July 31, 2017

Book Review:Upheaval: The Refugee Trek Through Europe by Navid Kermani

Upheaval Cover sm.jpg Upheaval: The Refugee Trek Through Europe by Navid Kermani, published by Polity Books, recounts the author's travels along Europe's refugee road. He traces the path of those seeking asylum in his native Germany as they make their way from Turkey to Lesbos in Greece and then on through Eastern Europe to the relative salvation of Chancellor Angela Merkel's welcoming borders.

Of course the refugees' journeys didn't begin in Turkey, they began in Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq. They have walked, paid smugglers exorbitant fees for passage in unsafe boats to make it this far. Now they find they have to make their way across Europe to find the one central European country willing to give them sanctuary. For while Scandinavia has continued to welcome refugees, Europe, especially Eastern Europe, has been returning to its old patterns of antipathy for anyone different.

Kermani follows the refugee trail backwards across Europe. In Hungary they're herded into public parks serving as way stations as they wait for transportation to Germany. The government actively ferments public disapproval through billboards featuring a beautiful blond model saying she objects to illegal aliens. The author meets with those who have tried to help the refugees and finds them nervous and worried. One, a writer, says the enemy isn't Muslims, its anyone different; gays, Jews, Romani, a critical media or any sort of opposition.

Many might find some sort of irony in this, but Germany is the one country in Europe welcoming the refugees - they've taken in over a million by the time the author is writing this. Kermani isn't sure what caused Merkel's change of heart - she had initially opposed open borders - but change she has and Germany has become a beacon of hope for those fleeing terror and oppression.

Through Kermani's eyes we see refugees trudging up the road from the beeches on the island of Lesbos in Greece after completing the passage by water from Turkey. We see them huddled in groups on the shores of Turkey waiting for the smugglers willing to run the blockade of Turkish patrol boats to take them over to Greece. We hear of how they pay far too much money for passage in overcrowded boats.

Yet, people still persist in saying there might be terrorists lurking among them. What Kermani finds is the refugees, from young men to families, are just as worried about terrorists as everybody else. After all they're fleeing them. Whether from Iraq, Syria, or Afghanistan they are running away from Islamic State or some other variation on that theme.

Upheaval: The Refugee Trek Through Europe was originally commissioned as series of articles for the German newspaper Der Spiegel but has been updated and expanded upon for the book. You can hear/see the author striving to maintain his journalistic objectivity, but in the face of what he witnesses it's next to impossible. When a young Afghan man, who has had all his money stolen and is nearly without water or food, offers him a drink from his only bottle of water you can almost hear Kermani's heart breaking.

Of special note are the photographs by Moises Saman which accompany Kermani's words. They are stark glimpses into a reality few of us can even begin to understand and serve as the perfect compliment to the text. While pictures of families clinging to each other tug at the heart strings, his photo of a refugee's bare exposed bare feet is a more compelling testament to the trials these people are experiencing than anything else I've seen.

Kermani has done a great job of not only capturing something of what the refugees are experiencing as they take the last stage of their journey to what they hope will be a new world, but the mood of the people whose hands they pass through. He shines a light in the dark spaces of our current world and exposes the dirty and shameful way we treat our fellow human beings.

(Article originally published at as Book Review: Upheaval: The Refugee Trek Through Europe by Navid Kermani)

March 10, 2014

Book Review: IR 30: Indigenous Visions In Dub

I guess it's appropriate blockades have gone up again on the Tyndengia Mohawk reservation in South Eastern Ontario Canada as I begin to write this review. Here in Canada the First Nations people are usually out of sight and out of mind unless they manage to capture the media's attention with some event which inconvenience the population at large. While the fact the majority of them live in conditions equivalent to the destitution most in the developed world equate with the poverty of the developing world should be news enough in itself to keep them in the papers on a daily basis, we only read about them when anger and resentment over conditions reach the boiling point and spill over into angry protest.

Last winter's Idle No More grass roots movement pushed First Nations issues into the spotlight temporarily, but the government has done its usual good job of simply ignoring, it understanding if they say nothing the media will soon move on to something else. Canada, and by extension North America, aren't unique for their mistreatment and ignoring of the indigenous populations whose lands we now occupy. Around the world, from the South Pacific to the High Arctic, indigenous people are marginalized, starved, pushed off what little land we leave them and generally continue to face bleaker and bleaker futures while nobody seems to give a shit. We give them the worst land available and then pollute or steal it when we discover natural resources beneath it ripe for exploiting.

However, a grassroots collective of writers, activists, visual artists and musicians from indigenous communities around the world have started taking advantage of the communications tools offered them by the Internet in an attempt to get the message out. The Fire This Time (TFTT) has been facilitating the bringing together of musicians, poets and lyricists from indigenous communities around the world via their web server. Individuals can upload music tracks, songs, poems and beats for others to download and create new songs with. These dubs are then released on TFTT's record label, Indigenous Resistance (IR). To date 29 recordings featuring music from The Solomon Islands in the South Pacific to Brazil, mixed by artists from India to North America have been issued. This year they have also released something a little different, the book IR 30 Indigenous Visions In Dub, a collection of writings and images which have provided the lyrical content and visuals used in many of these recordings.
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A number of years ago I had reviewed one of the earlier recordings on the IR label, but somehow or other I lost track of their releases over the years. Which is what makes this book all the more interesting and valuable. For the texts they've selected to include not only deal with the major themes and stories from the indigenous world they've been trying to cover over the years, they also bring the words of some of the more insightful minds among indigenous people together in one volume.

Like the recordings the words gathered in this book come from all parts of the globe. They've included lyrics/quotes from musicians from the Solomon Islands (Tohununo and Pesio), stories about an incident which occurred in Brazil where an indigenous man was burnt alive by four wealthy youth (who received only minimum sentences), articles exploring the ties between the indigenous people of North and South America and African Americans, and quotes from two of the most interesting minds among the North American indigenous population, architect Douglas Cardinal and musician/poet/former chair of the American Indian Movement (AIM) John Trudell. While the story of the murder of the Pataxo Galdino in Brazil is sickening in the way it reflects the indifference of the Brazilian population at large to the indigenous peoples whose land the Portuguese stole it makes valuable reading, if only for the contrast it provides to how we normally see these people. Instead of being gaudily dressed props for pop stars' photo opportunities, these are flesh and blood people barely eking out an existence in some of the biggest and roughest slums in the world.

I have to admit while the points about there being common cause between the situation of African Americans and indigenous people through out the Western hemisphere are valid, some of the attempts to tie their spiritual practices together did stretch my credibility. To my mind the writer was making the same assumption far too many do of believing there is a universal "Indigenous" belief system, when not only would you find radically different beliefs among each nation, but from village to village within the same language group. However, there can be no denying the writer's points about the intermarriage between the two groups or the fact many indigenous populations in North and South America share many of the same physical characteristics of African Americans - the indigenous people of Puerto Rico for example.

To my mind the most fascinating readings in this book are the quotes from Douglas Cardinal and John Trudell. Cardinal's words on the nature of power and the way women are treated are stated so matter of factually it makes you wonder how anyone could act any differently. On women he sums things up very succinctly, "One has to state that all the premises that men have of women are basically wrong and you start from there. Even the language is wrong". He uses the same directness of language in his discussion on the nature of power, "I have learnt...that the most powerful force is soft power, caring and commitment together. Soft power is more powerful than adversarial or hard power because it is resilient".
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Trudell's words resonate with a different kind of power. He is someone who knows the power of the mind and the power of words (The FBI once referred to him as one of the most dangerous men in America simply because of the power of his oratory). In a poem quoted in the book he speaks out against the frameworks of European society imposed upon his people as being the instruments of their destruction. Why should he support purported democracy when all it has done is make of his people (along with African Americans and women) second class citizens who are treated like chattel? "We live in a political society/Where they have all power/by their definition of power/but they fear the people who go/out and speak the truth".

Trudell summation of his oppressors attitudes is spot on. Why, if they believe themselves to be so powerful by their own definitions (money and societal position being the two we value the most) are they so scared of those who speak out about injustice and the poverty of the few? Are they afraid people will see how insubstantial their claims to power truly are?

Our governments give occasional lip service to the plight of Native Americans and Canada's First Nation's people, but their policy of doing nothing and hoping the problem goes away has now become official. New acts passed in both the Federal legislations of Canada and the US are designed to ensure the numbers of registered, or status, indigenous people decline to the point where they can take back the reserves and reservations because there will no longer be enough "Indians". Yet anyone who dares speak this truth is called paranoid and deceptive. Who in fact are the more paranoid and deceptive - the ones cynically trying to get rid of "The Indian Problem" or the ones who are the subject to these draconian laws? (For anyone interested in reading about these new acts I recommend Thomas Kings's The Inconvenient Indian)

From the Sahara Desert to the Australian Outback, the rain forests of Brazil to the tundra of Siberia, the Black Hills of Dakota and northern Alberta Canada indigenous people are seeing the land promised them by treaties gradually stolen away from them. What lives they've been able to carve out for themselves in this post-colonial world are gradually being eroded and destroyed. Their culture is appropriated and turned into a commodity, they are depicted as stereotypes not humans and more and more government policy is being directed towards their destruction as distinct societies.

One of the few means at their disposal to remind people they are living breathing cultures is to find the way to speak with a unified voice - one that is loud enough to be heard around the world. Through their record label IR, TFTT is doing its best to provide the opportunity for those voices. IR 30: Indigenous Visions In Dub gathers together some of the most powerful words and images used during the creation of the label's 29 recordings in a single volume as an intense collage of ideas and visuals. It offers a far different perspective on indigenous life around our planet than that offered by either governments or your New Age book store. Isn't it about time you read the truth?

(Article first published at Empty Mirror as Book Review: IR 30: Indigenous Visions In Dub)

August 19, 2013

Book Review: Music, Culture & Conflict In Mali by Andy Morgan

Can you imagine what life would be like without music? If somehow it became illegal to listen to CDs, i-Pods and even cell phone ringtones in public. Or, if you were a musician, to live in constant fear of having all your equipment taken away from you and destroyed in front of your eyes and the threat of torture, prison or death hanging over you all the time? Maybe you could still play music in the privacy of your home, but only if you made sure all the windows and doors were shut and there's no way the sound would leak out into the street where somebody passing could hear.

Sounds pretty far fetched doesn't it? There's no way it could happen. Well that's exactly what happened in Northern Mali from around March 2012 until very recently. For Malians what made this even worse was how large a role music plays in their culture. Not only does music provide them with the same pleasure it does everybody else in the rest of the world, it is also a significant part of their cultural identity. From those who rely on traditional bard type figures known as griots, oral historians to their people whose songs can recount everything from the history of a family to a listing of the significant moments in a nation's history, to people like the nomadic Tuareg who rely on music to pass on cultural traditions, music is the backbone of their cultures. If music were eliminated for any length of time it would result in cultural genocide.

So how did this atrocity come about? How did music, and Mali has become famous for producing musicians of international calibre, end up being made a criminal offence and being a performer meant risking your life? The story is both simple - Northern Mali was taken over by Islamic Jihadist who imposed their version of Muslim religious law - and incredibly complicated - there are real problems in Mali which paved the way to make the take over possible. However, a new book written by Andy Morgan, Music, Culture & Conflict In Mali published by Freemuse ( a kind of Amnesty International for musicians) does a wonderful job of not only detailing what happened during that awful period, but explaining why it did, and how it could easily happen again if things don't change.
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Morgan is able to provide information from first hand sources you're not liable to read elsewhere because of his personal connection to the area. He was the manager of the first Tuareg (or Kel Tamashek as they refer to themselves) band, Tinariwen to become well known outside of Mali, for seven years. Through them he not only became known and trusted by the Kel Tamashek, he established relationships within the musical community throughout Mali. So, unlike reports you'll have read in the newspapers which have only told the bare minimum, Morgan is able to not only give us first hand accounts of people's experiences during these events, he supplies us with information about the various factions involved with the uprising, the details of what happened and the historical, political and social context which made it possible to begin with.

Mali, while its population is predominately Muslim, is a secular country, meaning the church has no influence over its governance. The majority of the people follow an Islamic tradition heavily influenced by their own tribal beliefs. They don't adhere to any of the restrictions on men and women associating, the prohibitions against alcohol or any of the more repressive tenets of the conservative fundamentalists. So it doesn't sound like a country ripe for an Islamic government of the kind normally associated with groups like the Taliban. However, over the past fifteen years there has been a gradual increase in the presence of foreign financed and taught pressure groups trying to influence public opinion in favour of this kind of society.

Mali has been victim, like many of the poorer African nations, of corrupt governments and military coups during its short lifetime since independence in the early 1960s. This has led to the type of unstable social and economic atmosphere history has show us is how groups promising stability and order are able to gain power. Of course its only once they gain power anybody finds out their version of order is to take away everybody's freedom. In Mali, they have been working just this kind of campaign - advocating a return to traditional Islamic values as the cure for everybody's ills, without actually saying what that means. Thus they've been softening up the ground for a potential takeover.
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The other important thing needed to know about Mali is the longstanding dispute between the central government and the Kel Tamashek people. Nomads whose territory once stretched from Algeria in the north to Niger in the South, their way of life has been seriously impacted by the encroachment of cities and industry into their lands. A series of rebellions over the years finally resulted in a treaty being signed between the Malian government and the Kel Tamashek in 2006 which guaranteed them certain rights and economic assistance. Unfortunately the Malian government has reneged on the majority of the treaty. As a result early 2012 saw another Kel Tamashek uprising in the North. By March they had succeeded in capturing the three major cities in the region and send the Malian army packing which precipitated the military overthrown of the Malian government.

Unfortunately for the forces fighting for the Kel Tamashek, one of their more powerful factions was led by a convert to radical Islam and had established ties with Jihad groups in Algeria. As soon as the battles were won, he and his allies ousted the Kel Tamashek nationalists and set up their own fiefdom. While the Kel Tamashek's goal was to create a homeland for themselves in Northern Mali, their usurpers saw it as a springboard for taking over the whole country.

Morgan does an excellent job of outlining all the players and the details of what happened in Northern Mali in 2012. However, more importantly he shows us how susceptible developing nations are to this type of take over, with or without the general populations support. As one of the people interviewed said Malians have become so used to being pushed around by the military and corruption they have reached a point where they're just grateful to be alive and have forgotten they deserve more than just survival.

Morgan's connections to people in Mali, both in the music business and otherwise, gives him a perspective on the situation few others can offer to the outsider. Not only do we learn the details of how the music ban has affected culture in the country, but how the uprising has brought disruption into the entire region. While the combined forces of France, Chad and Mali have been able to retake the major cities in the north, the future remains uncertain as the terror groups have simply retreated to their bases outside the country or into the desert.

While there are reports of a new treaty brokered by the French between Mali and the Kel Tamashek it remains to be seen whether the Malian government will be any better in honouring this accord than the ones previously signed. As Morgan so astutely points out, as long as conditions throughout Mali, and by extension the Sahara region as a whole, do not improve, there's no saying we won't see a resurgence of terror activity.

(Article originally published at as Book Review: Music, Culture & Conflict in Mali by Andy Morgan)

April 23, 2013

Richie Havens - In Memorium

I was saddened today to hear the wonderful Richie Havens had died of a heart attack yesterday (April 22 2013). Havens had been flying under most people's radars for the last little while, popping up in occasional cameos in movies, but still producing some incredible music. Five years ago he releasedNobody Left To Crown and proved he was still as vital and active as he was when he first began performing back in the 1960s.

Like most people my introduction to Havens was via the Woodstock Music festival of 1969. First through my brother's copy of the record album and them watching a flickering print of the movie in a second run movie house nearly a decade after the festival had taken place. Watching this man pouring his heart out on screen amazed me. To later learn he had actually played for three hours and maintained that level of energy the whole time astounded me. It turns out none of the other scheduled performers had been able to make it on site in time because of traffic conditions and organizers asked him to fill in.

Havens was probably best known for his amazing ability as an interpreter of other people's songs. As he showed on Nobody Left To Crown it didn't matter whether it was the power rock of The Who, "Won't Get Fooled Again", or the softer sounds of Jackson Browne, "Live's In The Balance", he could bring any song to life and make it soar in new ways. Unfortunately, his own ability as a song writer was often overlooked. On the same album he proved how he was every bit as capable of writing music as powerful as anybody else out there. One only needs listen to the release's title track where he bemoans the lack of real leadership in the world to realize how skilled he was. Not only could he pinpoint issues with unerring accuracy his artistry lay in making songs simultaneously poetic and accessible.

However, it's not just Haven's talent I'm going to miss, I'm going to miss him personally. Around the time Nobody Left To Crown was released I was fortunate enough to interview him. Most interviews with public personalities are limited to what are known as 20 minute "phoners". The person you're interviewing is doing about twenty of them in a row and you're supposed to ask pat questions about their new release and they give you their pat answers. That wasn't the case with Havens. He and I talked for only slightly more then a half-hour, but by the time we ended our conversation I felt like I had known him for years. He ended up by making sure to invite me to drop by a folk club in upstate New York where he still played on a regular basis, and I felt like he would be genuinely glad to see me if somehow I ended up sitting in the audience one night.
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If you read the interview you'll see I warn you in the introduction we both had a hard time staying on topic. We were supposed to be talking about the new album, but we'd become fascinated by some other subject and head wildly off in a new direction. However, what I most remember about our conversation was what a gentle, humorous and unassuming man he was. I remember him laughing about how he developed his very distinct style of playing guitar. He basically said it was because I wasn't very good and had to find the easiest way possible to play the thing. There used to be a page on his web site where he explained how this worked, but the link seems to be dead now. Here's how he described to me how he overcame the biggest obstacle facing him when he became a solo artist: "The problem was I didn't know how to play guitar, let alone tune one. But Dave Van Ronk and Freddy (Fred Neil) helped out and it was from them I learned how to tune my guitar down to D and learned the bar chords that I still play today. With those simple chords and that tuning you can play thousands of songs - it's great (laughter)"

It's impossible to capture in words on paper, or whatever this is, the truth of a person. However, based on the few precious minutes I spent with Richie Havens one afternoon I came to realize what a truly gentle spirit he was. It amazed me how a man could be so passionate about life and his art while still being filled with such kindness and awe for the work of others and the world around him. As a conclusion to my interview I offered up the words, the world would be a lot better off if there were more people like him in it. On the day after his death, I would change that to - the world is worse off for not having Richie Havens in it anymore.

(Article first published as In Memory Of Richie Havens on Blogcritics.)

February 22, 2013

Festival au Desert 2013 Cancelled Due To Uprising In Northern Mali

Almost since I began reviewing music seven years ago I've been receiving press releases inviting me to attend the annual Festival au Desert. This year instead of my annual invitation I received a release announcing the festival's cancellation due to the ongoing war in Northern Mali. However, the press release did announce they would be holding events in exile. Since the world can't come to North Africa this year they will attempt to bring North Africa to the world.

The situation in Northern Mali is confused right now, to say the least. In an effort to understand the situation better and find out more about what's happening with the Festival I contacted Chris Nolan who is the Festival's North American associate. For those who might not be familiar with the Festival perhaps a little background information is in order. The first Festival au Desert was held in 2001. However its origins lie in an annual Tuareg festival, known as Takoubelt in Kidal and Temakannit in Timbuktu, held at this time of the year. The Tuareg are a widely scattered nomadic people united by a common language, Tamashek whose traditional territory stretches from the Algerian Sahara in the north to Niger in the south. These were times when people could gather in one place to exchange information and resolve any difference that had arisen between tribes during the previous year. While in the past the meeting place had changed locations from year to year, it was decided to create a permanent location for the modern version of the festival. The current location is in Essakane, two hours north of Timbuktu, making it accessible to both locals and international attendees.

Initially the festival was limited to musicians from the region, dancing, camel races and other traditional activities. It has since been opened up to musicians from all over the world. For three days 30 or so groups representing a variety of musical traditions perform for audiences who come from all over the world. It is now not only a celebration of Tuareg culture, but all the cultures of the region and a cultural exchange between the area and the rest of the world. The current dates of the festival were chosen specifically to commemorate "La Flamee de la Paix" (The Flame of Peace). This was a ceremony which took place in 1996 to mark the end of the last Tuareg uprising and involved the burning of over 3000 firearms which were then transformed into a permanent monument. At the time it was hoped the treaty signed between the Malian government and the Tuareg would mean peace for the region and see real improvement in the living conditions among the Tuareg.

Ironically, and sadly, this year's festival has been cancelled because once again violence has returned to the region. The echo of the last notes from 2012's festival had barely died away when a new rebellion sprang up. The Malian government had failed to live up to its obligations under the treaty and there had been sporadic outbreaks of revolt since 2009. This time though it was a full scale and well organized uprising. However, unlike previous Tuareg revolts it soon became apparent this one was radically different. Previously they had been about preserving their land and culture, this time there was a new and rather nasty undertone.
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For more specific information about what has been going on since last January I turned to a series of articles written by Andy Morgan which have been published in various newspapers and gathered together at his web site Andy Morgan Writes. Morgan had been manager of the Tuareg band Tinariwen and helped them make the transition from a regional band to the international presence they are today. Morgan has lived and worked among the Tuareg enough to be able to offer a perspective few others can. One of the most important things he says we have to keep in mind is there is no one voice speaking for the Tuareg. Geography and the nomadic way of life ensure they are scattered over the entire Western Sahara. In each region tribal groups have their own leadership and govern themselves as autonomous units. Therefore those in Mali speak for the people of Mali and no one else. Complicating the current situation even more is the sharp division among those claiming to speak for the Tuareg of Northern Mali.

First there is the traditional chief of the Ifoghas tribe who are the hereditary leaders of the Tuareg in the North. While the chief himself is a traditional Tuareg, his son and heir, Alghabass Ag Intalla, is a recent convert to a fundamentalist form of Islam. He is head of a group calling itself Islamic Movement of Azawad (MIA) whose goal is the establishment of an Islamic Republic in the Tuareg territory of North of Mali - known as Azawad. Until recently he and his group were allied with the even more radical Islamic group Ansar ud Dine, headed by Iyad Ag Ghali, another Tuareg convert to radical Islam. It was his group who were responsible for the implementation of Shira law in the region. They also have direct links to and are funded by Al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb.

Al Qaida's funds for their operations in North Mali came from smuggling operations (drugs, arms, cigarettes and people) and money laundering. All activities which would appear to be in contravention of Shira law, but as we've seen elsewhere, when it comes to raising money politicians tend to turn a blind eye to its origins. Iyad Ag Ghali's ambitions weren't just limited to the creation of an Islamic state in North Mali, he wanted all of Mali brought under Shira law. However, he had no claim to the leadership of the Tuareg. When he demanded to be made leader of what was meant to be a Tuareg uprising, he was refused and broke away from the body who most represent the Tuareg's interests, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA).

Ag Ghali and Ansar ud Dine were able to take over the rebellion as they were the only group with funding. He was able to offer young unemployed Tuareg men money and equipment. As in other poverty stricken areas of the world there's nothing like financial security to bring people flocking to your cause. Philosophy and political ideals fall by the wayside when in competition with cash in hand. The depth of Ghali's followers beliefs can be measured in how quickly they abandoned him when the French troops arrived. It was one of the reasons armed resistance to the combined French, Chadian and Malian armies collapsed so quickly.

However, since hostilities began last year they were able to cause enough damage in the territories they controlled (they had captured Timbuktu and had begun to move South towards the Malian capital) to ensure a massive exodus of refugees from the area. At the same time the imposition of Shira law saw the banning of all music and to forced all musicians, Tuareg and others, into hiding and exile.

While Ansar ud Dine and their Al Qaida backers have disappeared into the mountains and the desert the question of who is leading or speaking for the Tuareg in North Mali still remains unclear. For while Alghabass Ag Intalla and his MIA can lay claim to being heir apparent to the hereditary chief, his father, who is still chief, is said to be opposed to his vision of an Islamic state. Intalla and the MIA have retreated to the Northern Mali city of Kidal where they have been joined by the ruling council of the MNLA. As of early February they were preparing to open negotiations with the French in an attempt to find a resolution to the conflict.

Unfortunately, just because the Al Qaida backed forces have fled the battlefield, it doesn't mean they aren't around. Much like the Taliban in Afghanistan and elsewhere they have merely faded into the background awaiting another opportunity. As long as the French troops remain on the ground they will continue to be dormant, but who knows what will happen after they leave. The only way of combating them is to ensure the conditions that led to their being able to recruit among the disaffected of the region are resolved. This means there has to be some resolution come to concerning the demands of the Tuareg people of the area.
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In an interview Andy Morgan conducted with Ag Intalla by phone near the beginning of February it was clear the MIA are still pushing for the establishment of an Islamic Republic in North Mali. However, as the majority of Tuareg would not be happy living under even his "kinder gentler" version of Shira law, he says some music will be tolerated as long as its not obscene, it's doubtful his vision will become a reality. He's currently doing his best to distance himself from his earlier position of supporting Ansar ud Dine and backing away from advocating violence. However he also says in the interview if you don't want to live in an Islamic Republic, live somewhere else. That's not going to play very well with either the Malian government, the French or the hundreds of thousands of people who have been displaced by the conflict and want to come home.

When all this is combined with a military coup which overthrew the democratically elected Malian government in March of 2012 and how the conflict has revived old tribal conflicts between the various people's living in the region, the fate of this year's Festival au Desert was in doubt from early on. According to Nolan organizers had hoped they might be able to move the location of the festival into the neighbouring country of Burkina Faso where a number of musicians had gone into exile. The idea was to caravan performers from Mali and the surrounding area to a place which was still accessible to international visitors but safe from the conflict. With the strictures against music and musicians in place that would have meant some difficulties in logistics, but it would have been possible. However when the French and Chadian armies showed up and hostilities intensified the idea had to be shelved. There was just no way they could have guaranteed anyone's safety under the new circumstances.

Aside from concerns of having to shepherd people through a war zone there was the risk of terrorist attacks. With both Al Qaida and Ansar ud Dine followers taking to the hills and desert there was no way to track their movements. Considering the recent hostage taking crises in Algeria and Al Qaida's penchant for fundraising through kidnappings, the risk involved with gathering musicians and foreign tourists in one spot was just too great. Even turning the festival grounds into an armed camp, which would have put a damper on proceedings, wouldn't be a guarantee against a rocket attack.

So, this year the festival will be held in exile at locations scattered around the world. As of now there are events scheduled to take place in Chicago in September and then in Scandinavia in November. Festival organizers are also in the process of arranging for three other performances in North America during July and August, two in the US and one in Canada. Those plans still need to be finalized but as the season advances keep an ear out for announcements about dates, locations and performers.

Of primary concern to anyone who has been following events in Mali has been the fate of musicians under the Shira law imposed by Ansar ud Dine. When I asked Chris Nolan about this he said the majority of musicians are probably better off than other refugees as they do have some financial resources at their disposal. While it's true they had to leave their homes, and any equipment left behind was confiscated or destroyed, they would not be suffering the same level of deprivation as most displaced people. He also reminded me some of the people living in the refugee camps had been there since the uprisings of the 1990s, too afraid to go home for fear of reprisals from the Malian army.

However, he also added we shouldn't underestimate the impact the imposition of Shira law had on the region. Aside from the role music plays socially - he posed the question imagine what your life would be like if all of a sudden all music was banned - this an area where history and cultural identity is kept alive orally through music. Griots, who Nolan likened to European bards, are the keepers of a tribe's history and stories. Through song and music they teach new generations about their history and culture. In recent years Tuareg bands, like Tinariwen, have been employing the same techniques to help ensure the continuation of their culture's traditions and to instil in their listeners a sense of pride in themselves.

According to Nolan the banning of music was an act of cultural genocide with the aim of suppressing the traditions of the indigenous peoples of the region. Once you begin to understand the implications of such a ban, it really makes you wonder how the leaders of any of the groups working towards an Islamic homeland would think they would have the support of either the Tuareg or any of the people native to the region.
Festival Stage Alice Mutasa
However, as Nolan said, and Andy Morgan confirms in his writings, it's what happens after the fighting stops which is really important. If the status-quo is maintained and nothing is done to address the rights of Tuareg people in the area and their justified fears of retaliation from the Malian army, unrest in one form or another will continue. It seems obvious to me what needs to happen. International pressure has to be brought to bear on Mali - and the other countries in Tuareg territory - forcing them to honour the treaties they signed with the Tuareg. These agreements have done everything from guaranteeing them land, rights and economic opportunities in exchange for surrendering parts of their territory. In what will sound like a familiar story to Native North Americans these treaties seem to exist only to be ignored or broken.

Some sort of international monitoring by neutral observers must be put in place to ensure all parties live up to the conditions of any new treaties negotiated, or the terms of the old ones are being implemented, If these types of guarantees are in place it might be enough to convince people it's safe to return to the region and generate hope for a better future. If people can be given evidence their lives will improve then just maybe the next criminal who comes around flashing guns and money won't be able to turn their heads with his blandishments. There might still be terror attacks in the future, but they won't have the sympathy or support of local people.

The cancellation of Festival au Desert this year is more than just another music festival not taking place.This festival was a symbol of how co-operation between cultures and the meeting of traditional ways of life and the modern world are possible and a benefit to all involved. It was also a symbol of pride and hope for the Tuareg. It was a chance for them and their African neighbours to celebrate their cultures with the rest of the world. For Western pop stars it was a reminder of the power of music and what it was that drew them to it in the first place. "It's one of the few honest things I have been part of in a long, long time...It reminded me of why I sang in the first place." said Robert Plant in an interview with Rolling Stone Magazine in March 2003. However, as Chris Nolan and Andy Morgan remind us, the cancellation is also emblematic of the problems which have plagued the entire region for the last half century.

Since 1960 the Tuareg have seen the gradual erosion of their way of life. While their land remains some of the most inhospitable on the earth, its also rich in natural resources. In Niger Uranium mining has not only displaced people but poisoned precious watering holes and upset the balance of nature in one of the most delicate ecosystems on the planet. Even the supposed economic benefits promised have failed to materialize as any profits from the operation leave the country without any spinoff for the local community. The same story is repeated across the Sahara as the Tuareg have been tossed aside in the hopes they will be fade away until the world forgets about them.

The first Arab armies, nearly a thousand years ago, named them Tuareg, rebels - rebels against Islam - in honour of how fiercely they defended themselves and their territory. Their pride in self and as a people which fed that initial resistance remains and continues to propel their efforts to survive. While musicians of other backgrounds were affected by the implementation of Shira law and it has been more than just Tuareg people displaced by the war, they are still the region's flashpoint. This most recent uprising might have been co-opted by those with ulterior agendas, but its origins have the same root cause of all the uprisings for the last 50 years. The Tuareg won't be cast aside or forgotten, and the sooner Mali and other countries face up to that reality the sooner there will be real peace in the region.

Festival au Desert 2013 has been forced into exile. Like the people and music it celebrates its been forced from its home by the very violence whose end it was meant to be commemorating. Hopefully 2014 will see Mali heading in a new direction, one which guarantees all its peoples their rights and freedoms. Most of all I hope next year to receive an email press release inviting me to cover the Festival au Desert at its home near Timbuktu and music will once again ring out across the desert.

(Article first published as Festival au Désert 2013 Cancelled Due to Uprising in Northern Mali on Blogcritics.)

(Festival photos by Alice Mutasa

September 13, 2012

Music Review: Various Artists -Songs For Desert Refugees

Life in the sub-Saharan desert is hard at the best of times. The Kel-Tamasheq nomads have been traversing the area between Mali and Niger, moving their herds from water hole to water hole, since before the coming of Islam to Northern Africa. It is said among them their ancestors chose such a harsh land to live in because nobody else would want it and they'd be left alone. However, history has shown no land is too inhospitable for those greedy for territory. First it was the Arab nations spreading the word of Islam taking their land and giving them a new name, Touareg, (literally those who rebel against Islam). Even when they eventually accepted the new religion, they adapted it to suit their own traditions and made it their own.

It wasn't until the coming of the Europeans who divided the territory with artificial and arbitrary lines in the sand their lives started to be changed for the worse. The legacy of colonialism was the Kel Tamasheq found themselves cut off from their former migratory paths through the desert and the grazing lands needed for their herds. Those living in Niger were expected to stay in Niger and not wander over the shifting sands into Mali, Algeria and Burkina Faso as they once did. At various times since 1960 they have attempted to reassert their claims to the territories taken from them. A variety of treaties have been negotiated either through rebellion or diplomacy that were supposed to guarantee them territory and rights, but successive governments in Niger and other countries have gone back on their words. The discovery of uranium under the Sahara has only made matters worse as not only did it result in their further displacement, but the process of mining has steadily destroyed the environment.

While the rebellions have not always been successful, and have resulted in reprisals against the people at times, they have always been attempts to improve their lot. So the uprisings in Northern Mali in the early part of 2012 which have forced over 200,000 people to leave their homes doesn't fit the same pattern as previous Tamasheq revolts. The fact that Islamic fundamentalist troops are also involved with the fighting is even more suspicious, as the Tamasheq would not be interested in simply exchanging one group of people telling them how to live their lives for another. However, perhaps most telling, is the release of a new compilation disc, Songs For Desert Refugees on Glitterhouse Records as an effort to raise funds for those displaced by the fighting.
Cover Songs For Desert Refugees.jpg
In the past Tamasheq musicians have been key figures in advocating and fighting for the rights of their people. Some of them took part in the armed rebellions of the 1980s before putting down their guns and picking up guitars. Governments in the area have gone out of their way to target them for harassment and even assassination in the past, and most have spent time exiled from their home countries. Yet, during this most recent uprising instead of using their music to spread the word or to remind people to take pride in who they are, they are lending their talents to an effort to assist those being harmed by the fighting. Artists of the stature of Tinariwen,Terkaft, Etran Finatawa and Bombino, all who have been advocates for their people, have donated either previously unreleased material or new versions of older songs to this disc.

Even better is the fact that those who have compiled this recording have included some lesser known artists, ones whom I haven't heard before. Not only is it great to hear other artists from the region their inclusion gives listeners an indication of just how much diversity there is among the Kel Tamsheq groups of the region. For although they are commonly referred to as the guitar players, that does not mean the Kel Tamasheq sound is limited to the electric blues/rock guitar that has become the trademark of those well known in the West. While the offerings from Tinariwen, "Amous Idraout Assouf d'Alwa" (a previously unreleased track) and Bombino, an extended live version of his "Tigrawahi Tikma" give pride of place to the electric guitar, there are others who are more traditional in their approach.

Amanar de Kidal (Amanar of Kidal in Mali) took their name from the Tamasheq word for the constellation Orion in memory of those times the band would rehearse through the night until the stars were high in the sky above them. While the guitar is still the lead instrument in their contribution to the disc, "Tenere", it doesn't dominate in the same way it does in other groups. Instead we are treated to massed voices, flutes and a steady rhythm carrying us forward. The rhythm is not one we're used to as it induces an almost swaying motion, as if you were being gently rocked in the high saddle of a camel. Like many other Tamasheq groups Amanar also features female vocalists in the band. Here they supply a spine tingling vocal undulation as part of the harmonies for the song as well as more conventional backing vocals.

The final cut on the disc is from the band Tartit made up of five women and four men. The women provide the lead vocals and rhythmic patterns for this song while the men accompany them. At first the vocals sound rather simplistic, but listen closely and you realize there are something like five different vocal patterns happening at once. Occasionally one of the women break free from the hypnotic trance like sound to issue an undulation that rises up like a sudden wind. "Tihou Beyatne" is unlike any other song on the disc and is probably the one closest to the traditional music of the people. Here again you also see indications of why their Arabic name of Tuareg stuck as not only do the women lead the band, they go unveiled while the men keep their faces covered.
While Tartit may be the closest to the traditional sound of the Kel Tamasheq all of the bands, no matter how electric or how much they've been influenced by Western popular music, retain solid connections to their desert roots. The majority sing in the Tamasheq language and thematically their songs are designed to remind their listeners to be proud of their culture. More importantly they use their music to teach the younger generation displaced from their desert life who they are and why the desert is important to the Tamasheq people. Musically, even artists like Bombino, whose band uses a full drum kit and is probably most like a Western pop group, retain the traditional rhythmic elements that distinguish all the bands' music. No matter how much their guitars wail, the drum still carries the echoes of thousands of years in the desert.

Like indigenous people the world over the Kel Tamasheq have seen their traditional territories taken away from them due to the encroachment of outside influences. The safety provided by living in one of the harshest environments in the world has disappeared. No where is safe any longer from civilization's greed for resources. The discovery of uranium in their traditional territories in Niger was a death knell for a way of life that had been carried out by those living there for a thousand years. The insurrections in Mali by Islamic fundamentalists earlier this year made an awful situation even worse with the displacement of over 200,000 Tamasheq and others living there.

All profits made from the sale of Songs For Desert Refugees are being split between two Non Government Organizations (NGOS) who are dedicated to assisting the Tamasheq people. Tamoudre works directly with those nomads still trying to work the land in the war torn areas by assisting them in any way possible to make their livelihoods more secure. Etar, has the more long term goal of helping to preserve, protect and disseminate the Tamasheq culture, both for the people themselves and to educate the rest of the world about them. They are currently raising money to build a culture centre in one of the regions in Mali hardest hit by the recent uprisings.

The Kel Tamasheq are a proud people who have fought long and hard for their right to be left alone and live their lives in the same way their ancestors did for generations. Music has played a key role in this fight for survival by keeping traditions alive and helping the people to retain a sense of pride in who they are. This disc represents a slightly more tangible way of helping their people as the bands involved have donated their songs and time in the hopes they will be able to raise some money to bring relief to those of their people who have once again find themselves caught up in a situation not of their making but which is causing them to suffer. Won't you help?

(Article first published as Music Review: Various Artists - Songs For Desert Refugees on Blogcritics.)

June 18, 2012

European Cup 2012 - Discover The World's Most Popular Sport.

In spite of the conceit expressed by American baseball in calling its championship "World Series" and the hype surrounding American football's "Super Bowl" there are two events held every four years, alternating every two years, which can be more genuinely referred to as World and Super respectively. The Federation Internationale de Football Association's (FIFA) World Cup was last held in 2010 in the Republic of South Africa and the competing teams were from countries in every hemisphere on the planet. While The Union of European Football Associations' (UEFA) European Cup only features the best teams of Europe coming together every four years, the competition is if anything even more exciting than its larger compatriot.

After two years of qualifying games the top sixteen national teams in Europe spend three weeks playing intense matches to decide the championship. Unlike the World Cup where it always seems inevitable one of six teams will walk away with the win, in the European Cup there's more of a chance of one of the long shots, if not winning, then at least making their way through to the latter stages of the tournament. Unheralded countries like Greece and Turkey have surprised more famous sides in recent years, with the Greeks actually winning the cup in 2004. In 2008 things returned to something akin to form as perennial power Spain won the cup, though even that was considered something of a breakthrough as it came after years of the country's team failing to live up to expectations.

With Spain continuing its winning ways by taking home the 2010 World Cup they have to be considered one of the favourites in Euro2012. However, such is the fickle finger of fate they come into the tourney having lost their leading scorer and most experienced defender to injuries. In their first game against Italy, a one all draw, while they played their usual excellent ball control game they seemed to be lacking the ability to finish their passes off with quality shots on goal and showed some alarming weaknesses in their ability to defend against quick counter attacks by the Italians. Only the Italians inability to score on their chances prevented Spain from losing their opening match. However they looked much more impressive in their 4 - 0 result over, an admittedly outclassed, Republic of Ireland.

With one game remaining in the group stage for each team (The teams are divided into four groups of four with the top two teams in each advancing to the quarter finals after a round robin of three games. Each team is awarded three points for a win and one point for a tie) Spain still has to be considered one of the favourites, but they don't seem quite the sure thing to win as they did two years ago in South Africa. Still they are in better shape than other teams one normally thinks of as always in the running, and along with Italy should advance out of Group with no trouble. In Group B the Dutch are almost eliminated having lost their first two games. Portugal lost to Germany in their first game but redeemed themselves by defeating Denmark in their second and only need to beat the Dutch to advance. Denmark can still advance if Portugal loses and they either draw or defeat Germany. If they both lose it will come down to who has the best goal differential among the three as they will all end up with identical records.

While England and France are currently tied for first in Group D at four points co-host Ukraine are only one point behind. France showed flashes of their familiar brilliance in defeating the Ukraine 2 -0, but England was fortunate to defeat a weak Swedish side, and face the real risk of going home. Although the Brits only need a tie to advance, the Ukraine might be more than they can handle. Playing in front of a home audience with a chance of advancing out of the group stage for the first time since the end of Soviet Union, their talent will be augmented by a drive to succeed that will make them tough to beat. Neither side had an answer to France's ball possession but the Ukraine had a much easier time of it beating Sweden than the British and look to be the more dynamic side. As long as France doesn't do anything stupid they should have no problems defeating Sweden in their final match and winning the group.

Group A, made up of Russia, Poland, Greece and the Czech Republic, were considered the weak sister before start of play, in spite of Greece winning in 2004, being teams who have never been considered real powers in international soccer. Russia has had good teams in the past and it was assumed they would advance to the quarter finals with the other three fighting it out for the final spot. After the first two games everything looked like it was going according to prediction, and co-host Poland only had to beat the Czech Republic to advance. Well the beauty of this tournament is that strange and wondrous things can happen. Thanks to Russia's inability to take advantage of their numerous scoring chances Greece stunned them 1 - 0 in their final match to advance, giving them the dubious honour of facing the winner of Group B, most likely Germany. The Czech Republic followed closer to form by beating the Poles 1 - 0 and winning the group, and they will face the second place finisher in Group B - either Portugal or Denmark. (Holland are still alive mathematically but it would take a miracle for them to advance)

Unlike the group phase where games can end in ties, from the quarter finals on there has to be a winner. While that's great and usually makes for some exciting soccer, it also raises the ugly spectre of penalty kicks. If after regulation time and two overtime periods the match remains tied the game is decided by each team selecting five players and the side which scores the most by kicking the ball from the penalty spot, eighteen yards out from goal, wins. I've always found this to be a far too arbitrary way to end a game. However, even worse, is the fact there have been teams who have deliberately played the entire game with the goal of pushing it to penalty kicks. If you thought defensive hockey was bad, there is nothing quite as ugly as a soccer team who only plays defence. Let's hope nobody resorts to this tactic in the days to come.

While I'd question anybody who says the best players and teams in the world come from Europe (have they never heard of Lionel Messi or countries called Argentina, Brazil, Cameroon, Japan, all who have made their presence known internationally and play an exciting brand of soccer that can stand up to anything the Europeans can produce) with fewer weak teams qualifying than one sees in the World Cup nothing can be taken for granted. I'm sure the Greeks defeating Russia isn't the last upset will see this tournament. However, that being said, judging by play during the Group Stages, it still looks like the tournament is going to come down to one of the traditional four European powers, France, Italy, Germany and Spain. I don't think I'm going out on too much of a limb by saying of the four Spain is still the side to beat. They not only can control the ball with their pin point passing, as they showed against Northern Ireland, they can also bury their scoring opportunities.

At its best soccer has a rhythm all of its own. There's an ebb and a flow as the action moves up and down the field and as a side gradually builds an opportunity for a chance to score. Unlike the sports North Americans are used to with the instant gratification of the long pass for the touchdown or the home run shot that clears the bases, a goal in soccer can take ten minutes to develop. Watching teams like Spain or Italy work the ball into a position for taking a shot is to watch artistry in motion. I find it amazing that people who will gladly watch golf or curling on television can call soccer boring. As we come down to the final games in the group stage and move on into the sudden death playoffs in Euro 2012 you'll have the chance to see for yourself why outside of North America soccer is still the world's most popular sport.

(Article first published as Euro Cup 2012: Discover the World's Most Popular Sport on Blogcritics)

May 8, 2012

Movie Review: Oka

In North America the coming of Europeans spelled the end for the traditional lifestyle of those already living here. It didn't matter whether people had been hunter gatherers or agricultural what they had known before was taken away from them. The former saw the territories required to sustain them taken away and their food supply either deliberately exterminated (the American buffalo) or reduced in population as their habitat was eroded by civilization. In the case of the latter it was usually a case of being forcibly removed from arable land to make way for European settlers and moved to areas unsuitable for the crops they were used to growing.

European colonialists employed similar policies the world over as their influence spread. However, there were certain parts of the world where the native climate was so hostile that even the hardiest of settlers wouldn't have dreamed of trying to make a go of "taming" the land. Until late in the twentieth century people indigenous to places like the Saharan desert, the far north and the jungles of Africa and South America were able to carry on living much as they had for centuries. Unfortunately that began changing as "civilization's" greed for natural resources has meant that no area of the world is safe from exploitation any longer no matter how supposedly inhospitable it may once have been considered.

Once considered impenetrable and forbidding the jungles of Africa have only recently begun to feel the pinch of progress and development. The people of Central and West African nations are now seeing their lands torn apart by mining for materials for cell phones and other precious metals. The forests themselves are one of the last great sources of lumber, and improving technology has finally allowed companies access to the great trees that have stood for centuries.
Poster Movie Oka.jpg
Naturally those most effected by these encroachments are those least able to defend themselves. In the Central African Republic it's the Bayaka people in the province of Yandombe who are most at risk. Pygmies, treated as second class citizens by the other tribes, they've long lived as hunter gatherers deep within the forests. A new movie, Oka, shows how depriving them of their traditional way of life has begun the process of marginalizing them as has happened to so many the world over. Told through the eyes of an ethnomusicologist, Larry Whitman (played by the wonderful Kris Marshall), and based on the experiences of real life ethnomusicologist Louis Sarno who has lived with them for twenty-five years., the movie depicts the Bayaka's circumstances with both intelligence and humour.

Writer director Lavina Currier has created both a portrait of an individual's personal journey, as we follow Whitman from New Jersey at the beginning of the movie to Central Africa, and what happens to a people when they are forced to relinquish the way of life which has defined them for generations. Too often this type of movie falls into one of a few traps. They will either sentimentalize their subjects and make them out to be something they aren't or become a forum for some sort of new age bullshit about the spirituality of living in harmony with nature which comes across like so much "noble savage garbage. Thankfully Currier avoids any of those temptations and allows her cameras to speak for themselves and lets us reach our own decisions about events as they unfold. Even better is the fact that Whitman is never once shown to be their saviour. He doesn't come ridding into the jungle on his white charger and lead the poor ignorant native peoples to victory over his evil compatriots.

Whitman has made its his life's work to record the sounds of the Bayaka's lives including the music they create and the sounds of the world they live in. However there is still one sound he's been unable to capture on tape, the sound of the molimo, an instrument associated with the elephant hunts the people used to conduct. With elephants now a protected species both the hunt and the instrument are thought to be things of the past as the only time the Bayaka will play the instrument is for hunting purposes.

When the movie opens we find Whitman back home in the States looking for funding to continue his work and being told he's in no physical shape to tackle the intense heat of Africa again. In spite of his doctor's warning, "there's no more trips to Africa for you Larry", he refuses to give up his quest to record the molimo. However upon his return to the Central African Republic he discovers things have changed for the worse. The local Bantu mayor has forbidden the Bayaka to enter the forests and confined them to a small village. The mayor hope is to somehow convince the authorities to waive their protection of the Bayaka traditional lands so he can capitalize on a lumber company's desire to harvest the forests in those areas.

Confined to a village Whitman finds the Bayaka have fallen into the same malaise plaguing indigenous people everywhere forced from their lands. Instead of following their traditional way of life they have become dependant on earning what they can from casual labour and have started to succumb to the lure of the material goods money can buy. There's also the feeling that alcohol is starting to play too much of a role in helping them forget their troubles. Only one man seems to have been able to avoid the trap, tribal shaman Sataka and his wife Ekadi have ignored the mayor's edict to stay out of the forest and continue to live there as they always have. (All the Bayaka tribes people roles are performed by members of the tribe. According to production notes online they were initially perplexed as to what was expected of them. They had become so used to people making documentary film about them the idea of acting out something instead of just doing it was at first confusing. Judging by the results it's obvious they caught on quickly enough, as the performance by all are natural and completely believable.)
Scene From Movie Oka.jpg
When Whitman heads off into the forest in an attempt to find Sataka, in the hopes of somehow hearing the sound of the elusive molimo, the rest of the tribe, knowing how hopeless he is at surviving on his own, set out after him. It's through these scenes in the forest that Currier makes her strongest arguments against the displacement of peoples from their habitat. Simply watching the Bayaka moving through the undergrowth with ease compared to the struggles Whitman experiences simply walking the same paths, tells you all you need to know about them and their environment. Contrasting how they are in the forest to their lives in the village nobody can doubt which is truly their home.

Currier has taken full advantage of her media, sounds and visuals, to get her message across. By allowing us to see and hear the forest and how the Bayaka interact with it, it's obvious where they belong. At no point does anybody make any speeches, nor are the lives of the people being portrayed sentimentalized. When Whitman argues against a proposed elephant hunt, the Bayaka look at him as if he was crazy. Elephants have been a traditional staple of the people for as long as they've been there. They provide enough meat to feed the entire tribe for long periods of time, why shouldn't they hunt it? "Don't you like meat?" they ask him. The harsh reality of the hunter gatherer lifestyle doesn't allow for any room to sentimentalize one's source of food.

Oka is a wonderful movie on a couple of fronts. For not only does it do a wonderful job of telling the story of how Whitman and his obsession with recording all the sounds and music associated with the Bayaka people, it is as honest as portrayal as you'll ever see of the effects of displacement upon a people. Here are a people who if left alone would simply carry on as they've done for generations. Ideally suited to their home environment, they don't need to be rescued, they need to be left alone. Unfortunately we don't have the greatest record when it comes to leaving things alone. Maybe films like this one will help us understand how somethings are fine just the way they are and in some cases change isn't necessarily for the better.

Oka was first released in theatres in October 2011 and is being shown in selected theatres on specific dates around the world. Check the web site for dates of a screening near you.

(Article first published as Movie Review: Oka on Blogcritics)

July 18, 2011

Tinariwen Denied Visas To Enter Canada

Well it hasn't taken Steven Harper's newly elected majority government in Canada very long to embarrass Canada internationally and send a chill through the Canadian artistic community at the same time. The Malian based, internationally renowned Kel Tamashek band Tinariwen has been denied visas to enter Canada in order to perform twice in the past couple of months. First they were turned down for a visa so they could perform as scheduled at the Winnipeg Folk Festival and then when they re-applied in Los Angeles in order to make it to the Vancouver Folk Festival they were turned down again. It's not as if this is the first time the band has travelled to Canada as they've been performing here on a regular basis since 2004.

So why have they all of a sudden been denied entry to Canada? It can't be because of security problems as they have had no problems with gaining admission to the United States for that part of their North American tour. In fact if you check out their touring schedule listed at their web site you'll see they're booked to play almost every major music festival in Europe and around the world this summer, except of course for Canada. When asked for comment as to why they denied the band their visa's this year, Citizenship and Immigration Canada refused to say anything except each application is assessed on its merits. According to the spokesperson quoted in the Globe and Mail on July 15/11, Johanne Nedeau, they consider the profile of the event, invitations from the Canadian hosts and whether letters of support were received.

Okay, so the first event they were turned down for was the Winnipeg Folk Festival which has been on going since 1974. According to figures released by Tourism Winnipeg in 2009 the folk festival creates 244 jobs, generates $25 million in economic activity and its impact on Manitoba's Gross Domestic Product is around $14 million. For those of you who don't know Canada that well, Manitoba, where Winnipeg is located, is not one of the richest provinces in Canada. It doesn't have the industry of Ontario, oil wells of Alberta or the wheat fields of Saskatchewan. It needs any little boost it can get and the Winnipeg Folk Festival with its annual attendance of over 70,000 per annum is not small potatoes.
Cover Tassili - Tinariwen.jpg
Artistically the festival has been attracting performers from across North America and around the world since it began. This year's festival was promising to be more of the same with acts like k.d Lang, Blue Rodeo, Lucinda Williams, Blackie and The Rodeo Kings and Little Feat from North America mixing with international performers like Omar Souleyman from North Africa, actor Tim Robbins and his Rogues Gallery Band and Toots and the Maytals from Jamaica. Not only do they hold there annual weekend concert series, the festival also runs year round programming to encourage and develop local talent and introduce young people to international music. I would think that qualifies them as a pretty high profile event both artistically and economically.

The Vancouver festival didn't get started until 1977, but it has more than made up for its late start by now. Being in a larger metropolitan centre hasn't hurt, and being on the West Coast of Canada also allows them access to bands in Asia that other festivals don't have. This year's acts include mainstream artists like Roseanne Cash, Josh Ritter and Gillian Welsh as well as international artists like Cassius Khan, Emmanuel Jal and Tinariwen - oops, not them, they weren't allowed into Canada that's right. The Vancouver festival is one of the major international folk gatherings each year. Bands and performers from around the world make sure to include it as part of their touring schedule. You wouldn't believe how many times I've requested information from publicists about whether their band was going to be performing in Canada only to find out they would only be showing up in Vancouver for the folk festival and nowhere else.

So I think we've established that both the Vancouver and Winnipeg Folk Festivals are significant events in the year's calendar, and we know Tinariwen was invited by each of the festivals to perform. As for the letters of support, upon finding out about the band being denied a visa for Winnipeg, two Canadian Members of Parliament wrote letters supporting their application for entry to perform in Vancouver. Yet somehow or other despite all the requirements for granting of a visa being met, Tinariwen still weren't allowed into Canada. One really has to wonder what was motivating the decision to refuse them entry.
Tinariwen Banned From Canada.jpg
Tinariwen are fast becoming one of the biggest draws on the international music circuit. Support from main stream musicians like Robert Plant and others has given them a much higher profile than most international bands. Preventing the band from playing at these two folk festivals will definitely have an impact on their box offices as each event had scheduled them for a headlining concert - they were to have to been the opening night act in Vancouver. If one looks at the results from the last election, both British Columbia and Manitoba gave a healthy majority of their seats to the Conservative Party - so on the surface there doesn't appear to be any reason for political motivation. However, those most likely to attend and/or organize either one of these festivals are not the types who are liable to vote for the Conservative Party of Canada.

This is the same government who has already cancelled funding for a theatre festival because they did not agree with the content of a play performed in its previous season. Toronto's Summerworks Theatre Festival had its funding cancelled by the Department of Canadian Heritage because they staged a play the government didn't like. Only weeks before the festival is scheduled to begin they have been told its 2011 grant of around $48,000 was being pulled, an amount that represented 20% of the festivals budget. The message is clear, there's no such thing as arms length arts funding in Canada and if the government doesn't like you or your politics you can expect to be screwed over in one way or another.

Vancouver and Winnipeg's folk festival have paid the price for not representing Steven Harper's vision of Canada by having one of their biggest draws refused entry at the border. While cutting funding to artists is still the easiest way to silence them the government is also showing itself willing to find new and inventive ways of punishing those it can't touch through funding cuts. What kind of message is our government sending when it cuts funding to artists who express opinions different from their own and arbitrarily prevents others from crossing our borders? The one I'm hearing is if you don't agree with us we're going to make you suffer. In the long run it will be the people of Canada who suffer the most as we're gradually cut off from freedom of expression. Preventing Tinariwen from gaining admission to Canada is only the tip of the ice berg representing the beginning of what looks to be a big chill artistically in Canada. Harper and his Conservative Party of Canada have five years to do what they want, and it looks as if they're off to a flying start in reshaping the country in their image.

(Article first published as Tinariwen Denied Visas to Enter Canada on Blogcritics)

April 28, 2011

Anybody But Haprer

I'm not going to be voting for the New Democrat Party (NDP) of Canada on Monday May 2 2011 in Canada's Federal election. That may not sound like much of an earth shattering announcement to most of you, but to me its a mark of just how dire I consider the circumstances facing our country. It's also an indication of how low the NDP and its leadership have fallen in my estimation. To start you need to understand something about me and my family. In every election since I turned 18 I've voted NDP, whether they've had a chance of winning the riding I was in or not. Until now they've at least always represented the moral high ground and I could believe they stood for many of the same things I believed in.

Of course there was also my family's history of affiliation with both the party and its predecessor, the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF). Back in the 1950s before he went to law school my father was national press secretary for the CCF. His mother was a delegate at the 1961 party convention which saw them change their name to the NDP and both my parents were friends with Stephen Lewis, son of former federal NDP party leader David Lewis, former leader of the Ontario provincial party, former Canadian ambassador to the United Nations and now a leading advocate for AIDS sufferers in Africa.

So you could say the NDP are in my blood and you wouldn't be too far off. But this election I'm not voting for them, I'm going to be voting for the local Liberal candidate. The funny thing is it wasn't even that hard a decision to make. First of all is the fact that the current leader of the NDP, Jack Layton, has proven to be the worst sort of political whore, willing to promise anything to anyone in order to gain power. This was rammed home forcibly during the French language leaders debate which most of English Canada ignored. During the debate he shamelessly appealed to Quebecois nationalist voters by promising to reopen constitutional talks. The last thing this country needs is to open that can of worms again, but there he was swearing to put us through that shit again in a blatant attempt to garner votes in a province where his party has only ever won a single seat federally.

Aside from his bullshit though the real issue at stake is whether or not I want to be a contributor to helping Steven Harper and his Conservative Party of Canada win a majority in the House of Commons this election. Since he won his first election he has always had the threat of being voted down in the House by the opposition restraining him from carrying out the worst excesses of his party's platform. Items such as privatizing prisons, enforcing mandatory sentencing laws for drug offences, closing down treatment facilities for drug users like Insite, the safe injection site in Vancouver, trying to ban gay marriages, and encouraging discrimination on the basis of sex, gender, and race through his "Freedom Of Religion" act which would allow people to claim their religion prevents them serving or working with people because of their sexuality etc., have all been put on the back burner until he knows nobody can stop him.

So this election I'm voting for anybody but Harper, which means targeted voting, and anybody who is serious about wanting to ensure he doesn't get the majority he so desperately covets, will swallow the same bullet. Targeted voting means looking at your local riding and figuring out which of the opposition candidates has the best chance of winning and voting for him. If you think the NDP can win vote for them, if you think it's the Liberal candidate who stands the best chance, vote for him or her. The last thing we want happening is to split the vote and let the Conservatives win extra seats. The most dangerous part of Jack Layton's continued popularity is the fact he is stealing votes away from the Liberal party and increasing the chances of the Conservatives winning seats.

Layton has gone on record as saying he doesn't see the point in targeted voting, proving that he cares more about his own political ambitions than he does about the welfare of Canada. Who the fuck cares if the NDP get a higher percentage of the popular vote in this election if it translates into a Conservative majority government? I do, because I'm going to have to live in Canada for the next five years under a government who was the first government in the history of our country to be found in contempt of parliament, who rather than face a possible non-confidence vote suspended parliament, who have routinely withheld information from both the people and parliament on the grounds we're not smart enough to understand it and can't be trusted to make up our own minds, who have flagrantly broken election spending laws secure in the knowledge that there really isn't anything that can be done to punish them, and have done their best to not talk to Canadians at all about anything if they don't have to.

In this current election campaign no Conservative Party candidate has been allowed to answer direct questions from the press and is not allowed to deviate from prepared answers and speeches that have been issued by the Prime Minister's Office. The premise is if they don't say anything, if they don't let people know what they really believe in, we might forget everything they really stand for. Remember this is the same party who promised to hold a new vote about the issue of gay marriage even though they knew full well the federal government has no control over the issue and the Supreme Court of Canada has already ruled that preventing them is a violation of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Liberties. They are so cynical though that they would force through this type of legislation because it appeals to all the right wing bigots who form the back bone of their support and have since they were the Reform Party of Canada.

On May 2nd 2011 the choice is clear, in whatever riding you live in vote for the candidate most likely to defeat the Conservative Party of Canada candidate. This is not an election to vote for the Green party because you think they say some nice things. The NDP might be riding high in the polls right now, but ask yourself how many seats will that really translate into and where are they siphoning votes from? You can bet those votes aren't coming from Conservative voters having some radical change of heart. Maybe in Quebec they're taking some votes from the nationalist Bloc Quebecois party, but who is that going to help win seats? The NDP have only ever won one seat in that province and taking votes from the Bloc is only going to help the Conservatives. Only vote NDP if you think they're going to win the seat, otherwise vote Bloc or vote Liberal.

We must stop Steven Harper from gaining a majority government.

March 23, 2011

INHERITANCE - BOOK FOUR OF The Inheritance Cycle, Release Date Announced

Finally, it's just been announced that the long awaited concluding chapter to Christopher Paolini's Inheritance cycle, INHERITANCE will be published in November of 2011. According to a release sent out by Barnes and Noble today, the fourth book in Paolini's young adult fantasy series is scheduled to be released at some point in November of this year, just in time for Christmas shopping.
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For those who have been paying any sort of attention for the past two years, you'll know that I have something of a vested interest in this news as I was commissioned to write a book predicting how Paolini would wrap up the series. What Will Happen In Eragon lV? was published by Ulysses Press in October of 2009 and while those who have read it have given it fairly positive reviews (Those who purchased it thinking they were buying the fourth book were understandably disappointed but I still don't think that gives them the right to give the book one star ratings at - when the only person they have to blame for not paying attention is themselves) sales slowed to a trickle when it became obvious the concluding book wasn't being published any time soon.

Now three years after the release of book three, Brisingr, book four will finally hit the shelves, and hopefully in the interim - there are still seven months to go before Paolini's book comes out folks - people might decide the quickest and easiest way to remind themselves of what went on in the first three books would be to pick up a copy of What Will Happen In Eragon lV? Well I can hope can't I? Hey I've got a wife, three cats, and credit cards to support - I need all the help I cant get here.

Anyway, this is good news for fans of Paolini's books, and good news for Paolini himself. I have to confess I was little worried about him having hit a wall, and so I'm very glad for his sake that he was able to finish the book. I hope that he is satisfied with what he did, and I would also like to say, that no matter what, he should be very proud of his accomplishment. After all he started this project when he was fifteen and has shown the perseverance to stick with it and finish it off even under what must have been considerable pressure. Well done

Oh, for those keeping score - Inheritance wasn't even on my short list for possible titles. That's one wrong - but who knows how many right. You'll have to read both my book and Christopher's to find out.

March 10, 2011

Music Review: Bombino - Agadez

I've been sitting with a CD for a couple of weeks now, listening to it, thinking about it and sort of letting it percolate inside of me. It's not often I have the luxury of doing this with a recording that I've been asked to review, but the company sent this one out to me well in advance of its release date hoping I could give them some quotes to help promote the performer. All of which is very cool, but the problem is that I'm sitting here and I don't really know what to tell anybody who reads this about the music. It's not that I don't like it, because I do, I think the music and the performer are bloody amazing, and what he's doing with his music is important.

You see there's the rub, there's a lot of history that comes with this recording, not just of the person whose made the recording, but something like 1400 years of a people's, and a place's, history. Writing about the music on this CD without touching upon any of that would be ignoring at least half of what has gone into the music's creation. So, while people don't read a critique of a CD for a social/political history lesson, the specifics of this man, this music, these people and this land are as important to talk about as the music. As you'll see, in some ways, that's the point of the music in the first place.

The land is some of the harshest in the world, the Sahara desert, specifically the parts of it which fall within the boundaries of Algeria, Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger. The people are the Kel Tamasheq, more commonly referred to by the name given them by the Arabs who invaded these lands, Tuareg, or rebels, for their refusal to accept Islam without a fight. Nomads and herdsmen, they have guided caravans from Algeria to Niger and raised their flocks throughout the Sahara for centuries. Steadfastly refusing any outside influence they have fought to remain independent against any and all who have tried to control them. The music has roots that can be traced back through the history of the people, to the electric guitars of modern rock icons Jimi Hendrix and Jimmy Page, and the armed rebellions against the Niger and Malian governments during the 1980s by the Kel Tamasheq. For it was veterans of those uprisings who put down their machine guns, picked up guitars and changed the nature of their rebellion.
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Omara "Bombino" Moctar, whose given name is Goumar Almoctar, was born in 1980 in a desert encampment adjacent to Agadez in western Niger. When the Niger government lashed out against Kel Tamasheq people living in their territory in retaliation for the rebellion in the 1980s, Bombino's family fled to stay with family in Algeria. In the early part of the 1990s his family returned to Agadez when it appeared there was a chance for a settlement of the conflict with the Niger government. While he had started learning guitar while in exile, upon his return to Agadez Bombino was taken under the wing of a more experienced musician. He was the youngest and smallest member of the band and they gave him his nickname, "Bombino", as a play on the Italian word, bambino, baby.

For as long as the peace lasted in the 1990s and into the new century Bombino's musical career grew steadily. However in 2007 the uprising began again and the Niger government began targeting "guitar players", naming them enemies of the state. When two of the musicians he played with were killed by the army, Bombino went back into exile again, this time to the west and Burkina Faso.

It was here, after a year of searching, he was tracked down by a documentary film maker named Ron Wyman who had heard a cassette of his music while making a movie about the Kel Tamasheq (Agadez - The Music And The Rebellion) Wyman was so impressed with Bombino's music that he took him back to America where they began to record Agadez, which will be released on April 19 2011 on the Cumbancha label. Then in 2010 the army in Niger overthrew the government and signed a peace treaty with the Kel Tamasheq rebels and exiles were able to return home. So Wyman and Bombino returned to Agadez where they completed recording the CD and finished the movie at the same time.

Like the first generation of musicians who play what they call "Ishoumar", a derivative of the French word for unemployed, chomeurs, and which is now synonymous with rebel music, Bombino's sound is a mixture of the modern and the traditional. Electric guitars overlay the steady beat of the drum to create an almost hypnotic effect which wraps the listener in a cocoon of sound. Periodically Bombino's guitar will take flight into a solo, weaving in and around the rhythm like an expression of his people's desire for freedom. Unlike far too many rock and roll guitar solos which always seem to interrupt a song, Bombino's feel like emotional extensions of the material. At times they capture his excitement and enthusiasm for the promise of the better future he obviously hopes lies in store for his people, and at others they express a yearning that can make the heart ache.
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In interviews quoted in the press materials accompanying the CD he talks about his relationship with the desert and how it serves as his inspiration and how, like for the rest of his people, its his home. While I can't understand the lyrics he sings, nor are translations included with the CD, reading the English translations of individual song titles, and listening to his guitar and his voice when he performs them, you begin to understand just how deeply these people and where they live are interconnected. Of the three traditional songs on the disc he has adapted, two, "Ahoulaguine Akaline" (I Greet My Country) and "Tenere" (The Desert My Home), by their titles alone, tell you all you need to know about the depth of that bond. Listening to them, and maybe this is because I've seen footage of the Sahara, I couldn't help but visualize the stark beauty of the land and experience the same feelings that pictures of it evoke.

During the uprisings the Niger government first banned the music of, then targeted the "guitar players" because their songs spread the message of the rebellion. They weren't calls to arms, rather they were reminders to the people to take pride in who they were and to hold onto their traditions. With so many of the Kel Tamsheq displaced into the cities because of drought and loss of their territories to uranium mining, those messages have become even more important as a means of helping them retain their identity and instil within them a sense of pride in who they are. Of his original material, two of Bombino's songs, "Tigrawahi Tikma" (Bring Us Together) and "Azamane" (Mr Brothers United), on this disc are obviously meant to encourage his people to stand firm against anything that would take away their freedom or force them to change how they live their lives.

The Kel Tamsheq have survived this long by being able to live in one of the harshest environments on the planet and by learning how to adapt to the changing realities of the world around them. While they have fought fiercely over the centuries to preserve their independence, they also know there are many different ways to fight and win a war. The music of Omara "Bombino" Moctar and the message his songs have for his people, are one of the strongest weapons they have in their arsenal right now. A passionate voice, a guitar that sings and the ability to communicate through sound alone will bring tears to your eye and a send a shiver running up and down your spine. Agadez is being released on April 19 2011, and it will take your breath away.

Photo of Bombino and band members Ibrahim and Kawissan by Ron Wyman.
(Article first published as Music Review: Bombino - Agadez on Blogcritics)

February 23, 2011

Egypt, Sadat, Mubarak and The West

Six years ago, when I first published the story appearing below, I was just starting to write this blog and the world wasn't much different then it is today. One of the big stories in the summer of 2005 was a horrible terrorist attack that took place in Egypt as the country was again punished by Islamic fundamentalist terrorists for not only its close ties to the West, but its recognition of the state of Israel and the peace existing between the two nations. Anwar Sadat, who had signed the historic peace treaty when president of Egypt, had already paid for his courage with his life and his people continued to pay for their support of the deal with attacks like the one that occurred that summer.

While there is no way either Sadat's or his successor, Hosni Mubarak's, governments could have been described as democratic, the role they played in the stabilization of the region and the easing of tensions in the Middle East can never be under estimated. This may explain some of the hesitancy on the part of Western leadership in endorsing the forced resignation of Mubarak from his position as President. What does this mean for the future of peace in the Middle East? What will happen if an Islamic regime along the lines of the one in Iran is established in Egypt? Now the chances of the armed forces in Egypt allowing that to happen are extremely unlikely, as like the armies of Turkey and Algeria, they are pragmatists who understand the importance of maintaining good relations with the West. Still, the revolution in Iran started off as a secular revolt with the religious leadership only wresting control by exiling and killing off their secular allies. So anything is possible. Now I'm no supporter of military dictatorships, but sometimes there are worse things for a country so lets try and keep things in perspective over the next little while and give the people of Egypt the chance to find their own way.

Six years ago the Western media almost ignored the terror attack on the people of Egypt, a country that was fighting the war on terror when the USA was still funding Al'Quida and other Islamic fundamentalists and Saddam Hussein was the big ally in the region. Instead of consulting Mubarak we expected him to toe our line and try not to hang himself on the tightrope we forced him to walk when ever the West would take unilateral action in the Middle East. Egypt was expected to do what we wanted them to with very little in return in the way of support aside from being allowed to buy the second best arms the Americans had to sell. Perhaps if we had done a little more on the economic and social side of things instead of leaving them to suffer the consequences of the world economy without any assistance - in fact if we hadn't continually treated them like a second class ally, the events of the past month might not have played out in the same way. We asked a lot of Egypt and her people and didn't give them much in return - we need to do better in the future.

Nearly thirty years ago a leader of a country that had been at war for the previous thirty years took the courageous stand of extending his hand in peace. That he was Anwar Sadat of Egypt and the person he extended his hand to was Menachem Begin the Prime Minister of Israel made it all the more courageous.

For the first time since the formation of the state of Israel a peace treaty between them and an Arab nation existed. One of the five countries that had sworn to drive them into the sea had reversed their stand and opened the door to the possibility of peace for the region. While there can be doubt that for both parties this involved an immense leap of faith, Anwar Sadat was stepping the furthest into uncharted territory.

Just five years after the Yom Kippur war in which Israel had once again fought off a determined attempt to conquer their land by their neighbours, neither side could be blamed for mistrusting the other. But Egypt was truly on their own in this foray. Perhaps they had tacit understanding from Jordan, but publicly every other Arab League nation condemned them as traitors.

We may never know what truly prompted Sadat's change of heart. Probably it was a combination of realizing how crippling continuous warfare was becoming, the need to establish better relationships with the U. S., and perhaps a little of "if you can't beat them join them". Whatever the motivations the fact remains that from that moment on they have been the one guaranteed not openly hostile Arab country within the region towards Western and Israeli interests.

Certainly there have been falling outs at times, disagreements that have threatened the fragile peace, but it has never collapsed in spite of pressures on the Egyptians from countless sources. Even the assassination of Anwar Sadat by Islamic fundamentalists did nothing to shake their resolution.

Egypt has a long history of being a secular nation, and there in perhaps lies some of the answer to the desire for peace. Even prior to the signing of the Camp David Accord in March of 1979 they had experienced outbreaks of violence similar to those that ended up toppling the Shah of Iran in 1980.

By expanding the economic opportunities available to his country through peace with the U.S. and Israel Sadat may have hopped to improve the lot of his people. The fewer people who were discontent the less chance the fundamentalists would have of whipping up discord. There is also no doubt that he clamped down very hard on those sects advocating violence against Israel and in doing so probably sealed his own doom.

President Mubarak has continued this hard line against fundamentalists while working to build on the peace process started by his predecessor. He walks the tightrope between keeping his Arab allies happy and maintaining ties with both Israel and the U.S. He was a key player in prodding the Palestinian leadership away from terrorism and into recognising the right of Israel to exist as a nation.

His ability to do nothing and keep his Arab allies in check has prevented escalations of retaliatory actions. His refusal to allow the fundamentalists any sort of toehold within his country, mainly due to self interest, has served as a bulwark for the region against the more radical elements.

Mubarak and his government have been fighting the war on terrorism long before George Bush thought of it. Next to Israel they have been the favourite targets of suicide bombers and other acts of terror. For more then a quarter of a century they have been under these attacks and have not once wavered in their commitment to the peace process.

Hundreds, thousands even, of civilians have been killed. The armed forces and the police devout themselves to the prevention of attacks and rounding up potential threats. But what recognition do they ever receive from the west?

During the last two weeks bombs have exploded in both London and Egypt. When the bombs went off in London we were inundated with pictures and stories. The brave Londoners carry on with business as usual; personal stories of some of the victims; statements of outrage; and avowals of revenge.

When the bomb went off in Egypt killing eighty eight people and injuring hundreds more we got the story. Nothing else. To their credit George Bush and Tony Blair's government both issued statements of support and condolence. No other world leaders said a word. No condolences, no personal stories, no guarantees of support. Nothing but silence.

It was the same people doing the bombing, or at least people with the same motivations and interests. Yet it was treated as having nothing to do with us. Egypt has been on the front lines of the war against terror for twenty five years and nobody acts as if it matters.

If you were an Egyptian and compared the reactions of the Western press and leadership to the bombings of London and the most recent killings in Egypt how would you be feeling right about now? I think I would be pretty pissed off. It smacks of indifference of the worse kind.

I don't believe in coincidences. The people behind both bombings knew what the reactions would be like and they'll use it against us. Look, why are you doing anything for them, they don't care about you, they'll say. There is already enough distrust for us in the Middle East that it wouldn't take much turn more people against the West.

Anger and emotions are dangerous and easy to manipulate. There will be enough people willing to listen to that kind of talk that it is dangerous for us to take it for granted. The Egyptian government has a hard enough time as it is without us compounding their difficulties by giving short shrift to attacks on their people.

While Tony Blair may be George Bush's buddy in the occupation of Iraq and he feels obligated to make a big display over the terrorist actions in London (as well he should) Egypt has been working for peace in the Middle East for close to thirty years. They have been on the receiving end of countless acts of terrorism including the assassination of their leader. Hasn't that earned them some sort of standing in our eyes?

Without Egypt the Middle East would be in a lot worse shape than it is now. Our reaction, governments, press, and individuals, to the events of the past week there have been shameful. We can not continue to display indifference to our allies in the Muslim world. That just plays into the hands of the terrorists.

February 8, 2011

DVD Review: The People Speak

Open a newspaper, any newspaper, in order to read about what's going on in the world and you'll usually be treated to reports on what's been said by a select minority. Spokespeople from government, business leaders and, if you're lucky, a politician in opposition to the government's position will all weigh in on the issue at hand. They usually talk in broad generalities about the big picture without ever giving any indication on the impact their actions might have on people further down the food chain. When the government announces a ten per cent cut in the corporate tax rate and the business leader says he can live with that and the leader of the opposition says he would have cut it more although its a good start, nobody bothers to mention what will happen because of the ten per cent lose of revenue.

In theory paying ten per cent less in taxes is supposed to allow business to increase productivity, lower prices and hire more workers all of which will generate sufficient revenue to make up for the short fall created by the tax cut. In practice what happens is the companies simply increase their profit margins and nothing ever is passed onto the consumer or the labour force. But we never hear from the single mom who is trying to buy food and pay rent while working minimum wage about how the increase in food costs, rent, utilities and medical expensed not covered by her health insurance because of government cut backs in social services to pay for the ten per cent cut in the corporate tax rate have affected her. We never hear how the streamlining of departments in order to save money has resulted in the number of workplace health and safety inspectors being reduced and she's working in increasingly unsafe conditions or how she is forced to quit her job because the day care she had her kids in was closed due to "rationalization".
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Not only won't you find her voice in most newspapers, you can pretty much be guaranteed of not finding her voice, or voices like it. in most history books either. It's pretty difficult to get a balanced picture of events when you only read one view point don't you think? How accurate a picture do you think you're getting when you read about the labour unrest in the early part of the 20th century and you only read about what the government and corporations have to say and nothing from the rank and file of union workers? The late American historian Howard Zinn had the idea that people might want to read about history from the point of view of the workers and the single mothers and it turns out he was right. Since his People's History Of The United States was first published it has sold over a million copies, which must be some kind of record for a history book. Taking the concept a step further in 2009 he and co-author Anthony Arnove published Voices Of A People's History Of The United States, a collection of speeches, letters and other documents giving first hand accounts of events throughout the history of the country by those whose voices aren't normally heard. From soldiers who fought in the Revolutionary War to the parents of people killed when the World Trade Centre went down, all of them gave readers a perspective on history they might not have read or heard before.

In an effort to bring these words to the public actors Matt Daemon and Josh Brolin put together a touring show of their fellow actors that went university campuses and the occasional public hall, in order to present live readings from the book. The show was filmed at two separate locations and that footage has been edited onto one DVD, The People Speak. Also edited into the movie are performances of various musical pieces by performers who either played live with the actors or who recorded their segments especially for the DVD. Unfortunately the only review copy I was able to obtain was via a download from I-tunes, which didn't contain any of the special features which are included on a second disc when you purchase the package. It also meant there were no notes available to consult to double check the identities of who was reading what. (Oh, and I-Tunes has to be the worst facility for downloading video - it took me over three hours to download something less then two hours in length using a high speed connection)

Howard Zinn serves as the narrator and host for both the DVD and the live performances, and he starts off by telling us a little about himself and the impetus for creating both his first book and this follow up. He makes no bones about the fact the voices we are about to hear are ones of dissent - the people who spoke out against the status quo and who refused to toe the official party line. However, as he says, since America was founded through dissent, it only seems appropriate these voices should continue to be heard. The first account we hear is of how during the Revolution, officers acted pretty much like they would have were they in the British army and lorded it over the enlisted men. The enlisted men were poorly clothed and starving and when they dared protest they were whipped or hung. The first reading of the night, by Viggo Mortensen, was of a letter describing the whipping and hanging of one Sergeant Macaroni for having the nerve to protest about conditions on behalf of his men and then during his whipping continue to do so which resulted in his being immediately hung.
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So much for the myth of soldiers freezing to death willingly out of patriotism. As we continue down through the years balloons continue to be popped. The great emancipator Lincoln writes to the effect that he would willingly allow slavery to continue if it meant the salvation of the Union. There were also riots in the cities of the north protesting the fact that rich people could buy their way out of the draft for $300.00 (somethings never changed as wealthy people were able to obtain deferments from service as long as there was a draft). As to the myth of Johnny Reb which exist even to this day - well most of them were conscripts who would desert at the first chance as they had little interest in dying for the big landowners.

For those who might doubt the veracity of some of the material being read during the performance, it's interesting to note how much of it comes from the trials of various people who were arrested for doing things like voting illegally or trying to abolish slavery. John Brown was hung for trying steal weapons in order to liberate slaves and Susan B Anthony tried to vote before it was legal for women in the United States. Both were tried and found guilty of their crimes and what the actors read are the speeches both gave when asked if the defendant had any words to say before sentencing was carried out. Other readings are from speeches that were given at public events like ex-slave Soujourner Truth's "Ain't I Woman" speech from 1851 given to a group of white abolitionists.

