Is This Progress? This Is Progress.

What Is Kaputall?

Oxford defines Kaput as "broken and useless; no longer working or effective" - similar to our unbalanced economic system. This is a page dedicated to the intersection of capitalism and social, political, and environmental problems.

Thursday, 22 December 2011

No Citizenship and Less Immigration

I just finished school a couple weeks ago and since then I have been appalled at the sheer volume of awful things done by the Federal Government, or should I say the Harper Government. The list is long, and I am undoubtedly missing many items, but I'm going to just name some here. Blogs about these topics are bound to come out soon (perhaps in the new year).

Québec wants the Federal Government to transfer to them the data for the long gun registry so that the province can start its own. Harper has refused, leading to what analysts expect to be a very expensive lawsuit

Canada recently pulled out of the Kyoto Protocol. This followed the climate summit in South Africa where Harper reaffirmed Canada's commitment to the environment and to the international community. Leaving the treaty has proven to be an embarrassing move for Canadians.

Harper has suggested that public health care is no longer sustainable in Canada. The Canada Health Act is set to expire in 2014 and Harper hopes to come up with a new agreement with each province, rather than ensuring that the standards are met across the country (which would be in contravention of the Health Act).

December has been a busy month. But one of the most ridiculous items to come up has been the recent decision by the Federal Government to ban the wearing of face coverings for Muslim women at the citizenship ceremonies. I recently wrote a term paper about Islamophobia in Europe, particularly in the context of European citizenship policy. I was very critical of the oppressive stances of national governments (particularly in France) and of the European Union in general. As a result of this research being so fresh, I have a lot to say about Islamophobia in Canada.

In Canada Islamophobia is a growing problem. Our leaders know that debates around terrorism, Islam, immigration, and security are all intertwined in the public's perspective. These controversial issues are always bundled together as a package, with hardly any effort given to unpack the correlation between the ideas. Politicians, religious leaders, media conglomerates, and many others have used fear invoke reactions from Canadians that are hostile to Muslims. It obviously comes as no surprise to me that the government would go to such lengths to ban face coverings, but what's even more interesting is the public reaction.

As anyone who knows me can attest, I am an avid CBC Radio 1 fan, and long trips home are often spent listening to the radio. The day I was in transit to Kitchener happened to be the day after the announcement of the policy, and Ontario Today, a daily call-in show, was having a debate on the issue. What surprised me was that the percentage of callers supporting the move was greater than the percentage of callers who were upset. Since CBC Radio is generally quite a fair and balanced media outlet (often criticised for being too left-wing), this took me by complete surprise. In fact, many who were calling in were self-identified opponents of Harper and still supported the move - evidence that this move is congruent with larger social forces of Islamophobia.

The whole premiss of banning face coverings at a citizenship ceremony bothers me for a wide variety of reasons, not the least of which being that the event is just for show. People who participate in the ceremonies have already been deemed successful candidates for Canadian citizenship.

Also, the government's position was that it needs to be made clear that the person's face is visible as that is how we can tell if they are saying the oath. I find this quite ridiculous - I never had to take an oath of citizenship. Why should I be treated any differently because I had the great fortune of having been born here? The ceremony should be recognised for what it is: a formality.

Moreover, I think it's important to note that by saying women cannot wear face coverings that there is a sense of cultural superiority at play. To Canadians, it is supposed to be objectively "better" that we should see your face. The "Ideal Citizen" or "Ideal Canadian" is someone who looks and acts like a normal person - and since normal is entirely subjective, this means like a secular Christian.

This is similar to the secular policies of France and of Québec. In both regions, a strong civic national identity is represented by the removal of religious icons in public. While lofted as equal and fair, these policies promote secularism that has a distinctly Christian history. Since religion and culture are vastly interwined, it is impossible to have a secular tradition that ignores the influences of religion (look at the farce in the United States for example). Also, note that many of the face coverings are relics of culture long before the arrival of Muhammad, and are therefore not a product of Islam.

It's hard to not see the line of reasoning that Canadians (read: whites) are much more fair to their women than Muslims. Women in the West are supposed to be liberated and free, but this is clearly not the case. It's not a black and white division - both "Western" and "Eastern" women are oppressed, albeit in slightly different ways. Refer to this great political cartoon.

Lastly, when asked if there would be any accommodations, the citizenship and immigration minister, Jason Kenny, indicated that that is a ridiculous idea. His attitude was that this was some type of light topic and that there will be no harm done to anyone, afterall, if new Canadians can't handle us, they can always "choose" to go back home. I encourage you to read the text of the speech made 12 December when announcing the policy.

There are two conclusions that I draw from this policy. Firstly,  I believe that this move was designed to distract Canadians from other, more serious, policy issues that have emerged over the past few months. Refer to my list above. As I made mention to, this is a topic to which virtually ALL Canadians can relate. Everyone has an opinion and it's easy to gather and debate this topic (as I have managed to do continuously for at least a week). It keeps us busy and prevents us from getting into debates about items that might require some more research.

Secondly, I feel that this gives credence to a statement one of my classmates made this year about Jason Kenny. He referred to him as our Minister of No Citizenship and Less Immigration. Although this reference was made long before the policy announcement last week, it's really highlighting the fact that the Harper Government is following a sadly predictable trend when it comes to Muslims in our society.

Friday, 9 December 2011

Fun Cars!

We have all seen hundreds of thousands of advertisements just this year alone. Over our lifetime we have been exposed to a number of commercials, posters, telemarketers, flyers, product placements, and many more sinister and sublime marketing techniques. According to one of my favourite authors, Terry O'Reilly, advertising is the greatest art form of the twentieth century.

As someone who is very focused on criticising the assumptions in our modern, Western society, I am fascinated about car culture in North America, I have been thinking a lot lately about what I see as a relatively new trend in advertising automobiles in the past year or so, which I will explain shortly.

Let's put this into historical perspective. Over the past century the car has become symbolic of North America and a lifestyle of choice, prosperity, and hard work. While cars were marketed successfully before the Second World War, it wasn't until the 1950s that the automobile became such a salient representation of North American culture. This was obviously shaped by the massive economic boom fueled by post-war reconstruction, but more importantly, the meteoric rise of cars was made possible by changes brought in by government. As the population of North America began to grow at an unprecedented rate, cities and national governments looked at ways of addressing this concern. Suburbs were the widely adopted solution, favoured by urban planners and politicians, who were influenced by automotive giants in the United States. This came at the expense of public transit and cities that were made to be biked and walked.

It soon became clear that in order to be successful car ownership was necessary. This is particularly interesting when the common attitude is that the car is a status symbol. Very rarely are status symbols necessities in society, so it is something to think about.

While cars were necessary, they needed to be marketed by their respective manufacturers. Advertisements in the 1950s focused on the car as linked to patriotism and freedom, an idea which stuck for the long term. It was not until the 1990s that this emphasis changed. Modern car commercials focused on cars for absolutely everything: rugged trucks, elegant sedans, powerful coupes, and practical family vehicles. Marketers became increasingly more adept at appealing to the markets that they thought would be interested in their cars.

Two concerns became salient in the past 15 years. The first, which came about in the 1990s, was safety. Manufacturers competed with each other for the best safety ratings in their classes. This is best explained by the rapid rise of the Sport Utility Vehicle (for more information check out The Spirit Level). By the mid-2000s the focus had shifted to how fuel efficient their cars were. There are countless examples of commercials that appeal to this, but there has been an attempt by virtually every type of car to make their vehicles more fuel efficient, from trucks to luxury vehicles, to the cross-over.

Now, post-2010 I see the trend of cars becoming fun. Despite the fact that I don't believe what I see in commercials on  a general basis, I can see safety and fuel economy as important things you need in a car. However, this is not true of fun. I have never had a lot of fun driving. Whether it is the rush hour traffic jam, the 7-hour road trip, or the slow traverse through a snowstorm late at night, driving is rarely ever fun. Not to mention, having a car means carrying debt, buying insurance, paying for maintenance, and driving people around because you have a car and they don't.

Despite this, marketers, fearing that young people aren't buying cars like in the old days, are targeting youth with sleek ads that make owning a car look really exciting. Oddly enough, the driving isn't really the fun part. Certain makes and models of cars have been marketed as fun, but it was because they are so-called high performance. The cars that are marketed as fun now have no precedent.

