Where is thy sting now?

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I’ve been strangely preoccupied with death lately. This is not unusual—I am much closer to the day of my death than I am to that of my birth. Still, my health is good and I have plans enough that I hope the final day is still well off.

Death is all around us, of course. I am an orphan and I’ve lost several good friends over the years. Social media seldom lets a day go by without recording some loss or another whether it be a parent, a friend, a pet or some celebrity who has touched one of us in some way. Most of us have pictures on our walls or albums of those who are no longer with us.

Still, that hasn’t changed nor is it likely to change any time soon.

What has brought death to my mind lately is one particular death and the way it occurred.

A few weeks ago I heard that someone I once cared a lot about was scheduled to die on a certain Tuesday. No, they weren’t on death row in Texas; they were in a hospice bed in Halifax.

Jeanne was my second wife—we stopped being a couple nearly 30 years ago and haven’t had much contact for nearly 15. That was her choice but I can’t blame her for that. I was the one who left and while I still have feelings from those days, they are not tinged with sadness or hard-feelings.

Over the years, I know that Jeanne had made a good life for herself—filled with the love of her partner, her friends and her family and she had some real successes to look back on. When my mother was dying, she found it in her heart—no matter how she felt about me—to be kind to her and my brother.

Unfortunately, cancer came calling far too early and eventually her condition was declared terminal.

That’s when Jeanne did an incredibly brave thing. She chose to seek medical assistance in dying (MAID as it is called in Nova Scotia). She chose the time and place of her death. I don’t know what led her to that place—it could not have been easy, she loved life and had religious views that must have made the decision more difficult—but I am happy for her that she had that choice to make.

I’ve long been an advocate for assisted death for those who want it. I supported the legislative changes made last year—though I didn’t think they went far enough. That may yet come—it is a moving legal and moral landscape. However, it is one thing to support something intellectually but quite another to have it impact you directly even at a distance of many years and miles.

Now that it has, I have to tell you I am more supportive than ever. Jeanne died with great grace and strength and she died with her family beside her—saying good bye in the way we would all like to say good-bye, with full hearts.

And she died without pain and without the indignity that death tries to bring to us all at the end. Who wouldn’t want that?

I hope that when my time comes I can approach it with joy and courage the way Jeanne did. Then we can truly say: Death, where is thy sting?

And that’s ten minutes.

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Tolerating Evil

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How much tolerance do you have for evil? Most of us like to think we have very little and, on one level, that may be true. As long as we are fairly certain that what we are considering is truly evil and as long as we feel we can actually do something about it, our tolerance is pretty low. Damn right I would step up to stop Hitler! But what about Goering? Some nameless Captain in the SS? How about the skinhead next door? Would you slap down the well-dressed and well-spoken head of a neo-Nazi or alt-right group?

Probably – if you didn’t think you would get stabbed.

Still, actually figuring out what is evil is the hard part. It’s easy in retrospect. Obviously whoever lost the fight (i.e., the Nazis, the slaveholders) was evil. Or, where there is no clear winner or loser, we can all agree that evil was done – though sometimes we can’t quite figure out by whom.

But that’s retrospectively, right? In the late 1930s, there were plenty of people—including the former king of England—that thought Hitler wasn’t a bad sort, if a little hysterical. At first, Idi Amin had his supporters and, given that he lived out his life in comfortable exile, continued to have them after he was deposed. Alt-right guys probably think they are doing the proper thing—if only the 99% of people who don’t support their agenda could see it.

They say that all that is needed for evil to succeed is for good men to do nothing. But that, of course, presumes you have the capital T truth about what is good. Missionaries that wound up destroying indigenous cultures and supporting the slave trade justified themselves by saying they were bringing salvation to the heathens. Communists who instituted the Cultural Revolution in China surely did it to bring about the glorious freedom of pure socialism.

But let’s bring it down to some simple things. If you see a man hitting his spouse or a mother wailing away on their child, would you personally intervene? Would you call the cops? Would you say: It’s a private manner?

I once witnessed a mugging. One of the muggers (they were all pretty young but there were five of them) showed me a knife. I decided not to do anything except watch it unfold. I had time to decide that, if no one got hurt, I would let things unfold. It was only money, right? Afterwards I realized that waiting until after the victim was stabbed would have been too late (no one got stabbed by the way). I was furious at myself but would I do any different today? I hope so but I’m not sure. I’m getting old but I’m not quite ready to die.

