Dispatches from The Swamp – the ‘ not so fast, Not So Fast’ edition

Whether you want to eat it or not.
Whether you want to eat it or not.

I heard an interview with Shira McDermott, Chief Founder and Faster at Not So Fast on CBC with Stephen Quinn. The topic of the interview was Vancouver’s first Kale Drive. Based on the premise that there is lots of kale in people’s gardens right now, the plan, if you can call it that, is to have gardeners harvest their kale and bring it to drop off their unused kale between 10-2 on December 1.* Then they plan to turn the kale into a powder to be then used to ‘fortify’ the community meals made in the DTES. Basically they will bake the kale until it is dried, grind it, and incorporate it into the meals made by community organizations. Sounds like a great plan hey? And, as we all know kale is a ‘superfood’ as McDermott told us over and over again. Although, interestingly, she really didn’t know why kale was called a superfood except, and I quote, ‘it is very nutritional’.

On the surface this sounds like a great idea until you start to dig around a little. Just because some group of well-meaning but oppressive folks decide that people in the DTES need something in their diet does not make it right. In fact, it is extremely oppressive. There are so many assumptions built into this premise but the worst one is based on the idea that we know better than them when it comes to nutrition. We think you need this and we are going to force it on you through your community meals. Did they ask people on the DTES if they want to eat kale? I think not. They are operating from their place of mostly white and middle class privilege. The liberal ‘do-gooder’ attitude is infamous for tromping on people’s agency and dignity.

The kale drive and the force-feeding of kale to people in the DTES is just one aspect of their programming. The idea behind this organization is that people abstain from food (fast) for a specified amount of time or meals and then donate the money they saved by not eating to Not So Fast who then distributes it to food security programs. On the surface, I think it is a ridiculous idea. As you read their their vision statement so many of those same assumptions I referenced above are their foundation:

Our goal at Not So Fast is to encourage communities, and our world, to consume less and give more.

No matter what your status is, there will always be someone who has more than you, and someone who has less.

The Not So Fast idea is all about going with (just a little) less to give someone else a little more. You can give up your favourite treat for a day or make some major lifestyle changes – the choice is yours. In turn, the money you would have spent is donated to Not So Fast or the food charity of your choice.

By donating to Not So Fast, your money goes towards one of several of our grassroots initiatives aimed at arming people of all walks of life to source, prepare, and enjoy the very food many of us take for granted everyday.

Because food for all is a basic human right.

The opening sentence is a noble goal however what it belies is the fact that food insecurity is a systemic issue of injustice in our society. If all of our citizens are to have access to appropriate food there will have to be a major change on the governmental level that would put people before profits and well-being above the bottom line. In short, we would need to get serious about ending poverty in our rich country. Asking people to eat a little less is only reifying the idea that charity can do what government should.

The next statement is extremely problematic. The idea that everyone can give regardless of what they have (or don’t have) is oppressive. How does it make sense that everyone should compromise their access to food no matter how little they have? It also attempts to make people feel guilty for not going without so someone else can have more. Is the single mother on income assistance going to fast so that someone else more needy can have her food? Of course they caveat the fasting regimes with groups of people who should not do it.** But what they fail to realize is that some people will do this regardless of their membership into one of these groups. What if young people with eating disorders use this idea as a way to further restrict food? The problems that could arise are endless. Instead of using a medical doctor they are relying on a naturopathic doctor for their medical information. While I recognize that they likely know a lot about nutrition, I think a medical doctor would be a more credible source.

The thing that disturbs me the most is that they have a store where they are selling journals called “The Little Book Of Less,” a journal for fasters to track their ‘good deeds and keep you on the right path.’ You can buy a single book, a pack of 3 books or a starter pack of 1 book, some pins and magnets. So the question now becomes what is their real purpose? Why would they ask people to spend money on their branded stuff instead of you know tracking things in a spreadsheet on their computers? If they were truly committed to their ‘good deeds’*** why would they be selling anything? They could set up journal and excel templates and offer them for free on their website.

I get that people want to make themselves feel better by trying to do something good in the world. Feeding people who don’t have enough to eat is a noble and lofty goal. However, when your need to do be charitable work compromises another person’s agency it is not a good work; it is oppression.

