Women in France should wear what they want (and that includes “burkinis”)

Women in France, listen up: if you plan to visit the beach in the country of “liberté” and “egalité,” you must be prepared to show some skin.

That’s right–although France’s very secular laws do permit the wearing of headscarves in public, if Muslim women choose to visit the beach in a headscarf while also covering their arms and legs, in many districts they will be issued a fine and ordered to leave the beach, and possibly even be forced to strip off (technically, the bans are specifically directed at the “burkini”–a swimsuit with sleeves and pants with a built-in head covering–but law enforcement officials seem happy to interpret that as applying to any modestly-dressed Muslim woman on the beach).

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I have written about the issue of policing Muslim women’s clothing before (in a post entitled Women in Canada can wear what they want [and that includes niqabs]), but I have to say I find this ban on modest dress at the beach even more racist, and even more alarmingly sexist. We’re not talking about forcing a woman to show her face in a public place (which is already law in France and which I personally do not agree with), we are talking about forcing women to show their BODIES. Essentially, if you’re a Muslim woman who doesn’t wish to make her body (or hair) available to the public gaze, you can f*ck right off the beach.

Ostensibly, these new laws see clothing like the burkini as a religious display and a direct provocation of French citizens and their values of secularization (never mind that many of the Muslim women being harassed under these rules ARE French citizens, or that nuns in habits or other Catholic women dressed modestly or wearing crucifixes are not being punished for their displays of Christian faith). I cannot imagine how frightened and angry the people of France must be after recent terror attacks in the country (including in Nice, where a man driving a truck intentionally plowed into a crowd of festival goers and killed 86 people). I can only assume that they see signifiers of the Muslim faith (like headscarves and full-coverage swimming attire) as an affront to the painful losses they have experienced and the threat of terrorism they continue to face.

But there is simply no logical basis for a ban on the burkini: firstly, Muslims (including Muslim women in traditional dress) were also among the victims in Nice. Secondly, the “religious symbols” deemed most offensive to the French public seem to be disproportionately those which are worn by Muslim women, specifically (it’s still totally okay for men to wear full-body wetsuits in the water). Thirdly, to the best of my knowledge, a burkini has NEVER yet been implicated in any terror attack in France or any other country. This is not about safety. This is not about secularism. This is about white people who are afraid and angry being given permission by their local governments to humiliate and ostracize their fellow citizens. And the targets of this hatred are the people who are the easiest to spot and the easiest to scapegoat–Muslim women.

So much for “liberté, égalité, fraternité”. I know that the people of France are hurting, but a democracy that abandons its principles in the face of adversity and new challenges is no democracy at all.

Politics Is Not About Being “Deserving”

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There comes a time, every four years or so, when I do the unthinkable: I actually wish I were an American citizen. I wish I were an American so that I could vote in the U.S. presidential elections. After all, the United States is still arguably the most powerful country in the world, and much of the rest of the planet is watching with an incredulity now turning into grave concern as we grapple with the very real possibility that come November, Americans (in their anger and arrogance) will elect the most under-qualified, uneducated, and dangerous candidate either party has ever fielded (there may possibly have been more hateful presidential candidates or leaders in the past but those guys didn’t have access to nuclear weapons).

I speak, of course, of Donald Trump: reality-TV star, real estate tycoon, absentee father, fear mongerer, braggard, and, inconceivably, Republican presidential nominee. He can barely string a thought together (leading to suspicions he may actually be mentally unwell), and has never served in the military or demonstrably cared about Christian values,  the working poor, or the lower middle class prior to deciding he wanted to be president, but somehow he has become the champion of the disenfranchised white Christian, those Americans who feel the “good old days” have slipped away from them (due, somehow, to non-Christians and non-white people) and that they need Trump to “make America great again”.

This year’s Democratic candidate is arguably one of the most qualified candidates ever to run–Hillary Clinton has been both a U.S. Senator and a Secretary of State (in addition to being a lawyer and sitting on several corporate boards). Prior to her own political career she was heavily involved in husband Bill’s presidency as an active First Lady (too active, many felt). She has lived with the job of leading the United States, both in a professional and personal capacity, for years. She knows first-hand how hard it is, how much is at stake. Granted, she is not perfect–she is a spinner of half-truths and a deep-pocketed friend of Wall Street as much as any other high-ranking politician, but if Hillary Clinton were to become the President of the United States she would not blame any one race or religion for America’s problems, she would not close its borders to trade (as Trump suggests he would do despite the fact that his own brand manufacturers its products outside the U.S.), and she can be trusted not to use, or threaten to use, the United States’ nuclear forces cavalierly. And if she loses, she can be trusted not to suggest that violent or deadly action be taken against Trump, as Trump has suggested about her.

And yet. People just don’t think Hillary deserves to be president. Sure, she’s really qualified and sure, she graduated from Yale Law School and sure, she’s dedicated most of her life to public service (albeit much of it while making a shit-ton of money with her husband on the side), and sure, it’s about time the U.S. had a female president, and sure, Donald Trump would most likely blow up the entire earth because someone insulted the size of his hands or his genitals. But people just don’t like her, okay? They just don’t like her and they don’t want to reward her ambitions by letting her be president because she just doesn’t deserve it, okay? (Talk about cutting off your nose to spite your face).

Here’s the thing: OF COURSE  Hillary Clinton does not deserve to be president. There is not one single human being on this earth who is deserving of the incredible and deadly amount of power that the President of the United States wields: power to create or destroy, to better this world or to decimate it. No one could ever be so intelligent, so prescient, so impartial, so ethical, and so morally perfect as to actually deserve this job–and anyone who was would never want it.

