Sunday, April 24, 2016

Fractured Land

I went to see this at the Perimeter Institute last night, and was so excited to meet the star of it, Caleb Behn, Eh-Cho Dene and Dunne-Za hunter, fisher, activist, and lawyer. Unfortunately, he cancelled. It was disappointing, but the film made it clear that he's a seriously busy guy! It was worth going to see the film anyway.

It's a perfect film for my Native Studies class. It brings in the notion of a split identity, of the relationship with the environment, the need to regain legal control over the areas being destroyed, and the challenge of putting it all together.

Behn's parents are polar opposites: his dad endured the residential school system and spoke at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and his mom is the highest ranking female executive at an oil and gas company. He's trying to cope with a system that destroyed his people, and she's trying to change the system from within. They divorced when Behn was ten, which he refers to as the first great break in his life.

The film lets us dwell on some beautiful scenery juxtaposed with concerns about checking game for contamination before eating it and the quickly dwindling number of animals to hunt. Behn lives in Northeastern B.C., land covered by Treaty 8, and the third largest hydrocarbon deposit in BC. It took 88 years to turn the pristine land into an industrial wasteland. The area is rife with cancers and birth defects.

The bulk of the film is about the treaty obligation required of any corporation or government entity to consult with Indigenous peoples on any action that could impede their rights. But they reveal that most of the consultations were for show, a quick by-the-way long after all the paperwork was completed with little in the way of real information provided to allow impacted groups to make an informed decision. Behn's grandfather commented that the government "makes the words dance on paper."

At this point one gets the sense that it's all so much about money and greed. The energy corporations rubber stamp the consultation and, in one historic day, they were able to make $476,000,000. Fracking is facilitating a new land rush. Behn relates, "They came for the trees, then the gold, the fur, the children, the oil, and now the gas." The government propaganda ads suggest that washing a car near the roadway is worse for the groundwater than pumping chemicals and fresh water down 2.5 km for the shale gas, leaving behind tailing ponds that end up back in the water system. The oil and gas company activities are regulated by their own industry. And LNG (Liquified Natural Gas) is being targeted for international markets in Asia. It's not about the jobs; it's about the fortunes they'll make. The attitude is one of getting not just what we need to survive, but as much as we possibly can - in the words of Rich Coleman, "to win this race before the rest of the world." Except the faster we extract, the faster we destroy our own land.

The film brought in many voices to add to Behn's experiences. Hydrologist Gilles Wendling explained that nobody has clearly examined exactly where the waste water goes. Dr. Robert Howarth, Professor of Ecology and Environmental Biology at Cornell warned that LNG emissions will soon rival the tar sands. An industry spokesperson from CAPP suggested that gas below the earth is a gift from the creator, and she explained that the industry will shut down a fracking site in a minute if there's any problems - except they never have despite all the many concerns raised. If they destroy the headwaters of the Tahltan River, they will destroy everything downstream.

Little Tahltan River

Behn had only positive things to say about the good heart of the people working on the ground in the industry. It reminded me of Julia Butterfly Hill, two years up a tree to save it from logging, explaining how fond she grew of the loggers, reminding us that we need to change the system, not demonize the players:

But many of the workers on fracking sites are itinerant who move on after 4-6 weeks to another of the 28,000 wells in B.C. The landscape is disappearing under the weight of one proposal after another, a death by 1,000 cuts.

Behn was able to speak at a moratorium on fracking and realized, "If we get this dialogue wrong, things will be very very dangerous in our territory." His speech was well-received, but then they moved on to the next item on the agenda. "There's so much more to politics than speeches and young people raising their voices." It's hard to get our heads around the slippery inner workings of the system.

The film also raised some interesting psychological issues about suffering, authenticity, and the burden of fame. Behn was born with a cleft palate, and he believes it made him more empathetic towards others. I've often commented to classes about the number of famous activists who were raised with some type of early hardship. Behn suggests it's good to have suffered: "Sometimes pain can be good." Personal pain can open our hearts to others in a way that might not be reached if we've never been a little cracked. Behn grapples with his own authenticity as he recognizes the benefits he's had from having a mom in this lucrative industry. And some of the Indigenous protesters insist that "you can't tear down the master's house with the master's tools" because he has a law degree from their universities. There's a split between the old traditions and modern day culture that's hard to bridge. And Behn is startlingly honest discussing his new fame as an activist, how girls made themselves available and he didn't always act honourably: "Relationships are the clearest expression of my failures as a man." The film did a brilliant job of getting us to really understand the complex experience of fractured people, of all of us.

I didn't leave the film feeling any better about the world, but I felt less alone in the fight, and really really lazy for the pittance I offer compared to the men and women on the front lines.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

On Pipelines - Line 9 and More

After Laxer spoke of his book on the tar sands last Wednesday, Myeengun Henry spoke. He's an Elder and the Aboriginal Services Manager at Conestoga College. His focus was on pipelines. He spoke of issues that I had heard about and kind of understood, but I admit I haven't paid close enough attention to be able to keep all the pipelines straight even though it's clear they can break and leak and wreak havoc on the soil and water. Henry brought a clarity and urgency to the issue. It's time I wrap my head around it all.

While Indigenous people were recovering from residential schools, the land was being divided by pipelines. They had to get back to their traditional teachings about protecting the land.

The People Versus Enbridge on Facebook 
They went to the National Energy Board to oppose Enbridge and the potential destructions they could cause. Pipelines have a 40-year life expectancy. The pipeline that Enbridge is using on line 9 is 40 years old, and now they want to change the flow and increase the capacity. It's going to break.

We must refuse to stand and watch it happen. So some of them took it into their own hand to go to Enbridge in Calgary. The Chippewa of the Thames First Nation talked about sharing resources and offered a two row Wampum to the CEOs. It looked something like the photo here. The two lines represent the two nations working parallel to each other. The three sections represent love, peace, and respect. And the fact that it's unfinished at the ends, illustrates that the relationship has no end.

Then the CEOs told them that the resources don't belong to the Indigenous people, and they presented them with a broken piece of pipeline.

It was clear that conversation wasn't going to bridge the gap, so they decided to take on the legal challenge.

Section 35 of the Constitution Act of 1982 says there's a duty to consult any indigenous people on land that could be adversely affected by corporate activity. That consultation never took place. So they took it to a Federal Court of Appeals, but they lost the case. There were three judges; two said no, and one dissented.

They wanted to take it to the Supreme Court, but if they lost, they'd have to pay Enbridge's court costs. Henry feels strongly that money shouldn't be a deciding factor in a Supreme Court challenge. These court cases should be about the cost to children. People shouldn't have to prove their rights in a court of law; they should just have to show that their rights were violated for the injustice to be corrected.

BC First Nations were able to raise $200,000 in four months to fight the Northern Gateway a couple years ago.

The Chippewas started a gofundme site (DONATE HERE) and decided to go for it despite the costs. And they put Hydro One and Union Gas on notice too!

The date for the appeal to begin is November 30th 2016. Enbridge started flowing oil through line 9 last December 2015. Fingers crossed there are no leaks before it can be shut down.

Henry said,
Think back before we discovered Columbus. People understood our Mother the Earth is the most important aspect of life, and it needs to be honoured and cherished. If we dishonour her, it spoils the water and air and life ends. We need to come together on this. Nature will take all of us. We need a more unified country based on understanding Aboriginal knowledge in order to grow together.

