Thursday, December 31, 2015

Come with me to Panama

Panama City from Ancon Hill

With our driver-guide, Francisco, at the Miraflores Locks

Shopping for essentials in Boqete

Where your cup of coffee began . . . possibly

Learning Spanish: I can now say: La Quenta, por favor and whether or not I have it down perfectly, the waiter returns in a few minutes with the bill. I can also say with confidence, Mi gato bebes leche, but since I don’t have a cat, telling someone that it drinks milk is not likely to come up in a conversation. Yo escribe un carta might be useful sometime but who writes letters anymore? Un cafe nigra or Un cafe, non leche, is useful; the coffee here is fabuloso and I’ve never drunk it with milk. The stop signs read Alto but that can also mean “upper” as in Alto Boqete, which is where my daughter lives. In Germany we regularly visited Oberbieber (Upper Beaver) and Niederbieber which is . . . well you guessed it. I find myself answering in German if I’m surprised by a question; the other day I said Aufwiedersehen to a puzzled store clerk. I’m still not sure about greetings, but I think Buenos Dias suits morning greetings, Buenos Tardes (?) the afternoon and “good-night” is Buenas Noches. Around here it doesn’t  matter since everyone seems just to say Buena, an all-purpose form of saying “How’re y’all doin’” which is what you’re likely to get from the Texans in church.

Laws and Limits: I was told there are laws for everything and, I’ve observed, there are police everywhere you look. However, most everyone apparently ignores the laws and the police seldom enforce them. The Pan American highway between David and Santiago is under construction and absolutely horrible for long distances, but even on the finished, paved four-lane portions, signs that help are hard to find and I wondered if one big sign at either end saying “FIGURE IT OUT, GRINGO” wouldn’t be more helpful as it would prepare you for what you’re about to experience. In construction areas, the word disculpe appears often, a word related to the English “culpable,” or guilty, and similar to the German “entschuldigen sie mir, bitte.” In other words, “We’re sorry, please forgive us.” You’d think Canadians had written their signs.

Panama City: Panama City is impressive with it’s stainless steel and glass skyscrapers . . . but situated alongside vast slums. it’s obvious that the Panama Canal has pumped a steady flow of cash into the capital. What’s also obvious is that the wealth it’s brought has never been equitably distributed. In the suburbs, acres and acres of modest, small, identical homes march up and down hillsides, a possible attempt at moving the poor out of the city proper and into better housing. Our driver-guide said that the tenements downtown “look like Cuba” and that the city was attempting to buy them but their owners weren’t willing to sell. Apparently slum landlords exist everywhere.

Driving: My son-in-law is a skilled and aggressive driver, and his style fits the going conventions well. A minimum of signs and traffic lights means that drivers have to be assertive and opportunistic in order to get from point A to B. If there’s an opening—no matter how small—take it . . . or you could be trying to get onto Balboa Calle for hours. Our driver-guide was a recent immigrant from Venezuela (he said there are 300,000 of his countrymen in Panama) and he commented that Panamanians are good drivers; I’d have to agree if in-and-out-weaving-with-horn-honking-and-jack rabbit-acceleration-and-brake-slamming is considered the measure of good driving. I can’t drive that way and, fortunately, I won’t have to. I’d rather eat bark.

English in Panama: The second language here is English; in fact it’s the only foreign language group that’s given an obvious nod by the signs and directions and by personnel in hotels and restaurants. The involvement of the USA in the progress of the Panamanian economy is obvious and Panama’s desirability as an alternative retirement haven for Americans, particularly, greases the wheels of commerce and has perpetuated a class system that remains the plague of many colonial countries. If you speak English or if you’re a Panamanian who got in on the ground floor of the Panama Canal’s largess, you’re not likely to pick fruit, cut sugar cane or rake coffee beans on the drying floor. The Hombres mixing concrete along the highway, erecting signposts, had their heads wrapped against the burning sun; their day’s pay probably amounts to less than 10% of what a Canadian would earn doing similar work. (Minimum wage levels range from $1.60 per hour for unskilled labout to 3.60 for stewards and other in-flight crew. Domestics make $200 - $250 per month) I’ve been surprised not to have seen many multinational factories here as one does in Juarez or Nogales, Mexico; what with the proximity to the canal and the low wage rates, I’d have thought the location ideal for the blood-sucking, faceless nature of multinationals. It’s possible I just missed that aspect.

But if my impressions count, I’d say that the Panama we’ve seen is a safe and friendly place. It’s people are beautiful and generous and if half the country’s citizens are super-privileged and the other half subsisting, the disparity seems not to have disturbed the general peace.

At least not yet.

I could live here.

Can’t say I belong here, though. At least not until I can say “What’s the best way to get from here to Bocas del Toro without flying to Panama City first and without driving the treacherous road over the mountains,” in fluent Spanish. That would take a while.

Or “Where can I get a shovelful of snow? I want to stick my face in it.”

Friday, December 25, 2015

The Ubiquitous THEY

At Finca Lerida
The Ubiquitous They

I just listened to a few interviews with a certain Lord Monckton, a citizen of Great Britain who claims to be “not a proponent of conspiracy theories,” and then embarks on a litany of conspiracy theories including:
  1. The climate change hoax is part of a power grab and an end-around play by the EU, the Democrats in the USA and the UN to deprive people of their democratic rights and gain for themselves the power over people that they crave.
  2. In the ruling by the US Supreme Court that legally legitimates same-sex marriage, they have taken the power unto themselves to dictate to the people, thereby depriving them of their democratic right to govern themselves.

