Heather Conn Blogs

spoutin’ about by the sea

Tasers are not toys

I was astounded to learn recently, via a U.S. television documentary, that high-powered tasers for domestic use are available online from United States outlets. Such use is legal in that country, even though the voltage available is double what is legal for police use in Canada. (I’ll look up the figures later; don’t have time right now.) What’s more, the taser manufacturers are targeting women and have made taser models in various pastel colors with a smooth, sleek design that makes them look more like a hygiene or styling device, not a killing weapon.  That’s sick.


In the last week, I saw yet another TV commercial promoting the ridiculous reality show with Gene Simmons and his family. Can’t even remember the name of the program and don’t want to know. Anyway, the episode they were previewing showed Simmons’ wife hosting the equivalent of a Tupperware party at home; however, the new product that she and her tipsy friends were sampling was not some innocuous kitchen container, but . . .tasers. Unbelievable! These middle-aged women, all drunk, were zapping each other with tasers for kicks. Wow, what entertainment.


Meanwhile, according to the same documentary that I mentioned, cops in the U.S. now have access to tasers that shoot from a rifle-style gun and have a range of 1,000 feet.


Tasers are a touchy subject (pardon the pun) here in British Columbia and Canada, after four police officers tasered Polish citizen Robert Dziekanski numerous times at the Vancouver International Airport in October 2007. The unarmed man, agitated because he had waited many hours for his mother to arrive and no one could understand his language, later died as a result of  the volts he received.

April 28, 2010 at 9:05 am Comments (0)

Roberts Creek: communing with bears, eagles, and cougars


As I have said numerous times on this blog, I love where I live. This is the uphill view of Roberts Creek from the bridge on Lower Road. Not far from there, northeast down the road, two bald eagles live in a tall Douglas fir with a nest at about 120 feet (36.6 metres) up. Every day, as I sit at my computer, I hear them screeching and calling and can see them gliding effortlessly in the sky.


My husband Frank, who had never seen a bald eagle before moving to Canada’s west coast, likes to watch this talkative pair from our front deck, using a telescope. In a recent severe wind storm, the eagles’ nest of large sticks and pine branches appeared to dislodge and break apart. In the past few days, we have seen the eagle pair build a new nest, flying in with long sticks hanging from their beaks. I love having them as neighbours.


Our area also has black bears and cougars. Although a few people in the Creek have seen a cougar on the beach and in their yard, Frank and I have only seen their footprints. Several years ago, a neighbour of ours up the hill had a cougar on the roof of their woodshed. I thought that we might have had one on our roof one dark night. I heard something heavy pounce and land on our roof, causing it to shake significantly. Nothing I have heard before or since equalled that shake and sense of weight.


Here’s the mouth of Roberts Creek, where it opens into the Pacific Ocean. Vancouver Island is the silhouette on the horizon. We get salmon spawning here every year.

Occasionally, a bear will stroll through our yard, almost always at night. One bear bashed its way through our side gate, knocking out the vertical slats, and got into our garbage. We’re really careful now about not putting out our garbage until the morning of pick-up. The same bear broke through our neighbour Cathy’s front gate three different times, leaving a large hole in the middle of it. The bear awareness official ended up putting a huge bear trap in the parking lot behind our house; it’s a large, mesh tunnel-shaped cage. They didn’t catch anything.


Recently, a bear knocked down our bird feeders and our hummingbird feeder, emptying them all. Frank and I feel no ill will towards the creature and are sad that humans have encroached so much on their habitat through housing developments and deforestation. We wish that everyone would be careful about their garbage and fruit trees to prevent attracting bears.


This week, Frank  found a small bear claw inside our Mazda Miata on the passenger side. It was below a small slash in the soft-top roof of the car. He had always thought that some vandal had knifed the roof, but that explanation never felt right to me. What a surprise to discover that a bear had caused this damage! We’re keeping the claw as a memento.

