Heather Conn Blogs

spoutin’ about by the sea

Like Sweden’s current test case, Canada needs to expand the definition of “rape”

When I travelled through Sweden decades ago, I felt that its social welfare laws made North America’s look like the Dark Ages. Almost every large business had a day-care centre. Both husbands and wives received pregnancy leave. The Scandinavian nation’s high tax base comfortably covered many progressive social benefits, from health and unemployment insurance to old-age pensions.

Therefore, it didn’t surprise me to learn this week that Sweden could soon be legally redefining the term “rape.” A man is on trial in that country for raping girls in Canada and two other countries completely over the internet, without any physical contact between him and the alleged victims.

Bjorn Samstrom, 41, of Uppsala, Sweden, is accused of threatening to kill girls he met over social networks or post photos of them on pornography sites if they didn’t perform sex acts, including bestiality, in front of webcams.

He’s been charged with “gross rape” and other offences that relate to 27 victims in North America and Britain. Alleged victims include 13-year-olds in Ontario and Alberta, who were victimized in late 2015.

My heart goes out to these young, scared teens.

I applaud the potential power of this case. If the prosecution wins, internet predators will face harsh consequences for their actions instead of remaining silent abusers. Swedish law already makes rape the most serious form of sexual crime, defining it as any sexual violation as serious as intercourse.

Internet abusers must end up paying for their crimes. So far, it’s the terrified victims who suffer, like 15-year-old Amanda Todd who committed suicide in Port Coquitlam in 2012 after she was bullied and blackmailed into exposing her breasts via a webcam.

It’s time that Canada follows Sweden’s example and broadens its legal definition of sexual assault to involve abuse over the internet.

(The National Post reported on this story on Oct. 6 on page NP1.)

October 9, 2017 at 4:40 pm Comments (0)

Movie owner’s stance on Fifty Shades of Grey deserves applause

I applaud the recent decision of Deb Proby, owner of Raven’s Cry Theatre in Sechelt, BC, not to screen the movie Fifty Shades of Grey. She said she was concerned what impact this portrayal of a sado-masochistic relationship would have on teen viewers, particularly girls.

Such sensitivity for impressionable audience members is rare in today’s cutthroat media market.

Proby has shared her own story in the news. She grew up reading Harlequin romances, succumbing to the myth of noble Adonis figures saving hankie-clenching, adoring females. But in her first marriage, she discovered the brutal, shadow side of this fantasy: her husband beat her.

Therefore, Proby didn’t want to perpetuate any further stereotypes that might wrongly influence young teens, either in suggesting that it was okay for men to physically abuse women (think Jian Ghomeshi) or that women should remain passive receivers of any male sexual whim or fantasy.

Today’s societies, in almost all cultures, already have far too many examples of skewed power dynamics that harm women in heterosexual relationships, whether it’s Ghomeshi or Bill Cosby or every rape and sexual assault that occurs between strangers or an intimate couple. At the extreme end of the spectrum, we have rape-murders and female genital mutilation.

I must say, up front, that I have not seen the film Fifty Shades of Grey nor read the book. I do know that the story portrays an S&M relationship between a young woman and an older business tycoon. It’s based on the bestseller by E. L. James, a woman, which has sold more than 100 million copies and has been translated into 52 languages. I’ve read and heard from people that the writing in both the book and movie is lousy.

It’s distressing to learn that this depiction of a sexual relationship has found such widespread appeal. Is sexual domination of a female the ultimate fantasy for far too many people?

Traditionally, men have controlled the images that we, as a society, are meant to see as sexually alluring or titillating, whether it’s in pornography or advertising. In most of these depictions, the woman’s primary role has been to tempt, then sexually satisfy, the man; her own sexual pleasure is deemed  secondary or irrelevant.

It’s disturbing to me that a woman wrote Fifty Shades of Grey, and she is now receiving outlandish rewards for her gender portrayals: she has a line of sex toys, wine, and other franchise merchandising. Sadly, as we’ve always known, sex sells.

In contrast, I think of a presentation by a female director I heard more than three decades ago in Vancouver. She made erotic films. Her movie clips portrayed empowered women choosing how and when they wanted to make love, with loving and respectful men who viewed them as equals, not as objectified symbols of their own lust.

However, she had difficulties encouraging her female actors in these positive portrayals; she encouraged them to improvise and explore their own fantasies and sexual fulfillment. Yet, most had worked in the porn industry. They were used to roles that demanded they start with giving a blow job, not seeking their own pleasure. They found the transition to self-empowerment challenging.

