Friday, January 23, 2015

Bravery Reconsidered: A Reflection on My Teaching Career

I talk about the topic of bravery reluctantly, in part because of the number of times people suggested that I was brave to teach in the Arctic for two years. The first handful of reader of this blog, those who stumble upon it through my posting of it on Facebook or Twitter will know more about my experience teaching in the Arctic and a few of them also have read my memoir of that time as well. During those two years I was regularly complimented for my apparently bravery in going there and it was something I regularly shrugged off, concluding that it was inappropriate to be considered brave for facing someone else's fears.  Alternatively, it is inaccurate to be described as brave when doing something you had the equipment or clothing to do.

In many instances there were people who suggested that it was brave to merely brave the elements of the Arctic. However, the extreme weather gear that I had separated me from those elements quite easily and I confidently and comfortably made my walk to school in -40 temperatures or colder.  As the daylight disappeared for a few months during the depths of winter, it was gradual. The darkness amounted to a prolonged period of daylight for a few hours a day without the bright sun appearing over the horizon and making itself known for a few months. Thanks to the gradual transition to that darkness the reaction to it was akin to a boiled frog - I essentially wasn't aware of what was happening and consequently did not react in fight or flight manner.  I simply got up each day and worked through the physiological responses to the darkness because I did not know any better.

Despite the physical challenges from the climate and locale, the professional challenges that I faced in the classroom and the privations that came with not having a convenience store or a working bathroom nearby, none of these made me particularly brave. I have been reluctant to declare myself brave for any of those things.  "Brave" is entirely the wrong word if we are going to talk about someone going 3-4 months without a toilet or 10 months without a television, especially when one had the choice to do otherwise.

There were threats during the time that I was in the community and the classroom there and I pondered them and weighed there significance as well as I could and in those cases, determined, undaunted or foolish might be better terms than brave.

My bravest moment may have been the one when I exposed my weaknesses or my vulnerability to my students.  There was a moment in the classroom when I set aside all notions of authority in the classroom and stopped pretending that the curriculum that I was teaching them was somehow appropriate to their needs.  Instead of trudging along through the curriculum confident that the Ministry of Education for the province of Quebec dictated to be as appropriate for my kids as it was for kids in Montreal, I stopped and asked the kids, "What do you want me to teach you?" - an admission that my charade as the authority who knew either a) exactly what they needed to learn or b) enough about education to come up with the ideal match for their lives and traditions without their input.  I gave them input into what had to happen in their classroom and they promptly and seamlessly transitioned in a matter of seconds from "empty vessel" or "blank slate" to partner in defining what they needed and made profound contributions as soon as given the opportunity.

I did not know what the outcome would have been when I asked that question or disclosed that I did not have all the answers, but the consequences were remarkable and beautiful.  And they resulted from me simply disclosing what I was not capable of figuring out for myself.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Precision and Satire

The discussion of free speech that has opened up since the attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris has not given much airing to the notion of responsibility when exercising free speech.  The most biting and effective satire has been thought-provoking and informed or guided by intentionality. With the cartoons in the Charlie Hebdo and perhaps the cartoons in a Danish publication in 2006 there may have been provocation, but not of thought.

The finest satire, even that targeted at religion, is informed by insights and a desire to make useful, constructive observations that are intended to amuse, provoke and critique.  Sacred cows are not spared and should not be, but the problem with the cartoons is that they seem to exercise the desire and opportunity to offend rather than to give people something to talk about.

Apart from the known and established umbrage that Muslims take upon the attempt to illustrate the prophet Muhammed the cartoonists offer no insights or demonstrate the knowledge required to offer the depth and precision of satire that comes from a perspective of communicating criticism.  In the cases of the cartoons that have been at the center of the controversy there is little constructive criticism.  Instead, the cartoons - apart from giving a poke in the eye to Muslims - demonstrate little insight about the Muslim faith or its foibles.  There is just the type of blatant stereotyping that we have collectively opposed for other groups.

