Monday, October 09, 2017

An open letter to my Facebook friends on the occasion of this morning's bit of bother

First, time to get honest about our relationship. Mostly we aren’t really friends, are we? I’m connected to 2,400 Facebook “friends,” and it might be a stretch to imagine that even five per cent of them are genuine friends of mine. So how about we think of each other as “connections” instead, all of us with our various reasons for deciding who we connect with on this odd thing we know as Facebook.

My connections have grown vast since I first opened my Facebook account a decade ago. But right from the get-go I took the approach that if you’re a real person and plan to contribute something to the public conversation beyond trying to get my vote or my money for your multi-level-marketing product, I’m up for connecting.

I happily connect to people without knowing whether we share the same opinions, values, world views. I appreciate diversity of thinking and culture, even when it’s uncomfortable. I almost never “unfriend” a connection, having decided long ago that freedom of speech is a foundational element of democracy that I want to actively support.

But that’s not to say I won’t give you a rough time now and then when you post something that irritates the hell out of me.

I sometimes wonder if it feels like a shock to a Facebook connection when I get prickly over something they wrote. If so, my apologies to any in my Facebook network who assume our being connected means that we agree on all the issues of the world, or at the very least have a tacit agreement not to acknowledge said differences publicly. I don't see things that way.

No worries that I’ll be prowling through all your Facebook posts, barking at you for this or that. I’m only reserving the right to get crabby when you come onto my Facebook page and say whatever you’re saying. Our pages are kind of like our houses, so when a person stands on my doorstep yelling their uninvited views through my door, I figure I’ve got every right to yell them right back out the door and off the property.

Here’s my promise to you: I will never be rude, or at least not until way late in a lengthy and fruitless back-and-forth that is getting tedious. I will do my best to make myself clear without malice, meanness or abusive language. But I won’t always be nice.

One thing my connections definitely need to understand is that I offer no protection from other people in my Facebook network who play much rougher than I do. Those who post on a post of mine are on their own to settle any differences between each other. I usually walk away from comment threads once they get completely out of control.

Every now and then, I do unfriend someone. If a person is relentlessly awful - racist, homophobic, idiotic or otherwise generally horrible whenever they post something on my page - they’re gone. One guy threatened violence, so he got the hook, too.

Should you feel the need to unfriend me after suffering one of my attacks, please don’t hesitate. I’m just fine with that. Whatever our reasons for connecting on Facebook, we are free to bail when the cons start to outweigh the pros. A lot of times we don't even know each other, after all. Also, many people take great umbrage at having their views challenged. Who knew?

I suspect I’ve lost some “friends” over my sex work perspective as well, so might as well get that one on the record while we’re being honest with each other: I am a committed and unequivocal supporter of sex workers’ rights to work and live free of discrimination, stigma and bad laws that routinely cause far more harm than good. I will come after you like a Cooper’s hawk on a plump robin if you come over to my page and start posting uninformed BS about sex workers.

Other than that, welcome, friend! I expect we’ll (mostly) get along just fine.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Homelessness is still a problem. Gee, go figure

Ten years ago now, I was part of a major initiative to address homelessness in Victoria. The Mayor's Task Force on Breaking the Cycle of Mental Illness, Addictions and Homelessness brought together some of the most informed, passionate people in the country to look into the issue of people living on our streets and what needed to be done about it. 

In four intense months, the task force put together a comprehensive report, packed with thoughtful, meaningful research, strategies and findings. What lands people into homelessness in these modern times turned out to be quite a complex series of things, starting with people's own personal crises, health issues and inability (for all kinds of reasons) to manage the major problems and stressors of their lives, and then deepening into shifting priorities at all levels of government, systemic failures, flawed decision-making, disconnects and deep funding cuts across the existing system of support, and a general failure by our society to grasp how much effort and investment is needed over a very long time to try to address an entrenched social problem. 

The key message repeated over and over again in that report was that while we do indeed need much more housing and social supports, we will always have homelessness unless we address the root causes of it. Without that, you are simply housing those who are homeless right now, even while new people fall into homelessness behind them. 

A decade on, we have built some more housing. We have added more outreach. We have shifted thinking in the judicial system to the point that judges now routinely make much more humane decisions when confronted with cases that so clearly come down to homelessness and poverty rather than criminal intent. 

