“Someone was mean to me years ago, so I’m going to punish someone completely unconnected now.” Sounds about right ….

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I was going to write about our trip to Idaho, I really was. But, as often happens when it comes to BethBlog, I got distracted and now I want to talk about something else. Pride parade inclusivity, to be exact. Right about now you’re probably wondering what even I, one of the seasoned Oscar-the-Grouches of the figurative trash can known as the world wide web, could possibly have to bitch about when it comes to the inclusiveness of Pride parades. Isn’t everyone invited to participate in Pride by definition? Isn’t it all about everyone being different, and being different being ok? Sure – unless you’re a police officer.

Those who know me well know I love reading – particularly newspapers. There’s just something about the dry, clean, faintly chemical aroma of broadsheet, the delicate grey crinkle, the inky smudges that linger on your fingers …. I also find many blog post topics while perusing newspapers. Our world is an odd one, with plenty to talk about. This time, what caught my eye was an article about police officers being allowed to take part in Calgary’s Pride celebration – but not in uniform. This is because the LGBTQ+ community has not always been treated kindly by the law. They faced discrimination for many years. This discrimination was upheld and – at times – made worse by the police. Anti-sodomy laws made the very existence of gay people illegal, and therefore dangerous. Their romantic relationships were considered a crime against nature. Police officers raided gay bars to destroy the spaces where LGBTQ+ people felt safe. Gay people avoided involving the police even when they were the victims of crime, because they knew they wouldn’t be treated fairly – and a police presence might even make things worse. Gay-bashing was about more than cruel words.

Other cities have faced similar controversy in planning their Pride celebrations, including Vancouver and Toronto. Here in Ottawa, police officers were asked by Pride organizers to refrain from wearing their uniform if they chose to join the parade. Ottawa Police Chief Charles Bordeleau denied the request, stating that officers could wear whatever they like while participating in the Pride parade, and that he, himself, would be attending in uniform. The uniform, he explained, is part of police officers’ identity – it represents how they serve their community. Indeed. Freedom of expression ought to be one of the core values of a Pride celebration. We live in a society where we can be, and express, anything we want – including a gay cop who is proud of both aspects of their life and experience, or a straight cop who wants to represent the respect and support modern police officers offer the LGBTQ+ community.

It is understandable, given the history of the LGBTQ+ community’s interactions with law enforcement professionals, that the relationship between the two is sometimes fragile. Very important – and very delicate – dialogues have happened, and must continue to take place, to foster trust and understanding. Police officers have, in recent years, been enthusiastic participants in Pride celebrations across the country. Hands have been extended and clasped in friendship across decades of marginalization, abuse, fear and mistrust. This is as it should be. We cannot move forward without leaving the past in the past. Real progress has been made. However, Pride organizers risk damaging – or even losing – that progress if they allow the parade to become less inclusive to punish today’s police officers for the mistakes of past ones. Like the rainbow symbol it has adopted, Pride should be a coming-together of all sorts of people – not a tool for revenge.

* It should be noted that not all Pride celebrants want to exclude law enforcement officers, or their uniforms. Many members of the LGBTQ+ community have stated that their Pride parade includes the police. Kudos to them! They are the way forward.

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Across the continent again …. because we can!

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Happy Canada Day, everyone! It’s the 150th birthday of our great nation, and a plethora of party-people are heading for our great nation’s great capital. As usual, the Ottawa branch of Clan Chepita is swimming against the current – we left Ottawa for Hamilton yesterday, whizzing past a line of cars crawling from Ajax to the NCR. Under Murphy’s Law, road trip sub-section, at least 75% of the people trapped in that slow-slithering metal snake had to pee, and the other 25% were desperate for cold pop or a smoke or simple delivery from their fellow vehicular denizens. 

We are spending Canada Day with Ryan’s parents. Ron and Pat love it when we mess up their sheets and bathrooms, eat their food and drink their booze. They love it. At least, that’s what they say, though not in those particular words. Something more along the lines of “so glad you guys are here” – but we won’t get hung up on semantics.

Tomorrow, we hit the road for …. well, somewhere. It’s our annual big-ass road trip! We’re thinking Idaho, because Idaho – but, of course, it could be anywhere. We’ll know by the time it’s all over. Road trip preparation used to be alot tougher, tripping over toddlers while shoving our entire life into suitcases and bags. Now, though, Fiona and Bridget pack for themselves. Big kids for the win!

