Ask Nifty: Sage Advice for Fictional Problems

Hello, dear readers! I’m feeling a bit whimsical today and I love to give advice, so I thought I’d dispense some common-sense solutions for some troubling fictional problems. Happy reading!

Dear Nifty,

Weird stuff happens around me all the time, but I never got my letter from Hogwarts! I’m in my thirties now, but still feeling really bummed about it. What gives?

–Sad Muggle, Birmingham, England

Dear Muggle,

I get the sense that you are feeling down on yourself and questioning your abilities. I know it’s disappointing not to get into the schools you want, but remember, when one door closes, another opens: if you’d become a wizard, you’d never have gotten the probably very exciting job you have now, right? RIGHT? On a more serious note, if you turned 11 in the 1990s, it’s important to remember that the English wizarding world was experiencing great upheaval due to the events of the Second Wizarding War. The Owl Post Office would have been in disarray, Hogwarts was at that time undergoing several rapid changes in headmasters, and in that dangerously prejudiced political climate, it simply would not have been safe to accept new Muggle students into magical society. The fact that you didn’t get a Hogwarts letter is not a judgement of your magical abilities and you have nothing to be ashamed of.

I never got one either.

I never got one either.

Dear Nifty,

I was so excited about having my first real guest for tea that I accidentally gave my bosom friend currant wine thinking it was raspberry cordial, and she drank three tumblerfulls! Her mother thinks I got her daughter drunk ON PURPOSE and won’t let us be friends anymore. I’m in the depths of despair. Why do I keep getting into these terrible scrapes?

–Lady Cordelia, Avonlea, P.E.I.

Dear Cordelia,

Anyone who gets to a third glass of anything before she realizes she’s drinking wine probably isn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer–you might be better off without her. This would give you more time to focus on your intellectual pursuits and be top of the class at school.

But if you still miss your friend, don’t worry. I have a feeling that in an emergency your “bosom friend” would be about as useful as a box of hair. Eventually her annoying younger sibling will get the croup and you’ll come out of THAT scrape looking like an effin’ rockstar. Just make sure you have plenty of ipecac on hand.

Derp derp.

Derp derp.

Dear Miss Nifty,

I am the third of five unmarried sisters who are all out in society at once. My two older sisters are very beautiful, capable and graceful and I just can’t compete. Meanwhile, my two younger sisters don’t seem to care about anything but men and parties, and my mother just encourages them! There’s always so much chatter at our house, but whenever I want to say something, nobody listens to me! I don’t really feel like I have anything to connect to (apart from my piano forte) and no one seems to take much notice of me. What should I do?

–Mary B., Hertfordshire, England

Dear Mary,

Don’t take it personally, but you seem like a bit of a stick-in-the-mud. Is it possible that’s why you’re feeling ignored? No one likes a party-pooper, Mary! Maybe, instead of focusing on whether or not other people take notice of you, you should focus on finding ways to be happy with yourself.

In the meantime, it’s likely that your family situation will improve on its own. If your older sisters are as beautiful and competent as you say, they’re sure to marry rich, saving your family from poverty in the event of your father’s death, and saving YOU from having to marry out of desperation. Also, if your two younger sisters are really that silly and man-crazy, there’s a good chance at least one of them will go off and do something stupid, trapping her in a loveless marriage, yes, but also helpfully removing her from your day-to-day existence at home. Don’t use this occasion to gloat; rather, see it as an opportunity to forge a better relationship with your remaining sister and to set a good example for her.

Wow, Mary, you sure look happy to be here.

One of these things is not like the other ones.

Living Life Beyond the Lens

I love photos. I do. I love taking photos, and looking at photos, and being in photos. I love family photos, and travel photos, and funny photos, and using photos as a way to share a moment in time or remember a happy day gone by.

But I think we’re all getting a bit crazy with it, don’t you? When a baby dolphin dies of dehydration at a beach in Argentina after being pulled from the sea and passed around for selfies, and two peacocks die of shock after visitors at a Chinese zoo (who are allowed to walk among the birds but not touch them) pick them up and pull their feathers to take photos with them, I think it’s time to recognize that our obsession with being photographed, in the frame, at all moments of our lives, has gone too far.

From MVD, a Russian website for selfie safety,

From MVD.ru, a Russian website for selfie safety,

The internet has been in an uproar about these incidents, and rightly so. I suspect the deaths of these animals is especially galling because they were perfectly innocent–unlike the victims of the absolutely tragic but totally preventable selfie fatalities of recent years, these creatures are completely blameless. They didn’t want to be photographed, and they definitely didn’t want to die helpless and terrified in the arms of smartphone-toting tourists. Their beauty and the rarity of their presence in our lives is all the more reason for us to leave them alone, and if we must attempt to photograph them, to do so at a safe and respectful distance that endangers neither human nor animal.

I get it. Seeing a wild animal is really really special, and being close to one can be an almost spiritual experience. When TC and I were in the Galapagos Islands, we took dozens of photos of sea lions, giant tortoises, albatrosses, marine iguanas, blue-footed boobies, Darwin finches, and whatever other lovely creature was close enough and still enough to be photographed. Being near them was incredible, and it was an experience we were only able to have because the tourism industry in the Galapagos has a very strict policy about the flora and fauna: DON’T TOUCH ANYTHING. No picking the flowers, no taking a seashell home in your suitcase, and definitely NO TOUCHING THE ANIMALS. The unique geology and location of the Galapagos Islands means that the animals evolved without human contact, and without a fear of humans (this was a trust that led to the devastation and extinction or near-extinction of several species of Galapagos tortoise when the archipelago was first explored and settled, but a trust which the human population of the Galapagos has been working hard to re-earn).

sea lion slide

Me laughing sheepishly after this fine fellow barked at me for getting too close. Boundaries are important, whether you’re a person or a sea lion. Photo: Brayden McCluskey.

