Thursday, July 31, 2014

Search for the truth on sex work

So many untruths are being bandied about as the Tories try to railroad uncertain Canadians into accepting new prostitution laws that will criminalize even more of the industry.
    I know from my own circle of friends - at least the ones who aren't sex workers themselves - that it's almost like people are frightened to rethink what they think they know about the sex industry. Yet there is so much exceptional research out there that challenges this fuzzy belief that to be a sex worker is to be a helpless, trafficked victim dragged into the business by a man who will beat you if you don't comply.
    But surely the public's instinct to want to avoid thinking about an industry they find unpleasant hardly outweighs the rights of tens of thousands of other Canadians to a safer workplace and some respect and dignity. In other words, get informed, people.
    And here are some excellent research papers and relevant info to help get you started:

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Lest we forget: A tally of police shootings and taser deaths of Canadians with severe mental illness

     I am haunted by the 2013 police shooting death of Sammy Yatim, and the words of Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair this month that the recommendations that came out of the investigation of the 18-year-old's death won't be "left to gather dust." If only we could believe that.
     Blair has said versions of that before, in past years when Toronto police killed some other person with mental illness. The case of Sammy Yatim was particularly tragic, what with him being a young man alone on an empty streetcar when he was first shot nine times by the police and then tasered as he lay dying on the floor.  (See the enhanced YouTube video of his death taken by a passerby here.)
    But he's hardly the only sad story.
     One night last week I went looking for every archived news story I could find on fatal police shootings of people with mental illness, and found at least 36 such shootings in Canada since 1988.
     And at least half of the 21 known deaths of Canadians after being tasered by police have also involved people with mental illness. (Must be careful with the wording here, as Taser International continues to assert that tasers don't kill people, just tasers when combined with cocaine use or that new-fangled thing we call "excited delirium," which I imagine we would all experience when about to be shot or tasered by police).
    There's nothing wrong with the recommendations issued in the wake of Yatim's death.  But when you go back through most of the news coverage of those other 36 shootings, you will note a striking similarity. And yet, ill people who desperately need help continue to be killed instead.
     While the Yatim case is a clear exception, I don't mean to lay all the blame at the door of police officers. They've got tough jobs at the best of times, and our country's decision in the 1980s to cut loose people with serious mental illness is clearly the root of much of the problem. We have left police to manage those with severe and chronic illnesses, which has to be just about as nutty of a societal approach as any you'd see.
     But here we are, with no sign that we're serious as a society about doing anything to correct that terrible decision. And people  - well, men, more specifically, as only one death has involved a woman - continue to die at the hands of police instead of receiving the medical and community help they so urgently need. A man gets shot, an angst-ridden community who briefly cares wrings its hands, a report is issued recommending this, that and the other, and soon enough it's all forgotten until the next shooting. In fact, another man with mental illness has already been killed by Montreal police in the year since Sammy Yatim died.
     There is power in speaking a name. So here they are, by name, to be remembered as those whose deaths once led to similar recommendations as those for teenager Sammy Yatim. Some were implemented, others weren't. And the country rolled on, each shooting treated like a surprising one-off instead of the latest indicator of a disastrously failed mental-health system.
    Lest we forget.

Fatally shot by police:
2014 – Alain Magloire, Montreal
2013 – Michael McIsaac, Durham
2013 – Sammy Yatim, Toronto
2013 – Steve Mesic, Hamilton
2012 - Farshad Mohammadi, Montreal
2012 - Michael Eligon, Toronto
2011- Mario Hamel, Toronto
2010 – Reyal Jardine, Toronto
2010 - Sylvia Klbingaitis, Toronto (sole woman)
2007 – Paul Boyd, Vancouver
2009 – Jeff Hughes, Vancouver
2008  - Byron Debassige, Toronto
2007 – Unnamed man, Vancouver
2004 – Martin Ostopovich, Spruce Grove 
2004 – Joe Pagnotta, Langford
2004 – O’Brien Christopher-Reid, Toronto
2004  - Magencia Camaso, Saanich
2004 – Antonio Bellon, Toronto
2003 – Unnamed man, Vancouver
2000 = Darryl Power, Newfoundland
2000 – Norman Reid, Newfoundland
1997 – Edmund Yu, Toronto
2000 - Frank Hutterer, Ottawa 
2000 - Otto Vass, Vancouver
1999 – Unnamed man, Langley
1999 - Unnamed man, Vancouver
1997 – Thomas Alcorn, Vancouver
1997 – Unnamed man, Vancouver
1996 – Charles Albert Wilson, Vancouver
1996 – Wayne Williams, Toronto
1996 – Tommy Barnett, Toronto
1994 – Albert Moses, Toronto
1992 – Dominic Sabatino, Toronto
1988 – Lester Donaldson, Toronto