Some pipelines in the news (outline of all Enbridge's pipelines here):

* Line 9 - 800 km from Sarnia to Montreal; it crosses tributaries flowing into Lake Ontario, and crosses the Ottawa River; it passes through 99 towns and 14 Indigenous communities in Ontario and Quebec; it has 12961 structural weaknesses and several design deficiencies along its length.

Line 7 - from Sarnia to Hamilton, side-by-side with line 9 - This one is 60 years old and carrying 180,000 barrels/day. It was approved by the National Energy Board in November. This one's falling under the radar.

Northern Gateway - 525,000 barrels/day from the tar sands to Kitimat BC, 1,177 kms, then to tankers to go across the Pacific Ocean. Approved by Harper in June 2014, but Trudeau visited in August 2014 and said it would be shut down if he became PM. In November 2015, he banned oil tanker traffic in the Pacific, effectively shelving the pipeline.

* Keystone XL - 1,900 km from Alberta to Nebraska (just phase IV of the whole Keystone project - the other three phases have been completed). Rejected by Obama in November, 2015 after mass protests in Washington.

Leaks and spills and explosion, oh my! 

Here's just a few to remind you of the potential for disaster. As pipelines are aging, leaks are becoming more frequent. Pipeline incidents in Canada have doubled in the past decade often citing corrosion as a culprit, yet replacing old pipes isn't in the picture:
"More than four reportable releases happened for every 10,000 kilometres in 2000, or 18 incidents in total, according to NEB data. By 2011, that rate had risen to 13 per 10,000 kilometres, or 94 incidents.
This could be your street!
Apr. 2016 - Keystone leak in South Dakota, but it will be up and running again in no time!
2015 - Drumheller, Alberta - TransCanada pipeline leaks into agricultural land
2015 - NuVista pipeline spills in the Hay Lake First Nation
2015 - Nexen pipeline in Alberta - 5 million litres - one of the worst spills ever
2014 - Otterburne, Manitoba pipeline explosion
2014 - 70,000 litres spilled near Slave Lake
2014 - Oneok's Viking Gas transmission was ruptured and exploded in a 100' fireball
2013 - Exxon Pegasus tar sands spill into an Arkansas neighbourhood, and they didn't have to pay into the cleanup fund
2012 - Elk Point, Alberta had a leak of almost a quarter of a million litres
2012 - Half a million litres leaked into a central Alberta river system, Red Deer River
2011 - Peace River, Alberta - 4.5 million litres of crude leaked near the Indigenous community of Little Buffalo
2010 - Bronte Creek, Oakville - the Trans Northern pipeline leak into creeks, soil, and groundwater
2010 - Line 6B in Michigan - spilled millions of litres of bitumen in the Kalamazoo River - bitumen can't be effectively cleaned from a waterway because of its density; it's so far the largest inland oil spill

The Protests:

Line 9 - Ontario First Nations, three activists shut if off in Dec. 2015 in Sarnia, activists shut off a valve in Quebec, Bronte Creek blockade, Waterloo Region against line 9, activists scale a tower to unfurl a banner in Montréal, activists chained themselves to a fence in Montreal, activists walked 700 km to protest, and here's a list of 80 other groups.

And Rachel Thevenard ran the entire length of the pipeline, 800 kms, IN WINTER, to raise awareness, and I hate to say I completely missed it. I know all about Clara Hughes biking for mental illness, but somehow missed any news about someone from my hometown running for an environmental cause.
"She sighed when asked if she was afraid of hurting herself. 'I will literally wheelchair against Line 9 if I have to. This pipeline has to be stopped.'"

Judy Gelfand, the federal environment commissioner, found in January 2016 that the National Energy Board is failing to adequately track whether pipeline companies are complying with conditions set out when projects are approved. The NEB's systems are "outdated or inaccurate."

Line 7 - Activists tamper with valves near Cambridge

Stand (formerly Forest Ethics) from Clayoquot Sound convinced Tim Hortons to refuse to advertise for Enbridge. Ezra Levant started a boycott Tim's site in response.

And the Greatest Irony Award goes to...

Enbridge for sponsoring a Ride to Conquer Cancer while mutated fish are developing near the tar sands!

ETA: And Notley's standing firmly in support of national pipelines. Even the NDP are willing to take a risk like this at the expense of our country and people:
"I'm asking you to leave here more persuaded than perhaps some of us have been, that it is possible for Canada to have a forest industry, to have an agriculture industry, a mining industry, and yes, an energy industry, while being world leaders on the environment."
I'm not remotely persuaded.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Cast Off Discouragement!

I just watched Gordon Laxer give a talk on his newest book, After the Sands. I haven't read the book yet, but here are my notes from his speech. This is more or less paraphrased with reasonable accuracy (and links!).

I had never heard of Laxer before, but he was the first chair of the Waffle movement in Toronto in 1969 (I'm guessing he's related to James), and he founded the Parkland Institute for education and research for the common good in 1996. In between, he's a Poli Sci prof and writer. He told us that the Paris Climate Accord had some laudable goals, but it left each country to its own to reach those targets. Canada doesn't have much of a plan, so this book is an answer to that, a bold (that word was said a few too many times) path towards a low-carbon future. We have to change our thinking with a new optimism that we can take action that will develop a socially just, sustainable, low-carbon society within two decades. As Francis Moore Lappe said, "It is too late to prevent suffering. Terrible suffering is already with us. But it is not too late for life."

Indigenous Partnerships

I seemed to have picked the right time to venture into teaching an Aboriginal Studies course. It feels like we're at a turning point with our relationships and connections in Canada, and teaching has forced me to learn our history at an accelerated rate. It's embarrassing, of course, that I knew so little before - and still - but I think that will change for the next generation. Things are shifting.

Laxer explained that no environmental victory won in the last thirty years was without indigenous help and leadership. First Nation land claims have become pivotal in environmental battles. Honouring indigenous rights is Canada's best chance to alter the fate of the planet. We need to adopt the worldview of honouring the land we live on instead of using it up for all it's worth.

Environmentally, Trudeau and Notley are Harper Redux (so far)

In Paris, Trudeau assured the world that "Canada is back, my friends," but then he started following Harper's old targets to reduce GHGs to 524 MT by 2030 at a rate of 1.7 MT/year.  For a comparison, both the US and EU plan to reduce emissions by 2.8 MT/year.

Rachel Notley announced her plan for Alberta while standing side by side with CEOs, and they all had big smiles on their faces. It's because Notley's reduction plan targets emissions from power generation and transportation, which together make up 28% of Canada's GHGs. She allowed the tar sands to continue to raise emissions, but the production of oil and gas make up a whopping 45% of GHGs. If the sands are allowed to continue, they'll cancel out all other efforts to reduce. Harper was in the pockets of big oil, and Notley isn't, but she's still intimidated by them, so she's willing to shill for oil. Unfortunately, the message is more effective coming from Notley. Too many environmentalists have relaxed, assured by her lefty stance. By 2030, if the sands continue, they will produce 56% of Canada's GHG emissions.

As an MP, Trudeau voted to pass Jack Layton's carefully drafted bill to cut emissions by 80% by 2050, which was unfortunately stopped by the Harper-stacked Senate. But it was influential enough to be adopted by the G8 in 2009. Notley's plan will gut that dream.

Laxer argues that we have to shut down the tar sands completely within fifteen years.