So yeah, we took dozens of photos–after all, we were on vacation in one of the most extraordinary places in the world. But there were also lots of beautiful moments we didn’t photograph–watching baby dolphins leaping from the water alongside their parents, swimming with sea lions and turtles and rays and a shark and multi-coloured urchins, coming up for a breather only four feet or so away from a Galapagos penguin on a rock, seeing the stars from the deck of our ship at night, and so many other flashes of beauty or clarity that made us pull back from the frenzy of our fellow tourists clambering over each other for a good shot of Whatever-It-Was and say to each other, okay, this is just for us. And why isn’t that enough?

It’s high time we remembered how to seek out and appreciate amazing moments for their own sake, and not for the approval of others. Our experiences are ours to keep even if a camera didn’t capture all of them. It’s nice to have photographs to remember important moments, or even just a nice every-day moment, especially if we want to share them with loved ones who are far away. And it’s nice to have photography as a hobby or interest–if you want to learn and practice the art of taking beautiful pictures, you go for it.

But there is no art in allowing a wild animal to die in your hands, just so you can prove you saw it. You don’t need to “own” these moments–just have them, like so many others, and don’t worry about whether or not they’ll look good on Instagram. The camera cannot see what you can and the quest for the perfect photo often destroys the experience. Be open to the fleeting magic of life – hold on tightly when you find it – then let it go. Don’t let a lens come between you and your human experience, or your human decency.

Valentine’s Day reminder: Consent comes FIRST

With Valentine’s Day just around the corner and the Jian Ghomeshi trial wrapping up (after what seems to have been an absolutely disastrous time for the prosecution), I thought now was a good time for a friendly reminder:

In any sexual encounter, consent is mandatory, and crucially, CONSENT COMES FIRST. It is not something that is implied after.

This means that, say, if a famous Canadian TV/radio personality punches or slaps a woman in the face and then chokes her, without her express consent to this activity as part of their relationship, then it doesn’t matter if she went to a BBQ or a park with him later. It doesn’t matter if she sent him e-mails, or wrote him a love letter, or kissed him goodnight. If she did not give her consent to the violent act(s) he committed on her person PRIOR to the violence occurring, then the famous Canadian TV/radio personality who punched/slapped/choked her has committed assault.

o-sexual-assault-canada-570_0Because that’s how consent works. It’s about making sure that everyone involved in a physical interaction WANTS this contact to occur. Consent is not something you negotiate after the fact, and unfortunately, by focusing on what Ghomeshi’s accusers did and said AFTER he allegedly* assaulted them, the line of questioning pursued by his defense lawyer Marie Henein is setting (or rather, continuing) a horrible precedent and sending a dangerous message to would-be predators: it’s easier to ask for forgiveness than permission. Except you don’t actually need to ask for forgiveness either, if you (or your lawyer) can successfully discredit and invalidate the experiences of the other person.

Based on the way this trial has played out so far, in the Canadian legal system, it’s apparently fine to force violent and/or sexual acts on another person without their consent, so long as you can manipulate, coerce, convince, or at least CONFUSE them enough after the fact that their behaviour and communication with you (for example, in e-mails, which Ghomeshi was very careful to keep all these years) may imply that consent was given. Even if you don’t have any evidence that your accuser actually consented to being touched/hit/raped/choked BEFORE you did these things, their behaviour afterwards will provide enough “reasonable doubt” that you will probably get off scot-free, without you even having to take the stand yourself (your complainants, sadly, won’t be so lucky and they will be required to endure days of verbal harassment at the hands of your lawyer while their actions, reputations, and lives are picked apart by the court and the media).

So Ghomeshi’s complainants maintained contact with him after the alleged* assaults. Why is this surprising? Why does this invalidate their claims that he never received permission to touch them the way he did? Is it so outrageous to think that a woman would be so shocked about being hit in the face or choked by a well-loved, intelligent, and ostensibly feminist Canadian celebrity that she would try to convince herself it hadn’t happened, or try to smooth things over by doing whatever she could to “fix” the relationship? Is it any surprise that in a culture that constantly reinforces the idea that women are responsible for maintaining peace in relationships and responsible for the violent actions of others that the complainants may at first have wondered if THEY had caused the problem? In a culture where “negging” (insulting a woman in order to undermine her confidence and make her more likely to sleep with you) is a common tactic used by pick-up artists, are we really surprised that its natural extension (i.e. moving from insults to actual assaults) can produce the same result–a hurt woman who feels the need to redeem herself in the eye of her attacker?

Instead of asking ourselves why Ghomeshi’s complainants didn’t comport themselves like the “perfect victims” after the fact, what we should be asking is this: is it still possible to want to behave politely, even lovingly, to a person who has seriously wronged you?

If you have ever stayed with (or gone back to) a person who has physically, sexually, or emotionally abused you, you know the answer is yes. If you have ever hooked up with a guy after he “negged” you, you know the answer is yes. If you have continued to believe your lying child even though you have blatant proof of their dishonesty, you know the answer is yes. If you have ever given even MORE money to a scam artist contractor because you’ve given them so much already and they’ve promised they’ll actually finish the job this time, you know the answer is yes.

Does YOUR behaviour mean that the abuser wasn’t abusive, that the negger wasn’t insulting, that your child didn’t lie, or that the scam artist didn’t steal money from you? Of course not! So why can’t Lucy DeCoutere’s overtly friendly behaviour towards Ghomeshi AND the idea that he assaulted her co-exist?

Once we’ve stopped obsessing over questions about everything that happened afterwards, we can move on to the only question that should really matter: did Ghomeshi have his complainants’ permission to violently strike and/or choke them before he placed his hands on their bodies? If the answer is no, he is guilty of assault, whether he is convicted or not.