* At first they contemplated going into people’s gardens at night and stealing it.

** “Children under 13, and women who are pregnant should not fast at all. Pretty much everyone can fast safely for at least one meal, providing you are in good general health. Anyone who is diabetic (type 1 or 2), has cardiac risk factors, history of eating disorders, kidney problems, or other known health concerns should consult with a licensed healthcare provider before considering any type of food fast.”

***The right path as defined by the Not So Fast folks no doubt.

And We Wonder Why So Many Women Died

The ongoing saga of the Missing Women’s Inquiry[1] was dealt another blow this week with pictures of Corporal Jim Brown’s sexual activities being uncovered.[2] The pictures showed the RCMP officer in various sexual situations where women were being dominated and demeaned. In one photo, he has a knife to the neck of a woman. While Brown didn’t play a large role in the investigation, these pictures suggest attitudes that likely affected how vigoursly the Coquitlam RCMP pursued the investigation.

Given the culture of the RCMP, one of misogyny and sexism, it is likely that missing survival sex-trade workers from the Downtown Eastside was not given a high priority. The women all poor, mostly Aboriginal, some addicted to drugs were not deemed a high priority. After all the killings went on for at least a decade. Even though the RCMP knew about what was going on at Piggy’s Palace[3] and they had reports from women they didn’t step in to shut it down. There is speculation now that Jim Brown may have even attended some of those parties.

I can almost hear the hew and cry from the BDSM community about these pictures. The argument will go that he is entitled to a private sex life. And, while that may be so he nonetheless had a responsibility to conduct himself in a reasonable manner. Instead he allowed pictures of him to be taken and displayed on an adult website. This would indicate to me that he sees nothing wrong with holding a knife against a woman’s neck or having his boot on a woman’s back. At the least he has questionable values. The values we hold as human beings inform every single part of our life; they guide what we do and what we deem important. In Jim Brown’s world, women are there to be used, abused and degraded.

Clearly the Missing Women’s Inquiry has not even yet begun to scratch the surface of what went so horribly wrong. Why did so many women have to die? This Inquiry needs to be completely scrapped. At a minimum a new process must be set up with impartial legal personnel who come from an anti-oppressive framework that understands the intersections of class, race, poverty, gender and ethnicity. The dead must be honoured and we must learn lessons from what happened. If we do not take this opportunity the next serial killer will be able to operate just like Pickton did.

[1] The Missing Women’s Inquiry was convened to investigate why it took so long to stop serial killer Robert Pickton who has been convicted in the deaths of 6 women and charged with a further 20.

[2] Interestingly the Vancouver Sun only called them ‘racy.’

[3] A place on the Pickton farm where the brothers held ‘parties’ that featured sex-trade workers from the DTES.

Today in Politics

I love the Supreme Court of Canada (SCC). Today the SCC ruled that closing Vancouver’s supervised injection site would be a violation of peoples’ Charter rights. Basically, it would deny addicts access to heath care that helps keep them safe while they inject the drugs to which they are addicted. More importantly, Insite offers its clients a way out of drug addiction, if they choose. And really, what it all comes down to is choice. Just because people on Vancouver’s DTES are addicted to drugs does not mean that they are lesser citizens of the country. They have a right to appropriate health care for them. If that means that a nurse watches them shoot up to make sure they do it safely and that they do not contract blood-borne diseases then so be it. Apparently the number of new HIV infections among injection drug users is down as are serious infections and other diseases. In spite of the research and the evidence of the positive outcomes of Insight, the Harper Cons do not believe that drug addicts are really people, entitled to appropriate medical care. Luckily for us, the SCC does not have such ideology influencing their decisions.

Has anyone been listening to our Premier Christy Clark lately? I think she is a Stepford-Premier. She is always so happy, happy, happy! And what is making her so happy you ask? Well, it would seem that she is really, really optimistic. Optimistic about what one might ask? Well, we are not really sure. It would seem that she is sure good times are just around the corner. Today speaking to the Union of BC Municipalities convention she gave this speech in which she announced 30 million dollars to help municipalities with recreation facilities. Seriously, we are going to build more swimming pools and arenas when children go to school hungry, without proper clothing and without school supplies. Did she not see the coverage Carrie Gelson received when she sounded the alarm about the state of children in inner-city schools? While recreation facilities are important to communities as they give people a place to exercise and socialize, I suspect most people would be quite happy to see that 30 million go into fixing the problems Carrie Gelson highlighted. One has to ask where starving, ill-clothed children fit in to Christy Clark’s ‘families first’ agenda?