Wherever I go, I will apply my sharp eyes and restless pen to everything around me. I brought you Kansas, Texas and Georgia – and I’ll do the same with wherever we end up this time. Every lovely little diner, hole-in-the-wall Mexican delight, ice cream break-down, weird conversation, odd who-knew attraction, shitty motel and breath-taking view. Ciao for now!

The impartiality of our police officers is crucial to public trust in them.

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By now, most Ottawans (and many other people as well) are aware of the events surrounding the death of Abdirahman Abdi, a Somoli Canadian with mental health issues who died one day after being severely beaten by Ottawa police officer Const. Daniel Montsion.  Montsion is now facing charges of manslaughter, aggravated assault and assault with a weapon. He has been suspended with pay from the police force. The facts of the case are that Montsion, an anti-gang officer, responded to 911 calls reporting a man groping women at a Bridgehead at Wellington and Fairmont on a Sunday morning. The alleged groper, Abdi, fled the coffee shop. He was pepper-sprayed, beaten with a baton and punched during his arrest. Some people begged the officers to stop, saying that Abdi was mentally ill. By the following Monday afternoon, Abdi was dead. The courts will now have to figure out what happened between Montsion’s arrival at the Bridgehead and Abdi’s death.

Since then, blue wrist bands engraved with the words “United We Stand”, and Const. Montsion’s badge number (1998), are showing up on the arms of police officers all over the city. The wrist bands are being sold for $2 apiece, and the proceeds go to a police benevolent fund. The officers wear them to declare their support for Montsion. This is worrisome. For one thing, cops are part of Canada’s justice system. They must uphold the law. The law says that Montsion’s trial is where his innocence or guilt will be proven. To declare support for him before either exoneration or sentencing is to circumvent due process. For another, police neutrality is essential. In a case where a man stands accused of killing another man, the police must support both the victim and the alleged killer by ensuring fair treatment until trial. The rights of both parties should be respected by everyone, but particularly by people who are on the public payroll for having sworn to uphold the law and human rights.

Along with both of these considerations is the fragile relationship between the police and Abdi’s peers. Somolia has provided Canada with many newcomers. In Ottawa alone, nearly 7,000 people claim Somoli as their mother tongue. Somolia has been occupied, warring or anarchic (at times, all three) for decades. Considering this, it is understandable that it can be somewhat difficult for Somolian immigrants to trust police officers. Nevertheless, progress has been made. This progress is threatened by wrist bands declaring police officers’ loyalty to a man who stands accused of killing one of their own.

I am not unsympathetic to the challenges faced by police officers on the job. I can only imagine the guts and grit it takes for them to suit up and step out into the world wearing a uniform that means they cannot walk away from anything. They can’t even look away – their calling requires that they move straight into the danger zone, and stay there until they’ve stabilized it. The stress of their position must be, at times, like gasoline – always ready to explode under the right conditions. I don’t believe Const. Montsion meant to hasten to death of Abdirahman Abdi. But it may well turn out that he contributed to it, possibly due to the heady combination of mounting fear, surging adrenaline, chronic stress and heavy pressure. Montsion deserves compassion and support during his ordeal. However, so does Abdi, a victim of what looks and sounds like a brutal assault – and Abdi’s family and friends. They regularly pass the Bridgehead where their loved one was beaten senseless. Now, they have to see cops in uniform – who are entrusted with public safety and enforcement of law and order – wearing approval of Abdi’s treatment. If you were one of them, would you feel like you will be treated fairly by an officer wearing that blue wrist band? Would you even feel safe, knowing that the person with whom you are dealing has the power to arrest you, using force if necessary – and that they support that behaviour toward a member of your community, even though it may have led to his death?

We are all entitled to our opinion. We all have the right to choose where our loyalty lies. Even cops – as private citizens. If Montsion’s colleagues want to be there for him, they can send him a card or call him. They can meet him for a coffee or a beer, and ask how they can help. While off-duty, wearing street clothes. When our police officers put on their uniform and badge, they have to be on everyone’s side. They have to be – in both mind and appearance – as blind as Lady Justice. That is the only way we can be assured of the impartiality needed to carry out her sacred work.

 

A little more research should have gone into this move ….

