23
Jul

Ontario Liberal Victory

The old saying that the only real poll is on Election Day was never more true than in the Ontario provincial elections of June 12, 2014. The Liberal Party emerged victorious with a majority government. The results were not a complete surprise, as polls taken before the elections suggested that either the Liberals or Conservatives would win, albeit with a minority government. However, in the end the Liberals got 58 seats, the Conservatives 28, and the left-wing New Democratic Party (NDP) 21.

I personally voted Liberal in this election, as I did in the two previous ones at the provincial level. My general voting pattern is Liberal for the province, Conservative for the country as a whole, although there have been some exceptions and although I did not vote at all in the last two federal elections. As well, I chose the Liberals partly because I liked the representative in my area, Member of Provincial Parliament Dr. Eric Hoskins. He is a physician and, together with his wife (also a doctor), founded an organization to help children in war zones.

This is not to say I had no reservations about the Liberals. The gas plant cancellations in the cities of Oakville and Mississauga, for example, which cost Ontario taxpayers millions of dollars, remain a thorn in the Liberals’ side, in my view, and it would be a relief to see the problem addressed once and for all.

Nonetheless, most Ontarians, like me, appeared to have concluded that the Liberals were the best choice in the existing circumstances or, at worst, the least of three or more evils (the three being the Liberals, Conservatives and NDP and the others being minor parties like the Greens and Libertarians). For one, neither NDP leader Andrea Horwath nor Conservative head Tim Hudak managed to convince voters to back them in great numbers. Even traditional Conservative supporters seemed puzzled by the mathematical logistics of Hudak’s plan to create a million jobs while at the same time cutting 100,000 civil service positions. In a similar vein, Andrea Horwath baffled many when she failed to endorse the Liberals’ latest budget, which had been described as the Liberals’ most ‘socialist,’ and thus NDP-friendly, budget in a long time. She was also accused of alienating some NDP stalwarts by embracing what many saw as a right-wing agenda.

One thing that did not become a matter of great concern during the election was Premier Kathleen Wynne’s sexuality. Wynne is a lesbian, in a relationship with another woman. The fact that Wynne’s lesbianism never emerged as a hot issue may be a testament to Canadians’ – and Ontarians’ in particular – openness; it might also be due to the reality that, in an apparent reversal of the usual sexual double standard, lesbians have been subject to less persecution than gay men. For instance, in some countries, male homosexuality is a criminal offence while sexual relations between women are not. (This of course does not mean that lesbians have not or do not experience discrimination.)

One Toronto Spanish-language newspaper said that Wynne’s election will bring ‘four years of stable government.’ Let us hope so and hope that Ontario’s most pressing issues will be resolved.

15
May

Jim Flaherty

On April 10, 2014, Canada’s former finance minister Jim Flaherty died. His death was in some ways not particularly surprising. He was 64, which is perhaps not old but not young either, and he was suffering from a chronic skin condition, even though he had said that the disease was not life-threatening and that it did not play any role in his resignation as minister a month earlier. My suspicion is that Flaherty had more serious health problems that he was willing to let on and that he preferred to keep his private life private.

Jim Flaherty’s legacy as federal finance minister both in the Stephen Harper government and previously at the Ontario provincial level under Premiers Mike Harris and, later, Ernie Eves was controversial. As Ontario Finance Minister, Flaherty raised hackles when he said that it should be illegal for people to sleep on the streets and that those who did should be directed either to a shelter, hospital, crisis intervention centre, or, if the individual were deemed to have engaged in illegal conduct, prison. Advocates for the homeless and even socially conservative (but in some respects politically liberal) columnist Michael Coren pounced on Flaherty, accusing him of ‘wanting to jail the homeless.’ My own take is that homelessness is a complex problem with no ‘one size fits all’ solution and that any solution to the issue has to take into account the high rate of mental illness among people living on the streets. I am not sure that sending constables to force the homeless off the streets, as Flaherty suggested, is a realistic solution – but perhaps nor is the idea among some liberals of building a ‘tent city’ for them.

Flaherty’s approach to other social issues similarly gave rise to many debates. For example, in the early 2000s when he was in the Conservative provincial government, Flaherty declared himself to be pro-life, or anti-abortion. He ran afoul of the pro-life movement later as federal finance minister, though, when he was perceived as being too ‘gay-friendly’ after hiring an openly gay chief of staff, Derek Vanstone, and praising Conservative strategist Jaime Watt, who had won an award from a gay rights organization. (I have to admit to a certain perplexity at much of the pro-life movement’s obsession with homosexuality: being non-procreative, homosexual intercourse obviously doesn’t contribute to any abortions.) It is not that Flaherty was particularly pro-gay: in 2006, for instance, he voted in support of a motion to reopen the national debate on same-sex marriage, a bill that, if it had passed, would have put the future of gay marriage in danger. Yet his supposed ‘gay-friendliness’ and, in 2012, vote against a bill by Tory backbencher Stephen Woodworth to re-examine the question of when life began (under Canadian law now, at birth) basically alienated him from the organized anti-abortion movement.

