Sunday, 30 October 2011

Occupy Winnipeg & the Serious Purpose

Winnipeg has always been rather insulated.  We are surrounded by a Great Wall of Prairie and the nearest major city is a daytrip away.  We make jokes that everyone who lives here is less than six degrees of separation from everyone else.  We believe our landscape makes us Big Picture people.  In some respects, we share a hive mind and it takes a long time for any new idea to puncture it and take root – but once it does, it takes a very, very long time to remove it.

Those who do not share the hive mind – the boys and girls who cry "Wolf!" – are either patronised or mocked as a temporary blip in the bubble of complacency that surrounds Winnipeg.  We've had hippies and punks, and all the other malcontents that scourged society elsewhere, but they've all eventually grown up, got jobs, bought houses and cabins, made families and fell into line with the rest of us.  Or they left.  Either way, it's good.

So, it is generally agreed by Winnipeg's hive mind that the Occupiers will also fade.  Until they do, we will patronise or mock them for crying "Wolf!", smug in the knowledge that they will, eventually, submit.  They will acquire the stuff of life and assimilate, as we did.

This is, after all, Winnipeg, where only the weather is extreme.  The peaks and valleys, booms and busts experienced elsewhere have no real effect here.  If you're hungry or homeless, we have an app for that; it's on you if you don't use it.  We've got Siloam Mission and the United Way and the ants dutifully spare Change For The Better, support the CEOs for Downtown Sleepout and donate to Winnipeg Harvest and the Christmas Cheer Board as we always have so the grasshoppers can fiddle.

The joke, however, that people don't see is that we are not Big Picture people at all.

The Big Picture is that our societal fringes have been fraying for more than a generation, just like everywhere else.  The market crashes and burns and burst bubbles have rippled and eroded our banks, too, and all the smug denial of our collective complacency will not hold indefinitely.

The Occupiers see it.  They see that lifelong careers with benefits and pensions have been replaced by short-term contracts.  They see personal savings becoming growing debt.  They see that services to the public – water, garbage, leisure activities, education, health care – are becoming cost-driven enterprises.  They see the increasing infrastructure deficit they will inherit because we've become convinced that taxes are a burden to society, not an investment in community.  They see the looming food shortages.  They see the rich getting richer, the poor getting poorer and the only ones fiddling are the ones with power and security that will be inherited by a shrinking few.  The ants, deeply consumed in their tasks, haven't noticed the grasshoppers are running the Hill.

Prime Minister Harper wasn't wrong when he said things are different in Canada; we didn't bail out any banks here. (See note below)  However, we are not immune to global economic effects any more than we are insulated from the long-term effects of deregulation and the profit-driven international agenda of major corporations that are steadily killing the beloved notion of competition keeping costs down by becoming monopolies.

It wasn't Winnipeg's small, stable market that attracted Veolia to our water utility.  It wasn't in the interest of fair trade or low-cost or efficiency that placed municipal procurement and the death of "Buy Local" on CETA'S platter.  It wasn't the desire for market freedom that is killing the Canadian Wheat Board, while other marketing boards are undisturbed.  It wasn't in the name of public safety that the gun registry is scheduled for destruction.

Tom Olsen mocked Occupy Winnipeg for having a Serious Purpose it cannot name.

Personally, I think it's more likely Occupy Winnipeg is surprised there are any reasonably intelligent beings so comfortably entrenched that they can't see or won't admit what is swarming on the horizon of our big sky.

Raising the alarm is Occupy Winnipeg's Serious Purpose. The Occupiers at Memorial Park are the ants who looked up and saw the grasshoppers have become locusts.

It's been a long time, but Prairie people know what happens when locusts swarm:  They don't leave much for the ants.

NOTE: What PM Harper said was "We obviously have a very different situation here -- we didn't bail out our banking sector."

However, as Anonymous commented below, the Government of Canada didn't just sit back and allow the market to have its way with us, either: 

"One of the major consequences of the collapse of the US real estate bubble in 2008 was the triggering of a significant crisis of confidence in global financial markets.  In Canada, as elsewhere, the crisis made it harder for major financial institutions to secure short- and long-term financing and for Canadian consumers to obtain mortgage financing for property purchases.

"To address these temporary problems in the Canadian mortgage credit market, the federal Department of Finance announced the creation of the Insured Mortgage Purchase Program (IMPP) in October 2008.  The stated purpose of the program is to "help Canadian financial institutions raise longer-term funds and make them available to consumers, home buyers and businesses in Canada."  The total program envelope, initially $25 billion, was increased to $75 billion in November 2008, then to $125 billion when Budget 2009 was tabled.

"This document provides a detailed description of the IMPP's operation, from funding to the mortgage purchase mechanism.  In particular, it shows how the government will be able to generate revenue from this operation and the reason why there is virtually no associated risk.  Lastly, it examines the possibility that the program may not be able to achieve its stated mandate of promoting access to credit for consumers and businesses."


"The Honourable Jim Flaherty, Minister of Finance, today announced the Government will purchase up to an additional $50 billion of insured mortgage pools by the end of the fiscal year as part of its ongoing efforts to maintain the availability of longer-term credit in Canada.

"This action will increase to $75 billion the maximum value of securities purchased through Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) under this program.

"'At a time of considerable uncertainty in global financial markets, this action will provide Canada’s financial institutions with significant and stable access to longer-term funding,' said Minister Flaherty.

"'This extension of the program to purchase insured mortgages will further support the availability of credit, which will benefit Canadian households, businesses and the economy. In addition, it will earn a modest rate of return for the Government with no additional risk to the taxpayer.'"

Thank you, Anonymous; whoever you are!

Saturday, 8 October 2011

#OccupyWallStreet #OccupyCanada #Occupy...Winnipeg?