Energy is a Human Right

We can't let price determine who gets access to energy or the rich will exploit their position. A carbon tax barely affects the wealthy, but can be disastrous for the poor. The richest 10% cause 50% of the emissions, so we need to affect the right people. (However, the richest 10% includes anyone who makes over $25,000 per year, which might not be what you just pictured.) We need to make sure all of Canada is "energy secure." We can do this by using our own energy instead of exporting oil and gas to the US, and then importing 40% of the oil we use. The US has made it clear that if they have a shortage, they'll cut off Canada in a minute. We can't be dependent on others for our own energy. Currently we have no strategic petrol reserves; we've signed away our own resources. We have to reverse these decisions.

The Problems with Pipelines

Pipelines have become controversial due to all the leaks and spills. Conventional oil floats and is relatively easy to skim off the top of water, but bitumen from the tar sands is more dense, and it sinks. It's very difficult to get it out of the water system once it's in there.

Pipelines have run roughshod all over Native lands. "It's not a Native thing; it's a 'protect the Earth' thing." We all should want clean drinking water, so we should all be fighting to stop the pipelines. Because it's too costly to ship by rail, if we can stop pipelines, we can shut down the tar sands.

In the 1950s, pipelines ran east and west to supply all of Canada. But then in the 80s, under NAFTA, they started running north to south, and we started exporting 70% of our oil to the US. In the Energy Proportionality Clause, it says Canada must export the same percentage it had exported in the three years previous to the clause being involked, even if we're running short. Mexico refused to accept that clause, and they got an exemption. But Canada has to give the US first rights.

But then in 2011, Obama stopped the Keystone pipeline due in part to massive protests from US citizens, which makes it less likely that the proportionality clause will be invoked.

We need to ramp up renewable energy sources, phase out energy exports and exports of natural gas. We only have a twelve year supply of natural gas and BC is planning to export it. Alberta is using natural gas to turn bitumen into usable oil. "That's like turning gold into lead for export." We need to phase out electricity exports too. Hydro supplies 60% of our electricity.

We have our own usable energy, particularly from BC, Manitoba, Quebec, and Newfoundland. BC can supply Alberta; Manitoba can supply Saskatchewan; Quebec can supply Ontario (and get Ontario off nuclear); and Newfoundland can supply all of the Maritimes, but it has to get out of the exporting game. I'm hoping his book outlines how to do this; he didn't get into the logistics in his talk.

Political Will

We have the technology today to live without the tar sands, but we just need the political will and a new mindset. The colonialists came and dug up resources here to export them for cash, and we have to get away from that pattern of behaviour.

We're 9th highest GHG emitters in the world, producing twice as much as Norway and three times as much as Sweden per capita, and they're just as northerly as we are. Some argue that there's no point doing anything if China's still emitting so much, but in 2015, 100% of new energy production in China was renewables. China spent three times as much on renewables per capita as Canada last year. By 2020, they'll have enough to power homes and industry for 280 million people (200 GW each of wind and solar), and they're closing 1,000 coal mines this year. We're running out of "but look at China" excuses.

The tar sands employs 2.2 million people, many of whom travel from the other end of the country to get there. Last year 40,000 were laid off, and some were able to make the transition into solar and wind construction near their own cities. It's devastating that people lost their jobs, but we should see the lay offs as an opportunity, as the first step in a low-carbon future. There are more jobs created by green construction than by the tar sands. "A unit of carbon saved makes more jobs than a unit of carbon emitted." And then workers can live in their home communities.

We can do this, and it will make us a better society. We're built with the ingenuity to overcome obstacles, but we get sidetracked or discouraged. We must struggle for our lives, for our children and grandchildren, and for all other living things. We have a new world to create; the time to start is now.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

The Panama Papers

From Woodward and Bernstein to Edward Snowden, breaking stories from the 5th Estate are always exciting. This one is the biggest story yet to blow open millions of files linking dirty money to high-powered officials.

After a leak of over 11 million documents compiled from the 1970s to today, and offered up to the Munich paper, Süddeutsche Zeitung, 350 journalists have taken about a year to read, assemble, research, and connect data through one corporation: Mossack Fonseca, a Panama law firm that's helped elite clients to launder money, evade taxes, dodge sanctions.... It's been guarding the data of the word's most powerful people including 240,000 companies, sports organizations, and political leaders.

The first journalists got the ICIJ, Guardian, BBC, and Le Monde involved. They all met in Washington to figure out how to file through all the information and turn it into well researched, verifiable, and readable stories about undisclosed financial transactions, weapons, drugs and pedophilia rings, and offshore tax havens linked to war crimes and other illegal activity around the world.

The 10 minute video at this page explains their process they went through to begin to tell these stories.

But the video below gets at the heart of why the story is so important:

Take a look at "who did what and how"at the official Panama Papers website. Prepare to lose a few days reading through it all. It's the kind of thing you always suspected, but now there's proof of all the connections.

Like this one:

ETA: Here's a good primer on Offshore investments and more on the Panama Papers. And Truthdig has more to say, including an Edward Snowden tweet: "Courage is contagious." And the BBC has a Q&A.

Monday, March 28, 2016

A Reasonable Doubt?

A post wherein I get a little grumpy and swear-y about it all.

What does reasonable doubt look like? Is there really, REALLY, a reasonable doubt that Jian attacked the women who had their lives scrutinized on the stand? With sexual abuse cases, it all hinges on the credibility of the victims. But the problem with our system today is that the standards necessary to determine credibility are far too high. In far too many minds, credibility is questioned in a sexual abuse case if a woman continues to hang out with, have sex with, be attracted to, or even love their assailant. The legal system must acknowledge and contend with this insidious nature of abuse that places wounded women back in the arms of their abusers. It just is. There's no easy way to prevent that very human behaviour, so it must not be seen as an admission of prior deceit.

They had inconsistencies in a story about an even that happened over a decade ago, and they can't remember how long his hands were around their necks or the colour of a car. Our memory for details are sketchy over time, but our memory for a major event - not so much. Withholding e-mails can be understood, so plainly, as either forgetting about a note sent so long ago or, if intent to withhold can be proven, then a clear acknowledgement that in our fucked-up system, sex after an attack appears to nullify any claims of damage. That has to change. Immediately.

In a famous experiment, dogs were put in a compartment and trained to jump a barrier when given an electric shock. After one or two tries, the dogs jumped the barrier immediately after being put in the compartment even when no shock was given. BUT some dogs were restrained the first time and not able to jump the barrier. They had to tolerate the shock without being able to escape. When they were unharnessed, they still didn't jump the barrier, but just stayed there, tolerating the pain.

"Seligman found that it took many experiences (up to 200) of being forcibly dragged across from the shock compartment to the safe compartment for them to rediscover that responding could bring relief and thus to break out of the learned helplessness syndrome." 
Up to 200 times after just one inescapable experience! We are hard-wired to stay put, to hunker down and tolerate abuse after just one bad experience. That's how we survive. When dogs are beaten, they often follow their abuser around even if there are kinder family members to hang out with. We align ourselves with the strongest in the pack, and an abuser can fit the bill. These are basic animal behaviours that are difficult to overcome despite our big brains, even for the best and brightest among us.

It's clearly not entirely a matter of victims being too polite, but of a built-in animal nature to cope with pain rather than act on it if there's no clear escape. And there IS no clear escape if calling the cops ruins your own life and reputation and offers little hope for a conviction.

