Monday, November 13, 2017

On joy: Reflections on finding happiness even when life does its best to get in your way

I had the opportunity to write this reflection on joy for Victoria's YAM Magazine's November-December issue. It was one of the most moving stories I've worked on, taking in people's stories of strength in the face of significant adversity.

My only regret is that I over-interviewed, ending up with so many stories that everyone here literally gets a few paragraphs and no more. You'll just have to take my word for it that each and every one of them was worth an entire article on their own.

Find the link to the piece in YAM here, or scroll on down to read about these extraordinary Victorians.


Clockwise from top left: Pippa Blake, Debra Bell, Jacqueline McAdam, Sam Jones,
Mary Katharine Ross, Michael Cameron, Jeneece Edroff (centre). Photo: Jeffery Bosdet


It’s the season of comfort and joy, but what does joy really mean? As YAM discovers, some of the most inspiring wisdom comes from people who have seemingly had the greatest burdens to carry.

By Jody Paterson

“And they all lived happily ever after.” Wouldn’t it be something if that were true — if we all could wake up feeling joyous every single day, in a life without suffering?

But any person grown beyond childhood — and even some still in it — know from their own experiences that joy is not a given, not a permanent state. It’s fleeting and mercurial, notoriously hard to hold onto as life’s ups and downs take their toll. Joy is elusive, even for those who appear to “have it all.”

Yet somebody with a lifetime of struggle and barely a buck in their pocket can still be the most joyous person in the room. Someone who’s known nothing but setbacks can be relentlessly optimistic. How do people dealing with adversity find joy even while people with every reason to be happy bog down in their search for it?

Victoria academic and entrepreneur Jacqueline McAdam asked herself the same question after extensive travel in Africa, where she met cheerful children and young people carrying on with their lives despite growing up in dire poverty and seeming hopelessness. She wrote her doctoral thesis, “More Than Luck,” a decade ago on what she found out.

We spoke with McAdam for this piece and also did a little crowdsourcing to ask Greater Victorians who came to mind when they thought of someone they knew who sought joy despite dealing with adversity. People responded with dozens of names.

The moving stories of the small selection featured here echo many of McAdam’s findings in her studies of African children. Their stories underline the points made by Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama in their Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World — that joy comes most readily to those who feel connected to a larger world; that it’s rooted in spirituality and the way we frame our experiences; that we are most joyous when helping others.

“People who experience joy give more than they get,” says McAdam, a university instructor and owner of the social enterprise Resilient Generations. “Joyful people know that it’s through other people that we grow, and so they take the risk. Joyful people look for new experiences. They overemphasize the positive while underplaying the negative.”

That last finding in particular describes each of the people sharing their stories here.

A life transformed forever at age 12 by a massive head injury. A single mom who finds herself in a wheelchair with multiple sclerosis. A woman beset by childhood bullies, depression, sexual assault and now a fatal cancer. A recovering drug user who went through chemotherapy while living homeless on Victoria’s streets. A young person who’s been fighting her way through a life-threatening illness from the time she was born.

All seemed surprised to hear that someone had named them as a person notable for their joy. All framed their adversities as something that ultimately bettered them.

“I’m an ordinary person who has had some things that the average person hasn’t had to deal with, but maybe that’s what makes me able to juggle stress,” says Sam Jones, owner of 2% Jazz Coffee.

His painful memories of being teased about a speech impediment and his appearance — he has a still-undiagnosed genetic condition that causes tumour-like growths on the left side of his face and neck — tainted his school experience so much that he opted to home-school his three children when the time came.

“It occurs to me that my adversity as a child strengthens me, has made me who I am. Part of what I do is survive, and I think that comes from working hard enough throughout my life to get through the bad times.”

Pippa Blake, diagnosed with multiple sclerosis as a young mother and in a wheelchair for the last 26 years, says she likely wouldn’t have spent the years since then sky-diving, sailing, horseback riding and making her way to Mount Everest base camp in 2007 were it not for developing MS.

“All these things I do, I wouldn’t be doing if I weren’t in a wheelchair,” says Blake. “You get to a stage where you say, ‘Why not?’ Getting MS has opened so many doors for me. It has made me a nicer person. I have time for people.”

People who find joy appear to reframe the negative events of their lives in positive ways, says McAdam. Mary Katharine Ross, communications officer with the Community Social Planning Council, exemplifies that, having embarked on a “year of forgiveness” as an adult to be able to forgive, among other things, the two men who raped her at 15.

“We are responsible for how we feel,” says Ross. “I am not responsible for being raped, but I am responsible for how I view it, how I incorporate that experience into my life.”

If joy comes from giving to others, Jeneece Edroff deserves to be among the most joyous in town. Beset with lifelong severe health challenges from neurofibromatosis, the 23-year-old has a legendary drive to give back to her community that started when she was only seven. She has raised $1.25 million to date for local health charities.

“To find joy, look at things with a different perspective,” advises Edroff. “Be around people. Smile and say hi. It’s the little things that can change a person’s attitude. Find a hobby that makes you happy.”

Joyous people know when to call on friends and family for help, notes McAdam.