The best satire is informed and while there may be a temptation among partisans to deny the truth which is often at its heart, it is still going to tap into a fountain of truth that will be begrudgingly acknowledged.  If the Muslim faith is going to be satirized as effectively as other faiths, ideologies or obsessions that it needs to be founded on a body of knowledge.  For all the navel-gazing on the topic of free speech that has emerged since the attack on Charlie Hebdo in Paris, there ought to be a consideration of what is being discussed, who is discussing it, whether or not they have any skin in the game and if they know what they are actually talking about.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Revising Lord Acton: Power Metastasizes

Lord Acton is best known for the quotation, "Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely," but I would humbly like to offer a revision.  In cases where institutions fail to serve the communities they are intended to serve and wittingly or unwittingly tend to serve the special interests of a faction or clique of a community, it seems more and more likely that power tends to metastasize. 

Governments are increasingly overwhelmed by the range of interests and needs that they are asked to balance off against on another or give due consideration during their decision-making processes. That, along with the technological changes that have accumulated over the course of time have given a wide variety of stakeholders the means to offer an alternative to governments or even oppose them and other long-established institutions.  Those established institutions that we have long taken for granted but are growing rickety in the absence of substantial reforms are no longer the robust responsive institutions we relied on - if they ever were those vanguards of justice.


The fact is that many of those institutions have been flawed and history has recounted may cases where those institutions have squandered their legitimacy in ways the Lord Acton so aptly summed up.  The ideal of those institutions was that they would be places where the rights and needs of all were taken into account and given their due respect.  The failures of those institutions to provide that service to their constituents and form a community that they served fairly has motivated more and more groups to act in a manner that has either provided an alternative means of empowering and serving groups or individual or advocate in some way, whether peacefully or not, for the sake of the group they purport to serve and protect.


Due to the shortcomings or failings of governments, justice systems, school systems, churches or other institutions that we would associate with eminent, columned buildings of beauty, purpose and high ideals, more and more individuals or groups have taken the opportunity to assert influence of their own and earn support because of the declining legitimacy of those institutions that we had so long invested trust in. Some of these new alternatives gain a certain degree of power or legitimacy from various audiences. Corporations gain more legitimacy because of the good will they foster among customers and employees. Environmental groups do the same among their supporters. Religious groups assert their own influence on the conscience of a community.  Countless other groups and subgroups and subcultures each purport to stand for their cause or have their respective missions and within each of these organizations there are groups or individuals who are abusing their power and undermining their legitimacy to divide again and again. 


Power, be it gained via wealth, knowledge, media assets, popularity, natural resources, weapons, collective rights or presence, is multiplying because so few of the groups or institutions or organizations strive to represent or consider the whole.  Therein is the metastasis that is occur much to the detriment of our society.  There are too many people and organization each striving to find their soapbox or their audience that fewer and fewer people seem willing to listen intently to all of the arguments and voices that are striving to be heard.  The flaws that power brings when it is wielded continue to multiply because too many people are striving to gain power for the sake of punishing or being retributive rather than building communities that are founded on more than one interest.


At a time when there is so much cynicism about the role and motivation of governments, the need for leaders who show a command of the complexity of our societies and the diversity of opinions and interests and strengths that seem to be multiplying and spreading rather than unifying into a coherence that can contribute to a vibrancy, resilience and responsiveness that an inclusive community can be capable of.  When we see governments ignoring the realities associated with climate change and there are monthly recurrences of police activities that raise questions about their ability or willingness to serve the entire community within their jurisdiction, there is ample reason to doubt the intentions of our elected officials, but investing the patience and effort required to reform these older institutions will be more successful than efforts to counter these flaws with alternative organizations and structures that may ultimately lack the scope of mission or vision that is required to unite people and build or rebuild communities.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Want Progress on Race in the States? Look at Cop Salaries

As events this year in Ferguson, Missouri and in New York City have intensified the harsh glare on race relations in the United States, one question that has not been discussed has been the salaries paid to American police officers or the budgets that American police departments have. The gap between salaries paid to police officers in Canada and the United States is stark with Canadian police officers earning an average of $19,000 dollars more annually.

The wage situation is worse if you looked at the situation from one city to the next throughout the States.  The poaching of Detroit police officers that has occurred since that city went into bankruptcy illustrates this gap as well and according to a recent report by NBC News, the salaries are barely above Canadian minimum wage rates for many of the municipalities comprising metropolitan St. Louis.  Ferguson is in the middle of the pack in the St. Louise area with an average hourly pay of about $22 an hour.