Which means that American voters, like most voters in modern democracies, must choose their leader based not on who deserves the job, because that is impossible, but on who would be best at it. And right now that person, for all her unlikable qualities, for all her machinations and manipulations and mistakes,  is Hillary Clinton. There is no viable “third candidate”.

And the alternative is simply unthinkable.

Pipelines and Spills: When Your “Best” Isn’t Good Enough

A Husky pipeline has spilled approximately 250 000 litres of oil and diluent into the North Saskatchewan River. Despite clean-up efforts and the placing of booms on the river, the spill has contaminated the water source of the small Saskatchewan cities of North Battleford and Prince Albert, forcing the affected communities to find alternate sources of drinking water for approximately 70 000 people. Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall (longtime vocal supporter of oil pipelines and the fossil fuel industry in general) has called the spill and resulting water contamination “a terrible situation,” and says the provincial government wants to see a “complete restoration” of the North Saskatchewan’s ecology.

There have been several questions, fueled by discrepancies in the timeline reports filed by Husky Energy, about whether the company knew about the leak in its pipeline fourteen hours before it turned off the pressure or informed the provincial government. Husky has since claimed that though an “anomaly” was detected on the evening of Wednesday, July 20, and a crew was dispatched to investigate, a leak was not discovered until Thursday morning. Husky may be telling the truth, or they may be covering their asses, but either way, it seems that there certainly has been some failure to properly investigate and respond in a timely manner, especially when the pipeline in question runs beneath a major waterway and source of drinking water.

We also know that pipeline companies are well aware that spills are a “when”, not an “if”, scenario, as evidenced by the oil industry’s lobbying of the Harper government. An example of this is a letter sent in December 2011 to then-Minister of Environment Peter Kent and then-Minister of Natural Resources Joe Oliver, and signed by the presidents of the Canadian Petroleum Products Institute, the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, the Canadian Energy Pipeline Association, and the Canadian Gas Association [the letter was obtained by Greenpeace through a request filed under the Access to Information Act]. This letter is essentially a wish-list from the fossil fuel industry, requesting that the Canadian government relax environmental regulations and streamline approval of oil and gas projects (many of these requests later appeared in various pieces of omnibus legislation tabled by the Harper government). The letter minimizes the importance of avoiding environmentally harmful events, preferring to focus instead on “responsible outcomes”. The letter states:

“We believe that the basic approach embodied in existing legislation is out-dated. At the heart of most existing legislation is a philosophy of prohibiting harm; ‘environmental’ legislation is almost entirely focused on preventing bad things from happening rather than enabling responsible outcomes.”

Underlying these ten-dollar words is the basic premise that oil companies know that asking for forgiveness is easier than asking for permission, and that promising to clean up any spills that happen is more realistic than promising (and actually REALLY trying) to prevent “bad things” from occurring in the first place. And if a pipeline spills and the company doesn’t clean it up, well, shucks, they’ll try harder next time. The important thing is, the pipeline’s already there, and they’ve already won.

But let’s put all that aside for a moment. Let’s give Husky Energy the benefit of the doubt. Let’s assume that Husky monitored their pipeline as best they could and investigated the pressure anomaly thoroughly (though unfortunately, by their own admission, they missed the leak). Let’s assume that the pipe itself was top-of-the-line and well-maintained. Let’s assume that the booms Husky initially used to contain the spill (and which ultimately failed) are the best tools the industry has at its disposal when dealing with events such as this. Let’s assume that Husky’s promise to pay for the entirety of the clean-up is sincere. Let’s assume that Husky has done, and is doing, absolutely EVERYTHING RIGHT to achieve the “responsible outcome” that the co-signees of that Energy Frameworks Initiative letter were promoting.

The leak happened anyway. Containment didn’t work. Clean-up processes will likely be more difficult and lengthy than first thought . And in the heat of the summer, the main source of drinking water for 70 000 Saskatchewan residents (many of whom actually do support pipeline projects and the fossil fuel sector in general), has been contaminated.

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#BlackLivesMatter and there’s no good reason not to agree

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For what it’s worth, this very white blogger (and her very white blog) believe that Black Lives Matter.

This is to say that the lives of black people (for example, the black people currently being fatally shot by police officers in staggering numbers south of the border) matter. They have worth. Extra-judicial killings of young black men by police officers (who come to police attention for matters as small as a broken taillight or “fitting a description”) are murder, and the reason these killings are indefensibly wrong is because black people are human beings, and their lives are worth EXACTLY the same as mine.

But wait a minute, many people are saying, don’t ALL lives matter? Don’t police officers’ lives matter? What about LGBTQ lives? Don’t Syrian refugee lives matter? Don’t children’s lives matter, and the lives of veterans or people with cancer or people living on the streets?

Of course they do. And I encourage you to promote the cause(s) of any lives that are important to you (and to get your OWN slogan instead of appropriating this one). Black Lives Matter isn’t about all lives, it is about specifically black lives, because this is a movement started specifically by black people, to deal with an issue that is specifically affecting black people.

What I don’t understand is why so many white people (generally good people who one would assume understand that killing innocent black people is wrong) aren’t okay with the idea that Black Lives Matter and instead insist on undermining this important and urgent movement by obstinately protesting that “All Lives Matter”.

Why so reactionary? Why so either/or, as if human worth is in finite supply, and granting it to black people takes it away from someone else?