As for Proby’s decision, some have faulted her for not applying a similar restriction on violent movies. For instance, she recently screened An American Sniper, which one media outlet called “war porn.” Is her stance on sex versus violence hypocritical? Violent movies and Fifty Shades of Grey equally received an R-rating.

Ideally, it would be great if Hollywood movies were not so violent; I decry their power in influencing vulnerable minds. However, since most drama hinges on conflict, violence appears inevitable. If Proby were to eliminate violent movies from her roster, there would be little chance she could remain in business. Hollywood seems obsessed with violence.

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March 9, 2015 at 2:59 pm Comments (0)

India’s Daughter lays bare a cultural indictment of women

For International Women’s Day, it would appear to make more sense to see a documentary that celebrates women’s empowerment, rather than one about a death resulting from a high-profile gang rape. Jyoti Singh, a 23-year-old medical student, died in 2012 as a result of serious internal injuries suffered after she was repeatedly raped on a night bus in New Delhi.

Yet, I am grateful to have watched India’s Daughter last night for many reasons: it took the story out of the headlines and into humanity, onto the victim’s parents and their dignified anguish and the achievements of their daughter; it put faces on both the perpetrators and the thousands who protested, in outrage, against this horrific crime; and it laid bare the raw misogyny not only of a rapist and his defence lawyers, but of cultural attitudes in India that have viewed women as worthless for centuries.

From his Delhi prison where he awaits death by hanging, convicted rapist Mukesh Singh condemned the impact of the documentary itself: he said that it will now encourage rapists to kill their victims, rather than “just” dump them at the side of the road, as he did with his victim and her male companion. He thought the victim deserved what she got, especially since she was out “late” (past 9 p.m.) accompanied by a male who was not a family member or relative. In his view, she should have remained silent while being raped; then things would have been easier for her.

It’s a challenge for any gender to hear such hateful opinions, yet they need to be heard. We, as women, need to know and see who holds such views and to learn how widespread they are. Two of the rapists’ defence lawyers (males, of course) shared their own astounding prejudices. One likened a woman to a flower, saying it was a man’s job to protect her, and if she became damaged or soiled in any way, she no longer had value. The other vowed that he would pour acid on his own daughter if she defied or dishonoured him.

Within India’s caste system, these lawyers are among the so-called educated class; most of the rapists were raised in poverty in one of Delhi’s slums. Women’s devalued role spans all castes in India, where female infanticide is common practice. Girl babies are often aborted, undernourished or murdered.

Even the victim’s own brothers questioned their parents’ decision to take money from land reserves, essentially their own inheritance, and apply it to their sister’s education. She was only a girl, after all. And the young wife of one of the convicted rapists, who denied his guilt, said that if her husband was hanged, she’d have to kill herself and her toddler son because she’d have no one to protect and there’d be no reason left for her to live.

Censorship-prone India has banned screenings of this film, which is a gross disservice to all of its citizens, particularly women. I applaud the decision of both the BBC and CBC to screen on International Women’s Day this searing indictment of both a culture and crime that has hatred of women (not just one) at its core. Even while creating this post, I kept writing “India’s Children” instead of “India’s Daughter”; I felt like my subconscious was trying to remind me that this is an archetypal story that affects us all. Its ramifications live far beyond this one rape and murder.

While travelling solo in India for seven months in 1990/91 in my early thirties, I was sexually assaulted numerous times by Indian men. The prevailing attitude was that any western woman travelling alone was a prostitute. This view was heightened when my male Indian companion accompanied me; men from taxi drivers to waiters assumed that I was his hooker and some even denied us a ride for fear of backlash. (I write about some of these encounters in my yet-to-be-published memoir No Letter in Your Pocket.)

Thankfully, laws in India have since changed to help female victims of rape, incest, and similar crimes fight back and win in the courts. Sally Armstrong outlines these successes in her book Ascent of Women (Random House, 2013). At least the rapists in Singh’s gang rape, including a 17-year-old tried as a juvenile, were all arrested and convicted. One of them had reportedly committed hundreds of prior rapes.

For more info on India’s Daughter, see  Arti Patel’s feature “Watch ‘India’s Daughter’ No Matter How Much Pride You Have” on HuffPost Living Canada.

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March 9, 2015 at 10:38 am Comments (0)

Bicentennial Redux: Sir John A. Macdonald Father of Residential Schools

Sir John A.