The parliament site, Hill Notes discusses rates of "unfounding":
"Among seven Ontario police forces, 2% to 34% of complaints of sexual assault were considered unfounded. No matter what the percentage, the rates were significantly higher for sexual assaults than for other crimes in the six forces for which comparative data were available. Studies have shown that victims may be seen as less credible in situations that do not reflect the stereotypical image of sexual assault as a violent act perpetrated by a stranger on a “virtuous” woman who vigorously resisted. . . . In some investigative manuals, for example, the criteria to be considered in detecting a false report include a request to speak to a female officer. . . . 
There are various factors at play [in the low conviction rate], including reliance on myths and stereotypes to discourage the complainant from testifying in court and to attack the credibility of the complainant. Such testimony is generally crucial for the prosecution of a sexual assault case, as there may be no witnesses and little other evidence."
Check that out again: just the act of asking to see a female officer is enough for your claims to be discredited in Ontario. That standard is ridiculously high. This is why people are posting signs saying "I believe survivors." I'm bracing myself for slippery slope arguments to the contrary now - that if we lower it a smidge, then women can get men convicted on bogus charges because maybe he didn't call back right away, and women will TAKE OVER THE WORLD.

Hold the phone. We can lower the standards to a REASONABLE place wherein women feel free to admit to a relationship after an assault without fear that it will not be believed WITHOUT lowering credibility standards to a point that women can charge men willy nilly. It is possible, but it will take some work to change the way we understand one another.

What should determine credibility?

Well, it shouldn't include victim's later behaviour, how they dress, or where they live or work (i.e. a prostitute must be believed as much as a nurse), or minor inconsistencies. If you're telling a story of an assault from years ago, and you sometimes say 'slapped' and other times 'hit', it shouldn't follow that you're lying about the entire thing. The standard I'd like to see is: "Did they say 'yes' to the behaviour and to every escalation of the behaviour?" It will always be complicated to convict, but in a case with many women testifying against one man, it seems clear that they're not jilted, spiteful girlfriends out to get a guy for ditching them. That might happen out there somewhere. I admit it's possible for a woman to be so angry that, twelve years later she's still willing to put her own life on trial to falsely accuse a man of a horrific assault, but it's highly unlikely. When there are numbers of women expressing similar fates, then the likelihood of them all fabricating the same story becomes astronomical, and they Must. Be. Believed.

 In a Facebook comment, Antonia Zerbisias had this to say about these women:
"With sexual assault -- and I don't mean a punch but full on penetration -- victims should know not to shower, brush their teeth, even though the compulsion to do so must be overwhelming. If they don't know that, then there should be posters in schools and universities and workplaces, and PSAs on all the channels. There was no DNA in this case. . . . 
As for strangulation marks or bruises, if there were any, I am amazed that nobody photographed them. But let's just say that the complainants were too traumatized to do so, or there were none, why would they have not shared their stories with their girlfriends or sisters? Or, right. Trauma, shame and I am victim-blaming. . . . . 
Now here we have three youngish women, who would have been in their 20s when these events happened and, for whatever reason had stars in their eyes with JG. . . . but, seriously, who could buy one of the stories: One of them claims he committed a violent act one day and then next day, she invites him over for a friendly handjob? . . . . Women must take some responsibility for their safety. . . . . If you have a creepy feeling, say you have a headache and Uber it home. . . .  
I often wondered why he never asked [my friends] out but now I know. They didn't need him or act like they needed him. Sure, they were starstruck but they had resources and spidey-senses and would have walked if he tried anything. Predators always go for the weak, the ones at the back of the herd. Frankly, I don't think these complainants were too bright. I know that's brutal but a smart woman would have shut up and not written things like we'll get the prick." 

Heres's the thing: It makes us feel safer if we can believe that it won't happen to us since we're smart and resourceful. But that's bullshit. Even smart women are sexually assaulted. Even you. There's lots more to unpack in that comment, but there's one thing I'd like to point out. Having DNA evidence of sexual contact AND having pictures of bruises will not further a case if the accused insists it was consensual BDSM. He didn't claim he didn't have sex with them, but that it was all consensual. All the DNA evidence in the world won't help. And even filming it doesn't seem to make a difference as he willingly showed filmed footage of rough sex to his employers earlier on. All the prosecutor has is the victims' statements. It will always come down to a matter of who we believe, and we must believe more survivors.

Teaching girls how to behave after an attack does fuck-all if rapists aren't convicted because the girls' credibility came in to question because they did that one wrong thing.

Antonia praises the almighty Section 11 of the Charter, and I assume she's referring to part d): "to be presumed innocent until proven guilty according to law in a fair and public hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal." Many are celebrating that the law was impartial because it actually ignored the media and protestors. But I content it wasn't impartial because it did not ignore a very warped, patriarchal idea of what it looks like to be abused. Our current legal system doesn't recognize what's necessary to actually stop this illegal activity, and, as a result, rape continues more openly than I've ever seen before. We can watch teens rape girls at parties in videos shared openly. Some guys are not remotely ashamed of this kind of behaviour, and now they have yet another hero to applaud for proving his innocence. Yes, he's technically "not guilty" rather than innocent, but that's not how it will be seen to some, and how it is seen is what will affect future behaviours.

The effect of this trial is terrifying to me because it means abusers everywhere think they can get a pass even with multiple victims. Too many men feel untouchable, and they are all too often correct.

I flagged about twelve different posts and articles I planned to discuss in this post. I just started with Antonia's with the intention of commenting on others, but this is all so frustrating and exhausting and terribly sad. When people argue dispassionately that we must stand behind our legal system, they don't seem to understand that they're praising a system that will allow my daughters and my students and my friends and myself to be attacked with impunity if we can't guarantee being perfect witnesses on the stand. That's. Just. Fucking. Wrong.

And really scary.

I'll leave you with MP Charlie Angus' concern here:

ETA - And these words, dammit:  
"[People celebrating the verdict] are so fucking far from understanding the collective fire engulfing women at the moment, that your point is a moon of pluto. My point is the sun. My point is that since those 21 brave women came forward, our insides have been burning, we swallow nails every day, we question our existence. . . . We’re having a mass breakdown under the weight of a system that so evidently hates us, and you have no fucking idea of the reality of our lives."

We must find our collective way back from this. But it has to be the other side that sees the light on this one. It just has to. We can't live together comfortably if some people believe justice was served.  

ETA also interesting is that Canadian news focused on the problems with the victims, but the rest of the world focused on the problems with the judge and judgment. Curious. 

Friday, March 25, 2016

The Terrifying Ramifications of the Verdict

I can just barely read about Jian's acquittal on all charges. The Guardian has a telling interview with Lucy DeCoutere today. And of course some people, like Aaron Harnett, see it all as a "win" for Canadians because it safeguards us from accusations from anyone who has a remotely shaky memory of a traumatic event.

It was only 1983 that it became possible to charge a spouse with rape. That change to the law 33 years ago marked the courts finally understanding that sex isn't a duty of marriage, but also that it's possible for someone who loves us to harm us - that it can be very complicated. That nuanced understanding seems to have been lost in recent years, so, for our own safety, there are things women must do to ensure a sexual assault is convicted. Here are the important take-away lessons from this trial.

If you've been sexually assaulted...

