Humanity, Recognition, and Interiority

Illustration from

Illustration from

A couple of weeks ago my husband and I were in the car together and I asked him who he “talks” to–you know, who he’s traditionally turned to when he was upset, or his heart was broken, or things in general just weren’t going well. My husband and I have a very communicative relationship and we talk all the time (on our first date I was impressed by his excellent conversation), but he certainly doesn’t psychologically “dump” on me the way I sometimes do on him, and the way my sisters and childhood best friend and I have long “talked out” our disappointments, problems, and fears.

To my surprise and discomfort, he said he doesn’t, or at least not with any regularity.

My first impulse upon hearing this was sadness; I felt that my fun and social and considerate husband was somehow missing something important in his life. But TC says he doesn’t always need to “talk out” the way I do. His friendships aren’t built using all of the same blocks as mine (verbal sharing of Costco-sized amounts of psychological/emotional weight is not the only way to maintain strong bonds, as it turns out), and his emotional needs are, quite simply, different from mine.

So now my feeling is weirdness and discomfort. Intellectually, I accept that different humans are different. But it’s weird. Weird because for me talking (and, by extension, writing) is almost a medical necessity–I’m fairly convinced that if I didn’t share whatever is on my mind at some point, even good happy very exciting things, they would fester and eventually choke me. Discomfort because apparently it’s not the same for TC, and I don’t know how to process that. How can a need that is so significant and vital to me be almost non-existent in another person, especially a person that I usually feel so emotionally in tune with?

It’s especially discomfiting because despite my attempts to curb my natural self-interest, I sometimes have a hard time remembering that other people have inner lives, and that their inner lives are just as deep and rich and important as mine. For me, talking (or writing) is a huge part of the expression of my inner life–it’s how I remind the world, and myself, that I’m here. But some people don’t feel the need to prove the existence of their inner lives, or instead find other ways to express them. And I am so wrapped up in my own perception (one that sees through the lens of my inner life) that I fear I am sometimes in danger of assuming that an absence of expression (in a language I readily understand) equals an absence of interiority.

Recognizing the interiority of others is incredibly important. Not only does it make us better partners, family members, and friends, this recognition is vital to the way we treat each other as human beings. Many an injustice has been perpetrated against specific “other” groups of people by using the excuse, “They just don’t feel the way we do.” For examples of this excuse in action, we could look to former U.S. Army Chief of Staff Gen. William Westmoreland’s statement that “The Oriental doesn’t put the same high price on life as does a Westerner” in the Vietnam war documentary Hearts and Minds, or Voltaire’s many and virulent assertions that the Jewish people, due to some inherent racial shortcoming, do not possess the capacity for generosity, decency, or hospitality (as you can imagine, Voltaire’s opinions on this subject gained a lot of traction with infamous anti-Semites like Adolf Hitler and continue to be quoted with glee in extremist fanatic corners of the Internet). When we present others as lacking interiority, we present them as “sham” people–hollow pretenders who deserve our hatred and prejudice–rather than as people whose experiences and pain are as legitimate as ours.

Humane treatment of others requires us not only to recognize the interiority of others as legitimate, but also to assume interiority even when it is not, or cannot, be expressed. Failing to do this has, historically, had serious implications for our treatment of non-verbal and/or non-communicative people, including the mentally ill, people with cognitive or other medical disabilities that prevent traditional communication, and infants. Did you know that as late as the mid-1980s (in the U.S. at least, but likely in Canada too), doctors erroneously believed that infants could not feel pain, and serious surgeries were routinely performed on babies without anesthesia? Apparently, their cries, grimaces, and physical attempts to push away painful stimuli were considered merely “reflexes” and though infants were given a muscle relaxant to prevent these “reflexes” from getting in the surgeons’ way, they were awake and aware for every excruciating moment of their medical procedures. If someone did this to an adult, it would be the very definition of torture, but because babies cannot verbally communicate their pain they way we do, it was assumed they couldn’t feel the way we do either.

It should be common sense to us that any human being, when cut with a scalpel for example, would feel pain. Our reason should tell us that this is the case regardless of the age, gender, race, religion, class or culture of the person involved. The problem, however, is that despite the earth being peopled for tens of thousands of years with folks whose biology, physiology, and psychology have remained relatively constant, the definition of who qualified as “human” has, until very recently, only included adult white males. Children were not human beings. Women were not human beings. People of colour were not human beings. Because these marginalized people were not considered “human”, it was assumed they did not have the same rich interior life as a white man (Freud, for example, despite the fact that most of his patients were women, did not actually believe women possessed complex psychology and so his theories were actually written exclusively for/about men). This lack of perceived interior life was then used to defend the inhumane and demeaning treatment women, children, and people of colour received (though of course a white woman or child would have been and often still is a lot better off than a person of colour). It’s worth considering whether or not the fact that these “non-human” people weren’t usually ALLOWED to express themselves has anything to do with the perception that they had nothing to express, and the ways in which prejudice (and the mistreatment it engenders) is self-perpetuating.

The fact that the Western world eventually (and begrudgingly) extended the title of humanity to the poor, women, children, people of colour, and people with disabilities isn’t too much to pat ourselves on the back about. Recognition of our shared humanity was not given out of beneficence–it was wrested from the hands of the status quo by marginalized people (or, in the case of those who could not speak for themselves, by their passionate advocates) after long, difficult, exhausting, often violent, sometimes deadly struggles. And serious injustices continue in the present day, although slightly less overtly. At the same time, some formally very marginalized groups have gone on to oppress others in turn (white feminists, for instance, have frequently been accused of throwing women of colour under the bus to further the aims of a feminism they find more palatable). We aren’t done yet–we still fail at recognizing others’ humanity in so many ways.

I’d like to believe that most of us aren’t monsters. But many of us find it difficult to see the world through another person’s eyes. Most of us, for example, probably grew up believing that gender binaries were pretty simple and set. Boys were boys and girls were girls and though boys could be “girly” and girls could be “tomboys”, everyone seemed to agree on who was who and what was what, just as we agree the sun rises in the east and sets in the west. But we were wrong. Gender is NOT that simple, and not that set. We know this because it turns out that for people who are transgender, our assumptions didn’t add up. We know this because trans* people have TOLD us this is so, and TOLD us who they are. And yet, for some reason, many of us believe the reality of others is something we can have an opinion on, or that we need to agree with in order for it to exist. As if trans* people do not have a legitimate enough inner life to KNOW who they are, and to KNOW whether or not the gender they were assigned at birth (based on their physical characteristics) was correct. As if trans* people do not feel as threatened and humiliated as a cis-gender person would feel if they were forced by society into using the wrong gender’s bathroom. As if the countless indignities experienced (and recounted) by trans* people don’t exist, simply because we’ve never experienced them ourselves.