We seem to be so uncomfortable with the idea that black lives might pull focus, just for a moment, that it’s like we aren’t even reading the English language properly anymore. Where in the sentence “Black lives matter” does it suggest that other lives don’t matter? Where does it suggest that if black lives matter, then police officers’ lives don’t? Where does it say, “Black lives matter MORE” or that “ONLY black lives matter”? It doesn’t. It doesn’t. Literally, the only thing that the statement “Black lives matter” says is that black lives matter. That’s it. If you aren’t okay with black people, who are literally DYING, asserting that their own lives matter, then you have a serious problem, and you need to ask yourself why you are against the idea that the value of a black person’s life is the same as the value of yours.

There are quite a few analogies going around on social media, and I don’t mean to trivialize the issue in any way, but they can be very helpful in illustrating this point.

For example, “Bob Deserves Food”:

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I’ve seen other people compare All Lives Matter to, for example, protesting a breast cancer fundraiser because “ALL Cancers Matter”, or crashing someone’s funeral to chastise their grieving family for prioritizing the recognition of their loved one (“ALL Dead People Matter!”) You can pretty much take your pick of analogies, but at the end of the day, we need to acknowledge that there are countless situations where one group of people or one set of issues takes momentary focus, and when these movements aren’t aimed at a specifically non-white or non-heteronormative population, no one would ever dream of being offended by them. No one scolded Terry Fox–“Hey dude, ALL diseases matter.” No one chastises seniors advocacy groups for being “ageist”, no one goes after churches for not teaching the beliefs of all the other religions too. That would clearly be ridiculous, right?

And as for those folks who don’t believe we still have a race problem in (North) American society, I have this question (posed in the video below by activist and educator Jane Elliot) to ask you: would you like to be treated the way society treats black people?

I have thought a lot about whether or not I should be blogging about this movement, and I ultimately decided to use my white voice to talk to other white people about something tragically and vitally important. I am white. Black lives matter. There is nothing incongruous about this for me, nor should there be. If we are willing, dignity and justice are in infinite supply. Acknowledging that black people deserve these things as much as I do takes absolutely nothing from me.

P.S. Black Lives Matter has an excellent website. If you want to find out more about what the movement is and what it isn’t, what it says and what it doesn’t, what it means and what it doesn’t mean, please visit blacklivesmatter.com and let the learning start!

Haters Gonna Hate

I’ve been hoping (and occasionally saying) for months now that maybe, JUST MAYBE, the Tea Party and the Trump supporters and the MRAs and the old racist Brexit-ers who sold their children’s economic future up the river for the chance to not have to interact with Polish people at the chip shop anymore are just symptoms of Hate’s last bitter gasp before it loses its grip on the public and political realm, and that the collateral damage these hate-fuelled groups are inflicting on immigrants and people of colour and LGBTQ people and women and the working poor (to name just a few common targets) are just Hate’s attempt to take as many people as it can down with it.

But I’m not so sure. For one thing, even if all Western democracies could finally give all of the hate-based politicians, pundits, policies, and systems operating within their borders the old heave-ho (a BIG ‘if’), our foreign policies and military actions tend to contribute to hate-based terrorism and violence abroad. Not having to see it anymore wouldn’t make hate, or its devastating consequences, disappear from the face of the earth.

68113f3c424052671d24f24b797f887bSecondly, hate is part of all of us, and believing yourself to be on the side of the Righteous doesn’t make the hate you feel something less, well, hateful. As much many people rail against Donald Trump for promoting fear and hatred, and using hate as a campaign tool, there were many Bernie Sanders supporters who were quite open about how much they “hate” Hillary Clinton. Even among the most civil mild-mannered Canadians, there are locals who hate tourists, kayakers who hate power-boaters, nudists who hate “textiles”, vegans who hate meat-eaters, etc. etc.

In big or small ways, always or sometimes, publicly or privately, generally or specifically, violently or verbally or perhaps just internally, we’re all haters, and we’re all going to hate. There are always going to be people, situations, places, or things that fill our mouths with bile just to think of them and which we detest to the point of obsession. That’s just how it goes. Perhaps there are a few saintly folks out there who really and truly never let hate enter their hearts, even for a moment, but I doubt there are many. Even the loveliest people I have ever met surely indulge in a little hatred for SOMETHING every once in a while. I’d be shocked if they didn’t.

I do want, very much, to be on the path to removing hate (words, actions, and laws based on racism, misogyny, and homophobia/trans*phobia, for example) from our governments, institutions, and communities. I believe the creation of a public sphere where any human being can expect to be safe and to be treated with dignity and respect is one of the most worthy goals we can aspire to (another being the saving of our planet’s ability to support human life, i.e. the fight against climate change). Hate is a universal emotion, maybe even more common than love, but it has no place in shaping the rules that govern our society.

But hate is a part of human nature. To deny it is to deny a part of our human experience and to lack an awareness of our true selves and our true motivations. Hate and fear are powerful motivators, and sometimes (as in the case of Resistance fighters rising up against the Nazis) they can be forces for good.

Where we need to be careful is in where we choose to place our hatred, and why. To hate blindly, without critical reflection, without reason or self-awareness, is simply to transfer your pain to an easy target, feeding it and multiplying it until violence becomes the only logical end. It’s important to remember that your hatred, in itself, is not justification, and it does not absolve you of your responsibility to be a good person. We’re all haters sometimes, but there’s no need for us to be monsters.

 

Dear Orlando, I don’t know what to say

I very very much believe that there is nothing I could say that would not sound trite in the wake of the massacre at Pulse Nightclub in Orlando this past weekend.

Offer my prayers? I am not religious.

Offer my thoughts? I think about a thousand things a day, so many of these thoughts are hopes for a better world and I’m frankly not sure my thoughts do a damn thing.