Still on our ebullient premier, it would seem she does not really have control over her ministers. This became apparent today when Mike de Jong mused about charging smokers higher health premiums. Of course this is a complete non-starter as it would be a slippery slope. It is the same thing as when doctors muse about charging an obesity-tax on fat people. The argument, as far as it goes with smokers, is that smoking is a choice and therefore smokers should pay for the health care they are doing to need when they get cancer. Smokers already pay more taxes than non-smokers through the taxes governments collect on the sale of cigarettes. What is bizarre in all of this is a senior minister floating this idea without getting the approval of the premier. Perhaps there are cracks in the veneer?

Oh, and Clifford Olsen is dead. I hope the families of his victims get some measure of peace knowing that he is finally dead and can no longer apply for parole.

The Imposition of Values

I really dislike Christmas. I hate all the pomp and ceremony that only ratchets up proportionally the closer we get to the actual day. Living in Metro Vancouver, which holds the infamous Downtown Eastside (DTES), seems to magnify this problem more. There is no shortage of Christmas activities that cause an exodus of ‘do-gooders’ to converge on the DTES all with their ‘unique’ idea that will make Christmas so much better for them. Quite a lot of these people are coming from a religious point of view and add a dose of proselytizing along with their act of ‘kindness.’

The latest example of this is a group of students who decided to take Christmas cards to the DTES so people living there could send cards home. They were also offered the opportunity to have a picture taken or a video. The students would then go back and try to find the families of the people who wanted to send cards, pictures and/or videos to their loved ones.

This endeavor, while on the surface seems harmless however, nothing could be further from the reality. Clearly, people on the DTES are disadvantaged, some are drug or alcohol addicted and others are involved in the survival sex trade. It is a huge assumption to believe that people on the DTES even want contact with their families. Many people are there trying to cope with histories of abuse, neglect and poverty. In all likelihood, there is a long and complicated history between the residents on the DTES and their families. Even discussing their families or origin may really upset and trigger people. Many families may not welcome contact and many people may not want to contact their families for whatever reason.

The reasons people are living in Canada’s poorest postal code are complex. Really, it is the perfect storm of abuse, neglect, lack of opportunity, economics, mental illness, and many other factors. In fact, many of the charities on the DTES really just perpetuate the poverty and relieve some of the suffering rather than addressing the root causes. I would argue that there is no way that charities can address the root causes of what lands people on the DTES. The problem is that government has been off-loading services to lower levels of governments and charities for two decades.

If we are serious about addressing the issues of the DTES and the social issues present, we must begin to vote for politicians who are actually going to do something. We need to elect leaders who have knowledge of how to prevent some of the issues and experiences that lead to people being disenfranchised. These solutions are not cheap. If we were to get serious, we would be debating policy solutions like a guaranteed income for families with children, increasing childhood education, offering resources to families on the edge without the threat that the ministry might take their children, and inexpensive post-secondary education.

The next time you are about to applaud or participate some great initiative to make Christmas better for the citizens of the DTES think about it. Ask questions about how this will make life better for them and look at the values and discourse that are informing this activity. Most of the time you will find that the only people who are really feeling better about things are the people going to the DTES and providing these services.

If, as an individual, you really want to make a difference start to make noise to politicians about changing the system and investing in services that really make a difference. Volunteer at a detox or a rehab program. If you want to provide comfort then volunteer on a weekly basis rather than just the once a year volunteer stint at the local soup kitchen. If you are creative, make things that keep people warm. New socks are an item that provides a great deal of comfort and prevents all sorts of foot issues for people are homeless.

Perhaps the most important thing for people who want to help on the DTES is to understand the issues. Be aware that imposing your beliefs on people is completely unacceptable. You must meet people where they are and show respect to them as individuals. Try to understand what is important to them and go from there. The population on the DTES is heterogeneous – it is not a one size fits all. If you volunteer there, you need to listen and understand. Then maybe, just maybe, you can become part of the solution.

Update for the Swamp – the Pond Edition

Today our drainage work started. It has been a long time coming. When we bought the house we knew that there was water in the crawl space under the house. What we didn’t know was that the place was a swamp. We bought the house after about 3 months of sun. It had been very dry so what we saw was a lovely carpet of green grass and everything was nice. The crawl space was mostly dry but you could see that there was mud. The housing inspector told us that we would have to address the drainage issues. Our neighbour, two houses over, has a similar property to ours with large built up homes on either side and had similar drainage issues. He has effectively drained his yard. He is an engineer so he really had a good plan. Apparently as soon as they dug the pond for the front and dug a path for the water to flow the pond filled up completely. There is another pond in the backyard which will drain further to the back. So now we will have a property with 2 water features!

In other news, Wally Oppal has been appointed to head an inquiry into the Missing Women crimes. There have been many naysayers about his appointment but I could not be happier. I think Wally Oppal has distinguished himself as both a judge and a cabinet minister. I never get the sense that he is trying to feed people propaganda when he is interviewed. Perhaps if the provincial government had consulted Aboriginal and Womens’ groups there could have been a different choice or consensus on Oppal. I do think he will do an excellent job at getting to the core issues that led to so many women went missing on the Downtown East Side. Hopefully, this will lead to real and substantial change.

The dogs are good. I have been reveling in how cute they are. Sawyer with his big ears, Zoe getting the fuzzies, Piper’s big eyes and gorgeous face, and Madison’s beauty. Maddie is becoming more and more beautiful the older she gets. I love the feeling I get when we are all snuggled together in bed. Everyone is so quiet, peaceful and contented.

So far the new TV season has been a bust. Tonight we are watching ‘No Ordinary Family,’ wish us luck! Woo hoo! 10 minutes in and it doesn’t suck!!

What would it take?

We watched Milk last night and I was struck by the power of political activism. The energy generated by injustices and a clear solution is amazing. But it left me wondering what would it take to have that kind of energy coalesce around an issue in our time. What would have to happen here to have 30,000 people march?

There are many issues right now that demand this kind of energy and activism. Here in Vancouver we have had 2 gay bashings in a short amount of time yet the community is unable to muster more than 2-300 people to come out and protest. We had over 60 women go missing from the Downtown Eastside over a period of years yet it took the better part of a decade to arrest someone and try him (I refuse to write his name). Even then, justice has been denied. He was only tried on 6 counts of murder. The other 20 women, whose DNA was found on his family’s farm, have not gone through the courts.  The community also believes that he did not act alone as there are questions about his mental capacity.Then there are the gangland shootings which have plagued Metro Vancouver this year. Twenty people have died and they deaths have not garnered any response from the community in spite of the fact that innocent people are being killed. The police response is pathetic – they want parents to turn in their children.

Even the world-wide economic crisis is not enough to push us out of our apathy. Our systems are broken, our governments corrupt and we sit by letting it all happen around us. In other countries like Pakistan, for example, many people, mostly lawyers, braved severe repercussions to protest the suspension of the Chief Justice. How can we forget the images that came out of Myanmar when monks protested against the ruling Junta. Why do some countries in other parts of the world seem to be able to create social change while we cannot.

I suspect the answer lies in the fact that for most people in North America our lives are pretty comfortable. Yes there is grinding poverty in many areas of Canada and the US but people are not so uncomfortable that they are able to rally and demand change. The other impediment, as I see it, is one of definition. The issues affecting us are extremely complicated and deeply rooted in discourse. We have been indoctrinated in so many ways that we are unaware of why react the way we do. I have discussed the response to the poor in North America before – one only needs to look at the Protestant roots of our society to see where a great deal of our prejudice comes from. The religious idea of predestination underpins our reactions and judgments against those who are less fortunate. Until we are able to dissect our core beliefs, questioning the status quo is impossible.

Even when we can examine our beliefs and define the issues how are we going to solve the problems. Personally, I am at a loss. I can identify an issue and examine the discourse surrounding it yet I am unable to see what change could look like – this is the power of discourse. I think until we are pushed out our comfort zones and forced to suffer a bit not much is going to change. This makes me very sad.