These attitudes are just plain silly. I’ve never had cancer (and hopefully never will), but that doesn’t mean cancer doesn’t exist, or that cancer patients are either lying or simply “confused” about their condition or the pain they’re in. We shouldn’t need to experience something first hand to accept that it is real, and to extend support wherever support is requested. Unfortunately, our inability to acknowledge and respect the interiority of others isn’t just silly. It’s dangerous, and it causes pain and suffering. Trans* women are raped and murdered at alarming rates. Gay teens kill themselves at alarming rates. African American men are shot and killed by police at alarming rates. Women are sexually assaulted at alarming rates (and then repeatedly asked if they are sure an assault is what really happened, if they are sure they didn’t want to have sex with their rapist). Even children, for whom we often claim we would sacrifice anything, are commonly treated by adults as if they are possessions, not persons; empty vessels for their parents’ or governments’ ideology, rather than thinking beings in their own right.

At the end of the day, it comes down to respect, whether it’s respect for the inner experience of your friend or loved one, or respect for the inner experience of a stranger, even a stranger whose culture, experience, orientation, and existence in the world is completely different from yours. Respect for those who have told us who they are and what they need, and also respect for those who haven’t, either because they lack the ability or because they simply don’t want to. An interior life can be just that–interior. Hidden. The red cells flowing through the artery, under the skin. No one owes us proof that they bleed and hurt just as we do, and the world would be a much better place if we could offer our respect without demanding to see the scars.

[Note–the debate about whether or not the recognition of an interior life can/should reasonably be extended to animals is taken up in J.M. Coetzee’s The Lives of Animals, and though the book itself reaches no particular conclusions it is a great addition to the discussion.]

The forests are burning (your children are burning)

Photo: Brayden McCluskey

Photo: Brayden McCluskey

Sometimes I wonder why people still have children. I wonder when the sky fills with smoke and the air tastes like ash, when the heat comes in and sits, indifferent to the presence of the sea, indifferent to the ceiling fan, indifferent to everything that should shoo it out again. I wonder when I start to describe the blue sky as “relentless”–another day without rain. Another day without rain.

I wonder when I hear how many of these wildfires were started by discarded cigarettes, one person’s slow careless suicide ripping like a whip-crack across the tinder-dry grass and into a forest of–firewood, now–hot coals, now–charcoal, now–ash, now.

And still the heat envelopes me in bathwater arms, hot dishwater arms, drowns me in dry air, and still the sky, behind the smoke, relentless. Blue.

I wonder at our gleeful march towards death, our species hell-bent on fashioning this hell-scape on earth. And I know, we did this. We’re doing this. I wonder why I should have children. I wonder, if I did, what they would grow to see–their childhood home, consumed by the flames? Their spiral-shelled shorelines slick with the entrails of tankers, slick with the oil that should have stayed in the ground? And, if they live to be old, the sunny backyard where their parents were married, submerged in the rising sea? The ice caps are melting. The ocean’s expanding. We’re doing this.

Do you, you avaricious elders, deserve my children, deserve their flesh (my flesh) and their hope (your hope) and their bright new shiny spotless souls? When I was a child you told me that I was the future. You–teachers, government–told me that what you were doing was for me, for my own good, for me and my children and my children’s children. But I am grown up now and no one has saved the planet for me. And when I say, I want to save it, please help me try, you say I am naive, you say we all need jobs, you say “dollars and cents”, that we need to pull the oil out of the ground because it is worth too much, we need to ship the oil and sell the oil and burn the oil, you say money is more important than life.

Your children can’t eat money. We can’t draw money cool-sweet from the ground and drink it. Money can’t buy us rain or stop the hot beating of the blue sky, relentless.

Come now, you rich people, weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon you. Your riches have rotted and your garments are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have corroded, and their corrosion will be evidence against you and will eat your flesh like fire. [James 5: 1-4]

Show me, wasteful citizens of a wasted planet, that you deserve my children. Convince me that you will not throw them into the flames as you have done with yours. Promise me you will not tell them that their hunger, their thirst, their choking for a clean gasp of air is naivete. Show me that you need them as more than just a bandage made of hope, as more than just a witness to our final ashy breaths.

The “play” is the thing

I can't find any images of children at here is a picture of a goat.

I can’t find any images of children at play…so here is a picture of a goat eating dandelion leaves.

Though not an educator or a parent myself, like most adults (especially those adults who want to have kids sometime) I have Opinions about education and childhood.

I have Opinions about Kids These Days and What Are Teenagers Thinking?! and No One Respects Their Elders Anymore, etc. etc.

So when the idea of year-round school (essentially cutting out summer vacation and replacing it with one to two week holidays dispersed throughout the school year) is floated around, as it was in 2012 when the B.C. government introduced legislation allowing school districts to set their own calendar as long as they meet a specific minimum of teaching days, I have Opinions about that. I’m not for it. (Although there are a handful of B.C. schools that do operate on a year-round calendar, this has not been adopted province-wide or even district-wide anywhere to the best of my knowledge).

When all-day kindergarten was implemented across the board in B.C., I wasn’t for that either. I consider it a Band-Aid solution to the very real challenge of unaffordable childcare in an economic landscape that tends to require two working parents to support even a modest household. I do not agree there is any solid educational basis whatsoever for keeping five-year-old children in a classroom setting for twice as long as they used to be. According to the wisdom of the government, B.C. children were “falling behind” (this is also the government’s position on summer vacations, which is why although they are not forcing districts to adopt year-round schooling they encouraged it). But falling behind whom? Falling behind cultures where children go from morning lessons to school to tutor to night school and live in constant competition with each other and constant fear of disappointing their parents? Is that a lifestyle we really want to emulate? Besides, if all-day kindergarten were truly an educational imperative, kindergarten itself would be mandatory in this province, but it’s not. If you send your kid to kindergarten, you have to send them all day, every day, but if you decide to keep them at home for another year and just plop them into grade one when they’re six, apparently that’s completely okay and there’s no government hand-wringing about how far your kid has “fallen behind”. Can’t see the logic in that. [Note: I am not in any way passing judgement on the quality of kindergarten teaching in this province; I’m sure the teachers and support staff teaching the all-day kindergarten curriculum are absolutely fabulous, but the quality of the education is not the point.]

Children are not little adults. We don’t need to prep them for the labour market just yet. Kids should play. And I’m not talking about “play-based learning” in the classroom or whatever pedagogical buzzwords the Ministry of Education decides to throw around this year. I’m talking about unstructured, totally for fun, (mostly) unsupervised play. I’m talking about two months of swimming at the lake and camping trips and running through sprinklers and building forts and watching your dad stain the deck (and maybe getting to help paint ONE board). I’m talking about fishing grubby change out of grubby pockets and heading with your friends to whatever nearby store sells candy/ice cream (when we were in town that would have been “Susan’s Place”, but at the lake, etc. it would have just been the concession) and playing on rock piles and in the bush.

As it turns out, concerns about limiting kids’ play aren’t just rooted in nostalgia–Maclean’s just ran an excellent interview with injury-prevention expert Mariana Brussoni (June 29, 2015 issue), in which she  discusses research that demonstrates that not allowing children to engage in unstructured, rough-and-tumble play is actually detrimental to children’s health outcomes and social development. Risky outdoor play not only encourages physical activity and makes children familiar with their own physical limits, it also promotes the development of skills like conflict resolution and setting boundaries (which is very important if you want children to be empowered enough to say no to drugs or to practice safe sex). According to Brussoni:

In supervised activities, there’s somebody else guiding the activities; [children] don’t have to set the goals for what they want to do and how they want to engage in it. When they’re out in the neighbourhood [on their own], they’re deciding, “Okay, let’s build a fort. Let’s play prisoner. Let’s play capture the flag.” They’re negotiating back and forth to decide what the rules will be, how it’s going to work, who’s going to do what.