I didn’t count how many times Lord Monckton used they to describe the “enemy” that’s bent on destroying democratic rights, but it was the most frequent pronoun referring to his opponents. He also used leftists and marxists a few times.

They is a universal signal telling us that we’re listening to propaganda. Not once did Monckton name a person of the purported group he was railing against. Is Ban Ki Moon, the secretary-general of the UN, a power hungry member of they? Is my local member of parliament a member of they? Is Naheed Nenshi, mayor of Calgary, a member of they? And where and when do they all get together to plot the overthrow of democracies? And why do you never hear a disaffected member of the evil they blowing the whistle on the they gang they’ve gotten themselves embroiled in?

The most obvious explanation is that they doesn’t exist. Certainly there are power-hungry people in this world who would like to subjugate all of us and make us do their will. You need only look at Saudi Arabia, President Assad of Syria, the leadership of ISIL to see that that’s true. But to extrapolate from that the assertion that our government, our United Nations, our European Union are together plotting a dictatorship is hard to believe. If we have people in governments now with those aspirations, the chance that they would get ALL their governing colleagues to agree to a plan to disenfranchise its people defies credibility.

Remember that we ousted the Harper government for displaying even innocuous hints that they were hoping to establish themselves as Canada’s party, Canada’s ideology. If that wasn’t democracy in action, I don’t know what is. The people decided. And consider who the Albertans are who are making virulent noises about overthrowing their democratically-elected government, some even suggesting assassination.

In our local institutions as in the broader world, the tendency to resort to they when group choices have to be made is a plague that does us as much harm as assumed dictatorship ever could. They is a plural pronoun. Theys are made up of individuals and unless these individuals cannot make up their own minds, cannot disagree about anything among themselves, a they, as Monckton so often uses it, never exists except in motorcycle gangs, criminal organizations, theocracies and communist/fascist/hereditary dictatorships.

Let’s either name those with whom we disagree and confront/'carefront' them or keep silence. And let’s challenge people like Monckton who keep using they as the name of everything that frightens us.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

A place of fish and flowers

At Finca Lerida
      I read in Wikipedia that it may mean a place of good fishing or a place of beautiful flowers, but that the accepted meaning is “a place of beautiful flowers and fishes.” To us, of course, it has always meant that narrow isthmus connecting Central America to South America. Oh, and with a canal running through its middle allowing ships to pass through from the Atlantic to the Pacific, or the other way ‘round.
      The language we hear most here is Spanish, of course, an echo of the conquest of this and neighboring lands by Spain when it was still a nation of strength and influence. They left behind their language and their genes before fading from significance and both are evident in the people on the streets and in the shops of Boquete and David, the only parts of the country we’ve seen so far. Dark-haired and handsome, the mixing of European and aboriginal stock over centuries has produced a people not quite like either strain, and yet not unlike them either.
      The only comparison that comes to my mind would be the Metis of Canada.
      The dwellings suggest a wide spread in the fortunes of Panama’s citizens. Our temporary home is solid, modern, set in acres of tended greenery. In Boquete, the climate is a non-issue; furnaces and air conditioners would be totally superfluous. I’m told there are really only two seasons: the wet extending from May through November and the dry from December through April. Throughout, the temperature hovers around the mid-twenties mark. The 1000-metre descent from Boquete to the Pacific coast is a one-hour car trip, but with a temperature rise of 10 degrees Celsius and a sharp rise in relative humidity.
      Ascending up the mountain from Boquete takes you through another reality. Among the coffee plantations and vegetable farms the very poor cling to life sheltered in patched together dwellings of dirt and tin and whatever can be found to keep out the rain. Our Western, Christian impulse is to give them stuff—clothes, food, soaps and pencils—a reflex of guilt for having been dealt an undeserved, large share of the earth’s bounty. The children we see along the roadsides laughing and playing, balancing with arms outstretched on the sewage pipe that runs down the mountain probably don’t know they’re poor--except when they take the bus down into town.
      I remember that as a child, we were too poor to have bicycles. It was only the fact that our neighbours had them that grew the need in us to own one. I need to think some more about the definition of wealth as the ownership of stuff, and the definition of poverty that relates to material goods and not to spirit. Hmmm.
      Boquete lies near the highest mountain in Panama, the Volcan Baru which, we’ve been promised, erupts only in intervals of hundreds of years. A few hours drive across the Cordillera that forms the backbone of Panama, and we’ll be on the Caribbean side, the coastal archipelago they call Bocas del Toro where we’ll renew a friendship rooted, almost unbelievably, in La Ronge, Saskatchewan.
      Facebook is marvelous. Through it’s “gossip column” we know that Rosthern is blanketed in snow and that last night’s temperature dipped to -25 C. No doubt, we would come to miss the snow and the crisp cold of the Canadian winter eventually.
      Today, that’s hard to imagine.

Friday, December 04, 2015

It may be too late.

It may be too late.

We've been living in the USA for the past seven weeks and have enjoyed being here. But the other day, we wondered if we shouldn't be headed home . . . for the sake of our safety. I don't have the exact statistics, but a news report here said that in the past year, America has experienced mass killings (4 or more people murdered in one event) on an almost daily basis. The big ones we hear about, the minor ones where gang shoot-outs or escalated domestic feuds are involved aren't even reported anymore.