Jim Flaherty’s most memorable performance had to do not with abortion or homelessness but with the Canadian economy. Flaherty was credited in large part for getting Canada through the recession relatively unscathed – or at least less unscathed than many other countries. Nonetheless, many of his financial moves came under criticism. Journalist Thomas Walkom in the left-wing Toronto Star said that by condoning funding cuts to the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation), Jim Flaherty was ‘part of a government determined to smash or cripple much of what makes Canada a liveable country.’ On the other hand, disability rights advocates, who are generally seen as part of a ‘progressive’ cause, lauded Flaherty – one of whose children is disabled – for his financial measures in favour of people with disabilities and efforts to include them in mainstream society.

Jim Flaherty was perhaps a Conservative at the crossroads – a Conservative who must decide whether to be fiscally but not necessarily socially conservative or whether to embrace social conservatism as well. This appears to have been a dilemma not only for Flaherty but for the entire Conservative Party and even Prime Minister Stephen Harper as well. I think Flaherty ultimately chose the former course (to be fiscally but not socially conservative) and, for the most part, succeeded at it.

09
Nov

What is a Creole?

“Creole” is one of those words that like “humanist,” “secular” and “liberal” can mean anything and everything depending on where, when and by whom they are spoken.  For those with culinary inclinations, it brings up images of catfish, gumbo and jambalaya.  Students of history might recognize the word’s roots in the Spanish “criollo,” the name used to designate persons of unmixed European descent born in the New World.  But “creole” has another definition, according to Webster’s dictionary: “a language based on two or more languages that serves as the native language of its speakers.”

Americans may have heard the term “Creole” to describe the language spoken by Haitian immigrants.  (For the purpose of this essay, “Creole” in reference to a specific language will be capitalized; for a creole in general it will not.)  Those who have studied French may discern some French words, or derivatives of French words, in Creole.  This is hardly surprising; after all, Haiti was a colony of France and French is still its official language.  Creole also has an African component, as most Haitians descend from slaves brought there from Africa to work on plantations.  Haiti is not the only part of the world, though, whose inhabitants speak a creole as their mother tongue.

We might first address the question of how creoles originate.  Creoles tend to emerge in areas where people of different linguistic backgrounds interact without having a language in common.  Such places include slave or other agricultural plantations, military garrisons, and trading posts.  These people use their mother tongue to communicate with their family and countrymen, but with others they employ what is called a pidgin.  According to author Jared Diamond in the book The Third Chimpanzee, pidgins are primitive languages that consist largely of nouns, verbs and adjectives with few or no articles, auxiliary verbs, conjunctions or prepositions and no consistent grammar.  However, the next generation, that is the children of pidgin speakers, goes a step further and develops a creole.  Like a pidgin, a creole is made up of two or more linguistic components: a “superstrate,” which is usually based on the language of the colonizers (such as French in Haiti and English in most former British colonies of the Caribbean), and a substrate, in general a native or slave language or languages.  A creole is more advanced than a pidgin, having a more extensive vocabulary, a consistent grammar as well as the ability to express anything a regular language can, which a pidgin cannot.  Creoles are nonetheless somewhat deficient in comparison to regular languages in that they lack things like verbal conjugations and plural forms of nouns (then again, those who have struggled with the Herculean task of conjugating Latin verbs might jump at the chance to study a less complex system).

As mentioned before, creoles have sprung up in many parts of the globe.  The Caribbean and several islands off Africa whose populations descend from slaves are prime examples.  In such cases, Africans of many different nationalities, plus their European masters, were thrown together and forced to come up with a language in which to communicate.  The people of São Tomé e Principe and Cape Verde in the Atlantic speak a Portuguese-based creole, while those of Réunion and the Seychelles in the Indian Ocean use one derived from French.  A Spanish creole called Chabacano developed in Zamboanga, the Philippines, around a military installation manned by Filipinos of various ethnicities,* Spaniards, and Native Americans and mestizos from the New World.  A language called Cristão or Kristang (both corruptions of the word “Christian”) is spoken by a small community in the Malaysian city of Malacca.  A legacy of Portugal’s rule in Malaysia, Kristang boasts a mainly Portuguese vocabulary but a grammar based on Malay.

Beyond the Caribbean, the New World has been relatively creole-deficient despite the coming together of different peoples there.  A creole by the name of Palenquero did emerge in San Basilio in Northern Colombia, where it is still used by descendants of African slaves.  Some scholars believe that San Basilio’s isolation from mainstream Colombian society led to the development of Palenquero.  In most other parts of Latin America, however, the process of Westernization was so thorough that other than small minorities of unmixed Indians nearly everyone speaks standard Spanish or, in Brazil, Portuguese.

The United States also witnessed the emergence of a few creoles.  One example is Gullah on the South Sea Islands off the Atlantic coast.  An English-based language with African elements, Gullah is spoken by descendants of Black slaves on the Islands and was featured in the film Daughters of the Dust.  Louisiana and some of the neighbouring Southern states are home to a French creole developed by African slaves there.  Across the Pacific Ocean in Hawaii, children of plantation workers from places as diverse as Puerto Rico, Japan, China, the Philippines and Portugal as well as Native Hawaiians formed an English-based creole that is still used by some people born in the early 1900s.

Despite the wide range of areas in which creoles sprung up, they have many features in common. Most lack verbal conjugations, put the auxiliary verb before the main one (“have worked” rather than “worked have”), and use the subject-verb-object order.  As the first generation of creole speakers essentially invented the grammar from scratch yet managed to come up with similar grammars across time and place, some linguists, like Noam Chomsky and Derek Bickerton, speculate that the human brain may be “hardwired” for a certain grammar. Jared Diamond theorizes in addition that perhaps the difficulty young children face in learning the proper word order for asking questions (“Do you like John?” as opposed to “You like John?”) stems from the fact that the former sentence goes against a pre-programmed creole-like subject-verb-object order.