The majority of police officers are getting paid in a range that can put them on a level with administrative assistants, or retail store managers.  It is not reasonable to expect the expertise and range of skills required to effectively handle and defuse the challenges of police work from someone earning the same salary as a manager at a Denny's.  Evidence from Ferguson and from the death of Eric Garner in New York City, suggest that some police officers cannot handle their work any better than the likes of George Zimmerman, who was involved in the death of Trayvon Martin while volunteering with a neighborhood watch program in a gated community in Florida.

The gap between professional police officers - if that is what they can be called when they are making $11.18 an hour - and a volunteer such as Zimmerman, who has been described by many sources as a racist, seems negligible but the institutions who employ and underpay these officers ought to be scrutinized. Police work is becoming increasingly complex and given the budgetary stresses facing police departments such as Detroit's it is highly unlikely that they are able to develop the range of new initiatives to respond effectively to this increased complexity.  In Canada there is a wide range of innovative community policing initiatives that are being introduced, each of which are requiring new skill sets and aptitudes that are far removed from the typical skills of a beat cop.  There may be similar efforts in the United States, but there is every chance that appropriate compensation is an obstacle to introducing new initiatives that would move American policing toward more cooperative, community-oriented models.

This is not to suggest that the race problems in the United States is new or recent.  New approaches to policing that are more community-oriented, or require skill sets other than the old west quickdraw are at an increased premium and at this point it seems that police departments in the United States may be too constrained by a variety of budgetary challenges to break ground on new initiatives and approaches to policing that can improve relationships and cooperations between police departments and the communities they serve.

American policing faces many obstacles - the Second Amendment and the racial issues getting the most type space of late - but the most insurmountable may be the lack of financial resources or perhaps the lack of will to fully support police departments in the United States in innovating approaches to policing that would surmount the barriers that currently exist between police departments and the communities that they serve.

Paying police officers appropriately for the challenging work that they do on a daily basis, to not only protect the public but also to ensure that people have the opportunity to be innocent until proven guilty and to uphold the rights of all citizens, including those they are apprehending.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

GSA's in Alberta and the Old "Legislation of Morality" Argument

Last weekend I lunched with a circle of older friends who gather regularly to, as we put it, solve the world's problems regale each other with accounts of the week that passed. On the occasion of our most recent gathering one of the more conservative of the group posed the question about what the big deal was with the Alberta government's efforts at splitting the difference with its legislation "addressing" the establishment of Gay-Straight Alliances (GSA's) in schools throughout the province.
This older, conservative-minded gentle wondered what the big deal was all about and why there was even a need for such legislation, or a more favourably-worded bill being required or preferred and why the cause of Gay-Straight Alliances was one that was worthy of such public opposition.  In stating his opinions about the perceived inutility of the GSA's, he skated ever so closely to the "you can't legislate morality" argument which is a perilously lazy attempt to feign neutrality on GSA's and the matter of school bullying, which many politicians indicate a desire to reduce or - to provide a less effective, more retributive response - penalize.

The kids who favour and wish to form the GSA's have a conscious sense of what community building can do to student life in their schools. By recognizing and accepting homosexuality in the manner that the GSA's intend to do, they enhance the safety of their school for all of the students.  By creating a degree of openness about the topic, they in turn erode the power of parents or students who feel that sexual orientation ought to either be: 1) a matter that ought to be kept private if diversity is going to be acknowledged at all or 2) compliant with their perceived "norms" will a stern response against anyone who expresses a variation on that hetero norm.  Such narrow attitudes result in students feeling entitled to express their opinion, whether physically or verbally through bullying and those students acquire the power to bully because of a narrow determination of "normal."  The presence of GSA's is a step toward broadening the definition of normal or rendering it moot and taking that away the soapbox from which bullies feel they can rail against difference.

