Should Canada adopt an “opt-out” system for organ donation?

On January 1 of this year, France adopted a new “opt-out” organ donation policy, whereby all deceased French citizens are considered to have given “presumed consent” to the harvesting of their organs and tissues for organ donation unless they entered their names on an “opt-out” registry or have left specific instructions regarding their wishes with family members or next-of-kin. “Opt-out” organ donation policies (unlike “opt-in” policies, which, in countries like Canada, require potential organ donors to sign up on their provincial donor registries) are estimated by a World Health Organization study to raise the rate of organ donation by between 25-30%.

BC residents can opt-in to donate at transplant.bc.ca.

BC residents can opt-in to donate at transplant.bc.ca.

C’est magnifique, non? Why not adopt this system in Canada right now, and save thousands of lives? Isn’t this a no-brainer? Well, not necessarily.

I would like to state that I myself am an organ donor. I do not believe that any part of “me” will be left in my body once I am dead, and if any of my organs or tissues can be of use once I no longer need them, great. But (and this is, I believe, a very important “but”), I signed up for this. When I die, neither the provincial nor federal government will “presume” my consent for organ donation; they will actively search for it in their registries. In an “opt-out” system like the one France has instituted, my body (once deceased) would belong to the state medical system, unless I had made a concerted effort, during life, to declare otherwise.

I find conversations about “opt-out” organ donation policies troubling, for three reasons:

  1. The idea of “presumed consent” is highly problematic.

As a feminist, it should not be hard to understand why the very notion of “presumed consent” when it comes to bodily autonomy is alarming to me. When it is still so very hard to achieve a conviction for sexual assault in Canada, do we really want any branch of our Canadian or provincial governments enshrining the concept of “presumed consent” in law? Do we want promote the idea that, actually, there ARE times (such as after death) when a person’s body can be used in ways to which they did not SPECIFICALLY and FREELY consent, unless they have made some kind of pre-emptive statement to the contrary? When Canadian judges are still asking rape victims why they couldn’t just “keep their knees together”, I think we have a long way to go before any arm of the Canadian government can be trusted with our bodily autonomy.

  1. The needs of hopeful organ recipients (and the convenience of transplant surgeons and medical staff) are often already put ahead of the rights of donors (and their families).

While I cannot imagine the physical and emotional suffering experienced by Canadians waiting on the transplant list (or their loved ones), the fact of the matter is that no donor organ recipient or patient on the transplant list is “owed” an organ. The organs of deceased Canadians do not “belong” to the living, they belong, completely and only, to the deceased person whose body they are in. If that same deceased Canadian wishes to give another person a second chance at life through organ donation,that is a wonderful thing (and I do believe voluntary organ donation is something to be encouraged by all levels of government and by society at large). But this gift, of someone else’s flesh and bone, cannot, and should never be, assumed.

Even in opt-in systems like ours, there is already reason for concern that the needs of those on the transplant list are put before the rights of organ donors. In 2012, Dick Teresi (former editor of Science Digest) released a book entitled The Undead: Organ Harvesting, the Ice-Water Test, Beating-Heart Cadavers—How Medicine is Blurring the Line Between Life and Death. In an interview with Maclean’s Magazine’s Brian Bethune, Teresi expressed concerns about the troubling practices he observed around organ donation in the United States (practices which he considers to be identical in Canada), for example, that the criteria for pronouncing you dead may have more to do with ensuring your body remains in a good condition for organ harvesting than with whether or not your body is, in actual fact, 100% biologically “dead”. Here are a couple of disturbing excerpts from that interview:

Q: Some of what you report is disturbing, especially the way doctors rushed to embrace the concept of brain death, even ignoring the brain-wave evidence of EEGs when they proved inconvenient. Why was that?

A: It’s all about the organs. The brain-dead are legally, but not biologically, dead. Their brain stems aren’t working, but vital organs still function—you’ll pee, maintain your body temperature, and your wounds will continue to heal. You may—it’s not certain, but you might—feel pain during surgery. You’re in this weird undead zone. It’s during that time your organs are taken. Why not wait until you’re dead-dead? Because the transplant people want your heart to continue beating, to keep the organs supplied with oxygen and nutrients, to make the organs more usable for their customers.

[…]

Q: You don’t have to throw money into the equation to see the compelling drive for organs, which links tightly to what you call doctors’ secular religion. They don’t believe the brain-dead have “personhood,” that they are alive in any real sense, not in the way the dying patients who need the organs are alive.

A: Not so fast. One study showed that 35 per cent of the doctors and nurses who worked directly with donors in the hospital believed they were alive, but didn’t care, they thought the organs were more important. And they also believe and frequently state—you’ll see it in every pamphlet from an organ bank—that when you’re brain-dead you’re never coming back. Well, of course you’re not coming back, although in the past some have. Now, though, your liver’s off in Mickey Mantle and your kidneys are being flown to some Kuwaiti oil sheik. You’re not coming back.

[I want to note that Teresi’s comments are obviously very provocative and you will need to decide for yourself what to make of them. A cursory Google search does not bring up any loud opposition from the medical community denying the practices he has observed. Nevertheless, and despite my own unease, I have chosen to remain an organ donor.]

I also sense, in discussions about organ donation, a certain amount of moral judgment. We can see this at play in a recent Slate article, Self-Driving Cars Will Make Organ Shortages Even Worse, by Ian Adams and Anne Hobson, in which concern is expressed over the effect the predicted reduction of vehicular deaths (a significant contributor to the U.S. transplant system) caused by safer, driver-less roads will have on those waiting for donated organs. Because most vehicular deaths can be attributed in some way to human error, these vehicular deaths are labeled by the article’s authors as “preventable.”  This label isn’t necessarily erroneous, however, the appearance of a word like “preventable” in a discussion about organ donation sets up a false moral dichotomy: on one side, you have the victims of vehicular accidents, killed by “preventable” incidents (which may therefore conceivably be their own fault), and on the other, the “innocent” patients on transplant lists, who are desperately ill through no fault of their own. You have on the first side, a dead person, who has already “lived a good life”, and on the other, a person who is still alive and wants the chance to do the same. There is a sense, in these discussions, that the transplant hopefuls have a right to the organs (especially when people use language like “organ shortage”, as if “supply” could, or ever should be, controlled for), and that the deceased, because they were driving dangerously, or because THEY haven’t suffered the way ill patients have suffered, or simply because they are dead, have forfeited this right, even though the organs in question come from their bodies.