The performers on the DVD are pretty much instantly recognizable: Viggo Mortensen, Danny Glover, Josh Brolin, Morgan Freeman, Jasmin Guy, Benjamin Bratt, Marisa Tomei, Mat Daemon, Don Cheadle and David Straitharn to name a few, and their performances range from simple readings to near dramatic re-enactments. Interestingly enough it was an actor I was unfamiliar with before this, Kerry Washington, who made one of the strongest impressions with her performance of the above mentioned Sourjourner Truth's speech. Not only did she do a fine job of assuming the accent of a black woman from the times but she was also able to bring the speech to life. While all the performers did capable jobs of reading their pieces so an audience would understand what was being said, there were times when I wished they had invested them with a little more emotion - created more of a performance.
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On those occasions an actor chose to give a performance you were given a much deeper understanding of what the original document was about and the intent behind the letter or speech. Ironically I can't remember the people he depicted, but David Straitharn's presentations were some of the most emotionally powerful of the night. It wasn't that he ranted or raved, it was the way in which he was able to raise his level of intensity while talking to match his character's emotions. Another performance of note was Viggo Mortensen's reading of a letter from a parent whose child was killed in the bombing of the World Trade Centre. First of all it was the only reading in Spanish during the night, and second of all you didn't need to speak the language to understand the depth of the father's anguish and the passion he felt for his subject. The actress performing the wife read the letter in English - the couple are Hispanic - so we were able to understand they were pleading with people not to use their son's death as an excuse to perpetuate violence.

Interspersed between the speeches were the occasional musical performance. Bob Dylan, accompanied by Ry Cooder and Van Dyke Parks, went back to his roots and played Woody Guthries "Do Re Mi" from the days of the dust bowl quite credibly and Bruce Springsteen did a typically intense solo version of his own "Tom Joad", the performer who took me most by surprise was Pink. I had only heard of her vaguely before and her performance of "Dear Mr. President" is the highlight of the DVD. The passion for her material and her vocal ability were a remarkable combination and one wondered how anybody could have listened to this song and not be moved. Some might wonder what she or her song have to do with history, but according to Howard Zinn, we are all living history all the time and what goes on today is just as important as what happened yesterday.

The People Speak represents an opportunity very few of us are given. Not only does it present aspects of history not everybody is familiar with, it brings it to life and makes it real. For too many people history has been confined to the pages of dusty books and boring classrooms - this represents a chance to see and hear it brought alive. We may not be able to travel back in time, but this DVD brings the past to us.

(Article first published as DVD Review: The People Speak on Blogcritics.)

June 30, 2010

World Cup 2010 - Countdown To Final

For some reason I only ever seem to watch the World Cup every eight years. I doubt I could have told you before this year's started who had won in 2006 (Italy), while I watched almost the whole of the 2002 tournament. Of course that year I was pretty much a captive audience as I was in a hospital bed for the majority of the tournament. I went into hospital for surgery during the Stanley Cup playoffs, and was in until almost the final game of the World Cup. Four to five weeks of being in a hospital bed has you searching pretty desperately for distraction, and so that year the World Cup was a welcome diversion.

The years when I lived in Toronto, Ontario - up until 1990 - you couldn't help noticing when the World Cup was being played. As one of the most ethnically diverse city's in the world there's a fair chance that every country participating in the tournament will be represented by a segment of its population. It was especially difficult to ignore when Italy, Portugal, Brazil or Greece, are involved as they each have both large communities and specific neighbourhoods where their populations are concentrated most heavily. (In years when Portugal have been eliminated they naturally switch to supporting Portuguese speaking Brazil - the chance of a Portugal versus Brazil final this year will make for some interesting times down in Little Portugal if it becomes a reality). This year I have a feeling that World Cup fever in Toronto has been somewhat restrained up to now with the downtown core being turned into a police state for the G20/G8 get together. There's something about running battles between protesters and police, burning cars, barricades, and the constant din of helicopters patrolling the skies that tends to cut down on the festive mood.

The attraction for me this year has been the locale; for the first time ever the tournament is being held in Africa - specifically South Africa. That was enough to have me start tuning in for the group stages via the live stream offered by the Canadian Broadcast Corporation (CBC). Usually these early rounds are fairly boring as the teams are all trying to find their feet so to speak, and while there have been some startling results in opening games in the past, by the time the group stage ends the old order usually reasserts itself with the same old names leading the way into the round of sixteen. While there was still some truly remarkably boring football played, (The BBC commentators the CBC uses were constantly bemoaning a lack of goals in the early games) by the time the dust had settled, while some familiar names remained, it was obvious the old order was changing.

France, who only qualified for the tournament through a disputed goal, and reigning champion Italy failed to advance; England only managed to score two goals in three games and barely qualified; and Spain, favoured to win it all this year, lost their opening game to Switzerland and only scrapped through by the skin of their teeth. While Europe was treading water trying to stay afloat, South America's representatives had no such problems. Of the six teams five advanced, with only Honduras falling short. While Brazil is always expected to compete, in their usual Eurocentric fashion the rest of the contingent were given short shrift by the so called experts.
Argentina were discounted because not only did they barely qualify everybody questioned the sanity of their manager, the mercurial Diego Maradona. As for the rest, well what type of threat could countries like Chile, Paraguay, and Uruguay pose to the traditional powers? Well, of the five advancing only Chile failed to win their group. Maradona's Argentineans are proving to be the most enjoyable team to watch in the tournament due to his decision have them play an attacking style which saw them win all of their group games and then demolish Mexico with ease in the round of sixteen. (Of course it doesn't hurt that their attack is centred around Lionel Messi easily the most exciting player in the world right now.) Uruguay has also moved on to the quarter finals, overcoming a tough South Korean team in the pouring rain to win two to one in their round of sixteen match.

Unfortunately for Brazil and Chile one of them won't be continuing on after today (Monday June 28th/10) as they face off against each other. While Brazil hasn't looked like anything special yet, they haven't really been forced to exert themselves either as they easily handled an Ivory Coast team depleted by injuries, an over matched North Korean side, and played Portugal to a zero - zero draw in a meaningless game. One has the feeling they'll be able to elevate their game to whatever level is required of them in order to continue advancing for quite a while yet. Chile, while game, simply don't have the talent to compete with their northern neighbour and barring a miracle will find themselves going home after today. As for the game between Paraguay and Japan to be played on Tuesday (June 29th/10) that one is hard to call. In the two games I've seen involving the Japanese they not only have been able to attack well, unlike other teams they've also been able to deliver on free kicks during this tournament, scoring twice from a set piece during their three to one victory over Denmark to wrap up the group stage. Paraguay had two draws and a win to head up what turned out to be one of the weaker groups, and although I never saw them play, I have a feeling they might not be up the challenge posed by Japan and will be the third South American team heading home.

While I know American supporters were disappointed by their team's loss to Ghana after they had won their group with the thrilling last minute victory over Algeria, I think their expectations might have been falsely elevated by their success in the first three games. They only need look at how easily Germany dominated England in their match yesterday (Sunday June 27th/10) to know how weak their group opposition had been and their match against Ghana was a return to reality. Faced with a world class goal keeper in Richard Kingson and strikers able to take advantage of the few opportunities offered them, their own inability to finish around the goal finally caught up to them. Although when it comes to creating false expectations nobody quite matches up to the English. Why anyone could have considered them a threat to challenge for the World Cup this year was beyond me. They can yell about referee error until they are blue in the face, but they were still outplayed and outclassed at every turn against Germany. Anyway, every team playing has to live with the fact that the refereeing in international football matches is archaic and flawed, and its how a team responds to those setbacks which shows its mettle.

While some European sides have been a source of embarrassment and disappointment for their fans there are still five remaining. Germany has a long history of success at the World Cup, and although critics were prepared to write off this year's side because of injuries and inexperience, they have proven to be one of the more exciting sides to watch. Aside from their let down against Serbia where they obviously went in over confident after their easy four - nothing result against Australia, they have played with confidence and ability. Holland, Portugal, and Spain, have all at one time or another deservedly earned the title of the best teams to have never won anything. Spain finally broke through to win the European Cup in 2008, but aside from that, despite exceptionally talented sides for years, none have ever won any title of significance. With Spain and Portugal facing off tomorrow (Tuesday June 29th/10) one of them will keep the that tradition alive - and quite frankly its a toss up depending on which side is able to field players instead of prima donnas. However, I'll go with Spain based on their gritty win over Chile.

Holland has managed to sneak under everybody's radar this tournament, or at least not attract the publicity that other less deserving sides have managed, and have quietly gone about winning every one of their group matches in a solid if unspectacular manner. In a couple hours they'll be going up against one of the surprises of the tournament, Slovakia, who advanced after their three - two upset of Italy. While Slovakia might be a sentimental favourite for some, they stand no chance against the Netherlands. Unfortunately for the winner of this game, their next opponent will be the winner of the Brazil - Chile match-up and even Holland will be hard pressed to rise to that occasion. Ironically the European team with the best chance of advancing past the quarter finals will be the winner of Spain versus Portugal as they will take on either Paraguay or Japan, as Germany already has a date with Maradona's Argentineans.

In fact there's a very real possibility that the semi-final match-ups will see three South American sides and one European side vying for a berth in the finals, with either Spain or Portugal (my bet being Spain) trying to get by Argentina and Uruguay duelling Brazil for the other spot. No matter how much I'd love to see an African side move all the way through to the finals the first time the games are held on their home continent, even if Ghana were to overcome Uruguay by some miracle, Brazil would just be too much for them. With Argentina improving with every game, and Lionel Messi continuing to dominate the mid-field creating opportunities for his team mates to score nearly every time he brings the ball near an opponent's goal, neither the surprising Germans nor a desperate Spanish side will do much to slow down their march to the final. So come July 11th/10 expect to see the blue and white of Argentina take the field against the gold and blue of Brazil in the final- and hopefully one of the best football games played this decade. As long as Maradona doesn't decide to send himself on as a substitute, when the dust finally settles we should be seeing the boys from Patagonia raising the cup at the end of the day.

(Article first published as World Cup 2010: Rooting For An All-South American Final on Blogcritics.)

June 25, 2010

Thoughts On South Africa And The World Cup

As the group stage of The Word Cup winds down the teams who are qualified to continue on to the elimination stage have been all but decided. While it would have been glorious if the home side of South Africa could have advanced, or even more than one team from the host continent (at this writing barring a miracle only Ghana will advance), the fact they were in a position to host the games at all is something to be celebrated. All credit for making the decision to award them the hosting duties has to be given to the governing body of international football - Federation Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) - when they could have easily made a safe decision and kept them in Europe or given a South American country a turn. In the weeks and months leading up the match newspapers have been filled with stories expressing concerns about violence in South Africa, lack of proper facilities, transportation, and a raft of other problems besetting the host nation.

It was almost impossible to find anyone willing to write something positive about the fact the games were being held here. Even South African's football fans came in for criticism because of their use of the "horrible" vuvuzela, a plastic replica of a traditional tribal horn, that makes an ear splitting din. Commentators have sniffed that they won't be able to hear themselves speak, (as if anything most sports commentators have to say is of any real value) or even worse they drown out the traditional sound of fans singing at matches. As that's only really a tradition in England and some of the European countries, that's not really much of a loss, especially when you consider some of the drivel sung by team supporters in the United Kingdom. Quite frankly fans blowing trumpets that make an ear splitting noise are a minor inconvenience when compared to the nightmares that British team supporters used to cause when they made their annual raiding trips to the continent. It's amazing how all the British tabloid press who have been raising dire warnings about South Africa have forgotten how fans from the United Kingdom were banned from travelling abroad after their rioting resulted in thirty-nine people dying in Belgium in 1985.

Yet here we are, nearly half way through the games, and even with half the private security people having gone on strike and a few technical problems, you'll hardly hear a word of complaint being voiced by anyone now they are under way. The only comments I've heard from commentators during the games I've watched is how wonderful the people of South Africa have been and how the whole nation seems to have thrown itself into trying to make them successful. I watched the first and last games the host nation played - their one all draw with Mexico and their two to one victory over France - and heard about how they would become the first host nation to fail to advance out of qualifying in ages. Yet, while I was disappointed for the players and their fans (while revelling in seeing the French players receive the humiliation they so richly deserved) I couldn't help thinking how wonderful to see the team playing in the World Cup and South Africa hosting it, no matter what the result.

Twenty years ago, in June of 1990, only four months after being released from prison, Nelson Mandela made one of his first international visits,to Canada. He came for two reasons, one was to thank the people of the country and our government for supporting the struggle against apartheid by boycotting everything to do with the white minority rule regime, and secondly to urge our government to not relax the economic sanctions prohibiting Canadians from doing business with South Africa. Even though he had been freed from jail, the white majority government continued to rule and the apartheid laws were still in force so victory was still far from assured at that time. It wasn't until Mandela was elected president in 1994 that you could really believe in the idea of a new South Africa.

If you're wondering why Mandela would visit a relatively internationally insignificant country like Canada on what was his first trip abroad, it was because our government at the time was one of the strongest advocates for sanctions in the so called developed world. I wasn't a supporter of Brian Mulroney, and in fact disagreed with almost everything he and his Progressive Conservative Party of Canada stood for. However I will always admire the way in which he played a leading role in fighting for South African freedom. As it also involved publicly disagreeing with two of his biggest allies internationally, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher of the United Kingdom and President Ronald Regan of the United States, neither of whom would support sanctions against South Africa, his actions were even more impressive.

While our government played a large role in the latter stages of the fight against apartheid, Mandela also appreciated the fact that Canadians as individuals had been active for much longer. While it was important for him to address our politicians, and I believe he became the first non-leader of a country to address our houses of parliament officially, he also made sure to address people directly. Whether high school students as the link above describes or a public rally in Toronto Ontario, he thanked them for their help. My mother was one of those who went to see him speak when he was in Toronto, and she came away feeling like she had been part of history. You see, ever since I was aware enough to understand I knew she would never shop at certain stores because they wouldn't list where the fruit and vegetables they sold were grown. So at least from the late 1960's until the 1990's she never purchased anything grown or manufactured in South Africa, or had dealings with any company doing business with that country. Who could blame her for not feeling as if she might have had a little to do with helping ensure Mandela was able to stand there that day.

It has not been an easy sixteen years for South Africa and Nelson Mandela since his election in 1994. For close to a hundred years the majority of the nation's population had been living under the totalitarian rule of a small hand full of invaders because of the colour of their skin. They had been forced to live in poverty and any attempt at protest was met with ruthless violence. School children were shot down in the street in 1976 in Soweto protesting a law forcing them to be taught in Afrikaner, the language of the rulers, and now they had to find a way to live peacefully with the people responsible for those crimes.

While majority rule has brought about changes in the way in which people are treated, there is no way to eradicate all the damage that was wrought during the previous decades. Who knows how many generations it will take until the societal imbalances between the races is changed? Poverty and lack of education among the majority population can not be overcome instantly. Any dreams of instant prosperity that people might have harboured with democracy were quickly shattered as the reality of the task facing them became clear. Yet in spite of all the obstacles facing them this World Cup has shown the world that South Africa still believes in itself and continues to move forward. We can only hope that the people and her leaders can draw upon the success of the event to see for themselves just how far they have come in such a short time.

As time ran out on South Africa's final match of this World Cup, and the players and the fans celebrated their bittersweet victory over France, I was moved in a way that I didn't think possible by a sporting event as I thought back over the history leading up to this moment. It would have taken a minor miracle for them to be able to advance to the next stage of play, and it wasn't to be. Yet no matter what, the World Cup has to be considered a victory for South Africa and its people and one can't help but want to wish them well and hope for their continued success.

(Article first published as Thoughts On South Africa And The World Cup on Blogcritics.)

May 12, 2010

Book Review: Doing Dangerously Well By Carole Enahoro

We take it for granted, after all its all around us, it literally falls from the sky, but in some parts of the world water is even more precious a natural resource than the petroleum we in the West cherish so highly. However its still a naturally occurring resource, one readily available through springs and water holes to those in the desert and to us in more temperate climates rivers, rain barrels and the tap in our kitchen sink. Of course we in the city pay for the water we use - usually in the form of a metered rate to our municipality - but the cost is usually so insignificant we barely notice. After all nobody is trying to profit from selling us our water or treating our sewage, just covering the costs.

However as recent events have shown us, nothing is safe from privatization and corporate greed, and water is no exception. Under pressure from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank debt laden countries are being coerced into selling their water rights to American and European private corporations. The results have invariably been disastrous for the general populations as water prices have risen by as much as %50. In Bolivia, where the rights were sold to Bechetel, an American company, in the late 1990's, the result was what's become known as the water wars. People rioted all over the country in response until the company was forced to cancel the contract.

Of course companies don't need the World Bank or the IMF to do all their dirty work for them. In an age where natural disasters and wars are considered golden opportunities for doing business, all a good corporate executive need do is wait for the next tsunami, hurricane, or earthquake to destroy some poor country's infrastructure, and with the right political connections they could end up owning the rights to almost anything they want. Offer to help secure the necessary loans from the World Bank to finance rebuilding that damn and then generously offer to purchase the rights to the water the dam controls in order to help pay back the loan, and everybody's happy - except for the people who are all of sudden paying for something they never had to before.
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It's against this background of international greed Nigerian/Canadian author Carole Enahoro has set her first novel, Doing Dangerously Well, being released by Random House Canada May 11/10. However its not just Big Business and the forces of globalization that come under attack in her book, as Enahoro takes shots at every side in the argument. Government officials in Nigeria, do-gooding liberals in North America, and of course corporate social climbers are all grist for her mill.

When a major damn bursts in Nigeria killing thousands of people in the initial deluge, and then thousands more because of disease, Nigerians and Americans alike see it as a golden opportunity for advancing their careers. Ogbe Kolo is the current Minister of Natural Resources and sees this as a golden opportunity to work his way up the ladder to President and Mary Glass of TransAqua International is the one to help him get there by helping rebuild the broken damn. In return she'll only want the water and power rights from the damn, but Kolo can keep the naming rights to the new river and gets to be President. It's a win win situation for everyone save those who happen to live and depend on the Niger river and its waters for anything at all.

Naturally there is some opposition to these plans on both sides of the world. In Nigeria they are headed up by Femi Jegede, whose home village was destroyed in the deluge and after recovering from his grief has determined to prevent the plans of Ogbe Kolo from bearing fruit. Across the Atlantic Ocean Barbara Glass is equally determined to prevent her sister Mary from succeeding in her efforts. She joins a radical-Water group, Drop Of Life, in that known hotbed of socialism, Ottawa Canada, to co-ordinate resistance with her Nigerian "brothers and sisters". That she barely knows where Nigeria is doesn't prevent her from hopping a plane to travel there in order to "mobilize" resistance.
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From corner corporate offices to the corridors of power in Nigeria and from the jungles surrounding the Niger river to the backwoods of Ottawa, Enahoro leads us around the world as we follow her assorted mix of characters. Save for Femi and his companions, they are a collection of the least likeable sorts ever assembled. All of them, from President Kolo to the Glass sisters and their supporting casts, serve nobody and nothing but their own ambitions. Enahoro mercilessly skewers everything from new age pretensions to capitalist greed as she follows each of her character's globe hopping search for personal fulfillment.

The problem is that in her eagerness to attack so many targets, we lose sight of the reality. While the press material claims Doing Dangerously Well is the first satire to deal with the issue of Disaster Capitalism, and by extension the way in which governments are coerced into selling off their resources by the World Bank and the IMF, there's far too much chaff thrown up by her multi-pronged attack for the reader to focus on any one subject. While I agree with her assessments of all her targets, it might have been better to tackle each of them separately. There is the basis for three good books in this one, but instead they've been crammed under one cover and the whole suffers accordingly.

While Carole Enahoro manages to convey some of the results of the destructive policies being implemented by the IMF and the World Bank in the developing world, the book's vagueness and burlesque humour make them seem far less dangerous than they actually are. Mistaking satire for humour is a common misconception, and in this case the result is to make those who the author has targeted seem to be less of a threat than they really are. Along with the World Trade Organization, the IMF and the World Bank pose the largest threat to sustainable development, climate change, and, in the long run, peaceful coexistence among the world's nations of anyone.
By continuing to place more and more of the world's assets in the hands of fewer and fewer people they increase the divides separating the haves and the have-nots and the accompanying resentment that is the root of instability and terrorism.

Trivializing the actions of those involved by reducing them to the level of a farce gives a false impression of the real dangers we face by allowing this system to continue unchecked. The potential was there for an intelligent and bitingly funny book, but the author opted for the easy laugh instead. It's a pity because Enahoro is obviously intelligent and well informed with a good eye for the ridiculous on both sides of any issue. With a tighter focus she'll serve up some fine political satire in the future.

Article first published as Book Review: Doing Dangerously Well by Carole Enahoro on Blogcritics.

April 30, 2010

Interview: Mike Bonanno Of The Yes Men

My introduction to the Yes Men, Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno came about from watching their recently released DVD The Yes Men Fix The World. To say I was awe struck by the audacity and daring of the form their protests against multinationals, globalization, and the "Free Market System" in general and corporations like Dow Chemical and Haliburton in specific is to put it mildly. In fact they have given me cause to believe that if you looked up the word "Chutzpah" in the dictionary you'd see their happy faces grinning back up at you.

After reviewing their DVD I e-mailed them in the hopes of being able to interview either one or both of them in an attempt to find out a little bit more about who they are and what they do. Half expecting a no for an answer due to the hectic nature of their schedules - working day jobs while trying to fix the world doesn't leave you much spare time, so I was very grateful when Mike Bonanno said he'd be willing to answer my e-mailed questions. He's a lot better at getting to the point than I am so although some of his answers are shorter than my questions it's only because he doesn't waste any words.

Hopefully this interview will give you the incentive to check out at least my review of their DVD and maybe support their efforts by picking up a copy of it for your own pleasure. Those who want to get more directly involved can always check out their web site for a list of actions ongoing around the world which you can involve yourself in. Now without further ado, Mike Bonanno

1) Any special reason for the name "Yes Men"?

We started out wanting to be a funhouse mirror for big business. We thought we would say "yes" at corporate conferences until the ideas all seemed amplified and comic. Over time,  the name seemed to be more reflective of our culture of capitalism overall: we agree with the people in power just for a little short-term gain, no matter what the effect on the planet.  

2) So how did you settle upon this as a career choice - As a child did you say to your parents I want to be a professional shit disturber when I grow up or did you just gradually evolve into the role?
It happened to us by accident! We really did stumble into it... although we both had serious mischief streaks as kids. 

3) What brought the two of you together?

The Internet!

4) Some people might find it difficult to understand why you do what you do - so what is it that motivates you and why do you do whatever it is you do?

Well... the world appears to be going to hell in a handbasket. And we like the world. Perhaps we are nuts, but we think its worth fixing. Is that not motivation enough? 

5) What would you call what you do?

We are troublemakers for a cause. We hope to be the straw that breaks the camel's back. 
6) The chances of shaming someone - or something - like Dow Chemical or even a government agency like HUD are slim - so what do you hope to accomplish with your actions?

Our actions are all about getting the perspective of the powerless and disenfranchised into the news cycle – something that rarely happens in a profit-motivated media without some seriously drastic storytelling action. In the case of Dow and Hud, for example, the goal was not to make them feel bad (which they would not in any case), it was to make them look as bad as they are, for a general public that might have forgotten about their legacy in Bhopal or might not know they kicked the poorest people out of their homes after Katrina.  And in that regard we think our methods work pretty well... 

7) What do you hope that someone watching the film The Yes Men Fix The World will take away from it?

We hope that people who watch our film will be motivated to get out of their chair and go do something... put some pressure on government to change. We did actually have lots of people leave their seats and take to the streets after our theatrical screenings. We led the audience on several protests. Unfortunately, we could not do that every time, we were too exhausted...
8) When I hear politicians saying things endorsing the free market I realize how much closer Canada is to being a social-democratic state than the US - our politicians would never even dream of saying something like let the market forces fix a natural disaster - they would be run out of town on a rail.(Alberta being an exception to that rule being owned by the oil companies) Why is it do you thing Americans as a whole accept Free Market capitalism so cheerfully?

I think that since 1980 in the USA the free market has been revered by people at the highest levels of office, and even by our school curriculum. The people who are ripping us all off with this weird idea were pretty successful at getting people in the USA to think that human freedom = the free market. Of course that is not true at all... one only need to remember that it was a certain kind of "free market" that enabled mass slavery in the first place. But it has also been portrayed as a kind of weapon of democracy... all the presidents since Reagan were avid supporters of forcing free markets upon people along with so-called democracy. It is still a weird cold-war hangover. There is a huge education problem in the USA. We are taught to be stupid, angry, antisocial, merciless, and proud. 

9) Why is it that you think so many people at the conferences you attend as guest speakers take what you say at face value? For example the gilded skeleton, the Survivor Ball, and that bit about buying votes.

I think that there are psychological reasons why people go along with really bad ideas- but there is also the simple fact that they are there to get our business card. They think we are the most important people in the room, so they are not going to upset a business relationship over a little horror story. Hey, you only need look at world war two to see that there were plenty of american companies (like Ford) who just kept doing business with the Germans - even after the invasion of Poland - simply because they were in business together. Its pretty sick! 

10) I find it amazing that Dow Chemical was able to issue a statement denying they were going to compensate the people of Bhopal or do anything about cleaning up the site and that nobody questioned it - that nobody asked well - why the hell aren't you?

But people do ask this all the time... the victims. The problem is that the victims don't have a huge amount of wealth behind them, so they have trouble getting a word in. Other than that, many people don't really seem to notice... especially when there are huge greenwashing campaigns going on, like Dow's sponsorship of a ludicrous "run for water." 

11) Did you consider the fact that releasing the DVD The Yes Men Fix The World might actually be detrimental to any further actions of the sort depicted in the movie? That people organizing conferences might start to do a little more due diligence about who they're inviting to speak or to issue statements on television news programs? Can you see the BBC ever again extending an invitation like the one given you simply because of a web site without maybe phoning Dow and checking out its veracity?

We probably wont get invites from the BBC anymore... but there are always more ways of doing things! And more importantly, now we are actually focusing on getting more people involved. See this for more info. 

12) On your web site you offer the means for people to formulate actions and give suggestions on how to carry out the types of things you've demonstrated in your DVD. Have there been any signs that people are following your example and carrying out projects of the same scale as yours? Any choice examples?

Lots of people are doing cool projects that relate... there have been several fake newspapers where people consulted with us. A really amazing example of someone who says he was inspired by us is Tim DeChristopher, aka "Bidder 70". See his site for details, what he did is super important!  

13) How do you fund these activities - travel to Europe isn't cheap and neither would it be inexpensive to make 500 candles or some of the other prototypes you have handed out at various events? Do you follow the investment model you describe in the special features of the DVD or is there some other means you have to raise capital?

We actually lose money from making the movies. We pay for this stuff mostly from our day jobs... at least the getting to events and what not. And increasingly through speaking engagements. 

14) I assume you've read Naomi Klien's Shock Doctrine in which she details examples of disaster capitalism. How is this destruction of public resources kept from or sold to the public so easily? For example the closing of public school boards and the demolition of public housing in New Orleans.

The way its done is first to starve the public sector, and then to make people hate it because once its starved and broken it ceases to work well. That is definitely the case for the school systems in the US, public housing, public works of all sorts. So when people suggest getting rid of it and replacing it with some "private sector" solution most of the public goes along with it. Its really sorry that the strategy is not called out right in the beginning.  

15) There was a report in Canada's national newspaper, The Globe And Mail, today (March 23rd) that First Nations bands in British Columbia are threatening to blockade coastal waters in order to prevent tankers from carrying oil that was transported via a pipeline cutting through their territory. Time after time we hear people raise their voices in protest against things like this, but corporations and governments continue to try and push these projects through regardless until a protest occurs. Instead of taking things project by project, protest by protest, what can be doine to ensure these types of project are no longer even considered?

The only way to do it is to take back the government and start to enact sane regulations. Its either that or revolution. 

16) With the International Monetary Fund (IMF) forcing debt ridden countries to privatize their natural resources while cutting social spending and regulations - like environmental controls and worker health and safety legislation - that curtail business, what's the likelihood of another disaster along the lines of Bhopal?

There are countless Bhopals in the works. Unfortunately, the mother of all Bhopals is the climate change situation. Here we know we are facing disaster- with much MORE certainty than they did in Bhopal. And yet the political will is not there to change. It is criminal, and very, very sick.
17) On a more cheerful note - what's next for the Yes Men?

The first vacation in ten years! This summer we are taking some time off. But only to come back and put renewed energy into the Yes Lab! 

Thanks again to Mike Bonanno of the Yes Men for taking the time out of his busy life to answer my questions. If you want to see some of their most recent work - doctoring of various attendees' video statements at the recent World Economic Forum in Davos - you can check them out here. Here world and industry leaders give the speeches that they should have given in response to the plight of the world's poor and starving population instead of the usual platitudes and non-answers. Pay particular attention to Patricia Woertz, head of one of the worlds largest multinational agribusinesses, ADM, to see if you can see what could have upset them so much they demanded its removal from You Tube. The world would be a lot better place if politicians and industry leaders talked more like the Yes Men and a lot less like themselves.

(Article first published as Mike Bonanno of The Yes Men on Gonzo Political Activism and Troublemaking for a Cause at

February 3, 2010

Book Review: Stranger To History by Aatish Taseer

Most of us have little or no difficulty in understanding our heritage and what it means to us in terms of our belief systems as we usually have the example of either our parents or the community around us to go by. However, what if one of your parents comes from a culture that's not part of the majority and that person has never been part of your life? It may take a while, but sooner or later you're going to start to notice your different from everyone around you, and eventually you might start to become a mite curious as to what you've inherited from your absent parent.

Aatish Taseer was born in Delhi India as a result of an affair between his Sikh mother and his Pakistani Muslim father. While his mother never kept from him the truth about his heritage he grew up surrounded by cousins his own age wearing the turbans emblematic of their faith, making his uncovered head feel very conspicuous and out of place. It's not until he's twenty-one that he finally makes the journey across the border to visit his father for the first time. While he is welcomed by his father's wife and children with open arms, the man himself is far more reticent. Salmaan Taseer is an important political figure in Muslim Pakistan, and the knowledge he has an Indian son who may or may not be Muslim could create difficulties.

However, as Taseer describes it in his new book from McClelland and Stewart, which is partially owned by Random House Canada, Stranger To History, even if his father is reluctant to recognize him in public, at least by the end of his first visit he begins to feel they have developed the basis for a relationship. Like many other Pakistani's Salmaan is a secular Muslim, so the fact that his son is a Muslim in name only shouldn't make any difference to him. (In Islam the father's religion dictates that of the children)
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However when Taseer, now a journalist in England, writes an article about second generation Pakistani immigrants becoming fundamentalists and extremists because of estrangement and failure of identity, his father takes him to task in a letter for not understanding what it is to be a Muslim and for spreading anti-Muslim propaganda. Taseer is confused, how can the man who once said "The Koran has nothing in it for me" be offended as a Muslim by what I had written? It's obvious his father is right when he says that Taseer has no understanding of the Muslim or Pakistani ethos as he can't understand his father's apparently contradictory attitude. What does his father mean when he calls himself a "cultural Muslim"?

Attempting to find an answer to this question, Taseer sets off on a personal pilgrimage through the Islamic world. Starting in the fiercely secular Turkey, where many Islamic religious practices are forbidden by law, he makes his way slowly to Pakistan via Syria, Saudi Arabia - where he travels to Mecca, and finally the nominally Islamic state of Iran. Through conversations with various people, and his observations of life in each country, it becomes clear that there is no set answer. In Turkey he meets young men who dream about a world where everyone is ruled by Islam because it is the only faith which can tell you how to live properly. In Syria he see how that dream is being actualized by a regime with its own political agenda and not above cynically manipulating people.

By offering people a version of the world free of all contradictions and questions, a world in which there is only one "truth", they can control them with the help of a compliant clergy. In Abu Nour, a centre for international students in Damascus, people come from all over the world to learn Arabic and take classes in Islamic studies. However sermons in the mosque include distorted views of history designed to depict Muslims as being persecuted throughout the ages and work up antagonism against an enemy simply referred to as the West. The result is the creation of a world that exists in isolation designed to equate being Islamic as a supporter of the Syrian government and any who oppose Syria are enemies of Islam.

When the book shifts to Iran the depiction Taseer offers is no different than any other description you've read of people living under any totalitarian regime. Here he finds that Islam is being used to harass people over trivialities, like the length of their shirt sleeves, in order for an insecure government to exert control over them. In fact in what is supposedly an Islamic republic where you'd expect to be able to find answers as to what is a Muslim, there is even less chance of discovering that here than anywhere else. For, as one person he meets puts it, a professor at a university, "People were very connected to religion even though the government was not religious. But now the government is religious most people want to get away from religion... It is very hard for me to say I am a Muslim."
Taseer is by profession a journalist, and while that comes through in his ability to ask the right questions of people, his writing style is far more personal than you'd expect from a reporter. He makes no pretence about this being an objective study of Islam, rather its a personal voyage undertaken in the hopes of bridging the gap between himself and the father he was estranged from for over twenty years, and that comes across in his writing. His yearning to understand both his father and the religion he professes to practice, and the frustration and confusion they generate in him, predominate throughout the book as he intersperses accounts of his travels with recollections of his attempts to find common ground with his father.

In many ways this is one of the bravest books you'll ever read, as Taseer doesn't hesitate from voicing opinions that are going to be unpopular with people at all ends of the political spectrum. His compassion for the people he meets allows him to see beyond their words to the need that gives them birth, giving the reader a deeper understanding of where their opinions were born. The title of the book. Stranger To History refers obviously to Taseer's ignorance of his father and his Muslim and Pakistani inheritance. However, it can also relate to what he has witnessed in his journeys in Syria and Iran where history is being rewritten to generate hatred against the West in order to solidify the current regimes power bases. While he doesn't offer any solutions or comfort that there is some easy way to change or prevent what is happening, hope can be taken from his time spent, in all of all places, Iran in the people's determination to deny the regime in any small way they can.

Although his attempt to reconcile his own history with his father is somewhat of a failure, Taseer consoles himself with the fact that he has been able to connect with his personal history of being a product of both parts of the Indian sub continent. By having both countries he has had the chance of "embracing the three tier history of India whole, perhaps an intellectual troika of Sanskrit, Urdu, and English. These mismatches were the lot of people with garbled histories, but I preferred them to violent purities. The world is richer for its hybrids." While he may not have come any closer to discovering his father, or his father's religion, he has discovered himself.

Unlike those who think what the world needs is surety and purity, Taseer reminds us that sometimes there are questions which don't have answers and history isn't always divided up into winners and losers. If for no other reason, that makes this an important book to read, as it not only shows you the dangers of a world where black and white dominates, but it makes you realize just how wonderful a little confusion and uncertainty can be. Well you may not come away from reading this book any more enlightened about Islam then you were before you started, you'll have a better understanding of the variety of people who fall under the umbrella of that word. After reading this book you might not be so quick to make generalizations based on a person's religion and have a better understanding of what lays behind many of today's headlines.

November 5, 2009

A Book Signing For What Will Happen In Eragon IV?

Well in about ten days I'm going to be doing my first appearance as a professional author! Who'd have thunk it? Not me - at least not in this fashion. By now most people who read this page will know that last January Ulysses Press in the US commissioned me to write a book predicting what would happen in the fourth instalment of Christopher Paolini's Inheritance cycle. The main reason such a fuss is being made over the fourth book is that he had originally only planned on it being a trilogy, but was half-way through writing the third book, Brisingr, when he came to understand that if he wanted to do the story justice he needed an extra book.

Naturally his fans were disappointed that they weren't going to be seeing the conclusion to the series immediately, but once they had devoured the third book they quickly recovered and speculation has run amuck since as to how things were going to turn out. Which is why Ulysses Press thought there was an opportunity for a book like What Will Happen In Eragon IV? to be of interest to some people. Of course there are going to be those who see this as a shameless attempt to cash in on somebody else's fame and creativity, and I did wrestle with that for twenty-four hours. However also saw it as an chance to have some fun and exercise my brain in a direction I've never tried before.

I had no idea whether I could write about something like this and make it interesting to the people who like Paolini's books, and I still don't. What I do know is that it was much harder work than I anticipated it being, and if I were going to try and exploit somebody else's work and ideas I'd have found a much easier way of doing it - Believe you me!
Now the purpose of this post isn't to justify my writing of this book, it's to invite any of you who are going to be in Kingston Ontario on November 14th to come down to Indigo Books at 259 Princess Street between 2:00 pm. and 4:00 pm to for the opportunity of having your book signed - or purchasing a copy and having it signed if you haven't already done so, and maybe even taking some time to talk about the book and what you think is going to happen and why.

You can also leave your comments about my predictions at the books own web site if you can't make it down to the store to give me a piece of your mind. Hopefully though I'll see you there. Indigo shipped in forty copies of the book and I'd really like to make sure they're not stuck with any of them after Saturday the 14th - in fact it would be really cool if they have to order more. You can also pick up a copy just down the street from Indigo at Novel Idea - corner of Princess and Bagot - as they have a few copies on the shelf ( in the young adult section at the back of the store right next to their copies of the Inheritance cycle)

Please, do not, like those poor misguided souls at who have left negative reviews, confuse my efforts with the actual fourth book of the series, I'm not sure how you could as it clearly states on the cover of the book my name as author and that the book is not associated with, authorized or approved by Christopher Paolini or his publishers ( Well they did approve it - at least so much as promise not to sue me for stealing Paolini's intellectual property as it's obvious any of his work I've quoted has been purely for analytical purposes)

So hopefully you'll read the book and at the very least it will make you think if not even change your mind about what you think will happen. Remember there is a big difference between what you think and what you hope will happen.

July 29, 2009

Book Review: Twelve The King By Michael Blake

Sometime in 2008 I wrote an article about the threat posed to wild horses by the very people who are supposed to be preserving them - the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Some of the details include a program where horses are supposedly protected by being live captured and then put up for adoption. I still haven't figured out how capturing, domesticating, and then selling the horses constitutes preserving the wild populations, but I'm sure that somebody, somewhere has come up with a justification. Of course it's a little bit better than just rounding them up for slaughter and turning them into dog food, and just as effective a means of ensuring they don't interfere with ranching, forestry, and strip mines.

Of course as animals who were born into the wild, the older the horse that's captured the less chance it has of ever being domesticated. This is especially true for the older stallions who served as the herd's protectors in the wild. Even though all stallions are gelded upon capture (castrated) some never lose that edge which allowed them to ascend to a position of leadership with a herd. That's not a horse you're about to buy when your kids want a pony.

Fortunately there are some people out there who have sufficient appreciation for the artistry of Creation to see the beauty and splendour inherent in those magnificent creatures. While they may not be able to do anything about the circumstances that cause their plight, people like Michael Blake, best known as the author of Dances With Wolves, are the only hope these horses have of ending up as your dog's breakfast, or wasting their lives away in a corral. In 1991, he paid a visit to what he described as one of the BLM's concentration camps for wild horses, and first saw the horse he called Twelve. In his new book, Twelve The King published by Perceval Press, Blake tells us the story of his nearly two decade long relationship with this wild stallion.
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While all the horses in the BLM facility outside of Reno Nevada that day in 1991 had been taken from the wild herds in the mountains it was immediately obvious that the black gelding with the numbers 1210 on his flank was different from the rest. While other horses in the camp could be ridden after only twenty minutes in a paddock with the director of the facility, nobody that day Blake visited could even lay a hand on the black. Although he was protected from the slaughter house, the numbers on his flank gave him immunity, he had been declared unadoptable because of his age at capture, twenty years old, and was looking at spending the rest of his life confined to a small pen.

For twenty years Twelve had roamed the desserts and ranges of Nevada, and for most of that time had been the protector and leader of his herd. The director of the facility in Nevada told Blake that when Twelve was released in the paddock with the other sixty or so geldings that had been in his herd, the others would never approach him. When the gates were opened for them to be returned to their stalls, he would always lead them out, after first checking it was all clear. On one occasion he recounted how all sixty horses ran in a circle around Twelve, as if paying homage to their king.

While the book appears to be simply a recounting of Blake's life with Twelve, the details that come out from this description help you understand the uniqueness of this horse, and wild horses in general. For while Twelve would allow himself to be touched, he never stopped being a wild horse. He would have nothing to do with the domesticated riding horses that Blake owned, so in order to give him companionship Blake adopted a female from the same Reno facility. The descriptions of their play time - biting, rearing, and kicks just missing the other's head - give one a sense of their power and control. For never did he see either horse actually make contact or hurt the other no matter how violent their play might have looked to human eyes.
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While Blake admits that at the beginning of their relationship he harboured hopes of a bond forming between himself and Twelve, that he would somehow be able to overcome the animal's years of living wild and "tame" him, it never happened. Yet that's what makes this book special the chance it offers to be close to a horse who, although willing to accept human companionship, never surrendered anything of himself. Blake recounts walking Twelve past a ring where young riders were being put through their paces on their new mounts. Commands to walk, trot, and canter would issue out of a loud speaker and the riders would change their horse's gait accordingly. When the horses began to canter he felt Twelve stiffen, and then turn to take up a position facing the opposite direction in which the horses in the pen were travelling. He was looking to see what was chasing them and putting himself between the herd and any potential threat. As soon as the horses were walking again he relaxed his vigil and allowed himself to be guided away. (He was never led - only ever guided)

Twelve The King is a deceptively simple book, only thirty some pages of photographs and text. Its power resides in the feelings of awe and wonder that Blake so obviously feels for Twelve and the fact that he is able to convey those feelings to us with minimal words and no hyperbole. There are no long rapturous peons of praise to the glories of nature and wild creatures, just straight forward sentences describing this one horse. Yet reading about Twelve is to be given a glimpse at what is lost each time a rancher encroaches on preserve land and the BLM removes more horses from the wild, and the herds move one step closer to eradication.

"In city traffic/I remember his eyes/So dark and wet/So full of God" ends a poem Blake wrote after his first sight of Twelve at the Reno BLM facility. It's a pity there aren't more people who share Blake's vision, who can see the hand of their Creator in the untamed and the beauty it represents. He doesn't waste space decrying the practices of the BLM, a couple of paragraphs summarizing the hypocrisy of their so-called preservation efforts - ones that appear destined to guarantee the eradication of wild horses in America - is sufficient to tell us all that we need to know. Yet Twelve The King is one of the strongest arguments you'll ever read for ensuring the preservation of the wild herds. A world in which Twelve and those like him have ceased to exist is not one I care to imagine, but is one that could soon become a reality. That would be a shame.

Twelve The King can be purchased directly from Perceval Press

June 10, 2009

Book Review: US Future States Atlas By Dan Mills

I've always had something of a problem political art. Far too often people expect you to lose your objectivity and only look at the message, not at how the message is delivered. It's like all of a sudden we're supposed to forget about the quality of the art because the message is so important. Maybe I'm just an elitist snob, but it pisses me off when people expect you to say how wonderful something they did was because it was about this or that, not because it was a beautifully written story or exquisitely drawn illustration.

I'm in agreement with saying art should hold a mirror up to society and there's nothing wrong with deliberately setting out to create a piece of art that makes a political statement. However, it's equally important for whomever is doing the creation that he or she are able to set aside the issue that originally inspired them and be able to focus on how best to communicate it for an audience. No matter what you do, though, creating political art is such a difficult balancing act, as you try to meet the needs of both the art and the issue you're dealing with, that not many can pull off.

However, if you're interested in seeing an example of one artist who does an exemplary job of accomplishing it check out the recent release from Perceval Press, US Future States Atlas by visual artist Dan Mills. Subtitled "An Atlas Of Global Imperialism" the book gathers together a series of satirical maps Mills created delineating countries the United States could invade in the future and annex as additional states in the union.
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For each country, or "state", Mills has taken an actual image of it from an atlas and then begun its transformation into being part of United States Global (USG).(Note: USA + USG = United States Empire (USE)) First, if these new states are more than one country, made up of bits and pieces of a few adjacent countries, or as in the case of "New Venice" (formally Venezuela) divided up into separate states, their new boundaries have to be defined on the atlas. The new regions are painted in either one or a few exceptionally garish colours that make them stand out from those in their immediate vacinity.While in some instances it makes them appear to be a mockery of the way in which relief maps designating altitude and geographical formations are drawn, the distinctiveness of the colours also puts me in mind of the way in which maps used to designate countries that were once part of the British Empire with bright pink. Even in post colonial days you could look at a world map and spot Commonwealth countries, former colonies who still wanted to be part of the same club, dotted all over the world.

In fact if you turn to the back of the book you'll see that Mills has created two new maps of the world, one of which depicts the countries of USE picked out in a sickly purple, washed out blue, and shades of green. The other is crammed full of initials as it designates all the territories through abbreviations. Looking at the new map of the world where the fourty-seven new states appear like random blotches against a pale background it's hard to find any rhyme or reason for why these particular spots were chosen to become parts of the new empire.

Not to worry, for on each of the individual maps of the new states Mills has outlined the reasons why this particular country was chosen to become part of USE, and the benefits to be derived by USA, or US50, from their inclusion. These include everything from the geo-political, a country is situated such that an American presence can easily exert influence on a region of the world, to the natural resources made available through their inclusion. Of course one country can't just annex another without so much as a by your leave, I mean wasn't the first Gulf War fought because Iraq annexed Kuwait?
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That's all right Mills has covered those bases as well. For on each map he's itemized the reasons for US50 to take over the country. Take the new state of Panama Canal as an example. First of all the country of Panama wouldn't have existed without US aid in the first place as they were part of Columbia until 1903 and only seceded with American aid. Immediately upon declaring sovereignty they gave the US control over a swathe of land through the middle of the country until 1999 in order to build the canal and run it. Therefore a good chunk of the country was ruled by America for the majority of its existence anyway. Aside from that it will fulfil the need for military bases in the region to assist in future plans for the region and provide a beach head in Central America.

With his US Future States Atlas Mills has created a wickedly biting satire of America foreign policy dating back to the days of the Monroe Doctrine and Manifest Destiny. In the later parts of the twentieth century and early twenty-first we've seen the US invade countries all over the world with impunity for what has turned out to be the most spurious of rationale. Somalia, Grenada, Panama, Afghanistan, and Iraq have all been treated to visits by American armies since the 1980s, while other countries have had to deal with forces armed and funded by various US governments. His creations are not only visually arresting with their garish colours, but they also provide insightful and intelligent commentary on American foreign policy and how truly ridiculous some of the rationale given for those previous actions has been.

Perceval Press has done its usual masterful job of presenting artwork in a book form. The works are laid out in such a way that we are able to see both their scope and the detail of each piece. Blow ups of the actual states themselves allow us to appreciate the lurid details of the colours Mills has chosen to illuminate them with, while the scale reproductions of each map are clear enough that we can make out details like the accompanying text. US Future States Atlas accomplishes the delicate act of balancing of art and politics with grace and style. While that's in large part due to Dan Mills' sensibilities, Perceval Press has to be given some credit as well as they have created an effective and accessible means for people to view the artist's work.

US Future States Atlas can be purchased directly from Perceval Press.

February 5, 2009

Book Review: Little Bee By Chris Cleave

I wonder if any of us can imagine the straits somebody would have to be in to stow away in the cargo hold of a ship in the desperate hopes that whatever awaits at the end of that journey is better than what they have all ready experienced? What would it take for you to flee with nothing but the clothes on your back? I would think that anybody who went to those lengths must seriously believe their lives to be in danger or have cause to fear for their personal safety.

Yet the usual reaction in the so called developed world to people that desperate is to lock them up in detention centres while some government bureaucrat tries to decide whether or not they deserve to be granted refugee status and given asylum in whatever country they've ended up in. If the person can offer no proof that deportation will put their lives in jeopardy, as if they had time to get affidavits from the gunmen who came into their village and shot everybody or a copy of the arrest warrant that resulted in their being tortured, the only hope they have is if the country they've landed in has identified their country of origin as one where its civilian population is at risk.

Unfortunately if you're from a country like Nigeria in Africa which is now in the top ten of the world petroleum producers, most of the industrialized world has a vested interest in the activities that have put your life at risk. This is the case that the title character of Chris Cleave's most recent release, Little Bee, available from Random House Canada February10th/09, finds herself in. When deposits of crude oil are discovered under her village in Southern Nigeria, the oil company sends in soldiers to kill everybody and burn the village down. Since the government is aware of this activity - whole villages can't just disappear without somebody noticing after all, any survivors who escape become subject to immediate arrest and disappear usually never to be seen again. (Check out the author's web site for more information on Nigeria)
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Little Bee is the story of two women, Little Bee a Nigerian seeking asylum in Great Britain, and Sarah O'Rourke (nee Summers) a successful British journalist seeking refuge from the life she has created for herself personally and professionally. It's been two years since Little Bee landed in England as a stowaway onboard a ship from Nigeria and she has spent nearly every day since in the Black Hill Immigration Removal Centre while her fate is decided. As the book opens it appears that a decision has been reached as she is being released. She and three other women have each been given chits good for a taxi and are free to go - that they might not have anywhere to go, or that they have no papers documenting their status as refugees, appears to have escaped everybody's notice.

It turns out that the release is not as official as Little Bee hoped. One of the three other women traded sex for illegal release, and it looks better for three or four to be released instead of just one. So Bee and two others find themselves standing in line waiting to use a phone thinking they have been granted asylum, when in actual fact they have just been turned into illegal immigrants.

At least Little Bee does have someone to call aside from a cab. One of her few treasured possessions is the driver's licence of one Andrew O'Rourke, journalist and husband of Sarah, both of whom she had had a chance meeting with on a beach in Nigeria slightly over two years ago. That Little Bee was with her sister at the time and fleeing the men hired by the oil company to destroy their village and kill its inhabitants at the time meant their initial meeting was not your typical interaction between tourist and local.

Sarah and Andrew were on the vacation in the hopes of saving their marriage as Sarah had been having, and would continue to have, an affair. They had separated briefly upon Andrew's discovery of Sarah's infidelity, but had decided to try to rebuild if for no other reason than their child Charlie. However by the time Little Bee phones them from the Black Hill Immigration Removal Centre, their marriage is as precarious as it ever was. For not only had their attempt at a second honeymoon failed to save their marriage, the events surrounding their meeting with Little Bee while in Nigeria had changed them both irrevocably.
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In Little Bee Cleave has managed the very difficult task of writing about an issue that he obviously feels very passionate about without ever becoming polemic at the expense of his story. He had done a masterful job of creating two very believable lead characters in Sarah and Little Bee, and an equally brilliant job of alternating the narrative between them. By sometimes having the two women describe the same situation he is able to show us the ways in which they differ and are the same without having to spell anything out.

What I particularly appreciated is how Cleave built the story so that he weaves the past and the present together as he gradually develops the history that existed before Little Bee came to England. When Little Bee shows up unexpectedly on Sarah's doorstep near the beginning of the book it not only triggers Sarah to remember the events that led up to the trip to Nigeria, but what happened when she and Little Bee first met. While at first her decision to try and help Little Bee might seem like the knee jerk reaction of a guilty, affluent, white liberal, as she reflects on her life we realize there is more to her than that. At some point in her life she had become lost and Little Bee is the catalyst that helps her find her way back to being the person who wanted to make a difference.

While some of Little Bee's narration is what you'd expect, stranger in a strange land sort of thing, it never feels cliched or inappropriate for her character. After all she is a sixteen year old girl from a small village in Africa who had never been in a city before let alone out of her own country. Yet at the same time Cleave doesn't let her become a sweet little refugee girl who we all should feel sorry for. She wants vengeance on the people who are responsible for killing her sister, and, in a way, she gets to see it carried out even though its not in a manner any of us would have expected.

It's the unexpected things that Cleave brings to his characterization of both Sarah and Little Bee that make this book so real, for neither of them fit into anyone's easy stereotype of white liberal guilt or the plucky refugee whose an example for us all. Intelligent, well written, and with believable characters, Little Bee offers readers the chance to try and understand what would drive a person to climb into that cargo hold and search for a place to start their life over again. While the characters and the institutions mentioned in the book are all fictional, the description of conditions in both British detention centres and in Southern Nigeria are accurate and based on factual evidence. You might never think of asylum seekers in the same way again after reading this book.

Little Bee can be purchased directly from Random House Canada or an on line retailer like as of February10th/09.

December 30, 2008

Village Rescues Starving Horses From Mountainside

The newspapers have been awfully depressing recently, filled with forecasts of economic disaster, reports of epidemics (cholera in Zimbabwe and ebola in the Congo), and casualty statistics from Afghanistan, Iraq, and Gaza. With millions of people going hungry world wide on top of that, it's sometimes hard not to listen for the echo of hoof-beats heralding the arrival of the Four Horsemen of The Apocalypse. Once in a while however, you catch the a glimpse of light in the dark that helps keep despair at bay.

The village of McBride, on the border between the Canadian provinces of Alberta and British Columbia (BC), hasn't had much to celebrate this last little while. Up in the mountainous interior of BC they depend on the forestry industry for survival, and they've suffered with the downturns its experienced in recent years. Mill closings and job losses have left them in rough shape, and I'm sure a lot of the town folk are struggling to make ends meet and were wondering what kind of Christmas they'd be having this year. Whatever they had been thinking, I don't think any of them quite imagined the way Christmas would turn out this year, but I doubt any of them will be forgetting it too soon either.

A week before Christmas Logan Jeck went up Mount Renshaw in northeastern B.C. to retrieve a couple of snowmobiles some tourists had abandoned and what he discovered was enough to break your heart. Two horses, believed to have been there since September, were clinging to life, and the mountainside, in a tiny snowed in space. Jeck's family owns horses, and the next day his father sent his sister Toni back up the mountain with a bale of hay, a .44 magnum and instructions to put them down if they were in too much distress or feed them if they looked like they had a chance at survival. She fed them.
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Then the people of McBride got down to the business of trying to figure out how to get two half dead horses down off the mountain. The first order of business was to ensure that they were strong enough to make the journey. When the animals were first discovered they had lost a third to half their body weight, one of them was covered in sores and missing patches of hair, and urine had encrusted what remained of their tails. The BC Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) sent a vet in to check the animals out a few days after they were found. On a scale where zero is death and six is ideal, their health was rated a two.

When word began to spread through the Robson Valley where McBride is located, volunteers and donations started to pour in. Blankets and hay were hauled up to feed the two horses and keep them warm, and snow was melted over open fires to provide water. Money to cover the costs of fuel and anything else required was coming in from as far away as Vancouver on the West Coast and Edmonton in central Alberta. However it was still going to be up to the people of McBride to bring the two lost souls safely home.

They considered various options; hoist them out with a helicopter, pull them out on sleds, or even seeing if they could put them on horse snowshoes so they could walk out. Horses, like deer, can't walk on powder snow, their hoofs just break through the crust. With the snow on the mountain piled in drifts higher than most people, there was no way they could walk out in the current conditions even with help. Not only would they quickly flounder, the chances of them breaking a leg while trying to plough through the snow in their weakened condition would be incredibly high. What it came down was being digging a corridor through the snow, with shovels, up the mountain down which the horses could be led safely.
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For a week the people of McBride BC shovelled and dug a kilometre long passageway up the side of Mount Renshaw. Braving temperatures as low as -40C they cut an avenue through drifts that towered over their heads. On Tuesday December 23rd the two horses and their rescuers walked seven hours down to safety. Sundance and Belle have been placed in foster care by the SPCA, and are expected to make a full recovery. When you think of the conditions that people worked under, there were more than a few cases of frost bite reported among those doing the shovelling, and everything else that the townspeople have to worry about, it's hard not to agree with special constable Jamie Wiltse's, of the B.C. SPCA, assessment of them as heroes.

"They've been struggling lately," he said, "but they weren't thinking of themselves when they were digging out those horses. It just makes me choke up. It's a beautiful story, it was totally selfless." Yet to hear the people of McBride talk you wouldn't think they had done anything out of the ordinary. "They didn't deserve to be left up there with no chance of getting out" said horse trainer Birgit Stutz, one of those who took care of the pair on the mountain side while the escape route was being dug. "I wanted them out and that's all I thought about, and that's all that kept me going."
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Ownership of the horses has been traced to a lawyer in Edmonton who says that the horses were carrying supplies for some hikers on the mountain in September when he got separated from them. He claims to have returned three times to try and retrieve the animals, getting stuck in the snow twice before he even located them, and then was unable to get them out of the snow. Constable Wiltse is investigating whether or not charges can be laid against the lawyer under provincial animal-cruelty laws. He says the owner had a duty to at least alert the authorities as to the animals' plight. Instead he left them on the side of a mountain and winter setting in with little or no chance of survival.

Thankfully the people of McBride British Columbia weren't going to let that happen if they could help it, and they turned what could have been a tragedy into a story of hope and compassion. A Mrs. Stulz said when commenting on the fact that she hadn't been able to buy presents or a tree this year because she'd been up the mountain,"This is the best Christmas ever, you realize these are the most important things in life - to help something that needs help".

When you read about a story like this, and you hear someone saying that, especially someone who has just done what Mrs. Stulz and her neighbours have done, you feel a little better about the world. They might not have been able to stop people from killing each other in the Middle East, or catching disease in Africa, but they did remind us what it means to care more about somebody else than yourself. If that's not a message of hope I don't know what is.

December 25, 2008

Medecines Sans Frontieres' Top Ten List For 2008

Every year at this time the media begins to reflect back on the events of the past twelve months in order to tell us everything of importance that occurred. While there are news items of significance that will be hashed out on editorial pages or in comments sections, things really begin to heat up when the best of and worst of lists start to make their appearances in entertainment sections. Ten was the magic number for these lists long before a certain late night talk show host began his parody of them, so top and worst ten lists of everything from movies to cell phones from the previous year are produced by anyone with access to a computer and the Internet.

While some of the news stories that appear in lists aren't always cheerful, the majority of them are events that we are familiar with and that won't cause us to lose any sleep at night. Unfortunately there is one list, that is now entering its eleventh anniversary, of which neither of those two statements are applicable. Every year since 1998 Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders) have been issuing a top ten list of the past year's worst humanitarian crises. For the most part these situations have boiled over into crises status because they have gone largely unreported in the press and aid agencies are not being supported in their efforts to take care of those affected.

For those of you unfamiliar with Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) or Doctors Without Borders as they are known in the English speaking world, they are an international medical humanitarian organization created by doctors and journalists in France in 1971. MSF provides aid to people whose survival is threatened by violence, neglect, or catastrophe, due to armed conflict, epidemics, malnutrition, exclusion from health care, or natural disasters. They provide independent and impartial assistance to those who are most in need and reserve the right to speak out to bring attention to neglected crises, to challenge inadequacies or abuse of the aid system, and to advocate for improved medical treatments and protocols. In 1999 their efforts were recognized when they were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for the work have done to make the world a slightly more caring place.

Needless to say as a completely independent body with no alliances to any religion, military, or government, they tend to piss people off all over the world as they don't care who they criticize. They adhere strictly to a system based on the humanitarian principles of medical ethics and impartiality, so they don't set any stock by anybody's political or social agendas. It's probably because of this that MSF has usually been one step ahead of the rest of the world when it comes to getting the word out about humanitarian disasters. In 1985 they warned about the Ethiopian government's forced displacement of hundreds of thousands of its population that preceded the famine in '85; in 1994 they called for military intervention in Rwanda in response to the ongoing genocide; in 1995 they condemned the Serbian massacre of civilians at Srebrenica; denounced the Russians for their bombardment of the Chechen capital Grozny in 1999; and more recently called for international attention to the crisis in Darfur in 2004 and 2005 at the UN Security Council.

Since 1998 they have been using their "top ten" lists of humanitarian crises to let the world know of the situations that are the most dire and where people are most affected. This year's list is no exception to the previous ones in that there has been little or no mention of any of these situations in the mass media, nor has there been any concentrated effort made to alleviate the crises. One thing each of these circumstances has in common is that they are all on going, all of them are preventable, and in most cases they are occurring because aid workers are being prevented from assisting those in need.

This past year's (2008) top ten ongoing humanitarian crises according to Medecines Sans Frontieres are: the worsening humanitarian crises in Somalia; a critical need of assistance required in Ethiopia's Somali Region; critical health needs remaining unmet in Myanmar; civilians being killed and displaced due to intensive fighting in Northwest Pakistan; the health crises sweeping Zimbabwe as violence and economic collapse spreads; no end in sight to the violence and suffering in the Sudan; civilians trapped by war raging in Eastern Congo; civilians in Iraq in urgent need of assistance; there are still millions of malnourished children throughout the world despite advances in lifesaving nutritional therapies; and the rise of tuberculosis as a cause of death among people living with HIV/AIDS.

Unlike other lists this one doesn't celebrate anything except our failure as a species to look after our fellows and our ability to look the other way. If you have any doubts as to the importance of this list, you only need to look back to the crises that MSF has warned the world about in the past to be reminded about the consequences of inaction. This is one top ten list that can't just be dismissed as a typical exercise in end of the year rumination. Please take the time to follow the links in the list above, and maybe even forward them to a local aid agency or political representative. Although I enjoy top ten lists as much as anyone, this is one, as I'm sure you'd agree, that I would happily see made obsolete.

December 24, 2008

Canadian Politics: While Parliament Away, Prime Minister Plays

The Canadian Parliament has been closed since the first week of December as Prime Minister Steven Harper convinced Governor-General Michaelle Jean to suspend it until the end of January so he wouldn't lose power. The opposition parties were preparing to vote against him and his Conservative Party of Canada, and offer themselves as an alternative in the form of a coalition of two parties, The Liberals and The New Democratic Party (NDP), supported by a third, The Bloc Quebecois.

Now little Stevie isn't one to sit idly by and let fate rule his destiny, nor is he going miss out on any chance that he has to put his stamp on the face of Canadian government for years to come. So he has spent the last week before Christmas doing as much as he can get away with without Parliament being in session. He has named a new judge to the Supreme Court Of Canada, appointed nineteen friends and fellow travellers to the Senate, and authorized a bail out package to Chrysler and General Motors of four billion dollars.

I'm going to skip over the first part, the appointment of a judge to the Supreme Court for a second, because I could hear all my American friends wondering about naming people to the Senate. In Canada we don't have an elected Senate, the closest thing to be found to the Senate in another government would be the British House Of Lords. In Canada though, instead of being born into a seat, you need to be a friend of the sitting government in order to get one of these plum positions. For plum they are, paying out an annual salary of $130,400 until retirement at age seventy-five, followed by a pension indexed to inflation.

Now it's no big thing for a Prime Minister to pack the Senate, it's an old Canadian political tradition. It's how you reward the party faithful and your friends for the work they've done on your behalf over the years. The thing is that Prime Minister Harper, and long before he was even a member of Parliament, has been a fierce proponents of an elected Senate. You see a Prime Minister can't just appoint people willy-nilly to the Senate, they have to be evenly divided among the provinces to guarantee equal representation. So Mr. Harper has advocated that provincial legislatures nominate people for Senate appointments and that the sitting federal government should abide by their selections.

To give the devil his due, the first appointment Steven Harper made to the Senate was a man who had been put forward by the Alberta legislation, but not this time. Of course he's saying he takes no joy in having to stack the Senate, but it's the provinces fault for not getting it together to nominate anybody. Of course, that's why he's had to find nineteen people to sit in the Senate who all happen to have opposed the proposed coalition government. Now the Senate does not have the power to defeat any motion passed by the House of Commons, and could not overturn a vote of non-confidence taken in the house, but they can make things difficult for a government.

Normally they serve as a rubber stamp for bills passed by the House of Commons, but if the opposition holds the majority of seats in the Senate as the Liberals currently do (even after the addition of nineteen Conservatives it will be 58 Liberals to 39 Conservatives) they can delay passage their passage by holding hearings or voting against them and sending them back to House for further discussion. Aside from Mr. Harper's previous stance making him look a bit of a hypocrite in this case, the opposition is also questioned his political legitimacy to appoint people to the Senate as he's only still Prime Minister because he suspended parliament.

Harper's appointment of Mr. Justice Thomas Cromwell to the Supreme Court of Canada has raised more than a few eyebrows for many of the same reasons that his stacking the Senate has caused consternation. You see Harper has been advocating that all people appointed to the Supreme Court must undergo full parliamentary scrutiny before they are approved, but again he decided that circumstances dictated that he act with immediately. Calling the process, "stupid, wrong, and foolish" political science professor Peter Russell, and expert on the judiciary, criticized the Prime Minister for ignoring the all party process used to compile a list of finalists, and then bypassing the parliamentary review process.

Of course Harper has made no secret of his dislike for the Supreme Court's application of The Charter of Rights and Freedoms to do things like strike down aspects of his anti-terror legislation, enshrining the right for same sex couples to marry, and other decisions he considers interference with his government's ability to impose legislation that might infringe upon civil rights. The fact that, according to Prof. Russell, Justice Cromwell can be expected to use the Charter sparingly to strike down legislation, and who will generally place the interests policing ahead of the rights of the accused, might just have had some bearing on the Prime Minister's decision to appoint him while Parliament is suspended. For even if he should go down to defeat when the house is reconvened, the appointment will stand, and the face of the Supreme Court of Canada will be changed forever.

Now everyone had expected an announcement of some sort regarding the bail out of the auto industry, especially in wake of the American government's announced $17.4 billion . No matter how bitter a pill it is to swallow that we have to bail out these bastions of Free Enterprise and opponents of government regulation due to their own incompetence, no one denies that we have any choice in the matter. If the auto industry were to go under the ripple effects on the Canadian economy would leave it in such tatters that it would take years to recover. The communities that rely directly upon one or other of the big three's car plants for direct employment and the money their employees put into local economies are only the tip of the iceberg.

Dotted mainly throughout Ontario are auto parts plants that supply the industry both in Canada and the United States. A great many of these companies are located in smaller communities where they constitute a town's major employer. During strikes when part orders are curtailed these communities suffer because of lay-offs, but they can tighten their belts and ride out those short term losses. However if the big three were to vanish, these plants would close their doors for good and the economic devastation would cause the modern day equivalent of ghost towns to spring up across the province.

The problem is that by doing the deal unilaterally, without Parliament's input, the Prime Minister has been able to fudge the details of the plan according to opposition parties whose main concern is the lack of any guarantee that Canadian jobs will be preserved. While supposedly there are some production guarantees included in the agreement, according to Liberal Member of Parliament John McCallum, there is nothing in it that secures the jobs of Canadians.

What nobody seems to mention, which I find very surprising, is why the government didn't demand some semblance of accountability from the corporations. If we are going to be handing GM a loan of up to $3 billion and Chrysler $1 billion, you'd think the least we could ask of them is that make some sort of commitment to ensure that they will change the business practices that got them into this predicament in the first place. (If you're wondering about the fact that Ford is conspicuous by their absence its because they've not requested any outright loans, merely access to a line of credit that they can draw on as needed) When any business applies to a lending institution for a loan they are obliged to offer proof of a viable business plan that shows how they see plan on paying back the loan. While Harper has said that the loans aren't a blank cheque and that companies and employees will have to make concessions, he didn't say what that might entail.

Since their biggest failing has been their inability to compete against the Asian car industry and their unwillingness to embrace new technologies that would make their cars more fuel efficient and less dirty, wouldn't it have been a good thing to make those conditions of the deal? How about insisting that they work on making an affordable hybrid car that would cost less for purchasers to operate and be less harmful to the environment? How about retooling their line so they stop mass producing trucks and SUVs, or other expensive big ticket items, and focus on producing inexpensive, fuel efficient, passenger cars for families?

Since Steven Harper became Prime Minister in 2006 he has shown a singular lack of desire to involve anyone but his closest advisors in making any decisions. For the two years of his first term he was effectively able to use Parliament as a rubber stamp for his policies as the opposition parties were in disarray and either unable or unwilling to stand against him. However, only twenty-seven days into his second term he found out that was no longer the case when he tried to push through his economic statement and he only escaped being ousted by suspending Parliament.

Yet apparently he hasn't learned his lesson, as he's spent the two weeks since doing anything he can to unilaterally run the country. While there is nothing technically illegal in any of the decisions he has made, it won't do anything to dispel the opposition's mistrust or their belief that he will stop at nothing to get his own way no matter what. If his behaviour over the period between cancelling Parliament and its recall at the end of January was designed to reassure the opposition and Canada that he has changed his ways, its done the opposite. In fact his behaviour has only reinforced the previous opinion of him being intractable and unwilling to work with the opposition to create legislation for the good of the country. If he keeps this up, his suspension of parliament will have only succeeded in delaying the inevitable, and he and the Conservative Party will be back on the outside looking in again.

December 16, 2008

Canadian Politics: Canadians Don't How Their Government Works

I had wondered how Steven Harper, Prime Minister of Canada, expected to get away with calling normal parliamentary procedures like a vote of non-confidence and a coalition government treason and coup d'etat? How could any member of parliament be so cynical as to expect not to get caught in such an outright lie? In fact he himself became Prime Minister after "overthrowing" a government in 2005 through the same non-confidence procedure and winning the subsequent election. True he didn't have the opportunity to form a coalition government, but that's mainly because nobody would want to join forces with him, and the government he defeated had been sitting for two years, not twenty seven days.

Well now I know the answer. According to a survey conducted between December 9th and 12th, after the whole circus died down in Ottawa, a majority of Canadians don't know that we don't directly elect our Prime Minister, who the head of state is, or how to best describe our system of government. On the plus side, ninety percent knew that a Governor-General could refuse to let a sitting government call an election upon losing a vote of confidence in the House Of Parliament.

The survey was commissioned by a group known as The Dominion Institure who claim their goal is to build active and informed citizens through greater knowledge and appreciation of the Canadian story. Well judging by the results of their survey they have a hell of a long way to go if they want to even come close to achieving this goal. If fifty-one percent of Canadians believe that the Prime Minister of Canada is elected by direct vote like the American President, is it any wonder that the Conservative Party was able to convince people that the proposed coalition government of a couple a weeks ago was "undemocratic"?

Aside from not understanding how the parliamentary system of government works, which has been in place since 1867 when the country was formed, only a bare majority knew that we are a constitutional monarchy. Now I know to people who live outside of Canada that the concept of a constitutional monarchy sounds more than a little obscure, and why shouldn't it? They haven't grown up with the system or studied it in school. Finding out that Canadians are equally ignorant about such basic precepts when it comes to the government they live under is not only embarrassing, but more than a little scary.

Maybe it doesn't seem like such a big deal to some of you that most Canadians think either the Prime Minister or the Governor General are head of state, or that they can't name the style of government we live under. However ask yourself this, how much difficulty would an American have in telling you that the President is head of state or that they live in a republic? Why should it be so difficult for Canadians to do the same thing?

However that is trivial when compared with the fact that the fifty-one percent of the people polled in this survey believed that the Prime Minister was elected directly. That shows a not only a complete lack of knowledge as to how our system of government works at its most basic, but just how few people actually vote in federal elections. If you've ever stepped into a polling booth on election day in Canada to cast a vote you'd have noticed that nowhere on the ballot you fill out is there a place to vote for Prime Minister. Even if the margin of error, 3.1%, for this survey is factored in, it means that forty-eight per cent of Canadians of eligible voting age have never stepped inside a voting booth, or don't understand what it is they are doing when they cast a ballot.

(I'm beginning to feel silly explaining this in every article I write about Canadian politics, but obviously it's needed. Canada works under a system of parliamentary democracy where the country is divided up into electoral districts called ridings based on population density. Each riding represents one seat in the House of Commons, and political parties select candidates to run as their representative in each riding. The political party that elects the most candidates forms the government with the leader of that party becoming Prime Minister.

If no party wins an outright majority of seats in the House of Commons the one with the most seats tries to rule with either the support of another party or on its own. A minority government can lose votes in the house without having to resign except for one on financial matters or if the other parties pass a motion of Non-Confidence. When that happens the Prime Minister asks the Governor-General, the Queen's (the head of state) representative in Canada, to dissolve parliament so a new election can be called. The Governor-General has the option of asking the opposition if they feel like they can form a government, or the opposition can ask the Governor-General for the chance to form a government if they can offer proof of their ability to govern. That would usually require a coalition of parties with sufficient votes in the House to defeat a motion of Non-Confidence, and a guarantee that the coalition would last for a particular length of time.)

In order for a democracy to work a country's population has to at least understand how their system of government works. If they don't they can be manipulated by unscrupulous leaders who would take advantage of their ignorance to prevent the checks and balances built into the system from working. When a government under a parliamentary system does not receive a majority of the seats in the House of Parliament, it is understood that they do not have sufficient support to be a representative voice of the country. It is the opposition's responsibility to ensure that the governing party is responsible to the whole country, not just those who voted for them, and ensure that legislation represents the majority as much as possible.

Since Steven Harper and The Conservative Party of Canada were first elected to a minority governing position in 2006 they have acted like they have a majority government. Until this past November they were given a free ride by an opposition in disarray for various reasons. Now, when the opposition acts like they are supposed to, calling the government on legislation they did not think represented the best interests of the entire country, Steven Harper accused them of attempting to overthrow the government and usurping the democratic process. He was able to get away with that because too many Canadians don't understand how their own system of government works.

Marc Chalifoux, president of The Dominion Institute, summed up the situation succinctly when commenting on the survey: "Canadians certainly were interested by what was going on in Ottawa (the capital city of Canada) but lacked, in many cases, the basic knowledge to form informed opinions." When the people a system of government is supposed to represent don't understand how it works they surrender what voice they might have had in its process. If the people of a country have no voice in their government can it really be called a democracy?

Until Canadians can get it together to understand even the most basic principles of their own system of government they will remain at the mercy of who ever wields power in Ottawa. Until that time we are a democracy in name only.

December 11, 2008

Canadian Politics: A New Leader For The Federal Liberal Party

It's been an exciting couple of weeks in Canadian politics, and it doesn't look like the action is going to slow down any time soon. When Conservative party leader, Prime Minister Steven Harper received permission from Governor-General Michaelle Jean to postpone parliament until January 26th/09 in order to avoid facing a vote of non-confidence in the House Of Parliament, it appeared he might have dodged a bullet. His popularity had risen in the polls and the Liberal Party, leaders of a proposed coalition government poised to replace him after the non-confidence vote, were starting to turn on themselves over who should lead their party when the house reconvened.

Before the events of the last two weeks or so went down the Liberal party were just beginning the process of electing a new leader to replace Stephane Dion who had led them to their worst election result in twenty years. Of the three men who had announced their intention to seek the position, two, Bob Rae and Michael Ignatieff were considered the front runners, with Igantieff having a slight edge due to his popularity among the Liberal Members of Parliament (MP). Still, in a leadership convention anything can happen and Rae was planning an extensive cross country tour in the hopes of convincing those selected as delegates to the convention that he was the man for the job.

However with the very real possibility of the government still going down to defeat when the House reconvenes, Dion was being a considered a liability by even members of his own party in the event of the coalition being called upon to form a government or, even worse, an election were to be called. One of the reasons that Stephen Harper felt fairly secure in postponing parliament was for that reason. He figured by the time the house re-convened the Liberals would be too busy with picking a new leader to risk defeating him in an election with a lame duck leader.
Ignatieff & Rae.jpg
Well the Liberals have called his bluff, and two very intelligent and proud men have put aside their own political ambitions in order to make the Liberals as unified and strong as possible no matter what happens at the end of January 2009. Stephane Dion offered to step down immediately, and Bob Rae has stepped aside to allow Michael Ignatieff to become leader of the party. The party had been discussing ways of holding a speeded up leadership convention, either by having a new leader elected by the Liberal caucus or expanding the vote to include riding association heads (a riding is the equivalent of an electoral district and each riding represents a seat in the House Of Commons) and all candidates from the last election to ensure that all ridings had a say in the matter.

While they will still be going through with both votes, it will now simply be a formality as there is only the one candidate, Michael Ignatieff. This does raise the question as to what happens now? When the Liberal party was rounding up caucus members to sign the coalition agreement the last to sign was Ignatieff, in fact he signed it three hours after the deadline for signing had passed. It has also been said that if the coalition had taken office earlier this month, he would not have accepted a cabinet post in the new government. Now whether or not that's because he was preparing to be the new leader as of May 2009 and wanted to distance himself from anything to do with Stephane Dion, or he didn't believe in the idea of a coalition, isn't known. What is known is one of his staffers has been quoted as saying "coalition if necessary, but not necessarily a coalition" It appears that he is more than willing to use the threat of the coalition to keep Steven Harper in check, but not about to jump the gun and vote Harper's government down just for the sake of voting against him.

The one hitch in that plan is that he did sign the coalition agreement and backing out at this late date unilaterally would quickly sour his relationships with the other opposition parties unless he can convince them it's in all of their best interests. Both Jack Layton, leader of the New Democratic Party (NDP) the other member of the coalition, and Gilles Ducette, leader of the Bloc Quebecois, who have promised to support the coalition in parliament for eighteen months by not voting against them on bills that would cause them to lose power, have publicly said that they believe the coalition still stands and are still planning for that eventuality.

(As opposed to the lie that Steven Harper and his Conservative Party have been spouting, the Bloc Quebecois would not be part of the coalition government and would not be given any cabinet posts in that government. Anyway, he was willing to do a deal with them two years ago when he was in opposition to try and form a government so he should be careful about who he accuses of what. In fact he pissed off Quebecer's so much with his anti-Quebec comments over the last couple of weeks that he is considered responsible for the improved showing of the Parti Quebecois (provincial separatist party) in the Quebec provincial election this past Monday, December 8th/08)

I have a feeling that unless the Conservative Party do something incredibly stupid, like still try to pass the same financial plan that caused this mess in the first place, or not offer a solid package of financial incentives to help stimulate the economy in whatever plan they do propose, they will probably ride this storm out. Michael Ignatieff is an unknown quality for Canadians, and he's wise enough to know that he would be risking his political career by becoming Prime Minister as the head of the coalition unless he can offer an iron clad case to Canadians that the Conservatives and Stephen Harper are unfit to rule. Instead I think he will take this opportunity to establish himself and bash the crap out of Harper and his party until the summer recess, and then next fall pull the plug on Steven Harper and run head to head with him for the Prime Minister's office.

Of course considering the volatile political climate we find ourselves in right now, everything could change again overnight. There have been rumbles of discontent from the rank and file of the Conservative Party. Harper has had two elections now with which to attempt to win a majority and even with a weakened Liberal party encumbered with a leader nobody really liked, he was still unable to deliver a majority government this time. The Liberals may not be the only party who change their leadership between now and next year.

December 6, 2008

Canadian Politics: Prime Minister Suspends Parliament To Save Government

In an attempt to prevent his government from going down to defeat in the House of Commons and be replaced by a coalition made up of opposition Members of Parliament, Prime Minister Steven Harper has received permission from Governor-General Michaelle Jean to suspend the current session until January 26th/09. Taking advantage of a little known parliamentary technicality called "prorogation", which gives the Prime Minister the right to shut down Parliament in case of an emergency, Harper will avoid having to face a vote on his fiscal policy scheduled for December 8th/08.

The opposition parties had already made it clear that they planned on defeating the governing Conservative Party in that vote, and approaching the Governor General with the coalition deal they had worked out over the past few days in the hopes of being given the opportunity to form a government. The coalition would have temporarily been led by current Liberal part leader Stepheane Dion (he would be replaced in May by whoever won the Liberal leadership convention) and would have included members of the New Democratic Party (NDP). The Bloc Quebecois, the Quebec nationalist party, wouldn't have been an official part of the coalition but had agreed to support the new government on all issues of confidence to allow them to rule without having to call an election. (In a parliamentary system a minority government can lose votes in the House of Commons as long as they aren't on fiscal issues or specific motions expressing lack of confidence in the sitting government.)