The latest shooting in San Bernardino has been declared a terrorist-motivated attack and for some reason, attaching that word seems to clarify motives for the media and, I suppose, for most of the general public. The discouraging thing—to me, a doubly motivated peacenik, being Canadian AND Mennonite—is that each of these highly-publicized killings has resulted in spikes in gun sales. There's a mentality abroad that sees arming yourself as a way to keep you and your family safe. The logic is missing: if someone breaks into your house to rob you, precipitating a shoot-out has to be the most illogical course of action to take. And if a killer comes into a school with an assault rifle, the hope that the principal could prevent deaths with a handgun is a scenario for a video game, not for real life.

The President of the National Rifle Association made a speech on Fox news today in which he tried to make the point that the arming of citizens is the best way to safety for everyone. There are enough right-wingers in this country to make sure that nothing is done about gun control; even proposed legislation to do background checks on people shopping for assault weapons can't make it past the senate.

There's an old shibboleth that gets dragged out regularly: guns don't kill people . . . people kill people. It's true that if there were no guns, people would still be in danger of knives and baseball bats but the curse of the age is the projectile weapon, the kind that makes it possible to kill from hiding, to spray groups of people with deadly fire. You can't do that with a knife or a baseball bat; automatic weapons are what make mass murders possible.

The trend here in the USA is toward more arms, more mass killings and more determination by the gun lobby to prevent change. In fact, the trajectory of mayhem is accelerating upward at a steady, unbroken pace. The rate of killing with guns in the USA is at least 5 times what it is in Canada, per capita. It's 40 times what it is in Great Britain. There are Latin American countries, some war-torn countries in Africa that have higher gun-death rates than the USA, but the USA is not at war and has a functional government, trained enforcement and a regulated judiciary. European and Commonwealth countries typically have gun-death rates of less than 10% of what is experienced in the US.

If a snowball begins to roll down a mountainside, it gathers more and more snow to the point where it can trigger an avalanche. The place to prevent that happening is at the top where the snowball is small. When it becomes too great to be stopped, there is no other course but to hope for a miracle.

The USA is threatened by a snowball that may not be stoppable anymore. The escalating death rate from gunfire shows no sign of abating and if the trend, the trajectory, is predictive of a future, killing and shoot-outs will become even more commonplace, and that not in the too-distant future.

But I would grant the NRA one thing; the problem in America is bigger than the lack of gun control. People decide to point their weapons at other people and pull the triggers. This doesn't happen without motivation, and in a society where the rich have become obscenely wealthy while the poor are increasingly frustrated, rage is bound to germinate, grow and escalate into violence. 

And the gospel of peace at the core of Jesus' message has been so perverted by people who claim to be his followers that the witness for the Christian message is too quiet to be heard over the gunfire. For the Quakers, the Anabaptists and the secular humanists to gather a counterweight sufficient to swing the tide toward some sanity is probably a futile dream.

For America, the signs point to the possibility of its being too late. There is only one end-point to the situation that we see growing here unless congress can be persuaded to defy the gun lobby. 

It's not pretty. 

Is the snowball too big? Has the avalanche begun?

Saturday, October 31, 2015

First Day in Elkhart

Autumn at AMBS

St. Julian Ukrainian Catholic Church near Rosthern
United States of America. There are a lot of them (50, a nice round number—you wouldn't want to add another) and we drove through parts of 5 to get here. Wisconsin was beautiful although it would have been spectacular a few weeks ago with it's rolling hills and valleys under autumn-painted deciduous trees. Illinois means Chicago and you can grow a beard navigating through stalled-traffic backups and construction on the Chicago Loop. The building of overpasses is the apparent job-creation project of the time in America; as I waited to move past another construction site I wondered: Why don't overpass and Passover mean the same thing?

Close call on the 80/90 Interstate east of Gary; we were in the right lane of 3 when a driver in the centre lane made a last-second decision to take an exit. He probably didn't see us, because he cut right in front of us. Luckily, I possess the reflexes of a 20 year-old and I drive a car with excellent brakes. I think we left half of our rubber on the road.

An earlier trip through Wisconsin had Agnes pulled over by a state trooper; she was going 65 mph in a 55 mph zone. She got off with charm and a promise never, ever to do it again. Now there appears to be absolutely no note taken of speed limits, even in construction zones.

You need to be awake driving around Minneapolis-St. Paul and Chicago particularly.

Radio purports to offer entertainment and information as you drive, an absolute necessity on the second and third days of a trip when everything you have to say to each other has already been said . . . twice. American radio appears to be mainly commercial advertising with periodic breaks for another country song that sounds exactly like the one before it, or religious programming of the milk kind (as opposed to meat). Public radio is a better choice; we found that when one NPR FM station fades out, you can usually find another just by searching one or two steps on the radio dial. News, intelligent discussion and classical music leans towards those with CBC 2 tastes.

I remember traveling through southern Alberta on our way to Whitefish, Montana with friends years ago. We stopped at a gas station and Ted rolled down his window and asked the attendant where on the dial CBC could be found. “I don't know,” he said. “What are you, some kind of intellectuals?”

From our apartment on the AMBS campus we could very nearly hit 4 Mennonite churches with thrown rocks. We've picked one for tomorrow on Hively Ave. Down the street from us is the headquarters of MC USA, a conference undergoing considerable controversy right now over the same-sex marriage issue. I hope to spend some time there trying to take the temperature of the conversation first hand.

