Charlie Hebdo + Ideas…

I’m still thinking about the Charlie Hebdo tragedy. I tend to do that when I have conflicting feelings about something — unresolved internal issues.

By the time we’re 14 or so, most of us have realized that ridiculing someone — another student, a little brother, a parent, a friend — is not the best choice. Same with their point of view, or their belief system. Would you ridicule those? Whether in a personal conflict, or a competition, or an attempt to influence someone (a parent?) we’ve figured out by then that it’s more likely to make things worse, and not at all likely to influence positive change. We see it for what it is: an attack.

Unfortunately, some of our less civilized fellow humanoids will not react well. A friend may “un-friend” us. A parent may actually smack a face — regardless of how much we wiser parents (in our view) may disapprove. It’s pretty much guaranteed nothing good will happen.

But some people do it anyway. Some teachers even do it to young students. For some reason they haven’t realized that will discourage a youngster — make him feel stupid or embarrassed. He’s likely to avoid speaking in class.

Through my decades, I’ve come to feel that people who use ridicule are doing it because they’re not very articulate, or they lack even a handful of facts to toss into a decent argument. Deep down, they know ridicule doesn’t work — but they just don’t have the skills that might have made a difference. It may be a lazy habit. Or they just don’t have the heart for it. I see it as similar to anger and violence which are so often the only tools of the powerless. They’ve been reinforced in that behaviour, by friends, parents, teachers. Some become very sophisticated at it. They grow up to make fun of ridiculous things (yes, sometimes ridicule is aimed at ridiculous things.) It can also be called ‘satire’.

I hadn’t spent a lot of time thinking about this. It’s just a part of life. Then suddenly, a handful of people famous for using “satire”/(ridicule?), are killed by two well-trained gunmen. Men who would likely be counted among the politically powerless, had they not been given the training and the guns. They may even have seen themselves as victims. Now, they are simply awful. They are dead — and the horrified focus of a billion people. Including me. For a brief moment in time, I don’t give a damn why the shooters did this.

For me, it’s a shocking end of 14 life stories; two ‘bad guys’, 12 ‘good guys’, and in between, some ideas about ‘sacredness’ and ‘satire’.  The Sacred vs. Satire.  Just ideas.

Some reading:!demo_height&link=ibaf&q=&esrc=s

Posted in beliefs, extremism, free speech, ridicule, sacred, terrorism | Tagged , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Sam won’t have to face this winter…

I haven’t managed to shake my sadness, since I learned of Sam’s death — by drowning. I heard he left a note saying he’d had a good life. I could say ‘I’m not sure why I’m sad’ — but that would be a lie. I’m not alone in that sadness — he was well-liked by a lot of people. But for me it’s at least partly about aging. Sam Sueshi Miya was 84. I thought he was “only” my age — 73.

Sam was cool. He was what some would call “a character”. Witty, and very observant. An artist. You could see a certain sensitivity in his glance. He was not above a little flirtation. And he was not enjoying aging.

We had talked about a few things that most young people don’t talk about, like fearing the approaching winter: “those damn Toronto sidewalks”, for one. This is urban Toronto, and they don’t clear the sidewalks. It bugs me, because I’m from Montreal where they do. It’s easy there to walk in the winter.

It’s challenging to walk in winter here, if you’re “elderly” — or if you have a lot to lose by a fall. Like me, with my beloved stainless steel hip — the best thing since the internet. But if my wondrous mechanical joint breaks, that’s major surgery, lots of pain, and months of recovery. Or like Sam, with his difficulty in walking, his “previously mended” body — He had already been through long recovery from some pretty significant accidents. Walking was difficult for him in the best of weather. It was getting harder every year to face Toronto’s winter.

When a young person falls on an icy sidewalk, it might become an anecdote. If an elderly person falls, it can mean the end of life.

Trying to arouse interest or concern on the subject makes me feel old and tired. I think the only people under 60 at all interested are those who use wheelchairs, for example, or those who’ve experienced a temporary vulnerability, like a broken leg — or someone pushing a stroller.

But you’ll always hear the objections to the costs (tax dollars). I wonder if a ‘big picture’ analysis might help. How much might be saved by fewer falls, fewer emergency room visits, fewer deaths in hospital from pneumonia — resulting from those falls. Are these recorded in studies? Does “StatsCan” analyze such data? Does anyone under 60 ever think about it? Not in Toronto, apparently.

There were 27,415 Toronto emergency department visits by seniors in the 2004-5 period. The peak period: December and January. How many tax dollars might we save by doing the sidewalks?

And Sam. I can’t say for sure he killed himself because of the sidewalks. But I know clearing them would have made life more livable. For me too.