Note: The Edmonton Journal published my opinion piece on Sir John A. Macdonald and residential schools on Feb. 20, 2015.

Click here to read “Macdonald’s legacy not entirely golden”



(Source: Armstrong,  C.H.A. / Library and Archives Canada / C-030440)



he recent bicentennial celebrations of Sir John A. Macdonald’s birth have left me flinching in a family conflict kind of way. Part of me feels proud to be related on my mother’s side to the so-called “Father of Canada.” I am fond of an heirloom circular table, which he once used, that sits in the corner of my home office.

However, when I gaze at his somber face on our current stamps, another part of me feels embarrassed. His Canada Post portrait reminds me that I share the same blood as someone whom our history books should more rightly call “father of residential schools.” Centuries of official accounts in this country have ignored Macdonald’s role in initiating and approving the forced assimilation of Aboriginal children, which launched Canada’s residential school system.

A new, thoroughly researched hardcover book, which I edited, aims to correct the popular image of this crusty politician, my ancestor, and expand our vision of Canadian history.


The book’s cover includes a before-and-after image of a “civilized” Aboriginal boy, used as propaganda to promote assimilation.

In Residential Schools: With the Words and Images of Survivors (Indigenous Education Press and Shingwauk Residential Schools Centre 2014), residential school survivor and award-winning author Larry Loyie challenges our widely accepted version of how Macdonald shaped this nation.


Under the heading “John A. Macdonald: Friend or Foe?,” he and  co-authors Constance Brissenden and Wayne K. Spear write: “His dream of a nation stretching from sea to sea had one major obstacle . . . Aboriginal people were in the way.”

Larry Loyie and Constance Brissenden

Our first prime minister and his Canadian government gained complete control over the nation’s Aboriginal people, thanks to the British North America Act of 1867 and the Indian Act of 1876.


But the reserve system, which put Aboriginals under strict government control in designated areas, was not enough to reassure early would-be settlers that it was safe to put down roots in Canada’s undeveloped west. Macdonald reasoned that Aborigines needed to adjust their beliefs and behaviors to the European way of life, starting in childhood.


Hence, he endorsed the forced assimilation of Aboriginal children, initiating the system of “Indian” boarding schools. This policy was identified as “aggressive civilization” in an 1879 report to the Canadian government.


The first official residential schools in Canada opened in 1892, a year after Macdonald ended his final term in office. But the model for these schools began more than 60 years earlier. The Mohawk Indian Industrial School, also known as the Mohawk Institute in Brantford, Ont., opened in 1828. It was financed by a Protestant missionary society based on the U.S. east coast. With a former British army officer in charge, the school took in boarders from the Six Nations Reserve in 1831. Children as young as five received strict army-style training.


Macdonald endorsed this military model of assimilation. Under his legacy, more than 150,000 Aboriginal children attended an estimated 144 residential schools from the late 1800s to as late as 1996. They suffered verbal, physical, emotional, and psychological abuse at many of these schools.


The co-authors of Residential Schools are determined to put Macdonald’s role within a truer, broader framework. They hope that their book, identified on the cover as “A National History,” will be used as a textbook across Canada. As a whole, it provides a coast-to-coast look at the long-term impact of colonization and assimilation policies on Aboriginal culture and traditions.


I’m not surprised that aboriginal-rights advocates this week demanded the removal of Sir John A. Macdonald’s statue in downtown Hamilton; to our nation’s Aboriginals, he is a symbol of genocide. About two dozen people staged a protest Jan. 11 in front of the statue, disrupting a local society’s celebration of Macdonald’s bicentennial birthday.


Just as Columbus Day in the U.S. ignores Aboriginal culture and presence by celebrating European colonization, Canada’s official bicentennial celebrations for Macdonald’s birthday disregarded more than a century of abusive treatment launched by our first prime minister’s policies.


“The hidden history of residential schools must be known to ensure the human rights of all Canadian children,” says Loyie.


It is vital that in the telling of history, whether it’s of a nation or a family, we are honest about the influence, in all its forms, of a prominent figure. Otherwise, we present only a whitewashed version of the past, which does a disservice to us all.

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January 20, 2015 at 11:52 am Comments (5)

Burrowing Owl Estate Winery: Conservation-minded with earth-friendly practices but no certified organic wines

Jim Wyse with bird low-res

Jim Wyse, founder of Burrowing Owl Estate Winery, with endangered burrowing owl


When most people ask for a splash of red, they don’t expect it to wind up on the wall. Jim Wyse, founder and owner of Burrowing Owl Estate Winery, remembers his early attempts to make wine at home for personal use: “We had sixteen bottles on a rack in the dining room. My wife and I heard a loud ‘Bang! Bang! Bang!’ The bottles were exploding.”


