Sunday, April 29, 2007

Change the system to get more women into politics
Apr. 27, 2007

So the debate around how to get more women into politics is back in the news again. I have to admit, it’s much harder to feel enthusiasm for the fight this time around, having already seen how the story ended last time.
I note that we’re currently at the point in the discussion where we’re trying to decide whether it’s worth it to infringe on the democratic election process in order to jump-start the number of women elected to government.
I remember the previous discussion well - what was it, 10 or 15 years ago now? Oh, we had a good go at it, to the point that the federal Liberals did eventually bypass the nomination process to hand-pick female candidates in a few ridings.
Don’t get me wrong - it’s a vital discussion to have.
After all, what could be more vital to fair and democratic governance than political representation that mirrored the mix of the Canadian population? I’d love it if our politicians looked more like us on all fronts.
But like I said, enough years have gone by since then that I know how the story ends - right back here, with all of us talking about the same issues like none of it ever happened.
Our typical pattern is to toss the issue around for a few years and then forget all about it. A brief flurry of activity pops up the rate of female candidacy for one election, but efforts aren’t sustained enough to create genuine change.
Theories abound as to why female politicians are so scarce in Canada, particularly at the federal level. Take your pick of opinions: That it’s because the electorate doesn’t vote for them; or the political parties don’t support them; or that they hate the life; or are preoccupied with child-rearing.
Likely there’s some truth in all of those. But I think the bigger problem is the political system itself. It’s not only built to thwart any attempts to change it, but fewer and fewer Canadians are paying attention to begin with. If we actually want change, that has to end.
So if our country truly wanted to get more women involved in politics, the first step in my mind would be electoral reform. As B.C. already knows from dabbling with the concept, there are any number of voting systems around the world that yield more gender diversity than ours.
Strategies like fixing nomination meetings can be another way of getting at the problem. But they’re short-term fixes, and justifiably controversial. Unless we still want to be fussing about this in 2020, maybe it would be better to strive for more fundamental changes - ones that would increase the odds for any number of underrepresented groups.
Somewhere out there is a democratic electoral system that’s just right for us. And here’s a bonus: We already know a heck of a lot about the options, thanks to the brilliant work of the citizens’ commission on electoral reform in 2004.
But time’s a-wasting. We can’t afford to fritter it away on tired old 15-year-old arguments as to the rights and wrongs of leveraging women into politics.
Do we need more women in politics? Absolutely.
Had there been more women in politics from the start, I’m guessing it never would have been legal in Canada for a husband to rape his wife. Instead, it took until 1984 to make that happen.
And women obviously wouldn’t have been shut out of the voting process in Canada’s early years if we’d actually been part of it in the beginning. We’d likely have assumed control over our own bodies much sooner.
Wage inequities? Wouldn’t have happened. Nurses being fired if they chose to marry? Nope. Decades of problems with sexual harassment in the workplace? Probably not.
In defence of the existing political process, those changes did eventually come about. Just because men rule the world doesn’t mean that everything turns out badly.
But each victory is pretty hollow when you consider that all we’re trying to do is catch up to men. We started at the bottom and think it’s heavenly to be halfway up, when what we ought to be doing is claiming our place as equals. Enough with this wishful thinking that such transformation is possible within our current political and voting processes.
Women could, of course, continue to try to slug it out with the boys. Take it like a man. Look at the inroads that gays and ethnic minorities made into politics in the last couple of decades - what’s stopping women?
Clearly, something is. Gays and minorities fought hard for their gains, but at least they saw some. Women are still lost in the trenches. Despite decades of effort, we still account for just 20 to 25 per cent of provincial and federal elected seats, and are even rarer in cabinet.
Maybe that really is a sign that the female sex isn’t compatible with the rigours of the Canadian political scene. So let’s change the scene.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Canadian sex workers deserve better
April 20, 2007

It’s no surprise that federal Justice minister Rob Nicholson is against decriminalizing prostitution. A party with Alliance roots just isn’t going to see its way clear to taking action on the issues of the sex trade.
But it’s still pretty galling to have to read Nicholson’s comments on the matter. Decriminalizing prostitution would lead to the exploitation of women, says Nicholson, and therefore can’t be tolerated.
Nice theory. But what he’s actually saying is that he upholds the status quo.
In other words, the tens of thousands of Canadian women and men who work in the sex trade will just have to figure a way out of it, because the government isn’t prepared to do a damn thing about their working conditions. The killings and disappearances of hundreds of sex workers will continue unabated, because nothing is going to change.
I just don’t get it. The sex trade exists because the men of our communities buy sex. There’s a demand, therefore there’s a supply. That’s how a free market works, as Nicholson well knows.
