Monday, April 22, 2013

The "Rebel" Alliance

Perhaps I'm a bit late to the party, but this is an issue that I wanted to spend a bit of time talking about since it was mentioned.

In the past few weeks, an issue that wasn't on anyone's radar made its way to the forefront of everyone's minds when Cam Broten rose in the legislature to ask the Premier and the Minister of Education about the existence of Gay-Straight Alliances (GSAs) in Saskatchewan schools. Brad Wall gave the standard right wing boiler plate warning of ensuring religious tolerance and freedoms were protected, while Russ Marchuk has tried to say that there is currently no legislation that prevent GSAs from being formed in schools across Saskatchewan.

Brad Wall further embarrassed himself, and Cam Broten rightly called him out on it, when in the media scrum afterwards the Premier seemed unable to bring himself to even say the word 'gay'.

While many people may be scratching their heads and wondering why this is an issue, especially given that Saskatchewan has allowed same-sex marriage since 2005, I think the Premier's behaviour is a perfect example as to why this is still an issue.

Allow me to share a story from my own high school experience, and perhaps that can give you some idea.

I went to a Catholic High School, I grew up in the Catholic education system, and it was in 2005 that Saskatchewan legalized same-sex marriage. As editor of the school newspaper, I used my editorial space to praise the province for legalizing same-sex marriage and talked a bit about why it was important to do so. I tried to address the standard arguments ("It's a choice", "Hate the sin, love the sinner", "the Bible says...", etc, etc, etc.) and talked about some of the prejudices that young gays and lesbians faced.

I'll be briefer than I was in the editorial, but basically: Who would chose to be a member of an ostracized community with an abnormally high suicide rate for youths? Jesus preached love and tolerance, and condemned judgment "Let he who is without sin, cast the first stone" and all that, as such, judging and condemning an action does not lie in the purview of humanity and belongs solely to God. The Bible also says you can't wear clothes made of two fabrics, eat shellfish, crossbreed animals, talk to a woman with her monthly visitor, and non-virgins who get married should be put to death...You know, stuff from the same section of the Bible (mostly Leviticus) that modern Christians have shrugged off.

At the end, I invited anyone who disagreed with anything I had said to sit down and have a civil discussion with me. Ultimately, no students took up that challenge, though one staff member did and sort of left the idea of civil discussion at the door. A "student" did publish a rebuttal editorial, shrugging off the points I made above, and after a conversation with our staff adviser for the paper, no rebuttal to the rebuttal was printed.

The reactions to my editorial were varied.

The Priests in the parish at the time had after school staff meetings with the teachers, during which time they were given lectures on marriage and even given pamphlets to give to students who had questions raised from my editorial. Some fellow members of the SRC condemned my editorial, stopping short of demanding a resignation (which I never would have given), but did make it loud and clear they disagreed with me.

But the moment that stands out the most for me, is when one of our staff members pulled me aside in the hallway the morning after the editorial was printed. It was no secret that her eldest son, a former student of the school from years before me, was gay. She simply hugged me, and thanked me for courage and conviction to write what said.

It was a moving moment, and if there were any doubt in my mind about whether or not I should have published the editorial, it was certainly erased by that interaction.

The varying responses to a simple editorial show why the need for GSAs, in both the public and private system, continue to remain. While we may have accepted same-sex marriage, many in the province have not fully accepted LGBT2Q people as a whole. I can point to the Star Phoenix's decision to run a Valentine's Day cover with a lesbian couple, and the backlash that it sparked from certain members of the community who were appalled to see such a display on their morning paper.

Homosexuality and other sections of gender identity are still not fully accepted in Saskatchewan; to try and say otherwise is tantamount to putting your fingers in your ears, closing your eyes, and denying that LGBT2Q people exist in the first place.

Adolescence is the first step out of ignorance and the first step in to determining the ideals and values that a person will hold throughout their lifetime. Education is immensely important, as it broadens your worldview and gives you a better understanding of not just who you are as a person, but who other people around you are.

We no longer live in the 1950s, where people spent their entire lives in the closet and worried for their careers or seeing their immediately family members if their sexuality was ever revealed. It's time that our political mindset accepted that as well. Like the Civil Rights Movement, it is only by discussing issues and beginning to reject the idea of "the Other" that we can even hope to make steps towards progress.

