In Memoriam Robert Devet

A reflection by Tony Seed*

Robert Devet, 1954-2021

This reflection was written on October 13 and expanded on October 17. Some 400 people gathered at an outdoor memorial meeting to honour the life of work of Robert Devet held in Halifax on Thursday evening, October 14.

Robert Devet was born in Holland in 1954 to a progressive, anti-fascist family. His maternal grandfather, Hendrik Koch, was a family physician in a poor working class neighbourhood in Amsterdam who championed the rights of women to have control over reproduction and a political activist in the international communist movement who also moved to the Soviet Union for a period. After having been taken prisoner in 1941 fighting the Hitlerite German occupation of the Netherlands, he died in 1942 in the Nazi concentration camp Neuengamme near Hamburg. His name is on the national list of honour in the House of Parliament in The Hague. Robert Maarten de Vet was a son of Huibert A. de Vet (born in 1920) and Sophia Louisa Jacoba (“Pop”) Koch (born in 1918). Both his parents took part in the heroic resistance of the Dutch people in different ways. His father was an expert forger of documents used to get Jews to safety and his mother was a member of the communist party (CPN) during and right after World War II and worked on its newspaper De Waarheid. Robert was part of a broad wave of youth who came forward in the Sixties to oppose the racist and fascist South African apartheid regime and the American war of aggression against Vietnam. In a reflection, his sister Hélène de Vet writes that “especially his mother, but in a certain way also his father, were independent and outspoken people. They were neither conformist nor bourgeois. We like to think that all of us children have inherited some of this contrarian ‘family’ attitude.” [1]

Robert emigrated to Nova Scotia with his partner Maria van Gurp from Halifax in 1979 where they soon married. He worked as a civil servant with Service Nova Scotia in information technology. After Maria passed way and his retirement, without any formal background in journalism he began writing for the Halifax Media Co-op in 2012. In stylistic terms, his writing was simple, straightforward and to the point. He was a faithful interlocutor who conducted interviews with respect. Colleague Hilary Lindsay notes that he authored over 300 articles between September 30, 2012 and December 19, 2015. He was without a doubt motivated by the direction of the anti-social, neoliberal agenda of the Nova Scotia government, which he experienced first hand. His last series of articles for the Halifax Media Co-op supported the almost two-year-long strike of newsrooms staff at the Halifax Chronicle Herald, part of the Saltwire media monopoly, which he backed up by participating on the picket line of his colleagues.

Robert Devet (back row, wearing his signature fedora) in a protest of writers against the Halifax Chronicle Herald, 2015.

In January 2016 Robert founded the online news and commentary journal Nova Scotia Advocate. Calling it his “second life,” he recognized the need for an independent media which would break the silence around the working and oppressed people of Nova Scotia and stop the emergence of a police state.

“On this site we write about poverty, housing and gentrification, workers and bosses, City Hall, the environment, racism, homophobia and misogyny, refugees, people living with disabilities, prisons, the arts, and so on. We like the stories other news media overlook, and we focus on Nova Scotia and the Atlantic provinces,” Robert said. Its mandate was expressed in its motto, “The Tyrant’s Foe, The People’s Friend.” [2]

With sorrow I learned of the sudden death of Robert Devet in Annapolis Royal on September 27, 2021 at the age of 66. Although we never met personally, he had become a dear colleague, comrade and fellow combatant. His final story, published September 23, publicized an Indigenous rally resisting colonial injustice after nine Mi’kmaq fishing boats had their lines cut. and calling on the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) to stop violating Mi’kmaw treaty and hereditary rights. I wrote to him on behalf of a colleague requesting permission to access his photos – the article published in Renewal Update on October 7 is here – and was shocked to receive an e-mail in reply from his partner Bonnie Baker, an accomplisher artist and innovative printmaker, that he had just passed away. I express my heartfelt condolences to Bonnie, his son Simon, and his extended family in Canada and the Netherlands, colleagues and friends and the people of Nova Scotia who are deeply saddened by his passing. A memorial tribute is being held in Halifax on October 14 as a celebration of his life and work.