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I was going to write about popsicles today. It seemed a seasonally appropriate topic …. However, as is so often the case, something else caught my eye, leaped to the forefront of my mind, spilled onto my keyboard and into my blog. Specifically, an article in the Ottawa Citizen about a man named François Bordeleau, and his family. They recently moved to Barrhaven, and they have a complaint: there are not enough city-offered French-language recreational programs for his children:

http://ottawacitizen.com/news/local-news/french-laugage-city-recreational-programs-lacking-in-ottawas-west-end

“It’s just not enough,” says Bordeleau. “I felt pissed off because you figure, why the hell can’t I get the services that I feel that I’m entitled to, and that anybody else that speaks the other official language can get very easily?”

I have a few problems with his side of things. First of all, there’s the word “entitled”. It is defined as having a right or claim to something. Does François Bordeleau feel that his sons learning to swim in French is a right? His sons playing on a French soccer team is right up there with air, water, food and dignity? Living in the capital of a bilingual nation, the Bordeleaus are entitled to essential services in their choice of English or French. Signage, paramedics, hospitals, policing, notices from the city, by-law information and officers, the city’s website – these things should be in both English and French. And they are. Any sort of municipally funded recreational program is an extra – a privilege. Municipally funded recreational programs at convenient times, in convenient locations, in a language other than the one predominantly spoken – that’s not even an extra. That’s a frill.

Another problem: François Bordeleau states that it’s easy for “the other official language” to access a wide variety of recreational programs, time slots and locations. Of course, it is! Newsflash, M. Bordeleau: the “other official language” is the most common one spoken in Barrhaven. There are far more people looking for programs in English than in French, because there are significantly more anglophones than francophones in this particular area of the city. As the article mentions, the French community in eastern Ottawa is far more robust than that of Barrhaven – and French services and programs expand correspondingly as you move in that direction. The City of Ottawa does an excellent job of serving and promoting the notion of a bilingual community – where it is warranted, based on demographics.

This is a map of Ottawa, colour-coded to cite the percentage of francophones living in any given area. The Bordeleaus, living in Barrhaven, are part of a community in which francophones comprise less than 15% of the population:

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Which segues into my final problem with François Bordeleau’s problem: he did a poor job of choosing a place to live, and now he wants the rest of us to fix his mistake with our tax dollars. The headline, which reads “Barrhaven ought to have been the perfect place for François Bordeleau and his wife to raise a family”, is not true – if something is perfect, it should not inspire complaints. If you want conveniently timed and located French recreational programs, you probably should move to a place where the francophone community is well-established. There is much to consider in the process of moving. Before you choose a community, you should do your research – make sure it suits your needs. The Bordeleaus could easily have found out whether there was sufficient support for French recreational programs in Barrhaven before buying a house there. Instead, it appears that they made their move blindly, and are now whining that it’s not what they wanted. No sympathy here.

Related question: How easy is it to find English recreational programs in Quebec? Shouldn’t be a problem. After all, the “other official language” is well-served there, right?

A good-news story about aboriginals! (my take on the reserve system and why it needs to be scrapped)

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Do we have a caste system in Canada? Many Canadians would be shocked at the very idea, because this is Canada! We send aid all around the world, and welcome newcomers of all kinds! Our healthcare, welfare and parental benefits are generous. Education is free to all! True …. but, in my opinion, a caste system exists. People can be forgiven for forgetting; in most of Canada, members of the lowest caste are invisible. Most of them are neatly tucked away in the wilderness, many of their communities accessible only by boat or plane. Oh, sure, we hear about them from time to time. Usually bad news. Kids huffing gasoline. Women going missing at an alarming rate. Angry warriors blocking roads and burning vehicles. I am talking, of course, about aboriginals. The people who were here before Europeans arrived. The people who were murdered, infected and starved into submission, then parcelled out to remote tracts of land unwanted by their conquerors. For decades afterwards, the Canadian government’s primary involvement with aboriginals was throwing money at them and stealing their children to populate the infamous residential schools.

Cue the righteous-but-resentful indignition …. But they get free housing! Free glasses and dental care! Tax-free gas and smokes! Free university education! Never mind that nearly half of them don’t graduate from highschool anyway, therefore saving grumbling taxpayers oodles of money. They also are more likely to commit suicide, and even if they live a long, full life, it’s shorter than the average Canadian’s. More savings! Their teen pregnancy rate is higher, but don’t worry – even though residential schools no longer exist, we still get alot of their children. Despite representing only about 4% of the Canadian population, their children make up roughly half of the children currently in foster care. Natives are also over-represented in Canada’s prisons. They are more likely to die violently than other Canadians, and more likely to be abused or abusive before they do. Which brings me to a soapbox I’ve occupied for years …. Reservations don’t help aboriginals, and the reserve system should be abolished.