———

*I use the word “alleged” because at the time of writing, Jian Ghomeshi has not been convicted of assault (and it is likely he will not be). That said, personally, I believe the three women who have accused him in court and I believe the other women, both anonymous and named, who have spoken out about Ghomeshi’s violent behaviour in the media.

 

Fellow white Canadians: it’s time to speak up about racism towards Canada’s First Nations

On Friday, the small northern community of La Loche, Saskatchewan was devastated by a school shooting that left four people dead and seven seriously injured. While friends and family members struggle to make sense of this shattering event, while the victims who survived recuperate in hospital, while Brad Wall, Saskatchewan’s premier, pledges the provincial government’s support, while the shooter (a youth whose name cannot be released) awaits his trial, while blame is laid here and there and many see this event as yet another tragic link in a long chain of poverty, violence, and government neglect in First Nations communities in Canada, the one thing I’m sure we can all agree on is that this is not a great time for making racist jokes.

Unfortunately not.

etwatts1

This is an actual tweet from Friday night, as people used the hashtag, “#LaLoche” to send prayers and messages of compassion and support to a community in mourning (I do not follow this tweeter–this tweet came to my attention through another person quoting it in disgust). Now, with a Twitter name like “liquorbeaver” and a handle like “@EtanTwatts”, this guy (I’m assuming, with the puns about licking beaver and eating twats this is a white, hetero-normative male rather than a lesbian woman but I suppose I could be wrong) could definitely be called an Internet “troll”. He clearly likes getting a rise out of people and knew that making fun of a tragedy would be a great way to do it. He must have had a great night, fielding the angry responses from people like me:

ntweet1

In fact, I’m absolutely sure he was loving it:

etwatts2

ntweet2

etwatts3

[Note how he calls the shooter a “savage” here–classy!]

ntweet3

etwatts4

Ah. I see. It’s MY fault for CHOOSING to INTERPRET his making a race-based hurtful comment about First Nations people in response to a school shooting in a First Nations community (in which he literally says, “Forget the shooting”) as racist. Pardonnez-moi. Poor liquorbeaver. He’s not a racist, right? He’s just a poor misunderstood truth-teller!

I should note that the screen shot he attaches here seems to be from a StatsCan report about dropout rates among different Canadian demographics, but since he didn’t actually link to the report I can’t verify its legitimacy. Here’s a closer look at the relevant section:

etwatts4.1

Giving Mr. Beaver the benefit of the doubt (not that he deserves it), let’s assume these statistics are accurate as of the time of whatever report this is. Let’s say the dropout rate among First Nations students aged 20-24 is higher than those of non-Aboriginal Canadians. Okay. Well–firstly, this is a statistic about people aged 20-24, so, this is not a report about typical school-aged children, secondly, a 22.6% dropout rate still means non-dropout rate of 77.4%, which means there are more people still in school than dropping out. Thirdly, there are a lot of complex, systemic, and/or just totally shitty, racist, and unfair reasons that a First Nations (adult) student’s ability to complete their schooling would be negatively impacted, far beyond the struggles most white Canadians experience. Fourthly, this statistic appears to apply to 20-24-year-olds specifically living off-reserve, so it’s really a terribly incomplete picture of the highschool completion rates of First Nations students as a whole. Obviously, the numbers don’t really say what he thinks they do, and liquorbeaver seems to be CHOOSING to INTERPRET them as justification for his bigotry. How unfortunate for the strength of his argument.

But Mr. Beaver’s poor understanding of statistics and his lack of critical thinking skills are not the point. The point is that I don’t think liquorbeaver is just some Internet troll. If he were, he wouldn’t care that I called his joke racist, and he wouldn’t try to justify his racist remarks to me or anybody.

The point is that he thinks it’s OKAY to make a joke about First Nations people in response to a school shooting. The point is that he seems to suggest that the disproportionately high dropout rate among First Nations students (which is generally accepted as fact in Canada although not represented in the report liquorbeaver was using) is somehow a product of their race, rather than, for example, the historical, ongoing, and far reaching disastrous impacts of colonial invasion and colonial extermination and assimilation policies. The point is that he thinks using words like “indian” and “savage” in reference to First Nations people is okay (hint: even when four people HAVEN’T just been murdered, it’s not okay), and that using these terms doesn’t make him racist because he feels he is “right”. And the point is that, at the time I took my first screen shot, two people had “liked” his racist tweet.

Two people isn’t a lot of people. But I know there are a lot of people, in Saskatchewan and the rest of Canada, who saw liquorbeaver’s tweet and secretly agreed. They maybe wouldn’t have been so callous as to retweet or “like” it or to make that joke themselves (at least not so soon after the shooting), but I know there are lots of white people in Canada who would agree with liquorbeaver because I’ve heard them say similar things before. And not just on the Internet. In real life. In public. At parties or at work or at school and even at university. A lot of white people in Canada think it’s perfectly fine to talk about First Nations people this way, as if it’s just “the truth” and isn’t racist. As if it’s not possible to be racist about First Nations people. As if, if they don’t like what white Canadians are saying about them, First Nations Canadians should just stop being so lazy, drunk, uneducated, criminal, promiscuous, or whatever other hurtful label we want to throw on them. I know there are a lot of white people in Canada right now reading about La Loche and tut-tutting about how this is just another example of First Nations people killing First Nations people and they need to sort themselves out and this has nothing to with the rest of us, that we are not implicated in this.