Michael James Cameron, who went through 20 hard years of substance use and suicidal thoughts from Grade 8 on after a ski accident at age 12 left him with a severe head injury, remembers his family as his “biggest fans” through it all.

Now in recovery and a volunteer with the Victoria Brain Injury Society, Cameron can still recite every word of the Robert Service poem “The Quitter,” which “really resonated with me” when he came across it after his Grade 8 teacher assigned everyone to memorize a poem. By then, he was already heading into drug and alcohol issues, out of step in a small Alberta town where few knew anything about brain injuries.

“My advice: don’t give up,” says Cameron. “I remember this guy in high school telling me, ‘Don’t let the assholes beat you down.’”

Sara McKerracher also recalls her family as “amazing” through the period in 2015 when she was living homeless and addicted on the streets of Victoria, going through chemotherapy for Stage 4 lymphoma (now vanquished). The 28-year-old survived that hard experience determined to change her life.

“Joy for me is something that happens from the moment I wake up now,” says McKerracher. “I’m in a warm bed, waking up in good health. I don’t ever want to forget the things I went through, but I also don’t want to dwell on them.”

Joyous people embrace new experiences, says McAdam. They know how to live in the moment. Sue Morgan, 67, is facing down end-stage kidney failure by packing her bag for six more months in her beloved Guanajuato, Mexico, having rejected dialysis and organ transplant as “not for me.”

She says given her many health issues, she wouldn’t feel right about lining up for a new kidney at this point when so many other younger, healthier people need one.

“I still make plans, just not long-term ones,” says Morgan. “My advice? Don’t be afraid. We’re all going to die. Figure out what matters and live every moment.”

A number of those interviewed cited spiritual practice as vital in their lives: faith, meditation, yoga, mindfulness. McAdam saw that among those she studied as well: “Most people who are highly resilient have a fundamental spirituality.”

Debra Bell has suffered one major life challenge after another, including the death of her son Robbie from a heart condition at age 10 and the diagnosis of her other son, Riel, with schizophrenia at age 17. But connecting to her Bahá’i community and faith never fails to bring her joy, says Bell.

Ross says "Illuminata," based on A Course in Miracles — a spiritual thought system developed in 1975 by the Foundation for Inner Peace — is “my prayer book.” The Findhorn Foundation’s Game of Transformation is an integral part of her life.

But just in case anyone is thinking that those who know how to seek joy never suffer again, best to let that one go. Bad things happen to good people, including everyone interviewed for this piece.

That Jones never leaves his workplace without saying to his employees, “Be nice” didn’t protect him from being “totally and completely hosed,” as he puts it, in a business relationship a few years ago, costing him his business, his home and very nearly his marriage.

Ross’s year of forgiveness didn’t spare her a diagnosis 18 months ago of multiple myeloma, an incurable cancer. Blake’s amazing adventures still haven’t replaced the feeling of a hike through the woods on her own strong legs. Edroff’s health challenges will never go away.

“Our adversities change, but we’ll always have them,” says Jones. “It’s part of being human — hunting for food, climbing up a tree at night to stay safe. It makes us more human … and humane. Maybe it’s actually positive that we have these adverse things happen to us.”

Saturday, October 21, 2017

OK, #MeToo, and almost certainly #YouToo if you're female

My old newspaper stomping grounds lured me out of column retirement this week to write a piece launching their #MeToo series. Here it is. You can find the Times Colonist version here.
***


I admit, the first day of the #MeToo phenomenon was a pretty brutal day to be on Facebook. So many terrible stories, though I felt genuinely heartened by the heartfelt, stunned response from men who clearly had no idea.

The critics are already popping up at this point, saying things like how wrong it is for women to have to be out there in public with their painful stories. Personally, I see real power in the #MeToo thing. Sexual assault and harassment remain one of the most common shared experiences of women around the world, and this is the first time I’ve really seen women out there about it in a big way.

I mean, seriously, can most of us even count how many times we’ve had weird and creepy experiences with a sexual overtone involving men? One of my family members and I were just recounting the time when she was 13 and some Italian on a crowded Venice ferry pressed into her from behind with his erection.

And on the one hand, I think, “Good grief, a child of 13!” and shake my head. But on the other, I know that my own understanding of “the way men are” came right around that age, too.

I’ve had many more reminders since then, from the scruffy clerk in the small Kamloops store who I realized was masturbating while I browsed, to the boss who lifted up my skirt to ascertain whether I was wearing stockings.

More intimate examples as well, of course, though the #MeToo phenomenon helped me see that there are lines in the sand for me, some things I will not put out to the world to reflect on. So just suffice to say, I know how it can be when the lines between intimacy and assault get blurred.

Throughout all of these experiences, I’ve continued to love and appreciate men. Never once did I classify what happened to me as being about all men, because I had met and loved far too many good ones to think that the issue was about all of them. I really hope we can get past any pitting of women against men in the conversation that’s to come around #MeToo. The issues are sexual assault and harassment, not gender.

That said, guys, it IS rather noticeable that this stuff almost always comes back on your gender. It does seem to indicate some troubling issue at the heart of male sexuality.

