I don’t vote Conservative, but if I did, I’d vote for Michael Chong

With the Conservative Party of Canada (CPC) leadership race in full swing, a fairly crowded Rogues Gallery of potato-faced Bay Street-ers and lightweight racists have come out of the woodwork to diagnose our country’s ills and declare themselves the solution. Candidates range from the generally uninspiring (like Maxime Bernier, who actually has Cabinet experience but also left sensitive documents at his former girlfriend’s place, leading to his resignation in 2008), to the downright scary (Kellie Leitch, one of the faces of Harper’s disastrous “Barbaric Cultural Practices Tipline” , who finds positivity in Donald Trump’s presidency and wants to subject newcomers to Canada [read: Muslims] to some kind of “Canadian values test”,  as if the existing commitment by all immigrants and refugees to obey Canadian law isn’t enough; or Kevin O’Leary, the loud-mouthed, U.S.-dwelling reality star who hasn’t lived in Canada in years and,  as demonstrated by his offer to give Alberta’s oil industry $1 million in exchange for Rachel Notley’s resignation, has a frighteningly insufficient grasp of both fundamental democratic principles and of the problems facing our nation). Generally speaking, both hard-line right-wing conservatives and the CPC leadership candidates watched Trump’s ascendency to the U.S. Presidency, realized that his no-apologies, “alternative-facts”, bigoted and bullying strategies actually WORKED, and are wondering if those same tactics should, or could, be successfully employed here in Canada.

The answer, unfortunately, is yes. While some may say that Stephen Harper’s hard xenophobic turn in his last campaign as Prime Minister lost him the 2015 federal election, it’s important to remember that he’d been the Prime Minister for a LONG TIME (almost ten years, which tends to tire out an electorate that sometimes chooses change just for the sake of it) and even some conservatives had begun to chafe under his dictatorial leadership style and his general disdain for most Canadians. It’s also important to note that even with Harper’s misguided focus on identity politics (see his hissy-fits over niqabs and “barbaric cultural practices”), the strategic voting strategies researched and promoted by groups such as Leadnow to oust him, and his general “dangers at our shores” lack of charisma contrasted with Trudeau’s youthful “sunny ways” charm, the CPC still retained 99 seats in the House of Commons (making them the Official Opposition) and just under 32% of the popular vote. Which means that the Conservative Party of Canada, ham-fisted as its most recent campaign was, still has a lot of support. Otherwise forgettable leadership candidates like Leitch and Brad Trost know that the harder they push their bigoted rhetoric, the more media coverage they’ll get, and the more likely it is that they will be able to ride that media attention and hard-right sentiment to the top of the party and maybe, just maybe, to the Prime Minister’s Office.

Since Justin Trudeau is stupid and a liar and has abandoned his promise to reform Canada’s electoral system, the likelihood of a Trump-like CPC candidate securing a majority government in the next election is actually not that unthinkable. Canada’s alt-right movement (and there is one) has been galvanized by Trump’s election, Ezra Levant’s Breitbart-esque media outlet, Rebel Media, and by general and strongly-felt disgust with the failings (real or perceived) of the country’s “progressive” governments (like Trudeau’s federally or Kathleen Wynne’s in Ontario or Notley’s in Alberta). These voices are loud, and they get a lot of attention, and attention (whether positive or negative) can put someone in office (as we’ve seen clearly demonstrated in the U.S.). Meanwhile, left-wing voters who held their noses and cast their ballots for the Liberals in the last federal election (many people specifically FOR Trudeau’s platform on electoral reform) have been completely turned off by Trudeau’s myriad broken promises (to have a nation-to-nation relationship with First Nations communities, to secure social license before approving major resource projects like pipelines, to be more transparent, the aforementioned electoral reform, etc.). Many of these voters are not going to give Trudeau another chance. This could be a boon for the NDP and Green Party, who could potentially gain more seats in the House as opposition parties, but would ultimately split the “non-conservative” vote once again, possibly paving the way for another CPC government. Yay.

This is why all civic-minded Canadians, and not just conservative voters, need to be paying attention to the CPC leadership race. Whoever wins may very well become our next Prime Minister, shaping the nation and our lives within it. We need that person to be even-keeled, a respectable presence on the world stage. If we care at all about human rights or human dignity, we also need that person not to be a xenophobe.

