Tag Archives: Canada

A Love Letter To Boston

20 Apr

Dear Boston,

I’ve never visited you.

I know that that’s a strange way to begin, and of course I don’t mean it as a slight against you. I’m just stating a fact: I’ve never visited you.

I’ve always wanted to, though, and that must count for something, right? I’ve heard great things about you. A bunch of people whose opinions I really respect have highly recommended you. I’ve planned a fantasy vacation (which my husband has nicknamed The Dead Author Tour of New England) that involves you.

I don’t really have any great reasons for not having visited you, to be honest. It just never seemed to be the right time, and our vacations often get eaten by visiting various family members, and travelling with a toddler isn’t exactly optimal.

But still, I’ve always meant to visit you.

The truth is, I think that you might be partially responsible for my existence on this earth. And as much as this life can sometimes be a rocky ride, I’m still grateful that I’m here. I’m the type of person who occasionally likes to consider of all the things that somehow coalesced so that I, this particular me, could happen to be born into this particular time on this particular planet, and the thing is, Boston, you play a small part in that story.

Let me explain.

My great-grandfather, William Cave, had what would be considered by most standards to be a pretty miserable childhood. He grew up poor in Halifax’s north end, living in a flat with his parents, his two sisters, and his grandmother. Things were tough but manageable until the cold, damp climate, inadequate nutrition and limited access to healthcare began to take their toll on his family. When my great-grandfather was nine, his sister Agnes Pearl, aged eleven, died of tuberculosis. The next year, his sister Annie Florence died, also of tuberculosis, at the age of sixteen. In 1915 his mother, Louisa, died, and in 1916 his grandmother, Mariah, died – both of tuberculosis.

My great-grandfather rarely spoke about his childhood. I’ve seen photographs of Agnes and Annie, and I’ve visited their graves, but beyond that, I don’t know much about them. In the picture of Agnes that my grandmother has, she’s very blond, her hair tied back in an enormous bow, and sits in a chair clutching a doll.  Annie is older in her picture, and is standing in front of a white fence wearing a long black coat; she has dark hair and eyes that slant upwards like mine.

In 1917, my great-grandfather was fourteen years old. On the morning of December 6th of that year he was getting ready to start his first day of work at a nearby newspaper plant. He happened to be running late. This fact would prove to be incredibly lucky.

Halifax, like many port towns, tends to profit during wartime, what with all the troops and ships and military big-wigs passing through. On the morning of December 6th, 1917, the harbour and the Bedford Basin were full of big boats, each one crowded with dozens, maybe even hundreds, of crewmen and soldiers on their way to the front. Halifax’s waterfront was packed with people, either working or hurrying to their school or job. Some were just out for a walk, enjoying the nice weather and taking in the excitement of all the ships’ comings and goings.

Every account I’ve ever read of that day has said that it was bright and sunny, the sky clear and the air sharp and bracing.

In order to get from Halifax Harbour into Bedford Basin, a ship has to pass through a strait called the Narrows. On the morning of December 17th, two ships, the Norwegian Imo, which was bringing relief supplies to Belgium, and the French Mont-Blanc, collided in the narrows. The Mont-Blanc caught fire.

What very few people knew was that the Mont-Blanc was a munitions ship carrying TNT, picric acid, benzol and guncotton. Once fire was added to that mix, she became a floating bomb. The captain ordered his crew to abandon ship, and they fled in lifeboats to the Dartmouth side of the harbour. The Mont-Blanc drifted towards Halifax and came to rest at Pier 6, which lay at the bottom of Richmond Street.

As black smoke filled the sky, even more people flocked down to the harbour to watch the ship burn. A few of the dock workers knew what kind of cargo the Mont-Blanc‘s was carrying, and tried to evacuate the waterfront, but they were unsuccessful.

One sailor made his way to the Richmond Railway Yards to tell men working there, Vince Coleman and William Lovett, about the coming explosion. Lovett fled, but Coleman realized that there was a train due in the station within minutes. He stayed behind to send a series of urgent telegraph messages to the train, saying,

“Hold up the train. Ammunition ship afire in harbor making for Pier 6 and will explode. Guess this will be my last message. Good-bye boys.”

At 9:04:35 am, the Mont-Blanc’s highly volatile cargo exploded. The ship disintegrated, and the blast travelled at more than 1,000 metres per second. A mushroom cloud rose into the air and hung over the city. Tremors from the blast were felt as far away as Cape Breton and Prince Edward Island. The harbour floor was briefly exposed, then a tsunami formed as water rushed to fill the void.

Halifax was devastated.

The north end was levelled, with huge brick factories reduced to little more than rubble and wooden houses flattened as if smashed by a giant’s hand. Fires raged everywhere, sometimes consuming entire city blocks. Hundreds were blinded by shards of glass as thousands of windows were shattered by the shockwave.

Fireman Billy Wells, who was thrown and stripped naked by the force of the explosion, described the immediate aftermath:

“The sight was awful, with people hanging out of windows dead. Some with their heads missing, and some thrown onto the overhead telegraph wires.”

That night there was a terrible snow storm, and many people who had survived but been left homeless by the blast had nowhere to go. A city of canvas tents was set up in the Halifax Commons, but the shelter they offered was meagre at best, and anyway, there weren’t enough to go around. People froze to death in the city that had, up until a few hours before, been on fire.

It’s estimated that two thousand people died in the Halifax Explosion and its immediate aftermath, and nine thousand people were injured, six thousand of them seriously. Nearly two thousand homes were completely destroyed, and twelve thousand homes were badly damaged. More Nova Scotian residents were killed in the Halifax Explosion than died in combat during World War I.

And my great-grandfather? Well, he was late for work, which meant that he was out in the middle of the street when the blast happened. As it turned out, this was the best place for him. The newspaper plant where he was supposed to be working was destroyed in the explosion, and his house was a pile of rubble. Had he been in either building, he likely would have died.

His aunt and uncle died, and so did all of their children. A few of his neighbours died. Many of his friends and family were badly injured. He couldn’t find his father after the blast, and had to wait until the next day to learn whether or not he was safe. Miraculously, his father didn’t have a scratch on him.

So what does any of this have to do with Boston?