Posted in aging, Montreal, Sam Sueshi Miya, suicide, Toronto, winter | Tagged , , , , , | 6 Comments

Paris – a tragedy of religion?

They are new and different enemies, these Paris shooters. Militarily trained, they are murderous religious zealots, with all the benefits of modern technology, the internet, and a vast but almost invisible support system. Their attack was clearly a military action, stirred by irrational, enflamed religious views, motivated by other factors: perhaps an underlying sense of powerlessness; perhaps poverty; or violent family life. And so what?

As I reflect on the horrible events in Paris*— it slowly dawns on me that this is a new religious war. Seriously. I’m reminded of The Crusades. But this new enemy can’t be dealt with by conventional methods. Not bombs, not tanks, not drones. Well-equipped and severely conditioned, they function like sophisticated robots. And they could live next door or in the next town. But they are neighbours we don’t understand. We need to sharpen up, leave behind our assumptions, naïveté, and political correctness. We need to be learning about all of it, and openly debating about it. What are we dealing with here?

Much of English Canada avoids this kind of conversation because of discomfort, defensiveness, fear. Often they simply don’t know how, which I attribute to our somewhat authoritarian culture, with its judgmental tendency to discourage argument. So we have some learning to do. Could we start with an introduction to the art of discussion — in grade six?

If I may generalize, les Quebecois are different. And this difference between the two cultures appears once again in the media coverage of the Paris massacre. Eleven French-language newspapers all published a cartoon with a half-hidden, grimacing face of the Prophet Muhammad, saying, “It’s tough to be loved by idiots.”  But not Quebec’s English-language Gazette — nor the rest of English Canada.

Denise Bombardier, a columnist for Journal de Montréal: “I’m sad that the Gazette refused to do this, because I think that this is the war of the 21st century, and if we don’t react the way we did in our newspapers this morning, and in many newspapers around the world and in Europe, then this war is lost.” I think she’s right.

Patrick Lagacé of La Presse said concern for political correctness is much stronger in English-speaking countries, such as Canada and the United States, compared to French-language media in Quebec or France.  He thinks English Canadians “are prisoners to political correctness” While I agree with this perspective, I feel the cartoon is only the beginning of what needs to happen.

Publishing ‘offensive’ cartoons is a little like thumbing our noses at someone. Of course we shouldn’t be killed or even threatened for this. But much more than this, we really need to talk. We need to welcome debate — with a willingness to be changed by it. I didn’t learn this until my early twenties, with Quebecois friends, on subjects like Quebec sovereignty. It took a few years for me to understand the issues, and to have my point of view changed. And in the process, I came to value healthy debate as an essential element in democracy.

The purpose of argument is not to put down your opponent or to rigidly defend an opinion; it’s to learn, and to share and to grow. All Canadians need to be able to do this, regardless of religious persuasion or ethnicity.

Religion scares me. The Paris event illustrates why. As I see it, what happened in Paris is merely one extreme end of a religious spectrum. The spectrum begins with the willingness to believe in something for which there is no evidence. And if it’s rigid enough, the other end of the spectrum could mean living a perpetual nightmare of violence and terror. So, let’s talk.

*(the killing of 10 people connected to the satirical Charlie Hebdo)
Food for thought:

Posted in Charlie Hebdo, debate, democracy, fundamentalism, Paris massacre, religion | Tagged , , , , , | 4 Comments

I went to my high school grad with a car thief…

I went to my high school grad with a car thief by the name of Chick. I smile as I say this; this news might be a little startling to the friends I graduated with back then. On the other hand, I’d guess some of them went through their own startling realities – and many would not want the world to know.

I, on the other hand, believe the world would be a better place if we were all more open about most things. I often imagine what life could be like if we all stopped adding to the false picture of reality we tend to share with the next generation.

I grew up in a culture that didn’t talk about the ‘unpleasant’ things in our lives. We didn’t criticize people – to their faces. We were generally ‘nice’(in that Canadian way), demure, well trained in saying the right thing. Or at least we knew we were supposed to be. I’m reminded of our ‘little white lies’ about Santa Claus. I told my children the truth about that too and they survived it. We live in a large city of many sub-cultures and lifestyles and realities and my grown-up kids are not afraid of looking at unpleasant truths.

In my youth, my eyes were gradually being opened by my unconscious attraction to “less savoury” people. Perhaps my vulnerabilities were drawn to theirs. In Chick’s case, his greatest vulnerability was his painful shyness. It precluded higher education, and he was so shy (brutal father), that he would not even think about aiming for a ‘regular’ job. He felt awkward in the white jacket he rented for the grad dance. He’d never worn one before.   He trembled when I introduced him to people.