Sure, we could come up with examples to the contrary. But let’s stick with the obvious for now: Being sexually assaulted and harassed is a troubling rite of passage for virtually every girl/woman, and it’s almost always a man who is the perpetrator.

What’s the problem at the heart of all of this? Kind of a sexual privilege, perhaps. The men who have these anti-social, demeaning and even criminal behaviours believe that their desire trumps your consent.

I’m not even sure if the concept of consent is a consideration for them. Sometimes, the lack of it appears to be the turn-on, as anyone knows who has ever experienced a Thetis Lake flasher staked out on the towel beside them. At times it’s also very clearly a power move, kind of like a full-of-himself monkey who mates with whoever he chooses as a show of strength to the others.

But here’s one thing I do know: It’s got to stop. The Bill Cosby stuff, Harvey Weinstein, Jian Ghomeshi, and now accusations against David Blaine – it’s so awful.

And as women everywhere know, it’s not just happening to pretty starlets. Nor is it only rich, piggish men who are guilty. Imagine the weight of all our #MeToos if every one of us was honest about what has been done to us by men we didn’t want touching us.

There are many good men who are distraught by the #MeToo wave, asking what they can do.

First and always, listen to our stories, because we, too, need to see how disturbing it is to the men who love us that we are still having these experiences. We’re worried for our daughters, granddaughters, great-granddaughters.

And then, help us understand. Why do we have these experiences with men? What can men do to change in other men whatever behaviour is going on here? Men, we need you for that part, because such questions are mysteries to women. We have our issues as a gender, but grinding our pelvises up against strangers in public spaces or groping our young nephews is not one of them.

Talk, everyone. If #MeToo is to be anything other than a really rough few days on Facebook, women need to tear back the veil on our routine experiences of sexual assault and harassment. And men have to help us set things right.

Monday, October 09, 2017

An open letter to my Facebook friends on the occasion of this morning's bit of bother


First, time to get honest about our relationship. Mostly we aren’t really friends, are we? I’m connected to 2,400 Facebook “friends,” and it might be a stretch to imagine that even five per cent of them are genuine friends of mine. So how about we think of each other as “connections” instead, all of us with our various reasons for deciding who we connect with on this odd thing we know as Facebook.

My connections have grown vast since I first opened my Facebook account a decade ago. But right from the get-go I took the approach that if you’re a real person and plan to contribute something to the public conversation beyond trying to get my vote or my money for your multi-level-marketing product, I’m up for connecting.

I happily connect to people without knowing whether we share the same opinions, values, world views. I appreciate diversity of thinking and culture, even when it’s uncomfortable. I almost never “unfriend” a connection, having decided long ago that freedom of speech is a foundational element of democracy that I want to actively support.

But that’s not to say I won’t give you a rough time now and then when you post something that irritates the hell out of me.

I sometimes wonder if it feels like a shock to a Facebook connection when I get prickly over something they wrote. If so, my apologies to any in my Facebook network who assume our being connected means that we agree on all the issues of the world, or at the very least have a tacit agreement not to acknowledge said differences publicly. I don't see things that way.

No worries that I’ll be prowling through all your Facebook posts, barking at you for this or that. I’m only reserving the right to get crabby when you come onto my Facebook page and say whatever you’re saying. Our pages are kind of like our houses, so when a person stands on my doorstep yelling their uninvited views through my door, I figure I’ve got every right to yell them right back out the door and off the property.

Here’s my promise to you: I will never be rude, or at least not until way late in a lengthy and fruitless back-and-forth that is getting tedious. I will do my best to make myself clear without malice, meanness or abusive language. But I won’t always be nice.

One thing my connections definitely need to understand is that I offer no protection from other people in my Facebook network who play much rougher than I do. Those who post on a post of mine are on their own to settle any differences between each other. I usually walk away from comment threads once they get completely out of control.

Every now and then, I do unfriend someone. If a person is relentlessly awful - racist, homophobic, idiotic or otherwise generally horrible whenever they post something on my page - they’re gone. One guy threatened violence, so he got the hook, too.

Should you feel the need to unfriend me after suffering one of my attacks, please don’t hesitate. I’m just fine with that. Whatever our reasons for connecting on Facebook, we are free to bail when the cons start to outweigh the pros. A lot of times we don't even know each other, after all. Also, many people take great umbrage at having their views challenged. Who knew?

I suspect I’ve lost some “friends” over my sex work perspective as well, so might as well get that one on the record while we’re being honest with each other: I am a committed and unequivocal supporter of sex workers’ rights to work and live free of discrimination, stigma and bad laws that routinely cause far more harm than good. I will come after you like a Cooper’s hawk on a plump robin if you come over to my page and start posting uninformed BS about sex workers.

Other than that, welcome, friend! I expect we’ll (mostly) get along just fine.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Homelessness is still a problem. Gee, go figure


Ten years ago now, I was part of a major initiative to address homelessness in Victoria. The Mayor's Task Force on Breaking the Cycle of Mental Illness, Addictions and Homelessness brought together some of the most informed, passionate people in the country to look into the issue of people living on our streets and what needed to be done about it. 