We have also talked and talked about the root causes of homelessness, so much so that I'd like to think that virtually everyone now understands much more that homelessness happens not because someone is too lazy to work or reluctant to "pull up their bootstraps," but because of things like mental illness, poverty, disability, catastrophic injury, substance issues, a lifetime of disadvantage, and the lack of any kind of personal support system to fall back. 

But while public awareness may have improved, the strategies that might staunch the flow of people into homelessness have never come about. That explains why we are still talking about homelessness like nothing has changed, and why there were a thousand or so people living homeless in Victoria when the task force got underway in 2007 and still is. And why there still will be 10 years from now if we keep doing things in the same ineffective, reactive way. 

A new report was released last week confirming that the majority of homeless youth in our country are survivors of the foster system. Children from families investigated through Canada's child-welfare system are almost 200 times more likely to end up homeless at some point in their lifetime compared to children with no involvement in the system.

Shocking. But we knew that already 10 years ago. We've heard about it repeatedly in the intervening years from former BC Children and Youth representative Mary Ellen Turpel Lafond, who penned report after report pointing out this tragic statistic. Yet here we are, still being shocked. Still doing nothing effective in response. 

We also knew 10 years ago that discharging people from our provincial jails with no plan also fed into homelessness, not to mention led some of them to instantly commit another crime to get themselves out of their dire economic situation. We knew that discharging people with chronic mental illness from hospital without a solid plan did the same. As did relentlessly wearing down social supports to the point that people on the edge began to fall into the cracks. 

So yeah, it's a bummer to still be talking about homelessness all these years later. But until we get serious about why we can't seem to get on top of it, it will remain a heartbreaking example of societal failure and wasted human potential. 

Thursday, July 06, 2017

Stop Operation Northern Spotlight. Stand up for sex workers' rights. Don't be the modern-day version of Martin Luther King's blandly dangerous 'white moderate'

I'm adding my voice to what I hope will be an ever-larger chorus of British Columbians asking that police departments in BC refuse to participate in the ill-informed Operation Northern Spotlight campaign to "stop sex trafficking," which has been conducted off and on elsewhere in Canada for a number of years and is modelled on a similar U.S. police strategy.

As you will see from the letter below from the Supporting Women's Alternatives Network (SWAN Vancouver Society), the police campaign most definitely doesn't stop trafficking. But it does do serious harm to adult sex workers just trying to make a living.

SWAN bases its letter on solid sources, and I've included all of them here. If you're not already informed on this issue, please read and learn. Uninformed opinion and myth around sex work continue to cause real harm to people, and do nothing to stop the harms of violence, exploitation and genuine trafficking. Around the issue of sex workers' rights, I'm reminded more and more of Martin Luther King's denunciation in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail of the dangerously passive position of  "the moderate," who talks a great deal of their supposed support for human rights but in fact stands up for nothing (thanks to the late Arthur Manuel for the reminder): 
First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to "order" than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: "I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action"; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man's freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a "more convenient season." Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.
None of us over here on the side of sex workers' rights supports trafficking. But what we're trying to get across to the public is that these kinds of police actions do nothing to help those who truly need the help, while harming Canadian workers who end up working in even more dangerous conditions (or deported back to poverty in the case of migrant women wrongly assumed to be trafficked) as a result of flawed and thoughtless police targeting. 

Yay for Victoria Police Department, who so far gets all of this and works hard to stay above the fray while developing better relationships with sex workers in the region. Here's the letter - please share, support, and stand up for a population whose battle for human and workers' rights is real and immediate.

July 6, 2017

RCMP ‘E’ Division
BC Association of Chiefs of Police
Municipal Police Agencies
Director of Policing Services

Dear Madam and Sirs:

Re: Call for Non-Participation in Operation Northern Spotlight in British Columbia

We, the undersigned, are individuals and organizations deeply committed to the health, safety and human rights of women, men and trans persons involved in the sex industry. As such, we are concerned about the safety and well-being of those in the sex industry who are at heightened risk of human trafficking.