"The poor have no choice."  (James S. Woodsworth)

When one is on a long journey, sometimes it's a good idea to stop and look back.  You can take heart in how far you've come and what you've accomplished, or realise that it's time to change direction.

Working in a municipal archive, I have more opportunity than most to look back, and accidental discoveries have given me a better picture of where we've been, who we were and how we've changed.

One discovery was the record of a man who appeared before a rural municipal council, requesting assistance, as he could not work. A veteran, he had lost his leg in WWI and his wooden prosthesis had broken.  The council refused him, advising him to get an axe, go out to the woods and cut himself a new one.  Yes, really.

Another was a collection of old metal ballot boxes, obviously manufactured at the same time, but of curiously disparate sizes – from very large to oddly small - each marked with a different ward designation.  As today's electoral boundaries are generally placed according to population and our ballot boxes are fairly uniform, these gave me pause and I puzzled over them for a time before doing the obvious and asking about them.

The answer continues to give me pause.

Apparently, when laws expanded to give all Canadian men, titleholder or not, the right to vote, the ruling class was concerned about giving so much control to the newer citizens who may have been less inclined to maintain the status quo.  So, the boundaries were drawn according to size, regardless of population.

Thus, the largest ballot box was for a ward where the immigrants lived packed and stacked in close quarters on small lots, and the smallest was for a wealthy area, where the lots were huge and the number of eligible voters was not.  So, one alderman represented hundreds while another represented a handful.  Crazy, but true.

Some things do not change.  Those with power and control are not inclined to share it.

I've also heard many stories about the 1919 General Strike.  Coming from immigrant stock myself, they touch me deeply.  I've tried to imagine what it would be like to leave everything and everyone familiar for a dream of freedom and opportunity in a country where I don't know the laws, customs or language.  It's frightening to think how vulnerable I'd be.

Of course, one would adjust as best as one could, accepting whatever work was offered at whatever pay because one must live; and many were obligated to send money back to "the old country", often with letters filled with false tales of hope and optimism as the sender couldn't bear to burden those left behind with the harsh reality of immigrant life.

These tales spread and encouraged others to risk everything to take the one-way trip to Canada.  In such a huge, young country, there would be plenty for everyone – land to farm and space to build and endless possibilities that simply did not exist for common people in their birthlands.

The more that came, the less there was for them.  Supply and demand kept wages low.  Dreams of prosperity rarely materialised.  Securing citizenship did not improve your lot and you and yours were still treated as "foreigners."

It's been said that addicts have to hit bottom before they will admit to having a problem.  Perhaps it's just human nature to be blind to a problem until you are trapped and there is nowhere left to go and nothing left to lose.  Desperation is powerful motivation for change and fear is what you have when hope is gone.

During Winnipeg's General Strike, there were many marches, rallies and protests.  Participants faced the very real threat of arrest and deportation.  The upper class particularly feared that the Eastern Europeans wanted to lead a Bolshevik revolution here on the Prairies.  The marches were peaceful, and silent, so as not to provoke law enforcement.

Imagine how eerie that would be:  hundreds or thousands of men, women and children walking without shouting or singing or chanting, only their footsteps, their shifting garments, sporadic whispers and shushing of children to mark their passing.

Typically, the protests focused on the places of power - city hall or the business centre.  Then, one march brought their concerns nearly to the doorsteps of the powerful, right along the street fronting their estates.

The protesters gathered at the foot of the Maryland Bridge and set out across it to Wellington Crescent, where most of them had never been before.  As they walked without speaking past the mansions on huge, park-like lots, many of the strikers wept.

In "the old country", only royalty lived so ostentatiously, in rare, palatial homes.  Here, in Winnipeg – this small city! – there was a whole, long street of palaces!  And there, that is where the man who owns my company lives!  How can it be that they have so much – so much more than they can ever use! – and they will not spare us enough to be safely fed, clothed, sheltered and warm?  Can it be that this place is no better than the one I left behind?  That people like us will always toil to serve and will never know a life without want?

Eyes opened, the working people, and their children, fought on and on, slowly earning the rights and freedoms that most of my generation takes for granted:  safe working conditions, minimum wages, pensions, benefits, overtime pay, parental leave, sick leave, workers compensation, health care, limited hours of work, vacation time . . .  It's a long list and it's surprising to consider that we haven't had these improvements for very long. 

Even more surprising that there are those who believe we shouldn't have them at all; that any part of a social safety net meant to catch you when you fall and help you up again is ridiculous, unreasonable and expensive.

Many years after the General Strike, my grandmother learned to cut slices of bread so thin you could read a newspaper through them.  It was a skill she needed when my grandfather and his co-workers at Canada Packers were on strike.  To feed everyone on the picket line, the sandwiches were as thin as the soup.

Years later, when my mother was 15, they moved into their first house with running water and an indoor toilet.

My grandparents were proud to own their small house and even more proud of the city they helped build.  Their municipal taxes were invested by the City, for its citizens:  in asphalt plants and quarries to supply materials to build and maintain roads, sidewalks and bridges; in trucks and landfills to collect waste; in pipes and facilities to expand clean water delivery and wastewater treatment; to build and maintain parks, pools, community centres, arenas, sports fields, golf courses, playgrounds, parkades, hospitals, schools, museums and libraries. 

As citizens of Winnipeg, my grandparents owned everything the city owned and had a right to enjoy and share it.  Ownership is insurance against market forces.  If anyone had told them they paid too much in taxes, they would have laughed – "Look at what our taxes do!  It's worth it!"

As much as I miss my grandparents, I am glad they are gone.  They wouldn't like what we've done with the place. 

We've sold every asphalt plant, quarry and garbage truck and are barely hanging on to our last landfill.  We sold off or centralised most municipal services, often sacrificing good, secure jobs, convenience, accountability and quality delivery.  Most street repairs and snow clearing are done by lowest-bid contractors.  Our infrastructure is crumbling, our arenas are moldering, our golf courses are for sale, our community centres are disappearing and, cheap, miserly lot that we are, we continue to look for things to sell and cut.  We cut through the fat and the meat, hit bone and keep industriously chipping away at it.