April 25, 2010 at 3:57 pm Comments (0)

A portrait: composure and compassion

Mudito Drope, an artist in Gibsons, BC, recently asked me if I wanted to pose for a colour portrait. Flattered, I said, “Sure.” When I asked: “Why me?” she replied: “You have an interesting face.” (That’s better than what one ex-boyfriend told me: that I had an “unfinished face.”  I’m still not sure what he meant by that, but I’ve never forgotten the term.)


While posing in Mudito’s studio, I thought it would be tough to remain in the same position, but it wasn’t. I treated the exercise like an open-eyed meditation and had no problem lasting longer than Mudito’s suggested 20-minute increments. The time from 10 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., with a break for lunch, went by really quickly.


For some of that time, we listened to a tape of Bill Moyers interviewing Karen Armstrong about the societal need for compassion and tolerance, and about the Charter for Compassion, which Armstrong helped to forge. The charter states: “We urgently need to make compassion a clear, luminous and dynamic force in our polarized world.” It also declares:

“Compassion impels us to work tirelessly to alleviate the suffering of our fellow creatures, to dethrone ourselves from the centre of our world and put another there, and to honour the inviolable sanctity of every single human being, treating everybody, without exception, with absolute justice, equity and respect.”

The charter ends with this: “Born of our deep interdependence, compassion is essential to human relationships and to a fulfilled humanity. It is the path to enlightenment, and indispensible to the creation of a just economy and a peaceful global community.”


I found Moyers’ and Armstrong’s conversation inspirational and easy to absorb while staying still. During my sit, a crow landed on a branch close to the studio window and a pesky flicker tapped away at the outside wall of Mudito’s wooden, board-and-batten home.


By the time that I left at about 1:30, Mudito hadn’t finished the portrait, but was well through it. I thought that I looked severe and sad in it, but it definitely looked like me. Besides, I was feeling sad that day, concerned about my father, who was in the hospital with a number of serious medical issues.


It was intriguing to watch Mudito in her focused process and to see the colour palette that she uses on faces when doing portraits. On some of her paintings of people, she includes a phrase, an idea that I love. I suggested that she use “Bring a voice to what lies hidden,” which has been a creative theme for me for years and fuels my current memoir writing and SoulCollage work.


Mudito now has her first solo exhbition of portraits at the Gibsons Public Art Gallery, which will be on display until May 31. Check them out and enjoy.

April 25, 2010 at 3:01 pm Comments (0)

Torts and retorts: a climate scientist strikes back

 A current lawsuit against Canada’s National Post newspaper and its publisher, editors, and three writers could have huge ramifications for both social media and online dissemination of news.


Andrew Weaver, a respected climate scientist and one of the world’s top climate modellers,  has sued the National Post  and related parties for “a series of unjustified libels based on grossly irresponsible falsehoods that have gone viral on the Internet.” (The suit includes both hard-copy content and information that appeared on the Post’s four related Internet sites, produced by Canwest Publishing. It acknowledges that electronic versions of the same content can appear in 11 different Canwest publications across Canada, which it names. These range from the Vancouver Sun and Province to the Montreal Gazette. The suit also names five electronic databases).


Weaver is a professor and Canada research chair  in climate modelling and analysis in the School of Earth and Ocean Sciences at the University of Victoria. He launched the suit this week (April 20) in the Supreme Court of B.C. via McConchie Law Corporation of North Vancouver.


Weaver’s 48-page statement of claim identifies a pattern by the conservative Post of reporting incorrect and critical material about him and refusing to provide corrections or retractions when he brought these to the paper’s attention. For example, the Post alleged that Weaver had, or was going to, quit his Nobel-winning role in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. He emphatically dismissed this as false.


I’m sure that the Post and others will scream “freedom of the press” on this issue, but that is a mere smokescreen. This matter addresses the widespread damage that “false, malicious and defamatory” words can make once they appear in multiple places on the Internet.