Generally speaking, I tend to believe that the rights of the living should trump the rights of the dead, however, in this case, we are talking about a person’s body, the only thing they have left behind that we can say truly belongs to them. As harsh, and unfeeling, and as horrible as it sounds, if one of your own organs is failing, you have no right to expect to receive someone else’s (especially without their explicit consent), and the medical system has no right to promise it to you.

To put it another way, I hope that if you need an organ, you will receive one. But I am not comfortable with a society that massages its laws to try to guarantee you one. Once dead, human beings do not become used cars to be stripped for parts. They are still deserving of human dignity, and whatever human rights remain to them.

  1. These conversations assume continued reliance on human organ donation without looking to the future.

Since the first successful kidney transplant in 1954, the field of medicine has come a long way, including in the area of synthetic organ development (relatively new techniques, like 3D printing, present huge amounts of promise). Arguably, once the science is worked out, manufactured organs will be much better than their donated counterparts (they can be custom-fit, won’t have been “used”, they will be genetically neutral and adapted to the recipient and therefore the risks of rejection will be much lower, and they do not depend on the deaths of others). Instead of crunching the numbers on “organ shortages” as if we are not actually talking about REAL PEOPLE who have to die so that ”supply” can meet demand, we should be looking into how we can support other fields related to organ transplant, and to a future where no one needs an organ “donation”, and anyone whose organs are failing can have reasonable expectations of synthetic transplant.

However, until that day, the fact remains that we do have far more Canadians waiting in need of organ donation than we have suitable donated organs available. Incredible anguish is endured and lives are lost in the waiting. So what to do?

My humble suggestion is that before either our provincial or federal governments take any steps to adopt “opt-out” organ donation policies, that they first undertake comprehensive consultation with the public to find out exactly WHY so few Canadians are opting-in to organ donation in the first place. The reasons may be as varied as simply not getting around to signing up (a problem that, yes, opt-out policies would solve), to a lack of transparency and information about organ donation** and the rights of the donor, to serious concerns like those voiced in Teresi’s book.

Once these consultations have taken place, I would suggest that governments take meaningful steps to address any concerns brought forth, including making signing up (and making changes to your registration) for organ donation simple and easy, nationalizing organ donation registration systems to allow organ donations from Canadians who happen to die while travelling in other provinces, and by introducing a bill of rights for organ donors that allows the donor (or their family), rather than the medical establishment, the right to choose their preferred biological criteria for pronouncement of death and subsequent organ harvesting. Unless and until the provincial and federal governments of Canada can satisfactorily tackle these difficult life-and-death questions, I see no reason to entrust them with any kind of “presumed consent” over any part of my body, alive or dead.

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**During a dental surgery a year ago, a part of my gums was grafted with “Alloderm”, a product made from the skin tissue of (presumably American) cadavers. Since skin is technically an organ, the tissue in my gums actually came from organ donors. I assume these donors thought their tissue would be going to burn victims (much of it does) as opposed to being commercially sold to dentists’ offices and cosmetic surgeons for people who get boob jobs or brush their teeth too hard. This is just one of the many areas of non-transparency that concern me and I must confess I am ethically uneasy whenever I remember that part of my gums actually once belonged to someone else who may not have understood that their tissue could be sold.

2016 was NOT ‘the Worst’

I know that with Trump’s election, a long list of beloved celebrity deaths, and with refugee crises and atrocities abroad weighing on our hearts, many of us are glad to see the end of 2016.

In many ways, I can’t blame you. 2016, like many years, wasn’t exactly a bucket of rainbows for me. Rainy weather ruined my plans for a skiing “stay-cation” this February. My creative writing has taken a major back seat. I saw a lot more of doctors’ offices and medical labs than I would have liked. Brexit happened. So did terrorist attacks. Trudeau lied about his commitment to the environment (approving the Kinder Morgan expansion with neither social license nor scientific support), and Trump lied and bullied his way into the U.S. presidency. Post-truth is now a thing. The gleeful rise of racism, bigotry, and violence echoes a horrifying past most of us don’t care to revisit. Climate change is altering our weather patterns right before our eyes and no one seems to care. The cherry on the top for me, personally, was when my department reorganized this fall and I lost a job that I was good at, and which I enjoyed and found both personally and professionally fulfilling.

For other people, 2016 was much, much, worse. People lost loved ones. People lost their homes, or their health. People have been hurt, violated, let down in the worst ways. People in conflict areas like Iraq, Syria, and Yemen have been unimaginably traumatized and of course they aren’t the only ones. Obviously, for many of the humans on this planet, 2016 was a terrible year.

But for many of us (and by “many of us” I mean the kind of privileged westerner whose complaints about 2016 might appear in my Twitter or Facebook feeds), 2016 was really not that bad. For one thing, every single year since humans have been keeping track has seen its share of bloodshed, loss, and horror. We have survived through dark times, and we will again. Secondly, 2016 also brought a lot of good.

My nephew was born this year(!!!). A graduate project I undertook this spring proved challenging in ways I didn’t expect but ultimately pushed me to confront parts of myself that were long-buried, and to create something powerful and affecting. My family and friends are, by and large, doing well. Being unemployed has allowed me to spend more time with my husband and to appreciate what an incredibly giving and hardworking person he is. I’ve had some beautiful personal triumphs and countless little joys—lazy mornings, sunny walks, good books, good food, good company (plus a downstairs neighbour who is a professional jazz pianist and unintentionally filling my home with good music as I type this). And I KNOW that a lot of people calling 2016 “the Worst” would have similar private blessings, if they really thought about it.

As for the world at large, Canada’s own Chris Hadfield (former commander of the International Space Station), took it upon himself this morning to tweet about some of the great things that have happened in 2016:

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[Obviously I have not verified each item of Hadfield’s list but I’m sure if you Google any one of these achievements you’ll find some information about them. I screen-captured a few of my favourites but if you want to see the full list you can check out Chris Hadfield’s Twitter feed at twitter.com/Cmdr_Hadfield].