Finally, what is the future of creoles?  That of creoles used by the majority of a population (such as in Haiti or Cape Verde) seems secure.  Others’ future is more uncertain, especially when surrounded by speakers of other languages.  For example, a Portuguese creole in Portugal’s former colony of Damão and Diu in India is near extinction.  Likewise, Palenquero is now mainly spoken by older people and is losing ground to Spanish.  However, whether dead or alive, creoles have much to teach us about language, history and the relationships between different peoples.

* Remember that many native languages are spoken in the Philippines; Tagalog is the official one but not the mother tongue of all Filipinos.

02
Nov

Spanish versus Portuguese

Some years ago, I was asked to do a translation from Spanish to English. When I arrived at the translation office and looked at the document, I realized that it was in Portuguese, not Spanish. No worries: I can read Portuguese, given its similarity to Spanish, which I studied for three years, and to Italian, one of my ancestral languages. Also, there was a Portuguese-English dictionary on hand just in case.

I was not surprised that the translation company mistook Portuguese for Spanish. After all, the two languages are very similar in vocabulary, grammar and syntax. They are both neo-Latin, or Romance, languages, as are Italian, French, Romanian, and a handful of non-national languages like Catalan and Provencal. Nonetheless, Portuguese and Spanish have some unique features that distinguish them from other Romance languages. For example, ‘to eat’ is ‘mangiare’ in Italian, ‘manger’ in French, and ‘manca’ in Romanian from the Latin word ‘manducare,’ whereas Spanish and Portuguese use ‘comer’ from ‘comedere.’ (Another language with these distinctions is the non-national Galician. Although spoken in the region of Galicia in Northwestern Spain, Galician is actually closer to Portuguese.)

Spanish and Portuguese both benefited from being spread around the globe by the transoceanic empires of Spain and Portugal, respectively. Starting in the 1400s, the two countries accumulated territory across much of the planet. Spain gained control of most of the Western hemisphere south of the Rio Grande along with Equatorial Guinea in Africa and the Philippines and Marianas islands (one of which is Guam) in the Pacific. Portugal on the other hand took Brazil, places in Africa like Angola and Mozambique plus the small islands of Cape Verde and Sao Tome e Principe, parts of Asia, and East Timor, an island located between Indonesia and Australia.

Nonetheless, over half a millennium later, a key difference in the two languages’ trajectories stands out. Spanish is reported as having approximately 330 million native speakers, vying with English as either the second or third most widely spoken mother tongue in the world, depending on the source. Portuguese, though also on the top 10 list, only boasts a little over half that number.

What accounts for this discrepancy? First, Spain tended to conquer areas that were much more ‘Westernizable’ than Portugal did: namely, the Americas. The Western hemisphere was not very populated when the Spanish and Portuguese arrived there, and the native inhabitants were susceptible to diseases brought by Europeans to which they (the natives) had little or no immunity. Portuguese and Spaniards also came in large number to their Latin American colonies, bringing with them their language and general culture.

Africa and Asia presented a different picture. There White colonizers for the most part ran into densely populated societies that not only were immune to European diseases but often harboured illnesses from which the would-be invaders had little protection. One sixteenth-century Portuguese historian described the travails of his countrymen (I say ‘countrymen’ because most Spanish and Portuguese explorers and colonists were male) in sub-Saharan Africa as such: ‘But it seems that for our sins, or for some inscrutable judgment of God, in all the entrances of this great Ethiopia we navigate along, He has placed a striking angel with a flaming sword of deadly fevers, who prevents us from penetrating into the interior to the springs of this garden.’ Hence the Spanish and Portuguese had less incentive to settle in Africa or Asia than in Latin America. In any event, their chance of displacing the existing residents in the former two regions would have been much slimmer.

Thus with regard to language, Spanish had an advantage over Portuguese in that Spain’s colonial possessions were concentrated in the Western hemisphere. The Spanish managed to transplant themselves plus their language and culture there with relative ease. Portugal in contrast had only Brazil in the Americas. Most of its other overseas territories were located in far less Europeanizeable regions. Not surprisingly, Spain failed to Hispanicize its one major Asian colony, the Philippines: most Filipinos speak a native language as their mother tongue despite 300 years of Spanish rule. In the same way, the ability of Portugal to spread its language to any great degree to its Asian outposts like Macau, Sri Lanka, or Goa, India, was limited.

Most of the Spanish spoken in the world today is standard Spanish. Portuguese, on the other hand, developed a number of creoles (not to be confused with capital ‘c’ ‘Creole,’ the native tongue of Haiti), a language based on two or more languages that serves as the native language of its speakers. The best-known Portuguese creole is that of Cape Verde off the West Coast of Africa. Cape Verdean creole is spoken by the majority of that nation’s population, although standard Portuguese has official status. The majority of Portuguese creoles, however, are used by only a minority of inhabitants of the places in which they evolved; for example, speakers of Macanese, a Portuguese creole in Macau in China, are dwarfed by Cantonese speakers. Still others are in danger of dying out entirely, as in Portugal’s former colony of Damão and Diu in India.