  • Recover quickly enough to not allow any defence mechanisms to downplay the seriousness of the assault; don't be in denial of the events for even a moment; just don't.
  • Don't apologize or think it's your fault in a moment of baffled confusion regardless societal conditioning to the contrary.
  • Do not write or say anything remotely positive to the attacker or about the attacker ever, even if your life depends on playing the game of "Everything's actually okay," or your mental health depends on briefly pretending "It wasn't really that bad, was it?".
  • Keep the possibility of charging the person in the front of your mind forever, even if it's someone you love or someone who could help or harm your career significantly. If you ever need to come forward, your every thought, deed, and action - from the day of the assault onwards - must be consistently frightened and upset. There must be a clearly marked difference in tone in all correspondence before and after the event. Don't recover.
  • Do not soldier on, but overtly crumble until the day of the trial.
  • The words you use to describe the event must be identical every single time you describe it. Any wavering in the description means you're obviously lying about the whole thing. This is true even if the even happened many years ago. Your memory must be flawless. 
  • Don't wait to call the police or your testimony will be in question - even if calling the police makes it all too real to manage; even if calling the police puts a loved one's life in upheaval, and if nothing sticks this could put you in much greater danger in future. 
  • If the event is filmed, make sure your grimaces can't be confused with smiles.
  • Don't ever have a normal conversation or correspondence with the accused at any time after the event because it proves the event wasn't traumatic. 
  • Don't ever say or write that you like or appreciate anything about the accused at any time after the event because it proves you loved the abuse. Generally, don't treat the accused as a three-dimensional person with horrible bits yet also some lovely bits worthy of admiration. It's not enough to provide evidence that the accused assaulted you; the accused must be consistently seen in your eyes as pure evil. 
  • And, for god's sake, photocopy and save any correspondence you send - just in case it comes back at you later to prove how much you love to be abused.
Really, in order to convict, you must be manipulatively planning to convict from the event forward, ever monitoring every single word and action. If you're just a normal person trying to cope with a trauma, you'll never make it. Don't even bother.

This is a complex situation requiring a nuanced understanding of the way people cope. As a woman who was assaulted decades ago, I knew better than to even think of calling the cops. My assailant acted like nothing unusual had happened, and I got swept up in that version of the story for a while (because it was comforting to believe it) until it seemed like it was too late to do anything about it. Telling the authorities wouldn't have done anything but cause more problems for me for making waves. It's not that it was so traumatic that I've repressed it; but the contrary - it just seems like it's so commonplace that it's not worth a mention. Like Amy Schumer put out there, hasn't everyone been a little bit raped?

But it's not going to stop until we bring all the manifestations of this illegal behaviour to light. You'd think with many woman testifying against one man, and with many of that man's own friends commenting on his hurtful behaviour, that the reality of the heinousness of his behaviour would be far too clear for anything but a conviction.

But it was not nearly enough. And if that's not enough, what possibly could be? How can anyone possibly be convicted of sexual assault under our current legal system?

Be careful out there, kids. The law is not there to serve and protect. And now it's crystal clear that sexual assault can't really be convicted regardless the mountains of evidence that the assault occurred. You also need mountains of evidence that it was painful and traumatic from that moment forward. Saying so doesn't count for shit; there can't be a moment of questioning it or feeling like you deserved it, and don't even think of being remotely forgiving or understanding for a second. That will totally screw you over later.

It's also very clear to the courts that women want heaps and heaps of attention, and we will go so far as to make up degrading stories about ourselves to get it. We want our tales of sexual abuse in all the papers so people will notice us. We are that starved for attention.

Maybe our only solution is to band together on these events outside the law. Banging pots outside the abuser's home to bring attention to it. Our only compensation here is that Jian's life won't entirely go back to normal after this. I'm not hopeful that his June trial will be any different. But even though he's not been convicted, he's not entirely free either - not like he was.

ETA: The same tactics were used with the same judge to get a previous acquittal.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

For the Love of the Songbirds

Last weekend I went to see the film The Messenger. It's about the demise of songbirds. It had some amazing shots of birds in flight, and there were really interesting vignettes, but the overall message missed the mark.

Standing in line before the show, my daughter and I were among the rare few under 60. The film primarily attracted the retired birding crowd. Before the film, the birders in line compared notes about the trips they've taken and ones they're planning to see the greatest number and variety of birds possible. The chitchat soon developed a competitive edge that seemed to provoke some to decide to go even further and for longer into the forests of Costa Rica, Galapagos, Australia.... Some seemed disgruntled that they hadn't actually seen that one bird with their own eyes, convinced, as they were, that it would be so much more magical in person. It was as if they expected to meet up with the same audience to compare notes again, and maybe then they could win some unspoken challenge to see birds in the flesh. It's not unlike teenagers counting the number of concerts they been to and autographs they've collected. (Autographs? How old school! I mean selfies.) Except these were grown ups.

We have a weird need to prove our value through association with things that impress us - birds, celebs, cars, locations, whatever. When teenagers are developing their sense of self, it's understandable that they'd try attaching to things to further their own exploration of identity. But you'd think that as time moved on, as we solidify our sense of self, that we'd grow out of that need. It always seemed to me that's just part of growing up. It's what my parents taught me, but, more and more, I think my parents were extraordinary people. I thought everyone was taught the old adage that people who are your real friends, won't be concerned with how impressive you are, and people who are concerned with how impressive you are, aren't your real friends, so just ignore them and carry on doing your own thing. Maybe it's that case that most are taught that but few actually learn it. It runs counter to all the ads telling us how likeable we could be if only...

Back to that movie. Songbirds are in decline. The film talks a lot about the problem with cats, and, at my screening, they gave out postcards about how important it is to keep cats indoors. It is a problem, but it's not the biggest problem by far. They lamented the harm done by the cowbird (but ignored that it can be beneficial). The film also focused on a small group of people who hunt and eat one type of songbird as a delicacy. I find it hard to be horrified by that as long as we're all happy to each chickens by the droves. Are animals more value because of the aural aesthetic they have to offer us? Is it only the animals who fail to entertain us that should be eaten? It's a loaded issue. But we can take some comfort that activists are laying in wait to prevent that illegal activity.

They had a good bit about the bird deaths caused by glass windows in cities and by the 9/11 Tribute in Lights. We love to see regular people having a positive impact on the world. A group of activists collected and tracked the numbers of birds killed by hitting the windows of buildings in Toronto, and they were able to convince some building owners to add markers to the window that help birds navigate away from them. Similarly in NYC, birds were dropping from exhaustion as they circled the Tribute in Lights in confusion. A small group of activists monitor bird migration, and have been given the right to indicate when the display need to be shut down and for how long when birds are flying overhead. So for many problems there are clear solutions and individuals necessary to take up the cause. Hooray!

But then the filmmakers mapped out the trees lost to logging and drilling for oil and digging for pipelines. The boreal forest is becoming a patchwork of trees - a far cry from a forest. And, from all I've read and seen, this is the crux of the problem: habitat destruction. There was aerial footage showing the paths ripped through the territories of birds - wide enough swaths to make it difficult to breed due to habitat fragmentation. And they had us listen to the noise of the equipment that makes finding a mate through song all but impossible. But they didn't tell us the solution to this. It doesn't have a happy ending. Studies on bird mortality don't factor this in because it doesn't directly kill the living birds, so windows and cats seem like the primary culprits when we see fewer and fewer birds each year. But they're not even close.

If we want to save songbirds, it's not enough to just keep our cats indoors and put dots on our windows. Ken Rosenberg, of the Cornell Lab or Ornithology, sees these issues as mere distractions and says "the top three threats to birds overall are habitat loss, habitat loss, and habitat loss. . . . We're losing the battle acre by acre." This is exacerbated by climate change of course. We're in an endless loop of logging trees that absorb GHGs and increasing emissions through burning fossil fuels, which is affecting the climate necessary for breeding.