Resisting colonial injustice, affirming treaty rights | Robert Devet

His publication provided space for political and social activists to share information, present their views on issues of importance to the society so as to smash the silence on these important matters, uphold the dignity of labour and the oppressed and to humanize the social and natural environment. As one example, Mike Keefe of the Nova Local of the Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW) informs that he wrote four articles defending the struggles of postal workers for their rights against Canada Post for the Halifax Media Co-op and had another twenty one in the Advocate. He was about to publish his 22nd – Canada Post attacks Cape Breton delivery drivers from the Workers’ Forum periodical of CPC(M-L) – but passed away before he could post it. Over the past two years he published views and reports of public sector and health care workers on how to handle the pandemic and their struggles for the working conditions they require to make their contribution to the well-being of the population as a whole. This was most pronounced at Northwood, the private longterm residential care facility in Halifax where 53 seniors died tragically. This helped break the silence around the struggle being waged in the public sector and other spheres to defend their rights and the rights of all. (See here, here and here, amongst others.) Through the efforts of the magazine and its contributor, many voluntary environmental and community-based organizations benefited enormously through its direct assistance and/or exposure to its wide readership.

Nova Scotia Advocate likewise provided space during elections to enable the small parties including the communists to make their views known to the polity, defended the right to conscience against Islamophobia and racism, and opposed the criminalization of those activists defending the rights of the Palestinian people. The space he provided to the Black community, African Nova Scotians, the Muslim community and the Mi’Kmac nation and the violation of their human, civil and hereditary rights by the existing, unrepresentative constitutional order was second to none. Robert’s most recent articles defended the dignity and rights of the homeless which affects more and more Nova Scotians against vicious persecution by the City of Halifax using police power (Dignity now! Rally calls for moratorium on evictions, September 18, see also Thrown out of Peace and Friendship, a poem by Thibault Jacquot-Paratte) and the cause of the youth on the question of climate change in whose massive march he participated on September 24, just three days before he passed away.

On September 18, over 200 people gathered in front of Halifax City Hall to demand a moratorium on the evictions of unhoused people all across urban HRM. Photo by Robert Devet
Robert’ last march – with the youth. He quickly updated his estimate to 3-4,000.

Robert Devet was motivated by the high ideals of humanity which are being trampled underfoot by the warmongering big powers who are taking society in a direction opposite to that required by human beings, which is why today our security lies in the fight in defence of the rights of all. This was one of the concerns in which I was involved with Nova Scotia Advocate. I wish to elaborate further in some depth and give meaning to its motto, “The Tyrant’s Foe, The People’s Friend.”

Although the purview of Nova Scotia Advocate was the province and the region, Robert’s outlook was neither narrow nor provincial let alone that of a detached journalist “covering” disparate parts of protest movements. His humanitarian ethics were political. His principles included opposing the use of force to sort out problems amongst nations and against the Indigenous Peoples within our country and the all-round militarization of Halifax, and advocating to get Canada out of NATO and NORAD and to make Halifax and Canada a zone for peace. This is no small matter. Canada’s participation in the NATO military and political bloc has become a taboo, not to be discussed in the parliament nor the media nor the NGOs. The Nova Scotia Advocate dared to break this taboo. It was the tyrant’s foe.

The dissemination of information by the Nova Scotia Advocate and the events reported on its website was integral to the collective work to build the unity in action of the people of Halifax, Canada and the entire world against the imperialist war preparations. We aimed to make a contribution however small from our own city to achieving a genuine and lasting peace. Every year the Nova Scotia Advocate published in depth articles in support of the persistent work of the anti-war movement – spearheaded by the No Harbour for War group together with Voice of Women for Peace and others – to expose, oppose and ban the U.S.-organized, NATO-sponsored Halifax International Security Forum. In contrast, the monopoly media turned truth on its head. For example, this fraudulent conference, subsidized by the Department of National Defence, ACOA and the biggest arms manufacturers in the world, has nothing whatsoever to do organically with Halifax and Nova Scotia. It is simply a strategic base to organize and implement the warmongering aims of the U.S. and Canada based on self-serving NATO definitions of security. The headquarters are in Washington. It was and still is prettified by media disinformation as a “peace conference,” a boon to the tourism industry, etc. Here spoke the treasonous line of the Halifax Board of Trade and various historians since World War I that “Halifax thrives during war, declines during peace,” “business as usual” and “take it or leave it.” This disinformation ams to block Canadians from drawing the appropriate conclusions and acting against imperialist war preparations. The Nova Scotia Advocate dared to smash this block. It was the people’s friend. Haligonians do not want our city to harbour war. We said it then and we say it now. No Harbour for War!