Well, Boston was the first city to send relief to Halifax. The Boston Red Cross and the Massachusetts Public Safety Committee in particular collected money and supplies to send to Halifax. They didn’t care that the victims of the explosion weren’t Americans; they didn’t care that they were in the middle of a war and resources were tight. They did it anyway, because it was the right thing to do.

And when I imagine my great-grandfather in the aftermath the explosion, homeless and shivering in the sudden storm, alone and not knowing whether his only family member was still alive, I can’t help but think that Boston must have somehow helped him get through that long night. Boston must have been a part of what kept him going through the days and weeks that followed, as he and his father tried to put their life back together.

Boston, who clothed and fed and sheltered Halifax when they were in need.

Boston, who sent help without a second thought.

Boston, the city that now needs our help.

Halifax has a long memory. This is a trait that is, in my experience, both charming and irritating. It means that after you’ve lived in Halifax for a few years, everyone in the city knows your all your business and remembers every single stupid thing you’ve ever done. You can never live anything down in Halifax. If you stay there long enough, an act as simple as walking through its streets becomes tricky, because you feel like even the buildings and trees are passing judgment on you.

But sometimes Halifax’s long memory is lovely. Halifax doesn’t forget the awful things you’ve done, but it doesn’t forget the good ones, either. And Halifax has never forgotten that Boston was there to help first, before even the rest of Canada was able to respond. Halifax sends a Christmas tree to Boston every year, and that tree is lit on the Boston Common. Haligonians traditionally cheer for Boston sports teams. Halifax calls Boston its sister city.

And now, Nova Scotia, the province that can barely afford to feed its own residents, has pledged to donate $50,000 to the Boston Children’s Hospital. While announcing this, Nova Scotia premier Darryl Dexter said,

“When we were in need, Bostonians were there. There is a border and hundreds of miles between us, but Massachusetts is always close to the hearts of Nova Scotians. We will do everything we can to support our neighbours and friends in their time of need. Boston’s resilience and fighting spirit will persevere.”

And he’s exactly right. About everything.

So I guess, Boston, what I really want to say is thank you. Thank you for helping us when we were down. Thank you for saving my great-grandfather. Thank you for my life.

I’ve never met you, but I love you.

The days and weeks ahead of you will be really fucking tough, but I just want you to know that we’re up here, cheering you on. We’re here to help if you need it. We know that your spirit will only grow stronger in the face of this adversity. We know that you will fucking beat this.

And also, we haven’t forgotten.

Hope to see you someday soon!

Sincerely,

Annabelle

My great-grandparents on their 65th wedding anniversary

My great-grandparents on their 65th wedding anniversary

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Rehtaeh Parsons

9 Apr

The story is disturbingly familiar.

A teenage girl goes to some kind of get-together, maybe a party.

She is raped by multiple assailants.

The rape is photographed and distributed via social media.

The girl is subjected to horrifying acts of bullying and shaming. She is branded a slut. Her life becomes a living hell.

This girl is not Steubenville’s Jane Doe, although their stories bear a remarkable resemblance. This girl is Rehtaeh Parsons, a 17-year-old from Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia, who hanged herself on April 4th, a year and a half after being raped. Her family took her off life support this past Sunday.

Reading the account of what happened to Rehtaeh is like watching a deadly accident slowly, methodically unfolding in front of you. And there are bystanders, plenty of bystanders, who had any number of opportunities to step in and do something, but none of them do.

And, in many ways, you are one of these bystanders, too. I am, too. We all are.

Rehtaeh did not have a rape kit done because she was too ashamed to tell anyone about her rape until several days later, at which point it was thought to be too late to retrieve medical evidence.

The boys (there were four of them) accused of raping Retaeh were not interviewed until long after the family tried to press charges.

They were not separated for their interviews; they were interviewed together, meaning that they were easily able to corroborate each others’ stories.

The investigation took over a year. In the end, it was decided that there was insufficient evidence of sexual assault, no charges were laid, and the boys got off scot free.

No legal action was taken with regards to the photographs of the rape that were distributed through social media. Rehtaeh’s mother was told that this was because there was no way of proving who had taken the pictures.

Rehtaeh struggled to survive for seventeen months. She moved to Halifax, unable to cope with the fact that her rapists were also her high school classmates. She checked herself into the hospital when she felt suicidal and stayed there for six weeks. She made new friends. She saw a therapist. She fought to live. She fought hard.

And then one day, she couldn’t fight any longer.

And when I read her story, I can’t help but wonder:

Where the fuck were all the grownups?

Where were the grownups who were supposed to love her and protect her? Where were the grownups who should have kept her safe? Where were the grownups who were supposed to make sure that she received some kind of justice for what she suffered?

And I don’t mean her parents, because it’s clear that they, too, have been struggling for the past seventeen months, doing what they can to try to help and advocate for their daughter. I mean where the fuck were the school officials, the members of the law enforcement, the people who should have made sure that she had adequate follow-up mental health care after her hospitalization? Where were they, and why didn’t they do anything? Or if they did do something, why didn’t they do enough?

Rehtaeh’s rapists are still out there. They are still in high school, they are still going to parties and they are, quite likely, still raping. Why wouldn’t they? They got away with it once, didn’t they? Rehtaeh’s rapists are still living normal, untroubled lives, and she is dead.

She’s dead, but even in the wake of her suicide and the attention her case has gained, government officials are refusing to review why the RCMP declined  to lay charges against Rehtaeh’s rapist.

Instead, Nova Scotia’s justice minister, Ross Landry, released this fucking joke of a statement:

“As a community, we need to have more dialogue with our young people about respect and about support to educate our young boys and our young girls about what’s appropriate behaviour, what’s not appropriate behaviour,” Landry said.

“We have to make sure that we’re cognizant about what gets online and what doesn’t get online and what the impacts are, so it’s having that dialogue.

“That still doesn’t take away the fact that we’ve lost a beautiful young woman … and I’m very upset about the loss.”

Saying that we need to educate boys and girls about appropriate behaviour is victim-blaming. Saying that this wouldn’t have been a problem if the pictures hadn’t ended up online is like saying that rape is fine, but publicly broadcasting it isn’t. Calling Rehtaeh’s death a tragedy because we’ve lost a beautiful young woman is a joke – seriously, what bearing does her appearance have on how sad her death is? And since Landry is refusing to open an official review into how the RCMP handled this, isn’t he basically saying, “I think she was lying about the rape, but gosh, she sure was hot”?

