Heather Conn Blogs

spoutin’ about by the sea

Occupy Vancouver: we need two-way respect

Imagine the Occupy Vancouver people in Armani suits, camped out in designer beige tents with cappuccino machines and the same outdoor heaters that restaurants use. If everything else was the same – the signs, the speeches, the behaviour – do you think that the city and its fire and police departments would respond differently to the Occupy encampment? Of course. They’d offer what’s been missing so far in the relationship between both sides: respect, and meaningful dialogue regarding long-term solutions.

Sure, I understand public safety and the need to protect people, and I don’t support the use of violence by police or the occupiers. But Vancouver’s city officials would not have chosen the same heavy-handed and confrontational response of an injunction if doctors, lawyers, and business people made up the Occupy group. Instead, they would have suggested a discreet meeting, among supposed peers, and likely found a settlement that satisfied both groups.

The recent drug-related death, overdose, and bylaw non-compliance at the Occupy camp appears to have cemented a paternalistic city view that all the Occupiers are irresponsible scum, losers, addicts, etc. and therefore, they need to be punished and removed. (Think: unsightly boil = lancing.) Since when has drawing rigid lines into overly simplistic us-versus-them camps ever resulted in a peaceful solution?

The loser label certainly doesn’t describe the gentle, sixtyish woman with her hair in a bun who said to me this week in front of the Vancouver Art Gallery: “I support these people. They’re peaceful. I’m part of the 99 per cent, but I can’t stay here.” She was briefly visiting the Occupy Vancouver site to give food to a young homeless man in dreadlocks, who was living in a tent with his dog.

Such dismissive attitudes don’t consider the Vancouver pediatrician who told me, over a client lunch at Shaughnessy Restaurant, that he had wanted to join the Occupy Vancouver movement and “felt like throwing something” on its first day. These labels ignore people like “Raven,” the young man in a wheelchair with long black hair and bright eyes, who provides on-site security at the Occupy location and approached me this week with warmth and kindness.

And what about all the members of the public who have donated books to the Occupy camp library, the ones now organized in a tent on multi-shelves with categories like “Hegel,” “Analytical Philosophy,” “Sociology/Anthropology,” “Ecology,” and more? Are they losers too?

That’s one of the huge things wrong with our local Occupy scene: too many decision-makers are not looking beyond labels and minor infractions. There’s no committed attempt to understand the movement and its motives and discover what benefits it could offer regarding new approaches to housing, street youth, and many other issues. The Occupiers’ genuine search for a new way to conduct business and relate to the earth and others has devolved into an age-old stance of name-calling and enemy-making. It’s far easier to demonize a supposed foe than bring empathic listening, on both sides, and try to understand each others’ wants and needs.

This week, while I stood on the sidewalk by the Occupy tents in downtown Vancouver, making notes in my tiny pad, a middle-aged, well-dressed man stopped to tell me that he had moved from New York City to the Vancouver region after 9/11 and now worked in the local financial world. Without prompting, he gave his view of how our local Occupy scene compared to its Wall Street counterpart. He saw these main differences:

  • ·“In New York, the NYPD is trying to find solutions,” he said. “Here, the police aren’t interested in solutions.”
  • ·“In New York, the best minds in business are trying to find solutions. Here, where business is second-string, they’re not interested in solutions.”
  • ·“In New York, they’re [Occupy Wall Street] getting help from Madison Avenue guys. Here, the market is too segmented. They need to make it clear what they want.”

Whether you agree with his perspective or not, the Occupy Vancouver issue is no longer about democracy, free speech, and creating new ways to address social ills, but about a sudden fixation with law and security. (Think: fear = riot.) With the upcoming municipal elections, winning votes and appeasing public fears and perceptions, however skewed, take precedence over truly listening to people’s needs and visions and seeking win-win solutions.

Let’s stop the double-standard treatments. All of us who have participated, at any level, in Occupy Vancouver, deserve respect, whichever side we’re on – and there are a lot more than two.

, ,
November 12, 2011 at 8:34 pm Comments (0)

Occupy Vancouver: 3,000+ bring power to the people


“First they ignore you

Then they laugh at you

Then they fight you

Then you win” – Gandhi

(on a sign at Occupy Vancouver)


“In times of universal deceit,

Telling the truth is a revolutionary act”

— George Orwell

(on a sign at Occupy Vancouver)


Under the menacing glare of gargoyles perched high on the corners of Hotel Vancouver, across from looming RBC and HSBC buildings, we gathered downtown, 3,000+ strong on Oct. 15. This Occupy Vancouver movement, spawned by weeks of Occupy Wall Street activism in New York City, had set up a sprawling camp of tents, plus tents for food, first aid, public education, and a children’s area, in front of the art gallery.