In four intense months, the task force put together a comprehensive report, packed with thoughtful, meaningful research, strategies and findings. What lands people into homelessness in these modern times turned out to be quite a complex series of things, starting with people's own personal crises, health issues and inability (for all kinds of reasons) to manage the major problems and stressors of their lives, and then deepening into shifting priorities at all levels of government, systemic failures, flawed decision-making, disconnects and deep funding cuts across the existing system of support, and a general failure by our society to grasp how much effort and investment is needed over a very long time to try to address an entrenched social problem.

The key message repeated over and over again in that report was that while we do indeed need much more housing and social supports, we will always have homelessness unless we address the root causes of it. Without that, you are simply housing those who are homeless right now, even while new people fall into homelessness behind them.

A decade on, we have built some more housing. We have added more outreach. We have shifted thinking in the judicial system to the point that judges now routinely make much more humane decisions when confronted with cases that so clearly come down to homelessness and poverty rather than criminal intent.

We have also talked and talked about the root causes of homelessness, so much so that I'd like to think that virtually everyone now understands much more that homelessness happens not because someone is too lazy to work or reluctant to "pull up their bootstraps," but because of things like mental illness, poverty, disability, catastrophic injury, substance issues, a lifetime of disadvantage, and the lack of any kind of personal support system to fall back.

But while public awareness may have improved, the strategies that might staunch the flow of people into homelessness have never come about. That explains why we are still talking about homelessness like nothing has changed, and why there were a thousand or so people living homeless in Victoria when the task force got underway in 2007 and still is. And why there still will be 10 years from now if we keep doing things in the same ineffective, reactive way.

A new report was released last week confirming that the majority of homeless youth in our country are survivors of the foster system. Children from families investigated through Canada's child-welfare system are almost 200 times more likely to end up homeless at some point in their lifetime compared to children with no involvement in the system.

Shocking. But we knew that already 10 years ago. We've heard about it repeatedly in the intervening years from former BC Children and Youth representative Mary Ellen Turpel Lafond, who penned report after report pointing out this tragic statistic. Yet here we are, still being shocked. Still doing nothing effective in response.

We also knew 10 years ago that discharging people from our provincial jails with no plan also fed into homelessness, not to mention led some of them to instantly commit another crime to get themselves out of their dire economic situation. We knew that discharging people with chronic mental illness from hospital without a solid plan did the same. As did relentlessly wearing down social supports to the point that people on the edge began to fall into the cracks.

So yeah, it's a bummer to still be talking about homelessness all these years later. But until we get serious about why we can't seem to get on top of it, it will remain a heartbreaking example of societal failure and wasted human potential.

Thursday, July 06, 2017

Stop Operation Northern Spotlight. Stand up for sex workers' rights. Don't be the modern-day version of Martin Luther King's blandly dangerous 'white moderate'

I'm adding my voice to what I hope will be an ever-larger chorus of British Columbians asking that police departments in BC refuse to participate in the ill-informed Operation Northern Spotlight campaign to "stop sex trafficking," which has been conducted off and on elsewhere in Canada for a number of years and is modelled on a similar U.S. police strategy.

As you will see from the letter below from the Supporting Women's Alternatives Network (SWAN Vancouver Society), the police campaign most definitely doesn't stop trafficking. But it does do serious harm to adult sex workers just trying to make a living.

SWAN bases its letter on solid sources, and I've included all of them here. If you're not already informed on this issue, please read and learn. Uninformed opinion and myth around sex work continue to cause real harm to people, and do nothing to stop the harms of violence, exploitation and genuine trafficking. Around the issue of sex workers' rights, I'm reminded more and more of Martin Luther King's denunciation in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail of the dangerously passive position of  "the moderate," who talks a great deal of their supposed support for human rights but in fact stands up for nothing (thanks to the late Arthur Manuel for the reminder): 
First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to "order" than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: "I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action"; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man's freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a "more convenient season." Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.
None of us over here on the side of sex workers' rights supports trafficking. But what we're trying to get across to the public is that these kinds of police actions do nothing to help those who truly need the help, while harming Canadian workers who end up working in even more dangerous conditions (or deported back to poverty in the case of migrant women wrongly assumed to be trafficked) as a result of flawed and thoughtless police targeting. 

Yay for Victoria Police Department, who so far gets all of this and works hard to stay above the fray while developing better relationships with sex workers in the region. Here's the letter - please share, support, and stand up for a population whose battle for human and workers' rights is real and immediate.


July 6, 2017

RCMP ‘E’ Division
BC Association of Chiefs of Police
Municipal Police Agencies
Director of Policing Services

Dear Madam and Sirs:

Re: Call for Non-Participation in Operation Northern Spotlight in British Columbia

We, the undersigned, are individuals and organizations deeply committed to the health, safety and human rights of women, men and trans persons involved in the sex industry. As such, we are concerned about the safety and well-being of those in the sex industry who are at heightened risk of human trafficking.