I’m tired of hearing about how “people suck” or how “2016 was the worst” or about how “human beings are the worst”. 2016 was NOT a flaming trash heap and neither are the people on this planet. There is bad, and there is good. There are families grieving a death right now and there are families welcoming a new baby. There are racists and misogynists and neo-Nazis and terrorists, but there are also strong and proud minority communities, activists and allies, resisters, water protectors, and White Helmets. There are inconsiderate assholes almost everywhere you look but there are also volunteers in hospital auxiliaries and non-profits and shelters and old folks’ homes and libraries and community centres. There is ignorance but there is also education. There are people inventing weapons and the next piece of consumer garbage, destined for the landfill, but there are also people discovering cures for diseases and looking for new ways to help our planet. There is death and change but also life and growth, destruction but also creation.

2016 is just a year in the calendar, just one trip around the sun. We can’t change what has happened in it, but we can change our attitudes, and I for one prefer to greet 2017 with hope, and maybe a little humility.

P.S. Be the change.

It’s time to support the White Helmets (Syrian Civil Defense)

When the bombs rain down, the Syrian Civil Defence rushes in. In a place where public services no longer function these unarmed volunteers risk their lives to help anyone in need – regardless of their religion or politics. Known as the White Helmets these volunteer rescue workers operate in the most dangerous place on earth.

https://www.whitehelmets.org/en

Once again, in the spirit of giving (and in the spirit of trying to be a human being), I write about an organization that most definitely deserves our support. As the most recently negotiated ceasefire in Syria has failed, and the international community has failed, and we have failed utterly in our responsibility to our fellow human and have watched, from a distance, once again, as innocent people die in Aleppo, we are, I hope, ashamed. We are also, very likely, feeling impotent.

The time to have helped, of course, was years ago, as we watched Assad cross one line (using military force against civilians), then another (using chemical weapons against civilians), with hardly a peep from our western world leaders because, hey, we didn’t want to piss off Russia. Or perhaps long before that, before the West began its ceaseless meddling that seems only to pile up the bodies in the Middle East and leaves us tut-tutting and wondering why people in hot countries can’t seem to solve “their” problems.

But anyhow, here we are, in the undesirable present. And now people are sending their good-bye messages from Aleppo**. They asked for help, they didn’t get it, and for most of them, there is nothing we can do now except remember them and feel ashamed.

img-saving-lives-under-fire

But there are some people who aren’t “on the other side of the world” from it all. They don’t care about the politics, they don’t care about religion. They are willing to put their lives on the line to help human beings, any human beings. They walk with their eyes wide open into nightmares. They risk being killed, and sometimes are killed, or injured. They have saved over 73 500 lives. They are neutral; they are unarmed; they are volunteers. They are the Syrian Civil Defense (the “White Helmets”, http://www.whitehelmets.org/en), and they deserve everything.

Please give whatever you can, knowing there is no amount of money that should make us feel better for what we have been complicit in. But give anyway. Give generously, even if you can only spare a little. Help someone else be braver than we have been, and to do good where we did not.

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**I’m including one of these messages  (taken from a longer message by Abdulkafi Alhamdo and shared by Al Jazeera) because it moved me. There are many many more. [Please note this video has nothing to do with the White Helmets, who are politically neutral, but Mr. Alhamdo’s words helped me to see the urgency of the situation so I thought it may be important here.]

Nifty’s 2016 Winter Giving Round-Up

As we head into the holiday season, as the days (in the northern hemisphere) get shorter and colder and the planet (due to recent current events perhaps) starts to look a little darker and a little scarier than it did before, many of us may find ourselves wondering how we can possibly make a little difference, do a little good, and put a little light back into the world.

And so, based on some of the news stories and issues that have captivated me this fall (and in general), I give you a small winter 2016 list of charities and other good places to give:

Refugees (UN Refugee Agency)

While I am very happy that some 25 000 or so Syrian refugees have been settled in Canada over the past year, the fact remains that there are still tens of millions of refugees, displaced persons, and stateless persons around the world. According to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), refugees remain uprooted for an average of 17 years. They don’t go away once we stop thinking about them. And they do need help.

You may have seen images of Aleppo, or Yemen—the little orphans covered in concrete dust, the starving civilians (literally starving to death) caught in a nightmare that has nothing to do with them. While ultimately we hope that each and every one of these people will find a save haven and a place to call home, in the meantime they desperately need food, shelter, water, and medical care.

The UNHCR assisted 49.8 million people last year, and if you want to help support refugees, I recommend visiting www.unhcr.ca to learn more and/or to donate.

wrd-facebook-unhcrlogo

First Nations Rights and the Environment (Standing Rock)

You may have heard that water protectors in North Dakota (led by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe whose land and rights are being violated) have been protesting peacefully against the Dakota Access Pipeline, which threatens not only Native American land, sacred spaces, and drinking water, but the also drinking water of some 18 million people who depend on the Missouri River being potable and oil-free. The police response to this peaceful activism has been brutal: attack dogs, concussion grenades, rubber bullets, water cannons in below-freezing temperatures, asking local hardware stores to refuse to sell supplies to the water protectors—it’s pretty f*cking low. As winter sets in the fight is still far from over.

To learn more about what is happening in Standing Rock or to make a donation to support the efforts of the water protectors, please visit standwithstandingrock.net.

[If you’d like to have this issue explained quickly and satirically by a yuppie spiritual guru/comedian, you may enjoy the video below.]

People Who Are Sick (Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières [MSF])

Though the Ebola Crisis has since faded from the headlines, the fact is that MSF were the heavy lifters in saving lives and combating the spread of the disease. While the western world mostly hoped that the virus “wouldn’t make it over here,” the healthcare practitioners at MSF risked their own health and lives to help others. MSF’s resources were severely depleted by this major crisis, and yet they are continuing to respond to other medical crises around the world. A thousand thousand thanks (and maybe some donations, if you feel so inclined) go out to this incredible organization: www.msf.ca.