Mr. Harper is the first Prime Minister in current history to have chosen this option rather than face going down to defeat in the House of Commons. As recently as 2005 then Prime Minister, Liberal leader Paul Martin, knew very well that he would be defeated on an economic package he was presenting to the House of Commons, but like every other minority government prior to him, including Conservative leaders Joe Clark in 1979 and John Deifenbaker in 1963, he acceded to the wishes of Parliament. Former Governor-General Ed Schreyer cited those previous instances when warning that granting a wish for prorogation at this point would be an evasion of the process to Parliament and set a dangerous precedent for the future.

What is the great emergency, he asked, that necessitates the closure of the House Of Commons? According to Mr. Schreyer with the new Parliament having just opened only a genuine emergency should be grounds for prorogation. Allowing Steven Harper to suspend the sitting so his government can survive can't be constituted as an emergency, and for the Governor-General to allow the Prime Minister to do so for such an obviously political reason would damage the political neutrality of her office.

However, as a constitutional monarchy, the Queen, or in this case her representative, is only a figurehead, and can never be seen to gainsay a request from parliament. Steven Harper asking Michaelle Jean permission to suspend Parliament is only a formality and she really has no choice in the matter. It would be an even more dangerous precedent for a Governor-General to refuse the request of a Prime Minister, then for her to allow Mr. Harper to suspend the House of Commons. In a constitutional monarchy the crown can never be seen as dictating to parliament, or the whole system is compromised.

For those of you wondering why Steven Harper waited until almost the last minute before calling everything off, was that he and his Conservative Party needed the week to paint as negative a picture of the opposition as possible for the Canadian public. So he has spent the week saying the last thing Canada needs is a separatist government during a financial crises. In fact he and his party have resorted to telling outright lies by saying things like the Bloc Quebecois would have Cabinet posts in the coalition government as they attempt to do anything to shore up their own image. He has seems to have conveniently forgotten how willing he was when in opposition to try and woo the same separatist party in his attempts to overthrow the Liberal government.

You see, even now, Harper is only grudgingly admitting that perhaps as a minority government he and his Conservatives are going to have to work with the other members of the House of Commons. For the two years prior to the election last October 14th he and his party had been able to control parliament with a minority government because the Liberal Party, the main opposition party, didn't have a leader and weren't about to call an election. However, there is only so far you can push people, and so much you can get away with. The fiscal package he introduced that was supposed to prepare Canada for the upcoming financial crises was such a slap in the face for the opposition they refused to take it.

It was Conservative party arrogance that brought about the situation and unless that changes, chances are that when the House of Commons reconvenes in January we're not going to see much of a change in the attitudes of the opposition parties. All three parties still say they are prepared to bring down the government as they no longer have trust or confidence in their ability to rule. Liberal leadership candidate Bob Rae says that he is prepared to campaign across the country in support of the coalition in preparation for the recall of parliament and has all ready called the Harper government illegitimate and accused the Prime Minister of being a coward by asking for prorogation.

If the coalition can hold together over the next seven weeks and the opposition defeats the government as they say they will at the first chance they get when the House of Commons reconvenes Michaelle Jean will then have to make a decision as to whether she should allow Steven Harper to dissolve Parliament and call an election or allow the coalition to attempt to govern. While technically the House will still only be in its first sitting, sufficient time will have passed since the last election that Harper will try to make the case that he has the right to call an election.

However, in 1979 when Joe Clark's Conservative Party government lost a vote of confidence in the house after six months in power, then Governor-General Ed Schreyer, asked opposition Liberal leader Pierre Trudeau if he thought he could form a government before he agreed to dissolve the house and call an election. So if the coalition can stick out the next seven weeks and weather the storm of propaganda that the Conservative Party will rain down of them during that time, we will find ourselves back in the exact same situation we are in now. Steven Harper has been able to delay a vote in Parliament on his fitness to govern, but it looks like he will still have to face the music when the House reconvenes.

December 1, 2008

Canadian Politics: A New Government Without An Election?

There is something very odd going in on Canada this week, Canadian politics are exciting. Normally politics in Canada is about as predictable as watching paint dry, you know what the result is going to be well in advance no matter how much anyone says otherwise. So what's been going on over the past week, and what will come to a head in another week's time on Monday December 8th, is really quite incredible as its something that has almost never happened before in Canadian history.

For the first time since WW1 and Prime Minister Robert Borden's war time Union government made up members of both his Conservative Party and Wilfred Laurier's Liberal Party, Canada is looking at the very real possibility of a coalition government running the country. Led by the Liberals, as they have the second largest number of representatives in the House of Commons, it would also include the left leaning New Democratic Party (NDP). Although the Bloc Quebecois, the Quebec nationalist party, would not be part of the coalition, they have all ready made it clear that they would be willing to vote with them on important issues.

What's that you say, what about the guys who won the election on October 14th (2008)? While it's true the Conservative Party of Canada won the largest amount of seats in the last election, as everyone predicted they didn't elect enough Members of Parliament to have an outright majority in the House of Commons. Under these circumstances the government can lose votes in the House of Commons without any serious ramifications except in the case of a vote on fiscal matters or what is known as a vote of Non-Confidence.

Under normal circumstances when a government loses in either of these situations they would be forced to dissolve parliament and call an election because they are no longer able to govern. However, there is also the option that the opposition parties can go to the Governor-General of Canada, The Queen's representative, and ask her permission to form the government without a new election being called. Canada is a constitutional monarchy with the Queen of England being our titular head of state. Both her role and the role of the Governor-General are strictly ceremonial and they are not allowed to refuse a legitimate request by the opposition to form a coalition government.

How these circumstances came about is last week Prime Minister Steven Harper's government introduced a fiscal package to the House of Commons that was what they called the first stage of their solution to help steer Canada through the upcoming financial crises. Instead of offering ways of stimulating the economy they have proposed a series of spending cuts and taking away civil servants right to strike. The opposition parties were so upset by this that they made it clear they would not support the bill, which means that the government would go down to defeat on a fiscal matter, necessitating an election. Knowing full well the opposition wouldn't force an election so soon after the last one, the government refused to back down, probably not believing that the three opposition parties could set aside their differences and form a coalition.

One of the major stumbling blocks towards forming the coalition is the question of who would be the Prime Minister and leader of the Liberal party, as they are just beginning the process of replacing the man who led them into the last election Stephane Dion. While he is still the leader of the party, the leader of the NDP, Jack Layton, had made it clear that he would not agree to any deal that made Dion Prime Minister. As the vote on the fiscal package is imminent the Liberals don't have time to hold a leadership convention, so they will have to pick someone from among the caucus to be leader. The question is whether or not the candidates running for the leadership would be willing to allow one of their number to become interim leader, and Prime Minister.

Initially the Conservative Party was going to hold the vote on this coming Monday, December 1st/08, but when they saw the way the wind was blowing they put it off until December 8th. They hope to use the coming week to convince the people of Canada that the rightfully elected government is being hijacked and to sway opinion against the coalition. Unfortunately the extra week will also give the Liberals and the NDP the opportunity to figure out a way to make it work. If the Liberals are able to appoint a new leader in that time, probably Michael Ignatieff not only will it satisfy the NDP, but it will also take some of the sting out of the Conservative party's spin against the coalition.

In his speech announcing the delay on the vote Steven Harper challenged the legitimacy of Stephane Dion to become Prime Minister as he has all ready agreed to resign as leader of the Liberal party. If Stephane Dion does remain as leader when the coalition approach the Governor General about forming the government it could mean that Steven Harper and the Conservative Party might not recognize the legitimacy of the new government and be the beginnings of a constitutional crises. Unfortunately for Mr. Harper, constitutional experts say that Governor General Michaelle Jean will have little choice but to give the coalition the chance to form a government as long as they meet certain provisos, even if Stephane Dion remains leader.

According to Louis Massicotte, an expert in government affairs, there is overwhelming cause for not calling a new election under the current circumstances. According to precedent from both British and Canadian parliamentary history whenever a government is defeated during its first sitting there is no election. As long as the three opposition parties, the Liberals, NDP, and the Bloc Quebecois, produce a written agreement guaranteeing support for the coalition and how long it would last, it would be Ms. Jean's duty to accept it so soon after an election.

As of now the NDP and the Liberals are still negotiating and the Conservative party are putting their spin campaign in motion, and the next week promises to be one of the more interesting ones ever in Canadian politics. How it will play out in the end is still anybody's guess, but come Tuesday December 9th/08 there might just be a new government in place without an election being called. I guess we couldn't let the Americans be the only ones to make electoral history this year.

November 28, 2008

The Vatican "Forgives" John Lennon

An article published in the official Vatican newspaper, "Osservatore Romano", officially "forgave" John Lennon for comments he made in 1966 about the Beatles being more popular than Jesus Christ with young people around the world. The editorial said that the remark was the boast of a young working class Englishman faced with the flush of unexpected success, implying it was made more in ignorance than with any blasphemous intent.

Well I'm sure that's a great load off the minds of all of Lennon's surviving family members knowing that he's been forgiven by the Vatican. They must have been frantic with worry. So what if it was more than a little condescending - it still wipes his slate clean with the Pope which means ... well actually it means dick all. Talk about a load of sanctimonious bullshit, as if anyone cares anymore what Lennon said forty-two years ago. It smacks of a cheap attempt by the folk in the Vatican to show that they are wise and benevolent without actually having to do anything.

Sure at the time it raised quite a stink when Lennon made his statement about the Beatles being more popular than Jesus among young people and got completely blown out of proportion. He never meant they were more important, which was how the idiots interpreted his comment, but more popular, and there's a good chance he was right. In 1966 if you asked the average teenager would you rather sit and read a parable by Jesus or listen to a cut from Help I bet the majority would have picked the latter. Heck, ask the average young person today if they would rather watch an episode of The Simpsons or Southpark or sit down with the New Testament and see what kind of reaction you get.
Of course I always find it hugely ironic whenever the good folk in The Vatican try to stumble up to the moral high ground and make these sorts of groundless statements. After all this is the same church who funded a poster campaign in Tanzania claiming that condom use leads to death. Considering that one in ten adults in that country's capital city, Dar, are infected with the HIV/AIDS you'd figure it was the other way around, but maybe their logic is different.

Of course we shouldn't be so surprised when they come up with stuff like this as the Catholic Church's track record when it comes to moral issues has been, how shall we put it, spotty at best. It, along with the conservative Christian Protestant churches and hardline Muslim leaders have led the war against teaching people how to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS throughout Africa and South-East Asia.

First of all it's sinful to have sex before marriage so you can't tell people how to safely have sex with someone who they aren't married to. Besides that, safe sex means using condoms, and using condoms prevents a woman from becoming pregnant which defeats the only purpose of sex - procreation. If you happen to have fun while attempting to have a baby that's forgivable (heck if they can forgive John Lennon they can forgive you that), but heaven help you if you decide you want to have sex just because you love the other person but don't want to have a baby.

Of course the institution has always made stellar contributions to the spread of disease, overpopulation, and famine. The people in Calcutta who really deserve beatification are the ones handing out condoms and teaching women that they don't have to baby machines, not the person encouraging them to make souls for God. Jesus taught that we should walk in another person's shoes and try to understand what they were experiencing in order that we might be more compassionate to their needs. I can't see how encouraging people who have to beg for a living to have babies is being compassionate.

How can an institution like the Catholic Church that has ordered people to be burnt alive for their beliefs, encouraged the faithful to kill those who didn't worship the same God, and been responsible for cultural and actual genocide among indigenous people the world over, without ever asking for forgiveness itself, presume to sit in judgement on others? Oh sure the Church admitted that "mistakes were made in the past", but it doesn't seem to have learned from them or be particularly troubled by them.

If the Vatican was genuine in its regret for past actions that saw millions of people persecuted would they send letters filled with veiled threats to countries passing legislation legalizing same sex marriages? Would they allow clergy to openly advocate the criminalization of homosexuality as the Bishop of Alberta, a province in Canada, did in the run up to Canada legalizing same sex marriage? Would they cover up child abuse by priests to protect the Church's "good name" as they did most recently in New England? That behaviour might not sound as heinous as The Inquisition to you, but ask the parents of any of the abused children how they feel and I'm betting they're not too happy with the church as an institution.

While Catholicism has the potential to be a beautiful religion, and there are people around the world who are Catholic who do their best to fulfill that potential, the institution itself has yet to live up that promise. Instead of issuing statements of forgiveness for matters nobody gives a damn about, maybe they should start figuring out ways of earning the forgiveness of all those they've caused damage to over the years.

When Jesus Christ said "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone", he was telling us don't be so quick to judge others because we've all got our dirty little secrets. The Catholic Church is no different from the rest of us and has no right to pass judgement on anyone or anything.

October 16, 2008

Book Review AIDS Sutra Various Authors

In 1860 a British act of parliament declared that sex between men was illegal and punishable by a jail sentence of up to ten years. The law went into effect throughout the British Empire including its largest colony, India. Unfortunately, when the British government repealed section 377 in 1967 it couldn't take back what it had imposed on its colonies the century before, and to this day homosexual sex is still illegal in India. (Speaking to a gathering of Indian delegates at last summer's, 2008, International AIDS conference in Mexico, Indian health minister A Ramadoss lent his support to the repealing of Section 377, but as of yet nothing has been done to do so)

The Bombay Police Act of 1951, which covers everything from frightening cattle to public decency, gives police the power to fine and arrest people they believe are behaving indecently. As the act does not define what is indecent, it gives police the arbitrary power to arrest virtually anyone they feel like. While in theory the act is to be used to curtail prostitution, the fact that the average police officer makes less than a maid results in widespread use of the act to shake down sex trade workers for money. Of course the constable on the beat has to give a cut of whatever he takes in to his superior officer. In fact if the lower grades among the police force ever want to advance up the ladder they are expected to pay off their higher ups on a regular basis thereby encouraging the practice.

Its reading disheartening facts like these, and other far worse anecdotal tales, that makes the new book AIDS Sutra, produced by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and published by Random House Canada (available in India through Ramdom House India) so depressing. For all that India tries to present to the world the shiny face of a modern technologic giant, judging by what you read in AIDS Sutra when it comes to sexuality its stuck in the dark ages. One of the things this book makes clear is just how much these attitudes impact HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment.
AIDS Sutra.jpg
For AIDS Sutra the Gates Foundation gathered together sixteen of India's best writers and sent them out among the various communities in India affected by HIV/AIDS. AIDS Sutra tells the stories of everyone from orphan children living with the disease to women, men, and transgendered people forced to sell their bodies as a means of survival. Salman Rushdie, Kiran Desai, Vikram Seth, Nalini Jones, and twelve other authors have each contributed a report for the book that as fiction would be heartbreaking while as non-fiction are heart-sickening and horrifying in their implications.

The overall impression that you get from reading these works is that in general India is the same place North America was in the 1980's when it comes to their understanding of HIV/AIDS. There is still wide spread ignorance concerning how the disease is spread and it's only been recently that even the medical profession has begun to treat those suffering from the disease with something approaching the respect offered anyone suffering a serious ailment. Reading the story of Dr. Tokugha, as told by Nikita Lalwani, that opens the book prepares you for some of the ugliness to come. When he tested positive for the virus instead of informing him of the results, in a horrible breach of patient confidentiality, the hospital told his brother in law, a government minister. It was only six months later, a week before he was to be married, that his brother in law let him know he was positive.

Reporting on sex trade workers in various places around India Kiran Desai, Sunil Gangopdhyay, Sonia Falerio, and CS Lakshmi all draw similar pictures of women who have been pushed into circumstances by forces beyond their control. While some of them, mainly the younger and prettier ones, are able to command a degree of respect, the majority of them face the attitude of one police officer interviewed who said any woman who sells her body is bad so should be beaten, and wants sex, so should be raped.. Even more disquieting is new legislation being proposed by the government threatens to send them even further underground, making it harder for medical authorities and Non Government Organizations (NGOs) to work with them to help prevent and treat HIV/AIDS.

While the police in major centres like Mumbai (Bombay) are now starting to make attempts to educate new officers about the reality of AIDS, ingrained habits and conditioning will take years to overcome. As no records have been kept in the past there is no way of knowing how many police officers have been infected with the virus from exercising their "rights", raping sex trade workers instead of arresting them, and then in turn infecting their wives and other partners. The only group more difficult to monitor and help than female sex trade workers in India are men who have sex with men (MSM).
Indian Cover AIDS Sutra.jpg
With homosexual sex acts still illegal the stigma attached to being gay is such that many men are forced underground. Since sex is illegal they are continually at risk of being arrested and are routinely subject to harassment and extortion by the police. However according to articles by Salman Rushdie and Mukul Kesavan that's nothing compared to what happens to MSM sex trade workers. The police routinely set up entrapment ploys for them by sending a "client" out looking for sex in one of the regular cruising areas. When the client goes to leave the area to take his partner of choice somewhere they can have sex, the sex trade worker is arrested. If he's lucky he'll only have to pay off the police, but quite often they will be hauled back to the station house where they are gang raped by police officers and tortured.

As it is illegal to have gay sex, how do you set up programmes that will deal with preventing the spread of HIV/AIDS among that community? There are NGOs that do work with the MSM and transgendered communities in India, and as it stands the best statistics available show that 20% of MSM's are HIV positive. How many are still going undetected because of their reluctance to go public with the reason for them requiring testing is anybody's guess, as are the number of police officers who may be positive after participating in a scene as described above. Until the act making sex between men illegal is repealed in India, there can be no way of knowing the true numbers of people infected with the disease, and no way of mounting a seriously effective prevention campaign.

It's never a good thing to try and impose your own moral code unto another culture or to form judgements on it based on observations conducted by eyes conditioned to another value system. However, when a book like AIDS Sutra, written by people who are native to the culture, paints as devastating a picture of India's preparedness for dealing with HIV/AIDS, it's no longer a question of morality, it's a question of human rights. No one, no matter what their sexual orientation or gender deserves to be treated in the manner the people we meet in this book are treated. Even worse is the fact that the way they are treated not only endangers them, but endangers the population as a whole.

Reading AIDS Sutra one is forced to draw the conclusion that not only is the Indian government unprepared for dealing with preventing the spread of HIV/AIDS, the situation is such that there is no way of knowing the extent to which the disease is spreading across the country. For the country that gave us Tantric sex and the Karma Sutra, and whose pantheon of Gods and Goddesses contains a transgendered deity (Ardhanarishvara the half woman god) India seems to have somehow become stuck with horribly Victorian attitudes towards sex and sexuality.

In the West our governments ignored HIV/AIDS until it was almost too late because of bigotry and prejudice. India can't plead the excuse of ignorance when it comes to the disease as far too much is known about it for that to wash as an argument any longer. However, judging by the articles in this book the government which should be leading the fight to save the lives of its citizens is allowing conditions to continue that will only encourage the spread of the disease. The tragic conclusion one reaches reading AIDS Sutra is that India is headed the way of East Africa of ten years ago and risks allowing AIDS to reach pandemic proportions.

AIDS Sutra can be purchased directly from Random House Canada or an online retailer like Amazon Canada and in India from Ramdom House India.

October 1, 2008

Canadian Politics: We're Having An Election Too (Not So Anybody's Noticed)

Greetings from north of the 49th parallel. As you down there in America are looking more and more like you are about to make a drastic change in your national political landscape in the next presidential election by switching from the arch-conservative to the liberal, we here in the land of igloos and ice-hockey are poised on our own cusp. On October 14th Canadians will head to the polls to choose our next Prime Minister, and there is a chance that we could be electing our first ever really conservative government.

In the past a party that called itself the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada has formed governments, and while they might have been what some people in Canada would have considered fiscally conservative, they have always been far more liberal socially than even the most liberal of Democrats in the United States. It was a Progressive Conservative Prime Minister in the 1960's who instituted our system of universal medicare after all, something that very few politicians of any stripe in the States dare to even talk about let alone implement.

The party calling itself the Conservative Party of Canada under the leadership of Steven Harper won the most seats in our House of Parliament in our last election, but failed to win enough to have the outright majority required to rule uncontested and do whatever they wanted. What they want to do is remake Canada in the image of George Bush's America - somewhere safe for God fearing, white, heterosexual Christians who want to profit at the expense of others. In the two years they've had a minority government they have managed to scrap Canada's commitment to the Kyoto Accord, rescind The Kelowna Accord (legislation that the previous government, the provinces and native leaders had negotiated that would have given native Canadians a chance to dig out from under years of poverty), cut 50 million dollars in funding to the arts, divert funding from HIV/AIDS prevention programs, extend and expand Canada's military mission in Afghanistan against the wishes of the majority of Canadians, increase military spending, and cut funds to social programs for women and children.

Of course there are some things they have failed to do; rescinding the legalization of same sex marriages, instituting legislation that would have given people the right to discriminate against others on the basis of sexuality, and closing North America's only safe injection facility, Insite. In each case it wasn't any of the opposition parties in the House of Commons who prevented them from enacting these pieces of legislation, but the courts upholding the constitution and Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

This has led to the familiar conservative call to reform the courts on the grounds they are interfering in the government's ability to rule. While this is a seductive argument, because it has some basis in truth, it is up to the courts to ensure that the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms is respected and the Constitution is upheld. If any government complains because they aren't allowed to contravene their country's constitution and do what they want, shouldn't one wonder about them instead of wondering about the courts? I would think that we should be grateful that the politicians have someone, or somebody, holding them accountable.

For those of you not familiar with Canada's form of democracy, we are what's called a Constitutional Monarchy, with the Queen of England being our titular head of state represented in Canada by a Governor-General. This is a figure head position with no real power, and the real authority lies in the hands of whoever is Prime Minister. As we have a parliamentary system of government our Prime Minister is the leader of whichever political party elects the most members to sit in parliament during an election.

The country is divided up into electoral districts based on what is supposedly the fairest means of proportional representation possible - but as certain parts of the country have a higher population density than others it doesn't really work out - with each district representing one seat in parliament. If a party wins a clear majority of the seats they are said to have a majority government and can pretty much do as they please for the next four and half to five years when they'll have to call another election.

When no one winds an outright majority, as what happened in the last election, the leader of the party with the most seats in the house forms the government. Under normal circumstances they will try and negotiate a deal with another party with seats that together they form a majority. However after the last election the Liberal party of Canada, who finished second to the Conservatives, were too busy stabbing each other in the back and electing a new leader to risk an election being called, so the Conservatives didn't have to worry about making nice with anyone.

In fact the Conservatives could probably have gone on ruling for quite some time without having to call an election, but they thought they could win a majority government if they called an election now. So claiming that parliament was unworkable, Steven Harper asked the Governor General's permission to dissolve the current parliament and call an election. As I said before, the Governor General is only a figure head and no matter what he or she might think they have to go along with the Prime Minister, so he was allowed to call an election.

It's been a perfect campaign for the Conservatives - boring and tedious. They haven't promised anything, haven't even said what their plans are if elected. Oh they make vague comments like, we're the best party for the economy, or Canada has become more conservative in the last while and the newspapers report them as gospel. Nobody is calling on them to explain how they plan on being the best party for the economy or even asking why anybody should vote for them, and the most recent polls still show them flirting with a majority government.

The good news, for those in opposition, is that the polls are by no means anywhere as near as conclusive as they were earlier in the campaign. Where it once looked like they were a pretty sure bet to form a majority, the other parties are making enough inroads into Conservative support that the chances of that happening are decreasing. Wednesday night, October 1st/08, the leaders of the four national parties, Conservative, Liberal, New Democratic Party, and The Green Party, will face off in a debate over the issues that will go a long way in deciding whether or not Steven Harper and the Conservative Party of Canada form a majority or have to make do with another minority government.

If the other four leaders are able to make the country realize that Steven Harper isn't actually saying anything and wake everybody up enough to notice that he could be on the verge of winning a majority government, there's a good chance it will be enough to prevent it from happening. On the other hand if nobody is able to do anything to wake people up, to make them pay attention to what's going on, to care enough to vote, Steven Harper and the Conservative Party of Canada could very well have a majority government on October 15th.

It would be supremely ironic if on the eve of an historic breakthrough for liberalism in the United States, the election of a black president, Canada, historically the far more liberal country, elects its most conservative government ever.

August 13, 2008

HIV/AIDS: Sex Trade Workers, American Blacks, And A New President For AIDS International

Well the 17th International Conference on AIDS wrapped up in Mexico City over the weekend and despite being attended by over 22,000 delegates from more then 170 countries, not much of anything happened or was said that hasn't been said or done before. In fact aside from the appointment of a slightly controversial figure as the new president of AIDS International, the only event of any real importance during the Conference was a plenary session featuring a representative of an Argentine Sex Workers association as it marked the first time that anybody from the industry was given standing at the conference. In fact it was so inconsequential an event that the biggest news of the week regarding the disease actually took place outside of the Conference with the release of "Left Behind" a report from Black AIDS Institute on the impact of the disease on their community.

Julio Montaner of British Columbia, and the director of the B.C. Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS was confirmed as the new president of the International AIDS Society at the end of last week's conference. He brings not only a wealth of experience to the job but an outspokenness that's seemed to be sorely lacking amongst AIDS bureaucrats for too long. Dr. Montaner came to Canada in 1981 after graduating from medical school in Argentina, and began working at St. Paul's Hospital in Vancouver, British Columbia. As well as his residency he also began a research project involving the then obscure disease known as pneumocystis carinii pneumonia, which we now know as AIDS.

It was Dr Montaner who started treating the disease with corticosteriods, worked on the first clinical trials for zidovudine (AZT) that was standard treatment for HIV/AIDS for over a decade, and helped pioneer the use of antiretrovirals, the drug cocktails that keep people with the disease alive far longer today then anything else has yet. He also has led the way in making the B.C. Centre an international leader in the field of HIV/AIDS, and making St. Paul's Hospital one of the best treatment sites in the world. He's also a very strong advocate in support of Vancouver's safe injection facility for intravenous drug users, Insite.

His support of Insite, and his general outspokenness, has drawn the ire of Canada's conservative federal government. Federal Minister of Health Tony Clement has even gone on record as criticizing Dr. Montaner by saying he and his colleagues have crossed the line from being scientists to being advocates and activists.

Dr. Montaner's response to his critics was best summed up by his speech at the closing ceremonies of last week's conference where he said that the world's failure to work more resolutely to combat the global epidemic is tantamount to a crime against humanity. He continued by saying we know what causes it, we know how to prevent it spreading, and we've even learned about ways to treat it, so what really matters now is taking action. In others words it's time to shit or get off the pot folks and take some direct action by doing what we know works in order to keep people alive and prevent the disease from spreading any further.

One of most common ways the disease is spread in many parts of the words is through the men, women, and transgendered folk who make their livings selling sex. Up until now nobody has thought to include a representative of the industry at these conferences, which hasn't stopped many organizations from deciding they know what's best for them and often causing more harm then good. This year Elana Reynaga, executive director of the Argentine Association of Female Sex Workers (AMMAR) didn't mince any words when addressing the conference about the current situation facing people around the world in the sex trade.

While her speech was peppered with statistics about the rate of infection among sex workers, its primary focus was to stress the following concerns: people working in the industry be recognized as being legitimately employed, workers be involved in the organization of any programming that impacts on their lives, and that there be an immediate ceasing of passing moral judgements on them as individuals and the nature of their work. In denying them their legitimacy and trying to forcibly "rehabilitate" sex workers, agencies like the International Justice Mission (IJM) who are funded to the tune of millions of dollars by the Gates Foundation to prevent the spread AIDS by fighting prostitution, cause more harm than good.

By coercing governments to crack down on prostitution, they get the American government to threaten to remove states from favoured nation status when it comes to receiving foreign aid, the sex trade is forced underground and the chances of infection increases exponentially. On the other hand, Ms. Reynaga sites the example of Brazil where the government collaborated with the Brazilian Network of Prostitutes on a public health and rights campaign called "No shame girl you're a professional" and the Ministry of Labour now includes prostitute among the list of recognized professions as part of their efforts to combat the spread of the disease.

The continued stigmatization of sex workers and the denial of their rights as individuals places them more at risk then anything else. In some countries sex workers aren't even able to carry condoms as police will use them as evidence of prostitution and threaten to arrest them. As Ms. Reynaga so bluntly puts it, sex workers are dying because of a lack of health care, a lack of condoms, a lack of treatment, and a lack of rights - not because of a lack of sewing machines. (IJM suggests that sex trade workers be taught how to sew so they can get "decent" employment - of course well paying sewing jobs are just lying around waiting to be snapped up aren't they)

Sex trade workers have always been one of the groups at highest risk when it comes to HIV/AIDS, yet instead of helping them organize in their own defence, money is actually being spent on programs that puts them at more risk than if we were to do nothing. Isn't it time people grew up about sex and accepted the fact that people are always going to be willing to buy and sell sex? Instead of trying to pretend it doesn't exist, or pretend we can make it go away, why not ensure that the people involved are as safe as possible by helping them help themselves?

While sex trade workers finally getting a public voice and International Aids selecting a president who will hopefully push for more direct action on fronts that are actually effective is a good sign, the biggest news of the week concerning AIDS didn't come out of the conference in Mexico City, but from north of the border. The Black AIDS Institute's report "Left Behind" revealed statistics that make it obvious that the disease has reached epidemic proportions in Black America. While African Americans only make up thirteen percent of the total American population, 50% of Americans with HIV are African American.

In every single risk group black people are more far more likely to be infected than whites: gay men who are black are twice as likely to be infected as white, more then half of infected drug injectors are black, black people are more likely to be diagnosed late then white which contributes to a much higher death rate - in New York City a black man with HIV is twice as likely to die as a white man with HIV. With black men seven times more likely to be imprisoned than white men, and the percentage of prisoners in the US with access to condoms hovering at 1% of the inmate population, jail represents another real risk to black men for infection.

Unlike other "countries" Black America not only sees a high infection rate among it's at risk population - men who have sex with men and intravenous drug users - it also is showing signs of having symptoms of a generalized epidemic - where the whole population is at risk. While only a quarter of black men have been infected by unprotected sex with women, three quarters of black women have been infected by unprotected sex with men. With black women reporting having multiple partners in a limited time, the chances of the disease spreading among the general population increase dramatically. The report warns of this danger and admonishes black men to be more responsible when it comes to sex.

What must be the bitterest pill for the authors of this report to swallow is the fact that prevention accounts for only four cents out of every dollar spent on domestic programs for HIV/AIDS. Even more ironic is the fact that although the US government insists that countries it funds help combat AIDS have a strategy in place before they receive a penny of aid, America has no strategic plan to combat its own epidemic. It seems like the government of the United States would like its citizens to believe that HIV/AIDS is only something that happens to other people, but not to Americans.

When you combine the statistics reported in "Left Behind" with the disturbing revelation that the U.S. Centre For Disease Control and Prevention has been low balling it's estimated number of new cases of HIV by around 16,300 annually for the last ten years, it starts to look like government has been ignoring the problem in the hopes it will go away. Even worse it looks like they have been cynically hoping as long as they can keep it contained to minority populations, not enough people will care for them to have to do anything about it.

Although if you take these figures in the context of the current American government's policy of allowing their moral agenda to trump actually achieving results with regards to HIV/AIDS funding in foreign countries, their attitude on the home front isn't very surprising. Would you expect them to fund money to hand out condoms or clean needles to prostitutes or intravenous drug users in the United States when they won't over seas? "Left Behind" concludes by saying that as long as we continue to allow political or moral issues to dictate the way we deal with HIV/AIDS people will continue to die.

The numbers don't lie no matter what country or continent you live on. Every year more people are still being infected with HIV/AIDS then are receiving treatment which means not enough is being done to actually prevent the spread of infection. While there was some sign of movement towards a more accepting attitude with regards to sex and the disease at the most recent International Aids conference, and a renewed call for action over talk, we have delayed taking action for so long that it could take decades before we are able to climb out of the hole we've dug for ourselves.

August 7, 2008

New Words To An Old Refrain At The 17th International Aids Conference

The 17th International AIDS Conference, taking place this year in Mexico City, kicked off on Sunday August 03/08 with the President of Mexico, Felipe Calderon Hinojosa, officially welcoming around 22,000 delegates from 175 countries to the gathering. While Mr. Hinojosa's appearance makes a change from 2006 when Canadian Prime Minister Steven Harper refused to attend the Conference taking place in Canada, it looks like nothing much else has changed from two years ago when it comes to actually dealing with the disease.

Of the 22,000 or so people who have shown up in Mexico City, one has to hope that they are all aware that HIV/AIDS can only be spread by an infected person sharing bodily fluids with an uninfected person. So in order to prevent the spread of the disease all you have to do is reduce the chances of that happening. Statistical evidence gathered over the past twenty years by organization such as UNAIDS and the World Health Organization (WHO) shows that making condoms available for sexually active people and supplying clean needles to intravenous drug users are the two most effective ways of preventing the disease from spreading as those are the two most common ways the disease is spread. (Please see Elizabeth Pisani's reference page at her Wisdom Of Whores web site for support documentation and statistics)

However, judging by the way things are shaping up at the conference people are either reluctant to talk about the issue of prevention directly or even worse oppose the means of ensuring delivery of preventative measures. For example instead of talking about condoms and needles, the latest refrain is "prevention by treatment". While it is of course inexcusable that only four million out of the thirty-three million people world-wide currently estimated to be infected with the disease are receiving treatment, arguing that ensuring everybody infected is treated will prevent the disease from spreading is a fallacy.

Although it is true that once a person is on the anti-viral medication used to prolong an AIDS sufferer's life expectancy they are less infectious, they can still transmit the disease and need to take the same precautions that anyone else does. The problem is that statistics are showing that once people start taking the medication they believe they aren't a threat anymore and stop taking preventative measures.

Other problems with this approach is what do you do about people who are infected but don't know it? If you don't know you're infected with the virus you're not liable to be taking the anti-viral cocktail of medications required to fight the HIV/AIDS virus are you? Now consider that in light of recent statistics that show 1 in 5 of homosexual men in New York City who test positive for the virus already have full blown AIDS. Considering how long it takes to develop full blown AIDS after you have contracted the HIV virus - sometimes ten years - it means these men have been infectious for that length of time without knowing.

What makes that statistic truly alarming is that the gay community of New York City has been one of the most effective and organized in combating the disease and educating its membership about the dangers of unprotected sex and the importance of early testing. If those conditions exist among as an aware and active community as that, you have to wonder how many other people around the world are walking around un-diagnosed. The normally reliable U.S. Centres For Disease Control and Prevention just announced that the figures they released detailing the number of new cases of HIV in the United States for 2006 was off by 16,300 as there were actually 56,300 not the 40,000 they had originally estimated.

What the hell's the good of using treatment as prevention if we don't even know how many people are even sick, or if they've been sick for any number of years before they even obtain treatment? Anyway the whole idea smacks of closing the gate after the horse has escaped the barn. If you can prevent someone from getting the disease they aren't even going to need treatment. It seems to me the folk recommending this new plan really need to remember the old adage of an ounce of prevention equalling a pound of cure. Especially since we don't even have a cure, only treatment that will prolong life - not save it.

Of course the real problem isn't the people who are pushing this new strategy, the problem is the people they are trying to do the end run around. The biggest problem faced by people working in the HIV/AIDS field has been having to work around politicians and religious leaders who still live in caves and wont fund anything to do with needles, condoms, sex trade workers, or homosexuals. In order to secure funding they have had to convince these folk that "innocents" (women, children, and straight men) are at risk and talk about everything but the people most at risk and the ways that can best prevent the spread of the disease.

Just look at what happened yesterday, at what is supposedly a conference on how to fight HIV/AIDS. Canada's idiot Health Minister, <Tony Clement, gave a press conference attacking Insite, the safe injection site for intravenous drug users in Vancouver British Columbia. He chose to do this in spite of the fact that it completely disregarded the information released by WHO spelling out how effective such sites are for harm reduction, specifically the spread of disease. His government's reason for not liking Insite or any other safe injection site? They can't arrest the people who use them.

Is it any wonder that HIV/AIDS new infection rate still outstrips the number of people receiving treatment by a ration of 5:2 (according to the latest statistics from UNAIDS, for every two people receiving treatment there are five new cases of HIV/AIDS reported) when we're dealing with people with this type of attitude? For the longest time people have even tried to avoid saying which groups are most at risk from the disease for fear of marginalizing them even more than they are already.

Thankfully people like Stephen Lewis, former UN special envoy to Africa for HIV/AIDS, and Joe Amon, health and human-rights director at Human Rights Watch, are at least demanding that the rights of those most at risk must be protected and steps taken to ensure their access to treatment. It's a small step, but at least it's a step in the right direction. Still it's a sad state of affairs when at a conference dealing with a disease for which there is no cure and no vaccine, they can't talk about the best ways of preventing its spread in the opening addresses.

I know it's early days yet and the 17th International AIDS Conference still has a way to go, but from the looks of things we're no closer to dealing with the reality of HIV/AIDS now then we were when the first conference was held. As long as we continue to allow a moral code based on bigotry and hatred to dictate health care people will continue to die and the disease will continue to spread.

August 1, 2008

New HIV/AIDS Figures - Same Old Story

Well, for a change there's a little bit of good news in the world. The 2008 Report on the Global AIDS Epidemic by the United Nations agency responsible for AIDS, UNAIDS, shows that efforts around the world are finally starting to pay off as there are declines in both the numbers of people being infected with, and dying from the virus. On top of that the number of people living with AIDS has stabilized and more people are receiving proper treatment as well.

While Paul De Lay, director of evidence, monitoring, and policy at UNAIDS, said that the increased efforts in teaching people prevention methods are beginning to make a difference, as shown by the drop in the infection rate, he also cautioned that the epidemic was not over in any part of the world. The number of cases may be stabilizing - i.e. not showing any increases - but that number is still very high, and there are parts of the world and marginalized communities where the virus continues to run rampant. As an example he sited the figure that two of every three new cases of AIDS occurs in the Sub Saharan region of Africa.

While some of the figures the report sites show improvement on various fronts: actual number of people living with HIV/AIDS 33 million, new infections down to 2.7 million from 3 million in 2001, total deaths down from 2.2 million in 2005 to 2 million in 2007, number of children infected down from 410,000 to 370,000 in the same period, and the percentage of infected pregnant woman receiving anti-viral drugs has risen to 33% from 14% in those two years, they also show just how far we have to go in order to bring the disease under control. With a new infection rate of 2.7 million people each year and no cure in sight for the disease, it means that any let up in prevention efforts could see the numbers spiralling upwards again.

An example of the breadth of the problem that's still being faced can be found in another figure quoted by Dr. De Lay: for every two new people receiving treatment in the world there are still five new people contracting the disease. Treatment is very expensive, and according to Purmina Mane, deputy executive director of the United Nations Population Fund, the cost to supply everybody currently infected with the disease would be 11 billion dollars American annually. That's a cost that will continue to rise substantially of course, unless something is done to reduce the annual infection rate.

While it's possible that the United Nations might reach the target date of 2015 for achieving an actual decline in the numbers of people living with HIV/AIDS, it's goal of universal access to treatment, prevention, care, and support for all those living with the disease by 2010 is not looking good. That makes me wonder how much of the first goal will be met by people currently infected dying, and how much by any actual reduction in new cases of infection? If we can't provide universal prevention, how can we possibly stop the spread of the disease?

The problem is that universal prevention isn't going to happen given the current political climate in the world. The simple facts of life when it comes to HIV/AIDS is that nothing has changed since the 1980's and in order for the virus to spread you need an infected person, an uninfected person and an exchange of bodily fluids between the two of them. The most common ways that happens is through unprotected sex and intravenous drug users sharing needles. Theoretically it should be easy to prevent the disease from spreading, simply ensure that neither of those events occur.

Unfortunately there is quite a bit of disagreement on how you prevent unprotected sex or intravenous drug use. According to the Catholic Church, the current American administration, certain conservative Christian groups, and various Muslim sects the use of condoms is worse than spreading disease, so they recommend abstinence. Actually, they insist on it, at least as much as they are able to. In the case of the current American administration that includes refusing to fund any program that advocates condom use anywhere in the world.

While some countries have remarkably sane attitudes towards ensuring a supply of clean needles for intravenous drug users, Iran has needle dispensers on the streets of Teheran and a needle exchange program in its prison system, others are like Canada and the United States where needle exchanges are barely tolerated and they refuse to admit that drug use even exists in prison. Of course the prisoners don't have sex either, so there's no point in supplying them with condoms.

The solution offered by these folk is for everybody to abstain from pre-marital sex and using intravenous drugs. While the second suggestion is noble, and a good idea, the former is utterly ridiculous, and both deny reality. In the United States itself only twenty-seven per-cent of those people who sign so-called abstinence oaths promising to refrain from pre-marital sex, actually follow through on their vows. Even more unfortunate is the fact that the majority of those who succumb to temptation don't use a condom, so not only risk contracting a sexually transmitted infection, but the other, more traditional, side affect of sex, pregnancy. If the programs success rate is that poor in the U.S. among those who are supposedly willing, what does that say about it's validity as a means of prevention elsewhere?

I started off by saying that there was some good news for a change, and have pretty much gone on to refute that statement with the balance of the article. However, any signs that inroads are being made against the spread of HIV/AIDS are positive and a reason for hope. The problem is that the position is still very precarious and it's not being helped by those who willing to risk other people's lives by imposing their morality on the world. If you don't want to use a condom when you have sex that's your choice, but don't force somebody else to risk their life for a little pleasure.

As former UNAIDS employee Elizabeth Pisani says commenting on the report at her "Wisdom Of Whores" web site, "...somewhere between two and three million people are still getting infected every year with a completely preventable disease that we are spending over 10 billion dollars a year on. That’s a scandal that no amount of report-writing has been able to change."

We've known for close to thirty years how to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS yet the disease was allowed to reach epidemic proportions because of so called moral issues and those attitudes haven't changed. The miracle is that there has been any decline in the number of deaths and infections - thank God for the immoral people out there passing out condoms and making a difference.

July 25, 2008

Book Review: The Peacekeeper Shabbir Ahsan

I'm sure for most people in the West Bangladesh is only known as the country the late George Harrison once did a benefit concert for. The reality is it once was part of the Indian province Bengal. When the region gained it's independence from Britain in 1947, and the subcontinent was partitioned into India and Pakistan, the province of Bengal was divided between the two new countries. West, Hindu Bengal became part of India and east, Muslim Bengal became East Pakistan.

In spite of the fact that the former Bengal province was the more densely populated half of the country, they were continually ignored by the central government in the west and independence movements were formed as early as the 1950's. In 1971, with the support of the Indian army, Bangladesh fought a successful war of independence. Just as the country was finding its feet, the famine of 1973-74 almost destroyed them. It says amazing things about the resilience of its people that the country of Bangladesh was able to recover from both the war of liberation and the famine and in the ensuing years become one of the biggest suppliers of personnel to United Nations (UN) Peacekeeping missions. One of the permanent mission destinations for Bangladeshi troop since the mid 1990's has been the Democratic Republic Of Congo.

While there are many countries in Africa that still bear the scars of colonial times, the area that was formally the Belgian Congo is not only scarred but still bleeding heavily. The Democratic Republic Of Congo (formerly Zaire) is one of the largest countries in Africa and one of it's poorest. In 1965 - four years after independence - an American supported coup led to the installation of a military dictatorship under the rule of Joseph-Desire Mobutu. For the next thirty years or so Mobutu proceeding to drain the country dry, stealing what's thought to be close to four billion dollars from the national treasury (an amount close to the size of the country's national debt), so that when he finally left in 1997 he left behind one of the poorest countries in Africa, with the least amounts of infrastructure, and the violence that always seems to accompany desperation.
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As a major in the Bangladeshi army who has served a rotation in the Democratic Republic with the UN forces, author Shabbir Ahsan is uniquely positioned to write about the experience of being a peacekeeper in that country, and in his first novel, The Peace Keeper, he presents a fact-based, fictionalized account, of a Bangladeshi officer's year in the Democratic Republic Of Congo.

Major Samir Iqbal is a veteran of the Bangladeshi armed forces working in the Foreign Affairs Branch of the Armed Forces responsible for the co-ordination of all overseas assignments. So he's the one who receives the fax reporting the deaths of fifteen Bangladeshi service men in a plane crash on take-off. In the tight-knit community of an army any death is devastating, and fifteen is horrific; never before has the army lost that many men at once since they began supplying peacekeepers. For Samir and his wife the news is particularly upsetting as one of the men was a close personal friend.

While Samir had been eagerly awaiting news of his own acceptance for overseas placement in Africa, receiving the notice that he has been assigned as a military observer in the Congo for a year on the same day as the plane crash isn't great timing when it comes to his wife's peace of mind. The fact that military observers are not allowed to even carry weapons and are placed in volatile situations like negotiating between warring factions or reporting on the status of a cease-fire, is not information that is bound to ease her fears.

We follow Samir from the day he first receives the notification of his new assignment through his year of living in the Congo to the day of his return home. As our narrator and guide he takes us on a journey that plumbs the depths of human depravity, reveals the strength of the human spirit, and celebrates the simple pleasure of friendship and humour. The fact that all of this takes place in what amounts to basically a war zone makes it all the more amazing. Ahsan's strength as a writer is such that even when he has Major Iqbal describing the most abhorrent of behaviours, it never feels like for any other purpose than to inform. Where some writers seem to delight in describing violence, in his case you can hear the regret he feels in having to tell us that this type of activity takes place anywhere upon earth.
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The points in the book that are actually the hardest to read are the ones where the threat of violence is in the air. At one point our major is sent into a supposedly quiet area with three other officers to look for a site to set up a team headquarters. Upon their arrival they find that none of the local authorities supposed to assist and protect them are willing to do anything other than tell them to leave because they can't guarantee their safety. The team literally jumps on the helicopter sent to their rescue ten feet ahead of a mob screaming for their blood, watching and hearing rocks and bottles bounce off their ride as it lifts off with them safely on board.

Thankfully Ahsan balances the moments of terror with equal doses of humour, nearly all of it at the expense of our erstwhile Major Iqbal. Whether he's being duped by a camp servant into cooking and cleaning for him, or being swarmed by a women's soccer team for scoring the winning goal, he handles it all with equal good grace. He's a wonderfully human character who in spite of the horror and nerve wracking experiences, is still able to find positive things in the world around him. He's never unrealistic, he's heard eyewitness accounts of the horrible things people can do to each other after all, but he's also witnessed people with almost nothing extending hospitality to those with nothing as if it were the most natural thing in the world to do, so he retains hope.

The Peacekeeper by Shabbir Ahsan uses actual incidents involving the Bangladeshi army in the Democratic Republic Of The Congo as members of the UN Peacekeeping force stationed there as the framework around which Major Samil Iqbal relates his year's experience as a peacekeeper. By turns heartrending and heart-warming it's probably the best book set in a war zone that you're liable to read in a long time. The irony that one of the poorest nations in the world also supplies one of the largest contingents of peacekeepers to the United Nations isn't something that should be lost on us either. It makes you wonder why if they can find a way to do that - why can't we?

July 9, 2008

Interview: Elizabeth Pisani Author Of The Wisdom Of Whores & HIV/AIDS Advocate

A few months ago I wrote a review of Elizabeth Pisani's book The Wisdom Of Whores which recounted her work combating the AIDS epidemic in South East Asia. In the book she talked candidly about issues that most people are still afraid to speak about openly when it comes to the disease. A great deal of what she talked about is the need to ensure that the world doesn't become complacent when it comes to the issue of AIDS prevention.

As more and more drugs have come along that can extend a person's life once they have contracted the disease, and money is being poured into searching for a vaccine, less and less is being said and done about the nitty gritty of AIDS prevention. Most political and religious leaders would rather talk about how much money they are spending on a vaccine instead of talking about making sure intravenous drug users having clean needles or transgendered prostitutes have condoms.

Even sillier are the ones who start postulating about how things as unrelated as Global Warming, are causing the virus to spread. While there is some truth to the fact that poorer countries are hit harder by AIDS, economic factors are not the major contributor to the spread of the disease that people would like to think. For the disease to be transmitted it still requires an exchange of blood to occur between an infected and an uninfected individual. Unprotected sexual activity and sharing dirty needles are still the two main reasons that the disease is spread.
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Elizabeth Pisani called me from London England on Tuesday July 8th to talk about the Wisdom Of Whores. She had just retuned from a three week tour or the United States promoting the book there. When we had set up the interview she had suggested waiting until after she was done with her book tour of the United States so we could talk about the reactions to the book. Things didn't quite go as planned, as you'll see, and we ended up having a rather free wheeling discussion about the state of HIV/AIDS prevention and policy around the world.

You've just finished an extensive book tour of the U.S. for Wisdom Of Whores, and you're still among the living, but I'm guessing it wasn't without its moments

Well to be honest, there was almost no public reaction at all. (laughs) Which in itself says something. There seems to be a huge amount of reluctance on the part of the media to deal with confrontational issues.

Well what about reviews - the New York Times and the other big papers - nothing?

Nothing - there was only one review that has been published in the mainstream press since the book was released at the beginning of June. That was in the Philadelphia Enquirer, and it was a very positive review too. There has been quite a bit in the blogsphere though, and I had some radio interviews on National Public Radio (NPR), but that was it.

Even in cities like San Francisco, where you'd think they'd notice a book about AIDS, there wasn't anything at all in The Enquirer or any of the papers. I did have a meeting with the head of one of the grass roots organization in San Francisco, and that was good. He and I don't always agree on everything but I have immense respect for the work he and his people have done.

So no, there are no real "Moments" to talk about that happened in any of the public meetings. Interestingly enough though the book is selling better in the States than it is in Britain where I've had all sorts of press. It was strange to go from being in the pages of The Financial Times to nothing - but there it is.

Where I did get some reactions was in the private meetings at places like the World Bank, The Gates Foundation, and USAIDS.

Well that was a question I was going to ask you a bit later on - so I might as well ask it now. What has been the reaction of places like that to the book

I was scheduled to give a sort of brown bag, lunch time talk, with questions and answers at World Bank headquarters in Washington DC. I had been told not to expect many people, maybe ten or fifteen, but it ended up being standing room only - so about sixty people, which was quite wonderful.

What was the subject of the talk?

The interaction between prevention and treatment, and how we in the AIDS profession are still getting it wrong by not focusing our energies where they are truly needed which is on the high risk groups; men who practice anal sex, the sex trade, and intravenous drug users.

I don't get it - way back in the early days anybody I knew who was aware of the disease knew those were the people most at risk, and we also knew how the disease was transmitted - why is it still so hard for people to get that message?

There are really two issues at hand here, one is partially the fault of us in the AIDS industry and the other is the concern over the stigmatization of those in the affected groups. Unfortunately there is a very real concern when it comes to the latter; by saying men who have anal sex, people in the sex trade, and intravenous drug users are the ones most at risk for transmitting the disease you set them up as pariahs. As these are also people who already exist on the margins of most societies, or are a minority already subject to harsh treatment, labelling them most at risk for transmitting the disease increases the chances of them being ostracized.

Knowing full well that politicians weren't going to want to put up money for gays, sex trade workers, and needle users, the threat to people outside the high risk groups was stressed in order to secure any money at all. The trouble is that the money isn't being spent on the areas where it's most needed. It's all very well and good to have programs for people in the low risk groups, but if we don't spend the money on those most at risk what are we really doing to stop the spread of the disease?
For example in the Bronx, the borough in New York City, they've just announced a program where they are going to test everybody over the age of fifteen for the virus. That includes people who have been widows for twenty years and the celibate - people who are at no risk of getting the disease. We already know who are at most risk, and wouldn't the money be better spent on testing them, providing them with treatment and setting up programs to stop them from spreading the disease?

In New York City one in four of gay men who are coming in to be tested are not only HIV positive but they are already in the throes of full blown AIDS - which means they are waiting for symptoms of the disease to show before they come into get tested and by then they are at the most infectious. There's something seriously wrong with that, and its because we're not doing enough to work on prevention.

In Canada we just had the recent furor over a safe injection facility in Vancouver British Columbia - Insite - that the federal government was going to close, but thankfully a judge in British Columbia ruled they couldn't because it provides a health care service. The attitude from the government was one of - I don't care about junkies

Right and that's the vicious circle people working in the world of AIDS are dealing with. If there was ever an under serviced area in the world right now it would be the East side of Vancouver. I've seen some pretty bad spots in the world and that's just horrible. The people there are trying so hard to do something but they have so little to work with. Insite is only able to cope with 5% of the people injecting on the street.

Here's an irony for you, when the people opposed to Insite found out that figure they tried to make it part of the argument against keeping it open by saying, well they can't be doing much good if they're only servicing five per cent of the population. Of course all that means is they don't have the resources to do any more.

Well you can make statistics say anything can't you?

Oh yes, you can torture numbers to say what you like easily enough, but it doesn't change the reality of the situation. We know that there are only very specific circumstances required for the HIV/AIDS virus to be spread; an infected person, and uninfected person, and an exchange of bodily fluids. So obviously you have to prevent the spread of bodily fluids from the first to the second.

Yet, I was at USAIDS saying just those things while I was in the States and the director says to me: "I never thought of it that way before". Maybe I'm a little too Pollyanna, but I hope that by constantly keeping pressure on the people delivering services that we can at least get them to spend the money in the areas where it's needed. Go ahead and do all your studies and set up your programming with the other groups, because of course its needed, but don't do it at the expense of the people who are at most risk of contracting and spreading the disease. Unfortunately that's the situation we are currently in.

Even before I read your book I had the impression that people are very defensive when it comes to AIDS prevention - and any critical evaluation, no matter how constructive, is treated like an attack. Is this a valid impression and if so how did this fortress mentality come about?

I'd like to say it's not true, but unfortunately it does exist. There are two types of people who get involved in HIV/AIDS work; those who give a shit, and those who are there because that's where the money is. Those of us, like me, who are in because we give a shit want to to believe we know what works. We know the communities we work with and how to best reach individuals within it - who is going to react positively to what incentives to use what prevention methods. I think if we didn't have that belief we wouldn't be able to keep doing what we are doing - you have to have the feeling that you're making a difference otherwise how could you keep on doing it?

The result is we only want to hear good news, we don't want somebody like me coming in from the outside saying well you know this isn't working because of such and such. It's so hard to get funding for programming that you fear that anything negative that comes up will adversely affect the programming you know that is working well, or that you believe should work.

For example I know, I firmly believe that there is a co-relation between preventing the spread of other Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs) and preventing the spread of HIV/AIDS but the data just doesn't add up. No matter how I look at the statistics I can't prove that working on one helps the other - yet I know that it has to be true.

Of course the second group of people, those in it for the money, want to show they are doing a good job so they can keep on getting their funding and have jobs for themselves.

Recently there's been talk by the Canadian government of refocusing the direction of their HIV/AIDS funding away from grassroots organizations towards putting it into research on a vaccine. To be honest I'd never even heard talk of a vaccine before this - how realistic a goal is that?

The vaccine has become the latest pet project, the Gates Foundation has been sinking a lot of money into it. While I wouldn't say we should give up on the vaccine, it's so far been a very disappointing failure. Of course it's very safe politically, because you don't have to say anything about the money being spent on anything controversial like needle exchanges in prisons, but it looks like you're doing something. If I may be so bold, for the amount of money that Canada would be putting up, it wouldn't really accomplish much and would be better off spent elsewhere. Huge amounts of money are already being spent on it by Gates and the World Bank

Yeah well Gates has more money than our GNP, so if he's putting money into it what difference would our few dollars make?


How are other countries dealing with the three high risk groups. Especially countries that we in the West might consider resistant to talking about sex and drugs

Well one of the biggest success stories working with the sex trade was in Cambodia, where the government had worked out an arrangement with the brothel owners so that condom use was being promoted among all the workers. Unfortunately the US government, under pressure from the International Justice Mission (IJM), who I call Cops For Christ, threatened to remove Cambodia from their donor list if they didn't crack down on the sex trade in the country.

Cambodia did have a serious problem with child prostitution, that was simply shocking, and that needed to be dealt with, but instead of just targeting those specific cases, the government was forced to close down the whole system. The result was that the all the brothels were raided, the girls were raped and had all their savings and gold stolen from them by the cops, and the trade has been driven underground where there is no government control or regulation. It hasn't stopped the sex trade

(In her book The Wisdom Of Whores, Ms. Pisani goes into details about the events in Cambodia and the problems the IJM create where ever they go. The girls they "rescue" from prostitution have no means of making money and are dumped on local service agencies who don't have the facilities to deal with them. IMJ are despised and distrusted by the local police and the sex workers for making the problem worse not better. The girls are forced to take re-education courses - like sewing - for six months during which time they are not paid. There are many cases of them using ladders and rope made out of their bed sheets to escape the shelters they have been sent to after being rescued. As one prostitute put it to the author "Look, if I could afford to be going to school for six months without pay I wouldn't be selling sex".

The final tally is that by the end of 2005 fewer then 1000 girls had been successfully rescued from a life of prostitution, and the IMJ had received five million dollars from the Gates foundation to fight prostitution and the HIV/AIDS it was supposed to spread. On the other hand the Cambodian government's program had ensured that an estimated 970,00 Cambodians had used condoms when they bought sex by the same date.)

The real big surprise is in Iran, where they have set up needle dispensers on the streets of Teheran so that anybody who needs a clean needle has ready access to them. They also have needle exchanges in prisons there.

It's been reported in the Western media that Iran claims they don't have any homosexuals

Oh, most of the Middle East is still really bad when it comes to the issue of Homosexuality. In fact in Egypt they arrest anyone with HIV/AIDs because they take it as a sign that you're gay, which is illegal. I thought we'd grown up somewhat and were beyond that. It was just as bad in Africa where up until a short while ago in the sub-Saharan area they denied they had any homosexuals at all. Of course there homosexuals are probably no more at risk than heterosexuals when it comes to contracting the disease as it's so widespread.

Africa has obviously been the worst case scenario for the AIDS virus. At one time people were predicting that India was another Africa just waiting to happen - do you know have any information about that situation?

I've not worked on the ground in India since I was a reporter so I don't have any first hand experience but I do know the data and some of what's been going on there. UNAIDS, on the last World AIDS day - December 1st/07 - actually revised the projected number of people infected with the virus downwards by two million, from five to three million. It was a classic case of not looking at the right groups and using misleading data to base their estimations on.

The data that the figures had been based on was collected from a couple of hospitals where all the difficult cases were being referred to, and these hospitals had a large number of pregnant women coming to them with the infection. From that information they postulated that pregnant woman were a high risk group for infection across the country. At the same time they were almost completely ignoring the people in the high risk groups. This of course skewed the original tally badly - it take make it better politically to be able to say that pregnant women were at risk, but it meant nothing was being done for those who really needed treatment.

At one point there was only one web site providing information for people in the sex trade and something like two for homosexuals and one for intravenous drug users - or is that the other way around - at any rate this in a country of close to a billion people.

Thankfully, this is one country where Bill Gates, bless him, has done something useful. He offered the country 110 million dollars on the condition it be spent on prevention programming for high risk groups. When the federal government dithered and held their hands up in horror, he by passed them and went directly to state and municipal governments who gladly took the money and began implementing programming. What's even better is that other states have seen the success they've had and are creating programs based on them.

So now that you're no longer in the sex and drugs business, what are you going to do now for excitement?

Well I don't really feel like I've completely left the business, what with the book and all. I'm still out talking to people about the issues and I'm still doing the occasional consulting work, and reviewing articles for journals. To be honest what I miss is the most is the number crunching - the excitement of discovering something new or finding the proof that what I believed to be happening was actually happening.

Well this didn't turn out quite the way we planned - I still have a hard time believing there's been so little notice given the book in the press and there was so little reaction at all in the States

Well there was one good story I can tell you, it was during a radio call in show in Illinois on the NPR station. I took this one call from a gentleman who was very much in agreement with a lot the things I had been saying. At one point he said, well wouldn't it make sense to legalize prostitution? What was really surprising was he was a State Senator for Illinois.

Thank you very much for this Elizabeth

Your welcome.

Well I have to say that I had had visions of hearing tales of Ms. Pisani receiving death threats over the phone and being denounced from pulpits across the South or something similar when we set up this interview. Here she was, a woman who took great pride in saying she worked in sex and drugs going to the country who ties foreign aid to their version of morality. The fact that the book is being completely ignored is probably even scarier than it being the subject of debate or her the object of hatred. Although I'm not sure if it's as scary as hearing that the director of USAIDS had never thought about the correlation between how the disease is spread and how to prevent it from being spread.

The good new is that people are buying the book in spite of the lack of acknowledgement in the press that it's been published. In the United States the book is being distributed by Norton Books and in Canada through Penguin Canada. If you're interested in keeping up to date on information pertaining to HIV/AIDS you can check out Elizabeth's web site.

July 8, 2008

The Real Price Of Oil

In one of the first

There was no way, I argued, that as a world would we be able to maintain the level of oil production required to fuel the fleets of privately owned cars without significant damage to the environment and the economy. I also noted that it was a completely unrealistic expectation - as a culture we are so wedded to the idea of car ownership bequeathing status upon an individual that we would never surrender the keys to our vehicles.

At the time I think the price of gas at the pump in Canada was flirting with seventy cents a litre - roughly $2.80 a gallon - now here we are three years later and the price has pretty much doubled as it skitters around the $1.40 per litre mark - $5.60 per gallon. Now even if the only economic impact on us was reflected in the amount we were paying out at the pump that would still take quite the bite out of a family's budget. I don't know how many times people have to fill their gas tank in a week but let's say it's twice a week and your tank holds forty litres, it means your dishing out a hundred bucks a week to keep your car in fuel.

The thing is that what your paying at the pump is only a fraction of the total that's being sucked from your wallet because of the escalating cost of oil. I'm sure you've noticed that your grocery bill has risen substantially over the past few years and a good deal of that has been because of the rise in the price of oil. At each stage in the line, from point of origin to the grocery shelf, the cost of fuel has impacted on the cost of production, and therefore on the cost charged for the final product.

A farmer is having to pay more for the fertilizer he spreads on his field because of increased shipping costs and increases in the manufacturing costs caused by the rising fuel prices. He's also having to pay more for the fuel that runs all his equipment, that heats his barns, and that ships his product to market. If the product is packaged in a factory; frozen, canned or processed, those cost have increased due to the amount that it's costing the factory to pay out for powering their equipment and shipping the goods to market. Finally the supermarket you shop at not only has to absorb all those costs, it's also having to pay more just to stay open because of the cost of fuel.

All those costs show up in your grocery bill, resulting in your dollar buying far less at the grocery store then did it even a year ago. However, you don't have to worry, because according to the people who monitor inflation, food costs aren't important enough to be factored into the annual inflation rate that they use to tell you how healthy the economy is. Haven't you ever wondered how the annual inflation rate can only be one or two per cent when your grocery bill seems to have jumped by twenty per cent? Well now you know why.

It turns out though that we've only just begun to feel the economic impact of the rising price of oil. According to a survey of Canadian businesses released by the Bank Of Canada, (the Canadian equivalent of the American Federal Reserve, responsible for setting national interest rates), yesterday over forty-two percent of companies in Canada said price increases for customers will pick up steam over the next year. Consumer prices have remained fairly stable until now because of competition and companies being willing to swallow the costs. (Canada has also been helped out because the increased worth of our dollar against the American has kept manufacturing costs lower last year)

However that's all about to change and we're about to see the cost of everything start rising. With consumers already starting to restrict their spending habits because of the increased costs at the pump and in the grocery store, it only stands to reason that an increase in the cost of consumer goods is going to slow the economy even more. So if you were a business you'd be thinking about drawing your horns in, spending less money, and looking for any way possible that you could cut costs so that you could at least minimize these increases.

Yet the same survey that showed businesses getting ready to jack prices up has them saying that their sales are going to increase this year, and they are spending money accordingly. "Business expectations are being set up to end in tears" says Derek Holt, vice president of economics at Scotia Capital, "They may be doing the entirely wrong things". Which is as nice of way of saying that they have their collective heads up their collective asses as you can get. When you factor in the fact that both the American and Canadian economies are already grinding to a halt we could be heading into not only a recession, but a period of high inflation as well.

In spite of all our attempts at finding new sources of oil, whether the tar sands of Saskatchewan, the Alaskan tundra, or offshore drilling, it's not going to be enough to sate our demand. Prices are going to continue to escalate and our economies will continue to stagnate until they grind to a halt. Instead of making idle promises about "securing" oil supplies, countries need to start figuring out how to wean us off fossil fuels before it's to late.

Now about your car...?

May 29, 2008

Insite - Canada's Safe Injection Site Reprieved By Courts

Insite, Vancouver, British Columbia's safe injection facility for intravenous drug users, has been granted a stay of execution, and possible full time salvation. On Tuesday British Columbia's Supreme Court ruled that users and staff be granted a permanent constitutional exemption from Canada's drug laws. In his ruling Judge Ian Pitfield declared that allowing addicts to inject drugs in a safe, medically supervised environment is a matter of sensible health care and they should not be under threat of arrest.

By declaring Insite a health care facility and exempt from drug laws, Justice Pitfield took the facility's fate out of the hands of the federal government. Under their current arrangement, Insite's temporary exemption from Canada's drug laws was due to expire on June 30th, and it was widely suspected that the current government was preparing to close the facility down. In his ruling the judge gave the government until June 30th 2009 to redraft Canada's laws to reflect his findings, giving Insite at least a year's reprieve.

Well there's no word from the government on whether they will appeal the decision or not, federal Health Minister Tony Clement's reaction made it clear they were preparing to close the facility. He said that the government was disappointed with the ruling, and they believed that the best way to treat addicts was to prevent them from "getting onto illicit drugs in the first place", and that they didn't consider it the best health outcome to keep people in a position to inject illicit drugs. He continued by saying the government is examining their options, and that the Justice Minister will announce whether or not they will appeal Judge Pitfield's ruling.

In his findings Judge Pitfield disagreed with the government's position on the role that Insite and other facilities of its kind has to play in the treatment of addiction. He said that while society can't condone addiction, in the face of its presence it has an obligation to manage it. According to his findings, addiction is an illness and he praised Insite's philosophy of harm reduction aimed at saving lives and reducing the spread of infectious diseases. While agreeing with the basic tenet that there is nothing to be said in favour of injecting controlled substances, he argued that there is much to said against denying health cares services that will cure addicts of their condition.

Insite was first given exemption from the federal Controlled Substance and Drug laws in 2003 by the previous Liberal government. After its initial three year exemption expired, the current Conservative government granted it two, temporary one year extensions, claiming they needed more time to gather and study information about the success or failure of safe injection sites around the world, and Insite specifically. Considering this government's history of taking a hard line on illicit drug use, and recent announcements implying they didn't care what the research said, (when a government study showed Insite in a positive light, Minister Clement said the decision on its fate would be based on more than "just science"), it was widely believed that they were not about to extend the facility's life any further.

However, if Judge Pitfield's ruling stands, and safe injection sites are considered as health care facilities, not only will Insite stay open, the possibility exists for safe injection sites to be opened across Canada. Indeed, British Columbia's Health Minister has already gone on record as saying that not only is their government glad to be able to continue to fund Insite, but they are prepared to start opening new facilities across the province as needed.

Safe injection sites have been saving lives and reducing addiction levels in countries in Europe for years, and it looks like Canada is set to join the ranks of those nations taking a more humane stand on the issue of addiction treatment. As Judge Pifield reasoned in his findings, society doesn't condemn the individual who chooses to drink or smoke cigarettes to excess, or deny them access to a range of health care services, so there is no rational or logical reason why the approach should be different when the addiction is narcotics.

May 21, 2008

Residential School Legacy Lingers On

I once postulated that Western society was stuck in a cycle of post traumatic stress syndrome induced abuse dating back to at least World War One. Nearly a whole generation of European men were either killed or injured in that four year period. My father's father was a medic in the British army and in 1917 was caught in a mustard gas attack. As a medic he would have had to retrieve the dead and dying from the battle field and seen horrors enough to freeze a soul. After the war he drifted around the world for ten years before settling in Brazil where he met my grandmother and my father was born. They immigrated to Canada in 1931, and my grandfather never worked another day from then until his death in 1978.

He physically and emotionally abused my father, and in turn my father physically and sexually abused me. I was a drug addict and alcoholic by the time I was thirteen and didn't stop until I was thirty-three. It was then that I started to recover the memories of being abused as a young child and began the long process of recovery. I'm still in therapy, digging out the deep planted seeds abuse planted that governed my behaviour for most of my life. One way or another though, the cycle of abuse in my family has stopped with me.

On June 11th 2008, the Prime Minister of Canada, Steven Harper, is going to stand up in the House of Commons to officially apologize to Native Canadians for the residential school system. For close to a hundred years the government of Canada sponsored church run schools that stole Native children away from their parents. Aside from the shock of being stolen from their parents, they were also forbidden to speak their own languages, and taught that all they believed in was evil. If that wasn't bad enough, at a minimum, 50% of all children who attended these schools were either sexually or physically abused, if not both, by the staff.

What I'm most interested in knowing is who exactly the Prime Minister is going to be apologizing to and what he is going to be apologizing for? With the first residential school opening in the 1870's and the last one closing in the 1970's we can be sure that not everybody who went to one is still alive. Is he going to stand up in the House of Commons and say on behalf of the Canadian government we're sorry that previous governments oversaw attempted cultural genocide, allowed hundreds of thousands of children to be sexually and physically abused, and successfully tore the heart out of Native communities across Canada for subsequent generations?

There is also the question of the apology he owes to today's generation of Native Canadians. You see, for those of you who might have missed this bit of information, suicide and substance abuse among young Native Canadians is at an astronomical rate - the suicide rate alone is four times higher than for non-Natives. What this has to do with residential schools is that in a recent study done of slightly over 500 Native injection drug users in British Columbia between the ages of sixteen and thirty, nearly 50% of them had been sexually abused by a family member, and half of that number reported having at least one parent who was a survivor of the residential school system.

For those of you who can't do the math, that's twenty-five per-cent of this one study group are still suffering the effects of the residential school system. The study didn't ask, or if it did the figures weren't reported, what percentage of the participants had grandparents who were part of the residential school system, but I'd be willing to bet that the further back you go in each person's family tree the more survivors of the system you'll find. For most of these young people, like myself, the cycle of abuse probably started in their grandparent's generation, if not their great-grandparents.

In an earlier article about Canada's residential schools I mentioned the government was establishing a Truth and Reconciliation Committee that would travel across the country hearing people's stories, and digging into the schools' records. Headed by Native Canadian Judge, Justice Harry LaForme, it is patterned after a similar committee that the South African government established under the first Black majority rule government to try and find a way to peacefully bring the White and Black populations together after the horrors of apartheid.

For this committee to have any serious impact on the lives of Native Canadians, and to take a true measure of the impact the residential school system had on the population, it must examine statistics like those recorded above from across Canada. A study group focusing only on intravenous drug users leaves out large numbers of at risk populations. We already know the suicide rate is four times as high, but how many of those children who committed suicide had a parent or grandparent survive the residential school system and pass their damage on down to their child and grandchild?

For the first three hundred years of Canadian history governments, first the French and then the British, tried to deal with the "Indian problem" militarily. But when it became obvious they weren't going to be able to kill them all, the government decided to switch from genocide to cultural genocide via the residential school system. For Native Canadians the cycle of abuse started when the first child was stolen from his or her parents and placed within the four walls of a residential school. Every young person who commits suicide or chooses to escape the world through substance abuse today is an indication that the cycle continues.

If Steven Harper stands up in the House of Commons on June 11th and doesn't recognize the damage that is still being done to people today because of the residential schools, if he doesn't acknowledge that his government is continuing to fail our country's native population just like all previous government's have by allowing this cycle to continue, his apology won't be anything more than a meaningless gesture. The sins of our great-grandparents are still being visited upon Canada's native population today and there aren't enough words to apologize for that.

May 19, 2008

Logic & Reason: The Latest Victims Of HIV/AIDS

There's an old saying about health care that follows along the lines of something like an ounce of prevention equals a pound of cure. That's probably not it exactly but you get the general idea; preventing an illness is a heck of a lot more effective a means of health care than curing it. It only make sense, once somebody gets sick there's no telling what could develop and how serious it could get, so it's best if they never get sick in the first place.

It seems to me that it would make even more sense when it's a disease as fatal as HIV/AIDS. There's no cure for HIV/AIDS, but there are many ways which to prevent the spread of the disease, even among those at the highest risk. Condoms for people who have sex with multiple partners and clean needles for people who inject intravenous drugs isn't a hundred percent guarantee that HIV/AIDS won't be passed from one person to another, but it's a heck of a lot safer than any of the alternatives out there.

What about abstinence you ask? Well sure, if everybody, everywhere in the world, stopped having sex before they were married and only ever screwed one person in their whole life, it would go a long way to preventing the spread of HIV/AIDS. However, I don't know what world you're living, but for the one I live in that's not what I'd call a realistic proposition for even the heterosexual population. In fact according to statistics reported in Elizabeth Pisani's wonderful book on HIV/AIDS The Wisdom Of Whores in North America alone 70% of people who sign abstinence oaths end up having pre-marital sex. As an interesting aside the majority of those people also have unprotected sex, as nobody seems to have bothered educating them about condoms.

So with evidence like that you'd think that it would be a no-brainer for there to be a concentrated effort the world over to ensure that we focus on getting condoms to people in the sex trade or in other high risk groups, and ensure that intravenous drug users are given every opportunity possible to get clean needles. Unfortunately there are people who think that people dying of a horrible disease is less important than forcing everybody live by their moral code. So the Catholic Church, conservative Christians, and fundamentalist Muslims the world over have formed an unholy alliance to ensure that people don't commit the horrible sin of practising something that could be construed as birth control or that we even give the appearance of condoning drug use..

According to these good folk the only reason to have sex is for procreation, and if you're having sex for procreation than you don't need to use a condom. Which is all very well and good, but when was the last time you knew of a prostitute having sex for reason of procreation? Or how about gay men; do you think they have procreation in mind when they have sex? Of course homosexuality is probably an even bigger no-no than birth control in the eyes of the previously mentioned trinity, so you can't expect too much in the way of compassion from them on that front.

In fact for supposedly compassionate religious people, and both Christianity and Islam have great swathes about being compassionate in their holy books, these folk seem pretty vindictive. It's amazing how many of them seem to be of the opinion that intravenous drug users and other deviants are only getting what they deserve. What's unfortunate is how many people think like this and control the purse strings when it comes to the fight against the spread of HIV/AIDS.

Everybody knows by now how not a single penny of the money that George Bush has allocated for HIV/AIDS is allowed to be given to any group that hands out or recommends condoms as a means of fighting the spread of the disease. Now it seems like his fellow traveller, Prime Minister of Canada Steven Harper, is going down the same path. His government is planning on cutting HIV/AIDS funding to community organizations that do front line prevention work to the tune of 26 million dollars and redirecting it towards the development of a vaccine.

This comes on top of the cuts which last year saw Quebec's funding reduced by 30%, Ontario's by 24%, and Alberta only being funded for six months. What worries people most is that the cuts are going to be to the programmes which focus on prevention to those people considered to be most at risk; intravenous drug users, prisoners and gay men. While nobody is arguing that funding research to develop a vaccine to prevent HIV/AIDS is a bad thing, taking money away from programming aimed at preventing the immediate spread of the disease to do so is dangerous and irresponsible.

So why is Steven Harper's government doing this? Well in the last election he ran on a platform that included a promise to try and repeal Canada's same sex marriage law, and once elected cancelled the previous government's plans at decriminalizing marijuana. If that doesn't give you some idea of this government's mindset, how about this quote from our honourable Prime Minister when it came to the question of harm reduction among addicts: "If you remain an addict, I don't care how much harm you reduce, you're going to have a short and miserable life."

This is the same government that is doing it's best to manipulate figures to show that a trial safe injection site in Vancouver British Columbia has led to more people using intravenous drugs and has caused more harm than good. The actual truth of the matter is that every time a person shoots up on their own in a controlled environment they will not be sharing a needle and not risking the spread of disease to anyone else. There is also statistical evidence that intravenous drug users who come to safe injection sites or needle exchanges are far more likely to enter into treatment programmes than people who don't, as they are in constant contact with people who will help and encourage them to rehabilitate.

Logic, reason, and statistical evidence all point towards spending money on programmes geared towards preventing the spread of HIV/AIDS is currently the most efficient and effective means we have of controlling the disease. All the statistical evidence points to the fact that needle exchanges, safe injection sites, and the use of condoms are the most effective preventative measures going, therefore it only makes sense that those are means we should be using to prevent the spread of the disease.

Unfortunately it seems that logic, reason, and statistical evidence mean nothing to people like the Prime Minister of Canada and his fellow travellers. It's obviously much more important for them to impose their morality on the rest of us, no matter how many people they kill in the process.

References to statistical evidence in this article are supported by the work of epidemiologist Elizabeth Pisani's work as sited in her book The Wisdom Of Whores. You can find a listing of all her references at the reference page of her Wisdom Of Whores web site.

The Case Of The Missing Kyoto Accord Chapter Seven

People have a lot of misconceptions about detective work. You hear private investigator and you normally think of tough talking guys, beautiful dames etc. Well the first might be true in my case – I tend to talk tough – some would say to make up for the deep-seated insecurities I have about myself, but since I don't tend to hang out with people who talk like that it doesn't matter what they say.

Besides if you can't have the pleasure of talking out the side of your mouth now and then what's the point of doing this type of work? Nine times out of ten you're doing just what that asshole flatfoot said: gathering evidence of infidelity for one or other parties in a marriage. People say we cause divorces, but what a client chooses to do with pictures of her husband playing spank the monkey with a young woman in maid's outfit is up to her not me: P.I.'s don't cause divorces, people do.

On occasion we do run across some genuinely beautiful women but in most cases I only get to see them through the telephoto lens on my camera or in the developing tray in my darkroom. I don't even keep copies of the prints. Once you start and word gets around, and don't kid yourself it will, you'll find yourself one day with more trouble then you can handle as certain parties might be tempted to try to get rid of incriminating evidence.

Oh I've been tempted on occasion, but a few seconds contemplating my body with extra holes in it, or foreign objects sticking out of it laid out on a slab cures me of the thought. I don't like contemplating mortality at the best of times, and my own just isn't something I'm prepared to mess around with no matter how tempting. Dying for an 8"X10" photograph just seems like such a waste.

The one that really gets me, and I blame the Goddamn Brits for this with their drawing room murder investigations is the great public revelation of the killer. It's really that crazy old bigoted bat Hagatha whose to blame for it you know. Even her pansy Belgium hero is treated like dirt and made out to be an object of ridicule in spite of being the one to always put "the cads" in jail.

Anyway all her books end with the whole cast of characters gathered together in the drawing room where the detective reveals who did, where, and with what motive. I've had people come to me for divorce case investigation and they look almost devastated when I hand them the envelope with the photos, videotape, and nicely written report. They want some of that drama that they see in the b- movies, like I'm going to pull aside a curtain revealing their soon to be ex busy humping away with their paramour or something.

If only, my life would be a lot more fun if I had opportunities for a little bit of that action – I mean the drawing room mystery revelation action not the soon to be ex humping her paramour in my office. Although I'm not saying a live sex show wouldn't liven the place up now and then – I've never been really one for taking my work home with me.