All of this, every single word of this statement, all of the things that Rehtaeh endured, every single detail presented here is rape culture.

This is rape culture. This is our culture.

I never thought in a million years that I’d be saying this, but I wish that Rehtaeh’s case had had the same outcome as Jane Doe’s. Because while Jane Doe had to endure some spectacularly vile, awful shit, at least she made it out alive. At least her rapists suffered consequences. At least her case actually made it to trial.

rehtaeh parsons

This is Rehtaeh Parsons. When she was fifteen, she was raped by four boys. When she was seventeen, she committed suicide.

She is dead because we, as a society, failed her.

There is a petition up demanding an inquiry into the police investigation of Rehtaeh’s rape. I’m not sure if it will do anything to help, but signing it sure as hell won’t hurt. Right now, this petition and bringing awareness to what happened to Rehtaeh seem like the only concrete ways of helping her. Right now, I need to do something, anything to stop myself from feeling like a bystander. I’m not going to just shake my head and sigh over this. I’m going to raise my voice until everyone knows what happened to Rehtaeh.

Edited to add:

Ross Landry now says that he will be moving forward with a review of Rehtaeh’s case. Thank God. An excerpt from the article I linked to:

Justice Minister Ross Landry said today, April 9, he has asked senior government officials to present options, as soon as possible, to review the Rehtaeh Parsons case.

“This situation is tragic, I am deeply saddened – as I think are all Nova Scotians – by the death of this young woman,” said Mr. Landry. “As a parent, I can’t imagine the pain this family is going through at this time. My thoughts are with them.”

Mr. Landry said he hopes to meet with Leah Parsons, Rehtaeh’s mother, to discuss her experience with the justice system.

“I know that law enforcement and the public prosecution service do their best, every day, to administer and enforce the law,” said Mr. Landry. “It’s important that Nova Scotians have faith in the justice system and I am committed to exploring the mechanisms that exist to review the actions of all relevant authorities to ensure the system is always working to the best of its ability, in pursuit of justice.”

Mr. Landry said he has been reviewing details of the case and consulting with officials throughout the day, and expects options within the next few days.

Idle No More

26 Dec

Last night, as we sat down to Christmas dinner, my mother’s dining room table practically groaning under the weight of all the food, I couldn’t help but think of Chief Theresa Spence, who is now on the 14th day of her hunger strike. As I piled my plate high with turkey, stuffing, potatoes and turnips, as the members of my family bowed their heads for grace and then raised their glasses in a toast, I thought of the woman who, only 100 miles away in Ottawa, was willing to die for her people.

Today, as others are rushing out to buy cheap goods in a glut of mass consumerism, I’m reminded of how very much so many of us already have, while others have so little.

Theresa Spence is the chief of the troubled Attawapiskat First Nation, a Cree community near James Bay, which drew media attention earlier this year due to its ongoing housing crisis. Residents in Attawapiskat, and many other First Nations communities, face a shortage of funding when it comes to, well, just about everything, but the situation is especially dire with regards to housing and education. Late 2011 found families in Attawapiskat, including young children, living in uninsulated tents; some of those who were lucky enough to have more adequate housing still lacked basic necessities like running water, and were using buckets for toilets. Although the crisis in Attawapiskat drew significant media attention, it seems that little there has changed over the course of the year.

Chief Spence’s hunger strike and the Idle No More movement it helped spark aren’t just about the subhuman living conditions in Attwapiskat and other reserves, though. It’s not just about the dire conditions found on so many First Nations reserves across the country. It’s not just about Bill C-45, which was passed earlier this year and both reduces the federal protection for Canadian waterways and also facilitates the government selling of reserve lands without consultation. Yes, it’s part of the fight against all those injustices, but it’s also about so much more.

It’s about the fact that our government has continued to ignore or downplay the rights and needs of this country’s Indigenous Peoples.

It’s about the fact that a small group of powerful, mostly white people still insist that they know what’s best for the diverse and culturally rich Canadian First Nations, even though history has proved time and time again that they don’t.

It’s about the fact that Prime Minister Stephen Harper publicly apologized in 2008 for the Canadian residential school system, which forced countless Indigenous children from their homes and into schools where they were beaten, sexually abused and grossly mistreated, and actually promised to help forge a “new relationship” with the First Nations based on “partnership” and “respect”, and yet refuses to meet with Chief Spence.

It’s about the fact that the next year, at the 2009 G20 summit, Harper said that Canada had “no history of colonialism.”

It’s about the fact that in the years since Harper promised to improve relations with First Nations peoples, he has instead cut aboriginal health funding, and his government sent body bags to a Manitoba reserve after its leaders requested federal assistance in dealing with an outbreak of swine flu.

It’s about the fact that over 600 Aboriginal women are missing, and no one seems to give a shit.

It’s about the fact that the Indian Act is so fucking oppressive that I don’t even know where to start. For one thing, a First Nation can only be “formed” and formally recognized by the crown if the Minister of Indian Affairs approves it, even if that nation and its people have existed since long before white settlers came to North America. For another, First Nations peoples have very little control over reserve land, and the Minister must approve any land sales or transfers. Not only that, but First Nations people need to seek government approval for selling or bartering any crops, livestock and other products grown, reared or cultivated on reserve lands; any First Nations person failing to do so will be guilty of an offence. Reserve lands, including roads, bridges and fences, must be maintained by the Band Council, and if the Minister decides that they’re not doing an adequate job, he can order them to make repairs, and any money for those repairs must come from the Band Council. Oh, and if you’re an Indigenous Person, you’d better hope that the government doesn’t declare you to be “mentally incompetent”, as that means that the Minister can force you to sell, lease or mortgage your land as he sees fit. Even a dead Indigenous person isn’t safe from the Minister; no wills drawn up on reserve lands are considered legally valid until the Minister approves them.

Like, what in the actual fuck? Other Canadians don’t have to live this way, and if they did, there would be a fucking revolution. Why are we okay with our government treating the First Nations this way? Even worse, why do people make remarks about Indigenous Peoples wanting special treatment, sneering at things like government-funded post-secondary education and exemption from paying certain taxes. To anyone privileged enough to make comments like that, I have only this to say: you fucking try living through a Northern Ontario winter in an uninsulated tent, shitting and pissing in a bucket and knowing that the government maintains control over nearly every aspect of your lives but pretty much refuses to lift a finger to help you, and then come talk to me about special treatment.