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Children Living in Poverty (Lumos Foundation)

I must admit, I first discovered this foundation while watching YouTube videos about Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. J.K. Rowling (author of Fantastic Beasts and the Harry Potter series) sits down with actor Eddie Redmayne (star of Fantastic Beasts) for an illuminating discussion about the foundation that is dear to her heart:

In a nutshell, Lumos supports community-based care for children in developing countries, helping families raise their children at home rather than feeling forced to give their children up to institutions in order to ensure they will have the food, education, or medical care they require. Research has shown many institutions and orphanages to be corrupt—forcing families to give up otherwise wanted children, subjecting children to cruel and inhumane conditions, trafficking children into the sex trade, or pocketing the “per-child” money received from aid organizations or the government (the saddest thing is this money often comes from well-meaning donors in the “developed” world). Even when these institutions are carefully managed and well run, studies have shown that children who grow up in institutions instead of in families are severely disadvantaged—children need the love and care of their families (or family-type settings) in order to develop into healthy adults.

If you wish to learn more about Lumos or donate to initiatives that keep needy children with their families, please visit wearelumos.org. If nothing else, if you want to help children please make sure to choose the organizations you donate to carefully, and never donate money to (or volunteer at) orphanages or other institutions that take otherwise wanted children away from the families that love them.

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Of course, this is not an exhaustive list. Any giving you do thoughtfully and with generosity (whether you give a little or give a lot, whether you give money, time, or anything else you have to give) is a wonderful thing. But if you did want some ideas, I hope I have inspired you. Happy December, and happy giving!

 

 

 

Time to Stop Ragging on Melania Trump

In the wake of Donald Trump’s rather upsetting electoral victory, those Americans (and global citizens) who are not happy with this result have been urged by many in the political left and centre to “give Trump a chance.”

Being Canadian, and having watched in horror as Trump’s racism, bigotry, and misogyny has inspired verbal and physical violence (which has only increased since his election), I say that Donald Trump has had his chance. He doesn’t deserve another one. What he does deserve is vigilance and increasingly organized and effected opposition to the politically backward policies his administration promises to advance. (This opposition will need to exist both in and outside of the conventional political structures and be very well-organized indeed—with a Republican House and Senate, Trump doesn’t really need “a chance” from anyone; he already has a blank cheque).

But do you know who does deserve a chance? Trump’s wife Melania (née Knauss), a Slovenian immigrant, Donald’s third wife, and mother of their ten-year-old son, Barron. Since her husband’s election, several folks on social media (mostly women, in my experience) have compared Mrs. Trump unfavourably to the “classy” Michelle Obama and have poked fun at her for being airheaded, or an immigrant, or for her “racy” photos from her modeling past. (I agree, the fact that Michelle Obama will no longer be the First Lady of the United States is certainly lamentable, but that was going to be the case no matter who won).

Melania has certainly had her own share of snafus during the Trump campaign. Parts of her speech at the Republican National Convention, for example, certainly did sound an awful lot like the speech given by Michelle Obama at the Democratic National Convention eight years earlier. But since it is unlikely that Melania wrote the speech herself, and since it is highly possible she’d never heard Michelle’s 2008 speech (I hadn’t), without knowing which staff members on her husband’s campaign worked on and vetted her RNC remarks, it’s hard to hold Melania Trump specifically responsible. Melania Trump was not the aspiring politician; that was her husband. And yes, it seems she and the Trump campaign did lie about her having a university degree from Slovenia (note that this lie doesn’t really do any harm except make Mrs. Trump herself look foolish, possibly insecure). She certainly wouldn’t be the first person to fib about their level of education (not that it’s right, but it’s really more pitiful than it is sinister). In short, it wasn’t Donald Trump’s wife’s job to hit all the right notes while he swashbuckled across the country calling women fat and Mexicans rapists. His campaign should have known better.

In light of these cock-ups, perhaps the future First Lady comes across as a bit foolish, certainly a bit lacking in comparison to the dignified and highly educated woman who came before her. Given her relatively powerless but still highly visible new position, it is tempting to vent some of our post-election outrage by ripping Mrs. Trump apart. But before we do, let’s please remember a few things:

  • Melania Trump is NOT to blame for the actions of her husband, his campaign, or his administration. Just as it was sexist to judge Hillary Clinton by her husband’s political track record (instead of her own) and his alleged assaults, it is equally sexist to hold Melania Trump responsible for what her husband Donald thinks, says, and does. Sure, she married him, but a lot of women marry narcissistic, egomaniacal misogynists. If anything, these women deserve our compassion.
  • Melania Trump did not campaign for, and was NOT elected to, public office. She was and is expected, like many politician’s wives before her, to appear at her husband’s side and call him a good man, to parrot scripted lines in media encounters, and if possible, to engage in some sort of non-partisan do-gooding (like adopting stray puppies or supporting food banks). Melania is part of the Trump machine, but she does not push any of the buttons. Judging her as somehow “unqualified” and unfit for a position that is not an official part of government and is based solely on which man she is married to is ridiculous.
  • Melania Trump did not marry then divorce the two women who were married to Donald Trump before her. That she is Trump’s third wife says more about him than it does about her. So enough with these “She’s going to be the THIRD Lady of the United States, ha ha” jokes. They’re stupid.
  • There is nothing inherently shameful about having posed nude for a photograph. Maybe Melania Knauss felt really good about her body, wanted to show it off, and enjoyed being sexualized. That is her choice, and her right. Or maybe she wanted to advance her modeling career and thought, “a job’s a job.” There are worse (and certainly far less honest) jobs you can do. Or maybe she was pressured, tricked, needed the money, or otherwise exploited. In which case none of the shame should lie with her. Whatever Melania’s reasons for baring her (objectively gorgeous) body for the cameras, North Americans need to stop being so damn prudish. Carla Bruni (former model and wife of former French President Nicolas Sarkozy) has nude shots too. Big damn deal.
It was certainly ridiculous for Republicans to criticize Michelle Obama's arms, when it's obvious they were REALLY just criticizing her blackness. But does it really matter what the president's wife used to to wear in her career as a model?