In yesterday's NYTimes, Edward O. Wilson clarifies that we have to focus on habitat to save everything.
"The global conservation movement is like a surgeon in an emergency room treating an accident victim: He has slowed the bleeding by half. Congratulations, we might say -- even though the patient will be dead by morning. . . . The only way to save upward of 90 percent of the rest of life is to vastly increase the area of refuges, from their current 15 percent of the land and 3 percent of the sea to half of the land and half of the sea. . . . This step toward sustained coexistence with the rest of life is partly a practical challenge and partly a moral decision. It can be done, and to great and universal benefit, if we wish it so."  
It might seem a dramatic move, but it's time for that level of action, yet our fair leader is busy arguing that pipelines will help us become green. He needs to be convinced of his tragic error.

On top of reserves, the personal solutions to this issue are to build fewer things with wood, use fewer paper products, and travel less in cars and planes. But those birders won't want to watch a movie that tells them to stop travelling around the world looking at birds. The filmmakers were savvy yet cowardly in this regard.

I recently went to a Preparing for Retirement seminar so I'd be in the know and could advise staff if they have questions. There was a clear message there that most teachers who retire need significant funds because they almost all intend to travel. A show of hands reinforced that reality. This is an entitled way of life that must end, and better by choice than necessity. The bird lovers watching the film will learn they're absolved as long as they restrain their cats, then they can fly as far as they can afford. But, obviously, it's people that need to be restrained.

Saturday, February 27, 2016

On That Time I Fell and Hurt My Head

I fell on ice a few days ago. My feet were swept clear out from under me, and apparently I injured my brain. At the hospital, they said it's either a migraine or a concussion, and since I don't have a history of migraines, and since I wiped out earlier that day, it's probably a concussion. The lack of conviction in the diagnosis was a bit unnerving. It sounded more like a guess than a judgment, but I guess I have to go with it.

It's like that time I had a plumber come when my basement was flooded, and he couldn't find a problem with the pipes, so he deduced that it was coming from outside and that I needed to make sure the ground sloped away from the house. But I was dubious because it hadn't rained in weeks, yet suddenly my basement had water. Together we found that the water softener hose had slipped out of the washtub. He duct-taped the hose to the inside of the tub and charged me a pretty penny for his detective work. The hospital trip felt a lot like that.

It worried me right away when the emergency nurse insisted I sit at one of those machines you see at an optometrist's office, because she kept motioning me to the doctor end of the machine. "Have a seat! Sit down there. Yes, THERE!" Had I remained in place, the doctor would have been resting his weary head on the little chin rest, but I switched sides after she left the room. That kind of thing gives one pause.

ETA: I forgot the funniest part. I was in and out of emerg within 2 hours because I'm not just someone who fell, I'm a WOMAN OVER 50 who fell. They kept calling referring that way whenever I changed hands as if to further elucidate my frailty. But it got me to the front of the line.

My eyes are fine, and everything feels symmetrical, and I'm equally weak on both sides of my body, and I didn't even have much of a headache. My butt hurt way more than my head.  But it's still a bit of a challenge to read for any length of time. It's far, far easier to write. I can do it without looking much. Not reading anything or looking at a screen for three days is really, really boring. I tried just listening to The Office, but I was missing too many sight gags, so I admit to cheating a bit and peeking from time to time. At this point, four days in, nothing bothers me as long as I don't read.

Truth is, I forgot about wiping out by the time I got to school. I hadn't given it a second thought. It registered at all only because I had actually said, "Oof!" right out loud like they do in cartoons. I pride myself on falling with some measure of stoicism, particularly since I'm perpetually surrounded by students. But this was an exception. It knocked the wind out of me. I was wearing Docs, which are notoriously slippery, and it had just started freezing rain, so I was walking at a good clip instead of carefully. After it happened, a student across the street called out to see if I was okay, and I noticed others take to the uneven lawns instead of risking the smooth, hard cement of the sidewalks. Smart.

I even forgot that I had had a headache, and it wasn't until the admissions nurse asked if I had taken anything like Advil or Tylenol, that I remember I had taken BOTH shortly after getting to work. So, logically, I must have had a headache and treated it myself, then soldiered onwards ready to attack the day. I felt fine.

During my first class, I was showing a film, We Were Children. It's a haunting video about the horrors of child sexual assaults in the residential schools. I had previewed it and warned the students up and down, but one viewing was enough for me, so I busied myself with marking online. Except I struggled to see the words in a brief response paragraph. I could see them, but it was as if the right side was faded, and it didn't change if I covered my right or left eye. I had just gotten reading glasses, so I tried them too, but they made no difference. I started reading each word separately, and it felt like I was making some headway, but then I couldn't put all the words together to make sense of them. They were separate entities without connection to their neighbours.

I decided I was going blind, and it's curious how quickly I resign myself to tragedies. Decades ago, when my oldest was stung by a bee and her face started swelling up dramatically, I just stared at her, stunned and useless, until a neighbour happened by. Shoved in the back of her car, with my toddler in my lap, I remember thinking that it's nice that Mother Teresa had just died to help her on her way. You can take the girl out of the Catholic church...   Anyway, I had resigned myself to her death long before anyone had a chance to take her pulse, much less call it. But she recovered completely and life went on as before. I tried googling sudden blindness, but I could only read enough singular words to solidify my uneducated diagnosis. I would have to get a program to read to me and that could type what I dictate. I started wondering about the cost of such a thing, when there was a pause in the action of the film. It might be a good place to stop for the day.

I stood up and checked the clock at the back of the room to judge if it was a good time to stop and re-cap before the bell. But I couldn't seem to read the clock. Not being able to see words on a screen is one thing, but losing my vision entirely meant no more biking. That's a different kettle of fish, and I'm not sure I could afford whatever mechanics might be necessary to allow my life to continue as is. I sat back down and just waited for the bell to pause the film.

With the lights on like a stadium, and the next class filtering in, things got so much worse. I started explaining taxation - where the money comes from at each level and where it goes. It's something most kids don't really have their head around, so it's an important lesson. But the kids were confused. Except instead of typical comments like, "It's not fair they charge more taxes on cigarettes," they were saying, "What are you talking about?" and "What are you trying to say? You're not making any sense!" I told them I didn't know what I was saying, and I started to laugh. It was so bizarre. There were waves of light making their faces all woogley in my right field. It was like driving with a bright afternoon sun filtered through trees on the highway like a strobe light, and I felt the need to put my hand up to try to shield myself from the light. If someone had admitted to putting acid in my drinking water, I would have been so relieved! No such luck. I gave up on the lesson and handed out an assignment that typically takes significant instruction, but I had the handouts at the ready, so they'd have to muddle through on their own. Then I said I'd be right back, and I bolted for the office.

It occurred to me I should call the office for help, instead of deserting my class, but there was no way I could figure out the phone. It was a mystery to me.

I told our secretary that I thought I was having a migraine, which I had only heard of described like this, or maybe I had a pinched nerve or something weird, and she got me in to the VPs. I didn't tell them I was going blind. It seemed ridiculous, and saying it might somehow make it true. They turned off the lights, and I felt much better. After a few minutes, I could read and understand the clock in the room. They had the wherewithal to ask if I might have injured myself recently, and I told them about falling on the ice that morning. The one line I remember: "I don't think we can discount a possible connection between falling on the ice and what you're experiencing right now." Actually, he said it better than that (better meaning it made me laugh), but apparently there isn't even one line I can remember from that morning.