Chief Theresa Spence’s demands are simple: she wants to meet with the Prime Minister and the Governor General. She wants to sit down with them and discuss the plight of Canada’s Indigenous Peoples. She has said that, should Harper refuse her request, she will die for her people.

Harper won’t meet with Spence. Instead, as Spence starves herself in a teepee near the Parliament buildings in Ottawa, he’s enjoying Christmas with his family in Calgary, and composing hilarious tweets about bacon.

Rather than engaging Spence himself, Harper has deputized his Minister of Indian Affairs, John Duncan, to meet with her. Duncan, in turn, has publicly decried Spence for refusing to meet with him, and has urged her to end her hunger strike, out of “concern” for her health. As if it’s not offensive to Indigenous Canadians to say that our Prime Minister is so busy and important that he has to pawn them off to the ministry that has been specially created to deal with them. As if there’s nothing inappropriate about a white man to telling a First Nations woman how to behave or what to do with her body.

Look, I’m not a member of the First Nations. I’m a product of colonialism, descended from settlers who came here from France in 1645. I’m as white as they come. But that doesn’t mean that this isn’t my fight. This should be every Canadian’s fight. The treatment of the First Nations peoples should matter to everyone, no matter what the colour of their skin; this is a case of human rights, not just Aboriginal rights. We all need to take action on this issue.

At the end of the day, we all share the same country. And we need to make this a country that treats all of its citizens with dignity and respect, not just its white citizens, not just its privileged citizens. Other countries view Canada as a fair, peaceful nation where all people have the same rights and privileges – we as Canadians need to start living up to that reputation.

The Canadian First Nations have spent more than a century waiting for things to improve, waiting for better treatment at the hands of the government and hoping that every new promise made by each successive Prime Minister would prove to be more substantial than the empty talk of all the ones that came before. The time to wait is over; now it’s time to stand up and fight back.

Thank you, Chief Theresa Spence, for being so brave, braver than I could ever be. I stand in solidarity with you.

Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence

Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence

National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women

7 Dec

When I was a kid, my mother had a button that looked exactly like this:

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I couldn’t find a very large image of this button, but in case you’re wondering, around the edge it reads: “In commemoration of the 14 women killed in Montreal, December 6th, 1989 and all women who have suffered from violence.”

Every year, after my mother retired her Remembrance Day poppy sometime in mid-November, she would break out her rose button and pin it to the lapel of her coat. As a small child, I remember coveting the button, because I liked the picture on it. When I was older, it made me uncomfortable; I didn’t like that my mother wore a pin to commemorate a mass murder, and the look on her face and the tone in her voice when she explained the story behind it frightened me. Strangely, the story itself didn’t frighten me; it seemed too remote, totally removed from my day-to-day life. It was a freak accident; a tragedy, yes, but nothing that could ever happen to a person like me.

Later still, when I was a teenager and irritated by everything my mother did, I found the button obnoxious and sanctimonious. I’d grown up hearing my mother referring to herself as a feminist, a term that I refused to apply to myself. It seemed to me that most boys hated feminists and, when I was a lonely high school student with low self-esteem, the last thing I wanted was to do something that would cause the boys I knew to reject me even more. When they made jokes about women, jokes whose real punchlines were how stupid and pathetic women were, I laughed. Sometimes I joked back, making fun of the way girls dressed, of how many guys they slept with, how idiotic and shallow they were. Sure, I was a girl, but I was on their side – I wasn’t one of those girls. Never mind the fact that I probably would have given my eyeteeth to be cool enough to be one of those girls.

Back in those days, whenever late fall rolled around and my mother broke out her shabby, rusting rose button, I would roll my eyes. He was crazy, I would tell my mother. Like, mentally ill. It had nothing to do with women, he was just nuts. What if he’d killed only Dutch people? Would we have national day of remembrance and action on violence against Dutch people?

When I was a teenager, I thought that feminism was pointless at best, and a way of angering and alienating people at worst. It hadn’t yet occurred to me that sometimes angering and alienating people was a good thing; that there might be situations in which I wanted people to feel negatively about me and the things that I said. At the time, I couldn’t imagine not wanting to please every body, just like I couldn’t imagine anyone wanting to kill me simply because I was a girl.

Now I know differently.

I’m not saying that anyone’s out to get me specifically, because as far as I know, they’re not. It probably helps that I come off as fairly non-threatening – I’m a small, mousy white woman who doesn’t work in a male-dominated field. I’m a shy, quiet woman who pretty much totally followed the status quo – I finished high school, went to university, then married a nice guy and had a kid before I turned 30. Probably the most threatening thing I do is blog (extensively) about women’s reproductive rights, but that hasn’t generated any death threats or anything.

But there are still people who hate me because of my gender. I mean, maybe not openly, maybe not obviously, but they do. We live in a culture of casual misogyny. A culture where over 600 First Nations women are missing or have been murdered in Canada, only to have our government do nothing about it. A culture where female sex workers are treated as objects instead of people. A culture where women are told to be less angry when they talk about the events of December 6th. A culture where women are constantly being ridiculed, judged and set up in competition against each other. A culture where my sister, an avid World of Warcraft player, has been asked repeatedly to turn on her webcam and show other players her breasts in order to “prove” that she’s a woman.

When Marc Lépine went to the École Polytechnique 23 years ago today, he entered the school with the intention of killing feminists. Feminists, he said in his suicide note, had ruined his life. Lépine had applied to the École Polytechnique in both 1986 and 1989 but had been rejected both times because he lacked the CEGEP courses necessary for admission. In Lépine’s mind, however, he wasn’t admitted to the school because women had taken too many of the available spaces. Women, he thought, had taken everything important, and left nothing for him.

Lépine killed 14 women just because they were studying engineering. Lépine killed 14 women for daring to want careers in a male-dominated field. Lépine killed 14 women for being women.

I was seven years old when École Polytechnique Massacre happened. I want to think that the world has changed since then, but really, has it? Women are still the butt of the joke. Women are still lacking in positions of power. Women are still being told that they need to compete against each other. There is still a persistent bias against women in the worlds of math and science. If there’s anything that can be learned from the latest American election, it’s that there are still men who hate women. A lot of men. Powerful men.