But as I was thinking about all that had gone in the previous weeks with Dr. Magneson being killed, right behind my eyes so to speak, my conversations with various interested and interesting parties, and knowing that I had solved both the problem of who murdered the good Doctor and the disappearance of the Kyoto Accord, I saw this could be the perfect opportunity for me to act out my own drawing room revelation. I had the requisite parties: a mysterious femme fatale, a couple of rough customers, and a pretty ingénue. With the four of them and my two buddies from the cop shop it would be a tight fit in here, I wasn't even sure I had enough chairs or coffee cups to go around, but it could still work.

It would also be a good way of ensuring the murderous one didn't get the opportunity to have me alone and perform open-heart surgery through my spine like what had happened to the good Doc. The two cops were my security against being folded, mutilated and spindled after I'd confronted the killer. I've never understood the idiots in the B movies who go alone to the killer's house and expect him to surrender meekly when confronted with the truth of his perfidy. They always seem so surprised when he or she pulls a gun on them or puts the knife through their heart. What did they expect anyway, that confronted with the truth a cold-blooded murderer would give themselves up out of remorse? Sheesh, what idiots.

Nope I was going to make damn sure that I had heavily armed and dangerous people in the same room who were on my side. If things started to get ugly I wanted to make sure that the ugliest people in the room were with me, and I couldn't think of two uglier guys then McIntosh and Gates. Anyway they seem to enjoy their work and I'm sure the opportunity to arrest someone in such public circumstances would tickle their fancies – if a cop has a fancy to be tickled.

They were my first call and although I can't say that they were happy to hear from me, at least they didn't ask me to come over and play with their rubber hoses and phone books. Taking that as a sign that our relationship was improving I ran my idea by them and in spite of a lot of grumbling and swearing on their part they said they'd be there.

I think part of it was that under those gruff exteriors beat the heart of sadists who got their jollies out of arresting people in as public and humiliating a manner as possible. Since this had the potential of it being me, at least in their eyes, being the one publicly humiliated and arrested – if I fell on my face they guaranteed I'd get something in return for wasting their time – that was enough incentive for them to assure me of their cooperation on the day.

Then it was a matter of me persuading four out of five of the other interested parties to show up. I knew the fifth, being Dr. Magneson, had a previous engagement with a six foot hole if he wasn't still spending time in a one size fits all bag slotted away in the oversized filing cabinets they stowed the bodies in down at the city morgue. That left my three friends from the Health Food emporium and Dr. Magneson jr.

It was my pretty friend who answered the phone on three rings and I have to say her voice brightened considerably when she heard my dulcet tones on the other end of the line. When I mentioned that I also wanted her too bring along the two others her voice registered disappointment, but I convinced her of the necessity of their presence by saying I needed to go over out conversations together again because I think that I'd managed to figure out who our culprit was.

She sounded a bit cheerier after that, and I felt even cheerier when she suggested she and I could maybe have a more private discussion afterwards. She said something about making it up to me for having been the cause of my headache that day. Maybe, she said she could work the kinks out of my shoulders. I could almost hear her blush down the phone line when I said I had several kinks that I bet she didn't even know existed, but I'd love for her to help me work them out.

That's the type of conversation that always warms the cockles of my heart, not to mention certain unmentionable, in polite conversation, body parts. Anyway I'd have to quell thoughts like those if I wanted to prevent the blood rushing from my head leaving me incapable of thinking along any lines but one. I was dealing with a cold-blooded murderer and needed to have whatever limited resources I possessed at my disposal.

The final call I had to make was going to be the toughest – it wasn't that I didn't think la Morgenstern wanted to find out who killed her papa, but I just wasn't too sure how well she'd react when I told her the threesome from her dad's clandestine meetings would be showing up. Surprisingly enough that didn't turn out to be much of a problem, what did was her trying to convince me to tell her in advance who the killer was.

After all, she pointed out very reasonably, it was her dad someone had tried to open with a single bladed can-opener. The only way I could forestall her was to ask if she thought she'd be able to sit in the same room as the person she knew to be her father's murderer without giving the game away. She had the good grace to realize the sense in that and promised she would see me at the appointed time: High Noon on that coming Monday.

That had been McIntosh's idea, and I could hear Gates cackling in the room behind him. I didn't mind the image, me facing down the lone murderer, but I was kinda of hoping to avoid the fireworks of the original. I'm not really cut out for the Gary Cooper type rolls – Groucho Marx maybe – by not Gary Cooper. Still the fate was acomplis as the French liked to say, and in just two days the clock would strike and somebody would be going home in a pumpkin for murder.

When the day of the great revelation dawned, it seemed only fitting that the weather in Ottawa was positively apocalyptical, with intermittent showers being relieved by sleet and hail. As I stood at the window staring, and trying to figure out if any of the bizarreness in weather had to do with climate changes, someone tried the handle to the office door.

When whoever it was realized they weren't going to get any satisfaction that way, a gentle knock on the door followed.

"Were not open! If you're having troubles with reading the sign it says office hours 11:00 am until 5:00 pm. Go away until a clock reads somewhere between those two numbers."

"It's me" said a very familiar and sultry voice of the Nordic persuasion.

"You"? I replied

"Me"! She said.

Sure enough when I opened the door it was her; The beautiful, ash blonde, Scandinavian who started me on this search when she showed up in the office all those months ago; Morgenstern. Although she was just as stunningly beautiful now as she had been the first time she crossed my threshold, something was going on inside that perfectly shaped head that was causing her enough distraction that she was marring the smoothness of her temples with unsightly creases.

She brushed by in a waft of fancy shower gels and other exotic feminine scents guaranteed to beguile and bewitch the male olfactory glands, and proceeded into the office. She didn't stop until she was perched on the edge of my desk looking back at me still standing there with the door waiting to be closed behind her. She held my gaze for a second before letting her eyes break the contact to look down at the floor. From another person I would have taken that as an apology, but in her case...Let's just say I'd never figured her for the humble type.

I'd never be able to prove it, but I'd swear during the moment of breaking contact she was able to do a quick scan of the room, ascertaining if she was truly the first arrival. She visibly relaxed when she released that nobody else was here – whatever it was she wanted to say obviously was meant for my ears only.

I'd say it didn't take me longer then a second to close the door, which meant my head must have been turned away from her for a little less then that, so I can only figure her purse had been open and she had this all planed out in advance - the only other explanation for the gun appearing in her hand as quickly as it did implied magic that I don't believe in - so I'll settle for the pre-planned approach.

I guess I'd find out soon enough what she was gonna settle for.

May 14, 2008

Canadian Minority Government Blues

With all the attention being paid in the press to the American presidential election campaign in recent months, occasionally my thoughts turn to the possibility of a federal election in Canada. However, with neither of the two major political parties able to capture the public's imagination sufficiently to attract enough support to be sure of winning a majority government if an election were held today, the chances of one before fall 2008 are slim to non- existent. The latest poll results show the ruling Conservative Party and the opposition Liberal Party virtually neck and neck in terms of popular vote (they are separated in the polls by exactly the three per cent margin of error) so its doubtful either one of them would be willing to risk putting their popularity to the test.

I suppose that before going any further as brief an explanation as possible is required about Canada's parliamentary style of government. Unlike the American system where you elect your president independent of your representatives, our prime minister is the leader of the political party that elects the most representatives during an election. The country has been divided into electoral districts according to population known as ridings. Each riding is contested by a representative from each of the major parties and the winner is awarded a seat in the House of Commons - the Canadian parliament. The party winning the most seats forms the government and its leader becomes prime minister.

Canada currently has four political parties with seats in the House of Commons, and while the Conservatives won the most in the last election they did not succeed in obtaining a majority and formed what is known as a minority government. Most of the time when a party doesn't have sufficient seats, which translate into votes, to pass legislation without the assistance of another party they are forced to make compromises in policy if they want to accomplish anything. For if an important piece of legislation, like a budget, is defeated in the House of Commons when it comes to a vote, the government is forced to call an election.

The current Conservative Party government of Prime Minister Steven Harper has been an exception to that rule because for almost the first two years of their reign the largest opposition party, The Liberal Party, was without a permanent leader, and were not in a position to contest an election. Even now, almost a year after their new leader, Stephane Dion, was elected, they have failed to capture the public's imagination sufficiently for them to have confidence in their ability to win an election. So in spite of their status as a minority government, the Conservative Party has been able to impose their will on the Canadian public, even when their policies have run contrary to the wishes of the majority of Canadians.

While the majority of Canadians have opposed an increased military presence in Afghanistan, the government has not only extended the mission length, it has ensured that Canadian troops are used in combat situations. Furthering the public's disquiet with Canada's role in Afghanistan has been the government's attempts to play down fatalities by ending the practice of public ceremonies for the fallen upon their return to Canada. Public opinion was so against this, especially among military families, they were forced to modify that stance, but it left a bitter taste in a lot of people's mouths.

Canada was one of the first signatories to the Kyoto Accord on climate control and the previous government had passed legislation that would have seen them at least attempting to meet the minimum targets set by that agreement for controlling the emission of carbon dioxide into the environment. One of the first acts the Conservative government did upon taking power was to scrap that legislation, ensuring that Canada would renege upon its agreement. This, in spite of the fact that the majority of Canadians were and are in favour of the Kyoto Accord, if not even stronger emission controls.

One of the oddities of Canadian politics that has been the cause of confusion for any American who has cared to pay attention, is the names of our two major political parties. In the past both the Liberals and the Conservatives have had pretty much identical policies when it comes to social and economic issues. The Liberals have never been as liberal as their name suggests economically and the Conservatives have never been as conservative socially as you would think. Steven Harper's Conservative Party of Canada is a break with that tradition as they were originally the socially conservative, Reform Party of Canada who advocated a party line similar to that espoused by the Bush administration.

While they have been thwarted by the Supreme Court of Canada in their attempt to repeal same sex marriages, they have prevented the decriminalization of marijuana, and are doing their best to discredit a safe injection facility for intravenous drug users in Vancouver, British Columbia. Although the only one of its kind in North America, safe injection facilities and needle exchanges in Europe have proven to be effective means of preventing the spread of disease, specifically HIV/AIDS. among this high risk population. But compassion for drug users does not jibe with the conservative "War on Drugs" policy that is part of their tough on crime agenda.

Now with Canada's economy starting to follow the American's down the toilet, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police executing a search warrant on Conservative Party headquarters to investigate alleged overspending in the last election to the tune of $1.1 million, and Bill C-10 which would give the government the ability to effectively censor any movie whose content they didn't like, Canadians are becoming increasingly dissatisfied with their ruling party. As recently as February 2008 polls were showing them with a large enough share of the popular vote that they could have potentially formed a majority government if an election had been called. However, with the above combined with the price of fuel at the pump continuing to rise, the dollar falling below par with the American again, food prices rising substantially, and the government seemingly content with letting the largest province in Canada, Ontario, fall into a recession, people are becoming increasingly dissatisfied with them.

In spite of this the chances of an election anytime soon are slim. Stephane Dion has done nothing to instil confidence in his own party that he can lead them to victory in an election. While there is no denying the man's intelligence, he is the type of person who most people seem to have difficulty warming to. Nobody is sure how his personality would play in an election and whether he can overcome the charges of aloofness that are being laid at his feet by critics and friends alike.

Unless the Liberals believe they have a very real chance of forming a government, they won't take any steps to force an election. This means the Conservative party can act with impunity; passing any legislation they feel like passing. Under normal circumstances, when one party wins the largest number of seats in the House of Commons without having a numerical majority, the country benefits because they need the support of other parties to stay in power resulting in legislation that reflects more than one ideology. Unfortunately that's not the case this time.

Knowing full well the Liberal party has been to frightened to call an election, the Conservative haven't had to compromise on any of their policies. Canadians can only hope that the supposed leaders of the opposition start to take their jobs seriously, or any chance we might have had of reaping the benefits of this minority government will soon be wasted. I don't think a minority government has ever served out a full four year term in office at the federal level before, but unless something happens soon it looks like that just might happen.

May 11, 2008

The Case Of The Missing Kyoto Accord: Chapter 6

The bump on the top of my head was starting to make me wish for bed and a cold compress, and the last thing I wanted to be doing right now was sitting in a dank cellar chatting with the two folks, no matter how good their intentions had been, who'd made me feel like this. Still there was something compelling about the way her lower lip trembled when she was emotionally distraught that made me want to investigate how she reacted to other stimuli.

But those were idle thoughts suited to other occasions, and even contemplating them made me wince with pain. Anyway, they looked like a couple of nice earnest, concerned types who wanted to save the world, and from previous experience I knew that was one road better left un travelled. They weren’t casual about anything, and politicized sex was always on the low end of the enjoyment scale for me, especially when working on a migraine.

I suggested that we keep in touch and if they thought of anything more, or if anything happened, that might lead me to an answer about who croaked the professor and what happened to the Kyoto accord. I told them if I ever did get any answers that I would make sure they were filled in, if for no other reason so they could stop bashing people over the head that came into the store asking about the Kyoto accord.

Couldn't be good for business if you kept hauling concerned environmentalists down into a cellar and giving them the third degree. Unless they had a sideline in headache remedies: "Hey does that store of yours have anything for a wicked headache, induced by a minor head trauma?" I asked her pointing at the point on the noggin he had tried to stave in.

He had the good grace to look embarrassed and mumble another apology, while the smile she bestowed made me start reconsidering my earlier resolution and thinking a little tender loving care administered by her capable mouth might not be such a bad thing after all. But when my eyes made contact with daylight, it was still only mid afternoon, when we reached the street all thoughts of anything but lying alone in bed with the blinds drawn and me out cold quickly vanished.

Even her bashful, eye's down looking up at me through her eyelashes, "Is there anything else that I can do for you…" only elicited a request for a cab. Her suggestion as she shepherded me into the cab that she'd call tomorrow to see how I was doing, was laden with meanings, but all I could do was smile weakly and mumble my address to the cabbie.

His initial reluctance on driving me was quickly overcome by my suggestion that the quicker he got me home the less chance there was of me puking on the back of his head. Mentioning the names of a couple of gentlemen I knew in the people cartage business who were known for their efficiency in dealing with those who upset their friends helped to overcome the last of his doubts.

It also ensured I was spared the usual commentary on the state of the world that cabbies seem to believe is their prerogative to deliver. By the time we pulled up to the office whatever placebo she had given me was slowing me down sufficiently that I tipped the cabbie a twenty, which led to the unprecedented site in Ottawa of a passenger having his door opened for him by the driver of his hack. He also did me the favour of pointing me in the right direction of my buildings door, so I didn't wander dazed into traffic.

Harry the day doorman had seen me in quite a number of states before this, but even his eyes showed some concern as he clocked the state of my pupils and the discreet swelling on the back of my head.

"You want me to check on you every couple of hours or so Mr. Steve, to make sure you haven't slipped into a coma?"

"Actually", I told Harry, "a coma sounds pretty attractive right about now. Just get me on the elevator and hit the button for the right floor and I should be able to take it from there." The last thing I needed right now was to be mother-henned by six foot–seven-inch, 300lb, ex linebacker with one eyebrow, a shaved head, and a gold loop earring the size of a hoola-hoop. Nope I just needed my bed and a lot of pitch dark.

Which I almost didn't get until I remembered how a key and lock mechanism worked, after surviving that challenge, navigating through the clutter of the office to the private room in behind was nothing. The only distraction was the flashing red of the answering machine light, which caused a momentary fixation, quickly overwhelmed by the intense pain its pulsation produced in my skull.

I let the back of my knees hit the side of my bed that allowed it to welcome me into the comfortable bosom of its embrace. I wish I could say I slept like a log and didn't feel anything until I woke the next morning, but I was disturbed all night by wild dreams that featured Ms. Magnesen and the environmentalist cutie literally tearing me in half; Professor Magnesen lecturing both of my parts on separate occasions on how to control emissions; and in amongst it all was the sound of people pounding at my door and yelling for me to wake up as they were the police and it was long past time that decent people were awake and at work.

Unfortunately that last part turned out to be true, (I don't want to think about the implications of the other parts thank you very much) and I eventually had to stagger to the door so as to prevent the noise from continuing. It was only as I turned to lead my old buddies from the crime scene back into the apartment that I realized the ten o'clock I had read on the dial of my bedside clock meant the next morning, not later that same evening.

"I didn't even know you drank tea, let alone took sugar in it" was followed by harsh laughter from behind as the assholes chortled at my misfortune. "Was that one lump or two?" That ain't the kind of shit you deal with before coffee on the morning after the day I had had yesterday. I couldn't even muster the energy to give them a baleful stare, let along a snappy retort.

I didn't know what I had done to deserve the honour of a home visit, but I figured I'd better be slightly somnambulant before trying to cope with the excitement of it all. I pointed in the general direction of where I remembered my bathroom as being, and received a leering grin and a sweeping, be my guest, arm gesture in return.

It was only after I had held my head under the cold tap for five minutes that I began to realize the potential for trouble that a visit from two cops, who were being overtly genial, could forebode. For two guys like McIntosh and Gates to show up at my door without kicking it down first meant they had either come to gloat or…I couldn't think of any other reason.

If they were going to arrest me they would have kicked the door down and hauled me away, that would seem more their modus apprehenda- so to speak- over this polite routine. Of course this all could just be an elaborate game of good cop bad cop, as I noticed Gates hadn't done anything except show his teeth at McIntosh's jokes. Like with any mad dog that could mean he's laughing or readying himself to go for your throat.

When I could look in the mirror and only see one of me looking back I figured I could just about cope with the boys in bad suits and headed back out to the office area. Still studiously avoiding any sort of contact with them I headed to where the coffee pot that was my morning cup awaited. From the damage inflicted upon my kitchen and the depreciation in the level of the pot, I could see my guests hadn't hesitated in making themselves at home.

"You must have finished the lumps off last night" Gates called through " We couldn't find anything but these packets of "nude" sugar. Oh and your out of cream." It's a good thing I like black coffee cause 25 years with no chance of parole is a long time to spend behind bars, and guards inside don't like cop killers.

After gulping a first cup, burning the roof of my mouth and finishing the process of returning to consciousness simultaneously, I poured a second cup and headed out to meet my early birds, hoping I wasn't the worm awaiting eating. From the way Gates was looking at me like a side of beef I couldn't help feeling that prospect was pretty good.

"Who gave you the love tap?" McIntosh asked pointing his chin at the lump on my head.

"Someone who wasn't as genteel in looking for information as the police officers of our nations capital. Now what can I do for you boys, I wouldn't want to think I'm holding you up from serving and protecting the good people of Ottawa" I tried to look at them with as much innocence as I could muster with my eyes still slightly crossed and the knowledge that the last time I had seen them a dead body with a machete in its back was laid out like a – well like a corpse since that what he was – at my feet.

"It's what we can do for you chum" Gates was licking his lips, hopefully licking off lingering drops of coffee but it was hard to tell what was going on behind those beady little eyes. "We thought you might like to know the identity of the stiff who fell at your feet the other night. We thought hearing his name might jar your memory, although I see others have tried less subtle means. Which reminds me do you need to report a crime, we're police officers you know and we're here to protect the public." He laughed a horrible little laugh that sounded like a cross between a growl and the wind blowing over a grave on a cold November night.

"That was just a misunderstanding, and why should hearing the dead guy's name jar my memory?" I was trying to think if I had given beautiful anything like my card which she could have given her dad which would take some explaining if it were found on his corpse.

"The crime scene boys found this", he reached into his pocket and pulled out a plastic baggie of the type you use for sandwiches, pot, and evidence. This one held a piece of yellow paper torn on two edges so it had obviously ripped from the bottom corner of a larger page. "Your ad in the yellow pages was found in Mr., I should say Dr./Professor Magnesen's jacket pocket with the name of the bar scrawled on it, and the words "last brass pole on the barkeep's side" written in the same hand."

He paused and looked at me, and just in case I hadn't caught the implications of what he was suggesting, spelt it out for me." We think you were arranging to meet him there, and you've holding out on us for some reason and we want to know why?"

I took a sip of my coffee and looked up at him. "Well that's better then your usual average, batting .500 could almost make a person think you know what you're doing. Yes I was supposed to be meeting him at the bar, but I wasn't holding out on you because until you just told me I had no idea that the corpse at my feet was Dr. Morgensen.

We had only talked on the phone up till that point, which is probably why he had the directions on where to find my scrawled on my ad in the yellow pages. I just figured he had shown up after the murder and found the bar locked up and him not able to get into seeing me. I've been hoping to hear from him again since, but now it looks like that hope is a pretty vain one…"

It's always good to leave a thought or sentence hanging when talking to cops, they don't like to think you know everything, and it gives them the illusion that they have some room to manoeuvre with you even though you've built a pretty thick brick wall up for them to run into. And if they do have something in reserve, you can always hold on to I hadn't finished as an excuse.

I wasn't going to have to worry about that this time, because although it was obvious they didn't like it, they didn't seem to have anything more than that piece of paper connecting me to the dead doc. If they thought otherwise, obstructing a murder investigation would be the least of my worries. I'd have to start worrying about my name finding its way to the attention of individuals I don't want knowing it.

They had finished their coffees by then and knew their chances of refills were non-existent, so they'd have to head over to Tim Horton's and have an official coffee break if they wanted any more. Gates was out the door and McIntosh was close behind him, when he turned and looked back.

"This is more than just a divorce case gone bad, peeper, it's even more than just a homicide. There's a lot of pressure on us to get results, but results that end it without it going far. There's talk of not letting it go further than this room, unless something else shows up soon.

Everybody's called the chief today from the horsemen, to the spy guys, and somebody from Parliament Hill to ask that we keep them posted. Everybody's walking around the station house right now so uptight that they're scared to fart. Whoever worked you over last night was an amateur compared to these boys from up high. I've heard that they can make it so you get to the point that you want to tell them what they want to hear just so the pain will stop."

He nodded at me then and closed the door behind him. Have a nice fucking day. It looked like my time on this case was running out fast no matter what I wanted, so the option of another day in bed, however tempting was a no go. The problem was that unless something fell in my lap pretty soon this case was no go as well.

I had to hope that someone was having more success than me or I could be looking forward to a long time away from home.

May 8, 2008

Book Review: The Wisdom Of Whores Elizabeth Pisani

It's close to thirty years ago since British rocker Ian Drury had a hit with the song "Sex And Drugs And Rock And Roll". Somehow or other nobody had strung the three together in quite the catchy way he had before, and his little ditty's title caught more then a few people's imaginations. In those innocent days prior to AIDS and the "War On Drugs", it became the catch phrase of choice for a great many people to sum up what they needed to make them happy. That Drury might have been satirizing the rock star image with his song was lost on ninety per cent of his audience, who had latched onto the title as a lifestyle definition.

The world spins around and ten years later, in the 1980s, I couldn't read the obituary pages of my local paper without reading that a man of my generation had died of unknown causes, leaving behind special friends, but very rarely, a wife or parents to mourn him. AIDS was very much a mystery in those early days in the mid to late eighties, but even then we knew it was caused by sharing bodily fluids and the quickest way of catching it was through unprotected sex and sharing a needle. It was only a matter of time before it spread beyond gay men. Sex and Drugs were "very good indeed" no longer.

When the Canadian Red Cross came clean about not testing their blood properly and giving hemophiliacs infected blood, (and oh by the way if you received a blood transfusion between these dates you really should get yourself checked), the "innocent victim" syndrome in AIDS reared its ugly head. Just what the world needed - another way to stigmatize people who were dying because they had sex or shared a needle. The Christian right in North America had already labelled HIV and AIDS as the wages of sin, and being able to say they only have themselves to blame, while others are blameless, only added fuel to the pyre they were building to burn the sinners.
The Wisdom Of Whores cover.jpg
In the preface to her book The Wisdom Of Whores, Elizabeth Pisani says that when people ask her what she does for a living she cheerfully replies "Sex and drugs" as it's easier than having to explain to people that an Epidemiologist studies how diseases spread in populations. For ten year of her life, starting in 1996, Ms Pisani worked on the front lines of HIV/AIDs research looking for patterns in how the disease was spread, developing ways of curbing the spread of the diseases, trying to figure out how many people were potentially at risk, and of course dealing with the political fallout that always seems to accompany sex and drugs.

In the course of her work she has run police roadblocks in Indonesia carrying blood samples and used syringes, sat on street corners with prostitutes in the border towns of China and Tibet discussing the economics of their trade, worked with the transgendered prostitutes of Indonesia, argued policy with officials from the UN, the World Health Organization (WHO), Muslim Clerics, and brothel owners in Thailand. The Wisdom Of Whores are the conclusions she has reached after these ten years of field work about what works in the fight against HIV/AIDS and what doesn't work. These conclusions are backed up by not only her years of personal observation, but by the data she has crunched charting the growth of the disease and the effectiveness of the various means used to prevent it's spread in different countries and among different social groups.

One of the most frightening things about this book is, at the time it was being written, the amount of influence being exerted on HIV/AIDS programming by people with political and religious agendas. From Muslim Clerics in Africa and South East Asia saying that not using condoms proves how faithful you are, the American government going so far as prohibiting their staff from having access to research that proves the effectiveness of condoms in preventing the spread of sexually transmitted diseases (STD), to American policy that tries to prevent any agency, whether they receive American money or not, from advocating the use of condoms as a preventative measure; it's more important to these people that their view of the world is adhered to than the disease be prevented from spreading.

In spite of the statistical evidence that Ms. Pisani cites, that over 70% of the people who sign pledges vowing to abstain from pre-marital sex end up having pre-marital sex, the American government still preaches abstinence as the answer for preventing the spread of HIV/AIDS. The fact that the majority of these people also practice unprotected sex is even more damning. That those figures are from the US, and not a country with a flourishing sex trade, makes the whole abstinence argument even more spurious.
In spite of what any number of groups might want you to think, according to Ms. Pisani's research very few people are sold into the sex trade of South East Asia as slaves. It's more a matter of simple economics; a women can earn more in a half hour as a prostitute than she would for making 150 t-shirts in a sweat shop. If people are really so concerned about women in the sex trade maybe they should consider paying a little more money for their brand name t-shirts so these women have a viable alternative to make money to feed their families.

In all of these countries where condom programs have been implemented within the sex trade infection rates have been halved and continue to decline. The programs that work best are the ones like the one implemented by Thailand. The government allows the brothels to operate as long as the women working there use condoms, if they don't the government closes it down and the owner loses his source of income. By routinely randomly testing all the women working in the brothels for STDs the government is able to tell if condoms are being used. Not only has this helped prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS but it has also cut down on the spread of all STDs among clients, brothel workers, and all of their families.

The sharing of needles by intravenous drug users is of course the other big way that the virus is spread. In spite of this, resistance to needle exchanges as a means of prevention still runs high. Those who believe in the war on drugs are convinced that needle exchange programs encourage drug use and don't want anything to do with it. Yet statistics presented by Ms. Pisani shows that needle exchanges not only help prevent the spread of disease, they work to help people get off drugs. Two or three times a week they are in contact with social workers who can give them referrals to treatment programs and provide them support in quitting drugs and a good many of them take advantage of it.

The other big issue that Ms. Pisani raises is the need to balance treatment and prevention. While nobody wants to see anybody die when there are drugs available that could prolong their lives for as much as ten years, the problem is now that too much of the HIV/AIDS budget is being spent on treatment and prevention is falling by the wayside. As a result people are still being infected in spite of everything we know. Politicians are much happier when they can say they are giving money to treat pregnant women so they don't spread the disease to their unborn child, or to treat a child who was born with the virus, than they are in announcing money to help people who have sex and use drugs from catching it.

The Wisdom Of Whores is like a gale of fresh air being blown through the musty smelling bullshit that has surrounded the whole HIV/AIDS issue from day one. It's not just the holy cows of the right Ms. Pisani takes on either in her battle to save lives. Everything from peer counselling to confidential testing is put under her microscope for analysis; saving lives and preventing the spread of the disease is what concerns her not what people think is right. I'm sure this will get a lot of people's backs up, but it's hard to argue with her statistics about rates of infection.

It's hard to imagine a book about a subject as dry sounding as epidemiology being a page turner and entertaining, but Elizabeth Pisani has managed to do just that. She is irreverent, but never irrelevant; by turns angry, compassionate, and frustrated, she is a refreshingly human voice among so many speech makers. Sex and drugs might be taboo subjects for most people, but they are Elizabeth's bread and butter, and according to her they are at the root of HIV/AIDS. The Wisdom Of Whores paints as true a picture as possible of the fight against the spread of HIV/AIDS and where it stands today as you're liable to ever read. As well as the book you can also go the Wisdom Of Whores web site to receive even more up to date information and join in the ongoing discussion on how the world is doing in its fight to keep people alive.

The Wisdom Of Whores can be purchased directly from Penguin Canada or an online retailer like

May 1, 2008

What Barack Obama And Canada's Residential School System Have In Common

At first glance there might not appear to be much that the Canadian Government's announcement of who will be heading the Truth and Reconciliation Committee looking into the history of the Residential School System in Canada has in common with the presidential aspirations of Barack Obama and the pastor of his church Jeremiah Wright. Yet both stories reflect deep divisions that exist in both Canadian and American Society. Even a cursory look at the history behind both stories reveals the similarities, while also making a telling statement about both countries and their approaches to similar problems.

In Canada, as in other areas of North America, after the government was unable to commit actual genocide against the Native population they decided to settle on the next best thing and try for cultural genocide. Towards that end they enlisted the aid of both the Anglican and Roman Catholic Churches in establishing the Residential School system. A generations of Native Canadian children were taken from their families and placed in this school system in order to drive the "Indianness" out of them.

To that end they had their identities stripped from them through changing their names, forbidding them to speak their languages and practice their religions, and teaching them that the ways of their parents were evil. They were forced to speak in either only English or French, depending on what part of Canada the school was in, and given training in the most menial of professions. The girls were put to work in the school kitchens and laundries so they could learn how to scullery maids and the boys were put to work as janitorial staff and given basic training in how to be unskilled labour.

Aside from having to cope with the terror of being away from home and family, they were also subjected to physical and emotional abuse as punishment for attempting to use their own language or attempting to follow their traditions. On top of that large numbers of both the boys and the girls were sexually abused on a regular basis by the staff of the facilities. As a result of the residential schools - the last one was closed in the 1970s - generations of Native Canadiens found themselves unable to fit in either the White world or the world of their parents.

The colour of their skin named them as second class citizens within society at large, and they didn't have the skills sufficient to find steady employment. On the other hand they no longer had the traditions of their own people to turn to for solace, and they couldn't even talk to their parents anymore as they no longer spoke the same language. With their identities stripped away, suffering the effects of sexual, emotional, and physical abuse, and having no means to earn a living, is it any wonder that they and subsequent generations should feel as if they have no future?

When the African National Congress became the first majority rule government in South Africa's history one of the first things they established was a Truth and Reconciliation Committee whose mandate was to travel around the country hearing from people about their experiences under apartheid. Headed by Bishop Desmond Tutu, their mission wasn't simply about apportioning blame, but to try and find a way out of the hate of the past by facing up to the the truth and accepting it. You can't undo the past, but you can come to terms with it so it no longer controls you. The Canadian government hopes that under the guidance of Native Canadian judge, Harry LaForme, Canada's Truth and Reconciliation Committee, will be able to begin that process in Canada.

Although slavery was outlawed in the United States with the defeat of the Southern states in their Civil War, segregation of Black and White exists to this day. Up until the 1960's it was common to see signs in restaurants, swimming pools, and public washrooms forbidding service to people of colour. In the 1970's white communities were still protesting the forced integration of their schools. Although circumstances have obviously improved, there is still a sizeable economic and social gap between the two races.

While Barack Obama claims to be running for President of the United States because he says he was convinced that people no longer wanted to be divided by race, religion or what region of the country they live in, he doesn't have to look any further than the pastor of his own church to see that sharp divisions still exist between black and white. Rev. Jeremiah Wright has given speeches damning the Untied States for it's history of racism and accusing the American government of using AIDS as a weapon against the Black community.

Memories of Hurricane Katrina and tens of thousands of poor Black people seemingly abandoned by their government as they were dying of starvation and dehydration in the Super Dome are still fresh in plenty of people's minds. When that's combined with the continual foot dragging by all levels of government when it's come to rebuilding the homes that these same people lost when the waters flooded the Ninth Ward, and the obscenely quick way in which residences were bulldozed after the waters retreated before there was chance to see if they could be salvaged, you can see why even people more moderate than Wright might be having trust issues.

America has a tendency to look at the past through rose coloured glasses and gloss over the negative. Why do White police officers still stop Black men driving expensive cars more often than they stop White men driving the same cars? Why is the American prison population predominately Black? Why do more Black people live in poverty and have less access to health insurance and education than White people? The answers to those questions can only be found if you are willing to look the past directly in the eye and accept it and its consequences.

Saying that people don't want to be separated by the divide of race any more is all very well and good, but they are empty words when the reality is that people are divided by race and nothing is being done to rectify it. There are very real fears on both sides of this divide that can't just be glossed over by cheery words and optimism. You can't just wish away history or whisk it under the rug as if it never happened.

For the next five years Justice Harry LaForme will be travelling across Canada and examining over a hundred years of Canadian history in the hopes of finding a way to resolve the anger and recriminations that exist on both sides of the issue when it comes to the history of the Residential Schools in Canada. It's not going to be an easy task for many reasons, and it will open a lot of old wounds that some people might have preferred left alone. But when there is still rot in a wound the only way to prevent it from festering is to air it out.

You might want to think about giving Justice LaForme a call one of these days Mr, Obama and find out what kind of work it takes to bridge these divides of yours. America might be ready for you as a President, but are you ready for America's history?

April 30, 2008

The Case Of The Missing Kyoto Accord Chapter Six

Whether or not I fell like the proverbial ton of bricks, it sure felt like I had been hit over the head with them. When I came to it was with feelings I'd normally associate with the morning after the night before washing over me. The pain cutting through my head made it feel like I was ready to be outfitted for a Frankenstein stitch job, or at the least some sort of zipper assembly that would keep the top part of my head from separating from the bottom.

But there were some noticeable differences, most obviously being the fact that it seemed my legs were bound to the chair I was plopped into and my hands in lap were first tied to themselves than connected to my feet's bonds via yet another cord. For vegetarians they certainly knew their way around trussing the main course for roasting and basting at 375 degrees for a couple of hours until done.

Whoever was responsible was either brilliant or blind lucky and it didn't matter which as the result was still the same. Any time I tried to fidget with my feet in the hopes of loosing their bounds the ropes around my hands seemed to tighten and vice versa. I figured by the time I had loosened anything significantly either my hands or feet would have fallen off due to lack of circulation..

What with my head still feeling like the axe was still sticking out of the back at a jaunty angle, and my limbs trussed like a pork roast, I was quite content to sit quietly and await what was ever coming. It could explain why the next thing I knew was that I heard the sound of voices whispering in front of me. Dozing off had the unexpected payoff of reducing my head pain substantially, as well as allowing some free eavesdropping time as the voices were obviously under the impression I was still out.

"I thought you said you didn't hit him that hard? He looks like he's got brain damage," said the first voice. It sounded like a woman's, deeper than most but still a woman and I suspected it was the one who I had followed into the dead end.

"Hey you were the one who was all panicky about being followed. Anyway what does it matter, he's just another Fed. We'll give him a shot, find out what he knows then let him go. If he shows up back at headquarters sounding like he's a few bricks short of a load whose going to notice over there? Most of them talk like they've seen recent contact with the flat edge of a 2 X 4 anyway."

They thought I was a fed, while it was slightly insulting; it was also understandable given their circumstances. It also made life both a little easier and a little more precarious at the same time. If I was able to convince them of the fact that I was working the same side of the street as they were and not a fed they might not look on me with such suspicion. Of course if I wasn't able to do that I could end up being injected with some sort of truth drug that also seemed to remove a good chunk of a person's reasoning skills.

"Well the horsemen are going be happy if you keep making their job easier by knocking out everyone whose sneaking around behind their backs trying to figure who offed the professor, and who is trying to stuff the Kyoto accord so far up a chimney at the same time, that it will just be so many more toxic emissions if it can't be found soon." I had decided to try and brazen it out with the truth, cause sometimes you never know people might believe you.

It was kind of hard for me to decipher their reactions as I was seated in the centre of the pool of light cast by a naked bulb hanging over my head like that Greek dude's sword, and they were lurking in the shadows. I could tell that I had startled them, but that could just as easily be put down to them not knowing I was among the conscious more than anything else.

Whatever other effects my little speech might have had on them, at least it got them to come into my circle of light. I was right about the woman's voice, it belonged to the one who I'd followed from the store. She was your typical granola number down to her lack of make up, thick socks and expensive German made sandals. It didn't stop her from being attractive, but in an earnest political sort of way that I knew from experience could fast become tedious.

The guy was cut from the same cloth; only he had a slightly harder edge to him. He was that new breed of political activist who the cops hadn't figured out yet, computer and tech savvy, with no worries about employing violence if attacked. Cops hadn't managed to upgrade their thinking from the days of passive resistance and when they ran into people who picked up their tear gas canisters and calmly lobbed them back at them it still confused them.

The demonstrators had their own version of shock troops now who would stand up to the first wave of a baton flailing riot cop charge to give their more passive brethren and sisters a chance to escape. The guy in front of me was a prime example of the type, tall, leanly muscled and tough as whip cord. I had no trouble believing that he'd been the one to administer the love tap that left me counting teeth with the tip of my tongue.

After, I don't know maybe thirty seconds – maybe an hour – of them staring at me and me trying to stare back at them without staring because it seemed to hurt just a little too much to use my eyes that much, and without anybody saying anything. I was just about to try again when she spoke up.

"What do you know about Professor Magnesen?" she asked

"Now that's an interesting first question to ask, not why were your following me, or what do you want, but about a person who I haven't said I even know. What I do know is that you know him, which I didn't know before; thanks" I said brightly.

She certainly turned a very pretty shade of red when she flushed, whether it was with anger or embarrassment didn't make much of a difference in my book. He on the other hand didn't have the same redeeming qualities when he flushed. If he was pissed at her for giving something away, or pissed at me for being a wiseass was irrelevant as he was bound to take his displeasure out on me not her.

"Okay smart ass we you've proved that you aren't just another pretty face, but why should we believe that you're not a cop and you still didn't answer her question about what you know about the professor. So why don't you be a good guy and answer the lady's questions and maybe I'll forget what a rude bastard you were to her." He reached behind him and pulled one of the largest hunting knives I've ever seen out of belt sheath and began cleaning his nails with it. He saw me staring at it, and nodded his head once as encouragement that I shouldn't be shy about speaking my piece for much longer.

"Well first of all I know he was working on a project for the government that would have reduced green house gasses substantially while actually improving the economy instead of harming it, until the government changed and his program funding was yanked. I know that he started meeting with some environmentalists about something or other and that some government department was starting to get very interested in his files at home."

I paused for breath here and tried to gauge their reactions, but neither of them was giving anything away. They both were just staring at me waiting to hear what I had to say next. So far anything I had told them didn't tell them what they really wanted to know; who I was. The feds would have known all that I had said up till now so they still didn't have any reason to believe me when I said I wasn't working for the government. I was going to have to lay as many cards as possible on the table.

"A short while I was contacted by a client to investigate the disappearance of the Kyoto accord. I got a call at the office one night and I was supposed to meet someone over at a strip club in Hull. He showed up alright, but he arrived to see me with one of the biggest hunting knives I've ever seen sticking out of his back." I said this last bit being very careful not to look at the blade whose point the guy was now digging into the wooden tabletop in front of me.

"Since then I've been trying to trace backward through his life in an attempt to figure out who killed him and what he'd been working on that has people so scared that even after he's dead they're still trying to shut him up." I followed you", pointing with my chin at the woman" because I hoped you'd be able to help me find some answers. Given my reception I can only hope that we might be of some assistance to each other."

The guy and the woman exchanged glances, she raised an eyebrow and he nodded his head in return. He kept the knife in his hand and came at me with point pointed directly at my chest. He flipped it over in his hand so that the cutting edge was pointing up and swung the knife up and through the ropes binding my wrists. He then bent down and sliced through the cords around my feet.

He stepped back and took up his position beside the table again as I shook my hands and feet in an attempt to restore some of the circulation that I'd lost while I'd been strapped in. More and more I'm convinced that I would never be cut out for bondage. I just don't like mixing work with pleasure that much.

I was still busy rubbing at my wrists and ankles when the woman spoke up. "Look", she said, "we're really sorry about all this", waving her hand as if taking in the basement, my skull and being tied to a chair, "but ever since the professor was killed we've been really scared about what's going on. Why would they want to kill him just because he had good ideas about how we could reach our commitment to the Kyoto accord and be able to help other countries do the same."

"Yeah", said the guy," I hope I didn't do too much damage, but our nerves are stretched pretty raw right about now. Not only can't we figure out why anyone would have wanted the professor dead, we don't have much idea as to who could have done it. When you showed up nosing around…well we though we might be able to crack you open about who you were working for and get some answers."

He sighed, and shook his head. "But we're still no further ahead and there aren't even any clues to go on. It doesn't sound like you know that much more than we do." He sucked in a big breath of air." Damn this is frustrating. He was so close to answers, in fact we believe he might have even had them already, but was playing it close to the vest as he could see the departments he had built for research and development slowly being dismantled due to budget cut backs and funding not being renewed. He had contacted us late in the summer before the Election, knowing that even a potential Stephen Harper victory would destroy his life's work"

"When they couldn't do that, they destroyed him instead" her voice was choked as if close to tears, and I looked at her closely. "The reason he approached us was that I had been a student to his at the University. One day, accidentally he said, by coincidence he said he came in here and we got to chatting. He wanted to know what I was up to, If I had kept up being active in environmental groups after leaving school. He also wanted to know if I had been following the discussions about global warming in the papers and was as worried as he was by what he called the irresponsible science issuing from some world capitals"

She paused as if to gather her thoughts, or to just take the deep breath that would see her through the rest of her story. "After a while he asked me if I knew a couple of other people who were active in environmental groups who might like to learn some information that they could put to good use. So we began to go over to his house at odd hours to try and shake off any potential tails. Judging by the outcome to date we haven't succeeded in doing much except getting our patron killed"

The silence that followed her little speech was exceptionally empty as we all sat with our own thoughts for a minute or two. Finally she broke it and in a rather choked voice looked at me, then over at her erstwhile companion, and asked the question whose answer I had come looking for. "What do we do now?"

April 24, 2008

An Earth Day Interview With Mother Earth

Well another Earth Day has come and gone presenting us with an ideal time to check in with Mother Earth and see how she's doing these days as compared to last year at this time. (Does anybody know when Earth Day was this year - I thought it was supposed to be every April 23rd, but it looks like people were getting all Green on the 22nd this year) It's harder and harder to get in touch with Mother Earth these days as she has so much on her plate, but I was finally able to track her down and ask her a few questions.

When you think about it, we really don't know that much about the Mother do we, heck I bet none of us even know when she was born! Of course everybody has their own theory as to a date, but from the religious to the scientific we're all just guessing. One thing I do know for sure, whatever her age may be, she's really starting to show it. There are deep lines on her face which weren't even there a year ago, she's become even more stooped over then ever, and she's developed a really nasty cough.

When I finally caught up to her she didn't seem to be in the best of moods considering it was Earth Day, with people all over the world celebrating how much they cared about her. I thought she was being somewhat ungracious and decided to call her on it.

I'm surprised that you're so put out, given the fact that people all over the world have been making a big fuss about you. Don't you think you could be acting a little more grateful

Mother Earth: Oh, and I've got so much to be grateful for. Three hundred and sixty four day a year they don't think twice about spitting on me, and I'm supposed to feel grateful for them for taking one day to pick up some garbage? I'm still going to have to figure out what to do with all the crap they pick up today aren't I? No don't answer, it was a rhetorical question idiot.

What do you think is going to happen with all the garbage that gets picked up today? It's going to go where garbage always goes; into landfill, onto a garbage scow in New Jersey, or burnt in an incinerator. It means that I'm still going to have to figure out how to bio-degrade shit, pray to whoever that the damned scow doesn't sink dumping its load in the river, and trying to absorb another load of CO2 from it being burned. Not much different from any other day of the year as far as I'm concerned.

But doesn't it make you feel like people at least care about what's happening to you?

Mother Earth: Care? Care! If they god damned cared they wouldn't have dumped the garbage they're picking up in the first place. Don't talk to me about caring asshole. For the last, I don't know how many billions of years, I've worked at creating this really incredibly, delicate, balance called the natural order of things where all of life is beautifully interconnected. It's a god damned work of art if you ask me, but what do you philistines do?

Ever since you climbed out of the trees there's been somebody among you who thinks that they can do this creation thing better than I can and proceeds to rip great big holes in the web that ties everything together. I'm left scurrying to try and patch it up somehow and mitigate the damage.

Of all the animals on this planet humans were the only ones given the ability to reason, but you couldn't tell that by your actions. You people should know better. But you still shit and piss in the water you plan on drinking the next day, dump poison into the air that you need to breath in order to survive, and cut down the trees, that if given half a chance might be able to clean the air for you, to build another strip mall. Those aren't the actions of a caring and responsible people, let along rationale or reasonable.

If you were dumb like pigs or cows, while it would be understandable, but humans are supposedly intelligent and rational. Therefore, the only explanation I'm left with for your behaviour is you don't care. What else I'm supposed to think?

Well, but that was in the past. Don't you think we're getting better - look at all the things we're doing to try and fix what we've done wrong

Mother Earth: Recycling, car-pooling, florescent light bulbs, and composting your kitchen wastes are known where I come from as both, too little to late and useless as tits on a bull. Oh don't look so shocked you little putz, it's the truth. Look, those are all really nice things, and I do appreciate that the people doing them are genuine in their desire to make changes in their lives to help me. That only makes it doubly sad that it's not really doing any good.

The reality is that no matter what the government and the corporations who own them say, it's not the fault of individuals that the world is in the trouble its in. For the last couple of hundred years a small minority of humans have been making huge amounts of money off the the labour of the majority and at the expense of the planet's health. Mass production of anything leads to massive generation of waste directly and indirectly.

Not only does a manufacturer have the potential to create waste products through the direct operation of his business, but there's also the demands he makes upon other sectors of the system. First of all he needs power in order for his equipment to work so that means electricity has to be generated for his use. Then there are the raw materials he is going to be making use of in his manufacturing process. If he uses metal, that means a steel mill is involved, and there's all the waste and pollution they generate, and all the electricity they're going to need to make their equipment work.

Sooner or later you'll figure out that I don't have an endless supply of anything and I'm going to start running out of the stuff you need to feed the beast you've created. As the supply decreases and the demand increases what do you see being the end result? One day you're going to go to the cupboard and it's going to bare and then what's going to happen? Oh the corporations and their pet politicians will reassure you that it can never happen, that there's always new sources of oil laying untapped beneath the sea or under the perma-frost just waiting to feed us all. Even if you do find a way to get at that oil, it's only a stop-gap. It will run dry eventually.

You can already hear the wheels grinding to a stop. In their desperation to find more fuel for the beast's insatiable appetite they're causing famine by using land that once grew food for humans to try and find a way to sustain the unsustainable by growing plants they can turn into fuel. They're also stealing the water that we all need to drink to stay alive by diverting rivers with dams to create hydroelectric power. The world is experiencing food shortages to such an extent already that riots have started to break out because people are starving.

The more water they steal, and the more land they take, the less food there will be and people will starve. A starving population is a desperate population and they will make the food riots of today look like a day at the beach. The question is not whether the system will fail or not, it's how will the system fail? Will it grind to a stop because you've run out of fuel or will it explode into a million pieces as you run out of food for all the mouths in the world.

Now go away - you bother me.

Well you can see Mother Earth was in quite the mood. Can you believe some of the stuff she was coming up with? Talk about not understanding the big picture - what does she expect us to do? Shut down all the factories? As if that's going to ever happen. Mother Earth might know all about growing things but she's really out of touch with what it means to be human.

April 8, 2008

China, Tibet, And The Olympic Games

There are layers of irony surrounding the protests over China's occupation of Tibet and the forthcoming Olympic Games in Beijing that would make an onion envious. From the signs that read "Free Tibet" to the fact that China was even awarded the Olympic Games in the first place it's hard to know where to even start. What do people have in mind when they demand a free Tibet? What were the International Olympic Committee(IOC) thinking when they awarded a country that depends on slave labour and has one of the world's worst human rights records in the world the Olympic Games?

The Dali Lama has captured the imaginations of people in the West for the past few decades in the way that no other spiritual leader, except maybe the last Pope, has been able to. He is welcomed in nation's capitals the world over, and people of all faiths hang onto his every world as if he has some particular insight into the human condition that everyone else has missed. Supposedly, he is the reincarnation of a previous Dali Lama, and was anointed as such when he was a young child by the hierarchy within the Tibetan Buddhist priesthood.

The royal families of Europe use to have this quaint notion call the Divine Right of Kings, (and Queens). Since they were God's appointed rulers of their country's they were above reproach from lesser beings, like their subjects, and their word was law. Who, after all, could gainsay them if God had put their buts on the throne. That was all very well and good as long as the majority of a country's population remained downtrodden, and dependant on their feudal lord for survival.

Once the economic picture started to change and a middle class of educated and monied people started to emerge, people weren't willing to buy that line anymore. Kings and Queens were reduced to being merely human and lost most of their authority. That doesn't mean there aren't countries in the world that are either theocracies or ruled by someone who considers themselves a divine ruler. Prior to the Chinese invasion year ago, Tibet was one of those countries.

What freedoms are people demanding so vociferously on behalf of Tibetans exactly? The freedom to revert back to being the feudal theocracy they were prior to the Chinese invasion? Where every man, woman, and child who was not part of the priesthood spent their lives in servitude to the monks. Much as in feudal Europe the labour of many was used to sustain a select few who claimed that God had selected them to rule.

While the Church in Europe promised the masses eternal salvation in the afterlife as a reward for their suffering and threatened damnation in hell if they stepped out of line, Tibetans were offered the solace of potential reincarnation as something better off the next time around if they toed the line. They'd only themselves to blame that they were toiling in the fields this time; obviously they hadn't earned enough merit badges in their previous life to be elevated up to the next rung on the ladder of enlightenment.

People need to be asking themselves what would happen in Tibet if the Chinese were to withdraw tomorrow and the Dali Lama found himself reinstated. This is a country that has gone from one form of autocratic rule to another, and has no history of anything remotely resembling representational government. Would political parties miraculously spring up overnight? Who would be responsible for crafting a constitution that would create the Free Tibet, they are calling for? Or would they be satisfied if the country were to return to a feudal theocracy where the population was in thrall to the priesthood?

Now don't get me wrong, I'm not saying any of this as an endorsement of the poor, put upon, misunderstood Chinese government either. This is a government that turned tanks upon its own people twenty years ago, that still routinely puts people in jail and even executes them for being a little too outspoken in their opposition. Yet somehow they expect us to swallow the crap they're spouting about peace, friendship, and harmony and that their decision to send the Olympic Torch on a global relay was to encourage people to build a more harmonious, better tomorrow.

The Olympic Games have been about propaganda since Hitler tried to turn them into a showcase for White supremacy in 1936, and anyone who thinks otherwise is delusional at best. Why else would countries like the United States who barely spend a cent on social programs, dump millions of dollars into amateur sport, or China, where millions of people live without running water, build an entire network of Olympic facilities from scratch in only eight years? It's just another variation on the age old pissing contest.

When the decision was made to award Beijing the Olympic games do you think that the boys in the IOC gave any consideration to the human rights situation in China? Do you think they cared that all those shiny new facilities would be made with what was virtually slave labour? I doubt those considerations even crossed their minds, and why should it? They've never troubled themselves about trivialities like that in the past; why break with tradition now?

The Chinese government figures it can tighten the screws in Tibet and not worry about anyone boycotting these Olympics because the whole of the industrialized world has been whoring itself to them for the last decade. Just the thought of a billion people waiting to be served has CEO's salivating and frothing at the mouth like a pack of rabid dogs. If they're really lucky they might even be able to go into business with the Chinese and open a factory there. China is every corporations idea of a wet dream; no environmental regulations, no unions, no health and safety standards to worry about maintaining, and best of all, a population in desperate need of employment.

No government will dare and rock that boat or they will find themselves replaced in the next election by someone more "sensitive" to the needs of the business community. It's amazing how the words freedom and human rights can vanish when they no longer serve your purposes. It's all right to fight for human rights in Afghanistan and freedom in Iraq, but not in China, and the Chinese government knows it.

The real irony of this whole business is there are so many reasons for people to be protesting against China being awarded the Olympic Games, and yet they've latched onto a cause which has no meaning. Instead of demonstrating against the horrors of life inside of China; starvation, cultural genocide, slave labour, environmental horrors, and the absence of anything even resembling individual rights, they've taken up the cause of a feudal theocracy.

If it wasn't so sad it would be funny, as it is it's just sort of pathetic. Protesting for a free Tibet has done China a huge favour by diverting attention away from the real problems that exist in that country. Wouldn't it be ironic if the Chinese staged it all just for that reason?

March 31, 2008

Interview: Stephanie McMillan Creator Of Minimum Security

Last winter I received my first introduction to the people that inhabit Stephanie McMillan's Minimum Security when I reviewed her collaborative effort with writer Derrick Jensen As The World Burns: Fifty Things You Can Do To Stay In Denial and found my first cartoon hero since Snoopy - Bunnista. What's not to love; with that cute little X instead of an eye - a memento from having survived an animal testing facility- his cute little arms, his grenade launcher, and his great do it yourself attitude. Bunnista isn't one for sitting around waiting for somebody else to make a statement about things - nope he'll be right there with as many explosives as he can cobble together and let the world know what's what.

After that introduction I wanted more and discovered that an anthology of Stephanie's work had been published under the title of Attitude: Featuring Stephanie McMillan's Minimum Security and discovered just how good she was at being a cartoonist and not being afraid to speak her mind. Now it just so happens that I agree with just about everything she has to say about the mess that the world is in and what really needs to be done to even start making amends. As far as I'm concerned it's one of the few places in the mass media where you can be guaranteed reading the truth on a regular basis.

Wanting to learn a little bit more about the person responsible for what is now my favourite comic strip I contacted Stephanie about doing an interview. The upshot was that I sent her a handful of questions and she sent me back the answers that you can read below. In addition to the answers, Stephanie also sent me the following handy biography that will give you all sorts of information about her.
Stephanie McMillan.jpg
Stephanie McMillan was born in Fort Lauderdale, FL where she still lives. she earned a BFA in 1987 in film (with a focus on animation) at Tisch School of the Arts, New York University. Her cartoon, Minimum Security, is syndicated online by United Media and appears five times per week at
Since 1992, her cartoons have been published in dozens of print and online publications including Z Magazine, Monday Magazine (Canada), Clamor, City Link (South Florida), Megh Barta (Bangladesh), Al Eqtisadiah (Saudi Arabia), Asheville Global Report, San Francisco Bay Guardian, Casseurs de Pub (France), Working for Change, New Standard News, Tribuno del Pueblo, American Libraries, Comic Relief, and Anchorage Press.

Stephanie is the illustrator and co-author, with writer Derrick Jensen, of a new graphic novel about the global environmental crisis, As the World Burns: 50 Simple Things You Can Do to Stay in Denial, (Seven Stories Press, 2007, 225 pages).

A collection of her cartoons, Attitude Presents Minimum Security was published in 2005, edited and with a foreword by Ted Rall. Her work is also included in Attitude: The New Subversive Political Cartoonists (2002), as well as in various textbooks and several books in the Opposing Viewpoints series by Gale Publishing Group. Her cartoons have been included in exhibits at the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art (New York), the San Francisco Comic Art Museum, the Andy Warhol Museum (Pittsburgh), and the Institute for Policy Studies (Washington, DC), among other venues.

She is a member of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists, as well as a founding member of Cartoonists With Attitude, a group of ground-breaking social commentary and political cartoonists formed in 2006, many of whom appear in NBM Publishing’s Attitude series of books edited by Ted Rall. You can find out all sort of other things about Stephanie at her web site if you want, but for now here's the interview. See you at the end of the ride.

When did you first start drawing, and was there anything that you remember in particular that got you started

Stephanie: I’ve loved drawing since I was a little kid. I remember bringing drawings home from pre-school and proudly showing them to my dad, who pointed out that hands and feet only have five fingers and toes each, respectively, and not the ten or twenty lines I drew radiating out from each limb.

What was it that made you decide that you wanted to draw cartoons - what is about that medium that appealed to you?

Stephanie: In fourth grade I fell in love with Peanuts and decided to become a cartoonist. Their personalities fascinated me -- the deep melancholy of Charlie Brown, and the defiant independence of Snoopy. I always marvelled at how Schulz was able to create distinct, subtle expressions with such economy of line, how just a couple of dots and curves could effectively convey worry or exasperation. By copying Peanuts at that age, I learned how to draw facial expressions. I think my characters still owe a lot to that early influence.

You have very strong opinions on social/political issues, how did they evolve?

Stephanie: At about age 12 I realized that I’d been too young to understand or participate in the social justice and anti-imperialist movements of the late 1960s. Growing up in the subsequent period of political stagnation, it frustrated me a lot that I’d missed that important and exciting time. I spent many hours as a teenager daydreaming about starting a commune, and thinking about what a fair society would look like. When I was a senior in high school, an older relative gave me the book Fate of the Earth by Jonathan Schell, which made me (unwillingly) think about -- and fear -- the possibility of nuclear war. I started writing about it for the school paper, and going to meetings of liberal anti-nuke groups.

I immediately realized that the actions they recommended – writing letters to local papers and politicians – were a useless waste of time. I didn’t know what else to do though, until outside one of these meetings I met a communist who talked to me about revolution. I was astounded and thrilled – the idea of revolution hadn’t ever occurred to me. I’d thought it was a relic of the long-distant past, and here was someone telling me we could do it too. I jumped right in.

When did you make the decision to combine the two; politics and cartooning?

Stephanie: I went to film school, where I studied animation, because it was very important to my parents that I get a college degree, but already my heart was in political action. I spent my twenties as an activist, and rejected the idea of being an artist. It felt frivolous to draw funny pictures when the revolutionary movement was so small and fragile and needed every ounce of energy we could give it. Instead I took a series of crummy jobs (warehouses, factories, retail shops) to keep me alive so I could do my real work as an organizer. I worked to defend abortion clinics from Operation Rescue, worked against the detention of immigrants, against Star Wars and other cold-war moves by the US, against police brutality, and on a lot of other issues. What I wanted was to help take these struggles out of the realm of loyal opposition, and tie them into a movement that recognized the whole capitalist system as the underlying problem.

After about 15 years of this, the 1999 anti-WTO protests in Seattle revealed that a healthy and vibrant opposition movement had developed, and I felt that it was ethically okay for me to stop being an organizer (other people were doing it far more effectively), and do what I’d always wanted to do, create art as my way of exposing and opposing the system. So I started drawing cartoons.

Initially you started out by doing the single box cartoons, and now you do a recurring strip - how did that progression come about?

Stephanie: At first they were actually multi-panel vertical rectangles, pretty wordy and elaborate. Stylistically I was influenced by the cartoonists I admired: among them Ted Rall, Ruben Bolling, Lynda Barry and Matt Groening. After a few years of that, I switched to single-panel political cartoons because I thought they’d be easier to place in papers. Then after the US attacked Iraq, in spite of millions of people all over the world protesting the moves toward war, I became so depressed that I stopped drawing altogether for about nine months.

Eventually I understood that it’s not acceptable to surrender or give up, and I picked it up again in the form of a character-based strip. I chose that form with the idea that it would be more effective to present political points using ongoing characters whom readers might identify with, and stories that would be more compelling to follow in an ongoing way.

You've created four very distinct human characters for Minimum Security , and one very angry rabbit - where did you draw your inspiration for them from? Any friends or family to
be found amongst them in some shape or form?

Stephanie: They’re all mixed up and combined from parts of myself and people in my life. Nikko, for example, was initially inspired by my brother Nick, whom I love to tease for the TV programs he likes (Nick is much smarter though, and cuter). His sister Kranti and I share a few personality traits (only the positive ones! Ahem. I’m not NEARLY that cranky...and I do wear clothes). I have a good-hearted friend who’s a little silly like Bananabelle, and the name Bananabelle came from my cousin’s pet sheep. Javier’s name came from an activist I’ve admired, who started a community garden. There are even parts of myself in Bunnista... or rather, there would be if I had more guts.

Creating a daily comic strip must be difficult - what's your process for working on the series - writing a whole bunch of strips in advance - like the Celebrity Dodge Ball sequence for instance did you sit down over the space of a few days and power through it, or do you only work a few days in advance of your deadline?

Stephanie: Though it can vary somewhat, in a typical week I write five comics on Monday or Tuesday, draw them on Saturday and color them on Sunday. The hardest part is the writing, and I don’t typically get very far ahead. I often sit at the blank page, agonizing over what should happen and how to possibly make it funny, with a growing dread that the clock’s running out. With longer sequences, I usually have a general sense of what will happen, but don’t actually write them out until the week I draw them. They run the week after they’re finished.

Which comes fist the dialogue or the illustration? Or is it simultaneous?

Stephanie: I write out the scripts first. One of the best bits of advice from an editor I ever got was many years ago, and it was this: write everything that absolutely must be in the cartoon ... then cross out half the words. They turn out much better when I remember to do that.

It's probably safe to say that Minimum Security is socially relevant and politically opinionated - where do you find your inspiration?

Stephanie: Oh my gosh, everywhere. The entire planet and pretty much every form of life on it is being killed right now by industrial capitalism. The need to stop that from happening is tremendously urgent. There’s a lot to be upset about and to address: the imperialist wars and the relentless determination of the US empire to expand, conquer and destroy. The exploitative nature of this global economic system, where a few live on the backs of the many, and suffering is considered normal. The unfathomable levels of pollution that are driving extinct 200 species a day, and making us all sick.

Have there been any cartoonists, artists, or people in general who you would say have influenced your work, and shaped your thinking the most?

Stephanie: Sure, so many. I find artists of many genres very inspiring visually. Some of my favourites are great cartoonists like Bill Watterson, Winsor McCay, Gahan Wilson, and the others I’ve mentioned, political artists like John Heartfield and George Grosz, pop artists like Keith Haring and Yoshitomo Nara, and folk art from Mexico and the Indian subcontinent. I’ve benefited from reading a broad range of thinkers and writers, including Howard Zinn, Chellis Glendinning, Barbara Kingsolver, Margaret Atwood, Marx, Lenin, Mao, Jerry Mander, Wallace Shawn, Krishnamurti, Vandana Shiva, and Derrick Jensen.

As The World Burns was a collaboration with Derrick Jensen - how did that work. Obviously you supplied the artwork, but did he write the story and dialogue and then you created the illustrations - or did he give your a narration and you created dialogue and visuals that complimented it.

Stephanie: That was a fun, great process! We talked a lot throughout about how the story should go, and he’d send each part to me as he’d write it. He wrote it mostly in the form of dialogue, with some description. I wrote a few parts as well. At first I tried to keep up with drawing each section as I received it, but I quickly lost ground and it took me a few months to finish the drawings after he’d finished the writing.

You don't mince any words in your comics and are usually very direct in your opinions. Have you experienced any problems because of that, and how's the reaction to your strip been in general?

Stephanie: People usually either really like it or really hate it. Many readers have said that it expresses things that they’ve thought about or felt, and that they found it validating or strengthening. That sort of response is actually the reason I draw – I want to help expose the hypocrisy and false claims of the system, and encourage resistance to it.

I also get my share of hate mail and criticism. I’ve even heard about a couple of blogs out there dedicated to ripping Minimum Security apart. Sometimes a right-wing blog will send a flurry of angry messages my way, but they die down pretty quick. I just delete them. Overall, the positive far exceeds the negative. I think many people want more art that challenges the status quo, and they appreciate it when they find it.

What's the future hold for the folk at Minimum Security - any chance of live action or even another full length graphic novel?

Minimum Security is currently on the web site of United Media ( If it does well there, and develops enough of a growing audience, then it’s possible that United will syndicate the strip for print as well (currently I self-syndicate it in print, and United syndicates it in electronic form). I would like to do another graphic novel (or more) with these characters, perhaps a sequel to As the World Burns. There are no current plans for animation, but it would be great to do that too. Mainly at this point I’m trying to get it into more print publications.

I would like to thank Stephanie for taking the time to answer my questions, and I encourage everyone to stop on over to and get a fix of Minimum Security five days a week (Monday to Friday). Even better, why not pick up one of her snazzy Bunnista T-shirts or The Little Green Book: Bunnista's Book Of Quotations at the Minimum Security Shop.

Oh for those who were wondering, the title Minimum Security comes from something an inmate said on being released back into society when asked on how it felt to be free again. He replied that he still wasn't free - he was just in minimum security.

March 29, 2008

The Meaninglessness Of Earth Hour

Stop the presses: Tonight at 8:00 pm EST people, cities, and businesses around the world will be turning off their non-essential electricity for one hour. Earth Hour is the brain child of the World Wildlife Federation (WWF) who have co-opeted the idea from an event staged in Sydney Australia last year where 2 million people and 2,000 businesses shut off power for an hour. The idea was to show people easy and effective means that can be taken to save electrical power on a regular basis.

This year the WWF (no not the World Wrestling Federation - see above) have taken the idea global by encouraging people, cities, and businesses to sign an on-line to pledge to take part in a simultaneous world-wide hour of turning out the lights and shutting off the power. To date only about 230,000 people and twenty major cities have pledged to go along with the idea, which isn't even a tenth of the number who took part in last year's event in Sydney. In other words it's looking like this hasn't exactly caught too many people's imaginations.

Now I'm sure that there are going to be people who will say things like the television stations and advertisers aren't going to want lose that hour's worth of prime time audience on a Saturday night, so they're not going to go out of their way to promote it. It will be easy enough to point the finger of blame at some big media conglomerate who doesn't want to lose a penny, for why this event doesn't fly. It's far better to do that than to admit that the whole exercise is pointless and just another sap to people's consciences that won't accomplish dick all.

It's just another joke like Earth Day, and the corporate sponsored pick up a piece of garbage programs that take place every April 23rd. You know those events where everybody gets in their cars and drives to some spot with garbage bags and collects some of the crap that our society produces on a daily basis so that it can be added to overflowing landfill sites, burnt in incinerators, tossed in the town dump, or buried in abandoned mine shafts. Yep, then every one gathers round and has a barbecue consisting of hamburgers made from cattle that acres of rain forest were cut down to make room for. Very ecological.

I hate to break it to everyone but no amount of Earth Days, Earth Hours, Earth Minutes, or even Earth Seconds, is going to change the condition the world is in. If you want to do something constructive for the environment it is going take a commitment far in excess of anything that any of us, and I include myself in that us, are probably willing to take. One only has to consider the environmental impact we each have going grocery shopping each week to get an idea of what I'm talking about.

According to statistics reported by Barbara Kingsolver in her book Animal, Vegetable, Mineral if you were to remove the products made with corn, soy, and canola from the supermarket, close to 97% of what's on the shelves would vanish. Soy and corn are not just found in soy milk, tofu or your can of creamed corn from Green Giant these days. Check the ingredient list on the next box of frozen chicken breasts that you buy and you'll notice some interesting additions; soy protein and maybe even corn meal. Both are added to the "chicken breast" as filler to give it more weight. Yet that's only the surface, because a great deal of the packaging that your food comes in has used corn in the manufacturing process.

Now that might sound "ecological" until you start factoring in something else, how much of our agricultural land is now being used to grow what used to be know as feed corn - corn unfit for human consumption but you could feed it to your cattle - that can be processed for manufacturing purposes? In order to make that box your chicken product came in we've wasted land that could have been used to grow food in order to create packaging that has to be disposed of somehow or other.

Then there's the matter of how that packaging was manufactured. How much fresh water had to used for the paper to be pulped, for the inks to be manufactured? How much electrical power was needed for the various stages of the manufacturing process from the cutting down of the tree that supplied the wood that made the paper until the box ended up on the factory floor where the frozen chicken bits were stuffed into it? What happened to all the waste product from the manufacturing process all the way along the chain?

None of that even takes into account the chicken used to make the contents of the package. Skipping over the whole ethical thing about factory farms for now let's just consider chicken shit. That's the real problem with all these factory farms is the disposal of the animal waste product. You get thousands of chickens in one place you're talking about one hell of a lot of chicken shit that you have to get rid off somehow because you can't just have it piling up on the floor. So where does it all go?

All of that just from buying one box of frozen chicken breasts at the supermarket. If you were to take every product you purchase in the grocery store that came pre packaged and start tracing back through the manufacturing process for each part of it, you'd come up with a similar scenario. Even those so called "green" products we all buy are packaged and contribute somewhere along the way to the damage we're inflicting upon the planet.

So things like Earth Hour and Earth Day are meaningless jokes when compared to the damage we inflict upon the world we live in every second of every minute of every hour of every day of every year just by going about our daily business. No one off event once a year will change that. Sure turn your electric power off for an hour tonight if you want, but while your at it why not sit down and look at the real impact of your personal habits on the planet earth.

Oh and everybody, don't rush to turn on your electricity all at once; the power spike could black out North America for hours.

March 10, 2008

The Case Of Missing Kyoto Accord: Chapter Four

Well it looked like I had run into a dead end. I should have known better than to think any of the bar's phones or their accoutrements, which is a fancy way of saying the shit that goes with something, would have survived the types of drunks, junkies, and liars that habituate a strip bar. Probably the first drunk husband whose wife had told him not to come home from wherever he was had performed the Charles Atlas trick on the "Let My Fingers Do the Walking" tome at the first booth.

The second looked like it had been used to mop up something that I didn't want to have a better acquaintance with and the third, like someone had used it as practice before they perforated the late, lamented Doctor Magneson. Sighing a curse or two at the perfidy of my fellow men I headed for the office where I was certain I could find a phone book in somewhat better shape than any of these relics.

After two hours of questioning my sanity and a half bottle of whiskey later I came across the phone book for the National Capital Region (Ottawa, Hull, and anywhere else in the vicinity that uncivil servants might hang their coats and hats) propping up a window. It had sustained a little damage from water and the neighbouring pigeons, and the mice had absconded with the zeds (poor as synagogue mice as they were making they're way through the book backwards) for comfort, but at least the section where gorgeous Scandinavian blondes kept their phone numbers looked to be intact.

That is if they kept their phone number in phone books at all. Two hours of scouring the phone book only confirmed the fact that there was no Magnesons to be found with a listed phone number anywhere within the confines of this sorry excuse for a city. There are 600 Martins, and four different ways that people seem to spell MacDonald, Mcdonald, MaCdonald, and Macdonald, but no damn Magnesons.

Some items when they cause you frustration don't have the decency to give you any means of release. A phone book on the other hand has a nice bit of heft to it so when you decide to chuck it across the room it will make a resounding thud. Indeed if you throw it hard enough not only will it make a satisfying noise, it will rip through cheap drywall like an elephant's fart through tissue paper.

It took my a few seconds to realize that the ringing sound I was hearing in my ears was unrelated to the minor bit of renovation I had begun seconds ago, and had more to do with the phone sitting on my desk than anything else. I was using less then the usual requisite number of brain cells required to carry on a phone conversation when I picked up the receiver; half of them being awash in the best part of a fifth of Canadian Club, another chunk trying to visualize how the filing cabinet would look on the other side of the door, and the remainder trying to figure out how long it would take the mice to work there way backwards through the whole alphabet now that they had ready access to the source.

So it took me a second or two to remember what I was supposed to do with the piece of cheap plastic in my hand out of which a sultry voice was calling hello with increasing amounts of urgency. I tried to shake off thoughts of mice in knit yarmulkes and me wearing a truss, the way a dog shakes off water, and was rewarded with the office attempting to spin me into orbit. It was only by catching the desk with my chin that I was able to prevent myself from hitting the floor.

Pain has the remarkable ability to clear your brain and let you focus on the events at hand. After the sparks that had appeared out of nowhere in front of my eyes had vanished I noticed that I was holding on to the phone. I was just about to hang it up when I heard a vaguely familiar sounding voice saying, "Oh my God what's going on, is there anybody there? Hello, hello?"

"Lady could you keep your voice down I've got quite the headache all of a sudden and you're not helping any by yelling away like this" There was now a much appreciated silence at the other end of the line which allowed me to regain a little bit of my composure so that I could go about this the right way. After all she had just lost the man who I assumed to be her father in a rather grisly fashion and that called for a certain amount of delicacy. (Who else did you think it was going to be on the phone at this time of night in this kind of story – sheesh)

"Why did you do it? Why did you kill your father tonight Ms. Magnesen? I saw you running away from the bar just as he keeled over at my feet so don't deny you were there and that you fled. Any normal girl would have stayed, you see your father drop to the floor like a ton of bricks and you're heading for the proverbial hills – something ain't right with that picture Ms. Magnesen and your gonna have to help me bring it into focus."

There was a pause from the other end of the phone line, followed by the unmistakeable sounds of someone taking a large drag off a cigarette followed by a long slow exhale. Visualizing in my head just how those actions would affect her lips and the thoughts that sprang to mind with those images left me a little light headed again. I barely recovered in time to hear what she had to say next.

"I guess I'm not what you'd call a normal girl Mr?" her voicing trailing away in a suggestive question mark led me to quickly interject in a still somewhat shaky voice "just call me Steve, Ms. Magnesen" to which she replied "there's no need for you to be formal either, Steve; call me Gertrude" Immediately destroying any of the earlier mental images that I had envisioned. Gertrude is just one of those names where even knowing the person in question would look good in a potato sack makes me think of particularly hairy great aunts.

Another cigarette inhalation pause followed this exchange of names, this time bereft of any accompanying imagery, until she continued with, " But then again my dad and I hadn't been having what you would call a normal existence for the past while"

I made appreciative, and what I hoped were encouraging noises, and made myself comfortable on the floor, noticing with contentment that the remainder of the fifth was within easy reach having rolled onto the floor in the confusion. I hooked the bottle over to me with my foot and was carefully unscrewing the cap as she began her story.

"My dad and I had moved up to Ottawa a few years ago, my mother had died from cancer and neither of us could bear to be around places that reminded us of her. He felt especially guilty because his work had kept him from home during a great deal of her last months with us and he knew that he wished that he could have spent more time with her.

I had ended up being her primary care giver, having to bathe her, change her diapers when she could no longer get up to go to the bathroom on her own, and eventually feed her. While he was off at conferences on climate change and global warming I'd be at home making broth and rolling her over in bed to prevent bed sores. He told me later that he was sorry that he had left so much of the burden on my shoulders but he couldn't stand to see her like what she was becoming.

That broken collection of bones and skin with no intellect or brain wasn't the person he had married. No matter how hard he tried he couldn't feel anything but revulsion for her when he was around her, and that ate at him like termites in a clapboard house. He had worshiped the ground she had walked on until the moment she had gotten sick, treating her like she was royalty, and then all of a sudden he found he couldn't go near her."

I was fighting back tears by this time, although that could have been residual pain and medicinal whiskey, so I wasn't all that surprised that she made a slight choking sound as if overcome with emotion and had to pause for a second. As there was nothing really that could be said, I said nothing and let her take all the time she needed to compose herself before she continued.

"Anyway when the previous government was working out ways to try and ensure that Canada was going to meet its Kyoto accord commitments a position became available requiring someone of dad's expertise and skills. I decided to go back to school and finish the thesis work I had begun when Mom had gotten sick and we began the process of putting our live back together.

Those couple of years were great; everyone dad was working with were excited about coming up with solutions that would not only see Canada meet its obligations, but actually exceed them. It was so great to see dad taking an interest in life again. There had been a time just after mom died that I was worried for him, and that I thought he might be going off the deep end into depression, but this new project had revitalized him.

Of course it was too good to be true, and all those other damn clichés about good stuff coming to an end, and last fall when it began to look like the Conservative Party Of Canada had a good chance of forming the next government, dad started asking questions about the accord's future if the change were to happen and it didn't look good.

The word he got was that even if they were able to cut emissions by fifty per cent and improve the economy at the same time by an equal amount, the Conservatives were going to pull the plug on the deal no matter what. When words like 'setting a dangerous precedent for government regulatory powers and interference in the market place' start being bandied about, you could have discovered the cure for cancer and AIDS and you knew your funding would be killed and your program shut down.

Dad became like a figure obsessed; he began working all hours of the day and night in an effort to come up with a devise that could be used to convert carbon dioxide and other dangerous emissions into harmless substances when released into the atmosphere. He knew that even if the government had no intention of ever making use of this technology that there were others who would and could.

It was just before Christmas and after the election had been called that he let me in on a little of what he was planning, albeit it indirectly. He told me that I shouldn't be surprised if he started to receive visitors at home at all hours of the day and night, and that I shouldn't make a big deal out of it. He also said it would be a good idea if I didn't tell anybody about them either."

She stopped to light another cigarette and gather her thoughts for what I assumed was the crux of the matter. I had a good idea where this was going and beginning to see how it ended as badly as it did. I had long since abandoned the bottle of whiskey and was sitting propped up against the desk with my legs splayed out in front of me. Looking out the office window I could see the sky was beginning to change colour; the clouds of the previous night had dispersed and there was a faint blush appearing along the eastern horizon line. It looked like it was going to be a nice day for somebody, somebody who probably wasn't named Gertrude Magneson.

"Maybe I should have said something to him, asked him more about what he was doing, but he looked like he had hope for the first time since the beginning of the fall when we started to hear the rumours of our demise. After all we'd been through there was no way I was going to be the one to pull the rug out from under him.

Over the course of the next couple of weeks, up to Christmas and then twice more before New Years, the visits took place. They would usually happen between midnight and four in the morning and the person would arrive on bicycle or foot. Most of the time they'd only come one at a time, but on the last couple of occasions all three of them came together and these visits were also in daytime. It was as if they either believed they were completely safe or they no longer cared whether they were being observed.

The two men and a woman all dressed and looked pretty much the same. Long hair, bulky sweaters, fancy sandals with thick socks on no matter what the weather, and the same zealous fire in their eyes at all times. They were all sort of pale, like they didn't eat enough and never had anything to drink except water and herbal tea. The woman looked at me like I was some sort of evil monster and the two men would sneak looks at me when they didn't think I could see and they knew she wasn't looking.

Obviously they weren’t supposed to approve of me, the way I dressed or looked or something, but that didn't stop them from drooling just like any other straight male does the first time he sees me. I thought they were judgemental little hypocrites for judging me by my appearance, they were probably the types who protested against just that sort of thing, but I didn't say anything because my dad assured me their visits were temporary and they were helping him out in some way or another. Sure enough after those last couple of meetings before New Year's Eve we never saw them again.

After Christmas vacation my dad went back to work and waited for the inevitable to happen. After the elections rumours were flying fast and furious, but dad remained calm and when I asked him about it he just smiled and shrugged. But everything changed again a week after the oily bastards announced they were reneging on the Kyoto accord in order to 'seek a Canadian solution'.

I was at home working on my thesis and two men came to the door. They should have been wearing badges that said undercover R.C.M.P. officer or at least kept their stupid hats on they were so obvious. They said they were colleagues of dad's from work and that he had sent them by the house for some files he needed that he kept at home, and would I mind letting them come in to get them. I told them I would have to check with him first, and pretended to walk back into the house to use the phone, but in reality just slipped around the corner and observed them in the reflection from the hall mirror.

Not much of a surprise that they didn't wait for me to come back from making my 'phone call'. They left the door open when they left, so I did a full production for them of coming out on the step and looking puzzled as to what had just happened. I also used the time to spot where they had parked their Crown Victoria and watched as they pretended to be gay lovers necking in the front seat.

When I told dad about it he asked if I were okay and when I assured him I was, he laughed a little. But it wasn't as if it were at anything funny. He said they had searched the lab as well but they weren't going to find anything because, and he pointed to his head, it's all up here.