                                                                                                               — photos by Heather Conn

A handful of friends and I from British Columbia’s Sunshine Coast sat on the edge of the mosaic fountain in front of the Vancouver Art Gallery, surrounded by people of every age, ethnicity, and background: infants, white-haired grandmothers, laid-off workers, disgruntled professionals, business people in suits, women in high heels and fashionable dress, bohemians in masks and costumes . . .They were all a highly visible part of the 99 per cent of western society seeking to be heard and counted as banks, corporations, and governments have gained hugely skewed levels of power, making decisions with little accountability over issues that affect the earth, the public good, and livelihoods. As activist Naomi Klein said a week earlier as part of Occupy Wall Street: “Our system is crashing economically and ecologically.” As one of the dozens and dozens of homemade signs in Vancouver, held high among the throng, said on this day: “Another world is possible.”


I was heartened to see more than a thousand people gathered by 10 a.m., after premier Christy Clark and others had dismissively predicted that few would appear at the event. More and more people kept arriving, until at least 3,000 (some reports claimed 5,000) marched peacefully in a square along four downtown blocks, starting northward at Georgia and Howe. No one smashed windows, threw food at cops, or yelled verbal abuse at passersby. Cars honked in support of the moving crowd. A police officer wore an orange flower in his lapel. The sea of signs gave heart and meaning to what was a living, growing statement (not “a protest”) shared with others who were organizing publicly on the same day in 1,000 cities across the globe:


“One World, One Humanity, Share the World’s Resources”

“Serve the people”

“Close the gap”

“Vancouver wakes up”

“A fair taxation system is overdue”

“We’re the #1 Highest Child Poverty Rate in Canada – Way to go B.C.”

In the first general assembly that morning, various speakers, as part of a moderating team, stood on the art gallery steps and explained the proposed working model for consensus. As defined in the handout provided to the crowd: “A consensus is a decision-making process that attempts to be inclusive and accommodating of the desires and needs of an entire group.” Workers in Venezuela and other Latin American countries have used such models for decision-making in factories and collectives. As one of the moderators pointed out: “It’s not pretty.” It was slow, tedious, and the process bumbling. We were all new at this; our capitalist system had not created models for such forms of decision-making. People would holler out occasionally: “This is what democracy looks like.”


Eager for action and group-based agreements, I grew impatient as different speakers read through the consensus document, word for word, using the mike and then having people within the crowd repeat each phrase in a “human mike” format. Requests went out for translators in a host of languages, from Farsi to Spanish. Hand gestures were given as symbols for how each participant could indicate whether he or she agreed with a proposal, had reservations, would stand aside (“I cannot support this proposal and will not help implement it but do not want to stop the group or block the proposal”) or would block it (“I have a fundamental disagreement with the proposal that must be addressed and has not been resolved”). This repetitive process took an hour and a half.


I was soon growing bored and frustrated. I had to examine my own impatience and desire for a quick outcome, over the inclusion of all questions and requests for something to be repeated. Rather than feeling energized, hopeful, and excited, this process left me feeling deflated and in limbo. But the non-stop stream of informal speakers from the crowd, who took turns at the microphone, helped to draw me back to the power of a group assembly. (The maximum time allotment for each speaker, decided by the group as a whole, was five minutes.) A speaker asked: “Do you trust the system?”

“No,” the crowd roared back. If the group thought that someone was going on too long or the remarks were too self-serving, they hooted or called “Wrap it up” or made the accompanying hand signal. Here is a selection of those who spoke, besides David Eby of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association and Seth Klein (Naomi’s brother) of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives:


  • Bob, a unionized meter reader for BC Hydro, who will be replaced by a smart meter within a year, after receiving only a 1% pay increase in a decade: “Gordo (former premier Gordon Campbell) exempted smart meters from due process”;


  • an artist from Montreal: “We’re losing our neighbourhoods”;


  • Paul Grignon, creator of animated films such as Money as Debt;


  • a representative from Zeitgeist Vancouver, part of the Zeitgeist world movement: “What are the root problems?”


  • Activist and grandmother Betty Krawczyk: “Our environment is going, our wild salmon are going. We won’t tolerate it. Their (government/corporate) power comes with our permission, from our acquiescence. True power is in our hands. The power belongs to us, always and forever.” That brought on loud cheers.


  • The Raging Grannies: “Your right is to be heard.”


Later that day, after meeting a client and some of his medical colleagues for lunch at upscale Shaughnessy Restaurant, I was heartened (again) to hear that one of them, a successful doctor, had wanted to join the Occupy Vancouver events himself. He said that he had felt like going down there and throwing something. I was surprised to hear such a remark in that context from such a professional; you never know where you’ll find someone of like mind.

The day’s events did not topple any existing structures or result in resounding changes. However, the simple act of people coming together in peace in a public space to voice discontent and seek more compassionate and inclusive alternatives was a powerful reminder that the power of the people lies innately with the people and in democratic process. We are the power of the majority and we control how much of that we choose to keep or give up.

After returning home just before the seven p.m. general assembly, my husband and I stopped to watch an astounding natural sight: thousands upon thousands of crows were flying, seemingly without end, through the sky. They kept coming and coming, a sprawling black flap of wings across blue, heading east above the Commercial Drive SkyTrain station. They appeared to be coming from downtown. I thought to myself: “Maybe they had their own gathering.” I had never seen such a massive group of crows in my life. I took it as a sign.


