Should We Be Worried?

A commentary on the rise of bigotry

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On October 27th, yet another mass shooting occurred in the United States at a Pittsburgh synagogue. A radicalized, American born citizen expressed his hatred of Jews during the rampage, telling police officers afterward that Jews were committing genocide and he wanted them all to die. Sadly, this disturbed individual shot and killed 11 Jewish worshipers during the Jewish Sabbath service. (see Pittsburgh synagogue)

anti-hateWhile watching CNN, I saw an interview with a Jewish Rabbi hours after the mass shooting happened. The words uttered by the Rabbi struck me. He said, “I worry that hatred is becoming mainstream.” These words struck me because he expressed what I’ve been feeling. It seems people feel empowered to express their hatred towards people, such as visible minorities, indigenous people, Jewish people, Muslim people, immigrants, LGBT people, transgender people, and the list goes on and on. This sense of permission to express hatred is not only happening in the U. S. but in my country as well. I began to recall all the things I’ve read or heard in the news this month.

Earlier this month, CBC News reported in an article entitled,  ‘Go back where Indians belong’: St. Albert mother frightened by racist letter from neighbour, that a  woman living in St. Albert, a city two hours from where I live, fears for her children’s safety so has decided to move out of her rented condo.

An anonymous letter, which her 12-year-old daughter found in the mailbox, complained about children riding a scooter on driveways and playing basketball and football on the street. Then the letter said, “We don’t like your kind around here.” The tone of the letter became threatening and focused on the family’s First Nations or indigenous background. The letter told the family to, “Move out or things will escalate. Would not want to see the kids getting hurt. This isn’t a reserve. Go back to the reserve where Indians belong.” The letter ended with, “Your friendly Phase II Neighbours.”

Now I find this entire worrisome incident ironic for two reasons. First, the letter is signed “Your friendly Neighbours.” I would hardly call a letter threatening a family as friendly. The author or authors of this letter is/are hypocrites to say the least. Secondly, it is ironic that these neighbours, presumably white Caucasians, are telling an indigenous family to go back where they belong—in their minds the reserve—when indigenous people have been living on this land that we call Canada for thousands of years before the white Europeans arrived. It was our ancestors who created reserves in  the first place to acquire land for the state. It seems to me that if anyone should be telling someone to go back to where they belong, it should be the indigenous people telling the Caucasians to go back where they belong. I would be willing to bet that the “friendly Neighbours” are ignorant of Canadian history.

Another CBC News titled, Indigenous man kicked out of McDonald’s after racist confrontation says he feels lucky to be alive, describes how an Indigenous man in June was kicked out of one of the city of Red Deer’s MacDonald’s restaurants  following a racist and profanity-laced encounter with another customer. Zach Running Coyote, an indigenous actor from a nearby town, says he decided to confront a man who used a racial slur. Coyote said he wanted the man to say it to his face when he heard the racist say, ‘What’s your f–king problem?’ The racist customer then turned to his girlfriend saying, ‘That, “insert expletive,” little Indian know-it-all should mind his own business.'” Leaving the restaurant’s parking lot, the bigot yelled that he was sick of Coyote’s people “mooching” off tax dollars and living on welfare, spewing more profanity as he sped away. Clearly, the xenophobic is ignorant of history. If you read my post entitled, Is First Contact with Indigenous People Necessary? or do some research on your own, you will learn most of the indigenous stereotypes are based on misconceptions. To stereotypically label all indigenous people as welfare recipients simply is untrue.

Also, in the province where I reside, a story came out this month about one of Alberta’s new political parties, the United Conservative Party (UCP), claiming it does not share the “hateful views” of Soldiers of Odin, a white supremist group, after three candidates, contending to run as a UCP candidate, posed for photos with members of the extremist hate group. (see Candidates unknowingly posed).

What I find ironic, is in another CBC report, UCP nomination candidate says he knew Soldiers of Odin were coming to party’s pub night, the candidate told reporters that, ‘People have a constitutional right to voice their opinions and I’m not going to deny them that.’ In other words, he knew all along who the Soldiers of Odin were. Is this new political party attracting racists? Do its policies allow extremists to feel comfortable in their party? I have a difficult time believing any political party encourages racist extremists to join them, but sometimes actions speak louder than words.

These are just three examples of intolerance in my province. There are many more, I assure you. If this is occurring in every province, then racism seems to be rampant in my country. Hate crimes are on the increase. The National Observer reported last year that police-reported hate crimes in Canada rose in 2016 for the third year in a row, and became much more violent, according to data from Statistics Canada. With all the rhetoric coming from the current resident of the American White House bombarding  the Canadian news, it doesn’t surprise me that hatred is becoming mainstream. Even some of our Canadian politicians are spouting that there should be less immigration. Maxime Bernier, a once outspoken Conservative MP who left the party and has since formed a new political party, criticized an immigration system that he said was attempting to “forcibly change the cultural character and social fabric of Canada.” (see Maxime Bernier’s rebellion) Are these politicians bigots or just ignorant? Whatever it is, I don’t want to live in a world that is divisive and exclusive.