Spanish in comparison has few creoles. One, called Chabacano, emerged in the Southern Philippines around a military installation manned by Filipinos of various ethnicities and Spanish and Mexican soldiers. A creole by the name of Palenquero is still used by some descendants of African slaves in San Basilio in Northern Colombia. Overall, though, the process of Westernization was so thorough in Latin America that few creoles developed there. Other than small minorities of unmixed Indians, nearly all Latin Americans speak standard Spanish or, in Brazil, Portuguese.

Spanish remains the Iberian language, indeed the Romance language, with the largest number of speakers. At least in the near future, it seems it will stay that way. However, Portuguese is still an important language, and it might even prove to be more useful than Spanish in areas with a Portuguese colonial past, like Africa and parts of Asia. Still, at least in North America Spanish rather than Portuguese promises to remain the second language of choice for most students. Even so, don’t downplay the importance of Portuguese in relation to Spanish- or consider studying both languages!

26
Sep

It’s happening in Canada: The Charter of Quebec Values

It seems that when something happens in Canada, to paraphrase the title of the old book It Happened in Canada, it usually happens in the province of Quebec. Such is the case right now with Premier Pauline Marois’ new legislation known as the Charter of Quebec Values. If it passes, this charter, which has just been introduced in Quebec’s National Assembly, would prohibit employees of public institutions in the province from wearing conspicuous religious symbols on the job. Such symbols would include Sikh turbans, Muslim hijabs (headscarves) and burkas, Jewish kippas (skullcaps), and large crucifixes; small crosses and Star of David rings would not be forbidden. Among the venues affected by the new law would be hospitals, schools, and public daycare centres.

The Charter of Quebec Values has given rise to a huge amount of controversy not only in Quebec and Canada but around the world. While they might not agree on much else, Canada’s three major federal parties – the NDP, Liberals and Conservatives – have been unanimous in condemning Marois’ proposal. Multiculturalism Minister Jason Kenney even showed a picture of himself on his Twitter account wearing a Sikh headscarf to show solidarity with the Sikh community, to whom the bill would deny the right to wear turbans in the workplace. In addition, thousands of people gathered in Montreal for a march to protest the Charter.

On the other hand, Marois’ legislation has its supporters. A Leger Marketing poll last month, for example, found 57% of the province’s residents to be in favour of the Charter of Quebec Values, with a higher percentage among Francophones (the majority of Quebec’s population) than Anglophones. In the Globe and Mail, David Rand, president of the group Atheist Freethinkers,* wrote a piece titled ‘Why a secular charter is good for Quebec,’ explaining that the charter will ‘establish a line of demarcation between… the freedom of religion of those who would display openly their allegiance to a particular religious community and… the freedom of conscience of others who should not be forced to be exposed to such displays from the state and its representatives.’

I personally lack strong feelings either way on the issue, perhaps because I do not live in Quebec and because my religion (Lutheran Christianity) does not obligate me to wear any specific symbols. In general, I tend to lean against the Charter. In my view, an employee of an institution does not represent the institution as a whole. The man with a (large) Star of David around his neck who sold me my prescription medication at Toronto General Hospital, for instance, does not mean that Toronto General is a Jewish hospital. Similarly, the teacher at my daughter’s school who wears a small cross necklace – an item that would, incidentally, be permitted under the Charter of Quebec Values – does not teach at a Christian but at a public school. It might be different if the school had a crucifix on the wall or the hospital a Star of David on their front desk, but these items on an individual worker do not challenge the secularism of the institution itself. Also, although I find some of the charges of ‘racism’ and ‘xenophobia’ hurled by the anti-Charter crowd to be overblown, it does seem somewhat suspicious that a large crucifix, a clearly religious symbol, will be kept at the National Assembly in the name of ‘tradition’ while turbans, kippas, and hijabs are banned in public buildings.

One pro-Charter argument is that if one chooses to live in a place – in this case, Quebec – one must abide by that jurisdiction’s legislation. For instance, if I decided to be a public school teacher in France, a country with a Catholic majority population but a longstanding separation of church and state, I would have to accept that I could not bring my large Hawaiian-made crucifix to class – even though when I did wear it in my younger days, it was to emulate my then-idol Madonna rather than express my religious faith. Again, my religion does not require me to wear a cross, but even in cases where a particular item, such as a turban for Sikh men, is a religious duty, the law of the land takes precedence.

A counterargument to this, of course, is that although Quebec is in some ways a separate jurisdiction from the rest of Canada, the province is receiving considerable transfer payments from other parts of the country. As a result, other Canadians – and the leaders of the country as a whole – have a legitimate basis for demanding at least some say in what the government of Quebec does. It is a bit like the question of publicly funded abortion: it is one thing to talk about the right to have an abortion; it is another to expect the taxpayers, some of whom may be vehemently opposed to the procedure, to pick up the tab for it. Therefore I do not see anything wrong with the Canadian federal government’s decision to possibly challenge the Charter in court.

As with many other contentious issues, there is hysteria on both sides of the Charter of Quebec Values debate. One letter writer to the Toronto Star, for example, states that Premier Marois’ proposal ‘reeks of the onset of fascism and Nazism that was born in Europe in the 1920s and quickly led to chaos and the holocaust in the years to follow.’ On the pro-Charter side, one commenter on a pro-secularism website stated that daycare workers who wore crucifixes were trying to convert their students to Christianity, as if wearing a cross around one’s neck were equivalent to telling young children that ‘Jesus is Lord’ (which I would undoubtedly agree with Charter supporters has no place in a publicly funded childcare centre; a private religious one is another story). As I said before, however, I do not really have much personal stake in the charter. The outcome of the proposed legislation thus remains to be seen.