Click here for a Buddhist perspective on Occupy Wall Street, by Buddhist teacher and psychotherapist Michael Stone, author of Awake in the World: Teachings From Yoga and Buddhism for Living an Engaged Life.


Click here to watch U.S. news commentator Keith Olbermann outline what Wall Street protesters want (October 05, 2011)


, , , ,
October 18, 2011 at 12:50 pm Comments (5)

Open Mind, Open Heart: Finding mindfulfulness every day

From reconciliation to quantum physics to suicide, suffering, and death, the topics recently covered by Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh always returned to four things: mindfulness, love, understanding, and meditation practice. I was one of the lucky people who attended his sold-out talk “Open Mind Open Heart” on Aug. 14, which the inspirational Buddhist offered at Vancouver’s Orpheum Theatre. I’ve long admired this insightful Vietnamese monk for his books of wisdom, his commitment to nonviolence, and his role in urging Martin Luther King Jr. to speak out against the Vietnam war. Hanh is one who truly walks the talk, literally and figuratively, when it comes to bringing full presence and loving speech to life.

He sat onstage, legs folded on a simple cushion, in his floor-length brown gown and characteristic shaved head. About a dozen male monks stood to his left and about 20 Buddhist nuns to his right, all in the same brown gowns, visiting from his Plum Village retreat in France. Hanh spent one-and-a-half hours sharing Buddhism’s “noble truths”, simple stories, and ways to exercise mindful breathing to help handle challenging conflict. He spoke calmly and fluidly, with no notes, and left room for humour despite his serious subject. He laughed after saying: “If you’re suffering when you’re sitting, breathing, and walking, your [meditation] practice is wrong.”

Any summary provided here will barely do justice to the value of his words, which prompted me to begin reading his book on anger, and wanting to meditate more regularly. One reason why I like Hanh’s approach is that he practices “engaged Buddhism,” which  transforms meditation practice into activism.

Manifesto 2000: Six steps to peace

As Hanh pointed out, it’s a lot easier to talk about deep listening, loving speech, and compassionate behavior than to live it. He mentioned Buddha’s Five Precepts embedded in the Manifesto 2000, written by Nobel Peace Prize laureates, which UNESCO circulated and the United Nations accepted. The pledge, aimed to make individuals feel responsible for creating peace at the personal level, includes these responsibilities, in brief:

1.  Respect all life.

2.  Reject violence.

3.  Share with others.

4.  Listen to understand.

5.  Preserve the planet.

6.  Rediscover solidarity.

Sounds simple, right? Obviously, the world at large is not reflecting that. Yet each of us can begin with making our own behaviour, every day, more peaceful and mindful. Hanh outlined regular exercises in mindful breathing, such as recognizing a painful emotion, scanning one’s body for tension, then smiling and releasing the tension. He said that within three months, this practice would generate a feeling of happiness and joy.

“A cloud can never die”

He spoke of suicide, chosen by so many young people who cannot bear painful feelings. Yet, an emotion can last for only a half-hour if we bring our attention down to the level of the abdomen, feel it in our bodies, and release it. This takes ongoing practice. Hanh spoke of common dilemmas in life: “Many of us sacrifice the present for the future” and “Many Buddhists think they will only be happy when they are reborn.” Yet, he reinforced that joy and happiness are available right here, right now by being in deep contact with others and all around us. To love someone, he said, you have to understand your own suffering and theirs, which gives rise to compassion. This requires deep listening and loving speech, and can lead to reconciliation, even between parents and children who have had no contact in many years. He gave several examples of this from people who have attended his retreats.

Hanh reinforced that the concept of something moving into nothing, such as the common societal view of death, is not true. “A cloud can never die,” he said; it simply becomes rain or hail.

The event began with music, song, and interactive exercises, performed by the monk “choir”. It ended with a beautiful, plaintive song, performed in French and English by an elderly nun with a gentle, lined face, which invited listeners not to fear death. Overall, the afternoon was a wonderful communal experience, one for which I feel tremendous gratitude.

, , , , ,
August 25, 2011 at 11:53 am Comments (2)

Yippies in Love: truly a riot


A current celebration of Vancouver, B.C.’s radical early-70s era presents the delightful fun and conviction (in both senses of the word) of an activist spirit. My husband Frank and I saw Bob Sarti’s play Yippies in Love at The Cultch last night, and I came away so enthused, I couldn’t sleep for too many hours later. Frank, a former New Yorker, commented: “This was way better than a lot of off-Broadway stuff  I’ve seen.)

This campy musical romp, “borrowed from a true story” of Vancouver history and Sarti’s own anarchic actions, recreates key public protests of 1970-71, using the ideals of a fictional Yippee household as its thematic lens. The love story begins unwittingly, when Andy (Steve Maddock), a U.S. surfer dude avoiding the Vietnam draft, decides to try and cross the border at Blaine, WA on May 9, 1970 — the same day that hundreds of peaceniks and Yippies from Vancouver invaded Blaine to protest the Vietnam war and claim the Peace Arch as their own. (Sarti still retains a small chunk of the Arch as a souvenir of his involvement that day.)