The Cuban writer Alejo Carpentier affirmed in 1975 that journalists are those who “animate the great novel of the future with their eye-witness accounts and features.” Robert participated in, photographed and reported on the rallies held annually since 2009 against the Halifax War Conference as well as on the protests against the “visits” of U.S. and NATO warships, the Canadian warship program, fighter jets, and arm sales to Saudi Arabia.

Of special note was the hard-fought campaign to successfully eliminate the grotesque colonial monument to the genocidaire Cornwallis in Cornwallis Park which he covered in detail This year it was renamed by the city Peace and Freedom Park – the very name first introduced by No Harbour for War in 2009. This was a victory for the Mi’kmaq and their allies and the demand that Halifax be a Zone of Peace. His editorial of July 22, 2020 merits attention. The official HRM Report reeked of words of sympathy of the “white man’s burden” ethos, carefully worded to make sure nothing is justiciable – that the government cannot be held legally responsible in any way. Robert exposed how that “report erases a long history of resistance to the statue and all that it stands for, much of it led by Mi’kmaw women.” He reminded: “we did not rid Halifax of the Cornwallis statue because councillors finally recognized that it was the right thing to do. It happened as a result of people marching, organizing, and speaking out, with mostly Mi’kmaq women leading the effort. That is a realization we should not lose sight of” (see here). This is an important social question, especially when there is such pressure to erase people’s history and collective memory, and when official journalism has abandoned society.

A covered Cornwallis statue in 2010. Activists protesting the inaugural Halifax International Security Forum in November 2009 renamed the Cornwallis Park the Peace and Freedom Park and covered the statue.

Against the falsification of the war history of Halifax and Canada, he published important historical articles. On the occasion of the centenary of the Halifax Explosion of December 6, 1917 the Advocate condemned it as a war crime (see here and here) in the context of the present drive for war. The coverage of Nova Scotia Advocate of state-organized racism at home was not divorced from the racist British colonial history of Nova Scotia and Canada (see here and here) nor the heroic liberation struggles abroad of the Arabic, Persian and African peoples (see here). There is not the slightest sign of chauvinism and pretension of the so-called “best country in the world” in his writing. The strivings of Nova Scotians in these reports are imbued with an effort to harmonize interests and with the internationalist spirit seen in contending with COVID, with defending immigrants and refugees, in standing with Palestine and many other battles waged as one humanity with one struggle for the rights of all.

In that sense Robert Devet actively took up the slogan and spirit of No Harbour for War and Not In Our Name and broadly made it his own. Anyone can speak or write bravely about such dangers from the sidelines, after the people have gone into action to confront them, but only those with real courage and principle are there to confront the situation in broad daylight. His spirit of unity in action showed his responsibility to this important cause for the nation and for peace. Sovereignty, peace and social justice are crucial elements that have united generations of Canadians for over a century.

Robert Devet on picket line outside Halifax Shipyard in a protest organized by Voice of Women for Peace about 15 years ago. Photo courtesy of Tamara Lorincz.

Unifying principles

On the occasion of his passing, comments and descriptions of the Advocate are in abundance. Most are well-meaning but some question the ideological paradigms of an independent media which are based on a failure to contemplate the capacity of the people of Nova Scotia, of their commitment and sacrifice, to tackle the problems facing them.