Monday we begin work; most likely in the data/edit/library areas, but I suspect we'll also be raking leaves. The campus is huge, heavily treed and . . . well, you can picture the rest. We're replacing an Edmonton couple who really enjoyed their time here, so we're optimistic.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

After the Election

What time is it? Clock at the Mennonite Heritage Museum
October 19th came and went; the result was almost anti-climactic given the polls. The country did not grind to a halt as it also didn't on Y2K night. Oddly, because the internet now makes it impossible to prevent news from spreading, CBC declared a winner while BC voters were still lining up to vote. Just as oddly, our new government was elected with fewer than 40% of the ballots cast; 60% of us saw our ballots flushed down the toilet—if choosing a party to govern is the only real point of voting.

The Harper government taught us a lesson in improperly-structured democracy: a majority government—having no need for sincere debate because it knows what the final vote will be—easily falls into the trap of dismissing alternative views. The Harper government bullied bills through parliament because they could. Their own backbenchers became little more than bulk; opposition party members little more than irritants. Most Canadians sent a representative to Ottawa who effectively had little or no influence on legislative choices. It's a recipe for cooking up demagoguery.

If we believe that our affable, ethical, likeable new prime minister won't fall into the Harper trap, we obviously don't believe that old maxim: power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely. Thank goodness for the independence of the courts and for the Charter of Rights and Freedoms that curbed the Harper government's most-reprehensible intentions! In a properly-structured democracy, the senate would be the guardian of country-wide regional interests and the welfare of minorities. But we know how the pork-barreling appointments to that dysfunctional body have—over time—rendered it worse than useless.

Trudeau has promised to do away with first-past-the-post elections. History has taught us that when a party benefits so obviously from the system that brought them to power, their enthusiasm for switching to some form of proportional representation magically disappears; only opposition parties seem to favour the change and if it comes about, it will probably happen when we have a minority government where cooperation, negotiation and compromise are needed for parliament to function.

I hope I have to eat these words in the future; that would be a pleasant surprise. 

But life goes on and ours will continue to be a country that's far from perfect, but almost as good as it gets in a world that's run by human beings. I just hope that this election won't go down in history as the “niqab and nice hair” election; for that I look to Justin Trudeau to be as prime minister what he was as campaigner for election. It was high time that both the tone and direction of our politics took a refreshing new turn and that's basically what Trudeau promised us on the hustings.

What I liked least in Trudeau's (and Mulcair's and Harper's) platforms were their promises regarding what they would do for “the middle class.” Putting aside for the moment the odious implication that we are a society of classes, it's by far the more urgent business of lifting the poor out of their poverty that cries for attention. It's not clear that the people who are not poor and not rich (the “middle class”) are actually in need of special concessions while indigenous communities, single moms, low-income seniors and the working poor are obviously desperate for imaginative help, like NOW.

Although I admit that I found the “get rid of Harper at any cost” mentality undignified and a bit childish, I am glad to see the Harper era end. For all the bluster recently about “values,” I don't think the previous government ever grasped that “Canadian values” and “Conservative Party of Canada values” are not necessarily the same thing.

I think Trudeau gets it. I hope Trudeau gets it.

Tuesday, October 06, 2015

Canadian Values

A lesson in values
When I was a young teacher, “values education” became something of a catch phrase in school circles. Although we knew in broad strokes what the phrase meant, I, at least, was not confident that if we were to begin listing those “values,” were to set out to rank their importance and actually to attempt to incorporate them routinely into our lessons, that we could ever actually agree on a values curriculum.

“Values” like fairness, respect, tolerance, cooperation were probably already implicit in what most of us were bringing to our classrooms, but conversation in the staff room indicated clearly that we teachers were not made with cookie cutters: some of us put reverence high on our list while others ridiculed it, for instance. One colleague played the stock market; his aim in life was to be independently wealthy. The high value he placed on such unassailable self-sufficiency appalled me.

Sometimes people add an adjective to imply that there are values a group holds in common, and so this election campaign has begun to throw out the term “Canadian values.” The inference is that there is a stock set of values that Canadians share and if you were to poll Canadians on the subject, their ranking of values would be more or less the same. 

Another such phrase—Christian values—may sound very much like being a Christian guarantees basic agreement on the relative importance to be placed on items in a list of values, but experience tells us that some believers value authority and tradition over fairness and equality—and the other way 'round, of course.

Stephen Harper used the phrase “Old-Stock Canadians” in the first debate and that raised a lot of eyebrows. He defined it later as "Canadians who have been the descendants of immigrants for one or more generations." Some of us joked that by this definition, we could take comfort in the fact that we qualified; others reminded us that by this definition, Indigenous people did not. It ends up being divisive by inferring that newcomers—refugees, immigrants—remain a separate classification until the children to whom they give birth in Canada reach maturity and become “old-stock,” real Canadians.

Now there's obviously one value Stephen Harper and I don't share, and we're both “old-stock Canadians.” But then, it's electioneering time and whatever value Canadians might agree on as regards honesty and integrity, we don't seem to insist on them during campaigns.