One thing I have learned from the many years of travel and experiencing numerous cultures, is that every human being, no matter what race or culture, just wants to live comfortably, enjoy life and live in peace and safety. The late Pierre Berton, a Canadian non-fiction author and journalist, once said, “Racism is a refuge for the ignorant. It seeks to divide and to destroy. It is the enemy of freedom, and deserves to be met head-on and stamped out.” I believe that to be true. Racism comes from ignorance. Racism is a learned attitude. Racism does not belong in my world or in my country. It needs to be met head-on and stamped out. Everyone, regardless of race, religion or sexual orientation have the right to live their lives with dignity. As stated in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, declared in 1948,

“All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.”

The bottom line is a bigot is a bully. Bullies intimidate to get their way. There is no place for a bully in my world.

DNA: The Mystery Molecule

A commentary on the effects of trauma.

DNA: A double helix molecule

One of many subjects I taught in high school was biology, otherwise known as life science. One of my favourite topics to teach was on DNA which stands for Deoxyribonucleic acid. I always told my students—because that is what science told us—that DNA doesn’t change except when a mutation occurs. A mutation is a change in the DNA’s code. A number of months back, my daughter, who is presently studying in Ireland, talked about a study she read about.  The study was done on Holocaust survivors where the researchers determined that genetic changes stemming from the trauma suffered were capable of being passed on to the next generation . I was quite fascinated with this idea as I had always believed change cannot occur in DNA unless there was a mutation.  This suggests that a person’s life experience can affect succeeding generations.

How can our life experience change our DNA? I wanted to know, so I did some research. There is a branch of study know as Epigenetics which studies how a person’s experiences can affect how their genes are expressed.  LiveScience says these “epigenetic changes are biological markers on DNA that modify gene expression without altering the underlying sequence. It says researchers have found that environmental factors, such as trauma, stress and even diet, can activate epigenetic changes.” In case you are not sure what is meant by gene expression, it is the process by which genetic instructions—the DNA code—is used to synthesize gene products. These products are usually proteins, which go on to perform essential functions as enzymes, hormones and receptors.

More specifically, environmental factors may alter a person’s genetic expression though chemical tags attached to DNA that turn genes on and off. Recent studies suggest that these tags might somehow be passed on to future generations thereby affecting the way their DNA is expressed. A CBC article talks of a McGill University study where researchers found that rat offspring raised by mothers that were anxious and non nurturing became anxious when they became adults, whereas offspring raised by relaxed, high-nurturing mother rats became relaxed adults when they grew up.

This has huge repercussions.  A CBC article, Researcher proposes study on how residential school trauma may have affected genes, tells of an indigenous researcher who is wondering if the experiences of residential school survivors had lasting effects on their genes.  Another CBC article, How ‘vicarious trauma’ is passed down from parent to child in military families, says there is a new generation of children grappling with effects of parents with PTSD from Afghanistan deployments. It is documented that children of traumatized people are at increased risk for mood and anxiety disorders and the article suggests this might relate to epigenetics. A Scientific American article, Changing Our DNA through Mind Control? reports a study that found meditating cancer patients are able to affect the makeup of their DNA.

National Human Genome Research Institute has an article, Child abuse leaves epigenetic marks, which sites research showing that Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD) patients who were abused as children have different patterns of DNA methylation, the process of replacing a hydrogen atom with a methyl group,  and gene expression compared to those who were not.

Researchers at Tulane University School of Medicine have found that exposure to violence, suicide or the incarceration of a family member can leave lasting marks on stretches of DNA called telomeres in children. Telomeres are repetitive sequences of DNA found at the end of chromosomes that act as protective caps. Telomeres shorten a little bit every time a cell replicates until they reach a certain limit whereby cells will no longer replicate.

Science Alert has an article, Depression Can Physically Change Your DNA, Study Suggests, which describes how researchers from the United Kingdom have found evidence that depression doesn’t just change our brains, but also alters our DNA and the way our cells generate energy.

An Huffpost article, Suicide and Trauma May Be Woven in DNA for Native Americans, says researchers found that Native people have high rates of Adverse Childhood Experience (ACEs) and health problems such as post-traumatic stress, depression, substance abuse, and diabetes which are all linked with methylation of genes regulating the body’s response to stress.

from http://www.howmanypeopledied.net

I’ve already referred to the study on Holocaust survivors, where a research team at New York’s Mount Sinai hospital did a genetic study of 32 Jewish men and women who had either been interned in a Nazi concentration camp, witnessed or experienced torture or who had to hide during the second world war (see Holocaust). The researchers also analyzed the genes of their children, who are known to have increased likelihood of stress disorders compared with Jewish families who were living outside of Europe during the war. Their conclusions:

This is the first demonstration of an association of preconception parental trauma with epigenetic alterations that is evident in both exposed parent and offspring, providing potential insight into how severe psychophysiological trauma can have intergenerational effects.

Perhaps there is more to this. Science Daily has an article called, DNA Is Dynamic and Has High Energy; Not Stiff or Static as First Envisioned. It says researchers are now saying DNA is not stiff or static. It is dynamic with high energy existing naturally in a slightly underwound state and its status changes in waves generated by normal cell functions such as DNA replication, transcription (the making of ribonucleic acid or RNA), and repair. The article says DNA is accompanied by a cloud of counterions (charged particles that neutralize the genetic material’s very negative charge). In other words, there is an energy field around a DNA molecule.

The article, Quantum Entanglement Holds DNA Together, Say Physicists,  says a group of physicists claim that the weird laws of quantum mechanics may be more important for life than biologists could ever have imagined. They say DNA is held together by quantum entanglement.