We would like to express our opposition to Operation Northern Spotlight and ask that BC law enforcement refrain from any future participation in this national anti-trafficking initiative. ‘Rescue’ missions such as Operation Northern Spotlight do more harm than good. A quick-fix attempt to deal with a complex issue, Operation Northern Spotlight sweeps up everyone present for interrogation, detention and/or arrest, without adequately distinguishing between those who are underage and/or coerced, and those who are not. (See the following sources: The Use of Raids to Fight Trafficking in Persons, How to Stage a Raid: Police, Media and the Master Narrative of Trafficking, and Canada and migrant sex‐work: Challenging the ‘foreign’ in foreign policy.)

This strategy is one that is based on deception and manipulation, as evidenced by police posing as sex workers’ clients in hotel rooms and ‘shock and awe’ raids on indoor sex work venues. These actions foster distrust and adversarial relationships with law enforcement. Pulling people out of the sex industry without their consent and penalizing those who do not agree to exit the sex industry does not ‘save’ or ‘rescue’ them.

‘Rescuing’ individuals who do not wish to be rescued has multiple impacts. Sex workers report being confused and frightened and may suffer trauma and even exhibit symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. Sex workers lose income and experience economic hardship. This places sex workers in a precarious position where they must either accept dates or provide services they normally wouldn’t to recoup losses. Operation Northern Spotlight can also have consequences for public health, as sex workers report reluctance to keep large quantities of condoms on commercial premises for fear of raids. Operation Northern Spotlight also has a ripple effect beyond those directly impacted, by driving sex workers further underground to evade police detection and making sex workers less likely to turn to law enforcement if violence occurs.

In order to be effective and to help exploited youth and trafficked persons, anti-trafficking solutions must be developed with the knowledge and expertise of sex workers. Combating human trafficking and upholding the rights, dignity and safety of sex workers should not be mutually exclusive.

As you are aware, British Columbia has a tragic history with regards to the deaths and disappearances of sex workers. In the past decade, progress has been made between law enforcement and sex workers to right the wrongs in the aftermath of the serial killer. Forsaken, the report of the Missing Women Commission of Inquiry, provided guidance to law enforcement on how to enhance the safety of vulnerable women in the sex industry. Operation Northern Spotlight is incompatible with the recommendations of Forsaken and does not have any place in this local context. 

Targeting individuals in the sex industry through approaches that induce fear and increase mistrust of law enforcement jeopardizes any chance of cooperation between sex workers and law enforcement. This type of repressive enforcement also threatens the foundation of a collaborative, multi stakeholder, community-based approach (See Forsaken recommendation no. 3) that is growing throughout British Columbia – a foundation that so many police officers, sex workers and community organizations have painstakingly built over the last several years. In short, Operation Northern Spotlight jeopardizes our ability to keep moving forward on our shared goals of reducing violence against sex workers.

We ask British Columbia law enforcement to decline any future invitation to participate in Operation Northern Spotlight. If the forthcoming Provincial Sex Work Enforcement Guidelines are modeled upon the Vancouver Police Department’s Sex Work Enforcement Guidelines, as per Forsaken recommendation 5.8, Operation Northern Spotlight will be at odds with provincial guidelines for sex work-related policing approaches.

In closing, we call upon British Columbia law enforcement to work with sex workers to develop best practices to help and support trafficked persons while protecting the safety, dignity and human rights of all individuals in the sex industry.

Signed,

Andrew Sorfleet, President, Triple-X Workers' Association of British Columbia
Annie Temple, The Naked Truth
BC Coalition of Experiential Communities
Brenda Belak, Lawyer, Pivot Legal Society
Cheryl Giesbrecht
Dr. Lauren Casey
Dr. Sarah Hunt (Kwakwaka'wakw Nation), Assistant Professor, UBC
Dr. Becki Ross, Professor, UBC & Co-Founder West End Sex Workers' Memorial
Dr. Cecilia Benoit, University of Victoria
Dr. Victoria Bungay, Canada Research Chair: Gender, Equity & Community Engagement, UBC
Elizabeth Manning, PhD, RSW
Esther Shannon, Founder, FIRST Decriminalize Sex Work
Gender and Sexual Health Initiative, BC Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS
Genevieve Fuji Johnson, Associate Professor, Simon Fraser University
Hayli Millar, PhD (in Law), Associate Professor, University of the Fraser Valley
Jan Wilson, Executive Director, Prince George New Hope Society
Jody Paterson, PEERS Victoria
John Lowman, Professor, Emeritus, School of Criminology, Simon Fraser University
Joyce Arthur, FIRST Decriminalize Sex Work
Kerry Porth, former sex worker and sex work activist
Options for Sexual Health, Provincial Office
PACE Society
PEERS Victoria
Sanctuary Health
Sex Workers United Against Violence (SWUAV) Society
SWAN Vancouver Society
Tamara O'Doherty, PhD, JD, Simon Fraser University
Vancouver Status of Women
Warm Zone, Abbotsford
West Coast Co-operative of Sex Industry Professionals

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

The story of my mom

Mom loved this 2015 photo from the Chow reunion, which miraculously
captured all but one of her kids, their spouses and children in one place.

My mother Helen Paterson was born in 1925 in Moose Jaw, the sixth of nine children in a hard-scrabble household of mixed-race kids back when nobody even knew that term. 