Fatally tasered and confirmed to have a mental illness:
2013 – Donald Menard, Montreal
2010 – Aron Firman, Collingwood, Ont
2007 – Howard Hyde, Nova Scotia
2007 – Claudio Castagnetta, Quebec City
2006 – Jason Doan, Red Deer
2005 – Kevin Geldart, Moncton
2005 – Alesandro Fiacco, Edmonton
2004 – Samuel Truscott, Kingston
2004 – Ronald Perry, Edmonton
2004 – Roman Andreichikov, Vancouver
2004 – Robert Bagnell, Vancouver (opinions divided as to whether he had mental health issues)

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

May your life be simple and your reservoir full

   This is how life almost off the grid can affect you in a mere 13 days: It’s thundering rain this afternoon at our borrowed beach house in the Discovery Islands, and my first thought when it started to fall was, “This will be good for the reservoir.”
    Paul and I are currently in the waning days of an amazing housesit on North Rendezvous Island, at a property that is normally a little summer resort for getting away from it all but at the moment is totally ours. I can hardly believe our good fortune to have all of Solstua West to ourselves. I would be indebted for life to owners Pete and Karen Tonseth for the opportunity had I not been already indebted for life to Karen for picking up me and a Honduran dog in Vancouver after we got stuck there in April with no way home to Victoria.
    But back to the edge of the grid. A home like this – solar electricity only, water an ongoing concern in the summer months, no grocery stores for miles and even then only if you can drive a boat there (which we don’t know how to do) – quickly gets you thinking differently about things.
    For me there’s usually never enough sun, but these past couple of weeks I’ve found myself dwelling on the consequences of too many hot days in a row. And I’m feeling genuine pleasure at the sound of the rain pounding down all around us right now, imagining the depleted reservoir filled to the brim again and the dry gardens and lawns grateful for a good soak.
    I’ve been stung by two bees since being here, which also brought home to me another aspect of life on a remote island: No easy access to medical care. I’m not allergic to bees but they say that can all change with the wrong bee. So I stood there for a few minutes after the first sting just to see if I’d just met my wrong bee, and thinking that if my time really had come, at least I’d be dying in brilliant sunshine on a lovely island. But it turned out to be just another bee sting.
    Before we left for the island, we packed provisions like we were headed for wilderness. I guess in a way we were; the nearest corner store is a 40-minute boat ride away on Quadra Island, and as mentioned, we don’t know how to operate a boat. (Or manoeuvre the intimidating Surge Narrows.) But it’s wilderness with a super-nice gas stove, on-demand hot water and solar-powered fridge and freezer. So I can’t complain, even if I did eat through my treasured bag of raisins way sooner than I’d intended and at this very moment would kill for a big restaurant meal of fish and chips.
    We have no TV here, but I knew I wouldn’t miss that much. It’s just so disappointing, all those channels and nothing interesting. I didn’t bring anywhere near enough books, but happily there’s a place called the Bluff Cabin where Solstua West guests can hang out, and it’s full of books. And there are two kayaks and about a million miles of water to explore.
    I’m in my thoughts more here, probably because there just aren't the same number of distractions. I’m an introvert who loves solitude, but now there are so few people around that I feel a bit excited when I see someone pulling up at the dock.
     It has been a restorative, peaceful time – a gift that has brought me back to this beautiful country of mine after more than two years of living in another country that I still miss a great deal. Life can be wonderfully simple, with space for reflecting on the light left on unnecessarily, the overly long shower, too much time on-line. I’m here with my most hated form of weather falling all around me, and I'm thinking: Let it come. 

Saturday, July 12, 2014

CUPE Ontario has the right idea: Sex work regs ought to be about workers' rights

    CUPE is my new favourite union now that CUPE Ontario president Fred Hahn has written a piece in the National Post saying the thing Canadians should be aiming for in laws and regulations around the adult, consensual sex industry is a safer workplace for sex workers.
    So true. The violence and vulnerability that Justice Minister Peter McKay keeps going on about as he tries to push through the flawed and dangerous Bill C-36 exists primarily because sex workers don't enjoy any of the standard workplace protections that the rest of the country's workers rely on. When you're a sex worker, there is no workers' compensation board, no contract law, no employment standards. You can't even go to the police with a complaint without wondering if you might end up getting charged yourself, and that will be doubly true if Bill C-36 is passed.
    Were the bill to become law, sex workers will have to be even more secretive in their work to protect their clients from being charged. The potential for danger will increase even more as they move deeper into the shadows. I don't know if McKay really is naive enough to believe that criminalizing the entire industry will wipe it out, but the rest of us surely know that's not true.
    CUPE has been the most progressive union in Canada for some time when it comes to viewing sex work as a workers' rights issue. Hats off to them for a brave stance, when so many other unions are still sitting back in silence.
    Unions could play a powerful role in shaping a safer future for Canada's tens of thousands of sex workers. They have lost their relevance on many fronts, but here's an area where they're really needed. I look forward to the day when the Canadian Labour Congress, the BC Federation of Labour and other union voices are joining CUPE Ontario in making the support of sex workers' rights and work safety a priority.