Take, for example, the 2012 Cruze. The appeal of this car is the "international" experience. What do young people like doing? Listening to music? Hanging out in urban centres? Eating food from Asia, South America, and the Middle East? Why not have a commercial that shows them doing this, insinuating that these pass-times are congruent with owning a car - but not just any car, the 2012 Chevrolet Cruze. This is evident in its slogan: "Don't just drive, Cruze".

This drives me crazy. It really does. But that's marketing. I assume that once this formula gets tired these commercials will disappear and be replaced with something else. At this point it's impossible to know what, but they will find something to get the attention of the young people that are increasingly "carless".

Thursday, 1 December 2011

Men and Housework

In the past few weeks since Tide released this commercial, I'm certain I've seen it at least twenty times. Over the past few days I've been thinking about if and how this advertisement is actually progressive. Here is a window into the inner dialogue I've been having recently.

What is remarkable about the commercial, and thus why it is appearing in my blog, is that it features a dad doing the laundry. Despite the fact that we allegedly live in some sort of gender equality paradise where stereotyping roles are a vestige of the past, I have seen less than 5 commercials in my life where there is a man doing a household chore such as sweeping the floors, cleaning the shower, or doing the laundry. Obviously by virtue of showing a man doing "woman's" work, this ad really gets your attention. In fact there's a lot of buzz around the internet about how great this commercial is.

That said, I felt uneasy about after a couple times watching it, and it soon dawned on me that it has something to do with the character of the male in the ad. Obviously the dad is gender bending by doing laundry, but he is also cast as effeminate. His speech, his mannerisms, and his close relationship with his daughter all seem to point at the fact that this man is not a man, he's very much feminine.

But then I started thinking about how the commercial was obviously stereotyping male interests and skill. The idea of laundry as "classic problem solving", where efficiency is key, appeals to stereotyped male notions of logic. This is effectively evidenced by the more than 80 per cent of current engineering students in Canada being male despite the majority of university students being female in this country.

This dichotomy (on the one hand classic male intuition; on the other hand a very female domestic role) shows the complexity of gender. The fact that he can't really be characterised as male OR female stands out as a significant benefit of this commercial to me. Often androgyny is painted as very alien, but in this case it's quite accessible (and of course consumer friendly).

After coming to this realisation, I started checking out forums on the internet to see what other people were saying about this commercial. Naturally, there we super-socially-conservative people (both men and women) who characterised this man as homosexual and in derogatory terms. There were others who claimed he was a threat to our ideas of the household division of labour. Many praised the ad for taking on this issue and showing that it is okay for men to do the laundry and be close with their daughters. Google some of the following keywords to get a sense of what's being talked about: tide commercial, gender, braid, problem solving, laundry, dad.

Ultimately, as I'm sure you can tell, I haven't really figured out what I think about Tide's new ad. I think it has already sparked controversy, which is good. Moreover, even though it has generated backlash, it is still being aired. That is a good sign that Tide is not about to back of over a question of values. I hope to hear from some of you and get a sense of your impressions of both the commercial itself and the discourse around it.

Saturday, 12 November 2011


Yesterday I went to the cenotaph in downtown Ottawa to participate in the Remembrance Day ceremonies. Every year since I graduated from high school I have gone to the local gathering. As someone who has had many relatives participate in Canada's armed forces, mostly during the Second World War, I am proud to go and pay my respects to those who gave the ultimate sacrifice.

What I saw this year, however, leaves me feeling pretty uneasy. With the end of Canada's combat mission in Afghanistan this year, this conflict is now a past war and is part of the remembrance of past sacrifices. The role that Canada plays in the Middle East is being normalised by bringing it under the umbrella of the First World War, the Second World War, the Korean War, and various Peacekeeping missions. That is to say that the conflict in Afghanistan is now part of a series of armed conflicts that are to be remembered as part of Canada's commitment to peace.

Of course this is something I find remarkably interesting as an historian. The only conflict where Canada's participation was truly justified was the Second World War - hence its terming "the Good War". That said, even Canada and the allied powers during this conflict engaged in atrocious practices (such as the Japanese Internment, the use of atmoic weapons, and of course the many atrocities committed by Stalin's Red Army during the conquest of Germany and East-Central Europe in 1944-45). But overwhelmingly, the Second World War was necessary to prevent the spread of fascism and tyranny. Japan's Rape of Nanjing and Germany's Holocaust were representative of societies where aggressive militarism and social engineering where normalised to the point where few were comfortable questioning it.

In this conflict it is almost universally accepted that intervention was the right choice. But this is not the same with Afghanistan. Popular opinion polls have shown that the war is highly contentious and controversial. Much of this has to do, in my mind, with the fact that little is really known about the conflict itself. The aims of going there are ambiguous, the enemy is nebulous, and our role is not clearly defined. In fact, many believe it is a straightforward peacekeeping mission. While it is in fact called a peacekeeping mission under the flag of NATO, it is important to differentiate it from a UN peacekeeping mission.

I think it is important to understand my criticism of the aims of war without criticising those who are involved. I believe that the men and women who are fighting overseas are outstanding people and I have a lot of respect for them. One of my favourite radio programmes is "Afghanada", a weekly production about a group of Canadian soldiers fighting in Afghanistan. I support our troops, but what I cannot support is an ideology behind it that is based on following American foreign policy. Imbedded in that is the use of the armed forces for protecting against racialised threats, securitising our borders for the purpose of trade, and intervening in other countries that have the right to determine their own domestic policies.

I will end this entry with a political cartoon I found a couple weeks ago. I was interested in it at the time because of its connections to the Occupy Together Movement; however, it has resonated with me in the weeks since because of the media frenzy around the first remembrance ceremonies since the end of the conflict in Afghanistan. At any rate, I commented on this photo when it came up on my Facebook feed and I posted the following:

"How can you possibly compare these people? The great work of Canadians in fighting oppressive and aggressive imperialism was brave. However, the Canada and the United States of the present have evolved significantly and have now become oppressive and aggressive imperialists. Standing up to our "democratic" and "liberal" governments is also a brave endeavour. Many members of my family served and I am very proud of them, but they are also proud of me for standing up to our corporatist governments"

Something to think about. Something to remember.

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Reflection on Occupy Ottawa III

A few days ago I decided to leave the Occupy Ottawa movement. This does not mean I am abandoning the cause - I still agree with the need to occupy and with the need to ask for people to change the channel. I just will not set foot in Confederation Park for the time being.

While my reasons for leaving are mine, I will make a note here that I was not alone in leaving when I did. Let me be very straightforward about this: the reason why I parted ways with my comrades was because of the inability and unwillingness of the camp to address matters of fundamental human rights (see Oxfam's list). I really want to refrain from the details as I feel you can look them up pretty easily on the Facebook page or by reading virtually any paper.

What I find astonishing is that the movement, while painted with broad strokes by the media as monolithic, has become heavily decentralised. Each constituent occupy camp has not only come to its own identity, it has exercised complete autonomy from the rest of the hundreds of movements. I say this to emphasise that my reasons for leaving have all to do with my local camp and not with the broader picture.

As at peace as I am with leaving the group, I have also encountered plenty of "literature" on Occupy Together which has been particularly appalling. Firstly, I read an article in Maclean's which read something like this: since Canada doesn't have the same regulatory and policy problems as the United States, there is no need for the Occupy Movement in Canada. While it is typical of a conservative magazine like Maclean's to paint the issue this way, it is entirely ignorant of the broad socioeconomic inequality in our country and the lack of political will to change it.

This feds directly into my second example - this time from my local daily journal, the Ottawa Citizen. On the front cover this week there were two PhD Students who were expressing solidarity with the Occupy Movement on account of the fact that they were unable to find work since finishing school. It is precisely images like these that make people sympathise with the movement - people that are working hard within the confines of the system who aren't going anywhere. It obviously helps when they are white, male, middle class, well-educated, articulate, and otherwise not a "communist" or a "layabout".

This clashes handily with, for example, the recent death at Occupy Vancouver. With each movement coming into its own identity, it is not surprising that  the very acute social and economic climate of Vancouver's Lower East Side has led to the movement being seen in an exceptionally negative light. Instead of being identified with clean young professionals, this movement is associated with drug addiction, violence, mental illness, homelessness, and a variety of other interconnected problems.

Together this is representative of the fall of the Occupy Movement's popularity. Where over the first few weeks approval ratings gradually improved, cresting at nearly 60 per cent according to some polls, the past week has seen the receding tide. And there are obviously some significant reasons for this: the media has left people confused about the purpose of the movement, many of the movements have become havens for negative attention, and plenty of people in the general public are just fed up of being saturated with stories about the same thing.