Thankfully for B.C. wine-lovers, Wyse has honed his technique considerably since decades past, when anyone, he says, with “a kit and a paper-lined wastepaper basket” could make wine. And he’s added a lot more green, so to speak, to his commercial reds: his environmental initiatives range from solar heating and biodiesel fuel to mulching all organic waste and recycling grape skins and seeds as compost.


Today, Wyse is the patriarch of a family-run winery in Oliver, BC, which produces 11 varieties of wines from vineyards in Osoyoos and Keremeos. He started growing grapes in the Okanagan 20 years ago as part of a mid-life career change. Since then, the former engineer and real-estate developer has maintained earth-friendly policies as core principles of the company, which currently employs 135 people. (Wyse now calls himself “the ambassador and odd-job guy”; for the past five years, son Chris has served as president.)


Vineyard reflects eco-friendly practices

The vineyard and farming practices most visibly reflect the company’s environmental awareness. An upgraded irrigation system, which converted all sprinklers to drip irrigation, includes fertilizer in the drip, which eliminates the use of tractors for this purpose, Wyse says. It also promotes water conservation and energy efficiency. The company’s six tractors run on biodiesel fuel, which burns more cleanly than fossil fuels.


Solar-powered water probes, using wireless technology, test soil and report the vines’ watering needs, ensuring that water usage is provided only as needed.

grapes and hands photo low-resBurrowing Owl’s alternative pest-control systems use natural predators against harmful insects. For example, the company protects spider habitat by not regularly cutting cover crops between the vine rows. Barriers protect the ground nests of birds such as meadowlarks to avoid their inadvertent destruction by farm machinery or vineyard workers. Bluebird boxes and bat nursery boxes are used to attract these insect-eaters.


Burrowing Owl’s website states that “environmentally safe, biodegradable fertilizers and chemicals” are used as sprays. When asked which ones they are, Wyse said he didn’t know.

Burrowing Owl won’t go certified organic

A company competitor, Summerhill Pyramid Winery in Kelowna, was the first winery in British Columbia to make wine from certified B.C. organic grapes. Ezra Cipes, Summerhill’s CEO, has said he would like to see every winery in the Okanagan Valley convert to a certified organic operation. Will Burrowing Owl make the change?


“It’s not a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer,” Wyse says. “We certainly respect the goals and philosophy of the organic movement. We ascribe to, and do, a large percentage of the organic viticultural procedures and methods, but feel there are still some challenges in the vineyard that are best dealt with inorganically. But who knows? Maybe one day, if the resulting wines are at least the same or perhaps improved, we will make the change.”


Burrowing Owl’s wines have won gold medals and best-of-class recognition in global competitions; most recently, their 2011 Syrah picked up a gold and best of class at the L.A. International Wine Competition.


The company name reflects Wyse’s conservation concerns. For years, he has supported the endangered burrowing owl in British Columbia and the captive breeding program that has tried to re-establish these birds in the Okanagan. The birds, once bred, are now released in both the South Okanagan and the Nicola Valley. Yet, despite a volunteer effort to dig more burrows each year for these small birds, their growth has not remained sustainable, Wyse says.


To help ensure the future of these birds, Wyse’s winery sends all monies, earned through its three-dollar tasting fee in the tasting room, to the Burrowing Owl Conservation Society of B.C. for its captive release program and to the South Okanagan Rehabilitation Centre for Owls (SORCO). Every year, the wine shop alone raises almost $80,000 for these two organizations.

restaurant and building low-res

Burrowing Owl’s winery, guest house and restaurant


Sustainable principles guide building and restaurant operation

Burrowing Owl’s restaurant is a member of Ocean Wise, a conservation program run by the Vancouver Aquarium that promotes sustainable seafood. The chef uses custom-grown produce from organic growers in the winery’s immediate area, including five colours of tomatoes. “It’s fabulous,” Wyse says.


Wyse’s eco-vision for Burrowing Owl started with the winery building, which sits on 78 hectares (192 acres) with a guest house and restaurant. Most of the production and storage facilities were built underground to reduce the building’s carbon footprint. (Wyse does not calculate the business’s carbon footprint as a whole.) The design incorporated a steeply sloping hillside, poorly suited for farming, to maximize the land for wine-related uses. This multi-level plan allows for gravity-flow winemaking, which avoids the use of pumps to move wine through its various stages.