I don’t know if my mother still has her rose button. Probably not – I haven’t seen it in several years, and the last time I did, it was looking pretty beat up. I wish she did, though, and I wish that she lend it to me. These days, I would wear it with pride.

Saint Catherine’s Day

26 Nov

Today is the feast of Saint Catherine, a fact which really means nothing to me now that I’m a bonafide adult living in a secular, anglophone world. When I was a kid attending French Catholic school, though, St. Catherine’s Day was one of my red-letter days. Back then, every month seemed to have a holiday or feast day; these little celebrations and diversions helped us make it through the long school year. For anglo kids, the big November holiday was probably Remembrance Day, but for those of us at École Cardinal Léger, November 11th was always overshadowed by November 25th. This was true for one reason and one reason only: candy. Lots of candy.

Saint Catherine of Alexandria is mostly famous for the terrible way she died. Born to the (pagan) king and queen of Alexandria, Catherine converted to Christianity at the age of 14. The reason for her conversion was a mystical vision in which the Virgin Mary gave Catherine to Jesus as a wife, and the two of them joined together in a holy union – I mean, you know, the usual. Catherine went on to convert hundreds of pagans to Christianity which, naturally, angered the Roman emperor at the time, Maxentius. Maxentius, a big fan of persecuting Christians, decided that the solution to his problem was to marry Catherine. When she refused (because she was already married to Jesus, duh), he tried to break her on the wheel. God, naturally, destroyed said wheel, so Maxentius just beheaded Catherine instead. I’m unsure as to how God could destroy the wheel but still allow her to be beheaded, but, um, I guess he works in mysterious ways?

Naturally, you want to know what the hell this all has to do with candy.

Relax. I’m getting to that.

The key to our modern celebration of Saint Catherine’s Day is Marguerite Bourgeouys, a nun who came to Canada in the 1600s. Marguerite opened a public school for girls in Montreal in 1658 (yay!), which marked the beginning of public schooling in Montreal (double yay!). She then decided that the First Nations children should also attend her school (problematic?) and began to devise ways by which she could lure them to her schoolhouse (definitely problematic). Her solution was to make taffy and then leave a trail of said taffy all the way from the local First Nations settlement to her schoolhouse (SUPER PROBLEMATIC). Oh, and apparently she made this taffy on St. Catherine’s Day, and young French Canadians have been doing so ever since.

I mean, at least her intentions were good? That has to count for something, right?

Marguerite Bourgeoys and her First Nations friends: 99 Problematics

Anyway, Marguerite Bourgeoys is a saint now, so at least she’s got that going for her.

My sister was born on November 24th, 1988. I remember the day of her birth pretty clearly; my mother came into my room early in the morning to tell me that she was going to the hospital to be induced, and then my principal pulled me out of class around noon with the news that I was now a big sister. My principal let me sit in her office and make my mother a card, probably assuming that I would produce the standard “YAY BABY” Hallmark-type fare. I, naturally, had other ideas in mind. Most likely influenced by the fact that Christmas was only a month away, I ended up drawing my mother as the Virgin Mary and my new sister as the Baby Jesus. Being a student at a Catholic school, I, of course, had heard the term virgin thrown around. However, being only six years old, I had no idea what it meant. I thought that “virgin” was synonymous with “good person”, which helps explain why, on my card, I wrote, Maman, tu es une vierge [Mama, you are a virgin]. I think I remember indulgent smiles from the grown ups at my school; at any rate, they didn’t immediately seize my card and burn it, so it couldn’t have been too blasphemous.

That night, I went to visit my mother in the hospital. There was an earthquake while we were there; a small one, but big enough that it made the glass tremble on my mother’s bedside table and the tacky framed prints sway on the wall. My parents laughed, and joked that it was an omen portending that my sister would accomplish great things. That one remark was a watershed moment in my life; for the first time, I experienced that complicated, emotionally charged state that we call sibling rivalry. What did they mean that she would accomplish great things? Had they said the same thing about me at my birth? What had my omens been?

I asked if there had been an earthquake the night I was born. No, my parents said. How about a full moon? A thunderstorm? Anything? My parents just rolled their eyes and laughed. Meanwhile, I glared at my fat, red, wrinkled nemesis.

The next night, when my father brought me back to the hospital for another visit, I proudly announced that we’d celebrated St. Catherine’s Day at school by making candy. My parents, who hadn’t yet come up with a name for my sister, gave each other this look like, WHOA, ARE YOU THINKING WHAT I’M THINKING? WE ARE FOR SURE GENIUSES.

Needless to say, they named her Catherine.

Catherine, which I thought was probably the bossiest name I’d ever heard.

Catherine, the perfect name for someone who would accomplish great things.

As if to rub salt in the wounds, my parents insisted on telling everyone that my sister’s name had been my idea. Whenever they said this in my presence, I would yell, THAT’S A DAMN LIE, I WANTED TO NAME HER SOPHIE, and then, naturally, immediately get sent to my room. I spent a lot of time in my room after my sister’s birth, mostly because I couldn’t understand how my parents could equate my casually mentioning a name in their presence with suggesting it as the word that we would ever use when referring to my new sibling. In retrospect, I’m sure that my parents were trying to help me adapt to having a sister after spending more than half a decade as an only child; at the time it just seemed like they were wilfully ignoring everything I had to say.

When Catherine started school, her teachers went out of their way to make St. Catherine’s Day a big deal for her. They would make her a paper crown, and spend the day treating her like a princess. At the end of the festivities, she would bring home a bigger pile of candy than anyone else.

Did I have a special saint’s day that gave my the chance to wear a crown and bring home an exceptionally large pile of candy?

No. No, I did not.

Probably because I wasn’t destined to do great things.

Throughout Catherine’s early years, I found various ways to torment her. I stuck clothespins in her hair. I called her ridiculous names. I made faces at her at the dinner table. Nothing I did was overly terrible, but then, it didn’t need to be; Catherine threw tantrums as if she had a calling for it. Catherine screamed and kicked as if it was her vocation; she once had a legendary meltdown over the fact that her toast was cut  vertically instead of diagonally. This meant that it was both easy and satisfying to provoke her.

When I entered my teen years, my mother developed a fascination with mediums and psychics. She began having her tarot cards read on a regular basis.

“The psychic says that Catherine is the Queen of Pentacles,” she told me once in the car, as she was driving me to a dance class.