Offer my words? As I said already, trite. I’m a straight white cis Canadian who has no idea, and I mean NO IDEA how it feels to be LGBT, never mind how it must feel to be LGBT when, in this day and age and in this part of the world, someone can just walk into a gay nightclub (one of those few places where LGBT people are supposed to be able to feel totally free and safe to be themselves) and murder people by the dozen. I don’t know what that feels like.

I don’t know what it feels like to be in danger because of the way I love, speak, move, dress, or act. I don’t know what it feels like to have to choose between being myself or being accepted by my family, my faith, or my community. I don’t know what it feels like to have to second-guess every move I make in public because it might not be safe–can I kiss my partner? Can I hold their hand? Can I wear these clothes or get this haircut? Will this person say hateful things to me? Will that person punch me in the street? Will this employer give me a job? Will that social worker think I’m a pervert? Will this business serve me? Will that person beat me to death? Will that person shoot me? Will anyone protect me?

Hatred and violence don’t just spring up from nowhere. They are encouraged by politicians, by religious leaders, by cultural norms that squeeze masculinity and femininity into narrow and outdated categories and severely punish anyone who doesn’t fit in. When we laugh at a homophobic joke or just ignore it when yet another trans* woman of colour is found murdered or tut-tut when another gay teen commits suicide without DOING anything to stop it, when we ban trans* people from bathrooms and imply that they are rapists or pedophiles, when we try to prevent children from learning about LGBT people as if making children aware of the existence of 10% of our population is akin to forcing kids to learn about some kind of lewd sex act, we contribute to this hate. We might not shout the slur, throw the punch, or pull the trigger, but we don’t do a hell of a lot to discourage those who do.

So there’s nothing I can say to my LGBT friends, or to the victims of Orlando, except that I have no f*cking clue what you’re going through. And I don’t want to know, and I have the privilege of not having to. It’s all so absurdly unfair and to say that I’m sorry that it happened and that it never never never should have happened doesn’t even begin to cover it.

Meme from bustle.com

Meme from bustle.com

“We will return and we will rebuild”: an interview with Fort McMurray theatre artist Steph Link

On May 1, 2016, a wildfire began raging through the tinder-dry boreal forest that surrounds Fort McMurray, Alberta. By May 3, the entire city of Fort McMurray was under orders to evacuate. Two young people were killed in a traffic accident as they fled the city, and the fire destroyed approximately 2 400 homes and buildings. At this time, the city remains under a State of Emergency, with a phased-in return for residents beginning this week.

Almost since the oil sands first began wide-scale development, Fort McMurray has been both misunderstood and mythologized. To some, it has been a golden land of opportunity where hard-working people can make above-average wages and provide a good standard of living for their families. To others, it has been a dreary frontier rife with fast times, depression, and drug use. To others still, it has been a symbol of the desecration of our planet and a much-maligned target in the fight against climate change. But whatever your opinions on the oil sands, the industry culture, or what you think is best for Canada’s economic future, the fact remains that Fort McMurray and the surrounding area is home to nearly 90 000 people, many of whom have lost their homes and businesses, whose past has been burned up, and whose future remains uncertain.

In a crisis such as this, our first response should always be support, generosity, and a recognition of our shared humanity. Fortunately, we have been doing ourselves proud, as Canadians from coast to coast (and especially Albertans) have opened their hearts and homes and donated their time, possessions, and money to help evacuees in need. And as the citizens of Fort McMurray continue to share their stories, their courage in the face of danger and uncertainty has been both captivating and inspiring.

It is my incredible privilege this week to be able to publish an interview (conducted via e-mail) with Fort McMurray resident and theatre artist Steph Link (I first met Steph nearly 13 years ago in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, while working in a semi-professional production of Guys and Dolls, and we’ve remained connected through social media). I wanted to learn not only about the fire, but also about the community of Fort McMurray, and what the city means to those who live there. Here is Steph’s story:

Lauren: You are from Saskatchewan and studied theatre at the National Theatre School in Montreal. What brought you to Fort McMurray?

Steph Link: Growing up in Sask I worked on a lot of community theatre and was mentored by a couple who were working in theatre there; they taught me everything I knew before I went to theatre school. After I finished theatre school, they were making the move to Fort McMurray so he could take the position of Production Manager at Keyano Theatre Co. I remember [having a] conversation about them moving and I had said “So you’re going to get me working up there right?” Turns out he was serious because I got an e-mail from the Artistic Director some months later. I was given a list of shows and told to take my pick. It was amazing because I was young and had just gotten into the Union, but they gave me a chance to SM [stage manage] two giant shows. I went up for a five-month contract and three weeks into it I was making plans to move and make Fort McMurray home. They offered three shows a season plus some casual crew work. It was a dream come true, working on theatre full time and being paid and not having to worry about where the next pay check was going to come from.

LK: Describe life (work life, arts and culture, general community feel, etc.) in Fort McMurray prior to the fire.

SL: Fort McMurray is an interesting place. The town is young…the median age is 35 [with an average age of 30 according to Maclean’s] and there are more babies born there per capita than most of Alberta I believe. What that means is there are lots of people in the town who don’t have a ton of experience prior to arriving. So the town takes chances on people and trains them, which is great for young people looking for a trade/career. It also is a place for new beginnings for people who need to make a change, and that means that there are some people with skeletons and people trying to re-invent themselves.

When I arrived it was also a place with a lot of money. Most people had more than they needed in the toy, house, and vehicle department. Rent was at least three times what I had been paying in Montreal. So being a broke artist who had never owned a car, much less a house–it was an interesting place to arrive in.