So even if Nicholson’s dream came true to end the steady flow of Canadians of all ages into the sex trade, not even 24 hours would go by before someone had hooked into a new supply of sex workers from some distant land where people needed money. Got to feed that demand.
The sex trade is on our streets, and in our newspapers, phone books and magazines. It’s on our televisions. It’s in our DVD players. Aside from drugs, sex is just about the most readily available service in any city - and on sale around the clock to boot.
Not only that, but it’s the one service that unites the world. Communist-controlled, dictatorship, capitalist, military-led, profoundly religious - whatever the form of government, sex is always for sale somewhere in the country.
Sex is also common tourist fare. I visited Cuba years ago and saw grandpas from Toronto and Montreal buying young girls for as litle as $5 US. More recently, I had the distinct displeasure during a trip to Prague of being seated for a restaurant meal next to three American sex tourists engaged in a loud and loathsome conversation about the night before. Here in Victoria, workers plan for the tourist season.
So what could possibly be our rationale for shutting out the workers?
Why is their workplace unregulated and without oversight? Why do we even have such a thing as outdoor sex workers? Why do the workers live in shame and profound stigma, judged at every juncture of their lives, while their buyers enjoy ease of service and complete anonymity?
And why do we carry on in this foolish charade about how we’re going to address prostitution in Canada by “focusing on reducing its prevalence?” Give me a break, Minister Nicholson. Just say it straight up: You’ve got no intention of doing anything about Canada’s sex trade.
Reducing the prevalence of prostitution is likely an impossible goal even in an ideal world unless all efforts were focused on reducing demand. But that goal is even farther out of reach in a time when governments are also slashing social supports on all fronts.
Children in particular drift into the sex trade because there’s no support system around them - in their home, at their school or in whatever recreational activities they might have been doing had they ever b een connected to them. Outdoor sex work is also primarily an issue of social disadvantage, along with whatever it is that sends men to prowl the streets for sex and violence.
Nicholson’s comments are particularly nervy given that his party has often led the charge around social-spending cuts. I’d sure like to hear his theories on how our country will reduce the prevalence of sex workers while actively priming the pump for more disadvantage.
And what the heck is wrong with the rest of us? There isn’t a single other mainstream service whose workers face the same kind of routine danger - all due to a lack of workplace regulation and oversight. With a workforce that’s at least 90 per cent female, it would be tough to find a more pressing women’s issue.
Yet time and again, the decades-old debate fizzles out with pious musings about the need to prevent exploitation and violence against women. And nothing changes.
We pay a terrible price on a number of fronts. Children continue to suffer in an industry that we completely ignore. Adult Canadians labour in profoundly unsafe conditions. Neighbourhoods break down under the wear and tear of hosting the local prostitution stroll.
I’m still fuming over the Canadian Labour Congress’s dismissal of this issue as one that its members are too “divided” on for the congress to take action. I would have thought workers’ rights trumped moral judgment. Who are we to judge how someone earns a living - especially when our own brothers, sons, friends and lovers are the buyers?
Our paralysis is tragic. Conditions are worsening, and all we do is continue to dither over whose ideology has it right. Unbearable.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Letter from Prague
April 13, 2007

His name is Alin. I’ll likely never know much more than that about him.
I had come to Prague on holiday, initially without much thought of seeing how the other side lives in that beautiful city. But having heard news of a refitted barge Prague was testing as a shelter for homeless people, I grew curious to see it for myself during my visit to the city last week.
My partner and I first spotted the barge while on a boat tour along the Vltava River, which winds through the centre of Prague.
It matched the photo from an on-line Czech story about the project that I’d asked our bemused hotel clerk to print out for me, and bore the same name: Hermes. Docked in the river below a massive metronome the city had installed to replace a statue of Stalin, I figured the barge wouldn’t be too hard to find again on foot.
The big ship had something of a foreboding look to it when I made my way there a couple days later, as did the man on deck who gestured at me to leave as I made my way down the gangplank. I retreated to the street, eventually spotting Alin as he approached the barge.
Wearing the demeanor and the faded tattoos of someone who’d had a hard life, he seemed like the kind of fellow who might know a thing or two about a barge for the homeless. Neither of us could speak each other’s language, but we managed to settle into something of a conversation.
I pointed to the barge and asked if he slept there. Yes, but he didn’t want the man who had scared me off to see that I was talking to him. Yes, he’d be happy to pose for a picture, but not here. We walked out of sight of the man who Alin nervously called the “chef.”
I asked Alin how many people slept aboard the barge, counting on my fingers to convey my meaning. He pulled out an alarm clock from his backpack and slowly pointed to one number and then another: 68.
I learned later that the barge can actually hold 250 men and women. It opened as a shelter in February, after city council spent the equivalent of $1.3 million to refit the ship, which once travelled the waters between Prague and Hamburg.