These physicists describe a simplified theoretical model of DNA in which each nucleotide—the main building block of DNA—consists of a cloud of electrons around a central positive nucleus. This negative cloud can move relative to the nucleus and so moves back and forth like a harmonic oscillator. When the nucleotides bond to form a base, these clouds must oscillate in opposite directions to ensure the stability of the structure.  In other words, energy is a part of the DNA molecule.

The Metaphysical Institute, maintain that humans have an integrated energy field known as the Aura which has a number of layers that surround us and permeate our bodies and cells. The different layers or fields within our Auras each have different purposes. The institute says all diseases, illnesses, injuries, mental and physical problems are caused in part by disturbances in energy fields. Research has found that disturbances show up in the fields before any disease or other problem appears.

Researchers discovered that DNA naturally fluoresces, is an article by Phys.org. The article says a Northwestern University team recently caught fluorescing, the property of absorbing light of short wavelength and emitting light of longer wavelength, in DNA. In other words, DNA involves the absorption or emission of energy. Some are even suggesting that one of the major functions of human DNA is that it receives and transmits energy. Some spiritual writers say the passing on of environmental influences of DNA involves the molecule’s energy field. This comes to no surprise to me as Albert Einstein once said,

“Everything is energy and that’s all there is to it. Match the frequency of the reality that you want and you cannot help but get that reality. It can be no other way. This is not philosophy, this is physics.”

No matter how these genetic changes are passed on to future generations doesn’t matter. What matters is that science is showing that trauma affects us humans genetically and so therefore can be passed on to future generations. Now that we are aware of this, it is imperative that we take preventative measures to prevent traumas such as violence, racism, or anything that creates stress. I know that is a tall order, but for the sake of future generations, it is imperative that we do so!

Could Meditation be the Answer?

A commentary on the use of mindfulness programs in schools.

If you have  been reading my blog for a while, you know that I am a retired teacher who taught for 35 years. I still substitute teach from time to time, so I stay in touch with the teaching world. I’ve spent my career wondering what the best way to deal with disruptive, reluctant learners is. I often debated whether to kick a disruptive kid out of class, keep them in at breaks, send him or her to the office or just tolerate them. When I began my teaching career, the school I was at practiced corporal punishment in the form of strapping students. Physical abuse is not the answer either.  In 35 years I have never found an ideal method.

I recently came across an article on a blog called: The Way of Meditation. The article was titled: School Replaced Detention with Meditation. Now this intrigued me. I meditate regularly and it certainly has made a difference in my life. The article quotes the Dalai Lama who said, “If every 8-year-old in the world is taught meditation, we will eliminate violence from the world within one generation.” Wow!  That would be amazing. Just watching the news occasionally tells me there is an enormous need. Not only that, could this be the answer to a school’s discipline problems?

The article tells of Coleman Elementary School in Baltimore, a city located in the state of Maryland in the United States. This school starts its day with a breathing exercise over the PA system and ends it with an after-school program of yoga and meditation in addition to the usual sports activities. The school’s staff guide students through breathing and other centering exercises in the Mindful Moment room, which is a calming space with cozy cushions and beanbags, lit by glowing pink Himalayan salt lamps. When one of the students become a discipline problem, he or she is sent to the Mindful Moment room. In the room, unruly students are guided to sit, breathe and meditate in order to calm down and re-center. They are also counselled to talk about what happened.

Tibet’s spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama

Now what a fantastic idea! A Mindful Moment room—meditation room—instead of a detention room. I wish I had thought of that. In another article, Meditation is Imperative: Schools Replacing Detention…, it tells of a dialogue with the Dalai Lama after the Paris Attacks in November 2015. The Tibetan spiritual leader claimed that humanity bears part of the responsibility for the emergence of global terrorism. He said praying to God for a solution and using the hashtag of the likes of #PrayforParis won’t do much to help. I agree! His most impactful statement was, “Let us work for peace within our families and society, and not expect help from God, Buddha or the governments.”  He’s right! Praying to God or wanting governments to fix things hasn’t worked so far. As the Buddha says, “Peace comes from within. Do not seek it without.” Or as Ralph Waldo Emerson puts it, “Nothing can bring you peace but yourself.”  

The Guardian’s article: One of San Francisco’s toughest schools transformed by the power of meditation, tells of Visitacion Valley middle school in San Francisco, California, which is a school surrounded by drugs and gang violence.  Students at this school were often stressed out and agitated as on one occasion three dead bodies were dumped in the schoolyard. In 2007, a meditation program called Quiet Time was brought in to deal with worried students. A month after the meditation program began, teachers noticed changes in behaviour. Students appeared happier, worked harder, paid more attention, were easier to teach and the number of conflicts fell dramatically.

Now, I began to wonder if there are schools in Canada that practice mindfulness. In case you are not familiar with this word, the Mindfulness Institute of Canada defines mindfulness as “a state of being fully present in the present moment, with acceptance and without judgement.”  This is really the same thing as meditation as the Free Dictionary defines meditation as “a practice of concentrated focus upon a sound, object, visualization, the breath, movement, or attention itself in order to increase awareness of the present moment, reduce stress, promote relaxation, and enhance personal and spiritual growth.” It seems there are schools in Canada that have instituted this practice.