So basically, when we let kids play on their own, we let them develop the skills they’ll need to be adults. Without confining them to a classroom for another three hours every day, or forcing them to sweat it out in school in the middle of July or August instead of being on summer vacation. Huh. I should note that Brussoni was mostly talking about the detrimental effects of “anxiety-based caregiving” as it pertains to parenting and playground infrastructure (which Brussoni says is now too safe and too boring and not as good as a tree or some bushes), but it’s not hard to see how the B.C. government’s positions on all-day kindergarten and year-round schooling are rooted in and play to an anxiety-based methodology of teaching and caregiving. While there are absolutely cases in which some kind of summer programming can be beneficial to kids (children who don’t speak English in the home, for example, may risk losing a lot of newly-acquired English skills over summer break), special cases should not shape childhood experience across the board or indefinitely (once kids who benefit from summer programming acquire the skills they need I’m sure they’d love a summer vacation too), and it’s important to consider what kids lose when we take away their opportunities for play.

Just because play cannot be measured like grades in a report card, that doesn’t mean it is without value. Just because we aren’t keeping children in formal educational settings 24/7, and telling them exactly what they should notice and investigate and pointing their head in the direction we want them to look, that doesn’t mean they aren’t noticing and investigating the world around them. We need to give kids the same chances we enjoyed ourselves (and maybe a little push to take those chances, a push like limiting screen time). Children are naturally curious (that’s why they poke around and ask weird questions I assume). Why can’t we trust them to learn? Do we really think they’re so stupid, so inept, that their lives require elaborate choreography every second of the day? Is a skinned knee or a ripped coat (or even the occasional trip to the hospital for stitches or a broken arm) really such a bad thing if your child is confident, capable, and curious?

I believe in public education, and I know that formal education (especially getting a good grasp of reading, writing, and numeracy) is an incredibly important part of a person’s learning experience. But it should NEVER be confused with the actual act of learning, which is ongoing and unending and absolutely limitless.


Tallinn’s NUKU Puppet Museum is Creepy as F*ck

I like puppets. I like their colourful costumes and emotive faces. I like the magic that happens when a seasoned puppeteer (or even a passable amateur) interacts with and animates a piece of wood or clay or plaster or cloth. One minute you are looking at a toy–the next, a living object. I like the blurring of the line between the mind/personality of the puppeteer and that of the puppet. It can be creepy, I suppose, but deliciously so. [Note – my admiration of puppets excludes ventriloquist dummies, as a strange veneer of exploitation has always soured that particular puppet-puppeteer relationship for me. The dummies are also scary-looking]. Over the years, I’ve taken an amateur’s interest in puppets and their history (specifically Punch and Judy) and, well, I just think they’re neat.

Three weeks ago, on a sunny afternoon in Estonia’s capital city of Tallinn,  my husband and I were wandering the twisting cobblestone lanes of the Old Town and having a lovely time. On the corner of Nunne and Lai, just out of the shadow of the hilltop area of Toompea, we found a cheery yellow building with a cheery orange sign–the NUKU Theatre and Puppet Museum. We thought about going in, in fact, I even popped my head in to check out the price of admission (5 € for an adult ticket), but for some reason we decided to move on and continue enjoying the exteriors of these medieval buildings, gorgeous in the pale Baltic sunshine, rather than enter the comparative gloom of their interiors. Travelling is like that–full of small choices about what to see or not to see, the gentle violence that occurs as you pursue one possibility and eliminate another. And so it goes.

But fate apparently had a hand to play in favour of the NUKU Museum. Although the sun had set the night before in a pink and cloudless sky (we know because we watched it from our hotel’s 8th-floor relaxation centre), the next morning rain was hurtling onto the city, scuttling our plans to visit the Estonian Open Air Museum (and so it goes). Instead of braving the rains and the open skies of an outdoor museum, we popped into a nearby cinema to watch Mad Max: Fury Road (English with Estonian/Russian subtitles; it was great), and by the time the film was over, the rain had stopped and it was after 2:00 p.m.; too late, we felt, to see the Open Air Museum (which probably would have been extremely muddy after a morning of rain anyways), but certainly enough time to revisit the charming medieval Old Town we had enjoyed so much the day before.

And so that’s how we found ourselves once again under the walls of Toompea, once again on the corner of Nunne and Lai. The Puppet Museum beckoned. Why not?, we thought, so we went inside the yellow building with the orange NUKU sign, paid our admission, and slipped through a narrow hall behind the cashier.

After taking us by an immense and empty cloakroom, red stickers placed on the floor directed us through the dim and empty lobby of the NUKU theatre, where a huge model of the purple dragon from Shrek (I assume from a previous production of Shrek: The Musical) was displayed. Though its website refers to the many interactive exhibits at the museum (both electronic and human), I think we must have been visiting during an off-period. What I mean to say is, on the whole, the museum was empty. The only other visitors we saw that day were a tired looking couple dragging their disappointed toddler away from the light-up buttons he’d been playing with, and of the few NUKU personnel we saw, most appeared to be working for the theatre, not the museum, and their eyes passed right over us as if we were little more than shadows.

Speaking of shadows, the museum was dark. Really dark. After the lobby, the red dots directed us downstairs and into what I assume are the medieval cellars that run beneath the theatre. There, dim blue lights displayed an example of shadow puppetry (the silhouette of an elaborate city on one side of a screen is revealed on the other to be just a collection of carefully arranged junk), and also a “wishing” well, which according to the signage, was part of the original structure of the building. A slit in the well’s plexiglass top allowed visitors drop in coins to make wishes, which TC and I did (in hindsight, perhaps I should have wished to be visiting a less creepy museum, but it’s too late for that now).

Farther along the passage (and again, in what was almost total darkness) there was a small screen mounted in the wall and surrounded by an array of a hundred or so buttons (these were the buttons the toddler was so upset about leaving, and this was the only interactive display that actually worked). Pressing a button would display a video clip of Estonian puppets/puppeteers at work (usually on Estonian children’s television shows, and usually juxtaposed with shots of the bewildered-looking faces of the children in the studio audience). We watched three or so clips and when we stopped, an animation of the NUKU logo appeared, beseeching us in his little Estonian voice to continue pressing buttons. I hope this display was motion-activated, as I hate to think of the poor NUKU logo all alone under the theatre, trapped in his small screen, calling to absent visitors in the dark.

At the end of this passage we found an adequately-lit stairwell (hooray!) taking us above ground into a small atrium (housing a couple of large puppets on display), and presenting us with a choice: go right, and see displays of puppets from different countries and also puppets used in shows throughout the theatre’s history, or go straight, through a black doorway and down a winding staircase into what a small NUKU sign called the “Cellar of Horrors: The sanctuary of unhappy, evil and scary puppets.” A sign like that is more like a dare than a warning–besides, what could possibly be scary about a children’s museum in the middle of the afternoon?

