Sunday, May 25, 2014

Who's right? Who's wrong? Who cares - just get a grip and negotiate like everybody else

    A looming strike/lockout in B.C. schools gets my attention more these days due to living with my son and his two school-age boys, who are bracing themselves for disappointment now that their final month of school is about to be disrupted by lockouts and rotating strikes.
     One of the boys is worried about losing out on his band trip to Tofino this week, which looks pretty likely. The younger one will probably have to give up a field trip to Victoria. I'm sure there are kids like them all over B.C. who - far from cheering for more days off in the event of a work shutdown - are really worried about what this latest work action at their schools is going to mean to them.
    Way to go, government and teachers. Stick it to the kids just because you're completely incapable of settling a contract like grownups.
    As a CBC report rightly notes, the essence of the problem between teachers and their employers is that "this is a dysfunctional bargaining relationship." In 20 years, the B.C. Teachers' Federation and bargainers for the provincial government have successfully negotiated just two contracts. All the rest have ended up like this one.
    What's up with that? If there's one thing that ought to be obvious to both sides by this point, it's that contracts come due with surprising regularity. The rest of the world manages their employment contracts without getting into a work stoppage virtually every time. Why can't these guys?
    Read the media coverage and you'll soon see that there's much more than the usual contract issues running below the surface here. But really, big deal. This is not a question of who's right, it's one of why each side can't get past their own interests long enough to see how pointless and damaging all of this is.
    And as always, what a disastrous message to our young people: That our government can't be trusted; that the people in charge of educating our kids are ready to throw them under the bus any time a contract expires.
     Shame on everybody. Grow up, people. Find a new way, just like everybody else does when their relationship turns toxic. This public scene you're always making got tiresome quite some time ago.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Best legacy for Michelle is to keep this conversation going


    May the hills ring with our conversations about disordered eating in the wake of Michelle Stewart’s death. I know it would please her to think that we weren't just going to let that elephant in the room pass unnoticed.
    What I mostly know about the various disordered-eating illnesses is they aren't about disordered eating at all. Eat a lot, eat a little, obsess about burning it off, throw it up, fixate on it – food is ultimately just fuel for the body, but for some people it becomes a way to manage the bad feelings of your life. For me it seems almost like cutting, where the pressures of the world are all just a bit too much and so you seek a release within your control. For the "thin" disorders like anorexia and bulimia, it’s also got that complicated social aspect of netting the sick person more compliments for keeping themselves so slim.
    Positive feedback for negative behaviour. Not good. Pretty soon it’s a habit.
    When I consider my own few years with this problem as a young woman, I see a recipe that started with me as a little girl who already thought poorly of herself and had experienced an awkward stage around 10 or 11 of looking like a potato. I then got pregnant at 16 – a body-image nightmare – and inadvertently ended up with a doctor who was a freak about pregnant women keeping their weight down.
    Seven months in he told me that I had gained all 20 pounds I was allowed to gain. I walked out of his office and straight into disordered eating, becoming completely obsessed about not gaining an ounce for the final two months of my pregnancy. I would stay in that mode for the next six years, controlling my food intake with an iron hand until the day a passing stranger who I fancied saw me in a bathing suit and told me I looked like a starving person. 
    I don’t know what it was about that comment, but I heard it. I was 23. For the first time in years, I looked in the mirror later that day and saw the prominent hip bones and ribs, the gaunt look around my face.
    I never went back to those hungry days. But I have to admit that even now, when life’s problems overwhelm me – no job, no home, no car, dislocated in my own culture, the future unclear - the first thought to my head is that I have to lose some weight. I can write those words and think, whoa, what does that have to do with ANYTHING, but that doesn’t mean I can stop the thought from coming into my head. I’m almost 50 pounds heavier than I was when disordered eating had me in its thrall, but my inner anorexic has never really left.
    And like always, body weight questions in our society of plenty are double-edged swords for all of us – necessary to pay attention to for all kinds of health and aging reasons, bad to pay too much attention to.     Those who think we simply shouldn't talk about body weight need only look around at the growing girth of the developed world to know that’s not true either.
    So. No easy “cure,” unless one thinks that potato-shaped children, troubled lives and compliments for being slim are going to disappear anytime soon. If you have known the virtuous phase of a fast, you will also know the compelling feeling of clamping down on your own eating. It’s a siren’s call – brain chemicals, I suppose.
    The disordered eating is the symptom – a killer, insane-making, suicidal symptom, but still just the symptom. The reason for why we do it is something else entirely, and different for everybody. Any hope around treating this frustrating illness hinges on our ability to figure that piece out.
    I never had the chance to know Michelle Stewart in any kind of meaningful way, although we did have a handful of surprisingly deep conversations on Facebook when I was still in Honduras and she was in the last months of her life. I thought from the get-go that she had been enormously brave to confess to the world why she’d developed end-stage renal failure, because nobody would be expecting you to own up to three decades of anorexia and bulimia and she probably could have kept that truth hidden.
     But by refusing to, she invited us all to step forward into this debate, to peel back the layers on this issue and kick up the research and bring it into the full light where at least some of its baffling mysteries might be revealed.
    What can one person do? We can talk. Those of us who have been there and back can poke our heads out of our closets and at least lift some of the shame of this illness. Those who know this beast more personally need to find ways to share our experiences around where eating disorders come from – and more importantly, about how people leave them behind.
    Because they do. That’s where the hope is. I expect Michelle would love that, to think that hope might emerge as a result of the conversation started by her own sad and unnecessary death. 

