Could Meditation be the Answer?

A commentary on the use of mindfulness programs in schools.

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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.

Unexpected Bonuses to Briefly Coming Out of Retirement

Maybe the aboriginal people had it right all along.

You’ve perhaps noticed that I’ve published less frequently lately. Well, there’s a reason for that.  The six weeks prior to Christmas, I took off my retirement shoes and taught full time. The school I taught at for 27 years could not find a teacher to replace a maternity leave. Since the principal was sounding desperate, I agreed to take on a six-week contract.

I enjoyed being with young people again. That was why I went into teaching in the first place. Having said that, this experience definitely reaffirmed for me why I retired. Going back to planning lessons, marking assignments, and putting up with disruptive students confirmed for me that retirement from full-time teaching was the right choice.

Even though it was exhausting and demanding, I am truly grateful for the opportunities this experience provided. During my brief teaching stint, there was a professional development (PD) day scheduled. I admit, I was a bit negative about attending. After all, I would be retired once again in a few weeks. Why would I need more PD? I talked to my principal about it and he directed me to attend as the topic was general. I am so thankful he did. It was a very moving and powerful day.

In the morning, I attended a blanket ceremony. What is a blanket ceremony, you ask? This ceremony came about as a result of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) initiated by the Canadian government in 2008. The commission provided those directly or indirectly affected by the legacy of the Indian Residential Schools system an opportunity to share their stories and experiences. Here is a paraphrased explanation of a blanket ceremony according to the Karios website:

In 1996, the Aboriginal Rights Coalition worked with Indigenous elders and teachers to develop an interactive way of learning the history most Canadians were never taught. The Blanket Exercise was the result. The Blanket Exercise is based on participatory education methodology and the goal is to build understanding about the shared history as Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in Canada by walking through pre-contact, treaty-making, colonization and resistance. Everyone is actively involved as they step onto blankets that represent the land, and into the role of First Nations, Inuit and later Métis people. By engaging on an emotional and intellectual level, the Blanket Exercise effectively educates and increases empathy.

Now I thought I knew about residential schools as I had taught about them  when the social studies curriculum changed in 2005; when residential schools were included in the high school curriculum. Experiencing this ceremony left me feeling both shocked and saddened. Shocked because to visually see the result of European contact on indigenous people was appalling, and saddened that my Eurocentric ancestors could be so cruel.

The afternoon of the PD day was spent learning about First Nation (FN) culture. I’ve always been drawn to the indigenous people’s culture, especially their spirituality. It is a spirituality that is so inclusive and respectful of nature. This Ancient Indian Proverb expresses FN spirituality well.

“Treat the Earth well. It was not given to you by your parents, it was loaned to you by your children. We do not inherit the Earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children.”

This Cherokee Prayer also illustrates the FN People’s sacredness.

“Oh Great Spirit, help me always to speak the truth quietly, to listen with an open mind when others speak, and to remember the peace that may be found in silence.”

The afternoon included a smudging ceremony. For the FN Peoples, the purpose of the smudging ceremony is to cleanse and to remove any negative energy that may be present in a place, an object or a person. This is why many FN activities start with a smudge. A smudge is made by lighting dried plants (sage, sweetgrass, cedar or tobacco) in a shell or bowl until they smoulder.

We were shown what to do when doing a smudge. The smoke from the smudge is directed towards the head, so a person can think clearly, ears so you can hear the good things in life of others and of yourself; your mouth so you can speak of good things and say kind words to one another; your heart so you can feel good about yourself and others; and lastly you smudge your whole self so you can be blessed for the day. How beautiful is that?

Another opportunity I had during my six-week teaching stint was I got in on a field trip that was already planned before I started. It was a trip to Blue Quills, formerly a Residential School.

Sadly, I knew nothing about the Residential Schools until the mid 2000’s. It certainly wasn’t taught to me in school or university.  In case you don’t know about the Residential Schools in Canada, here is a brief history.

The Residential School system was created with the intent of removing children from their own culture and assimilating them into Canadian culture. Many of the residential schools were run by churches of various denominations, with the majority run by the Roman Catholic Church. Over its more than hundred-year existence, roughly 150,000 Indigenous children were placed in residential schools nationally.  At least 6,000 of these students are estimated to have died while residents.

The residential school system harmed Indigenous children considerably by removing them from their families, depriving them of their native languages, and subjecting numerous of them to physical, mental and sexual abuse. Detached from their families and culture, and forced to speak only English or French, students who attended the residential school system were unable to fit into either their aboriginal communities or Canadian society. The legacy of the system has been connected to an increased incidence of post-traumatic stress, alcoholism, substance abuse, and suicide within Indigenous communities.