Young girl meditating

According to Macleans.ca, in the city of Toronto, Ontario,  the District School Board introduced lessons in mindfulness to all of its 200 Grade 9 students. In six workshops over a two-month period, led by the school’s teachers, students practiced breathing, “body scans” (a meditation exercise that draws attention to different parts of the body), and learned to “surf the wave” of difficult emotions, like anger and anxiety. The article reports that the “response was overwhelmingly positive.” Another place in Canada that has adopted mindfulness is in Vancouver, British Columbia,  where Renfrew Community Elementary School is located. In this school students begin their day by heading outside to do tai chi.  The school’s assemblies always start with a mindful breathing exercise.

Unfortunately, not everyone agrees that mindfulness is the answer. Change.org has an online petition to remove Mindfulness Programs from Canadian Public Schools. The petition’s authors argue that legislated meditation in Canadian public classrooms is unlawful, and are alarmed that mindfulness stems from Buddhist meditation. They argue that if mindfulness meditation is permitted, then what is to stop decision makers from forcing students to engage in mandatory Transcendental Meditation? Or mandatory hypnosis? Or require all students to eat bacon three times per day, regardless of their vegetarian or vegan standing. This seems to me to be somewhat of a paranoid reaction, none-the-less, everyone is entitled to their point of view.

Forbes.com published an article titled, Science Shows Meditation Benefits Children’s Brains and Behavior, which lists the following benefits of meditation:

  1. Increased attention: A study in 2013 showed that in boys with ADHD, with an eight-week training in mindfulness, significantly reduced hyperactive behaviours and improved concentration.
  2. Increased attendance and grades in school: One school district in California prolonged its school day in some of its “high-risk” schools in order to add meditation into the day. These schools have reported better attendance and grades, fewer suspensions, and happier, less aggressive kids.
  3. A reprieve from outside trauma: Meditation and mindfulness have been shown to help kids who are dealing with stressors such as neglect at home.
  4. Better mental health: One study found that an afterschool program consisting of yoga and meditation helped kids feel happier and more relaxed.
  5. Self-awareness and self-regulation: A study found that a mindful yoga treatment helped kids improve their ability to self-regulate, or control themselves, over the longer-term in a one-year study.
  6. Social-emotional development: One study found that a social-emotional learning program coupled with mindfulness was more effective than a classic “social responsibility” program as kids using mindfulness in their treatment had greater empathy, perspective-taking, and emotional control, compared to the control group.

The Harvard Gazette reports an eight-week study conducted by Harvard researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital, a study which involved taking magnetic resonance images (MRI) from 16 study participants two weeks prior to the study, determined that meditation literally rebuilds the brain’s grey matter in just eight weeks.

If you are not familiar with the nervous system’s grey and white matter, here is a quick biology lesson. Grey and white matter are found in the brain and spinal cord. Grey matter is found in brain areas that control an individual’s perception, such as how things are seen or heard, the formation of memories and the influencing speech and emotions. White matter connects one region of the brain or spinal cord to another transferring nerve impulses in and out of the grey matter.  Medical science has always told us that grey matter cannot rebuild, but Harvard’s research seems to suggest otherwise.

There is no doubt in my mind that meditation, or mindfulness, reduces stress, promotes relaxation, improves personal happiness and induces feelings of peacefulness. I have personally experienced it. As a retired teacher, I would have welcomed anything that curbed undesirable student behaviours, improved student work habits and grades, and made the classroom a better learning environment. If mediation–mindfulness programs–does that, then I say bring it on.

Is Brainwashing a Real Thing?

A commentary on the use of thought reform in the military

Tibet’s exiled spiritual leader the Dalai Lama

On my last post: Why is war so popular? I sited His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet, specifically his talk on the Realities of War. I would like to continue with that discussion.  His Holiness says,

 

War is like a fire in the human community, one whose fuel is living beings…Modern warfare waged primarily with different forms of fire, but we are so conditioned to see it as thrilling that we talk about this or that marvelous weapon as a remarkable piece of technology without remembering that, if it is actually used, it will burn living people. War also strongly resembles a fire in the way it spreads. If one area gets weak, the commanding officer sends in reinforcements. This is throwing live people onto a fire. But because we have been brainwashed to think this way, we do not consider the suffering of individual soldiers. No soldiers want to be wounded or die. None of his loved ones wants any harm to come to him [or her]. If one soldier is killed, or maimed for life, at least another five or ten people – his relatives and friends – suffer as well. We should all be horrified by the extent of this tragedy, but we are too confused.

I mentioned in my last post that I was transfixed by the Dalai Lama’s use of the phrase, “we have been brainwashed.”  In my last post I concluded that we, the general public, have been brainwashed to accept war as normal and necessary. But what about the soldiers? Have they been brainwashed as well? The Dalai Lama later in his message says,

It is not only during times of war that military establishments are destructive. By their very design, they were the single greatest violators of human rights, and it is the soldiers themselves who suffer most consistently from their abuse…They are then compelled to forfeit their individual will, and, in the end, to sacrifice their lives.

His Holiness seems to think so as he says, soldiers “are then compelled to forfeit their individual will.” I guess I’ve never really thought about it before. It is unrealistic to believe that an individual could join the military and be able to do what is required of them without ‘reprogramming’. So, what happens to a person when they join? Are they brainwashed or reprogrammed so to speak?