Robert Devet worked tirelessly but his journal was not a one-man shop nor a pragmatic co-ordinating centre whose role is to look after isolated “siloed“ humanitarian causes nor could it be; it became a vibrant political, literary and cultural centre for a virtual collective of writers and activists from all different backgrounds and affiliations. The aim of the publishing models based on the pragmatic ethos embraced by big media and its so-called “alternative” offspring, which all emphasize the decisiveness of private capital and technology, is to persuade the peoples of the world that there are no such things as principles which are a guide to action to sort out the problems which people face at any given time. Nova Scotia Advocate is six years of a journal with little capital comprising thousands of pages of a people persistently fighting for rights and security. It was a journal with the express purpose of assisting the struggle as it unfolded, capturing the moment of the here and now. Nova Scotians came together. It is a feat, a tribute to the people of this province, the principles they uphold, and their ability to analyze their own natural and social environment – objective reality – and write about it. We wrote to our fellow Nova Scotians, we were writing to communicate, to share our knowledge, information and concerns with humanity and find solutions. That is our motive. As a result, Nova Scotia Advocate was mainstream. while it is Saltwire and the monopoly media who portray an alternative reality, the world as a matter of opinion. The interests and well-being of people and the social and natural environment are incidental to this media. As a consequence, its content is increasingly in disrepute amongst people. The outpouring of tributes from both individuals and collectives confirms the need of the people for such an independent and progressive media, and the memorial rally is.a very timely and fitting recognition of the unifying principles and the cause of the people Robert strove to uphold. The world needs journalism, information collectives organized with a professional approach, and a media and culture that reflects the human condition, tells the truth, and provides enlightened solutions in the interest of the people, in what some call the battle of ideas, that refutes the notion that we are “animals,” a “cost of production” and spectators who get what we deserve. Our work is no bowl of cherries nor a coffee shop and limited by extreme material constraints [3]. But it is not impossible because together we stand for a just cause. If the longest journey begins with a single step, and if, without this step, nothing else is possible, then once this step is taken all kinds of other possibilities will present themselves. The monopoly media, the advertising and public relations agencies and cultural factories are hardly omnipotent.

Viewed historically, each generation of struggle gives rise to its own leaders and voices, fired with a renewed determination to solve these problems and clear the air once and for all. Like the mythological Phoenix, popular movements such as the working class movement rise again from its ashes to continue with life afresh. Movements advance, movements retreat, they zig and they zag, and many times it appears as if one is finished and starting anew! Life marches on! Today renewal has as much bearing as ever. It is essential because of the offensive against the movement in recent history. [4]

Our moment of reflection on the life and work of this herald of the current generation of struggle comes at an important conjuncture. The second decade of the 21st century has brought challenges of severe magnitude: the pandemic with its “new Normal” – an increased onslaught on working people, their lives, working conditions and well-being; privatization, deregulation, neo-liberalism; civil war in the ruling elite, annexation by the empire, intensified preparations for war and a war economy. These are dangerous times that require the people to speak out and step up their fight for conditions of life and work which they and society require at this time.

An important concern is that we are faced with a relentless offensive to deny people their means of expression and supplant information with disinformation, in which any capacity of human beings to think and speak for themselves about issues is being suppressed and liquidated. Not only Canada has the highest degree of monopolization of media of the developed capitalist countries – much of it owned by foreign oligarchs and vulture funds – but the Trudeau government and Chrystia Freeland in particular have created a NATO coalition claiming to defend “freedom of the press” as a high ideal and “Canadian value” while at the same time the RCMP is assaulting journalists on Vancouver Island at Indigenous protests. It is not fortuitous that the Nobel Peace Prize has just been awarded a pro-NATO “dissident” in Russia while U.S. journalists are criminalized as “national security risks” for obtaining and publishing truthful information and scores of journalists are murdered in Ukraine, Palestine and Latin America. In parallel Internet oligopolies integrated with the intelligence and military power are using algorithms to censor independent media at home and abroad under various pretexts including “hate”, “anti-semitism” and “extremism.”

The importance of this issue goes beyond hypocrisy and double standards: it is the wrecking of public opinion. Nova Scotia is one of the centres in Canada where the state is employing attacks against the people to divide on the basis of racism while presenting itself as “neutral”, from the attacks on the Mi’kmaw women on Confederation Day, July 1, 2017 by the Proud Boys, members of the Canadian Forces and linked to the FBI at the highest level, to the orchestrated attempts to split native and non-native fishers in Southwestern Nova Scotia. It is verifiable that these are not the acts of ordinary people or “mobs”. All of it is to split the polity in the name of upholding rights, security and balance, while protecting those who are truly against the rights of human beings.