The wine is aged in barrels in underground cellars, which require no heating or cooling. Instead, they use ground temperature in the summer and natural warmth during the winter. “We’ve had people copy what we’re doing with underground barrels,” says Wyse. “We were one of the first to use barrels [for wine-making] in the Okanagan Valley.”


Eco-friendly building features range from solar panels, low-flush toilets, and low-energy light bulbs to heat exchangers and a geothermal system. The guest house is said to meet or exceed LEED standards. Wyse’s wife Midge runs the guest house and tasting room while daughter Kerri handles product development.


Burrowing Owl wines have expanded into Ontario, Wyse says, but there are no plans yet to import or plant any of the new Negroamara grapes he discovered while in southeastern Italy in May. “We are all constantly trying other varieties and investigating new techniques that might be applicable here in the Okanagan. That is a never-ending process in a relatively new industry and wine region.”

Now 75, how long does Wyse plan to stay involved in the company? “Forever,” he says. “It’s fun.”

Wyse will be one of the entrepreneurs to appear Sept. 29 as a panelist at INSPIRE, an event at Vancouver’s TELUS World of Science sponsored by Small Business BC.


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September 27, 2014 at 9:25 am Comment (1)

Inside B.C.’s Top Employer: 1-800-Got-Junk

Brian scudamore low-res

Brian Scudamore, founder and CEO of 1-800-Got-Junk



In the world of junk removal, it’s easy to think of Brian Scudamore as the Rumpelstiltskin of rubbish. Sure, he’s not hunched over with a long beard, like the fairy tale hero who spun straw into gold (no, he’s 44 and clean-shaven), but the founder and CEO of 1-800-Got-Junk has transformed more than two decades’ worth of commercial and residential debris into a multi-million-dollar international empire.


And since he began as a two-man operation in 1989, this humble leader has created the world’s largest junk removal company, operating in North America and Australia, without resorting to greenwashing. Instead, his attitude of environmental responsibility and commitment to employment best practices has earned 1-800-Got-Junk countless business awards, including this year’s Top B.C. Employer.


While some major trash haulers in Metro Vancouver faced tens of thousands of fines last year for dumping recyclable items, 1-800-Got-Junk confirms that 61.3 per cent of its collected junk gets reused or donated. And within five years, Scudamore hopes to boost that figure to 75 per cent. To date, the company has diverted more than 2.2 billion pounds of waste from landfills.


During a telephone interview, Scudamore readily admits that he doesn’t strive to position his Vancouver-based company as a top eco-leader. After all, his operation doesn’t calculate its carbon footprint and roughly half of his fleet of 1,100 trucks runs on gas, the other on diesel.


But he has investigated electric trucks, deciding against them so far because the sizeable network of servicing required is not yet available. Scudamore believes that since electric vehicle technology has still not progressed far enough, a switch right now would be too risky business-wise. And experiments on 10 vehicles with alternate fuels, such as biodiesel, have proven too difficult to maintain, he says. The company is currently trying out propane, which burns more cleanly than gasoline. 


“We’re not trying to lead by being a green-aware business,” he says. “We’re running a business by being environmentally responsible.”


1-800-Got-Junk works with national charities, such as Habitat for Humanity, Goodwill and the Salvation Army, as sources of re-use for its junk. The company’s 200+ franchises track whether local junk is recycled, reclaimed, reused, converted to energy or winds up in the landfill. An external environmental audit, conducted every two years, helps the company follow its impact on the environment and adjust procedures accordingly.


“We’re the only company that rigorously measures what happens to its junk,” says Scudamore. “We’re incredibly metrics [business statistics] driven.”

blue wigs loading truck 1 800 Got Junk low-res

Who says the junk business is no fun?

His company is a customer of Richmond, BC-based Urban Impact, a leading recycling company that strives to divert as many materials as possible from landfill. It provides services such as on- and off-site shredding and zero-waste solutions.


But 1-800-Got-Junk needs to do a better job of communicating to residential customers, who comprise three-quarters of its business, where their junk is going, Scudamore says.

When people see his trucks carting off large furniture or other materials, for instance, they might wrongly assume that these items are destined for the landfill.


Instead, they often end up at places like Urban Waste, where people hand-sort everything for potential recycling, and to Urban Wood Waste Recyclers, Canada’s largest recycler of construction and demolition debris, located in Vancouver and New Westminster.


