“My name is Ivan Drury. I’m writing this letter to inform the left and progressive community that I have broken with Fire This Time, MAWO, and all other related groups. Through this letter I also hope to begin to stand accountable for the many irresponsible and destructive things I am responsible for having done when I was a member of these groups.”
So begins an extraordinary confession from a former senior member of Movement Against War and Occupation (MAWO), one of Canada’s most prominent, bizarre and radical group of activists that organizes on numerous Vancouver area campuses. The 5,000-word open letter, penned by Ivan Drury, reveals a group that sounds less like a Canadian campus organization, circa 2008, and more like a revolutionary cell from pre-revolutionary Russia, circa 1908. MAWO as described by Drury devoted itself to revolution, “cadre building,” opposition to capitalism, incessant infighting with and undermining of other left-leaning groups—and cult-like devotion to its charismatic, middle-aged leader, a former refugee claimant by the name of Ali Yerevani.
“Emotionally and personally,” writes Drury, “my experience in the group really messed me up.”
Drury paints Yerevani, the leader of the organization, as the main culprit: a charismatic totalitarian, one part Lenin and one part David Koresh. “Inside the group, Yerevani is a tyrant who tolerates zero dissent to his absolute control,” writes Drury. “‘Organizational norms’ mean constant phone contact with him to receive constant marching orders on everything from speakers’ lists and the admission of ‘opponents’ to events, to which button to wear on which side of your coat. No joke. These ‘norms’ also address every aspect of personal life, like how to hang car keys, what clothes women members are allowed to wear, how to invite someone to coffee, how to flush a toilet.”
The radical, anti-war movement Yerevani co-founded has, over the past four years, had a presence at almost every college and university in British Columbia’s Lower Mainland. Under the banners of Fire This Time (the organization’s house organ newspaper), Mobilization Against War and Occupation (MAWO), Youth Third World Alliance, and various other groups, the movement has organized countless protests and events on and off campus. It isn’t just opposed to the war in Iraq or Afghanistan. It is opposed to war and occupation in all forms—as part of a worldview that sees capitalism and Western society as themselves a kind of violent occupation. (For the sake of brevity, this article will refer to all of these Yerevani-associated groups under the common name of MAWO.)
MAWO’s definition of “occupation” includes the “colonial occupation” of Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia—and Canada. They are against any intervention in the Darfur region of Sudan. MAWO is also opposed to sanctions against Cuba or Iran; Drury writes that his former group reflexively lauded Cuba as a “model society with a model democracy where everyone is happy.”
It’s not only MAWO’s radical ideas and countless protests that have earned them a reputation in Vancouver’s activist scene: rumours of MAWO’s dogmatic, cult-like ways (including everything from assault to credit card fraud) have circulated for years. Drury substantiates those rumours, and describes MAWO as a cult of personality, run by an aging dictatorial leader, bent on building a cadre of followers, many recruited from West Coast campuses.
A 10-year veteran activist, Drury helped found the movement after a nasty split with another left-wing activist group allegedly orchestrated by Drury and Yerevani. In the letter, Drury explains how he once believed that his tactics — “from ultra-centralist, abusive internal dynamics to petty disrespectful conduct towards other leftists, to profoundly sectarian sabotage acts” — were justified because of the extreme corruption of the rest of the left and his dedication to “cadre building” in order to be a “true revolutionary.”
But in January 2007, four years into his work with MAWO, Drury quietly resigned. Last month, he published his diatribe against the movement. Aside from his own mea culpa, Drury’s description of the group reveals a controlling Yerevani, obsessed with reining over even the smallest details of his followers’ lives:
“He even rationalizes his authority by citing the lineage of his revolutionary ideas back to Lenin, evoking the tired claims of being the one-true-inheritor of the Bolshevik legacy. Yerevani enforces the idea in the group that rebellion against him is egotistical, and a sign of ‘petit-bourgeois tendencies’. [. . .]
“The reading lists of members are strictly controlled and even discussion of these readings is restricted to sessions under Yerevani’s control. Yervani knows — from his own experience — that this is centralism without the democratic, but waves away such considerations with the justification that the membership is too ‘inexperienced’ and ‘immature’ to handle democracy.”
Pulling young people into this hyper-controlled world seems to be a major focus of Yerevani. According to Drury, the goal of many of MAWO’s actions was not necessarily to further its stated purpose, namely opposing war and occupation, but instead to build a cadre of dedicated revolutionaries.
“While recruiting, Yerevani would use his charm and charisma to make young people, and predominately young women, feel important and exceptional. However, this sense of exceptionalism came with the steep price of complete devotion to Yerevani. Impatient for his cadre to develop into ‘professional revolutionaries’ he drove these recruits’ political development in his image with a constant one-two of Yerevani-dependent confidence building and Yerevani-dependent ‘ego-smashing’.”
University campuses not only served as a prime location for recruitment, but also as a valuable source of resources. Drury’s letter listed campus clubs at Capilano, the University of British Columbia, Langara College, Simon Fraser University, and Douglas College in his list of groups that fell under the MAWO/Fire This Time umbrella. In speaking with student leaders from these schools, Maclean’s was given numerous examples of MAWO members using student unions and newspapers as tools to forward their mandate.