We would like to express our opposition to Operation Northern Spotlight and ask that BC law enforcement refrain from any future participation in this national anti-trafficking initiative. ‘Rescue’ missions such as Operation Northern Spotlight do more harm than good. A quick-fix attempt to deal with a complex issue, Operation Northern Spotlight sweeps up everyone present for interrogation, detention and/or arrest, without adequately distinguishing between those who are underage and/or coerced, and those who are not. (See the following sources: The Use of Raids to Fight Trafficking in Persons, How to Stage a Raid: Police, Media and the Master Narrative of Trafficking, and Canada and migrant sex‐work: Challenging the ‘foreign’ in foreign policy.)

This strategy is one that is based on deception and manipulation, as evidenced by police posing as sex workers’ clients in hotel rooms and ‘shock and awe’ raids on indoor sex work venues. These actions foster distrust and adversarial relationships with law enforcement. Pulling people out of the sex industry without their consent and penalizing those who do not agree to exit the sex industry does not ‘save’ or ‘rescue’ them.

‘Rescuing’ individuals who do not wish to be rescued has multiple impacts. Sex workers report being confused and frightened and may suffer trauma and even exhibit symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. Sex workers lose income and experience economic hardship. This places sex workers in a precarious position where they must either accept dates or provide services they normally wouldn’t to recoup losses. Operation Northern Spotlight can also have consequences for public health, as sex workers report reluctance to keep large quantities of condoms on commercial premises for fear of raids. Operation Northern Spotlight also has a ripple effect beyond those directly impacted, by driving sex workers further underground to evade police detection and making sex workers less likely to turn to law enforcement if violence occurs.

In order to be effective and to help exploited youth and trafficked persons, anti-trafficking solutions must be developed with the knowledge and expertise of sex workers. Combating human trafficking and upholding the rights, dignity and safety of sex workers should not be mutually exclusive.

As you are aware, British Columbia has a tragic history with regards to the deaths and disappearances of sex workers. In the past decade, progress has been made between law enforcement and sex workers to right the wrongs in the aftermath of the serial killer. Forsaken, the report of the Missing Women Commission of Inquiry, provided guidance to law enforcement on how to enhance the safety of vulnerable women in the sex industry. Operation Northern Spotlight is incompatible with the recommendations of Forsaken and does not have any place in this local context. 

Targeting individuals in the sex industry through approaches that induce fear and increase mistrust of law enforcement jeopardizes any chance of cooperation between sex workers and law enforcement. This type of repressive enforcement also threatens the foundation of a collaborative, multi stakeholder, community-based approach (See Forsaken recommendation no. 3) that is growing throughout British Columbia – a foundation that so many police officers, sex workers and community organizations have painstakingly built over the last several years. In short, Operation Northern Spotlight jeopardizes our ability to keep moving forward on our shared goals of reducing violence against sex workers.

We ask British Columbia law enforcement to decline any future invitation to participate in Operation Northern Spotlight. If the forthcoming Provincial Sex Work Enforcement Guidelines are modeled upon the Vancouver Police Department’s Sex Work Enforcement Guidelines, as per Forsaken recommendation 5.8, Operation Northern Spotlight will be at odds with provincial guidelines for sex work-related policing approaches.

In closing, we call upon British Columbia law enforcement to work with sex workers to develop best practices to help and support trafficked persons while protecting the safety, dignity and human rights of all individuals in the sex industry.


Andrew Sorfleet, President, Triple-X Workers' Association of British Columbia
Annie Temple, The Naked Truth
BC Coalition of Experiential Communities
Brenda Belak, Lawyer, Pivot Legal Society
Cheryl Giesbrecht
Dr. Lauren Casey
Dr. Sarah Hunt (Kwakwaka'wakw Nation), Assistant Professor, UBC
Dr. Becki Ross, Professor, UBC & Co-Founder West End Sex Workers' Memorial
Dr. Cecilia Benoit, University of Victoria
Dr. Victoria Bungay, Canada Research Chair: Gender, Equity & Community Engagement, UBC
Elizabeth Manning, PhD, RSW
Esther Shannon, Founder, FIRST Decriminalize Sex Work
Gender and Sexual Health Initiative, BC Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS
Genevieve Fuji Johnson, Associate Professor, Simon Fraser University
Hayli Millar, PhD (in Law), Associate Professor, University of the Fraser Valley
Jan Wilson, Executive Director, Prince George New Hope Society
Jody Paterson, PEERS Victoria
John Lowman, Professor, Emeritus, School of Criminology, Simon Fraser University
Joyce Arthur, FIRST Decriminalize Sex Work
Kerry Porth, former sex worker and sex work activist
Options for Sexual Health, Provincial Office
PACE Society
PEERS Victoria
Sanctuary Health
Sex Workers United Against Violence (SWUAV) Society
SWAN Vancouver Society
Tamara O'Doherty, PhD, JD, Simon Fraser University
Vancouver Status of Women
Warm Zone, Abbotsford
West Coast Co-operative of Sex Industry Professionals