I see a lot of hate on Facebook – almost as much of it from the left (whose agenda I largely agree with) as from the right (whom I find hard to bear). Occasionally, I say something about it but I find it a useless expenditure of time and emotional energy. I’ve come to understand that a small percentage of people you meet are assholes (most don’t come close to qualifying and if you think they do, you should take a long hard look in the mirror) and that an even smaller percentage are irredeemable and dangerous assholes. I can only hope someone steps up to stop them before they actually hurt people. But it probably won’t be me.

Not much fun to admit but, I suppose, admitting weakness is the first step to overcoming it.

And that’s ten minutes.

Aboriginal Rights

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This week the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal found that the federal government has discriminated against Aboriginal children by under-funding child welfare services compared to funding that provinces provide their non-aboriginal citizens. The Finance Minister is meeting this week with indigenous leaders to see what can be done to rectify the situation.

Anyone who has spent even a brief time working on aboriginal issues will not find this surprising unless – like members of the Fraser Institute or the previous government (which stalked and harassed the woman who brought the complaint) – they are in complete denial. Ever since Paul Martin put a 2% cap on growth in transfers to First Nations as a (supposedly temporary) budget restraint measure back in 1997, things have been growing worse and worse for aboriginal programs and services.

While populations have grown at the fastest rate of any group in the country and other cost factors have often risen faster than the cap, already underfunded communities have fallen farther and farther behind. According to an Auditor General’s report, funding for education is more than $2000 per student less for on-reserve schools than are received by provincial counterparts. To put that in perspective, First Nation schools – who generally don’t have the advantages of the shared services of a larger school district – receive 15-20% less funding than a provincial school a few miles down the road. It makes it difficult for them to recruit and retain teachers let alone offer the full range of programs kids need in a modern world.

Some commentators have said that the problems of aboriginal people will not be solved simply by opening our collective wallet and throwing money at them. This may be true – but opening our wallet is probably an excellent and necessary first step.

Real solutions are more complex but aren’t hard to envision. Aboriginal people need – first and foremost – to be funded at similar levels as other Canadians for core services but they also need to have the ability to take control of their own destinies by having full access to economic development opportunities and by establishing their own systems of governance.

In Nova Scotia, for example, the Mi’kmaw took control of education nearly twenty years ago through a formal self-government agreement with the federal and provincial governments. Their students now perform and graduate at rates higher than their provincial counterparts, meeting provincial curriculum standards and, at the same time, giving their children the opportunity to learn their own language and culture as part of the local school programming.

Solving the problems caused by over a century of deliberate and systemic discrimination under the paternalistic control of the Indian Act and the department it spawned will take more than a few extra dollars in the budget – it will require an entirely different approach based on the aboriginal and treaty rights that are recognized and affirmed in our constitution.

And that barely scratches the surface of what needs to be said but that’s ten minutes.

Domestic Violence

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Three women were shot near Ottawa on Tuesday – killed by a man who had recently been released from prison for assault and choking charges. Two of the women were ex-girlfriends while the relationship with the third is not yet clear. After his rampage he was heading to Ottawa, apparently to seek vengeance on lawyers or to attack the Court. The downtown was briefly locked down and we were warned to stay in our office. Fortunately he was captured without incident and is now facing three first degree murder charges.

He will undoubtedly spend the rest of his life in prison (he is already 57) though that is little consolation to the family and friends of the women he murdered.

Now there is a lot of soul searching going on as to what could have been done to prevent this tragedy. Did the courts or prison system fail? Did the community fail? Though as one women who campaigns against domestic violence put it: Once a man starts hunting woman who can stop a bullet?

Few things disgust me more than people who hit their partners – the people they claim to love. Statistics show that women are twice as likely to be victims as men. Moreover, it is men who escalate the violence and who are responsible for the vast majority of injuries and deaths in domestic situations. Regardless, anyone who resorts to violence in the family has a problem and should seek some sort of help. If they won’t then society should intervene.

The first step is to make sure than abused partners have someplace safe to go and the second is that abusers are given real options to change. Education of young people that violence against others, and especially against those you are in a relationship with, is wrong would help too. But equally important is to begin to treat domestic violence as serious – or more serious – than any other crime. The truth is the person most likely to kill you – whether in Canada or the United States – is not a stranger but a domestic partner.