“Urban Wood Waste has the highest [landfill] diversion level in Vancouver and one of the highest in the country,” Scudamore says. “About 99 per cent is reused and recycled.”


Similarly, large items that 1-800-Got-Junk obtains, such as refrigerators or mattresses, are recycled; the metal is melted down and re-used. The freon in fridges is removed so that it won’t pose environmental hazards while BC Hydro’s buy-back program recycles old, working fridges for payment.


By the end of 2016, Scudamore hopes to be running a paperless operation. On a personal level, the father of three has traded in one of the family SUVs for a more compact, fuel-efficient option, a Fiat 500.


Beyond 1-800-Got-Junk’s environmental record, it’s the people side of the business that sets his company apart, says Scudamore. When hiring, he looks for genuine passion about his company’s vision and goals; it’s one of the company’s core values besides integrity, professionalism and empathy.


“Peoples’ values are to their core,” he says. “We are a people company. We live by it.” He adds: “I love seeing people develop and grow in the company. That’s what fires me up the most.”


After winning top-employer status in B.C., Scudamore instructed a committee of people from six company departments to identify an area that made the company less than the best. Their answer? The three-week paid vacation. After looking this over with his finance team, the CEO decided to replace it with a five-week paid vacation.


1-800-Got-Junk has received accolades for its profit-sharing plan, available to all employees, and its support of new mothers, who receive maternity leave top-up payments (to 75 per cent of their salary for 19 weeks) and flexible work arrangements, including telecommuting and flex time, once they return to work.


Scudamore has received recognition as one of the Globe and Mail’s Top 40 under 40, and a Small Business Best Bosses Award from Fortune magazine. In 2012, he became a CEO Hall of Fame Lifetime Achievement Inductee with Chicago-based Collegiate Entrepreneurs’ Organization.


The founder of 1-800-Got-Junk will be one of the high-profile entrepreneurs to appear Sept. 29 as a panelist at INSPIRE, an event at Vancouver’s TELUS World of Science sponsored by Small Business BC.

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September 22, 2014 at 1:49 pm Comments (0)

B.C. election results: Thank heavens for Weaver, Eby, and Nicholas Simons

Last week’s results of the recent B.C. provincial election  left me too distressed to want to write much on my blog. I still feel utter dismay that premier Christy Clark got re-elected and that the Liberals even gained seats. What a tremendous loss this means to our environment and to the movement to lower greenhouse gases. Clark supports increased use of liquid natural gas (LNG)  and expansion of these facilities across British Columbia. As the Valhalla Wilderness Society points out, studies have proven that the LNG process—blasting rock with water and chemicals to extract shale gas—results in more carbon emissions than coal. That’s truly disturbing.


As for our already decimated salmon runs along many B.C. rivers and seaways, how will these fish, vital to our economy and First Nations coastal culture, possibly survive if we suffer an oil spill as a result of increased tanker traffic? Clark has received considerable financial backing from oil and gas companies, and it’s unlikely that she will try and stop the Northern Gateway and Keystone pipeline expansion projects. All you have to do is watch the excellent but horrifying documentary Salmon Confidential to realize that a single massive oil spill will destroy our wild salmon. Even without the presence of oil in our waters, these fish are already struggling to survive against the  sea lice and three viruses that fish farming has introduced on our coast. And they’re getting no protection from our provincial or federal governments, which don’t want to threaten the economics of farmed salmon.


Yet some election results have definitely made me want to celebrate. I am hugely pleased  that Andrew Weaver, a climate change scientist from University of Victoria’s School of Earth and Ocean Sciences, has become B.C.’s first provincial Green Party representative . This MLA from Oak Bay-Gordon Head will serve as the environmental conscience for our provincial parliament and ensure that climate change remains an action priority.


I am also thrilled that David Eby, head of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, emerged victorious in Vancouver-Point Grey. It’s an admirable feat to snatch away the seat of the premier, as he did. He’ll serve as our moral and legal conscience in B.C. parliament. And of course, on our local scene, I am happy that Nicholas Simons of the NDP got re-elected to represent the Sunshine Coast. Nicholas has been responsive and proactive in many grassroots actions in our region and I am glad that he will be continuing his contributions in our legislature. We need more like him.

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May 20, 2013 at 12:03 pm Comment (1)

Code of conduct for federal librarians: Are book-burning parties next?

