Saturday, December 17, 2011

A Movie Lover's Lament

For a variety of reasons, I am going to remember 2011 as a year of loss and mourning.

This realization hit me as hard as ever last week when I strolled over to my local Second Cup to enjoy a cup of coffee and a book for a while. Before entering the cafe, I had a ritual - I would go next door to the Blockbuster and peruse the new releases, the foreign titles, and the special interest documentaries.

Blockbuster now sits closed and empty. I give it a fleeting glance as I enter Second Cup,the barristas greeting me by name.

Of course, I knew the writing was on the wall and I tried to give myself time to prepare. Blockbuster went into receivership in the United States some time ago. Still, there was hope for Canada. But then, a select number of Canadian Blockbusters closed down.

But not mine. No, it was still standing large and tall, filled with all kinds of movies I had yet to explore.

I felt ominous when my membership expired and I was not given the option to renew, being explained that the company was in receivership and as such the future was uncertain.

Then, the end came. It was announced that all Blockbusters in the city, and in Canada, would be closing. Closing out sales were held, and I purchased a few DVDs at rock-bottom prices. I felt choked up as I stood in line for the last time, looking around at the near-empty shelves, a film of some kind playing loudly on the large screen behind us.

How and why did this tragedy occur?

Internet killed the video store.

I contributed to this situation. The convenience and ease of renting movies on iTunes, as well as the low price and increasingly good selection of a Netflix membership all took their toll on how often I would physically go out and rent movies.

Still, there was just something about browsing through the aisles, making discoveries, and reading the covers. I would often leave with two or three - usually a new release or two as well as possibly something I had never heard of before, just to try something different.

One can browse online, but it doesn't feel the same. Lots of browsing online makes me dizzy in a way wandering around in a video store never did, even if I had no idea what I was looking for.

A generation will now be raised up not knowing what it is like to physically rent movies. And while this is definitely a first world problem, I will miss my pre-coffee ritual.

Of course, there is always the library.

Sunday, December 04, 2011

A Step in the Right Direction - But Not Enough

This past week, the Edmonton Public School Board approved a sexual orientation and gender identity policy. This policy was put in place to protect students, staff, and their families from bullying and harassment based on sexual orientation and gender identification. This was a needed move that is a step in the right direction.

However, it is not enough. The EPSB needs to adopt a zero tolerance policy towards bullying, regardless of its nature. I should know. I was bullied and harassed almost daily throughout the latter part of my elementary school days through junior high. If I was a student now, the school would take very seriously the anti-gay epithets that were hurled at me on a regular basis. However, what about simply being called a bitch? Or fat? Or the multitude of things I either cannot repeat in polite company (nor do I care to relive at the moment)?

Here is a concrete example. When my parents met with the principal of my school to discuss with him the things I finally broke down and told them concerning how my fellow students were treating me, he put much of the blame on me - in particular, he pointed to the fashion accessories I was fond of wearing (a leather-studded bracelet). He even had the nerve to speak of this to my face. "If this was my daughter's," he said, holding the offending cuff in his hands, "it would disappear." I stopped wearing the bracelet, but the bullying continued.

Flip to the present day. Let's say I am back in grade seven, and my pimply, awkward self was wearing a necklace or bracelet with a rainbow on it. The principal could not blame me and would have to take action, because the rainbow is a symbol concerning sexual identity (and in my case, my support of people who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, questioning, and transgendered. However, the same cannot be said of my leather and metal studded monstrosity. Both accessories demonstrate my personality and individuality, and it is a human right to wear whatever I want. The main difference is that I am only fully protected by my school if I am wearing the rainbow.

Bullying attacks someone for being who they are. By its very nature, it is an act of prejudice and intolerance. It damages someone to the core of their being. Regardless of the reason why, it needs to be stopped. I comment the EPSB for their actions this past week, and I hope that it is indicative of a zero tolerance bullying policy across the board in the near future.

Thursday, December 01, 2011

November Firsts: NaNoWriMo, Movember, and Maisie's

November has come and gone, and with it. I like to think of myself as somewhat adventurous (being "somewhat adventurous" meaning something similar to one who likes to take "calculated risks" but that is a topic for another time) and decided to try a couple of new ventures during the month.

The month of November has two special designations. First, it is National Novel Writing Month (or, NaNoWriMo for short). Participants in NaNoWriMo have the goal of writing 50,000 words of fiction in the month. You can have an outline, but cannot have already started on the draft. It is literally literary madness. The theory behind NaNoWriMo is that everybody has a book inside of them - I don't doubt that, although I think 50,000 in 30 days is a lofty goal. More like insane. There is no time for revisions - you just keep writing for the sake of writing.

I did try this a few years ago, and didn't get very far. I did not have a clear enough idea of the novel I wanted to write, and I just could not think up enough original material on the spot under such pressure.

Perhaps I was under the influence of some kind of mania, but this time I did it. And, I was finished by mid-month. I had a very detailed outline and much of the research done beforehand. I will indeed spend some time revising it - December is supposed to be the month designated to that - but I may prefer some more hindsight before I attempt to work my way through the pages.

November is also "Movember," when men grow moustaches to raise funds for men's health, in particular prostate cancer. The guys who take part are called "Mobros" and us women are left wondering, when we see a man with a moustache, if it is for real or if it is temporary just for Movember.

Women can take part too. We're called "Mosistas." Obviously, we don't grow moustaches (although I am sure there are some gals out there who can rock the facial hair - except I don't think many would quit plucking and waxing, even for a good cause, so a friend of mine recruited me for her team - Chicks Without Nicks. We are four women who committed not to shave our legs for the entire month of November. Our team raised a total of $88 with me being the leader at a whopping $68. We didn't do as well as we had hoped, but a lot of people take part in Movember so there was a lot of competition. And hey - the more, the better. That's $88 to men's cancer that would not have been donated otherwise.

Plus, it was a lot of fun trying to encourage my friends on Twitter and Facebook to donate. One of my Twitter friends and I even got into a "hairy legs contest," posting picture of our unshaven calves for all to see. To view my pics, check out my page at the Movember site here. Truth be told, it wasn't all that bad - I have probably gone just as long, if not longer, at this time of the year without shaving my legs without noticing. However, I was told that I had guts for posting those photos. I really didn't think so - some of the men out there cannot grow good moustaches, and some who do look like pervs or porn stars, and if they have the guts to walk around looking like that, then I can show some leg hair. It was a great cause, and I look forward to doing it again next year.

As November drew to a close, Christmas decorations and music started popping up all over the place. As a life-long resident of Edmonton, I have seen many, if not most, of the events and attractions the city has to offer. However, I have never seen this: Maisie's Magical Christmas House.

Located way in the north end at 9619 144 Avenue, the house is a veritable wonderland, full of decorations, multimedia presentations, and lights galore - including ones that flicker in time to music. I felt excited like a little child as I walked around the huge area - besides the house itself, there must be at least two extra lots. This is all the work of a family, the matriarch of whom passed away in 2007. It was Maisie's wish that people be happy - this house is her legacy.

No photos can do the house justice, but I tried here.

Also, here is a video tour of the house:

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Occupy Edmonton - Why We Should Care

I attended most of The Parkland Institute's Fall Conference over the weekend. The topic dealt with the economy and the growing divide in society between classes, as well as attacks upon workers and unions. Much of what was discussed was in the context of the Occupy movement.

There could not be a more timely topic, as Occupy Edmonton has been holding strong for over a month now in the park owned by Melcor at 102 Street and Jasper Avenue. Despite a heavy snowfall and dramatically cold weather, a small group of campers have maintained at the site, having winterized (including putting up a military tent complete with a disco ball for entertainment shows).

Yet another deadline for eviction (I think this is the third) by Melcor has come and gone, with the Occupiers refusing to leave, offering up instead a list of demands.

This situation has brought about mixed reactions, even within the activist community itself. I met up with several long-time activists at the conference who felt that Occupy was a diversion from other, more pressing matters, like the dismantling of the Wheat Board. They also stated that Occupy doesn't seem to stand for anything, that its demands are not clear.

I respectfully disagree. First of all, it is just wonderful in general to see younger people standing up for something. At the various Occupy rallies and at the camp itself, I have met numerous people I have never seen before - and I have been kicking around the activist community for a good number of years now.

Secondly. if Occupy is accomplishing anything, it is raising awareness of the fact that the current economic system is not working as it should, in that corporations are getting breaks and exemptions that the common workers never gets. The rich get richer and the poor get poorer. That's the message I am getting.

I've also been hearing the arguments from a number of sides and political stripes that it is getting too cold to camp (so this is becoming a safety issue) and the fact that the group is on privately-owned land, and they should, in fact, occupy public land instead. These two issues (safety and private vs. public) are likely becoming the real diversions because Occupy is actually about more than just a camp itself.

Yes, safety is an issue, but these people are very passionate about spreading their message. And for those who say there is no message, I think the list of demands is pretty clear - lofty goals, yes, but clear nonetheless. As for the decision to be on privately owned land, I am going to go out on a limb here and suggest that Occupy Edmonton is making a statement that a corporation is not a person, as opposed to how said entities are treated legally and economically. However, if Occupy Edmonton does get evicted or chooses to leave that specific site, I know there is a Plan B (and C, and likely D).

Occupy is a global movement that will continue in one form or another. Maybe it will not change the world overnight, but there will be effects. We are witnessing one of the most important social movements of our time.

Monday, November 21, 2011

A New Home for Edmonton Activist Resources Online

In 2005, I edited a book called the Edmonton Activist Resource and Contact Guide, written by local activist Radical Randy and published by the Edmonton Small Press Association. The Guide was a huge success, selling out regularly wherever it was sold at events or retail at places like Earth's General Store.

I hosted an online version of the Guide at It was updated regularly with new links, resources, and articles. Over the past few years, the site has expanded considerably and it was time for a home of its own and Radical Randy decided to learn how to make a website of his own. is the result. At the site you will find:

  • A "Quick and Easy Introduction" section for novices to the economic and political forces dominating our modern world;
  • Glossary and discussions of terms those new to these areas may not be familiar with;
  • Short descriptions of the "free trade" treaties and international financial organizations Canada belongs to which have drawn so many protests;
  • The business organizations, front groups, and corporate-funded "think tanks" that have been instrumental in advancing the neoliberal agenda in Canada;
  • Short downloadable articles dealing with a wide variety of subjects for a quick overview of these topics
  • A wide-ranging listing magazines, radio and tv programs, and websites as well as Edmonton Public Library books, dvds, and cds providing alternative information on these public policy matters from that presented by corporate mass media;
  • Websites and listservs of Edmonton organizations working on social and economic justice, environmental, peace and other issues for those interested in becoming involved;
  • And, perhaps most importantly, a means for those involved in one part of this work for a better world to network with those working in other areas.

    The description above was taken directly off the website.

    Although I am definitely biased, the Guide is an excellent resource for anyone interested in learning about social issues and activist movements from a left-wing, often radical, perspective. It is not affiliated with any political party and is produced independently. I am proud to have been a part of it.
  • Tuesday, October 25, 2011

    Hopes for Downtown

    Today, a public hearing was held into the proposed downtown arena. People representing different sides of the issue had a chance to address City Council and speak their minds.

    As for me, I am not sure I have much to add to this, specifically. I am not against large developments in the downtown area per se, but I do have a problem with a funding structure that will finance a private business using taxpayers' dollars. So, I do have some concerns with the City entering into a deal with a billionaire who is out to make a profit.

    That aside, I also have an issue with thinking that Edmonton absolutely, positively needs a project on the scale of the proposed arena in order to keep downtown alive and vibrant. I have a little observation: downtown Edmonton already is alive and vibrant. Sure, there are pockets that are not developed to their fullest extents, and a few places here and there that can seem a bit sketchy. But overall, there are always places to go, things to do, and events going on in the city's core. If we don't get a new arena, downtown is not going to crumble and implode. There is already a new art gallery, a new museum going up, and lots of revitalization in the area. Festivals and events take place galore. New businesses like coffee shops and cafes create excellent meeting places. Downtown Edmonton does not need to be fixed because it isn't broken.

    Downtown has a lot of history and a bright future - with or without the arena. Fancy, shiny new things do not necessarily improve society. In fact, I am not sure enough due diligence has been given to the effects a project on the scale of the proposed arena would have on housing and other social issues in the area.

    From reading this, you can probably guess I am somewhat leery of the whole thing. Not as someone afraid of change or who doesn't want to see downtown boosted to its maximum potential, as those against the project have been accused. Edmonton is about more than hockey and jumping on bandwagons just because someone slick is trying to sell us something and convince us that we need it.

    My ideal downtown is a place of arts, of festivals, of music, and a place where issues like hunger and housing are dealt with effectively. Whether a new arena can help or hinder these goals remains to be seen - and a lot of it has to do with how it is financed, what it will do to surrounding property values, how badly it will congest certain areas, and how it will affect surrounding social organizations. There is too much that is simply not known and given the history of talks behind closed doors and potential done deals made without public input, I am not confident that City Council will let us know enough to make informed decisions or hold a plebescite.

    In the meantime, I am going to enjoy downtown for the wonderful entity it already is.

    Wednesday, October 19, 2011

    Occupy Edmonton - Reflections on a Movement

    Occupy Edmonton by raise my voice
    Occupy Edmonton, a photo by raise my voice on Flickr.

    This past Saturday, Edmonton joined the growing number of cities around the world in the Occupy movement.

    It all started on Wall Street in New York last month, when a grassroots group of individuals decided that they had enough of corporations getting tax breaks, bailouts, and other economic benefits not available to the average person, laden with taxes, debt, and other financial woes for which there are no subsidies or bailouts. The "occupation" involved camping out in the financial district of the city.

    Soon, other groups of activists in other cities began doing something similar, in solidarity with the Wall Street campers, but also because this sort of economic unfairness happens all over. Corporations (and the people who run them) are only 1% of the population, while the other 99% pick up the slack.

    October 15 was the Canadian day of action, and Edmonton saw at least 1500 people fill Churchill Square for a rally and march. Afterwards, around 50 or so people set up camp in a park on 102 Street and Jasper Avenue, where they remain as of the time I am writing this blog post.

    The Occupy movement has taken a lot of criticism on two fronts: one, that is it is leaderless and two, that there is no clear agenda of what exactly people want. To address the first issue, a movement does not necessarily have to have a leader per se. A grassroots movement is exactly that - a group. Decisions can be made by consensus or in whatever way the group decides. The Edmonton model has been run via consensus.

    As for the second, there are lots of things people tossed around as demands. Does a protest necessarily have to have one thing as a resolution? My summation, when asked, is that we need a more just economy that supports everyone, instead of putting corporate interests above all else. How that should come about - now, that is something that can have many different theories. There have been a number of general assemblies where the people involved in the camp discuss their strategies for effecting social change. I have not attended any of these, so I cannot comment further.

    The same can be said of the peace movement, of which I am also a part. We all agree that war is wrong - how we achieve peace is where we have different ideas. We dialogue. It's all part of the process.

    Occupy Edmonton is one of the largest rallies I have attended in around six years of attending, organizing, and participating in the activist scene. Obviously, a lot of people are concerned about the way our economy runs and it is not something to mock or ignore, whether or not solutions are immediately forthcoming.

    In fact, I was recently asked about immediate, concrete results coming from a local protest. My answer is that the purpose of protests like marches and rallies is not to bring about immediate results. It is to raise awareness and to speak out. Again, this is all part of the process. It is a forum for expressing ideas and to educate others. People always ask me after events, even if they did not attend but see my photos and videos online, what the issues are. This brings the chance to educate. And then they tell me their perspective, and I learn from them.

    There are always activists who get defensive when questioned about their motives, particularly because we have a tendency to get ridiculed for our actions and beliefs. It is unfortunately when lines of communication get muddied, but these experiences do not change the underlying reasons for the protest in the first place.

    Whether or not Occupy Edmonton (or the Occupy movement in general) will have any long-term, lasting effects remains to be seen. However, it is a large-scale, bold example of free speech and democracy in action, and for that reason alone, should be encouraged.

    To view my entire photo set from the march and rally, click here. For a video play list of all of the speakers and music, click here.

    And a disclaimer: I was involved in some of the organizing of the Occupy Edmonton event on October 15 and sang at the rally.

    Friday, October 07, 2011

    Orchids: Mystery & Romance

    I love photographing flowers, and orchids are a particular favourite. Orchids have an incredible range of colours and their shape is sensual and compelling. Thus, I was thrilled to attend a preview of the new display in the Feature Pyramid of the Muttart Conservatory this afternoon.

    Orchids: Mystery and Romance celebrates the 20th anniversary of the Orchid Species Preservation Foundation. The arrangements are colourful and unique, and feature stories and myths surrounding orchids. It runs from October 8-23. It's a short show because orchids have a short blooming season.

    My favourite part of the exhibit is the rainbow made entirely of orchids. As well, there are numerous explanations of myths and stories about orchids from throughout history.

    I can't imagine how many hours were spent putting this whole show together. I go to the Muttart on a regular basis, and this is definitely one of the most intricate shows I have ever seen there.

    Saturday, October 01, 2011

    Getting Out There: Two Rallies, Two Issues

    I recently took part in two separate events on two topics important to me: peace and the environment. Despite experiencing a few recent personal challenges, I felt it important to get out and get vocal about the issues affecting our world.

    The annual UN International Day of Peace flag-raising ceremony happened on September 21 outside of City Hall. I sang "I Only Ask of God," by Argentina singer/songwriter Leon Gieco. The rest of the program consisted of speakers, The Raging Grannies, and, of course, the raising of the flag, which says "Peace" in over 50 different languages. Here is the complete video playlist.

    A few days later on September 24 was an international day of action on climate change. Moving Planet Edmonton was the local response, organized by Edmonton 350 (visit for more information). I performed "Butterflies and Rainbows," a song I wrote about the tar sands, and received one of the most interesting introductions ever at one of these sorts of rallies! Here is the playlist of all the videos from the event.

    Thursday, August 18, 2011

    Diapers and Band-Aids

    I have written several blog posts before about some charitable actions being noble, but are ultimately short-term in their vision and scope. A band-aid, if you will. See Charity, Poverty, and Band-Aids, for example.

    As someone actively working for social change, I am often torn between staying focused on the reasons for a certain need - be it food, afforible shelter, or access to medial attention. If we don't work on the underlying causes, then organizations like food banks and soup kitchens and shelters are just band-aid solutions to a greater societal problem.

    However, at the same time, there are those in immediate need for something tangible. A person who is hungry needs food. This is why I have volunteered in the past with a mainstream charitable organization, Edmonton's Food Bank.

    My latest dilemma involves a diaper drive for the single teen moms at Terra. A friend of mine on Twitter, @Sirthinks has organized a team of politicos to challenge a group of Edmonton realtors as to which group can raise the largest number of diapers. I have put his call below for reference.

    Now, although this is supposedly a non-partisan endeavour, the only politicos involved thus far are from the PCs or Wildrose Alliance. As the organizer himself is very conservative by his own admission, it comes as no surprise that this group would be compased of his immediate contacts.

    How did I get involved? I received a challenge to try to get the Left involved, particularly people from the NDP. So, I have been trying to garner support for this action, while at the same time failing to bite my tongue concerning the irony of this. People from the PC part are involved in an effort to help teenage moms. Wonderful, applause. However, it would be even better if their part would stop cutting social programs that help women and single mothers.

    One of my Facebook friends, who is an outspoken activist for mothers and children, took this idea one step beyond, pointing out that if mothers - all mothers, regardless of age or marital status - actually had the necessary resources (financial and community/social) "to live beyond survival mode without constant scrambling, they might be able to buy their own diapers, or better yet, they may even have the community resources and support to use cloth or EC."

    She continues that, "Diaper drives mostly mean we put money into the giant paper/chemical companies, with the spin off benefit of helping a few moms in a small way for a short time. It's yet another way to get good PR while funneling money into corporate hands. It's sticking a band aid on a gushing head wound."

    I definitely think the single moms in Terra need diapers desperately. Giving some to them does not bother me in the least. But giving them what they need in the long term is so much more important - a social structure that will allow them and their children to live comfortably. This is why I would love to see political parties who are better able to provide that involved in this initiative. Otherwise, this whole campaign is just a conservative PR opportunity. It's a farce. If this is really a non-partisan effort, then some of us Lefties (or even, dare I say it, progressives and centrists) have to get involved.

    Provide the band-aids while working on healing the wounds underneath.

    Terra Association, in Edmonton, assists teen parents and young families overcome the hardships faced when unexpected pregnancies occur. Terra assists an average 600 clients and their children annually. These clients are teen moms, young dads and young families striving to make a better life for themselves and their children. Terra offers a broad range of services to assist these young people in reaching their goals. Like any other charitable organization, Terra requires the help of the community as a whole to provide these services.

    For the past two years, Terra Association has held a diaper drive in Edmonton with the goal of raising 5,000 boxes of diapers. If you consider a baby can use up to 200 diapers per month, the number of diapers utilized by Terra clients can be in the area of 1.4 million per year. Terra’s goal of 5,000 cases of 24 diapers is 120,000 units, or just under 10 per cent of the needs of their clients. Money saved by these teens and young families can be put towards educational pursuits, rent, food and other incidentals babies require.

    In 2009, Edmonton-Calder MLA Doug Elniski decided to challenge people, using social media tools, to fill his Smart Car with diapers for Terra. In six days we raised approximately 12,000 diapers for Terra. We did this utilizing social media, two phone calls, and one short meeting to plan the event.

    Teaming up with the Realtors Association of Edmonton as we did in 2009, we offer the following challenge. Can a group of politicians from various parties and levels of government raise more diapers than a group of real estate agents? We believe, by putting partisan politics aside, utilizing our fundraising skills, and having some non-partisan FUN, we can raise in excess of 65,000 diapers and, at the same time, exceed the 52,000 units raised by realtors last year. Our volunteer public relations coordinator will plan small social events between where we would invite friends and the public to attend fun evenings and show their support for Terra by donating diapers as an entry fee. Once again, our internal challenge would be to do as much of the diaper and fundraising utilizing the various social media tools available to us, rather than conventional methods.

    So far we have received commitments from Edmonton-Castledowns MLA The Honourable Thomas Lukaszuk, Minister of Employment and Immigration, Edmonton-Calder MLA Doug Elniski, Edmonton-Riverview Wildrose Party candidate John Corie, Edmonton-Rutherford Wildrose Party candidate Kyle McLeod, Edmonton-Manning Wildrose Party candidate Daryl Bonar, and Edmonton-Highlands-Norwood Wildrose Party candidate Wayde Lever. This team is being supported by public relations professionals, graduates of NAIT’s computer technologies program and other well respected Edmontonians.

    To join our team, please contact me at or Doug Elniski, at

    Remember, were it not for people like us, organizations like Terra Association could not do the work they do.

    Thursday, August 11, 2011

    Blogs and More Blogs

    Most people who follow my work know I have more than one blog. This blog, Sacred Social Justice, started out by discussing local activist events from a faith perspective. I still write on that topic (especially where it concerns global issues, peace, the inner city, and other aspects of social justice), but it has grown to include reports on local events and general updates on various projects. I did not really see a point in starting up another blog just as a diary. Truth be told, I have many more interests and projects on the go besides ones just dealing with activism.

    One of those interests is music from around the world, especially ethnic beats and singer/songwriters. Inside World Music is a blog that deals with this topic, particularly CD and concert reviews. I have just updated Inside World Music with my capsule reviews from the Edmonton Folk Music Festival.

    Another major passion of mine is food. Over the past couple of years I have become more and more interested in the local food scene, especially independent restaurants and food served at events like festivals. I started taking photographs of my food and review restaurants (and other businesses and attractions) regularly at Yelp. This week, I started up another blog to tie everything together. Then I Ate presents food photographs and short critiques. I may also write about local food issues and newswhen inspired, but for now I wanted to keep it simple so that I can make sure it is updated regularly.

    Monday, August 08, 2011

    Catching Up

    This is a short post to bring everyone up to speed on my comings and goings. Well, some of them anyways. I've been attending a lot of local events as usual, including my two favourite summer festivals, the Servus Heritage Festival and Edmonton Folk Music Festival. For videos from both events, check out my YouTube channel that I am using to post Edmonton events separately from my usual one, which I would like to leave dedicated to activist happenings.

    On the artistic front, I performed on June 18 at the Bikeology Festival under a tent in the pouring rain. As they say, the show must go on. You can catch the videos from it at my music channel on YouTube

    One of my photographs was featured as part of the Visual Arts Alberta Association's member show "Energize," which was also part of The Works annual visual arts festival. I also became a member of Harcourt House, and have been working on some abstract paintings for the first time in over five years. I'll be posting the results of which in my gallery at deviantART, which has been updated with new photographs from my travels around central Alberta.

    That's pretty much the long and short of it. I have been tending to update my YouTube channels and Flickr account more often than my blog. I'm also always posting on Twitter and will continue to use this blog to summarize what I am doing as well as present opinions on current events and causes.

    Wednesday, June 22, 2011

    Tape Recorders (for Robert Kroetsch)

    I found out a few hours ago that legendary Alberta writer Robert Kroetsch was killed in a car accident at the age of 83. I have the privilege of interviewing Robert three times, corresponding with him via email, and occasionally seeing him at literary events. His wit, dry sense of humour, and profound way of looking at life are the things about him I will most remember - in addition to his literary works, of course. This poem came to me as I reflected upon our encounters and his life, which, while full, was taken too soon.

    Tape Recorders (for Robert Kroetsch)

    That day between classes in a café
    where iced coffee sat between us as
    you discussed poetry and hornbooks
    as I transcribed conversation to paper
    via a malfunctioning tape recorder only
    springing to life through a booming voice
    filled with history and humour.

    My stories were many, or so you said;
    there was a need for a good romance
    or tales of the itinerant writer in the big city.
    Encouragement for my short verse and to
    extend the length of my thoughts were remembered,
    but short is my style and long is your wisdom.

    You saw the dark corners you said
    upon which I shed light, although I
    think at times the batteries were weaker than
    they should have been, just like in that old tape
    recorder that memorialized your stream of
    post-modern wit and broke once and for all
    a few years later.

    The new one works in a similar fashion but
    never met you in a coffee shop alongside
    your talkative host from whom you feigned sleep
    as she ferried you to your next engagement,
    a full schedule requiring extra energy.

    If those stories come to life which you suggested,
    I can only hope they will have meaning,
    but forgive the brevity of my verses;
    they could never rise to the standards
    of my aspirations.

    (c) 2011 Paula E. Kirman

    Thursday, June 16, 2011

    Social Media and Advocacy in the Inner City

    On Wednesday, June 15, I had the privilege of being invited to speak at the inner city discussion group of the Edmonton Inner City Health Research and Education Network (EICHREN). The topic of the evening was "Social Media and Advocacy," and the organizers felt that my work with Boyle McCauley News, my strong online presence (particularly on Facebook and Twitter), and passion for social causes made me an ideal person to share my knowledge.

    Most of the people at the meeting were young doctors, medical students, nurses, and people involved in inner city organizations such as the Boyle McCauley Health Centre and George Spady Centre. They wanted to know how effective social media was and how they could use it in areas of advocacy with which they are involved, such as harm reduction, safe injection sites, and needle exchange programs. The group was split pretty much down the middle in terms of those who were familiar with social media, and those who had no idea how Twitter even worked.

    I talked a little but about how I gave Boyle McCauley News a presence on social media and how such methods can be used for informing one's contact base of events and information. Besides some technical questions about how it all actually works, one of the main concerns was access. I pointed out that access to computers, as well as literacy (both towards computers and in the traditional sense) could be issues for certain groups in the inner city, such as the homeless. People who are not homeless but lower income may not own a computer. Some discussion ensued about allowing access to the Internet at various agencies, as it was felt that if the technology was available and a person was able to use it, they likely would.

    Other discussion ensued about the efficacy of using social media over traditional kinds of advocacy (such as those done in person or writing physical letters as opposed to emails), citing Malcolm Gladwell's article in the New Yorker Small Change: Why the Revolution Will Not Be Tweeted.

    Overall, EICHREN is a group that is just gaining momentum. How it will use social media and for what purposes are yet to be established. It already has a Twitter account. The fact that the people involved are interested in social media and asking the right questions shows promise for what is potentially a strong push for advocacy of inner city health issues.

    Tuesday, June 07, 2011

    Neighbourhood Festivals and Performing

    I love neighbourhood celebrations. They give me a good excuse to visit other 'hoods and check out what is happening on a grassroots level: the shops, music, and foods that make the area unique. This past weekend, I was involved with two such events: Heart of the City and the Highlands Street Festival.

    Heart of the City is a huge deal in McCauley and beyond. It is two days featuring music and visual artists who either live, work, volunteer, or go to school in the downtown/inner city area. All of these talented people are brought together at Giovanni Caboto Park, where free live music is performed, art is displayed, interactive art is there for all to contribute to, and workshops are held. Despite a very chilly Saturday, the brave musicians took to the stage to appreciative (although, unforunately sparse) audiences. Sunday was much warmer, and the number of people in the park reflected the sunshine.

    This was my fifth time performing at Heart of the City. For the past four times, I was a part of the Song Circle, held on Saturday morning. A group of three or four musicians, usually solo artists, take to the stage at once and take turns performing their songs. This year, I got my own set, which was for 20 minutes on Sunday morning/afternoon (I started at 11:55 a.m.). It was wonderful to perform four of my songs with the always skillful Mike Tully working the sound system. I also joined another musician, Theresa Lightfoot, on stage to play percussion earlier that morning during her set. As always, I brought my juggling sticks and even had the chance to juggle with another stick juggler.

    I'm also involved with Heart of the City in another capacity: I am the editor of Boyle McCauley News, the community newspaper serving the communities of Boyle Street and McCauley. The paper is also one of the festival's sponsors, and in addition to financial support, we give the festival a lot of press. It deserves it - it is one of the biggest events that takes place in the area, and brings in people from all over the city.

    In the meantime that Sunday, June 5, a smaller festival was taking place in the north Edmonton neighbourhood of Highlands. The Highlands Street Festival is an annual outdoor market featuring local merchants, food, music, and a kids' area. I had never been to the event before, although I am familiar with the historic buildings and businesses in the area. Anyways, that morning I saw a tweet from local blues singer Paula Perro, who was supposed to be performing with a few band members on the main stage, which was located in the alley behind Mandolin Books. A few of her band members had to bow out, and she was looking for a replacement.

    As coincidence would have it, Paula was the MC for the morning/early afternoon at Heart of the City. She encouraged me to head to Highlands that afternoon, find the sound guy, and offer to play. So I did. Paula's band woes were worked out and she was able to make her set, but I ended up playing for a half hour before she took the stage, as there was a gap in the program. I also managed to take a look around at the vendors and other festival goings-on. It was small, but quaint, and I enjoyed being there.

    Here is my photo set from Heart of the City and from the Highlands Street Festival. As well, I put together two video compilations from Heart of the City, from day one and day two.

    I will be posting videos from my performances at both events on my music YouTube channel in the near future.

    Of Sluts and Slutwalks

    Edmonton Slut Walk by raise my voice
    Edmonton Slut Walk, a photo by raise my voice on Flickr.

    The Edmonton Slut Walk took place on June 4. The protest raised a lot of controvery before it happened, for two reasons.

    First of all, and most obviously, there was the name. Slut Walk. For those who don't know, the original Slut Walk took place in Toronto when a police officer made the unfortunate statement that if women did not dress like sluts, they would not get raped. The Slut Walk was created as a statement that women should be able to dress as they wish, go where they want, and be who they are, and that instead of blaming the victims, men should be taught not to rape.

    A grassroots group of women in Edmonton decided to organize a Slut Walk here, and even though the background of its name was well publicized, it still raised eyebrows. There are those who do not want anything to do with an event with the word "slut" in the title, even if it upholding values they believe in like women's rights and no meaning no. The word "slut" carries with it all of the baggage of being a derogatory word for women, even if it is being used in a positive way. "Slut" has never had a positive meaning, and standing in the street holding a sign exclaiming slut pride is not going to change that.

    But that really was not the point of the Slut Walk. It was to send a message that rape is wrong, and on that level, it was successful. As well, time was given to the fact that men are also raped and that not all men are rapists.

    The other issue with the Edmonton Slut Walk had to do with the overwhelming response on the Facebook event page. More than 3000 people said they would be attending, which had the City of Edmonton somewhat worried about logistics. Originally, the protest was to start at the Legislature and participants would walk on the sidewalk to City Hall. However, thousands of people on the sidewalk is a bit much, and the City demanded $2000 from the organizers to close off the street. Not being in a position to cough up the cash, and not wanting to risk getting ticketed by ignoring the demand and just marching anyways, the Slut Walk's official line became that it would stay at the Legislature.

    In the end, only about a tenth of the Facebook numbers actually showed up (which was a decent showing considering how unseasonably cold it was that morning). After about an hour of speeches, the Slut Walk moved to City Hall, mostly on the sidewalks. Mission accomplished.

    Although I was a little aprehensive about the name at first, I enjoyed the Slut Walk and give kudos to the organizers for pulling the event together in the face of all of the challenges. The message that no means no and that victims are never to blame for rape came through clearly. Nothing is going to make me embrace the word "slut," but this was a case where the ends justified the means.

    Here is my photo set from the event, a video showing the crowd and segments of some of the speeches, and another video of Kasia, the main organizer, reading a poem she wrote (language warning).

    Monday, April 18, 2011

    Charity, Poverty, and Bandages

    On April 13, I was invited to speak at a meeting of the West End Interfaith Coalition on Poverty (Weicop). Weicop is comprised of representatives from 12 churches of different denominations in the west end seeking to find solutions to issues of poverty and homelessness in the area.

    I was asked to speak as a representative of the Boyle Street and McCauley area, through my work with Boyle McCauley News. There are issues concerning poverty and homelessness emerging in the Stony Plain Road area that are comparable to the inner city. And, as someone who walks between the worlds of downtown and the west end (my family home is not far from Stony Plain Road, I shop in that area often, and I used to edit another community newspaper in that area), the members of Weicop thought I would have some ideas about how to deal with thee situations effectively as citizens and with their churches.

    In particular, I spoke of the need to educate and inform people about the inner city, to see the many wonderful events, attractions, and people who live here, as opposed to the way the area is often portrayed, focusing on crime, panhandlers, and negative stereotypes. By encouraging people to visit the area and spend time there, these perceptions and fears can be changed.

    I was also asked about my recent work with Action for Healthy Communities as a Community Animator in McCauley, as well as the initiatives of the McCauley Connects Coffeehouse and Church Street Fair that were developed as a result.

    The people at Weicop were dedicated, concerned, and compassionate Edmontonians who truly care about what is going on in their community. Many of them support organizations that deal with poverty and housing issues financially and with resources such as donating clothing or bringing in groups from their churches and preparing meals. These are all important actions that provide immediate relief to those suffering on the streets.

    However, alone these actions are not enough. I implored them to go further and investigate the underlying reasons why social problems are becoming more prevalent in their area, as money alone cannot solve the issues.

    Here is exactly what I said. “Giving money to a problem is a Band-Aid. You’ve got to look at the underlying causes as to why it is happening, and deal with it on that level,” she said. “Band-Aids stop the bleeding, but they don’t heal the wound. Do what you can as an individual, as a church, and as a city to deal with these causes.”

    The bottom line is, when it comes to charity, give not only of your money and resources, but give of yourselves. Strive to find those underlying social causes to whatever issue you are confronting, and engage in activism to make it better. It isn't easy, but it is the only way to truly catalyse change.

    Rallies and Elections

    Lots has been going on in the activist community over the past month. I helped organize and performed at the National Day of Action on April 9, to call for an end to Canada's involvement in all wars. A federal election is on the horizon, and we were calling for an end to the Conservative government, as we feel little will change if Stephen Harper remains in power. Here are photos.

    The week prior, there was a Friends of Medicare rally, calling for a public inquiry into the shutting up of whistleblowers in the healthcare system.

    The upheavals in the Middle East has promted a large number of rallies locally, as members of the local Syrian, Bahrainian, and Libyan communities have been rallying weekly for Canada to support their kinsmen in these respective countries. In fact, this past Saturday, there were two rallies going on simultaneously in Churchill Square! This was a first for me, and it was rather surreal. Here is a look at the rally for Libya and for Bahrain

    I am really not sure why these communities are so fragmented - to me, it would make more sense to have one rally supporting all of the countries in the Middle East experiencing upheavals, like this one from late March to support Libya, Bahrain, Syria, Yemen, and Jordan.

    Besides playing at the National Day of Action, I also performed at two eco-events. Water for Life was on March 25 and dealt with access to clean water for children around the world. Living Green 101 was yesterday at Beacon Heights, and was an alternative to Earth Day celebrations which were cancelled in Edmonton this year. I was a musical guest of Music is a Weapon, and the power for the amplification was generated by riding stationary bicycles. One of my Facebook friends suggested my music now be referred to as "heavy pedal!"

    YOu can check out videos from these and other events at my YouTube channel (activism) and my other YOuTube channel (music).

    Tuesday, March 08, 2011

    Our Communities, Our Selves

    Preamble: I am involved with a local blog writing group made up of Twitter friends. Each month we write on a specific topic. This month's chosen topic is community.

    When I first started contemplating this blog topic, I thought about what my fellow bloggers may write. Perhaps I am being presumptuous, but I expect a lot of the following: "I am a member of [religion/culture] and my community here in Edmonton has been so [wonderful/accepting/supportive/etc.]. I am so glad to be a part of the [religion/culture] community here. All hail my [religion/culture].

    For me, it is not so simple. I walk between many worlds. As a result, community to me has many meanings.

    Community can be contradictory.
    Sometimes one's beliefs can run contrary to the dominant paradigm of one's presumed community. I am Jewish, but my open criticism of the State of Israel and support for Palestinian rights automatically puts me on the outside. As well, my political and theological leanings (which I won't get into here) also sets me apart from pretty much every major Jewish denomination for one reason or another. At the same time, we have to have the strength and courage to stand up for our beliefs, even when they fly in the faces of our communities. Just because you grew up being taught something, just because it seems like everyone else around you believes that thing, doesn't mean it is right - and especially, it does not mean it is right for you. I even wrote a song about it, called "Walls".

    Community can be based on who you are and who you choose to be.
    I wasn't born an activist. I became one through my own explorations of the world and current events. As a result, I am part of the local activist community. While most of us are part of communities based on aspects of ourselves beyond our control (such as our ethnic group), we also become a part of communities based on our life choices.

    Community can be inherited and adopted.
    This is very much in relation to my point above. I'm part of the Jewish community because I am Jewish. I was born Jewish. I'm part of a neighbourhood where I live, by virtue of the fact that I, well, live there (duh). At the same time, I am deeply involved in the McCauley and Boyle Street neighbourhoods because that is where my work and passion lie. Although I do not live there, I am adopted as part of the community. I wrote about this at length in April of 2010 in a blog post entitled "Defining Community", so I'll leave it at that rather than repeat myself. My views are pretty much the same now as then.

    Community can remain static, or it can change with life choices.
    Remember what I said above about living in one place, but working in another? Perhaps one day I will move. Some people convert to other religions. I know people who have jumped in head first into political or social activities. Our communities change as we do. Likely in our lifetimes, we will have some communities in which we stay and others into which we grow.

    So that pretty much sums up my take on community. I'll be posting the links to my fellow blog group members' work as they become available.

    Related Posts:
    My lifelong community by @TamaraStecyk
    Creating Community Throught My Feet by @Joanna_Farley
    Blog Group Topic #3: Community by @lindork

    Tuesday, March 01, 2011

    Boyle McCauley News Has a Website!

    I spend a lot of time in the inner city. One of the major reasons is because I edit Boyle McCauley News, the community newspaper serving the neighbourhoods of Boyle Street and McCauley. The paper is an important source of news and information about the area, presenting many of the positive aspects of life there.

    For the past five or so years, BMC News (as it is known for short) has had a presence on the website for the McCauley Community League. About a year's worth of papers were archived in PDF form, so visitors could download the paper to read.

    2009 marked the 30th anniversary of the paper, and myself and my staff thought a good way to commemorate this milestone was to properly archive all of the past issues of the paper in microfiche. When we researched that option, we also saw that we could have all of the papers scanned and converted into PDFs that were searchable and could be incorporated into a project such as a website.

    We reached the conclusion that a website that was stand-alone and featured an electronic version of current issues as well as a searchable archive was not only desireable, but necessary as a valuable resource not only for the community itself, but for anyone interested in the history of Edmonton's inner city.

    After receiving a projects-based grant from Alberta Culture and Community Spirit's Community Initiatives Program, we embarked upon the task of putting the website together. Today, March 1, 2011, the site officially launched at The site does an incredible job of presenting the newspaper in a format that stays true to the print edition, but has its own unique aspects like the archive. It was developed as a group effort of myself, designer Vikki Wiercinski, programmer Derek Hogue, and the BMC News Board of Directors.

    Bringing Edmonton's oldest community newspaper online is something which I have been involved with for a while. I developed and maintain BMC News' presence on Twitter and Facebook. This new website brings the paper completely into the modern age. I am looking forward to the community's feedback as we expand the profile of Edmonton's inner city.

    Monday, February 14, 2011

    An Activist Media Memoir

    Like many aspects of my life, I fell into activist media sort of by accident. As a freelance writer and photographer with progressive leanings, Edmonton’s activist scene intrigued me, yet was somewhat of a mystery. As far as I could tell, there was little documentation of what was going on. Since mainstream media can’t really be expected to report on events such as peace marches or conferences to any great extent, I knew an activist scene existed but elusively was out of sight. And for many, out of sight means out of mind.

    When I finally made a concentrated effort to locate and become involved with local activist organizations, I found a plethora of information on the Internet, and shortly thereafter became a fixture on the scene. I remember at the first peace march I attended, asking for permission to take photos (which was granted). Still, I could not help but be concerned that some thought I was a CSIS agent in disguise.

    Fortunately, with cultivating personal relationships comes trust, and I not only became welcome at events, but also started to be invited as well as to get involved with several organizations. This provides a unique perspective as being at once a media person and an organizer/participant. I don’t see a conflict, as much of my reportage consists of photo and video reportage with minimal editing, rather than written editorials. Usually what I write is descriptive, and simply discusses the details and purpose of the event.

    From a technical perspective, juggling my equipment is one of the biggest challenges of my work. At most events I am usually carrying no less than one SLR digital camera (and occasionally a point-and-shoot as a backup), a mini-DV camcorder, a small tripod, and several rounds of extra batteries, tapes, and memory cards. I stopped using a separate camera bag a while ago, and opted to stuff everything into my backpack. Both cameras (still and video) are strapped around my neck, while the tripod is able to just fit into my pack. Otherwise, it is carried separately before and after the event, after I put my cameras away.

    Running, weaving in and out, walking, jumping, and occasionally climbing, are the physical aspects of media coverage. I sometimes joke with my friends that while bungee jumping and skydiving are the extreme sports of choice for some, marches are mine. As well, since Edmonton is known for its long and brutal winters, dressing for the weather is a fact of life before outdoor events.

    I try to get my work online as fast as possible after an event, especially during a busy time when there are multiple things going on at once. Photos are edited and uploaded to my website, which also acts as a portal to the places where I also upload media. I use social media to its fullest extent, and get photos on Flickr and Facebook, while the videos go to YouTube. I then blog about the event with links to my uploaded media, which feeds through to my Facebook). I post direct links to the media on Twitter. Finally, I post to various activist listservs, usually those relevant to the event as well as broader ones intended for community use.

    The importance of social media in activist journalism cannot be stressed enough. A media producer has the potential to reach an audience far wider than through traditional medias alone, if at all. Those seeking such kinds of reporting are also likely to be online and looking for reports from activist media, rather than channel surfing or reading corporately sponsored publications – inexpensive, easy to locate, but not representing all voices.

    My goal is to provide complete, clear coverage of events so that those looking at photos or watching videos can get an accurate sense of what happened, the purpose of the event, and hopefully in that process, think about their own values and beliefs with regards to the theme or issue at hand.

    Paula E. Kirman is an Edmonton-based writer, editor, photographer, musician, and activist. This article was originally written for the University of Alberta chapter of Journalists for Human Rights.

    Friday, February 11, 2011

    Boyle McCauley News: February 2011

    The first issue of Boyle McCauley News in 2011 is now online. Here is a look at just some of what's inside:

    * Mary Burlie Park May Go
    * Open East Edmonton Health Centre
    * Seeking McCauley Balance
    * McCauley Connect Coffeehouse Premiers
    * Our Volunteers - Alistair Henning
    * McCauley Cup and Family Day Celebrations
    * Grand Manor Open House
    * Cop’s Corner: Vacation Preparation
    * Getting Animated About McCauley
    * The Aging Brain
    * Escape to Morocco
    * Letters To The Editor
    * Community League Updates

    You can download the entire February 2011 issue as a PDF here.

    Winter Wonderland and Wet Socks

    Last Saturday, I realized that my snow boots are not waterproof as I slogged through the slushy mess that was Chinatown and Giovanni Caboto Park. I endured hours of wet socks tormenting my cold, cramping feet (no doubt a leading factor in the flu that hit me this week).

    But it was worth it (although I could definitely have lived without the flu part). The Lunar New Year celebrations in Chinatown were spectacular as always - loud and colourful. I especially enjoy the dragon and lion dances, and once again, my eardrums popped when the firecrackers were set off (I keep forgetting to bring earplugs). There were other Lunar New Year celebrations at indoor locations in Edmonton, but there is nothing like being outside in the winter right in Chinatown watching the community celebrate. Here are photos that I took as well as videos of the dragon dance, lion dance, and a business being blessed (listen to those loud firecrackers!).

    Then, after a bowl of pho to warm up, it was over a few blocks to Giovanni Caboto Park to take in Common Ground. Common Ground was part of the Winter Light Festival, and featured a transformation of the park. Most of the snow was cleared away into huge windrows (which were being used as sled hills by children), with a Heritage Village with teepees, snowshoeing, African drumming, and more. In the evening, the park was alight with coloured lights and lanterns, and finished off with a community feast. Common Ground celebrated the different cultures represented in the McCauley area - Chinese, Italian, Aboriginal, and African - and demonstrated how much we have to learn from each other. Here are some photos.

    So, last Saturday I indeed felt as though I walked through a winter wonderland. However, next time I think I will bring galoshes and a change of socks.

    Thursday, February 10, 2011

    The English Teacher

    When I was in grade twelve I was still pretty clueless about what I wanted to do with my life. University registration deadlines were looming and while by this time I knew that I wanted to pursue higher education, I did not know in what.

    Someone helped me make that decision, not by coercion or other means of manipulation, but by simply taking an interest in me and giving me a few nudges in areas of intellectual development.

    I didn't know that Brian Jones was going to be such an influence in my life when I walked into English 30 on the first day of classes. One of the first units we studied dealt with existentialism. We analyzed a couple of stories out of an anthology. If I recall correctly, I tried to return the book, he asked me if I had read all the stories. When I answered no, he insisted that I hang onto the anthology for the rest of the term.

    Mr. Jones was always very encouraging about my writing and interpretive abilities, even when being critical of my writing style, which was sometimes as clumsy and awkward as my teenage self. Still, I found myself more and more drawn to all thing literary, and finally made the decision to apply to the Faculty of Education, with a Major in English.

    It turned out that my final year of high school was also Mr. Jones's final year of teaching. He retired at the end of the term and I never saw him again, but remember fondly his class, his encouragement, and him telling anecdotes about his past with his unmistakeable Welsh accent. One of my favourite photos if the one I have of my graduation day, me in my robe crossing the stage and Mr. Jones handing me my fake scroll (the real ones were mailed to us later).

    I don't know if you're still out there Mr. Jones, but I want to thank you for everything. You are a large part of who I am today.

    Related Posts
    A Man to Admire by @TamaraStecyk
    Inspiration Comes in a Healthy Package by @Joanna_Farley
    Inspiration from a Miracle Baby by @JenBanksYEG
    Inspiration by @Jasmine09
    Blog Group Topic #2: Most positive impact on me by @lindork
    Grandpa, it's time for change in Alberta by @sirthinks

    Sunday, January 30, 2011

    Homeless Memorial & Rally for Egypt: From Local to Global

    Two Saturdays, in a row. Two events. Different causes affecting different parts of the world.

    On January 22, I attended the Edmonton Homeless Memorial Remembrance Celebration. In its sixth year, the event seeks to honour the memories of people who have died in the past year as a direct result of having no home. Sadly, the number of people who are being honoured as doubled since the first event. This year, we remembered 57 people who died in 2010 (and this is a conservative estimate, as these are people whose identities have been confirmed by family members and social agencies). The memorial took place at Boyle Street Community Services - just a stone's throw away from the proposed downtown arena. In fact, there are numerous service organizations in that area. I can only hope and pray that the City honour its commitment to fight homelessness and poverty and not sell out to huge land developers. Here are photos from the event and a video featuring speakers and music.

    It has been a week of revolution in Egypt, and yesterday cities around the world rallied for the people there who are being tortured and killed under the Mubarak regime. A rally was put together in Edmonton by a group of grassroots citizens, and despite the short notice and bitter cold, the turnout was excellent. Here is a video of some of the passionate chanting, and some photos.

    Monday, January 17, 2011

    Perspective From Afghanistan

    The local peace movement, in which I am actively involved, has been calling for Canadian troops to be brought home from Afghanistan pretty much since the war began. We say that Western forces have never been able to impart its values upon this ancient culture, and that we are looking at the country through the ethnocentric view of our own perspective. Further, we consider the current leadership in Afghanistan to be nothing more than a puppet regime featuring an unelected "president" and his warlord buddies.

    But what do I know? After all, I have never been to Afghanistan. And neither have the people who constantly criticized my views. I have never even had a conversation with someone from that country.

    Until today.

    We've been hit with a deep freeze in Edmonton, featuring extremely cold temperatures and snow that comes up to my waist at some points. As a result, I have been taking more taxi cabs than usual. This afternoon, I almost could have made the bus, but opted for the quicker travel time a cab would provide, and hopped into the first one that was lined up outside of the hotel where I was having coffee.

    The driver, it turned out after a few minutes of polite conversation, came from Afghanistan with his young family seven years ago. I decided to take a chance, and ask him the question I have always wanted to directly ask someone from over there: what do you think of Canada's involvement in Afghanistan.

    His responses filled the rest of our 20 minute journey, and offered some profound insights from someone who knows that country first hand.

    "Canada doesn't really have a choice than to be over there, because the US got involved and they are just following along," he said first. That Canada is simply following the US's marching orders is something we peace folks have been saying for a while.

    What came next was another eye-opener for those who say we peace people have no clue. "The US does not want peace. No one over there believes that. If you ask an average person over there, most will say they do not want the US there and they do not trust the US. Everything in Afghanistan is about money and nothing happens without the knowledge of outside international forces."

    He admitted that he hates the Taliban (in fact, this was the main reason he moved his family to Canada), but that he grieves for everyone who is being killed in Afghanistan be they from the US, Canada, or the Taliban because all of them are pawns by regimes (China, Russia, the US) who are making money off of the war. He also said that he is grateful for the good things being done by Canadian forces, but kept repeating how the "war" is all about money and that he is tired of people who know nothing about Afghanistan and its people saying what should be done over there.