One feature of this reaction is that the rights that humankind holds dear are profaned. The new mantra is that that Canadians must learn to balance their rights with national security or some other such nonsense. Balance is the word that should raise a red flag. We have rights by virtue of being human. They are not “given” to us by the ruling elite or by the monopolies that it works on behalf of. Our rights are guaranteed under any and all circumstances. They cannot be taken away under the hoax of national security, fiscal austerity, preservation of the fish stocks, or for any other reason. If they are taken away or “balanced”, as the euphemism goes, then they cease to be rights and become mere policy objectives.

Defence of the right to freedom of expression and the right to conscience is crucial to the fight for human rights. Recognizing that this defence is a social responsibility for journalists themselves to uphold is also a contribution to the fight to affirm the rights of all. The right to freedom of expression and conscience, to hold opinions, to express and practice them, as colleague Hardial Bains once underlined, is not merely an idea or abstract ideal; it is a fundamental human right. It is a question of science and civilization, of the well-being of the people, freedom and progress, of the advance of society. It is not fortuitous that only progressive people deal with the question of freedom of conscience and expression in a sincere, open and honest manner. The life and work of Robert Devet thus lives on in the people’s organized struggle for their rights and a new society fit for human beings. It is up to the people to end the present day colonial and racist approach to decision-making and rights. How to advance this struggle that Robert championed will surely be a main theme of today’s commemoration. In this regard, this memorial meeting recognizes the need to tell the truth which he exemplified, as a guide to action which liberates us. It is truly gratifying.

In this spirit, as a longtime fighter for the cause of progressive journalism, I would like to express my deepest appreciation to Robert Devet, his collective of contributors, and all the others developing independent media or media that helps us develop true and proper public opinion about the unfolding events, and the courage and conviction to take stands worthy of human society and development. If I may reiterate something I have said before: “The work of such media requires sacrifice but what is irresistible is the spirit of basing ourselves on our own strength. This is the strength of our numbers, organization and our own intelligence behind the justice of our cause, with full confidence that together we and our allies, all those whose interests are favoured by opening society’s path to progress, have the knowledge and the ability and, most of all the courage and conviction, to identify what is possible within any particular circumstances and increasingly complicated situations.” It is this spirit which gave rise to the Nova Scotia Advocate and brought it to fruition as a collective initiative and which enables all our common efforts in defence of the rights of all. The future will be guaranteed by the fight for the rights of all. En avant!

A Facebook page “Sharing Memories of Robert Devet” has been created in his honour, which may be visited here.

Endnotes

1. From information kindly provided by his sister Hélène de Vet and his sister-in-law Carolyn van Gurp on Facebook. Hélène underlines that “Although Robert was his own person, his devotion to social criticism, for which he was praised and valued all over in Nova Scotia, was in his genes and there all through his life… Robert’s progressive ideas and his activist character certainly didn’t come from a stranger.”

Maria van Gurp also came from a progressive, anti-fascist family in Holland. Following the Nazi Germany occupation of Holland, her father, Alexander (1924-2002), spent two of the war years in a forced labour camp in Germany and was interred in a camp for political prisoners. An innovative radio engineer, he was active with the Dutch Association of Slave Labourers, founded a website for survivors of forced labour camps and spent much of his time translating documents and maintaining the site. Through this work he found information for the families of deceased forced labourers. Along with many Dutch families after the war, he immigrated to Nova Scotia in 1953 with his wife, Margaretha (1926-2020) and children, Maria, Hetty, Gerald, with Susan, Carolyn and John, being born in Halifax. He established VanGurp Electronics, taught electronics at Halifax Regional Vocational School and served as principal at the Community College. Margaretha survived wartime occupation in her teens with courage and resilience, saving the life of her father and brother and walking miles to seek food for the family during the famine winter. She was a prolific artist, sculptor and teacher in her own right and active in VANS (Visual Arts Nova Scotia), Amnesty International and the NDP.

2. The motto emerged with printers involved in the Chartist political movement (1837-48) in England and was adopted by the anti-slavery movement in the United States.