Stuff is missing there…we don’t have a bowling alley or a fabric store and the movie theatre looks like it hasn’t been updated since 1990. But it has all the big name box stores (except Costco😦 ) An interesting thing I noticed right away was…every bar had an Open Mic night…and they were always busy! So many people  had given up music for a “real” job but still played in bands or at Open Mics on their days off.

Once I tapped into the arts scene, I saw a whole new community…it was small but blossoming and there were people who were so excited about it. Since then the arts scene has blown up, there are always people writing, painting, making music, filming, playing and exploring and it’s exciting to see. The theatre company [that I work for] doesn’t employ actors, it instead relies on volunteers from the community to act in the shows. I grew up in that kind of theatre so it was really exciting to me to do more of that. The community is bold and creative and they rise to any challenge the theatre can think up.

People who have made Fort McMurray their home are fierce in their love and devotion to that city. It’s unbelievable, I have never in my life seen a place so unconditionally defended…and it has to be for the most part–the hate that it receives on a daily basis, from people who have zero clue to people who maybe have a point–we get slammed all the time. I won’t go into what I think of the oil sands…I drive a car…I work in a building…I live in that city…I love that city…my boyfriend is employed by the oil sands. Enough said. The hashtag #ymmstrong didn’t come out of nowhere…it was born out of a reality that the people who call that city home are some of the strongest-willed people I have ever met and will defend and rebuild that city till the day they die. I have met some of the most courageous people and artists I have ever met there.

Where were you/when did you realize that you and your partner needed to evacuate?

I was at the theatre [Keyano College Theatre] for a meeting at 2pm…when the Voluntary Evacuation for Beacon Hill, Abasand and Waterways was declared, a colleague of mine (who lived in Abasand) had said the night before he had no concerns and the press conference at 11am didn’t show any concern then [either]. At 2:15pm the President of the College declared the College would be closed for the rest of the day. I helped clear the building of people and then went home. At about 2:30pm a Mandatory Evacuation of the three neighbourhoods was called. It took me half an hour to make my usual five-minute commute. That was when I realized that I had better start packing. My boyfriend, Justin, called me from up north at about 3:30pm and they had no clue what was happening or how bad it was; they were outside not checking phones or listening to the radio. When he heard me on the phone I told him I wanted him to come home and that was when he realized how serious it could be. I had lots of time to pack, a couple of hours, I listened to the radio the whole time…the scariest moment for me was hearing two radio DJs who I know personally and who were on the air (at not their regular times) saying that they were being evacuated…and I live five blocks from the station. That was when I started to really boot it.

How did you decide what to bring with you?

So many people have asked me this and they all say the same thing “I wouldn’t know where to start/I wouldn’t know what to bring” and trust me…you just start…I started by getting all the suitcases out and threw in our passports, cash and insurance papers. Then I made sure my dog had food. Then I piled in clothes and started doing tours of my apartment just picking up anything that I thought was important or expensive. I was a bit distraught so I took a couple things that didn’t make sense (Buddha figures?) but also lots of stuff I’m glad I got out (external hard drives and laptop). I also packed all the booze in the apartment…because you know, who doesn’t need a drink during an evacuation!?!

What was the evacuation like? What was going through your minds as you made your way out of the city?

It was surreal. I went north and I’m sure I was the same as others, every fibre of my being was telling me to go south…but the RCMP weren’t letting anyone. They had stopped Justin from coming to town and my only thought was to get to him…if I got to him everything would be okay. Once we were together we talked to the RCMP and I think that they were starting to realize that 80 000 people were on their way to work camps that couldn’t possibly hold them…so they let us go south finally. We drove south in convoy and started calling family and friends to let them know we were okay and find out how they were. A girl was vomiting out of her car, there were people riding horses, cars were abandoned on the side of the road, the Super 8 was on fire right by the highway.

The pictures you see online are worse than what I saw…I imagine those are from the neighbourhoods that were lost, or taken much later in the day. We saw fire on both sides of the highway but they were small. Emergency vehicles were driving fast down shoulders. All I could think was “Move, Drive, Keep Driving.” At one point I got frustrated and we drove through the meridian and drove on the wrong side of the highway for about 15 minutes…the RCMP directed us down the 881…we didn’t want to go that way but something was on our side because we ended up in Conklin and they somehow still had gas.

Where did you go? Where have you been staying since the fire and how were your daily needs (food, shelter, clothing, etc.) being met?

When we were in Conklin we realized that we were close to Christina Lake; they have a work camp and cabins there so we slept there the first night in a tiny little camp room with a single bed. We were glued to the news on the little TV. We stayed in hotels for nearly a week. We made our way to Calgary where we finally rented an apartment to stay in for the duration of the evacuation. We have been very fortunate. The Red Cross came through with funds and weekly gift cards to places like Safeway and Wal-Mart, the government gave us funds as well. Our insurance sent a check and some friends offered money as well. We went to several donation centres and got food, clothes and dog supplies. Clothing stores like Bootlegger, Reitman’s and Roots were all offering discounts and restaurants were also giving discounted food, friends and family have taken us for meals and also cooked for us. We have been amazingly taken care of and we are so grateful for everyone across the country and beyond who has been helping with this cause…88 000 people are a lot to take care of.

You mentioned on Facebook that your dog, Maggie, was able to stay at a farm when you first evacuated. How did that come about?

Funnily enough…we were planning a Calgary trip that weekend so we had already made plans with a friend who lives on said farm (although she’d called it an acreage but there are horses so I call it a farm) for Maggie to stay there for a couple days…we arrived early and she stayed later, but they were great about it and loved having her.

