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.