According to Wikipedia’s, Recruit Training, psychological conditioning techniques are used to shape attitudes and behaviours of soldiers in training, so that the recruits will obey all orders, face mortal danger, and kill their opponents in battle.  The article goes on to quote specialists in US recruit training. These specialists say,

“The intense workload and sleep restriction experienced by military recruits leaves them little attention capacity for processing the messages they receive about new norms…Therefore, recruits should be less likely to devote their remaining cognitive effort to judging the quality of persuasive messages and will be more likely to be persuaded by the messages…”

Is this brainwashing? Is this mind control?

In the 1983 PBS production, Anybody’s Son Will Do, gave this assessment of what it means to be trained to be a soldier. Here is one of the opening quotes: “The secret about basic training is that it’s not really about teaching people things at all. It’s about changing people so that they can do things they wouldn’t have dreamed of doing otherwise.”  It can be found on YouTube. Here is part two.

In part V of Anybody’s Son Will Do, the commentator mentions the trainers indoctrinate the recruits with the idea that the enemy, whoever he may be, is not fully human, and so it’s all right to kill him. I haven’t viewed the entire program, but what I did view I found disturbing.  Don’t take my word for it. Have a look starting at 2:00.

Now I was curious. Is the military – and it doesn’t matter whether it is the Canadian, American, Chinese,  Russian military or any other country’s military – using mind control techniques, otherwise known as brainwashing?

HowStuffWorks is an award-winning source of unbiased, reliable, easy-to-understand answers and explanations of how the world actually works. In its explanation of how cults work, it claims cults use techniques known as “mind control,” or otherwise known as “thought reform,” “brainwashing” and “coercive persuasion.” It is the systematic breakdown of a person’s sense of self. The article explains that cults use:

  • Deception where new recruits are conned into joining the group.
  • Use of deprivation where a person may be deprived of adequate nutrition and/or sleep so the mind becomes confused.
  • Isolation where individuals are cut off from outside world or each other to produce intense introspection, confusion, loss of perspective and a distorted sense of reality.
  • Induced Dependency where total, obedient devotion, loyalty and submission is demanded.

There is no question in my mind that there are similarities between the mind-control practices used by cults and boot camp training in military.  It is important to note that there are differences. Firstly, military recruits know from day one of joining that they are giving up some of their autonomy. A military recruit makes a knowledgeable decision to relinquish that autonomy, whereas a cult recruit does not since they are deceived.  Also, a recruit signs up for a definite period of time, that is, he or she agrees to a legal contract that states how long he will be a soldier and what he will get in return. A person who joins a cult is deceived into thinking he or she can leave whenever he/she desires, but in reality, they cannot easily leave.

Now let’s be clear. At this time in history, we do need the military. There are times when a country needs to call upon their military. His Holiness, the Dalai Lama agrees as he states:

I want to make it clear, however, that although I am deeply opposed to war, I am not advocating appeasement. It is often necessary to take a strong stand to counter unjust aggression. For instance, it is plain to all of us that the Second World War was entirely justified. It “saved civilization” from the tyranny of Nazi Germany, as Winston Churchill so aptly put it. In my view, the Korean War was also just, since it gave South Korea the chance of gradually developing democracy. But we can only judge whether or not a conflict was vindicated on moral grounds with hindsight.

He goes on to say:

…in the case of the Cold War, through deterrence may have helped promote stability, it did not create genuine peace. The last forty years in Europe have seen merely the absence of war, which has not been real peace but a facsimile founded dear. At best, building arms to maintain peace serves only as a temporary measure. As long as adversaries do not trust each other, any number of factors can upset the balance of power. Lasting peace can assure secured only on the basis of genuine trust.

So what is the answer? Can a world ever be created by us humans where the military is obsolete. I believe the Dalai Lama has the answer. Until we build a world where there is trust; trust between religions, trust between nations, trust of governments, trust between corporations, and so on, we will never have genuine peace on this planet. Perhaps it is better put by this unknown person: “A relationship with no trust is kind of like having a phone with no service. You just end up playing games.” This is true whether we’re referring to a person, government, nation, or organization.

It’s Time to Give Youth a Voice!

A commentary on giving youth a real voice.

From CBC.com

CBC News reports in its article,  Thousands of students in U.S. walk out of classes to protest gun violence, accounts that students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida staged  a 17-minute walkout, one minute for each of the Florida school shooting victims from February 14.  This walkout was exactly a month to the day after an expelled student using an AR-15 assault-style rifle treaded into the school and opened fire, killing 14 students and three of its staff members. More than 3,000 walkouts were planned throughout the U.S. The purpose of the protests was to pressure federal lawmakers to pass gun control laws. Parkland students argue such laws will prevent other students from having to face the kind of trauma they experienced. As a retired social studies teacher, this is exactly the kind of activity I encouraged my students to participate in; to make their voices heard.

According to Wikipedia, there have been  219 (assuming I counted correctly) school shootings since the April 20, 1999. Why this date?  That is the date of the Columbine High School massacre where two Columbine students killed twelve students and one teacher as well as injured 24 others. They finished their massacre when they committed suicide. I especially remember this event because 8 days later, in Canada, a 14-year-old boy opened fire inside the W.R. Myers High School in Taber, Alberta, killing student Jason Lang and seriously injuring another student. In Canada, during the same time period, there have been three school shootings according to Wikipedia, one of which was in a college. When you compare Canada to the U.S., it clear that American students have just cause for concern.