There is no us and them, there is only us: As in, there is only the human race. Being a member of the LGBT2Q community does not preclude you from being a member of the human race, and we need to make that message loud and clear.

There is so much hatred and vitriol directed to homosexuals in our world, and that is hatred that is passed onto and even directed towards our children. We are raising a generation that is still being told that the feelings they may be experiencing are shameful, immoral, wrong, and disgusting. It wasn't that long ago that we expressed these sames feelings towards all human sexuality, as we condemned the idea of sex for pleasure as shameful, immoral, wrong, and disgusting.

You can wrap up old ignorance and condemnation in a new shawl all you want, it doesn't change it. The world only spins forward, and holding onto the past and emulating it doesn't bring it back.

And as to the issue of religious freedom....

Even religions can change. Prior to the Council of Trent, Christianity was completely different from it was today. There were sects that denied the divinity of Jesus, rejected transubstantiation, and even some who viewed Christianity as a polytheistic religion.

Let's go even further.

Even after the Roman Catholic Church fully formed around a basic tenant of beliefs, those beliefs changed. Take the sale of indulgences, a practice that had no basis in the Bible, but was used and then fell out of favour. Take the moving away from the Bible as literal truth for all books, to some being credited as allegory. Take the moving of the mass from Latin to the common tongue.

It may move slowly, but the Church has evolved and even religious practice has evolved with it. I mentioned our good friend the book of Leviticus and some of the "Laws" that have fallen out of use, while it is still used to condemn homosexuality.

The fact of the matter is this: If you believe in Jesus Christ, you believe that he was the Messiah and that he spoke a gospel that you must follow. Furthermore, Jesus issued only one commandment that he said all must follow: That you love one another as I have loved you. This was Jesus' command, and as such, it is the only command that matters. You cannot love someone as Jesus loved you, unconditionally, if you then find you need to condemn homosexuality because a previous part of the Bible told you to. 

I fear this is becoming a sermon, something I am not even remotely qualified to attest to, so let's get back on political footing.

The truth of the matter is that it all comes back down to education. Religious freedom doesn't give you the protection to openly attack and persecute people; if it did, we'd be little more than a fundamentalist theocracy that didn't tolerate other faiths, let alone homosexuality. We need to educate people, let them know that members of the LGBT2Q community exist in their circle of friends, in their families, and in their communities.

We need to break down this idea that there is anything wrong or 'sinful' about homosexual behaviour; and more importantly, we need to let LGBT2Q youth know that there are people out there who care for them and support them exactly as they are. These kids need to know that they are 'normal', and that there is nothing wrong with them, and GSAs provide the best venue to create such a system.

We have a Premier who seems to be unable to even say the word 'gay', and was evasive on the question of whether he believed homosexuality was a choice. (He did hem and haw, though he did eventually concede that from what he 'knew' of it from people that it wasn't....though it still left quite a bit of doubt over whether or not he actually sees it as a choice as he never actually gave his opinion...)

We don't need to let another generation grow up where 'gay' is muttered as an insult; or worse, where people can't even mutter the word at all. 

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Community Involvement

Source: SouthWest TV News: Community Lands Lost
Source: Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives: SaskNotes: PFRA Community Pastures

At the end of this post, I've also included a media release from Public Pastures - Public Interest, as this information found its way to my inbox with a request to discuss it on the blog; a request I'm happy to grant.

About a year ago, the Harper Government (in short-term cost cutting mode) stuffed into omnibus Bill C-38 a move to remove the Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration (PFRA) pastures from the federal government's purview. Of these pastures, 1.77 million acres of land, exist within Saskatchewan. The Federal Government, in traditional style, devolved responsibility for these lands to the provincial governments and basically washed their hands of the situation all together.

In response to now having to figure out what to do with this land, the Wall Government in Saskatchewan was quick to call for the 1.77 million acres to be sold or leased as quickly as possible; and showed that it had no interest in maintaining any of the land under government control. The government has put in token environmental concerns to their plans for sale or lease, but has not proposed a means of regulation to ensure that these concerns are kept...Nor have they proposed any kind of consequences for anyone found to be in breach of concerns.

The government has also attempted to quietly pushed ownership issues aside by offering the pastures on a first basis to ranchers who currently use the pastures as feed areas for their herds; neglecting the fact that many of these ranchers are not in an financial position to purchase or pay high leasing costs for the use of the land.