They would have wondered what happened to our conscience and would have been appalled that we begrudge every tax dollar, that we demand government be run as a profit-making business, rather than a public service.

On this day, on what I hope will be a long journey of my life, I've stopped, looked back and, having seen where I and my city have been and where we appear to be going, I realise it is time to change direction.

In 1919, people acknowledged that trying to change their world within the confines of the established system wasn't working and wasn't going to work.  Less than 100 years later, here we are again.  Most of us have not yet lost our homes and our hope, but we can feel the ground beneath us is not as solid as we'd thought.  Not only are we losing ground, but our eyes are also open to the reality that many of our neighbours have no ground at all:  we are exploiting temporary foreign workers with few rights at all and we STILL have indigenous people fighting to get out of the hole we tossed them into - and we keep adding traps and obstacles to keep them there.

In the 21st century, humanity's biggest failure isn't the lack of flying cars and moon colonies, it's that we had such a tenuous grasp on fairness and decency that we didn't even notice when they'd slipped away.

We've played by the rules, followed the system, and let greed decide our direction.  We've allowed unsustainable development, exploitation of the commons, commodification of our resources and, well, it's not working for most of Earth's inhabitants – or Earth, for that matter.

In 1919, millions of working people stood up and changed direction by refusing to work.

In 2011, people are standing up and changing direction by seizing, holding and filling a space.  From Tahrir Square to Wall Street and beyond, they Occupy.

On October 15, on the Winnipeg streets once proudly walked by my grandparents, I will join them.

Saturday, 27 August 2011

Discovering La Belle Olivia

Years ago, I decided that grief is, for the most part, selfish.  It's an acknowledgement that there is a void in your life that will never be completely filled again.  You regret actions not taken, words not spoken or potential not reached.  You have a list of things you'll miss about the person you've lost.  At its core, it is a change in our lives and we view the loss through the filter of how it will impact us.

Grief is for the living.

I've been very selfish recently, grieving a man I can't claim to know and only met once, however meaningful that single meeting was to me.

Canadians lost a gifted public servant on August 22.  Yes, we knew the Honourable Jack Layton, Leader of the Opposition, was ill, but we kinda learned to believe in miracles where he was concerned.  I know I'm not alone when I say that I really did expect another one and it's a struggle to get my head around the void he's left.

It's daunting to consider that the weight he carried as a leader has been returned to us.  The work we expected him to do is now in our hands, on our shoulders, and I've wondered if we are equal to the task. 

We aren't rudderless, really, as our shared values directed him.  What we lost was our standard bearer, the charismatic face of our principles that engaged so many with our message. 

I've been worrying that the momentum would ebb, because some people were engaged less by the message than the messenger.  Those who voted for Le Bon Jack, rather than the NDP, would drift away, seeking more familiar harbour.  I've been wondering what I can do to prevent that.

Then, I saw something that stopped me in my tracks, stilled such thoughts, shattered my heart and moved me into, then beyond, tears with the sheer poignancy of the moment.

It's a photograph by Chris Mikula of the Ottawa Citizen I'll try to reproduce here but if copyright law slaps me, it's here (hopefully forever). 

The caption:  "The family of Jack Layton watches as his body leaves Parliament Hill in Ottawa August 25, 2011 en route to the funeral in Toronto."

There are 17 people in the photograph, but I only noticed one.

On the red-carpeted stone steps, Olivia stands in front, alone, holding her own empty hands, gazing to her right.  Her step-children stand behind and above her, their attention on child or fiancee.  It seems the caption is incorrect:  She is the only one watching.

As I have too many times this past week, I melted.  My face burned with the shame of my selfishness as I imagined her thoughts at that moment; was she thinking of the many tasks before her?  Recalling memories that remain only in her heart?  Or simply repeating a mantra of "Keep it together.  You can cry later.  Not now, Olivia, not now."

Yes, we lost a leader, a spokesman, and that's rough because it means we have more work to do.

Olivia lost her husband, the man who shared her heart and life, who made her laugh and cry, finished her sentences, read her mind, fought with her and loved her and shared jokes with a glance.  They were supposed to grow old together, enjoy a houseful of grandchildren and great-grandchildren, recall long years of public service, write their memoirs and, finally, many years from now, leave this life quietly and peacefully, together, because that's the way all great love stories end.

For me – and my admittedly strong imagination – it's a powerful photograph that captures a moment of sadness, grace and sacrifice.

Throughout this week, many have commented on the warmth, generosity and composure of this remarkable woman.  She walked among mourners, accepted their grief, comforted and embraced strangers as if their loss were no less significant than her own.

As a Canadian Leftie, while I've always respected Ms Chow's ability as a strong MP in her own right, I have to admit I viewed her as part of a package, like a political "Bennifer" – one half of a couple that worked in the same field to accomplish the same goals.  Meeting the two of them a couple of years ago kind of cemented that, as people flocked around her husband for words and photos while she remained nearby, content to be on the edge of the spotlight.

It's shining on her, now, as she mourns a great, personal loss, and I can only imagine how difficult it must be to grieve in the spotlight, your picture taken a thousand times and posted in seconds for anyone to scrutinise.  What is it like to be in that place, knowing missteps will not tolerated?  To know that for every kind thought and word, there will be an opposing one spoken, tweeted, blogged, posted and texted about you, or the man who shared your life?  How do you find the strength to maintain composure, to be dignified and human, rather than cold and stoic?

I'm fairly confident that I would be a useless, teary, red-nosed, puffy-eyed puddle of goo, hideous with grief.  I know I'm not that strong.