As we descended towards the Cellar, the staircase twisted down into the darkness as long strips of black fabric, hung lower and lower the farther we went, brushed the tops of our heads and arms. We stooped to avoid them and, at the bottom of the stairs, found ourselves in a low vaulted room with a stone pillar in the middle, dimly lit by small halogen lamps and by a single shaft of sunlight that entered the room through a small window near the ceiling (it looked as though this window was actually supposed to be blocked by a piece of cardboard, as the only other window was, but luckily for us this cardboard had fallen off). Though the room was small, the darkness and the pillar meant we could not see all of it at once, and so we did walk slowly around the circumference of the space to see which unhappy, evil and scary puppets had made their home here.

As we stepped out of the stairwell, we heard a whirring and clicking noise to our left, and a light began to flash. It was a three-dimensional zoetrope, motion-activated and fairly sensitive. A circular glass cabinet contained luminescent green stick puppets, dancing as the zoetrope spun and its strobe flashed, occasionally appearing to be missing arms or heads. The machine would begin again every time we moved, even on the other side of the room, and it scared me every time.

Many of the inhabitants of the Cellar were the expected goblins, vampires, and devils. They were small and cartoon-ish, propped up in little coffins, and they didn’t seem that scary. What I found more creepy were the puppets that looked perfectly normal–a sad-looking old woman, a giant face leaning against the wall, a little postman who, on closer inspection, had his feet on the wrong way, but seemed otherwise very ordinary. What are they doing there, I wondered, What have they done? I don’t think I saw every puppet–they crowded in the shadows, tucked into corners and along the walls, hard to see on first glance. Were they there before? I wondered. I really didn’t know. With each step the whirring and clicking and flashing of the zoetrope would begin again, confusing our vision, and as we took no pictures in the Cellar of Horrors, I can’t even say with certainty what was down there.

What I do know is that once we decided to leave the Cellar, we did it fairly quickly. I wouldn’t necessarily say I “ran” back up the stairs, with no concern for the fate of TC, who was following, but it would probably be an accurate statement. I’m nearly 30 years old but I’m not ashamed of not wanting to spend a great deal of time in a sanctuary for unhappy, evil, and scary puppets, especially one where a ghostly machine full of faceless green stick-men sits in the dark, waiting for an unsuspecting visitor to walk by so it can dance its ghoulish dance.

The rest of the museum, being empty of visitors and staff, could not shake the eerie feeling that had crept along our spines down in the catacombs. Life-sized dolls perched on windowsills and around corners. Non-working display screens flashed at us, or made futile clicking noises as we walked by. Everywhere there were eyes peering from behind glass panes. Everywhere seemed abandoned, like a room where children used to play but don’t anymore.

And then it stopped. The museum just stopped. There weren’t any more rooms or anymore passages. To leave we had to go back through the display halls we’d just been in, past the doorway to the Cellar of Horrors (gaping like an open sore in the stillness of the atrium), down the other staircase, back into the tunnels with the buttons and the wishing well and the shadow display, up the stairs again, past the dragon and the empty cloakroom and the girl at her cash register and–phew! Into the sunlight.

I’ve no doubt that on a different day, when it is full of children and their parents and staff leading the puppet-making workshops and holding small puppet shows, and the puppets in their cases have an audience that appreciates them, the NUKU Museum is a neat and magical place. But when it is empty, and dark, and just waiting, the NUKU Puppet Museum is creepy as f*ck.

The following are some of TC’s photos from our visit and his captions, which I found quite amusing:


We went to a bizarre puppet museum. There were some extremely unsettling puppets in the “Cellar of Horrors”. I took no photos there. The following puppets somehow did not qualify for “The sanctuary of unhappy, evil and scary puppets.”

not terrifying at all

Not terrifying at all.

not scary in the least

Not scary in the least.

Nope, not evil.

Nope, not evil.

[Lauren’s note: this last one is Punch, one of my favourite puppets actually.]

Baltic update: Riga and Tallinn


Sveiki! I feel that a post about my Eastern European travels is long overdue, however, though opportunities for writing have presented themselves, I have found that I have been either too jet lagged (last week) or having too much fun visiting with family (this week) to make productive use of them. Downtime is an important part of travelling, and one that I have usually used to journal or blog about my experiences, but this time I simply haven’t found myself alone often enough to really be able to frame my thoughts or articulate my impressions.

What I can say now is that the three days TC and I spent in Tallinn (the capital city of Estonia) last week were incredible. It was the only leg of the trip we were going to be on our own so we splurged and stayed at the luxuriously comfortable Nordic Hotel Forum a stone’s throw away from Tallinn’s Old City. Since we were there both in mid-May and also mid-week, there weren’t very many tourists around and the winding streets crowded with medieval houses unfolded as if they were just waiting for us to turn the corner before revealing yet another delightful point of view. Tallinn’s Old Town is very compact (the boundary, for the most part, is clearly marked by the old city wall), and very consistent (there are very few modern buildings to be found once you pass between the guard towers of the old city gate and venture up into the city). We got fairly lucky with the weather and generally speaking, the small area we saw of Tallinn seemed clean, bright, relaxing, and romantic. Just what a vacation should be!

The Latvia leg of our trip has been vastly different. It’s not that Riga isn’t beautiful or romantic (what with its art-nouveau edifices and cobblestone streets), but returning to a place you lived in nearly 20 years ago is not the same as experiencing a new city for the first time. Instead of simply going out to see what we could see, my family and I have been going out to see if we could see what we saw in 1995. Sometimes we found it, sometimes we couldn’t. Overall I am left with the sensation that what I had taken with me 20 years ago were parts of Riga–snapshots of this building or that monument. I don’t recognize the city as a whole and I don’t really know my way around it. Nostalgia is great but when it competes with new experience it’s just…different. Which Riga is better, the one I’ve spent the past week enjoying, the one that is much safer and in in much better repair than the Riga of 1995, or the city I remember, which was both bigger and smaller, more frightening but more marvellous? How is it that I can be disappointed to find something the same, proof that it was real after all?

Back to Latvia

Wearing a crown of daisies at Jani, Latvia's midsummer celebration

Me in 1996, wearing a crown of daisies at a Jāņi celebration.

For me, it all started with an episode of the 1990s television program Travel Travel. My mom loved watching Travel Travel (we only had two channels so there wasn’t much choice) and when I was eight years old the program aired an episode on Latvia. It was pretty exciting for me because I knew that my grandparents were from Latvia and that my uncle had recently moved there after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the restoration of Latvian independence in 1991. Though I could never speak Latvian, it is my mother’s first language and Latvian phrases and folk songs had always been a part of my life. The country looked great on TV too, with a picture-book castle poking out behind a green forest (it was probably Sigulda Castle featured in the show). Watching the Latvia episode of Travel Travel is the first memory I have of my parents saying, “Wouldn’t it be nice to live there for a year?”.

And then we did.

It seems weird to think of now, almost like a magic trick, the way the pieces fell together to facilitate this adventure. In reality, it wasn’t at all easy and I know my parents had to do a lot of research and phoning and faxing and writing letters in order to obtain jobs and visas and housing and the rest of it. But I’m still mystified by the way it just sort of worked. My parents applied for teaching positions at the English-speaking International School of Latvia and were hired (my mom,who taught elementary music, was even given a budget to order instruments for the school). My sisters and I were able to attend the school free of charge. My mom applied for a year-long leave from her current teaching position and got it. We needed someone to rent our place and take care of our pets for the year and a decent renter was found. Now, the idea of looking at a map and saying, “I want to move my family here” and actually DOING IT is astounding to me.