*It should be noted that many of those who took part in the Montreal march against the Charter claimed to have no religious affiliation, so not all non-religious people share Rand’s opinions.

18
Aug

Tragedy in Toronto: The death of Sammy Yatim

Over the past few weeks, Toronto has been taken in with the death of Sammy Yatim. Yatim was the 18-year-old man fatally shot on the night of July 29, 2013, in Toronto. He was brandishing a knife (and exposing himself) on a city streetcar when police were called to the scene. After being shot nine times by police and then tasered, Yatim was declared dead at St. Michael’s Hospital.

Reaction was swift to follow. Almost immediately, hundreds of people, including Yatim’s mother and sister, marched in the streets of Toronto with banners demanding, “Justice for Sammy.” On their end, the police suspended the officer involved in Yatim’s death, Constable James Forcillo, with pay, and more recently, Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair appointed a commission to examine officers’ use of force when dealing with people with emotional disturbances. Ontario’s Special Investigations Unit is meanwhile looking into Yatim’s shooting.

More details have also surfaced about Sammy Yatim himself. Apparently he was going through a difficult period in the last few years of his life. For example, he had left his father’s house (his parents were divorced) after a disagreement about smoking marijuana. He had failed a year of high school, even though, according to a Toronto Star article, he was ‘trying to get life back on track.’ This and other reports have painted a picture of Yatim as a rather troubled teen.

It seems somewhat ironic that Sammy Yatim’s death came right on the heels of the acquittal of George Zimmerman, the Florida ‘neighbourhood watch’ volunteer charged with killing an African-American adolescent named Trayvon Martin. Of course there are differences between the two cases, the most significant being that unlike Zimmerman, Forcillo was a member of an official law enforcement agency. On the other hand, questions like race and racism, appropriate use of force, and crime and punishment emerged as issues in both incidents.

Sammy Yatim was born in Syria and came to Canada at the age of 13. Although in terms of physical appearance he was basically indistinguishable from a Greek or Italian – the cultural background, it appears, of the policeman who shot him – Yatim’s ethnicity soon became fodder for all sides of the debate. On one hand, a commenter on a site called ‘Bare Naked Islam’ (I take it that the site was named after the musical group rather than the other way around) referred to Yatim as a ‘little islamic [sic] shit.’ It might come as a surprise to some that in reality, Sammy Yatim was Christian, not Muslim; his funeral took place at a Syrian Orthodox church in Scarborough. Yatim’s race may have featured as well on the agenda of some of those who called for justice for him. At a second demonstration following his death, this time at police headquarters on Toronto’s College Street, chants of ‘No justice, no peace, no racist police’ could be heard. Reuben Abib of the Black Action Defence Committee tied Yatim’s demise to the shootings of other young men of colour by police.

It might again surprise many people that Arabs and other Middle Easterners, despite their portrayal in the media as wild-eyed terrorists, are not particularly prone to run-ins with the law. For instance, a study in Ontario in the 1990s found that Arabs were actually less likely to be incarcerated than Whites on a per capita basis. One prominent aspect of the Sammy Yatim case was his state of mind. While Yatim’s friends and family denied that he had any mental illness, surely anyone brandishing a weapon and waving their genitals in public, as Yatim was doing on the streetcar, is at the very least experiencing a psychotic episode. Mentally disturbed individuals present a particular dilemma: they frequently are unpredictable, behave irrationally, and, by definition, cannot be reasoned with. In light of this, law enforcement agents may feel they have to act differently towards suspects like Sammy Yatim as opposed to ‘garden variety’ criminals. Interestingly, another high-profile police shooting of a generally ‘low-crime’ minority also involved a man with a psychiatric condition: Edmond Yu, a Chinese-Canadian paranoid schizophrenic who was swinging a hammer on a Toronto city bus.

Sammy Yatim’s death was certainly a tragedy: for Yatim himself, cut down in the prime of life; for his family, especially his mother and sister; and for his many friends who seem confused as to how he ended up in the situation he did. As to Yatim’s versus James Forcillo’s guilt, until the police and Special Investigations Unit discover more about the matter, agnosticism may be the best policy. Perhaps those investigating the case might suggest improving any existing or developing new protocols for officers on how to deal with the mentally ill. Yatim’s fate should be a chance for everyone involved to learn something from it so that similar incidents can be if not prevented at least reduced in future.

27
Jun

Good-bye Tony Soprano

Over the course of contributing to Cynics Unlimited, I have written a number of obituaries. I have never, though, written about any actors (or actresses, for any reader not familiar with the gender-neutral term ‘actor’). I generally don’t find the lives of actors particularly interesting – and for those who do, there’s always Kitty Kelley. However, I feel I just have to say something about the recently deceased James Gandolfini. Gandolfini, of course, was the actor who played Mafia chief Tony Soprano in the hit series The Sopranos. He died at a relatively young age (51), perhaps not in the prime of life as Princess Diana at 36, but not at an advanced 92 as did former actress and swim star Esther Williams earlier this month.