In addition to the benefits provided to smaller farms, the pastures have also been used to great success for the use of advancing biology, protecting endangered wildlife, and protection of historical areas that document Canadian and First Nations history.

Effectively, the problem here is that we have seen a government that is in too much of a rush to properly solicit advice and opinions from the public it is supposed to serve. We've seen this before, on both the Federal and Provincial level, with these current governments. It seems as though consultation is a dying art form, and alternatives to ideologically driven decisions are completely forbidden.

I'd like to relate a story, and while it doesn't directly relate to the PFRA I think it is worth telling.

For one of my university biology courses, we took a class trip out into the wilderness and learned a bit about the ecosystems that existed around us. Anyone who knows me, knows I'm not much for the outdoor life...I sunburn far too easily, among other issues. Yet, as we neared the end of our time on our field trip, our guide stopped us in the middle of an empty field and asked us just to look around.

It was with a sense of pride that he told us that we were standing on uncultivated land; a section of the province that existed as it had hundreds, if not thousands, of years ago. Even for a man who doesn't care much for the outdoors life, it was an astonishing moment that I still recall fondly.

The fact of the matter is that we are losing our areas like that, and the closing of the PFRA pastures is a step in that direction. Our governments have demonstrated that they have no interest in managing the land, and that they have no real plan to ensure that environmental regulations to protect that land once sold are adhered to.

And while there are many of us in the province who have never stepped foot onto one of these pastures, and some of us who probably will never have need to, the work that has been done on them and the protections that they have provided since the 1930s has played an impact that we all have felt.

It is for reasons like that alone that they are worth protecting, and worth finding a compromise way to ensure that these forces for community good remain within community hands.

Now begins the press release; * In the interest of privacy, I have removed the phone numbers of the contact people in the press release, but left e-mail addresses intact; hopefully, this was alright.*


For Immediate Release: 
April 17, 2013 

Public Pastures – Public Interest 
Uniting to Save Saskatchewan’s Community Pastures 
Joint Venture Video Release 

In April of 2012 the federal government announced it was divesting itself of 2.3 million acres of PFRA community pastures, 1.78 million of which are located in Saskatchewan.  The control for these pastures has now reverted back to the prairie provinces and in response the Saskatchewan government has announced they will be seeking to sell or lease these lands to the current pasture patrons.  With rising land values putting the purchase of these lands far beyond the reach of most patrons, exceeding their ability to run a financially viable operation, patrons are looking to find an alternative solution. Other stakeholders affected by this decision are looking to ensure a sustainable environmental action plan for the land is continued, safeguarding the continued health of the ecosystem and the 32 species at risk that reside there. 

To help communicate this message, the various stakeholders (Patrons, First Nations, Academic and Wildlife/Environmental groups) have been meeting over the past several months to discuss their common concerns and encourage the two levels of government to reconsider their position on the importance of preserving and sustaining our community pastures. The result is a collaborative and inclusive video showcasing stakeholder concerns and their belief that, in order to ensure a positive outcome for all, they must work together to find a viable solution. 
It is their hope this video will also help communicate the message to stakeholders not yet involved and encourage them to join the collaborative effort towards protecting out public interests, and maintaining current and long term sustainable management of our Community Pastures.

For more information on this video and the joint initiative please contact any of the following: 
  • Trevor Herriot, Public Pastures – Public Interest, Regina,
  • Joanne Brochu – Patrons representative,


Thursday, April 11, 2013

Time for an Abstract Post

With all the last few posts being so specific, I think it's time we stumbled a little into the abstract for a bit. (I've tried to write a few specific blog posts over the past couple weeks, only to find myself deleting them over not quite liking the direction they were heading in; so, hopefully, some abstract thinking will allow us to move along out of this funk.)

Now, I call this an abstract post because I think we'll focus more on an issue and some ideas behind it rather than actually examine something that has been in the news. There is certainly a lot to talk about in news, whether its the Labrador by-election or the foreign worker issue or the SK Party spending $220,000 on touting their post-secondary track record (which doesn't deserve a touting).

Or even some words about the NDP Convention, or the coming Liberal Convention that will likely end with Justin Trudeau becoming the next Liberal leader. But despite all of that interesting political fodder, I think we'll stick with the abstract. I'm sure some passing reference to some, or all of it, will show up regardless but we'll see what happens.