It was certainly ridiculous for Republicans to criticize Michelle Obama’s arms, when it’s obvious they were REALLY just criticizing her blackness. But is using Melania’s body the best way to combat this problem?

I really don’t know all that much about Melania Trump. She could be a horrible person. She might be an idiot. She could be an asshole. She could be, as the kids say, The Worst. And if her words and actions demonstrate this, it is fair for us to criticize her (for those things specifically).

But attacking Mrs. Trump just because you don’t like her husband is petty. It is not legitimate to protest a misogynist by slut-shaming his wife. Furthermore, it is a completely misguided use of your anger and energy. Donald Trump is supremely ignorant, unqualified, and on track to green-light some pretty disastrously regressive policies. He’s also a short-tempered, thin-skinned, toddler in a man’s body who will be given the U.S. nuclear codes. His WIFE is absolutely the least of your problems.

Tankers and Spills: When Your “Best” Isn’t Even Possible

Back in the summer, I wrote a blog post entitled Pipelines and Spills: When Your “Best” Isn’t Good Enough. The post was about a leak in a Husky Oil pipeline that had spilled into the North Saskatchewan river and contaminated the drinking water for approximately 70 000 Saskatchewanians (and poisoned the habitat of countless wild creatures that called the river home). My concern was that the regulatory environment around fossil fuel transportation has bowed to pressures from the fossil fuel industry to focus on “responsible outcomes” (i.e. leak and spill clean-up) rather than preventing environmental disasters from happening in the first place. (You can read a letter, signed by representatives from the Canadian Petroleum Products Institute, the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, the Canadian Energy Pipeline Association, and the Canadian Gas Association and sent to the federal government in 2011, here. Many of the industry’s requests later appeared in legislation tabled and passed by the Harper Government).  My point was that, even giving Husky Oil the benefit of the doubt and assuming that pipeline maintenance, observation, and spill response was a top priority for the company and that Husky did the best they could, they were still unable to prevent disaster. Not quite the kind of “responsible outcome” fossil fuel industry representatives had championed.

But what about when, as happens far too often, the “best” isn’t even available? What if, for example, a tugboat pulling a (thankfully empty) fuel barge were to run aground off the coast of the (supposedly protected) Great Bear Rainforest? And right near the clam beaches at Bella Bella, threatening the food security and economic well-being of the Heiltsuk Nation (not to mention fouling their traditional lands and waters)? What if, though the barge itself was empty, the tug, pierced by the sharp rocks of this precarious stretch of coast, began to leak its over 200 000 litres of diesel fuel (and thousands more litres of hydraulic oil, lubricants, and other contaminants) into these precious waters? What if the initial response team had to travel from over 300 km away, and took 20 hours to even arrive at the scene? What if the booms placed around the tug to contain the spill couldn’t withstand the severe weather conditions common on B.C.’s northern coast? Could we say, in that instance, that the industry had done its “best”? Could we say, in that instance, that the government and industry were demonstrating a commitment to “responsible outcomes”? How could the public trust that industry and government will be able respond to a large tanker or barge spill when they couldn’t even contain the fuel tank contents of a tug?

webwcmrcmapofequipmentcachescopyUnfortunately, these questions are not hypotheticals. The tugboat Nathan E. Stewart, which was pulling an empty barge, really did run aground on October 13, just off the coast of Bella Bella, B.C., and it really did leak diesel fuel into the sea,  polluting the clam beaches of the Heiltsuk people and devastating their livelihood. Spill response, which had to come from the nearest Western Canada Marine Response Corp. station in Prince Rupert, over 300 km away, really did take 20 hours to arrive on scene (WCMRC is an industry-funded organization that responds to fossil-fuel spills). The provincial and federal governments, meanwhile, were (to say the least), somewhat unsatisfactory in their responses (the premier’s response was to blame the federal government for their lack of response, and the federal government’s response was to, I’m not sure, chew some gum for about three days?).

It is unknown at this time what the real extent of the damage to Bella Bella has been. It may be a long time before we know the extent of the environmental and economic damage done to the Heiltsuk Nation. In the meantime, the federal government is set to decide whether it will approve further pipeline projects to carry Alberta bitumen to B.C.’s tidewater. Any increase in the volume of fossil fuels reaching the coast, of course, means an increase in tanker traffic, meaning all coastal B.C. residents, not just those in Bella Bella (or those B.C. residents living in the pipeline’s path), are significantly impacted by these decisions.

This is why both government AND the fossil fuel industry have been throwing around phrases like “world class spill response” for the past few years in order to assuage fears about proposed fossil fuel projects. But whatever this “world class” spill response might be, it hasn’t proven it can overcome B.C. geography or its weather (a fact totally ignored by the National Energy Board, which ruled that Kinder Morgan’s spill response plan for the proposed Trans Mountain pipeline is feasible and adequate, despite the fact that experts have warned that the outcomes promised by Kinder Morgan simply will not be possible).

Of course, containing a spill is difficult work. Of course, the B.C. coastline is dangerous and its weather, especially in the winter months, is unpredictable and extreme. Indeed, the technology for overcoming these challenges may not even exist (and the technology for recovering bitumen after it spills into water certainly does not). Even with the best of intentions, a “responsible outcome” may not be possible if another fuel spill were to occur on B.C.’s coast. Which is why maybe, just maybe, the most responsible course of action is not to take that risk at all.

Unsettling this Settler (a prologue)

3925A couple of weeks ago, I read Paulette Regan’s Unsettling the Settler Within for a class I am taking on the nature of forgiveness and apologies. Dr. Regan is a scholar, a Canadian “settler” (i.e. like me, and probably most of my readership, she is not First Nations), and acted as the Director of Research for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. This book was written prior to the start of the TRC’s mandate and deals with the legacy of Canada’s Indian Residential Schools and, in a broader sense, the disastrous effects that Canada’s colonization has had on the Indigenous people who have lived here for thousands and thousands of years–long before the first British flag was planted on this so-called “empty” land. More to the point, she emphasizes the urgent need, not for First Nations people to reconcile themselves to their present situation, but for settler Canadians to reconcile themselves to Canada’s violent, intentionally racist, colonial history, and to recognize the ways in which these colonial structures and systems are still very much active in present-day Canada.