Caught up in this raucous group action, Andy meets plucky protester Julie (Danielle St. Pierre), a feminist single mom who cherishes her independence. She later invites him to join her household of Yippee enthusiasts (actors Bing Jensen, Emily Rowed and Rebecca Shoichet), who each play a series of characters, ranging from local Yippie motivator “The Wizard” to Vancouver Judge Les Bewley and the city’s former notorious hippy-baiting-and-hating mayor, Tom “Terrific” Campbell. All of the actors are excellent; my only criticism is that Bing Jensen’s singing voice didn’t project loudly enough to we folk in the last row.

One might expect a Question Authority play, which mocks The Man and slams capitalist power, to lay on the heavy rhetoric, but Sarti keeps the tone entertaining and educational, in irreverent Yippee style. His pithy lyrics are hilarious and the choreography routines, especially Dancin’ Doobies, are great. His use of news footage of police violence at events like the Gastown riot (on Aug. 9 1971) enhances the injustices rampant at the time, as do the excerpts from court transcripts that Sarti weaves into dialogue.

A retired Vancouver Sun reporter, Sarti projects above the stage numerous media headlines, including ones from The Sun, which aptly captured the public hysteria over peaceful protest. (As a cub reporter one summer at The Sun too many decades ago, I  benefited from Sarti’s information-sharing and enjoyed his reporting of non-Establishment events.) In the program for Yippies in Love, he thanks the Newspaper Guild, his union at the time, “for protecting my job security while I juggled two careers — while collar worker by day, white collar Yipppie by night.”

The play runs until July 3 and I urge anyone with an iota of activism in their blood to see it. Its message of grassroots action seems especially a propos while people riot and die for democracy in the Middle East, and Vancouver reels from the yahoo riots by drunken Canuck fans. (After today’s performance, Sarti is hosting a panel “Yippies and Yahoos: What’s the Difference?”)

Yippies in Love is dedicated to the memory of Sarti’s father Paolino, who fought fascism in Spain. It’s directed and produced by Jay Hamburger, artistic director of Theatre in the Raw, which bills itself as “giving exposure to voices seldom heard” since 1994. Jay appeared onstage to introduce the play, and read Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s poem “The World is a Beautiful Place” to evoke the protest tone of the early 1970s. The third stanza reads:

Oh the world is a beautiful place
to be born into
if you don’t much mind
a few dead minds
in the higher places
or a bomb or two
now and then
in your upturned faces.

Noted pianist and arranger Bill Sample, the play’s music director and composer, joined guitarist Robbie Steininger to energize the whole show with great live keyboard action, from ballads to Hendrix. All ’round, a wonderful experience.

, , , , , , ,
June 26, 2011 at 4:12 pm Comments (2)

Wage peace — in breath, spirit, and community

While missiles flew in Libya, and Japan continues to reel from its natural and man-made disasters, I attended a medicine wheel ceremony last Sunday. The event, held on a part of Musqueam land in Vancouver, BC now known as Van Dusen Gardens, was designed to honor the spring equinox and share healing words in a sacred community space.

This was my first visit to the medicine wheel. I walked past the garden’s white and purple crocuses and mini-daffodils towards the Canadian Heritage Garden, where people sat nearby in folding chairs or on the grass on the outer perimeter of the medicine wheel, a 30-foot circle. At around noon, about 35 people gathered in this open area, which has been in active use for First Nations and other traditions since the late 1990s. The wheel was initiated by a Cree elder,  Amy (we used only first names), who shared drumming and stories with us. Under a blanket and hood and long, padded coat, she readily offered a kind smile and provided a soft-voiced presence of grace and wisdom. 

Our host Phil, a middle-aged Cree with a native drum and long, plaited ponytail, began by honoring the four directions, which correspond to mind, body, emotion, and spirit. He reinforced the need to heal Mother Earth, to ask for more balance, and he said that all faiths are honored within the medicine wheel. While each of us received a smudge (a symbolic cleansing ritual, using the smoke from burning sage or other herbs), Phil drummed and sang, drawing on music from Lakota traditions. (He spends time with Lakota friends at annual Sun Dance events in the U.S.)

Each of us was to have arrived with a stone offering for the wheel. A woman provided some small stones for those of us, like me, who came empty-handed. Phil invited us all, one by one, to address the group, saying in whose honor we were placing the stone in the circle. Clockwise, we began with those seated in the south, like me. I said that I was offering my smooth, rounded, grey stone in memory of my father, who died in October, and in honor of my mother, husband, and anyone who was trying to bring a voice to what lay hidden within them, asking that they be heard, including those in Libya willing to risk their lives for freedom. I placed my stone in the grass at the centre of the circle, putting a pinch of tobacco under it, as Phil directed us to.  