J.J. McCullough, editor of the student paper at Douglas College, describes MAWO members as “hard-line communists of the old sort — extraordinarily dogmatic, non-compromising.” He believes that a MAWO member was “assigned” to his newspaper, The Other Press. “She was an agent of theirs. She openly tried to co-opt the paper,” McCullough said, adding that she tried to “fill the paper with press releases.” Former editor Trevor Hargreaves agreed: “She was put in there specifically as part of their effort to have a man at every student paper.” The student, who was employed as news editor, was eventually let go for reasons unrelated to her membership in MAWO, but she was repeatedly warned during her employment about using the newspaper to spread MAWO’s message.
A staff person at the Langara Students’ Union said that she believed that a MAWO member had also been planted at her students’ union. She also said that the MAWO had become very involved in Langara’s student paper the Gleaner and used it to “very, very heavily advertise” the group’s issues. MAWO recently protested at Langara when the students’ union ceased publishing the Gleaner.
McCullough, who is also a student at Simon Fraser University and involved in the student government there, said that the student government there has recently begun rejecting MAWO’s requests for funding anti-war events because of their reputation for being “extreme.”
Representatives from the student club at UBC connected to MAWO did not return calls.
At Capilano, where Yerevani was spotted at a student forum only two weeks ago, MAWO members have held positions on the student union executive for years. CSU chairperson Benjamin Newsom confirmed that there have been questions raised about MAWO’s connection with the organization. Although not every event organized by the social justice committee has been focused on war and occupation, in Newsom’s memory, every event has dealt with issues closely related to MAWO.
A former CSU executive who asked not to be named said that MAWO clearly uses the CSU for resources. “They were using the organization as a tool, but there was nothing sneaky about it,” he said. “They were overt.” He added that MAWO was not the only organization to “plant” members on campuses for their own purposes; political parties and student lobby organizations were also wise to the practice.
A number of students connected to MAWO reported that members are only permitted to enroll in post-secondary institutions if they take approved courses only, mostly language courses such as Spanish that would allow the members to communicate with comrades while avoiding the risk of poisoning their minds with “petit-bourgeois” higher education.
Surely there is nothing surprising or even wrong with student activists working through a students’ union to further their message. There is a long history of political dissent on campuses, from the Vietnam protests to current student movements such as those opposing military recruiters on campus or debating abortion laws. But what makes MAWO different is the extremism of many of its positions, and according to Drury, the length the organization is willing to go to retain and control members.
Drury explains in his letter how he helped Yerevani manipulate and abuse young activists. Drury would carry out “exit meetings” with members who resigned or tried to resign, with the goal of degrading and humiliating the person “so that whatever was left of their confidence would be broken so badly that they would not get involved in any other group and become our opponents,” Drury writes.
One of Drury’s regrets is that he didn’t speak out against Yerevani’s manipulation of members, which included showing up at a person’s home for “mafia-type meetings” where the person would be berated for “letting their ‘petty bourgeois tendencies’ show— whether in a political mistake they made, or by how they dressed, or if they looked tired or were feeling grumpy.”
Sometimes these meetings went beyond simply humiliating members. Drury describes one of the last such meetings he claims he participated in: “The subject was being berated for her ‘petty bourgeois tendencies’. The specific charge? That she was too attached to her parents. The evidence? That she was refusing to steal from their credit card to buy a computer for ‘our movement.’ The meeting lasted over three hours. In the end, she caved to our extortion.”
But it didn’t stop at extortion. Drury alleges that things turned violent when another founding member tried to resign in 2005. (See letter for more).
MAWO is not only in the business of controlling and manipulating young activists, but, writes Drury, is obsessed with undermining its opponents — opponents that often included those who were allegedly allies. For instance, Drury participated in widely distributing and publishing the personal emails of Derrick O’Keefe, another Vancouver anti-war activist after “accidentally” hacking into O’Keefe’s email account. (“While joking with Yerevani… that most far-leftists in Vancouver probably used some combination revolutionary names as email account passwords, I tested my joke on Derrick O’Keefe’s account,” writes Drury. “And the account opened.”) Drury alleges that MAWO also actively crashed other activist groups’ rallies and meetings and purposefully engineered animosity within groups with whom they were supposedly cooperating.
Ali Yerevani did not respond to interview requests.
Drury is now calling for the dissolution of all groups associated with MAWO. But judging from the picket signs and shouted slogans outside the Canadian Armed Forces Recruitment Centre in downtown Vancouver last week, the movement is far from finished. Nonetheless, Drury’s story will likely resonate in the Vancouver activist scene for some time: “I understand that the majority [of] the political work I have done in my life has led in the very opposite direction from what I now believe is necessary,” writes Drury. However, he remains committed to the “fight against the extremely reactionary imperialist order that is tearing our world apart.”
“I am a Marxist,” he states in his open letter. “I believe that capitalism cannot be reformed. I believe that capitalism must be replaced with socialized property and production through socialist revolution. I believe that it is only through the self-action of oppressed people that revolution can occur.”
But perhaps some day he’ll change his mind about that, too.
“If there is anything I am glad to have taken from my experience,” Drury writes in the conclusion of his open letter, “it is to have been humbled by the enormity of my capacity to error.”