Conditions on reserves are often little better than third-world. Think about Sheshatshiu. Kashechewan. Attawapiskat. All the money the Canadian government gives them never seems to be enough to buy a better standard of living. Natives on reserve are treated like wards of the government. Sure, their housing is free – but it’s not theirs, nor is the land it sits on. And none of the people footing the bill would ever want to live there. Neither did aboriginals, but that’s where they ended up – because that’s where the brand-new country of Canada put them.

Yesterday, as usual, my beloved Saturday paper arrived at my house. Thick and wordy, solid, filled with enough content to chew on for an entire weekend. In this particular paper, there was a rare thing: a good-news story about Canadian aboriginals, happening right here in Ottawa. The article began with the experience of an Inuit woman, Lynda Brown, who moved to Ottawa as a child. Her mother was informed that she could not send her child to school in “slippers”, so Lynda took off her mukluks and started claiming Chinese heritage to avoid the shame of admitting that she is Inuit. Fast-forward to today, and Lynda Brown is proud of her identity and culture. She wears a t-shirt that says “Lifelong Urban Inuk”. The article goes on to describe how this change came about. Ottawa is home to roughly 3,000 Inuit, the largest population of them south of Nunavut. Ottawa is also home to an Inuit health centre, daycare, kindergarten and after-school program. Not only do Inuit children receive the usual standard of education, and help with their homework, but they also learn about their culture. They are taught in both English and Inuktitut. They learn traditional drumming and dancing, as well as throat-singing, and how to play traditional Inuit games. They play with the classic toys your average Canadian knows and loves, but also with traditional Inuit toys made of stone, bone and skins. Inuit people are living in Canada’s capital city, with all kinds of people – not just other Inuit. They can buy properly priced groceries instead of $28 jugs of orange juice – and they can buy traditional Inuit foods like char, seal and whale. They can travel wherever they want without the expense and hassle of leaving a remote area. They can train and apply for a wide array of jobs – not just what’s available in Iqualuit and surrounding areas. Their children are able to play soccer and learn ballet, to visit libraries and museums and parks. In short, they are learning how to be both proud Inuit people and fully engaged Canadian citizens.

Are there problems in Ottawa’s Inuit community? Of course. Their levels of addiction, prostitution and family problems are higher than the general population – but significantly lower than that of their fellow natives who live on reserves. And, as they continue to take advantage of what’s always been available to the rest of us, I predict that the gap will narrow. Perhaps we can even hope for its closure. I wish our Inuit neighbours great success, and I hope that, someday, all aboriginals will be able to do what they are doing. Only when aboriginals leave their reserves and join Canadian society, fully recognized and enfranchised, will we be able to proudly say that Canada doesn’t have a caste system.

Breakdown of a breakdown ….

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The tomb of the unknown soldier, at the foot of the cenotaph, was a peaceful resting place for the remains of a man of whom we know nothing, save that he served his country and, in the end, gave his life for it. I’ve walked or driven past it many times. I’ve stopped there a few times, too. The last time I stopped there was during the summer of 2013, when my brother, André, and his wife, Janelle, were visiting. I walked their legs off all over downtown Ottawa, and the tomb was one of the things I chose to show them. People were chatting, snapping pictures, eating lunch, enjoying a fresh-air escape from the office. Two guards played a game with my daughters, handing them cards with clues describing certain parts of the beautiful monument. They, along with a few other children, scurried around the memorial, eagerly finding each piece of the puzzle. I can’t ever think of it as peaceful again.

Just two days ago, Wednesday, October 22, the peace of the tomb was shattered by a young man named Michael Zehaf-Bibeau. A lifelong loser trailing a long history of petty crime and addiction, an angry, unstable wanna-be mujahid whose goal was to travel to Syria and fight alongside ISIS. Somehow, he got his hands on a gun he wasn’t allowed to possess and murdered the soldier guarding the tomb. Nathan Cirillo, father, animal-lover, soldier, was shot at point-blank range, from behind – the favourite angle of the cowardly. Brave bystanders tried frantically to save his life, but he died in their arms. Zehaf-Bibeau stormed Centre Block on Parliament Hill, where he was confronted – and later shot – by the sergeant-at-arms, Kevin Vickers. Even though Zehaf-Bibeau was dead, it was unknown whether he was operating alone. Were there other gunmen? Had bombs been planted? Was the killing a standalone act, or was it the harbinger of mayhem? Nobody knew, so the surrounding area was swiftly shut down and closed off. All government offices were put in lockdown, as were several schools. Civil servants were told to stay in their building, including (of course) Ryan and I. Phone lines were tied up, and the internet was creeping at a snail’s pace (or, at times, completely stalled) as people all over the city frantically tried to find out what was going on and reach loved ones to reassure each other.