But I still don't entirely believe there's nothing wrong with my eyes. I mean, I believe it intellectually, but it's hard to take in entirely when it's so painful to look at things, and it's still an effort to read a string of words online.

But now I'm days behind on marking. Maybe tomorrow. I'm glad I can still think and write fluidly. This little exercise in descriptive writing was very encouraging - except when I tried to proof it.

I appreciate when I get to these times that have me resigned to a misfortune blown way out of proportion. I was okay with never writing anything significant or sensical again - maybe even not teaching again. I could have become that weird teacher who doesn't really make any sense but is absurdly hilarious and gives everyone 90s. And there's always taped books to listen to. But biking is more important to me than I had thought. There's just no substitute for that.

Monday, February 15, 2016

On Appropriation

I'm teaching First Nations in Canada this semester, and it's a bit of a challenge for me. I spent 7 years in school studying philosophy and social sciences - all from a western European point of view, so I feel confident teaching those subjects from that perspective, but I know little more about First Nations than what I've read in the paper and a few books (by John Ralston Saul and Charlie Angus). I have a general sense of the history, but I'm not up on the specifics of the treaties and the various groups that I feel I need to learn to do an adequate job. The last time I took a history course was when I was in grade ten. It'll be a busy semester, and I'll only be teaching it this once during a department transition.

The course is actually called Current Aboriginal Issues in Canada, but we looked at some articles on the first day that criticize the name, so I've changed the official title for our purposes. There's no history in the course description, but I can't imagine diving into current issues without looking at the background to each issue first, so I've added in some historical research, major tribes, languages, and locations circa 1490 to today (with a bit from 10000 BCE to 1490).

We started by looking at some stereotypes seen in media, and jumped on the "tribute" to the First Nations in the front hall of our very own school. A wooden figure was gifted to the school by graduates about 20 years ago, and it stays regardless some concerns with it. Here's what the description of it says:
"This statue is a compilation of various First Nations of Turtle Island. The breastplate, made of bone and bead is most commonly worn by the northern and central plains Nations such as the Lakota and Dakota people. They are often referred to by their language group, the Sioux. Likewise, the scalp lock seen here is not a Mohawk, but a "Pariki" or "horn." Pawnee is a derivation of Pariki and this Nation is found in the central plains and Oklahoma regions." 
First of all, when is creating an amalgamation of many different people ever a act of honour? To create something emblematic of my family, I'd make something that showed our similarities, or, if I wanted to show one interesting thing from each member, I'd make sure not leave anyone out.  Here three groups have to stand in for many different tribes. It's also curious that the depiction is of peoples far south of here rather than in honour of people of our region. The whole display make it seem like this is a foreign, alien group, so my class created our own version of an amalgamation of Europeans. We titled it, "Is This What Respect Looks Like?" and taped it right beside the statue, but it was quickly removed. Apparently it's offensive to stereotype people like that.

Our school teams are called "Raiders," and our school used to have a horribly offensive First Nations mascot which was pretty recently changed to a pirate. I don't understand why we're so married to "Raiders" though. A nearby school changed their teams from the Marauders to the Mustangs, so it's possible to change names. But not for us. At the time of finally letting go of the images, I suggested, if we must be Raiders, that we have a raccoon as a mascot. They raid things! I didn't win enough support. And, of course, shortly after the mascot change, Somali pirates started attacking ships in the Indian Ocean. Are we supposed to be encouraging the bravery and tenacity of pirates in our sports teams? It's not something I really understand at all.

I tried to embrace the change like a good stoic and get people on board to celebrate talk like a pirate day, but that didn't take off either. If we're going to do it, then can't we have some fun with it? Apparently I don't have much clout in these parts. But back to the course.

I decided to have students do a novel study which they'll present in a month. Because it's not an English class, they don't have to write a report on the novel; they're free to present in any way they like. Since it's sometimes hard for kids to think outside the box, I figured I'd read a book and present it in a non-essay format myself. I barrelled through Richard Wagamese's Indian Horse, then yesterday I painted a summary of the gut-wrenching book about an Ojibway boy's life, and I used art from a variety of Ojibway artists as inspiration for the depiction. But the whole time I wondered if I was in appropriation territory.

It made for a disjointed composition that doesn't work artistically - it's a weird mix of flattened images on a landscape - but it's useful to start a discussion on the story as it mirrors the painful clash of cultures. I interspersed quotations through select scenes to summarize the essence of the text. There's a little piece of it below to give you a sense of it, but I'm won't share more online.

I sourced the artists I imitated right on the painting, Norval Morrisseau, Jim Oskineegish, William Monague, Simone McLeod, and Christian Morrisseau, and I'll likely be painting over it after the course is over. I'd ditch it entirely except it got my 11-year-old daughter asking lots of questions. She had no idea about the residential schools and wondered why it's not taught in regular classes. She knows all about the holocaust because they all read Hana's Suitcase, but they read nothing about this Canadian holocaust. My piece is clearly effective as a way of teaching some of the issues in the story.

But even with the citations, it still feels a little wrong. In art classes we were often encouraged to copy the masters to get a feel for how to paint in a certain style. My house is full of my copies of Picasso, Matisse, and Rousseau. I obviously can't afford the originals, and I prefer paint on canvas to prints, and they're just for my purposes. I painted Three Musicians full size on my basement wall after seeing it for the first time. I don't feel any guilt over that. But it's not the same as copying a Morrisseau.

And I looked at student projects done in the past years of the course: pipes, longhouses, dream catchers, medicine wheels.... That really doesn't feel right. It's fun for kids to create, but...

Part of it is shocking ignorance. Some of the creations are re-creating something of honour as if it's a toy. Without intimate knowledge of the background and meaning behind artifacts, it's too easy to inadvertently offend. It's like if someone created a marker of our culture, but accidentally got the flag upside-down. It would be offensive to Canadians regardless the intention.

The goal is to amplify the voice of people who have been marginalized, to tell their stories without speaking for them. That can be tricky for a white teacher. Years ago I considered teaching The History of Mary Prince, but I was taken to task in an online forum for being a white girl who dares to teach a black story. So it went untaught. That's not the optimal solution either.

Perhaps it's best if I just supply the original material, add in some field trips and guest speakers, and summarize as little as possible.

So, why did I even paint the piece with a bit of the style of some Ojibway artists? I could have just depicted the scenes in my own style, but I wanted to add the flavour of the culture within the piece. I haven't studied the iconography the way I have with Byzantine art, for instance, but I did research each of the artists and where they're from to ensure they have a connection to the storyline. But I'll keep that final product within a small circle of my six students where we can discuss my internal struggle as well.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

On Command F: a Bittersweet Function

I tell my students of the magic of "command F" on Macs and "control F" on PCs. This F function key, that can find a word or phrase anywhere in the text, is a game-changer when hunting for the best quotation or for that juicy bit of information or when searching through lines of code to add a fancy new feature to a blog. But it has a dark side.

Now when I try to skim through a hard-copy document, like a book, I grow impatient with the task. If I suddenly realize the brilliant acuity of a passage a few pages back, it's painful to have to skim over what I've already read to find it. Sure I can try to laugh it off, ignore that irritating feeling, and persist. But that niggling feeling continues to torment my brain, hampering my focus, and making it even more difficult to skim with any skill. This is a skill I was once lauded for (perhaps owing to my scarcity of abilities). Now I get grumbly after a few pages, and, after a few more, I desperately want to relinquish the pursuit. It takes a steely resolve now to do something I used to do effortlessly. It could be as time-consuming as always, but the effort is marred with the knowledge that there is an easier way.