Unlike many of my fellow white Canadians, I did not grow up completely ignorant of residential schools or of violent policies like the “Sixties Scoop” (in which First Nations children were forcibly removed from their families and adopted out to white parents, in many cases actually sold to American families as if they were livestock). Since I didn’t learn about any of these events in school I can only assume I knew of their existence because my parents bothered to tell me (thanks Mom and Dad!). Beyond this starting point, though, my path as a settler who calls Canada home and wants to be part of a nation I can be truly proud of (a country that keeps its promises and actively upholds EVERYONE’S human rights) is not clear.

There is a step (or rather a long series of steps) beyond being simply “aware” of the history. What we do with this step is important. Regan cautions that well-meaning Canadian settlers are all to quick to pity Indigenous people, and the discomfort this pity arouses causes us to try to find quick fixes for “their problems”–in other words, to continue to disenfranchise and ignore the agency of First Nations people themselves. So if I’m not supposed to “fix” things, what can I do?

I sense this is a question (or rather a long series of questions) that I will need to ask myself as I move through my life, but for starters, I can let go. I can let go of cherished ideas based on lies. I can let go of the convenience of the status quo.

For me, today, this means two things:

  1. Acknowledging that what Indigenous people experienced at the hands of the colonial (and later, the Canadian) government was genocide. First Nations people were forcibly removed from their homes and lands, killed, starved, forbidden from participating in cultural traditions like the potlatch and the sun dance, and removed from their families and taken to Residential Schools where they were abused (physically, sexually, and psychologically), underfed, inadequately cared for, and prohibited from speaking their own languages. Until relatively recently in our history, Indigenous people in Canada were unable to vote, become professionals, or, in the case of women, marry a non-Indigenous person without losing their native status. For more than a hundred years, the government of this country enacted policies and programs with the specific intent of attempting to wipe out “the Indian problem” and make First Nations people and culture disappear in Canada. This is genocide, as defined by the United Nations. The fact that First Nations people are still here and that parts of their cultures have survived is a testament to their resilience, not our benevolence.
  2. Supporting BC First Nations if they want to change the name of the province of British Columbia. West of the Rockies, colonial agents stopped bothering to make any treaties with Indigenous tribes (not that the government honoured the ones they had made farther east but that’s another issue) and simply took the land they wanted. BC is unceded First Nations territory, and as such, to call the land of this province either “British” (i.e. belonging to the British) or “Columbia” (after the  “Columbian” district of this part of North American, which surely takes its name from genocidal rapist Christopher Columbus) is inaccurate and insulting. The name of our province was chosen by Queen Victoria (a monarch who never set foot here), but the land was never hers, or ours, to name. We did not buy it. We did not pay for it, trade for it, or treat for it. We have no right to insist on a status quo based on theft. Obviously, if BC’s First Nations ultimately decide that they’re fine with the province’s name as-is, that’s cool with me, but I don’t believe settlers’ wishes should be prioritized in the matter.

I called this blog post a “prologue” because these thoughts, these considerations, are just the very very start of what will presumably be a life-long project of identifying and acknowledging my colonial biases, the benefits my status as a settler has brought me, and trying, ultimately, to do something about it in a way that is respectful and effective. My own humanity is implicated in the ways I choose to respect or ignore the humanity of others. I’ve a long road ahead and I’m just getting started.

THIS MATTERS: Colin Thomas has been fired from the Georgia Straight

wuxtry_black“I just got fired from The Georgia Straight,” Colin Thomas (arguably one of the most thoughtful, thorny, and experienced critics in the Vancouver theatre scene) wrote on his blog yesterday morning, “Thirty years. No warning. No compensation.” While Thomas’ higher-ups at the Straight seemed reluctant to give any particulars as to WHY his theatre review services would no longer be needed at the weekly arts and culture paper where Thomas’ writing was the keystone of their theatre section, the feedback he reports to have received hints at a couple of things:

  1. There is pressure at the paper to “find fresh ways to do things” (this is usually a euphemism for “find ways to make more money).
  2. Thomas’ critical reviews, much appreciated by the Vancouver theatre world, have been considered, well, too critical.

This news comes just as I am learning that Maclean’s Magazine (a respected Canadian news magazine to which I have a print subscription) will switch from a weekly print edition to a monthly one. (Meanwhile, Rogers Media, which owns Maclean’s, will keep its low-res, poorly composited entertainment rag Hello! Canada as a weekly publication). Whoever heard of a news magazine that only prints monthly?! Sure, new digital content will be available online each week, but it’s just not the same. The internet is opinion. The internet is this blog post and this blog and the millions  of other blogs where people with something to say and time to say it hammer it out every once in a while. The print edition of Maclean’s is, for the most part, a well-researched, thoughtful, and balanced publication. It is not a blog post. It is a goddamn Canadian institution.

News of Thomas’ ouster also comes as Nick Mount, U of Toronto professor and also (former) editor of fiction at high-brow Canadian magazine The Walrus quits his post over the magazine’s push for more “family-friendly” content in its fiction section. The f*ck? Um….are children reading The Walrus? Are people really worried that a piece of fiction published in THE WALRUS could possibly be more corrupting than the violent porn and hate-filled vitriol literally at the fingertips of every kid with a computer or a wireless device?

All this is to say that this is a sad, and scary, time in Canadian print media. That a theatre reviewer of a major Vancouver arts and culture publication (really, THE theatre reviewer of THE arts and culture publication) can be fired, just like that, for doing their job to the best of their judgement and considerable expertise is nothing short of disturbing. Thomas writes:

Janet [Smith, arts editor at the Straight] also said that “there have been complaints from some companies.” “What complaints?” I asked. “You know: that you never like anything,” she answered with a laugh. I replied that it’s very hard to do good theatre and that I figure, if one show in three is worth recommending, that’s a good average. Then she added that some unnamed complainants feel that I am sometimes too hard on younger artists. (There is nothing I enjoy more than championing younger artists.) She gave an example. It was one of the worst shows of the year.