No. Sorry. Not good enough. I’ve had it with this bullshit (and if I’ve had it, I can’t even imagine how fed up and bone-tired and frustrated First Nations people must be). It’s 2016, for pity’s sake, the history is out there for anyone to learn, and we STILL think that people we have actively exploited and killed and neglected and trodden down and dehumanized over centuries should somehow pull themselves up by their bootstraps without us at least getting out of their f*cking way and admitting that the country as a whole has a serious problem? While we continue to use racial slurs and perpetuate racial stereotypes? While we ignore the fact that we benefit from our privilege every single day and that maybe, just maybe, we should try to help balance the scales?

There are a lot of white Canadians who are trying to be more cognizant of and educated about First Nations people and what they experience(d) in Canada, and who are trying to be good allies (I’m trying too). When I was younger I was too scared of my peers and co-workers to speak up when someone said something out of line. It was easier to just ignore it, and quietly find a peer group and profession where these kinds of comments are all but unheard of. But I’m older now. And this is too damn important. I’m a white, middle-class Canadian woman with a university education who experiences privilege in more ways than I’m even aware of. I know I could never understand what First Nations people in Canada have gone through, and I know I didn’t change liquorbeaver’s mind. But simply “not being racist” myself isn’t good enough anymore. I have a responsibility to point out racist shit that isn’t okay. I have a responsibility to let people who make these kinds of horrible “jokes” know that I’m not laughing with them. It’s really actually the very least I can do.

 

On Being Afraid of the Work (Flowers and Toads)

Over the weekend I read (for class) an excerpt from a book called I Swear I Saw This: Drawings in Fieldwork Notebooks, Mainly My Own by Australian anthropologist Michael Taussig. In chapter 2, Taussig discusses the failures of written notes at recording and communicating his experiences in the field and the ways in which he has found drawing pictures (quick sketches, diagrams, etc.) to be more immediate and fruitful. What he describes as the failure of fieldnotes can, I think, be applied to any attempt at a faithful record of events or expression of an inspiration–in the transcribing, something is lost or changed; what is important remains elusive and what is unimportant intrudes on the page (or the canvas, or the stage, etc.) in a rather unsatisfactory way. Taussig quotes the French poet Stéphane Mallarmé: “the flowers that fall from my mouth are changed into toads.” *

This, I think, is one of the chief reasons why I have so far failed to really really commit to my work as a writer. Sure, I’m writing, I’m writing papers and blog posts and the occasional stage piece for a friend, but this is not my work. I do have a specific work, (images lodged in the back of my brain, sentences scattered across notebooks and computer files) but it is always the very last thing I attend to. Of course, I am good at coming up with reasons for why this is so, the main one being that all of the other writing I do has deadlines and my “work” does not. Only I will know if there is still something owing, and it is likely only I will care. And I get busy. And I get lazy. And the only person I’m letting down is myself, so I don’t do the work.

I have a sneaking suspicion, though, that I would do the work if I were braver, even if it was time-consuming. I obviously don’t mind writing–I’m writing right now!–but I do mind failure, especially when it comes to something that, while it remains little more than a shadow with a few defined edges, has been internally nurtured and kept safe for a not insignificant period of time. I feel a responsibility to get it right, to do justice to whatever whisper found its way to me. I know what creative failure fails like, and it is sour, and it is indelible, and it stains the beautiful ideas that had given themselves so perfectly and trustingly to me. I am in possession of delicate buds that I hope upon hope will burst into bloom, but I am afraid to touch them lest they turn into toads in my clumsy hands.

Photo: Brayden McCluskey

Photo: Brayden McCluskey

[* Sadly, I could not find this quotation on the Internet so I do not know from whence in Mallarmé’s oeuvre it came.]

Every Day Can Be New Year’s Day

Happy new year, Nifty readers, and welcome to the year 2016!

Like many of you, I’ve been reflecting on the year that has just passed and wondering what resolutions, if any, I should attempt to keep over the next 365 days (it’s a leap year so there are still 365 days left after today–bonus day! Yippee!). My resolutions, if I were to make any, would be fairly similar to the resolutions I had last year, and the year before (be kind, write more, keep my apartment tidy and organized). They’re good goals to try for and I’ll probably just keep working at them but to be honest I’m not sure about this whole “New Year’s Resolution” thing anymore.

January 1 is just an arbitrary day–it isn’t even the start of the new year for every religion, or every culture. It’s just a marker, one 24-hour point on the 940 million-km elliptical trail that is our 365.25-day journey around the sun. Just one point, out of an infinitesimal number of possible points. Any day on that orbit could be important, and any tiny millisecond could have more significance than days or months or even years of living so far.

It’s great to start your new life, or new good habit, or new hobby, on January 1 if that’s the day you decide to do it. But every other day is just as good, and any day can be an important one, a milestone day. Any day can be a day by which you count out your life. For example, I can count a particular facet of my life from the day I met my husband, or from our first date, or the day we moved in together, or from the day we got engaged, or the day we were married. I can count different journeys in my life from the day I began at my current job, or the day I started my masters degree. I can pull back further, and count from the day I moved to BC, or the day I was finally free of a particularly toxic relationship for good, or the day I began university, or the day I met my best friend. I can count from the day of my birth if I want to–or any other day.

2016-yearly-calendar-landscape-10

Behold 2016–every day’s potentially a great one!

What I’m saying is that any and every day is a perfect day to start your new life, or to leave behind something that is hurting you, or to try something you’ve never tried before. Any and every day could be the day that something wonderful happens–that some new person or opportunity enters your life. You don’t need to wait for January 1 to become sober, you don’t need to wait for Valentine’s Day to tell your partner you love them. You don’t need to wait for the end of the week, end of the month, end of the semester, etc. to try that new thing or to get back to that great hobby you really enjoy.

Having an aspiration or seeking happiness or becoming a better person is not about January 1. It’s about every single day you ever have for the rest of your life, whether you have a lot of days left or a comparative few. Any day could be the start of something amazing, and if you find that you have not kept to your resolutions as you would have liked, any day is a perfect day to start trying again.