People like Alin can sleep there for 20 korunas a night - about $1. On a balmy spring night, with a vast park just a couple staircases away across the street, maybe that fee gets in the way of a full house.
Or maybe it has more to do with the non-stop clatter of the high-speed motorway running alongside the river where the Hermes docks, or the pounding jackhammers from the bridge being renovated directly above. Alin shrugs, and I take his meaning: Nothing wrong with a bed on the barge, but nothing particularly right about it, either.
In Prague, some 6,000 to 10,000 people live homeless, left behind these past 18 years during the city’s massive post-Communist transformation.
Unlike Victoria, Prague still has some bad parts of town where it can hide its growing number of lost souls, out of sight of the international tourists who now flood its vibrant streets by the thousands. Had I not gone looking for the barge, the only visible evidence of social ills would have been a handful of prostrate beggars in the city’s Old Town and the occasional staggering, stumbling street drunk outside a Metro station.
But flourishing economies in cities like Prague, Berlin and London are fuelling the same kind of phenomenal real-estate growth that our region has seen. With even the slummiest of neighbourhoods now facing development pressures, homelessness won’t be invisible anywhere for much longer. Europe alone has more than 2.7 million people living homeless.
Alin and I could talk of none of this, of course. Enthusiastic gestures and pointing only get you so far. So once we’d walked far enough to avoid being seen by the man on the barge, Alin cheerfully posed for a picture, then scratched his palm in a last gesture that I clearly understood: Money, please.
I dug out some korunas, the equivalent of $10 or so. In exchange, he loaded me up with goods from his backpack - stolen, I suppose - that he indicated were for my children and husband.
An electronic sudoku game. A package of modelling clay. A wooden bird with a broken tail. A child’s jacket. A whiskey flask, whisper of spirits still intact. The broken alarm clock he and I had employed in our communications. I resisted all of it, but saw quickly that he interpreted my refusal as an insult.
My own backpack now bulging, we said our goodbyes, and I headed back to the shops at the heart of the city. Alin’s gifts in my pack triggered the anti-shoplifting devices in every store I tried to go in.
An apologetic young Czech security guard at the Bata store finally asked to empty my bag, then repacked it without a word and sent me on my way.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Waiting (and waiting) won't bring about change
April 6, 2007

The thing with government reports is that I very often agree with them, sometimes even wholeheartedly.
I’ve seen my share of reports in 25 years of journalism, a lot of them bang on. Royal commission reports are particularly insightful, their authors having put serious time into studying every facet of the problem at hand.
But the unfortunate truth of reports and royal commissions is that we tend to ignore them. We send our best fact-finders out on noble missions of getting to the root of what ails us, then leave their recommendations to gather dust.
Sure, there’s a flurry of interest when a report first comes out, and a genuine intent to follow through. Within a year, however, we’re already losing interest; at the two-year mark, most of us will have forgotten that there ever was a report, at least until some other report comes to the identical conclusions a decade or so later.
Aboriginals failing in school. Children in government care. A better life for people with mental illness. An improved health-care system. A better way to help our kids learn. I’d be hard-pressed to tally all the major Canadian studies I’ve seen come and go in the last couple of decades.
A lot of them were powerful calls for transformation. I sat nodding my head in emphatic agreement through page after page of reports like B.C.’s royal commissions on health and education, or the marvelous Tom Gove report on reforming the way we look after children in care.
Hardly surprising, I suppose. The way to solve a problem is to understand every facet of it, and that’s exactly what royal commissions and other big reports set out to do.
But why do we so rarely take their advice?
One of our primary problems is an inability to focus long enough on an issue to get the job done. Big issues take big solutions, not teeny-tiny strategies mapped out a year at a time.
We also let political parties hijack the public agenda. We end up talking about what the parties feel like talking about, which leaves us lurching from one disjointed strategy to another in the artificial four-year cycle created by our election process.
It’s a disastrous approach when it comes to complex problems requiring patience, support and vision to solve.
One moment, we’re inching closer to finally getting a grip on the ridiculous way we deal with addiction. The next, Vancouver’s safe-injection site is being threatened with closure and Victoria’s main needle exchange is being run out of town.
One day, we’re wiping away tears over some poor little sod killed while in government care. The next, it’s 10 anguished years later and we’re still crying.
I wish I could tell myself I’m just aging into cynicism. But I’ve read the reports, and gone on to live in the brand new world that was supposedly going to result from them. And for the most part, not much changes.
Our national paralysis has us frozen up on some pretty frightening fronts.
By never following through on what our own reports and royal commissions have told us, we’ve actively created the kinds of deep-rooted problems that our country used to be proud not to have. We’re following countries like the U.S. into a mire of social problems and overflowing prisons, and class-based systems of care and schooling.