He labored sometimes in a construction job that involved a lot of standing around, but his main gig was car theft. He said it was easy. I imagine it was easier for him to work alone, after dark — invisible. I can relate to that. His sister was married to a pimp, who made enough income to support a wife and kids. They seemed like a nice family, but with low articulation skills.

They took me to ‘after-hours clubs’ I would never have imagined. Memorable amounts of dirt and air so dusty your kleenex was black when you blew your nose. Barely cleaned-up vomit. He giggled at my shock. I always felt safe with them.

He once shyly gave me a silver friendship ring, which I still have. He was actually a sweet person and I want to remember him. But we really had nothing to talk about, and feeling sorry for him was no basis for a relationship.   I was, as they say, “outa there’. I was 19.

It had become clear to me why people like Chick would never get to put a foot on any social ladder.   And I realized it’s easy to feel confident with people who are not. I doubt that he ever experienced that. What a world. And how lucky I was.

Soon I met the man I would marry at 22, mainly because I believed I was over the hill. That was common in women then. Feminists were nowhere in sight yet. Everyone agreed Peter was a big improvement: a worldly-wise Brit 13 years older than me. “A catch” as they used to say. It was the early 60s, and my parents were so relieved — their oldest daughter was ‘taken care of’. One down and one to go. And thank god she wasn’t marrying someone like Chick. Ah, those were the ‘good old days’.

Posted in "women's roles", generations, hindsight, honesty, learning from experience, olden days | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

Does Canada need an “Aboriginal Inquiry”?

Of course we do! Too much controversy flows around the question of whether or not we need a formal inquiry into the disproportionate numbers of missing and murdered aboriginal women in Canada.

Why not? Most responses to this question range from “these are crimes, and are already being dealt with by police forces”   to “the cost would be too high for something that’s unnecessary”. That seems narrow and trivial to me compared to the escalating cost of our military-industrial complex or the costs of building extra prisons.

In fact, we need not only a public inquiry on the tragedy but much more. Nothing less than a full, all-encompassing “commission of inquiry” will do, akin to the Bilingualism and Biculturalism Inquiry in the 60s.

The commission should travel from coast to coast to coast, holding local town halls and “courts” everywhere they go, covered on national television.   What an education and consciousness-raising it would be! And the commissioners appointed should be of the same level of qualification, respectability and integrity as those on the B+B commission, with at least some aboriginal languages among them.

Having grown up in Quebec, and listening to my Quebecois friends, I was well aware of the long-standing, increasing sense of frustration, unfairness and oppression among French-Canadians in the sixties. Those feelings were totally understandable, given the actual unfairness that was obvious to anyone paying attention. All of this was officially acknowledged through the B&B commission – finally – with recommendations for resolution. The commission had a profound impact on French-Canadians and Canada, with one result being the Official Languages Act of 1969. This didn’t change bigotry – but the bigots eventually grow old and die out. It did, however, change a hell of a lot.

Over the decades, thinking Canadians have been gradually acknowledging and dealing with historical injustices — language issues and gender equality issues, for example. The time is long overdue, for dealing with the entire relationship of Canadian aboriginals with the land and the peoples of Canada, including all historical and current injustices with their often tragic consequences.

All groups of human beings trying to “live together” – have a natural need to regularly engage in a caring, respectful, open-minded conversation together about how they are all doing in this experiment called “civilization”. Sometimes we go through periods of relative enlightenment, and pass laws reflecting that. Others are always resisting, fighting back, trying to reverse those laws. What is happening in the U.S. is a good illustration: steady efforts to reverse progress made on behalf of women and African-Americans, are having some disappointing success. It’s a bitter reminder that we can never assume progress is permanent. The conversation must go on – forever – one generation to the next.

A point: You cannot educate historically disadvantaged categories of people, but then refuse them a seat at the table of important discussions. And once we acknowledge that reality, it’s just natural to recognize that we, as a society, must do whatever it takes to enhance and support any progress made.

The challenge to then “formerly-oppressed” groups – that would include Aboriginal Canadians in the ‘post-Commission’ period – is that they also must be willing to live among the former-oppressors. As the song says, “Getting to know you, getting to know all about you!”

If the human race is to survive, we have to stop dismissing groups by labels. We will all be richer with such a change. Just imagine how much we all have to learn from each other, two unique human beings at a time.


Posted in aboriginal murdered + missig women, Canadian issues, Commission of Inquiry, social justice | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments

Respect, and love…

Thinking of exceptional relationships, I remember Hazel & Frank Lowe. They were both writers, and lovers of the noble art of conversation, discussion. He wrote many thought-provoking pieces about people and ideas that mattered – like the death penalty. She wrote about travel in the most literary style I have ever read.