Her father, Charles Chow, was Chinese and ran a grocery store catering to the Chinese community, many of them labourers who had come to Canada to work on the railway, and for a time he managed the Canadian Pacific Railway dining room in Moose Jaw. Her mother, Mary Feica, was Romanian, married off at 17 by her equally hard-scrabble Prairie family; when she wed her Chinese boss at the CPR restaurant where she worked, it was considered scandalous.

Such family circumstance provided fertile ground for stories. My mother knew them all. She grew less and less reticent about sharing them as she aged, and we made good use of her as the historian of a larger-than-life Canadian family. Her stories stitch us together, the sprawling Chow-Feica clan that has grown to more than 100 and still keeps up family reunions started in the early 1970s.

The two stories that stand out for me happened around the same time in my mother’s life, the late 1940s, when she was finishing up training as a registered nurse at Saskatoon General Hospital. She met my father, David Paterson, around the same time at a dance in Saskatoon, where she swooned at his (admittedly dazzling) blue eyes. They were together from that moment on, until his death in 2002.

The first story involves a hot-headed Saskatoon surgeon who hurled some poor woman’s newly removed uterus at my mom in the operating room when she was in training and mistakenly handed him the wrong kind of scissors. I love that one for reminding me that while equality still eludes women, at least we have moved beyond a time when a man could throw a woman’s uterus at a student nurse and nobody who witnessed it would dare to complain.

Mom, standing second from left, with her siblings and parents.
The other story unfolded at Temple Gardens in Moose Jaw, at the time a cool place for young people to go dancing. The owner of the club tried to kick my mother out one night when she showed up with my dad, because only white people were allowed in. He reconsidered only when other patrons started making a fuss. 

That one snaps me back to reality on our country’s racist roots, as did Mom’s tales of delivering groceries as a kid to Moose Jaw’s old opium dens, where lonely Chinese men exploited for their labour eased the pain of living in a country that denied them even the basic happiness of having wives or family members in China join them in Canada.

Happily, my mother and her siblings were blessed with exotic physical beauty and unstoppable personalities, so the racism they all endured was buffered by a magnetism that drew everyone to them. My mother was cooking lunches and dinners for great batches of friends and family at least four times a week right up until her death, and never tired of elderly men from her past telling her of the mad crushes they had on her back in the day. One such man attended her celebration of life in Victoria, her home of many years, just to tell me that his first glimpse of her at a party when he was 15 took his breath away. He’d never seen her again.

She was a crackerjack. At 91, she was still acing the New York Times Sunday crossword, bossing all of us around, and preparing perfectly rare roast beef after Googling how to do it. May we all live a life as full-on and courageous as hers.   

Tuesday, May 02, 2017

What would we hear if we listened?

Garifuna woman in Honduras prepares yucca bread, a staple of the Garifuna diet.

My Cuso International volunteer credentials have earned me the opportunity to present at a University of Victoria student symposium this Friday put on by the Centre for Global Studies. Here's what I'm going to be talking about. I thought I'd be able to post a link to the blogs that presenters have written in advance of the symposium, but they appear to be available only to those with a UVic sign-on. So you'll have to make do with mine alone, cut and pasted here.

***

The desire to help women in distant lands is a wonderful thing. We’re still a long way from gender equality here in Canada, but we’re living the dream compared to many countries around the world. Our sisters in less privileged parts of the globe could definitely use a little transnational solidarity.

But after five years of working with Cuso International in Honduras and Nicaragua, I saw that there are right ways of expressing our solidarity, and wrong ways. Even on the issues that women around the world can generally agree on – eliminating domestic violence, equal pay for work of equal value, addressing societal and cultural factors that leave women so much more vulnerable to poverty – the most fundamental first step is to ensure women with lived experience are guiding every process, program and policy intended to help them.

One of the most common mistakes we make is to presume that women in other lands and cultures want exactly what Canadian women want, and that the issues we have tackled in our own land are automatically the same issues they would pick for themselves.

But they’re not us. They’ve grown up with different cultural norms, in different kinds of families, with different values. They’re not looking to turn their backs on the life they have, nor to have women from countries like Canada sweep in with pity in their eyes and a plan to “make things right.”

Yes, they appreciate the support of wealthier countries to improve what they know needs improving. But they’re the experts of their own lives. Approaches that presume to know what another population wants are not just patronizing, insulting and doomed to fail, they deny the tremendous strengths and strategies women in other countries have already developed to get by in an unequal world.

A small example from Nicaragua: International initiatives aimed at encouraging subsistence farmers to commercialize, rather than grow just enough to feed their families. It’s a great goal on paper as a means for getting more impoverished Nicaraguans into the paid economy, but let’s take a look at that concept from a rural smallhold farmer’s perspective.

First, that farmer is already putting in a very long day. She gets up sometimes as early as 3:30 a.m. to start making the tortillas that fuel her big family, and crawls into bed exhausted sometime after 10 p.m. She tends to the farm animals and the plot of land, cooks at least two or three meals over the course of the day – from scratch, because a subsistence farmer isn’t buying packaged goods – and does household chores without the benefit of a washer/dryer or dishwasher, or even running water or electricity in some cases.