So my family spent my 4th-grade year living in Latvia. And it was one of the most wonderful and important experiences of my life. Not only were we living in another country, our school that year was housed in an old seaside mansion in Jurmala and everywhere we went we saw castles and palaces, ancient springs in the country and colourful buildings in Old Riga, huddled over cobblestone streets and dripping with art-nouveau detailing. Though newer, Soviet-style architecture (like the gargantuan concrete apartment complex we lived in) was both ubiquitous and ugly, my imagination was always busy erasing those details, taking me into the past and furnishing splendid palaces in my mind.

My Latvian-ness, which had seemed a somewhat intangible thing growing up in rural Saskatchewan (where you will find many folks of Ukrainian descent but not many people who had even heard of Latvia), became real to me when I was able to visit the farm where my grandmother was born and where my great-aunt now lives (as a young woman, she’d become separated from her family as they fled to England and was sent by the Soviets to a work camp in Siberia, where she met her Ukrainian husband and started a family) and to which my great-grandmother had returned to spend the last years of her life (I was lucky enough to meet her that year, even though I wasn’t able to do more than say hello and sing a couple of folk songs in Latvian). I started to understand that leaving a place is one thing, but being forced to leave is quite another–it leaves an ache that never goes away, even if you eventually make a new life for yourself somewhere else (as per his wishes, a Latvian flag stood beside my grandfather’s coffin at his funeral last summer, and he had been adamant, the week before his death, that we attend the Jāņi celebrations at the Latvian centre in Toronto, even though he couldn’t go himself).


Zolitude, where my family lived (the little blue X was our balcony).

And there were souvenir shops selling amber and “Latvian mittens” and amusements parks blasting techno and tiny shops selling “Mars-bar” ice cream on Jurmala boardwalks. So many things, though strange and sometimes scary (and perhaps in real life even brash and ugly, some of it) seemed kind of fantastical to me. No wonder that year is like a dream now–everything was different from what I had known before and nothing had the benefit, as many other parts of my childhood did, of being later seen and understood through adult eyes. [I did go back once, for Christmas when I was 14, but it was absolutely freezing cold and I don’t remember much apart from staying inside at my uncle’s house, visiting and playing with my little cousins. It was simply too cold out to see the city and besides, Christmas isn’t really about being a tourist anyways.]

Which is why it will be so interesting to go back. Tomorrow, my husband and I will board a plane and late Monday night (after a looong stopover in Frankfurt), we will be in Riga. This trip is a wedding present from my grandmother and once again, the pieces have fallen into place to allow my whole family (grandma included) to join us there for parts of it. I’m nervous and excited and worried that too much will have changed. I want to be able to step back in time and catch a glimpse of my nine-year-old self, blonde hair and red coat disappearing through the trees or around the corner of a twisting cobblestone lane. I want to find what she found. I want to show my husband, and myself, “This is who I am.”

On death, adulthood, and atheism

Lately I am beginning to feel like the older I get, the more people die.

Which of course is not true. More people are not dying than when I was younger (the most recent statistics I have read show that average life expectancy is actually going up across the globe). The difference is that as I grow older I become more aware of the deaths that happen around me and more aware of my own mortality. I am also more likely to experience the death of someone I know personally, and to watch friends and families be impacted by deaths.

When I was in kindergarten, Dr. Seuss died. It was reported on the radio during breakfast and either my mom or my dad repeated the information. I remember knowing that Dr. Seuss had died. Before the end of my kindergarten year, my paternal grandfather had also passed away. And that was my experience of death as a child: Dr. Seuss and Grandpa Fred (along with Duke the dog and Ashes the cat). I now know that death was as present then as it is today–the 90’s had their share of horrors, from the Yugoslav wars to the Rwandan Genocide. And I had no real concept of any of it.

It’s not because my parents tried to hide death from us, not at all. The radio was always tuned in to the CBC in the morning, and had I listened I would have heard about murders, disasters, wars, and accidents–they weren’t kept from me. And I distinctly remember being nine years old and asking my dad a question which resulted in him referencing Rwanda to explain to me what genocide was, but I don’t remember the question or why the answer would have required explaining the concept of genocide. I do remember hearing my dad say “Hutu” and “Tutsi” and thinking he was just making up words to use in an imaginary example. I was much, much older (possibly an adult) before I realized my dad was talking about Rwanda, and that everything he was trying to explain to me had happened only a year or so before this conversation had taken place.

And yet even then death was not far from my consciousness, always a step or two behind me. The year I was nine was the year my family lived in Riga (Latvia), the first time I could ever really remember living in a big city. My family began to think I was a slow walker because I was always lagging behind everyone on the way to school, but I’m actually very fast. I walked behind my family because I wanted to see all of them; wanted to make sure nothing would happen to them. Nine is the year I began to have nightmares about someone in my family dying, and twenty years later this fear, while more controlled, is just as present. Perhaps the maturity I gained through the culture shock of our year abroad (actually a great thing for kids I think) had more subtle, and less fun, consequences. Perhaps as I opened my eyes to the new and incredible things around me, I also opened them to the possibility of danger and tragedy. Perhaps as my concept of my nine-year-old self developed, I also developed a concept of my relation to the people around me, the people I love, and what it might be to lose them.

Like most people, I am afraid to die. For a long time, I told myself I was afraid because I was afraid of how much my death would hurt the people who love me (which is still something I feel and fear). I didn’t really think about being afraid for myself, even joking with my best friend in high school that when we turned 100 we should buy a convertible and drive it off a cliff like Thelma and Louise, because, y’know, that seemed like a cool way to go and we’ve all gotta go sometime.

Yes, we do all have to go sometime, and the older I get, and the more I see, and hear, and read, the more I realize that grappling with this fact is the hardest and bravest struggle many of us ever face. I understand that death must exist in order for life to exist–but I don’t want to do it. I am afraid of being aware in the moment, and afraid of being afraid. There is no way to prevent it, whether it happens sixty seconds or sixty years from now, it will happen. The moment I was born, the moment I opened up my lungs and accepted my first breath of life, I was signed up for death. No refunds. No backsies. No changing my mind.

This is a psychologically tormenting thought, capable of crushing any thinking person under its weight. In this context, it is no surprise that religion has such a strong hold on those who believe. Sure, there are contradictions and hypocrisies galore and squiffy parts about stoning adulteresses and owning slaves, but when I feel the breath of mortality on the back of my neck, I can begin to understand why reasonable people would be willing to brush all of their doubts aside for the chance to hear “O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?” and truly believe that one day, one trembling and glorious day, there will be an end to death.

My amorphous agnosticism (coupled with my good luck so far) has allowed me, for many years, to avoid thinking very hard about what happens after we die. When asked, I would sometimes tell people that I liked to believe that people who died went to wherever they needed to go or became whatever they needed to be that would provide the most comfort for their loved ones. That is, if you believe Grandpa is in Heaven, he’s in Heaven. If you believe your lost partner dwells in your heart, they are in your heart. If you believe your mother has become part of the stars and moon and the sun that warms your face, she is twinkling and shining and giving you light all your days. It is a very comforting thought, and a thought that is easy to have when you’re talking about other people, and other people’s losses. But what could ever comfort me?