She once told me that they seemed to be able to converse endlessly, always enjoying it, enjoying each other’s company night after night. To think they had raised a daughter through it all. I had the impression that they shared a rare trait: mutual respect. Neither of them was fulfilling some destructive ego need.   In the process of their late night chats rather they were both genuinely interested and curious about the subjects they discussed.

Each open mindedly anticipated learning something from the other – perhaps a new and interesting way of seeing something. They each felt enriched by the ‘food for thought’ they received from each other. They were not into this for trivial reasons. To be blunt, if they made love, it was only a part of something bigger, broader, deeper, more enriching.  

No doubt they had opportunities to enjoy a little trivial pleasure – they were popular among ‘cool’ folks; but they went home because they had something more meaningful there – to them. Over coffee with her, I used to listen and wonder at it. This, in an era when the ‘counter-culture revolution’ had left behind protesting war, and wanting to make the world a better place, in favour of the “zipless fuck”. Hazel was always looking forward to those chats over a glass of wine, into the wee small hours.

She once told me he’d “Never got over the war”. From the day he returned, he ate as if all food was ‘comfort food’. Tragically, he died at 56. From that day on, we read loneliness in her body language, her tone of voice. Too bad the special people in our lives often leave us. But at least some of them leave us with ideas to reflect on. I know my intellectual life is richer for them. Had I anticipated the loss, I would have asked her to write a “how to” book.  Ah, but hindsight is always so clear.

Posted in communication, Feelings | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Shoot!! Or, maybe talk?

It’s almost a year since an 18-year-old boy, Sammy Yatim, was shot to death by a Toronto police officer. He was alone in a streetcar. With a 3” knife. I guess they thought that heavy, iron streetcar couldn’t contain him.

That same week in Montreal, police in a 20-hour ‘standoff’ finally convinced a fellow to hand himself over – unshot, undead! What alternative method did they use? Talk.

So what do we know about Sammy? We know he was jobless, homeless, 18, in conflict with his father over using marijuana. We know he was a recent arrival from Syria. Any one of these factors could have been enough stress to produce a psychotic breakdown in a boy his age. Witnesses say he had a knife in one hand, and his penis in the other, with a “not here” look in his eyes.   All told, sounds like an obvious ‘psychotic episode’. Family members say he had no history of mental illness. But distress more often arises around that age. Which is why we more often see a psychotic breakdown in young people who’ve gone away to university for example, leaving home for the first time and beginning more intimidating academic life, minus their usual supports.

He was a distressed boy, expected to solve his own problems – an unfair expectation at the best of times.  Shelter  and a hug would have done wonders. From what we know about mental illness, Sammy could easily have been just entering a state of psychosis, brought on by the stress he was feeling. He certainly had more than enough to cope with.

On the Toronto Police Service website, on “Mental Health Issues”, we find what appears to be ‘advice’ on how to handle such situations, with links to further information. It appears optional. And the advice conflicts with comments of a police trainer during one past inquest.   “You shoot until the threat is gone,” he said and “there is no magic-bullet alternative to firearms” ** Pretty simplistic.

Constable James Forcillo was charged with second degree murder, and will be tried in 2015. The evidence I most want to hear: the streetcar operator’s version of events. I hope he will still be alive and well, memory intact, and his evidence not at all influenced.

Meanwhile, of past inquests into police shootings, Ontario’s Ombudsman André Marin has said that recommendations have been virtually identical over the past 20 years. He has commented about the definition of insanity being to keep repeating the same behavior and expect different outcomes***. Let’s hope something really new and meaningful comes out of this investigation. Like implementation of clear new procedural guidelines – not only for handling someone in mental distress, but for assessing situations from point A. Changes should include a new training curriculum with significant time spent on compassionate, competent handling of such crises.

Among other things, the police need to know they are not here to protect merely ‘middle-class -4th-generation-Canadians-in perfect mental-and-physical-health’.

The horror story here is that it’s too often the ‘protectors’ from whom we need protection.   Is it possibly because Toronto Police Services are immature, like Toronto? As with people, and groups of people, cities take time to mature, and so do their police. It’s a sign of maturity to be able to admit you are wrong, just as it is a sign of maturity to be able to laugh at yourself, to take yourself less seriously. Are we finally, in Toronto, beginning to enter that era in our history?

A hopeful sign would be if Toronto implements the Ombudsman’s recommendations.





Posted in mental illness, Ombudsman, police shooting, Sammy Yatim, social justice, Toronto | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment