This group of migrant workers, like far too many others who provide live-in caregiving work in Canada and elsewhere or harvest the produce we want on our dinner plates, are clearly forced nomads created to meet the mainly urban desires of the privileged.


Urban forced nomads then and now


For some, being made a forced nomad today echoes the experiences of those who long ago were excluded from the commons, following the enclosure of the common land by those with power and prestige. Gentrification in our cities is a new incarnation of this kind of exclusion, though it is packaged as growth and ways to enrich urban areas — with financial benefits included. But with all that it erases, gentrification also impoverishes. Clearly these new enclosures (outdoor public spaces, metros, hip architecture) reduce the health and well-being of those pushed out as well as those allowed in.

And do we really benefit as a society when knowledge seekers, workers and parents are forced to wander to find a receptive welcome for “out of the box” ideas and creations, to gain income to support families “back home,” or to obtain services for non-conforming children or themselves? Or to seek haven from any of the ongoing racist, colonialist, sexist, class- or ability-based segregational forms of social engineering? Seems like this would be a rather sterile society to me, one that I hope has not already become entrenched.

Hard questions are posed for us, but a pivotal underlying one may be this: do we want to continue to allow (if not perpetuate) what might, without overly stretching the concept, be termed today’s “social eugenics” — actions that seem to fit into what David King has called “a form of technocracy, [that attempts] social management based on the knowledge of a scientifically qualified elite,” although in the examples here, such management is based on privileged and powerful political, corporate and other elites? http://www.hgalert.org/topics/geneticSelection/eugenics.htm

I hope we have not become too numbed by all this to resist in all ways possible “austerity” measures and hate-filled messages about the “others” among us, voiced by those who seek to displace them. Together, perhaps we can recover our common spaces and our interdependent communities, and no longer force anyone to become a nomad.


Abby Lippman is a longtime feminist activist with special interests in women’s health and women’s health policies. She has one foot based in academia (specifically at McGill and Concordia Universities) and the other, the foot she favours, involves her in social justice and reproductive activism with community groups in Montreal and beyond its borders.