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Goodbye, Michelle - you'll be missed

    Sad news today about the death of Michelle Stewart, the long-time B.C. government communications person who came out so bravely a year ago with a blog on life with end-stage kidney failure due to a lifelong eating disorder.
    A communicator to the end, Michelle kept on blogging right up until a month ago, when her deteriorating health got to be too much for her to continue. I highly recommend a read of her blog for anyone who has had or wondered about what it's like to have a persistent eating disorder, because Michelle did some of the most insightful and painfully honest writing about that torturous condition that I've ever read. She made what was surely a immensely difficult and ultimately fatal decision to let her kidney disease go largely untreated (the treatment, a transplant, would have worked only if she could have gotten control over her eating disorder), and then blogged bravely about her body's relentless deterioration as the disease took over.
    Those who know her well will remember her for all kinds of reasons, but may she also be remembered for her exceptional abilities as a government communications staffer who became an expert in her own right on the foibles, complexities, struggles and shining moments of our challenged health-care system. As a journalist, I always liked it when Michelle was the person I got passed off to for answers, because then I knew for sure I'd be getting an answer and that it would be a meaningful one.
    I didn't get the chance to know her more personally until she was already dying. We connected last year on Facebook after I started reading her blog, and I soon joined what I imagine was legions of fans who she'd exchange endearing messages with from time to time.
    I admit, I selfishly wished that she would still be well enough to have visitors when I returned from Honduras in early April. I'd met her in person no more than once or twice in all our years of living and working in the same city, yet felt after our electronic correspondence over the past year that we had all kinds of things to talk about.
    Unfortunately, she was already too sick when I got home for us to be able to have those conversations. But the gift of her blog is that people who never got the chance to know her while alive will still be able to take in her well-informed and insightful thoughts.
     Catch you next time around, Michelle. You did your job well. You loved and were loved. You made a difference in this world, and shared yourself with all of us this past year even when it would have been so much easier to have just left those painful stories untold. Thank you.