As I grow older my fuzzy agnosticism is replaced by skepticism, stripping me of my ability to cling to metaphysical comforts, to the talismans I’ve created for myself to ward off bad luck and sorrow. I could almost be an atheist except my sense of skepticism is so strong that as much as I am now having difficulty believing there is meaning in the universe beyond what intelligent beings create for themselves while they are alive, I am also too skeptical to believe that I know with certainty that there is nothing after death. If I can no longer take comfort in the belief in a pleasant after-life scenario, I wish I could take comfort in the idea that this life is all there is, like comedian and humanist Stephen Fry, who narrates a kind but terrifying animated video “What should we think about death?” on behalf of the British Humanist Association:

In the spring of 2011, an incredible Vancouver blogger named Derek K. Miller died. I never knew him, but I did follow him on Twitter and admired his bravery and bluntness as cancer took his life. On his blog, I read about the realities of his illness, about his “living wake” (a huge party where his friends could celebrate his life while he was still there to enjoy it). One day, which surprised me even though it shouldn’t have, I saw his last post. It was written in the past tense. It said, “I’m dead” because now he was, and his family and friends had honoured his request to post his final message after his death. In this post Mr. Miller talks about meeting his wife, having his kids, experiencing life. Derek Miller’s last post may be the most beautiful (and heartbreaking) thing I have ever read.

And also the scariest and bravest. Because Miller acknowledges in this post that he is gone. He didn’t believe he was going to a better place–he didn’t believe he was going to any place. Though he knew his words would still be there, Miller was emphatic that he would not be. People sometimes like to say with a chuckle that no one’s an atheist in their final hours. But Derek K. Miller, like the British philosopher David Hume, seems to have been able to face the inevitability and immediacy of death without holding the hand of any god. And, Miller wrote upon his death, “The world, indeed the whole universe, is a beautiful, astonishing, wondrous place.”

Perhaps this is not a grace that comes easily. In fact, I am sure that it is not. And so I continue the struggle to find meaning in this world, a justification for continuing to take the risks required to truly use the life I have instead of hiding out in a bomb shelter armored in bubble wrap in a futile attempt to stave off the inevitable. To know in the core of my being that the world is beautiful and full of love and yet to have no regrets about having to leave it would be, in my eyes, a crowning way to end a life well-lived. To be able to say, as Steve Jobs did, “Oh wow.”

[But I’m only 28. So I’d be very content, if possible, to wait to have my “Oh wow” moment until I’m a very wrinkly very old lady.]

Theatre Terrific presents “I Love Mondays” April 17 – 26

One of the downsides of living in an artistically-active city like Vancouver is that there is so much out there, it can often take me a while to explore theatre companies whose work I haven’t experienced before. I am therefore delighted to have finally fulfilled a theatrical goal of mine to check out Theatre Terrific, Western Canada’s oldest inclusive theatre company. From their website:

Theatre Terrific pioneers inclusive opportunities for artists of all abilities to develop performance skills and collaborate in the production of theatrical works. […]


Supporting artists of all abilities in the rigorous creation of provocative theatre.


Theatre Terrific brings together artists who would normally never work together. Our diverse ensembles include professional and emerging artists with or without developmental, physical, or mental health issues, gender or language challenges.

Good art is often art that examines and challenges our assumptions about the world we live in and the people with whom we share our time on this planet. Issues surrounding race, gender, sexuality, ability, and mental illness are often explored onstage, and yet, the theatre world remains structurally exclusionary in many ways (as a basic example, I was lucky to audition for and be accepted into one of the few theatre programs I knew of that didn’t have set intake numbers based on gender–many schools will only accept a set number of men and women each year, despite the often much higher numbers of women auditioning). Many performance spaces are not fully accessible, and ones that have an accessible front of house often don’t have that same level of accessibility in their backstage areas. Performers are expected to meet certain expectations of physical and vocal ability, and it’s rare to see disability onstage unless the disability is written into the script as a particular aspect of a character, and even then, the character is more often portrayed by an actor who doesn’t have a disability than by one who does.

All this is to say that for a company like Theatre Terrific to have been operating in Vancouver for 30 years is fantastic, and it’s important, for artists and audience members of all backgrounds and abilities, that their work continue to be supported, seen, and enjoyed.

Jonah Killoran and Darlene Brookes. Photo: Alanna Milany

Jonah Killoran and Darlene Brookes. Photo: Alanna Milaney

Theatre Terrific’s current professional production is I Love Mondays, adapted by director Susanna Uchatius from the script by Pamela Boyd and playing at Studio 1398 on Granville Island. I was delighted to receive an invitation to attend their opening night.

Both in form and in theme, I Love Mondays is a quiet play, a story of two isolated people finding in each other the friendship and support they need to pursue their “best dreams”.  While Darlene Brookes (who plays Peggy, a divorcee and visual artist) is a well-known Vancouver performer, her co-star Jonah Killoran (who plays George, the developmentally challenged man Peggy is hired to work with), is an actor with cognitive differences whose experiences and path in the theatre are likely much different from those of most actors. Staging a play with an inclusive cast is certainly a challenge, and one that does require letting go of some of the performance conventions we’re used to.

At first, it may feel that watching I Love Mondays requires a little bit of patience. The pace is a little slower than the clippy, rapid-fire exchanges we tend to associate with a “tight” show. The important thing is that the actors are fully present and the dramatic intentions are all in place in every line, even if some actors need to take a little more time in their delivery than others. I quickly settled into the rhythm of the show and allowed it to take me on its quiet, and ultimately quite rewarding, journey.

What struck me the most about the way in which Theatre Terrific has staged I Love Mondays is the incredible gentleness displayed between the characters in the play and between the actors on stage. It is rare, very rare, I think, to sit in the theatre and see that the performers care for one another, and are taking care of one another in various small ways throughout the evening. As I watched I allowed my preconceptions to fall away, and I realized that just as some of the characters onstage were being limited because of their differences, I had been limiting some of the actors in my mind, and when they emerged, butterfly-like, beyond the boundaries of the limitations I had unconsciously imposed on them, I was both delighted and a little embarrassed of myself. What I mean to say is this: what is happening between the characters onstage is also happening between the actors, and between the actors and the audience. The characters who gain our respect as people in a story are also actors who deserve our respect as performers onstage, whatever their path into the theatre has been.

Theatre Terrific has been pushing beyond its own boundaries in this first-ever production from a scripted play (previous professional productions were collaborative creations), and the result is a unique and gentle story, told in a unique and gentle way. I urge you to challenge your assumptions of what theatre can be–art, and its creation, belong to everyone.

I Love Mondays will be playing at Studio 1398 (1398 Cartwright St., Granville Island) until April 26. Tickets can be purchased online at Brown Paper Tickets.

Disclosure: I attended the opening night performance of I Love Mondays courtesy of Theatre Terrific. I was not asked for a review.