Yes, Jack Layton was a great man, respected and admired by more people than he may have realised.  But, this woman that he loved, well, I think more of us have discovered why:  La Belle Olivia is pretty damned great, too.

Saturday, 20 August 2011

Building Bridges: When words fail you

Watching CPAC's coverage of a panel discussion at the Couchiching Conference 2011: From the Ground Up: Civic Engagement in Our Times, I found myself squirming in sympathetic discomfort as a participant tried to formulate a question to Chief Ovide Mercredi.

I knew what she WANTED to say, but she was nervous and I could tell she was trying desperately to express too many things at once, and doubly pressured by a stated time constraint.

From my perspective, she was trying to say, "I am a young woman of colour, my attire labels me as Muslim; I understand being "Other." I am also educated and active and I want to help, so what can I do to help you and your people?"

It didn't come out that way at all, of course, as so many things we TRY so carefully to express fall out of our mouths in unhappy clots that bear no resemblance at all to our intentions. Dismay fills us and we blush, horrified by our failure and we babble on, hoping to redeem ourselves.  Oh, yes, I've been there.

Now, I won't claim to be an expert in body language, but Chief Mercredi seemed to withdraw, to steel himself, as I do when trapped by someone who clearly doesn't "get" me trying to prove otherwise and I don't know whether to lash out in frustration, search for another way to try to express a message I'm tired of repeating or just bolt.

I was raised to focus on similarities, not differences. From an early age, my mother read letters to advice columnists to me and asked how I would respond to their problem, before revealing Ann or Abby's reply. Granted, I often hated it at the time – how could I, a child, possibly respond to an adult having problems with another adult? My perspective was limited by my experience; my world was so much smaller. It wasn't fair to expect me to understand her pain and confusion and anger! But, it was a game I was impelled to play. I had to give an answer, any answer, before I was released.

While the game may not have been fair, it taught me to draw on my own experience to understand others – problems between spouses are similar enough to problems between school mates; problems between boss and subordinate are close enough to those between child and parent. When I was in the mood to play and considered the problem, my responses were often deemed by my mother to be equal to or better than those given by paid "professionals" – really, aren't most interpersonal problems, boiled down to their essence, fairly similar?  Otherwise, my childish need to be elsewhere responded flippantly just to end the game so I could go play at something less arduous, earning me maternal disappointment and frustration which occasionally lengthened the game. I didn't blow off answers often, as I just never knew for certain if I could get away with it. Sometimes, it's just easier to give people what they want.

Not surprisingly, this became my ingrained approach to understanding others. It isn't as certain (or arrogant) as "I feel your pain", but rather more like, "I have felt pain, so I will use that memory to relate to your response to pain." It's the best tool I have and it works rather well, overall and I can honestly say, "I can imagine how you feel." This is often the foundation for conversations with people who accept that statement as truth and proceed to expand my understanding with their experience.

The barrier to this is when the response is, "No, you can't! You aren't black/brown/yellow/red/male/Muslim/Jewish/deaf/blind/elderly (or any of the million things I'm not), so you don't know exactly what I feel!"

Well, I can't dispute that. I admit that my experience remains limited and, God willing, shall remain so. (Well, except for the "elderly" part.)

However, that does not mean I have not been hungry, lonely, hopeless, angry, frustrated, poor, different, unemployed, marginalised, attacked, teased, afraid, in mourning, slandered, exploited or in so much pain I longed for death because I could not imagine any other end to it.

I also understand how isolating and personal pain can be – whether it's physical, emotional, spiritual or psychological.  When you are experiencing that pain, it defines you, shapes and colours your world, for as long as it lasts. It belongs to you and no one else can really know what you feel, because it's yours and yours alone. The isolation increases with every person who tries to explain it from a perspective of ignorance. Unconsciously, you build walls to protect yourself and your pain and lash out at anyone who stumbles along and ham-fistedly tries to help.

I have viewed these attempts with scorn, my pain giving me a sense of superiority over those who have never felt it. I've embraced the anger of the injustice that I have to suffer when so many do not and their world keeps turning while mine remains mired in the muck of my pain.  It's all-encompassing and completely unreasonable, but if you have ever tried to reason with a woman in the middle of giving birth, you might have a frame of reference. (Not to mention a "What the hell were you thinking?")

So, here's a question: In the entire history of humanity, has anyone, anywhere ever tried to build a bridge when they didn't have the slightest idea of what was on the other side?

No doubt people have lived their lives on riverbanks who haven't cared what's on the other side because they don't need to know and it doesn't matter to them. When your needs are met and your life is full, who cares what's "over there"? Look where curiosity got Pandora, thank you very much.

I'm not one of those people. I want to know. I want to build bridges and understand and discover and expand my world.

In my limited, ham-fisted way, I will stumble onto your shore in my leaky boat and use my broken language to ask questions I pray won't insult you with their awkward ignorance.

My intentions are pure, even if my tongue can't express them well.

Teach me.

Thursday, 14 July 2011

News of the World, Kai Nagata & the Omnibus Crime Bill

No, this isn't a game of "One of These Things Is Not Like the Others", 'though I'm sure to suffer from the catchy tune playing in a loop in my head for the next several hours.  Trust me, it's more like a game of Tri Bond. 

If you have been off planet, embedded in an Amish community or otherwise incommunicado over the past several days, UK's 168 year old News of the World is kaput, thanks to a phone hacking scandal of breathtaking proportions – thousands of people, from Royalty to families of soldiers killed in action to a young murder victim, were targeted – and the taint has spread to The Sun.

Fortunately, Rupert Murdoch's huge, international media empire – News Corporation – is being examined with a jaundiced eye by people everywhere, not merely those who felt that his papers were little more than sensationalist gossip and self-serving controversy.  The callous disregard of personal privacy rights in pursuit of exclusive stories to boost profits may be a systemic practice affecting other publications within the empire; we'll just have to wait to find out how deep this river flows.