Though wildly successful as head of the Soprano ‘family’ (double meaning here!), James Gandolfini came under fire in some quarters for his role. Some accused him of promoting stereotypes of Italians as gangsters. For example, in 2000 the editor of an Ottawa-based Italian-language newspaper urged CTV to cancel their planned broadcast of The Sopranos for that very reason (the station didn’t cancel it, by the way). The editor was disgusted that at a time when Giuliano Zaccardelli had just been appointed Commissioner of the RCMP and Julian Fantino head of the Ontario Provincial Police, Italians were still being depicted as members of the criminal underworld. Of course, not all Italians shared the editor’s opinion. One of my aunts, who was born in Italy, was outraged when she heard that some people wanted to ban the show. ‘But I want to watch The Sopranos!’ she said angrily. ‘We all know there are people in our community who do those things [i.e. crime].’

Being of partial Italian descent myself, I watched the dispute over The Sopranos with amusement more than anything else. I found it hard to see The Sopranos as an anti-Italian plot when so many of the people involved in the show were of Italian origin themselves, not only Gandolfini but Edie Falco, who played Tony Soprano’s wife Carmela, and Lorraine Bracco, who acted as his psychiatrist Jennifer Melfi (I was pleased to discover that the Mafia had socially progressed somewhat since The Godfather, the title character of which told his son Michael that ‘Fooling around is for women and children, not men’). Even the very WASPish-sounding producer David Chase’s real last name was DiCesare.

James Gandolfini defended his choice to play the role of a Mafia boss. ‘Sure, you can have movies about sweet Italian Americans, but do they make money at the box office?’ he asked rhetorically. His remark reminded me a bit of a statement by Black actress Hattie McDaniel, who played (and won an Oscar for) Mammy in Gone with the Wind. When accused of catering to racial stereotypes by taking on servants’ roles in Hollywood, McDaniel replied, ‘I can be a maid for $7 a week or I can play a maid for $700 a week.’ Like it or not, the entertainment industry’s raison d’être is not to defend oppressed minorities; it is, as Gandolfini insinuated, to make money.

It also seems a bit late to get all up in arms about stereotypes of Italians as mobsters after the spate of Mafia films we’ve witnessed over the years. Although The Godfather is still considered THE Mafia movie, it was actually preceded by The Brotherhood four years earlier (1968), starring Kirk Douglas and Irene Papas. (By playing an Italian, Douglas, a Jew, showed his ethnic versatility – a decade before The Brotherhood, he appeared in the title role of the film The Vikings). It’s fair to say, however, that it was The Godfather, and its sequel Godfather II, that spawned a series of Mafia features. Some were well-done and critically acclaimed, like Goodfellas or Scarface; others forgettable but – to their credit – unpretentious, like Married to the Mob; and still others forgettable and pretentious, such as Prizzi’s Honor. The Sopranos is merely part of a long line of such works. And it probably won’t be the last, because again like it or not, the Mafia has obviously gained a stranglehold over the American viewing public.

So rest in peace, James Gandolfini. And maybe 20 years from now the people who criticized you for acting in The Sopranos will be glued to their seats watching a TV show about the Russian Mafia.

14
May

A Special Delivery: Having a Caesarean Section

When I was six months pregnant, I stepped out of the shower one day and caught a glimpse of myself in a full-length mirror. Looking at my bulbous belly, I realized then and there that the only way my daughter – I already knew the baby was female – could be born was by caesarean section. I went into labour naturally three months later. After 36 hours of futile pushing, however, I found myself strapped to an operating table as a team of doctors cut my little girl out of my abdomen. (I was conscious during the surgery.)

My caesarean was necessary. The baby was too big; I was too small; and without medical intervention, both she and I would likely have died. That knowledge didn’t necessarily make recovery any easier: I distinctly remember my bandaged belly aching whenever I laughed and my stitches moved. Three days afterwards when a nurse took off my bandages and stitches, an angry red mark greeted me where I’d literally been sliced and diced.

The next few weeks were a blur of breastfeeding, diaper changing, setting up my computer so that I could work at home, and touching base once again with friends and colleagues. I didn’t reflect in any great depth on how my daughter was born. But then one morning in July (about two months after the birth), it seemed to all come back to me, almost out of the blue. On one hand, I wasn’t particularly surprised at having had to give birth abdominally. I was almost 39 when my daughter was born, and older first-time mothers are at greater risk of delivery complications. My three sisters all had their children by caesarean for the same reason I did: baby too large, mother too small (in medical terms, cephalopelvic disproportion). Add the fact that I’m fairly narrow in the pelvis, and I knew even before seeing my bulging belly in the mirror that my chances of being sectioned were fairly high. Nonetheless, it was a bit disconcerting to contemplate the fact that without modern medical technology, I would most likely be dead now. In a sense, my body had failed me.

Since that July morning, I’ve read a great deal about other women’s reactions to having a caesarean section. At one end of the spectrum, some mothers feel cheated of a ‘real’ birth experience by not being able to deliver vaginally. Other women in contrast specifically request a caesarean even without medical indication because they do not want to go through what they view as the pain of a so-called normal birth (famous example: Britney Spears). I admit that during the last weeks of my pregnancy, I briefly toyed with the idea of asking my obstetrician to give me a c-section because I didn’t exactly relish the thought of suffering through labour. Then I had the fantasy of labouring without a hitch and triumphantly expelling the baby in one or two big pushes. I did indeed go through labour – and ended up with major surgery and a cut belly nonetheless.

