Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Cowardice at Carleton U.

A controversy is swirling on the campus of Ottawa's Carleton University. A motion is to be presented in a few days to the Carleton University Students Association (CUSA) to deny CUSA funding or space to an organized campus anti-choice group called Lifeline Carleton. (This one ought to put conservatives on their mettle, and I shall be interested to read what they have to say about it. Will they defend social conservatism to the point of supporting compulsory taxation on its behalf?)

Some are framing the whole thing as a freedom of speech issue, but it's not. Carleton has broad official policies favouring diversity, human rights and respect. If diversity is going to be made to encompass bigotry and intolerance, then the word simply loses its meaning. So I emerged to send the following letter to The Charlatan, Carleton's student newspaper:

Dear Editor:

I applaud the proposal to deny CUSA funding and space to an organization that promotes a message that, if ever it became law, would result in misery and back-street abortion deaths for Canadian women.

Make no mistake--this is not about "free speech," or open debate, although there are those who, for their own reasons, might want to frame the current discussion that way. Simply put, this is about maintaining diversity and respect, consistent with Carleton's declared human rights policy. If there is "intolerance" being shown, it is intolerance of intolerance.

The proposal now in front of CUSA goes part of the way to redeem Carleton's reputation after the unconscionable award of an honorary doctorate to a local activist homophobe earlier this year. No one is telling the "Lifeline" folks that they can't meet or discuss their reprehensible positions--just that student resources, collected and maintained for the benefit of all students, should not be used for this purpose. Makes sense to me.


I received within the hour a hastily-written email from the editor. We can't use the word "homophobe," she said--it's libellous. The reference was to Rabbi Reuven Bulka, about whom I blogged here, back in the summer. Briefly, the man sits on a so-called "Scientific Advisory Committee" of NARTH, a cranky US-based outfit that believes homosexuality is a disease, and that pushes something called "reparative therapy" to cure it. So I called the editor.

"We can't call him a homophobe," she insisted. A journalism professor told her this could lead to a lawsuit. "But...but," I sputtered, "calling homosexuality a disease is homophobic." "Sorry," she said. "I know a lot of gay people see it that way..."

"OK, then," I said, " call him an "anti-gay activist." "Can't," she said. "He's an anti-poverty activist. He doesn't do enough in Ottawa to merit the other term. But we have a compromise position."

"OK," I said. "And so do I."

"What if we said, 'unconscionable award of an honorary doctorate of laws to Dr. Rabbi Reuven Bulka*, who sits on the Scientific Advisory Committee of NARTH, an organization that considers that homosexuality is an illness to be cured.'"

I tried not to wince. "How about, 'unconscionable award of an honorary degree to Dr. Rabbi Reuven Bulka, who believes homosexuality is a disease.'"

"But that's not a provable fact," she said. "Are you suggesting," I asked, "that he would sit on an advisory board of an organization that exists to push a 'cure' for homosexuality, and not have that position himself?"

"We can't prove that he thinks that way," she said. (Certainly if NARTH had a broader focus, she would have had a point, but it doesn't.) "The professor we consult knows a lot about media law, and we could be sued."

"Well, I've blogged on this and no one's lifted a legal finger."

"Blogs aren't like newspapers," she said, indicating the depth of her knowledge of media law.

"Let's forget it, then," I said. "I'll blog about it instead."

And so I guess I'm back.

*I was informed that a person with many titles must have them all published before his or her name. "If he had a knighthood, would he be Sir Dr. Rabbi Bulka?" "That's correct," she told me. "It's the new CP style."

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Violence against women

Not that I'm back on the blogging trail--far from it--but this story was a bit much.

Want to let the Chief Crown Prosecutor know your thoughts?

Gordon Wong
Chief Crown Prosecutor
Crown Prosecutors Office
15th Floor, 615 MacLeod Tr. SE
Calgary, Canada AB

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Marianne Elizabeth MacKinnon April 1, 1958--October 29, 2006

My dear Marianne passed away early Sunday morning, after a dreadful three-month battle with pancreatic cancer.

I can merely sketch in inadequate language who she was, and what she meant to me. Lives overflow words, and they are not narratives. Marianne was a person who opened up the world anew for me, with her huge appetite for life, her pure enjoyment of the pleasures of living. She had a smile that lit up her whole face, and everything and everyone around her. Travelling in particular was an ecstatic time
for both of us--as we began our many journeys here and there in the world, we could feel our spirits lift in harmony. (Of course, getting out of Ottawa can do that for many others as well!) She guided me over the Chilkoot trail, having done this arduous hike three times before, once with young children. She loved Shakespeare, and poetry, and the songs of Leonard Cohen, and blues. We both enjoyed dinner parties, and cooking, and we moved around in our tiny kitchen as a team.