But thinking about values we share and don't share equally suggests a good exercise. Sit down in a group with a list of items that are used when values are in discussion: honesty, loyalty, self-sufficiency, hard work, respect, cooperation, punctuality, generosity, patriotism, tradition, power, health, fame, reverence for life, earth-care, fairness, kindness, etc. Have each participant choose only three that they consider to be most essential to the world as they see it. Compare lists and spend some time sharing views on why we each chose the items we did.

In fact, there are no such things as Canadian values, Christian values, at least insofar as they could be listed and ranked with confidence. For a political party to say that they are protecting my values (because I am, after all, a Canadian) feels like a pandering to my baser instincts. What they are seeking to defend is their values while hoping I will assume that they match mine.

How is this different from using female beauty to sell cars and beer, couples laughing and cavorting on beaches to sell insurance?

It assaults a few of my deeply-felt, basic values. Apparently they are not—after all—Canadian values.

Friday, October 02, 2015

More Niqab and the politics of division

Michelangelo's Pieta

It makes me feel sad and disappointed.

After the recent leaders' debate in which the wearing or not wearing of the niqab during citizenship ceremonies was strenuously argued between Trudeau and Harper particularly, the fortunes of the Conservative Party of Canada have seen a sudden bump-up in their favour in the polls. And why wouldn't they? Polls asking whether or not a person should be allowed to cover his/her face during the swearing-in indicate that some 74% of Canadians favour what amounts to denying a niqab-wearing person citizenship unless she removes her face covering.

Although lower courts have already ruled that such a requirement is not possible without denying rights to the person under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, Harper is plowing ahead, saying the government will appeal the decision to the Supreme Court of Canada. One assumes that the Conservative base and many others would agree that that should be done, some to such a degree that they're contemplating changing their voting intentions.

It's being presented as a question of identification and, most recently, as a matter of loyalty to one's adoptive country. In reality, it's neither. Persons identify themselves before the swearing-in ceremony to the satisfaction of officials and clothing styles have never predicted loyalty, otherwise Sikhs, Hindus and even conservative Mennonites would all be suspect as regards their unique dress.

It makes me wonder if the majority of Canadians have made their decision about this question without knowledge of two important bodies of information: 1) what does the Charter of Rights and Freedoms actually say about cultural and religious tolerance? and 2) what is the history of the niqab and why is it important to some women to wear it in public?

Regarding the guarantee of rights and freedoms in Section 2 of the Charter, click here to read the summary. You'll note that the Charter very clearly names freedoms of belief, thought and the right to live according to one's conscience. More importantly, the Charter allows governments to limit these rights only in the case of identifiable harm to others, as in the case of restricting freedom of speech when it is pornographic or hate-inducing.

The Supreme Court will undoubtedly reject the Harper appeal on this subject. Unless restricting niqab wearing during the citizenship ceremony can be shown to do harm, it has to fail. 

On the second item—the place of the niqab itself—it's noteworthy that it actually predates Islam (see here). There's considerable debate about whether or not the niqab is a religious or cultural holdover, but women covering their faces in public for various reasons was happening long before the prophet Mohammad. (See, for instance, Genesis 38:14 and Genesis 24:65) The Quran is not clear about the wearing of face covering, but the following verse is sometimes cited as a Muslim directive: "O Prophet! Tell your wives and your daughters, and the believing women, to draw their cloaks (veils) over their bodies. That will be better that they should be known (as respectable women) so as not to be annoyed. And Allah is Ever Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful.”

That it is not a Canadian-Muslim requirement is obvious: women of my acquaintance go bare-headed or wear a hijab which is basically a scarf that covers their hair. They tell me that the wearing of even that covering is optional. In sculptures and paintings of the Pieta (Mother Mary and Jesus), Mary is virtually always wearing a hijab.

As has the Christian religion, Islam has fractured and permanently divided itself many times and into many factions. Obviously the tendency to see Christians as “all the same” must be a reality for them, as seeing Islam as a monolith is for us. Only two women have asked not to remove the niqab during the citizenship ceremony; thousands of Muslim women have been through that ceremony. Their individual cultural/religious backgrounds must dictate whether or not covering is comfortable, or vital, or irrelevant.

If so many Canadians are supportive of a ban (Quebec is the most anti-niqab province) that it could swing an election, what does that say about us? Is the Conservative Party of Canada banking on the apparent ignorance of a segment of voters to retain power? Harper is an educated Canadian; he obviously knows that what he's proposing won't be allowed by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms we proudly enacted in “the other Trudeau” years.

There is grave danger in the nourishing of cross-cultural phobias and prejudices. In this case, a spurious, emotional non-issue has been placed on our plates by the Conservative Party of Canada in hopes that our prejudices can be massaged into votes.

All the opposition parties have denounced this effort as they should. I hope we remember this when we go into the voting booth. Even if 90% of Canadians should conclude that persons should be denied citizenship unless their face is uncovered during the swearing-in ceremony, that still would not make it right. In political parlance, that would be called the “tyranny of the majority.”

In Canada, that would not make it lawful either.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Niqabs and the politics of division

CBC's online news headline readsCanadians of all stripes oppose face coverings during citizenship ceremonies: Vote Compass.” The “stripes” being referred to are the supporters of each of the political parties running in the upcoming election.

The question on which 72% of Canadians generally disagree with was this: “Immigrants should be allowed to cover their faces for religious reasons while swearing the oath of citizenship. [Do you strongly agree, somewhat agree, are you neutral, do you somewhat disagree, strongly disagree or do you 'not know']. Not surprisingly, those leaning Conservative on the “” voluntary survey disagreed most strongly with the statement while those voting NDP or Green disagreed less strongly.