Each time there is a mass shooting south of the border, the United States regime debate gun control, but nothing changes. Laws change minimally if at all.  Time.com makes an interesting statement saying, “though they [the students] may not be old enough to vote, they are making their voices heard outside the nation’s schools — in some cases, by physically getting up and leaving.”

That statement got me thinking. Do young people, those under the age of 18, have a voice or are they marginalized? Observing what is proceeding with the students in the U.S. and seeing them take a stand, I would say young people have been marginalized. The legal voting age in Canada and the United States is age 18. Now I’ve always bought the argument that young people are not ready to have that responsibility. They are not knowledgeable enough or responsible enough to be given the right to vote. Thinking about that, the same argument could be made about adults, those over age 18. I’ve met many, many adults who are not knowledgeable or responsible when it comes to politics. I now believe that age is not a factor.

Being curious, I wanted to know how many countries in the world have lowered the voting age to less than age 18. According to Worldatlas, Legal voting age by country, there are 15 countries plus the European Union, with its 28 member countries, that have voting ages less than 18. This is a topic I have discussed with my social studies classes over the years and I remember having some lively discussions with my under 18 students. Most advocated for the right to vote.

Craig Kielburger is a Canadian author and activist for the rights of children.  In 1995, when he was age of 12,  Kielburger saw a headline in the Toronto Star newspaper that read “Battled child labour, boy, 12, murdered.” This was a story was about a young Pakistani boy who was forced into child labour in a carpet factory at the age of four. Kielburger researched child labour and asked his seventh-grade teacher to speak to his classmates on the topic. As a result, a group of pre-teens started ‘Kids Can Free the Children’ which later became ‘Free the Children’.

In November of 2000, Craig Kielburger is quoted as saying:

Lowering the voting age to 16 is not a novel idea. Brazil has recently given the right to vote at all levels of government to 16-year-olds in that country. France, England and Australia are also contemplating lowering the voting age. Last month I attended meetings with world leaders at the State of the World Forum in New York City and met with the Japanese Minister of Finance to discuss youth issues during a trip to Japan. On November 27 [date of a Canadian federal election], however, I shall be denied the right to cast my vote for the individual I believe should lead my own country. Why? Because I am 17 years old. The time has come for Canadians to take a serious look at lowering the voting age to 16.  (see Giving Youth a Voice).

In an electoral studies research article prepared in 2012, Voting at 16: Turnout and the quality of vote choice, it says in the abstract,

Critics of giving citizens under 18 the right to vote argue that such teenagers lack the ability and motivation to participate effectively in elections. If this argument is true, lowering the voting age would have negative consequences for the quality of democracy. We test the argument using survey data from Austria, the only European country with a voting age of 16 in nation-wide elections. While the turnout levels of young people under 18 are relatively low, their failure to vote cannot be explained by a lower ability or motivation to participate. In addition, the quality of these citizens’ choices is similar to that of older voters, so they do cast votes in ways that enable their interests to be represented equally well. These results are encouraging for supporters of a lower voting age.

What struck me in this research was, “failure to vote cannot be explained by a lower ability or motivation to participate…the quality of these citizens’ choices is similar to that of older voters.” Age does not seem to be a factor.

A Capital News article,  Four reasons Canada should lower the voting age, gives the following four reasons for lowering the voting age.

  1. It might encourage a higher voter turnout. In Canada we have something called ‘Student Vote.’ On its website, it says, ‘Coinciding with government elections, students learn about government and the electoral process, research the parties and platforms, discuss relevant issues and cast ballots for the official election candidates. The results are shared with the media for broadcast and publication following the closing of the official polls.” If we are having our youth do this, why not grant the youth actual voting privileges.
  2. Young people would adopt the habit of voting. It seems to me that is what ‘Student Vote’ is attempting to do.
  3. Expand the notion of democracy. As the article says, students are taxed when they work so they should have the right to vote.
  4. The teenagers of today are engaged in their world and want to make a difference. My experience working with youth for 35 years as an educator, is I have seen many students speak passionately about world events and their role in it. It was not uncommon for me to hear a student say (paraphrased); “You adults are messing things up in our world so maybe it is our turn to have a say.”

The Guardian article, Have faith in our generation, quotes 16 year old, Chloe, from Scotland who says, “Politicians need to let go of old stereotypes and have faith in my generation.” The article explains that teens argue: ‘When we turn 16 we are trusted with responsibilities such as consenting to sexual activity, buying lottery tickets, and marrying or registering a civil partnership. It is absolutely absurd to grant young people these responsibilities without letting them have a say in their own future.’ I would also add that teens are considered responsible enough drive, so why not vote.

According to the article, Scottish 16-year-olds have proven they are engaged and capable of handling the right to vote based on the statistic that 16-year-olds had a greater turnout at the 2014 independence referendum than 18 to 24 year-olds.

I guess it’s official. I’ve had a change of mind. I do think the voting age should be lowered to age 16. We ‘Student Vote’ anyway.  Why not give them a real say? I have taught some very intelligent and passionate teens over the years who are educated on issues and know their position on issues. Yes, there are those who don’t care, but there are many people who have voting privileges who are apathetic. The fact that 31.7% of eligible voters did not vote in Canada’s 2015 federal election proves this.

Equal Pay for Equal Work

A commentary on gender equality.

Every year on March 8 most of the world celebrates International Women’s Day.  It observes the crusade for women’s rights. It is even an official holiday in many countries of the world. This year is especially noteworthy because of the “Me Too” movement which spread like wild-fire in October 2017 as a hashtag used on social media to help reveal the widespread pervasiveness of sexual assault and harassment occurring. It followed soon after the public revelations of sexual misconduct allegations against Harvey Weinstein, an American film producer. Now women are saying, “enough is enough.”  Too many men have been using their power and status to carry out heinous acts against women.  However, I would like to address another issue.

On Canada’s government website, the Status of Women, it says, “promoting equality for women and their increased representation in leadership and decision-making roles is a priority for the Government of Canada.” Is this just talk or is our government “walking the talk”?  It seems they are at least taking baby steps. Canada’s highlights for the 2018 Budget were tabled in February, and according to a Government of Canada press release, the government will introduce pay equity for workers in federally regulated sectors. It is estimated that through this legislation alone, the gender wage gap can be moved from 88.1 cents to 90.7 cents in the federal private sector alone.

Now that is great news and is certainly a step in the right direction, but it amazes me that in this 21st century, we have to legislate pay equity. It makes no sense to me. I have worked my entire life in a career where there is pay equality. In the teaching profession, at least in my province, a teacher receives the same salary regardless of gender or race. Pay is based solely on years of experience and years of university. I cannot comprehend why men still are paid more than women in much of the working world.

According to a CBC News article, StatsCan on gender pay gap, women earn 87 cents to men’s $1 in Canada. This reflects the hourly earnings of Canadians aged 25 to 54, and shows the gender wage gap has shrunk by 10 cents since 1981; a time when female workers earned 77 cents for each dollar earned by men. The Globe and Mail says, Canadian women working full-time earn, on average, 74 cents for every dollar a man makes, and that Canada’s wage gap remains well above the average for Organization for Economic Development and Co-operation member countries. No matter which statistic it is, women are not paid equally to men.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau the median earnings of all full-time, year-round workers in 2016, women make 80.5 cents for every dollar men make, a change from 79.6 cents the previous year. (see National Committee on Pay Equity). It is no different south of the border; women are not paid equally to men for the same work.

The CBC article also reports that the Royal Bank of Canada (RBC) Economics dispatch shows that women are underrepresented in private sector leadership roles in Canada. Just 2.6 per cent of women were in charge of incorporated businesses in 2014, compared to 6.5 per cent of men. That still puts Canada second among G7 countries after Italy and ahead of Germany, France, the U.K., U.S. and Japan.

The Fortune.com article, The Percentage of Female CEOs in the Fortune 500 Drops to 4%, reports, the 2016 Fortune 500 list, includes just 21 companies with women at the wheel compared to 24 last year and in 2014. To put it another way, women hold a measly 4.2% of CEO positions in the United States of America’s 500 biggest companies.

Now what is a person to make of this. Aristotle, an ancient Greek philosopher and scientist, once said, “Again, the male is by nature superior, and the female inferior; and the one rules, and the other is ruled; this principle, of necessity, extends to all mankind.”  I would like to think that humankind’s thinking has evolved since Aristotle’s time.

Napoleon Bonaparte, a French military leader during the French Revolution which started in 1789, said, “Women are nothing but machines for producing children.” I would hope that men in today’s age believe women have much more to contribute than this.

So why is there still inequality? Susan B. Anthony, an American women’s rights activist in the 1800s, said, “There never will be complete equality until women themselves help to make laws and elect lawmakers.”  I’m beginning to think that this is where the problem arises. Men are still, by in large, running the show.

The CTV News article, Iceland law forces companies to prove equal pay for women, reports that Iceland’s new law passed in January is requiring all companies to prove that their wage practices don’t discriminate against women. Iceland is believed to be a first country on our planet working to reduce gender pay gaps. The law intends to erase a current pay gap between men and women of about 5.7% that can’t be explained by differing work hours, experience or education levels, as measured by Statistics Iceland. So why would Iceland pass a law like this? Could it be that it is run by women?

In the 2016 Iceland election, female candidates won a record 30 of parliament’s 63 seats. That means female representation in Iceland’s parliament is 48%. Iceland also has a female prime minister, Katrin Jakobsdottir. (see Fortune). Iceland’s government is made up of almost half females. That could explain why such a law was passed.

What about Canada? The Globe and Mail reports that in the 2015 election Canadian voters elected 88 female Members of Parliment, putting female representation in the House at 26%, just over a quarter of the representatives. Maybe that explains why Canada hasn’t passed a law like Iceland’s. On the positive note, for the first time in Canada’s history, our Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, appointed an equally balanced cabinet between men and women, 15 women ministers and 15 men ministers. This could explain why Canada’s government is moving towards gender equity with its proposed legislation in the 2018 Budget Highlights, but has not gone as far as Iceland since Canada’s female Members of Parliament is only 26%.

It seems obvious to me. It is all about who is running the show; who is leading the country. Even so, I say to my government and my Prime Minister, come on Canada! Do the right thing and pass a strong law that forces companies to have equal pay for equal work. After all, it is the 21st Century. And to the women in Canada. Perhaps it is time to think about running the show.