As we went around the circle in a three-hour ritual, each person stood and honored loved ones, dead and alive, or voiced concern and love for those suffering, including the Libyans and Japanese. Several people had close friends in Japan. One woman said that the Japanese men who were risking their lives to try and cool the overheated reactor at the nuclear power plant in Fukushima gave her great hope. She admired their courage and selflessness in an activity that served “the well-being of us all.”

At times, crows circled overhead in the sunny, blue sky and squawked periodically. A hawk perched in a nearby tree. Phil encouraged those who wanted to cry to invite such a cleansing. Several native elders spoke, drummed and sang. When the sun went in and it grew colder, Phil led us in an Algonquin stomp song; we moved clockwise around the circle and pounded the ground with our feet. He teased us for our lack of spirited stomping; it was more like timid tapping.

As a closing, Phil lit a ceremonial pipe and we passed it around the circle. Some wanted to draw smoke from it, others just tapped their right, then left shoulder with it. Overall, it was heartening to join with strangers in such a public ritual of combined vulnerability and strength. I liked that we moved beyond our individual pain or concerns to encompass the suffering of others around the planet. To me, this reinforced the view that we are all One.

In the spirit of this gathering, I share this poem by Judith Hill:

Wage Peace

Wage peace with your breath.
Breathe in firemen and rubble,
breathe out whole buildings
and flocks of redwing blackbirds.
Breathe in terrorists and breathe out sleeping children
and freshly mown fields.
Breathe in confusion and breathe out maple trees.
Breathe in the fallen
and breathe out lifelong friendships intact.
Wage peace with your listening:
hearing sirens, pray loud.
Remember your tools:
flower seeds, clothes pins, clean rivers.
Make soup.
Play music, learn the word for thank you in three languages.
learn to knit, and make a hat.
Think of chaos as dancing rasberries,
Imagine grief as the out breath of beauty
or the gesture of fish.
Swim for the other side.
Wage peace.
Never has the world seemed so fresh and precious.
Have a cup of tea and rejoice.
Act as if armistice has already arrived.
Don’t wait another minute.

March 26, 2011 at 5:07 pm Comments (3)

Walk in peace

For years, I’ve wanted to hike the El Camino trail in France and Spain as my own form of spiritual pilgrimage. But every year, work or something else seems to intervene. As someone who does walking meditations and loves labyrinths, I acknowledge the grace and power of walking with slow, intentional steps, observing breath and thoughts. Joseph Campbell says: “Pilgrimage is poetry in motion . . .a winding road to meaning.”


An informal group on the Sunshine Coast, the Peace Walker Society, leads 10-day trips on the El Camino. I like their purpose and stated aims: “The Peace Walker Society is a group of concerted, committed citizens who recognize that peace is a process, an exquisite journey of enriching ourselves and giving back to the planet we live on. For us, there is no final destination.


“Our ongoing journey promotes unity and reconciliation, which transcend past conflicts and support the development of a sustainable future. Along the way, we hope to rediscover the “true self,” for in order to change the world, we must begin with ourselves.”


I’m currently writing a book about my seven months of solo travel in India, living out my own version of Heal Yourself, Heal the World. I’ve long admired the now-deceased woman known as Peace Pilgrim, who gave up all possessions and committed herself to walking the earth to promote peace. She refused to accept any money and survived solely on others’ offers of food and shelter.


Peace Pilgrim displayed tremendous trust in life and commitment to her cause, speaking informally to groups, media, and anyone who stopped their car along her path to chat. She died in 1981 — ironically, as a passenger in a car — but her spirit and vision live on through an organization dedicated to her memory and goals of peace.


Satish Kumar, the editor of Resurgence magazine, did an 8,000-mile peace pilgrimage in 1962, inspired by Bertrand Russell’s civil disobedience against the atomic bomb. Without any money, he dedicated himself to a peace walk from Bangalore, India to the four capitals of the nuclear world: Moscow, Paris, London, and the U.S.


After settling in Devon England, Kumar did another pilgrimage when  he turned fifty. Again, for this walk, he carried no money. (I would love to know his secret.) He visited the holy places of Britain, including Glastonbury, Canterbury, Lindisfarne, and Iona.


Kumar wrote of his travels in his 1978 autobiography No Destination; Green Books has since published an updated edition. I recommend his book to anyone who enjoys contemplative journeys and spiritual reflection. Throughout his life, Kumar has aimed to promote Gandhi’s values of peaceful coexistence and land reform. In 2001, he received the Jamnalal Bajaj International Award for Promoting Gandhian Values Abroad.


I wish that we had more grassroots people and leaders who incorporated peaceful and spiritual values into their advocacy and activism. Although it would be great to have more more Peace Pilgrims and Satish Kumars, we can all create greater peace every day through loving thoughts and actions. Are you up for the challenge?

June 14, 2010 at 3:40 pm Comment (1)

A peace profile: Ursula Franklin

                                Franklin in 2006

She might not fit your vision of a revolutionary, but long-time Toronto activist Ursula Franklin has spent decades “fighting” for peace and social justice.