Today I Want to Talk About Intimate-Partner Violence

I hate to be a downer so close to one of my favourite times of year, but today I want to talk about intimate-partner violence, and specifically (since women make up the majority of victims of intimate-partner violence), about violence against women. I have not been a victim of intimate-partner violence, however, I have been thinking a lot about it in the past few days.

You see, on Friday I had minor dental surgery. Over the next few days, as the swelling in my right cheek went down, I noticed bruising begin to darken under my eye and on my cheek. I’m not really sure how I managed to get a black eye from a gum graft (maybe my dentist was resting his hand on my cheekbone just under my eye and I didn’t notice because my face was frozen?), but at any rate, I looked a little rough.

Of course, that didn’t stop me from getting back into the swing of things after my dentist-mandated two days of rest: going Christmas shopping with TC, attending a Christmas party, going to work. If I noticed people noticing the bruises on my face I’d explain that I’d just had dental surgery and we’d all laugh.

We’d laugh because the idea of me being in a fist fight with someone, or the idea of my loving and even-tempered husband ever behaving violently towards me, is laughable. That kind of violence is totally alien to me and is so far outside the sphere of my life right now that the idea of anyone ever intentionally giving me a bruised cheek and a black eye is actually funny.

Except…it’s not. As I walked around in the mall on Monday, or sat with my husband in the food court, or caught questioning eyes on my face at work, I realized that the idea of a woman you know being punched in the face by her partner is not so preposterous. It’s very likely that many people who saw my bruises this week thought this is what had happened (as I signed for a package yesterday the DHL delivery man even said carefully, “I have to ask you what happened to your eye” and was very relieved when I told him about my dental work). It’s the same conclusion I would likely jump to if I saw a woman with bruises on her face–it’s almost cliche, the face of the battered woman. Because it happens far too often.

What do you tell a woman who has two black eyes?

Nothing. She’s already been told twice.

I can’t remember who first told me that “joke”, or how old I was the first time I heard it. I do know I’ve heard it more than once. I’ve also heard more than one girlfriend jokingly proclaim “I fell down the stairs!” when asked about a bruise, which was only a “joke” because most of us knew that the phrase “I fell down the stairs” (or “I walked into a door”) was a code–one of a variety of common lies used by women to cover for an abusive partner. This is a “joke” I’ve made with friends too. Why was it funny? Was it funny because we felt safe from violence? Or was it funny because we aren’t, and laughter covers up our feelings of powerlessness?

Need_infographicsENG_cropped_0I have never been struck by a partner and I have never been afraid that any romantic partner would physically harm me. I don’t want to say this makes me lucky, because lucky is when you find a $5 bill on the ground, not when you are treated at the base level of how every human being should be treated. And yet, to say that women who experience violence at the hands of someone they love are not unlucky seems to suggest that there is some way they can, or could have, controlled the actions of their partner (or made better choices). And that’s not fair, and it’s not true.

After the third or fourth mention of my black eye, I tried to imagine for a moment what it would be like if TC actually HAD punched me in the face. It’s not a thought-exercise I care to repeat, and it made me feel sick; I really can’t picture the man I love doing such a horrible thing. But then I realized–not many of us can. Most of us don’t fall in love expecting to be physically assaulted by our partner. The idea is so at odds with the idea of the person we love, if it happened, we almost wouldn’t believe it, would we? If you think of someone you really REALLY love, someone sweet and gentle, hurting you–you’d literally think they weren’t themselves in that moment, you’d think some kind of extreme provocation must have occurred to push them to do what they did. It wasn’t them, you’d tell yourself, it was stress/anxiety/alcohol/mental health issues, etc. And then you’d start thinking, “If I don’t nag them/argue with them/make them jealous, they won’t do it again,” which unfortunately is simply never true.

Like many people, I’ve asked myself “Why can’t women who are being abused just LEAVE?”, as if leaving were so simple and so easy and so safe. I could try to list some of the commonly-cited reasons women stay with an abusive partner, but instead I will defer to the Canadian Women’s Foundation (to see their statistical sources please visit their Facts About Violence page):

IF A WOMAN IS BEING ABUSED, WHY DOESN’T SHE JUST LEAVE THE RELATIONSHIP?

  • Women often stay because the abuser has threatened to kill them if they leave, or to kill himself, or to kill the children.
  • Women believe these threats, for good reason – the most dangerous time for an abused women is when she attempts to leave her abuser. About 25% of all women who are murdered by their spouse had left the relationship. In one study, half of the murdered women were killed within two months of leaving the relationship.
  • Some women stay because the abuser has threatened to harm or kill a household pet. In one study, over 60% of women living in an emergency shelter had their pet or their children’s pet harmed and/or killed by an abusive partner.
  • Almost 60% of all dating violence happens after the woman has broken off the relationship.
  • Women sometimes stay because they are financially dependent on their partner. Over 1.22 million Canadian women live in poverty, along with their children. Women who leave a partner to raise children on their own are more than five times likely to be poor than if they had stayed.
  • Some women stay because they have strong beliefs about keeping family together. Sometimes, relatives or in-laws blame the woman for the violence and insist she stay.
  • Domestic abuse is often a gradual process, with the frequency of assaults and seriousness of the violence slowly escalating over time. Since abusers often express deep remorse and promise to change, it can take years for women to admit that the violence will never stop and the relationship is unsalvageable. In the meantime, the long-term experience of being abused can destroy women’s self-confidence, making it more difficult to believe they deserve better treatment, that she can find the courage to leave, or can manage on their own.