With many of the things that have happened over the past weeks, on multiple levels, I have been frankly stunned by the stunting of ideas, debate, and reason that exist within the current political sphere. This is not a new thing, it's been the status quo in the US for quite some time, but it has been growing in Canada at an alarming rate over the past few decades.

A perfect example of this can be found in the death of two international leaders: Venezuela's Hugo Chavez and the UK's Margaret Thatcher.

We'll use our illustrious Prime Minister Stephen Harper for an example of this.

Upon Chavez's passing, Harper was quick to smack millions of Venezuelans in the face by talking about how Chavez's passing would lead to real change, real democracy and was more or less welcomed by the international community.

Compare that to Harper dropping everything to attend Thatcher's funeral in London, and his outpouring of her being a political icon and hero of his.

Despite the common adage that one shouldn't speak ill of the dead, that idea seems to fly out the window when you're dealing with a political rival of the opposite spectrum stripes. At the same time, however, Thatcher's death has prompted various reactions in the UK. The BBC reported today that Judy Garland's "Ding Dong the Witch Is Dead" from the Wizard of Oz, is likely to hit in the Top 10 Charts in the UK due to it being bought in response to her death; and numerous people across the country have thrown parties and celebrations on her passing.

Scottish comedian Frankie Boyle has gone so far as to say that "the government could save money on her funeral by simply giving every Scottish person a shovel who would be more than happy to dig her a hole to hell."

Naturally, people have come out and condemned this behaviour, citing the mantra of one not speaking ill of the dead. And while comments such as that, which the comedic value will not be discussed (personally, I found it and the rest of Boyle's routine quite funny, but comedy varies) might venture into crossing the line, we must remember that many of the same people weren't showing the level of respect they're demanding when politicos on the other side of the spectrum passed.

One of the more interesting articles I read on Thatcher's passing revolved around the idea of not white washing history; to acknowledge Thatcher's political legacy, and the things that she had done well, but to also remember the division and issues that she got wrong. Effectively, it's a call to common sense.

People are ultimately human, and death does not bestow a state of perfection that automatically removes any mistakes, errors, goofs, or downright inhumane actions taken during that person's lifetime. To quote another British politician who has a checkered record, Oliver Cromwell, we need to remember people "warts and all".

To get a little more abstract, we need to talk about how this is systemic of a larger picture in politics. There is an idea of one-sided debate that is establishing itself as the dominant mindset of politics.

Allow me to explain that a little better.

I've mentioned the differences in Harper's reaction to two deaths; but we've seen that same reaction when it comes to political discussion. Under the Harper Government, we've seen a move towards equating opposing political policy with treason.

We've seen an alarming amount of references to the idea of "selling out Canada" or "betraying the nation"; references that harken back to the dubious phrase of "un-American". A simple word that has been a death knell to political issues south of the border for decades, if not centuries.

We've seen a government that has restricted debate from the discourse of actual ideas and the examination of best course; to "we've made our decision, we're in power, and you're all a bunch of damned traitors if you say anything different!" And numerous people across this country are swallowing this poisoned Kool-Aid en masse, accepting the government's accusations that the audacity to say anything against government policy means you are "un-Canadian".

It's almost as if everyone in this country has forgotten what the word "Opposition" means. The role of the Opposition has never been to rubber-stamp what the government was doing...Or perhaps this was a behaviour that was established during the Dion-Ignatieff years that the Conservatives figured would continue until the end of time.

At the same time, the Opposition doesn't exist to just stand up and yell "WRONG" and "NO" over and over either. There are indeed times when the government and the opposition will agree on a course of action, but more often then not, the opposition exists to provide an alternative viewpoint and a suggestion of another way to do things.

But, much like our American cousins, we're seeing a slide toward the stunting of debate by simply calling any and all different viewpoints "un-Canadian" and "traitorous with a side of treason"!

We've seen it provincially as well with Brad Wall's attacks against Thomas Mulcair, and his attacks against Cam Broten as well. A key example was trying to paint Cam as "anti-Saskatchewan" for a perceived lack of being in favour of the Keystone Pipeline. Granted, Cam has since come out in favour of the pipeline, which perhaps shows one of those areas where the opposition and the government can agree...