This May 8, that will be six years ago. The angry red mark that awaited me when my bandages were removed is now a small white line along my abdomen. It’s fairly inconspicuous, but it is visible. As one of my nieces said, ‘Aunt Emilia had a crack on her tummy.’ It’s really the only tangible bodily sign that I actually gave birth: I don’t have stretch marks; my breasts haven’t changed at all despite nursing my daughter for over two years; and all my pregnancy weight was gone in two months.

As with the operation itself, women’s feelings about their caesarean scars vary from person to person. One woman interviewed in a 1980s book on pregnancy and childbirth felt inconvenienced by her scar because she, in her own words, had a thing for ‘bikinis and such.’ On the other hand, a second woman who had undergone a c-section said she looked on her scar as a badge. My own feelings about my scar are more like those of the latter woman. I remember a discussion with an ex-boyfriend (not my daughter’s father; rather, the Spanish-Filipino man I mentioned in my essay ‘Who’s White?’) where he told me that if I had a caesarean, I’d always have to wear a one-piece bathing suit because otherwise everyone would see the mark on my belly. ‘Oh, but you’d probably be proud of your scar,’ he added immediately afterwards.

I am proud of my scar. I don’t feel I have to hide it if I go to the beach, for example. And any sense of failure I might have at not being able to give birth ‘normally’ has long dissipated. I am also aware that if I ever get pregnant again (a very unlikely occurrence, for lack of both desire and – at 44 – ability), I will in all probability need another caesarean. A VBAC (vaginal birth after caesarean) would not likely be in the cards for me if I ever found myself ‘with child’ now.

Six years later, my caesarean section seems less of a ‘major surgery’ than simply the way that my daughter came into the world. So in that way, my scar and the operation that led to my daughter’s birth seem worth celebrating.

09
Apr

Trayvon and George, a Year Later

It’s been over a year now since the shooting death of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman in Sanford, Florida. In many ways, it appears we are no closer to a definite answer as to what really happened than we were at the time of the event. The ability to get a clearer picture is hampered by among other things the lack of reliable witnesses and, more importantly, the absence of one of the key parties, Trayvon Martin himself. Was Martin a victim of racism as well as overzealous vigilantism, a young Black male killed for being, well, a young Black male? Or was Zimmerman a victim of a violent counterattack by Martin and thus guilty of nothing other than self-defence?
Immediately after the fact, public opinion seemingly divided itself into two camps: those who would say ‘yes’ to the first question in the previous paragraph and those who would respond in the affirmative to the second. I myself take an agnostic approach to the Martin-Zimmerman affair. Until we have more and better information on what truly occurred that fateful night in Florida, everybody might do well to look before they leap to any particular conclusion. Unfortunately, many partisans on both sides of the issue lack credibility. For example, PZ Myers of the left-wing blog Pharyngula, who in an entry titled ‘Racist goddamned Florida’ railed against the ‘puffed-up coward Zimmerman,’ had five years earlier sarcastically referred to three male Duke University students falsely accused of sexually assaulting a stripper as ‘those nice boys at Duke’ – long after it became evident that the rape charge was a hoax.
Where those on either side of the fence went wrong at first was to label the Martin-Zimmerman case a Black versus White issue. It was soon discovered that George Zimmerman might more appropriately be classified as Hispanic rather than White. While his father is White, of German descent (some people mistakenly thought George Zimmerman was Jewish, probably with the famous Robert Zimmerman – aka Bob Dylan – in mind), his mother is Peruvian. And, irony of ironies, Mrs. Zimmerman is believed to possess African ancestry: Peru has a history of slavery from colonial times and a sizable Black population today. Some say that far from being a ‘White vigilante,’ as one left-wing website called him, Zimmerman looks more like a ‘cross between Barack Obama and Hugo Chavez’1 (personally, I see some resemblance between Zimmerman and Chavez but not much with Obama).
The difficulty with labelling the Zimmerman-Martin incident a Black-White affair lies precisely in the difficulty with labelling Hispanics at all in a racial sense. US government surveys state that Hispanics can be ‘of any race.’ In terms of actual ancestry, the majority of Hispanics in and outside the United States tend to be European plus something or some things else, the ‘things’ in question being African and/or Native American. On the other hand, some so-called Hispanics have no non-White ancestry. For instance, my ex-fiancé was born in Lima, Peru, to a German father and Northern Italian mother. He had no problem, though, defining himself as a ‘Spanish-speaking minority’ when seeking work in the States. There are also Hispanics like my more recent boyfriend, who obviously has some non-European (in his case, Amerindian) forbears but who identifies as White.
The ‘outing’ of George Zimmerman as Hispanic challenges another widely held view: that different ‘peoples of colour’ will bond together or, in the White Supremacist paradigm, conspire against the White race. Here again, both Left and Right are guilty of promoting a false belief. One example: the White Supremacist website Stormfront talks in sinister tones about how ‘the Jew, the Asian, the Black, and the Latino’ have it in for the White man. This poster might be surprised by a recent poll from Great Britain showing that South Asians in that country were more likely to approve of a family member marrying a White than marrying a Black. This was true even among South Asian Christians (yes, they do exist), the category most accepting of interracial marriage. At the other end of the political spectrum, the Left also embraces the idea of people of colour engaging in some great interracial love-in. We saw this, for instance, in their support for ‘Writing Thru Race,’ a conference in Vancouver in 1994 which limited participation to non-White writers so as to ‘ensure a milieu in which writers directly affected by racism [could] engage in candid and personal discussions.’ But outside of the leftist – or for that matter rightist – fringe, it is far from clear whether different minority groups actually like each other any more than they like Whites.
We are still awaiting the final word on Trayvon Martin’s death, if the final word indeed comes. What is obvious at this point, however, is that the event cannot be boiled down to a simple Black versus White or, in the eyes of Martin supporters, White versus Black issue. Going beyond what happened in Sanford, Florida, it is equally clear that race, whether in the United States or elsewhere, is literally not a matter of black and white.
1 Sailer, Steve. George Zimmerman, Wrecker. http://isteve.blogspot.ca/2012/07/george-zimmerman-wrecker.html
28
Feb