It is evident that this movement has made an impact, but I am becoming more and more concerned that that this statement has come not from the individuals participating, but from the media and from appendages of the state. I don't know what the future holds for occupiers, but I suspect the battle will be uphill for the long haul. While I may not be participating, I want everyone to know that I am still supporting the messages and that I desperately hope for things to get to a place where I can participate again.

Friday, 28 October 2011

Reflections on Occupy Ottawa II

During the past week there have been some significant changes within the movement and I am struggling with whether or not I can justify staying on.

The most salient concern I've been having is with many people considering the camp an unsafe space. There have been recent actions taken by small groups of individuals that have led many committed occupiers to abandon the movement. Making people uncomfortable who identify as LGBTQ is intolerable and must be dealt with. Moreover, any attack on any individual is not justifiable. Many women, first nations, communists, and others have decided that the movement no longer welcomes them. It is truly sad to see people who fight socioeconomic equality engage in behaviour that breeds inequality. Fundamentally, we have to judge this movement, just as we famously judge a society, by how it treats the people in the most vulnerable positions. And while one of my compatriots noted that "no community is impervious from conflict", I would like to point out that every community has the responsibility to find a way to minimise it.

The so-called "problem" has been traced back to those in the camp who are using substances. At a meeting for Security and Safety that I decided (thankfully) to attend, most agreed that we need to adopt a zero-tolerance policy for these activities in the park. After it was clear that the group was achieving consensus on this issue, I reminded them that these policies are extremely ineffective and gave them a brief explanation of Ontario's zero tolerance policy in schools, instituted in the 1990s. I warned the group that there are three key issues here:

1) that intolerance will not solve the problem;
2) that we cannot act actually remove anyone from the land we are illegally occupying;
3) that not following through on the process undermines it entirely

So there are severe pitfalls to harsh treatment, and the only positive that we can see coming out of it is that it makes decisions "easier" because we are bound to a set principle. Thankfully I was able to defuse the situation, but when emotions are running high it is difficult to take a step back and find appropriate ways to deal with things. Although we still do not have a policy, at least we don't have a zero-tolerance one.

All this ties into a perceived notion of requiring leadership - an idea that is rapidly gaining ground at virtually all Occupy locations. Many feel that with these growing safety concerns we must find a way of strengthening a core group that will be leaders. While leader is a term that was avoided purposefully, the positions that were being advocated would cement more concentration of power in individuals. While there are already some informal structures that create hierarchy to a degree, they are very decentralised and thus make a minimal impact. The effects of heavily central power and the formalisation of roles (whether liaison on representative) will only serve to privilege certain people, often who are already quite privileged.

In response to a growing impression that leadership was on the way, there was a meeting last Monday where a small group of us designed an alternative model. We agreed that the atmosphere was becoming more toxic and that the best way to deal with the situation would be to invest time and energy into running camp-wide workshops on self-reflection before general assemblies.

The idea is relatively simple: people are coming to this movement and mentally and physically becoming very tired. Moreover, many in the movement are not applying their critical thinking skills that they devote to the 1 per cent to the 99 per cent. This is terribly problematic, especially when we are in a process of building a community. While we agreed on the idea and announced it throughout the week, it didn't catch on as people seemed dismissive of it. This is going to have some serious long-term consequences.

And now for my final thought: messages. Occupy has been criticised by the media everywhere for failing to have answers. This line of thinking has penetrated Ottawa's camp and is now taking over the discourse. This, of course, despite the purpose of Occupy to merely bring attention to the gross inequalities in our system. I fully oppose presenting a platform or list of demands. This movement, as one of my professors eloquently put it, is about "changing the channel". This resounded with me and made me think of this picture from Occupy San Diego.

I don't know where this movement is going in the short term, but I intend to stay involved and help keep this movement from slipping into hierarchy, exclusion, and ultimately failure. Stay tuned.

Friday, 21 October 2011

Reflections on Occupy Ottawa

Yesterday was the first day since the movement started on Saturday that I did not participate. Occupy Ottawa is part of the Occupy Together Movement, which started in New York, and has drawn more than 500 people to the park daily.

Having been very involved in the protest for the past week, I would like to offer some insights into my experiences - just a simple reflection, if you will.

To start off, I think it would be worthwhile dispelling some of the unfortunate propaganda that's been flying around in the media. For the most part, the movement was ignored. Although the protests in the United States started in September, it was nearly three weeks later that coverage made it into television newscasts, radio announcements, or the newspapers.

Social networking sites were the main source of information, though there was certainly interference collaboratively from Facebook, Twitter, Yahoo, and the police, attempting to censor information both at its origin (on the streets of New York) and its distribution (on the internet). Overwhelmingly, this was photographs and video. There are thousands of pictures of protesters having their cameras snatched from them (often by force). Similarly, Facebook has made certainly pictures just disappear. Thankfully, a critical mass of support was reaches in early October, and now instead of ignoring the movement, the media had to at least address it.

With the rise in awareness came the spread of the movement internationally. This past Saturday, 15 September, similar movements sprouted across the globe. There are now more than 600 locations located in more than 80 countries. That is absolutely phenomenal.

As for the aims of the movement itself: this has been a source of real controversy. Broadly, it is about the growing disparity between the so-called "haves" and the "have-nots". In the movement, this has been framed by the 1 per cent and the 99 per cent. This has, naturally, garnered some significant criticism, not the least of which is that by virtue of living in North America you are definitely not living in abject poverty. Nevertheless, this movement attempts to raise awareness of a collusion of social, political, economic, and environmental factors that have devastating effects for everyone in our communities, whether regional, national, or international.

It's important, then, to look at just who is participating. It's truly a cross-section of societies. Homeless, environmentalists, LGBTQ persons, women, socialists, communists, veterans,  immigrants, students, elderly, unemployed, underemployed, professors, politicians, writers, artists, and the list goes on literally forever..... because it includes everyone. At the General Assembly meeting on Wednesday at Occupy Ottawa, we agreed that even Stephen Harper would have a voice if he were to drop by.

As someone who has participated not only in the decisionmaking processes (I attend the General Assembly meetings in addition to being someone involved in the Education Committee and the Non-Violent Direct Action Committee) but also in the day-to-day affairs of the movement, I can say that it is both thoroughly engaging, and very empowering. While there are agonising hours spent building consensus, it is at the same time inspiring to see true direct democracy that is not a tyranny of the majority or the minority. This movement is often criticised for not standing for something - and that claim is ludicrous. Occupy Together is about working collaboratively and making the decisionmaking process open to everyone and totally transparent. If you don't think that's the case, drop by a protest near you and tell me differently!

All I want to accomplish in writing this is that I hope that after reading my post, you will question what you see in the media. What are they telling you? What are they not representing? What images are being shown? Remember, the 1 per cent are disproportionately represented in government and in the media, and it is in their best interests to portray this movement as illegitimate, incoherent, or immoral. We must fight this labelling!

Here are some interesting links with pictures or video to check out:

Thursday, 13 October 2011

Better to Lie?

I recently saw this ad for Andes Beer posted on a friend's wall. I was surprised not so much at the content (I mean, really, it is a pretty standard dialogue in modern society) but by the person posting it. I don't want to out the individual who posted it, but I will mention that he is someone dedicated to tearing down barriers in our society against race, religion, sex, class, and more. Even more interesting is that he had just posted the clip going around for Miss Representation. To his credit though, the video is no longer on his wall!

So let's take a look at the video. The first thing that comes to mind is this dichotomy of men as oppressed victims and women as possessive and overbearing. It really is ridiculous to see this, given how the reverse is so true (and has been throughout history). Watching the video really made me want to comment on it saying something sarcastic like: "finally, someone is stepping up for the rights of men who are unable to go to the bar!".

Seriously though. Maybe I just don't understand this culture very well. I may well be in the target audience for the beer commercial, but as someone who doesn't particularly enjoy the bar, I think that it's lost on me. I mean, I thought that going out to the club was to pick up, not to just have a friendly drink. So what's the subtext here? Are women limiting their partners' sexual activities? That's entirely laughable when we consider the effort being made throughout the world to control female sexuality.

What's really interesting in this commercial, and there are certainly other elements that I would like to talk about if you comment below, is how international this culture is. Keep in mind that this commercial was produced for Andes, an Argentinian brewery. Notice how similar (or perhaps how "western") this representation of Argentinian culture is? With many people from across the political spectrum declaring that feminism is dead or that sexism doesn't exist anymore, it's really important to understand where the spaces for inequality still exist.