Now 89, this emeritus professor and author of The Ursula Franklin Reader: Pacifism as a Map, defines peace as “the presence of justice and the absence of fear.” She likes to quote the late A. J. Muste, the well known American peace activist: “There is no way to peace. Peace is the way.”


Franklin was interviewed May 6 by Anna Maria Tremonti on the CBC’s The Current. Her carefully chosen words reflected her active, conscientious mind and commitment to progressive causes, from prison reform to women’s rights. Her many honors include the Order of Canada, Governor General’s Award in Commemoration of the Persons Case, which legally declared girls and women in Canada “persons” for the first time, and the Pearson Medal of Peace for her dedication to advancing human rights.


During her CBC interview, Franklin advocated the practice of “scrupling,” rather than today’s cyber-obsession with “Googling.” In her view, people need to get together to air their scruples and make their opinions public; they can’t rely on experts and  publicists to suggest solutions. Too often, we hear that the problems facing society today are too complex to be left to the layperson. But the minds, especially of youth, need to be activated to address these issues, from globalization and environmental concerns to health and education.  


When Tremonti asked Franklin about the lack of interest in politics in today’s Canadian youth, she responded that apathy sets in when individuals, especially young people, feel that no one is listening to their concerns. Why bother to vote if no one cares about their opinions and the government will do as it pleases once it receives their votes?


Franklin is not willing to rest with the phrase “sustainable development“; she demands to know: “Sustainable of what, develop what, and for whom?” She continues to be an outspoken critic of policies of Canada’s federal government, especially its plan to build more and bigger prisons. Her husband Fred was much involved in the rehabilitation and support of prisoners.


Besides becoming a brilliant academic in a discipline where women were remarkably scarce, she had a keen interest in politics and, of course, feminism,” says Reverend Hanns Skoutajan, one of her Toronto mentees. “She fought for salary equality among the sexes especially in her university.”


 He adds: “‘Revolutionary,’ I would call her, but why is it revolutionary to be deeply concerned about the kind of country and world that our grandchildren will inherit?”


Skoutajan met Franklin when she was a professor teaching metallurgy at the University of Toronto. He remembers: “Besides teaching, I first encountered her on an anti-war demonstration in Toronto back in the 60s. She became my mentor as she was for many others who were concerned about fascist trends evidenced in many countries as well as our own.”


Franklin was born in Berlin to a Jewish mother and Gentile father, a troublesome heritage in Hitler’s Germany. The Nazis arrested the whole family and sent them to different concentration camps; however, they somehow managed to survive the Holocaust and were reunited after the war. She came to Canada in 1949 to continue her career.


Franklin recalls, as a teenager, hearing her mother admonish her neighbours in Berlin: “Don’t you see what’s coming?” She saw first-hand the seduction of the German people to anti-Semitism, racial intolerance, the glorification of violence, and a virulent nationalism. She decided to make it her mission to point out and warn people in her new home, Canada, of similar trends.


To protest the war in Iraq, Franklin led a parade of professors in full academic attire out of Convocation Hall at the University of Toronto when then-U.S.-President George W. Bush was honored with a doctor of law degree.


Franklin and her husband Fred have found a spiritual home in the Quaker religion, known as a Peace Church. However, Quaker meetings are considerably different from other religious services: they are silent. Only when moved by spirit is a member encouraged to speak and express their view. Every person’s opinion is seen as important as the next.


“Having attended Quaker meetings, I was always made aware of a spiritual presence but quite unlike what I had encountered in mainline or evangelical worship services where the word of God comes from the Bible and the preacher,” says Skoutajan. “While silence is powerful and scarce in our time, when that silence is broken by some deep concern it takes on a special authenticity.”


In his words: “There is a Spirit alive. One need not become a Quaker to experience it, but learn to listen deeply, dare to live mindfully, and seek peace and justice for all humankind.”


Many thanks to Hanns Skoutajan for providing the core of this content and giving me permission to put it on my blog.

May 17, 2010 at 11:23 am Comment (1)

Mother’s Day: Remember its original message of peace



CodePink members in San Francisco in April 2008


Did you know that the original Mother’s Day was inextricably linked with a message of peace?


Julia Ward Howe, a U.S. poet, feminist, and abolishonist, created the first Mother’s Day Proclamation in the United States in 1870. She wrote this rousing piece in reaction to the  U.S. Civil War and the Franco-Prussian War. She believed that women, particularly as spouses of soldiers and those who bore sons who went to war,  held a responsibility to take a political stand for peace, not war.



                   Julia Ward Howe


Here is what Howe declared in her proclamation:


 Arise, then, women of this day!
Arise, all women who have hearts,
Whether our baptism be of water or of tears!

Say firmly:
“We will not have great questions decided by irrelevant agencies,
Our husbands will not come to us, reeking with carnage, for caresses and applause.
Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn
All that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience.
We, the women of one country, will be too tender of those of another country
To allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs.”