My elderly friend still felt there was no need for this to be a matter for government to legislate.  The argument he gave was that if a heterosexual and a homosexual chose to be friends, let them.  In that, is a clear desire to turn a blind eye to the realities of school life. It would be very difficult for friends to stick together in the face of the bullying that one would get for the sake of being different. We can all recall the scenarios in school where one kid in class -- be it the pasty skinned one, the heavy one, the slow one, the poor one, the more heavily acned one or anyone else who was deemed to be a member of that exclusive phylum of target -- got ridiculed and bullied. The last thing that one kid was able and willing to do was stand up for or stand by that kid.  It would take a great deal of will to bear that collateral bullying.  It is tempting to look back on our school years and say that that act of bravery would or could have been committed if it were required, but it was and is. Regularly. The majority of kids would want to be on the right side of those relationships and they simply need the assurance that they are not going to be the only ones to stand up and that they in turn will be safe when they stand for their principles.

If the legislation, the right legislation, regarding the formation of Gay-Straight Alliances ensures that power does not get created among groups of people who choose to be intolerant and instead gives students the opportunities to contribute to forming environments where adolescent men and women have the opportunity to fully recognize and develop their identities at the same pace, regardless of their sexual orientation, then the government would not be merely legislating morality, but taking a long-term, big picture view on the physical, social, sexual and mental health of the next generation of Albertans. Even the most cursory of cost-benefit analyses would prove that worthwhile.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Power in a Looming Winter of Discontent

As 2014 comes to a close, it feels like a particularly bleak year, one in which notions of progress seem to be limited to the technological spheres alone and those baby steps toward social progress seem to have meandered or wandered into a wilderness from which our darker instincts will not allow us to escape.

The news runs over with details about sexual abuse by people who we had ample reason to hold in high regard, whether it has been mellifluous-toned talking head who has held our respect for the last decade or a beloved father-figure who has entertained us and been a part of growing up and childhood for the last half-century.  The surprising reports of these two figures and other sordid tales of sexual abuse almost seem to struggle to get out of the tabloids and compete with the mounting racial tensions that go from simmer to boil as each dusk falls and those protesting against police brutality barely keep a lid on the righteous rage that so easily could be uncorked in response to the apparent ruthlessness that police seem to apply force or power - note that I do not say the law - against minorities in the United States.  The hopes that lessons have been learned in the decades since Watts, Rodney King and more recently Trayvon Martin are trod upon on a daily basis is this much esteemed century or millenium marches on without fulfilling the promise of progress is a global community.

These issues are local rather than geopolitical and the picture there seems bleak as well.  The murders of Nathan Cirillo in Ottawa and Patrice Vincent in St-Jean-sur-Richelieu in October brought a heightened sense of how our institutions and the people who represent them are rendered vulnerable in ways we had never imagined.  In all of the white noise of the current news as it keeps arriving in wave after seemingly pounding wave, we do not know if the members of the Canadian Armed Forces are able to wear their uniforms safely beyond their bases and posts.  Such are the new normals that the imbalance of this age has unleashed.

It is hard feel optimistic about much at this time and friends who normally don't talk about politics or the state of the world in favour of topics that are more academic, or insignificant or personal have made a point of acknowledging that things feel bleak right now or simply outright said, "Again?!" at the ongoing reinforcement of the possibility that we collectively never learn.

If I really wanted to induce depression I could pile on with ISIS, Russia, Syria and the massive typhoon that the Philipines braces for while the Canadian government continues to avoid acknowledging the need to bolster environmental and climate change policy.  (Not that there's a direct link between the two today, but I risk digressing.)

What seems to be happening on so many fronts is a deterioration of democracy and a fracturing of the elements of our communities or societies that keep competing interests in balance and ensures that various stakeholders in our society are pursuing their own course of action separately in pursuit of their own interests because there is little sense that our institutions are serving everybody or anybody. Let me cite a length quote from John Ralston Saul's recent book, The Comeback. The book is an examination of the re-emerging prominence of indigenous people in Canada but the following passage has meaning well beyond that discussion and the struggles that seemed to be coming from all directions.