Many people determine inequality based on law. In many jurisdictions in the world, women and men, at least on paper, have the same rights. However, that just means that capital, social relations, various media, and religion are now spaces where women are unequal. Think about these examples:

What good does having equal access to the courts mean if a woman is unemployed and can't afford to go to court?

What good does the right to have an abortion do when a woman's family will not support the decision?

What good does the right to run for office mean when a woman is belittled for her clothing or hairstyle in the evening news?

What good does equality do when a woman is told by her congregation that her role is centred on the family?

I hope you will thoroughly consider these - especially the ties that are made back to the particular media I have highlighted in this post. I want to quickly point out one more thing, though.

My partner showed my the Everything I Do Is Wrong campaign as well, which again paints women as irrational and oppressive, and men as victims and in need of banding together to protect their interests. Thankfully, due to much public pressure, the California Milk Board pulled the advertisements, though not without a ridiculous controversy and claiming that "some people found it funny". It was a weak apology. My hope is that together we can stop making beer commercials about ridiculous premises such as the oppression of men by women. And maybe get a good apology while we are at it?

Saturday, 8 October 2011


Recently, I came across this really interesting game, Spent. It was posted on a site that my partner and I love to check out, called I really encourage you to take a few minutes to sit down and try to play this game. The most important part of it is to be honest with your answers and make it as realistic as possible.

The premise of the game is remarkably simple - it's a flash-based interface that asks you some challenging questions about how to avoid running out of money. You are a single parent who has just lost their job. You have to take a job working in either the service industry, a factory, or as a temp, all for minimum wage, while trying to stay afloat.

Poverty in North America is a tough road. I really can't explain in text how awful it is, and I'm exceptionally lucky to be where I am in life, a professional student of eight years, and still not be in debt. But the reality for a growing number of Americans and Canadians is that they cannot make ends meet.

The corrosion of great public programmes for basics (such as social housing) is devastating to the collective well-being of our society. When combined with more competition for lower waged work, particularly in the wake of the recession, life becomes unlivable for many. As the game highlights, those in poverty are more likely to be unhealthy, depressed, unable to access medical care or legal help, living in fear of losing their homes or their jobs, using illegal substances or alcohol, and often suffering alone or in silence.

Fighting poverty is one of the most basic social justice needs out there. It's a straightforward cause in and of itself, but what's more: it's intimately connected to a variety of other social issues. Poverty is far more likely to strike ethnic minorities, women, single parents, people with disabilities, people with poor mental health, or LGBTQ North Americans.

As such, combating poverty requires some reeducation on how unjust our modern capitalist society is. Again, since I'm a teacher and a strong advocate of publicly owned and operated infrastructure, I see this as the prerogative and the great responsibility of the state. Ontario, and many other provinces, have curricula that emphasise social justice and critical analysis of modern society. However, it is always up to the discretion of the individual teacher - many of whom don't have the skills needed to be fair and critical. It's time for some change here....

Something that has been in the news a lot in the Ontario Election was the issue of teacher training being extended to become a two-year programme. I wholeheartedly support the shift to spending more of an effort preparing our future teachers to be able to be effective in the classroom. But the issue is not having teachers get more experience, it's about spending more of an effort training them how to think critically. As a graduate of York University, I am fully aware of just how central the inclusive teaching practices are to being a great teacher. It's what education needs to be to keep Ontario at the top of the best education systems in North America.

I find it hard to find a better purpose in life than to make the word a fairer, greener, and more prosperous place. Let's put people before profits and fight for a tomorrow worth living in. Fight inequality by opening your mind and realising that living in poverty is not a choice or that people deserve it. Poverty happens because our system is designed to make it happen. That needs to change.

Thursday, 8 September 2011

Education and Provincial Politics

It has been a pretty interesting year for politics - just a year ago we had some very significant municipal elections nationwide, in May we witnessed the federal election which brought the Conservatives to power in a majority government, and now we are only a month away from an Ontario provincial election.

I can't help but feel exhausted when thinking about another election campaign. And I'm someone who enjoys the culture of politics in Canada immensely. It gets me thinking about our nation's political landscape, more specifically the realities of federalism in our country. With the turnover for our governments being so short and with the presence of three layers, it is not surprising that not only are people overwhelmed, but they are also rather confused about everything from political parties, to how different levels of government interact, to how elections work. It's enough to cause some serious headaches for many.

One of the biggest solutions to this problem is also one of the parts of our public infrastructure that is under threat in Ontario: education. I aim to talk about both public education and post-secondary education in this post, but I will try to stay concise and focused.

Let's start with the post-secondary education system. In Ontario, we have a mixed private-public partnership for operating and funding universities. While tuition in Ontario is relatively inexpensive when compared to tuition in the United States, the province actually ranks LAST in terms of cross-Canada rankings. What's interesting is that fees have also gone up substantially in the past fifteen years, easily outpacing inflation. That previous link is to an HRDC report which outlines many stats about affordability, including the effects of students carrying more debt on average.

While this is a trend that is nationwide, Ontario has been particularly hard hit. The tuition freeze in Ontario has been a contentious issue, with the Liberals oscillating on what is to be done. While the modest growth in the cost of going to school is viewed as unfair by most students, there is a growing demand for tuition fees to be decreased. Unfortunately, universities have been underfunded by successive governments, there is an increase in private funding. The privatisation of public institutions should be worrisome for a wide variety of reasons, not the least of which being that it generally results in university being less affordable, particularly for those who are already economically marginalised in our society.

Privatisation of course carries other problems, and the one that I think is dangerous is a change in the way that curricula are developed. This has been an exceptional problem in a lot of schools in the United States, prompting a leading writer on eduction Martha Nussbaum to pen Not For Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities. While I have yet to read this book, I managed to catch an interview by Michael Enright of CBC's The Sunday Edition. In this segment, she argued very articulately that liberal arts programmes in America (and by extension Canada) are facing a crisis of funding. In many colleges and universities the curriculum is being modified so that students in programmes such as business or engineering are no longer being forced to take credits in philosophy, languages, or history, where they would be subject to learning about ethics, perspective, or the ongoing struggle for social justice. Nussbaum's main thrust is that it is a grave error to support technical skills while leaving out critical thinking, something which, as a social scientist, I agree with wholeheartedly. One of the strongest pillars of our democracy is our schools.

What's fascinating here is that a new book written by two Canadian university professors called Campus Confidential: 100 startling things you don’t know about Canadian universities has a chapter devoted to the scary trend that universities and colleges are rapidly becoming very similar. This, in my opinion, is a significant problem of universities becoming increasingly larger and run for profit. Moreover, its emblematic of the fact that universities now are in the business of acting as a career path, not a path for enlightenment or self-discovery.

So, what about public education? Well, all I really have to say about this is let's keep looking at the effects of cuts and privatisation at the post-secondary level. If we are unhappy with where our colleges and universities are going, then we need to rally behind strong public schools. For more information about privatisation in schools, have a look at some of the following non-academic resources:

The Canada eZine - Education
Canadian Dimension
ETFO - Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario
Canadian Union of Public Employees

Let's make sure this is a campaign issue that gets a lot of attention. Talk to your MPP or find your candidates!

Sunday, 28 August 2011

If The Olympics Made Us Prouder Canadians.....

When I woke up on Monday morning to the news of Jack Layton's untimely death, I was completely devastated. My first thought was that I was not in Ottawa when it happened, which made me feel the loss even hard. However, I was fortunate enough that a state funeral was held for him in his home city of Toronto, and I was able to attend with the help of the local NDP Riding Associations.

Getting on the bus yesterday morning was such a fantastic experience. I rekindled relationships with members of the party I haven't seen since the 2008 Federal Election. It made me really think about our conceptualisation of democracy as citizens - that elections are neat bookends and that in between it's not our job to act. For Jack, there was never rest. Trying to change our political, social, and economic systems is a venture that simply has no breaks. Sadly, it took such a devastating event to make us realise this. I hope that the energy that people put into memorialising such a great life will be channelled to make our country a better place.

What probably struck me most - out of the whole experience - was walking to City Hall at Nathan Phillips Square to see the messages of hope and remembrance written on the cold concrete landscape. I took a quick moment to write my own very brief tag, one that read "May your legacy inspire". My voice was lost in a sea of outpouring, but I still felt that others would be moved, as I was moved by others.

While I was taken aback by almost everything I experienced, I would like to cast some light on what I thought was so interesting and lovely about the events. I would like to say that seeing so many people.... tens of thousands of them..... gather together to celebrate a great Canadian was incredibly moving. Regardless of people's political stripes they were there to support someone who mixed honour with politics. Someone who strove to make lives materially better for millions of people in our country. And you could see it by what was said, and by the looks on people's faces, or by what they were saying.

But I think what spoke loudest - to me anyway - was the sheer diversity of people around me, all laughing and crying - remembering and envisioning - together. I sat between a same sex couple, immigrants that barely spoke English, people with an array of disabilities, children, the elderly, Muslims and Christians and aetheists. Everyone celebrating together in what I can only say that Jack's memory can do. It's amazing to think about how divisive and negative politics can be - no other figure in recent history could have garnered this support. It made me feel bad for a brief second when I saw Stephen Harper sitting uncomfortably in the audience. I wondered if he was thinking: "would this be how I'd be remembered?"

I wish that I could write more about Jack, but I'll leave that to the eulogist, NDP statesman and activist Steven Lewis.

"Never in our collective lifetime have we seen such an outpouring, so much emotional intensity, from every corner of this country. There have been occasions, historically, when we've seen respect and admiration but never so much love, never such a shocked sense of personal loss.

Jack was so alive, so much fun, so engaged in daily life with so much gusto, so unpretentious, that it was hard while he lived to focus on how incredibly important that was to us, he was to us. Until he was so suddenly gone, cruelly gone, at the pinnacle of his career.

To hear so many Canadians speak so open-heartedly of love, to see young and old take chalk in hand to write without embarrassment of hope, or hang banners from overpasses to express their grief and loss. It's astonishing.

Somehow Jack connected with Canadians in a way that vanquished the cynicism that erodes our political culture. He connected whether you knew him or didn't know him, whether you were with him or against him.

Jack simply radiated an authenticity and honesty and a commitment to his ideals that we know realize we've been thirsting for. He was so civil, so open, so accessible that he made politics seem so natural and good as breathing. There was no guile. That's why everybody who knew Jack recognized that the public man and the private man were synonymous.

But it obviously goes much deeper than that. Jack, I think, tapped into a yearning, sometimes ephemeral, rarely articulated, a yearning that politics be conducted in a different way, and from that difference would emerge a better Canada"

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Politics and Public Broadcasting

CBC/Radio-Canada just announced today that former Bloc Québecois leader Gilles Duceppe will be participating once weekly on a daily programme on on La Première Chaine. I stumbled upon this because I am a fan of CBC on Facebook, and I was appalled at the responses from Anglo Canadians. My favourite being:

"this makes my head explode .... how much more $$$$ does the ROC have to "give" this man - whose whole political life has been spent trying to rip this country apart ... the whole thing disgusts me. "

But why the hate? In a poll conducted for the 2008 General Election, CBC reported that Duceppe was an "elegant separatist" with an impressive political background dating back to 1997 when he became party leader. Unlike many other Québec nationalists, he has managed to gain some popularity outside of Québec, mostly because of his fervent criticism of liberals and conservatives alike. In the past decade the Bloc has become increasingly renowned for its social democratic principles than for its desire to break out of confederation, and this is owing to Duceppe's leadership. The idea being that if Québec is not going to legally secede from Canada, then the Bloc should be a voice of representation in parliament.

And with respect to the financing issue, all Québec residents who pay their federal taxes fund the CBC/Radio-Canada. Since approximately 40 per cent of Québecers support sovereignty and social democracy, it only seems fair that the organisation is selected Duceppe to host a show in that market. This hasn't stopped large Anglo news agencies from attacking the move, such as the Toronto Sun.

So why don't we delve deeper into Duceppe's past to figure just what about him irks non-Francophones? Well, as soon as I started investigating this, I determined that it has a lot less to do with him and a lot more to do with a few other variables.

First, the longstanding Anglo-French rift in Canada. It is no surprise that the disdain directed at Duceppe is mostly because he is a symbol of this divide. I think it would be counter-productive to go on a diatribe about French-English relations in our country, but it's important to consider that this has been, and most likely will continue to be, a sensitive issue for most Canadians.

However, equally important seems to be the legitimacy of having a separatist party in our federal legislature. And of course this point is tied to the first - people seem to have trouble recognising that Québec wants to, and should have every right to, represent their interests as best as they can in parliament. We tend to forget that other political parties often have bases of support that are very regional in nature, for example, the NDP historically. A good example of this is the 1972 Federal Election, where the NDP didn't win any votes east of Ontario. The reality is this, Canada: we very rarely have political parties that can represent the will of Canadians across the country.

Given that Canada is federated (click here to learn more about federalism) we should invest in our regional differences, not look for reasons to introduce a monoculture. And if that's the case, the CBC, which is a public, national broadcaster, should certainly promote a show that is hosted by Duceppe.

What it all seems to come down to ultimately is that parliament doesn't have the right to select who should be on the radio. While the CBC/Radio-Canada is a public enterprise, it'll ultimately be listeners who decide whether or not Duceppe will make a good host. Looking forward to your first show, Mr. Duceppe.

Thursday, 28 July 2011

Magnum. Concealed Weapon?

I recently stumbled across this very interesting ad. After experiencing the thrill of the "Pleasure Hunt", I thought I'd write a few words about the trend of games and marketing.

While listening to an episode of CBC Radio's Spark, I learned that it is becoming increasingly more popular for people in the promotion industry to lead up to the release of games and movies with intense puzzles and adventures. What's truly fascinating is that they generally tend to get more and more realistic and more and more involving, often to the point where contestants are getting into trouble in order to win a contest or find some key information.

A good case is Dr. Pepper's 2007 stunt in Boston, a story which I am borrowing from Terry O'Reilly's Age of Persuasion. A treasure hunt was launched with a grand prize of a gold coin worth $10 000. Unfortunately, the planners chose an ancient burial ground as the hiding place, causing much controversy and leading eventually to the event being cancelled.

This is a good example of what has been called "guerrilla marketing". O'Reilly identifies this phenomenon as having four key components:

1) garners attention
2) doesn't involve traditional media
3) isn't an ad
4) would be considered unconventional

Although we should be careful when talking about this, because we can take other stunts, like the original Terry Fox Marathon of Hope and say it conforms to this model. A good question to ask is whether or not there are key differences between campaigns that are for raising money for charity, advertising a product, or performing a public service announcement.

Obviously this isn't entirely new. It is also obvious that this is something that is going to continue to evolve as the media it uses changes. One of my favourite authors, Naomi Klein, writes that guerrilla marketing is part of an intensifying trend of brands to push the envelope ever further.

So let's get back to the Magnum advert to find out exactly makes it so powerful?

The first element that I will point to is the notion of challenge and high score. This instantaneously adds a new dimension. Rather than watching, you are engaging with, the media. Moreover, you are evaluated at the end and given the choice to try again or invite your friends. Not only will the average person who completes the task likely opt to better their score, they are more than likely to challenge a someone they know, thus exposing the advertisement to new eyes.

Another interesting component is that by interacting with the ad, the audience is experiencing something called synaesthesia - a condition where one sense elicits others. Play generally makes people remember and learn better than by watching and listening. This kinaesthetic experience means that the audience has a deeper and potentially longer lasting bond with the content, most likely far higher than through watching a commercial.

Finally, since we are living in a society awash in ads, this game allows for a seed to be planted that can be reaped later. After playing the "Pleasure Hunt", I have been much more aware of ads I see elsewhere for Magnum, meaning that I have now attached an experience, however trivial, with that product. And that is something invaluable for the producers of the product and marketing I've consumed.

Ultimately, we have to remember that the great Canadian media theorist Marshall McLuhan remarked that "advertising is the greatest art form of the twentieth century".

Monday, 4 July 2011


I have been really interested lately in commercials for a new television show that is supposed to premier this fall. Person of Interest, which will be broadcast by CBS on Thursdays, is about surveillance of the public by the state.

While I would certainly agree that there is an unprecedented amount of surveillance in our society today, I would have to question the sentiment that monitoring is malevolent. In fact, the City of London has recently seen the addition of an extensive closed-circuit television system to its already substantial network of surveillance equipment. While many have characterised this move as fashioned after Big Brother, I think it is important to consider the benefits of surveillance while in public, such as providing evidence in crimes. However, this surveillance is by no means the only undertaken by the state. There is a variety of ways in which authorities surveille the populace.

What is more interesting is the private/public partnership going on. There is no central bureaucracy overseeing the cameras - that work is contracted out to private firms. Of course, there isn't much of an impetus for these private firms to do anything other than to watch over the streets. But what about other corporations and surveillance?

I think that I speak for everyone when I remark that it's absolutely awesome when you start typing in Google and it knows what you are looking for. It's almost like Google is your best friend - someone who knows you so well that he or she can finish your sentences. Well, the way it can actually tell what you want is because Google is actually surveilling you. Googlisation is a term I came across when listening to CBC Radio's Spark a few weeks ago. Google not only plays the role of selecting what comes up when we start typing, but it also chooses what to give you when the list comes up. It collects this information by tracking what we do as individuals and matching the trends with other people from our region and who have similar interests. Of course it is convenient and attractive - but perhaps so much so that it is actually problematic.

What are the effects of Googlisation? Siva Vaidhyanathan provides what he calls an "unquestioning trust in Google", a sense that it plays a mystical role in our life. This happens to the point where we often fail to ask "hard questions" about what information is given to us and, more importantly, what information is omitted. He talks about how Google satisfied our perceived needs too well - a problem particularly when it comes to using it to find information. Remember, Google is giving you information for what it thinks you want, but not necessarily what you need. What really troubles me is how often people use Google for serious questions, such as climate change.

With respect to privacy, many of you may be surprised to hear that Google's philosophy is that "we ask you to give up a little bit of your privacy for a better user experience". Vaidhyanathan critiques this by stating that privacy is not a measurable currency that we can give up to trade for convenience.

Of course I don't want to be too hard of Google. In fact, it is one of the most useful organisations on the web, one that is used by virtually everyone around the world. What I aim to achieve in this post is not to say "don't use Google", but to implore people to use it more carefully. I know that I have in the past few weeks. The internet is a fascinating place, but we have to keep in mind that it is slowly being devoured by corporations. While Google's actions may surprise you, remember that their services are free and that they do make the internet a pretty great place - Youtube, my email, and this blog are all powered by Google.

I hope that you are armed so that the next time someone complains about the state acting like Big Brother you can tell them that corporations do it as well. It's really up to you to decide which is worse: the City of London or Google for watching your every move.

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Pull Over

Last Friday I was caught in a speed trap on Main Street in Ottawa. Unfortunately, I was going 58 in a 50 zone. I was also taking up the full lane so that I could not be passed. That's right, I was pulled over while cycling. Although I've been pulled over before, it's always been in a car. So this was really something new - and a real lesson in how law enforcement view cyclists.

When I came to the speed trap, I was ordered to the side of the road by the officer. He asked me why I was taking up the whole lane. I told him that one of the safest practices on a road for a cyclist is to take as much room as you need so that if you get into a tricky situation, you have somewhere to go other than an endo. He didn't really appreciate my response and said that motorist find it annoying when they can't pass a slow cyclist. My response was that I was speeding, so I should hope that nobody aimed to be passing me. Moreover, the road has two lanes in either direction, giving virtually any vehicle plenty of room to pass.

What I found most unfortunate about this encounter was the attitude which the officer took. He felt as though he should be lecturing me as a cyclist, and he framed everything from the point of safety. As much as I can appreciate that concern, there is nobody on the road more aware of my safety than I am.

He also didn't seem to mind applying some misguided stereotypes. He asked me if I was a "professional", to which I replied that I compete. Then he told me that we think we "rule the road" and that we are a "nuisance". While I will agree that many professionals are not good ambassadors for cyclists, there is no group that is any better or worse than others. I have seen cyclists from many groups - couriers, professionals, commuters, recreationers - who respect the rules of the road and share the space allotted to them. Naturally, I have seen people from all of these groups act in ways that are dangerous and disrespectful.

He told me that he was not going to fine me, but he did tell me that the Ottawa Police Service does routinely hand out infractions. We had a positive discussion at that point agreeing that cyclists should be given tickets for disobeying the rules of the road. Common infractions include biking on the sidewalk, failing to stop for a traffic light or stop sign, and cutting other vehicles off. We both agreed at that point that I may have been speeding, but not enough to warrant a ticket. And since I certainly wasn't blocking traffic, there was no need for me to be penalised.

I think that one of the major points on which the officer and I agreed was that we both felt that many cyclists take both their safety and their place on the road for granted. As a cyclist, you may feel that you are in the right sometimes, but remember that in a collision, your chances of survival are significantly lesser than someone in a vehicle. With respect to our place on the road, I'm of the opinion that we must earn it, just like someone driving a car. Licences and registrations for cyclists should be introduced, with the money that is collected going toward maintaining and expanding infrastructure. Remember, cyclists only fund the roads they ride if they have a car.

When all was said and done, I think I may have changed his perspective slightly. And that is all due to the fact that I showed the officer respect so that he may also respect me. I hope that everyone out there - pedestrian, motorist, or cyclist - knows that the road must be shared. Let's work together to keep them safe through respect and awareness.

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Power Politics

In 2005 the Government of Ontario's Energy Ministry decided to open a new gas-fired power plant. After surveying potential sites, sections of land along the shore in Mississauga and Oakville were selected. Following five years of organised resistance, these two communities were able to change the government's mind. As a result, other communities that had been shortlisted were now reselected. Currently, there is discussion around finding a suitable location in the Greater Toronto Area.

I was listening to CBC's "Ontario Today" and I was dismayed at the discussion generated around this issue. The question seemed to be around where it could be moved and how it could be stopped. Essentially, ignoring the greater question of the our needs, both perceived and real, for electricity and what needs to be done to satisfy them.

The most significant problem with the discourse is around location. The community solidarity is impressive, but the way it is framed is interesting - it wasn't about saying no to building more plants, it was saying no to building a plant in a specific community. This notion of "not in my backyard" is problematic, as it means that some people deserve to live near a hazard while others, presumably those with less money, have to. This is obviously unacceptable, but it is a reality. Communities with lower incomes (often with less access to resources, less free time, less sympathy from the press, less skilled leaders etc) generally have much less ability to mobilise and keep hazards out.

So that leads to the next logical question: If we can't find a reasonable place for a plant, then how do we move forward? It makes sense that if nobody wants to take on the hazard, then the conversation should centre on conservation. As it stands, coal and gas plants (such as the proposed one in the GTA) are only designed to provide relief in the summer. The current logic behind the Ministry of the Environment's push for gas-fired plants is based on idea that in the summer demand for power peaks, so gas-fired plants are supposed to provide this extra seasonal supply. Ontario Power Generation, which supplies the province with electricity, relies on nuclear power for about 41 per cent of its energy, hydroelectric damns for about 23 per cent, and coal and gas for just less than 20 per cent. While the nuclear and hydroelectric plants run at roughly the same level continuously, coal and gas fired plants are designed to meet demand.

With this in mind, why don't we focus the question on the supply and demand of electricity? While there is much controversy around methods of generation such as nuclear, geothermal, and hydroelectric, there are virtually no real advocates of coal and gas fired plants. If this is the case, then perhaps the province's plan should rely on using wind and solar energy during peak demand in the summer. Both have shown significant growth in reliability and quality in the past decades, and both are affordable and ecological. Perhaps the best part of the pairing of wind and solar is that there generally at least one is always going to be harnessable.

Moreover, in the coming months residents of the GTA will hopefully come to realise that the power they use comes from somewhere, but only if they take the initiative to go online to their local supplier or to an excellent site called the International Energy Agency. While this may certainly spur movements to tell the government to find another place to get power, I would be far more pleased to see a growth in conversation about finding ways to be more responsible with our energy usage.

We all have a part to play in being smart about our energy consumption. There are plenty of great resources out there to help you find better ways to consume power. Conservation really isn't difficult either, as you will find if you check out this great link.

Thursday, 2 June 2011


I just recently read a book that many of you have heard of. It's called The Book of Awesome, based off the 1000 Awesome Things site. This book has been championed by many as an excellent self-help resource. Moreover, it's connected with Maxwell House for its Brew Some Good campaign. Essentially, this two-pronged attack is supposed to help make us realise that there is so much out there to make us happy.

Just what is it out there that we are so worried about? According to the introductory paragraph of 1000 Awesome Things:

"Polar ice caps are melting, hurricanes swirl in the seas, wars are heating up around the world, and the job market is in a deep freeze. That's why one chilly spring night I started a tiny website called 1000 awesome things."

Interesting. So this project, which is framed as an "escape", is essentially designed to help us find distractions in a world where we need to stop ignoring the awful. Not surprisingly, many of the 1000 awesome things that he refers to relate in some way or another to consumption. Some leading examples include: "When the vending machine gives you two things instead of one", "Getting gas just before the price goes up", "Having a whole row to yourself on a flight", or "Eating a free sample of something you have no intention of buying".

Not only are all of these things related to consumption, they are also very Anglocentric. The way that this book is written, many of these short summaries of awesome things sound incredibly attractive, even when I'm trying to read them critically. As someone who has grown up in North America, all of these examples appeal to my upbringing - such as living in a house, not an apartment; or driving a car, not taking public transit. Interestingly enough, he combines these two quite nicely in "Driving through your old neighbourhood and stopping to see the house you grew up in".

To get to my point, though. While I certainly don't want people to overlook the small things that make us happy, I question the message that this book sends about happiness in our lives. Rather than being happy about resolving conflicts, fighting inequality, or working towards making our lives more sustainable, this book teaches us that what matters is the little things like finding money in your coat pocket or eating fries. Also, it seems that happiness is something that happens to us as individuals, not something shared with others. This compartmentalisation is very harmful because it disconnects us from others, preventing people from working together.

While there are certainly good examples from the book that emphasise relationships with others or getting in touch with the environment, these make up such a small component of the project. And what's more, this book is a best seller, it's tied into a marketing campaign for coffee, and is even being used in schools!! I know that the author isn't consciously writing to pacify us - in fact, I would suggest that this is just a byproduct of our society constantly drilling this into us. Just thing - would it not be an amazing idea of someone were to come up with a site that was devoted to the awesome things that we could achieve collectively to make our world a truly better place? Let's get started!

Sunday, 22 May 2011

Draw Muhammed Day

20 May was the second annual "International Draw Muhammed Day". On this day people across the world hide behind the cloak of free speech to attack Islam. I have included the link here, but I would caution against following this unless you are certain not to be offended by images of Muhammed.

Just to set the scene, I think a lot of people misunderstand what exactly the rub is for Muslims about drawing Muhammed. It's not so much about respecting the guy in some odd way as it is potentially undermining a central tenet, or mystery if you will, of their religion. As much as Christians might say "Jesus lives in all of us", the point of the faceless Muhammed is to lead Muslims to the understanding that all of us are Muhammed. You don't draw Muhammed because Muhammed is everyone - his identity as a historical figure transformed into a spiritual concept, in a similar fashion as Jesus (though with obviously different methodology and dogma). So while they may certainly be irked that people are disrespecting their beliefs and tradition, the main issue for them is the concern for their religion itself being undermined should the practice become widespread. At the same time coming out and saying that would be undermining one of the mysteries of their faith, so they're rather stuck seeming even more irrational than usual about the matter. You can find out more about Islam at the following link - just keep an open mind:

Broadly, the images attack a variety of conservative and radical elements of Islam, notably the oppression of women and the rise of fundamentalist terrorism. While it would be legitimate to point out the existence of these phenomena, to paint all of Islam in a negative light is really unfair and unjust. To take the two aforementioned examples (sexism and fundamentalism), it is clear that the Muslim world isn't the only place where these are happening. However, our Western ethnocentrism makes it incredibly easy to "other" Muslims as attribute these terrible things as part of Islam.

What needs to stop, in my opinion, is the polarisation between the West as tolerant and rational and the Islamic world as suspect, backward, and prone to fundamentalism. I think it is perfectly acceptable for Muslims to rebuke their own religion, but for non-Muslims to do it is another story - it is judgmental and dismissive. In the event that a non-Muslim is going to make critical commentary on the religion, I would expect it to be respectful and productive, not inciting hatred and provoking a violent or aggravated response.

Sunday, 15 May 2011

My Explore

In 2008 I participated in a nationwide exchange called My Explore. For six weeks I lived in Saguenay, Québec with a host family attending an immersion programme at the local university. Looking back on this adventure, I've always characterised it as out of the ordinary. However, lately I've come to rethink my ideas of exploration and adventure because its literally right in front of us on a daily basis.

Since relocating last summer, I've been incredibly lucky to call a city like Ottawa home - with hundreds of kilometres of dedicated bike paths, a phenomenal system of public transportation, and a plethora of waterways, forests, and parks. In the nine months I've lived here, I feel like I have a solid understanding of my surroundings, but I haven't stopped learning and exploring - nor will I because there is so much to see and experience.

It's unfortunate, in my opinion, that there is such alienation in our society. Notions of community have been on decline for the past century in North America, eroding our vital social networks. Although we, as a society, have been forced into these conditions, it is important to fight back where we can. Get to know where you live and the people that share your environment. You will be surprised at how little you probably know about the world around you. There is a spinoff benefit to this - strong connections to community make you happier and healthier and also give you a support network so that you can make where you live a better place.

And that brings me to a point I've been pondering the past few days. I know that many people my age feel compelled to go abroad in order to find themselves or in order to gain a wealth of new experience. I am sceptical. Never in history has so much technology allowed us such limitless opportunity to understand our world. Simultaneously, however, we have never been so disconnected physically from our natural and social surroundings. Although I totally approve of going abroad for the right reasons - to volunteer or to have a truly culturally unique experience, I have to say that there are many needy causes here and all the "new" that you want to see is around us. We have such rich diversity - whether of culture or religion, or of experience or perception. It's a real shame that we throw up walls instead of forming meaningful relationships with others.

In getting back to the point, I would like to issue a small challenge to those of you who may stumble across this. Take an adventure this week - alone and without a book or an iPod.

Step one: Use a bike or public transit (which are both less expensive and more fun as getting there is an activity in itself) and go somewhere nearby - it could be a place you know well or someplace undiscovered.

Step two: Try to engage someone in a conversation - perhaps someone you wouldn't ordinarily talk to, but only if you feel comfortable (safety is key).

If you find this rewarding and enriching, just keep doing it again and with your friends. There really are exciting, affordable, and sustainable means for leisure out there. You just have to try. Hope you enjoy Your Explore. For more information, check out Jane’s Walk - for walkable neighbourhoods, urban literacy, cities planned for and by people.

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Young Capitalists

I remember that when I was young it was always a special day when I got to stay home from school. Whatever the reason, one thing was always for certain. I would get to watch the Price is Right.

Recently, I began to watch this show again. My interest in it now is quite different. Where I used to marvel at the prizes, now I am enthralled by the very idea of this game. The issue that I take with the Price is Right is that it builds young capitalists - and in a unique way that is not really matched elsewhere.

So let's start off with the basics. The Price is Right is about winning prizes. Right? Well, although that is true, it is centred (as the title suggests) on knowing the price for a wide variety of goods and services. Accordingly, this show helps to shape, even from a young age, notions of value. Rather than teaching people that value is a social construct, the Price is Right reinforces the "absolute" nature of value. This differentiation is quite important - it promotes the supremacy of the capitalist system by affixing concrete monetary value to all things.

Obviously, the Price is Right isn't the only place that reinforces notions of value, status symbols, or a wide array of other facets of our advanced individualist and capitalist system. Young people are indoctrinated into our system with allowances from parents, with various programmes in school, with television advertisements, and through conversations with peers. However, none of these other media have the same impact as the Price is Right. Although contestants and the audience are always trying to estimate the price (which is the goal is every single challenge), there are millions of people who are playing alone at home, yelling at their televisions. And again, youth make up a good component of this group.

The most unfortunate part of this socialisation is that it is so subtle. Since the Price is Right is a game show, the focus is on "entertainment", and serious questions surrounding indoctrination of young people will be invariably met with dismissal. The show and the network have been making a mint on the idea for decades, and the companies who showcase their products have a vested interest in disguising their marketing as "entertainment".

With all of this said, I still find the show interesting. And often I find myself enraptured by the game - all the while forgetting that I am being told how to fit into our economic system. And that is how powerful the Price is Right is when it comes to socialising us about value and the American dream.

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Debriefing the Election

I've been struggling the past few days with the results of the election. I felt overwhelmed on election night, but this feeling has subsided to a certain degree.