Back to my personal experience. The present Blue Quills Indian Residential School building was opened in 1931, and housed about 200 students a year. We toured the building and heard from two of the school’s survivors, both who were forcibly taken from their homes at the age of six to attend the school. They told many stories of the injustices that befell them; injustices such as lack of nutritious and sometimes inedible food, mental abuse, sexual abuse, and shaming practices by the staff. I was shocked to learn that the people of nearby community of St. Paul were not even aware that the school existed.

In 1969, residential schools were removed from churches. The government intended to sell Blue Quills to the nearby town of St. Paul for a dollar. Local Indigenous people formed the Blue Quills Native Education Council and sought authority to operate the school, but Indian Affairs disregarded their requests.

When they attempted to close Blue Quills in 1971, the local FN people held a sit-in at the school, demanding control of the school. Control was turned over to the Blue Quills Native Education Council and it became the first Canadian residential school administered by Aboriginal people. Blue Quills is now a FN college, run by the seven FN communities that surround it. The college’s central emphasis is on language revitalization, especially the Cree language. I applaud the FN people for their courage and determination, and for creating a fully functioning college which is still going strong in the 21st century.

John (Fire) Lame Deer was a Lakota-Sioux medicine man who once said,

“Before our white brothers arrived to make us civilized men, we didn’t have any kind of prison. Because of this, we had no delinquents. We had no locks nor keys and therefore among us there were no thieves. When someone was so poor that he couldn’t afford a horse, a tent or a blanket, he would, in that case, receive it all as a gift. We were too uncivilized to give great importance to private property. We didn’t know any kind of money and consequently, the value of a human being was not determined by his wealth. We had no written laws laid down, no lawyers, no politicians, therefore we were not able to cheat and swindle one another. We were really in bad shape before the white men arrived and I don’t know how to explain how we were able to manage without these fundamental things that (so they tell us) are so necessary for a civilized society.”

Our ancestors entered North America, known to some Indigenous groups as Turtle Island, with their superiority complex believing that they were the civilized ones and had a responsibility to “civilize” the original inhabitants of Turtle Island. Now I always taught my social students the importance of practicing “historical empathy,” to place themselves in the historical situation to gain a deeper understanding of the events. Our European ancestors were acting in the best way they knew with their belief systems of the period. However, I have come to realize that it was the indigenous culture who perhaps had it right with their culture of sharing the land, stewardship of the land and spirituality. Although FN spirituality varied between tribes, it taught reverence for their ancestors by honouring and respecting others, and a respect for the land. In comparison, Europeans had a culture of land ownership, land exploitation and who viewed FN spirituality as a collection of superstitions.  I have to wonder how different our country would be had our ancestors arrived with an attitude of receptivity to new ways, instead of an attitude of superiority.

Christmas Controversies 3.1

A commentary on political correctness.

Every Christmas since blogging, I’ve written about Christmas controversies and every year I keep reading about a “War on Christmas.”  It appears there are people who believe the Christian festival of Christmas is under attack. Personally, I have never witnessed it nor have I talked to people who feel this way.  People who believe there is a war on Christmas take all-encompassing phrases like “Happy Holidays” as insults to Christianity. They make holiday greetings and decorations into hypothetically divisive political issues.

I find it intriguing to discover, according to the Washington Post’s article, Poll: Conservatives most likely to be offended by holiday greetings, that,

“the demographic groups most offended by “Happy Holidays” include strong conservatives (21 percent) …Trump supporters (18 percent) and all men (18 percent). These are the same groups of people that tend to say there is too much political correctness in society, yielding a paradox: The folks who complain the most about political correctness are the ones who are the most offended by what they see as “incorrect” speech.

To frame it another way, conservatives [traditionalists] often caricature liberals [according to Dictionary.com, those who are open-minded or tolerant, especially free of or not bound by traditional or conventional ideas, values, etc.] as too quick to take offense over politically incorrect speech. But in the [Public Policy Polling] PPP poll, people who described themselves as “very conservative” were more than twice as likely to be offended by “Happy Holidays” (21 percent) as “very liberal” respondents were to be offended by “Merry Christmas” (10 percent).”

As I talked about in my last blog post, Christmas Controversies 3.0, Trump wholeheartedly jump on the “Christmas is under attack” bandwagon when he told a rally of his devotees in Grand Rapids, Michigan “We’re going to start saying ‘Merry Christmas’ again.”

Mostly of what I’ve read, this so-called war seems to be an American phenomenon, but unfortunately it is overflowing into Canada.  It appears that some Canadians, or at least some of our politicians in the province of Alberta, are claiming that Christmas is under attack. Newly elected United Conservative Party (UPC) leader Jason Kenney has turned the holiday celebrating Jesus’ birth into a political issue.

