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You are not a loan

Halifax first Debtors' Assembly tackles debt, shame, and solutions

by Robert Devet

Striking debt in San Francisco.  A Debtors Assembly will be held in Halifax on June 3rd. Photo Occupy.com
Striking debt in San Francisco. A Debtors Assembly will be held in Halifax on June 3rd. Photo Occupy.com
Photo StrikeDebt.org
Photo StrikeDebt.org

K'JIPUKTUK (HALIFAX) – A debtors' assembly scheduled for Tuesday evening (June 3rd) offers an opportunity for people to come together and share their stories about living with debts.

"No blame, no hostility," says the announcement, "so long as we blame ourselves for our debts, and fail to see how they are part of a bigger predatory system, we cannot win."

"There is a sense that people can't even face their debt, it is such a terrifying presence in their lives," Max Haiven, driving force behind the assembly, tells the Halifax Media Co-op.

And this condition is really widespread these days, Haiven says.

"Lots of people are affected. Poor people surviving on exploitative payday loans, people carrying huge amounts of credit card debt, and more and more young people having to go in debt just to pay their living expenses, just to keep up with rent, food and utility bills."

"This is a terrifying circumstance. You have to wonder where it wil end. It has this terrible human cost."

Haiven, a Halifax-based activist and assistant professor at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design (NSCAD), finds inspiration in the debtors' movement that emerged from Occupy Wall Street in late 2011.

Debtors' assemblies occurred first in Zuccotti Park in New York's Wall Street district, and then in San Francisco, Portland and other cities. The assemblies provided an opportunity to simply talk about being in debt.

Haiven believes that just to have that conversation is very important.

"Debt has this tremendous silencing effect on us," says Haiven. "We have to deal with debt on our own, it's a burden we have to bear by ourselves. For people to get together and talk about it is like a kind of radical therapy."

"Talking helps us understand what the deeper problem is, and that it is not just us."

The reason why so many students are in debt is because of the cuts to post secondary education, Haiven argues. And the reasons so many people are in consumer debt is because the forms of social care that the government used to provide have eroded.

"Sure, some people make bad financial decisions, but if you look at it structurally most of our debt is the result of a massive transfer of social wealth from the bottom [of society] up to the top," Haiven says.

However, not all debts are bad, Haiven believes.

"The idea that we ever could live a life completely free of debt is fantasy," Haiven says. "We owe a debt to each other as social beings. We are fundamentally a cooperative species and the obligations we have to each other are actually what makes our lives worth living."

"For instance, here in Halifax we always need to begin our analysis by aknowledging the incredible debt we [settlers] owe to the Mi'kmaq nation, whose land this still is," says Haiven.

Then there are debts first world nations owe third world countries, for damage caused by climate change, or, going back in time, slavery and colonialism. In Halifax calls for reparations for the destruction of Africville continue.

"There is a sense that debt could be re-understood in a radical way that might break us out of our current understanding of who has power and who is really in debt," says Haiven.

"We could de-legitimize these debts that we owe - student loans , payday loans, mortgages... Those are odious debts that we should never have gotten into," says Haiven. "And we could legitimize the debts that are currently unaknowledged."

The first Halifax Debtors Assembly will take place on Tuesday June 3rd at the Bloomfield Centre on Agricola Street. For much more information see the Halifax Debtors' Assembly blog.

Follow Robert Devet on Twitter @DevetRobert



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