Safe or unsafe: Designated Countries of Origin

“It don’t really matter to me, baby,
Everybody’s had to fight to be free.
You see you don’t have to live like a refugee
(Don’t have to live like a refugee)
No, you don’t have to live like a refugee
(Don’t have to live like a refugee)
Now you don’t have to live like a refugee
(Don’t have to live like a refugee)

This song, by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, always struck a chord with me (pardon the pun). Petty’s work isn’t the type of music I tend to listen to: give me bouncy British Invasion tunes like Bob Marley’s ‘Buffalo Soldier’ or the Rolling Stones’ ‘Get off of my cloud’ instead. But somehow, Petty’s ‘Refugee’ has stuck with me.

Perhaps it’s because refugees are, and have always been, a burning issue in Canada. Just last December, Citizenship and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney compiled a list of so-called ‘safe’ countries, or in bureaucratic lingo, Designated Countries of Origin. Citizens from such nations can apply for asylum in Canada, but they will only have between 30 and 45 days to prepare their refugee claims rather than the usual 60. If their claim is rejected, they can appeal the decision to the Federal Court of Canada but not to the Immigration and Refugee Board. Finally, those whose quest to obtain refugee status in Canada ultimately fails will be removed from the country.

The purpose of this list, according to Kenney, is to make Canada’s refugee system fairer and more flexible. People who truly need this country’s protection, he says, will receive it more quickly, while those whose applications are refused will be expelled faster. Unofficially, the DCO list aims to pare down the number of individuals seeking refugee status in this country in the first place. In the two months since the plan was implemented, it appears to have borne fruit: refugee applications to Canada have declined by approximately 70% compared to similar periods in the last six years. Jason Kenney himself has pointed out the dramatic drop in applications from nations that have traditionally had a high number of unfounded claims.

The list originally contained 27 countries: 25 from the European Union plus the United States and Croatia. More recently, it was expanded to include eight more, such as Japan, Australia, Israel (excluding Gaza and the West Bank), and Mexico. There seems to be a certain method in the madness of the government’s designation of countries as secure or not. Practically all nations in the industrialized West fall in the ‘safe’ category, as do two industrialized but not Western countries (Israel and Japan) and a Western but still developing one (Mexico). The second largest group of nations on the safe list consists of the ambiguously Occidental nations of Eastern Europe: in other words, the traditionally Catholic or Protestant countries like Slovenia or Estonia as opposed to the Orthodox and less westernized ones like Russia or Romania. Off the list are the entire continent of Africa, practically all of Asia (save Japan and Israel), and every Latin American nation except one.

In many ways, the list makes sense. It may surprise some people, for instance, that in the last while, the largest source of asylum claims to Canada has not been some poor war-torn nation in Africa but Hungary, which most people associate with goulash, not gunfire. The idea of Hungary as a major refugee generator makes me want to scream out à la Michael Corleone in The Godfather, ‘Don’t insult my intelligence!’ The federal government has also wisely left off the list the Caribbean countries, which may appear tranquil and harmonious to most Canadians but whose citizens in some cases face social discrimination, such as homosexuals (I know; a former lover of mine from one of the islands had a gay male cousin whose life there was hell on account of his sexual orientation). It is clear that Kenney and his minions have put considerable thought into their placement of countries on the safe or unsafe list.

On the other hand, I’m a bit more sceptical about calling Mexico ‘safe.’ That is not to say that there are no bogus refugee claimants from that country, or from other turbulent parts of Latin America like Colombia, for that matter. However, to compare Mexico with my previous example of Hungary, Mexico’s murder rate in 2008 was 11.59 per 100,000 inhabitants as opposed to the latter country’s 1.47. Of course, many of Mexico’s homicide victims may be criminals killed by other criminals, but the data strongly suggest that the Mexican government is failing to provide at least some of its citizens the protection they need. The wisest course of action on Canada’s part, in my view, would be to keep a close eye on Mexicans seeking refugee status but not to throw the baby out with the bathwater, so to speak, and dismiss asylum claimants from that country altogether.

Finally, what will the end results of the DCO list be? One hopes that regardless of what countries are included in it or not, it will achieve Kenney’s stated objective of making our refugee system fairer and more flexible. As a major refugee destination, Canada walks a fine line between on one hand welcoming the world’s oppressed and on the other not allowing ourselves to become the ‘chumps of the world,’ in the words of a conservative friend of mine. Let us hope that our powers-that-be will guide us along that delicate path well.





Further Research

Twitter

Archives

Categories