3. Many contributors gratefully note how the Advocate struggled to raise funds and remunerate freelancers without a paywall and gave a voice to previously unpublished writers and poets. This contrasts dramatically with lavish pay-the-rich grants and non-tendered contracts provided from public funds to the private media oligarchs by different levels of government. That many of our writers, authors, independent journalists, photographers and film-makers and artists live in poverty, left to fend for themselves facing uncertainty and insecurity every day, without means and denied intellectual property rights, is an indictment of the society and the political arrangements where only the fittest are allegedly to survive. Its solution simply cannot be left to chance. A society should provide for its creators, who should be able to live a live of dignity and security.

4. Nova Scotia Advocate is the latest edition of a century-long struggle in Nova Scotia to develop a progressive media as an instrument of the people’s struggle for empowerment. This rich history includes, each with their distinctive contribution bearing the imprint of the time:

  • Fro the earliest times workers formed associations to defend their rights and interests against their employers and issued informational bulletins according to their possibilities. However, the partly deliberate and partly natural concealment and secrecy of trade unionism of the nineteenth century makes it next to impossible to write this history.
  • Mac-Talla (weekly 1892-1901, fortnightly 1901-1904, Jonathan G. MacKinnon of Whycocomagh, published out of Sydney). The longest running Gaelic newspaper in the world, its weekly publication for ten years is a record in Gaelic journalism not equalled in Scotland. It had an international subscription list. From 1851 to 1942 at least twenty-one Gaelic publications were printed in Nova Scotia as instruments to defend language and culture, and demand status for all in the Anglocentric public education system, where Gaelic was de facto segregated. The Nova Scotia Archives holds issues, 1892-1904.
  • The Citizen (May 9, 1919-, a weekly newspaper capable of “presenting labour’s case to the public,” Halifax District Trades & Labour Council):
  • Maritime Labour Herald (1921-1926, William Ulric Cotton, J.B. McLaughin, D.N. Brodie, 6,000 copies, followed by The Nova Scotia Miner, published 1929–30 and 1931–36 in Glace Bay);
  • Le Courrier de la Nouvelle-Écosse (1937- ,). “Nova Scotia’s leading French-language newspaper, and the only one with province-wide coverage and distribution. First published by Désiré d’Éon as Le Petit Courrier (Du Sud-Ouest de la Nouvelle-Écosse) on 10 February 1937, it has appeared weekly ever since, informing its readers, defending the interests of Acadians and francophones, and providing a bridge linking all Acadian regions in the province.”
  • The Clarion (1946-1949, Viola Desmond, “published in the interests of coloured Nova Scotians”);
  • The 4th Estate (1969-1977, Brenda Large, Nick Filmore);
  • The Micmac News (1965-1991), later Mi’kmaq & Maliseet News (1990-, published by publishers, The Confederacy of Mainland Mi’kmaq, Millbrook), Ray Gould, Don Julien et al; later Mikmaq Newsnet;
  • New Maritimes (1981-1996, Scott Milsom and Gary Burrill, quarterly, 2,000 copies);
  • Halifax People’s Voice (bulletin of the Halifax Committee Against Imperialist War/People’s Front, 1982-);
  • The Rap (1986-1988, Black United Front / George Elliott Clarke, Mark Daye et al);
  • Cape Breton’s Magazine (November, 1972 to June, 1999, Ron Caplan);
  • Am Bràighe (1993-2003, Frances and Ronnie MacEachen, quarterly, Mabou, Cape Breton in English and Gaelic);
  • Shunpiking Magazine (December 1996 to May 2009, Tony Seed et al, tabloid 20-25,000 copies with a separate online edition); and
  • the online Halifax Media Co-op, (Hilary Lindsay, Miles Howe et al). 

Renewal of this media means either starting anew without neglecting the past – the sure way to create the present and the future – or a restructuring of what has already been – the renewal of the past so as to ensure its continuation.

To be continued

*The writer is a former journalist and features writer with the Globe and Mail, editor and publisher of Shunpiking, Nova Scotia’s discovery magazine (1996-2009) and Dossier on Palestine (2002) and a frequent contributor to the Halifax Media Co-op, Nova Scotia Advocate and TML Weekly. On a personal note, it was especially gratifying that Robert Devet highly esteemed Shunpiking as a model for Nova Scotia Advocate.

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