Tuesday, May 06, 2014

What to do about temporary foreign workers: Help them find work

Underneath all the current noise around temporary foreign workers are a couple basic truths. One is that people who need money and work will always be drawn toward countries that appear to have an abundance of both. The other is that people already settled in those countries will find ways to exploit that desire.
    And so we have this latest news of Israelis lured to Canada to work in mall kiosks, falsely promised wages and sales volumes the likes of which many Canadians would be happy to earn themselves. But of course, events didn't unfold like that, and now we are neck-deep in embarrassing allegations of modern-day slavery and an astounding absence of regulatory oversight.
    My perspective on temporary workers has changed significantly since my time in Honduras, where I saw things from the other side of the line. Legal or illegal, a job in a land like Canada or the United States changes everything for the families who suddenly have access to money they could never hope to earn in their own land. I'm quite sure that any one of us could be converted into people who would enter another country illegally if it meant the bills would get paid and the kids would be fed and clothed.
     Developed countries worry a lot about migrants sneaking into their countries to take under-the-counter work and then staying. But what I saw in Honduras was that many, many migrants returned home after four or five years, having earned enough money to build their house, launch their business, put their children through decent schools. That seemed especially true among illegal migrants, who often had quite focused plans about where they were going to go, how they were prepared to live while there (low-cost to the extreme) and how they would use the money they'd be sending back home. There's a style of house in Honduras that I came to think of as "U.S. Migrant" because its higher quality and North-American influenced design made those very attractive, well-built houses stand out so much from those around them.
    From the receiving country's perspective, the discussion almost always goes fairly quickly to the question of migrants "taking good (insert country here) jobs," or lowering work standards because they work for less and aren't able to complain if some of the working conditions are breaking the law. Much of the news coverage of the exploited Israelis is portraying the matter as one of employer exploitation and lack of regulatory oversight, but underneath such issues is always the lingering question of whether such jobs really needed to be shopped out internationally in the first place.
    Having heard countless hair-raising stories as to what people are prepared to do to sneak into another country if it means they'll find well-paid work, I am now of the view that there's no way a developed country is ever going to build a wall high enough to stop the flow across its borders of people seeking a better future.
    I am also of the view that human nature being what it is, there will be no end to people who seek their own better future by exploiting the basic desires of desperate people to have a better life. During our time in Honduras, there was a tragic news story about a scam involving fictional temporary jobs in Canada that left dozens of struggling Honduran families destitute. They'd sold land, borrowed from their families, done whatever they had to do to raise money for huge fees for the supposed work program, only to find out the program didn't exist.
    What to do? Short of wishing on a star for an end to global poverty and unscrupulous people, I think all you can do is look at the reality of things and act accordingly. Canada can't stop gullible people from other lands from believing some scamster's story that our country is the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, but it can prevent said scamster from simply doing whatever he wants once the people arrive. Canada has the regulations and laws needed to prevent such exploitation, but what recent high-profile cases are revealing is that we no longer seem to have the will or the resources to enact them. That's a pretty big problem.
    And were it all up to me, I would create more legitimate temporary-worker programs. Nothing I saw coming out of development aid in Honduras rivalled the economic power of the country's migrant tradition. A fifth of the country's GDP comes from money being sent home by Hondurans working outside the country, legally or illegally. Why not help countries like Honduras at the grassroots level by permitting more people to come here to work for four or five years?
    As for "good Canadian jobs," we have no one but ourselves and our poor choices of governments to credit for the deterioration of that vision. Free trade may be better for the world, but it's not better for workers in the developed country jobbing out the work. Salaries have stagnated while costs have soared. I know, because I remember how my first husband and I, at the tender ages of 21 and 17, managed a household, a child, a mortgage, two cars and an annual holiday to somewhere like Disneyland or Hawaii on his resource-industry salary. How many young couples could say the same nowadays?
   As a nation made up almost completely of migrants, Canadians should know more than most that there's no stopping the drive to seek greener pastures. People are going to come. But surely there are better ways to manage that reality more effectively than to cut regulatory services to the bone and then act surprised when desperate foreigners pack their bags anyway and bad people lead them astray.