I was in a meeting when the news broke. I can’t tell you anything that was said in the meeting after hearing about the attack. My mind shut down. I was able to hold back the tears that sprang immediately to my eyes until it was over, then I took refuge in the washroom – of course, it is a fact that, if you are trying to cry quietly in the washroom, people will bang in and out and force you to converse with them. But I couldn’t stop. I cried in a washroom stall, then – when I thought I was ok – I made it back to my desk in time to start sniffling again. I texted my mother and her husband, then André and Janelle, to let them know that we were safe. Mom called, and I talked to her for a few minutes around the lump in my throat, trying not to let her hear my fear. I’ve been leaking tears at odd moments ever since. It is, I suppose, some sort of breakdown – a response to the tension that you can almost touch, floating in the air, thick enough to choke on. An overwhelming sorrow at the thought of two young men wasted, a peaceful place stained with blood, a city transformed by terror. The dissolution of the thin mental membrane between my usual state of calm and the sickening, screaming state of panic.

My emotions were even more difficult to control when I realised that we were nearing school dismissal time. Fiona’s and Bridget’s school, which had been secured at first, was now operating as usual, even though it is only a few blocks from where I was locked down. Somewhere between my office tower and their school, somebody had drawn an invisible line – apparently, was not safe and they were. Who decided that? How did they decide that? I wasn’t supposed to stand near a window or on a rooftop for fear of potential snipers, but my children were about to leave their school and walk down the street to the Y Kids Club. I must have called their group leader’s number twenty times or more. Ryan took over the task of calling their school – maybe the school staff could tell us if things were ok. I couldn’t do anything about school dismissal or them walking to their after-school program, I couldn’t even leave my damn building – so I needed to know that they had reached the church basement where the Y Kids Club is held. I couldn’t stay still, couldn’t put down my phone – could barely breathe – until I learned that they were safely inside. After that, it was easier to wait out the lockdown. Sometimes, in fact, I managed to forget for a few seconds – then I’d look out the window at the empty grass and paths and picnic tables, and remember that a nightmare was happening even though we were all awake.

The lockdown was lifted just before four (for us, anyway – the downtown would remain shuttered and surrounded by police until well into the night). As we left the building, I drew in a grateful breath of fresh air, my first since walking in that morning. My shoulders were tight and my eyes were roaming – every sound was magnified in my mind, and I couldn’t help but look behind me every few paces. Cars were backed up all the way to the parking lot, because every car going across the bridges to Quebec was being monitered – and, because this is a border city, there were alot of cars heading across those bridges. After picking Fiona and Bridget up from daycare, tears were threatening again – this time, tears of gratitude at the simple blessing of the four of us reunited in our filthy car. I was exhausted, and my head pounded, and my eyes felt raw – but we were together, and unhurt, and going home.

There’s been a great deal of poetic waxing – journalists are reaching the dizzy heights of sports writers as they scramble for words that are deep and wide enough to encompass this event and the fallout. “Loss of innocence” is used often. It’s not really that, though – most of us have known for years that this was coming. We’ve watched the United States and Europe suffer through much worse, and really we’ve just been lucky until now. We all know that things will change, but these things are mainly of a procedural nature, and won’t stop everything we want them to. What has happened to us lives in some dark, airless corner of our mind with the other spiders – it’s always been there. The only difference now is that this corner has been disturbed, some of its denizens have come howling into the light. The word I keep coming back to is breakdown. The shooting of Nathan Cirillo was a breakdown of security, of trust, of humanity. It is a breakdown of the line between our bad dreams and reality. It is a breakdown of our illusions of peace and easy living. It is a breakdown of my feeling that all’s right with my world. My calm façade – that’s all it was, I know that now – cracked in the face of our collective tragedy and grief. This is just a description of my experience – I can only imagine what it was like for the people downtown, in the eye of the storm, for the families of Nathan Cirillo and Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, for Kevin Vickers, for our soldiers who know they have become moving targets merely because of their uniform. I’m praying for them all, because that’s all I can do. In the meantime, we’re all back to work and school and life, because that’s what we must do. We won’t let this breakdown break us.

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