Naturally, I was more interested in what she’d had to say about me.

“Oh, she says, you’re boy-crazy,” my mother replied dismissively, “as if I didn’t already know that. But she says that Catherine is the Queen of Pentacles.”

“What does that even mean?” I asked

“I don’t know, but I’d better not hear you making fun of her for it,” my mother said in her most threatening tones.

Why would I make fun of her for it? I knew exactly what it meant. It meant that she was destined to do great things, while I was destined to be a pathetic, boy-crazy teenager forever.

Catherine and I continued to have an adversarial relationship throughout the rest of my time in high school, and my first few years of university. I can clearly remember bringing Matt home to meet my family for the first time, and whining to my mother about how Catherine was being rude to him. I don’t remember what she was being rude about, mind you, just that I didn’t like the way she talked to him. Catherine told me constantly that I was old and boring, and that my music sucked. While I was nearly always single and lonely, Catherine had a steady stream of boyfriends from the time she was 13. Instead of abating, our rivalry seemed to be heating up. On top of all that, I was deeply embarrassed by that I was jealous of someone who was six years younger than me.

This continued on for several years, until, sometime in my early twenties, we had a fight. Like, a big fight. I don’t even remember what it was about, I just remember yelling, even screaming at her. I was furious. Beyond furious. Somehow, having run out of things that actually had to do with what we were fighting about, I got around to the anger and jealousy that I’d been harbouring all these years.

You don’t even like me,” I yelled at her. “Why do you even bother talking to me? You don’t have anything to talk to me about! You think you’re better than me! You think you’re going to do great things!”

At this point, Catherine burst into tears, which, if you knew her, you would know how highly unusual that is.

“What do you mean I don’t like you?” she wailed. “I love you! You’re my big sister! I look up to you for everything!”

That stopped me dead in my tracks. How could it possibly be that my sister, my destined-for-great-things, Queen-of-Pentacles sister could ever look up to me, failure that I was, for anything?

That night was a turning point in our relationship. We’ve been close ever since; she even lived with us for a few months this year. Now that she’s back living three hours away, I miss her, even though we talk all the time.

I hope she had a good birthday.

I hope she knows how proud I am of her.

I hope that this year she continues to do great things.

I hope that she had some candy today, in honour of St.Catherine.

Catherine with her cat, Chairman Mao

Happy birthday, little sister.

p.s. Here is a recipe for St. Catherine’s Day Taffy, if you want to try making it yourself.

An Open Letter to Margaret Wente (please stop perpetuating gender stereotypes)

23 Nov

Margaret Wente wants me to know that I don’t care about my son.

Well, not my son, specifically; she thinks that I don’t care about any boys. Or, at least, any “real boys”, whatever that might mean.

See, Ms. Wente recently wrote this lovely and super-balanced article for the Globe and Mail about the gender gap in education. For this piece, she interviewed the principal of Upper Canada College (one of our country’s most prestigious boys’s schools), two of his colleagues, and the executive director of the International Boys’ School Coalition (a not-for-profit coalition of schools that promote the “education and development of boys world-wide”) – so, all people who have a vested, financial interest in promoting the idea that boys need to be educated separately or differently from girls. She did not interview anyone who does not make money from boys-only education. See what I mean? Balanced.

It’s a fairly well-known fact that, percentage-wise, less boys are entering university than girls, and that more boys are dropping out of high school. Margaret Wente, and others like her, argue that this is because Canadian education today favours the learning styles of girls over that of boys. However, I find it interesting to note that the percentage of males obtaining a university degree has, in fact, increased by 5% since 1991 (though admittedly the percentage of females has increased by twice that amount), and the high school drop out rate for both males and females has been steadily declining for the past 20 years. Also interesting to note is that the gender gap is much smaller for those enrolled in college – there is only a 2% difference between the number of male and female college students. So what, exactly, am I trying to prove with all these numbers? That things maybe aren’t so dire as Margaret Wente makes them out to be, because according to her the situation is pretty dire. See, Margaret Wente thinks that we’ve reached some kind of boy-ocalypse that will certainly end with the extinction of males in academia.

Ms. Wente wants us to believe that women have “stormed the gates of medicine and law” (which may or may not be true – it’s hard to say, because she provides absolutely no sources for any of her claims), but interestingly she neglects to mention that a heavy and persistent bias against women in science still exists, or that most law firms are little more than old boys’ clubs. Ms. Wente wants us to know that,”In the most prestigious programs at some of our leading universities, the gender ratio has reached 70:30″, although she totally neglects to tell us what those prestigious programs are, and which leading universities offer them. It’s kind of hard to argue with someone who provides you with no reference for her “facts”, but I will say that my department at university (Classics) was overwhelmingly male. It’s possible that my program just wasn’t prestigious enough, or that Ms. Wente doesn’t consider Dalhousie to be a “leading” university. Who can say? I mean, other than Ms. Wente, that is.

Anyway, after a whole bunch of hyperbole, Margaret Wente finally gets down to brass tacks and explains what, exactly, she’s trying to get at: she feels that our school are not addressing boys’ needs in the classroom. Fair enough! So, what, according to Ms. Wente, are those needs?

Let’s take look, shall we?

“Boys’ existential issues are different from girls’. For a boy, the two most important life questions are: Will I find work that’s significant? And will I be worthy of my parents?”

Huh. That’s funny, because those things are both really important to me, too! Ms. Wente neglects to mention what the two most important “life questions” are for girls, but I have a sneaking suspicion that she believes they have something to do with marriage and babies.

“When boys themselves are asked what they need, they say: I need purpose. I need to make a difference. I need to know I measure up. I need challenge. Above all, I need a meaningful vocation.”

Well, that makes sense, because those are all things that are definitely not very important to girls. I mean, except for the fact that I would say that most of these are the driving forces in my life.

‘Boys also need to imagine themselves in heroic situations. When girls are asked about Vimy Ridge, they say, “Whew, it must have been horrific.” When boys are asked, they imagine what they would have done if they’d been there. “Our most powerful assembly is on Remembrance Day,” says Mr. Power. “Every boy is thinking to himself: How would I have measured up?”’

Well, I’m sure that that has nothing to do with the fact that we live in a culture that glorifies violence and war, right? Also, and this might just be my vagina talking, I tend to think that “horrific” is a pretty accurate description of Vimy Ridge.

Boys love rituals, trophies and tradition. Those also make them feel part of something bigger than themselves.

None of those are things that girls like. Ever. Girls hate working to achieve something, and if they do somehow manage to stumble upon an achievement, they definitely don’t want a trophy for it.

So far, I’m kind of having a hard time seeing what Ms. Wente is getting at, but then she decides to really lay it out for us. The problem with boys and education is that we’re not allowing them to be manly enough.

Many commentators – men as well as women – blame male culture itself for the problems with boys. In their view, what we need to do is destroy the death star of masculinity and all the evil that goes with it. What we need to do is put boys in touch with their emotions and teach them to behave more like girls.

This argument might make some sense – if you’re someone who believes that masculinity is nothing but a social construct. But people who care about real boys know that’s not true.

See? I told you that Margaret Wente doesn’t think that I care about real boys!

Time to get real, you guys. I’ve been pretty flippant up until now, but I have to tell you, it makes me pretty fucking angry that Margaret Wente likens understanding and acknowledging your feelings to behaving like a girl. First of all, I don’t think that there is any way to behave “like a girl”. Second of all, I think being “in touch” with your emotions is an excellent idea for anybody, regardless of their gender. Third of all, I am so fucking sick of people equating breaking down gender barriers with making boys “behave more like girls”. How about we just stop insisting that people fit into narrowly-defined gender roles?

The funny thing is, it’s those gender roles that are responsible for so many of the issues that Margaret Wente is complaining about.

Here are some examples:

The dominant narrative around difficult boys – at least in the public school system – is that they’re unteachable, unreachable, disruptive and threatening.”

But why doesn’t she question the fact that we live in a culture that puts value in boys behaving in a threatening way? Why doesn’t she wonder how, in our fucked-up view of masculinity, we equate violence with power?

[Women have] all but taken over pharmacy and veterinary work.

Gee, do you think that’s maybe because those career paths have come to be seen as more typically feminine? Do you think that there’s a chance that less boys are entering those fields because they’re afraid of compromising the masculinity that Ms. Wente praises so much?

Before the Industrial Revolution, boys spent their time with fathers and uncles, often engaged in strenuous physical activity. Now they spend their time in the world of women, sitting behind desks. If schools threw out the desks, they’d probably be a lot happier.

It’s interesting to note here that Ms. Wente fails to mention that before the Industrial Revolution it was only boys who permitted to attend school. And guess what? Schools back then included desks as well. In fact, I would argue that, in the past, formal education involved far more sitting at a desk than it does today. And you know what? If we’ve come to equate the idea of school as being part of “the world of women”, then that gender stereotype is likely one of the reasons boys aren’t thrilled with being in school.

Look, I’m not here to argue with the idea that boys are lagging behind in our educational system. I’m not here to say that things don’t need to be changed, or that I don’t believe that boys develop differently from girls; having watched my son and his peers I know that, for example, girls tend to have an easier time with language, whereas boys excel at spatial awareness. I’m not even against the idea of educating boys and girls separately (although I would be lying if I said I didn’t have concerns about the equality of the education they would receive). What I am saying is that I don’t think that re-inforcing gender stereotypes is what is going to fix this. In fact, I think that those gender stereotype are what got us into this mess.

What if, instead of having this be a battle of boys vs. girls, we use this as an opportunity to find a way to meet each student where they are. Can’t we engage our students as individuals, rather than saying that the whole curriculum has to be rejiggered to benefit one or the other? Is there any way to find a curriculum that will be the perfect middle ground? Or will we constantly be going back and forth between uh oh now the girls are doing better, no wait now it’s the boys, no wait the girls without ever finding a balanced way to address the subject?

I hope that when Theo starts school, his strengths and weaknesses aren’t treated as being boys’ strengths or boys’ weaknesses; I hope that they are treated as his own individual issues, his own successes and failures, and that his teachers are able to see past his gender and appreciate him for himself.

That’s what we all want, isn’t it?

Abortions Are Just Like Hot Air Balloons: Your Tax Dollars At Work

13 Nov

My old friend Stephen Woodworth, master architect of Motion 312, is feeling a little concerned. See, he’s worried that you, dear Canadian, don’t understand what M-312, which deals with fetal personhood, has to do with abortion. Woodworth, his brow furrowed by deep thought, has been wondering and wondering why his motion didn’t pass. Finally, he realized that his brilliant idea was just too complex for people to understand. Thankfully, man of the people that he is, he’s come up with an allegory to help explain it to us.

I’ve copied it below for your reading pleasure:

Part I: Motion 312, Fixed-Wing Technology and Ballooning -An Allegory
 
Note:  The following account is intended to be entirely fictional.  Resemblance to any persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
 
In the early days of air flight, a Canadian aviation engineer was well-known for his opposition to ballooning (which was the established method of air flight in those days).  He actively spoke and wrote against ballooning, penning letters to the editor and articles in professional journals to express this opposition to ballooning.
 
After years of being stonewalled by an aviation establishment entirely enamoured with ballooning and which was completely unwilling to consider alternatives, he fell into deep thought.
 
“Perhaps I could find some other issue to pursue on which a majority of Canadians could agree,” he wondered to himself “Could I find some aviation principles on which we might find a consensus?”
 
After serious analysis, he came up with some aviation principles he felt might be acceptable to everyone.  He suggested a process to study the principles of fixed-wing aircraft to determine whether or not they should be pursued.  He suggested that the study consider whether or not existing legal prohibitions against fixed wing aviation were consistent with early 20th century aviation science and understanding.  He pointed out that Canada was one of only a few advanced nations to completely protect ballooning against fixed wing development.
 
An honest man, the aviation engineer acknowledged the relationship between fixed wing technology development and ballooning, and even admitted that the development of fixed wing technology might mean fewer people would engage in ballooning.
 
You can imagine that the ballooning industry rose immediately to the challenge.  Their first attack was to indignantly accuse the aviation engineer of being a ballooning-hater whose only motive was to destroy the ballooning industry.  “He says he just wants to improve aviation, but his real interest must be to simply destroy the ballooning industry since he must know that fixed wing aviation will mean fewer people will pursue ballooning”, they said.
 
The engineer protested that ballooning and fixed-wing aviation were not necessarily inconsistent with each other, but the balloonists ignored him.
 