Everyone makes a mistake in their lives and perhaps one conviction should be treated the same way it would be if it were an act of violence against an acquaintance or a stranger – but domestic abusers seldom stop at a single assault or a single conviction. One charge may be a mistake on their part – or even on the court’s part – but two or three or four? That is a clear pattern – especially when more than one partner is involved.

If someone is convicted of sexual assault, they are generally put on a sex offender’s registry. Their movements are tracked and often measures are taken to reduce the chance of them offending again. Maybe we need to do the same thing with those who are shown to be abusers. Two convictions or three and they go on a domestic abuse registry. Measures could be taken to warn potential partners of their history. They could be kept away from guns. They could be monitored to see if they take treatment.

Even as I say it, it seems draconian and excessive. And yet something needs to be done for those who refuse to reform themselves.

But that’s ten minutes.

Reconciliation

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The Truth and Reconciliation Commission on Indian Residential schools has finished its work and made its report. There can no longer be any excuse for Canadians not to know the truth of residential schools in Canada or to deny that those schools were part of a pattern designed to ‘take the Indian out of the child’ in the words of one of its early designers, part of a series of actions designed to eliminate Aboriginal cultures and governments and to wipe away Aboriginal people from the mainstream of Canadian culture. While our governments did not use guns in an effort to eradicate Aboriginals, they did use the weapons of shame and starvation, of punishment, kidnapping and degradation. We allowed children to be abused; we allowed them to die.

You can read all about it in the final report; you can hear the testimony of survivors as well and you can see what the TRC believes needs to happen next. The truth is out there.

Reconciliation is the most difficult part. If the truth took over 150 years to create and six years to uncover and document, how much longer will it take to reconcile? That is the challenge facing Canada. We can’t spend another 20 or 50 years fixing the problems of the past. We have to act now. We cannot continue the legacy of failure and poverty and despair. We can’t waste another generation of Aboriginal youth.

The good news is we don’t have to. As Wab Kinew put it; one of the best paths to reconciliation is through Aboriginal success. While the media has generally been full of stories of the struggles of First Nations and Inuit communities, there have also been tremendous success stories – some of which I’ve been privileged to witness.

IN Atlantic Canada, the Mi’kmaq people negotiated control over the education system in the late 1990s. Though, like all Aboriginal schools, they have struggled with limited resources, they have managed to build new schools and expand programs. Now their students have the same or better rates of academic success and graduation as their non-Aboriginal peers. And they have changed the curriculum of their schools to include their own history, culture and language. And guess what? Not only has this had a great impact on their own kids but also on the entire educational system as Nova Scotia has adopted some of curriculum for the broader school system. Similar successes have been achieved in BC and Saskatchewan as well as in individual schools across Canada. Unfortunately it is not the case in every schools where severe underfunding by the federal government and lack of local control result in low graduation rates and poor academic results. Work to be done.

In the economy, we know that many Aboriginal communities suffer in poverty – largely because the Indian Act has effectively legislated them out of the mainstream economy. Yet progress has been made in many areas – almost entirely because of aboriginal led initiatives which have pushed for opt-in legislation or negotiated agreements. Communities across the country have taken advantage of reformed land and administrative systems to prosper – generating jobs and businesses not only for their own people but for neighbouring non-Aboriginal communities as well. Millbrook in Nova Scotia and Westbank in BC are only two such examples. In the North, the Inuvialuit have used their land claim settlement to build one of Canada’s Fortune 500 companies. The Cree of James Bay have done equally well. Yet for most poverty is the norm. Work to be done.

Of course, Aboriginal success is not the only measure of reconciliation. And achieving this goal is not only an Aboriginal goal. Each of us have a role to play in this. And it starts with understanding. The reports are there to be read. I suggest you do exactly that. Then start thinking about what you personally need to do to achieve reconciliation. Work to be done.

And again that’s a little more than ten minutes.

Truth

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When I was growing up in Nova Scotia I was completely unaware of Aboriginal people – even though there was a small reserve less than 20 kilometres from where I lived and went to school. The houses were well back from the main road along a narrow gravel track, hidden by trees. The kids, I now know, didn’t go to regular schools but instead were taken away to residential schools. The only sign of native people in the province that I saw as a child was a small shop called GooGoo’s Gifts just off the highway near Truro.

My fist real encounter with Aboriginal Canadians came when I went to work in Northern Canada in 1982. The community of Frobisher Bay was more than half Inuit though whites still held most of the top jobs and ran all the businesses. But change was in the air. The territorial government had a new determination to increase native employment and one of the first things I got to do was to begin training people to take over my job. It seemed like an appropriate thing to do. I was clearly just passing through but this was their home (and native) land.