(An aside:  I can't help thinking of one of the main arguments in favour of privatisation of public services:  That breaking a government monopoly allows for competition which drives costs down.  Take a moment to scan the list of News Corp's holdings here, bearing in mind that it is the SECOND largest media conglomerate in terms of revenue – Disney is the largest – and the third largest in entertainment.  It is like this in every industry you can think of – a small number of really, really big fish who have eaten all the little fish.  Not a lot of competition left any longer, is there?  So what remains to keep costs down?  Corporate benevolence?)

I could veer off to mention Murdoch's influence in American politics and huge donations to Republican interests, but I want to stay on topic here.  Some other time, perhaps.

Meanwhile, Kai Nagata had an epiphany, which he was kind enough to share with us here.  Among other things, he's mad as hell about the careful filtering, manufacturing and marketing of news and he's not gonna take it any more.

It's increasingly apparent that if you are seeking pure, unadulterated news, the Internet is your best bet.  Cyberspace is, essentially, an anarchy and you are free to explore at will, validating your personal opinions or expanding your horizon in a relatively unregulated frontier.  Sure, you have to be a little savvy to spot the truthiness cuckoos that nest with legitimate journalistic offspring, but the WWW will yield news items other media find unworthy, uninteresting or simply too difficult to sell or explain.  It's as close to self-regulating as any human endeavour can be.  The Internet treats us like reasonable adults capable of discerning right from wrong.  It's rather naive and endearing that way.

So far.

The Harper Government's Omnibus Crime Bill has raised red flags in some communities regarding the inclusion of the lawful access initiative bills, which give new surveillance powers to law enforcement and impose disclosure requirements on ISPs which must design their networks to facilitate surveillance.  Red flags rose a little higher over Clause 5, which deals with hate crimes.

To a layperson like me, the idea that my personal contact information could be handed over to police or that data could be captured and preserved to investigate charges against me without the judicial scrutiny of a warrant is a little unnerving.  Granted, a quick Google of my name will provide most of that info readily.  However, there have been occasions I have posted anonymously in order to freely state opinions or observations which could potentially land me in hot water if I did so using my given name.  (Nothing treasonous or illegal, I assure you, for what it's worth.)

The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms allows that "Everyone has the following fundamental freedoms: . . . freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including the freedom of the press and other media of communication" which is limited only if it is reasonable to do so in a free and democratic society.

So, let me don my magnificent paranoia hat for a moment.  Say I blog anonymously about racism and, to illustrate a point, I include a link to an Aryan Brotherhood website. (If there is such a thing; I don't want to increase their hits by Googling to find out for sure.)  Someone reads the blog, clicks on the link, deems it hateful and informs law enforcement, which contacts my ISP, secures my contact info, then arrests and charges me with inciting hatred for posting the hyperlink.  Granted, the courts may not convict me, ultimately deciding that what I did was entirely within my rights, but how much time has passed between my arrest and the rendering of the decision?  Do I still have a job?  Did I lose my house?  My friends?  Did my family disown me in a fit of horrified dismay?

Most netizens regulate themselves to a degree – no one wants to be branded an ill-informed nutbar to be flamed from here to eternity (well, almost no one) – but what if your opinion could get you arrested faster than you can say "Hi, I'm here in Colombia to support the Trade Unionists"?  (If you don't get that, read this.  Then come back.  I'll wait.)

The News of the World scandal shone a light on the unfettered hubris of profit-driven journalism, Kai Nagata's "Why I Quit My Job" mourned (among other things) the dumbing down and marketing of palatable news bytes for the unwashed masses and the Omnibus Crime Bill threatens to silence the voices in the wilderness that, in speaking their truth, may be considered hateful, or simply worth monitoring.  Closely.

The truth may, in fact, be out there, but it may become much more difficult to find in the not-too-distant future.  Harper promised the passing of the Bill within 100 days of June 2.  The clock is ticking.

Saturday, 25 June 2011

An Open Letter to the Conservatives Harshing My Mellow on Twitter

Dear Conservative Twits:

While I appreciate your need to defend the indefensible and the right to be wrong about the Right, insults and bitter retorts will not improve your credibility.  Just trying to help you out.

Experience and reason DO change people's minds and I can prove it:

I used to be an extreme right-wing Libertarian.  Oh, yes, I did.

I resented being forced to pay union dues.  I resented seniority.  I supported an unfettered free market.  I liked big business and small government because I believed that in the pursuit of profit, it made sense for business to do the right thing; government, on the other hand, was led by a desire to be re-elected to continue to feed at the trough.

One day I woke to realise I was wrong.  My skills were appreciated but my abilities were being exploited.  My boss loved that I worked unpaid overtime, took on duties way beyond my classification and ignored my rights under the collective agreement, but I received nothing in return, not even a little consideration when I suffered a serious medical emergency and had to take a short leave.

I started to do a little research into unions - their histories, their fights that led to benefits enjoyed by people all over the world whether they were union members or not.  Unions led the fight for human rights.  Business did not award legislated rights such as safe working conditions, hours of work, pensions, benefits, parental leaves, etc. out of the goodness of their hearts in the interest of providing a better work life for employes - unions fought hard for all this and more.

And they continue to do so.

No one likes to admit they were wrong.  I am especially inept at this, having had so few opportunities to do so. 


However, in the face of over-whelming evidence, I had to cross the House on a personal level and shift my internal paradigm.

Finally, as a Christian who believes two commandments cover all God's Law -- Love God with all your heart and soul; Love your neighbour as yourself -- I had to conclude that an unfettered free market was not particularly loving to most citizens.  Either my personal political beliefs had to change or my spirituality had to; I couldn't retain both.

I chose my political leanings after a great deal of experience and research. I hope you did, too.