Whether or not a Canadian woman will be a victim of intimate-partner violence almost seems like a crap shoot–either you wind up dating a guy who hurts you, or you don’t. And while abuse doesn’t discriminate, your odds of being that woman who ends up with an abuser are increased if you are First Nations, or a woman of colour, or a woman living in poverty, or a woman with a disability, or a trans* woman–basically, your vulnerability to domestic violence is increased or decreased by factors that have nothing to do with how strong you are or how virtuous you are or how smart you are or whether or not you’re a “good” wife/girlfriend. Various factors can affect your likelihood of experiencing intimate-partner violence, but none of these factors are your fault, and none of these factors make any woman deserving of violent treatment.

And yet….and yet. There are still far too many abused woman in this country, and far too few ways to protect them. Generally speaking, the onus is on women to take the first step to protect themselves and their children (very difficult to do if you are being made powerless and afraid). Nevertheless, the Government of Canada has some information about resources for those experiencing domestic violence, and if your partner is hurting you or making you feel afraid (even if you have not been hurt physically), or you suspect a friend or loved one is being abused, please click the link above.

Note: For your safety, if you are being abused or are afraid your partner will harm you, it is advised that you do NOT access domestic abuse resources on a computer or electronic device your abuser has access to–instead use a computer at work or the Library, a trusted friend’s smartphone, etc.

Second Note: Though the majority of victims of domestic abuse are women and I have focused on female victims of intimate-partner violence in this post, I recognize that all genders can be victims of abuse, and all genders can be perpetrators. I believe the following excerpt from the Options for LGBTQTS Women webpage on the Battered Women’s Support Services website (a Vancouver-based organization), explains this reality thoroughly:

Abuse occurs within lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, queer, trans and straight relationships. It happens in all communities regardless of race, social status or education. Size, strength, mental health, use of substances, gender presentation or politics does not determine whether she or he has been abused or is abusive.

For more information or for support call 604-687-1867 or email intake@bwss.org.

Last Note: A quick Google search can help you find information on women’s shelters and other resources in your area, or can help you find ways to help support vulnerable women in your community. And please, if someone tells you they have been abused, believe them.

Sometimes I Dream That Nothing Can Burn

I’m sure we all have fantasies in  our quiet moments–maybe we fantasize about what we would do if we won the lottery, or if we had superpowers, or maybe we furnish our dream home in our minds, right down to flower boxes in the windows and the happy old dog on the porch. We fantasize about nice things, good things, things that show us a small part of the world as we wish it could be.

For several months I have been visited by a different kind of fantasy–I dream that nothing can burn, or more specifically, that some kind of strange Deus Ex Machina situation has occurred that has indefinitely suspended the physical/chemical ability for all matter on earth to ignite (note that I am excluding extraterrestrial bodies like the sun; I really want the sun to stay on fire).

What does this mean? This means, of course, that no one would be able to burn fossil fuels, since they wouldn’t ignite. We would have to find different ways to power our homes and our vehicles (and our machines of industry, for such industries that would still exist). We would need to adapt, and we would need to adapt quickly. Though it would be very hard at first (and I do worry about those poor folks who depend on wood or peat fires for their cookstoves), we would find another way to live, one that didn’t destroy our planet and ourselves along with it. It’s a nice idea, and I wish that we could all start living as if things don’t burn, as if fossil fuels aren’t an option (which they someday won’t be, but once we realize that it might be too late). We know change is coming, we know we can’t live the way we do now indefinitely, and I wish we could start bringing this change into our present. The future you choose is better than the future that is forced upon you.

My fantasy would also mean that guns, which rely on the ignition of gunpowder to send the bullet out of the gun and ripping through some family’s heart, wouldn’t work. Guns wouldn’t work. Desperate angry people would put on their masks and their hatred and they would arrive at the Bataclan in Paris or at a Planned Parenthood centre in Colorado Springs or the Inland Regional Centre in San Bernardino or at the Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston or the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown or the École Polytechnique in Montreal and they would pull their triggers and nothing would happen. No one would be a victim that day and no one would be a murderer.

We would still hurt each other just as we always have–with sticks and stones and steel and fists–and in some new ways too (such is technology). But it wouldn’t be so easy. It wouldn’t be so ridiculously, ludicrously, horrifyingly and heart-breakingly easy.

Why can’t we live as if killing each other, and ourselves, is not such an easy thing? If you’ve ever loved anyone, you know that their life, human life, is the dearest gift there is.

On the Paris Attacks: How Flowers Really Do Protect Us

flowerDrawing

I don’t need to tell you what happened in Paris on Friday, November 13, 2015. The merciless and coordinated terrorist attack that left 129 people dead and 368 wounded already has its own Wikipedia entry. Though this attack follows on the heels of a deadly suicide bomb attack in Beirut, and even though Boko Haram killed more people last year than ISIS (earning itself the horrible distinction of being the world’s deadliest terrorist organization), Paris’ popularity as a tourist destination, and its importance in western culture, brought the threat of terror and the reality of the long reach ISIS’ ideological hatred very close to home. Although it is not right of us, we are used to bad things happening, “over there”, and it is simply not very present in many of our minds. But Paris is another story–to many of us, Paris (among other famous European cities like London or Rome) is an icon of cultural achievement and western civilization. It is the City of Light, of art, of romance–it’s a place we go.

So we felt the deaths of those killed in Paris more keenly than we feel the deaths of people in Beirut. Like I said, this is not right–but it is an emotional fact that I am experiencing myself. We know things are bad in Syria and Iraq (obviously, or there wouldn’t be so many refugees risking life and limb to leave), we know other countries around the world are facing instability and threats, and many of us feel sorrow or worry or a need to help, but Paris shook us to our cores.