Meanwhile at the national level, the patriation of the constitution was dealing with the recognition of Aboriginal rights. Chiefs and leaders had travelled to England to petition the Queen. The government of the NWT travelled en masse to Ottawa to lobby the Prime Minister. Demonstrations were held and in the end Section 35 was added to provide recognition and protection to Aboriginal and treaty rights.

My education was more rapid after that. I went to work for the then-Premier (now Senator) of the NWT who was an active proponent of Aboriginal rights. Fluent in Slavey and in touch with the elders of his community he championed languages, employment and changes in government to more closely recognize and reflect the native majority in the territory. I learned about language preservation and recovery – I think the women who mostly ran the program liked teasing the poor ignorant young man from the south – and about the way affirmative action could ensure that talented Aboriginals could get the jobs they deserved. I also got to go to several national constitutional conferences in Aboriginal rights held by the Mulroney government, where I learned just how complicated the file was – a lesson repeated when I briefly worked for the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples in the 1990s.

For all that, my real education in the truth of Aboriginal issues really started 15 years ago when I came to work for Senator Sibbeston in Ottawa. There I discovered the failings of the federal government to deal with education, economic development, housing and a raft of other issues. I learned of the shackles placed on First Nations striving to fix their own problems by the antiquated Indian Act – designed more than a hundred years ago to oppress natives and destroy their culture.

And I learned about residential schools, not in some abstract way but directly by listening to my boss’s stories of the horrors he suffered and by working with individual claimants who were struggling to go through the byzantine process of seeking compensation. Their stories are their own but I can only say that many of them made me weep for the injustices perpetrated by our country.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission reported yesterday. I’ll spend the next few days delving into it. Because the one thing I have learned is that our biggest challenge in fixing history is to acknowledge that it happened.

And that’s a little more than ten minutes.

Gender Parity

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The quest for gender parity – in government, business and the arts – has long been a goal of the feminist movement. With 50% of the population, why shouldn’t women have 50% of the leadership positions in society? Why indeed? It seems like an obvious goal for those who are interested in a just and equal society but, as we know, there are a fair number of people who don’t believe in either justice or equality – though they often go to great lengths to couch their agenda in less ugly terms.

Gender parity also addresses another big social justice issue – income inequality. If women have more and better jobs, their incomes that generally trail those of men will improve leading to less inequality especially for single-parent families which are mostly women-headed. And less inequality is not only good for individuals it is good for society.

But the goal of 50/50 whether in 2020 or sooner (better than later) is not simply a matter of social justice, it makes perfect sense from a whole lot of perspectives. Numerous studies have shown that organizations that have achieved gender parity in leadership roles not only make different decisions but better ones. And they make them with less conflict and fewer ‘status’ wars. Corporations that increase the number of women in the board room have statistically significant better profit margins. That’s why some governments – with an eye on national GDPs – have mandated increases to women in the boardroom.

Quite apart from the internal values of increased opportunities for women in the corporate world, it is clear that leadership in government is also changing the focus of numerous policies. It is not that  ‘women’s’ issues have come to the forefront but there has been a realization that every activity of government – from supporting business to the military to health care – impacts and involves women.

There is still a long way to go. While the federal bureaucracy has largely achieved gender parity in most leadership roles, the failure of our system to support women in politics has meant that the one area where women still lag is in Parliament and legislatures. Many other countries – including Saudi Arabia of all places – have placed more women into elected offices (though to be fair they are given little power when they get there). Kim Campbell has proposed an interesting solution for Canada: two member constituencies where one seat is reserved for men and the other for women. While two member constituencies used to be the norm in PEI (for religious reasons initially), Campbell’s idea is a radical departure.

But why not? Those who oppose radical solutions are usually those who don’t see or want to recognize the problem in the first place.

Progress is never as quick as we might like but it can occur if we constantly keep our eye on the prize. While most of us have little control over corporate boardrooms or government bureaucracies, we can do our bit by voting or working for women candidates, patronizing women run businesses and going to art galleries or theatres showing the work of women.

You can almost certainly be sure of a good experience – because given the struggles that women have had to get into those positions, you can bet their work is exceptional. See, even inequality has an upside. Not.

But that’s ten minutes. Thanks to Caroline Russell-King for the suggestion.