Friday, 24 June 2011

Thoughts on a Filibuster

Can I get a "WOW"? Just look at all those women! I couldn't stop grinning as woman after woman after woman rose and spoke. What happened to all the arrogant white dudes?  Oh, they're posturing and questioning.  I guess someone noticed as the past few questions have been lobbed by female CPC MPs.

Aside from the feeling that I might watch CPAC more often now, and that it was rotten to schedule this vote on St. Jean Baptiste Day, here are some random thoughts:

1. The Conservatives keep stating they represent the majority of Canadians and they have the right to send postal workers back to work, so they will.  However, just because you have the right to do something doesn't mean it is the right thing to do.

2.  MP Hoeppner stated 70 percent of Canadians want their mail.  Well, 100 percent of Canadians would like to retire with dignity.  One of the many things CUPW is fighting for is a fair pension for its current and future members.  Whether the majority of Canadians know it or not, they want exactly what CUPW is fighting for.

3.  PM Harper prorogued parliament twice, shutting down the entire federal government for months and forcing dozen of bills before the House to start from scratch.  On purpose.  Not once, but twice.  The first was from December 4, 2008 to January 26, 2009.  The second from December 30, 2009 to March 3, 2010.  This is considerably longer than the Canada Post lock-out, which is on Day 22 and has prompted Bill C-6 to force the postal workers back to the work they didn't walk away from voluntarily.  I would have to conclude Harper believes Canada Post is more vital to our country than the federal government.  Considering the priorities of the majority Conservatives, I'd have to agree with him.

4.  A number of Conservative MPs have read emails from small business people saying how much they needed Canada Post services.  One even said she didn't want to pay Fed Ex rates.  Will that convince the Conservatives not to privatise Canada Post services?  Don't be silly.

5.  The NDP Official Opposition was accused of holding Parliament hostage with the filibuster.  They were called "Pirates." Well, whatever you want to call it, I look forward to the Hansard transcriptions which will be on the public record.  Forever.  For future generations of workers, it will be clear who was responsible for eroding their rights.
6.  A number of NDP MPs shared valuable stories of the dedication of CUPW members.  Did you know many volunteered to ensure the delivery of CPP, Old Age Security, Veterans' Affairs and Canada Tax Benefit cheques, Quebec's Child Assistance, Pension and Income Security cheques as well as Alberta Pension cheques?  If it didn't affect you, you may have missed this display of CUPW's desire to go above and beyond in the service of the people of Canada.  Remember this the next time someone tells you unions are concerned only with their bottom line.  Plus, CUPW workers left the line to find a variety of live shipments -- including queen bees which, apparently, private delivery services will not handle; another reason NOT to privatise Canada Post!

7.  Harper's Conservatives toe the line.  His line.  It isn't a surprise, of course, but I am always disappointed when people elected to serve the best interests of their constituents choose to serve their Party instead.  I'm naive that way.  CUPW had engaged in rotating strikes which disrupted, but did not halt, mail service.  Canada Post responded by locking them out.  Harper responded by forcing them back to work at a lower rate than the last wage offer from Canada Post at the Bargaining Table.  Shame.

If Harper's goal was simply to return our Posties to work and get the mail moving again, he could have introduced a bill that forced Canada Post to unlock the doors and get back to the Table.  He didn't because it wasn't.  His goal was to make it clear he is in charge and, by golly, things are gonna get ugly every time someone forgets it.

As the clock counts down to the C-6 vote call, I know how it's going to end.  We all do.

But I have to send my appreciation to the federal NDP MPs who spoke so long and so well for working people.  I am grateful for their strong presence in the House of Commons.  Do do that voodoo that you do so well!

I also send my appreciation to my brothers and sisters in CUPW for your brave efforts to stand firm for all Canadian workers.

Sunday, 8 May 2011

Happy Mother's Day 2011: To Valerie & Jillian with all my love

On Mother's Day, the treacle drips from sentimental prose.
You know I'm too pragmatic to contribute much to those.
As a mother and a daughter, too, I shrink from such display,
I much prefer to celebrate it every single day
With gratitude to my mother and especially to you
For the wondrous gift of making me a mother, too!
I celebrate with love, worry and with prayer;
With heartfelt faith in seedlings I have planted where
I hope that you will find them as you grow
And somehow, magically, you will always know
The words to say, the things to do
When motherhood drops in on you.
But I am certain, as my mother before me,
That you will fail – you will see! –
And many moments to give and teach
Will quickly fly beyond your reach.
I'd warn you not to grieve too much
The day your child slips from your touch,
But I cried the day that you outgrew
Your newborn clothes (I did.  It's true!)
The day would come, I saw it then,
You wouldn't need me ever again.
But a mother's role is not complete
Until it is rendered obsolete
So, tho' you're well and truly grown
And managing nicely on your own;
Tho' I'm proud of what you've become,
I'm afraid I'll always be your mom.
I will preach and advise and nag
Twice as much as I will brag.
No man will be good enough for you,
But I'll try to like him if you do.
And one day, perhaps, you, too, will know
Why I cling and won't let go.

Thursday, 28 April 2011

What is a Trade Unionist? By M. A. (Tex) Hughes

Years ago, attended the retirement event for a long-time CUPE activist.  Paul Moist, CUPE's National President, spoke and included excerpts from the following.  He'd cited the author and I Googled ferociously trying to find a copy. No luck.  After a few emails were exchanged, Brother Moist provided me with a scan of the original document.  It was a single page, no idea what the publication was or when it was printed by CUPE Local 1326 (though it appears to have been some time ago) and the gender was primarily masculine.

To update it, I made it gender neutral, but the rest remains intact, as written, including the odd (to me) mixture of American and Canadian spellings.  Now, when someone asks you what a trade unionist is, you can send them here.  Be warned:  He sets the bar very, very high.  It is something for activists to strive for.