There's a natural tendency in us to assume that majorities are right. It's not surprising; we vote on decisions all the time and whichever side of a debate gets the most votes gets to call the tune. It's how we elect governments and it's how governments pass laws through parliament.

But that's purely an expediency measure because we don't generally have a wise universal authority to tell us what the right decision would be. We call it democracy. As often as not it's most closely comparable to a pooling of ignorance. The most cynical view of this is the old saw, “the majority is almost always wrong!” 
We fall pray to this assumption that big numbers prove something in the Church as well. That an idea, a conviction, a style of worship, a charismatic leader is drawing crowds is no more proof of righteousness than it is proof of human perfidy. Numbers—in the end—prove nothing.

Humans are easily manipulated unless they have been taught how to evaluate what they're being told on some logical basis. In the case of the Vote Compass question, the respondents are wilfully or accidentally being misled: the Muslim woman who wishes to wear the niqab during the ceremony is not seeking to “cover their [her] faces [face] for religious reasons” as the question implies. Rather she is requesting that she not be required to uncover her face in a public venue. If her cultural/religious background has so attuned her to the wearing of the niqab in public, the not-wearing in such a public place is a traumatic option, like a nun being asked to appear in public in a bikini.
There's an enormous difference between masking yourself and being asked to remove some clothing you consider essential in the circumstances.
One source provides a wrinkle that might make some of us think more objectively about the current debate. “The niqab did not originate with Islam. The niqab, or face-coverings similar to it, were worn by Christian women in the Byzantine Empire and in pre-Islamic Persia. Islam adopted the practice, which was not, contrary to common perceptions, required by the Koran.” 

Rightly or wrongly we share with the other Abrahamic religions a history that includes conservative dress standards, especially for women. More conservative Mennonite denominations still require long dresses and modest shoes plus head coverings for women.
My mother wouldn't enter church with her head uncovered.
If the world-wide trend is toward liberalization in women's dress and the erasure of the distinction between males and females in this regard, it's nevertheless obvious that “progress” in that direction is not consistent across cultures.
It's also obvious to me that there's no room in a multicultural society for forcing cultural change. You can't nationally legislate appropriate dress for cultural/religious minorities; such changes evolve slowly, gently in an atmosphere of tolerance. Attempts to force them only result in unnecessary divisiveness.
True, there are countries in which dictatorial leadership forces conformity, but Canada is surely not one of them. Let's not start in that direction now after so many years of enriching multiculturalism.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Here comes the tax collector!

The Gospel of Luke tells us that Zacchaeus was a tax collector. A Jew, he had become wealthy by performing the tax-collection role . . . and probably by inflating the amount owed and pocketing the difference. Romans administered Palestine; paying soldiers, repairing roads and aqueducts cost money, taxes had to be paid.

Resistance to paying taxes and animosity toward those that collect it aren't new by any means. Most of our other expenditures are accompanied by personal choice whereas taxes are forced upon us by law and the penalties for avoidance can be severe. Personal expenditures bring tangible benefits: food, clothing, shelter and any number of gadgets, gizmos and services that make our lives demonstrably better; tax money provides benefits, of course, but the relationship between our paying and government purchasing is far from obvious.

Knowing when we've personally spent foolishly becomes obvious rather quickly, but certainty about whether or not our tax dollars are being wisely managed is not easily reached. Conjecture, rumour, political propaganda and the complexity of government these days all conspire to muddy the water.

In Canada today, we're taxed on three levels and the entities that demand that we pay up compete with each other for their share. What is each level's fair share isn't obvious: municipal governments have to create and repair streets and roads, water and sewer services, etc.; provincial governments tax for highways, education and health care, etc.; and the federal government is responsible—theoretically—for all the stuff that we have in common from coast to coast to coast, like defence, international relations, trade, etc. Imagine sorting out the “fairness” aspect of who is responsible for what, where the margins of jurisdiction ought to be and, by extension, what makes for a fair taxation regime for each.

And then there are the questions of fairness in the collection of taxes: how much tax should be assigned to consumption (GST, PST), how much to production (corporate taxes, resource exploitation taxes), how much to wealth (property, for instance), how much to incomes (personal income tax), and in the case of the latter, how much weight should be given to ability to pay. Should every person pay the same amount (as was likely the case when Zacchaeus made his collection rounds) or should only those who earn enough to have money left over when basic needs are met be required to pay income tax?

It's no wonder that the debate about taxes degenerates into a simplistic “which party promises the lowest taxes.” It's not about low or high taxation, it's about judicious, fair taxation that provides the benefits we deem necessary for reasonable levels of security, health and infrastructure from time to time. If a federal party promises $15 daycare, do we or don't we agree that early childhood care of that kind is critical enough to add the cost of it to the tax bill? Do we believe that bombing ISIS positions is a good use of tax dollars? Should education be paid for by taxes or by individuals, and if the former, should taxes pay for education all the way up to doctorate degrees? In a time of burgeoning pensioner numbers, is it fair to tax the income earners higher and higher in order to ensure seniors' well-being? Should health care respond to need only and not to ability to pay, especially when recognizing that universal health care adds a humongous amount to the tax burden? These are the kinds of debates that need to be had before any conclusion about fair taxation can be settled.