Michael Chong: one of Maclean's Best Parliamentarians of the Year, 2011. Photo: Peter Bregg/Maclean's

Michael Chong: one of Maclean’s Best Parliamentarians of the Year, 2011. Photo: Peter Bregg/Maclean’s

One of the political voices I have appreciated the most in recent weeks has actually been that of Michael Chong, MP of Wellington-Halton Hills. As Canada (and the international community) reeled in the wake of the deadly Islamophobia-inspired terrorist shooting at a mosque in Quebec City, and Trump’s catastrophic “travel ban” saw thousands of innocent Muslim travelers detained or turned away from the U.S., CPC candidates like Leitch continued to peddle their Made-in-Canada brands of exclusion. Chong (himself a child of Dutch and Chinese immigrants), took the high road, issuing a statement reminding Canadians that our immigration screening system is already one of the most robust in the world, and condemning those of his opponents attempting to reap political benefits by “espousing hate”. He is also one of the few CPC leadership candidates to openly and unreservedly support motion M-103, which would commit the Canadian government to condemning Islamophobia. (Chong maintains that this motion would not single out Islam for special treatment, noting that the House has previously denounced hatred against other religious groups, including Jews and Egyptian Coptic Christians).

Admittedly, Chong’s environmental platform is a bit thin, but at least he has one. Promoting a revenue-neutral carbon tax at least assumes that Chong, unlike many conservatives, believes that climate change exists and that reducing emissions is something worth doing (baby steps). Unfortunately, his support for a carbon tax alongside his support for our current immigration system will likely hurt him in his leadership campaign. With many Canadian families hit hard by oil’s recent and ongoing downturn and Islamophobic fear-mongering splashing across the news on an almost daily basis in the past few years, few of the CPC’s increasingly hard-right voters are going to care about the nuances that differentiate Evil Rachel Notley’s Evil Carbon Tax from the revenue-neutral scheme Chong is proposing. Nor are they going to care about the difference between a law-abiding Canadian immigrant (or citizen) going about her business in a niqab and a fundamentalist jihadist bent on destruction (or about the fact that the recent jihad-based terror attacks/attempts in Canada were planned and perpetrated by home-grown Canadians, not immigrants or refugees).

Obviously, Michael Chong is not perfect and, as a life-long leftist, I could never support everything in his platform. Still, if I can’t have an NDP Prime Minister (and it seems I can’t, since there are still no viable NDP leadership candidates in sight), and if Trudeau is going to keep pissing people off on both sides of the political spectrum, and if the next Prime Minister of Canada is going to be a Conservative (which is highly possible), I’d rather it be Michael Chong than anybody else.

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It may be scary, but we will have to trust Will Baker

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On July 30, 2008, 41-year-old Vince Li sat down on a Greyhound bus beside Tim McLean, a young man of 22. What happened during that horrifying trip has since gone down in infamy: west of Portage la Prairie, Manitoba, Li (suffering from untreated schizophrenia) became convinced that McLean was a demon Li was commanded by God to kill. Li stabbed McLean multiple times with a hunting knife before dismembering him and eating parts of his body.

Li (who has since changed his name to Will Baker), was arrested, charged, and ultimately deemed Not Criminally Responsible for McLean’s murder due to the severity of his illness at the time and his inability to understand his actions. This means that legally, Will Baker did not commit a crime, though he did spend the following 8.5 years in psychiatric treatment, with increasing levels of freedoms and privileges as his condition improved and those in charge of his care became increasingly confident that Baker was able to manage his illness and no longer posed a threat to others. Since November, Baker has been living on his own in Winnipeg, but has been subject to several conditions, including monitoring to ensure he was taking his medication.

On February 10, Baker was granted an absolute discharge by the Criminal Code Review Board. According to the Board’s decision, “the weight of evidence does not substantiate that Mr. Baker poses a significant threat to the safety of the public.” This means that the last remaining limitations on Baker’s freedom (including the monitoring of his compliance with his medication schedule) have been removed and he is now as free as any other Canadian citizen.

Unsurprisingly, Tim McLean’s family does not support the Board’s decision. This is absolutely understandable. Whether legally culpable or not, the fact remains that if not for the actions of Vince Li in 2008, Tim McLean would most likely still be with them. In the nine years that have passed since that tragic summer, who knows what McLean (who would have been turning 31 this year) could have gone on to achieve, or what further joys and positive experiences he could have brought to the lives of his family and friends? A young man’s future has been stolen, not only from him but also from those who loved him. There is really no justice to be found for them, and no solace here. We cannot expect them to forgive.