    So there you have it: an Afghan ex-pat says that we're there to follow the US under false pretenses, and that the people of Afghanistan do not want foreign occupying forces in their country. I plan to speak to this at the next peace rally. In the meantime: bring the troops home now!

    Saturday, January 08, 2011

    Finding Shalom - An Artistic Journey

    My grandmother wanted to go to college, or so the story goes. I have never asked her myself. Of course, since women did not do that back then, she held her dreams inside and desired my mother to attend post-secondary education.

    Which she did, but not the kind of which my grandma hoped. My mother trained as a legal secretary, in hopes of snagging a nice, rich, Jewish lawyer. She got my father instead. He was an elementary teacher in a ghetto school who was pursuing his doctoral studies in the evening.

    For the first six years of their marriage, they lived in my mother’s parents’ duplex. Then, when he earned the right to put ‘Dr.’ in front of his name, my father found the position that moved him and my mom from their close community of Brooklyn, New York, to the wilds of Edmonton, Alberta.

    ‘Culture shock’ probably did not begin to describe the change. Being an Orthodox Jew, my father soon realized he was no longer in walking distance of the nearest synagogue. There were two kosher butchers, each purveying their own brand of inedible delights. My mother, who enjoyed television, was dismayed to discover only four channels at her disposal – one of them in French.

    Moving back home after my father amassed enough of a C.V. to get a position at another university, preferably one in the East, was definitely a consideration. However, the digestive disturbances which plagued my mother en route to their new home turned out to be more than food poisoning or a touch of the flu. It was my older brother.

    The 1960’s turned into the 1970’s, and a few years later I was born. The family was settled. My mother, forever doting and over-protective, was concerned about problems back home and decided it was best to stay put.

    For a variety of complicated reasons, my brother and I never attended the local Jewish day school. I was the mystery of my elementary classes; the girl who always got to miss school to celebrate exotic holidays. The one who could never go out on Friday night; the one who had to turn down invitations to birthday parties because she could not eat the food being served. Still, I never resented who I was until the kids from the Talmud Torah, which only went up to grade six in those days, joined us in junior high and treated me as an outcast. On top of that, I was daily being stalked, verbally harassed, and beaten by a Lithuanian Jewish boy who came up to my shoulders.

    Things were not much better with my non-Jewish classmates, even though it felt easier and more gratifying to use my experiences as a source of rebellion with my parents, who had done their best to raise my brother and I with their customs and traditions. I could no longer relate to the meanings that were behind all that we did as part of our heritage.

    I turned to my few friends, my painting, my writing, my music. I wrote songs almost every day, and swirled colours of tempera on paper. My father gave me an old camera of his, and I started combing the neighbourhood, looking for subjects to photograph. The trees and the birds and the flowers became my best friends.

    Eventually, junior high came to an end. A bad case of chicken pox made me miss my graduation. To this day, the group photo of the grade nine class of 1988 hangs on the wall in the school, without me. But I still have most of those photographs, those paintings and songs, and the scars from which my art flows.

    Modern Proverbs

    Written by me during a bout of great cynicism.

    Mothers don’t know everything;
    Teachers know even less.

    Poems do not have to rhyme,
    Though if they do it’s not a crime.

    Rabbis, pastors, priests, and preachers
    Are not God, nor may they speak for Him.

    The pain of loneliness stings less
    Than the trauma of heartbreak.

    Play hard to get,
    And get nothing.

    If I can’t miss what I don’t have
    Why do I still long for it?

    Only thank God for things you really
    Think He would want the credit.

    Music is in all things, all sounds,
    All vibrations of voice, earth, air.

    Books have the safest covers
    To be between.

    That said, life is meant to be lived,
    Not only read about.

    Trust is earned;
    So is respect.

    Own your mistakes;
    Don’t blame others for your failings.

    We may grow older and wiser
    But discover there is more we don’t know.

    Many long to travel abroad,
    But how many have explored every nook of their own city?

    Friday, January 07, 2011

    When You're Strange - A View from the Inside

    Several of my friends on Twitter have committed to a monthly blogging schedule based on a specific theme. January's theme is racism and/or discrimination. At first I felt this was a topic to which I could add no real insight. After all, I am not a member of a visible minority, and as such have never encountered racism. I am Jewish, but have been fortunate enough not to have had to deal with anti-Semitism, at least not overtly.

    This got me thinking that when racism or discrimination is the topic on the table, we often think of it in terms of what members of one group does to another. There is always some sort of cultural, religious, or racism differentiation. However, my own experiences have shown that discrimination can happen within the same ethnic group.

    I grew up in a fairly traditional Orthodox Jewish home. As a result, it was always assumed that when my brother and I became of school age, we would attend the local Talmud Torah day school. As my older brother approached the time to register for grade one, it became evident this would not be the case. In those days, there was no transportation provided for children who needed a ride, despite my parents being told otherwise. My father, a professor at the University of Alberta, taught 8 a.m. classes and would not have been able to drive my brother to school every day. My parents desperately tried to work out car-pooling and ride share agreements with other Jewish families in our area, but to no avail.

    Finally, it was time to register my brother for school. My parents enrolled him in the public school a couple of blocks away, and that is where he and then I attended for our elementary and junior high years. I was the only Jewish child in my class for the first six years of my school career, and I never felt strange. I knew I had customs and traditions that were different from the other kids, but it did not bother me at that time. My father often came to my classroom to make presentations about the Jewish holidays and share some ethnic food treats. At the same time, I enjoyed taking part in Christmas decorating and concerts. Yes, there were a few things I had to skip, like birthday parties on Saturdays (the Sabbath) and the annual hamburger barbecue (I ate no non-kosher meat at that time), but to put it in the vernacular, it was all good.

    Then came junior high.

    The Talmud Torah only went up to grade six back then. It was a feeder school for the school I attended, so when junior high came around so did a lot of Jewish kids. I was very excited that for the first time I would get to hang out with other people of my tribe. I would finally have Jewish friends! Or so I thought.

    It broke my heart when the other Jewish kids would not accept me because I did not go to their school. They would not even believe that I was really Jewish. The irony is that I was still religiously observant at that time, while they obviously weren't given their dietary and weekend habits. I was severely taunted verbally by many of them, and physically by one in particular. I was an outsider in my own cultural group.

    To this day, I still feel somewhat like an outsider in the Jewish community. I do have some Jewish friends and am involved in a few community activities, but I don't really consider the Jewish community to be mine. The community is very small and homogeneous, and when you are someone who has views that don't fit with the mainstream, you really stick out. It is almost as if one's Jewish identity is determined by outside forces like what school you went to, what family you're from, how much money you have, and your political beliefs.

    While I still bear some of the scars of my youth, I have come to terms with myself and my identity. Developing the courage to stand up in the face of adversity I believe is one reason I became a social activist. It is why I cringe when I see others (either here or abroad) mistreated by a system, a nation, or a paradigm of thought. This has led me down some interesting and unusual paths both as a Jew and in general. Pressure and heat, when applied correctly, can create newness and beauty. If faced with a choice of an easy route or a struggle, I choose the struggle.

    Related Posts:
    Blog Group Topic #1: Racism/Discrimination/Stereotypes by @lindork
    Discrimination and Helplessness by @JenBanksYEG
    The Double Meaning by @TamaraStecyk
    Racism, would it cease to exist without...? by @sirthinks
    It's Not Me, It's You by @Joanna_Farley