On discourses, public transit, and wondering what the heck we know

If you currently reside in Metro Vancouver you’ve likely heard and read a lot about the current ongoing transit plebiscite (i.e. the plebiscite asking Metro Van residents whether or not they are willing to see a 0.5% sales tax added to the PST on goods and services sold in Metro Vancouver in order to pay for a major public transit upgrade). Whether you normally consider yourself political or not, it’s unlikely that you’ve been able to avoid taking a side and wading into the debate either in conversation or on social media.

Votin' yes.

Votin’ yes.

I myself have already voted “Yes” (and I urge you to do the same, for the sake of our city’s health and for the overall benefit of the planet), and have had my share of participation in a handful of these online debates, often squaring off against people whose opinion I usually respect and with whom I normally tend to agree (and sometimes against opinions I don’t respect as well). As I thought about perhaps writing a post advocating for the “Yes” side (as in “Yes, I want improved transit even if I’m not looking forward to paying more sales tax and I definitely hope Christy Clark isn’t our Premier after the next election because framing whether or not to improve transit as a ‘Do you want to pay more tax?’ question is completely disingenuous considering major road projects that benefit car-drivers are initiated without so much as a how-d’ye-do”), I started to become interested, and a little perturbed, by the sheer amount of information being thrown into the debate from both sides, and I started wondering how on earth we can possibly know the things we’re talking about.

On the No side, for example, the following arguments are fairly common:

  • “We already pay too many taxes” (this is sometimes accompanied by “The government should pay for transit improvements with the taxes they already collect” and sometimes “I don’t care about people who ride the bus; they can pay higher fares if they want better service.”)
  • “Voting No is not a vote against transit improvements” (i.e. a No vote sends a message to Translink and the provincial government that they need to do a better job at providing transit with the funds they have)
  • “Translink executives make too much money.”
  • “Translink is in cahoots with Christy Clark and the Mayor’s Council and they’ve launched a multi-million dollar campaign to promote the Yes vote”
  • “Translink is an inefficient disaster.”
  • “An increase in the PST in Metro Vancouver will hurt vulnerable families the most.”

Meanwhile, on the Yes side, the following arguments have been used:

  • “Metro Vancouver’s population is predicted to increase by 1 million over the next __ number of years. Without improved transit, this will mean hundreds of thousands of additional cars on the road and 26 (!) freeways will need to be built to tackle congestion.”
  • “Voting No is a vote against transit improvements” (i.e. a No vote will only send the provincial government the message that we don’t want transit and this will lead to cuts; it WON’T send the message to Translink that they need to do better)
  • “Executive/administrative pay is only 2% of Translink’s budget”
  • “Christy Clark is in cahoots with oil companies to discourage transit improvements and increase road infrastructure that supports more individual cars on the road.”
  • “Translink is one of the most efficient transit systems in for its size in the world.”
  • “Cuts to transit or an increase in transit fares will hurt vulnerable families the most.”

Since I’ve generally been paying more attention to the Yes side than the No side, I’ve also heard that the transit tax is supported by groups like the David Suzuki Foundation and paramedics and Mothers Against Drunk Driving, and that a win for the Yes side is required to protect the environment and that without it at least 20 additional minutes will be added to the average commute EACH WAY (and also that most of the No rhetoric has been supplied through an intensive smear campaign initiated by the Canadian Taxpayer’s Federation, who generally oppose any increase in tax no matter how small the increase or how noble the cause).

Now, in addition to just arguing on Facebook, I’m sure I’ve read all these arguments somewhere more “legitimate”. I’m sure I’ve read them in articles and op-eds and materials for the Yes side and materials for the No side. And yet, I can’t really remember why I KNOW any of them, and I suspect a lot of other people participating in the debate would have to say the same. And even if we KNOW that we read such-and-such in the newspaper, let’s say, how do we know why that journalist knows what they know? Before these facts/factoids make it into our arguments, they journey through several layers of discourse, and become further and further from being things that we can actually claim to KNOW.

Let’s take the claim that “executive pay is only 2% of Translink’s budget”. I have seen this number quoted in several articles, and considering public transit in Metro Vancouver is an absolutely MASSIVE operation and since the CEO of Translink makes less than half a million dollars per year, I feel pretty good assuming it is true. Even so, it’s important to remember that between me having this fact and the actual truth of the matter, there are quite a few layers of discourse operating.

To work backwards:

  • I am saying, in this blog post, that administrative pay is only 2% of Translink’s budget. This blog post is MY discourse.
  • I probably originally read the “2%” number in an article like this one, in the Vancouver Sun. This is the columnist’s discourse (which is part of the Vancouver Sun’s overall discourse on the transit tax issue). The columnist in turn may have taken this number from another article (i.e. another layer of media discourse), or directly from Translink. At any rate…
  • At some point, SOMEONE likely gleaned this “2%” number from Translink’s 2014 Business Plan, Operating and Capital Budget Summary or a similar document (if you sit down with a calculator and page 15, administration does indeed work out to just under 2% of the total expenses for the 2012 numbers, though it’s closer to 3% for the 2014 projections). This is a document compiled by Translink ostensibly for reading by the public. This is part of Translink’s public discourse.
  • Bear in mind this document is called a “summary”, meaning that it is in fact a clarification and summarization of what is likely a vast plethora of NON-public documents (like memos, spreadsheets, reports, etc.) that have somehow been transformed into to the neat and tidy PDF linked above. Each of these documents can also be thought of as discourses that contribute to the overall discourse of the corporation.
  • And where do these spreadsheets, reports, and memos come from? They come from studies, meetings, and consultations, the results and transcriptions of which are discourses as well.
  • Which eventually, after quite a lot of paper probably, brings us to the root idea that preceding all of these discourses (which, as Michel Foucault liked to point out, are really just language and are no more representational of the actual truth than anything else) can be found a reality in which the administrators of Translink cash paycheques that are equal to 2% of the corporation’s budget.

And this is just one, small, quantifiable fact that was easy to locate in a publicly-available budget report. How do we know the others? How many layers of discourse are involved in the formation of our opinions?

This is not to say that any of our opinions are wrong (though, of course, I tend to think in terms of the plebiscite the Yes side is more right than the No side), or that any of the facts we have used to defend our positions aren’t true. What I am saying, in my own discourse, is that every article or report we read, every discourse, about anything, is simply a representation–it’s not the thing itself. So it can be interesting to think about what you think you know, and why you think you know it, and be critical about the information we consume and share.

I’m more afraid of C-51 than terrorists

Let’s get one thing straight: I am definitely afraid of terrorists, and I am afraid of militant religious fundamentalists like ISIS. Images of terrified men in orange jumpsuits kneeling before masked militants, knowing they’re going to be beheaded in gruesome fashion and that the whole world (including their families) will be able to see video footage of it on the internet, fills me with a revulsion and a sense of panic that I must make a conscious and sustained effort to keep in check.

But I do keep it in check, and it is important to keep it in check. Because thankfully, in the whole entire population of the earth there are really very few people who want to hurt me simply for not believing what they believe, and it is quite likely that I will never actually know of anyone who has concrete plans to. Of course I am afraid that I, or someone I love, might be the victim of a terrorist attack. If you watch, read, or listen to the news, it’s hard not to be. But in order to live a full and happy life, I need to try not to be afraid, and it really shouldn’t be that hard, given the odds human beings already live with (illness, accidents, etc.).