Thomas isn’t being facetious when he says he enjoys championing young theatre makers. Though generally difficult to please (his presence in an audience makes for a nervous performance, I can tell you), Colin Thomas is notoriously supportive of emerging artists. [Full disclosure: Thomas once reviewed a show I was a performer in (an early version of Chernobyl: The Opera), and called it “most impressive”. A few years later, he reviewed a show I wrote (Olya the Child) and raked it over the coals for being “unrealistic”. Though I disagree on the finer points, overall, he was right on both counts: Chernobyl was solid in both concept and execution, whereas the script I wrote had holes. I had a good cry about it and moved on. Like an adult]. While you might not agree with Thomas’ opinion about a specific show, he isn’t malicious–even when reviewing a total train wreck, he will praise this or that aspect of the production if praise is due. Most theatre artists who have commented on Thomas’ firing on social media, many of whom have been on the receiving end of both positive and negative criticisms, have said his comments have not only helped them to grow as artists but also to learn to handle criticism constructively.

I honestly don’t know what kind of credible arts and culture paper would take complaints about a solid reviewer being “too critical” seriously, and I don’t know what kind of “younger artists” do not yet understand that thick skin is a prerequisite for survival in this very difficult game. Yes, Thomas sometimes misses the mark, and yes, ultimately, his reviews are just his opinions. But they are informed and passionately defended opinions, based on a love of good theatre, a drive to hold it to a high standard (albeit his high standard, which may not be the same as yours), and not on elitism or malice. You don’t have to agree with him, but the fact remains that for thirty years, Thomas’ sometimes provocative reviews have provided great jumping-off points for wider discussions about theatre in Vancouver. This is a good thing.

Canadian print media is the going to be the poorer for its recent attempts to make its publications more profit-driven, more friendly, more “feel-good”. And The Georgia Straight is certainly the poorer for losing Colin Thomas.

 

Womens’ Problems (can’t be fixed by a party)

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If you’ve been a  social-media-using lady on the internet during the past month or so, you’ve probably come across Kristi Coulter’s provocative opinion piece, Giving up alcohol opened my eyes to the infuriating truth about why women drink. In a nutshell, Coulter believes that systemic factors like good-old-fashioned sexism (e.g. mansplaining at work), combined with societal expectations and a culture that claims that “women can have it all” (i.e. the career and the kids, the house and the travel, the husband and the party friends) set women up to fail, creating a perpetual sense of disappointment, frustration, and anger that women both choose to, and are encouraged to, numb with alcohol.

Of course, not everyone is on board with Coulter’s version of events. Some women will argue that they just like to party. Some men still don’t believe the patriarchy is real (or that it’s harmful). And others rightly point out that North American men, in general, also consume large quantities of alcohol, and wonder if perhaps it’s not sexism per se, but the pressures and stress of living in a neo-liberal capitalist society (in which the rich get richer and the rest of us have to work ever harder only to end up worse off than our parents were) that has us reaching for the bottle. Valid points (except that one about the patriarchy–systemic and cultural patriarchy is real and it hurts both women and men; that’s just a fact).

Still, something about Coulter’s article rang true. Alcohol has always been a part of many (if not most) of my evening and weekend social activities as an adult, but it wasn’t until recently that my Facebook and Twitter feeds started filling up with memes celebrating day-drinking, drinking alone, drinking to excess, and drinking to escape the frustrations of parenting. All jokes, right? Because we women deserve a laugh, right? Because it’s wine o’clock, ammirite??? Around the same time that I first encountered Coulter’s article, there were so many pro-wine memes in my feed, I started to wonder if I’d missed something–Really? Is EVERYONE getting day-drunk secretly at work? Did all my friends become alcoholics and I didn’t notice? Is this REALLY the only way we know how to achieve a sense of equilibrium in our lives?

It’s kind of, well..it’s sad. Not sad that women like to party, or that they like to drink with their friends or even pour themselves a glass of wine and watch Netflix alone in their PJs once in a while. There really isn’t anything wrong with this. But sad, because underneath the glee of cavalierly celebrating constant intoxication and irresponsibility, a lot of the women in my life must be pretty stressed. They must be pretty frustrated. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t smiling–Look! Wine! Fun! Party party party!

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Obviously, it’s unhealthy to normalize getting wasted as a solution for life’s problems. But what I find even more problematic about these memes is the normalization of misery. LOL, say the memes, kids are assholes, ammirite? And your husband’s USELESS around the house; just a glorified babysitter, ammirite? And your job is not rewarding, never will be, you slave all day and no one appreciates you and you’re STILL poor! You’ll NEVER measure up! Ha ha ha! WINE!

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Recent films like Bad Moms and Amy Schumer’s Trainwreck have been celebrated as “feminist” by some for demonstrating that women can indeed get smashed and misbehave (just like the boys!). They even spend a little time paying lip service to the idea that modern women’s lives aren’t all they’re cracked up to be (the same “women can have it all” lie that Coulter takes issue with). But as Broadly’s Liza Batkin points out, the message (assuming there is one, somewhere) is lost in the mayhem:

Bad Moms, like Sisters, exaggerates a common fantasy: Just one wild night, with the right people, music, and substances, can help us not only forget, but actually resolve, all of our biggest problems. On the other end of the hangover lies romance for the lonely, money for the financially unstable, and empowerment for women the world over. While this is a small improvement on the makeover regime on offer in many chick flicks, Sisters and Bad Moms suggest that their characters’ problems—poverty, unemployment, and a sexist distribution of domestic responsibility—will disappear practically overnight, just as soon as the afflicted women adjust their attitudes by way of vodka and junk food.

Women aren’t idiots. We know, deep down, when our lives are not satisfying. But dealing with the root causes of our anger or frustration requires self-awareness, honesty, and potentially, confrontation. In short, hard work. It’s so much easier to make jokes about how your home life is driving you up the wall than it is to have a frank discussion with your partner about whether or not the distribution of home and childcare duties is really fair, or to talk about whether or not you can afford to bring in some outside help. It’s so much easier to have a drink and complain to your girlfriends about how that (male) professor shot down your point in class, but when a male classmate made the same point ten minutes later, it was not only accepted as valid, but as a totally new idea. Should you talk to the professor, mention that this kind of action belittled you? Maybe. But you have to see him every week all term, and that would be awkward.