On the occasion of his retirement, after some thirty-eight years as a union member, union officer, representative of the National Union of Public Employees, and later the Canadian Union of Public Employees and a regional director, Brother M. A. (Tex) Hughes gave this reply when asked the simple question,

In my opinion, a Trade Unionist is a person who has dedicated his or her life to the task of fighting for the betterment of all workers.  To such a person, an injury to one is an injury to all.  A gain for one is a gain for all and justice for one leads to a better chance for all to receive justice.

Trade Unionists are prepared to fight for themselves, but to fight longer and harder for others.  They are willing to contribute time, effort and money to advance the cause of the labour movement, and to do so without counting the cost.

There are no 9 to 5 Trade Unionists.  Days off, weekends and evenings away from family is a price they are prepared to pay.

The question posed by President Kennedy could have been, "Ask not what your union can do for you.  Ask, rather, what you can do for your union."  A real Unionist does not have to be persuaded to stand for union office or to accept committee work or become a Shop Steward.  And they do not ask to be paid for performing such work.  They do not use their union position to advance their career.  They will refuse to accept a promotion or an appointment if it means selling out to management or compromising their trade union principles.

The Unionist knows that sacrifices must be made if they are to live up to those union principles.  They are ready to pay that price, even if it costs their job, their chances for promotion, their popularity, the goodwill of their bosses or the support of less dedicated fellow workers.

No Trade Unionist will ever cross a picket line under any circumstances.  A picket line is sacred, whether it is legal or illegal, whether it is set up by their union, another union, a non-union organization or even a rival organization.

No unionist will ever go back to work while anyone in their union is still on strike, even if half of the other members crawl back; they will stay out until the strike is called off by a majority vote of the members.  Not even if they voted against the strike in the first place, will they sell out their fellow members.  They may lose their car, their home, their livelihood, but they will not scab.

The real Unionist will not allow personalities to dictate their actions.  They may dislike certain members or officers but will not allow this to prevent their working with them for the good of the union or from fighting for them if they need help.  They will not criticize or condemn their union or its officers in public, but rather work from within to correct the situation.  They will never disclose information that should remain within the membership.

The Unionist knows that any union is only as strong as its members and that each member must work to keep the union strong.  They cannot sit back and let others do it for them.  The member who refuses to act, who expects the executive, the representative, the National, or other members to carry the load is no trade unionist.  Real Trade Unionists do all that is required of them, then look around to see what more they can do.

The Trade Unionist knows that the labour movement was born out of desperation and frustration, in times when workers had no rights whatsoever; when it was a punishable crime to even meet with another worker to discuss wages or working conditions.  They know that earlier Unionists gave their lives -- even here in Canada -- to gain some rights for the workers.

They know that every right they now enjoy, every protective article in their collective agreement, every piece of labour legislation was obtained for them by dedicated Unionists, through untold effort and great sacrifice.  They know that others before them made those sacrifices, were fired from their jobs, black-listed for life, beaten up by company goons, ridden down by armed troops, imprisoned, deported and even killed.  Everything they now take for granted was paid for by others.  Because they know, they can never forget the debt which can never be repaid.

Real Trade Unionists will never be satisfied that everything possible has been accomplished, but if, on their deathbed, they can say, "I leave this world a somewhat better place for my fellow workers and part of that improvement was due to my small contribution," they can die in contentment.  There are many more union members than there are Trade Unionists.

Monday, 25 April 2011

Sometimes when you're Left, you're left - Honourary Life 2010 Speech

I love to write and deliver speeches.

Few will admit to that, but I'm a fan of truth, so there it is. How can one not love the opportunity to engage and educate a captive audience?

This speech was delivered to the 2010 Honourary Life Membership of CUPE Local 500 at the annual dinner held on Friday, October 29.  I struggled to write it, to acknowledge that sometimes, despite our best efforts, the end result of years of hard work is more of the same.

Our local had worked very hard for 4 years with affiliated groups and the community in order to change the balance of power of our civic government in the October 27 election.  When the dust settled, the numbers remained essentially unchanged. It was a daunting task to address this setback to a roomful of labour activists, but I couldn't let it be the elephant in the room.

After the dinner, people asked for copies.  That never happened to me before and it's a lovely feeling to be validated.

I hope you enjoy this as much as they did.

Truthfully, I didn't want to be here tonight.  Wednesday night's results hurt -- deeply and personally.  It was a rejection of our most cherished beliefs and principles and it's hard to celebrate years of service and dedication when it feels like that hard work has had little or no impact on the fabric of our city today.

Throughout my life, I've often been accused of being a starry-eyed optimist for believing there are better angels in all of us who see the value of investing in a city for its citizens, rather than selling it off to benefit a select few.

Wednesday night was a solid punch to the stomach and it hurt.

Essentially, it seemed that fear of a left-wing invasion secured a right-wing majority.

It's frustrating.  It's heartbreaking.  It's enough to make you want to kick the dirt from your shoes and walk away.

It's a rejection of the sacrifices of the people who shut this city down 91 years ago in a general strike because they knew what so many have forgotten:  That policies and practices which seek to serve the many will create a stronger city than those which serve the few.

Unfounded, unreasonable fear has always been our enemy.

In Saskatchewan, in 1962, the province's doctors went on a 3-week strike to protest Canada's first government health insurance plan, fearing government control of their livelihood.

Most citizens supported the doctors, fearing loss of access to medical care and believing in the concerns of the 'experts' -- those doctors.

Brother Tommy Douglas, who had faithfully served the people of Saskatchewan for 18 years, had stepped down as Premier to run federally as the first NDP leader.

Two weeks before the start date of the provincial health care plan, he was defeated.  Two years later, the CCF-NDP, which Brother Tommy had lead through 4 consecutive governments, was utterly rejected by the voters.