What I mean is, I acknowledge that there are terrorists out there. I acknowledge that there are people committing atrocious and murderous acts in the name of religion or politics or personal revenge. I hope upon hope upon hope that neither I nor anyone I love will ever come into contact with any of them. But at the same time I acknowledge that the rest of us, whether Muslim or Christian, Jew or Gentile, liberal or conservative or pacifist or gun-lovin’, are, if not perfect human beings, at least not in any kind of mind to kill innocent strangers. We don’t need to be watched. We don’t need to be bullied into not being terrorists. And we, in Canada, certainly don’t need a bill with powers as sweeping and unregulated as bill C-51 (the Harper government’s new Anti-Terrorism Act, not to be confused with the bill C-51 of 2008, which made amendments to the Canadian Food and Drugs Act).

If you want to know why I am against bill C-51, despite the fact that I, like most people, really don’t want Canada to experience any terrorist attacks in the future, the BC Civil Liberties Association has compiled an excellent list that pretty much sums it up.

Of their eight points of serious concern, two really stand out for me:

Bill C-51 drastically expands the definition of ‘security.’

When you think of being secure, you likely think of being safe from physical danger. But Bill C-51 defines security as not only safeguarding public safety, but also preventing interference with various aspects of public life or ‘the economic or financial stability of Canada’. With this definition, a demonstration in favour of Quebec separatism that fails to procure the proper permit, environmentalists obstructing a pipeline route or a peaceful blockade of a logging road by an Indigenous community could all be seen as threats to national security.

It will severely chill freedom of expression.

It’s unclear even to experts exactly what kinds of speech and protest activity may be considered threats to national security if the bill passes; the average Canadian has little hope of feeling confident that their legitimate political activity hasn’t inadvertently crossed the line. Bill C-51’s expansive language means that Canadians will likely choose not to express themselves even in completely legal ways rather than risk prosecution. Legitimate speech will be chilled, and our democracy will be worse off for it.

Last autumn, I went up to the Burnaby Mountain Conservation Area and joined those protesting Kinder Morgan’s drilling and testing activities (FYI, Kinder Morgan is a wealthy, Texas-based oil company that wants to put an oil pipeline through a conservation park on Burnaby Mountain). At the time, I seriously deliberated “crossing the line” (i.e. crossing the police tape that surrounded the Kinder Morgan work site and therefore voluntarily accepting arrest for violating a court injunction). In the end, I held back, afraid of what the minimal, but still very real, legal consequences could do to my future ability to travel, pursue various career avenues, etc.

If bill C-51 passes in its current form, with its current vague and broad definition of what constitutes Canada’s “security”, it would be entirely possible and dare I say likely that a pipeline project like Kinder Morgan’s would be considered essential to Canada’s “economic security”. Those who crossed the line into Kinder Morgan’s work site, or who organized civil disobedience activities designed to delay or halt pipeline construction, wouldn’t necessarily be treated merely as trespassers in contempt of a court order; it’s probable they would be considered a threat to Canada’s security and imprisoned as terrorists. More than a hundred brave people crossed the line last fall (and, in a strange turn of events, charges were dropped for most of them as Kinder Morgan had designated the boundaries of the injunction site incorrectly). They asserted their rights as Canadian citizens to go wherever they wanted in a public park, and to defend values they believed in. Very few will cross the line once C-51 is passed, and the Harper government knows this.

The government knows too that people are afraid of terrorism the way I have described being afraid, but instead of calming our fears, instead of exhibiting leadership and refusing to sacrifice our Charter of Rights and Freedoms to knee-jerk anti-Islamic sentiment, they are busy stoking it, counting on it to distract people from the state of the economy and the quagmire tar sands development (the cornerstone of Harper’s economic policy) finds itself in. In short, Harper is counting on our fear (and the thinly-veiled racism lurking beneath it), to win him the next election.

From Maclean’s Martin Patriquin’s article “Stephen Harper and the niqab gambit“:

Since the terrorist attacks in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, the Prime Minister has taken to peppering his speeches with the words “jihad” and “terrorism,” whether speaking in Montreal or British Columbia or Brisbane, Australia.

[Remember who else liked to pepper his speeches with words about terrorism? Was it George W Bush? Oh, that’s right, it was. And what did he want? To invade Iraq. And did he find any weapons of mass destruction there? No, he did not. And are America’s actions implicated in ISIS’s current ability to sweep across that destabilized country? You bet.]

The Prime Minister’s recent declaration of “offense” at the idea of a veiled woman taking the Citizenship Oath (even after privately verifying her identity with a government agent), is all part and parcel of his ploy to bring out the worst in us–fearful, xenophobic, irrational–and to exploit these negative qualities for political gain (his caucus, for its part, are doing a good job flying the xenophobic flag, hence Conservative MP Larry Miller’s comment that women who want to wear niqabs when taking the Oath should “stay the hell where [they] came from”) . I’m not convinced that Stephen Harper is truly afraid that a Canadian-born jihadist group will carry out a large-scale attack in Canada, but I know he wants us to be.

The fact of the matter is, we are literally one thousand times more likely to be killed in a motor vehicle accident (inferred from the statistics cited in the Maclean’s article above) than by a home-grown terrorist. Notice that Harper is not giving CSIS sweeping powers to make us drive more carefully.

w-moose_s-2It should also be noted that as Canadians, we are (as noted in Scott Gilmore’s “How to end the fear economy“) more likely to be killed by a MOOSE than by a terrorist. Curious that I haven’t seen any government MPs gravely intoning that moose dwell in every Canadian forest, lurking along every highway. Considering I was in a close shave involving a car and a moose two Christmases ago (we were very lucky to have been going fairly slowly and only to gently nudge its hind leg with our side-view mirror), I’d be interested to know what Harper is going to do about the very real threat of moose-caused vehicular fatalities.

Answer: nothing. Because bill C-51, as currently written, isn’t about keeping Canadians safe. If it were, Conservative MPs sitting on the committee reviewing the bill would be listening to the very legitimate concerns of environmental and civil liberties activists, Muslim groups, and constitutional experts about the serious and democracy-eroding ramifications of the bill in its current state. Instead, Conservative committee members are asking their expert witnesses if they are terrorists (the argument being that if you weren’t a terrorist, you wouldn’t be worried about this bill). If the Harper government ACTUALLY cared about keeping people safe, they would hold an inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women, and they would look into long-standing claims that tar sands activity has negatively impacted the safety of food and water in Albertan communities. But they aren’t doing any of these things.

Because the government doesn’t care about keeping Canadians safe. With bill C-51 and the government’s focus on “jihad” and “Islamic extremism”, it’s clearly all about playing on the politics of fear, and on the racism rooted in these fears. With its broad and sweeping powers in terms of surveillance, search, and seizure (CSIS only needing to make sure they don’t kill anyone or “violate their sexual integrity”), bill C-51 is also about making dissenting Canadians afraid–afraid to speak out, afraid to protest, afraid to question rather than immediately condemn that which the government calls a “threat”.

Harper wants his voting base to be afraid of terrorists. And he wants the rest of us to be afraid of him. And it’s working.