It was a week ago that he started to get worried about things again, but he didn't want to say anything to me about it. I had been seeing the same two cops who had come to the door around town, just happening to be where I was every so often. They made no effort to hide themselves, like they wanted to let me know they were keeping an eye on me for whatever reason.

I think it was the fact that they were bothering me that finally convinced him that we needed to find somebody to help us. Somebody we could trust in a situation that looked like it was getting further out of hand then he had expected. I think he had hoped that when they didn't find any files they could use they would leave him alone, but that didn't look like it was happening.

I was to follow him to the bar where the two of you were meeting last night to try and see if anybody had followed him, but it was so crowded that I couldn't even see either of you for a while. The next thing I knew was that he was dead. I was so scared that his killer was standing somewhere near me that all I could think of was getting out of there as quickly as possible. My father's dead Steve, and all I know is that it has something to do with the Kyoto accord and the Canadian government. Can you help me?"

March 8, 2008

DVD Review: Invisible Children

I've started wearing a bracelet on my right wrist. It's not the most comfortable of things, being made from strands of plastic and what looks like wire, and I have to keep adjusting it because it tugs on my skin periodically. It's not even particularly attractive, what with the band being made up of six strands or so of black wire and held together by two pieces of red wire wrapped around it that also serve as slides to adjust the size. I'm constantly aware of it sitting there on my right wrist because of both those things, and while that may not be a desirable characteristic in most jewellery, I think it's an essential component in this case.

Every time the bracelet makes me aware of it's presence, I'm reminded about the story that goes with it; where it comes from, who made it, and why it exists. The bracelet symbolizes an effort being made to help deal with what has been referred to as the most ignored humanitarian crises facing the world today. The mass abduction of children in Northern Uganda by the Lords Resistance Army to serve as conscripts in their twenty year war against the government.

Up until a short while ago cities in Northern Uganda were used to the sight of hundreds of thousands of children "commuting" from the surrounding country side every night to sleep in protected areas like hospitals or bus stations because they were so afraid of being abducted during the night. Sometimes their parents would come with them, some of them were among the nearly million and half children orphaned in Uganda by the AIDS epidemic, and some had escaped from the rebels and had no idea where their parents even lived.
Invisible Children Poster.jpg
The government of Uganda has finally got around to setting up displacement centres for these children and their families so they can have permanent protected shelter. These camps don't offer much better conditions than sleeping on the streets as they have become quickly overcrowded and lack proper sanitation facilities. Families have been forced to leave their jobs, schools, and homes behind, and there are no facilities in the camps for them to either receive an education or earn money.

Over the last few years a grass roots campaign has been underway in the United States to try and raise money and awareness in an effort to alleviate the situation. The bitter irony of the Invisible Children campaign is that might have happened if it weren't for the severe problems in Uganda's neighbouring Sudan.

In the spring of 2003 three young film makers left for the Sudan in an attempt to document the ongoing horror story that was the civil war in that country. Jason Russell, Bobby Bailey, and Laren Poole never shot a movie in the Sudan, instead they made the documentary Invisible Children about the plight of the children in Northern Uganda who were being conscripted into the rebel forces and those trying to avoid being kidnapped.

One of the things I found refreshing about this movie was the fact that they have made no attempts to edit out the parts that make them look less than professional. The whole idea of going over to the Sudan to make a documentary comes across as impulsive and you may not question their sincerity, but you sure do question their judgement. Initially they are the subject matter of the movie as they show us their fruitless efforts to "find a story" in the Sudan.

After days spent traipsing through deserted villages and not finding anyone to talk to, they are advised to head over to Uganda where they can at least interview some of the thousands of Sudanese living there in refugee camps. It's on the trip back from one of these camps that they find their story. They are driving home when they are forced to stop because a truck travelling along the same road they are driving on had been attacked by members of the Lords Resistance Army. They are told by their guide that the army has closed the road and everybody will have to stay put because of the worry about rebel activity in the area.

It's another sign of the honesty of their film making that they show their naivety on screen; they had gone into an area without knowing that a civil war had been raging for the last fifteen years. Since they have to stay put for a while they begin to ask questions about the war and who the rebels are. They supply some good solid history at this point in the documentary that explains how the rebellion started and it quickly becomes clear that the person behind it is very dangerous. Although Joseph Kony, leader of the Lords Resistance Army, claims to be trying to fight for rights of the local tribes it is their children his troops abduct and kill, and their food and supplies they steal.

Kony uses a mixture of spiritualism and violence to keep his followers in line, claiming to want to take over the country and run it according to the laws of the ten commandments - although as he's able to ignore the "thou shalt not kill" doctrine and young girls abducted are turned into sex slaves his sincerity about that is debatable. Recent news - as of this month - shows that progress is finally being made in peace talks, but the real sticking point is what to do about the former rebel soldiers who want to live in Uganda. Even more horrifying is the thought of what's to be done about the children who have been brainwashed and turned into killers once a peace plan goes into effect. Who will take responsibility for "deprogramming" children who can field strip an AK47 but can't read or write?
I'm getting ahead of the movie here, it's hard not to get caught up in this story once you start writing about it; it's just so damned heart rending. Anyway, back to the movie where our three young film makers are now witnessing the phenomenon that was a fact of life in Ugandan cities at the time. The nightly commute of hundreds of thousands of children from outlying areas into the city core seeking shelter from the rebel forces that sneak into their villages at night to pressgang them into the army.

They show us footage of children lying stacked together like chords of wood on the verandas of buildings through out the town. They discover that six boys have created a shelter for themselves in a concrete cellar underneath the hospital and they follow them down into it and watch them make preparations for the night. That first involves having to mop up all the water that's leaked in during the day if it has rained and then laying out thin mats on top of the damp concrete. A couple of the boys had managed to escape from the rebels after being abducted, and they talk about how they were forced to watch other children killed as a warning as to what would happen if you tried to escape.

The movie continues along in the same rough, semi-professional style that it started with, but that makes it even more effective. These three young men find the right people to talk to who can explain the situation properly; an American aid worker, a Ugandan member of parliament who has been one of the few political voices in the country talking about the plight of the children, and Ugandan journalists who have been reporting on the story of the war and the children since the beginning.

What makes the movie the most effective is their passion for telling the story, and the fact that nobody is the subject of a documentary, everybody is treated like a person. They make no secret about how they feel and how much they are moved by the people's willingness to keep on trying to have a life as normal as possible. The six young boys in their concrete bunker doing homework by the light of a single paraffin light, and rousing themselves at first light so they can get to their school.

Their are moments in this movie that will rip your heart out, and if you don't cry while watching it than I'll question whether or not you have a heart at all. If listening to a fourteen year old boy say he'd rather be dead right now instead of living the life he is living, and then bursting into tears at the thought of his dead brother, killed by the rebels, doesn't make you want to know what you can do to help than probably nothing will. It certainly inspired these the three young film makers.

The special features of the DVD Invisible Children tell you about the grassroots organization Invisible Children that grew out of the movie and lets you know how you can help. In fact they make it easy, they've even included a second copy of the DVD in the package so you can give it to a friend so they can find out about the story. The enclosed pamphlet lets you know about various ways you can either spread the word; hold a screening of the movie for friends or the public - they'll even send you promotional material so you can let people know about the screening.

There are programs for schools to get involved in to help raise money for schools in Uganda. Money raised through the sale of the DVD goes into funding mentoring programs where adults in Uganda are matched up with children to help them deal with everything from life issues to tutoring them in their school work. Than there's the bracelet I'm wearing around my wrist. The Bracelet Campaign is a cottage industry where individuals in the resettlement camps are given the raw materials to make these bracelets that are then sold in North America.

Not only are the bracelets used for fund-raising purposes, but they provide a small income to those who make them. The business of making the bracelets is also being used as a teaching model for business and financial planning practices for everyone involved. The bracelets are packaged with an accompanying DVD that tells the story of an individual child and each colour represents a different child's story. My red bracelets came with a DVD about Emmy. a fourteen year old boy who is the fourth of five children, each from a different father. One father was killed in combat, one died a political prisoner, and Emmy's father died of AIDS.

For so many years the existence of the child soldiers has been denied by everyone except those who live in the villages affected by the abductions during the war. The rebels have denied using them and the government forces have denied fighting against them. The first step in helping these children is letting the world know of their plight. With the movie Invisible Children Jason Russell, Bobby Bailey, and Laren Poole began the process, and they continue to do so with the Invisible Children Campaign.

At the end of the movie they ask if you can spare any one of three things that will enable you to help out. Your time to tell others the story, your talent to come up with a way of spreading the word to lots of people, or your money to help with programming. With the chance at peace on the horizon, it means there is a horrendous amount of work to be done. Over a million people will have to be repatriated back to their homes from the displacement camps, and who knows how many child soldiers will have to be integrated back into society. The story is ongoing, and the best way to help shape future chapters is to ensure that people know about it... that there are no more Invisible Children.

You can find out how to help by going to the Invisible Children web site at Invisible

March 7, 2008

Interview: Chad Stokes Urmston Of State Radio

At the beginning of February I reviewed a DVD, Dispatch Zimbabwe: Live At Madison Square Garden, and it was my introduction to the three young men who had been involved with the band Dispatch. As those folk who were loyal followers of the group know the individuals had gone their separate ways back in 2006, and this was the first time they had played together since then.

As I had been really impressed by what I had seen on this DVD, I was interested in seeing what each of theme were doing "post-Dispatch". Chad Stokes Urmston had played guitar and some bass for Dispatch and is now fronting his own trio, State Radio. I contacted their management team and asked if I could get a review copy of their new disc Year Of The Crow and maybe talk with Chad.

Thanks to State Radio's management people and Chad himself all the above was able to happen. It should have been easy, I was supposed to phone Chad Wednesday at 3:30 in the afternoon, and I got him at the second number I was given to contact him at. Unfortunately the connection wasn't the best and we kept having to start over again as we'd get cut off periodically. In spite of the technological difficulties, we managed to get through the questions I had for him, and have a pretty cool conversation too.
Chad Stokes.jpg
What I really enjoyed about our conversation was that it was obvious he genuinely believed in what he sang about, and that he is that person who sings with compassion, anger, sadness, and hope about the world. It might sound like a cliche, but it was a pleasure to spend time with him, and he felt like the type of person who I would have a good time hanging out with.

There was something we needed to clarify before we really got underway. In the Dispatch information I had received with the DVD listed Chad last name as Urnston, but with all the PR stuff I received with the State Radio Disc his last name was given as Stokes. So the first question I asked was simply what's your name

Chad: "My mIddle name is Stokes and I use that now because it's easier for people to say and handle then Urmston - but I still consider my name to be Chad Urmston.

Can you give me some biographical detail - I don't know much about you - Your background where you grew up. There was something about growing up in a progressive hockey playing family

Chad: (laughs) I grew up on a farm in Sherborn Massachusetts. - chicken, pigs, sheep, and grew up hearing Hendrix and Hair - 60 - 70s music. But the biggest influence was this place called the Peace Abbey, run by a man named Lewis Randa, dedicated to teaching people about peace and those people who advocated peace - Mohammed Ali,John Lennon, Mother Teresa have all visited it at one time or another.. In 1999 I took part in this march where people from the Peace Abby hauled a one ton grave stone - on a caisson, (a cart specially designed for the grave stone) - for the unknown civilian killed in war, all the way to Arlington Viginia.

I didn't do the whole thing, but it was really wonderful experience. We'd sleep in fields along the way, or sometimes people would see what we were doing and appreciate it and invite us to spend the night with them. When we got there, the night before we camped out near the Lincoln Memorial - a buddy and me went for a swim in the reflecting pool that night (laughs). We thought we might get arrested and handcuffed trying to take the caisson into Arlington cematary, so my friend and I greased our wrists. We never did get handcuffed - the cop stopped the procession on the bridge and took the caisson away.

What's really cool is that its been all over the world now. I think it went to the French embassy after the cops took it, and I know its been to Viet Nam and Britain. (There are two stones, one is permanently set up in Sherborne Mass. and the other tours the world to help honour the memory of civilians killed in wars all over the world.)

I also did a year of school at N.Y.U. in New York City, and it was an eye-opening experience as there was always some sort of action taking place. I took part in some of them and it was exciting, a feeling of doing something that was not just about you.

I think I read something about you playing trombone when you were in high school or middle school, was that your first instrument - where did the idea of doing music as a means of expressing yourself come from...?

Chad: I've always loved music, but I don't know if I ever thought of it as a career or anything like that right away, or when I first started playing. My sister got a guitar when I was twelve or thirteen and I would steal it from her and start playing. You know classic rock songs, that sort of thing. The first time I wrote a song was I set music to a poem my mother had written when she was in her twenties, and that was the first time I had the idea that it was something I was interested in doing. I never really planned it, it was something that just happened, and I kept doing it.

When I got to University I actually first joined Pete's (Pete- Bass and guitar player for Dispatch) band as a trombone player. Obviously that changed, Brad joined us (Me: And the rest is history) (laughs) But I played trombone all the way through high-school, and it was fun. I was part of a group who were seen as pretty odd - you know the low brass section - and we had a great time.

Obviously your stay in Zimbabwe had a huge impact on you...How did you end up in Zimbabwe? Do you think it changed you, or did it more help provide you with a focus for what you wanted to do?

Chad: I had a friend who lived in the town next door whose father was a Pastor, and they had spent some time in Zimbabwe when he was younger, and his family knew people over there. At the end of high school I didn't want to go off to University right away. It was pretty much an impulsive decision to go - we could stay with friends of his family over there and it sounded like a good idea

When was that?

Chad: That was in 1994

Were you doing anything specific - like you weren't with any organization or group or anything?

Chuck: No we just went over by ourselves and were staying with the people my friend's family already knew. For about the first month we would just walk around - go into the townships and meet people. Sometimes I would take my guitar along - you know things like that. But after that I started looking around for things that I could do that was more constructive. It became the choice between just hanging out or actually making a contribution, asking yourself what I can do? It was still informal, but I got involved and taught some school, played soccer, and got to know the people.

Being there took me out of myself. I saw all that these people had to deal with; AIDS, poverty, and it wasn't nearly so bad then as it is now either. I was really impressed by the fact that in spite of their world being filled with problems all the people I met had a generosity of spirit that really stood out, a refusal to be brought down by circumstances.

It made me want to do something with myself that was respectful of people like that, worthwhile or that could make a difference.

Have you been back since

Chad: "No, but I really want to. I made a really good friend over there, Ellias and I found out that his son was really badly hurt - stabbed in the side of the head over a bag of sugar - that's how desperate things are right now I guess - and he's getting better, but still having trouble with one side of his body. I'd really like to see them and see how their doing

Let's get back to music again. You wrote songs for both Dispatch and now State Radio - What do you see as the differences between the two experiences - both in the actual process and any changes in direction your focus might have undergone.

Chad "Some bits of music can't be controlled, you just write what comes. When I was with Dispatch I would write songs, and than pick the ones that I thought would work for the band. I pretty much do the same thing now, select the stuff that I think will work best for Chuck and Mad Dog. I probably keep in mind what they bring to the band when I'm writing now, knowing that I'm playing with them.

I also think there's less of a filtering process now then there was in the later days of Dispatch, and less censoring of political content. With Dispatch there were three of writing songs and it was pretty free flowing that way, but it also started to make things difficult towards the end. You have three very creative people working, each of us writing material that we want to play - it can't help but create tension. We were together for eight years...

That's a long time, and with three creative people there's bound to be lots of growth, and a desire to do things ... explore your own ideas. It seems like you guys had the brains to know that and were right to let it end

Chad: "It was still hard..."

Where do you find yourself looking for inspiration for material - or do things just sort of jump out at you from the headlines and you say I've got to write a song about that.

Chad: "From everywhere really, the Internet, other Artists. Sometimes you go out and you've had a conversation in a bar or something and a topic comes up, and you go home and start looking it up on the Internet and you find out all this information on a subject, an it will inspire you to want to write about it. Mainly though it's what going on around me, or things that I"m thinking about. Like I said earlier you can't really control the music and it's an ongoing process of absorbing and creating based on all of what's around you."

How do you see the interrelationship between your music and your lyrics - do you try and create a sound that will reflect the feelings being expressed in the lyric?

Chad: "What I'm usually trying to do is marry the melodies to the words, so that they work well that way. I'm trying to keep the diction as natural as possible in the songs, obviously you have to play with it sometimes so that everything works, but I really want them to compliment each other. The music is really a natural extension of the lyric."

Are there any people in particular that have inspired you, shaped the way you think, or influenced your outlook on the world?

Chad: Well John Lennon, and Thoreau - Walden was really important to me, and the existentialists. I really like what Rage Against The Machine talk about with their idea of living what you what you sing.

Not just talking but doing?

Chad: "Yeah, taking part in the world not just commenting on it"

What do you hope to accomplish - stupid question in some ways I know, but a number of songs on Year Of The Crow refers to specific issues.

Chad: "Well I hope people like the music obviously, but I'd like it to encourage thoughtfulness, and hope that they don't just accept things at face value. A lot of our material decries against what we see as the corruption of authority. How those in power are abusing it and the problems that's causing. So I'd like people to think about that."

I wanted to ask about the title of the CD Year Of The Crow Does the crow have any special meaning for you

Chad: "Well part of it is the associations with Native Americans. I've always been fascinated with Indians since I was a kid. You know the usual stuff, building a teepee and sleeping out in it, but I've also done lots of reading about what's been done to them over the years, and their current situation. I know the Crow is an important figure in some American Indian stories, and so that's one reason, to make that reference.

The Crow is the harsh voice of truth in some stories

Chad: "Yeah and that's part of it too. Also it's the idea of the underdogs, those who aren't in authority coming into their own."

The ravens coming home to roost?

Chad: "Yeah, definitely"

The song "Fight No More" on Year Of The Crow is about the former Nez Pearce Chief, Chief Joseph (Thunder In The Mountain) What was is about his story in particular that attracted you to it?

Chad: "When I started reading about American Indians, at first all I read about were the Sioux. People like Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull, and it was all about warriors and fighting. Chief Joseph was the first American Indian I read about who talked about peace, and even though he was resisting, he tried to preserve his people by getting them away from war and not fighting.

State Radio is about to start a tour of Europe later this month, is this the first time over there for you

Chad: "No we've been over a few times, we recorded Year Of The Crow in England (Me: "Yeah right, I'd forgotten that - I guess you have to go over to Europe to record there) Yeah, and we have played in Germany before this, at some big festivals with bands like Pearl Jam."

How do you get gigs like that without a label

Chad: "Well our distributor, Network, are really good about that, and get us into the line ups for the big festivals in Europe, and our management company does a lot of that as well."

Do you like playing over in Europe

Chad: "It's great, we get a lot of press and people are really up for the shows and always having a great time. It's funny you know I bet you we're on the radio more in Germany than we are over here. We're going to France for the first time on this tour, so we're looking forward to that."

Well, I should let you go, I know you've got a gig tonight. Thanks for this and good luck

Chad: "It was good talking to you".

In the end what was supposed to have been a ten or fifteen minute conversation lasted about forty-five minutes. Part of that was our problems with the phone, but also part of it was I had to keep stopping myself from just yaking with him like he was a friend, and exchanging stories about similar experiences. I'm usually able to keep the Interviewer - Interviewee barrier in place no matter what, but I found that almost impossible to maintain while talking with Chad.

Perhaps it was because we have a lot of the same interests in common and it was just nice to talk to someone of like mind, but I also think that it's because of what I said earlier about him being exactly like he comes across in his music. It was really nice to talk with someone who is so genuine in his beliefs and open about his feelings.

I hope I get the chance to talk with Chad Stokes Urmston again.

March 4, 2008

Book Review: Human Rights Watch: World Report 2008

I've got a question for you; what are human rights? You probably hear or read the phrase at least once a day in the media, but have you ever stopped to think what they should entail? Don't worry if you haven't because I'd lay odds you're not alone. The phrase is bandied about so much these days that if it ever had an agreed upon meaning in the eyes of the general public it's been long forgotten.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights created by the United Nations in 1948 has 30 articles, most of which will probably sound familiar to any of us who live in countries which have a Bill of Rights or the equivalent. You know the usual stuff - everybody will be treated the same regardless of race, colour, sex, religion creed, no one will be subjected to torture or cruel and inhuman punishment, everyone is entitled to protection under the law and nobody is above the law, everybody has the right to privacy, freedom of thought, and freedom of opinion.

Over the years its of course been updated and some specifics have been added like the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Of course that these addendum were needed goes to show just how well people were complying with the original declaration. If countries had been treating people equally regardless of sex there would have been no need for any convention dealing specifically with violence against women.
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That's the thing isn't it, everybody talks a good game, our governments in the West especially, but there's probably not a government in the world that's not guilty of a violation of somebody's human rights. Take a look at the partial listing of articles I've mentioned above, and you'll notice that the United States, who have one of the most comprehensive Bill Of Rights of any country, has contravened every single article listed.

Of course they aren't the only ones; according to the organization Human Rights Watch (HRW) there's a distressingly huge number of countries all over the world making a mockery of the declaration according to Human Rights Watch World Report 2008, their annual report on how well countries around the world are abiding by the statues put forward more then fifty years ago.

After my first glance through the volume I couldn't decide which was the more depressing thought; the fact that it exists at all, that it is over 560 pages in length, or that it doesn't list all the countries or all the categories where there were infringements of Human Rights around the world in the year 2007. I think it's the last one that bothers me the most, especially when the writers say that they really have no way of knowing how much they miss, because there aren't many countries that are going to give you access to documentation proving they've been violating the rights of their population.

Before you ask, who the heck are Human Rights Watch or assume they are just another plot to discredit the U.S., there's a couple things you should know about them. They describe themselves as being a Non Government Organization (NGO) that refuses funding from any politically affiliated body or government, and are dependant on the donations of private citizens and foundations for finances. They rely on first hand accounts from people on the ground in countries where abuses are taking place as their primary source of information, but they will never base a report on information that can not be verified by one of their own field people.

Initially founded in 1978, and called Helsinki Watch for the location of it's head office, it started off with only two divisions Europe and Central Asia. Currently it has expanded to six geographic divisions so it now includes, Africa, the Americas, all of Asia, and the Middle East, and added three thematic divisions, arms, children's rights, and women's rights. Other permanent divisions include a country's treatment of refugees and immigrants and how that stacks up against U.N. declarations on their treatment; HIV/AIDS and Human Rights; International Justice; Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgendered rights; Arms; and Business and Human Rights.

Let me tell you about the litmus test that I use for organizations like this; when it comes to the Middle East do they ignore transgressions on the part of the Palestinian authority and only criticize Israel, or do they apply the same standards to both sides? Far too many so called rights groups are all prepared to stomp one side in the dispute and allow the other to literally get away with murder. Well not these guys, they hold both sides accountable for any and all violations of a groups Human Rights. So while they criticize Israel for firing upon civilian populations in Gaza and Lebanon, they hold Hamas to account for firing rockets and mortars into civilian areas in Tel Aviv, for targeting civilians with suicide bombers, and for the unlawful detention of an Israeli soldier in clear contravention of Human Rights and the Geneva Convention.

After reading that, I felt a lot more comfortable about the fact that this is an organization without an agenda aside from doing their best to make countries accountable for their treatment of their citizens. They don't except any excuses from anybody, be it George Bush and company or Putin and his cronies in Russia. From Albania to Zimbabwe if you're government has abused the rights of it's people HRW are going to let the world know about it whether you or the world want to know.

That's the rub isn't it; HRW may be without an agenda, but the rest of the world is nowhere near as unbiased. Governments the world over will turn a blind eye to violations conducted by the countries that do them favours, while condemning the exact same activities in others. Human rights for some but not for others is a cynical and gross violation of the spirit of original declaration, and also happens to be the breech that most countries have in common. Running almost neck and neck for infamy are the number of countries who try to pass themselves off as democracies while denying their people the rights that ensure democratic governments.

While international human rights law says that each citizen is entitled to take part in the conduct of public affairs either directly or through a freely elected representative, and to vote in genuine and periodic election with full and equal suffrage, in a secret ballot guaranteeing the free expression of the will of the electorate, it also guarantees the societal elements that are essential for a true democracy. A press that is independent of the government, rights that defend the interests of minorities, and rights ensuring that government officials are subject to the rule of law as much as private citizens.

What kind of democratic election is it when only one party runs for power, or when the press only reports what the government allows, when people aren't allowed to attend political rallies unless approved by the government, when there is no free and open debate on the issues, and there is nothing in the constitution guaranteeing an arms length body monitoring elections? In his introduction to World Report 2008, "Despots Masquerading as Democrats", Executive Director of HRW Kenneth Roth, cites these examples to point out the importance and necessity for human rights monitoring.

Anybody can and does call themselves a democrat, and even worse there are always those in the international community who seem willing to endorse them for their own convenience. It's ironic isn't it that the supposed ideal form of government, the one so many wars are fought to protect, has never been internationally codified? You don't think it's because half the world's governments who currently claim to be democratic would be revealed as just the opposite, or that it's not in best interests of countries like the United States and Russia to have their various friends proven to be just as despotic as their enemies? No it couldn't be that, nobody is that cynical or hypocritical are they?

So the only meter we have to measure a government's true democracy is their willingness to ensure the protection of human rights no matter what it costs them in terms of their ability to retain power. There used to be a rather common saying along the lines that a man was judged by the company he keeps. Perhaps a variation along the lines of: a government should be judged by how it keeps its people, would be more appropriate for today's world.

With disinformation raised to an art form, and government influence over media reaching a zenith in all parts of the world, a non-aligned body monitoring how people are treated based on the principals espoused by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is the only hope we have of getting a true picture of the health of democracy in the world. Human Rights Watch makes a very good case for being that body through their willingness to judge each and every country against the same measure; their adherence to the Declaration.

Human Rights Watch: World Report 2008is this years status report on the health of democracy in the world, and it doesn't look good. While there have been some positive signs in a few countries, indications are that overall the patient is in danger of expiring due to extreme cynicism and complications caused by opportunistic despots. That's not a very good prognosis for the future.

February 22, 2008

Book Review: Without Waxxx William Walsh

There aren't many pariahs left in this world as we have become inured to just about everything the world has to offer. Yet in spite of being able to accept nearly everything else under the sun, people who make their living having sex in front of cameras are still looked upon as if they crawled out from under a rock. In fact, in spite of it's proliferation through-out the Internet and elsewhere, most producers and suppliers of pornography are looked upon as being only a step removed from white slavery.

In fact the antipathy towards the business is so universal that it comes in for equal bashing from those on both extremities of the political spectrum. It may be for different reasons, but both the religious right and the radical left condemn pornography and pornographers out of hand. While the one claims it's because they don't like the way women are depicted and the other because they don't like sex, the end result is the same.

Of course North America and sex have always had a strange relationship in that while people don't see anything wrong with depicting a person literally being eaten alive on a movie screen, two people having sex is enough to send half the continent into a state of shock. The sad truth is that for too many people the equation of sex equals sin has made something that should be a pleasurable experience into something they feel the have to be ashamed of.
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Yet in spite of that, or maybe because of that (I'll leave that to the psychologists and social workers to figure out) there's always been a big demand for pornography in our society. From the dirty postcards of the early part of the twentieth century to the web sites and DVDs of today, the stuff wouldn't be made if there people weren't willing to pay for it. But who are the people willing to appear in the movies and pose for the pictures? Are they somebody's innocent son or daughter whose morals were corrupted by evil people leading them astray, or even worse, addicting them to a thousand drugs so they will do anything for their next fix?

In all likely-hood it's none of the above, as drugs usually are a detriment to performance, and the mainstream adult film industry doesn't need to coerce people into taking part in their movies as there are always more then enough people willing and able to choose from. If that's the case it must mean, horror of horrors, these people want to be doing what they're doing. Working from that premise, William Walsh has created what he calls a documentary novel that traces the life and career of leading man Wax Williams from his childhood days in Ampersand California to when he throws in the towel and retires from the world of adult films.

Without Waxxx, published by Casperian Books, is more than simply a linear biography of Wax, as Walsh has structured the book like a movie, complete with talking head interviews, flashbacks, and cut-away shots to reflect a characters thoughts. Interspersed within the "footage" about the life of Wax, are various small vignettes that are profiles of Wax's fans. As a type of piece de resistance, he has also included a the script from Wax's first feature, which might be short on dialogue but long on the inventive stage directions unique to an adult film.

Wax hadn't set out to be a porn star, in fact at one point during high school it looked like he had a chance of having a decent career in baseball - at least triple A if not the majors - if only he hadn't had that additional growth spurt. As a child Wax was a slow developer - slow to the point that his parents were concerned enough to send him to a doctor who claimed he had come up with a way to increase a young man's size so he'd have no cause ever to be embarrassed again. The so-called doctor's treatment turned out to include a combination of growth hormones, steroids, exercise, and a stretching devise.

While there's no doubt the procedure was effective, Wax went from being an 98 pound weakling in his first year of high school to being a star third baseman in only two years, it soon became apparent that his extra length was a hindrance when it came to running the bases and playing the field. As one of the directors he worked with commented when asked about Wax - there aren't many other lines of work, aside from the adult film industry, where his specific enhancement could be parlayed into a career, so becoming a porn start was pretty much a no-brainer.

Through interviews with co-performers and technical folk Wax worked with we learn that while there are other equally well endowed performers in the adult film business (nobody in the book refers to it as pornography) Wax had a boy next door quality that endeared him to women and made him far less threatening to men. It was this combination that quickly made him a star in the adult business and allowed his management to market a whole range of "Wax Williams" sex toys.

Walsh has been very careful to write Without Wax in a manner that appears to be faithful to the documentary ideal of objectivity. Every so often while reading I was forced to remind myself that in fact this was a work of fiction no matter how it looked. So, even though it appears the characters are being presented in a non-objective manner, and that the author has no opinion one way or another, he has written each one of them with intent and purpose. We're supposed to feel like we are making up our own minds about circumstances and people, when of course he's guiding us by having created everything we read.

The result of this is that he forces us to look honestly at our own opinions and reactions to pornography. By creating the illusion that it's a documentary the reader feels that he or she is "allowed" to be reading material that they probably wouldn't under normal circumstances. Periodically he will deliberately shatter that illusion by including elements that sound like they come directly from an "adult movie" and forces you to realize that you've actually been reading pornography not a report on it.

When it doesn't stop it from being a good book, and you realize you want to read the book to its finish because you've been enjoying it - what does that say about pornography and what does that say about you? If you're honest with yourself this book will make you reconsider any of your conceptions about pornography and about the adult film business.

This is a well written and thoughtful book about a subject that most people have a knee jerk reaction too. William Walsh's Without Waxxx, in spite of being a work of fiction, is probably the most honest book you'll find written about pornography today. If you're willing to be as honest with yourself as the book is, you might just find yourself thinking about the adult film industry in a different light then you did before.

February 21, 2008

Wild Burros Killed As "Wildlife Management"

“Congress finds and declares that wild free-roaming horses and burros are living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West; ... and that these horses and burros are fast disappearing from the American scene. It is the policy of Congress that wild free-roaming horses and burros shall be protected from capture, branding, harassment, or death; and to accomplish this they are to be considered in the area where presently found, as an integral part of the natural system of the public lands” The Wild-Free Roaming Horse and Burro Act of 1971

It looked liked the bleeding would finally be stopped. In 1971 an American Congress finally put the brakes on what had been an ongoing slaughter for one hundred years. The killing of America's wild horse and burro populations looked like it was finally coming to an end. It was quite a sea change from a hundred years earlier when American governments had advocated the extermination of the wild horse as a means of bringing the American Indian to heel.

Even more important than just stopping the killing was their recognition that these animals needed to have territory to live in. "They are to be considered in the area where presently found, as an integral part of the natural system of public lands" would seem to guarantee both the horse, and their far less glamourous cousin the burro, at least equal standing on public lands as all other creatures. But a law is only as strong as the will to enforce it, and there seems to be plenty of interest groups with money who have the ability to sap the will needed to enforce that law.

Cattle ranchers want the land the horses use because of how little they are charged to use public lands for grazing rights, and have been more than willing to supply the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) with erroneous statistics and misleading information in order to support their cause. The BLM have done their bit for agribusiness by actually ensuring the wild horse population has been reduced by over 50% since Congress passed the 1971 act that supposedly ensured their population would be stabilized.
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If the campaign carried out against the horses wasn't bad enough it pales in comparison to the one currently being waged against the humble burro. Not only have they seen the amount of their habitat space gradually eroded until now it stands at less than fifty per cent of what they had in 1971 but herd levels have been reduced to such an extent that most have fallen below numbers considered sufficient to maintain genetic integrity (150) and some herds are so small (50 or less) that inbreeding is a serious risk.

Somehow or other since 1971 the wild burro has gone from being "living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the west" to a exotic feral animal that is interfering with the natural order. It's interesting how this wasn't considered a problem until a few years ago when a move was made by big game hunters in North America to reintroduce the Desert Big horn sheep into the same areas that burros were already grazing.

While it's despicable in the first place to re-introduce an animal into the wild just so you can hunt it, displacing another animal and calling it "Wild Life Management", is hypocrisy of the highest order. What's been happening is a smear campaign that would be worthy of any dis-information program run by the current administration. First start referring to the burros as feral and exotic instead of wild so it sounds like they were a recently introduced species instead of having been here longer then almost all breeds of domestic cattle.

Like the horse, the burro was re-introduced to North America in the 15th and 16th century with the arrival of the Spanish. The burro was especially adaptable to the climate of the Southern United States and Mexico as the breed that came with the Spanish had originated in North Africa. Not only does it require minimal amounts of water for survival, it also can obtain most of it's required water from the scrub brush that makes up the majority of it's diet.

Like the horse the burros were at various points in time released into the wild and vanished into wilderness that could support little other wild life. It's only been since another introduced creature, man, has wanted to make use of its habitat that the burro has become a "Wild Life Management" issue. Unlike horses they weren't even a concern for cattle ranchers, because they lived in territories that couldn't sustain cattle.

However, once State governments became aware of just how potentially lucrative the Big Horn Sheep hunt could be, (with licences fetching up to $100,000 each at auctions), burros became a nuisance creature that needed to be dealt with. All of a sudden we hear that they are a threat to water supplies, their populations are too high, and of course a threat to the precious Big Horn Sheep gold mine.

What's even more disquieting is the fact that many of the Big Horn Sheep are animals being introduced into areas where there was no prior sheep population. In fact the Arizona Desert Big Horn Sheep Society boasts on its web site that over 1000 animals have been introduced and have established viable populations in ten mountain ranges where they didn't previously exist.

Recently I was sent documents that were a record of an investigation into the discovery of burro carcasses in in Big Bend Ranch State Park in Texas. As these documents have not yet been made public my source has asked to remain anonymous for the moment. The documents in question are the transcripts of interviews conducted by an Internal Affairs officer who was following up on complaints of potential animal cruelty.
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Park rangers having discovered the bodies of burros rotting by the road in the park dutifully reported the crime to state authorities. The only problem was that the shootings had been carried out by Deputy Director of Texas State Parks Dan Sholly and States Parks Region 1 Director, Michael Hil, with the full support of the State Parks Director Walter D. Danby. When interviewed in early November the three men freely admitted that the killings had taken place, and had only just recently stopped.

According to Mr. Sholly's testimony they had started shooting the burros in April of 2007 until they were ordered to stop on October 23rd 2007 (although he did admit that a final burro was shot on Oct. 26th three days after the stop kill order was issued). According to him they had "kept a running total in our mind, and initially in our reports, the number we had shot was seventy-one burros". He also said that he had shot burros on five or six trips into the park, but not every time he went there - mainly because he didn't see them every time he went into the park.

In his testimony Mike Hill said that July of 2007 was the last record he has of burros being shot, and that Dan told him to keep killing burros and not to write anything down about it after that time. He said that Dan had told him that something had been said in Austin (State government offices for Texas are located in the city of Austin) about the burros being killed. It's interesting to note that in his testimony Dan Sholly claims that he never told any park employee to stop recording the number of burros being shot.

It's also interesting to note that in his initial interview with the investigating officer the dates Mike HIll said the shootings took place contradicted those given by Mr. Sholly, but two days later he claims to have reviewed "contemporaneous notes" to refresh his memory, and changed the dates to coincide to agree with those offered by Mr. Sholly. He had said in his first interview that the killing of burros had started in April of 2006, a full year earlier then the date he came back with of April 2007. Of course he might have simply confused the dates, but than again since Sholly denied telling him to stop recording his kills, I have to wonder.

Both Mr. Sholly and Mr. Hill testified that the killing was necessitated because they were wanting to reintroduce Big Horn Sheep to the park and that they had been told that wouldn't be possible with the burros in place. Mr. Sholly also claims they never went into the park to deliberately hunt for burros, but they were trying to impact on the population by taking targets of opportunity.

I thing the most damming piece of testimony came from State Park's Director Walter D. Dabney. After relaying that he told Mr. Hill and Mr. Sholly that they should kill any and all burros on site, he mentions that no other efforts have been made to control the populations in the park since he started. In other words, they haven't attempted to capture, or relocate the herd by any of the means normally followed with protected animals.

I'm not really sure how always carrying a gun and shooting any burro you see on site differs from hunting burros, but them I'm not a Director of State Parks in Texas so I wouldn't know about such distinctions. All I know is that the burro is protected animal in the wild and is not to be killed or have it's habitat displaced by any other animal. Yet in Texas the people who are running the parks system are guilty of both crimes.

The transcript of the inquiry that I received came complete with the investigating officer's findings and recommendations. The only fault he could find with the indiscriminate killing of a protected species was the fact that the people doing the killing hadn't bothered to notify the park's employees in advance that they would be shooting burros in the park. If they had known in advance that the shootings were taking place they wouldn't have been surprised to find the rotting burro carcasses beside the road, and worried that anything untoward was going on.

He recommended that in the future all park employees be better informed about the parks wildlife management programs and that proper arrangements should be made to deal with the disposal of the carcasses. Nowhere in his findings or in his recommendations does he mention that burros are a protected animal in the United States, or that perhaps they should investigate alternative means of wildlife management instead of killing them.

It took a twenty-five year fight by concerned citizens and wildlife conservationists to get the American Congress to pass the The Wild-Free Roaming Horse and Burro Act of 1971. Thirty-six years latter officers and directors of Public Parks in Texas are flagrantly disregarding the two major provisions of the act. Not only are they depriving them of habitat desperately needed to maintain the numbers of wild burros in America, they are killing them in order to facilitate their supplanting. Currently there are only five genetically viable burro herds remaining in the wild and if the current rate of attrition of both habitat and animals is allowed to continue it will result in the extinction of wild burro herds in the American West.

Is this how America preserves its cultural heritage?

Facts and figures concerning the relative sizes of burro herds and Big Horn Sheep populations and habitat, unless otherwise stated are taken from "Wild Burros of the American West: A Critical Analysis of the National Status of Wild Burros on Public Lands 2006 by C.R. MacDonald

February 19, 2008

The Case of the Missing Kyoto Accord Part Two

Saying yes to something is a whole lot different from actually doing anything about it. Even with my rather specialized knowledge of the ins and outs of the backrooms of Ottawa I was at a loss as to where to go on this one. All of my usual contacts, sources, snitches, and blackmail victims had shut up tighter than someone holding back a fart in church.

At the word Kyoto some hadn't even the decency to say anything just left me listening to the click of their receiver echoing in the dial tone. They'd either all been gotten too early and hard or were just scared by what they knew. It's difficult to believe that something as seemingly benign as an accord governing reductions in CO2 would cause everyone I know to pucker shut, but that was seemingly the case.

The only clue, if you could call it that was the mysterious voice that phoned just as tall, intimidating and gorgeous was knocking at my door. But someone who uses call blocking and hangs up after muttering out "Where has all the water gone?" can't be considered much of any assistance.

So I was wrapping up my day by letting the imagination play around with having to console a certain Mrs. marine biologist, which involved quite a bit of page leafing on my part, when my reverie was rudely ruptured by the phones pneumatic clatter. When I had collected my thoughts sufficiently to finally collar the receiver under my chin and against my ear a voice scratched at my eardrums.

"Have you figured it out yet?" At least this time it seemed inclined to wait around for an answer instead of the rhetorical shit from earlier. So I decided to see if could draw it out by holding some cards back. This was my only source and I needed to play it right or it would end up being just another August fishing story.

"The question shouldn't have been, where has all the water gone?" I said stalling for time, "It would have been better to ask why is the water not coming?" I wasn't quite sure what made me say that, but after it came out of my mouth it was just like toothpaste in that it couldn't be shoved back in the tube. On the other hand since it seemed to impress the voice at the other end enough to keep him on the line, it couldn't have been all bad.

"Very good, shamus, very good. At least you listen when the information comes in the right package. We were afraid it might be a little too distracting given your initial reaction, but now we see that it was the right decision." There was a pause during which I took all this in, including the fact my mystery woman may not have been all she claimed to be, perhaps not even married.

I missed the first part of what the voice at the other end of the phone said next as I let my mind drift along lines that had nothing to do with water, but was wet enough in its own right, so had to try and catch up as it went along. The first words that I caught was a mention of a favourite drinking spot and with a bit of the quick thinking I was known for cut in with, "Yeah I know the spot"

The pause at the other end of the line was long enough that I thought maybe I'd blown it. But the voice came back on the line and said "eight o'clock" before leaving me with my old friend the dial tone. I figured that was as good an indication as any that I could hang up the phone.

So three hours latter I was sitting at my seat by the pole with a cold one sweating in my hand and a hottie working the poll causing those around me to sweat, waiting to see who would show up. Part of me was hoping it would be her, I've always wanted to use that line about what's a nice girl like you doing in a place like this. Even better would be the one from that Bogie movie: "of all the Gin joints in all the world she had to walk into…"

Damn the heat must be getting to me worse then I thought if I'm starting to go on about some dame like this who I couldn't even say hello to without my larynx swallowing my tongue. I leaned forward to rest my forehead on my hand and brought the cold beer bottle up in an attempt to cool off my head, when somebody bumped into my back moving me forward in my seat.

That's not too unusual in a crowded bar like this, you get drunks staggering around a lot, and everybody takes it for granted and doesn't get their noses out of joint too often. So I was kind of surprised that the reaction of those around me was so extreme. First the guys on either side of me backed away and turned an even paler shade of civil service never see the light of day pasty, then the girl twirling on the pole stopped, pointed, opened her mouth to scream but didn't make it that far as she collapsed in a heap on the counter.

It was only when I turned around and saw the knife, if something the size of a machete could be called a knife, sticking out of the guy's back. If I was to hazard a guess this was to have been my contact for the evening, if only because of the fact he had a picture of me in the hand that wasn't trying to remove what didn't belong from between his shoulder blades. It looked like this missing Kyoto accord was really starting to heat up, and somebody didn't want me or anybody else to know too much about it.

Well I'm like your stupidest cat that way; curiosity has its claws in deep. Bodies starting to fall and people clamming up is just one sure way to keep me interested and make me even more curious. I wouldn't say nothing to the cops about nothing; it's always better not to let them draw conclusions because it usually ends up with you in the frame, so to speak.

It looked like I was going to be on my own for this Kyoto accord deal, which was fine by me, as that's just the way I liked it. I happened to look up at that moment to see what looked like a familiar head of ash blonde hair leaving through the bar's main entrance. Well, maybe I wouldn't be so alone as I thought.

February 18, 2008

America's Wild Horses Under Attack

The late British naturalist and conservationist Gerald Durrell used to talk about what he called the paper protection of animals. By that he meant governments made laws that on paper claimed an animal was protected but in reality the animal was still at high risk from humans. The greatest risk that Durrell saw was the fact that while there might be laws preventing them from being killed - there was no law preventing the land they lived on from being taken away.

The biggest threat to all wild life, whether it has roots, legs, fins, or crawls on its belly, is the steady encroachment of humanity into habitat. Humans and their farm animals do not mix with wild life under any circumstances. The least amount of contact will cause animals to change their habits. Look at the bears in parks like Yellowstone who beg for food, or ones near human habitation who have taken to foraging in dumps instead of hunting for food as they used to. Of course minimal contact isn't going to drive an animal to extinction, so government run parks or preserves that allow human visitors, if properly managed, are a lesser evil than the complete eradication of habitat.

In Canada a concentrated effort is being made both publicly and privately to preserve habitats where species or unique ecosystems are endangered. Once these areas are established they become off limits to any human intervention, whether habitation, exploitation of natural resources, or on occasion even human visitors. If an area is considered too sensitive to withstand even humans camping in tents, than they aren't allowed to enter the designated area.
The necessity of programs like these was brought home to me again this weekend by the news that a herd of 150 American wild horses is under threat from a lumber company's plans for the Blackjack Mountain of Oklahoma. The herd was established around twenty-five years ago by Gilbert Jones and includes a couple of horses that are direct decedents of those who came to Oklahoma on the "Trail Of Tears" with Choctaws and Cherokees Indians during their forced removal from the Tennessee mountains.

In spite of the fact that American Wild Horses are considered a protected animal by the American government, The Oklahoma Land and Timber Company has been given permission to plant trees to harvest like a crop. In order to facilitate the growth of this "crop" they need to eliminate all ground cover and foliage that might compete with them. The company had signed a contract allowing for a two year period during which the herd could be relocated, but has since reneged and begun spraying the area with pesticides.

Bryant Rickman of the Medicine Springs Ranch, who manages the herd, has been given until February 29th to remove them from the area by the Lumber Company. Only thing is, where can you find room for 150 wild horses to run free anymore? You see the situation in Blackjack Mountain is a reflection of what faces the wild horse population across the United States as they are being squeezed off public land set aside for them by the very agency meant to be protecting them - the Bureau of Land Management.

In 1971, when Congress and Richard Nixon responded to public pressure and enacted the Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) was made responsible for the welfare of the remaining wild herds and ensuring that their population was maintained at the current level. At the time the BLM claimed there were only 17,000 animals living in the wild. What this claim was based on is unknown as they didn't conduct a census of the wild horse population for the first time until three years later. The results of that first head count showed them to be off target by more then 50% as the actual total was 42,000.

While on paper the law says that American Wild Horses are a protected species and public lands must be made available to them as sanctuaries for free range, less than half the actual population has been given that protection. In its wisdom, instead of amending the original 17,000 figure when they discovered how wrong it was, the BLM decided that the excess horses needed to be "removed" from public lands. The people who were responsible for preserving the horses have instead managed to reduce their population by around 50% since protection came into place.

The real problem is the fact that the BLM are also responsible for issuing grazing licences to cattle ranchers on the same public lands set aside for the horses. So for every horse the BLM can remove from public land, they can replace it with a fee paying cow. For every horse removed from public land agribusiness gets to graze a cow subsidized by the American government. According to two General Accounting Office reports the BLM was making removal decisions not on the actual numbers of horses that a range can support, but on the recommendations of advisor groups "largely composed of livestock permittees".
So the guys who stand to make the most money from having wild horses removed from public land are the ones telling the BLM that horses are the primary cause of overgrazing and degradation of public lands. The truth is that because horses tend to roam and can find forage in areas where cattle and sheep can't, they cause far less harm to a habitat than any livestock.

When cattle graze they don't chew the grass they pull it from the ground; if the soil happens to be wet they will therefore rip it out by the roots. Horses on the other hand have front teeth allowing them to crop grass as they graze, meaning there is far less chance of them destroying the root system and allowing for new growth. A horse's digestive system is actually beneficial to a habitat, because they pass grass seed through their system and replant as they graze.

As to the BLM's claim that horses are degrading grazing lands; well horse aren't the critter that defecate in their own water supply, while cattle do. Horses aren't the animal that hangs out in one area of land until it's stripped clean of any and all forage necessitating human intervention to move them on to other pastures. Even without any of that information, the numbers don't lie; at current levels livestock out number wild horse by 200 to 1 on public lands. You tell me who is going to have the biggest impact on the environment; two hundred head of cattle standing in one place or one horse wandering around looking for food?

Yet somehow or other, in spite of all this information available to the government and Congress about BLM's record of mismanagement and its history of playing fast and loose with facts and information, their budget was increased by 50% in 2001 and then another third in 2005 to pay for an aggressive removal program of wild horses from public lands. So if the people charged with protecting the horse population in the wild are being funded by the government to remove the horses from the wild it really makes you question the validity of the law that supposedly guarantees their safety.

Back in Blackjack Mountain Oklahoma concerned people have come together to form the The Gilbert Jones Choctaw-Cherokee Conservancy and Historical Land Trust whose immediate goal is to raise $450,000 to purchase the first 524 of the needed 2,500 acres for the Trust to secure a permanent home for these last of a kind horses. The goal is to preserve the original tribal strains of Choctaw and Cherokee and America's Spanish Colonial Mustangs in viable and healthy wild herds for generations.

Return To Freedom, a 501c3 charitable organization has joined forces with script writer John Fusco (Hidalgo, Spirit, Stallion Of The Cimarron, and the upcoming Forbidden Kingdom) the Rickman Family, and others in forming the trust. You can find out more about their effort and what you can do to help by following the link above to the Return To Freedom web site.

In 1971, the single biggest letter campaign outside of protests against war, forced Congress and Richard Nixon to enact the Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act to ensure the survival of America's wild horse population and preserve the strains that are unique to our continent. Thirty-six years of mis-management and conflict of interest has done nothing but reduce the population of horses in the wild by nearly 50%.That's not wildlife preservation in my book.

Unless otherwise stated, information in this article was provided by the The American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign web site.

February 11, 2008

DVD Review: Ballot Measure Number 9

Back in the early 1980's I was what you'd call politically active I guess. You know, taking part in demonstrations against things like Cruise Missile Testing in Canada and Apartheid in South Africa. After a while I pretty much stopped, except for once in the late 90's when I took part in a demonstration against the government of Ontario, as the infighting between the factions just started to get on my nerves. All I have to show for those days is a file somewhere in Ottawa classifying me as a security risk, and a healthy respect for the organizational abilities of the right wing.

In retrospect I realize that the real problem with political action on the left is that we were always reacting to what someone else was doing. We're against this and against that, but it's not often we say what we are for. On the few occasions when that has occurred; Henry Morgenthaler's fight for a woman's right to an abortion and the fight to legalize same sex marriages in Canada; when we have stood up and said we are for this, we have won.

Instead of ever starting a campaign and mobilizing forces to propose a new way of doing something in line with our way of thinking, the left continues to let the right set the agenda all over North America on any of the issues we consider important. It never used to be that way, the left used to set goals for social change and work to meet them. From the labour movements of the early twentieth century that secured fair pay and safe working conditions to the voter registration drives of the early 1960's and the ensuing civil rights campaigns in the Southern United States.
Watching the DVD version of the documentary Ballot Measure 9, a filmed record of an attempt in 1992 to pass a ballot measure in Oregon that would have stripped Homosexuals of basic civil rights, brought that all home to me again. It was the same basic story that is played out across the United States every election year, where conservative Christian "citizens" groups work to pass anti-homosexual or anti-affirmative action measures in the hopes of imposing their will on a community.

In 1992 the United States were coming off twelve years of ultra conservative government and the religious right was feeling its oats after having their puppet Ronald Reagan in power for eight years, and his milksop successor George Bush Sr. for four. In that time they had been able to promote an agenda claiming AIDS was just retribution against gays, women were subservient to men, that the church and state shouldn't be separate, and all the other rigamarole we've come to associate with their fascistic mind set . (Fascism is the imposition, by a central authority of a single belief system that all must adhere to)

Ballot Measure 9 was first released in 1995 and Director Heather MacDonald took her camera into the war rooms of both the Yes and the No campaigns interviewing people on both sides of the issue. As an audience member that means that initially you get a fairly unbiased view of each side's presentation. Although since the one side is calling for stripping a group of people of their human rights and the other side is saying no that's not right, unless you're an advocate for the religious right chances are you're not going to be overly sympathetic to their cause.

I have to admit that when the footage started to include speeches by the proponents of Ballot Measure nine, I skipped to the next scene. Listening to people telling outright lies and propagating hate turns my stomach and I couldn't watch it. Besides, it wasn't anything different from what's been said before or since by people like Pat Robertson and Adolph Hitler. Perhaps what was worse was listening to the stories of the hate crimes carried out against people who were working on the No side of the issue. One woman's horse was attacked with a pitch fork, another found her brake lines cut, and quite a few were physically assaulted.

The person who came out looking the best was then Chief of Police, now mayor of Portland Oregon, Tom Potter. He was genuinely appalled that one community within his city was being specifically targeted for violent actions, and he took steps to ensure that their safety was as guaranteed as possible, as the violence escalated the closer it came to voting day. Of course the leaders of the Yes movement refused to see how their spewing of hatred towards homosexuals could possibly be at the root of the violence.

I think the most unsettling part of the movie was the realization of how little has changed since 1992 when that measure was first proposed. I only have to look at Canada and all the hate that was spewed when the Supreme Court of Canada declared it unconstitutional to ban same sex marriage. In fact our current government tried to pass a "Defence of Religion" law which would have allowed people to discriminate against gays and lesbians if their God told them to. They only backed down when they realized even if they somehow managed to sneak it through parliament, it would be declared unconstitutional the first time it was challenged in court.

Included in the DVD of this film is an update that was filmed in 2007 featuring a core group of people on the No side discussing the after affects of the campaign and the current situation in Oregon. These are intelligent people who aren't afraid to be self critical and point out the problems within the homosexual community and the left in general when it comes these sorts of battles. Maybe I appreciated it so much because it echoed what I said earlier always reacting to someone else's agenda and never setting it.

There is a school of thought among minorities that runs along the lines of, if they don't know we're there they'll leave us alone to live our lives. The problem with that is you become an isolated group that nobody knows anything about and people are willing to believe any lies told about you because they've never had any dealings with people like you. In Medieval Europe, when Jews practised this behaviour, the common lie used to incite hatred against them was that Passover matzoh was made using the blood of virgin gentile girls. As ridiculous as that might sound to us today, it was accepted as the truth back then.

How much different is that from spreading the lie that a child taught by a homosexual will become one, or that gay men are pedophiles? Both are equally as ridiculous as the blood and matzoh story, but they are readily believed today by people who don't have any contact with gays or lesbians.

Ballot Measure 9 is about a plebiscite that took place sixteen years ago in the state of Oregon that tried to strip homosexuals of basic human rights. While the original movie is both shocking and uplifting in places, it's the special features on the DVD that make it important for people to watch now. Reliving past victories is as much an exercise in futility as bemoaning past losses if you don't have the courage to learn from your mistakes.

Nothing was really decided in Oregon in 1992, because there are still those actively trying to strip minorities of their basic human rights. In 2007 Oregon introduced a civil union law which allows gays and lesbians to legally formalize their partnerships. The same group who put forward Ballot Measure 9 are currently working to have a measure included on the upcoming election's ballot revoking that law. If minority groups, especially gays and lesbians, continue to isolate themselves from the community at large they will continue to be vulnerable to attacks like this.

February 4, 2008

Movie Review: Your Mommy Kills Animals

Ever since Greenpeace started photographing pictures of baby seals being clubbed to death during the annual seal hunt in Newfoundland Canada and putting themselves between whaler's harpoons and their prey, the issue of humanity's relationship with the creatures we share the planet with has become an increasingly hot topic. The fur industry, cosmetic industry, soap companies, the food industry, whaling, and companies that use animals in any sort of laboratory testing have all been subject to intense scrutiny, and forced to change their practices due to the activities of groups like Greenpeace and Sea Shepherds.

It wasn't that long ago when it was considered perfectly acceptable for a company to do what ever it wanted to animals when it came to testing if their latest shampoos would make your eyes water. Now of course no one would dream of putting out a shampoo or skin care product which didn't contain the magic words "NO ANIMAL TESTING" or variations on that theme or risk the ire of animal activists. Huntington Life Services found out what that mean as the campaign against them was so successful that it resulted in various corporations across the United States severing ties with it, and the company being forbidden from trading on the New York Stock Exchange.

Like any other emotionally charged issue where people tend to check their brains at the door and have knee jerk responses on both sides of the argument, finding anything approaching a fair and balanced look at the issue has been next to impossible. It hasn't helped matters that the government of the United States has rushed to protect the people that guarantee their elections each year by passing the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act in 2006 making activities affecting the profit making ability of a business conducting animal testing an act of terrorism under the Patriot Act. Heavy-handed reactions like that aren't liable to created conditions conducive to calm and rational debates.
Your Mommy Kills Aminals Poster.jpg
So I was delighted to find that the documentary feature film Your Mommy Kills Animals just released on DVD made a concentrated effort to be as unbiased and even handed as possible. While it's obvious the makers have sympathy for the work done by certain organizations in regards to Animal Welfare, and they regard the prosecution individuals charged and sentenced under the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act as unconstitutional, they do their best to merely observe and report.

The film is not for the fainthearted or squeamish as it contains footage smuggled out of facilities where testing on animals is conducted, and other imagery of cruelty to animals. While it could be argued that including this footage detracts from their impartiality, it is part of the reality that the movie is documenting. They have done their best to keep those scenes to a minimum and keep them in context rather than exploiting the imagery for an agenda.

One of the first things the film makers do is differentiate between the two types of groups working in the United States to alleviate the suffering of animals. Animal Welfare groups, are primarily people and organizations that run shelters and rescue facilities for domesticated and companion animals (pets). Animal activists are the groups whose primary focus is preventing the use of animals in industry; factory farms, the fur industry, medical and cosmetic testing, and what they consider the exploitation of animals for entertainment purposes (zoos and circuses primarily)

The first part of the film is given over to explaining what exactly each group does, and the differences in their approaches to the issue of animal protection. The people who run the shelters and rescue facilities have as their primary concern keeping the animals alive and giving them a safe haven from a world that's treated them badly. Most of these facilities exist as chances of last resort for animals who otherwise would be put down by local or city run animal shelters, or who have been abandoned in the wild by their owners.

These people come across as being just what you'd expect them to be - warm, generous, and compassionate humans who have devoted their lives to care for animals. Something this movie makes abundantly clear is, that in spite of the impression they might give to the contrary the United States Humane Society (USHS) does not run or fund any animal shelters whatsoever. When you give money to them, none of it will find it's way to your city run Humane Society of shelter. In fact the impression one gets of the United States Humane Society is of an organization more concerned with it's image than actually carrying out the business of saving animal lives.

While the animal welfare people come across as intelligent and caring individuals, the animal rights people aren't necessarily as easy to like. The tactics they use are pretty much the same as those used by the anti-abortion groups; demonstrating at employees homes at all hours of the day or night, committing acts of vandalism at facilities that conduct animal testing from graffiti, liberating the animals, and up to and including arson. Their goal is to foster an environment where these companies are unable to conduct business unless they cease animal testing.

Whether we like them or not, they have had a certain amount of success in achieving their goal of making it increasingly difficult for companies to conduct business in the manner in which they were accustomed to. In fact it's their very success which caused the implementation of the new act mentioned earlier in this review. Of the first seven individuals who were charged under that act, six have been found guilty and been sentenced to anything from one to six years in jail and ordered to pay 1 million dollar fines, are all interviewed in this film and don't seem anymore dangerous than you or I.

None of them were charged with actually carrying out any acts of violence, and none of them have taken part in any activities described earlier. They were all charged because of information that was posted at a web site encouraging people to take action against Huntington Life Sciences, in spite of the fact there is no proof linking them directly to the web site's publication. As a person in the film who doesn't agree with their tactics said though, the most troubling part of all this is the fact that they were charged for advocating activities that anti-abortion groups, anti-homosexual and AIDS organizations, and the Klu Klux Klan are allowed to advocate or carry out with impunity. America's cherished constitutional clause guaranteeing free speech seems to be very selective.

You may have noticed that I've not mentioned People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) in this review, and been wondering why a film about animal activism doesn't talk about them. First of all PETA refused to be interviewed for the movie and so they weren't able to rebut any of the accusations levelled against them. It seems that people on both sides of the issue, form the animal rights camp, the animal welfare camp, and the people who argue in favour of animal testing can agree on at least one thing - an intense dislike of PETA.

While most people seem intent on preserving the lives of animals, or making their situation better, PETA has been steadily running up the highest euthanasia percentage among all animal rescue groups. In one year they put down 85% of the animals they took in from shelters instead of either housing them of finding them new homes. We're talking about healthy animals that would have lived years, but PETA decided that it's better to kill them than to keep them penned up. In general PETA is another organization that comes across as being more interested in their status and seeking celebrity endorsements then the welfare of animals.

Your Mommy Kills Animals, the title is taken from that of a "comic" that PETA hands out to children that shows pictures of a rabbit before and after its been skinned that repeatedly states "your mommy kills animals", does its best to give an objective view of the various organizations and individuals who are involved in advocating for a world in which humans treat animals with respect and dignity. While the movie makes no bones about the fact that it considers the terrorist charges brought against individuals within the animal rights movement unconstitutional and a dangerous precedent on the grounds of denial of freedom of speech. it does it's level best to present as impartial a picture as possible. In the end it leaves it up to the viewer to make his or her own decision about the issue after hearing from everyone from mink farmers to Paul Watson founder of Sea Shepherds the anti whaling group.

Unlike a number of current documentaries that are no more than propaganda for a filmmaker's pet issue, Your Mommy Kills Animals does its best to simply document the issue without prejudice.

January 27, 2008

The Case Of The Missing Kyoto Accord: Chapter One

It only took me until noon to decide that I wasn't going to like Monday that week, which usually meant that the rest of the week lay stretched out in front of me as invitingly as a three day old corpse in July on the slab. August in Ottawa was so putrid with humidity that even the politicians have fled the luxury of their expense account lives and mistresses to return to the loving arms of family and constituents.

Obviously that meant a drastic improvement in the air quality for those of us still here. Talk about global warming and the release of dangerous emissions all you want, there's nothing that can compete with the Canadian House of Commons for being a source of C02 and, dependent on what was on the menu at the Commons Cafeteria, other noxious fumes.

I was sitting by the one window in the office that could open with a fan blowing, hoping to capture something cooling from the oozing fetidness that passes for a breeze at this time of year. Damn it, I thought, this is ridiculous. We're in the capital city with coldest mean temperature of any country's seat of power. Moscow may have slightly longer winters, and may even get days colder than Ottawa's coldest, but on average we take the cake.

I had entered into that pre heat stroke daze of semi consciences when the sounds of the phone ringing and someone rapping at the door nearly stopped my heart for good. Un-peeling myself from the back of the chair was a matter moments and allowed me to reach the phone within ten rings and yell to the door "Hold your horses". If I had hoped that standing at the phone would give me time to get what felt like a yard of cotton out of my butt cleavage, I was sorely disappointed.

The voice on the other end of the phone was succinct and to the point. "Where has all the water gone?" was followed by a renewal of the dial tone. Swearing under my breath at phone pranksters abusing old song lyrics I really wasn't prepared for what was waiting behind the door. Considering the circumstances I think my reaction was within reason.

She had to be about 5'9" and her three-inch heels only added to the illusion that her legs went up to her chin. Which should have been physically impossible given what lay between the waist and the long swan-like neck, but go figure. Human anatomy has never been my strong suit, but I could see that she would be a wonderful textbook if I ever decided to broaden my horizons and open my mind to new areas of learning.

I could tell any hopes that I may have had of leafing her pages were minimized by the "Holy Fuck' that had slipped out of my mouth on opening the door. The part of my brain that still functioned realized the longer I stayed there gaping like some slack jawed inbred was reducing the chances of me even getting a peek inside the cover. Even so it took a loud throat clearing on her part to get me to come around

Still not trusting myself to speak I stood aside and bowed her ever so slightly into the room indicating the chair directly across my desk from my own. Following her back across the room I was reminded of why I had put the desk at the point in the room furthest from the door. Of course it didn't do my equilibrium any good, so by the time we sat facing each other across a span of pine veneer, I was quite ready to jump out the window if she demanded.

She looked at me and shook her head slightly, which had the effect of making her ash brown hair float halo like around her face. "All you guys are the same aren't you," she said piercing me with the ice chips that were her steel grey eyes. I all of sudden felt pinned to the back of my chair like a butterfly under glass.

After three false tries I managed to get my voice to squeak out " What brings you here today, Miss, what can I do for you?" Instead of the hoped for steady and reassuring voice that was normally at my disposal, I sounded like I had small cricket in my throat.

She looked at me with a grim little smile that implied she didn't think there was much of anything that I'd be able to help her with, but her options were limited. "First of all it's Mrs. not Miss, Ms. or anything implying availability of any kind what so ever." She paused to see what kind of effect that might have on me. Since I was still too numb to do anything but sit and nod blanked faced, there was nothing to indicate how much or little impact her being married might have affected me.

With a purse of her lips, which could have expressed some mild disappointment in reaction to my seemingly nonchalant attitude about her place on the open market she began to talk again. It turns out this drop dead gorgeous woman is in fact a professor of Marine Biology specializing in ecosystems and other words that just were too many syllables for a day like this.

She talked about a lot of things that didn't make any sense but a picture started to evolve of something terrible happening. The average mean temperature was rising around the world by a degree or so a year, and had been for the last ten year or so. Sure it meant warmer winters, but that meant less snow, which meant less spring melt.

When the spring melt is reduced, the water table is reduced and the level in the rivers and lakes drops. The less ground water there is the lower the likelihood of rain which in turn depletes the water table and the lakes and rivers and so on. She stopped than and I looked at her in horror.

"If it's allowed to continue the climate will continue to change and we'll be living in a desert but worse. A dessert has its own natural ecosystem, but here if there is an enforced desert the first things to go will be the trees, followed by the shrubbery and then finally the smaller plants

Farm crops will be devastated and we will no longer be able to produce basics like corn and wheat in amounts sufficient for feeding ourselves. The animal life won't be able to adapt quickly enough as there won't be time for successful mutations to increase the gene pool and allow evolution to occur."

For the second time that day she had stunned me and left me sitting with my jaw agape. This couldn't be possible was my first thought, but it was of course, even during the ice break-up during the spring the Ottawa River failed to rise to the level it had achieved last year let alone any of the previous ones.

She watched me come to these realizations on my own before she continued, " What I need you to do is find out what happened to the Kyoto accord. Parliament had ratified it in the last administration, but now Steven Harper and his Conservative Party Of Canada have said they are going to renege on our country's commitments to meeting certain reductions in toxic emissions.

We think somebody got to him and is putting pressure on him to do this. There can be no other reason whatsoever to go back on a promise to the world. No one could be that inconsiderate or stupid without having a good reason."

She stopped again and looked straight into my eyes, those grey chips of ice had melted into something sad and scared. "Please find the Kyoto accord and bring it back. It wasn't the best solution in the world but it was the only one we had"

How could I say no to that?

January 20, 2008

Cross Border Finger Pointing

Two seemingly unrelated stories caught my eye in my morning scan through the news at the Globe And Mail newspaper's web site. One was the head of Homeland Security, Michael Chertoff's decision to ignore the wishes of Congress and toughen identification requirements for Canadians entering the United States. The other was the shooting death of an innocent bystander, Hou Chang Mao, on the streets of Toronto.

While at first glance the stories would appear to have nothing in common, there is a certain amount of irony in the fact they appeared on the same day. In the first instance, Mr. Chertoff deemed the threat of terrorist activity with origins in Canada real enough all Canadians entering the United States, and American's returning to Canada, will not only have to carry identification providing proof of citizenship, but an official document, like a driver's licence, bearing their photograph as well.

While Mr. Chertoff doesn't believe these steps will do anything to prevent terrorists from crossing over into Canada he claims that the step needs to be taken now to protect Canada from any backlash if there were a terror attack against the United States. According to him because steps to beef up security are being taken now, if an event happens that can be traced back to Canada, there won't be an overreaction, a demand to shut the border completely.

While I'm sure all Canadians are grateful at his concern for our reputation - I know I am - I fail to see the logic in his statement. If a terrorists were still able to get through in spite of his so-called beefed up security, wouldn't that increase calls for even tighter security, if not a closing of the border? He freely admits that he believes al-Qaeda is actively recruiting people with Western European and Canadian identities in order to circumvent the very obstacles he is suggesting as stepped up security measures, so his logic escapes me.

Funnily enough border security is on the minds of Toronto, Ontario area politicians as well. For the second time in a week, an innocent bystander was killed in a gun battle on the city's streets. Not only has this led to calls for the federal government to ban private ownership of handguns, or at least increase prison sentences for crimes committed with them, but for increased border security to stop the flow of illegal weaponry from the States into Canada.

While handguns aren't illegal in Canada, they are no where near as readily available, or as accessible, here as they are in the United States. This has led to the creation of the idea that there is a constant flow of illegal weapons crossing into Canada from the United States. Whether it's justified or not, this has led to the vision of cars with false bottomed trunks stuffed with side arms streaming across the border supplying Canada's criminal class with the means to stage fire fights on our peaceful streets.

You'd think that with politicians from both sides of the border wanting relatively the same things, assurances that their populations aren't under threat from the other country, that they could come up with a common plan that would work for both of them. But on this side of the border politicians are expressing concerns that asking people to show two pieces of identification instead of one, will cause irreparable harm to business and disrupt the travel plans of Canadians.

Maybe I'm a bit slow, but since these new border requirements are going to be for land crossings only, and a great many people drive from Canada into the United States, how much of a hardship will it be to have to present your driver's licence as well as your birth certificate when crossing the border. I can't see how a border guard looking at two pieces of identification instead of one, is going to, in the words of Canadian Trade Minister David Emerson, "significantly hurt cross border trade".

If that will impeded crossing the border significantly, what do people think that any measures taken to prevent hand guns crossing the border the other way would do? The only way you're going to stop someone from hiding a cache of weapons in their vehicle and taking it across the border is to either know about it in advance or x-ray every car that enters Canada. I can't see even the most zealous of Canadian politicians supporting that last suggestion, as it is bound to have a negative impact on the tourist trade.

So, there's the quandary that our poor politicians have created for themselves. On the one hand they all want to have a free and easy access to each others markets, but on the other hand they both have developed scenarios wherein the other country is depicted as being a threat to security. In their efforts to find somebody to blame for their problems - Canada's lax immigration laws allow terrorists easy access to targets in the United States and America's lax gun laws are flooding the streets of Canada with weaponry - they have created an even bigger problem for themselves. How to be seen to be doing something about the problem they invented without making their solution another problem.

Perhaps they should have been looking for a real solution to their problems in the first place instead of being so quick to blame someone else. What were the root causes of the terrorist attacks (not the reasons spouted by the leadership of al Qaeda but the real ones) and what could be done to address them, and why has there been such an increase in violence in the streets of Toronto? In fact it's one of the saddest commentaries on the whole state of affairs, how two friends like Canada and the United States find it so easy to point the finger of blame at each other for their problems.

Something amazing happened in Canada on September 11th 2001. With American air space closed and flights cancelled there were Americans stranded in Canadian airports all across the country. In every city with an airport people took it upon themselves to drive out to the airport to invite people home with them for the night. To offer comfort to a friend in trouble.

I think politicians on both sides of the border need to remember things like that before they start making wild accusations about whose responsible for what. America is no more responsible for violence in the streets of Toronto than Canada is responsible for terrorist attacks on the United States. Closing the border between our two countries won't change the fact that either event happened or prevent similar events from happening in the future.

January 19, 2008

American Election: What's The Real Issue

Living in the country adjacent to the United States it's only natural that Canadians would take at least a passing interest in the American political process. Most of us did one year of American history somewhere along the way through our secondary school education and know all about your three levels of government; the checks and balances that were supposedly built in to ensure one level didn't gain too much power.

There's also no denying the impact that American policy and leadership have on Canada given our economic and social connections. John F. Kennedy was as inspiring to a generation of politically and socially active people in Canada as he was to Americans of the same period and Canadians mourned his and brother Bobby's murders as if we had lost two of our own. Of course not all of America's leadership have had as positive an impression on Canadians with Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and George Bush Jr. all managing to raise the hackles of the public at large up here for one reason or another.

It was Richard Nixon who first aroused my interest in American politics, specifically his fall from grace with the Watergate scandal. The first book that I read dealing with American politics was Bob Woodward's and Carl Bernstien's All The President's Men, the book that detailed the opening days of their inquiries into a burglary of Democratic headquarters at the Watergate apartment/hotel complex and their subsequent investigations.But the book that really hooked me on American politics was Hunter S. Thompson's Fear And Loathing On The Campaign Trail.

In 1972 Rolling Stone Magazine sent Hunter out to cover the American presidential campaign, starting with the primary season. Fear And Loathing On The Campaign Trail is a collection of all of the articles Thompson wrote during his time traipsing across the country after politicians. Taken together like that they present one of the clearest pictures of life on the campaign trail that will ever be written. Given today's political climate there is no chance that any reporter will ever gain the access to the candidates and his or her people that Hunter had when he wrote his articles.

Fear And Loathing On The Campaign Trail also taught me something else - American politics can be addictive, habit forming, and injurious to your social life. People tend to get a glazed look in their eyes when you start analysing the results of the Iowa caucuses at parties, discoursing on how you think they are going to impact the voting in New Hampshire. They really start looking for the exits when you invite them to start making predictions for "Super Tuesday's" results based on analysis's of voting trends in New Hampshire and Iowa.

It's been a while since I've paid close attention to campaigning south of the Canadian border, but I started to follow along again this year during the Iowa caucuses. I must admit to some surprise at the results, and the first thing I wondered was, what happened to Rudy Giuliani?

In the period after the attacks of September 11th 2001 the Mayor of New York city was being touted as George Bush's successor almost before Bush had even won his second term. Now it seems the only way he gets headlines is with reports on his poor finishes in the primaries and the financial troubles besetting his campaign. Did people get sick of him? Did he peak to early? Obviously I missed something in the lead up to Iowa.

While he claims to still be hopeful of making a comeback, with all the attention on newcomer, another former Arkansas Governor, MIke Huckabee, New Hampshire winner Arizona Senator John Mccain and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney there's not much room left for him in the public eye. Anything less than an all out win in most of the states available on Super Tuesday could well be the end of Giuliani's political aspirations.

Do you remember the seven dwarfs? In 1988 while George Bush Sr. cruised past earnest Bob Dole in the Republican primaries seven Democratic candidates waged a war of attrition to see who would face him in November. Michael Dukakis ended up being the one served up on a platter for Bush to devour. After seven months of bashing each other the Democrats didn't stand a hope in hell of beating a relatively unified Republican party.

This year with three, and if Giuliani stages the miracle comeback he's predicting, four, Republican candidates publicly sparring for months on end, one would think they could be looking at the same bleak scenario with there being only two serious contenders for the Democratic nomination. But with the two Democrats being New York Senator Hilary Clinton, white woman, and Illinois Senator Barack Obama, male African American, precedent and election history are thrown out the window.

No matter which one of them wins the nod to represent the Democratic party they will be going where no one of their gender or race has gone before. No African American or woman has ever run for President of the United States before, and nobody can predict the effect either one of their candidacies will have on the voting population.

Will the thought of a white woman or an African American man as president frighten enough people to the point that anything but campaigns are mounted to ensure people get out and vote for whatever the Republicans nominate? Or will the hope of real change motivate the close to 50% of eligible voters who haven't voted in recent elections to go into the polling booth and vote for whichever one of the two Democrates secures the nomination? (According to an article on voter turnout in Wikipedia , the average turnout for an American election is 54% of eligible voters. Those figures don't take into account the unknown number of people who don't even bother to register to vote)

In a perfect world it wouldn't make a difference what race or gender the candidates were, or their religion either for that matter. (Ask Mitt Romney if being a Mormon has affected his candidacy) But we live in a world that's far from perfect, so we know it will be a factor in both directions. There are people who are going to vote for Mr. Obama for the sole reason that he is Black just as there are people who will vote against him for the same reason. The same is true for Mrs. Clinton in that she is sure to garner votes from women simply because she is the same gender, while others will vote against her because they will not believe that a women should hold a position of such power.

Fairly or unfairly America is going to be judged by the results of this election. In the eyes of a good proportion of the world it won't be won or lost because one candidate has been able to convince the public that they are the better candidate. It will be seen to be won or lost on the issue of race and gender.

If Barack Obama becomes the Democratic nominee and loses it will be because of his race, and if Hilary Clinton loses it will be because she was a woman. But I wonder if people would believe that if they were both running as Republicans and not Democrats? Is it only because they represent what America considers liberal politics that race or gender is an issue? If it were Colin Powell or Condoleezza Rice as the Republican against Al Gore as the Democrat would it still be about race or gender?

Would African Americans or women be inclined to vote as a block for a conservative representative of their race or gender as they appear to be prepared to for a liberal? Probably not given the history of the Republican party on social issues that impact both women and African Americans more than any other segment of the population. If that's the case the argument that the election will come down to a matter of race or gender is flawed.

After George Bush's re-election in 2004 much was made of America's division along liberal and conservative lines. Given that recent history doesn't it make as much sense to consider the two Democratic front runners as penultimate liberal candidates instead of in terms of race and gender?

The 2008 presidential election could very well secure conservative power in the White House for generations with a Republican win as the liberals would have fielded a candidate who epitomized liberal thought in America and failed. But should either Mr. Obama or Mrs. Clinton win in November, the set back to conservatism in America would be equally crippling. Not only will a liberal candidate have been elected president, but it will be one whose very candidacy represents the very essence of liberalism. In either case it will be a long time before either side recovers sufficiently to be a political force.

In reality the only issue that has ever really mattered in recent American elections has been the battle between the conservatives and the liberals for the emotional support of the American people. While race or gender will factor into the final decision this time, its only because both issues are part of the larger conflict between the two political ideologies that dominate American politics.

There are still the rest of the primaries to be run, and the final nominee for each party decided upon, but the battle lines for this election were drawn years ago. Even in 1972 the contest between George McGovern and Richard Nixon was seen as liberal versus conservative, and nothing has changed. The only thing different in this election is that the liberal Democrats are finally going for broke and offering a real alternative to the conservative Republicans.

January 15, 2008

Canadain Book Publisher, Raincoast Books, Stops Publishing

When the Canadian dollar started rising last fall most Canadians were excited at the prospect of being able to purchase consumer goods at cheaper prices. After all if the Canadian dollar was worth more than the American, we should be able to pick up deals on items coming up from the States. While there is truth to that logic, if a Canadian were to buy something that was priced in American dollars they would save money, it doesn't always bear out, and has actually meant hard times for some industries.

Even before the loonie (the Canadian one dollar coin has a picture of a loon on its tail's side and is referred to as a loonie) went above par against U.S. currency there were rumblings of worry from Canadian book publishers. Canadian book buyers have long been accustomed to seeing two prices on the backs of their books; one for the Canadian market, and a less expensive - by about ten to twelve dollars for a hardcover - one for the American market. Since most people have always put that down to the differences in the purchasing value of the two dollars - it was expected that publishers in Canada would be able start cutting their prices.

In reality the worth of the Canadian dollar had little to do with pricing of titles in this country. The biggest single factor dictating price is a simple matter of market size. Quoted in The Globe & Mail, Canada's national newspaper, Carolyn Quinn, executive director of the Association of Canadian Publishers, said that with a potential market of only 33 million people, you have to charge more in the hopes of recouping your outlay, than you would for a market of over 200 million.

In the face of an anticipated consumer revolt though, Canadian publishers have been forced to drop their prices between 25 and 30%. Although that has already translated into a four % increase in sales, and an increase if 3 % in total dollar sales for the fall of 2007, the long term forecast isn't as rosy. It's simple math, you reduce prices by 25%, your revenue drops by 25%. If your total sales is only increasing 3% that means you're taking an actual loss of 22% in total revenue.