That had to hurt.  Must have been frustrating, especially since within 10 years, every province had a publicly funded health insurance plan.

How did he find the strength to endure?

In the face of relentless opposition that is gaining strength and credibility and threatens the social fabric of our lives, how do WE find the strength to endure?

Because every labour activist wants to leave this world a better place than we found it.

We endure because the labour movement was born out of the desperation and frustration of people with no rights at all -- when seeking the most basic rights could lead to imprisonment, black-listing, beatings, deportation and even death.

We endure because the rights we enjoy today were not given to us -- we had to fight for each and every one of them; and since they were not freely and easily given, we fight to maintain them.

It's what we do.

At last year's Honourary Life dinner, I spoke of our city being at a crossroads.  On Wednesday, we were placed firmly on a path chosen largely out of fear and ignorance, by no one in this room.

Our fight continues.

Next year is our provincial election, and we now have a pretty good idea of what that could look like if we don't keep fighting.

We are also fighting on-going battles for our pensions and our water -- and attacks to our health care take on a new dimension when you realise that the existing federal-provincial health care agreement - which was negotiated under the Liberals during a time of federal surpluses - will expire in 2014.

Our dream of a better life for all, our fidelity to our values and our faith in better angels must endure.

We must meet their fear with our strength.

Tonight, we honour those who began the fight and sacrificed so much for us.  We honour you, who continued their struggle and we honour the continuing efforts of those who join your ranks this night.

We honour the fighters and gather together in celebration and remembrance, drawing strength from one another before setting out to battle once more, knowing that if we rise each time we fall, we cannot be defeated.

On a side note, I had the singular honour of being the Chair of the Honourary Life Committee for two years.  It was in that capacity that I took the opportunity to speechify.  As of last Fall, I became persona non grata in my Local, so any official speechifying is on indefinite hold.  This blog is now my podium.  I address the masses.  Less captive, but more democratic.

Welcome - The 5 Dubyas

Who:  Sallie Caufield
What:  Opinions and some junk
When:  Whenever I have to scratch an itch
Where:  Winnipeg
1.  The Title:  I'm a member of CUPE.  So, why isn't the title "CUPE Doll"? There are enough CUPE blogs out there for affiliated locals; this ain't one of them.  I am a member, but my opinions do not necessarily toe the party line.  I believe in solidarity, but I am old school with an idealised notion of what that means.  My definition of unionism, solidarity and all those lovely labour movement buzz words tends to the old-fashioned,original grassroots trade unionism variety.

Somewhere out there, a "CUPE Doll" already exists.  She doesn't have a blog, but she may one day.  Unfortunately, when I searched for a blogger address, "qpdoll" was taken.  So, I defaulted.  Sorry, CUPE Doll, whoever you are.

Since I am a fan of Latin,QP has remarkable potential.  

For the "Q":  "Quid" (this); "Quasi" (as if, just as); "Quod" (but, now, because, whereas).

For "P": "Puto" (to clear, consider, think, believe, suppose, judge); "Presto" (perform, display, fulfill, offer, present); "Perdo" (ruin, waste); "Pendo" (value, consider, judge, esteem); "Proficio" (assist, help, aid).

So, at any point in time, the QP may stand for Quid Perdo or Quod Pendo or Quasi Puto or any other combination.  Labels are open to interpretation and change in nearly every context, including this one.

2.  The Blog:  Years ago, I attended a series of weekend workshops on Women in the Union.  Basically, where the heck were they all?  Women make up a huge percentage of CUPE, but are under-represented at higher levels.  CUPE National created a task force to investigate and make recommendations.

I didn't feel it applied to me.  I didn't feel marginalised or excluded and counted myself lucky to be surrounded by labour brothers who seemed immune to such nonsense.  They supported and encouraged my efforts and I shunned the notion that this could ever change.  "Old Boys Club"?  Pffft!

I was wrong, of course.  Interpersonal dynamics in a political environment can change on a dime; blocs form and close ranks without warning.  That is the nature of the beast. 

Men lead differently from women.  They process and react to threats differently, too.  There are exceptions, of course, but they are far more rare than I'd imagined.

In any political situation, women are often encouraged to "act like a man", but when we do, we may find ourselves suddenly outcast.  Men may say they like a strong woman or want you to act as they do, but a step too far into their world may constitute an unintended threat; or you may have given a strong, honest, differing opinion when it wasn't what tHEy wanted to hear; or perhaps you expected fair and equitable treatment across the board at precisely the wrong moment.

Whatever the case, suddenly the phrase "she brought it on herself" is applied to questions about your sudden disappearance from the Table and you may as well tie a bell around your neck to warn others to stay away, because they will do all they can to keep you and yours out of active participation despite your years of service to the cause.

Yes, it's wrong and it is counter to all the union movement stands for, but like any system of beliefs, those who pay lip service outnumber those who do not.  This is not unique to human experience, alas.

But I DO believe.

When abuses by priests started coming to light, I didn't stop being a Catholic -- my faith wasn't in the priests or even the Church itself, but in the Catholic interpretation of God. (Generally speaking, of course.  My mother and I have many lively discussions about my being too tolerant, but that's another post.  Perhaps.)

Just as my faith in God was not altered by the actions of representatives, my faith in the labour movement has not been altered.  The speed bumps may have slowed me down, but I'm still moving forward.

Before I was cast out, I did not blog.  When you are an active participant in a group, consensus is necessary.  I held my tongue more often than I am proud of in order to present a unified front for the good of the membership. I allowed the continuation of practices I did not agree with in the interests of maintaining a strong leadership to serve the greatest needs.

Unfettered now, I can state my beliefs and opinions openly.  When you are voted off the island, they no longer control you.

This is my island.  I have the talking stick, tho' I am willing to share.

Discover hope, all ye who enter here.