And then there's the deficit/balanced budget question. Estimates of Canada's current debt load run from 700 billion to 1.2 trillion. Taking the low number and dividing that by the population, that works out to about $20,000 per person, or $80,000 per family of four. Only elementary school arithmetic is required to determine that if debt is mounting, taxation is not keeping up to spending. To remedy this, spending must be decreased or taxation raised. If we agree that we're getting the right amount of services from our governments, it follows that Canada and the provinces have been under-taxing their citizens and corporations for years. Low taxation levels may be job-creators, but they may at the same time be country, province, city or rural municipality cripplers.

It's a wise party indeed that can judiciously balance the right level of services with taxation, and it needs an informed and thoughtful public to choose that party to run the country. Promises of low taxes don't constitute policy, they are electioneering shibboleths. It's discussion around what-services-and-at-what-level that need to happen. The willingness to pay for them under—grant you—a fair taxation regime is really where it's at.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Human Rights Museum

The other-worldly structure housing the Canadian Human Rights Museum in Winnipeg is reason enough to spend time there. Walking up from level to level on the “ramps” allows you to appreciate the enormous open space, suggestive to me of the global significance of all of us on earth being interdependently inhabitants of the same space, in space . . . this fragile earth. The panorama of Winnipeg city from the Eighth floor encourages visitors to think about their (our) place in the human story; the cities, towns, villages in which we all live are where we are rooted, where the human rights to food, shelter and safety are extended to us . . . or not.

I've had people tell me that they don't like talking about our relationships to one another in terms of rights, that rights smacks of selfishness, of a me-centered world view. My counter to this has always been that demanded rights might well have that feel, but that in a world where two thirds are in need and one third are in surplus, it's probably a good way to measure what goods, services and living space would be necessary before we could say that fairness had crowded out inequity. If quality acute health care is expected in Rosthern, does it follow that persons in rural Zambia ought to enjoy a similar level of care? If I can drink from a tap in my kitchen without having to haul or boil the water, and if I have a right to complain when that's not the case, do persons in rural Sierra Leone have the same right to complain?

The museum traces the development of cultural/social rights that are often taken for granted. Women's suffrage, freedom from discrimination in the workplace, access to education, etc. are all covered briefly in booths that must become almost inaccessible on busier days than the one on which we visited. Much of what is displayed can't be appreciated without attending to audio-visual displays that have a beginning and an ending, and being able to do that requires that visitors take time to sit and wait, observe and contemplate.

The museum must be treated as a series of experiences, not as a window shopping for neat information. Time must be taken; repeat visits are necessary; there is simply too much to be absorbed in one four-hour visit.

There are critics of course. It's something very new: I can't find anything in my experience with which to compare the architect's vision, for instance. The subject of human rights doesn't immediately spring to mind as a topic for a museum. It's not a big surprise to hear the words “ugly” and “magnificent” in the same dialogue about the place. When the engineers and the builders first examined the architectural drawings, they must certainly have scratched their heads: it's that revolutionary.

And some have complained that their cultural history is not given adequate attention. You'd expect this given Canada's multi-cultural composition. Even a space this size has limits, as does human imagination.

I've always appreciated the concept of human rights as a starting point for protecting and enhancing the health, freedom and dignity of all people and so have donated considerable time and money to Amnesty International, an organization working from the premise that humans are born with inalienable rights. The UN Universal Declaration on Human Rights passed in 1948 lays out the fundamentals of inalienable human rights and equivalent documents exist in the constitution of many states. The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms became the law of the land in 1982, broadening the scope and jurisdiction of the 1960 Bill of Rights. Bills of Rights probably owe their beginnings and content to a considerable degree to the development of the Magna Carta, begun in 1215 and amended in subsequent years.

Rights of the individuals and communities of the world can be written on paper, but they remain words only until accepted, adopted, incorporated into the fabric of national and international relations. The problem of enforcement looms large; the UN can lodge a complaint against Canada for its human rights record in relation to its aboriginal population, but causing the Canadian government to act on that complaint is another thing. In other countries, the provisions of even the basics in the Universal Declaration on Human Rights are simply ignored.  Economic and political interests have been known time and again to render individual rights dispensable when doing so advances their hold on power.

But the struggle goes on and on one floor of the Human Rights Museum, visitors are encouraged to write and post notes based on their hopes and dreams for a future where all humans can feel the freedom and dignity that we enjoy daily. 

Do visit it when you can, and do set aside enough time to absorb its message.

Sunday, August 09, 2015

"A Problem from Hell"

A (faulty) memory of Van Gogh's "A bedroom at Arles"
We all know by now what compound words ending in ...cide refer to. Killing. When it's patricide, a child kills his/her father; in matricide, it's a mother; suicide is the killing of the self and infanticide is the killing of an infant.