"in a healthy democracy, power a is surprisingly limited element.  And the unwritten conventions, understandings, forms of respect for how things are done, for how citizens relate to government and to each other are surprisingly important. Why? Because if democracy is only power, then what we are left with is a system of deep distrust...  [If] power only matters... then the government feels it has the mandate to do whatever it wants; that the law is there principally to serve power. If democracy is only about winning power and using it, then it has been deformed into a denial of society and of the idea of responsible citizenship." (John Ralston Saul, The Comeback, p. 30)

If our era is one defined by the entropic use of power and the fracturing of society into countless separate interest groups, each with their own narrow horizons and a locus of metastasizing self-interests, then we are going to continue seeing governments wield the implements of power (military, police, financial instruments) in ways that may seem effective, intimidating or substantial, but are merely futile and likely to result in negative repercussions.  If, as individuals, we choose to assert sexist or racist mindsets when we engage with the people that we are supposed to share and build our communities and societies with then we are only going to ensure that more and more people will take to the streets.  At first it will be in vigil with candle in hand, but when and if that fails there will be graver actions that will unfold.

There needs to be an infusion of informed, committed citizenship if we want to see the news get any better.  We need to take the time to consider our aspirations for our neighbours and our neighbourhoods just as much as we do ourselves and if we choose instead to postpone our respect for our collective hopes and aspirations the consequences of delay and the work required to build strong vibrant communities will be much greater than we will anticipate.

Our governments seem disinclined to listen to the people in the communities they are intended to serve, but it is essential that we communicate with them clearly.  The news that is concluding 2014 is such that governments and their institutions seem more detached from us than ever before and the only people who will bring order to this are informed, engaged citizens who are inclined to actively say "enough" rather than reel one more time in the face of events that make us cry in disgust, "again?!"

Friday, October 24, 2014

Remember Justin Bourque? A RANT!

As this tragic autumnal week comes to an end and Remembrance Day feels closer and more palpable than it has in even recent years, the federal government is making moves to increase the powers of police and spy agencies in ways that may compromise Canadian rights and freedoms despite the comments made to reaffirm the commitment to Canadian values and inclusion in the immediate aftermath of the assaults in Ottawa on October 22.

The link to jihadism or to ISIS has been determined by someone be a limited one and many experts have suggested that the attacks in Ottawa and St Jean-sur-Richelieu were the actions of drifters who were mentally ill and had lengthy criminal records rather than members of a coordinated terrorist group.  In fact it seems that the perpetrators of the two attacks on Armed Forces personnel have more in common with Justin Bourque who attacked RCMP officers in Moncton, New Brunswick this past June 4.

These requests for increased powers were not made in the aftermath of the shootings in New Brunswick or upon the House reconvening this autumn. In the case of Justin Bourque as with the two deceased criminals this week, an individual who has adopted more radical beliefs and accumulated a record of criminal behaviour has acted in a manner that has shaken our sense of security and raised our concern for the safety of our protectors but Bourque's actions did not prompt such actions or calls by the government.

A review of the profiles of these three criminals would likely reveal striking similarities in their paths and their decisions to conduct themselves in such violent and radicalized ways. The distinction is that Bourque's radicalization seemed to connect to pro-gun or extreme right wing activities while this week's criminals pursued Islamist affiliations and were ultimately rejected by the mosques they tried to associate with.

The religious affiliations were a medium for expressing a hate that was deeply entrenched and merely needed terms to be expressed in, just as Bourque's was. Is there a tolerance for Bourque's redneck or good ol' boy roots that seems to be more tolerable or harder to provoke fear around? Religious leaders are now being scrutinized to the same extent as gun shop owners and leaders of overtly radical organizations within our borders and the governments calls for actions this week when the profiles indicate that these men did not have significant associations with larger Canada-based groups that supported them in completing their acts of violence. As the profiles indicate at this point, each of these three men acted alone or with the barest minimum of help and the difference is that two of them have claimed what appear to be tenuous and self-serving links to a religion.

The entire picture of each of these individuals needs to be examined and all of it needs to be accounted for rather than shaped to foster a narrative or story that demonizes some individuals over others out of sheer convenience. We cannot respond to these problems with responses that merely seize on the power and accessibility of a crime's iconography to mold policy.  Once again, the federal government seems committed to pushing for policy based on ideology and fear rather than a careful weighing of the evidence. If there were a careful assessment of the actions and profiles of all three men there would be a chance of implementing policies and responses that would reduce the likelihood of similar recurrences of each of these incidents. If the choice is to generate policies that are dedicated to xenophobia and racial profiling, next Bourque, Couture-Rouleau or Zehaf-Bibeau will shock us and etch themselves into our consciousness once again and leave haunting memories forever afterward.