In addition to being a stage manager, you are also the director of a documentary called A Little Cabaret about staging the musical Cabaret in Fort Mac. Coincidentally, it was screening at NorthWest Fest and was a nominee at the Rosies (Alberta Film and Television Awards) while you were evacuated. Can you tell me a little bit about that project and its connection to your community?

The project was born out of my love for the theatre community in Fort McMurray and community theatre in general. I’ve always thought that what we do is magic and I thought people would want to see it– it’s a special breed of person who gives up all their evenings and weekends to rehearse for weeks on end, and I have always been in awe of those who do it. So I approached my friend Tito who is a Fort McMurray native and an avid film maker (he along with some others founded the Fort McMurray Film Makers Association) and he didn’t hesitate, he said yes right away. We both wanted so badly to show a different side of the region. The actors were equally excited to show off their town and how it is about more than the oil industry. The project really helped to teach me about film and teach Tito about theatre, which was a side purpose to the project as well.

What now? What’s next for you and your little family?

Justin has gone [back] up north to work; he will be living in camp until we can get into our apartment or until his days off. We are waiting for our landlord to give the go-ahead for us go home. Once we are home, we will have to see what kind of damage there is, I will probably spend a lot of time cleaning as I won’t be working. And then…we’ll see what life brings. I will need to find work as most of my summer contracts were cancelled due to the evacuation.

Is there anything else you’d like people to know about the fire, or about the Fort McMurray community in general?

Fort McMurray is a lovely place with lovely people and just like any city it has its flaws; we have been through a terrible ordeal and we will return and we will rebuild.


Thank you so much to Steph Link for taking the time to write down her experiences for me and for allowing me to share them on my blog (it’s a bit humbling, so say the least). I’m incredibly grateful and I’m sure readers will join me in wishing Steph, her partner, and their puppy Maggie all the best as they rebuild their lives in Fort McMurray.

If you’d like support residents of Fort McMurray in a more tangible way, please consider making a donation to one of the many great organizations offering relief and assistance, such as the Red Cross Fort McMurray Fire Relief, or United Way – Fort McMurray.

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[Note: if you’d like to learn more about the Fort McMurray wildfire, Maclean’s ran an excellent issue devoted entirely to the community and the disaster and now has an online archive of images and articles.]

Environment: Time for Justin Trudeau to Pick a Side

There’s an old adage that says when you try to please everyone, you end up pleasing no one. I imagine sayings like these are on Justin Trudeau’s mind as he coifs his hair each morning and wonders where his “sunny ways” went wrong. Or maybe he’s not concerned, because he’s too busy doing one-armed push-ups and taking selfies and trying to insist that the “middle ground” is actually a fertile place from which to grow our future.

I don’t mind that Justin Trudeau is part of a political “dynasty”. I don’t mind that he and his wife are young and good-looking. I don’t mind that they are from Quebec. I don’t mind that Trudeau used to be a drama teacher before his political career (teachers and artists are often exceptionally selfless and intelligent people and I think many of them would make great leaders). I don’t mind that he smoked pot. I don’t care that part of Trudeau’s household budget is being spent on nannies (Mulroney’s household did the same). I don’t mind that he wants to take selfies with people and seem “accessible” to Canadians (actually, I do mind the photos a little because I’d rather see Canada known for policy, not personality). I don’t care that he’s a bit of a ham and I don’t even care that he’s a Liberal.

What I DO mind is that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is trying to please everyone–is trying to claim a “middle ground” in several either/or situations and is, simultaneously, pissing off just about everybody on both sides of the issue. Nowhere is this more obvious to me than in his government’s position on the environment.

At the moment, folks on the “right-wing” or “conservative” side of the political environmental debate are pissed at Trudeau because he does things like sign Paris climate deals, spout a lot of hot air about Canada being “back”, and because, when the country’s reliance on the oil industry resulted in a lot of lost jobs and financial uncertainty as oil prices plummeted, he was tone-deaf enough to say that those communities left out of the federal government’s EI benefits “should be pleased that they are not hit as hard as other parts of the country and indeed the province have been”. Cold comfort when you’re trying to keep food on your family’s table and shoes on your kids.

At the same time, folks on the “left-wing”, or rather (since the environment we live in affects both right and left), the “green” side of the issue, are pissed at Trudeau because he signs Paris climate deals, spouts a lot of hot air about Canada being “back” as an ally in the fight against global climate catastrophe, and then goes ahead and lets undemocratic, ethically suspect, Harper-appointed bodies like the National Energy Board (NEB) go ahead and approve the Kinder Morgan pipeline expansion (which will, incidentally, have a profoundly negative impact on the communities in which I live and work). A lot of people (including me) have called Trudeau a dummy in the past, but surely not even he actually believes that supporting crude oil pipelines (i.e. increasing the amount of oil sands bitumen that will be extracted, transported, and burned as fuel) will somehow lead to a “greener” future for this country.

Spectacularly, that is exactly the claim that Trudeau is trying to make, and a claim SFU professor of sustainable energy Mark Jaccard had no qualms about eviscerating when interviewed by Maclean’s. When it comes to Trudeau’s wishy-washy statements on pipelines being used to fund a green transition:

Jaccard can only shake his head and chuckle. “What we’re beginning to hear from the federal government now—‘We’re going to fund green infrastructure and innovation’—those are faking-it policies. You’ve got to either regulate or price.” Asked specifically about Trudeau’s vision of a “transitional period”—an era when new pipelines would be built and oil sands production encouraged, apparently all to pay for the advent of the post-carbon economy—Jaccard forgets to laugh. “It’s bunk, total bunk,” he says, “and please quote me.”