That being said, I find myself being quite dismayed by some of the online reactions I have read regarding Baker’s full release into free society. Comments by the public range from the racist (“Why can’t he go have a mental illness in his own country?” [Baker is originally from China but was a Canadian citizen at the time of McLean’s murder]), to the ignorant (“Criminals always get a free pass in this country”, forgetting that technically, Baker is not guilty of a crime and has actually spent a not-insignificant period of time living in institutions or under restrictions since he was arrested), to the just plain extreme (“This is why we need the death penalty”). Those who oppose Baker’s release cite the feelings of McLean’s family, and/or their personal disbelief that Baker will continue to take his medication without being forced (“Sick people always think they’re getting better and then they stop taking their meds,” etc.).

With respect to concerns about McLean’s family, I’m pretty sure that 95% of those vocal internet folks probably spent an average of about zero minutes thinking about Tim McLean and his family between Baker/Li’s arrest in 2008 and news of his release last week. Their comments smack, not of real concern, but of a desire to see a “bad man” be punished.

I absolutely agree that the Canadian criminal justice system needs to be more responsive to victims of violent crime (or their families, if the victim is no longer living). But I’m not sure locking a man away for being sick and throwing away the key is the kind of response that will benefit anyone. As the Globe and Mail’s Patrick White pointed out in 2009, the Canadian mental healthcare system failed Li repeatedly before his illness spiraled into a homicidal psychosis. He had, in fact, escaped a treatment facility prior to McLean’s murder, and there was no follow-up to his disappearance despite the fact that he had been admitted specifically for being considered a danger. Had Canada had a more robust system in place to treat those with severe mental illness (including those whose illnesses prevent them from perceiving the serious reality of their own medical situation), had stigma surrounding mental illness not prevented Li from seeking help earlier, had he not been allowed to fall through several cracks prior to that fateful summer day, things could have been much different for him, and for Tim McLean. If we really cared about victims and their families, we would want to do our best to prevent these kinds of crimes from happening in the first place, and that means doing the hard work of changing our systems, rather than pinning all of the blame on a severely ill individual.

As for the argument that Baker cannot be trusted to stay on his meds, I admit this does make me uneasy. I do wish that the Criminal Code with regards to “Not Criminally Responsible” individuals (even those deemed low-risk, as Baker is considered to be) allowed for some additional nuance to address these kinds of concerns. That said, to not give a technically blameless man a second chance is hypocritical when second chances are extended to so many others who actually ARE culpable for their actions (impaired drivers, for example, who put others’ lives at risk every single time they are on the road, or rapists, whose defenders claim they shouldn’t be harshly punished for “one mistake”). Baker’s own mind had turned against him, and I cannot imagine how terrifying that would have been. He believed that if he did not kill Tim McLean as “God” commanded, he would die (remember, he did not choose to kill someone). According to his doctors, as soon as Baker gained the mental capacity to understand what he had done, he was horrified and remorseful. Baker understands that he needs to take his medication to prevent another psychotic episode and is committed to never being a danger to anyone ever again. It’s likely, given this commitment and his own infamy, that Baker will be a less dangerous member of society going forward than a lot of other totally free Canadians.

Can we 100% trust that Will Baker will never have another psychotic break? No. But can we ever 100% trust that no one else will ever do anything to harm us? Of course not. We exist in a country of free citizens, who can board buses and drive on roads and be in public places and walk down streets and own things that can be dangerous and choose whether to be a good person or a shitty person. Unless we are going to curtail EVERYONE’S freedoms, there is no way to guarantee that one of our fellow citizens won’t take advantage of these liberties and hurt someone. We hope this won’t happen, and usually our trust is rewarded—incidents like the murder on the Greyhound bus are already very very rare. Hopefully, Canada will use the concerns Baker’s release has raised to improve mental health care across the country, and the kind of gruesome tragedy that befell Tim McLean will be rarer still.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unsettling this Settler (a prologue)

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

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

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

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

For me, today, this means two things:

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

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

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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“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.]

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.

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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:

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

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

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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:

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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.

 

A Gender-Balanced Federal Cabinet is Neither Unusual nor Unfair

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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.”