And it’s SO much easier, much much easier, when you have been hurt, harassed, insulted, ignored for that promotion, disbelieved when you try to advocate for yourself, or picked apart by the other women at work or the PAC or your kids’ dance class, or when you hate the way you look and think and are and everything you do feels like failure…to just suck it up, have a drink, and laugh it off.

Because, hey, everyone’s miserable, ammirite? Bottom’s up!

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P.S. Another common feature of the “women-drinking” meme culture that I find disturbing is one that often appears with food as well–the notion that when we drink/eat, we “deserve” it for good behaviour, or that we are “indulging” or “treating” ourselves, or “cheating”, giving in to a “guilty pleasure”. As if we don’t naturally, by virtue of being human beings, have the right to put whatever the hell we want into our bodies without needing the permission of society at large. But maybe that’s a post for another time.

Don’t Be A Rapist: A Common-Sense Introduction to Sex & Consent on Campus

Dear post-secondary students: welcome back! It’s time for a new fall term, a fresh academic start, and a fresh chance to indulge in time-honoured campus traditions: all-nighters, shitty food, beer pong, capers and hijinks, dorm sex, too much booze (SO MUCH BOOZE), parties, clubbing, money troubles, and occasionally (if not frequently) questioning your life choices, identity, and place in this mad, mad world.

While my list of college-level fun is by no means exhaustive, there is one alarmingly common campus activity that I have firmly, and intentionally, omitted: raping people. Do not rape people. Not genitally, not digitally, not with foreign objects. Do not rape people.

It may be surprising that I need to spell it out like this, but unfortunately there still seems to be quite a lot of confusion on post-secondary campuses about what constitutes rape, and the people experiencing the most confusion seem disproportionately to be young, college-aged males, university administrators, and trial judges. Generally speaking, everyone seems to agree that sexual assault is bad, but many people seem very reluctant to identify and acknowledge it when it has occurred.

According to UBC’s AMS Sexual Assault Support Centre,*

Sexual Assault is any unwanted contact of a sexual nature, including unwanted kissing, touching, or sexual intercourse. Anyone can be a perpetrator. People from all walks of life, all ages, and genders can experience sexual assault.

This concept seems very simple but somehow, many college and university students have failed to grasp it. There is often hue and cry about “grey areas”, “blurred lines”, “the dangers of drugs and alcohol” (as if being drunk gives you an excuse to rape someone), and attempts made to characterize sexually assaulting another person as some kind of booby trap in a byzantine labyrinth set up to trick you, regrettable perhaps, but impossible for the rapist to have avoided. So how can you make sure that YOU don’t become a sexual assailant, i.e. a rapist? The key, of course, is consent.

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Consent is mandatory for sex to occur.

If you don’t have the other person’s consent, you are not having sex, you are raping them.

Consent is enthusiastic and freely given.

If you have pressured, coerced, physically dominated, or made use of a position of authority in order to have sex (or participate in any other kind of sexual activity) with the other person, you do not have consent. Therefore, you are not having sex. You are raping someone.

Consent is ongoing.

If you are engaging in sexual activity with someone, and they tell you either verbally or with their body (i.e. pushing you away, pulling their body away from you, or even falling asleep) that they are no longer interested, you must stop. Even if they said they wanted to before, even if they did it with you last time, once they want to stop, everything stops.

If you continue the sexual contact after the other person has withdrawn their consent, you are no longer having sex. You are raping someone.

Consent is a YES–it is not merely an absence of “no”.

If you are having sex with someone who is unconscious or too drunk/high to actually make a decision about and communicate whether or not they want to have sex with you, you are not having sex. You are raping someone.

Human beings are not like $5 bills left on the sidewalk. Just because you “find” someone lying around, doesn’t mean you are allowed to do whatever you want with their bodies. If you do come across a person who is unconscious or otherwise seriously out of it, maybe ask them if they’re okay, or call them a cab (or, if necessary, an ambulance).

It’s also important to remember that cuddling, kissing, and other kinds of physical intimacy are not necessarily invitations for sexual activity. Within friend groups and in college dorms, it’s not uncommon for people to be “cuddle buddies” or the like–leaning on each other while watching movies, spooning, giving back rubs, or even sleeping next to each other–without actually sharing the kind of chemistry that would prompt the participating cuddlers to pursue romance. Sometimes people miss their high school boyfriends/girlfriends. Sometimes people just want a cuddle, or some (safe) physical touch that stays well within everyone’s boundaries. Sometimes friends pass out together after a night of partying or even share the odd sloppy kiss. It’s all good.

What’s not good is assuming that the person lying in your bed has given you carte blanche to touch or use their body sexually. You need consent buddy. Be a friend, not a rapist.

Some folks have complained that non-verbal consent (or the lack thereof) can be hard to read, and if you aren’t adept at social cues and body language my advice to you is simple: take the mystery out of the equation and ask. To those that complain that stopping mid-action to give and receive verbal consent kills the mood, I say this: if you believe the other person’s desire to have sex with you is so tenuous, so fragile, that they would say “No” if you actually asked them, you DEFINITELY need to ask. Because if that’s the vibe you’re getting from your potential partner, they probably don’t want to have sex with you and you need to stop now.

To sum up: obtain enthusiastic and freely-given consent before making sexual contact. And when in doubt, just STOP. There will be other opportunities for awkward university sex. In ten years, you won’t regret not hooking up with that random girl or guy at that party that time. But you might really regret violating another person’s humanity and dignity, and burdening them with a trauma they may carry the rest of their lives.

*Note: I chose to quote the AMS Sexual Assault Support Centre (which is run by student union groups) because the University of British Columbia is the largest and most well-known post-secondary institution in my province. I have neither attended nor ever been employed at UBC. Additionally, while the AMS SASC website looks great, it’s worth noting that, as a larger institution, the UBC administration has had plenty of bad press in recent years for turning a rather tolerant eye to sexual assault on campus. UBC has recently announced that they are extending campus-community consultations as they craft their new (provincially-mandated) sexual assault policy.

**Second note: sex is a two-way street. YOUR consent is also required. Your consent must be freely-given and ongoing, and can be withdrawn at any time.