No problem, professor. I’m quoting you with relish. “Total bunk,” says an expert on the subject, YOU HEAR THAT, JUSTIN, YOU LILY-LIVERED BUFFOON?!

I despised Stephen Harper as much as I can despise any person who didn’t actually murder or maim someone, but at least he had the conviction to just come right out and say (I’m paraphrasing) that he didn’t give a shit about the environment and that he didn’t think climate change was a problem. It takes guts to stand up in the face of overwhelming scientific consensus and the devastating effects of human-caused climate change (like last year’s typhoon in the Philippines which killed 20 000 people) and just be like, “Nah, I don’t care. Kyoto’s for losers.” What pisses me off so much about Trudeau is that he not only pretends to care about climate change, he actually goes on the international stage and takes credit for caring, and then turns around and gives crude oil pipelines the ol’ thumbs up, as if we aren’t watching. But we are, and we’re disappointed.

Oil companies don’t give a shit about Canadians. But our government should. Oil companies don’t think about the long-term interests of the nation they’re digging up and traversing, but our government really should. It’s time for Trudeau to stop leaving it up to unelected morally bereft bodies like the NEB and foreign corporations and actually take a stance based on what he believes is  the best way forward.

So what’s it gonna be, Prime Minister: is Canada truly “back”, or just back to the same old oily tricks?

Let's hope he meant it!

Let’s hope he meant it!

[Note: leadnow.ca has a petition circulating to ask Trudeau to reject the NEB’s approval of the Kinder Morgan expansion. Please consider signing here.]

Excavation Theatre and dream of passion productions presents “Ithaka”

Ithaka presented by dream of passion productions and Excavation Theatre at the Havana Theatre (1212 Commercial Dr.) now until May 14.

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When we, as a society, ask soldiers and other military personnel to deploy into a war zone, we are asking them to face the dangers and near impossibility of an extreme environment. If they survive their deployment, they are asked to do something equally, if not more, impossible: to return to their previous lives as if nothing unusual has happened.

The struggle of veterans to find “home”, even after the fighting is over, forms the core of Ithaka, written by American playwright Andrea Stolowitz and directed in its Canadian premiere by Jessica Anne Nelson (artistic director of Excavation Theatre). Stefania Indelicato (artistic director of dream of passion productions) stars as U.S. Marine Elaine “Lanie” Edwards, recently returned from a tour in Afghanistan, who finds she has brought the terror, guilt, and alienation of the battlefield home with her.

Seated in an alley configuration in the Havana Theatre, audience members are physically confronted by the emotional weight of the play’s subject matter with an immediacy that is as overwhelming as it is moving. However, the symbolic/surrealist set of Rafaella Rabinovich (a small wheeled platform resting on a line of railway track) fills the tight playing space, creating an inconvenient obstacle for the actors, who are for the most part delivering realist performances. This physical difficulty can be read symbolically, I suppose, but if that is the intention I found myself wanting more out of the staging and the transitions between scenes, many of which are handled purely logistically rather than used as opportunities to explore the Odyssean metaphors present in the set and script, or to utilize the supporting cast members whose dialogue otherwise may not require their presence onstage. As for the performances themselves, the intensity dial is consistently turned right up to 10, giving us the full force of the script where the scenes call for it, but also, for me, overruling some of those quieter moments that could have played well in such an intimate venue.

But make no mistake: as a performer, Indelicato is an absolute powerhouse, fully capable of carrying this play through any challenges it may have. Her unflinching portrayal of a veteran grappling with PTSD and the inane normalcy of civilian life dares you to remain unaffected. Both the production and the performers show their strengths in the script’s dialogues, in which relationships are created, remembered, and blown up (a favourite scene of mine is a particularly heated exchange between Lanie and her civilian husband Bill, played by Adam Lolacher). One senses that the actors are truly listening to each other, even if their characters (sometimes) are not.

As the audience began to applaud the conclusion of the play, the lights came up to reveal several people wiping their eyes, and I overheard a woman in the bathroom tell another woman in line that she thought the show was “amazing”. At the end of the day, it is the stories we tell and hear that move us, and that remain with us long after we’ve left the theatre. The story of Ithaka is important, compelling, and passionately told.

 

Ithaka runs until May 14 at the Havana Theatre on Commercial Drive. Tickets can be purchased online through Brown Paper Tickets.

Wounded Warriors Canada is listed as a community partner of the production. From their mission statement:

Wounded Warriors Canada is a non-profit organization that supports Canada’s ill and injured Canadian Armed Forces members, Veterans, and their families.

Through a wide range of national programs and services, Wounded Warriors provides a spectrum of care that is focused on mental health and, particularly, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

If you would like to find out more about their work or make a donation, please visit woundedwarriors.ca.

Disclosure: I attended last night’s performance of Ithaka courtesy of dream of passion productions and Excavation Theatre.

April 26, ONE NIGHT ONLY – the Troika Collective presents “Voices from Chernobyl”

Voices From Chernobyl poster image

April 26, 2016 (this Tuesday) marks the 30th anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in Pripyat, Ukraine. To commemorate this event, and in support of the Veronika Children Leukemia Foundation, the Troika Collective will be presenting a one-night-only concert performance of their bewitchingly tragic song cycle, Voices from Chernobyl (previously staged as Chernobyl: the Opera).

From their website:

Set to the haunting yet beautiful contemporary music of composer Elliot Vaughan, Voices from Chernobyl tells the stories of survivors of the meltdown of the Chernobyl nuclear reactor as well as of those who have chosen to resettle in the region despite the dangers to their health. Using verbatim text taken from interviews and sung by an ensemble of seven, Voices from Chernobyl uses music and projection to explore the horrifying and heartbreaking yet compelling history of a nuclear disaster.