Tuesday, July 08, 2014

Federal hearings finally put a spotlight on empowered sex workers

  While I'm offended as a Canadian that the future of my country is in the hands of people as uninformed, close-minded and unworldly as Justice Minister Peter MacKay, it's a wonderful thing to see Canada's sex workers stepping up to speak their own truths to combat all the lies that are being told about them right now.
     I saw footage from the justice committee meetings in Ottawa this week as the debate around Bill C-36 gets underway. I totally love seeing empowered and passionate sex workers putting it all on the line to challenge the Conservatives' proposed new anti-prostitution law, which would take the ineffective and damaging laws that we've had for the last 147 years and make them considerably worse.
    Based on the untruth that all sex work is violent, coercive and sick and that all sex workers are victims, Bill C-36 is so far from so many sex workers' realities that the generally low-profile community just can't take it anymore. For those of us cheering them on from the sidelines, it's a beautiful thing to see them fighting back with such passion.
     I couldn't have imagined that there would be an upside to Bill C-36, but maybe this is it: That sex workers who have mostly just gritted their teeth and coped with Canada's flawed laws up to this point are now so incensed by MacKay and his team of yes-ministers that they are organizing, speaking up, and refusing to be shut out of other people's discussions about them.
    Two representatives of PEERS Victoria will be presenting to the justice committee on Thursday. They are the kind of people whose knowledge is deep and wise, and I can only hope the committee has its ears on when the PEERS team talks about all the things that are wrong with laws that criminalize everything about sex work.
    This issue is about workers' rights, and in many ways women's rights as well given that the majority of sex workers and brothel managers are women. On that point, MacKay should have been ruled out right off the hop as the man for the job. A man who places all women in the kitchen packing the children's lunches (and all men moulding and shaping the minds of the next generation) simply shouldn't be involved in making life-endangering changes to a woman-dominated industry he knows so little about.
    MacKay was on the news this week saying the goal of the bill is to eradicate sex work. What it will actually do is drive the industry further underground, where the "victims" that MacKay seems so worried about can continue to go unsupported, unseen and vilified in even more potentially dangerous situations.
     More and more, sex workers are speaking out to say, hey, buddy, you don't know anything about our lives. Like all leaders in the early days of a social revolution, they risk so much personally to be "out" as sex workers, which adds even more to the significance of seeing them in the justice committee hearings, bravely and calmly telling it like it is.
      There are always going to be people who don't want to hear anything that challenges their conviction that sex workers are helpless victims and their clients, perverted pigs. But for those who suspect there's more to the story, this week's hearings just might be a powerful public-relations tool for real change and respect for sex workers. 
      Finally, Canadian sex workers have a national platform. So far, they're looking great. Hope you know what you've started, Mr. MacKay.