The suit includes numerous citations, including an article called “Weaver’s web” that identified the client scientist as “Canada’s warmist spinner-in-chief” and “climate alarmist.”  The piece said that Weaver “appears not to understand what solar climate theory actually involves” , makes “distinctly dodgy arguments” and ignores scientific skepticism. The suit charges, among many things, that the related media content suggested that Weaver “engages in willful manipulation and distortion of scientific data for the purpose of deceiving the public in order to promote a political agenda.”


If Weaver’s suit is successful, it will have a monumental impact on both online media and anyone who adds comments to an Internet forum. This will result from two elements contained within his suit. First, Weaver cites reader comments on the Post’s website as libellous.  He also asks for a court order, unprecedented in Canada, that requires the National Post  to find and remove its defamatory articles from the many other Internet sites where they were reposted.


Kudos to Weaver for having the guts to take on the global warming debunkers and put some legal punch behind his reputation to ensure that lies in print do not stand as truth. His suit has launched what could be a precedent-setting case in determining how media outlets disseminate news and public comment on the Internet. However, it’s notoriously difficult to make libel cases stick. Weaver will undoubtedly face a remarkable challenge in the process and the case could hang around for years. Regardless, he earns my praise.

For more information on this issue, please visit www.desmogblog.com, a site dedicated to “clearing the PR pollution that clouds climate science.”

April 24, 2010 at 8:33 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.

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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)

Why are sports such a high priority?

While walking in downtown Vancouver, BC, Canada yesterday, I noticed quite a few people wearing Vancouver Canucks jerseys and cars bearing Canucks flags. (Those small flags that flap above a car’s side window remind me not of sports celebration but of funeral motorcades.) Such are the signs of local sports fan fervor, since the Canucks last night were playing their season opener in the Stanley Cup playoffs  in Vancouver’s General Motors Place.  (They beat the Los Angeles Kings 3-2 in overtime.)


Although I admit to enjoying playoff games and have watched many a hockey game in my life, especially as a teenager growing up in Toronto, I still ask: Why can’t people get equally excited about other things that truly matter and affect lives more directly, whether it’s a humanitarian issue or a political decision like the HST (harmonized sales tax)? Sports games produce frothing direct-response from fans while many serious local and global issues and events barely garner awareness. I’ve always found this contradiction bizarre.


The  rapt attention of fans watching a sporting event is what prompted Keith Johnstone, co-founder and former artistic director of Loose Moose Theatre in Calgary, Alta., to create the concept of “theatresports.” He wanted to make people as excited about improvisational theatre as they were about supporting their favourite sports team. Hence, he created a competitive framework with actors and teams vying against each other in various fun categories doing spontaneous theatre.


The result is that Johnstone helped to create a massive audience for this free-flow acting medium, which has spawned successful troupes from the Vancouver TheatreSports League to the British television show Whose Line is It Anyway?. The latter program inspired a  dumbed-down version in the U.S. with the same name, hosted by Drew Carey. (I much preferred the original British show, which used more literary and cultural references.) For anyone with an interest in improvisational theatre, I highly recommend Johnstone’s book Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre.

Here in British Columbia, the federal and provincial governments have decimated funding to arts groups and yet had no difficulty providing millions to the 2010 Winter Olympic Games in Vancouver. During the Olympic protest at Vancouver’s Art Gallery (see my post under 2010 Winter Olympics), one guy held a placard that aptly read: “With glowing hearts we kill the arts.” Why do athletes, rather than artists, garner such esteem ?


I don’t think it’s a contradiction to enjoy both sports and the arts, but professional athletes and sports attract far too much money and attention relative to other human activities.  By comparison, everyday artists and their creative endeavors deserve far more respect and remuneration for their efforts. I wish that we had an entrenched patron-of-the-arts system and widespread guilds for individuals like those that existed in medieval times.


I also wish that many people cared as fervently about sociocultural, political, and humanitarian issues as they do about sports. Where are our priorities?