I first encountered this project several years ago when I performed in a short, four-song, four-voice version of Chernobyl as part of a larger event.  Since then, the show has evolved into a stand-alone cycle for seven voices and remains one of the Troika Collective’s most popular productions. I reached out to Aliya Griffin, Artistic Director of the Troika Collective and co-creator and director of Voices from Chernobyl to ask her a few questions about this show and its journey.

A question we were asked in theatre school was, “Why this play, why now?” Obviously, you are mounting Voices from Chernobyl right now to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster, but why is this subject important to you?

I think Chernobyl captured the imaginations of a lot of people when it happened and for years after. It was the first time since WWII and the first time in peace-time that we saw the horrifying possibility of nuclear power when it goes wrong. I of course personally have a connection to Ukraine, so that is part of my interest, but really the fascination came in reading the verbatim text of interviews taken by Svetlana Alexievich in Voices from Chernobyl, the book. I have a passion for non-fiction and verbatim text and these stories were so compelling. The stories are at the same time alienating, in that these people were dealing with a situation that was unprecedented, and also heart-breakingly relatable in their humanity and honesty. I think I also have a profound desire to understand the “other”, to know why people do the things they do and to help share stories that I think other people far away from the storytellers need to hear. I am not a politician, or a writer, but I use my theatre, and in this case the music of Elliot Vaughan, to help share these stories. The 30th anniversary of Chernobyl is of course the specific reason for this remount, but this music and this show have stayed with me and these stories still beg to be told. 

This show has had a long journey since it was originally conceived several years ago. Could you talk about the process of creating the song-cycle, and about what continues to hold your artistic interest after all this time with it? What makes Voices from Chernobyl so unique?

I think initially it felt like a really big undertaking. I tend to create shows from beginning to end in short creative time periods. This project seemed like a big endeavor and we weren’t sure how it would be received. The short four-song version [we premiered] as part of Hive: The Newbees 2 was a chance to try out our aesthetic and see how it worked. It ended up being really successful and people seemed to be into what we were doing, so it gave us the confidence to move forward with more stories and a longer stand-alone show. Along with everything I mentioned above in terms of content, I’m also really interested in playing with form when it comes to verbatim text. In all my pieces, I tend to have a bit of a choreographic quality. I like playing with rhythm and accented movement (everyone who works with me will tell you about my obsession with sharp head turns). I find with verbatim text the honesty and humanity of the stories is built right in and you don’t need to over-play that with naturalistic acting. Voices from Chernobyl of course lets me really play with this choreographic aesthetic because it is entirely music. (For this concert version however, we are really letting the music speak for itself and the blocking and choreography will be minimal).

In your interview with Emelia Symington-Fedy on her Roundhouse Radio show, Trying to Be Good, you talked about visiting the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone on a recent vacation with your mother. How has visiting the actual site of this disaster affected your relationship with this piece?

To be perfectly honest, I was expecting something really profound to happen when I visited the site, especially considering how intimately we got to know these personal stories. I was struck by how beautiful the region is, but also by how mundane it all is. I didn’t feel a lot of fear going into the zone. It might be in part because we entered the zone with two bus loads of mostly British soccer fans who were visiting Ukraine for a big match. Since being opened for tourism, the site has definitely lost some of its sense of isolation and mystery. Also, there are dozens of workers in the zone, not just tour guides, but also those helping build the third sarcophagus that is meant to cover reactor number 4 and contain the radiation for up to 100 years. The tour was of course fascinating and visiting the iconic, abandoned town of Pripyat and the famous amusement park that was never opened was really interesting, but overall it felt more touristy than I would have liked. 

On the website for the Troika Collective, it says that proceeds from the event will benefit the Veronika Children Leukemia Foundation. Could you talk about their work and about how the Troika Collective became connected with the Foundation?

While creating the full length version of the show, I stumbled across an article in the Georgia Straight about the Veronika Foundation and its founder Svetlana Khashkin. I always knew I wanted the show to have a charitable component, but I thought we would likely go with a more internationally-known charity. To meet people in the lower mainland who do work directly related to the legacy of Chernobyl was exciting. My mom and I met with Svetlana and her husband Grigori at the Eastern European food store they own in Coquitlam and they were very excited about the project. We also discovered that Grigori had been a Chernobyl liquidator and he eventually ended up being a guest speaker for a post-show Q&A after one of our shows. The Veronika Foundation does all sorts of work in supporting children living with cancer in Eastern Europe (and I highly encourage [readers] to check out their website at veronikafoundation.org) but the most interesting to me is their work towards establishing a bone marrow registry in the countries of the former Soviet Union.

Lastly, is there anything else you want to mention about Voices from Chernobyl or about the event in general?

I guess I would just like to encourage people to come out and support this event. It will be a great night of music, not just with Voices from Chernobyl, but also with a set from Eastern European and Balkan a cappella group Vostok. I really think it’s going to be an engaging and enjoyable evening. And of course it supports a great cause!

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Voices from Chernobyl will be performed ONE NIGHT ONLY Tuesday, April 26, 8:00 p.m. at the Ukrainian Cultural Centre, 805 East Pender, Vancouver. Tickets can be purchased online through Brown Paper Tickets. Tickets will also be available at the door (cash only for the box office and bar).

Disclosure: In addition to being a friend of several people involved in the show, including Aliya Griffin, I sit on the board of the Troika Collective and am a member of Tuesday’s opening musical act, Vostok.