She almost certainly has no vehicle at her disposal, or money to buy gas even if she did. She probably lives in a very small community along a very bad piece of road – that’s where land is affordable, after all. She’s accustomed to hitching rides in the back of a more well-heeled neighbour’s truck when she needs to get somewhere, but the neighbours aren’t often going to be travelling to the larger centres where the big markets are in the exact window of time when the woman would need to arrive and depart, let alone have room for her and her produce.

It’s also difficult, if not downright impossible, for her to be away from the family home for long periods of time. The family counts on her to prepare their meals, and both they and the community count on her to be the unpaid caregiver for aging parents, grandchildren, children with physical or mental disabilities, or sick neighbours or relatives in need. In a land without daycare, old-age homes, or any kind of social supports, you’ve got to be available to help others so that they’ll be there for you when the time comes.

So while the international aid community may have the best of intentions in wanting to launch this woman into the paid economy for her own good, she isn’t interested. All she sees is more work added to a jam-packed day, and impossible logistics.

Nor would she ever be able to earn much even if she could overcome the challenges. Without the greenhouses, fertilizers and irrigation systems available to large commercial producers, she can’t grow the kind of flawless produce that picky consumers in Nicaragua and abroad demand. And with climate change dramatically affecting the predictability of Nicaragua’s rainy season, she can’t promise the kind of consistent quantity and delivery of product that the stores and markets demand.

She also can’t get a loan to help her get started with commercialization. You need equity to get a loan, and in all likelihood this woman isn’t named on the title of the land she and her husband farm. That problem is partly cultural, because traditionally, only men are listed on title in Nicaragua, and partly systemic in a country that has no functional land-title registry.

What kind of development effort might actually improve this woman’s life? A project to build her a higher pila – a big sink – so she could wash clothes and dishes without stooping. Support to build an efficient cooking stove with a chimney, sparing her family constant respiratory problems from smoke inhalation and reducing the time that the woman spends scavenging for firewood every day. The development of water sources and distribution systems so her family could install drip irrigation and grow produce year-round. A decent and accessible education for her children to prepare them for better-paid work.

When we start with the premise that women are the experts of their own lives, we find ways to help that make sense. It’s the wisdom of women on the ground in countries of less privilege that brings the concepts of solidarity to life in meaningful and effective ways.

Saturday, April 08, 2017

To all the dogs I've loved

 
I can’t imagine what the dogs that run into Paul and I must think of us these days, trailing what must be bits of the scent of a dozen or more dogs on us at this point. Our itinerant way of life this past year has brought us many animal companions for periods of intimate living, and I’m sure it doesn’t all come out in the wash.
    It’s been quite the animal-companion year since returning to the Island last May: standard poodle; Chinese crested hairless; Australian shepherd; Chihuahua; pug mix; poodle mix; shepherd mix; fluffy-dog mix; Schnauzer mix. Cats that live indoors. Cats that live outside. Alpacas, a llama and 28 chickens. We’ve gotten to know so many animals in the intimacy of their own homes.
    You definitely end up sharing a lot of experiences with animals when you look after other people’s pets. I’ve slept with dogs I barely knew. All of us learn each other’s food quirks, poo quirks, good and bad habits and lines in the sand in very short order. It’s a bit like a longish fling, where both of you know it’s not going to last and so just plunge in head-long.
    As you might expect, people’s pets are often quite unsettled initially to find you moving into their home. Imagine how any of us would feel if a stranger announced herself at our door and set about doing things differently. Meanwhile, your own beloved pack members have inexplicably flown the coop. Any animal would be weirded out by that turn of events. 
    But here’s the glorious secret about dogs and cats: As long as you start right in consistently feeding them, petting them, treating them kindly and taking them for fun walks, you’re going to be their good pal in about two days. They still love their owners the most, of course, but you will be a fondly regarded substitute, like a favourite relative who can be counted on to sneak you a raw marrow bone once in a while, throw in an extra scoop of kibble, take you on a ramble up Mount Doug.

(The one glaring exception is our friend Kim and Adrian’s cat Joe, who we have yet to see in any of our stays and know only for his waste in the litter box and gradually emptying kibble dish. I accused Kim of making Joe up, but other housesitters then posted Facebook pictures of the elusive cat happily receiving their cuddles. Knife in the heart, Joe.)
    I’ve always loved all dogs, but it was our two-plus years in Copan Ruinas, Honduras, that got me thinking about them in a completely different way.
    The small gated courtyard at our house there turned out to be a refuge for medium-sized, skinny stray dogs - usually nursing females– of a size that could squeeze through the bars and take a break from the scene in the cool of our patio. Naturally, we set out food and water, which brought even more, although almost everyone initially turned up their nose at dog kibble. (I used to make chicken gizzard toppings to lure our fussy visitors into eating dog food.)
With nobody but themselves to govern their lives, the dogs socialized themselves. They knew which streets to walk on, which dogs and humans to give a wide berth to.  They’d figured out that battling over nothing was a tremendous waste of energy in a town that never had enough for a dog to eat, and so fought with each other on only the rarest of occasions.
    As for humans, virtually all of the dogs categorized people as beings that were best mistrusted but at the same time coveted, because they had the food. So once a Copan street dog trusted you enough to let you touch it, the dog was yours, a realization that brought me all kinds of guilt when we came back to Canada and could bring only one dog back.
    I also saw that many of the dogs loved the freedom of street life, some even more than they loved the certainty of a comfortable home. A domesticated dog in a pet-loving society like ours gets a longer, safer and more consistent life out of the deal, but that’s not to deny the appeal of a life of genuine freedom and all the food-laden garbage cans a dog can toss in a night.
    A Canadian dog lives a life far removed from that of a Copan street dog, which on top of going hungry also exists in a culture that doesn’t do dog worship. But Adored Pet status does mean giving up freedom. My favourite times with other people’s dogs are when the dogs and I go off on a mild adventure to someplace where they can sniff, dig, and look completely excited to be alive while enjoying the illusion that nobody's the boss of them.
 