I’m sure many of us have responded with fear. Many have responded with hatred, and have expressed a desire for revenge, either through violence (“Let’s bomb the shit out of them!”) or through a refusal to offer aid to refugees fleeing civil war and ISIS (“We don’t want them here–they’re going to murder us!”). Hearts have hardened and reason has taken a back seat–many Canadians (including Saskatchewan premier Brad Wall) either don’t know or don’t care that none of the attackers have been identified as Syrian refugees, or that the refugees who will be re-settled in Canada have gone through, and will go through, many high-level security screenings. Some people barely gave a moment of thought to the actual victims in Paris before they started in on the Islamophobic vitriol, so eager were they to express their hatred and fear (almost gleeful, it seems, to have an excuse).

But many have responded with compassion instead–recognizing that refugees from Syria are running from exactly the same people who threaten us. My own resolve remains firm–it was simply luck that I was born in Canada; that doesn’t make me better than anyone born somewhere else, and that doesn’t give me the right to deny them what my grandparents and great-grandparents were given–a safe home that still has so much room for more. Many groups and individuals across Canada are extending their hand and sponsoring refugees, and this is a wonderful thing.

But I am also sad, and scared, and what I want to feel more than anything right now is hope. Which is why this little video clip, of a Parisian father talking to his son, is such a comfort to me:

[Some very silly folks, after watching this video, felt the need to comment that flowers can’t physically protect people from guns–as if we didn’t know! But I don’t feel that the boy’s father was lying. If we honour the dignity of the dead rather than broadcast the hideousness of their killers, if we lay down flowers instead of taking up arms, these gestures will protect what is most valuable in us–our spirit, and our humanity. A people that is physically and materially safe but is violent, suspicious, and cruel, is no people at all.]

We need to remember that children are watching us. The more we fear-monger and hate the more frightened and powerless they will feel. We cannot, hard as we try, guarantee that nothing bad will happen, but we can show them that it is possible to live without fear (even if we ourselves are afraid). We can show them the beauty and goodness that is in the world. We need to do this for them. And I think we need to do it for ourselves too.

 

A Gender-Balanced Federal Cabinet is Neither Unusual nor Unfair

women-in-cabinet

On Wednesday, our 23rd Prime Minister of Canada,  Justin Trudeau, unveiled his new cabinet. Of the 30 Liberal MPs sworn in as ministers this week (not including Prime Minister Trudeau, who is the 31st member of his cabinet), 15 are women. Which means that if you take the PM out of the equation, our new cabinet is the first in Canadian history to have equal numbers of men and women.

When asked by a reporter why gender parity in the cabinet was important to him, Prime Minister Trudeau simply replied, “Because it’s 2015.”

This is a short remark, somewhat flippant but certainly final (what the kids these days refer to as “dropping the mic”), but it is very important. By refusing to discuss his decision, the Prime Minister of Canada has told us, essentially, that the necessity of a balance of representation that reflects the true gender demographics of the Canadian people is not up for discussion (note: I am aware than no transgender individuals were named to the cabinet, but I am not sure if there are actually any Liberal MPs who are trans* at this time). I agree wholeheartedly–my right as a female Canadian to be just as represented in the federal cabinet as my male counterparts is non-negotiable–however, there are two things I want to say about this historic decision.

THING ONE: For a prime minister to intentionally select members of his/her cabinet in order to achieve a specific kind of demographic representation or to achieve any other kind of symbolic or political aim is not unusual. It happens all the time, for a variety of reasons, including:

Regional balance: any smart prime minister, especially one that has just made gains in regions that are not usually considered their party’s base, would do well to make sure these new regions feel that they have a voice at the table, and that their support is not taken for granted (prime ministers who have just planted their flag in Alberta, for example, need to make damn sure at least one of their cabinet ministers is from Alberta). Canada is a BIG country, and one that, historically, has centered power in Ontario and Quebec. Recent re-distributions of federal ridings have, at long last, shifted some of this political power into different parts of the country, for example, to the Prairies and the West Coast. Only a PM who was arrogant or stupid (or both) would continue to ignore provinces and territories outside of central Canada and leave themselves vulnerable to the charge that “Ottawa doesn’t care about the rest of us.”

Trudeau, contrary to popular belief, has been neither arrogant nor stupid in his cabinet decisions–in addition to achieving gender parity, he has also selected for regional representation. Yes, most of the ministers are still from Quebec and Ontario (these two provinces are still home to the majority of Canadians), but his cabinet includes MPs from every Canadian province and one from the territories. It isn’t about choosing the “best” thirty MPs necessarily, it’s about choosing the best complement of thirty MPs to best represent the people who just voted for you. Selecting for region is no more arbitrary than selecting for gender.

Fresh faces: while of course it’s important to have a healthy supply of experienced veterans (like Ralph Goodale, our new minister of public safety) in cabinet positions, people do get tired of seeing the same old seasoned politicians running the show. Appointing newer MPs to cabinet positions sends the message that the government is interested in more than “business as usual”, that they are open to fresh perspectives and new ideas. For a new prime minister like Trudeau, who ran on a platform of “Real Change”, putting new MPs in cabinet is an absolute necessity. Experienced MPs provide a sense of competence and stability (which is why there are some party veterans in the mix), but Trudeau wasn’t running on the Liberal Party’s past record–in many ways, he was running from it. His entire election campaign strategy revolved around showing Canadians that his Liberal Party was not the Liberal Party of his father, was not the Liberal Party of the sponsorship scandal, and was not the boat-adrift-at-sea mess we saw under Stéphane Dion and Michael Ignatieff. In order to prove you are the party of “Real Change” you have to make some real, well, changes. Which means some star MPs have found themselves outside of cabinet, despite their experience and merits. Which is, again, not unusual. [Side note: Despite his bumbling in 2008, I personally would not guffaw at Dion’s appointment to minister of foreign affairs–you do want someone with experience in that position and though he was a bit of a dud as a party leader Dion has been a cabinet minister twice before and has been a good MP for his riding for almost 20 years.]