The worst of it is that we’re walking straight into it, undeterred by the living example of flawed social strategies unfolding in the country just south of us. Their reports have told them to do things differently as well, of course, for many years. But they haven’t, and it shows.
Even 20 years ago, could we have imagined a day when U.S. children would be walking through metal detectors to make sure they weren’t carrying guns? Or when poor, rural Midwesterners in states like Missouri and Iowa would be cited as one of the risk groups for high rates of crystal-methamphetamine use? Isn’t that enough to tell us there’s a high price to pay for getting this stuff wrong?
What it underlines for me is that change won’t come from the top down. Our governments may write a nice report, but the push has to start coming from the people if we ever want to see real change. Shuffling down to the polling booth once every four years just isn’t going to do it.
Where to start?
Pick an issue that’s really bugging you, and go learn something new about it. Track down the series of reports that were almost certainly written about it, and figure out a way to act on whatever part of the solution is within your grasp. Like the late Jerry Garcia tried to tell us, we’ve got to do more than just grumble that “somebody ought to do something about that.”
Sure, they ought to. But they aren’t. So it’s going to have to be us.
True tolerance much deeper than word choice
March 30, 2007

While there’s something charming about New York City’s new ban on the use of the “n-word,” the problem is that those who want to say ugly things will just find a new word.
Most recently it’s been former Seinfeld star Michael Richards wearing it for using the word, which he hurled with considerable racist invective at some poor black guy who heckled him during one of his comedy performances a few months ago. In the ensuing fallout, New York City decided to ban the n-word altogether.
A nice show of brotherhood. But if a community really wants to fix the problem that Richards’ rant brought to light, it takes getting at the underlying reasons for why people are so quickly given to judgment and hatred.
The words being used? They come and go, barely mattering in the grand scheme of things.
The hurtful words my mother once endured due to being half-Chinese were endlessly variable, and were valued by those who used them for their ability to wound.
So it wouldn’t have helped her to live in a town where “chink” was banned (sorry, Mom), because the people who wanted to put her down would have merely pulled some other term from the air to make her feel small, shamed and different. Words were just the way to deliver the message.
The latest invective making headlines is “faggot,” which is apparently undergoing something of a resurgence among those who never quite signed on to the gay-rights movement.
All of a sudden, TV stars are hurling the term at co-workers, and tiresome U.S. commentator Ann Coulter is tossing it around in her public addresses.
As discouraging as it is to hear that people are still making comments like that without so much as a wince, the debate around word use is at least stirring up some discussion around the racism and homophobia at the root of the name-calling.
That’s where we want to be putting our attention.
The thing about name-calling is that it’s much harder to do once you know and like somebody who fits in the category. You’re not likely to call your gay friend a faggot, unless you’re gay yourself.
(Pejoratives used by “insiders” are more about being in the club, not about trying to put a person down.)
As a kid, for instance, it was easy for me to join everybody else in speculating on the “retards” who took classes in some distant wing far away from the rest of us. But then my class spent some time teaching those same kids how to play the recorder, and I got to know the people at the other end of that label.
And that was that. I suspect it would go that way most times if we had the chance to get to know each other as people. Ultimately, that’s the challenge: To open ourselves to meeting people who aren’t like us, and seeing how very much like us they actually are.
Doing something about that hasn’t exactly been a government priority in the last few years anywhere in North America. I can’t remember the last time I saw a campaign pitching diversity and tolerance with any more depth than a Benetton ad, or a public undertaking aimed at bridging the cultural gaps that separate us.
Homophobia in particular has yet to have its day, which I guess is how you end up with some retired U.S. basketball player musing on-air about how he’d like to see all homosexuals removed from the world.
Could he have possibly made such an outlandish comment if he’d known some of the people he was talking about - or at least been aware of how many gay people he probably already knows and likes?
So if we’re calling people names these days, perhaps it’s because we don’t have a clue about each other. We’re busy sorting people based on skin type, sexual preference, and skewed news coverage that leaves us suspecting that all Muslims are potential terrorists, and all aboriginals unemployed and incompetent.
Banning the n-word or any other pejorative can never get at that. No, that one’s going to have to be about getting beyond our significant cultural divides. Canada has prided itself on its multiculturalism, but the truth is that our country badly needs a long-term strategy to keep our many solitudes unified and respectful of each other.
Folkfest was one such tiny opportunity in our own community.
The demise of the annual event this year, and the Latin Music Festival as well, signals a loss of much more than interesting music and good food. Such events were among the few to draw people from across a wide cultural experience to celebrate each other’s differences.
Getting at racism, homophobia and all those other “isms” comes down to sharing common experience. Ugly words will stop when we get to the root of why we use them.