Pronoun use

I have blogged a few times about the use of language and how it affects and shapes society. No where is this more important than the use of gendered pronouns. Now, I am all for non-gender pronouns but society does not seem to be embracing the use of zie and hir. I really hate it when writers try to avoid the use of gendered pronouns by using plural forms. These uses are not grammatically correct and leave the reader (or listener) confused as far as I am concerned.

The default, not surprisingly, is usally to use the male form. Most things you read (particularly non-fiction) where gender is not important to the material the male pronoun is generally used. Some writers try and say he/she or s/he or him/her etc but most do not. This has important consequences. The constant use of the male pronoun marginalizes women and renders them invisible. I can only imagine what medical text books are like. It is not surprising that the use of male pronouns wound render women and their different medical needs and realities invisible. Most medications are not routinely tested on women who have very different chemical and hormonal makeups. In the same way that children are not ‘little adults’ women are not men.

I am currently reading an amazing book: “In The Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction” by Dr. Gabor Mate. He is a doctor in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver which has one of the highest rates of drug addiction, HIV and Hepatitis C infection in Canada. The stories are compelling and sad and Dr. Mate provides a very interesting and instructive view of addiction – including his own. What is unique about his writing is his use of pronouns. The first part of the book is specific stories of patients he has treated and he uses appropriate gendered pronouns. In the parts of the book that are instructive, in which he explains the pysiology of addiction, he alternates male and female pronouns. I was completely struck by this feature of his writing. At first I wondered why it seemed that he was only using the female pronoun when in fact men are also drug addicts. Everytime I saw a female pronoun in these pages it jumped out at me. So then I went out of my way to notice if he used male pronouns. It seems that he uses both equally.

I think it is sad that we are so used to male pronouns that the use of the female, in equal parts, is so noticeable that one wonders if the author is using male pronouns at all. It speaks to how pervasive the male gaze is even with women and feminists. My hope is that more authors will choose to use both male and female pronouns equally.

Privilege (heterosexual and others)

I am writing this blog entry in response to all the comments I received on facebook when I updated my status to indicate that I was annoyed by heterosexual privilege. Frankly, the comments surprised me but I guess I should not have been. Inherently, when one is in receipt of a societal privilege they may not be aware of it. This appears to be the case. Rather than going into a long drawn out explanation of heterosexual privilege I will refer you to an excellent blog entry written by Teh Portly Dyke. She does an excellent job explaining this and its impact on homosexuals. She also issues a challenge in her entry I encourage you to try it to gain a better understanding of how insidious heterosexual privilege is in our society.

Privilege is everywhere in our society and depending on your class, race, economic status or gender expression you may or may not enjoy privilege. Being Caucasian in our society affords you a great deal of privilege. Our society is geared to make life easier for people who are white. All of our institutions are inherently racist and difficult for people of colour to navigate and receive fair treatment. If you don’t believe me ask a person of colour what their experience is at a bank or worse trying to get welfare or other government services. When I worked in a downtown eastside welfare office in Vancouver there was a great deal of racism dished out to people of colour and particularly aboriginal people.

Class is another area of privilege. I certainly noticed that as a homeowner I am treated very differently by service people than I was when i was a renter. The white woman in Kerrisdale is treated much differently than an Aboriginal woman from the downtown eastside. Many of our judgements about class are rooted in the Protestant work ethic and Protestantism in general. One of the foremost Protestant thinkers, John Calvin, believed that it was predetermined who was going to heaven and who was not. Those people who were successful in life were assumed to be going to heaven and therefore treated differently from those who were impoverished. It was also believed that if those who were not successful ‘just tried a little harder’ they too could be successful. The old adage of ‘pulling up their boot straps’ applied. We may not consciously think this way but these ideas inform our culture and the way we view the world and the people in it.

Gender expression is another area of privilege. Those who fit into society’s binary gender roles of male and female enjoy privilege. There is no question which bathroom to use and you are treated with respect. Those who are gender queer, gender ambiguous or trans have murky waters to navigate. A male to female transsexual for example may be harassed for using the woman’s bathroom. Gender expression seems to invoke violent responses from some people. Many trans people are routinely targeted for abuse by people in our society who are uncomfortable with their gender expression.