Water is Scarce, You Say!

A commentary on the status of the world’s freshwater supply.

Cape Town’s Reservoir From: http://www.capetownpartnership.co.za

Lately I’ve heard people talk about the water crisis in Cape Town, South Africa and I’ve seen the occasional post on Facebook about it. Often, I am skeptical when it comes to posts I see on Facebook. To quote Donald Trump, it could be Fake News. I try to stick to reputable websites when doing my posts. Curious about this water shortage, I did some research. It seems the talk I’ve heard and the posts I’ve seen are true. Cape Town is running out of water.

According to a CBC News article titled, Cape Town water crisis prompts rationing to prevent Day Zero tap shutoff,  a city with 4 million people, Cape Town’s main water source is now at about 27 per cent, but the final 10 per cent is considered unusable because of mud, weeds and debris at the bottom. The city’s managers have instructed residents, starting February 1st, to use only 50 litres of water daily, a decrease from the current 87-litre limit. Day Zero, the day when authorities would force the closure of most taps, is projected to arrive on April 12, but some fear it could come sooner.  The hope is water rationing will prolong Day Zero. The city says it would have to turn off most taps if the average reservoir level falls below 13.5 per cent. If Day Zero arrives, many people would have to go to collection points for a daily ration of 25 litres.

That’s rather disturbing to say the least. Four million people living in a city without water. Reading this got me wondering if water shortages are happening in other locations. It seems there are shortages elsewhere. There have been water shortage scares in the United States, especially in the states of Arizona and California.  Two years ago there was much concern that parts of California would experience a water shortage (see: NYT). Thankfully, heavy winter snows in the Rocky Mountains have rescued Western U.S. cities such as Phoenix, Tucson and Mesa for 2018 (see: Daily Herald).

Does that mean people living in the Western United States can give a sigh of relief? No, it does not. In 2015, the UN Predicted there would be serious water shortages by 2030.  The UN’s World Water Development Report  says, the world will only have 60% of the water it needs by 2030 without significant global policy change. It says countries like India are rapidly depleting their groundwater and rainfall patterns around the world are becoming more unpredictable due to global warming.

According to a National Geographic article entitled, What You Need to Know About the World’s Water Wars, states that fears are being sounded about the depletion of underground water supplies known as aquifers. More specifically, an aquifer is an underground layer of permeable rock, sediment, or soil that produces water. About 30 percent of the planet’s available freshwater is in the aquifers located under every continent. According to this article, the world’s largest underground water reserves in Africa, Eurasia (Europe and Asia), and the Americas are under stress. It is interesting to learn that over two-thirds of the groundwater consumed around the world is for irrigation purposes for agriculture, while the rest supplies drinking water to cities. The article says, Beijing is experiencing sinking because soil collapses into the space created as groundwater is depleted. Parts of Shanghai, Mexico City, and other cities are also sinking because of shrinking aquifers. Sections of California’s Central Valley have dropped by 38 centimetres, and in some localized areas, by as much as 8.5 metres.

Kofi Annan, the seventh Secretary-General of the United Nations, once said, “Fierce national competition over water resources has prompted fears that water issues contain the seeds of violent conflict.”  He may be right. A Newsweek Article, The World will soon be at war over water, lists seven conflicts over water that have already happened. What’s interesting to me is I had no idea that these conflicts were over water. I was happy to read that some of the hottest conflicts over the water supply have been resolved through negotiation.

American composer, musician and poet, Michael Franti once said,

“If we do not change our negative habits toward climate change, we can count on worldwide disruptions in food production, resulting in mass migration, refugee crises and increased conflict over scarce natural resources like water and farm land. This is a recipe for major security problems.”

Mr. Franti is right. Humanity needs to “wake up” and realize that we must change our practices; our practices towards climate change, our habits towards water usage and even the way agriculture is practiced. The reality is water is a limited resource. As 1937 Nobel Prize recipient Albert Szent-Gyorgyi once said, Water is life’s mater and matrix, mother and medium. There is no life without water.”  Let’s face reality. If our water supply runs out, we are doomed.

In September of 2010, the United Nations General Assembly declared “the right to safe and clean drinking water and sanitation as a human right that is essential for the full enjoyment of life and all human rights.” (see: UN declaration). Slovenia in July of 2017 officially declared that having access to drinkable water is a human right. This announcement was made following a vote by the Slovenian parliament who voted in favour of the law that prevents the country’s water sources from being commercialized (see: Slovenia). I say “bravo”! A round of applause for Slovenia. Other countries should be following in Solvenia’s footsteps.

Now I don’t want to sound like a pessimist. I would rather be an optimist., which begs the question: Are there solutions to a water crisis besides conflict? Yes. According to the Canada Free Press’ article, Israel holds the solution to world water crisis, Israel has many new innovative products and policies. Some of these are drip irrigation and “fertigation,” a process of injecting fertilizers, soil amendments, and other water-soluble products into an irrigation system. Israel promotes dual-flush toilets, seawater desalination, advanced wastewater treatment and reuse, free-market pricing of water, drought-resistant seeds, cutting-edge metering and leak-detection systems, conservation education and precision agriculture. These are some of the ways we can use water in a more sustainable way. We just need to ‘wake up’ and demand that changes be made.