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

The story of my mom

Mom loved this 2015 photo from the Chow reunion, which miraculously
captured all but one of her kids, their spouses and children in one place.

My mother Helen Paterson was born in 1925 in Moose Jaw, the sixth of nine children in a hard-scrabble household of mixed-race kids back when nobody even knew that term. 

Her father, Charles Chow, was Chinese and ran a grocery store catering to the Chinese community, many of them labourers who had come to Canada to work on the railway, and for a time he managed the Canadian Pacific Railway dining room in Moose Jaw. Her mother, Mary Feica, was Romanian, married off at 17 by her equally hard-scrabble Prairie family; when she wed her Chinese boss at the CPR restaurant where she worked, it was considered scandalous.

Such family circumstance provided fertile ground for stories. My mother knew them all. She grew less and less reticent about sharing them as she aged, and we made good use of her as the historian of a larger-than-life Canadian family. Her stories stitch us together, the sprawling Chow-Feica clan that has grown to more than 100 and still keeps up family reunions started in the early 1970s.

The two stories that stand out for me happened around the same time in my mother’s life, the late 1940s, when she was finishing up training as a registered nurse at Saskatoon General Hospital. She met my father, David Paterson, around the same time at a dance in Saskatoon, where she swooned at his (admittedly dazzling) blue eyes. They were together from that moment on, until his death in 2002.

The first story involves a hot-headed Saskatoon surgeon who hurled some poor woman’s newly removed uterus at my mom in the operating room when she was in training and mistakenly handed him the wrong kind of scissors. I love that one for reminding me that while equality still eludes women, at least we have moved beyond a time when a man could throw a woman’s uterus at a student nurse and nobody who witnessed it would dare to complain.

Mom, standing second from left, with her siblings and parents.
The other story unfolded at Temple Gardens in Moose Jaw, at the time a cool place for young people to go dancing. The owner of the club tried to kick my mother out one night when she showed up with my dad, because only white people were allowed in. He reconsidered only when other patrons started making a fuss. 

That one snaps me back to reality on our country’s racist roots, as did Mom’s tales of delivering groceries as a kid to Moose Jaw’s old opium dens, where lonely Chinese men exploited for their labour eased the pain of living in a country that denied them even the basic happiness of having wives or family members in China join them in Canada.

Happily, my mother and her siblings were blessed with exotic physical beauty and unstoppable personalities, so the racism they all endured was buffered by a magnetism that drew everyone to them. My mother was cooking lunches and dinners for great batches of friends and family at least four times a week right up until her death, and never tired of elderly men from her past telling her of the mad crushes they had on her back in the day. One such man attended her celebration of life in Victoria, her home of many years, just to tell me that his first glimpse of her at a party when he was 15 took his breath away. He’d never seen her again.

She was a crackerjack. At 91, she was still acing the New York Times Sunday crossword, bossing all of us around, and preparing perfectly rare roast beef after Googling how to do it. May we all live a life as full-on and courageous as hers.   

Tuesday, May 02, 2017

What would we hear if we listened?

Garifuna woman in Honduras prepares yucca bread, a staple of the Garifuna diet.

My Cuso International volunteer credentials have earned me the opportunity to present at a University of Victoria student symposium this Friday put on by the Centre for Global Studies. Here's what I'm going to be talking about. I thought I'd be able to post a link to the blogs that presenters have written in advance of the symposium, but they appear to be available only to those with a UVic sign-on. So you'll have to make do with mine alone, cut and pasted here.