While the larger international houses like Random House, Penguin, and others can probably weather this storm, the smaller distributors and publishers won't be as fortunate. In fact the first casualty was just announced. Just last week Raincoast Publishing of British Columbia announced they would no longer be publishing original works, and would be focusing on distributing imported titles only.

While director of marketing and publicity for Raincoast, Jamie Broadhurst, claims it's because 80% of their business comes from distributing American titles, and having to reduce prices by 20% across the board due to public demand is forcing them to cut their publishing division, something about that claim rings a little hollow. According to Roy MacSkimming, author of The Perilous Trade - a history of publishing in Canada - Raincoast has been reducing the publishing arm of its business steadily for the past little while and since a management change a few years ago, they stopped developping any new talent.

Adding fuel to the fire that this bottom line move has been in the works for a while is the fact that Raincoast has co-published the entire Harry Potter series in Canada with Bloomsbury books. In some years this has resulted in Raincoast books having in excess of $70 million in revenues. Harry Potter And The Deathly Hollows has sold 750,000 hardcover copies alone since its publication last July, which is phenomenal considering the size of the Canadian market.

Of course Broadhurst was quick to reassure everyone that they wouldn't be stopping publishing the Potter books, nobody's going to gut the goose that lays the golden egg after all. In the same breath though he said that the money from the Potter books were kept separate from the the other arms of Raincoast, and was used to allow them to become the pre-eminent book distributor in Canada. In other words they had no interest in publishing and were more intent on ensuring the continuation of the far more potentially lucrative business of distributing American and British popular titles.

In Canada book publishers are eligible for support from the Canadian government to help them offset the costs of publishing books in such a small market. But even with programs like the Book Publishing Industry Development Program profit margins are small. Yet that doesn't seem to stop small presses across the country from developing new talent, and publishing books. None of which make anywhere near the return that Harry and his buddies do on a yearly basis for Raincoast.

The Potter books aren't going to be some passing fad either - they have all the makings of a perennial classic, like Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. People will be buying them for generations to come. It would have been quite easy for Raincoast to designate a percentage of the revenue from those sales to underwrite their publishing wing instead of sinking it all back into the distribution of foreign books. It's ironic that foreign owned subsidiaries like Random House Canada, Penguin Canada, and Harper Collins Canada do that with the American best sellers they distribute in Canada, but a so called Canadian publisher won't.

While it's true the increased value of the Canadian dollar will make life difficult for Canadian publishers over the next few years, the decision by Raincoast Books to drop its publishing wing entirely, appears to have been in the works long before the dollar's climb. They have merely seized upon it as a convenient excuse to bring about the end sooner. It's a sad day for books in Canada when a profitable Canadian publisher turns its back on its own authors in favour of distributing foreign works. They really aren't a publisher anymore; just another business importing foreign goods doing nothing to develop Canada's industry or economy.

January 11, 2008

Graphic Novel Review: Attitude Featuring: Stephanie McMillan's Minimum Security

In the days known as P.D. (Pre Doonsbury) political cartoons with human characters were limited to the editorial page and one large square. The only political comic strip in P.D. critical of the status quo that made it into the daily papers was Walt Kelly's Pogo. Periodically it would feature a character based on first President Lyndon Johnson and in latter Richard Nixon. I seem to remember Johnson was a Basset Hound and Nixon a Hyena, both remarkably astute pieces of caricature when it came to the two men in question.

In Canada there were two of what were known as editorial political cartoonists that were head and shoulders above the pack, Aislin, the pen name for Terry Mosher and Duncan Macpherson. I think the fact that I can still remember both of them, and specific pieces of their art from thirty odd years ago speaks volumes as to their style and abilities. Both men considered it open season on politicians of all parties and leanings, and you would have been hard pressed guessing any political allegiances on the part of either man.

In those days the best you could hope for in terms of the mainstream media when it came to political cartoons was that they weren't flag wavers who demonized supposed enemies by depicting them as racial stereotypes. Duncan Macpherson was probably one of the few cartoonists who would draw an Asian face without making it a mask of evil during the height of the Vietnam war.

It wasn't until Garry Trudeau's Doonsbury that a daily comic strip in the mainstream dared to politically agitate against the powers that be. During the Watergate era of Richard Nixon his strip was actually pulled from newspapers across the United States because the content was periodically considered too volatile and he's probably one of the few cartoonists to ever have motions of censor put forward against him in the Senate.
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Thirty plus years later there still aren't many political cartoons to be found on the comic pages of the mainstream press aside from Gary's strip. However, in first the alternative press, and now the Internet, political cartoons of all stripes have sprouted that make Trudeau's strip look tame in comparison. Unfortunately a good many of them, no matter what their politics, really aren't worth the paper or the bandwidth required to produce them.

Thankfully there are people like Stephanie McMillan and her comic Minimum Security that more than compensate for the failings of others. While she makes no secret of her politics and her opinions she takes the time and effort to research her information and creates cartoons that are witty, intelligent, and iconoclastic. In an era when so much of popular culture is designed to perpetuate the status quo Stephanie bravely uses her comic strip to point out that not only doesn't the Emperor have any clothes on, but that the Empire is without substance behind its pretty facade.

She tackles all the expected issues, Iraq, Homeland Security, Global Warming, and Human Rights. However unlike so many others who are apt to say this is bad, and leave it at that, Stephanie goes the step further and not only explains why, but proves it as well. Open the collection of her work, Attitude Featuring: Stephanie McMillan -Minimum Security published by N.B.M. Publishing, to almost any page and you'll see what I mean.

While the boy wonder, George Bush Jr., is called to account by her cartoons for a good many of the problems facing America (and the world) Ms. McMillan is not naive enough to believe that one figure head is the root cause. In some ways Bush is only a symptom of the system that's been nurtured and developed for two hundred and thirty one years. American foreign policy in North and South America has always been predicated on the needs of corporate America, and today's circumstances are merely a continuation of that policy on a world wide basis.

From the days of the United Fruit company's sole proprietorship of the economies of Cuba, Central America, and South America to today's rapacious demands of the petroleum industry, America's military has always been there to open new markets and defend business' right to exploit foreign nationals. Of course it's all justified in the name of democracy, although how installing military dictators like August Pinochet to overthrow an elected government counts as protecting democracy I've never understood.
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Stephanie knows this and depicts Bush as being a tool of the industrial complex and his policies as having less to do with preserving America than preserving the privileges of his class and protecting the interests of corporate America. She doesn't just make wild accusations without supplying proof either. In various cartoons and strips she quotes facts and figures substantiating everything from the drop in real income across America, the widening gap between the rich and the poor, and the ever increasing profits enjoyed by multinational businesses.

But you know what's best about Stephanie McMillan's Minimum Security? It's funny, well at least I found it funny, but for those of you like me who have grown tired of painfully earnest progressive people (and boy do I mean painful) she's a breath of fresh air. Where else are you going to find Bunnista, the revolutionary bunny rabbit who lost an eye to animal testing and has now dedicated himself to "the overthrow of the capitalist/imperialist system by the international Proletariat and revolutionizing all of society based on need rather than profit".

Of course Bunnista has to deal with Bananabelle Skylark who claims there's no need to change the outer world if we but only learn to live in the moment. Social problems are merely a reflection of our inner selves and the world is actually perfect, it's our consciousness that determines our reality. Thankfully, there's also Kranti. She still tries to hand out free plants on earth day to her neighbours, but is aware enough to know that we need to change the way we live if we have a hope of surviving.

The interaction between the three and the world around them lifts the strip out of the polemic and puts it firmly in the land of comics. They allow her to poke gentle fun at the left and some of the didactic that's spouted by people more in love with slogans than actual problem solving. But unlike so many others Kranti and her friends know that things aren't as rosy as Fox Television would like us to believe, and they're doing their best to figure out what to do about it.

Attitude Featuring: Stephanie McMillan Minimum Security is a collection of Ms. McMillan's work from early one panel editorials to some of her more recent cartoon strips. They are funny, wise, not a little bit sad, but most of all, intelligent. Voices of dissent are few and far between these days in the mass media, so to find one as smart and humorous as Stephanie McMillan's Minimum Security is nothing short of miraculous.

December 30, 2007

Book Review: As The World Burns: 50 Simple Things You Can Do To Stay In Denial Derrick Jensen & Stephanie McMillan

The day doesn't go by anymore without there being at least one story in the news that concerns the environment. From either business denials of the Kyoto accord, arguments for and against the validity of global warming, to a story about the latest change in conditions around the world. Today was no exception as American Marine Biologists have moved the polar bear onto the endangered species list primarily due to loss of habitat.

While many animals have been forced into near extinction by our physical encroachment into their natural territories denying them the ability to sustain themselves, the polar bear is the first creature to feel the affects of our indirect influence on an area. The polar ice cap is melting and depriving them of their habitat and hunting grounds. Normally the pack ice would have no trouble supporting the weight of even the largest adult bear allowing it to roam at will hunting for the seal meat it needs to sustain itself. As the ice thins due to rising temperatures they are either drowning or starving to death.

The plague of global warming has extended the reach of our death grip over the planet until now we no longer even need to live in a place in order to kill off its native species. While reports like the one issued by scientists concerning the North may be finally convincing people that global warming is a danger to our planet and life itself, the means to combat it are still being contested by those whose interests demand that the conditions causing global warming continue unabated.
As the danger has increased to the point where it has become an accepted fact by a good percentage of society, there has been a corresponding increase in corporate and political makeovers utilizing code words for environmental friendliness like "Green" and "Natural". If nothing else global warming has been responsible for the development of intensive advertising campaigns as everybody from governments to the oil and gas industry rushes to convince the public that they are doing their bit to save life.

In response to these campaigns, and the various band-aid solutions offered by folk such as Al Gore, author Derrick Jensen and cartoonist Stephanie McMillan have created the new graphic novel As The World Burns: 50 Simple Things You Can Do To Stay In Denial. Published by Seven Stories Press and distributed in Canada by Publishers Group Canada it will hit the shelves of bookstores in January offering truths that make Al Gore's inconveniences pale in comparison.

It's a retelling of the classic "Rome burning while Nero fiddles" story, except now it's the earth that's burning while the human race fiddles. In this case our fiddling consists of all the great ideas and plans that have been proposed as the means to save the planet from our destructive behaviour, and the burning is the death of the planet. While it may sound good in theory to change all your light-bulbs, recycle aluminum and tin cans, walk more and drive less, and buy goods with less packaging, the truth is the actual impact is so negligible that you may as well not bother. The only people benefiting are the manufactures of the light bulbs, and the owners of recycling plants.

The two young girls who are As The World Burns' protagonists are discussing "the list" of things that individuals can do in order to prevent global warming that appeared at the end of an unnamed movie about climate change. While one waxes enthusiastic about it, the other makes increasingly biting, and sarcastic comments. ("You're going like this one - you won't even have to change your lifestyle"... "Well thank goodness for that!!")

But when they sit down and do the math, figuring out how much the actual reduction in carbon dioxide emissions would be, the list just doesn't seem as thrilling as it once was. Even if every single person in the United States were to change all their light-bulbs to fluorescent, cut the amount they drive in half, recycle half of their household waste, inflate their tire pressure to increase gas milage, use low flow shower heads and wash clothes in lower temperature water, adjusts their thermostats two degrees up or down depending on the season, and plants a tree it would result in a one time, twenty-one percent reduction in carbon emissions.
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Even if by some miracle you were able to get every single person in America to actually do all that, there's a problem. America's current emission level is 7.1 billion tons of carbon dioxide every year and increases at a rate of 2 percent per annum. That means, for those with weak math skills, that after ten years levels would be right back where they started from.

At that point in the story the question is asked, why is it individuals are being asked to do all the work when the biggest culprits are industry? If America, and the rest of the world, (Acid rain in Germany is so bad that huge chunks of the Black Forest has been defoliated; Siberia, eastern Germany, and other remnants of the Soviet Union are industrial wastelands; and nobody knows what the environmental cost of the Chinese and Indian economic miracles is going to be) aren't willing or able to change the demands put upon the manufacturing sector for material wealth and mass production, any efforts made by individuals will be in vain.

In our story, As The World Burns, things come to a head when aliens strike a deal with a President of the United States (looking a lot like Ronnie Reagan) that in exchange for lots of gold they get ot eat the planet. The Aliens had been expecting resistance, and were happy to find that humans were only to willing to destroy their own world in order to make a quick profit. Of course this upsets corporate America; weren't they supposed to be allowed to eat the world in exchange for letting the President be President? Something has to be done!

It turns out that the Aliens are afraid of the wild, ("You know Mr. President, the wild, it's kind of like what you see on eco-tours. Trees, bushes, plants, and animals."), but how do you use the wild to fight Aliens? It turns out you don't, but the wild can fight back on it's own, especially if humans are willing to help them. With the survival of earth at stake the animals, trees, and elements feel like they have nothing to lose and throw themselves into the fight no matter what the cost is in life. If they lose this battle, they won't survive much longer anyway.

There's nothing subtle about the message As The World Burns delivers and the majority are going to dismiss it as radical nonsense. As a society we are still too much enamoured of the things that are produced by industry and enthralled by the convenience of our amenities. It's far easier to dismiss the message that our lifestyle is responsible for destroying the planet than it is to even contemplate changing it. Anyway, doesn't everybody say our way of life is the best in the world?

Only dangerous radicals or the very naive would suggest otherwise and recommend governments enact, or even enforce existing environmental regulations, that make a difference in the fight against global warming. Anyway all that would happen is companies would close here and open factories in other countries where the laws aren't as strict and the people are desperate. Of course if all the countries in the world were to prevent a unified front against polluters, they'd have nowhere to run and would have to change their ways if they wanted to stay in business.

It comes down to how much of the planet are we willing to lose? If we don't care about preserving a natural existence at all and seeing how far we can survive artificially without the wildlife that we were entrusted with as caretakers, than the course we are currently following is not a problem. But if we are to have any hope of preserving what's left, and maybe even reversing what's been done, we need to rethink our whole way of being.

As The World Burns: 50 Simple Things You Can Do To Stay In Denial is unabashedly radical in it's call for change, and provides convincing arguments that we aren't doing enough to prevent the destruction of the natural world. The decision is ours - trust the politicians and the leaders of industry who tell us that everything will be fine, or trust our senses; sight, smell, sound, touch, and taste, that tell us the world has changed irrevocably for the worse and that we need to do something about it.

This is definitely not a graphic novel for those looking to escape the troubles of the world, or for those unwilling to accept that we've been wrong all along. Unfortunately it's speaking the truth, and unless more of us are able to realize that fact, the world as we know it will succumb to the rapacious greed of a few and it's very possible that polar bears will be a thing of the past by the time our grandchildren inherit the earth. That's not a legacy I want to leave behind - how about you?

December 3, 2007

Immigrants In Canada And The U.S.: Multiculturalism Vs. The Melting Pot. Pt. Two

This is part two of a look at the supposed differences between the United States and Canada when it comes to the integration of immigrants into our respective societies. Canada has long clung to the designation of a "Cultural Mosaic" while making disparaging comments about the United States being a melting pot. Is that a fair assessment on the part of Canadians, or do they need to watch out for their glasshouses if they're going to throw stones at the Americans. Part Two continues from where Part One left off.

In the year of her centennial, 1967, Canada hosted it's first major international event, The World's Fair –"Man And His World" was both its title and lofty theme. The event was held in Montreal, at the time Canada's largest and most cosmopolitan city. With pavilions from countries all over the world, it was the epitome of a Multicultural celebration, and Canada appeared to be the a leading light in a brave new, multicultural world.

However, Canada is first and foremost a bi-cultural nation – French and English – and in 1967 Quebec nationalism was beginning to crest. "The Quiet Revolution" of French speaking intellectuals and nationalists of the early sixties had divided into two camps. Those who followed the thinking of Pierre Trudeau that Quebec was part of Canada and her problems could be solved at the federal level of politics, and those who believed as Rene Leveque did that only a Quebec separate from the rest of Canada could guarantee the rights of French Canadians.

Bombs set off by the Front de Liberation Quebec (FLQ) had blown up the occasional mailbox in the streets of Quebec since the early 1960s, but had never really been considered a threat to the community. That all changed in the fall of 1970 when they kidnapped Quebec's Minister of Justice, Pierre Laporte, and the British High Commissioner to Quebed, James Cross. When Laporte's corpse was found in the trunk of a car conciliatory talk went out the window and Prime Minister Trudeau invoked the War Measures Act.

A little known clause in the old Canadian Constitution allowed the Prime Minister to suspend the civil liberties of all Canadians in times of dire emergencies and bring the army out into the streets to enforce order. While the authority wasn't abused on the federal level, in Montreal thousands of people were rounded up by the police and held without charges. That some of them were the incumbent mayor's, Jean Drapeau, political opponents in upcoming municipal elections only increased people's anger.

It becomes difficult to lay claim to being a multicultural society when the two largest cultural groups are unable to reconcile their differences. It becomes even more difficult when sudden influxes of visible minorities exposes latent racism lurking just below our civilized, multicultural, surface.

In the early to mid 1970's events in the wider world caused an influxe of visible minorities to enter Canada refugee claimants. In 1973 Idi Amin Dada, supreme ruler of Uganda, took it into his head to expel the entire South East Asian community in his country. Thousands of people were left suddenly bereft of homes and cast adrift into the world.

While the Canadian government opened the country's borders to them, her citizens were another story altogether. It got to the point that it wouldn't matter if you had been one of those misfortunate enough to be a refugee or not; as long you were a certain colour you were considered open season by the red necks and other scum.

People were accosted and beaten in Toronto Ontario's subway cars in full view of fellow passengers - who either were too stunned to help or didn't care enough. The "Paki" joke entered the lexicon of the racist and to this day some (half)-wit will crack up the room with one of those disgusting examples of ignorance – excusing themselves with the disclaimer "that it's only a bit of fun".

Bigots are bigots and there is nothing to be done about them but fighting back by making certain it is obvious, their behaviour is unacceptable. In the city of Toronto and its suburbs, where the majority of the attacks took place, credit has to be given to local politicians for taking practical steps to curtail the attacks. They followed that up by implementing zero tolerance policies to racist activities in the school boards under their control, ensuring that it wasn't going to on the unofficial curriculum of any school.

Even more heartening were the reactions from other minority communities, and faith groups throughout the city, who spoke out against the attacks and the attitude behind them. As it became clear that people were serious about zero tolerance – including not being afraid to press alarm strips installed in subway cars to alert the police an attack was happening, and doing what they could to stop attacks while they were occurring – the physical violence stopped.

Unfortunately there is nothing that can be done about what people think and feel, and the ingrained fears of the different and unknown that are the root cause of racism are still as prevalent today as they were thirty years ago. On the face of it, Canada appears to be a shining example of multicultural tolerance, but there too many worrying trends that give lie to that appearance.

If we were truly so multicultural why are conservative politicians able to score political points by playing on people's fears of the immigrant? Not only are all the old lies still being trotted out: "they steal our jobs", "they leach off our social systems", but new ones have been invented. Let there be one incident of strife within a minority community and you can count on a politician to start bleating about "bringing their wars to our streets" and innocent (read blonde blue-eyed, children) bystanders being caught in the crossfire. They don't bother to mention that 99% of people who come to Canada have done so because those wars have made them refugees, and they want their children to grow up in a place where they aren't potential innocent bystanders.

If it weren't so appalling, it would be amazing to hear how so called pundits are able to equate multiculturalism with nationalism. They play on people's fears by asking them if they want their neighbourhood to turn into another Rwanda or Bosnia, as if hundreds of years of history, and the political and social climate of those two countries, had nothing to do with the events that happened there. They take one grain of truth, ethnic violence happened in those places, and distort it to mean that anytime two or more ethnic groups are gathered in one place you are guaranteed a firestorm.

Therefore, immigration equals multiculturalism; multiculturalism equals nationalism; and the result is fire in the streets and dark skinned barbarians raping lily-white girls. The sad part is that though their words are lies – they succeed in fermenting an atmosphere of intolerance that leads to the death of a pluralistic society. Even sadder is the ease with which they are able to achieve this result.

It means that despite claims to the contrary, Canada is no more tolerant of immigrants and cultural differences then anybody else, including our neighbour to the south. Canada has hidden its intolerance behind a facade of happy ethnic groups performing happy ethnic dances one afternoon a year in the community hall. We've lied to ourselves, or let ourselves be lied to, and called that multiculturalism.

When Jacques Parizeau, the former leader of the Quebec separatist political party, the Parti Quebecois, blurted out that immigrants voting no in the last referendum on separation lost French Canada the chance to separate from Canada, he was pillared in the press. Nevertheless, his attitude was an accurate reflection of what appears to be two, very common, sentiments in Canada – immigrants are to blame and have no business in the business of "our" country.

In the United States, the current administration relied on generating fear of the unknown and the different in order to get the backing of the population for implementing their various policies – domestic and foreign. Anti-American Canadians have taken great joy in ridiculing these attitudes and the intolerance they have fostered. That's what happens, they say, when you try to assimilate everyone – intolerance and fear of the unknown dictate your behaviour.

It's time for Canadians to get off their high horses and wipe that smirk off their faces. For all our claims of tolerance because of preaching multiculturalism, we are no different. The same fears and intolerance exist in Canada as they do in the United States. We can blame it on the recent administration in Canada if we want, but that's as much a lie as any of the others we tell ourselves. If it didn't already exist, the current crop of politicians wouldn't have been able to exploit it so successfully.

We were able to pretend otherwise for a while, but when it has come to the test, our multiculturalism has proven no more effective in creating a pluralistic society than the melting pot of the United States. We are both countries that were built on the backs of immigrants, but the race of the original colonial masters still rule and seems intent on never letting go.

In spite of the differences in name that each country adapted toward its immigration policies – there has been no real difference in result. The prevailing attitude towards immigrants, or anybody different from "us" is that of fear and intolerance. Welcome to Fortress North America.

November 30, 2007

Immigrants In Canada And The United States: Multiculturalism & The Melting Pot Pt.1

What I thought was going to be simple comparison between the multicultural and melting pot immigrant society of Canada and the United States has turned into an overview of the social history of immigration in both countries. Not a topic to be covered in few hundred words, it has become a two part effort, with part two to follow tomorrow

In almost every history textbook that I had from grade school on, the writers would at some point take great pride in pointing out the difference between Canada and the United States of America when it came to its treatment of immigrants. The United States, we were told was a melting pot, where all newcomers were quickly absorbed and assimilated into the quest for The American Dream. Canada, on the other hand was a cultural mosaic, where all the cultures were distinct tiles, making up our big picture.

Aside from some confusion when I was younger, caused by an overactive imagination that had me visualizing the United States boiling immigrants in great big vats a la cannibals in B movies, I understood that this was some vital cultural difference between the two countries. What it was I couldn't exactly tell you: we had Italian Canadians living in neighbourhoods known as Little Italy, and America had Italian Americans living in neighbourhoods known as Little Italy. Not much of a difference is there?

Still every year it kept showing up in text book after text book: Canada is a multicultural mosaic that encourages people to retain their original cultural identity while the United States are an assimilating melting pot where everyone is encouraged to become part of a homogeneous mass. The one thing missing from those textbooks was any sort of explanation as to what the hell they were talking about.

Neither Canada nor the United States started out multicultural. (I'm talking about the socio-political entities that carry those names, not the geographical areas where thousands of thriving cultures existed before their new neighbours annihilated them.) It wasn't until wave after wave of immigrants started washing up on our shores in the later part of the 1800s that the term could have even been considered accurate. Certainly, Canada had its French population left over from the conquering of Quebec by the British, and in America, there were pockets of Creole and Spanish from thefts of land from Mexico and the purchase of Louisiana respectively. But aside from that, both countries were lily white. (I'm not forgetting the slaves; I just don't consider slavery a culture. African Americans have played a huge part in the development of popular culture, but that influence wasn't exerted until the end of slavery and after the great waves of immigration).

What I found especially odd about these great pronouncements in the textbooks was the fact it was never explained how and why each country developed their supposedly different outlooks towards immigrants. Was it even some great policy decision, or did it just end up happening because of circumstances? One explanation was that it was merely a phrase used to describe the overall effect of cramming so many people of different backgrounds into one area.

In the late 19th century, New York City and Chicago were already large population centres by anyone's standards. It's easy to see how somebody could use the term "melting pot" to describe the polyglot of peoples, languages, and cultures that were crammed into the poorer areas of those cities. The cities would have born a remarkable resemblance to cauldrons overflowing with people; melting pots where they all became just more, raw fodder to be fed into the maw of industry. Cultural distinctions would have been lost due to the simple fact of numbers.

There was also the fact that this was a time of growing labour unrest. Workers in all of the industries, from the coalfields out west to the garment factories of the east, began agitating for better working and living conditions. Attempting to discredit the labour movement, industry and government told America that the unrest was the work of foreign agitators intent on disrupting the status quo and bringing America to its knees. (Sound familiar)

"Foreignness", became the mark of somebody who represented a potential threat to the country, and an unwillingness to assimilate was depicted as Un-American. Since the majority of the labour force in the big cities were all recent immigrants – who else was there desperate enough to work the horrendous hours demanded for the little money offered – it was easy to depict union organizers and leaders in that light.

Creating an atmosphere where anybody who held on to their cultural identity – or foreignness- was treated with suspicion, an alternative image to the bomb toting anarchist, trouble making, and union organizing, immigrant was needed. Industry needed the labour force immigrants represented, so couldn't smear them all with the tar of Un-American activity. So they came up with the fully assimilated model, one that thought nothing of working long hours to provide a better life for his children.

The American Dream, that anybody could achieve success and happiness through hard work was born out of that period. Sacrifice your life and health so that your kids might be better off then you are. Working in tandem with the Salvation army preaching suffering will be rewarded in the hereafter, the image of the hardworking, assimilated immigrant, ideally suiting the needs of industry, was created.

As long as you played by those rules, and weren't some ungrateful foreigner who wanted special treatment, after being allowed to come live in the Land Of The Free And The Home Of The Brave, you were considered a good American and properly assimilated. It was a modified version of America's standard foreign policy precept; as long as you do what we want you're a good guy.

During this same period in history, when the Untied States was being flooded with immigrants at Ellis Island, Canada was only receiving a slow trickle of Eastern Europeans and immigrants from the British Isles. The country was in desperate need to populate it's newly formed Prairie Provinces to prevent them from being swallowed up by American expansion, and to pacify the native populations.

In the early days of nationhood, the country had already had to suppress two native and Metis (mixed blood) uprisings led by Louis Riel in first Saskatchewan and then Manitoba. The silver lining of those rebellions was they had hastened the building of the trans-continental railway. Riel and his followers had been able to win their fight in Saskatchewan because the government hadn't been able to get troops out their fast enough to combat them.

Not willing to let that happen again, Canada's first, and third, Prime Minister, Sir John A. MacDonald, made it his personal pledge that a railway would be built that connected the country. He won the first election because of that promise, lost the second because of the corruption involved in attempting to build it, and won the third when it became obvious he was the only one who was going to be able to force the thing to be built.

You can build a railway, but you can't force people to ride on it. Canada began to actively recruit immigrants by sending representatives to countries with similar environments as the Western provinces. Forty acres, a mule, a bag of seed, and free transport (something along those lines anyway) were wealth beyond reckoning for landless peasants in the Ukraine.

They would travel by boat to Montreal, Quebec, be given the deed to their land, vouchers for their goods, and packed onto the first train heading west. A week later, they were standing on their homestead somewhere in the middle of either Alberta, Saskatchewan, or Manitoba – a minimum of a hundred and one miles from the nearest rail line. (One of the deals that lost MacDonald the second election was giving the Canadian Pacific consortium one hundred miles of land on either side of the rail line as payment for building the railroad)

Although the cities did gradually fill up with immigrants, the level of labour unrest in Canada never approached what it did in the U.S. due to the lack of industry. What did ferment couldn't be easily blamed on immigrants (Yankee organizers on the other hand were a great scapegoat), as their numbers weren't sufficient to be a threat. Policies that restricted immigration heavily in favour of people from the British Isles, and a desperate need for population growth would have made it counter productive anyway.

Visible minorities were kept to a minimum because of draconian head tax laws that required Asians and Indians pay for each member of their family brought over so they never appeared to be a "problem". Therefore, Canada never really experienced the influx of immigration that the United States did, until after World War Two.

Even then, it was often a matter of the government actively searching to fill a void in our labour market. For the building of the St. Lawrence Seaway, the Toronto Subway System, and the rest of the construction boom of the 1950's, the country needed a fast influx of skilled labourers. Since Canada was doing the soliciting, and not the other way around, there was never going to be a question of demonizing the immigrant, and with worker's rights firmly entrenched, there wasn't any reason to.

Up through the 1960's it was easy to portray Canada as a happy, multicultural paradise without having to do anything but leave people alone. Slavery had been abolished in Canada long before it had in the United States meaning we never had the civil rights battles here that divided America. We had safely stowed our Natives on reservations that kept them out of site and mind, and bigotry was polite and British; it never showed on the surface – because it wasn't proper. All that would change in the seventies because of events in the outside world.

This is the end of part one of my look at Immigration and Multiculturalism in Canada and the United States

November 13, 2007

Blissful Ignorance

Anybody who has ever experienced the loss of someone they loved dearly probably understands the feeling of wondering why the world didn't come to a screeching halt with the person's death. How can it be business as usual when he's dead? What does it matter what the latest gossip is about some Hollywood or Bollywood star when she's dead?

Well that's how I feel all the time. How can people be so complacent in the face of what we are putting the planet and her people through? In North America I'd hazard a guess and say the nine out of ten people are somehow actively hastening the destruction. Every time one person climbs behind the wheel of an SUV to just drive around the city by themselves they are increasing the demand for fuel and replacing oxygen in the air with carbon dioxide.

How about living in a world where we reached critical mass in population years ago, but millions of people still believe that practicing birth control of any kind is sinful. Isn't it a worse sin to have children come into a world where they are not wanted or there isn't enough food to feed them? How many children die of starvation each day? How many are neglected, emotionally, physically, or sexually abused because there's nobody who cares anymore?

In 2005 the world watched in horror as first New Orleans was devastated by Hurricane Katrina that forced thousands upon thousands of people to become refugees. Three months latter the Indian Ocean exploded with tsunami that destroyed villages and coastal towns forcing hundreds of thousands of people into temporary camps and shelters. Concert were given, speeches were made, and money was raised to try and help the people in both locations rebuilt their lives.

Instead of housing being rebuilt and lives resurrected the land where fishing villages have stood for generations is being sold to developers to make hotel /condominium complexes that cater to the rich tourist trade. This government sanctioned land theft (a government official in India called it a "golden opportunity") is echoed in New Orleans where the city is refusing to repair any flood damage until people come home.

But how can people come home if they have no homes, and no infrastructure to serve them. According to Naomi Klein in her book The Shock Doctrine if the government has their way the people will never come home and the whole area will be converted into private housing well out of the range of it's original inhabitants' pocketbooks.

Is anybody keeping track of all the countries where we are killing each other? Iraq and Afghanistan of course come to mind first because we in the West are involved in those ones so they "merit" our attention. Does anybody remember the reason that George had for invading Iraq – Weapons of Mass Destruction that nobody has yet to find a trace of.

Has anybody asked why George is so determined to keep spending the lives of his citizens on a daily basis in Iraq? It wouldn't be because they haven't finished stripping the country of all her assets could it. That they aren't going to leave until they've sold off every scrap of useful property and service to the people who bought him power has become increasingly obvious to everybody but the United States public.

Over the years, North Americas have perfected the ability to be completely self-absorbed and ignorant of the world around them. Until of course the minute it affects them. We hide behind our gadgets and our noise so that we can't see or hear anything around us until its far too late and somebody flies an airplane into our buildings.

It's our behaviour out in the rest of the world, or at least the behaviour of those whom people take to be our representatives that goes a long way towards creating resentment. When the multinationals come in and strip mine a country of its natural resources the locals don't think too fondly of them or the country they come from.

Since they were allowed into the country in the first place because the International Monetary Fund (IMF) made the government sell off nationally owned assets at a penny to the dollar there's bound to be a little local resentment. Especially since the IMF also makes governments stop spending money on infrastructure and social services like education and health.

Yet, I'm sure if you were to ask, the majority of people in North America would have no idea that the IMF policies worked to take money out of the countries they were supposed to be helping. If we don't become aware of what's being done by agencies in the control of our governments to other countries soon we won't understand why they are so upset with us half the time.

I don't believe I have any special powers, or am I super intelligent, but I try to keep myself up to date about what is happening in the world. Doing so makes me realize that while not on the verge of complete disaster, our situation is precarious. It also makes me want to walk down the street shaking people to let know that there is something beyond their iPods and iPhones that they need to start worrying about.

November 2, 2007

No More Conversations

Don't you just hate people who force themselves upon you when you want to be left alone? You're sitting somewhere reading a book or just taking some quiet time and they come tromping up and start yakking away at you without even asking if you want company. They assume because you are sitting by yourself that you need to be rescued from the misery of sitting alone.

Of course these are the same people who when asking, "How are you?" are really saying "I'm going to tell you about my life whether you like it or not". So not only do they interrupt your peace and solitude they then proceed to tell you in piteous tones about how horrible their life is. Once started nothing can dissuade them from their path either; you could get out your book and start reading it again and they would still assume that at least a part of you was paying attention to them.

When you finally surrender to the inevitable and get up to leave, they say with complete sincerity, "It was great talking with you". The fact that it should have been "talking at you" has of course completely escaped their notice. But then what did you expect; a conversation that ran two ways?

According to my friends at Funk & Wagnalls Standard Dictionary a conversation is an informal talk with another or others. The key word in that sentence is in my opinion "with". Nowhere does it say anything about "an informal talk to" others where one party simply holds forth while all others are supposed to listen. I don't about anybody else but where I come from that sort of thing is called a lecture, or if you're being generous a monologue.

How many supposed conversations have you taken part in recently where your sole job is to be the listener? In fact if dare to interject your own opinion on a subject you're treated with a look that could cause paint to bubble and peal. If that weren't bad enough, there's the opposite end of the spectrum where your "opponent" treats a conversation like a game of chess, and he or she keep trying to outmanoeuvre you so they can win by ensuring they have the last word on every subject.

Of course there is also the more common non-conversation –conversation where everyone seems in competition to see who can say as little as possible using as many words as possible? These chats usually start with the common inanities about weather and never get much deeper then that. You might get some in depth commentary on the state of ring tones, or which camera phone is best but if you're looking for anything of substance... your best off looking elsewhere

It wouldn't be so bad if most of these conversations weren't carried out by intelligent people who have a lot on the ball and could probably offer intelligent perspectives on most of today's issues if they cared to. What's truly unfortunate is that far too many people have begun to believe that to show you're smart or even informed is a bad thing.

It used to be only women felt like they had to dumb themselves down in order not to scare the men in their lives. While some men have gotten over that particular fear, society itself seems to have come over all nervous about people with intelligence. While being obviously smart has never made anyone very popular, it never used to make you quite the object of scorn and ridicule that you are now a days. In fact being smart has almost been made out as some thing abnormal and dangerous. Hey the bad guys in movies are always evil geniuses who end up being "out smarted" by the simple, but right thinking, good guy.

Now with everything being played to the lowest common denominator, from popular culture to political policy, showing yourself to have a brain has become even less desirable. Understandably people don't want to make public displays of intelligence among their peer groups when there is the very real possibility of being ostracized.

I find it ironic that in these days of high tech communication where we can transmit messages instantaneously across thousands of miles that something as simple as talking the person beside you has become increasingly difficult. Maybe it's because we don't have as much human contact as we once did, or maybe it's because we have so many more things to pass the time with that we simply don't bother to develop the skills that allow us to communicate verbally – or practice them enough so that they are refined for use.

Whatever the reason all I know is that it's becoming harder and harder to find people who you can talk with. Conversations have become a thing of the past with people either using them as excuses for monologues or as vehicles to exchange inanities.

October 28, 2007

Book Review: War With No End Various Authors

I don't make any secret of my politics and the label most people would a fix to me would be left of (insert name of person furthest to the left you can think of) but you would probably be wrong. You see I usually end up despising the folk on the left almost as much as I do those on the right; if it weren't for that I tend to less violently disagree with the left than the right it would be a draw.

My problem with all political beings is the fact that they are political beings and forget that the majority of us aren't. Most of us are just trying to get by in a world that is getting increasingly fucked up with each passing day. The problems of the world are not going to be solved because one person's philosophy is more suited than another's to the circumstances we find ourselves in as a species. Political pundits on either side of the pendulum are those who are too stupid to have understood the lessons two thousand years of history have taught about political ideology's total irrelevancy to living.

Where I tend to agree with the left is the fact that they don't like the actions of the right. They don't agree with the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan, neither do I. The problem is that they suffer from the same problem as the right in thinking that they know what's best for other people, their ideas and solutions are the only ones that are viable and everything else should be disregarded as heretical and dangerous.

This has been one of the main reasons that I've avoided reading the majority of what has been written over the last five years in terms of writings against the policies of the Team Bush & Blair. I already know whom to blame for what's going on thank you very much, so who needs to hear it repeatedly. It's just as tedious as having to listen to Bush, Blair, and company reciting their mantras of blame and self-righteous horseshit.

So far the only books I've read about the occupation that have made any sense are the novel The Sirens Of Baghdad by Yasmina Khadra and a collection of essays, poems, and other writings published by Perceval Press called Twilight Of Empire: Responses To Occupation. What separated these two works from others was they were more concerned with talking about the situation on the ground then talking about whom to blame, who benefited, or a world wide capitalist/leftist-Muslim conspiracy.
When I decided to give War With No End , published by Verso Books and distributed by Penguin Canada, a try it was in the hopes that because it followed a similar format as Twilight Of Empire it would be as diverse a presentation. A variety of authors from different professional backgrounds; academic, artistic, and journalism, have the potential for making an anthology less political and more personal in content.

It's hard to believe now, but there was a time when Israel was the darling of the left. What with her collective farms and socialist governments she was one of the few left leaning countries that weren't under Soviet influence in the fifties and sixties. Now of course all the problems of the Middle East stem from Israel, her ambitions, and her ties to the United States.

I don't have much love the Likud party or the path of self destruction that the past few governments seem to have embarked on with their intransigence on issues, but that doesn't make the country evil anymore then George Bush makes America a nation of dangerous religious fanatics. Maybe I'm a little sensitive about the issue because I'm a Jew, but I'm sorely tempted to grab the next asshole that blames all the world's problems on Israel, paint a Swastika on his chest and put a white hood over his head and dump him on the South Side of Chicago.

It must be some sort of reflex action on certain people's part, they're writing along making an intelligent argument in their case about Iraq, when all of a sudden its Israel's fault. Look, I know Israel has been pretty stupid about settlers and the whole issue of Palestine, but they weren't the ones who invaded their neighbours with the express purpose of driving the "Jews into the sea" on a regular basis for a couple of decades.

That's bound to make you a little paranoid after a while and a little mistrustful. Everyone is always quick to say that they know there are members of the Israeli population who don't support the government's policy, but they don't seem to mention what would happen to people in Syria who openly defy their government about policy? Do you think there would be Peace Now demonstrations in Damascus when Syria was fighting Israel as there have been when Israel is at war?

So I was disappointed to find a couple of otherwise intelligent essays by Arundhati Roy and Ahdaf Soueif descending into that usual territory. Soueif's essay especially, as it had started out as an intelligent and insightful look at Arab identity, the disintegration of Egyptian culture, and the gradual intellectual impoverishing of the nation due to the many years of one party/military rule.

On the other hand the essay by Haifa Zangana about the role of song and poetry in the life of Iraq, and more specifically in it's vocalization of protest against the occupation of Iraq by the Americans and its allies gives a clearer picture of the lengths that the administration will go to maintain control. Even more telling are his descriptions of the desperate to the point of being ridiculous if they weren't so heavy handed and disgusting, actions of the occupying administration to shut down the music industry. They've yet to make singing illegal but have done everything short of that to try and make sure no one hears any of the protest songs.

It started with shutting down local media outlets, escalated into raiding recording studios, and finally has resulted in attacks on any store suspected of selling CDs, music DVDs, and videos. Sometimes it's the coalition troops involved in raiding record stores, but more often then not, they get mercenaries to do the job and make the owner disappear without a trace.

The other two contributions that helped to elevate this from being merely another series of political knee jerks on somebody's behalf were Joe Sacco's mini graphic novel "Down! Up!", and the contribution from the group September 11th Families For Peaceful Tomorrows. Sacco's piece is a great piece of black humour on the efforts of two Marine "lifer" sergeants attempts to turn uneducated, poor, middle aged Iraqis into the fighting force Bush has declared must be in place before American troops can withdraw. It's a brilliant example of satire, black humour, and sobering pathos that gives us some idea of the futility of creating local security forces.

There is nothing remotely funny about the contribution from one of the many people who lost a child on September 11th whose motto "Not In Our Names" does more to undermine the moral high ground that Bush and company have tried to seize through invoking those deaths then any speech or simplistic rhetoric could even dream of.. This piece makes the rest of the book meaningless, and elevates it beyond anything political rhetoric could ever hope to achieve.

At one point near the end of her contribution she talks of how her son Stephen, who died on September 11th, sat at a conference table with a group of other people sharing a phone so they could leave messages of love to those who they knew they would be leaving behind. There was no talk of vengeance or hatred – just love. She goes on to say that is the legacy she works to keep alive - the legacy of love.

She talks of how there are times when the temptation to despair is overwhelming, but that she is given hope by those people who won't let go of the belief that the world can be a beautiful place for all it's peoples. I wonder if she realizes what a beacon of hope she is with her ability to hold on to love after what has happened to her? Does she know what a high standard she is setting for the rest of us to live up to?

Could I talk like her if a loved one had been taken from me by violence? I'd like to think so but I don't know, and quite frankly don't want to find out anytime soon. If more of North America thought like her and less like George Bush I don't think we'd have quite the number of problems we have in the world right now.

War With No End is a collection of essays ostensibly about the War On Terror, but it seems to bounce all over the place and not keep to its central focus save for a couple of the essays. As is typical of the majority of anti-war, leftist writing these days too much of it is filled with as much anger and hatred as the rhetoric of those they claim to oppose.

Thankfully there are still a few voices out there who are able to lift themselves out of that quagmire and offer a perspective that doesn't depend on ideology or an ism for its survival – now that's a real policy alternative.

October 26, 2007

Canadian Politics: Intolerance Rising

When you witness a sudden change in the attitudes of a majority of people in your community it raises a number of questions. The first question you are bound to ask is how could so many people change their minds so fast. Perhaps what you should be asking yourself though is not why or how the change happened, but how much of a change was it really. What might have looked on the surface to be the truth about people's beliefs had no real depth and was as easily dispersed as topsoil in a dust bowl.

Canada has developed a reputation as being a tolerant country over the years and seemingly has some of the most liberal attitudes on issues of race, sexual identity, and gender discrimination. Ever since the implementation of the Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms in 1980 any legislation or activity that would allow for the discrimination of anyone based on race, gender, religion, creed, or sexual preferences have been successfully challenged and overturned.

When this has been combined with Canada's willingness to support progressive legislation in the health care field like supplying patients with medical marijuana and our former reputation as Nobel Prize for Peace winner because of peacekeeping efforts it certainly makes us appear to a kind and compassionate country. But there's a difference between what can be legislated and what are the genuine feelings of a people.

As long as people aren't confronted with situations that stretch there tolerances, they usually are able to live up to the laws of the land. Unfortunately, it looks like Canada's famous tolerance was only skin deep and at the first sign of trouble has up and vanished. Currently it's the ugly smell of racism mixed with xenophobia that's wafting around the halls of power and the streets of cities, towns, and villages.

It started innocently enough with Elections Canada, the government agency responsible for administering elections, declaring that Muslim women wouldn't have to remove their veil in order to vote, in spite of their being a new law in place requiring picture identification in order to vote. Elections Canada was willing to make an exception to this law in order to respect the traditions of devout Muslims if they did not feel comfortable revealing their faces in public.

In response Prime Minister Steven Harper came out and said he "profoundly disagreed with this decision" and that he hoped Elections Canada would change their mind. It was Harper's government that passed the new legislation, demanding visual identification of voters, so it's not surprising he'd object to the decision.

While in of itself this seems more like an etiquette decision, how to accommodate someone's religious beliefs in a situation where they come into conflict with the law, it should be asked why wasn't this issue considered when the legislation was being created. Secondly, in the past when this type of conflict has arisen, governments have acted with a little more flexibility then Stephen Harper is it this situation.

When the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) first started taking Sikhs on as officers, it was decided that they could wear their turbans instead of the regular headgear, as it would not interfere with their ability to do their job. On the other hand Sikhs who took construction jobs would have to wear a hard had. Instead of showing any sensitivity to the needs of another's religious belief, and trying to find a compromise like was achieved in the case of Sikhs, it can only be all or nothing for Mr. Harper.

Of course as is the case with most politics, there is a subtext that might help explain his stance and the lack of anything being said by the opposition in answer to his statement. It has to do with the current political situation in Quebec, where they are experiencing a sharp increase in xenophobia. When the small town of Herouxville Quebec passed bylaws prohibiting the wearing of the bukra, and stoning as forms of punishment, just in case they ever had to deal with hoards of Muslim immigrants, they were looked upon as a group of intolerable red neck bigots.

But, in the last provincial election, the party who ran on a nationalistic/protect us from the immigrants/ platform ended up in opposition in a minority government situation. Although the Premier spoke out against xenophobia he formed a commission of inquiry to go from community to community to let these bigots have their say in public. So now, all levels of government feel like they have to try and appease these folks and reassure them that if the Muslims invade Quebec disguised as immigrants looking for a better life, they won't be given any special treatment.

Did I mention that there were three seats being contested in by-elections in Quebec right about now as well? Do you think that may have anything to do with any of these signals being sent out to the ultra nationalists in Quebec?

While the whole issue of whether an Islamic women be asked to remove her veil for identification purposes before voting may seem trivial. (We never had to produce any identification at all to vote in Canada except proof that you were on the voters list and that makes me wonder about the validity of the new law requesting ID anyway) However, against the new background of fear mongering and xenophobia that is beginning to fester in Quebec and elsewhere it takes on the appearance of being a symptom of a growing intolerance to anybody who is different.

What kind of message do we send when even the slightest accommodation for another's religious practices is called wrong? Where has our tolerance gone for another person's differences, or did they even exist in the first place? Fear of something because you don't understand it is the behaviour of a coward, and intolerance is the coward's defence against fear. Are we a country of cowards?

October 12, 2007

A Late Night Walk

It was late, but that was okay, he'd walked home by himself plenty of times and never had any problems. He was always amazed when people asked him if he felt safe. What was there to feel unsafe about? He had confidence in his abilities to look after himself even if no one else did?

Anyway, he liked it when the streets were empty, there was something almost romantic about a small city late at night when there's no traffic or people. Looking down the long expanse of two lane cracked asphalt that disappeared into a horizon line he felt like he could be in any small city in North America. There was something about the scrawny trees that littered the edge of the sidewalk in front of ubiquitous concrete block low rises that said small town like nothing else could.

From the abandoned bank across the street from the 7-11 to the row of pizza joints taking up the next block, he was certain this stretch of road existed in cities across the continent. Even the glimpses of tree lined side streets offered when stopping at intersections was probably an echo of the same scene on another street in another town.

So, no, he wasn't worried about being out late at night. Even when he caught a glimpse of her out of his peripheral vision standing on the sidewalk across the street he wasn't concerned. Just another person out for a walk after was a nice night for it and he couldn't be the only person in town who didn't like the noise and bustle of the street during the day.

So, he was startled when her voice sounded only steps away from him on the sidewalk. Somehow, she had crossed the street and come up behind him without him even noticing.

"Hey, what you doing?"

The smell of booze on her breath was so strong that he could feel his eyes starting to smart. If he wasn't careful they could start to water, and she might think they were tears and take it as a sign of weakness. He was used to being accosted by drunks, but normally it was when he was with a crowd of other guys and the girl was being egged on by her buddies to go and pick one of them up.

"I'm walking" he said and kept suiting the action to the words.

"Hey, whaz' you hurry" she said. The slight slurring of the words might have made them sound more belligerent then was intended, but there was no mistaking the aggressive attitude behind them. "Maybe ya wan' some company?"

"No, I like to walk by myself thanks" he said keeping walking but also being careful not to pick up speed no matter how much he wanted to. She sounded the type who would take that as an invitation – an invitation to what he didn't know, but not one that he was prepared to offer.

"Well, okay... "Her voice trailed away, and for a moment she stopped and he thought she had taken the hint to bugger off and leave him alone. But then she was right beside him, and her smell; booze, sweat, and cigarettes was almost overpowering. He was sure he was going to retch if he wasn't careful.

"Lissen, ya wanna come back ta my place for a drink. I don't live too far, ya know, stay for a drink and then finish walkin' alone". She was trying to angle her body to make him stop walking but he was able to keep moving without running into her by moving over on the sidewalk slightly and walking on a bit of a diagonal.

"I don't drink," he said in what he hoped was as neutral a tone as possible. He was starting to feel more then a little nervous now. She seemed drunk enough that if he out and out rejected her for no what looked like no reason she just might get violent.

"What d'ya mean, a good lookin' guy like ya not drinkin'? She reached out and grabbed his arm to try and turn him around so that he was facing her. The touch of her fingers on his arm triggered the anger he needed for the strength to deal with her.

"Don't you dare touch me" he yelled turning on her with his eyes flashing. He stared at her for a second longer and then spun away and began walking briskly up the street. Still restraining himself from obviously hurrying, he still set a good pace. He kept his ears open for any sound of pursuit and at first he heard nothing, but then he heard her start walking.

She followed him all the way up town to the all night coffee shop he was headed for; he was getting a biscuit to snack on when he got home. When he got to the shop, she stayed out in the parking lot wandering around while he went in. The woman behind the counter knew him well enough to know something was wrong, and he told her about being followed and the drunk outside. The last thing she wanted was to have her follow him home and know where he lived.

He was still chatting with them when she burst in through the front door and walked up to the counter. She looked at him and then at the woman behind the counter and said, " Is there a problem here?"

He looked at her for a second, and then with steel in his voice said "If you try to follow me from this store I'm going to kill you. I will beat you senseless and leave you lying in a puddle of your own blood and guts for the street cleaners to pick up with all the other fucking garbage in the morning. So if you know what's good for you, you'll fuck off right now".

The woman looked at her for a second, and then swearing under her breath she headed for the doors, as she got to them she looked back and snapped, "frigid bastard".

He stood at the counter shaking; he was so angry and upset. The woman who had been behind the counter grabbed a broom and pretended to be sweeping the store by the plate glass windows facing out into the parking lot. She was making sure that the drunk had vanished. She turned back and said, "She's gone, I see her crossing the street and heading back downtown again...yeah, she's out of sight".

He quickly paid for his biscuit and thanked the woman for her help, and she smiled.

"Honey, I wouldn't have messed with you if you had yelled at me like that. You didn't need anyone to protect you from scum like that."


"Have a good night"

"You too"

Of course that would never happen to a man, but incidents like that and far worse happen to women all the time. Shouldn't the quite times of the night belong to everyone?

October 10, 2007

The Politics Of Fear

Have you ever noticed how there's nothing like an election campaign to bring out the absolute worst in people? Politicians are prostitutes for power most of the time, but that's nothing compared to what they're like when seeking office. It's bad enough if they've never been in power, but give them a taste, and they're worse then a junkie desperate for a fix.

Look at how wild eyed they start getting near the end of a close campaign; they're going to promise just about anything and everything to get those few votes they think might put them over the edge. I know our system is different up here in Canada from those elsewhere in the world, we still run on the old constitutional monarchy, federalist system, but politicians are the same the world over no matter what the circumstances.

In fact, it's safe to say that one thing every society on the face of the earth has in common is a power hungry politician. It doesn't matter if it's a military dictatorship or some sort of democracy, those in power will do anything they can to stay in power. Believe me if the guys in Ottawa, or anywhere else in the world where they have elections, could figure out how they could use the army to avoid an election they would.

Seriously though, look at politicians' behaviour during elections; what are their two favourite tactics? They either smear their opponent with so much dirt that he or she looks like they have been wallowing with pigs all their lives, or they play on the voters worst fears. The quickest way to cast aspersions on your opponent is to tell the voters that he or she will make their worst fears come true, and that only you can keep them safe.

It doesn't matter whether the danger even exists, in fact it's best if you have to warn them of the dangers that will beset them if your opponent wins. If you hadn't told them they would have never known your opponent was prepared to let child molesters teach their children – something that you would never let happen when you win with a majority.

For those of you who think that's a little over the top, let me remind you of what George Bush senior did in the 1988 election to Michael Dukakis. One prisoner who was paroled when Dukakis was Governor of Massachusettes re-offended. Of course, it didn't hurt that the man in question was black, because that played on all the worst prejudices and fears. All of sudden if Dukakis were elected President nobody's lily-white daughter would be safe from mean black rapists prowling the streets.

Lest anyone think I'm picking only on American politicians, Canadians are no better. Hell for all our reputation as being polite, political campaigning up here is just as ugly and nasty as anywhere else. The province I live in, Ontario, is in the midst of an election to see who will rule for the next four years. Although there are four parties officially in the running, Liberal, Progressive Conservative (PC), New Democratic Party (NDP), and the Greens, it's ultimately a fight between the Liberals and the Progressive Conservatives for top prize. (Quick note: The Prime Minister of Canada's Conservative Party of Canada is so universally hated in Ontario that Ontario conservatives chose to retain the party's old name to put as much distance as possible between themselves and his social policies; hence Progressive Conservative).

The PC party has been out of power for almost a decade now and they're really feeling antsy and mean. So they've decided to make the whole election about leadership and who is best suited to run the province – their guy who's never held public office, or the Liberal whose been premier for almost ten years. Since logic won't win that battle, they've gone for scare tactics instead.

You would think that telling everyone to circle the wagons because renegade Redskins are on the war path would be a little dated, but that's their tactic and it might just play well enough in some parts of the province to win them extra seats. About one hundred-and fifty years ago, the province of Ontario leased treaty lands from Mohawks across Southwest and South-East Ontario. Some how or other it slipped their minds that they didn't own the land and have had a grand old time selling it off to developers to build everything from gravel pits to housing developments.

In the past two years, this has blown up in their faces with Mohawks occupying a building site just outside of Caledonia Ontario in Western Ontario, and blockading the highways in Eastern Ontario in protest over the sale of treaty lands to developers. Since treaty disputes fall under the auspices of the federal government to resolve, there's not much the province can do except to try and make sure the situation doesn't get too ugly.

The people who have paid for homes and are still waiting for them to be built aren't thrilled and neither are the developers who can't finish the homes. They need someone to blame for their troubles, and the PCs are more than willing to point the finger at the Liberals for them.

By saying things like real leadership would uphold the law, they are letting the people know they wouldn't let a bunch of pesky Redskins hold up a housing development. Then they point to the blockades happening in the other parts of the province and say, look what happens if you give these people an inch, they'll take a mile. Who know what will happen if you don't elect us, they could come after your house tomorrow!

I find it amazing that with all the real issues that face most western societies these days, like jobs and housing, that modern political parties can still play the race card and fear of "others" so successfully. But then again nobody has ever accused a politician of having a conscience when it comes to trying to win power.

With the primaries getting into full swing in the United States, and Canada probably heading for a federal election within the next year, it will be interesting to see how much low people are going to be willing to stoop to gain power. We'll probably soon hear all about how much Hilary Clinton hates American soldiers, or how much Prime Minister Steven Harper hates everybody whose not white Anglo-Saxon, as everybody tries to find a way of making us fear their opponents.

Wouldn't it be nice if somebody tried to convince us of why we should like and trust them, instead of why we should fear and distrust their opponents? Maybe that's why so few people vote anymore – politicians don't even like themselves enough to give people reasons to vote for them.

October 4, 2007

October Second: International Day Of Non-Violence

I received an interesting Press Release through the email the other day from an Arts publicity organization in India. It was announcing a special performance of the score to the movie about the life of The Mahatma – Gandhi – in honour of the United Nations declaring October 2nd, his birthday, International Non-Violence Day.

I have to say that I'm having an extremely hard time with that proclamation: International Non – Violence Day. The only thing I can think of is that some bright spark at the U.N. figured they could kill two birds with one stone by honouring Gandhi's birthday and throwing a bone to India in recognition of their new status as rising economic power. Aside from that I can't think of any other reason for even considering such a meaningless gesture.

You don't have to look very far to see how empty the proclamation is. I'm not even referring to any of the wars that are currently ongoing around the globe right now, or the actions of oppressive governments everywhere to curtail the rights of their peoples. Sure they all reflect badly on our ability to live in peace or to be considered advocates for a non-violent life, but they are only symptoms of a deeper-seated malaise.

As a species, our predilection for violence amongst ourselves probably started the first time one group of early men thought that another's hunting territory was better. There was never any thought of seeing whether the two groups combing forces and sharing the territory in an effort to feed both tribes might not be to everybody's benefit. No it's always "us" or "them" with never any thought given to "we".

Of course when the empire builders started up, Phillip of Macedonia and his son Alexander, who were followed eventually by the first great Western Empire –Rome it meant whole new reasons for fighting. Most of them had less to do with the survival of the tribe and more to do with personal glory, although those who fought against Rome would have thought of their war as battles for survival more then anything else.

Once these guys had set the precedent of trying to make the world a better place by giving everyone the present of civilization whether they liked it or not, because we know what's good for you even if you don't, you ignorant, barbarian savages, everyone decided they wanted to take a stab at it.

The Mongol Hordes in the East, under the various Khans taught everyone the value of fierceness and swordplay from the back of a horse. The Islamic world got it's own back for the Crusades by invading and occupying great chunks of Europe and keeping the West out of the Middle East from 1200 until the end of World War One.. While in Europe itself first the Spanish, and then the French took turns in occupying most of Central and Western Europe. And when they fell back the Austro-Hungarian Empire took over until the end of World War One.

Of course that doesn't even begin to cover what was going on outside of Europe when they discovered there were other countries that needed the benefits of a good Christian/Muslim upbringing. From the Western Hemisphere to the Indian Ocean and China, colonial empires expanded and contracted with the passing of the years. There were also the Civil wars that tore countries apart because of differences in opinion on religion and economic issues that left thousands if not millions dead and deep scars in the social fabric that have yet to heal even to this day.

Of course every time there was some sort of minor disagreement between countries they would solve it by meeting on the battlefields of Europe and come to a civilized agreement by killing each other's peasants by the thousands. So people like George Bush and his cronies are simply carrying on the ages old tradition of getting your own way by any means necessary.

It's become such an ingrained part of our social fabric that the majority of us live our lives with the understanding that if we ever want to accomplish anything we're going to have to resort to violence of some sort. It doesn't have to be physical all the time either; emotional and psychological violence can be even more effective in a social setting.

How often have you had to resort to some sort of intimidating action to get what you've wanted from someone who hasn't been willing to follow through on a contract? From withholding payment to threatening court action you are still using coercion or threats instead of trying to seek a peaceful resolution to your problem.

What's truly unfortunate is how difficult it is to come to a compromise with people, and it's not until you offer to escalate matters that some people will listen to you. We've become so used to that sort of behaviour it seems the majority won't do anything unless forced to – it's like you won't be taken seriously until you put a gun to someone's head.

In some instances violence or other forms of non-passive behaviour can't be avoided and a person or a country is left with no recourse but to explore other means. But for far too many of this world's people, and especially our leaders, violence remains their first option and other means are discarded far too quickly.

For the United Nations to come out and say that from now on October Second will be now be considered a day for honouring Non-Violent behaviour as a mark of respect to Mahatma Gandhi is a bit ridiculous. Those who practice non-violent resistance in most societies these days are treated like outcasts and unpatriotic because they don't think what their government does in their name with violence is something to be proud of or to condone.

Oh sure it's alright when people do it other countries against governments we're told it's alright to disagree with, but when people at home do the same sort of thing that's different. Our governments would never deny us our rights or throw us in jail without trial like others do; we're a democracy after all. When we use violence it's all right and not something to be protested against.

When the United Nations was formed in 1945 it was with the purpose of creating a body where the world's nations would be able to resolve their differences without having to resort to warfare. The only problem is that most countries simply ignore the idea of a peaceful resolution, and then proceed to heap scorn of the U.N. for not accomplishing anything.

Until governments begin to practice the type of non-violence advocated by The Mahatma, October second will simply serve as a reminder of how far we as a species have to go before we can really be called civilized.

September 20, 2007

Book Review: Postcards From Ed: Dispatches And Salvos From An American Iconoclast Ed Abbey, Edited By David Petersen

I know that I'm not being very original when I say that the current administration in Washington D.C. disgusts me. I know there is plenty of people the world over who hold the same, if not harsher, opinion as I do. The thing is that like so many others I find the way they have reacted to the horror of September 2001 by unleashing further horror on the world repellent, I believe that is only a symptom of the deeper damage they have done to the American character.

From the late nineteenth and through a good chunk of the twentieth century, America could realistically be called the champion of the individual. While on occasion that might have brought the country into conflict with the need for some universal and collective measures, for the most part it was an atmosphere that encouraged and fostered greatness.

I don't mean greatness of the country as a whole, although if a country is to be measured by the people it produces then it can lay claim to some of that greatness, but the people who through sheer force of their brilliance thrust themselves into prominence on the world stage. Where else but in America could people like the Beats have sprung forth, or earlier poets like e.e. cummings; the expatriate communities in Paris and Tangier that included Paul Bowls, Ernest Hemingway, William S, Burroughs, and F. Scott Fitzgerald?
That's only a small sampling of people from one field of endeavour, and barely even scratches the surface of the men and women whom I believe could only have been nurtured in a society that encouraged individualism in its inhabitants from an early age. It was the feature of American society that distinguished it most from the other Western democracies.

But, with individualism comes great responsibility, something that has been conveniently forgotten in recent times. Being selfish is not the same thing as being an individual and neither is doing what you want without considering the implications of your actions and how they will affect others. But even that has become almost an irrelevant concern in the America of George Bush and Dick Chenny. Almost every act that this administration has take, every bill they have passed, and every power they have invoked, has had the result of quashing the individual in the name of what's good for the State.

It really makes me wonder what would have become of one of America's truest individuals of the late twentieth century, Edward Abbey, if he had survived until today. (Although the suicide of Hunter S. Thompson tells you more then you need to know of how well individuals fare in this time) Ed Abbey was best known as the writer of the novel The Monkey Wrench Gang which advocated direct action in fighting the exploitation of the West by the very people who have voted George Bush into power. Long before it was fashionable to be seen fighting for the preservation of the wild against development and so-called progress he was trying to teach people how to become the monkey wrench in the plans to further the rape of the South West.

In a new book edited by David Peterson, various letters and missives from Edward Abbey have been gathered together in an attempt to give people of a new generation an understanding of just who this complicated, and seemingly contradictory man was. Postcards From Ed, published by Milkweed Editions and distributed by the Publishers Group Canada contains letters he wrote to various people in his personal and professional life, and a multitude of broadsides directed at publications throughout the United States. (Funny, I just happened to flip open the book to a page containing a letter written in 1974 to Rolling Stone magazine complimenting them for running an interview with Glenn Gould, and pleading with them to publish more of the work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson)

Abbey was a walking contradiction according to most people's lights and probably had as many enemies on the left as he did on the right because of his strongly held opinions. Well on one hand having no problem in saying Nixon and Kissinger's bombing of North Viet Nam after the 1972 elections sank the government to the moral level of Hitler's Germany and Stalin's Russia, he was also a charter member of the National Rifleman's Association. He advocated each household in America be supplied with a weapon by the government who could then form a civilian militia to replace the volunteer/draft army.

I'm sure he knew very well that was exactly the situation during the revolutionary war, when the British tried to break the militia by making it illegal for civilians to bear arms. (Hence a certain clause in the constitution of the United States guaranteeing the right to bear arms) He didn't think it would do anything for the crime rate, but with 150 million people "we've got plenty to spare". Anyway, he was more worried about the army and the police invading his home then any criminal.
Ed Abbey and R. Crumb.jpg
What he wrote about in his novel The Monkey Wrench Gang he tried to live as much as possible. Finding whatever means he had at his disposal of being the monkey wrench thrown into the works to disrupt projects that he saw as damaging pristine wilderness. He was very much the preserve it as is type of person. He argued against projects that would allow more people to have access to various natural wonders.

His theory was if they hadn't wanted to make an effort to see a place than they didn't want to go there badly enough to begin with. What was the point of going to somewhere like "Rainbow Bridge" if you didn't experience the six mile walk to appreciate it's wonder as part of it's natural environment? Nature shouldn't be a stop on someone's tourist agenda, where you spend ten minutes posing for photos and then moving on to the next stop. It turns the natural world into a commodity like everything else in the world and depreciates its intrinsic value.

While that attitude would have set many a corporate man's teeth on edge, the fact that Ed had nothing against hunting and agreed that hunters had a role to play in conservation, and in fact might even be better situated then most to do so, would have the vegans at PETA getting their knickers in a twist. What they wouldn't understand is that people who hunt for their food, and take responsibility for what they eat, aren't going to want to see stocks depleted.

A good hunter also knows the importance of the natural food chain and the role that large predators other than men play in it. They wouldn't allow for the wholesale slaughter of wolves, coyotes, or big cats to ensure a plentiful supply of deer. But a lot of these so-called environmentalist groups are just as ignorant of the way nature works as the people in their opposing camp are.

For those people who don't know who Ed Abbey is, or who confuse him with an American playwright of a similar name, Postcards From Ed will offer an intriguing glimpse into the mind of one of America's last individuals. His death in 1989 was the next to last death rattle of the spirit of individualism that supposedly makes the United States great. Perhaps people will be encouraged to search out some of his books after reading these cards and letters from the edge of so called civilization that have been compiled in this book.

While some of the battles Ed waged are being won, the Hopi of Black Mesa have finally been able to stop The Peabody Coal Company from draining the water table for use in their slurry line and closed The Black Mesa Mine down, more often then not these days we are losing our wild lands.

According to Ed Abbey, the monkey wrench is not a symbol of destruction, but a symbol of the potential in all of us to restore the world with our abilities. We have a choice, we can either set about restoring in an effort to try and save what we can, or we can sit back idly while it all comes tumbling down around us.

I think I know what Ed would have done; do you know what you're going to do?

September 16, 2007

DVD Review: Dear Jesse

No matter how hard I try I can't understand how any society that claims to cherish freedom, justice, and democracy as much as the United States of America does would allow a creature like Jesse Helms to have power in shaping the policy of the country. What's even more disgusting is the fact that he is treated with respect and dignity when he deserves to be shunned, if not tried for crimes against humanity.

In the 1960's, he fought against the racial integration of schools in North Carolina. Since his election to the senate in 1972, he has done his best to deny rights and liberties to any group he sees as not fitting into his narrow definition of the world order. Whether its been women seeking equality under the law, Hispanics and African Americans asking for assistance to redress the years of inequality in quality of education and job availability, and for the last twenty years anything allowing homosexuals even the appearance of equality in the eyes of the law, his has been the voice raised loudest in opposition.

His apologists say things like, well one thing you can say for Jesse is that you know where he stands on things, which isn't something you can say about lots of politicians. Well you can say the same thing about Hitler and Stalin but that didn't change the fact they were despotic monsters. Anyway what difference does it make that he's honest about being a bigoted hate monger or not, it doesn't change the fact that he is one.

At first glance, you wouldn't think you could find someone more diametrically opposed to Jesse Helms then Tim Kirkman if you tried. He's gay, works in the arts as a film director and scriptwriter, and lives in the epitome of the liberal north, New York City. What could these two men have in common?
Actually, quite a lot; they were both born in the same small town in North Carolina, attended the same high school, spent a year at the same college, worked in radio and for newspapers while in school, and both obsess over gay men. For all those reasons, and maybe the last one in particular, Tim returned to his hometown with camera and crew in an attempt to understand Jesse Helms, and the state that has elected him to the Senate since 1972 that they both call home.

The resulting documentary film Dear Jesse has now been released on DVD by Sovereign Distributors and goes on sale this October. Tim criss-crosses North Carolina speaking to people from as many walks of life as possible, both supporters of Jesse and those who oppose him, creating a picture of the man who represents them in the eyes of the world that's not very flattering.

I don't know if it was his intention when he started out on this journey, but along the way it also becomes an examination of his own life and his relationship with his family and friends that still live in North Carolina. Through interviews, news clips, and voiceovers Tim tells the story of two of the state's native sons. He does his best to be an objective observer, and let other people and the historical record paint the picture of Jesse Helms, and to a large degree, he is successful. The majority of the analysis he indulges in centres around his own life, and the choices he's made along the way.

It's there where we can make our own suppositions of course. How much were those choices a product of the environment he grew up in; the environment fostered and created by Jesse Helms. Would he have been more open about his relationship with another man to his parents if Helms hadn't so poisoned the atmosphere of North Carolina with his riling against same sex relationships?

Even during the filming of the movie, he is still too unsure of how his parents would be able to cope with him talking about how upset he was because a man he had loved had just committed suicide. Can you imagine not being able to turn to your parent's for comfort when someone you love dies? Can you imagine how lonely and isolated that would make you feel?

That's what made Dear Jesse such a powerful movie is the fact that it was able to show the subtle and insidious ways that prejudice can affect the lives of people. It's not just the overt hate mongering that causes so much damage, it's the atmosphere of fear, and suspicion that it generates that can cause as much grief. Is it any wonder that a disproportionate numbers of teenage suicides are gay?

To the person who is already insecure, like most teenagers, add the fear of being rejected by ones own family to the lack of support in the community at large and you can feel like the loneliest person on the planet. The interviews that Tim conducts with individuals who have been affected by the poisoned air of North Carolina that is the legacy of Jesse Helms show just how insidious it can be.

The mother of a boy whose son died of AIDS, who had received a personal letter of condolence from Senator Helms when her husband died of cancer, reads from a letter that Helms wrote her in response to her plea for more research into the AIDS virus. In it, the Senator tells her it was her son's own damn fault that he died and that he got what was coming to him. What kind of human being would write a letter like that, rubbing salt into the wounds of a person's grief?

In Jesse Helms' North Carolina in 1996 the Klu Klux Klan were still marching in the streets without people rising up in protest against their presence let alone the fact they existed at all. Any place that hate mongers feel confident enough to stage public marches with out the worry of harassment is not going to be one where minorities are going to feel welcome no matter how long their families have lived there or how deep their roots run.

In Dear Jesse Tim has created a documentary that condemns its subject the harshest by showing how normal North Carolina looks. Yet since 1972 they have elected an openly racist, misogynistic, and homophobic man as their senator. That's the scariest thing about this movie, and I don't even know if Mr. Kirkman was aware that result was showing up on the screen.

A few years ago, a young man by the name of Matthew Sheppard was pistol whipped and left tied to a fence in the Montana where he died. The only reason he was killed was because he happened to be gay. Hate crimes like these are only possible because the people who commit them have been told by people like Jesse Helms that Matthew Sheppard was less then human and didn't deserve to be treated like a person.

At one point during the filming of Dear Jesse Tim goes to a small college in North Carolina where Jesse Helms was to have given a speech. They ended up missing the speech, so he did interviews instead with people outside the building. Ironically, one of the people he interviewed was Matthew Sheppard and his boyfriend. It is the only known film clip of Matthew.

Dear Jesse made me shed tears of sadness and rage when I heard how life under Jesse Helms had affected the lives of so many people through his hate mongering. Hopefully now that he no longer is in the Senate things might begin to change, but I wonder how long it will take for his awful legacy to be obliterated. One thing is for sure, there is no need to build him a memorial, – there are plenty of tombstones across the country of people who died of AIDS that will serve quite well.

Who knows how many of the bodies buried under them might still be alive if it hadn't been for his obstructionist policy against funding research into treating AIDS. I really wonder how he sleeps at night.

September 15, 2007

Book Review: The Unquiet Grave: The FBI And The Struggle For The Soul Of Indian Country Steve Hendricks

The United States has been at war with people living within its borders since the day the country was founded. Systematically the government has stripped them of their land, denied them of basic human rights, and tried to steal the very language they have spoken for thousands of years from their tongues. When they or allies have had the nerve to protest they are declared enemies of the state and treated as such.

If you thought acts committed under the auspices of Homeland Security were new, its only because the majority of the population of the United States has not been subject to them before. Welcome to a small taste of what it's like to be a Native American in the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave.

Only a small taste however, the government isn't quite stupid enough to think that the majority of people would tolerate being treated like they still treat Indians today. Heck they never even treated the Blacks this bad - but of course they were an essential ingredient in keeping the economy going, slave labour to pick the cotton and minimum-wage slave labour to keep the service industry turning over.

But what damn good is an Indian, they don't make good slaves 'cause they just die, which why we had to import the Africans in the first place, and you can't teach him to be civilized either - look at how long we tried with residential schools. Not them, nope they'd rather keep speaking their own heathen languages no matter how much we beat, raped, or generally abused them. Well if the stubborn bastards don't want anything do with our way of life than screw 'em is what I say, and let them rot on their reservations.
That might not be written down anywhere as official government policy, but it's certainly been the way the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) have conducted themselves when it comes to their treatment of American Indians and their supporters. The Unquiet Grave: The FBI And The Struggle For The Soul Of India Country by Steve Hendricks is the latest book to try and wake the American public to the criminal behaviour of their government toward its first citizens.

Published by Thunder Mouth's Press an imprint of Avalon books and distributed by Publishers Group Canada and Publishers Group West. It joins Dee Brown's Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee and Peter Matthiessen's In The Spirit Of Crazy Horse as attempts to counter the lies and bullshit that have been propagated as the truth about events of the last thirty years and beyond.

For organizations who claim to have nothing to hide concerning their dealings with American Indians, and in particular people who were involved with the American Indian Movement (AIM) in the 1970s, both the FBI and the BIA were and are, very reluctant to release documents to Hendricks under the Freedom Of Information Act as required by Congress. In fact in an effort to research this book, he has had to sue both agencies (with some cases still in the courts) on a number of occasions to gain access to the files he requested.

For his investigation into the recent history of the American Indian, he starts with the biggest mystery that still surrounds events that took place thirty years ago on Pine Ridge Lakota Reserve in South Dakota - the death of Anna Mae Aquash. Anna Mae was a member of AIM who was found dead on a back road in South Dakota. Right from the discovery of her body, the FBI did their best to distort the facts. They even refused to come clean on how many agents showed up at the scene after the crime was reported.

Hendricks recounts the story again in all its sordid detail: how her hands were cut off and sent to Washington for fingerprinting, because nobody supposedly recognised her. How the first autopsy said she died of exposure even though there was bullet wound in the back of her neck leaking blood and the bullet could be clearly seen as a protuberance through her face. Thirty years later rumours and accusations are still flying on all sides about who killed her and why.

She wasn't the only AIM member or supporter to be killed or die under mysterious circumstances and whose real killers may never be found out. They may find the person who pulled the trigger, but those who labelled her an informer and sealed her death will never be known. Standard operating procedure for the FBI was to seed dissent among groups like AIM by spreading rumours via agency informants that key members were selling the group out. Therefore, it remains a very real possibility that they pulled the strings that resulted in the death of Anna Mae Aquash by convincing AIM she was as an informer.

Anna Mae isn't the only scab the Steve Hendricks picks at, some won't sit well with supporters of AIM, but their hands got dirty, and the less they attempt to cover it up the better it will be for them in the long run. Suspicion and paranoia seemed to be the normal state of affairs for the leadership of AIM. Not without justification as there were continual threats on the lives of Dennis Banks, Russell Means, and others. Still that doesn't excuse what were tantamount to summary executions of people suspected to be informers.

People may say, if Hendricks was so interested in helping Indians, why did he have to go and say things that throw the leadership of AIM in a negative light. In my mind that establishes the credibility of all the other information he unearths in his book. We've already enough history books that are written that cover up inconvenient truths, do we really want more of the same no matter whose side they favour?
According to the United States Army the virtual execution of over three hundred men, women, and children at Wounded Knee Creek on December 28th 1890 by Hotchkiss gun was and is a glorious victory for the Seventh Calvary. Any attempt to pay even the least amount of compensation to the victim's families has been fought tooth and nail by the United States Army in their continued denial of an almost universally accepted truth. Supporters of Native Americans cannot reasonably condemn the American government for propagating a recidivist version of history if they are willing to do the same.

In the long run no matter how bad the leadership of AIM might come across at times, their actions will always pale in comparison to the activities of the FBI, the BIA, and various American administrations, up to and including the current one, in regards their treatment of American Indians. Books like Unquiet Grave and men like Steven Hendricks are necessary if we are ever going to find out the truth of what happened and what continues to happen in the war the government of the United States is waging against the American Indians.

You might not like everything he has to say, but unlike the official versions of these events, he has told the truth as much as he is able to based on what people have been willing and able to tell him. The story continues to unfold at his web site as he wins access to more and more information. Even since the book was published in 2006 he has added more to the story via that address.

For anybody doubting the veracity of his claims pages 383 to 474 of Unquiet Grave cites his sources for all his information, including excerpts from documents prised away from the FBI under the Freedom Of Information Act. It's all there, from their falsification of information in order to ensure Leonard Peltier's extradition from Canada for his alleged role in the killing of FBI agents, to the contradictory statements about Aquash's death.

Unquiet Grave: The FBI And The Struggle For The Soul Of Indian Country by Steven Hendricks should cause outrage and shock because of its revelations about the FBI and the BIA, but it will be lucky to attract any attention at all. We continue to wash our hands of any responsibility for the "Indian problem" or claim it doesn't exist. Hendricks answers those who would argue that it's not our responsibility what happened hundreds of year ago with these words about the land stolen from the Lakota,"If we know of the theft, as we do, yet do not right it, we are as guilty as our forbearers".

The same can be said about the FBI and the BIA. If, as according to this book they are, they are aware of the guilt of previous agents and agency heads, and do nothing to rectify it, they are just as guilty as those who committed those acts. It's high time that those two bureaus were held accountable for their crimes against the American people, and Steven Hendricks has provided sufficient evidence to justify just such an investigation.

Unquiet Grave is an unusual history book in that it attempts to tell the truth without favouring one side over another. It lays out the story in language anybody can understand without ever oversimplifying or assuming the reader already knows anything. This important book should be included on every high school's history curriculum in Canada and the United States as an example of what the truth looks like. It's not necessarily pretty, nor is it necessarily nice, but its reality and its about time eyes were opened to it. Only then can the long, overdue, process of redressing wrongs begin.

September 12, 2007

Terror Is As Terror Does

I remember having a conversation with the mother of one of my acting students back in the early nineties about how easy it would be to become a terrorist. She worked with abused children in a custodial treatment centre, meaning these were children under the age of fourteen who had to be kept under lock and key because they were considered uncontrollable.

One eight year old boy had burnt down the house he lived in, and his mother had woken up to find him standing beside her with a knife, and had only just missed being fatally wounded. As it was she ended up in hospital with a punctured lung and her son had ended up at this facility. The boy had been sexually abused first by his father, and then by one of the mother's boy friends.

In it's wisdom the government of the province where I live decided that these children didn't need a separate facility and could be housed within a wing of an adult facility. It was all about cutting costs so they could give tax breaks to their wealthy buddies of course. Anyway, there was nothing wrong with these kids that a little taste of the belt wouldn't take care of - single moms was what the real problem was of course. They let their kids run wild while they get drunk, do drugs, cheat the welfare system, and screw anything in pants.

After another week of fighting that attitude while trying to save the facility, she said there were times she just felt like putting a bomb in a mail box.