Prime minister Stephen Harper’s recent decision to muzzle public statements and activities of federal librarians and archivists is indeed a chilling echo of Orwell’s 1984. Controlling freedom of expression is one of the first dictates of a totalitarian regime. For Canada, this is the latest of Harper’s attempts to quash anyone or anything that challenges the actions of his government, whether it’s environmentalists slamming the tar sands or scientists reinforcing the truth of climate change.



I was appalled to read about the new “code of conduct” for Canada’s federal librarians, which lists “teaching, speaking at conferences, and other personal engagements,” as high-risk behaviours that might conflict with an employee’s “duty of loyalty” to the government. Heaven forbid that a well-educated, informed citizen might exercise his or her fundamental right and speak out against the prime minister and/or his policies!


Stay back in your dark stacks, you pesky librarians and archivists. How dare you exercise free speech and provide information that makes people think—and question authority.


Within Canada’s democratic process and heritage, Harper’s latest rule is a cringing, cowardly act. Can he control the creative spirit of those who choose to think and act as free individuals? No. Will he continue to try? Yes. Any politician, secure in his or her sense of self and position, invites public discourse as an open avenue of shared ideas, new discoveries, and rich platform for changing or expanding viewpoints. As they say, this is what democracy looks like.


This latest mandate continues Harper’s similar trajectory of trying to silence federally paid scientists who haven spoken out against climate change and verified its existence with research data. They, too, cannot speak to reporters or make announcements on their own volition.


Not surprisingly, the Writers’ Union of Canada (TWUC), to which I belong, and other organizations, such as the Canadian Association of University Teachers and the Canadian Library Association, have denounced the recent changes to the role of employees at Library and Archives Canada.


“We strongly urge Library and Archives Canada to reconsider and rewrite their code,” TWUC chair Merilyn Simonds said in the organization’s March 20 press release. “This kind of chill on free expression reflects very poorly on Canada, and is surely outside the mainstream of Canadian opinion. Canada has a proud history of vigorous public debate. Our national archives should celebrate that tradition, not repress it.”


Librarians and archivists are the lifeblood of writers and a free nation. They protect and make available the gamut of knowledge to those people, like me, who seek to learn, grow, teach, and share information with others. Totalitarian governments are the ones that try to make history disappear, rewriting it in ways that extol their ideology. What’s next for Canada —federally sanctioned book-burning parties in front of the Parliament buildings?


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March 21, 2013 at 5:40 pm Comments (2)

Fiestiness and fun: International Women’s Day comes to the Creek

The Suffragettes

Thanks to The Suffragettes, an all-women performance group on B.C.’s Sunshine Coast, I’ll never hear the song “There was an old lady who swallowed a fly” the same way again.


The four nimble dancers, clad in suffragette-style period costume, shared a hilarious, feminist parody of the children’s song on March 8 as part of an International Women’s Day celebration. To the applause of 150 people at Roberts Creek Hall, they related the tale, to the same tune, of a lady who swallowed a lie, rather than a fly.


The lady in this song version, whose lyrics are attributed to Meredith Tam, swallowed the rule “Live to serve others!” along with lipstick and fluff and a ring: “looked like a princess but felt like a thing.” One day she awoke: “She went to her sisters/ it wasn’t too late/To be liberated, to regurgitate.” She threw up the lie and unlike the woman in the original song, she will not die.

Nicholas Simons

This playful song was part of an excellent line-up of local talent—singers, musicians, and poignant speakers—at a pot luck supper sponsored by the Sunshine Coast Labour Council. Sunshine Coast MLA Nicholas Simons welcomed the crowd, which sat at tables adorned with arrangements of deep pink roses.


Emcee Alice Lutes, a Sechelt councillor, and some audience members teared up when shishalh elder Barb Higgins (Xwu’p’a’lich) recited a poem she’d written, Walking on a Mountainwhich evoked “warriors of the heart.”

 Barb Higgins ((Xwu’p’a’lich)

Barb’s daughter Holly later sang several songs, her solo voice resonating clear and loud across the hall. She recited her own poem, which included the line “Thank you for this blood that runs through my veins.” She invited everyone in the hall to join hands with the people beside them, look into their eyes, and say: “Be strong.” The mostly female crowd—at least a dozen men were present and welcomed—eagerly complied.

Dionne Paul

Shishalh band member Dionne Paul, a local Idle No More activist, shared a moving story about her birth. As part of what she called The Sixties Scoop, when Canada’s federal government was taking First Nations children away from their homes, she was to be adopted by a non-native couple in West Vancouver. Her mother, in an abusive relationship, was unable to care for her. At the hospital, only minutes before she was to be handed over to the pair, her aunt and uncle rushed in and said that they would raise her. As a result, she grew up surrounded by her true heritage, enjoying the cultural blessings of her First Nations lineage.