In talking to friends, I've discovered that everyone seems to be dissatisfied with the result. But this is most likely because people in my demographic - young Canadians - denounce the Conservatives. Unfortunately, many youth are apathetic or mislead into thinking that their voices aren't important. Even though all of my friends voted (in two ridings that were extremely close last year), we failed to achieve positive change. After an involved discussion last night over beer, it became obvious why this is occurring. Although none of my friends in Kitchener-Waterloo voted Conservative, our votes were split quite evenly amongst the Liberals, the NDP, and the Green Party, and this is roughly what happened in the ridings of Kitchener Centre and Kitchener Waterloo.

Not surprisingly, with less than 40 per cent of the popular vote, Harper managed to gain his coveted majority, winning almost 60 per cent of the seats in Parliament. In my opinion, this isn't democracy. This is a system that distorts the will of the electorate in order to produce a "stable" majority.

Perhaps this is a good place to start if we want to talk about electoral reform. The whole notion of stability in our government is predicated on the "reality" of minority governments as volatile. Canadians have been socialised to believe that minority governments interfere with the nation's ability to grow and move forward. This is simply untrue - minority governments are the best environments for cooperation. While it is certainly true that our system is adversarial and partisan, consecutive minority governments could go a long way to showing the merits of cooperation in Ottawa.

And, as a matter of fact, this has happened elsewhere. Countries such as India, Peru, Sweden, Russia, and Germany have proportional representation. In systems such as these, parties that win 10 per cent of the vote are given 10 per cent of seats. If this system were adopted in Canada, the Green Party would have won not one, but twelve seats. Beyond being more fair, a system such as this would also encourage higher participation, which means more democracy. But perhaps the greatest benefit would be the acknowledgment that majority governments are a thing of the past - and that cooperation amongst parties in the legislature is the only way to make change happen.

Although proportional representation is a great idea, it's important to consider that they are many other great ideas. Tomorrow, 5 May, the United Kingdom is going to hold a referendum on their electoral system, hopefully transitioning from first-past-the-post to something called alternative voting. In this system, you will rank your choices, so that voting strategically and voting for who you want can still happen. For more information, click here.

Thankfully, there are many Canadian organisations that are working hard toward making these changes a reality. A great example is Fair Vote Canada, whom I'd recommend you check out. Ultimately, we need more people to be engaged if we want a great political system and a great country. So spread the word! Don't let the Conservatives tell you that you don't have alternatives, whether in terms of parties or in terms of systems. Let's get out there and make ourselves heard. Even though another federal election is four years away, there are still plenty of ways to get involved.

Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Capitalism, Environmentalism, and Agriculture

You've probably heard the adage that there's more than enough food in the world for everyone, but that the real problem is distribution. This statement, beyond actually being true, is very revealing about Western culture. For modern, industrialised countries, great profits from agriculture - not providing for communal survival - are the goal.

Thus, the explosion of agriculture is an integral part of the world economy. In fact, in Karl Marx's Capital, he explains the notion of value with grain as an example. Since the late 19th century agricultural products have been traded internationally and have been major parts of national revenues. Grain was a staple of the Russian Emipre (and later the Soviet Union). The massive investment in grain allowed the state to trade with Germany and England for steel, which was then used for infrastructural "modernisation".

In the 1920s and 1930s, the emphasis moved away from the state, and toward the corporation, as the engine of the economy. Moreover, since the postwar period, there has been a gradual deregulation and liberalisation of trade. The result has been "globalisation", which is a nebulous term to say the least. Although most disagree about what this word actually means, broadly speaking, it implies two important realities. Firstly, the freedom of capital to move more freely, which creates economic imperialism. Secondly, the proverbial closeness, which has resulted the imposition of Western culture on the rest of the world.

Agribusiness is an excellent example of this. Although there are many outstanding sources that go into great detail on economic imperialism, I am going to focus briefly on the outcome - the proliferation of Western culture. Western cultures have not historically eaten much meat, but the technological advancements made over the twentieth century, combined with huge government subsidies, have created an environment where meat has become inexpensive and plentiful. Various heavyweight companies from North America have set up throughout the world, introducing diets rich in meat to millions of people annually. As a result, more and more livestock are being raised on less and less quality farmland. In fact, much of the deforestation in the Amazon is caused by cattle ranching. It should be quite clear that our current agricultural production, which is centred on meat, is simply unsustainable.

If it is clear that there is a problem, then there needs to be action taken. And here's where there are some significant divergences of opinion. Many advocate for removing products that come from animals from our diets. While this is a noble cause, I disagree that this will create the positive change that we need. Many other agricultural products, particularly soy, cause atrocious environmental destruction - even those who are deemed to be "organic". Beyond pesticide use, industrial farming of vegetables and fruit also creates monocultures, resulting in the loss of biodiversity. Irrigation schemes, such as those of the Southwestern United States have caused natural watersheds to virtually disappear. And to top it off, the average food item purchased at the supermarket has been trucked approximately 3000 km.

This is all to say that a more sensible response to agribusiness is localism. Already, the local movement has been coopted by supermarkets who sell "local" produce. Instead of buying local food from a large conglomerate grocery chain or distributor, we would ideally be purchasing it from a local market. But there are many roadblocks. The first that comes to mind is climate - because nobody in Canada wants to eat rutabaga, carrots, and beets all winter. Just as daunting, there isn't an apparatus available to provide local food in many of the largest or most remote communities. Thankfully, there is technology available such as greenhouses, and there are many initiatives such as community gardens. I would also argue that potentially the best feature of local agriculture is that the livestock are part of smaller herds and are far better cared for. It is important to keep in mind though that meat consumption has to decrease. I recently became a flexitarian - someone with a predominantly vegetarian diet who drastically limits meat consumption. It would certainly be good news if everyone made this positive step.

There are clearly many challenges going forward, but with cooperation and awareness, sustainable agriculture may be closer than we think.

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

On Bike Tax

Recently, I started reading articles on a new site called GOOD. I was surprised to find this ridiculous proposition here. The logic is essentially that since bicycles are vehicles, riders should pay taxes for upkeep. While it is true that in North America car owners pay certain registration fees and taxes that fund public roads, there are several reasons why this is simply unacceptable to impose on cyclists.

Firstly, and perhaps most importantly, a tax on bikes would disincentivise commuters to ride to work as well as people to ride for pleasure. This is very damaging to a positive trajectory in sustainability. Even in a crucial era where making environmentally-conscious choices is absolutely imperative, it is not surprising that there are debates around "foreign" ideas like investing in infrastructure outside of suburbs and SUVs.

For many environmentalists, the answer to the ecological crisis is more technology and more capitalism – a theory known as ecological modernisation. And since there are no great profits for corporations to make, no massive repair and certification industry, and no jobs that are dependent on the manufacture of on bicycles, this sustainable effort is viewed as backward - and dangerous. Considering that the automotive industry, its lobbyists, and its supporters and consumers make up such a substantial number of North Americans, it is not surprising that government is leery of change. James Gustave Speth, an environmental writer and former politician, wrote on the supremacy of the economy (read: jobs), he characterises as “the shared cause of all people on Earth” (read: Americans).

Another problem is that it is unrealistic to ask for cyclists to pay for road upkeep because, generally, roads are maintained for cars and trucks. Very few roads are made to accommodate bikes with dedicated lanes, special paths, or wider shoulders. How are municipalities to collect from cyclists and then invest that money directly or proportionately into amenities for bikes. And frankly, what's next, a tax for pedestrians? According to a variety of lists of bike-friendly cities in North America, even some of the best locales such as Ottawa, Phoenix, Chicago, or Montréal have a mixed bike/car infrastructure at best, but generally favour cars. Regardless, there is still the construction of good infrastructure, like Ottawa's 220km of trails and Montréal's bixi programme.

With respect to enforceability there are some pretty significant problems. While all cars that change hands are recorded by the state, this isn't the case for bicycles. In general, there is no equivalent to pulling a bike out of someone's roadside trash, the prevalence of theft, or getting a barely functioning handmedown from a distant relative. Obviously, we are now in the territory of insurance. Details records are kept on cars because insurance is such an enormous component of the industry - and of course there is no need to regulate the bike industry with safety or insurance measures. And keep in mind that many who ride their bikes already have drivers licences and own cars.

Although the perspective of taxing cyclists is absolutely absurd, it does mean that state and capital are taking cycling far more seriously. Hopefully in the coming years there will be many more locales in Canada and the United States that have transit systems like those in Western Europe. In the meantime, it's worthwhile trying to find ways to make our lives less dependent on cars - whether through public transit, ridesharing, or getting on a bike.