Samira and Riaz. Photo via NIcky Young.
A press release popped up on my Facebook news feed this week that appeared to be from the official Toronto Maple Leafs website, proclaiming that at this week’s annual Forces Appreciation Night, "both Canadian soldiers AND the innocent civilians killed in the war (Afghanistan) will be honoured.” The release went viral, generating a virtual round of applause regarding the new found humanitarian attitude the organization seemed to be adopting. In case you’re not a Maple Leafs season ticket holder, last year’s Forces Appreciation Night at featured female Canadian Forces gracefully repelling from the rafters to the ice for the ceremonial puck drop. This was then one-upped by army dude and former NHL player David "Tiger" Williams, (record holder for most penalty time in the history of the League) aka “The Enforcer,” who delivered the puck in a military vehicle while saluting to the crowd to “Eye Of The Tiger.” Eye of the fucking tiger, their choreographer must have been Rob Ford.
Anyway, a day passed since I read about the uncharacteristically humanitarian tribute to Afghan civilians at the good ol’ hockey game, and after no mainstream media outlets picked it up, it was clear the story was too good to be true. Sure enough, a new story popped up on my feed the next day, where a group named Sports Without War took credit for the faked press release, claiming it was designed to send a message that would more accurately reflect the values of most Canadians, including many Afghan-Canadians.
Riaz Sayani-Mulji, Samira Sayed-Rahman, and an anonymous web developer started the Sports Without War group; and Riaz and Samira were kind enough to drive down from Hamilton to Toronto to chat with me on my lunch break.
VICE: What inspired you to do put this stunt together?
Samira: Being originally from Afghanistan, the war has a very real impact for me and my family has been affected. I recently read that “96 percent of Afghans have been affected in some way by the armed conflict”—whether its losing family members or having homes destroyed or having to leave their homes due to conflict. Given my ethnic background, there is a personal side to my activism, but I generally can’t stand for militarism and imperialism.
Riaz: Reading about John Carlos and Tommie Smith [the “authors” of the phony press release, who had historically raised black power fists at the 1968 Olympics] and recognizing that they were willing to mobilize the privilege they had as Olympic athletes to take a stand was absolutely inspiring. You’re talking about two Black youth, on top of the Olympic podium, who were willing to risk it all because they knew that they had the potential to reach people and affect systemic change.
Samira: And like Riaz said it's about mobilizing your privilege, being an Afghan Canadian I have the right to call out the government for being so involved in the war. My tax dollars are paying for a war that’s not only going to directly affect my people, but also rape and pillage another land.
The fake website you guys made is nearly identical to the actual Maple Leafs site…
Samira: The only difference was a single period missing in the URL, instead of being "mapleleafs.nhl.com" it was "mapleleafsnhl.com" Any links of the website would take you back to the original website, so that’s why a lot of people fell for it, if you clicked anywhere on the website it would take you to that legitimate page. We had someone else working on the website who was technically skilled enough to be able to do that—to build a site virtually identical in every single way to the official Leafs website. They want to remain anonymous, so we’ll refer to them as “The Greek,” a la The Wire.
Screenshot of mapleleafsnhl.com.
How long did it take you to get it together?
Riaz: About a month. Samira: We both got sick during the process, so that was a bit of a problem. But we've been at it every single day for the last two or three weeks.
Why did you choose to target Forces Appreciation Night?
Riaz: Forces Appreciation Night started in about 2006, through this partnership between General Rick Hillier and the Department of Defence with Tom Anselmi and Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment. So that’s eight years of professional sports being used in this new way to promote the very unpopular war in Afghanistan. Samira: Over the years we've done demonstrations, campaigns, petitions, and all these traditional ways of trying to resist the militarism that exists in society, and we figured that we needed to do something different. Often you end up preaching to the choir, to those who already know about the impacts of the occupation in Afghanistan, the imperial project, and social justice issues at large. I think what we were really trying to do was to target a bigger audience, someone who's not tapped in to those anti-war networks as it is—we thought this was a great way to get the average Canadian hockey fan to listen up.
And you didn’t even need to leave your house.
Riaz: Yeah, we wanted to reach people in the most accessible way possible. It wasn't about getting a bunch of people together to protest at an embassy, or having a picket line and blocking traffic, it's about raising questions that the corporate media should be already be asking—like what’s the purpose of Forces Appreciation Night? Why is the government working with professional sports to support their pro-war position? These are all questions we need young people asking themselves in order to maintain a normal mode of discourse in a healthy democracy. This kind of culture jamming is a way of getting that conversation started and hopefully seeing the culture of forces appreciation night change. We tried to hit upon three key things: Firstly, that Afghans are human beings. We’ve seen how the Afghan people have been dehumanized. It was the same Rick Hillier who infamously said: “These are detestable murderers and scumbags, I'll tell you that right up front. They detest our freedoms, they detest our society, they detest our liberties." So that’s why having a moment of silence for the thousands of civilians killed is so important—and it’s something that so many people agreed with! The support was overwhelming. One person commented, “I wish something like this was true. But how can we keep killing people, if we insist on actually seeing them as human.”
Secondly, the press release was designed to show who the war is really benefiting. At the end of the day Canadian companies actually made a killing off of this war. It didn't help the people of Afghanistan at all and unfortunately the people who run these companies are the same sorts of people running MLSE. In the article we published from the Sports Without War website claiming responsibility for the hoax, we discuss the connections that exist between MLSE and these various Canadian corporations that have profited off the war.
Thirdly, not only is this war an atrocity against the people of Afghanistan that has been waged for the rich to get richer, but the Canadian soldiers who serve in Afghanstan are, for lack of a better word, discarded when they return to Canada. When veterans return they don't receive adequate benefits, many of them have mental health issues, and end up falling through the cracks in the military bureaucracy, and this has reached a point where you’re now you're seeing a lot of backlash from veterans themselves. From sit-ins, to turning their backs to Conservative MPs laying wreaths on memorials, to calling MP Julian Fantino out for wanting to spend $50,000 on a war memorial while veterans are in need of essential services they can’t afford.
So hopefully when you realize that: one, the war was a disaster for the people of Afghanistan; two, Canadian mining companies got rich off it, and three, our soldiers are being dumped as cannon fodder, you can connect the dots and say hey, this war wasn't really about protecting our freedoms, or protecting Afghan women, it's about money. And that’s what wars are about in our society.
And yet last year’s Forces Appreciation night was all about how awesome the women of the Canadian military are.
Samira: I found that rather appalling. There was a visible attempt to show the population: “Look how free Canadian women are, they are allowed to take part in our military!” As a means of fuelling the propaganda that the forces are in Afghanistan to liberate women. Sadly, the situation for women if Afghanistan has only worsened since the invasion began in 2001.
From your experiences, how are Canadians being viewed in Afghanistan? The government claims that they are humanitarian in their military presence.
Samira: Canadians are perceived as the exact same as the Americans. They are involved in active combat and we are in some of the most volatile regions in the country.