The desire to help women in distant lands is a wonderful thing. We’re still a long way from gender equality here in Canada, but we’re living the dream compared to many countries around the world. Our sisters in less privileged parts of the globe could definitely use a little transnational solidarity.

But after five years of working with Cuso International in Honduras and Nicaragua, I saw that there are right ways of expressing our solidarity, and wrong ways. Even on the issues that women around the world can generally agree on – eliminating domestic violence, equal pay for work of equal value, addressing societal and cultural factors that leave women so much more vulnerable to poverty – the most fundamental first step is to ensure women with lived experience are guiding every process, program and policy intended to help them.

One of the most common mistakes we make is to presume that women in other lands and cultures want exactly what Canadian women want, and that the issues we have tackled in our own land are automatically the same issues they would pick for themselves.

But they’re not us. They’ve grown up with different cultural norms, in different kinds of families, with different values. They’re not looking to turn their backs on the life they have, nor to have women from countries like Canada sweep in with pity in their eyes and a plan to “make things right.”

Yes, they appreciate the support of wealthier countries to improve what they know needs improving. But they’re the experts of their own lives. Approaches that presume to know what another population wants are not just patronizing, insulting and doomed to fail, they deny the tremendous strengths and strategies women in other countries have already developed to get by in an unequal world.

A small example from Nicaragua: International initiatives aimed at encouraging subsistence farmers to commercialize, rather than grow just enough to feed their families. It’s a great goal on paper as a means for getting more impoverished Nicaraguans into the paid economy, but let’s take a look at that concept from a rural smallhold farmer’s perspective.

First, that farmer is already putting in a very long day. She gets up sometimes as early as 3:30 a.m. to start making the tortillas that fuel her big family, and crawls into bed exhausted sometime after 10 p.m. She tends to the farm animals and the plot of land, cooks at least two or three meals over the course of the day – from scratch, because a subsistence farmer isn’t buying packaged goods – and does household chores without the benefit of a washer/dryer or dishwasher, or even running water or electricity in some cases.

She almost certainly has no vehicle at her disposal, or money to buy gas even if she did. She probably lives in a very small community along a very bad piece of road – that’s where land is affordable, after all. She’s accustomed to hitching rides in the back of a more well-heeled neighbour’s truck when she needs to get somewhere, but the neighbours aren’t often going to be travelling to the larger centres where the big markets are in the exact window of time when the woman would need to arrive and depart, let alone have room for her and her produce.

It’s also difficult, if not downright impossible, for her to be away from the family home for long periods of time. The family counts on her to prepare their meals, and both they and the community count on her to be the unpaid caregiver for aging parents, grandchildren, children with physical or mental disabilities, or sick neighbours or relatives in need. In a land without daycare, old-age homes, or any kind of social supports, you’ve got to be available to help others so that they’ll be there for you when the time comes.

So while the international aid community may have the best of intentions in wanting to launch this woman into the paid economy for her own good, she isn’t interested. All she sees is more work added to a jam-packed day, and impossible logistics.

Nor would she ever be able to earn much even if she could overcome the challenges. Without the greenhouses, fertilizers and irrigation systems available to large commercial producers, she can’t grow the kind of flawless produce that picky consumers in Nicaragua and abroad demand. And with climate change dramatically affecting the predictability of Nicaragua’s rainy season, she can’t promise the kind of consistent quantity and delivery of product that the stores and markets demand.

She also can’t get a loan to help her get started with commercialization. You need equity to get a loan, and in all likelihood this woman isn’t named on the title of the land she and her husband farm. That problem is partly cultural, because traditionally, only men are listed on title in Nicaragua, and partly systemic in a country that has no functional land-title registry.

What kind of development effort might actually improve this woman’s life? A project to build her a higher pila – a big sink – so she could wash clothes and dishes without stooping. Support to build an efficient cooking stove with a chimney, sparing her family constant respiratory problems from smoke inhalation and reducing the time that the woman spends scavenging for firewood every day. The development of water sources and distribution systems so her family could install drip irrigation and grow produce year-round. A decent and accessible education for her children to prepare them for better-paid work.

When we start with the premise that women are the experts of their own lives, we find ways to help that make sense. It’s the wisdom of women on the ground in countries of less privilege that brings the concepts of solidarity to life in meaningful and effective ways.