The long off-leash foray through the forest. Bounding along a rocky shore. The chance to check out other dogs without your human getting overly involved. The pleasure of a dog treat from a stranger’s coat pocket. A taste of the wild life.
    And then home shortly after to a warm bed, good food and maybe even a free lap. Who’s going to argue with that?

Friday, February 17, 2017

May we be bent but not broken by the grief and despair of a post-Trump world


    
    Ever since the election of Donald Trump three months ago, it's like I can't get my feet underneath me. I’m not even sure what I mean by that – just that it’s like having firm ground that you’ve always stood on suddenly rocking beneath you, shaking up everything you thought you knew.
    On top of that, my mother died Jan. 7. The impact was something the same. Both things amounted to the painful destruction of fundamental beliefs that I built my life on.
    In the case of Trump, I realized with his election that contrary to what I’d thought, we weren’t getting better as a society - that all the positive social and cultural changes I’ve seen in my lifetime in North American society aren’t real changes at all, because a frightening percentage of the public is just aching to hate somebody as a stand-in for all the things that haven’t gone right in their own lives.
    In the case of my mother, I lost the one person who could always be counted on to show up for me my entire life. Between her and Trump, it ended up being a one-two combination that has really knocked me off my game.
    I think it’s a type of broken heart, this feeling. I feel it like a psychic illness, making me huddle into myself and minimize contact with the outside world. All the things I cared about passionately just three short months ago now feel pointless, because the solid ground that I thought we were building on for social change turned out to be shifting sand.
    I’m aware that I have to get through this slump. Otherwise, I risk becoming one of those people who end up bitter and chronically sad. I don’t yet know what “getting well” will entail, but figure I’ll know it when I feel it. I’m counting on spring.
    I was bound to enter a period of mourning after Mom died, but I’m pretty sure the Trump election has actually been the bigger blow to my psyche. My mother’s death was sad but inevitable, after all, while the ascendancy of Trump is a horrifying development of global magnitude.
    It would be handy at times like this to be able to disconnect from the world and just shut the door on all the bits of news and “alternate facts” contributing to this paralyzing state of low-level despair. Could I just turn away from it all and live in happy ignorance?
    Alas, not only would my inner journalist never tolerate such a thing, I am a mother and grandmother, with an extended family of people I care about. If nothing else, I must find hope again so I can continue the fight and not just crumple to the ground under the weight of all the ugliness. I did not have children so that they could live on a planet in which a man like Donald Trump runs a major civilized nation.
    One of the things I liked best about living and working in Central America is the feeling of being in countries that were on their way up. They’re not there yet, but they’re working on it. There was always such a sense of possibility.
    In the U.S., and at times in Canada, it feels to me like we’ve peaked and are on our way down. Our laws and fancy declarations still make us appear like we’re committed, but a lot of times it feels like we’re devolving. And while people like me have been thinking that the goal was to build an ever more inclusive, tolerant and equal society, it’s clear now that there are a whole lot of people who aren’t like me.
    This is particularly true in the United States, though not exclusively. (We will not soon forget the former Harper government’s promise of a “Barbaric Cultural Practices” hotline.) I do understand the righteous rage that fuelled the U.S. election upset, if not the dangerous clown that the populace wrongly thought would be their saviour. There has been a big price to pay for these last 30 or so years of political drift toward global markets, fewer taxes, and increasingly self-interested governments that aren’t concerned with growing inequality because they’re always the ones on top no matter what.
    Anyway. I have nothing but words at the moment, and we all know now that all the words in the world don’t count for much in the grand scheme of things. These days I feel like I have nothing more to say, and that I’d be better off to just go bird-watching or for long walks with somebody’s dog or small child, talking about nothing more than the seaweed at the shoreline or the snow in the trees. But I think that’s probably just a part of this grief.
    I know there are many other people out there who are as affected by Trump’s election as I am. I feel sure our energies are going to find each other one day soon and lift us out of this ennui. I think I need a good old-fashioned protest – a sign in my hand, a whole lot of people in the street to remind me that yes, we stand up for ourselves when challenged.
    Two things I know: I won’t always be sad; and I am a hopeless optimist, a genetic characteristic that can’t be beaten out of me even by the likes of Trump. This too shall pass.