April 16, 2010 at 12:29 pm Comments (0)

Sustainability: Love it and live it


                                                                                                                                                                                                 — visual by Avril Orloff  

This week, the Sunshine Coast Regional District (SCRD) asked 75 green-minded people their view of what’s critical to launching a successful community sustainability program. In a four-hour interactive session, held at the Cedars Inn motel in Gibsons, British Columbia, Canada, here’s how some people responded:


Have a sense of urgency. Be bold. Acknowledge risk.
Have strong leadership. Take action and do it with enthusiasm.
Make it personal and engaging.
Understand people’s motivations and value. Recognize their differences.
Demonstrate concrete examples of sustainability and their benefits.
Involve youth and multi-generations.
Reassure people.


The SCRD, the local governing body for about 30,000 people who live along the coast northwest of Vancouver, hosted the fun event, which included a free vegetarian dinner and live music by local band Sweet Cascadia. Facilitator Julie Clark, the education and outreach coordinator for the SCRD waste management program, invited participants to respond to three questions:


1.  Thinking like the whole coast (region), what do you believe should be the goals of a sustainability education and outreach program?

2.  Think about a time when you experienced fabulous community engagement in action. What were the important elements?

3.  Think about a friend or neighbour who is not involved in the sustainability movement. What suggestions do you have to engage this person in sustainable behaviour?


As participants, we discussed responses with three different sets of people, rotating to a new table for each question. We summarized our answers as individual groups, then shared them with the whole group. A wonderfully creative artist, Avril Orloff, wrote our responses on a series of wallboards, using eye-catching imagery and lettering with a variety of coloured felt markers.


This process invited maximum participation and allowed us to meet three times as many new people than we would have if we had stayed at our respective tables. Although I was skeptical at first about how effective this method would be in producing practical and meaningful answers, I enjoyed the interaction and brainstorming and found it valuable. I discovered later that we were following World Cafe Guidelines, which I had never known about. The World Cafe Community website defines its approach as “a natural & effective way to host meaningful conversations that awaken collective wisdom & engage collaborative action.”


I enjoyed hearing the suggestions from each group; some sought immediate, localized changes, others took a broader outlook, emphasizing life philosophy and motivation more than specific actions. In my first group, I thought that defining sustainability would be a good place to start, since it has become such a buzz word and means different things to many people. Some people prefer the term “stewardship.”


A woman in my group recommended the definition offered by Jennifer Sumner, author of the book Sustainability and the Civil Commons: Rural Communities in the Age of Globalization, published by University of Toronto Press in 2005. Sumner thinks that since sustainability is such a vague concept, the forces of corporate globalization can co-opt it. She recommends a new understanding of the term, seeing sustainability as “a set of structures and processes that help build the civil commons.” Sumner defines the latter as “any co-operative human construction that protects/or enables the universal access to life goods” as distinct from market relations. She suggests a new term of “sustainable globalization.”


Julie Clark cited the 1987 Brundtland Report , also known as Our Common Future, published by an international group of politicians, civil servants and experts on the environment and development. This report defines sustainable development as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” The report highlighted three key aspects of sustainable development: environmental protection, economic growth, and social equity


The SCRD is putting its sustainability focus on three main areas: water conservation; solid waste (e.g. using it as a resource), and energy and emissions. As if to emphasize how our choices now will affect the next generation, participant Georgina Brandon gave the children who attended an eco-minded art project. She had them draw and paint signs that they paraded through the meeting area: giant vertical footprint outlines that cautioned us to limit our contribution to carbon emissions; a long, horizontal shelf of plastic water bottles, reminding us of landfill clutter and nonrecyclables, and outlines of chickens that encouraged food security and control over one’s own food supply.


                                                                                                                    — visual by Avril Orloff


Although this event didn’t result in any earthshaking revolution or instant change, it did provide inspiration, validation, and options for initiating change at a local level. Regardless of what definitions we use for sustainability, only actions will make the difference. I think that concrete goals, such as setting dates for achieving specific reductions of  greenhouse gas emissions, make a good rallying point. Make any efforts solution-oriented rather than harping on problems. The overriding question that Julie Clark posed was the perennial challenge: How do you engage the silent majority?

April 3, 2010 at 7:40 pm Comments (0)