"The only thing stopping me is the fact that somebody's kids are going to be walking by that mail box. I know how devastated I would be if my kids were killed, and I could never do that to another person."

There was a flatness in her eyes brought on by more then just physical exhaustion. It was as if everything she had believed in had been torn out from under her and the ground under her feet was no longer certain. Bombs might not have changed anything, but they sure would have provided her with a type of certainty. Thankfully, it wasn't the type she was looking for.

Unfortunately, the certainty of violence is a good fit for far too many people. Blowing somebody up is one way of making sure you get the last word in an argument. There's no need for messy ambiguities about who is in the right and who is in the wrong if the other person is lying dead on the floor with.

These days it seems that everybody who has a point to make does so by blowing things up. The problem is that instead of solving anything, each time it happens situations just get worse. From the suicide bomber blowing him or herself up in a crowded market place to an invading and occupying army fighting insurgency, nobody seems to be getting any closer to resolving any of the disputes that have been the supposed cause of the violence.

Of course it's pretty hard to listen to anyone when you're busy blowing things up. "Eh, sorry could you repeat that? I couldn't hear you over the sound of the tomahawk missile going off." Conversely, no one is going to be listening too closely when they're dodging the hundredweight of nails that have been sent firing across a market place either. Dispute resolution works a lot better if you at least attempt to hear the other person talking.

Terror is in the eye of the beholder of course; one man's freedom fighter has always been another man' terrorist, it simply depends where your vested interests lie. To the British the guys throwing the bales of tea into Boston harbour were terrorists of a kind, while to the colonists at the time they were brave heroes. But no matter who the bad guy is and who the good guy is, when you come right down to it violence is violence no matter who sanctions it.

To the people living in Baghdad when the bombs were falling the Americans were just as much terrorists as the people who flew the jets into the World Trade Centre were to the American public. People on the receiving of bombs and explosions don't really give a damn about politics or justifications. When your home is in ruins and members of your family have been killed and wounded everything else is irrelevant.

Violence is the first resort of the coward and the last resort of the brave. The problem is that most of our leaders are cowards and liars. If Osama Bin Laden put the energy and money he puts into terrorism into building schools and farms in Afghanistan he would be securing his people a much better future then the one he's paying for now with their lives.

If George Bush and his allies really wanted to wage war on terrorism they could start by not propping up governments around the around the world that treat people like dirt. They could also stop insisting that International Monetary Loans be conditional on practices guaranteed to keep countries in perpetual poverty, and they could spend a fraction of the money the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan is costing to do what's ever necessary to help eradicate the conditions that create willing followers for terrorist leaders.

Everybody is far too willing to see weapons and violence as the solutions to their problems, but every time one person picks up a gun, somebody else responds in kind. Until one person is brave enough to put down the weapons and hold out an empty hand, mothers will keep losing their children.

I fail to see how that is making the world a better place for anyone.

September 11, 2007

The Night Visitor

The bellows effect of a wind gust caught the small fire, flaring it briefly, sending a shower of sparks up in the air. The illumination it caused offered a brief silhouette view of a sharply featured face. Shadows that lived beneath his brow, in the lee of his nose, and in the hollows scooped out beneath his cheekbones were thrown into even sharper relief, until his face was a patchwork of light and dark.

There had been drought again this year and it was second nature to check and see if a spark had ignited any of the brown grass. Fires seeded as easily as weeds, taking root at the slightest provocation they quickly spread to the horizon. Fields of fire didn't sink deep roots, but reaped a deadly harvest all the same.

One moment you could be riding through what remained of the prairie grass, seeing what scant signs of life there were to see, and the next you were ankle deep in ash. Like before and after pictures of a smoker's lungs burnt and un burnt lay side by side. It had to be pure chance why one piece was spared while the adjacent burnt to a cinder. He had given up looking for clues in the surrounding geography, as there were never any clues on offer.

In spite of all attempts to kill her, the land would always hold on to her secrets,. Strip mining caused soil erosion; sulphuric acid used to clean pumice for people's stoned washed, acid jeans had taken care of the water table; at least what had been left of it after they had damned the river for their artificial lakes, fountains and hydro electric.

All that power and beauty diverted because humans were afraid of the dark and its accompanying quiet. What other reason could they have for spending so much money on destroying the beauty of night to make huge pockets of light and noise in the middle of the desert?

On nights like this one, when the moon hung full and ripe in the sky, why anyone would need any more light was beyond him. Even on the nights when she stayed under wraps, or hid herself in the earth's shadow, you didn't need extra light to sleep by. Those who needed to be out and about at night had the ability to either see in the dark or were guided by arcane means known only to themselves.

Even now the darkness began to grow deeper as the night lengthened and the moon eased through her apex. There were nights when he wouldn't leave the fire to climb into his bedroll; when he would feel compelled to bear witness to the darkness and give it the recognition he felt it deserved. Other nights just saw him sitting up keeping his thoughts company so they wouldn't complain the next day that he was ignoring them.

Neglected, they could easily turn vindictive and resentful and make stupid demands on his time during the course of the day. It was better to lose a little sleep now then to have to put up with the abuse that was the certain result of denying their existence. Tonight, though, he was pretty sure he wasn't going to be alone tonight if he sat up.

Sure enough, only a short while later, the flames picked out a pair of amber eyes glowing at him out of the dark. They had first shown up a few years back when the drought had started, and had been showing up on a regular basis ever since. The first time they appeared at his fire he wasn't sure what to make of it. He did know that being scared wasn't going to help, so he stayed as calm as possible and left it to his guest to decide about the proper etiquette for the visit. It wasn't everyday that a God showed up at his campfire after all and he figured that it was only polite to let him set the tone.

It hadn't been too difficult to figure out that his guest wasn't your ordinary coyote. There were a couple of reasons, not the least being that he talked. While bold creatures, the normal wild coyote wasn't just going to up and plunk itself down at a human's campfire. The closest they would usually come is to skirt around the edges of a camp site, seeing if there was any food let out for an easy steall.

Aside from that, the last coyote in the district had been killed off long ago. In fact, it wouldn't surprise him if he found out the last coyote had been killed off in the wild period. Man had never had much use for them for some reason, even though like the wolf their primary prey were the pests like mice and rats that when left unchecked could and did destroy crops. All farmers saw was the potential coyotes represented to their precious sheep and chickens.

Even though payment of an occasional chicken or sheep should have been a fair exchange for preserving grain supplies, farmers refused to see it that way and began a systematic campaign that ended with the eradication of both wolf and coyote and a huge upsurge in the varmint population. With mice and rats out of control, ranchers and farmers both had to resort to poison to take on the rodent populations. A funny thing happened though, the poison they used to try and get rid of the rats, and mice poisoned the feed for the livestock, any livestock that ate it, and the seed for next years crop. Sort of makes the occasional sheep and chicken look inexpensive after all.

Of course they didn't find our about the crop until the following year when they planted and nothing came up. Even going out and buying all brand new seed didn't help much. It turned out that planting the poisoned seed, burying the carcasses of the poisoned rodents, chickens, sheep, and cattle, on top of burying the spoiled grain, was the last straw for the land in this part of the world. Dropping a nuclear bomb wouldn't have done a better job of rendering it fallow for generations to come.

So on that first night when Coyote turned up, there was no one else it could have been. He didn't say anything, those first few times, just sat and stared into the fire. For a trickster god he was pretty morose, but all things considered you couldn't really be expecting him to be jumping for joy. If you believed, like some people do, that he had created the world, it's not surprising he'd be feeling a little down considering the shape things are in.

It was about the fourth time he'd dropped by that he said something. He'd been sitting with his head resting on his front paws staring into the fire like always, when all of a sudden he let out a deep sigh. It sounded like it started at the base of his tail and worked its way on up to the tip of his ears before finally slipping out of his mouth.

"I just don't get it", he said "Things were just fine for the longest time. Everybody understood what they needed to do for things to work smothly. If you were going to try and grow stuff, or raise critters, you made damn sure that you set some aside or sacrificed one in order to keep who ever needed to be, kept happy. All over the world, you human beings used to be quite content with that arrangement. Showing yourselves to be grateful for what you've been given, by giving some of it back. Is that so difficult a concept to get your head around?

When did you folk become so greedy? It's not just the farmers or the ranchers refusing to give away – it's everywhere. You take all the water and you don't even drink it. What do you do with it instead? You use it to power places of self-indulgence that stop you from being aware of how badly you've treated the world

What other species do you know that is so rude that they build an artificial boat safari through a delicate ecosystem like the Florida Everglades? Who else would damn one of the most beautiful rivers in the world in order to make an artificial city in the middle of a desert that uses more hydroelectric power then some countries do? How about creating a plant seed that is specially designed so that it can be safely poisoned without considering what the effects of the poison are going to be long term for themselves or other life forms?"

He stopped then and began scratching behind his ear with his hind leg and then continued his toilet by washing himself in a manner that left no doubt about his opinion of the human race. He raised his head again and looked across the fire, he went to say something more, then shook his head and left. He'd been back to the fire a number of times since, but hadn't had much more to say. When you think about what else is there to say?

So now, most of the time Coyote comes and sits by the fire and looks into it to see if he can find his memories of a better time. Once in a while he'll ask for a cup of tea, just for old times sake, but it sure don't look like his heart is really into it. Sometimes they'll sit there and let the fire burn out until the two of them are left in the dark with their thoughts and the stars shining down on them. They can almost pretend when the dark is at it's purest and most deep that maybe its the beginning and they're waiting for everything to be born.

But that thought doesn't stand up to the harsh light of day any more than any other illusion. Usually just before dawn has fully broken Coyote will pick up his tail and leave, although not before saying goodbye to his one true love as she sinks behind the horizon; another impossible dream that he won't give up on.

September 10, 2007

DVD Review: Cracker: A New Terror

If there's anything worse then having been a soldier in a war and seeing friends getting killed, it's being made to think nobody really gives a damn about them. Whether you agreed with it or not the British army fought in Ireland for years and years and suffered substantial casualties. The soldiers weren't necessarily there because they wanted to be, but there they were and they were killed regardless of their opinion.

What must have been so galling to them was that the people they were fighting were terrorists who had no qualms about blowing up women and children who were removed from the war zone but most people seemed to forget that bit. Especially in America where there were no end of people willing to drop some money in a bucket to send off to the boys in Ireland. Do those people ever wonder how many people the bombs they paid for killed in London?

So, these soldiers were fighting terrorists for years and years and nobody gave a rat's ass. But all of a sudden terrorists attack mainland United States and everybody, including the British government, is willing to spend millions of dollars, implement stringent anti-terrorist legislation, and invade not just one, but two countries half-way around the world, all in the name of "The War On Terror"

If you had been a British soldier who had fought the IRA in Northern Ireland wouldn't you be feeling just a little bitter. Maybe even a tad cynical. If you were still having flashbacks because of what you'd been through, and now television is full of images of much the same shit, might that just push you over the edge?
R. coltrane.jpg
In Cracker: A New Terror, a specially filmed final episode of the great British crime series, that scenario comes to life. Being released on DVD at the end of September by Acorn Media Robbie Coltrane brings the irascible police psychologist, Dr. Edward "Fitz" Fitzgerald out of retirement to help the Manchester City Police solve a particularly nasty murder. Fitz and his wife are in town for the first time in ten years for their daughter's wedding when one of his former colleagues asks for an assist.

A young American comic had been brutally murdered in a nightclub's bathroom after his performance. There is the possibility of a witness, but unfortunately he's going to be reluctant to speak to the police as he had just stolen a wallet that night and is a junkie. The witness becomes even more important when the murder strikes again, this time a family friend of the young man.

Another reluctant witness, this time a woman having an affair with the second victim, is convinced by Fitz it would be in the best interests of her marriage to tell the police everything she knows. In other words, he threatens to phone her husband to tell him his wife was banging someone who was murdered while she was in the next room showering. It's surprising how quickly that jogs her memory.

Fitz is still the bull in a china shop that he was before he retired and moved to Australia when it comes to his family life and social situations. He gets drunk and embarrassing at his daughter's wedding, insulting the groom, and taking the piss of (jerking his chain) the groom's father. But it's his willingness to ignore his family while on vacation and do police work that especially compromises his relationship with his wife.

As the audience we know all along who the killer is and we see and understand what triggers him each time. He's one of the aforementioned veterans who served in Northern Ireland during the worst of the fighting. Everywhere we go with him, televisions are blaring out the latest news from Iraq. Reports of British soldiers being attacked, and sanctimonious quotes from George Bush and Tony Blair about the importance of fighting terrorism loop as an endless background litany reminding him of how he and his dead friends have been forgotten. Even the memorial garden honouring those British soldiers who died in Northern Ireland is to be closed because money can no longer be found for its upkeep.

It's enough to make you want to kill somebody. The script and the acting are so amazing that you really understand and sympathise with him. Quite frankly of the people he killed the comic may not have deserved to die, making fun of British soldiers who had served in Northern Ireland in his routine sealed his fate, but the friend of the family was such an unsympathetic asshole that you can't believe anyone would miss him.

He was the type of guy who pleads for mercy because of his wife and kids, right after he'd been caught screwing someone else's wife. Ranks right up there with begging a judge for clemency because you're an orphan after you've murdered your parents in terms of trying to earn sympathy points. The thing is, that still doesn't give anybody the right to murder him. Our ex-soldier can try and earn our sympathy all he wants, but that still doesn't change the fact he murdered people who had nothing to do with his problems.

He'd been a cop for a number of years already meaning his tour of duty in Northern Ireland was a number of years ago and he's known about the flashbacks all along but chosen not to do anything about them. His wife asks him to seek help and he refuses to believe that anyone can help him. Ultimately he makes the decision to be the person he is, a person who kills people if they piss him off.

When taken in that light his claim that he only did it because he was too much of a coward to kill himself is just an excuse to avoid taking responsibility for his actions. In the end, he's just as bad as any terrorist who uses "the cause" as an excuse for killing people who have nothing to do with the "war" they are fighting.

That's the beauty of this show, nothing is black and white, and the greys are even murkier. It makes for a wonderful contrast played out against the backdrop of certainty as proselytised by George Bush and Tony Blair through the media. Even our good guy, Robbie Coltrane's Fitzgerald, is a walking compendium of flaws. Aside from being an alcoholic, he's an egotist of the first order.

He knows his wife is against him getting involved with helping the Manchester Police while they are there on holiday, but he does so anyway. Even worse, he lets her and their youngest son fly back to Australia without him. Everything is about him and feeding his ego and his need to prove himself useful. Perhaps it's not surprising that before he agrees to help the police he suffers from and episode of erectile dysfunction. But as with all self-strokers who choose to pleasure themselves at the expense of another's happiness, he ends up alone.

There are no spoilers to give away in Cracker: A New Terror as far as the plot is concerned, we are in on it from the start. What there is to watch is a tautly written, and magnificently acted crime show with little gore, minimal violence, and a plot that's not about strange mysterious forces out to destroy our wonderful way of life. This is a very human drama, about a severely troubled individual who was damaged by an act of unspeakable inhumanity.

If you're looking for a message in Cracker: A New Terror I would say it was you don't heal from that type of damage by inflicting it upon others, it only makes it worse and increases the chances of other people reacting in the same way. That's a message we could all do with learning, don't you think?

The DVD includes the usual making of special feature, but this one is a little more detailed as it does give you a good history of the series right from the start. Interview subjects include Robbie Coltrane, the writer, and the director. It's a wide screen edition and comes with the option of 5.1 surround sound, which in this case helps because of the unusual amounts of background sound.

August 19, 2007

Book Review: Something Rich And Strange Patricia McKillip

Humans have always been fascinated by the oceans. They take up the majority of space on this planet leaving us islands of impermanent rock to cling too amid their vastness. At any moment they could raise up storms that could batter down our shelters or submerge us beneath waters. We are allowed to survive on their sufferance; one only needs look to New Orleans to be reminded of that.

Our pitiful attempts at keeping the waters at bay, or to manipulate them into doing our will, have continually proven doomed to failure. Isn't it about time we recognised the inevitable and learned to try and live with the oceans instead of continually trying to conquer or using them as garbage dumps? They are no more immune to our poisons then we are, yet we cling to the illusion because abody is in constant motion that it is self cleaning.

At one time we feared the seas and respected them, but that was also when if we didn't understand something we gave it magical attributes to explain its powers. Oceans were populated by mysterious creatures that would lure us into a deathly embrace. Sirens would sing to sailors so that they would wreck their ships on rocks and die in the depths, or mermaids would steal men's hearts and lure them one by one to their deaths under the waves.
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A number of years ago the British illustrator Brian Froud created a serious of fifty drawings and passed them out to four authors. They were each asked to pick the one illustration that inspired them the most and create a story based upon it. The four novels were then published as a series and each one's cover was graced with the illustration that inspired it.

Unfortunately they've been long out of print and it was almost impossible to come by the stories any more. Thankfully ibooks recently re-released my favourite in the series, Patricia McKillip's Something Rich And Strange, but not with the original cover that provided the initial inspiration. Which is a pity because as you can see from the graphic on the left it was beautiful, but thankfully it hasn't affected the quality of the story. (By the way the ibooks site is currently under construction so you'll not be able to visit them and see what else they might have to offer.)

Jonah and Megan live in one of those costal towns along the West coast of the United States that manage to eke out a living from the tourists who come to look at the water and dream primordial dreams they don't understand. Jonah owns a shop that sells trinkets and 'things of the sea' to the tourists, and Megan draws pictures of tidal pools with pen and ink that the tourists buy as mementos of their visit to the water.

Their first indication of something untoward occurring is the appearance of a creature (a sea hare) in one of Megan's drawings that she can't remember putting there. They are both inclined to dismiss it as her being forgetful or caught up in a moment of inspiration, until the mysterious Adam Fin shows up selling the most extraordinary jewellery. All his pieces are carved stone and silver designed to look like creatures of the sea.

Adam awakens Megan's desire to see deeper into the sea, what lies beneath the surface and beyond the tidal pools that she is able to reproduce with her pen and paper. But its Adam's mysterious sister who attracts Jonah, when he hears her singing with a bar band one night. Ulysses is the only man to have not succumbed to the lure of the sea's voice as articulated by the Sirens; of course he also had his sailors tie him to mast to prevent him from jumping overboard.
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At this point in the story Patricia McKillip has us believing it is a tale about the coldness of the sea and it's perilous beauty. How a person can be blinded to their peril by that beauty and lose all that is precious to them. Jonah is more than willing to trade Megan for Nereis, Adam's sister who is queen of the sea, because he has been enchanted by her Siren song.

But has anyone ever asked the Siren what she wants from this exchange? Why did she want to lure Jonah down to her, and as it turns out, Megan as well? Is it from a desire to avenge herself on the world of men for slowly killing her, or is it just because that's her nature and she can't be other than she is?

When Jonah gets down to the bottom of the sea he must travel to where Nereis lives. He follows her song through a labyrinth until he comes to a small door after the final turn in the maze. Through the open door he can see a beautiful tower of pearls and shells from where the song emanates so he knows she lives there, but to reach the tower he must cross through an area of ocean that's filled with the detritus of humanity and the damage it's caused.

Jonah assumes that this is his final test before he's allowed to be rewarded with Nereis' acceptance. So he struggles blindly towards his goal, shielding himself with the shell of a turtle that was strangled by a plastic bag. What he doesn't know is that Megan is making the same journey, guided by Adam, in an attempt to rescue him, or at least see if he wants to be rescued. But instead of hiding herself, and not seeing the destruction, she does her best to give assistance to the creatures she sees suffering.

In the end that's exactly what Nereis wants. She wants humans to see past the romantic image that we have created in our head of the mysterious depths and vast expanses of Ocean life and remember that the seas are filled with living creatures. Our lives are irrevocably linked to her health; if the oceans die our chances of survival are next to nothing, and she will surely die if we continue to only see her in terms of something rich and strange instead of a living breathing organism.

Patricia McKillip has created the perfect red herring with Something Rich And Strange. Her characters and scenarios make an updated version of the being drawn by the Siren's song into the ocean entirely plausible. She plays upon our willingness to believe in the cruelty of the deep sea and Sirens until at the last second she stands it upon its head and shows us that we are as blind as Jonah when it comes to what lies beneath the waves.

Patricia McKillip has a command of the English language that is as beautiful as any writer I have read. She can summon sights and sounds to magically appear in a reader's mind's eye, like few others. If I ever were able to go to the deep places of the ocean I have no doubt that I will already have a good idea what they will look like having read Something Rich And Strange.

This is not a "message book" in the sense that you are beaten over the head with anything. It's a wonderful story that just happens to remind us of our obligations to those we share our world with. Fantasy and myth are wonderful, but sometimes reality is even more spectacular.

August 9, 2007

Post Truamatic Stress Disorder Blues

There have been times when I've wondered whether or not that the majority of our society's population are suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). I can't come up with any other explanation for people's willingness to accept at face value all that's designed to distract them from reality.

Television, religion, drugs, money, the rat race, material goods, computer games, the Internet, and most aspects of our society are diversions that keep us from noticing what's really going on around us. Whose got time to worry about anything beyond paying the mortgage, will the kids stay off drugs, and whether that new guy at work is after the promotion that really should be ours.

The human brain is a remarkable thing and does some truly amazing feats of prestidigitation to help cushion us from the effects of trauma. It's been known to completely shut down during moments of extreme horror in order to protect itself from harm. For example if you were in a horrible car crash and suffered a variety of broken bones your mind would shut out the memory of the pain so you wouldn't remember how really excruciatingly bad it was. (Which probably explains why women are willing to go through childbirth more then once; they really don't remember how bad it was)

But that doesn't mean the pain didn't exist, because it did, it's merely locked away in some storage compartment of your brain beyond your awareness. As long as your brain is distracted enough and you never suffer from a similar trauma again you will continue on in blissful ignorance.

PTSD doesn't have to be caused by remembering some long forgotten abuse; it can be caused by any situation that causes a person a severe physical or psychological injury. You could have been injured in a card accident or you could have witnessed the same accident and suffered equal trauma. Watching somebody be thrown through a car window and ending up on the hood of their car can leave scars as bad as if you had gone through the window yourself.

When I was first diagnosed with PTSD I decided I wanted to find out more about it. Seeing how this was in the early nineties and I didn't own a computer let alone have access to the Internet, I went to the library. The term was first used to describe the condition of Viet Nam veterans who couldn't acclimatize to being back in civilian life. They would dive for cover when they heard a bang, reach for non-existent weapons at sudden movements, and basically act as if they felt their lives were still in constant danger.

The more severe cases would experience flashbacks of events that happened to them while in service. A flashback is a type of memory, but it is a memory that has not been processed by the brain. If something triggers, (anything that stimulates a flashback is called a trigger), the memory the person believes the event is happening right at that moment instead of in the past. They experience every single emotion and physical sensation that they had felt when they originally lived through it.

We're not just talking about seeing it in your mind's eye either; we're talking being back in the jungle with machine gun fire, bombs blowing up and people being killed in front of your eyes. The worst thing about flashbacks is that you are completely awake for them. People who were sexually abused are raped again as far as they are concerned, soldiers watch their best friend be killed again, or a factory worker watches his co-worker be crushed under a piece of machinery. Any traumatic experience that was never properly processed is a potential flashback awaiting a trigger.

Now just because they only invented the term Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in the past thirty of forty years doesn't mean the circumstances for creating the condition hadn't existed before then. Do you not think that maybe soldiers serving in the trenches during World War One could have suffered something similar? How about the people who survived the concentration camps in World War Two?

Think of all the wars, the ethnic cleansings, the terror attacks, the bombing raids, natural disasters, random violence, airplane crashes, car pile-ups, and any of the other things that happen on a regular basis? Why is it so easy for us to accept those traumas as commonplace?

Why are we so ready to believe the lie that an expression like collateral damage makes everything all right? Would it be all right if the police came over to your house and shot your wife and children and than apologized because it was accident? Why is it that when people are being killed by the tens and twenties on a daily basis in Iraq and Afghanistan we can shrug it off, but a whole nation is captivated by some stupid girl going to prison?

Yet in spite of this, the latest statistics show that something like 1 in 4 people admit to be taking some sort of anti-anxiety or anti-depression medication. Since a lot of people aren't going to own up to taking something like that it's probably safe to say the figure is close to 1 in 3 people.

Nobody is being treated for anxiety or depression. The drugs they are being given are so that they can be happy functioning members of society. What kind of civilization needs to drug between a quarter and one third of its population in order for them to function?

Let me ask another question, what do you think would happen if all of a sudden there were no distractions from reality? No Internet, no personal computers, no television, no nothing to provide us with peace of mind and prevent us from really thinking about what is going on around us? If people actually began to comprehend what it meant when they saw a family begging for money on a street corner, read about a little girl whose father raped her repeatedly, or heard about bombs falling on a neighbourhood and inflicting collateral damage, do you think they would be able to go about their daily business in the same way they do now?

I'm sure that some people would still be able to do what they were supposed to, people did work in concentration camps without having been forced to, remember? But I'd like to think that the majority would be too horror struck to cope. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder would actually be the healthiest reaction people could have.

I know I said at the beginning that I sometimes think our society suffers from PTSD, and I guess I should amend that statement. It isn't suffering from PTSD, it has made itself the single biggest cause of potential Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. By artificially creating the circumstances that our brains do to ensure that we survive a traumatic situation, our society has created millions of potential sufferers. Let's just hope they don't all succumb at once.

August 2, 2007

All The Unknown Soldiers

I met a soldier the other day. He was driving a cab so he was really a retired soldier. He had only recently retired, signing up when he was seventeen and staying in for twenty-eight years put him at around the same age as me. My wife and I had been out and became overtired so we decided to take a cab home. It just so happened to be his cab.

You know how it is with cab rides, sometimes you'd wish the cabbie would shut up about his opinions on the world, other times they just grunt no matter what you say. But sometimes you actually get talking and have a conversation, which is what happened this time.

Somehow it came up that he only drove cab as something to do so he wouldn't go crazy sitting around the house because he was retired. Since he looked around our age I was curious as to what he could be retired from that he didn't need to work. How he could have had a full pension so young.

I remember him glancing at me sideways, and making the slightest of hesitations before saying what it was he had retired from. Thinking about what he would have seen beside him in his passenger seat, a skinny guy with long hair, maybe even an Indian, he might have wondered how him being a soldier would have gone over.

When he said he had been in for twenty-eight years I laughed and said 'you must have joined up when you were eighteen- and he gave an embarrassed smile and said no seventeen. We laughed some more and I said he still looked too young, and he said that the plastic surgery probably helped with that.

He had been in Kosovo and stepped on a land mine and it had blown off half his face; nothing like a little random violence to take all the fun out of an afternoon. 'Shit' I think I must have said 'Is that why you're out, medical discharge' He shook his head, 'I did another tour after that'.

Being curious I asked him where else he had served aside from Kosavo; the list read like a who's who of some of the hell holes of the world. Rwanda in 1994 when aside from a few under-equipped Canadian soldiers the world ignored what was happening until all that was left was the hand wringing. He was in Somalia as part of the international peace keeping force that went in to try and clean up after the American invasion.

He was wounded in Somalia as well; an eight year old stabbed him in the face through his jaw. I didn't ask him if it was the same side of his face that he had rebuilt from when he had stepped on a landmine. He was also part of the mission to Afghanistan, the first wave of Canadian soldiers who went in when we were still there to try and help rebuild the country after the ouster of the Taliban.

When I first moved to this city it took me a while to get used to seeing people in uniforms on the street and the occasional convoy of military vehicles driving by. Kingston Ontario is home to one of the largest military bases in Canada and has quite a large permanent military presence, perhaps around 10,000 people including families. Canadian Forces Base (CFB) Kingston is also one of the largest training facilities in the country, and it's routine for troops from all over Canada to be sent here in preparation for missions overseas, or for individuals and units to come here for special training courses.

Troops from CFB Kingston are usually the ones sent over first to set up the command and control centres for U.N. troops, as they are communications and engineering specialists. But there are plenty of grunts as well, infantry troops who are the backbone of any army.

Our cab driver had been infantry; entering as a private and working his way up to being sergeant by the time he left the forces. All five of his daughters, he told us, were also infantry but two of them were officers and one was just on the verge of graduating from Royal Military College (RMC), which is also in Kingston. (Canada's officer training facility – if your marks are good enough you can get a free top-notch university education in return for doing a five-year hitch in the military as a junior officer.

We laughed about how it must feel to have two, and soon to be three, daughters out ranking you, but I could see he was really proud of them. He was especially pleased that all five had decided to go into the infantry and told me that one of them was a marksman. He corrected himself "I guess I should say marksperson" with a smile.

'What about just calling them snipers" I asked, and he quickly said we don't use that term, and I caught an undercurrent of something from that – almost distaste for the word and what it meant. I skirted around it by saying something about Canada using British terminology.

Something had struck me about that conversation, him talking about his daughter being a marksperson. It sounded like women were seeing active duty on the front lines along side men. He confirmed that, the infantry had been fully integrated since 1988 he told me and he had served with women in combat lots of times in places all over the world.

The military live apart from the civilian population in Kingston, even the students from RMC are sequestered. Only the officers or single enlisted people can afford housing off base and most families live in the semidetached living quarters available to married enlisted soldiers.

I wonder if there are any women soldiers who have non-military husbands? Do they join wives' support groups when their spouses are over seas? Do they hold regular jobs like other husbands, or because their wife is off in battle they stay at home and take care of the kids? I wonder how those marriages work out and how many end in divorse.

We know so little about the men and women who we send overseas. The only time they become people is when they are killed. Then we find out they had wives and children, mothers and fathers, and brothers and sisters just like the rest of us. Oh I know you'll see the occasional picture in the newspaper of a wife and young child kissing their husband/father good-bye before they board their transport plane.

But by then it's too late to get to know them and it's just another photo opportunity to make us feel some sort of false emotion that has nothing to do with the reality of the situation. We don't know what they are really feeling or anything about that family group at all. Maybe she wanted him to de mobilize after the baby was born – or at least apply for a non-combat role. They could have even fought about it, their last night together for who knows how long.

We only learn their names when they come back in their flag draped coffins and then they get to provide a sound bite for politicians. They've either paid "the supreme sacrifice" or had their lives thrown away for no reason; it all depends on whose doing the talking.

It's easy to blame the government because it's their policy that's getting the young men and women killed, but really we are responsible because we let them do it.. A politician only cares about getting re-elected and if you make that look seriously threatened you'd be amazed at how quickly they'd see the light.

We let our governments send these people overseas to be killed and it's far easier for all of us if we don't know their names or anything about them. If you knew they have four sisters who each serve in the military and a father who served for twenty-eight year despite two fairly serious wounds before they went off to serve how would you feel?

If you know they tease each other because some of them out rank the others, (but that's okay because everyone knows a lieutenant is only as good as her sergeant) and you know their grandfather's story, how can they still be strangers whose fate you don't care about?

I didn't find out what my taxi driver's name was, or the names of his five daughters, but I wish I did. If they are going to go over seas in my country's name, even if I don't agree with the reasons for it, the least I can do is know their names before they leave, not after they come back and it's too late.

Isn't it the least we all can do?

July 30, 2007

Canadian Politics: Military Spending Part 2

One of the most lucrative contracts a private company can sign is any sort of deal they can make with a government. Not only do they know they will be guaranteed payment, supply contracts are usually long term. Whether it's supplying a ministry with office supplies or the janitorial staff with cleaning fluid you can usually be sure of your contract being renewed if you approach competence and the government doesn't change.

It's an accepted fact of life that somebody is going to hire their brother in law's firm to clean the toilets on Parliament Hill over a complete stranger. It's one of the ways that party loyalty is repaid the world over and not even an ethics commissioner would raise a fuss about it. But its supposed to be a different story when it comes to matters like multi year, multibillion-dollar defence contracts.

In Canada government's military contracts involve four separate ministries. The Department of National Defence (DND) sets out the specifications that the military requires from a particular piece of equipment; the Department of Public Works and Supply issues a request for proposals to determine a supplier; Industry Canada are asked to identify Canadian companies that could potentially act as sub-contractors for the production of required equipment and assess the regional economic benefits of each bid; and finally the Treasury Board finalizes the contract – they sign the cheques – and ensures everything is on the up and up according to their policies.

This may a sound a little complex, but what it is supposed to do is make sure that the bidding process is transparent and fair and that Canada is getting the best deal it can for the taxpayers money. But according to a recent report prepared for Canadian Center For Policy Alternatives called No Bang For The Buck the government of Canada has managed to arrange that more then 40% of the contracts signed in the fiscal year 2006-2007 were non-competitive. This information was obtained freely from Business Access Canada data available on Public Works contracts. (They do add the caveat that the government can and will withhold information about procurements that they consider matters of "National Security" – They can even re classify items after they have been released if they so desire as they have done with documents pertaining to the purchase of the Mercedes Benz "G-Wagon" troop carrier)

Instead of using the standard, bid on a tender and the company that can do the job best for the least amount of money winning the contract, the government has been using two systems which allow them to pre select a company of their choosing. Advance Contract Award Notices and Solicitations Of Interest And Qualifications are the two ways that the government has been able to circumvent its own policies concerning accountability during the procurement process.

An Advance Contract Award Notice notifies the public that a company has been chosen by the government to fill a contract. The notice is posted for fifteen days on the Public Works web site. At any time during those fifteen days, another company may submit a proposal showing how they could fulfill the requirements of the contract with their equipment better than the one the government has selected. Somehow or other they never seem to measure up to the one the government has already selected.

Or in the case of the Solicitations Of Interest And Qualifications procedure it's amazing how only one company seems to be able to make something just the way the government wants it. It's especially surprising when you consider they are all pretty much making the same thing.

Now although government claims that these practices both qualify as competitive bidding practices the Auditor General of Canada, Shelia Fraser, disputes that. In fact he states that her office made it's position on the subject clear in 1999-2000, "that Advance Contract Award Notices contribute very little to competitiveness". It appears to me that there are just too many ways for the government to manipulate the process to favor one company over another.

Of course that impression isn't helped any by some other information the No Bang For The Buck report reveals. Prior to his election as a Member of Parliament in 2004, Defense Minister Gordon O'Connor had been a lobbyist for twenty-six companies that sought government contracts. As a retired Brigadier-General in the Canadian army it should come as no surprise that a good many of them were companies who sought contracts with the Ministry of Defense.

That meant that in 2006 when he became Defense Minister he was only two years removed from lobbying that department on behalf of industry for lucrative contracts. Now there has been no evidence to implicate the minister in anything duplicitous. But the fact remains that he is in a position to influence decisions as to who gets awarded defense contracts, and the process for awarding the contracts has become far less competitive since he became minister.

The government has argued that it uses these methods as an attempt to speed up the process of acquiring equipment. They say that the equipment is badly needed for the soldiers in the field. If that were the case why have only 3% of the contracts been designated with the "Extreme Urgency" label that can be used to justify limited competition? Or if the materials are so important to our soldiers in the field why will the majority of it not even be available to them until after they have been withdrawn from Afghanistan?

According to former Deputy Minister of Procurements at DND, Alan Williams, this process is actually often as slow if not slower, than normal tender processes. According to him, the time spent by politicians and bureaucrats arguing over the requirements to fill the contract and which supplier should be used can sometimes take longer then a bidding process. They also increase the potential for a lawsuit against the government by disgruntled losing companies because decisions are made in secret. (Currently Airbus Military is considering legal action after losing out on two bids through this system).

Of course, the other problem with non-competitive bidding is that the government is ending up paying more money and losing potential industrial benefits. A United States Air Force study on procurement showed that in a non-competitive bidding situation the average cost of purchase was 20% higher. The Canadian government has awarded contracts worth 16 billion dollars in non-competitive contracts, which means that we are paying out around $3 billion we didn't have to.

But the real kicker is the money we lose on industrial spin offs. If these were competitive, a bidder would know they would have to give something to sweeten the pot-thus ensuring contracts to Canadian companies. But with no leverage over them, companies are playing fast and loose with the rules of the game. The rules state that for every dollar awarded to a foreign company to do sub contract work a dollar has to be awarded to a Canadian company.

But what happens if a contract is awarded to a foreign government – well that doesn't count and that dollar amount doesn't have to be matched. When Boeing was awarded the contract for four C-17 planes and a 20-year service contract – they subcontracted the service to the US Air Force at a cost of 1.8 billion dollars. Because the US Air Force is not a private company that's 1.8 billion dollars in spin off industry Canada misses out on.

If Boeing had been in a competitive bidding situation with another company, and that other company was willing to sub-contract the service contract to a Canadian company who do you think would have been awarded the contract? At the least Boeing might have at least felt compelled to match those terms.

The Conservative Party of Canada rode to power on the backs of promising open and accountable government. The previous government had been caught in a horrible cover up over the misappropriation of taxpayers money and the Conservatives were going to be the new broom that swept out corruption from Parliament Hill.

Judging by their behavior in awarding defense contracts, I'd say their broom isn't much different from the previous government's, if not actually worse. Perhaps we should be holding a public inquiry into how the government actually does figure out which company gets which contract? It's taxpayers money they're spending after all, and aren't they the ones who said they're needed to be more government accountability for how taxpayer money was spent?

Sixteen billion dollars is a fair chunk of change and I think I'd like to know how they made their decisions, wouldn't you?

July 29, 2007

Canadian Politics: New Military Spending Part 1

When the Conservative government took power two and half years ago no one could have guessed how much they intended to change the face of the country. It was obvious that their social policies were going to be a lot more conservative than most of Canada had been used to up to that time. Most people hoped that because they did not have a majority in the house of parliament that they wouldn't be able to implement the worst of their platform.

But no one had counted on the opposition parties not being willing to stand up to the government and letting them get away with murder. The previous government had negotiated agreements with all the provinces for universal day care, funding for programming for Native Canadians, begun implementation of the Kyoto accord, implemented gay marriage, and begun the process of decriminalizing marijuana.

Aside from being unable to over turn the Supreme Court of Canada's decision permitting gay marriage, they reversed or overturned every single positive piece of legislation and then proceeded to slash and burn other areas of social spending that were considered "extraneous". But in spite of claiming that this was all in aid of cutting spending and lowering taxes they have been able to find millions if not billions of dollars on military spending.

Now before anyone thinks I'm going to have some knee jerk liberal reaction against military spending, let me be clear about something. As long as we are going to have an armed forces its criminal to under fund them to the point that the non-commissioned soldiers and their families are forced to use food banks or have them use equipment that puts their lives in danger when they are in the field.

I have no argument with a government that wants to correct those inequities, and if that were what the spending was for I would support it. But there's the rub, the money they have been spending has been on equipment that will change the role our military has played on the world stage since we invented the concept of peacekeepers for the Suez Canal crises in the 1950's.

With the exception of a squadron of F-18 fighters and a couple of Frigates during the first Gulf War Canada has not sent troops into a battle situation since Korea until their deployment in Afghanistan. Until then the primary mission of the Canadian armed forces has been humanitarian aid and United Nations sponsored peacekeeping missions. Even our initial commitment under Prime Minister Jean Chretian to Afghanistan was to primarily assist in rebuilding and peace keeping after the ouster of the Taliban.

But the recent infusion of government money into the military is for purchasing equipment that has more of a place on the battlefield than in the aid station or the demilitarized zone. Even the pay increase that has been authorized for soldiers has only been for time spent in battle – hazard pay. Wouldn't you think that it would show soldiers more support if you increased their overall wage, telling them they are doing a valuable service for their country even when they are not in danger of being killed?

Of course they are using the excuse of terrorism for changing the role our military plays on the world stage. But what they fail to mention is that if Canada were to keep to it's role as peacemaker and not associate itself so closely with American foreign policy we wouldn't be considered a target for terrorist attacks. One only needs to look at abject failure of the invasion of Iraq to stop terror attacks against Americans, and indeed have led to their increase, to see how unsuccessful the policy of aggressive retaliation is.

I still find it amazing that supposedly brilliant military strategists would fall for one of the oldest ploys in the revolutionary's handbook. Get the big guy pissed off so that he retaliates and the people will rise up in revolt against ensuing oppression. The longer the occupation of both Iraq and Afghanistan continue the more local opposition has grown.

If the government was serious about wanting to protect our country they would worry less about buying tanks, long range military air transports, troop transports and other weapons for the field and concentrate on our peace keeping capabilities, and defending our Artic territories and coastal waters.

In all the most recent polls conducted in Canada a clear majority of the country's population has shown themselves to be against our involvement in Afghanistan continuing. It might be prudent for the government to remember that the majority of Canadians also opposed sending troops into Iraq or hosting American missiles on Canadian soil and previous governments acquiesced.

Most Canadian are more than willing to show support for the men and women who protect our country, but that doesn't mean they have to support what the government wants to do with them. In fact as most Canadians want to keep our soldiers out of a war that's not of our making and that has resulted in the most fatalities for Canadian troops since the Korean war, it's safe to say they probably support our troops more than the government does.

Before the government signs the contracts committing us to spending more then 17 billion American dollars on changing the role our armed forces play on the world stage, they may want to consider the wishes of the people they supposedly represent. Or is that asking too much?

July 27, 2007

It's All About Guilt

I was going to try and write something profound about the role guilt plays in helping keep our society ticking over. You know one of those think pieces that analyses trends in people's behaviour and shows how that everything they do can be put down to guilt. But for the life of me I couldn't think of an opening paragraph to introduce the topic.

I guess I could have started with the family unit and how large a role guilt plays within that dynamic. How so many people use a blood connection in lieu of decent behaviour as a means of having people pay attention to them. "Family matters most" and count on guilt to make you drop everything for them at a moments notice no matter how they've treated you up until that moment.

Of course I could have just a easily started off by citing how most of North America's spiritual life is based on guilt. First there's the whole idea that we're all born guilty because of Adam and Eve committing that original sin with the apple. Talk about holding the sins of the father against the children.

If that isn't bad enough, how about this scenario: God sends down his only son and sacrifices him for our sins! Talk about your guilt trips – look what I did for you, so you'd better behave. Just in case we didn't get the picture there are all sorts of things you can't do without having to pay some sort of price or doing some sort of penance.

Some folk take it so far that they equate all pleasure with sin and believe the only way to avoid it is to work constantly and live a life of abject misery. They must feel guilty for having being born and I'm sure that they only had sex because they felt guilty about not going forth and procreating. Heaven forbid they enjoy it though because that would have been a sin and there would be a price to pay.

Religion is an easy target though, so I maybe could have talked about how government only works because we're made to feel guilty. For instance if you dare to disagree with something that the government decrees your made to feel guilty for not loving your country enough. Or if you don't agree with the war the government sends troops off to fight in they imply you're guilty of wishing the soldiers harm because you won't support them.

Or on the domestic front when they want to cut taxes and slash and burn social programming they will either find someway of making the poor guilty of stealing from the rest of the population or make you feel guilty for stealing the money out of your children's pockets. If we spend money today what will be left for your children?

It's not just the government who uses guilt against us. So do far too many environmental groups, human rights organizations, foreign aid fundraisers and anyone else with a cause. Hell I'm probably a lot more of an environmental extremist, believer in human rights and social justice then most of them and they piss me off with their attempts to make people feel guilty in order to change their ways, give money, or whatever they want them to do.

What's the point of making some poor guy who needs to drive his barely working vehicle so he can go to work and feed his family feel guilty for polluting? How's that going to change the world or do anything to make it a better place for his kid or grandkids? It's not any one individual's fault that people in Africa are starving to death or dying of AIDS and whether or not they contribute ten dollars isn't going to make a bit of difference.

When they show you pictures of starving orphans living behind barbed wire in refugee camps and say you can make a difference they might as well be saying it's your fault if they continue having to live like this. Not only is that unfair, it is of course patently untrue. Hundreds of years of history lay behind the reasons for those children living in refugee camps and only a change in the so-called developed world's attitude towards the developing world will make a difference.

Now that I think about it some more I could also have talked about the reasons why we are made to feel guilty by all these different people. It's to cover up who the really guilty parties are. As that guy who worked for Clinton said, "It's the economy stupid", but probably not in the way you think.

Did you know that in the time since the great Depression there was only a very short period of real prosperity in the post world war boom in the 1950's? Since then there has been a gradual erosion of the middle class and more and more wealth and power has been accruing in the hands of fewer and fewer people. Governments can preach all they want about free trade and open markets making a better atmosphere for business which makes it better for all of us but they are only getting it half right.

While the workers are made to feel guilty for demanding basic needs like job security, environmental protection, and workplace safety businesses go where they want and rack up bigger and bigger profits everywhere around the world. They exploit natural resources, people, and environments until they have exhausted them and move on leaving worse poverty and political unrest in their wake.

Religions have long used guilt to control their people, and people in turn use it to control their families so that they will not run afoul of the church. In the twentieth century governments who are sponsored by businesses use it to ensure that their patrons have clear access to everything they need to make their profits.

Most of us really have nothing major to feel guilty about in terms of society, yet we are constantly inundated with messages from all sides insisting we are guilty of a multitude of sins. Listen to the way messages are delivered by politicians, preachers, and advocates and you can't help but hear the accusation in their voices.

Try telling yourself the next time that it's not your fault, or not the fault of whomever is being offered up as a scapegoat and see who that leaves you with to blame. It maybe that the Church is right and we are all sinners and guilty of something, but there are some who are guiltier than others.

July 11, 2007

Canadian Army Blocks Access To Information About Afghan Detainees

Well the Canadian armed forces have finally cottoned on to a trick the American Army has been utilizing since the beginning of their invasion of Iraq. The best way to make sure that everybody believes what you tell them is to suppress any evidence that contradicts your version of events.

Last spring there was a great stink raised about what was happening to Afghani people detained by Canadian soldiers. It turned out that our soldiers were being asked to turn over all detainees to the Afghan security forces even though they knew full well that the majority of those turned over would not be treated according to conventions regarding the treatment of combatants captured during a war time situation.

Detainees were being denied access to basic human necessities, forced to defecate in their cells, and tortured. At first the Canadian government said that the Red Cross was monitoring the conditions of individuals who Canada handed over. When that turned out to be false, and the agreement signed by General Rick Hiller, head of the Canadian Armed Forces, with the Afghan security forces made no allowances for monitoring the treatment of individuals turned over by Canada, the government promised changes.

You see not only was that behaviour a violation of the spirit of The Geneva Convention, it also was in direct violation of Canadian law. Any person detained by Canada or its representatives, in this case the army, can not be turned over to a foreign power if there is reason to suspect they will be subject to cruel and unusual punishment as defined by Canada's laws.

The fact that a Canadian newspaper reporter was able to reveal the conditions the detainees were being kept in through the simple expedient of getting a list of their names and then going to interview them was not lost on the Department Of National Defence (DND). So just as the government promised changes have been instituted that affects the army's dealings with detainees. They just might not be the changes people expected.

To give the government their due it's true they never said what the changes would be, but I'm sure most people figured it would be something along the lines of improved monitoring of conditions to ensure compliance with the laws of Canada. Instead the office of General Hillier has announced that all further requests for information about detainees captured by Canadian soldiers would be denied.

It doesn't matter if you phone them, ask real nice, or apply through the Access to Information Act they're not even going to tell you how many, if any, were captured. Why? Well because according to them revealing to the public how many Afghanistan prisoners Canadian soldiers have captured could endanger the lives of those same Canadian soldiers. (The fact that they are in Afghanistan endangers their lives too but that doesn't seem as much a cause for concern)

The Strategic Joint Staff, a new group set up to advise General Hillier, after reviewing all the information made public leading up to last spring's revelation has told the DND's Director of Access to Information, Julie Jansen, just what she can and can't release anymore for reasons of (All Together Now) National Security.

Information that is considered to be damaging to the Canadian Armed Forces ability to carry out its duties in battle includes detainee transfer logs, medical records, witness statements, and other processing forms. Gen. Hillier himself interceded to ensure that Canadians don't find out how many individuals are captured, such was his concern for the welfare of the troops.

When asked point blank if there was any proof that this information had compromised the security of Canadian Soldiers, DND spokesperson Marc Raider said that information couldn't be provided for reasons of operational security. Orwell couldn't have written it any better.

Interestingly enough all the information that has become so potentially threatening to soldiers in the field is the same information DND had no problem releasing in 2005/06 which led to the revelations of abuse of detainees by Afghan and Canadian forces (allegations that three detainees were abused by Canadian soldiers are currently being investigated). Professor Amir Attaran of the University Of Ottawa had been the one to make the requests for information and who had revealed the discrepancies between reality and what the Canadian government was telling people.

He contests the only way this information could harm Canadian soldiers is if there was evidence of wrongdoing on their parts. In particular if documents proved that senior military officers in Canada's military had played any active role in the proceedings, or even aided and abetted wrongdoing, it could be a matter of war crimes.

The professor also stated that it would be very hard for the military to justify in court blocking the release of information they had no problems with making public less then a year ago in some cases. A court of law might think that the defence offered by Lieutenant Colonel Dana Clarke of the Strategic Joint Staff, attributing the release of information at that time to the fact that the Forces had not been in a combat situation since the Access to Information Act came into play, a little suspect.

Ignorance of the law is no defence when you're caught breaking it, and considering that the Access to Information Act has been around for twenty-four years claiming ignorance of how it would affect your behaviour is a pretty flimsy excuse. In fact for a department where secrecy can be of such paramount importance not being familiar with those aspects of an Act that directly impacts on you amounts to gross incompetence.

Although that is troublesome, what should be of more concern is the reaction of the Military, and therefore this government to the whole situation. They were confronted with a set of circumstances that the people of Canada were unhappy about. Instead of taking steps to prevent the problem from occurring again in the future, they've decided it's better if nobody knows if there is a problem or not.

No one can accuse the Conservative Party of Canada of being slow learners, as they've shown themselves quick to emulate their idols in power to the South time after time. It was only a matter of time before they learned the tricks of the Pentagon when it comes to fighting that most hated of enemies during wartime, the press. What they don't know can't hurt you.

It's one thing in a time of war to not publicize troop movements and locations, that's only common sense and will hopefully give soldiers a better chance of survival. But to prevent the dissemination of information only because it reflects badly on your behaviour or to hide illegal activity is not just morally wrong it's also illegal.

In a democracy nobody is above the law, especially the military. Any suspicion of incorrect behaviour needs to be dealt with quickly and openly. Behaviour like this from the Department of National Defence dishonours the memory of the men and women who have died in this or any war by putting their actions under a cloud of suspicion.

That is the worst injustice of all.

July 4, 2007

Canada And The USA - Simillar But Different

The other day I made some reference or other to Canada Day, Canada' s birthday, to an American and she completely missed it. So I wrote her back and said, "Canada Day, it’s a lot like your Independence Day on July fourth except less weapons are involved". And come to think of it Canada is one of the few I know of that don't celebrate with a parade of armed might for the world to see.

Of course that could be explained easily enough by the fact that we probably don't have enough equipment to parade anyway. Most of our troops are already being shot up in Afghanistan by friendly fire from American pilots who can't tell the difference between enemy and allied troops.. Can't really take that personally since during the invasion of Iraq the largest number of casualties they incurred were own kills. ( I don't know if that's true or not but I wouldn't be surprised if it was)

Anyway the fact that Canada Day, July 1st and July 4th, are so close together got me thinking about the differences between our two countries. One difference can be found in the name of our respective countries national holiday. Up to a few years ago we referred to our day as Dominion Day, in while the American national holiday is called Independence Day.

On July 1st 1867 Canada was created by an Act of the British Parliament, The British North American Act, witch also served as Canada's Constitution until the 1980s. The American's on the other hand were a bunch of dissatisfied British nobility who had grown tired of sending a tithe of their takings back to the homeland. This is what provoked the now infamous Boston Tea Party.

Its interesting to note how the two countries have such different attitudes to government and its role in society. In Canada we have no problems, in general, with government run programs that act as a social safety net. In the United States the thought of government controlled Health Care is considered a dangerous threat to liberty by more extreme factions and tantamount to socialism and communism by others.

Some where along the line in the development of America they began to consider themselves an Empire and exhibit the attitudes that come with that. The first sign of this was the Monroe Doctrine of 1810 that claimed it was the United States' Manifest destiny to rule the entire Western Hemisphere without the interference of any foreign power.

Not surprisingly they tried to invade British Canada in 1812 but were repulsed. In fact British troops landed in Washington DC and burnt down the White House and were barely repulsed in Louisiana when they landed troops there. After that the American's concentrated of expanding their interests into South America.

Unlike America Canada has only had two minor internal wars. The first took place in the 1830s when leaders in both French Canada and English Canada fought for more responsible government and sought to break the power of the few families who controlled the political power in that area. The one in English Canada lasted all a day when the leaders were allowed to march through the streets of Toronto until they met barricades manned by armed militia and trained solders. Quebec was different story as the revolt lasted for two weeks as they based themselves in the rural areas and were simply harder to hunt down.

The second major revolt took place after Canada was formed and involved Louis Riel leading the Metis and Natives of Manitoba and Saskatchewan in a desperate attempt to hold onto their land against the onslaught of settlers who were taking treaty land without offering compensation. Riel paid for having the nerve to stand up against the government with his life. (He was also used as an excuse for ensuring that Canada's national railroad was built – but that's another story for another day)

The United State on the other hand almost tore themselves apart with their civil war pitting the Northern part of the Country against the South in a vicious war that lasted nearly five years. With the North trouncing the South it was a victory of industry over agriculture and the economic path of the country was set

Not only had the war been a spur to build rail lines everywhere, it ensured the quick development of an industrial base which helped propel them to becoming the economic power they are today. It was in this time that the Americans began serious empire building and exercising their manifest destiny to the south. They had long ago stolen Texas and California from Mexico and were set to begin their economic conquest of South America.

The carrot and the stick were used to great effect throughout the region. With the carrot being bribes for political support of whatever corrupt officials they could find to endorse the American way and the stick military might to pacify any popular resistance to slave wages, exploitation of natural resources, and the theft of indigenous lands.

Sometimes it became convenient to provide an excuse to go to war, and so the American's sank a decommissioned ship called the Maine in Havana harbour and declared it an act of armed terrorism they would not stand for. They invaded Cuba, installed a puppet government who did what they were told by the Sugar and Fruit companies.

It was pretty much the same all over South and Central America until Fidel Castro and Che Guevara came along and liberated Cuba in the 1950's. Unfortunately Cuba was an anomaly and South America has only just begun to remove itself from under the heel of the American boot in the last decade. As late a the 1970's and 80's they were involved with either propping up repressive regimes who favoured their policies and doing their best to remove from power those who opposed them.

While the United States was busy setting up their empire what was Canada doing? Well, Canada was setting up its country. The biggest problem was finding people to settle the western Prairie Provinces to prevent the land from being taken by Americans and having to pitch our neophyte army against the hardened Americans to protect it. So the government sent out agents to Eastern Europe where conditions were similar, but land was less plentiful and offered the equivalent of forty acres, a cow, and plough to anybody who would take their families to a brand new country and hostile weather conditions and homestead.

Which explains to this day why there are so many Ukrainian and other Eastern European names scattered throughout the ranch land and farms of Western Canada. We were also getting caught up in the Wars of Great Britain, first the Boer War in South Africa and then the First World War. It wasn't until the 1920's that Canada was allowed control of it's own foreign affairs.

Canada's development on the world stage didn't really flower until the 1950's and the Suez Canal crises. It was Canada's minister for foreign affairs who won the Nobel Peace prize for coming up with the idea of sending in a multinational force of troops under the lead of the United Nation to serve as buffer between the warring parties. Thus were born peacekeepers thanks to Lester B. Pearson .

Canada began to excel in the role of compassionate middle power country that all sides in a dispute would trust. As a result Canadian soldiers would find themselves in some of the hottest spots of the world from the Golan Heights to Cyprus being asked to keep people from killing each other.

In my mind it is this that separates Canada and the United States. While the United States thinks of the world in terms of what it can take from it and use for itself, Canada looks to see what it can do for the world. Since the time of the 1950's we have geared our soldiers to be either rescue workers delivering care and comfort where needed. (This also explains our high casualty rate when it comes to our soldiers in Afghanistan as they are not equipped or trained for combat situations of this nature)

It wasn't until 1990 and Prime Minister Brian Mulroney wanting to look impressive sent troops to the first Gulf war that Canada's role on the world stage began to emulate the American one. We weren’t becoming empire builders, but we were being seen to be their buddies, which was bad enough.

But at the same time we still considered ourselves to have a moral obligation to help right injustices in the world and believed in the ideal the United Nations. While Canada was working to help free Nelson Mandela and supporting aid programs to the developing world, the U. S. were propping up the Afrikaner government in South Africa and not paying their dues to the UN.

They considered the U.N. to be almost an enemy, as they do to this day, because they will not act as a rubber stamp for American ambitions. The United States of America is the biggest obstacle in the road towards helping Africa pull out of it's downward spiral of poverty and disease because it is not in their best interests for it to happen.

Canada and the United States live side by side in North America, but they are miles apart when it comes to how they view their places in the world. Canada sees itself as a citizen of the world with responsibilities toward helping her fellow man. The U. S. on the other hand sees the world only in terms of what it can do for the United States.

We are most definitely two different countries

June 15, 2007

The Age Of Avoidance

Through out history Western civilization has looked back upon itself and named certain eras. There was the Hellenistic Period, (which has nothing to do with Helen of Troy but a lot to do with Alexander the Great who was a Macedonian) followed of course by the Roman Empire. We went down hill for a while after that with the Dark Ages and the Middle Ages, but started to perk up with the Renaissance.

Almost every major European power had a "Golden Age" somewhere between the 1500's and the 1700's, although never simultaneously. There was the Age of Reason, which by our standards probably wasn't very reasonable, but relatively speaking it was the best the West had achieved to that point. After that things got a little confusing as we started going in quite a few directions at once so it was hard to give a title that would encompass everybody at once.

There was the age of Nationalism which began with Napoleon and pretty much has been ongoing since, but really peaked at the end of the 19th century when Germany united for the first time and Italy threw off the rule of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. After World War one of course we had a lot of the small countries of Eastern Europe and the Balkans being carved out of various former Empires: Latvia, Estonia, Poland, what was then Czechoslovakia, and Yugoslavia.

Of course the 19th century also marked the beginning of the end of us being a mainly rural, agrarian based society with the onset of the Industrial Revolution and the need for a large labour force to work in the factories. Although never recognized with the honorific of an age, nothing has had more influence on making us in the West what we are today, for better and worse, than the Industrial Revolution.

It allowed for the rise of a merchant class, Capitalism, Socialism, Communism, the stock market, free markets, and any of the other isms we all love to label things with. But there has been a dearth of Ages in that time. The only one that caught on at all was the so-called Age of Aquarius that was being preached about in the 1960's by folk who had serious hallucinogen habits.

But I think that we here in North America have finally done what no others have been able to accomplish in almost a century; establish a way of life that is so ubiquities as to deserve the title of Age. Ladies and Gentleman I would like to welcome you to the Age of Avoidance.

No age before us has proven so adept at turning a blind eye to the realities of life as we have. No matter how glaringly obvious an issue is we have perfected the ability to not see what is right in front of our faces. From our governments on down to individuals we have devised more and more ingenious methods of not dealing with our own shit.

Can you think of anything else that would explain the proliferation of New Age religions? What better thing to offer people if their lives are going down a sewer than a guarantee of peace and harmony? Come to the light and avoid the reality of what is causing you to have nervous breakdowns and to chew anti depressants like Smarties.

You can buy books on how to get your own personal Guardian Angel who will watch your back as you go through life. There are ones that will bring you abundance, and others who will help you get lucky; in fact there is probably a Guardian Angel for every aspect of your life that you're willing to dish out money to protect.

This way you can avoid dealing with any nasty personal issues you may have. Who needs to confront their demons when they have a Guardian Angel? They take care of everything for you and you can on with your blissful existence and just wait for the abundance to roll in.

Of course we all have avoidance techniques; anyone who lives in a big city has long ago learned how to not notice the folk that line the streets with their hands stuck out for spare change. If it gets too bad you can be sure that city council will create a bylaw outlawing homelessness so that anybody without a permanent address will be either thrown in jail or shipped out of town. Homeless problem, what homeless problem?

Of course there are some problems that can't be avoided like how much its costing you to fill your forty gallon gas tank on your all terrain pick up truck that you use to drive to work every day. You sit and fume about it every morning in the traffic jam on the way to work and watch the sky turn brown as the sun comes up. Two cents more a gallon today, what's a person going to do.

Oh well American Idol is on tonight and the competition has been intense this time. At least there aren't any scandals about judges sleeping with contestants. Boy that Simon Callow really gets you steamed though, he's such a prick. But the music is surprisingly good for amateurs. You used to sing back in high school with a band and were pretty good…better then that guy who won last week anyway. Shit maybe you should enter next time.

Television is full of reality shows about unreal situations because no one wants to deal with reality. Hell the government doesn't want to deal with reality why should the population? Everything is great they say, the economy is booming. Then why are less people earning more and more people earning less money then ten years ago? What's so great about that?

As a continent we don't deal well with reality and when the real world comes knocking it finds us woefully unprepared. We have technology that allows us to do miraculous things but we use it primarily for mindless entertainment that keeps us from thinking about the world beyond our living room. If reality ever shows up on our 52" high definition television screen with surround sound all we have to do is find the right button on our remote to change our perception

Tim Leary suggested society should "Turn On, Tune In, and Drop Out". Somehow or other what we've done instead is to simply Tune Out. Welcome to the Age of Avoidance, where the credo is no longer it's who you know that matters, but, what you don't know can't hurt you.

June 13, 2007

Canadian Politics: Native Treaty Rights And Land Claims

There's been a lot of talk in Canada recently about the treaty rights of various Native bands across the country. The thing is a lot of people don't really understand what those rights are. They make comments about lazy buggers who get more than they deserve in the first place, or they lost war so screw them.

Well the problem is the treaty rights in some cases were settlements for losing that war. When nations agreed to terms of surrender with the government of Great Britain, who ruled this land in those days, they were ceded control over certain territories in perpetuity. As the saying says: "As long as the grass is green and the water runs," they were promised full sovereignty over those lands under the Kings and Queens of England.

For some other tribes their lands were given them as reward for loyalty to England. During the revolutionary war that brought about the birth of the United States, certain members of the Iroquois Nation sided with the British. Chief among them were the Mohawks and the Oneida.

Both nations were given large tracts of land through out Southern Ontario to resettle in, as they had to leave their home territories in the United States after the war. As with the treaty rights of other nations in other parts of Canada their new territories were guaranteed them forever.

Of course this was in the days long before anyone considered the value of what could be under the ground, or that a golf course would work really well there. In the dark ages of Canadian and Native relations, when the federal government was trying to solve the "Indian Problem" by committing cultural genocide with residential schools, they also ignored governments at the provincial and municipal levels developing and selling treaty lands.

Anyone with ready cash was allowed to do whatever they wanted from building gravel pits to housing developments. Trapped on their reservations and kept ignorant of their past through federal policy, most nations had no idea what was being done to them. Occasionally in attempts to make things look kosher, a government would agree to "lease" the land from the nation affected on condition that it would be returned when they were done with it.

But most times they didn't even bother and would just sell it out from under them. Some nations wised up before others. On the West Coast the Niska nation began fighting in the courts for the return of their treaty lands in the 1950's.

By the time they won their case some forty years later in the 1990's they were the proud owners of large chunks of expensive sub-divisions that had been built on their territory illegally. There was a great hue and cry from the right wing about "Indians" going to throw people out on the street without having to pay for the houses.

What happened instead was that the tribe simply became the new municipal government and collected property taxes, made sure the garbage was collected and basically nobody's lives were affected in the least. Property values might have fallen slightly but that wasn't the Niska's fault, hate and fear mongering can go a long way in making things unsettled and that was the case in this situation.

In the 1970's when the American Indian Movement (A.I.M.) was getting active in the United States and speaking out for the right of Native Americans, Canadian Natives started to come out of their stupor as well. The first thing that meant for a lot of people was recovering the cultural identity that had been stripped away from them by years of government policy.

Along with the rediscovery of self came political awareness and understanding of what had been going on for the past nearly two hundred years. Tribal bands began gathering together evidence of the old treaties and finding out exactly what land had been originally ceded to them by the governments when they were originally awarded their territories.

The Lubicon Cree in Northern Alberta discovered how much land had been sold out from under them by the Alberta government to Oil and Gas companies; in Saskatchewan a tribe woke up to discover the government was diverting a river that ran through their territory without their permission; but it was 1990 and Oka Quebec that woke the country up to the size of the problem.

The mayor of the sleepy little town of Oka Quebec was also chairman of the local golf club. The club wanted to expand from nine holes to eighteen and so the mayor convinced city council to sell some "vacant land" to the golf course. That vacant land was part of the land ceded to the Mohawk nation whose territory boarded the town of Oka.

When the Mohawks blockaded the road leading to the site the Quebec Provincial Police (La Surete de Quebec) charged the barricade – in the resulting exchange of fire one young officer was shot. What had begun as a peaceful protest escalated to the point where the Prime Minister of Canada decided to call out the army to end the blockade.

Thankfully the Canadian Armed Forces are much better disciplined than the Surete de Quebec and the affair wound down peacefully. But the issue remains unresolved with the land claim still on the books and the golf course made on the disputed territories.

In 1995 it was Ontario's turn, and this time a Native was killed. At Iperwash Provincial Park Chippewa were protesting the fact that the land used for the park was treaty territory and a traditional burial ground. The documentation asserting their claim is held by the federal government and nobody denied that the land was legally theirs. But nothing happened except Dudley George of the Chippewa First Nations was shot by an Ontario Provincial Police officer for no apparent reason.

Over the years federal governments of every political persuasion have been dragging their heels on dealing with land claims. The longer they stall the more cases come to light. In the past year alone we've seen the occupation of the site of a housing development in Caledonia Ontario, the blockading of rail lines along the main east-west passenger corridor in the heaviest populated area of Canada, and various other protests across the country about the delays in settling lands claims.

While you can't blame the current government for the backlog, you can blame them for not doing anything about it and for their negative attitude towards Native affairs to begin with. This is the government that cancelled an agreement worked out between all the provinces, the Assembly of First Nations (who represent all the reservation Natives across Canada) and the federal government for financial assistance over ten years to all bands across the country.

They claim they have set up a special committee to deal with land claim settlements, but that they won't do anything as long as barricades are up anywhere across the country. But what guarantees do the Native people of Canada have that this will happen quickly, and why should they trust any government of Canada after what they have experienced in the last two hundred years.

How many times can you lie to, cheat, and deceive a people before they are justified in not believing anything you say anymore? Land claims and treaty rights have reached the stage in Canada where Native Canadians are within their rights to demand some show of good faith on the part of any government if they are to be expected to surrender any means they have of keeping up the pressure to force the issue.

Successive Canadian governments at all levels have not shown themselves to be very good about honouring treaties that were signed by their forefathers, so if Native Canadians are feeling suspicious can you blame them? From there point of view the grass has gotten pretty brown and the running water has slowed to a trickle.

May 25, 2007

Canadian Politics: It's Time For A National Drug Treatment Program

You'd think they'd have got the message by now wouldn't you? That after nearly thirty years of fighting the so-called War On Drugs, with the only result being the near doubling of the inmate populations across North and South America and no decrease in the number of people using, they might be taking the wrong approach.

But if doesn't appear to have sunk into the thick skulls of the Conservative Party of Canada who are about to release their vaunted drug policy next week. They've already scrapped plans for decriminalizing simple possession of marijuana that had been on the table before the last election, and they've been making noises about a "Get Tough On Drugs" platform.

How you can get any tougher on illicit drug use then we already are in this country, where simple possession of marijuana can see you put away for up to ten years in jail, I don't know, but that's what they're saying. It doesn't seem to matter that this policy has shown itself to be totally ineffective in dealing with any sort of drug problem that we have in Canada, it's just all part of the right wing get tough on crime attitude.

Now there's no denying that there is a problem with drug addiction in Canada. According to a study released by the Canadian Centre On Substance Abuse the cost to the public, including treatment, disability, and missed work, from alcohol, tobacco, and illicit drug use is $40 billion a year.

Yet as a country we have no national treatment system with which to set standards for the treatment of addictions. We have a hodgepodge of programs that range from overnight stays in a detoxification centre to six-week hospital in patient programs. According to Patrick Smith, head of addiction psychiatry at the University of British Columbia, most Canadians with a substance abuse problem don't get help even if they want it.

Dr. Smith is part of a group of addiction workers from across Canada who are working towards a March 2008 deadline to draft a framework for a treatment model. They have gathered together a group of policy advisors, treatment specialists, and lawmakers to be involved in the process and hope to receive government funding to implement it.

The object would be to provide frontline caregivers, like family doctors, who are the first to deal with addicts in most cases, a means for helping them find the treatment their clients need. Right now if a person goes to their family doctor seeking treatment for an addiction to an illicit drug, there is no means of assessing what type of treatment the patient needs.

Unfortunately, judging by previous funding patterns, the government doesn't appear to be very likely to go for the idea. The HIV/AIDS Policy and Law Review published a report recently that outlined just how the government spends 245 million dollars annually on combating drug use. Using information obtained through the access of information act and data on government web sites their statement revealed that 73% went to policing, 14% to treatment, 7% to research and only 3% to harm reduction.

In other words we have an illness that is costing our economy 40 billion dollars a year and our government is doing dick all to prevent that illness from spreading. Putting somebody in jail does not stop them from using drugs, because no matter how much anybody wants to deny it drugs are just as, if not more, prevalent in our jail than on the street.

If the war on drugs has been such a failure the opposite can't be said for harm use reduction programs. Vancouver Canada operates the only safe injection site for intravenous drug users in North America if not our hemisphere. According to research conducted by the HIV/AIDS Policy people there's been a30% increase in the numbers of addicts who enter into detoxification programs among those who make use of the site as compared to the general population.

The study also determined that users of the site were more likely to reduce their Heroin intake, and to seek further treatment once they left detoxification programs than others. In other words they showed an actual commitment to recovering from their addiction as opposed to those who have entered such programs through court orders. (That's an unsubstantiated observation made on my part based on anecdotal evidence and personal knowledge of how the system works in Canada that people who don't enter addiction counselling voluntarily have a high rate of relapse.)

One would think that evidence like that in a trial program would be taken as an indication that there are better ways to proceed with helping people overcome their addictions. There is no difference between the mindset of a person who is addicted to alcohol, tobacco, or street drugs. The only difference is what they are addicted to.

Addictions are a symptom of a larger suffering within a person. Simply punishing them for the addiction will not do anything to change that. That doesn't mean that a person shouldn't be punished for the behaviour that their addiction causes- if they steal to feed their addiction they should be punished for the theft. But if nothing is done to solve the problem of why they stole in the first place you haven't accomplished anything.

By treating the causes of a person's addiction you will eliminate the addict, and the criminal behaviour that accompanies the addiction. You will also eliminate the market for drugs. The fewer addicts there are the less business for drug dealers and the less money made to offset the risk of the business.

The people who are making the real money from drugs are pure capitalists; if a venture starts costing them more then it's worth to them in profits how many organized crime groups do you think would continue selling? It's a simple matter of supply and demand. Take away the demand for a product and nobody is going to be bothered with supplying it.

Each addict we heal is one less client for the dealers; each person we educate to the dangers of street drugs is one less person who will become a client. If we took the amount of money that we spend on incarcerating an addict and spent it on a treatment program for him or her we'd be not only saving a person, we'd be saving money in the long run because it increases their chances of staying out of jail, and we decrease the demand for drugs.

That may sound like a long slow process, but if we had a national treatment program think of how many people could be potentially treated on a daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly basis. The "War On Drugs" has proven to be a failure, isn’t it time we tried a different approach?

May 22, 2007

Medications And The Water Table Don't Mix

Now a days there seems to be a pill for just about everything. There are antibiotics for all the new diseases that taking to many antibiotics has created; there are pills to take for the stress of living the life we're living; and there are the pills we take to cope with the heart attacks, high blood pressure, strokes and other stress induced illnesses.

Of course what goes in the body also has to come out in some form or other, which in turn gets gathered up by our city's sewer system, filtered and sent back into the water table. After the body has done assimilating whatever drug we have taken it will join the general exodus and end up in the sewers along with all the other waste products.

Well, you're saying, so what. How much can be left to pass out of our bodies after we're done? It's can't be anything worth getting excited about can it? Well obviously it can otherwise I wouldn't be going to all this trouble to set you up for it, so I'll just end the suspense.

Researchers with the Canadian Government, The Environmental Protection Agency in the States, and the American Chemistry Council have just released the results of a study they began in 2001. From 2001 until 2003 they treated a lake in Northern Ontario with trace elements of the synthetic hormone used in birth control pills.

The amount used was equivalent to the amount that would be discharged from a city's sewer system. After the three years of adding the amount they sat back to see what effect if any it would have on fish populations.

The results were quite frightening, male fish literally turned into females. Instead of producing sperm they began producing eggs and their physical appearance changed so them became indistinguishable from the females. After the first year the minnow population began to crash, and after only a few years the fish was almost exterminated.

Double-checking to make sure there were no other elements at work, they monitored the fish populations in two similar sized lakes in the same area. Those populations remained completely unaffected so they could conclude that their tampering was the direct cause. (The lake used was not part of any city's sewage system so would have been as pristine as you can get these days)

By the end of the experiment the lake's total concentration of synthetic estrogen was about five parts per trillion, or science's equivalent of next to nothing. Dr Karen Kidd, who headed up the research team said she was shocked by the severe reaction that the fish population had shown to such a small amount of the hormone.

While it's not known what effect the drug has on humans when it gets into the drinking water, it would be the same amount as was released into the lake, Dr. Kidd said that these results should be treated like a "red flag" warning us of the potential danger involved for humans. With the rise in various forms of reproductive problems in human males, ranging from declining sperm counts to testicular cancer and with no cause identified as of yet, she said this should really be a priority.

It's been long known that fish populations around sewer effluents have shown population decreases but this is the first time those reductions have been directly linked to a specific cause. Dr. Kidd said the solution is not for women to stop taking the pill, but for cities to start using proper treatment plants that can break down chemicals so they are not released into the water. Not only will it prevent estrogen from being released into the water table, but all other left over medications as well.

Of course if you live in a city like the one I do where they dump raw sewage into the water system when it rains too much there are vast improvements that have to be made to the way municipalities handle their raw sewage period. It will require an investment in infrastructure that is probably unreasonable to expect from most municipalities in North America, let alone elsewhere in the world. This is a project that all levels of government have to take responsibility for and not try to pass the buck.

Something else to contemplate is what affect other drugs "flushed" into the water table are having. A friend of mine jokes that so many people in the town where I live are on some form of stress medication or another that you could probably just drink the tap water now to if you need anti-depressants.

If governments want to pay more than lip service to the environment, if they are sincere in their efforts of trying to preserve our world, they need to worry about more than just the air we breathe. Human beings are made up of a ridiculous percentage of liquid and water is essential to our survival. Isn't it time we took the steps to ensure that our water isn't killing us?

May 19, 2007

Book Review The Reluctant Fundamentalist Mohsin Hamid

It seems to me that Americans don't understand how much the rest of the world cares about them. Oh sure there are demonstrations in the streets against them in cities around the world and their soldiers are attacked on a daily basis in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, but underneath it all they are really cared for.

Underneath the anger, the accusations, and the fear is the love of a parent for their teenage child who, although he or she mostly means well, seems to have lost their way in figuring out how to carry out their intentions without causing damage. In fact it appears to me that those who care the most for their well being are those who the Americans seem to understand the least.

Even while American soldiers are busy killing their fellows in faith and race, Muslim authors around the world seem to have taken it upon themselves to try and show America how they appear to the rest of the world. Books appear on shelves with titles that could be by lines from any number of war zones American troops have been stationed in the last ten to twenty years, written by authors attempting to enlighten Americans to the consequences of their government's actions.

The flaunting of absolute wealth, of wanton wastefulness when so many lack basic necessities, of indifference to the plight of millions of starving and homeless people, and of the bottom line meaning more than improving the lot of peoples. These are all cited as reasons for how ferment is whipped up against America and people see them as being the reason for all that ails them.

See how you look to our eyes the voices of these authors are saying. Is it any wonder the people of our countries who see no hope of life getting better lash out against you? Please they seem to be saying, open your eyes before we have all gone too far to come back. In his new book, The Reluctant Fundamentalist published by Doubleday Canada Mohsin Hamid chimes in to take another stab at enlightening those who still aren't willing to see what's in front of their faces.
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Hamid's protagonist is not some poor villager whose life has been destroyed by bombs. Changez is an upper middle class Pakistani who is the spring of 2001 has just graduated from Princeton University and been given a job with a starting salary of $80,000 per annum with a valuation firm. At Samson and Underwood they prepare companies for the open market in the manner of a real estate agent appraising property. They even make recommendations on how a company can increase their value through lay offs and outsourcing.

It even appears that Changez has gained his entry into upper class society through his burgeoning relationship with the beautiful Erica, the daughter of a wealthy New York investment banker. He appears to be well on his way up the ladder of success when the World Trade Centre comes tumbling down.

His reaction to their collapse astounds him, he finds himself curiously elated that someone has had the gumption to strike at the United States. Perhaps it is because he is in Manila at the time on a job for the company and had just been unsettled to find himself being lumped into the category of "American Oppressor" by a Filipino. When thinking about it after he felt like he was faking and that in reality he was much more akin to that Filipino than he was to his co-workers.

What ever the reason though he is confused and dismayed by his reactions and realizes he must hide them from his co-workers who will of course not understand them in the least. Of course as the situation in the world disintegrates, and America bullies Pakistan into being an ally in the war against Afghanistan he begins to find it harder and harder to do his job.
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Compounding this is the fact that the destruction of the towers has caused Erica to suffer a relapse into a near catatonic state that she had entered two years earlier upon the death of the love of her life. Like America wants to live in a world of the past where it is invulnerable and able not to be concerned about anything but its own interests, Erica wants to live in a world where her former beau is still alive.

She retreats into the world inside her head where he continues to exist and pushes all other considerations aside just as her homeland obsesses on trying to restore something that is irrevocably lost not caring about the expense or what it will cause others to suffer. Although Changez continues to try and work he realizes he is only going through the motions. He can no longer put the blinkers on that prevent him from seeing how many lives his job affects in terms of layoffs, lost pensions, and businesses closed forever.

So all of this sounds fairly typical doesn't it, what's unusual is the manner in which Mohsin Hamid has chosen to have Changez tell his story. He recounts it over tea and food to a strange American he meets in a market place in his hometown in Pakistan. It's obviously some amount of time after the events he is recounting to his visitor and at first his rationale for doing so isn't clear.

The Changez of today sounds like a far different man to the one he describes as living in New York City for six months. He is far more self-assured and a little bit more mysterious. Why is continually feel compelled to reassure his companion that he is not in any danger and take great pains to make his guest comfortable? He continually offers examples of the secular nature of Pakistan, pointing out women dressed in jeans, and talking about the women in his family working

If he also makes a few pointed remarks about his guest's cell phone ringing every hour on the hour, or about the bulge under his shoulder, well can you blame him for being cautious? These are troubled times we live in and you can never be too careful.

Mohsin Hamid has written a book that is deceptive in its simplicity and terseness. In taut and succinct language he shows us how we appear through the eyes of another culture. The image that mirror shows us isn't very pleasant and should serve as another piece of our education in how the rest of the world perceives us.

While it is true that perceptions can be coloured, when so many voices are saying the same basic message over and over again, voices which aren't preaching or advocating but simply reporting, don't you think we should be starting to pay attention?