It is interesting to talk to people who are different from you and to learn how privilege or the lack thereof impacts their lives. As a white woman I know that I enjoy a fair amount of privilege in our society. I have privileges of class, race and gender. However, somethings work against me. As a fat lesbian woman I have been the target of discrimination and hate although not that often. The group with the most privilege in our society are straight, white men. It is interesting to determine what privilege you enjoy and why you have it. Deconstructing privilege helps us to understand how our society works and how we can work to be allies to those who do not enjoy the same privileges that we do. It takes a great deal of work to look inside and see what is really there – the racist and classist thoughts and to try and understand how they impact our interactions with other people. It is a life-long process and one that is very difficult. Realizing our own racist, classist and gender biases can be uncomfortable. Talking about them and challenging others racist, classist and gender biases is even more difficult. If, as an individual, you are committed to an egalitarian society it starts with you.

Missing Women Trial

The verdict is in and he has been found guilty of second degree murder in the deaths of Serena Abbotsway, Mona Wilson, Georgina Papin, Andrea Joesbury, Brenda Wilson and Marnie Frey. It is a great disappointment that he was not found guilty of first degree murder for at least one of the women. The difference between first and second degree murder is one of intent and planning, surely after 3 or 4 murders there must be intent and planning to continue killing.

I also seriously doubt that he acted alone. All of the stories that abound on the Downtown Eastside about “parties” at “piggies palace” indicate that others likely participated in the abuse and ultimately the murder of women who died on that lonely Port Coquitlam pig farm.

We are now five years since his arrest. There has been no improvement for women on the Downtown Eastside. Many still must work in the survival sex trade where they literally take their lives into their hands. Our women deserve better. If only the level of outrage at the death of Robert Dziekanski at Vancouver International Airport. Where are the demands for a public inquiry or a coroner’s inquest for at least one of the missing women? What is it going to take for us, as a society, to not see women as throw away members of society. We must do better.

My only hope is that the second trial continues. The families of those women deserve to know the truth. Perhaps if the truth about the murder of a further 20 women is exposed things will change.

Margaret Willie and the Pivot Legal Society

Today a Native Elder, who lives on the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver, received justice. It came from Small Claims Court in Vancouver. Margaret Willie was coming out of Army and Navy when she was approached by a member of the Vancouver Police Department. She was informed that this officer had been ‘watching’ her the previous night (Margaret had been playing Bingo at the time the officer supposedly saw her away from the DTES) and the officer proceeded to search her by taking off her coat, patting her down and then going through her purse. What did the officer find – some sudafed and aspirin. In her defence, the officer said that she had observed Ms. Willie talking to some ‘known drug dealers’ in front of a convenience store the previous evening and she suspected that Ms. Willie was ‘carrying.’ Well, Margaret Willie was not carrying. She did not even know what this term meant.

After being traumatized, Margaret engaged the help of the Pivot Legal Society who regularly helps residents of the Downtown Eastside when their legal rights are trampled. The VPD seems to feel that it is ok to suspend legal and constitutional rights on the DTES while they try to root out the drug problem. I guess it is our very own Gitmo.

Margaret was not seeking money when she decided to take her case to court. She just wanted to clear her name. The judge in the case stated that Margaret’s rights had been violated, she had been illegally detained and searched without just cause. She was given a $5500 award. She has been in counselling ever since this event as it traumatized her and activated childhood memories of similar abuses of power she endured.

Adding insult to injury, Margaret was interviewed on the CBC today. It was one of the most mean-spirited interviews I have ever heard. Basically the interviewer seemed to be blaming Ms. Willie because, after all, she does live on the DTES and the police are justified in trying to clean up the drug problems plaguing the area. The interviewer asked her why she was afraid of the police and then tried to get her to agree that the VPD’s actions were justified given the intractable drug dealing in the area. Margaret did not agree with her. In fact, Margaret seemed more aftraid of the police than of the criminal element in her neighbourhood. The interviewer seemed oblivious to Margaret’s pain.

Sadly, people who live on the DTES regularly endure this kind of treatment. As John Richardson from the Pivot Legal Society pointed out, law enforcement is done very differently in the DTES. Police actions which are normal for that area would not be tolerated anywhere else in Vancouver, BC or the country as a whole.

Shame on the VPD for targeting people this way.