More than two millennia ago, Socrates warned against putting words in print because those new-fangled books would destroy the memories - and hence the minds - of the populous. Without exercising our minds by demanding more and more of their talents, they'll atrophy. Current brain science concurs, and my anecdote adds further evidence to the pile. If we stop doing a task as often, the pathways in our brain get sluggish, and we can no longer do the task as well.
“As particular circuits in our brain strengthen through the repetition of a physical or mental activity, they begin to transform that activity into a habit…the chemically triggered synapses that link our neurons progam us, in effect, to want to keep exercising the circuits they’ve formed. Once we’ve wired new circuitry in our brain…’we long to keep it activated.’ That’s the way the brain fine-tunes its operations. Routine activities are carried out ever more quickly and efficiently, while unused circuits are pruned away....“If we stop exercising our mental skills…we do not just forget them: the brain map space for those skills is turned over to the skills we practice instead….the possibility of intellectual decay is inherent in the malleability of our brains. That doesn’t mean that we can’t, with concerted effort, once again redirect our neural signals and rebuild the skills we’ve lost. What is does mean is that the vital paths in our brains become…the paths of least resistance” (34-35).
It sometimes feels like we're left with two options: either we improve the technology so we never need our brains to do such a menial task again (a command F-bot for print), or we avoid the technology, or at least avoid reliance on the technology, in order to strengthen our brain's ability to attack that text and prevent skills from being 'pruned away.' It seems like a no-brainer to take up the technology for all it's worth but for the loss of our sense of industry and usefulness.

It makes me worry a bit about self-driving cars. Will we all become incompetent drivers, or perhaps more incompetent is appropriate here? But then again, will it even matter if that skill becomes obsolete? Maybe it's better if we don't have to learn to pay attention to the road. Our car can takes us to work and home without commanding our attention so we can pay for all our stuff we bought online during our daily commute!

But then, what about sex robots? Will we become a culture annoyed with the incompetence of a human partner when we could have the accuracy and effortlessness of a sex toy that never demands a turn? Are we already impatient with imperfection?

I'm glad that books grew to be commonplace, and I spend no time lamenting my inability to remember epic tales in detail. Maybe in 2,000 years, if we're still here and still have enough resources for advances in technology, we'll think it funny that people ever used birth control or fertility drugs or prostitutes when they could have just had sex with programmable machines without all the hassles. And why be concerned with our ability to find information in a book when we can likely find the book online (or put it online ourselves) and then let the computer skim for us?


Our ability to hone skills is tied to our feelings of self-worth. If we have fewer skills that matter, then we won't matter. Students will stop coming to me to find a specific quote in a lengthy essay and show delight with how quickly I can do it. They won't need my help. We might laud independence to our detriment. I have a friend who can rhyme off the birthdays of every person she knows, but facebook notifications have already rendered her skill redundant. And car-chases will no longer draw a crowd to a film like these:

(They always leave out a favourite:)

The loss of an ability to give pleasure to one another could be the most profound disruption to our culture. Honing personal skills that are exclusively developed to suit the particular taste of one other person enhances a recognition and knowledge of the other in a depth that conversation merely skims. A robot could be programmed to hit the mark perfectly every time, but this is a classic case of the perfect being enemy of the good. And it's never as simple and universal as it's presented in media:

Obviously skill-destroying technology is not always an all or nothing situation nor is it always a problem.  I can't remember any friends' phone numbers or e-mail addresses any more because I don't have to, but I'm happy I no longer have any use for a washboard besides possibly in a rhythm section of a band. How soon before we all forget skills and later deeply regret their loss? It might be useful to consider how necessary each piece technology is to our lives relative to how useful the eroding skills may be to our sense of self-worth.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Cold Calls in the Classroom

I do it, sort of. I don't call on kids who don't have their hands up generally, but I do evaluate their level of understanding through classroom discussion, one way to better triangulate marks between products created, observations, and conversations. And I often make lingering eye-contact with kids who haven't spoken up in a while. I don't do it because of the new policy, but for other reasons. It livens up the class if it's not just me talking. It ensures that students stay focused. And discussing and debating in class can help students remember the course content.

I let students know that I often start classes with easy questions about the previous day, which allows quieter, well-prepared students the option to get something out at the start when others are still shuffling papers and the focus on the speakers is diminished. Once they talk a little, though, even if it's because they feel they have to, it seems to open a door a crack for more comments during the meatier discussions.

Doug Lemov, in a Guardian article, agrees:
"...teachers need to maximise the amount of thinking and learning going on in their classroom at any one time, and to ensure that this effort is widely distributed. Take “cold calling”. Instead of asking a question of the class and then picking a hand, you call on a student regardless of whether they have raised their hand. It sounds too simple to be significant. But, to use one of Lemov’s favourite phrases, cold calling is “a small change that cascades.” Cold calling enables the teacher to check on the level of learning of any student in the class; it keeps the pace of the lesson high, because the teacher no longer has to wait for volunteers; it makes the teacher look more authoritative. Crucially, it increases the amount of thinking going on in the classroom at any one time because everyone knows the next question might be for them."
As a student, I had an Animal Learning prof who did a daily once-around with a different question for each student. It was nerve-wracking, but I learned the content of the course effortlessly. We couldn't not pay attention. In terms of effective teaching, it worked. In another class, a well-meaning, young prof lectured without demanding much student response. We could relax and were free to zone out at will. Then a guest-speaker came in for a class, and she made sure she heard every student speak once. It's the only lesson I remember. I can't even picture the original prof's face.

However, in his most recent post, Alfie Kohn refers to these tactics as "bullying." He suggest that the practice,
" so fundamentally disrespectful of students that I'd be disinclined to take advice about anything from someone who endorsed it. . . . a teacher is basically saying, 'It appears you'd rather not contribute to the discussion right now, but I don't care about your preference and I'll use my power to force you to contribute.' If this isn't disrespectful, then that word has no meaning. . . . The goal is to produce a certain observable behavior; the experience of the student - his or her inner life - is irrelevant."  
He recognizes the problems with 20% of the class talking and the remainder silent, but maintains that the right to refuse to participate is paramount. And then he ends his essay with an odd hope that we'll all learn to use "self-governing conversation" in which no student feels the need to raise their hands, but they take turns without being mediated.

I'm not convinced students talking without raising hands is in any way preferable to having a monitor of some sort choose hands roughly in the order they were raised or in a way that allows all voices to be heard. It feels friendlier without, but even among friends, if there are enough of us in a room having a heated debate, we'll start raising out hands because it's a useful way to make sure we're all heard. I generally am the "caller of names" during discussions, but students are quick to let me know if I've missed someone's hand. They have a keen sense of equity. Raising hands makes the conversation faster and more equitable with an attentive monitor who ensures nobody dominates.

But I also want to address an underlying premise in Kohn's piece, that being uncomfortable or anxious in class is necessarily a bad thing - or a brutal thing by his estimation. Allowing shy students to avoid ever speaking in class reinforces their fear of speaking in front of people. It seems nice in the short term, but in the long run they're accommodated to their own detriment. Like playing piano and learning multiplication table, sometimes we have to be made to do things we don't want to do, but it does get easier the more we actually do it.