Canadian's who are interested in buying The Reluctant Fundamentalist can do so at Random House Canada or other reputable online retailers like

May 18, 2007

Book Review: Cake Or Death Heather Mallick

It was a few years ago when I first was introduced to the joys of a Heather Mallick column. This is not to be confused with a Doric Column with a cap that supports old Greek ruins, but a collection of around 900 words that was written usually in a fit of pique by a woman writer for The Globe And Mail newspaper in Canada.

On alternate Saturdays I would eagerly click the generic link "Columnist" on the newspaper's home page (they very rarely gave her a name link maybe hoping people wouldn't find her so as to cut back on the irate letters to the editor) and jump into her pool of righteous indignation. It was wonderful – somebody was actually writing about all the issues I would have written about and in a style that made me weep with envy.

Not only was her wit so acerbic that it could eat through the walls of the Teflon uber-bunkers that politician, pundits, and other spewers of lies, and garbage live behind, but she could also break your heart with her minimal description of real misfortune. She doen't have a drop of sentimentality in her blood, just real emotion and a formidable intelligence.

When she had occasion to turn upon herself and remark upon her own idiosyncrasies it wasn't to enlist our sympathy or even out of some masochistic need for public self-humiliation. It was more along the line of showing people how easy it was to admit to your humanity and to revel in your own eccentricity. Who needs to be the same as everyone else – even if it's only in the way you've planted your rows of flowers this year – it is still a statement of your uniqueness as an individual and you should be proud of it.
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On occasion I would be moved enough by one of her writings to email a commentary or words of approval. To my surprise she actually would answer her mail, and not just with a thank-you for writing form letter either. I was beginning to enjoy our sporadic correspondence and I think she was beginning to recognise the name at the end of the letters when all of a sudden it ended.

A polite form letter informed me that she was no longer able to answer her mail as she was writing a book and she hoped I'd (and everyone else I assume) understand how she just couldn't spare the time anymore. I was a little disappointed but that was nothing to what was to come.

One Saturday as usual I clicked over to the Columnist section only to find her gone. There was no notice, no hints as to her whereabouts, nothing. It was if she had been abducted by Aliens or worse spirited away by some secret government plot to abolish free speech. Of course it was something far scarier – she was on publicity tour for her first book Pearls In Vinegar: The Pillow Book Of Heather Mallick.

Maybe it was some dark recess of hidden resentment, or the fact that I was broke, but I never got around to either buying or reading book one. Now that Knoff Canada has released Cake Or Death, her second collection of essays on modern life I decided to let bygones be bygones (the nice people at Random House Canada sent me a review copy) and see if she's changed at all in her new digs.
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Will she have moderated her tone in the hopes of increased sales? Will she stop accusing Tony Blair of being the most duplicitous man on the planet and describing George Bush as the ultimate spoiled rich boy in the hopes of attracting the moderately well heeled to shell out the necessary readies to buy her book?

I guess Heather figures there are enough people out there (here) with as highly tuned sense of outrage as she has because she has not moderated her tone a whit. Oh certainly she might spend some time ruminating on the finer things in life. Those that allow her a respite from the reality of a world where in certain countries she's unable to leave her hotel room without crying because of how the people are forced to live.

I'm not going to deny her those two weeks in Paris because she is astute enough to know that the glamour she is revelling in for those fourteen days is an illusion, is in fact a glamour, a spell. If she were to live there all year round, as she occasionally fantasises, she knows that reality will exist in spite of where you live. That death and cake are always going to be our choices and the former in all its shapes is far more plentiful than the latter.

She makes no secret of her loathing for what she calls the unfeeling nature of conservative politicians who justify everything through greed and the bottom line. She declares her unstinting support for those people everywhere and anywhere who are appalled by what their leaders do in their name. She avows undying love for the Americans who have sent photos to the site apologizing to the world for re-electing George Bush. And she loves taxes. (Read the book)

She's opinionated, gutsy, bull headed, pretty much all the things that most people who use the words family values in a sentence despise in a woman. She has a marvellous conversational writing style that let you walk alongside her through the pages of her opinions. Even if the chat is a little one-sided in that you can't address her directly with your response at least you feel like you're involved and not just being lectured.

When I started writing articles, if I was attempting to emulate anyone, it was Heather. She sees no shame in expressing how something makes her feel, and doesn't hesitate in using herself as an example when the need arises. She's honest in a world where that means something and she speaks from the heart. Those are two attributes I will always admire and that still haven't changed an iota in her writing. Obviously fame hasn't gone to her head.

Readers in Canada can order a copy of Heather Mallick's Cake Or Death from Random House Canada or through some other equally reputable online retail outlet like

May 16, 2007

Hidden Dangers In Zodiac Spot On Flea Control

How many times have you purchased a product, let's say a cleanser or a bug spray, and in big bold colours they display the various warning signs. Toxic, flammable, carcinogenic or whatever are in large enough type so there is no way that you're going to be able to miss it.

Or how about when you get a prescription you've never had before. The pharmacist, if he or she is any good, ensures that you know all possible contradictions and their symptoms. In fact most of them even provide a print out with which once you read you wonder if the stuff is going to kill you before it cures you, but at least you know what could go wrong.

Then of course there is now the grocery store where more and more packaging are carrying not only a products' nutritional value, but lists it's potential for allergies as well as any foods it might have come into contact with that could cause an allergic reaction. In fact everywhere you go you can see health warnings on the outside chance that something could harm you.

Whether it's because companies are terrified of being sued, new government regulations, or simple decency it doesn't matter. These warnings are now accepted as course and you expect to see them. The days of having to make use of magnifying products or having to pore over acres of small print in order to find out what exactly it is you're using or eating are long gone.

At least I thought they were, or maybe what applies to humans doesn't apply to pet products. That's always possible seeing as what's been going on with cat and dog food recently and other feeds in the past that have been discovered to be deadly. Heck mad cow disease was first started by adding sheep brains to cow feed, because the illness actually forms in sheep not cows.

Every spring I usually treat my cats with Revolution Blue, a medication I buy from my vets that gets rid of fleas, ear mites and other insects that bother them. They are indoor cats so that's all they usually need. Revolution is a great product that's easy to use, as you just squeeze a small tube's contents into the space between your pet's shoulder blades and it takes care of the rest. I think the natural oils in the cat's hair carries it around the body.
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With our vet moving beyond comfortable walking distance I haven't been able to get out to pick up the medication for my cats in a couple of years but they'd been fine anyway so it hadn't seemed to matter. This year thought they started to display symptoms that they might be picking up mites or fleas; they can come in on my wife or I, if we have been around an animal that has them, easily enough.

So I went to a reputable pet store and bought Zodiac Spot On Flea Control for Cats and Kittens which promises to kill flea eggs in the animal's fur. You apply it just like the Revolution. So we did this on Saturday to all four of our cats.
By Sunday one of them was sporting a bald spot between his shoulder blades. Although we had noticed that it had aggravated them we had put the medication on their shoulders for a little while after, we didn't make any connection between what was happening with him and the Spot On until we noticed his skin where the hair had fallen out looked like it had been burned it was so bright red and weepy.
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His hair had fallen out in little clumps in that area, I found it lying in a cluster on the carpet. It wasn't like it had shed or anything because it wasn't loose hairs, you could see it formed into clumps with the roots and everything. He's a shorthaired cat so we've been able to monitor him closely now and it doesn't look like the damage is spreading any further.

But yesterday I was walking through the hall and found a pile of hair from another one of our cats. His hair is thicker with more layers so we hadn't known anything was wrong until it all just fell out in a clump. It was like he had rolled over onto his back like cats do and had left his hair behind him when he got up.

Even before that had happened we had begun to suspect the Spot On might have had something to do with it. I looked over the packaging and saw something that said what to do in the event of a problem with humans. But didn't see anything else on a scan. The type is very small and it had been hard enough trying to read the instructions for applying the material. I had had my glasses on that were what I used for reading normal sized type face and even smaller, but the type was not much bigger than this.

My wife went over the back of the packaging with a magnifying glass and finally found first aid instructions for cats. While the first aid instructions for humans had its own subject heading and started a paragraph – for the animals it began mid way through the paragraph on human first aid.

It was the only place that they actually used the word pesticide in the packaging. "Sensitivities may occur after using any pesticide for pets" They go on to say if sensitivity occurs wash your pet with mild soap and water, and rinse with large amounts of water. If it continues seek medical attention – taking the packaging and P.C.P. number with you.

Of our four cats only the two boys showed any signs of "sensitivity". Have you ever even thought about washing a cat, let alone a cat that's not in the best of moods? Neither of our boys are small either; the black one weighs in at around 25lbs and the grey one is about fifteen but is affectionately known by the vets as "live wire" for the difficulty involved with taking his temperature (I've worn him as a hat with a thermometer hanging out of his butt when he was a kitten)

Nowhere on the packaging is there any warning that this stuff may have an adverse effect on the animal except in this first aid treatment area hidden away in small print. By then it's too late to decide that you don't want to risk your animal's health by rubbing something potentially dangerous into his or her skin. The last thing you want when you think you've done something good for your pet is to see its hair start falling out in clumps

A warning is something you put on packaging that a person can see so that they can make a considered decision. It's not something you bury in small print under first aide treatment. Especially when earlier on they tell you to make sure not to let the pet take the medication internally, or to keep it away from their eyes and genitalia. You'll think that the first aid treatment is for that eventuality– not in the event of something happening they haven't warned you about.

They don't even tell you what form the sensitivity could take. When do we need to seek help from a veterinarian? When all their hair falls out, when a little clump of hair falls out, when their skin turns pink, or when their hair takes on the texture of someone who’s done one too many home permanents and burnt their hair so that it feels like straw?

Wellmark International, formally known as Zoecon is the manufacturer of this and other insecticides that are used for everything from mosquito larvae control to the fleas on your pet. In a world where we are gradually starting to ban pesticides for their known toxicity and dangers to the planet, don't you think that a company that provides products to consumers that contains those toxins should be forced to warn them properly?

What would it cost them to print in legible lettering on the front of the package something to the effect of: Some animals have more sensitive skin than others – your cat may not be right for this product. Is that too hard? Think of all good will that would generate, and all the ill feelings it would prevent.

I bought Zodiac Spot On as an attempt to provide my cats some relief from a problem and have ended up causing them to develop problems. There is something wrong with that equation. That needs to change.

April 24, 2007

Canadian Politics: Canada Ignores Geneva Convention In Afghanistan

Up until a little over a month ago the Canadian Minister of Defence, Gordon O'Connor, was assuring Canadians that prisoners of war that Canada handed over to the Afghanistan government were having their treatment monitored by the Red Cross. Unlike any of the other countries serving as part of the occupying force in Afghanistan Canada has no arrangement in place allowing them to monitor the well being of the detainees they turn over, so we have to rely on third party reports.

It turns out he was wrong about that one as neither the Red Cross or the Red Crescent societies were monitoring the conditions of any of the Prisoners Of War being held by the Afghan government. When Mr. O'Connor came clean about that in the Canadian Parliament last month, he said not to worry though because the Afghan Human Rights people would let the military know if anybody was being mistreated.

You see according to the Geneva Convention no nation is allowed to turn over a prisoner to another nation if it suspects it will be tortured. If it finds out the prisoner is being tortured it must intervene on his or her behalf to prevent the torture from continuing or demand that the prisoner be returned to their custody.

Of course in order to do this a government must have the means in place to be informed of the well being of anybody who they had handed over to an allied power. For reasons best known to themselves, Defence Minister O'Connor and Chief of Staff General Rick Hiller couldn't be bothered insuring that we had anyway of living up to our responsibilities under the convention.

The only reason I can think for not having that language in a prisoner transfer agreement is that they don't have it the one they've established with the United States, even though those detainees end up in Guantanemo Bay where they are tortured. Of course the United States circumvents that problem by claiming none of the people they are fighting in Afghanistan are eligible for status as Prisoners of War.

Because the war is over anybody taking up arms against the occupying forces are terrorists and not soldiers. This despite the fact that while the Taliban may not be fighting a conventional war they have primarily gone after military targets and terrorist type attacks on civilians have been few and far between. (Please don't get me wrong, I've no sympathy whatsoever for the Taliban, but that doesn't mean we treat them any worse than we would want our people to be treated)

That means when Canada transfers prisoners to the United States we are able to ignore the fact that they will probably be tortured or at least kept in conditions contrary to the Geneva Convention. In fact the Americans havn't even felt the need to release the names of those being held let alone allow third party monitoring.

In the agreement signed with Afghanistan both parties agreed to comply with the Convention to ensure that all detainees' were well treated. But the Afghanistan security forces obviously have a far different opinion than the rest of the world as to what constitutes cruel and unusual.

You see it turns out that at least thirty people who the Canadian army have turned over to the Afghanistan security forces have been tortured while in custody. In a series of face to face interviews with thirty detainees Globe and Mail reporter Graeme Smith heard stories of beatings, electric shock, whippings, starvation, choking and freezing during interrogation.

Of course with these revelations the opposition parties want Defence Minister O'Connor's head on a platter. After over a year of assurances from him that there was nothing to worry about concerning the treatment of detainees after they left Canadian hands it's proven that he and all others involved in the agreement were either lying from ignorance or with deliberate intent to mislead the people of Canada.

Either way they are guilty of allowing the circumstances for these people being tortured to develop. If the Canadian government's representatives had only made a small effort to ascertain the condition of their former detainees they could have intervened as was their responsibility as set forth by the Geneva Convention. If a reporter for a newspaper was able to get access to these people how difficult would it have been for the military to keep tabs on them?

The ironic thing is that each and every one of the detainees interviewed had nothing but positive things to say about their treatment at the hands of the Canadian armed forces. They were treated with kindness and respect even though they might have been trying to kill their captors hours earlier and the detention facility was comfortable. One man did say he was certain that the soldiers knew he was being mistreated because some who visited him told him that he should give his Afghan interrogators real information or they would continue to hurt him.

It makes one wonder how is it Canadian soldiers were able to get into see their former prisoner so easily, and know what was going on in terms of torture, but somehow their superiors didn't. Is the chain of command that useless soldiers don't feel comfortable informing their superiors about events like this, or did they report the matter and nothing was done?

There are far too many unanswered questions and loose ends for the Minister of Defence Gordon O'Connor and Chief of Staff General Rick Heller to simply say we didn't know what was going on. There is no justification for them to have allowed this situation to develop and to not do anything about it until they were forced to. Whatever moral high ground they may have thought they had from trying to rid Afghanistan of the Taliban is fast eroding out from under them.

April 22, 2007

Stephen Harper And Human Rights Just Don't Mix

When Steven Harper, Prime Minister of Canada, stood in front of a crowd in Winnipeg Manitoba to announce his government's commitment to pay the annual operating costs for a proposed Human Rights Museum it proved that a politician's hypocrisy really does know no bounds. It also proves that there's not much justice in the world, other wise he would have strangled on his tongue when he said it will honour Canadian values.

I have to wonder which side of his face he's talking out of when he says things like that. Is it the one that says it wants to prevent homosexuals from having the right to marry? Or how about the one that says it want to protect the people's freedom of religion by allowing them to refuse to serve homosexuals in the workplace, including government offices, forbid them employment in a place of business, or to teach in schools that homosexuality should be illegal?

Maybe it's the one who wants keep people in jail for as long as possible with no proof that they've done anything wrong, deny them access to the supposed evidence that had them imprisoned in the first place, and presumes they are guilty until proven innocent. How about the one who wanted desperately to keep anti-terrorist laws in place without holding the five-year review the bill called for?

Aside from our frontline troops in Afghanistan when was the last time a Canadian citizen was under direct threat from a terrorist? Well I guess you never know when you're going to have an Indian uprising do you? According to the Defence Ministry some native groups are as dangerous, if not more so, then groups like Hezbolah and the Tamil Tigers.

You never know when you're going to need extraordinary powers to round up all those pesky Natives wanting their land claims respected before somebody builds condominiums or a garbage dump on them. Of course this is same government that has reneged on almost every agreement signed by the previous one with the First Nations peoples that would have seen a redressing of past human rights infringements against them.

Of course Steven Harper's government describes stealing children from parents and shipping them off to boarding school to be trained as servants and janitors for white people as "education". I wonder what they call the practice of forbidding them to speak their language or practice their own religion when they were in these schools? How about the sexual, physical and emotional abuse so many of these children had inflicted on them – life experience.

Mr. Harper said that this new museum will have exhibits showing where Canada has failed the test on human rights. Is he referring to the head tax we imposed on Chinese immigrants? Will that include the Royal Canadian Legion forbidding to this day to allow orthodox Jewish people and Sikhs from wearing head covering inside a Legion hall? Or what about Canada refusing to allow Jewish refugees into our country who were fleeing Hitler in the thirties? Will the number of many people we sent back to Germany to the ovens be included in the Holocaust memorial part of the new Human Rights Museum?

How about our continued support of policies that encourage trade with countries like China where anybody who speaks out against the government is considered a traitor and thrown in jail? How about spending the lives of Canadian soldiers to prop up a regime in Afghanistan that denies civil rights to its people as much as the Taliban did? Are these going to be listed as mistakes we've made when it comes to defending Human Rights around the world and at home?

Then again maybe Steven Harper has a different concept of what Human Rights are defined as. He seems very intent on undermining the Supreme Court of Canada these days, saying things like courts shouldn't be making the laws or interfering in the running of the country.

When last I checked it was the still the House of Parliament that had the power to enact laws, the problem is that they have to abide by the Charter of Rights and Liberties. In other words a government can't pass a law discriminating against someone or denying them any of the rights that are set out in our constitution without having a very good reason. If they do the courts will strike it down.

Any American civics student could tell Steven Harper about the theory of checks and balances that was written into the American Constitution. Like in the States it’s the responsibility of the judiciary branch to ensure that the Constitution of the country is adhered to, even by the government.

Human Rights are not something that can be turned off and on as they are convenient or inconvenient, which is what makes them so important. The true test of a nation is not whether they are willing to give rights to the respectable majority, but how far they are willing to extend those same rights to every type of minority.

We cannot have one law for one people and another law for other people in the same country or we lose any semblance of moral authority. How can Steven Harper chide another country's Human Rights record when he is so willing to deny them to his own people?

As Steven Harper was making the announcement of funding for the Human Rights Museum, his government's lawyers were seeking to have a motion thrown out of court that would prohibit Canadian troops from handing detainees captured in Afghanistan over to the Afghan government who routinely torture and mistreat any prisoners of war. According to Canadian law we never turn over a prisoner who runs the risk of facing either the death penalty or cruel and unusual punishment.

In the past when this type of situation has arisen the Canadian courts have ruled that the Charter of Right and Freedoms applies and that actions have to be governed accordingly. So it makes me wonder why Steven Harper's government wants to change that and deny people held under Canadian law the rights that have been guaranteed them in the past?

Canada's record is no better or worse than most so called Western democracies when it comes to Human Rights, but when we instituted the Charter of Rights and Freedoms we went a long way in amending our past errors. Steven Harper, the first Prime Minister to actively work against the Charter, standing up and stating that this new Museum of Human Rights will be representative of Canadian values is even more hypocritical than normal for a politician.

I really wonder how he keeps track of which face he's talking out of, because calling him two faced is an understatement. Not since Ravana, the ten-headed demon lord of Indian history, has a person presented more faces to the public at one time.

April 19, 2007

The Fight Against Aids: One Step Forward - Three Steps Back

In what seems to be a part of the pattern when it comes to progress in fighting AIDS world wide, specifically in Africa, the little glimmer of hope offered by some good news is offset by the reality of what's still needed to be done. For although the cost of much needed first line drugs has dropped and countries are coming up with innovative means of reaching their people, the number of people not receiving care still out numbers those receiving care by as much as 90%.

Pregnant Women and children are still horribly at risk; with only 15% of all children and 11% of all pregnant women world wide receiving care it's hard to get exxcited by stories of the small advancements being made. Even more depressing is the fact that the region hardest hit, Africa, is still the region where care is the least adequate.

Ninety per-cent of children who have AIDS live in Africa right now as do the majority of the two million pregnant women who suffer from the disease. Each of these women is of course a threat to pass the illness onto their children in the womb if they don't receive pre-natal care.

One of the major reasons for the short fall in treatment currently is because most countries in Africa simply lack the facilities to properly care for their people. In order for a pregnant woman to be treated she of course has to be diagnosed, which means having access to a proper health care facility with a lab for processing test results. Even that isn't adequate on it's own, there still has to be continual care until the woman comes to term or she could still be infectious.

A similar situation exists for children in Africa. Half the babies born with AIDS die by the time they are two, but during those years their symptoms are impossible to distinguish from other diseases without testing. Unfortunately the test for someone under eighteen months in complicated and expensive, which means most infants die untested let alone treated. (As to why these countries lack health care facilities, they depend on the International Monetary Fund for loans to keep their countries afloat, and one of the conditions of being a loan recipient is that countries cut spending on social programs like health care)

So even though the number of people who are receiving medication has risen thirteen fold since 2003 (100,000 to 1.3million) its' really only a drop in the bucket. Especially when you consider the fact that these figures are based only on reported cases of AIDS. Fear of being diagnosed, ignorance of the facts, and the social stigma surrounding the disease keeps large numbers of people from even being tested and the disease continues to spread close to unchecked.

The availability of less expensive first-line retro viral drugs has probably been responsible for the majority of the gains made in the fight against HIV/AIDS in places like Africa. But problems still abound with ensuring people have access to the drugs they will need. The second-line drugs which people on long-term treatment need are still priced out of reach for most African health care systems to afford.

In Canada, in spite of the fact that a previous government tried to create a law which would allow a country access to the drugs they need at generic prices, very little of the drug actually leaves the country to go where needed. In fact not one pill has left Canada at all.

The problem is red tape and the incredible pressure put on governments around the world by the powerful brand-name pharmaceutical industry that is firmly against generic products. The way the system works is that a company that produces a generic version, or even adaptation of the patented drug, must receive permission from the owner of the patent to sell it. As if that were going to happen.

So when the company with the generic version is turned down it's up to individual countries to apply for a special two-year permit to buy the generic brand. But according to Richard Elliot, deputy director of HIV/AIDS Legal Network, this becomes a problem because a country will have to identify itself in the application.

Mr. Elliot continues by saying that every time in the last decade a country has tried to force the issue they have been swarmed by the pharmaceutical industry and their buddy the American Government. Mr. Elliot claims that the American government simply threatens to cut off trade with any country that tries to make use of the compulsory licence, effectively rendering the program and generic drugs useless.

The truly depressing thing in all this is the fact that there is proof when the drugs are made available, and the systems are in place to administer them, they make a big difference in a short space of time. But because a few men have decided that the money they make from controlling the drug is more important than the lives of millions of women and children people will continue to die in huge numbers.

The current Canadian government's health minister had the nerve to say that the program wasn't working because countries weren't making requests to have patents waived. Of course it was a previous Conservative government that extended pharmaceutical patents to twenty-five years, but that wouldn't have anything do with that comment would it?

Until governments around the world are prepared to stand up to the pharmaceutical companies, and demand the International Monetary Fund stop insisting on decimating social programming in debtor nations we will continue to fight a losing battle against the spread of HIV/AIDS in Africa and other parts of the world. It's not a war we can afford to lose – it's not a war we should be losing, but we are being betrayed by our own side

April 17, 2007

Virginia Tech And Iraq: Symptoms Of The Same Illness

On the same day that a lone gunman killed thirty-two people at an American University, Virginia Tech the country's President, George Bush, stood in the White House pleading with American politicians to give him more money for troops in Iraq. You know that Mr. Bush is bound to release a statement soon deploring the violence and death that took place at the school. But will he make any connection between his war in Iraq and the deaths in West Virginia? Will anybody?

In fact I doubt most people in North America would think of linking a seemingly random act of violence with an elected official seeking the means to escalate his country's participation in a war. Sixty years ago, maybe even only forty, they might have been right and the circumstances would have no bearing on each other. Unfortunately this is no longer the case.

We are living in a society that has become more and more willing to believe that the only way to resolve conflict is through violence. There has always been that mentality to some extent; the let them fight like men to resolve their differences attitude that's been popularized through movies, popular fiction and attitudes. Somehow two people beating the crap out of each other was considered an adult means of solving disputes.

Well I guess it does make for a more action-packed story to have the protagonists have to fight someone instead of sitting down and working out their differences and coming up with a compromise solution. But that's always been the "American Way", to solve disputes outside, either with six guns on main street in the old west or in today's parking lots with fists, feet, knives, and whatever else you can lay your hands on.

Now obviously when you're attacked you want to be able to defend yourself against further attacks, but there is a difference between self-defence and seeking to resolve the problem through war. Even calling something a "War On" implies that the only way you can resolve an issue is through violence.

We've seen a "War On Drugs", a "War On Poverty, and a "War On Terror", but not only has there been little evidence of success in any area, we're a might too quick to turn everything into a military action without even implying there can be a peaceful way of accomplishing matters.

You may in a case of fighting terrorism have to use violence as part of your means to combat it, but why does it have to be the only angle of approach? Why not while seeing if you can find them to fight the terrorists do something practical and cancel debts to the countries that house the terrorists, support the domestic development of industry, and genuinely help them with their natural resources. Eliminate economic uncertainty and give people hope of a future and I bet they will be a lot less willing to strap dynamite to their chests as a walking bomb.

All right, you say, what does that have to do with some nut job running amok with a gun and killing a lot of people. Well it seems quite a lot actually. According to experts in the field of mass murders on the scale observed yesterday, that while the occasional rampage will occur in Europe, these events are primarily a North American phenomenon.

A study by Princeton University sociologist Katherine Newman of twenty-five such events between 1974 and 2002 showed some interesting findings. First of all they are never something spontaneous – I think I'll go on a killing spree today-, but have all been the result of careful planning on the part of the perpetrator.

In the published version of her research, Rampage: The Social Roots Of School Shootings she sets out five conditions for a rampage. The first two deal with the killer and his state of mind, and the last three deal with societal issues. It's pretty obvious that the person who does this is going to have suffered some sever psychological stress, and considers himself to be different (and is more likely to be male).

She continues on with her list of five conditions by starting to indict society for not having the systems in place to identify young men before they do this stuff, for creating a cultural that supports the view that firearms (and by extension violence) are a viable means of solving problems, and for making sure that guns are readily available.

It's of course not just George Bush and his cronies calling everything a "War" that creates that culture where violence is a reasonable solution to our problems. In fact I would suggest he just cynically takes advantage of it to pursue his own goals. Like I said earlier it goes back into the history of our continent, and "Might Makes Right" has been an American foreign policy philosophy since the beginning and it's bound to have an effect on us.

As long as we continue to accept without question the need for violence to solve our problems these types of mass murders will continue to occur. We need to grow up as a culture and learn how to communicate in a way that violence will no longer be necessary to resolve our differences with other people.

Once we are able to do that trick, we can hopefully teach our own people how to talk to each other. That way we may just end up saving a few more lives then we do now.

April 16, 2007

Don Ismus: Race Problem? What Race Problem?

It looks like the dust is starting to settle after the week of unrest caused by Don Ismus' stupidity on the radio. It was fascinating, to watch the amount of headline space this incident managed to grab in the media across the board.

From Meet The Press to blog sites across the Internet this one story dominated the news for a week almost to the exclusion of everything else. No one's daily coverage was complete if they didn't give you the latest update on the situation and get reactions from their panel of experts as well.

But why was this story so newsworthy? A radio host made a comment that was obviously insulting to the women of a University basketball team by calling them a bunch of whores. That he couched it in Black street/rap slang and added in the comment that they were nappy headed as well to give it credibility as slang only served to add insult to injury in many peoples eyes and making the comment racist.

So Don Ismus is either a misogynist racist creep; an insensitive lout; or a congenital idiot. In either event he was going to be sent down the river for it either by his employer or the FCC. So what was the big deal? Why was so much time spent on this one damn matter? (Truth be told if I were a women I'd want to know why no one was very upset about the women of the team being referred to as whores – somehow everyone seems to have focused on the race thing but not the gender issue)

You'd have thought it was the most important story that occurred all week. Well I guess it was a slow week in Iraq, there must have been some suicide bombs but I couldn't tell you how many. There was a tsunami in The Solomon Islands, but heck only 900 people were killed and there aren't that many people living there to begin with. Not even enough to have a decent telethon over.

Oh and wasn't there something about Iran and them claiming to have succeeded in being able to produce the right type of plutonium to make bombs? It's funny you know it's almost as if they want the U.S. to invade them, well I'm sure Dick and George would be willing to oblige them if they could find any more soldiers.

They just extended tours of duty to fifteen months from twelve months for soldiers heading over to Iraq – that was announced this week too by the way in case you missed it – so it looks like they're starting to scrape the bottom of the barrel in terms of what they've got to send over there. I guess it will just have to be the ones who've done their tour in Iraq – they can now do a tour of Iran.

But stories like that don't sell newspapers, who's going to believe them for one thing – I don't do you? It's depressing as hell anyway and people want to be cheerful – that's why they watch stuff like 24 Hours and CSI New York. Shows with nice upbeat stories about pleasant subjects like the end of the world and serial killers

So when a nice human-interest story like a child falling down a mineshaft isn't available to milk for all its worth, what could be better than a celebrity deathwatch? Lets watch Don Ismus' career going down the toilet on prime time news shows with commentary. I bet that got great ratings – far better then any story about the possibility of Israel bombing Iran and what the repercussions of that would be.

There is only one other reason I can think of that made it possible for this story to have stuck around so long. I know this is going to sound far –fetched but could it be that America still has a race problem? You know Black versus White – White versus Black that sort of thing?

I know that's hard to believe, America having a race problem, but why else would people be making such a big deal over it? If society didn't have any problems, if there were no questions about what is right and what is wrong, would this have gone on for a week?

If the country can get so caught up in something like this to the exclusion of almost anything else, you'd have to think there might be some unresolved issues along those lines. If there weren't a problem would this have been such a problem? Like I said in an aside earlier it seemed like the comments were more offensive to women then to Black people and nobody has made an issue out of that in the same way they've made it a Black and White issue.

To me it means Black and White is still an issue in the United States no matter what anybody wants to say. Don Ismus was the story of the week, when he was only another in a series of foul-mouthed shock jocks who went too far. There shouldn't have been any debate – he was foul mouthed and insulting to women and should have been fired on the spot.

Instead it degenerated into a debate about Black and White, "Ghetto Culture" and Rap music. To me that says this runs a lot deeper then just an "incident". Too people on both sides are too eager to close the door on something that still exists. I know why White people don't want to think about there being a race problem, I even think I understand why Black people don't want to know about it either.

Maybe they feel guilty for having left so many of their own people behind while they mix it up in the White world. Or maybe they feel if they say too much and rock the boat they'll find themselves on a slide back down the rungs of the ladder they struggled to climb.

When you see no one rushing to rebuild the poor, predominately Black neighbourhoods in New Orleans after Katrina (the mayor said if they came back the areas would be rebuilt – but what do they do while they wait for that to happen – go back and live in the Super Dome?). When the prisons are still full of predominately poor Black people, and the inner cities still home toBlack people and poverty, and you hear White upper middle class people saying things like "it's a great neighbourhood only 1% Black", you can understand a little of why Black people who are doing okay today are afraid.

They still feel like their positions are precarious, that if they step out of line just a little too much they can be replaced by any number of eager White executives, or Black ones who "don't get so uppity". The race problem in America is a difficult one now because it's no longer overt. It was easier when you knew who the enemy was and could take definite action like voter registration drives and lunch counter sit-ins.

A generation later the worries are different. Today's Black people are discovering what yesterday's Jews went through. They're wondering what they say about us behind closed doors; why are there doors still closed to us; and the feeling that it can all be taken away again at any minute.

White people still aren't comfortable with seeing Black people in the board rooms sitting across the table from them instead of like in their father's time serving the coffee and shining shoes. It's not that they don't want them there it's just that they don't know how to act with them in the same room as equals.

America is still trying to come to terms with the first generation of equality under the law for Black and White men. The problem is that no one wants to admit that everybody is uncomfortable and doesn't know how to act around each other. They are like a bunch of adolescents at their first dance and nobody wants to be the first to say anything for fear of embarrassment. Somebody needs to ask somebody else for a dance soon so you can move on.

April 14, 2007

Canada Releases Alledged Terrorists From Jail

The results of the Supreme Court of Canada's overturning the use of security certificates to hold refugee applicants in permanent detention without trial if there was any suspicion of terrorist activity are now being seen. Two men who had been held under the law for years were both released from federal penitentiaries in the past two days.

Mohamed Zeki Mahjoub was released on this past Thursday after being held in Kingston Penitentiary for the last seven years because he had run a farming operation in the Sudan for Osama bin Laden. He has been released under conditions tantamount to him being under twenty- four-hour surveillance.

The terms of his house arrest includes being monitored by The Canadian Border Authority via a GPS bracelet permanently attached to his ankle, video cameras in his house, taps on his phone, and being followed by agents on the rare occasions he is allowed to leave his house. His family are also being held responsible for him adhering to all of his bail conditions.

Mr. Mahjoub has been the Canadian suspect with closest ties to Osman bin Laden, but he claims his association was innocent. The farming concerns he ran for the leader of al-Qaeda were during the time before bin Laden even lived in Afghanistan, and he claims to have just been another employee and eventually left the job over money disputes with bin Laden.

Mr. Mahjoub has never been accused of any terror activity, but the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) claims that he was part of an Egyptian extremist group called the Vanguards of Conquest and knew al-Qaeda operatives including a person alleged to be a Canadian financer of the group and an Iraqi who the American 9/11 commission calls al-Qaeda's principal procurement agent for weapons of mass destruction. ( It may be just me, but any American announcement containing the words Iraq and Weapons of Mass Destruction just doesn't seem to have much credibility)

The second man was released on Friday from a detention centre in Kingston Ontario Canada as well. Mahmoud Jaballah has been in detention since 2001, although the government has been after him since 1999. When they attempted to have him deported in 1999 they lost their case held under normal circumstances, but when the opportunity arose with the security laws in place he was immediately rearrested.

Attempts by the government to have him deported back to his native Egypt have been constantly denied by the courts because of the very real threat of torture he would face if returned. Although the current government continues to insist upon Mr. Jaballah's guilt (In a statement released by Stockwell Day, Minister of Public Safety, in response to Mr. Jaballah's release Day implied he was the murderer of women and children.) the judge said that although the initial evidence against Mr. Jaballah did at one time warrant the security certificate, now that he has spent six years in detention and no additional evidence has come to light she had to defer to the Supreme Court's ruling that the longer a person spends incarcerated the less likelihood there is of them being a security risk.

Based on those grounds the federal court judge changed Mr. Jaballah's sentence to that of house arrest, similar to the conditions imposed upon Mr. Mahjoub. The judge asserted, but offered no proof to back her words, that the conditions were imperative in Mr. Jaballah's case because she had no doubt that if not monitored he would get in touch with terrorists.

Mr. Jaballah first came under suspicion because of a series of over a hundred phone calls he placed to the United Kingdom, Azerbaijan, and Yemen to an alleged al Qaeda front. When those are added to the twenty calls he made to those destination and Pakistan in a subsequent two-day period and the fact that when asked to explain he either was evasive or didn't answer the questions it served to confirm his guilt in the eyes of the courts.

Given the atmosphere in North America in the days following 9/11 you can understand why he was placed under suspicion. The bombings he was accused of co-ordinating were embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998. But now nine years later and no further evidence has come forth, and, according to his lawyer, when the United States released a list of suspects, he wasn't even named as an un indicted co-conspirator.

The government of Canada's reaction to these events has been highly predictable. Aside from his insinuations about Mr. Jaballah being responsible for killing women and children and just awaiting his opportunity to go on another bloodthirsty rampage, he also has stated that the government would prefer that all these people remain locked up.

In another tidy bit of fear mongering he also said he hoped that the house arrest rules would be enough to keep Canadians safe from them. He then added that the court agreed that Mr. Mahjoub had clearly worked for Osama bin Laden and received a salary for that work. Well who wouldn't want to be paid for working, and since when has it become a crime to work for someone when there is no proof that your activities were criminal.

I mean if we're going to start rounding up people who've had business associations with Osama they better be picking up Dick Cheney and almost everybody on the Halliburton Board of Directors. At one point they had owned around 30% of bin Landen's company. Not just his families business – but his company. Doesn't anyone find it at all odd that on the day after 9/11 when all the planes in and out of the United States were grounded, that all the members of the bin Laden family living in the United States were able to fly home?

Who arranged that for them, and why was it allowed to happen? If Dick Cheney and George Bush, both of who would have to okay something like this, come to Canada will they be picked up on a security certificate? They've had some pretty suspicious contact with bin Laden and his whole family immediately after 9/11.

What does that sound ridiculous? Why is it anymore ridiculous than wanting to keep a man in jail because he ran a farm for bin Laden long before he even went to Afghanistan? What proof do they even have that either man had of any involvement in any terror activity? Well, none, actually. One guy made a lot of phone calls to the countries where he could have family just as easily as he could have terror contacts. Why so many calls in two days? Hell if my mom has to contact her family about an event like a death she could make twenty calls in an afternoon no sweat.

Mr. Mahjoub worked for someone who turns out to be one of the bad guys, but how was he supposed to know that back whenever it was he worked for him. In fact the government hasn't said when he worked for him, only that it was before bin Laden was in Afghanistan, which means before 9/11/01. In fact he even says he quit working for him over a dispute with money. No one has given us any reason not to believe him.

Mahmoud Jaballah and Mohamed Zeki Mahjoub were both held in Canadian prisons with no trial, not knowing what exactly they had done to end up there, and knowing if they were to lose they'd be deported to torture and death in their former homes. Perhaps it was understandable seven years ago to keep an eye on people like them, or even detain them temporarily. But now it 's just cruel and unjust.

If you're having any doubts about which side to err on in Canada, freedom or so called safety, think about Mahar Arar and his time in an Egyptian jail being tortured. It was our security service that put him there with their inaccuracies and incompetence. Do you trust them with any more lives?

April 8, 2007

Bisphenol A: Birth Defects In A Can?

If it's not one thing it's another when it comes to packaged food and drink these days. If it's it not what they are using to improve the flavour that will make you sick (monosodium glutamate or M.S.G. as its more commonly known) it's what has been used to give it extra weight. The food industry has take to bulking up frozen packaged foods with soy protein.

Thankfully people are starting to catch on, including the food regulators. So instead of the old warning labels on packages, with only peanuts as a potential allergen, the list now includes soy, wheat gluten, and sulphates. People with food allergies are used to having to read any item's label in order to ensure their safety and well-being.

Well now instead of having to just worry about what is being put in our food being dangerous to our health, we may have to start worrying about what our food is being packaged in being a danger. Bisphenol A is a chemical known to act like a synthetic female sex hormone used in the manufacture of plastics and tin to prevent the taste of the container from being transferred to the food or liquid its holding. The only problem is that far too many test results are revealing something is not right with this wonder chemical.

In fact what scares scientists the most is that it seems the lower the amount of chemical present, the greater the danger. This has to do with the way hormones interact with our bodies. Hormones latch onto cells and at low doses stimulate vital biological processes. At too high a dose the cell's receptors are overwhelmed and shut down. This of course turns the theories of toxicity that state that the higher the dose the worse off you are on their head.

How bad is it? Well a geneticist at Washington State University, Dr. Patricia Hunt, was so appalled by her findings that she immediately went home and threw out all her products containing Bisphenol A. She had found that female mice exposed to low levels of the chemical had the unfertilized eggs in their uteruses so scrambled that if they had been humans the result would have been birth defects such as Down syndrome and miscarriages.

It's only been in recent years that the chemical has become widely used, even though we've known about its existence since the 1930s, and started using it in the 1950s. But we live in an increasingly pre packaged age so there is more call for this type of product then before – who wants to taste plastic in their food and drinks? Usually a product containing Bisphenol A is marked with the recycling number 7 inside a triangle. (Interestingly enough that's one of the plastics my local recycling company won't take)

Just how pervasive is this stuff? Well in the United States urine tests found it to be in 95% of all people tested, and in other parts of the world it has been found in the blood, in placenta, and in birth chords.

One of the other very interesting characteristics of Bisphenol A is that test results are dependant on who has done the testing. Every single test conducted by the plastics industry and those who manufacture container products have found it completely safe for human consumption. On the other hand 95% of independent tests have produced results so terrifying that those conducting the test never want to touch goods that come in those products again.

Spokespeople for the plastic industry say that there is nothing wrong with the chemical and that scientists are using flawed methodology. The scientists respond by saying the plastic industry is splitting hair in their results when they say that Bisphenol A is weak form of Estragon because it triggers reaction in far fewer cells then other forms. It still affects enough cells that are responsible for many of our biological functions.

One of the big five plastics companies in the United States, GE, has just decided to phase out that aspect of their business. They claim their timing has nothing to do with the first of what promises to be many class action suits brought against the manufacturers of plastic. A group in Los Angles is filling suit alleging harm from the chemical was caused by plastic baby bottles.

GE claims that their plastics division isn't growing as rapidly as others and is not fitting into their current business mode, so they've put it on the market. Their spokesperson dismisses talk of risks from Bisphenol A as "speculation" saying that it has never been shown to have any risks to humans.

If the chemical is so safe why have scientists from Health Canada and the Ministry of the Environment classified it as inherently toxic? Why are they conducting an assessment of how it used in the manufacturing process where they are starting with that premise that it is a risk to humans and industry is going to have to convince them otherwise? Normally it’s the other way round.

When Health Canada set its acceptable limits (the amount of trace elements on a parts per million scale that is considered safe for human consumption) back in 1999 they didn't take the less is more factor into their calculations. Some scientists are now saying this chemical needs to be considered on a scale of parts per trillion for a clear picture to emerge.

Since Health Canada set their limits, there have been a dozen studies that have shown adverse affects at amounts lower then the limit. One study using a sample 1,000 times less potent then Ottawa's limit showed the chemical able to change breast tissue to make it more predisposed to breast cancer. Scientists believer that there is a correlation between the increase in the number of cases of breast and prostate cancers and the increased prevalence of Bisphenol A in our food.

I don't know about anybody else, but I'm not predisposed to trust anyone from industry to tell me the truth about pollutants and toxics in our food. They after all have a vested interest in the results, not the scientists. I'm more inclined to believe the scientists who are so scared by the results that they getting rid of everything in their houses made with Bisphenol. It's not like they're getting paid to replace all the food and baby bottles in their houses made from the stuff. I think from now on I won't be bringing anything into my house with the number seven stamped on it.

Industry doesn't have the best record with the truth when it comes to pollutants and I see no reason to give them the benefit of the doubt on this one. Remember these are the same types of companies that dumped Mercury in our rivers, all the while assuring us it was safe. That is until children in Japan and Northern Ontario were born with horrible birth defects, linked directly to the Mercury that had poisoned the fish their parents had eaten.

Industry has always played fast and loose with the truth when it comes to issues of pollution and safety. Why should this time be any different?

April 6, 2007

Book Review: Twilight Of Empire Responses To Occupation

Have you ever heard the term the Fourth Estate? For Americans it would be along the lines of the three branches of federal government, but this I believe came from the Brits. Or it might just have easily been the French the founders of democracy (You didn't know that did you, all you hate mongers in the United States who feel the French should have gone into Iraq with you – is that a finger I see the Statue of Liberty giving you – a present from the French on your centenary by the way – or just the cheerful wave of someone saying I told you but would you listen? At least the French learnt from their history and don't want to get bogged down in the Middle East again – they split after Algeria and aren’t in any hurry to come back) It refers to the three Estates of their governments (The British and The French), plus the fourth whose duty is to question, and examine the policies of the government on behalf of the people – that would be the Press.

Supposedly a free and separate body from the government who are at liberty to go and see whatever they want and report on it, the press were given their almost official title in recognition of the valuable role they can play in making governments toe the line and respect the rights of the people. Haven't you ever noticed that the first thing that happens in any civil war or insurrection is one side or another will always attempt to seize control of the television broadcast facilities and the radio stations? Control the information that gets to the people and you control the people.

A very simple truth. One that every single government in the world practices as much as they possibly can today. They can be a so-called democracy or a one party state and the way they treat the media will be exactly the same. The number of ways in which you can prevent information from being published in North America are greater then the number of independently owned media outlets. In fact that's one of the easiest routes to take in controlling the press – allow fewer and fewer people to own more of the media.

When the major media outlets across the country are only owned by one or two corporations – under many different names of course but ultimately the decisions are all made in one boardroom by the same group of very wealthy people whose best interests are at heart? Why their own of course, or at least people in their tax bracket who go to the same country club and belong to the same church as they do.

In other words the media represents the interests of the 3% of the population who control over 90% of the wealth one way or another. If you think they vote socialist or support free health care or anything that might sound like it would cost them a cent of profit you've got another thing coming.

So in this Brave New World of free speech and freedom of the press that we live in the reality is that we are only allowed to hear what the people who own the media thinks is good for us to hear; what they want us to hear. Now of course they don't make those decisions on their own, they leave that to the people who have the authority to let them own even more of the media pie – the government regulators.

Here's an interesting little aside for you that you probably don't know about. Before the American led invasion of Iraq took place and Coin Powell was Uncle Tomming at the United Nations for the current Bush administration, assuring the world (lying through his teeth) that weapons of mass destruction existed – his son over at the F.C.C was busy rewriting the laws making it legal for corporations to own more of the media pie. While daddy was selling the soft soap to the world son was buying the support of the American Media so they could control the flow of information out of Iraq when the war started.

The whole idea of embedded reporters would fall apart if the big four television networks in the U.S., N.B.C., C.B.S., A.B.C., and CNN, and the major papers all said no thanks, we'll go by ourselves like we always have – see you there. I think even the people of the United States would be suspect if none of them were reporting any news from the front. But instead they've all meekly, or more likely obediently, gone along with doing what they are told.

What's even scarier is us the audience going along with it because we don't any better. We are kept so far in the dark that we don't even know there is something that's not being reported. It's only when you read books like Twilight Of Empire, Responses To Occupation an anthology of writings reporting from on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan the stories that the supposed Fourth Estate hasn't bothered or been allowed to report.

For instance if we went into Iraq and Afghanistan to help preserve the rights of women in those countries how is it that it has become less safe in Iraq to be a woman now then it was before the invasion? Why hasn't it been reported that violence against women has increased to such a state that most women are afraid to go out alone because they are so scared of being kidnapped and raped. If somehow they survive that, then they have to live in fear of some male relative killing her because she is now "spoiled goods" and he has to preserve his honour by killing her.

What the hell are the Americans doing there? When they talk about security issues they don't give a shit about the people who live in Baghdad. They say things are getting more secure now, which is true if you happen to be an American soldier armed to the teeth living in a concrete bunker protected by gun emplacements.

They don't care about how many Iraqi's are killed. When asked the General staff replies – oh we don't do body counts of the enemy. They are not the enemy first of all, they are the people you came to liberate aren't they? Or is it now everybody is an enemy.

According to Christian Parenti in her article "Stretched Thin, Lied To, And Mistreated" the American soldiers on the ground now treat every Iraqi as a potential enemy because they have been forced to by the very nature of the occupation. Everybody they see is living lives of abject poverty; unemployment is rampant, the electricity was still off in the majority of the city, there was no fresh water and the only people making money are foreigners coming in and privatizing all of Iraq natural resources thanks to George Bush selling it all out from under them to his cronies in Huston.

So the American soldier who goes out on to the street is now seen as being the oppressor not the liberator. This article was written in 2003 only shortly after the "war" was officially ended, but today the violence on the ground against American soldiers is even worse then it was four years ago.

The scariest thing about a book like Twilight Of The Empire isn't reading the details of how horrible it is for people on both sides of the wire, civilians and the soldiers who are caught in the middle of policy and human decency, in Iraq. Or reading how the only thing the overthrow of the Taliban has done in Afghanistan is allow the guys who were in power before them back in. They were so bad that the Taliban were welcomed as liberators at first in some places.

These things are bad enough but what really gets me is that these stories have never been reported. That almost everything that we've been told in the mainstream press has been a lie. When the Canadian government says we are there until Afghanistan is rebuilt they are lying because they don't even talk about the fact that women are worse off then they were before our troops came. It's as Lauren Sandler reports in "Veiled And Worried In Baghdad" there can be no democracy without "himaya" – security for women.

Reading the articles in Twilight Of Empire brings home the realization of how much we've been lied to. I've known all along that most of what we have been told about the war is bullshit, but this book shows just how deep the lie runs. It wasn't just the reasons for going to war were non existent, it's also the fact that everything it was supposed to have accomplished was a lie right from the start and nobody really gives a shit about the men or women who live in these countries.

From the top down nobody really cared whether women are raped, kept from going to school, deprived of liberty, or faced with the threat of execution when they are raped, because if they did they would have done something about it by now. They wouldn't have let the same folk back into power back in Afghanistan, they would have made a concentrated effort to restore normalcy to Baghdad instead of trying to figure out how to sell off the power companies to foreign ownership.

What's more important, turning the electricity on so that people can carry on with their lives and businesses can open again or figuring out a way to sell the power company? If you opt for the latter and everybody knows that is what's happening don't you think they are going to get mad. How is it that 130,000 heavily armed soldiers, plus tanks etc can't police the streets of Baghdad and make them safe for women?

Why were all the police fired? Why were there no provisions made to replace the ones that were fired? Why are these stories never reported in our papers? Why does our government only talk about how things are getting better and that we don't understand why we have to be in these countries.

You're damned right I don't understand why we have to be over there making things worse for people on a daily basis. I don't understand why we are letting our governments steal everything the people of these countries own and sell it to their friends.

I think everybody who cares about the truth needs to read Twilight Of The Empire. It will not only show you how utterly incompetent Western media have been in reporting the story of what is happening in Iraq and Afghanistan, it will show what a real member of the Fourth Estate can do when they want to.

There is not excuse for the actions of the major networks in not trying to do their jobs properly – anybody with press credentials can go out into the streets of Baghdad and get these stories. But they haven't and they won't because they have been bought and paid for by the administration.

You don't need to close the television stations or run them from government offices to control them – all you have to do is offer them a bigger piece of the pie and they will do what you want.

This is my favourite story about the media in the United State from the start of this current War. A chain of pro-Bush radio stations organized a series of pro-war demonstrations in major centres across the United States. They shipped people in, handed out banners, and signs and got all the necessary permits to allow them to take place. Then they reported on them as news of how people were spontaneously taking to the streets across the United States in support of the War.

So much for the Fourth Estate in the United States; freedom of the press doesn't exist there anymore than it did in Nazi Germany or in Communist China. Question authority, but most of all question the newspapers – if all they do is quote the government and the military you know they are not doing their jobs. We need more books like Twilight Of The Gods, and more people willing to search out the truth like the men and women who have written the reports in this book, and the men and women who have talked to the reporters in this book.

We need more truth.

March 28, 2007

Canadian Politics: No Apology For Residential Schools

As is the case with most gifts, the technology that is bringing the world's peoples closer together is a double-edged sword. The more it breaks down the barriers between us for greater mutual understanding, the more it also weakens our cultural distinctiveness.

Just like an eco-system, a culture is a delicate balance of elements that individually may not appear significant, but taken as a whole form something unique and precious. Change or remove one element in that system and you've got something completely different. In the natural world it's usually the introduction of a foreign species of plant or animal life, or the removal of the same that changes it irrevocably for the worse.

In cultural matters it sometimes is only a matter of contact between two peoples for it to happen. Usually it will be that one is technically more sophisticated than the other, and simply over whelms and absorbs the other. Many countries have tried to take steps to preserve their culture by encouraging its growth while erecting barriers to foreign content.

But there is also another scenario, one that was first put into affect by the British Empire at home and abroad, and has been emulated by other countries through out the world. The deliberate attempt to eliminate a people's culture as a means of subduing them and forcibly assimilating them to be like their conquerors. In Ireland and India the Empire enacted official policies forbidding the native languages in the hopes of cutting people off from their heritage.

But the most insidious practice was carried out in North America by postcolonial governments, with the assistance of the Catholic and Anglican Churches, in Canada. Residential Schools were established to forcibly turn Indian children against their parents and their heritage.

Each child who entered the system was forbidden to speak the language of their nation and was told that all they had been taught up until that point was evil and a lie. They were given haircuts and forced to take new names. Anybody caught speaking their language or using their old name was severely punished.

This wasn't even an attempt to teach the children how to get ahead in society. Half their days were spent learning unskilled trades preparing them for a life of service to their "betters". The boys were taught janitorial skills and yard work, while they young girls were taught how to be either scullery maids or other forms of household drudges.

But while it was bad enough that they ripped away from their families and emotionally, mentally, and physically abused by the staff of these institutions during the day, what went on at night in the dormitories is the stuff of nightmares. Many of the students, male and female, were sexually abused on a continual basis for their entire stay in theses prisons.

The end result of these schools was the creation of a generation of people who were almost completely cut off from their own culture and not capable of existing in the one they were supposedly "trained" to take part in. A lost generation of scared, hurt, and, lonely people, damaged far beyond anything most of us can understand.

By the year 2005 the federal government of Canada under the Liberal party had agreed to certain measures to redress the issue. Various financial packages were offered, and it was promised as part of the deal that the government would offer an official apology for the policy.

But now the current administration, the Conservative Party of Canada has reneged on that promise of an apology. In fact from comments made by the Indian Affairs Minister, Jim Prentice, lead one to belief that the government is trying to white wash what exactly the schools did.

The most he will say is that the residential schools were a difficult time in our history, but- and this is the real killer, "the underlying objective had been to provide aboriginal children with an education". Which means that Jim Prentice is either a professional liar or an ignorant fool who doesn't even read history books.

But then again the Conservative party already knows that Native Canadians aren't going to vote for them, and neither are people who are sympathetic to their plight. They're playing to their constituents, the people who believe that Native people are welfare drunks who lost the war and are lucky we give them anything.

To say that Native leaders are appalled is to put it mildly. To go from a government who recognised the damage caused by the Residential School System, to one that wants to gloss over the nasty bits of our history and make out that the policy had its heart in the right place is worse than insulting, it's obscene. I would like to ask Jim Prentice a question, seeing how he thinks this policy was so benign.

How would he like his children taken away from him and made to change the names he had given them, learn a language that prevented him from talking to them, and be told that all he believed was a lie and evil? Wouldn't he want someone to apologise to him for treating his children like that?

The effects of the Residential Schools are still being felt on reserves today as the children of the people who attended them are now a second generation of lost people. They live out in the middle of nowhere with no running water or electricity a lot of the times, and with little or no connection to their nation's past, or any connection to the land.

While many countries face a difficult battle these days in trying to preserve their cultural identities in the face of an onslaught of homogenisation, the First Nation people of Canada are dealing with trying to teach two generations of people what was stolen from them by government policy. It's just too bad that our current government doesn't view cultural genocide as something you have to apologise for.

March 12, 2007

Canadian Politics: Torture In Afghanistan

Most of us take pride in the country of our birth, even if on occasion we don't agree with those who are in charge. We all like it when our country is recognized by the world's press; it makes us feel important by association. Coming from a country like Canada, of lesser importance on the world's stage, catching the eye of International media is even more of treat.

But there are those occasions when you realize you need to be careful what you wish for, because it might just come true. Start thinking, how come the Americans get all the press, and the next thing you know Canada has its very own prisoner scandal, just like the Americans in Iraq did a few years back.

Now obviously that’s not quite what you were hoping for when you wanted to see your county's name above the fold at Le Monde or other prestigious papers. Reading that in April 2006 three captives held by Canadian soldiers were mistreated and that even now a year latter an investigation is ongoing into the whys and wherefores of the situation.

If that weren't enough to make you cringe there is also the report that the Canadian army has been handing over prisoners to the Afghanistan security forces without checking on what their eventual fate would be. According to Canadian law any person in custody may not be turned over to a third party if there is a chance they will either face execution, torture, or any other cruel and unusual punishment not allowed by Canadian Law.

When the issue was first raised in the House of Commons, Minister of Defence Gordon O'Connor denied there was any wrong doing, by insisting that the International Red Cross was overseeing all prisoner transfers. But as of March 4th/2007 the Red Cross said they were doing no such thing.

Officials in the Defence Department claim that they signed a deal where Canadian troops must notify the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission and the International Red Cross when they had over a prisoner to the Afghan authorities. The Human Rights Commission is supposed to be monitoring the well being of the troops once they are in the hands of the Afghan army.

This agreement is described as an extension of one Chief of Defence Staff Rick Hillier signed back in December 2005 agreeing that all prisoners Canada captured would be turned over to the Afghan army. That agreement had been widely condemned by Human Rights activists, because there had been no provisions made for monitoring by any Rights body.

While the new agreement rectifies that in principle it's almost impossible to know what actually takes place on the ground in Afghanistan. The Canadian Military Police Complaints Commission is currently investigating eighteen cases of prisoners being handed over in spite of the knowledge that they would be tortured or otherwise mistreated.

Now I don't know about anybody else but I don't like the idea of my country being considered complicit in the torturing of Prisoners of War. To give the Minister of Defence his due, he doesn't appear to either, in a surprise visit he landed in Afghanistan on Sunday determined to find out as much as possible.

He claims to have a two-fold purpose in visiting. The first he says is to meet with the people from the Human Rights group and gain assurances they are doing what they are supposed to be doing. " I want to look the man in the eyes and I want to be confirmed that they are going to do what they say they are going to do"

His other intent is to have people in the Canadian army show him exactly what the process is, what they do from the moment they capture an enemy soldier to the moment they hand him over to the Afghanistan government. I would guess his reason for this is to find out where there are any holes in the process that could cause things to go wrong, or information to not be delivered.

How could Canadian soldiers hand over prisoners when they knew they would be tortured? Who was responsible for that decision and how could it have happened eighteen times? Was this an isolated instance of one man or one platoon that has a personal vendetta against the enemy, or is it wide spread lack of understanding of the policy.

That's the information that the Minister and his staff should be trying to find out so as to prevent any repeats of the activity. I hope for the sake of my country, the men and women of the armed forces and the people who are taken prisoner that he is able to find a solution to this problem.

It's hard to take pride when one is complicit in torture, and if our government, or our soldiers are taking part in that sort of activity than none of our hands are clean.

March 10, 2007

European Union: New Treaty Reduces Greenhouse Gases Twenty Per Cent

On Friday evening The European Union issued a statement announcing a new agreement aimed at cutting greenhouse gases and emissions. The three steps announced will be in addition to their previous commitment to abide by the terms of the Kyoto Accord.

Under the terms of the agreement the Union agreed to ensure that over the next 13 years that greenhouse gas emissions would be cut by 20%; ten per cent of all automobiles driven in the member states would be fuelled by biofuels made from plants; and that a total of 20% of all energy used by the member nations will be generated through renewable sources compared to the current six %.

But there are a few items in the accord that have given environmentalists pause, and caused some voices to be raised in concern. First is the fact that the French and some of the newer Eastern European member states like Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic have insisted that Nuclear Energy be listed as a viable alternative to fossil fuels.

Some of these countries are landlocked and are at Northern latitudes, which reduces the viability of solar and wind power acting as a substitute for coal fires driving the engine of industry. While nuclear fuel might burn cleaner the problem remains of what to do with disposal of the spent fuel rods. Would using nuclear fuel just be a matter of exchanging a short-term problem for a long term one?

Then there is the fact that not all countries in the union are going to comply within the time period allowed. Once again it’s the former Soviet Bloc countries that are facing difficulties. Having only joined the Union in 2004 some of them have not yet benefited completely from their membership and would face real economic difficulties in meeting the goals established by the agreement.

In order to accommodate these countries the language of the agreement is vague about the commitment of individual countries, only stipulating that over all the Union meet these targets. So while some countries might fall short, as long as others make up the difference they will be able to claim success.

What the leaders of the European countries are hoping for, aside from preserving the earth a little longer, is that by showing a commitment to lowering greenhouse gases above and beyond that agreed to under the Kyoto Accord they will encourage some of the other major polluters to at least sign off on Kyoto. With neither China, Russia, India, nor the United States doing anything about mandating controls, four of the largest polluters and consumers of fossil fuels in the world are doing nothing to in the fight against global warming.

Since the biggest concern that each of the four countries has about Kyoto or any agreement that forces emission controls, is the impact it would have on their economies, this new plan by the European Union can be effective in a couple of ways in offering them encouragement. First of all is the fact that they have managed to come up with an effective means of ensuring that nobody within a group of twenty- four nations is going to have to do anything that will endanger their economic growth.

Then there is the fact that the Union will be reducing its own overall economic stability for the period of time it takes to adjust to its new reality. The other four countries will be in a position to institute Kyoto type controls and yet still be under fewer restrictions than the Europeans.

If they can get at least Russia on side that will be a big plus, as Russia is a big trading partner with the Union it might not prove that complicated. Especially if it can be made clear to Putin, president of Russia, that doing so will make him look better in the eyes of the world then the Americans. The Cold War maybe over but the "competitive" spirit still remains between the two ex-foes. Nothing seems to motivate intent on the part of Russia's political leadership more then an opportunity to make the American government look bad.

The politics of the environment is a tricky thing, where governments are more concerned with their chances of re-election or the fate of their political party than protecting our future. Somehow the European Union is managing to find a way to achieve results above and beyond the minimal requirements of Kyoto. Now that's an example we can only hope that other countries can follow,

March 6, 2007

Canadian Politics: Nine Year Old Canadian Detained In Texas.

Sometimes there are stories you read in the paper that let you know just how far the world has drifted down the path of insanity. Right now as I write this article over 170 children are being kept in a former maximum-security prison in Texas. The euphemistically titled T. Don Hutto Family Detention Centre serves as a holding tank for people that don't have proper documentation to enter the United States.

Among those 170 children is a nine-year-old Canadian citizen named Kevin, the child of two Iranians who were so desperate to get back to the country their child was born in they had hired human smugglers to sneak them back. Majid and Masomeh (they don't use their last name) had originally come to Canada in 1995 seeking political asylum due to fear of persecution back in Iran. In 1997 Kevin was born in Canada and was automatically a citizen. This did not stop the Canadian government from deporting his parents in 2005 –ten years after they had applied for refugee status- because they did not meet the requirements to qualify as political refugees.

During the ten years they had lived here Kevin had reached grade three in school and Majid had managed to gain full time employment sufficient to support the family, and be productive members of society. Notwithstanding all of this they were sent off to a country which was completely alien to Kevin, and that his parents had done their best to forget.

What kind of government lets a family live in its country for ten years before deciding to deport them? If these people have lived here this long already and proven themselves to be productive members of society what point was the government making by sending them back? That they are unfeeling creeps who don’t give a shit about individuals but only about appearances?

Is it so important to them that they look like they are being tough on Muslims that they ignore individuals? Are they all only "rag heads" to those charming folk at immigration?

You know that in Canada in order to successfully apply as a refugee seeking political asylum because you are in fear of physical violence against your self and your family you have to have proof. How many people are going to think to go to the local police station and ask for the documents that show their arrest order, or the piece of paper signed saying they are to be tortured?

I know that's awfully negligent on their part and they probably should make more of an effort, but what can you do they're not like us are they? That's the problem with refugees, they're just so different from the rest of us and they don't know how to behave. Why I'm sure any decent person would have made sure to have all their relevant paper work in order – you would have, wouldn't you?

When Kevin and his family's plane landed in Tehran Majid was immediately arrested and hauled off to jail where he was tortured and beaten for three months. After being released friends and family began to make arrangements for getting the family out of the country again. They contacted a human smuggler who got them to Turkey for $20,000 and for another $20,000would get them to Canada.

They took a flight to Guyana, where they were booked on a direct flight to Toronto from Georgetown the capital city of the South American city. Because they were travelling on Greek passports they had no need of entry visas for getting into Canada, so they weren't questioned getting on the plane.

Unfortunately a fellow passenger had a heart attack and died and the plane was forced to land in Puerto Rico so emergency crews could remove the body. During the hold over they were forced to got through immigration, where they were detained because travelling under Greek passports they needed visas to enter the United States. They were held in Puerto Rico for five days before being shipped to the confines of Texas.

This was in spite of the fact that not only was their plane never supposed to have landed in the United States, their tickets were for Toronto with no stopovers in between, and they repeatedly insisted they didn't want to go to America. Maybe American immigration officials thought they had deliberately killed the fellow passenger so they could sneak into the States or that they were planning to parachute from the plane before it reached Toronto. You never can tell with these types – they may even have been planning on hijacking the plane and using it as a weapon.

Better safe then sorry when dealing with Iranians, especially ones who have no desire to come to the United States. That only shows there is something wrong with them. They'd rather go to Canada then the U.S. Yes it is true they were travelling under false documents, but they would have never come into contact with American immigration officials if not for a freak accident, and American demands that they go through customs for no reason. This should have been a problem for Canadian authorities to sort out, especially considering the status of the child, and been none of the American's business.

But now they sit and rot in an American jail, and Canadian authorities are doing squat for them. If the Canadian government wants to help one of its young citizens it will have to let his parents in to look after him. Parents who have already proven themselves to be responsible citizens, and people whose refugee claim should have been taken seriously in the first place.

According to Audrey Macklin, a professor of immigration at the University of Toronto, a case exists for a pre-risk removal assessment based on what happened to Majid when he was returned to Iran the last time. The assessment will determine the level of risk he faces if removed again from Canada and sent back to Iran and the level of risk he is to the Canadian public. So far the best the Canadian government has been able to come up with is some halfhearted comments about maybe being able to help Kevin but being able to do nothing for his parents.

How nice, remove a child from his parents after all he's been through to this time. Just the capper he needs for an already blighted childhood. Yanked out of his grade three class to be deported to a country he knows nothing about; his father taken away and tortured for three months; being smuggled out of a country where if they're caught they could very well have been killed; and now being held in a jail in Texas where if his father tries to visit him after nine thirty at night he won't be allowed to see him again.

They don't coddle families in Texas you see; (the only good nit is a dead nit was first said by an American general in reference to Native Americans; obviously not much has changed for some people, just who the nits are) everyone has to get up at 5:30am for showers, they have fifteen minutes to eat meals, everyone must go to bed at 9:30pm with laser-triggered alarms activated if anyone strays, and they are locked down three times a day for an hour for a head count.

And this is what they refer to as a residential, non-secure setting. Damn I'd hate to see what they call a secure facility. Hutto sounds like most maximum-security prisons in Canada not a detention centre for families who are awaiting decisions on their fate as refugee applicants or whether or not they are going to be allowed to continue their journeys before they were so rudely interrupted.

Nine-year-old Kevin has become so desperate that he has written a letter to Prime Minister Steven Harper of Canada, begging him for help. (The image is a thumbnail; drag your mouse over it for a larger "pop-up" view of the letter) He might get lucky, because Canadians are facing an election and depending how the public react to his plight, Kevin might find himself the beneficiary of Prime Ministerial intervention.

If Harper senses he can make political hay out of this at the Liberal party's expense he will charter a plane to take him to Texas so he can bring little Kevin and his family to Toronto personally. But if it looks like most people don't really care one way or another, you can bet he will issue a statement expressing sympathy and his belief that the system will work our right in the end. The Prime Minister can't be seen showing favouritism if it's not going to win him significant points with the voters.

It's reading about these types of situations that remind me of where true evil resides in the world. It lies in the inherent lack of compassion that we imbue all our systems with. We encourage those carrying out the orders not to get emotionally involved, and to treat each case the same with no deviations. Situations and people are never unique so all you have to do is process forms not worry about whether or not you have just sentenced someone to months of torture and possible death because they don't quite qualify as a refugee.

Better luck next time. Hope you live! Next! I'm only sticking to the rules, is not that far from I was only following orders. Kevin and his family should never have been deported in the first place, but there are rules about these things and they have to be obeyed. God knows what would have happened if they'd been allowed to stay: Kevin would be in Grade five and his dad might have had a promotion at work.

The end of civilization as we know it.

February 27, 2007

Canadian Politics: More Anti Terrorist Legislation About To Collapse

What has not been a good week for supporters of anti-terrorist legislation in Canada and Europe is about to get a bit worse. With the Supreme Court of Canada demanding changes to way the government utilizes Security Certificates for resident aliens, and European courts moving against the practice of extraordinary rendition and distancing themselves from the War on Terror, they've taken a couple of direct hits recently.

But it seems that saying about things coming in threes is about to bear fruit again unless some sort of miracle happens between now and Thursday March 1st. That's the date that Canada's anti-terrorist legislation allowing for suspects to be detained without charges and compelled to testify before a judge expires. Unless parliament votes to renew those sections before midnight March 1st they will become history.

With both the New Democratic Party (NDP) and the Bloc Quebecois guaranteed to vote against renewal the minority Conservative government will need to have the support of thirty members of the Liberal party in order to receive sufficient votes to carry the day. Although the Liberal party was the government that introduced this legislation three years ago they are now ready to let it expire.

Conservative Prime Minister Steven Harper is trying to make political hay out of the fact that the Liberals introduced the legislation by accusing them of flip-flopping on the issue but that hasn't deterred them. Stephane Dion, the Liberal leader, simply returns fire and has accused Mr. Harper and the Conservatives of trying to push the legislation through at the last minute without allowing any room for real debate and consultation.

When Mr. Harper and his officials claim that they can't deny security forces such useful weapons in their war against terror, Mr. Dion and his people respond that human rights aren't something to be trifled with. When the Conservatives offer to address those issues at a latter date as long as the Liberals agree to pass the legislation, the Liberals respond with we don't trust you enough to believe you'll come back to the issue in a few months.

What the Liberals want is a complete review of the whole package of security laws as had been recommended by a joint Senate and House committee six months ago. They wonder why if the Conservatives have known all along that these two items would expire on Thursday, and that six months ago it was recommended that they should be evaluated within the context of an overall evaluation of all the special security measures passed to fight terrorism, that they have left it to the last minute to try and renew the measures?

I think the answer to the Liberal party's question about why the Conservatives waited until the last moment to re introduce the legislation is two fold. First you could put it down to the arrogance they've shown throughout their whole term in office acting as though they can do whatever they want despite the fact they are a minority government.

Second is the fact that in this time leading up to an almost certain spring election, they are doing their best to paint the Liberals as soft on terrorism and not interested in the safety and well being of the Canadian people. They have already shown no hesitation in exploiting the grief and anger of those who lost family in the Air India bombing twenty years ago. The Prime Minister has already implied that the Liberals are against extending the legislation to protect a Liberal Member of Parliament's father in law who might be a terrorist involved with that act of terror.

For all their protestations about human rights, the Liberals really don't come off much better in this incident. It was their party that did write this legislation and had no problem with it being used, as long they were the government. Secondly it rings a bit hollow for their second in command, Michael Ignatieff, to start sounding holier then thou about this act when he has in the past said he wouldn't object to utilizing information obtained through torture.

In the end the only two parties who are acting without ulterior motivation, are the NDP and the Bloc Quebecois. At least they have the decency to stand by their original votes on the issue and have no hidden agendas. Of course their influence in the house is limited, without the Liberals nobody can defeat the Conservatives.

Legally, in Canada at least, the Supreme Court has already shown itself willing to suspend some rights and freedoms in the name of national security. Their ruling on the security certificates was an example of that when they said that indefinite incarceration without charges for potential terrorist threats was okay in the case of resident aliens. So there is precedent for them not to rule the legislation under dispute unconstitutional.

But the idea of the legislation when it was passed three years ago was that it would be given a full and complete review before it was renewed. The situation in Canada vis a vis terrorist threats would be examined as to whether or not there were any genuine need for the security forces to pluck people from the street and hold them indefinitely without trial.

Unfortunately due to the manner in which Canada's Conservative government has chosen to deal with the matter, no review process was possible. How many people have been arrested using these extraordinary powers, are they still under arrest, and what was the end result of their incarceration are questions that won't be answered at this time if ever.

These type of special powers should not just be renewed for the sake of scoring a few political points or for other trivial reasons. If no threat to our country exists there is no need for anyone to have that type of power.

February 26, 2007

Canadian Anti-Terror Law Not Struck Down - Only Fair Trial Demanded

When the Supreme Court of Canada's decision on Security Certificates (the governments right to hold non-resident Canadians suspected of terrorist activities indefinitely without trial) was announced, headlines everywhere shouted that Canada's anti terror legislation had been found unconstitutional. In actual fact what the Court had ruled was that indefinite imprisonment on the grounds of suspected terrorism was on occasion necessary for reasons of national security, but defendants did deserve a chance to defend themselves, know the charges against them, and have proper representation in court.

They ruled that the Canadian government had a year to come up with a solution to this aspect of the Security Certificate law or face the possibility of it being declared unconstitutional. The Court suggested the Canadian government look to a system the British have developed to deal with the same set of circumstances.

But according to lawyers who have worked in the British system, it is fact unworkable and no more then a …"fig leaf of respectability and legitimacy to a process which I found odious." Ian Macdonald was a senior member of the team of defence lawyers who were responsible to help defend those detained on the British equivalent of Security Certificates, and obviously from that quote did not think very highly of the system.

Ten years ago Prime Minister Tony Blair of Great Britain authorized the formation of a special panel of defence attorneys who were given the highest possible security clearance. These lawyers were then allowed to represent those individuals being held under the security act by cross examining security agents, and arguing before judges for disclosure of material the state was using as evidence.

But Mr. Macdonald, whose retirement two years ago from the fifteen-member lawyer's panel causes a political furor, said the system was flawed and the hearings were a sham. Since his resignation one other lawyer has resigned, and nine others appeared before a British House of Commons constitutional committee saying they did not believe the process made it possible that those detained received justice.

It is interesting to note that the former Liberal Party of Canada Public Safety Minister Anne McLellan in the previous government had considered this alternative in 2005. For unknown reasons she did not pursue the matter, but it can only be assumed that she or her staff deemed it unworkable for some reason or another.

The problem Mr. Macdonald said was the fact they were dealing with vague security risk assessments as provided by special agents, not hard and fast facts like is normal in a criminal law case. So instead of a report by a police officer stating so and so was seen meeting with so and so and carrying away an AK-47 and enough plastic explosive to blow up Buckingham Palace they would receive comments like; he's of Syrian descent, was seen in the company of people who have in the past been considered potential threats, and he could represent some sort of threat to the crown.

That's not really the type of information a lawyer can rebut very easily, because he is not being told anything conclusive. But instead of those cases being dismissed for lack of evidence the Certificates were issued and defendants detained indefinitely. Hence Mr. Macdonald's fig leaf comment and his refusal to keep working for the panel of lawyers.

Will Canada's Supreme Court justices be satisfied with a result of that nature, where only the appearance of due process is given? Will they insist the government ensure that a real case has to be made against defendants not just vague assurances that he or she posses some sort of threat to peace and stability? A case that will allow a defence attorney to examine real evidence being used against his or her client and enable him or her to mount some semblance of a defence?

If not there would be no real point in appointing any lawyers because it would just be wasting the taxpayer's money. I think the Court should have insisted that not only does the government come up with a system where the defendant can contest their confinement, but are also forced to offer assurances that the system implemented is more then just a veneer of respectability over the same old process.

What the Supreme Court of Canada did last Friday, February 23rd /07 was not strike down the idea of indefinite confinement under the Security Certificate system, but they reinforced the right of every person in our society to have representation during legal proceedings against them no matter what the circumstances. It's now up to the government of Canada to comply with this ruling, and hopefully in a way that is more then just the illusion of justice.

February 25, 2007

War On Terror: Europeans Demand Justice For All

It appears that the American government's enthusiastic ignoring of basic human rights in the pursuit of terrorists has finally caught up with them. Their staunchest European supporters have begun to distance themselves from any stance that even looks like it could condone their actions.

From Great Britain, where Tony Blair has promised to have all British troops out of Iraq by 2008, to Italy, where right wing magistrates who have been zealous in their pursuit of terror suspects, have laid charges against American intelligence operators for kidnapping, the Coalition of the Willing is fast whittling away. What could cause the rats to flee the sinking ship so fast? The answer is two simple words, extraordinary rendition.

Extraordinary rendition was (and, hopefully, not is anymore) American Intelligence's practice of seizing suspected terrorists and sending them on unmarked airplanes to countries that practice torture in the hopes of getting the suspects to cough up information. Although this practice has been going on since at least 2002, it wasn't until the details of Syrian born Canadian citizen Maher Arar's plight came to light that people's attention has been drawn to it.

From the outset Mr. Arar's case was mishandled; first by Canadian Intelligence that passed on fabricated reports to the Americans about his potential terrorist connections. This was compounded by the illegally handing over of Mr. Arar to a foreign government, the Americans, when they requested he be transferred to their facilities for interrogation based on the erroneous report's information.

When the American's couldn't get him to confess to anything they shipped him off to Syria in an unmarked plane accompanied by CIA. Agents. They deposited him in Jordan, because Americans don't have official relations with Syria, where he was beaten the second he got off the plane, and then shipped to Damascus where he was imprisoned and tortured for ten months.

All this information came to light during a judicial inquiry into the wrongful treatment of Mr. Arar by the Canadian security services. The upshot of the report was that the Commissioner of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police was forced to resign; the Prime Minister of Canada had to issue a public apology to Mr. Arar, and the Canadian government had to pay him $115 million in damages.

It has also cooled off what would have normally been warm relations between a Conservative Canadian government and a like-minded American administration. The American government is not only refusing to apologise for its mistreatment of a Canadian citizen, but they are even reluctant to admit that they have anything to apologise for. In spite of Stockwell Day's (Canada's Foreign Minister) best efforts Mr. Arar remains on the American no fly list to this day.

What's behind the American reluctance to admit to any possibility of wrongdoing on their part in the case of Mr. Arar? Is it simply a matter of "being at war means not having to say your sorry", or is there some other reason? According to the Globe and Mail article linked to above senior Canadian and European diplomats and government officials claim it's because the Americans are worried about opening themselves up to culpability in around twenty other similar cases in Europe.

Last week the European Parliament released a report condemning the 1,245 flights made by the CIA in European airspace and the twenty cases of European citizens being subjected to extraordinary rendition. Currently there is one case before the Italian courts, one before the Germen, and eighteen others pending throughout the continent.

The matter of the flights might seem a trivial matter, but it's who was on the planes and what was being done with them that has European governments so concerned. Italy's government was actually voted out of office this week due to one thirty-seven minute stopover by an unmarked plane at Rome's international airport.

The problem was that it was the CIA plane carrying Mr. Arar to Jordan. The concern is that since Mr. Arar was for all intents and purposes being abducted, he was being taken somewhere against his will illegally and his captors knew he would be mistreated, how complicit is the Italian government in the matter.

Did whoever gave permission for the plane to land at the airport know who was on the airplane and what was going on? Or had the Americans gone behind their backs and carried out illegal activities on Italian soil?

In one case in Italy a magistrate has indicted 26 US citizens, including Italian CIA station chief Robert Seldon Lady on charges of kidnapping in the rendition of Mustafa Osama Nasr. The Milanese Cleric had been seized by CIA agents in 2003 and flown to Egypt where he was imprisoned, tortured, and sexually abused by his captors.

Five Italians were also charged in the case, including the head of their Security forces, Nicolo Pollari, who has been forced to resign. In case any one thinks that this the work of anti-American trouble makers, or left-wing politicians in Italy, the magistrate responsible, Armando Spataro, is know for his pro-American positions, and his centre right politics.

He has worked for thirty years fighting the Mafia and internal terrorist organizations in Italy, and he say that he and his colleagues "were absolutely sure that it was impossible to fight terrorism without respect for the law". He continued by saying that he hopes this investigation will prove that it is impossible to win over Islamic terrorism without respect for the law.

While the American government is of course denying any and all complicity in these events, and the men indicted will not be coming to Italy any time soon to face the charges, Italian law