And then there's genocide, etymologically the killing of an ethnic, racial or religious population. The word dates back to the 1940s when a crusader for the victims of mass murders like the purge of Armenians by Turkey in 1915 sought a designation for such events and coined the word in use today. Raphael Lemkin was moved by the accounts of the Armenian massacre and began a crusade to establish international laws allowing for intervention in active or imminent genocides, effectively rewriting an aspect of the principle of unconditional national sovereignty.
A marvellous telling of Lemkin's story can be found in “A Problem From Hell: America and the Age of Genocide by Samantha Power. A film based on Lemkin's story, Watchers of the Sky is reviewed by Nina Strochlic and is a useful starting point for anyone not familiar with this very important development in international law.
I found reading A Problem from Hell exciting, especially since the Truth and Reconciliation report on the T & R hearings raised the question of whether or not the residential school system constituted a genocide or not. When in 1951, the United Nations adopted a convention on the subject, (based on Lemkin's proposed definition of his new word) the following acts “. . . with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical (sic), racial or religious group . . .” were included: (Powers: p. 62-3)
  1. Killing members of the group;
  2. Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
  3. Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
  4. Imposing measures to prevent births within the group;
  5. Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.
By the standard of the 1951 UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, then, the Canadian government and the collaborating churches could, in their enforcement of residential school attendance for First Nations children, justifiably have been charged with genocide on the basis of—at least—the second, third and fifth criterion. 
Unfortunately, neither the word nor the convention existed until 1951 when the ghastly residential school system was in it's final few decades.

The US was one of only a few countries that refused to ratify the convention, arguing that the interpretation of what constituted genocide and what didn't was too vague and might result in other nations dragging Americans and the USA into courts for spurious reasons. Their unwillingness to sign was arguably indicative of what America has so often shown in international affairs: US sovereignty is sacrosanct; the sovereignty of other nations is negotiable depending on the relevance to American interests. (Think Nicaragua, Iraq, Kuwait, etc.)

Failure to prevent or mitigate the genocide of the Tutsies in Rwanda indicates that we are not to this day willing to become embroiled in racial or ethnic massacres in foreign countries unless our economic or political interests make it advantageous to do so. A reading of Romeo Dellaire's Shake Hands with the Devil (or at least a reading of the Wikipedia entry on him) paints in vivid colour the worldwide failure to protect persons against genocide if they're not nearby . . . or are not us.

The question of intervention pales, however, next to the bigger question: what situations give rise to the contemplation and execution of the most heinous of crimes imaginable, namely the deliberate destruction of everyone—man, woman and child—who is a member of a group not currently favoured? What preconditions make it possible to recruit persons to be the practitioners in such a purge? Surely, genocide is the monstrous end-product of prejudice gone wild, and prejudices have roots in cultures and educational practices. 

Hutu and Tutsi, Jewish and Gentile, Kurdish and Turkish children placed together in a playpen may play amicably with each other; the notion in the Gentile child that his Jewish playmate is to be feared has to be taught, nurtured until it's a hardened and permanent part of his psyche before he can be convinced that shooting that playmate is an acceptable, even honourable act. Surely that's how it must be.
We don't see our current prejudices as seed beds for genocides, but we ought to be vigilant, aware from the Holocaust experience that there is grave danger in harbouring and teaching attitudes of superiority/inferiority. Could the current unrest in American white/black relations be a starting point for genocide? Are we harbouring, even nurturing prejudices with a potential for growth into something we can no longer control?

NAZI hatred extended to pretty much every human being who wasn't a conventional Aryan and gays and lesbians, political opponents, ethnic minorities were all swept up in their net as worthy of extermination.
As followers of Jesus, are we aware of such dangers and therefor at the forefront of the defense of the innocents? Do we place ourselves between the persecutors, the haters of this world and the persecuted? Or are we swept up in the attitudes and actions of cultures of selfishness, carelessness, prejudice?

Our role is to be prophetic; and a clear understanding of the seeds of genocide, and action on it, can surely be categorized as responding to that age old and wise proverb that says “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound (ton?) of cure.
Do explore, at least, the life and struggles of Raphael Lemkin and ask yourself: how much am I willing to give to defend the innocents? Perhaps if most of our family had been gassed and burned in the NAZI purge (like Lemkin's), our passions for prevention, intervention would be more immediate.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Talk is Tedious, but the alternative is much worse.

What an amazing thing it was! Western nations sensing great danger to the world if Iran's nuclear program should lead to the development of nuclear arms, Iran struggling with the decay of an economy stalemated by sanctions imposed by the same Western nations. That they talked and talked past deadlines, through nights and finally, finally all signed off on a joint undertaking constitutes a near-miracle.

The hawks descended immediately. We've been duped! Iran can't be trusted to keep its promises! President Obama defended the agreement, insisting that the safeguards built in assured the world that promises would be kept. The Israeli prime minister characterizing it at the same time as a colossal and historic blunder.

The chances are, of course, that Netanyahu will have been proven right in the end. There is also a chance that the agreement will serve as an historic lesson in the effectiveness of persistent diplomacy, especially when compared to the US invasion of Iraq, Russian military interference in Ukraine, Western military involvement in Libya, etc.

Life is not about certainties, it's about weighing options and choosing best chances. Sorting out which choices produce best chances is the tough part, but beating back the hawkish critics in this case seems to me to constitute a feather in Obama's cap. I hope history proves him right.

Canada's response to this agreement is disappointing, if expected. We will judge Iran by its actions, not by it's words. The words, however, are the words of our allies as well as those of Iran so at best, Canada has said nothing. At worst it has declared its non-confidence in the judgement both of Iran and our allies.
For lack of international affairs savvy, the Harper government has painted itself into a corner: its unconditional support of Israel and its need to maintain good relations with the USA and other Western allies have meant effectively that we can't say anything without jeopardizing one or the other relationship. We've written ourselves out of the story.

We need a new government. One that isn't so doctrinaire that it blindly wanders down allies and roads that have no exits. October can't come too soon.