Marianne was born in Aotearoa (New Zealand) and came to the Yukon in the late seventies. She ended up as a Yukon Territorial Government tax inspector, and on at least two occasions looked down the barrel of a gun. Her relatively diminutive size and gender, though, tended to be both literally and figuratively disarming, although she had martial arts training, was a member of the Canadian Rangers, and could handle herself in rough bars. She was a union activist, in her own union (the Yukon Employees Union, a component of the Public Service Alliance of Canada) and in the Yukon Federation of Labour.

She dismantled, piece by piece, my political and academic dogmatism. Marianne's political ethos came down to the dream: people should not only have them, but have the practical means and the encouragement to work together to make them come true. They should have a say in decisions that affect them, and they must be allowed to speak for themselves: if others speak for them, the latter must be held strictly accountable. And sometimes, in fact, it is impossible for others to speak for them with any reliability, especially where there are cultural differences and unique historical experience involved.

What did this mean politically? It boiled down to local control, local organizing, a deep distrust of statism (which I came to share), and workable techniques for activating and encouraging people to get involved in their communities and in society. Working together was the key, and she had a deep and abiding interest, therefore, in conflict resolution.

Marianne was fiercely proud of her Maori heritage, and teachings she received when she was young flourished in her unorthodox thinking. Marianne did not think outside the box: for her there simply was no box. And she very often suffered the consequences: incomprehension and outright dismissal of her ideas. I must admit that I was guilty in that respect far too often myself.

She attempted, for example, as president of the Yukon Federation of Labour, to institute what is sometimes called the "organizing model," (she hated the term) in which the Federation would operate through a committee structure, composed (horrors!) even of non-affiliate representatives, and non-union members. These committees would work in areas that engaged the rank and file and members of the wider community. That was too much for some of the boyz on her executive and at the Canadian Labour Congress: they ensured that this new change to the structure, duly passed by a YFL convention, was never implemented, and it was finally reversed.

The silver lining in that cloud was that she came to Ottawa in 1998 to move in with me, gathered the kids from the far corners of the earth (the Yukon and New Zealand), and quickly earned two degrees in anthropology. She was a driving force in a community group that monitors police activity, the Ottawa Witness Group, and played a key role in drafting submissions to Justice LeSage's review of the police complaints process in Ontario.

She was also active in the voting reform group Fair Vote Canada, but became disenchanted with what we both came to realize was their narrow focus on changing structure rather than our political culture itself. Speaking out on the deficiencies of Fair Vote Ontario's current campaign--largely top-down, and governed from Toronto--merely succeeded in marginalizing us both (I sit on the National Council of FVC, at least for the moment, and lost enormous street cred over this), so that I came to realize from experience what Marianne's life of engagement had always been like. A profound practical respect for radical democracy--activating people on the ground to make their own decisions and get involved on their own terms in social processes that affect them--is, ironically, a surprisingly unpopular position.

Marianne and I began a consulting business, but given our stubborn natures, it took a long time for us to get in sync in terms of its direction. It is sad that, just as we were beginning to collaborate in a relatively friction-free way, reaching agreement on basic principles and designing and implementing a successful retreat for a union up north, she was struck down.

Marianne was a feminist in the gut. She feared eclipse in a male-centred world from the time she was a little girl. She would sometimes feel suffocated by my relative privilege and my intellectual arrogance. I learned to listen from her, if not very well. Days after an inconclusive argument the penny would drop: I would tell her that at last I had figured out what she was getting at, and that I agreed with her. This, for some reason, did not entirely ease her frustration!

We disagreed over many issues, including Charlottetown and capital punishment, but she and her crew turned me around on the gun registry question over the course of a drunken evening at the Gold Rush Inn in Whitehorse. And we agreed on far more, without the need for such drastic measures. Many if not most of my blogposts are final drafts that followed her initial critiques. Some were born of discussions with her.

She leaves two wonderful kids and a partner who will keep learning from her until he, too, passes on. I had always prided myself on what I imagined was my unorthodoxy and creativity, on taking risks, but once I met Marianne I began to realize my limitations. I have never met anyone so free, in both thought and spirit. Haere ra, taku hoa wahine.