He pointed out that something wasn’t right if balloonists felt they needed to pretend that fixed-wing technology didn’t exist.  They still ignored him.
 
The balloonists lobbied against his proposed study on the basis that their minds were made up that ballooning was better than fixed-wing aviation, they knew they were right, and so dialogue and review of modern aviation science would be a waste of time.  They argued that ballooning was simply better as it existed, period, discussion over.
 
Finally, the balloonists pointed out that existing Establishment views supporting the ballooning industry had only been established after long and difficult public debate, and that “re-opening” that debate should be avoided since it would provoke passionate or even divisive comment.  The engineer’s reminder that the right to study fixed wing aviation had been explicitly preserved and allowed for when protection of ballooning first became popular with the Establishment, was ignored.  The engineer knew that these existing differences between fixed-wing technology and ballooning would actually be brought to resolution by his proposal for dialogue and study, but he was ignored.
 
Many balloonists took to social media, publishing vile and insulting slanders against the engineer and misrepresenting his proposal.  He was not deterred.
 
Members of Parliament who spoke against the engineer’s proposal focused entirely on the necessity of protecting ballooning.  Not one even mentioned the subject of fixed wing aviation.  Not one questioned the aviation principles proposed by the engineer.  They expressed a single-minded preoccupation with ballooning to the exclusion of any consideration of wider aviation principles.  A number of professional aviation associations, filled with balloonists, were told that the engineer’s proposed study was about ending all ballooning and were in that way induced to pass resolutions condemning him and his proposal.
 
In the end Parliament defeated the engineer’s proposal, setting back the cause of fixed-wing technology in Canada for a time.  Clear-thinking people were amazed that a modern democracy could accept such a result, turning its back on modern aviation principles.
 
Now do you understand the relationship between Motion 312 and abortion?

All right, all right, I know what you’re thinking – your small lady-brain can’t quite grasp this. I know. Shhhh, it’s okay, I know. Normally I would be right there with you. Fortunately, I’ve given myself a few injections of testosterone this evening in order to help explain this all to you.

Okay so first of all, ballooning is abortion – which is, I guess, our established method of dealing with unwanted pregnancy? Much like ballooning is the established method of air flight in this story? That’s sort of what he’s saying? He also apparently believes that we’re totally enamoured with abortion; I guess he’s one of those men who think that women totally have abortions for funsies, like it’s a fucking trip to the spa or something. I just love the foot massage they give you after they remove your unwanted fetus.

Anyway, the protagonist of this allegory, an engineer who is both a gentleman and a scholar, hates ballooning, and starts a nasty anti-ballooning campaign. Sadly for him, everyone else loves ballooning and/or no one gives a shit about his letters to the editor and/or this guy really needs a hobby, so his plan is going nowhere fast. In a moment of brilliance, he thinks to himself, “Perhaps I could find some other issue to pursue on which a majority of Canadians could agree“. Obviously he is talking about fetal personhood fixed wing aviation.

Here’s where shit starts to get nonsensical. See, he wants the Canadian government to “study the principles” of fetal personhood fixed wing aviation, which all seems fine and normal and reality-based, but then he goes on to suggest that the government, “consider whether or not existing legal prohibitions against fixed wing aviation were consistent with early 20th century aviation science and understanding“. Er, what? So he wants us to examine the legal prohibitions against personhood? Which don’t actually exist? Like, no one is saying that he can’t call his own fetuses “persons”, just that he can’t start assigning personhood to all fetuses ever.

Next comes one of my favourite lines in his whole allegory:

[He] even admitted that the development of fixed wing technology might mean fewer people would engage in ballooning.”

No shit, dude. If you are trying to pass personhood laws in order to enact abortion legislature, then for sure less people will fucking “engage in ballooning”. I mean, except for the people who go to those back-alley balloon enthusiasts in order to balloon in secret.

Fuck, you guys, I just have to take a minute here to tell you how gross it is that he is comparing abortion to a RECREATIONAL SPORT. Like, terminating a pregnancy  is totally comparable to something you do for fun at the fucking county fair. Look, I’m not saying that everyone who’s had an abortion absolutely agonizes over the choice, but I really don’t think that anyone is ever like, gee, I’ve got nothing better to do this afternoon, may as well terminate my pregnancy then go eat some funnel cakes and ride the ferris wheel. It’s still a medical procedure, for God’s sake.

Ugh.

Anyway, so the allegorical abortion ballooning industry gets all up in arms, thinking that Mr. Fixed Wing Aviation is out to destroy them, because of course that’s what this is really all about. The abortion industry. The secret abortion lobby that controls Canada. The board of shadowy abortion-loving figures. It’s not about women having the right to control their own body. It’s not about bodily autonomy. Women obviously only have abortions because the abortion industry manipulates them into believing that abortions are better than cake and pie combined.

Also, I’m so sure that abortion, especially abortion in a country with socialized medicine, is so profitable. Like, I’m sure Scrooge McDuck is sitting in a cash-filled room somewhere, rubbing his hands and cackling over how awesome killing babies is. Okay, now that is a Disney movie I’d watch.

The rest of the allegory is basically a giant whine-fest about how everyone is so mean to Stephen Woodworth the fictitious engineer and how he was slandered (vilely and insultingly!) in social media. The engineer is shocked and appalled that the Canadian government wouldn’t even consider his proposal, and apparently men “clear thinking people” everywhere were “amazed” that Canada could be so behind the times.

Now do you understand the relationship between Motion 312 and abortion?

Uuuuggghhhh you guys, this is actually the worst allegory ever. I mean, I totally and fundamentally disagree with Stephen Woodworth, and I could still write a better anti-abortion allegory than this. First of all, it’s so gross and offensive to compare abortion to an activity that people do for fun. Second of all, it’s full of ridiculous half-truths and rife with misinformation. Finally, it ends with the assertion that all modern democracies are enacting personhood laws, which is just untrue, unless by “all modern democracies”, he means, “America”.

Anyway, Stephen, I guess I give your allegory an E for effort. Thanks for coming out, and don’t quit your day job. I mean, please do quit your actual day job of being an MP, but, you know, don’t give it up just to become a man of letters. Unless becoming a writer would mean that you would write allegories about how underfunded the arts are in Canada, in which case: have at ‘er, buddy.