From the bosom of the devastated Earth a voice goes up with our own.
It says: “Disarm! Disarm! The sword of murder is not the balance of justice.”
Blood does not wipe out dishonor, nor violence indicate possession.
As men have often forsaken the plough and the anvil at the summons of war,
Let women now leave all that may be left of home for a great and earnest day of counsel.

Let them meet first, as women, to bewail and commemorate the dead.
Let them solemnly take counsel with each other as to the means
Whereby the great human family can live in peace,
Each bearing after his own time the sacred impress, not of Caesar,
But of God.

In the name of womanhood and humanity, I earnestly ask
That a general congress of women without limit of nationality
May be appointed and held at someplace deemed most convenient
And at the earliest period consistent with its objects,
To promote the alliance of the different nationalities,
The amicable settlement of international questions,
The great and general interests of peace.


Subtle this proclamation ain’t, nor religiously or spiritually inclusive. But it’s a passionate voice nevertheless, and a remarkable one for its period. (Ironically, Howe wrote the words to The Battle Hymn of the Republic, which became a popular anthem sung by the Union side (the north) during the U.S. Civil War.)

                                                                                                                       — Heather Conn photos

Sadly, Howe’s words still bear just as much relevance today, since humanity seems to have learned no lessons about the ravages of war.  Modern sons and daughters are dying in Iraq,  Afghanistan, Pakistan, Darfur.  .  .


In honor of this year’s Mother’s Day, I invite all women, mothers or not, and men to support any action or event that promotes peace. Start with yourself and share your message of peace with your loved ones and neighbors, sons, and daughters. We all need this message every day. I support the group CodePink Women for Peace and the practices outlined in the book Nonviolent Communication by Marshall Rosenberg. Remember: There’s a difference between promoting peace and protesting against war, but don’t let language nuances stop your activism.


May 7, 2010 at 5:53 pm Comments (0)

Vietnam’s Friendship Village: Peace heals the wounds of war

This week, I felt inspired by The Friendship Village, a powerful film of peace and compassion, written, directed and produced by Vancouver, B.C.-based documentary filmmaker Michelle Mason. She told a small crowd at the Sunshine Coast Arts Centre in Sechelt, BC how early, gruesome images of the Rwanda massacre, which she saw while doing a journalism internship at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation news bureau in London, Eng., completely altered her career goals and life direction.


“I didn’t want to be a bystander,” she said. “I didn’t want to bear witness. I wanted to show stories about people who stand up for things they believe in.”


It took different wars to catalyze their unique visions of peace, compassion, and committed action, but shared heartfelt goals brought Mason and the late George Mizo together in her poignant film The Friendship Village. The 2002 documentary reveals how Mizo, a former artillery sergeant in the Vietnam War, became an ardent peace activist, suffered through the effects of Agent Orange, and ultimately founded a school, clinic, and housing  in Vietnam  — The Friendship Village — for children and war vets in that country who had illnesses or deformities resulting from Agent Orange.


 “Those of us who have seen firsthand that horror called war know how fragile life is, and how precious life is, and know that war is not the answer but part of the problem,” Mizo said during the opening ceremony of The Friendship Village in 1998.


The village, built in a former rice paddy 11 kilometres from Hanoi, provides medical care, education, meals, and rehabilitation for 120 children. The centre offers pediatric service for outpatients and Vietnamese war vets can stay for up to six months. A recent addition is a new building to address the needs of children with severe handicaps. The village has an organic vegetable and medicinal herb garden, water treatment facility, fish ponds, and fruit trees. The goal is to make the centre completely self-sufficient.


Mizo was one of four Vietnam vets who protested the war by waging a 47-day hunger strike, which prompted hundreds of supporters to join them. He received 10,000 letters a day.


It was difficult to see and hear the impact that the U.S. spraying of 72 million litres of Agent Orange (made by Monsanto, by the way) during the Vietnam War has had on generations of veterans and children. Babies with enlarged heads, the result of hydrocephalus. Children with twisted or missing limbs. Vietnamese war vets with horrible rashes and giant, pimple-like growths all over their chest.  


Mizo’s own immune system was hugely compromised by Agent Orange, rendering him vulnerable to any infection. His symptoms began with a fever, rash, and delerium. He had two heart attacks and suffered constant joint pain. The U.S. denied him medical coverage as a war veteran because of his high-profile peace activism.


“I was told it [Agent Orange] was mosquite repellent. Don’t worry about it,” Mizo says in the film.


The film states that more than one million children in Vietnam have been born with birth defects as a result of Agent Orange. Experts expect that it will take between 500 and 600 years for the dioxin from this deadly herbicide to dissipate in Vietnam. One remote village on the Ho Chi Minh trail, which received some of the heaviest spraying, is considered one of the most toxic places on the planet due to the high levels of dioxin that remain in the area’s soil.


One of the most moving parts of the film for me was learning of the friendship and reconciliation between Mizo and Vietnamese General Tra Van Quang. The four-star general became Mizo’s ally in fund-raising efforts for The Friendship Centre. Decades earlier, during the Vietnam war, the same general led the attack on Que Son (also spelled KheSan) that wiped out all of Mizo’s platoon. Mizo was the sole survivor of his unit simply because he had been previously air-lifted out following his wounding in battle.