Global News’ article, Twitter mocks Jason Kenney for suggesting the left thinks ‘saying Merry Christmas is hateful’, reports that Kenney was quoted as saying in a column posted by the Calgary Sun,  “The problem is people on the left [those labelled liberal thinking] think saying ‘Merry Christmas’ is hateful,” and that  “Those voices of crazed political correctness will not govern what is allowed.”

What I found even more captivating is Kenney reacted to the Twitter backlash of his comment by tweeting on December 21st, “It was a *joke* about the excesses of political correctness.” Most confusing to me was he said in the tweet, “But not too far off the mark at a time when songs like Jingle Bells & White Christmas are generating controversy.”

I had never heard of the classic songs of Jingle Bells and White Christmas being scandalous. What is so controversial about one of the best-known and commonly sung songs in the world?  Even more surprising was to learn that the 1942, “White Christmas,” made famous by Bing Crosby; a song reminiscing about an old-fashioned Christmas scenery, that is, a snowy Christmas. What could be contentious about that? I wanted to know, so I did some research.

According to the Guardian, in the article, Is Jingle Bells racist? Despite backlash from the right, it’s not black and white, a Fox News host told viewers that the “Newest Christmas controversy has social justice warriors claiming this classic holiday carol is racist,” warning that Kyna Hamill was urging people to “shun the jaunty tune.”

Kyna Hamill is a university lecturer who probed the origins of the popular carol, and published her findings, perceiving that during the past 160 years the song had become an example of music whose “blackface and racist origins have been subtly and systematically removed from its history”. Hamill did say much reporting of her research was incorrect and laden with “all sorts of absolutely absurd” accusations.

It seems that there are those that think the popular Christmas song, ‘White Christmas’, is a racist song as well.  This controversy originated, according to Opposing Views, when country music star Darius Rucker,  an African American singer and songwriter, who was asked to perform at the annual Christmas tree lighting ceremony at the Rockefeller Center. When Rucker began singing ‘White Christmas,’ people protesting the death of Eric Garner, a black man who was killed by a white police officer in Staten Island, flooded the Rockefeller Center and the surrounding area. The public turned to Twitter to voice their objections. “The irony of watching Darius Rucker singing ‘White Christmas’ around the corner from the Eric Garner protest is mind-blowing,” tweeted a law student based in Cincinnati, Ohio.

Critics of the singing of White Christmas, believe that the reference to the colour “white” by a black singer during a time of racial tensions was offensive and suggested a contempt for the feelings of other black people. Now I can only speak for myself, but that seems to be a stretch for me. Some individuals appear to look for any opportunity to create a political issue. I am still trying to wrap my head around as to why they feel the need to do so.

My conclusions: There is NO “War on Christmas.” Christmas is not being attacked. There are those that want us to believe it is, but all evidence that I’ve found says this ‘war’ is a myth being perpetrated by some for political gain.

I really like what Christopher Stuart Taylor, a Diversity and Inclusion Professional, says in his Huffpost article, If We Can’t Say ‘Merry Christmas’ in Canada, Multiculturalism Failed. Mr. Taylor wrote:

“As I returned the greeting I wondered: since when did “Merry Christmas” become a political statement especially in multicultural Canada? … Multiculturalism is a complete and utter failure in Canada when it is politically incorrect to say ‘Merry Christmas.’ …. When was the last time you told someone you didn’t know ‘Merry Christmas’ without pausing and wondering if they may or may not be offended?”

For those that do not know, multiculturalism is official policy in Canada, as it should be. The Act says, it is hereby declared to be the policy of the Government of Canada to recognize and promote the understanding that multiculturalism reflects the cultural and racial diversity of Canadian society and acknowledges the freedom of all members of Canadian society to preserve, enhance and share their cultural heritage.

That tells me there is no need to stop wishing people ‘Merry Christmas’.  As I said in my last post, it is really about common-sense etiquette. If you know someone is a Christian who is celebrating Christmas wish them ‘Merry Christmas.’ Likewise, say ‘Happy Hanukkah’ to those you know to be Jewish.  To your Hindu friends say happy Diwali when they celebrate. During Ramadan, say “Ramadan Mubarak” which means “Happy Ramadan”. If you don’t know a person’s faith, don’t worry about political correctness. Just say what feels right. When in primarily a Christian country, no one should be offended when greeted with a ‘Merry Christmas.’. If I were in Israel, I would not be offended if someone wished me a “Happy Hanukkah.” Most non-Christians would not be offended when wished a Merry Christmas in a Christian country?

The statistics appear to agree. According to the Washington Post’s article I sited earlier, “only 3 percent of respondents said they’d be personally offended if somebody said “Merry Christmas” to them. But 13 percent said “Happy Holidays” would be offensive to them. So, individuals who opt for the more inclusive, nondenominational “Happy Holidays” may end up offending more people than if they’d just said “Merry Christmas” in the first place.”