But we have to start to ask ourselves what sort of representation we want from our officials. Bad policy is the result of electing anyone who is so blinded by ideology that they must resort to cries of treason against political opponents; we deserve to be able to have debates, as opposed to stunted conversations that in the end get us nowhere.

Furthermore, these debates lock us into a perpetual cycle of the same old argument over and over. Look again to the US, and the debate over Obamacare. The 2012 Election saw Romney, and all of his Republican opponents in the primaries, talk about the need to repeal Obamacare. And I would be willing to bet that the 2016 Election will continue to see Republicans call on the need to repeal previous bills passed by the Obama Administration.

When we get locked between administrations that only care about repealing and undoing what the other side did when they were in power, we get locked in the same argument for years to come. A local example would be the SK Party's Bill-85 with regards to labour laws. I'd be willing to bet the NDP will campaign on repealing parts of that bill, much like they campaigned in 2011 with mentions of repealing Bills 5 and 6.

And while bills like that do need to be repealed, we must be sure that we are not defining our campaigns simply by being the party that wants to undo what was done in the past.

Perhaps the real problem with debate, beyond ideological blindness and base accusations, stems from the short memory span of the citizen. Again, talking locally, the issue of health care has come up a lot in the Legislature during Question Period. Primarily, questions revolving around a new medical facility in North Battleford that is now massively behind schedule despite campaign promises to move quickly.

The SK Party's main line of argument is the same old line we've heard from governments of all political stripes: The last government is the problem; or, when you were in government, why didn't you do it then?

It's a flippant remark, and quite frankly, is another example of everything that is wrong with our political system. For those who know Saskatchewan history, everyone knows why the NDP governments from 1993 - 2007 didn't address some of these issues. The province was on the verge of bankruptcy, and difficult decisions had to be made to keep the province afloat.

Now, I'm risking falling into my own trap here some might say of blaming previous governments. But, as we talked about white washing earlier, there is a difference when blaming a previous government when they did indeed play a role in developments outside of their term. There is no denying that Grant Devine's Tories left the province in rough shape, and in a mess that took years to clean up.

That forced the NDP into tough decisions; it was a question of cutting off the limb to save the body. Yes, hospitals were closed (an action SK Party supporters still throw at NDPers, which truly underscores the need for a stronger history program in schools) to save money and other actions were taken to right the province's economic ship.

People must begin to understand that the actions of the past continue to have an impact today. A government from 20 years ago can still have made actions that are felt today, I think Margaret Thatcher proves that point quite well, and there is nothing wrong with admitting this. But, we cannot have selective history. You can't stop at blaming the NDP for something, without acknowledging the mess they inherited from the previous government.

Perhaps this was where debate truly began to go downhill, the moment the public began to allow politicians to simply spin even the recent past into a flexible talking point. Debate cannot be, or at least should not be, white washed. And the public should begin to demand better. Winston Churchill said that "The best argument against democracy was a five-minute conversation with the average voter", which is only half of the story.

The other half is that the average voter forms their opinions from the media, which uses the opinions and soundbytes expressed by politicians. The public deserves better, but first we must become a better public. We were endowed, with free thought and the capacity to be rational, thinking beings. It's only a shame that so few people decide to actively use this talent.

Which I think brings me to my final thought on this issue. The true problem, which could be a byproduct of spin, is that we have legitimized opinion to the same level as fact and truth. It is true that everyone is entitled to their opinion, but opinion should not be confused with fact.

It may be your opinion that the Great Dragon in the sky swallows the sun at night, and burps it up again in the morning. But our facts explain concepts such as stars, gravity, and orbit; your opinion is yours to keep, but it is not valid in the court of true and false and at no point should you feel you've won an argument based on overwhelming opinion over fact.

Rationality seems to be a dying art form, which is a rather depressing thought on the face of it; which becomes doubly so when one begins to wonder whether we have ever truly exercised our rationality in the first place. Regardless of that thought, we need to elect politicians who encourage debate. Who don't spew talking point after talking point, followed by a revisionist history that paints their party as sunshine and lollipops while demonizing all political opponents.

We need to do this, if only to have a force that encourages the general public to put down the remote and think for themselves. To question everything, to examine everything, and to truly start us down a path where debate is open and free.

It is hard to say whether such a politician exists, or if such a person would even get elected in the first place, but in addition to rationality we've been given two other gifts that should be embraced fully: the power to hope, and the power to dream.