Mizo received the Vietnamese Peace Medal. General Van Quang told Mizo’s son Michael: “Never go to war.”


Mason says that it took a year to convince Mizo to be the subject of her film, since he is such a private person. But since he knew that he wasn’t going to live long (he died the same year that the film came out), he wanted to share his message with a larger audience.


“Hope is an illusion,” he says in the film. “You have to actively work it.”


An international body of eight support groups raises funds for The FriendshipVillage through grassroots efforts. Carol Stewart, a Sunshine Coast resident who hosted the film screening and Mason’s appearance, has represented Canada on the village’s committee.


As Mizo says in the film with characteristic humility: “We can make a difference in life.”


For more information on this project that heals the wounds of war, see The Friendship Village.

*                                             *                                        *                                    *                                      *

Mason’s movie The Friendship Village reminded me of another compelling documentary that responds to war with a message of peace and forgiveness. In Regret to Inform, director, writer, producer Barbara Sonneborn sets out to return to the same valley in Vietnam where her husband was killed 20 years earlier. A female Vietnamese, a former war leader in the same region where the filmmaker’s husband died, shows Sonneborn where his unit was located. The filmmaker wonders aloud if the military command of this same woman could have resulted in her husband’s death.


Rather than focus on recrimination and bitterness, Regret to Inform interviews war widows from both the U.S. and Vietnam and reinforces a message of peace. It is a moving personal account narrated and shot with poetic lyricism. Even though this was her first film, Sonneborn appears to draw on her expertise as a set designer; the film’s rich visual appeal seems more a result of magic realism than mere cinematography. The documentary’s poetic sensitivity makes it feel far more like an in-depth read of a wrenching journal rather than a detached journalistic account. I can’t remotely  imagine the pain that Sonneborn experienced when she received in the mail a tape cassette sent by her husband from the field, in which he speaks to her with love and candor. It arrived days after she received the knock on her door, at age 24, and learned that he was dead.

April 18, 2010 at 12:05 pm Comment (1)

Karl Rove: arrest that war criminal

I often think of George Orwell’s slogan “War is Peace” from his novel 1984, symbolizing how a totalitarian government can twist the meaning of language to have words signify their opposite definition. We’re no stranger to this phenomenon in democracies, either. Hence, “peacekeepers” carry weapons and kill people, and powerful men like former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who oversaw the “secret” bombing of Cambodia during the Vietnam War, win the Nobel Peace Prize.


To a disturbing degree throughout history, countries herald the men who support and approve war while reviling those who abhor it. Hence, leaders often denounce peace activists as “subversives” or “thugs.” Since when does seeking peace and harmony make you a criminal?

One of the latest “war heroes” is Karl Rove, deputy chief of staff under former U.S. President  George W. Bush.  He is on a book tour in the States, speaking at private Republican Party gatherings about his new tome Courage & Consequence, My Life as a Conservative in the Fight. Without having read the book, I can say that I prefer the account of Rove in the citizen’s arrest complaint created by CodePink, a U.S. women’s peace group:


Arrest Complaint

 In the matter concerning:

United States of America, plaintiff  v. Karl Christian Rove, defendant

 Under the authority provided private citizens by California Code: 837, you, Karl Christian Rove, are being placed under arrest for high crimes against the people of the United States committed during your role as Deputy Chief of Staff to President George W. Bush as well as while serving as a campaign consultant during the U.S. presidential elections of 2000 and 2004.

 You are charged with willful violation of the following federal codes between the dates of January 1, 2000 until the present.

 US Code: Title 42, the Voting Rights Act, for ELECTION FRAUD in the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections. 

US Code, Chapter 19.371, CONSPIRACY TO COMMIT OFFENSE OR TO DEFRAUD UNITED STATES, for false information leading to the War in Iraq

 Several sections of US Code, Chapter 115, TREASON, SEDITION, AND SUBVERSIVE ACTIVITIES including, but not limited to submitting and fomenting false information leading to the War in Iraq, illegal detainment and torture of prisoners in Guantanamo and elsewhere, and other fraudulent acts leading to the deaths of more than 4,000 U.S. military personnel as well as approximately 300,000 Iraqi civilians.

 US Code, Title 18, Chapter 51, FELONY MURDER

 Further, you may also be indicted for other violations of federal code not listed in this complaint.

 Any United States Marshall or any authorized U.S. Law Enforcement Officer present is obligated under the provisions of California Code 837 to take you into custody and bring you forthwith before the nearest magistrate to answer these charges and to advise you of your rights with include:

 You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law. You have the right to an attorney, and to have an attorney present during any questioning. If you cannot afford a lawyer, one will be provided for you at government expense.

 Respectfully submitted by and for citizens of the state of xxx


On this xx day of xx, 2010.

March 30, 2010 at 12:14 pm Comment (1)

« Older PostsNewer Posts »