Thursday, July 03, 2014

In search of a truly portable cellphone

I wouldn't say I rail against all of life’s constraints, but the lack of control for customers of cellphone service in Canada has always made me crazy.
    This, then, is the story of one woman with minimal knowledge of cellphone technology on an all-consuming mission: To find an affordable phone that could be taken almost anywhere in the world with just the change of a SIM card.
    The term for this magical thing is an “unlocked world phone,” a phrase I’d never heard when the search got underway in May, but one which I’d become very familiar with in the research-filled weeks that followed. There’s nothing particularly exotic about an unlocked world phone, and in many countries they are a snap to buy. But this is Canada, and our cellphone companies work very hard to stop us from doing that.
    But I’m getting ahead of myself. Back in those halcyon days two months ago, I had no idea of any of that. I had come back from Honduras with yet another cellphone I could no longer use, and discovered that my old Canadian cellphone I’d left behind was now a defunct model and also of no use. Feeling certain that for the rest of my years I will want to travel, I got thinking about a cellphone that could travel with me and just be adapted to different countries’ phone services.
    I had to do a lot of Google searches to figure out what I was even looking for. I’d heard that some cellphones could be unlocked so you could exchange the SIM cards, freeing the phone owner to buy cards in different countries and thus have local phone service without issue. I soon discovered that I’d probably be buying an unlocked phone on-line, because all the normal channels for buying such things were mysteriously unavailable. It lent a bit of a black-market feel to the whole thing.
    Eventually, I also learned that it isn’t just the unlocking that counts, you need a “world phone” – one set up to be compatible with global protocols for second-generation cellphones (I know. Whoever expects to have to utter a sentence like that?). You need a GSM phone: Global System for Mobile Communications.
Armed with these two essential pieces of information, I found a decent-looking refurbished, unlocked world phone – a Samsung Galaxy – on the Future Shop web site.
     They don’t sell any new unlocked phones, only refurbished ones, which I found pretty strange. But by this point I was finding everything strange, so I went ahead and ordered it for $119. It came and I had to send it back because the battery wasn’t charging, but the second one seems OK. (There are many more unlocked world phone-ordering options on the web, so Future Shop is not an integral part of the plan.)
    Then came the research to figure out who I was going to buy services from. More than anything, I didn’t want a contract, because I wanted to be able to come and go from Canada without anybody slapping me with a penalty. It's not like you can ask any of the dozen cellphone companies about any of this, because they've all got an agenda: Tying you and your sparkly new phone into a contract with their network for as long as possible. 
    I first looked at pay-as-you-go, but it’s not as cheap as you think when you work it out. So then I looked at month-to-month. I also had to pay attention to which companies had protocols compatible with the phone (the GSM thing). I ended up with Koodo for $39 a month, which gives me 300 daytime minutes, free evenings and weekends, and long distance in Canada. I can cancel with 30 days’ notice, at least in theory.
    I got the SIM card at Wal-Mart last week, from two nice young Wal-Mart clerks who swore to me that they were not receiving any commission for the activation and were truly giving me good advice about Koodo not having contracts. I am surprised by my own capacity to despise the cellphone companies for their damn contracts and costly packages and general lording it over us, but I will give Koodo a try.
    I started using the phone four days ago, and it seems to be working just fine. I guess the next test will be when I go to some other country and try to buy a SIM from there that works with the phone. Helpful tip: The network compatibility number is on the phone under the battery, and you can find web sites where you search on it to learn if a specific network is available to you and whether the phone’s been stolen. (Mine wasn’t. Phew.)
    Anyway, one day soon I expect to test this whole world-phone business in some exotic land. Maybe I’ll now truly have something I can take with me for use as a local phone. I feel hopeful but doubtful at the same time, as if there’s still one or two wrinkles that I didn’t know to account for and they're going to trip me up in the end.
    But hey, nothing ventured. 

Wednesday, July 02, 2014

The Angelitos Felices gang gets a great new home

  A miracle happened yesterday in our old town of Copan Ruinas: The 13 remaining children at Angelitos Felices orphanage were relocated to a much better organized, resourced and caring facility, Casita Copan. 
    It's a dream come true for Emily Monroe, the young Pennsylvanian who has worked so hard to realize this dream. She met the children of Angelitos in 2010 and was so disturbed by the conditions that they lived in, she set out to open a new children's home using a model that ultimately strives to place children back into their families and support the whole family. 
    She was the one who introduced us to the children in early 2012, shortly after we arrived. We went on to raise almost $30,000 through friends and family back home to improve living conditions and day-to-day supports for the Angelitos children at the home, but the dream was always to see those kids moved over to Emily's new place once she launched it that fall. 
    As we were getting ready to leave Honduras this spring, Emily had no idea if the children would ever be relocated to Casita Copan, despite her many efforts. But on the very day we left the country, April 1, the branch of Honduran government responsible for abandoned children (but not responsible in any way that includes financial support) finally acted and told Emily that Angelitos would be closed at the end of May and the children moved over to Casita. 
    Emily, her staff and supporters scrambled like crazy to get ready, but the date came and went without action. That happened several more times.
    But on July 1, it happened for real - admittedly with more initial trauma than anyone would want for the Angelitos kids, who arrived crying and confused in the control of armed police. But they have known Emily for years and have many friends at Casita Copan, and word is they were already calm and happy by the time evening came and they were in their new pyjamas (another first for them) and ready for bed. 
    Casita Copan is going to need lots of ongoing support to be able to manage the big jump in operating costs that these additional children will require. I hope the many people who supported these kids while we were in Honduras will also support them now that they've relocated to their new home. Paul and I raised $4,200 for Emily at our fundraiser June 5 in Victoria, and will be looking for other ways to support her great work.
    Big congratulations, Emily! You're one tough cookie, and doing wonderful work. We're honoured to be supporting you in all of this.