What I’m saying is this: with so many MPs, both experienced and brand new, to choose from, cabinet decisions made within any kind of gender-based, regional, multi-cultural, or symbolic parameters are going to appear either arbitrary, or calculated for specific effect (which they are). But this is nothing new–this is politics.

THING TWO: For a prime minister to intentionally select members of his/her cabinet in order to achieve a specific kind of demographic representation or to achieve any other kind of symbolic or political aim is not unfair.

Of course, as soon as there is so much as a whiff of “affirmative action” on the breeze, folks who have never cared about federal cabinet a day in their lives suddenly come out of the woodwork to denounce selecting MPs based on “what’s between their legs” rather than “merit” as unfair.

Firstly, these charges are deeply offensive–there is so much more to being a woman than “what’s between our legs” (and remember that not all women have vaginas, and not all men have penises). The act of being a woman or being a man involves some physiological/biological aspects, yes, but is also a complex kaleidoscope of structures, pressures, and experiences–social, economic, structural, political, sexual, historical, etc. Why is it that the male MPs appointed to cabinet are considered to have experience and education and “merit”, but the female MPs just have vaginas?

These denunciations also demonstrate a misunderstanding of how Canadian politics works (see Thing One). Every single candidate who runs in Canada (with the exception of the leader of a party) is running to be a Member of Parliament–nothing more. Becoming an MP does not mean you will be part of the government, and becoming a government MP does not mean you will be in cabinet. ‘Member of Parliament’ is the ONLY job candidates are being elected for–there is no guarantee of a cabinet position, because MPs are not elected to cabinet, they are appointed. No MP, no matter their experience or gender or other background, has any constitutional reason to expect to become a cabinet minister. It just doesn’t work that way.

“But,” some say, “gender-based appointments are unfair to all those male MPs who got passed up for cabinet posts because they were men. Even though they had more merit.”

The claim of having “more merit” is a dubious one, generally, and hard to defend. “Merit” is not quantifiable in government, nor is it objective. MPs do not have “merit points” assigned based on some kind of impartial rubric that can be totted up to determine who is the more meritorious. Our ideas of merit are based on certain qualities we find important, and they are completely subjective–a quality you might find indicative of merit may not be at all important to me.

You might say that there are some qualities which we can surely all agree are indicative of an MP’s merit–experience, for example, intellect, or education. These qualities are generally wonderful, and I bet they sure do help an MP do a good job, but if the last election has taught us anything, it’s that we actually don’t care about them as much as we do about personality, trust, and charisma. If we did, Justin Trudeau, who has no political experience prior to 2008, and holds no university degree above the undergraduate level, would not be prime minister. If we really cared about “merit”, our prime minister would probably be Elizabeth May, who has a degree in law, has written seven books, was voted Maclean’s Magazine‘s “Parliamentarian of the Year” in 2012 and “Best Orator” in 2014, has never really pissed anyone off, and was named an Officer of the Order of Canada in 2005. She is one of the hardest-working MPs on Parliament Hill and yet she remains the leader of a one-person party, with only a tiny fraction of the political power of the House. Fair? Maybe not, but I haven’t heard these same “fairness and merit” people cry too much about it.

Besides, we cannot assume that the women on Trudeau’s cabinet are not the best for the job. Yes, they are women, and yes, including  a certain number of women was intentional, but with no quantifiable way to compare “merit” we cannot say that any of these women displaced a more deserving man–in fact, since 50% of the cabinet appointments are intentionally male, we could make the claim that one or more of these men displaced a more deserving woman. “Maleness” is not a default quality of being a cabinet minister, nor it is an indicator of being deserving.

Either way, it’s really a moot point, because cabinet appointments are not about who “deserves” it more–it’s about who will do a good job on their file, who will be an asset rather than a liability in Question Period and media scrums, and who will truly be able to speak for Canadians, rather than speaking to them. Cabinet appointments are not rewards for being a great dude.

Some have suggested that because women make up only 27% of the Liberal caucus (and 26% of total MPs in the House of Commons), it is unfair for them to make up more than 27% of the Liberal cabinet. But this suggestion ignores the distinction between the elected House (or caucus) and the appointed cabinet. The Members of Parliament who sit in the House of Commons are responsible for representing the people who voted for them, i.e., their constituents. No male MP’s power to do this has been curtailed by gender parity in cabinet in any way. Before being enacted, all bills and budgets will be put to a vote in the House of Commons, as usual, and if women make up 26% of the House those female MPs will make up 26% of the vote (we cannot assume, of course, that all of the women in the House will vote the same way simply by virtue of their being women, which would be a frankly ridiculous assumption). The House of Commons (as much as it can in a first-past-the-post system) represents the electoral will of Canadians. This is unchanged.

But the Government of Canada, including its ministries as represented by the cabinet appointees, is not the same as the House. The capital-G Government is responsible for representing ALL Canadians, not just the Canadians who voted for them, not just the Canadians who vote, and not just the Canadians who are eligible to vote. According to Stats Canada, women make up 50.4% of the Canadian population. Why shouldn’t that be reflected in the Canadian cabinet? This still leaves the 49.6% of male Canadians fully represented (actually, more than fully represented since the prime minister makes 16 male members to his cabinet’s 15 female members). So when people say a 50-50 gender split in cabinet is unfair, I wonder, unfair to whom?

I’m tired of a definition of “fair” that says that 50% of the population should get 75% of the Cabinet Pie, and the other 50% should only get 25%, and that it’s fair that which piece of pie you get depends entirely on what’s between your legs. I’m tired of hearing that it’s only “fair” when men have more than women. I’m tired of the assumption that if all rewards were linked only to merit, women wouldn’t have as much or more than men. These definitions and assumptions are offensive, divorced from reality, and seriously outdated.

As the prime minister says, “It’s 2015.”