She said: “My dad was the very first feminist I ever met. He told me I could be whatever I wanted. I got my fire, strength and drive from my dad.”


Fathers, brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts, mothers, and Gaia—all were honoured at this free neighbourhood event. From “Bread and Roses” and other labour songs to the traditional European songs performed by the seven-member group Sokole, the evening reinforced a flavor of gratitude and solidarity among women and all humanists, regardless of gender, who seek a world of respect and equality. As local school board rep Betty Baxter told the audience: “Our movement accepts people for who they are.”

Jill Conway, Karen Stein, and Daniela Dutto

Popular local groups such as the Knotty Dotters and Definitely Diva rounded out the delightful evening. An a cappella trio of Karen Stein, Jill Conway, and Daniela Dutto sang a women’s liberation song from Tanzania and a beautiful rendition of Gaia Chant: Another World is Possible by Ann Mortifee and Chloe Goodchild. Another world is possible, a new day is here/we can work together now, to go beyond the fears. . . Oh Gaia . . .             

The hope, clear spirit, and irreverence expressed throughout the entire event–not to mention an ardent refusal to adopt Stephen Harper’s vision for Canada–reminded me yet again why I feel so grateful to live in such a fabulous activist community.

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March 10, 2013 at 4:40 pm Comments (3)

One Billion Rising, B.C. style: Women dance in peace and solidarity

Curious pedestrians stopped to watch. A man in a taxi stared out the back-seat window. A nearby sidewalk vendor with a kazoo and crazy red costume sold Valentine’s trinkets to passersby.


But as darkness descended last Thursday, thirteen women in downtown Vancouver, BC, Canada focused on slow, spontaneous movement, in silent unison. We were part of the global solidarity dance One Billion Rising, held on Valentine’s Day as a symbolic demand to end violence against women and girls. (The name of the event, created by Eve Ensler’s organization V Day, refers to the reality that one in three females on earth will be beaten or raped in her lifetime, which amounts to more than a billion women.)

While women in cities around the world gyrated, sang, and held flash mobs, our group, arranged in a line, clutched a long, rolled-up red cloth. We lay it on the ground in front of the old courthouse steps on Robson Street, now part of the Vancouver Art Gallery. This defined our space, as a symbolic boundary, while a supportive male friend watched our belongings.


With informal facilitator Ingrid Rose, we took turns leading an improvised series of synchronized movements, decided in the moment by each rotating “leader.” Some of us used flashlights to spark the night as we all clasped hands to our hearts, raised arms skyward, bent down to touch the earth, and maintained an ongoing fluid flow of motions with our arms and legs.

I learned that such group movement with no set pattern or formation, yet with everyone doing the same motions, is called “flocking.”


This group activity, embodying the intention of nonviolence, felt like a combination of tai chi, yoga in motion, and Gabrielle Roth’s “flow” rhythm. All but one of the women were strangers to me, yet sharing this collective action felt like an ongoing hug from warm friends. We came together, we cared, we acted, without attachment to others’ reactions, and without fear in the night.


We danced not as spectacle or as separate performance, but as an extension of everyday life. Beside us, a First Nations man displayed hand-carved wooden masks, laid out on the steps for potential buyers. Electric trolley buses rattled past. From the top of the steps, a drunk man with a beer can heckled us briefly, then ignored us.

We were dancing both for ourselves and for women and children everywhere. Some in the group cried out or intoned as we danced. After forty minutes, we stopped and formed a circle. Without any planning or discussion, we each spontaneously called out words or phrases that our dance had inspired, things like “empowerment,”  “peace,” and “safety.”


Under a crescent moon, amidst the harsh lights and noise of the city, it was a rare opportunity to extend and experience a soulful presence. It invited us to redefine our relationships through peace, not just with others, but with ourselves.

In Sechelt on B.C.’s Sunshine Coast, about 25 women and one man danced at Trail Bay Mall in front of Clayton’s supermarket as part of One Billion Rising.  As Jan Jensen led a lively group to song lyrics that celebrated women, more than two dozen people watched and clapped in appreciation. Dance participant Wendy Crumpler says: “It was amazing: a very moving experience as well as being fun. Afterwards, there was this wonderful feeling of having done something together that was important.”

Click here to see video of One Billion Rising event in Sechelt.

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February 19, 2013 at 9:49 pm Comments (0)

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