The season for giving and the time for sharing…for some

I grew up in a household where the Christmas holidays were celebrated with great enthusiasm. From the massive tree that occupied a corner of the room to the assortment of wreaths, bows and snow frosted pine cones festooned around the home to the blinding light display out on the front lawn, the decorative spirit of the season was in full effect. My mother would even save every Christmas card we had ever received throughout the years and would use them to decorate the wall behind the tree. After a few years, there were more cards than wall.

Christmas was my parents’ favourite holiday. With five children, they strived to make it as memorable as they could. Christmas, as my parents felt, was for the kids. To that extent, no matter their financial situation, they not only made sure there were gifts under the tree for us, but always gave a donation of toys to the local Saint Vincent de Paul Society.

As we grew older, into adulthood and away from home during the holidays, my parents, along with other members of their community church, would spend the holiday season serving Christmas dinner to the less fortunate, and with no more children living at home, the donation of toys grew larger as well.

It is this spirit of giving that has infused my own character, my own worldview of what humanity truly means and the driving impetus behind my thirty years of volunteerism. Thus it was with great dismay that I, along with countless others, reacted to Conservative MP James Moore’s comments about child poverty on a Sunday news radio show, “Is it my job to feed my neighbour’s child? I don’t think so.”

As the murmurings of outrage began on social media, Moore tried to blunt it claiming he’d been misquoted and even that he’d been lied about. Unfortunately, the real liar was the dis-Honourable MP James Moore as the audio version of his comments that were posted online proved. By the end of the weekend, the outrage was deafening and by Monday, there was an apology on his website, as impersonal and insincere as you can get with a website posting and only there for a couple of days. Apology done, time to move on.

But the damage has been done. The collective feeling among many Canadians was that his comments were indicative of the current Conservative mindset. We had elected a mean, petty, hateful government devoid of compassion, kindness, and care. From their war on social programs that help the most marginalized in our society, to the gutting of ethics and advisory boards that regulate business practices in order to protect not just consumers but Canadians as a whole, to the demonizing of environment groups, we are becoming, as Stephen Harper promised, a Canada we no longer recognize.

Gandhi once said that the true measure of a society can be found in how it treats its weakest members, and as Hubert Humphrey, Former Vice-President of the United States, stated “the moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; those who are in the shadows of life; the sick, the needy and the handicapped.” Stephen Harper and the Conservative Party of Canada have failed the moral test of government.

With a child poverty rate of 18.5% in many parts of Canada, it may not be your job to feed your neighbour’s children, Mr. Moore, but it is your government’s moral imperative to do so.

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Australia’s unkindest cut of all

A splintering crack echoed around the world last week. It was the collective sound of hearts breaking. Australia now has the dubious distinction of joining Latvia, Nigeria, Afghanistan, Iran, India, and a few other backward societies, in banning gay marriage.

Australia’s conservative national government, under Prime Minister Tony Abbott, a vocal opponent of same-sex marriage, successfully pressured the High Court into overturning its recent legislation allowing it. The new regressive ruling effectively invalidated the 27 marriages that took place during the five brief days of its originally progressive stand. The Australian High Court’s about face came one day after India’s Supreme Court struck down a lower court decision to decriminalize homosexuality.

While such retarded thinking doesn’t surprise anyone about India, a country well known for its misogyny (gang rapes, honour killings, abandoned widows, child brides, female infanticide), archaic caste system, and widespread poverty  – a cesspool of questionable values under a paper-thin veneer of nouveau riche civility – Australia, one would think, would have held itself up to a higher standard.

If the decision to overturn the same-sex marriage legislation is possibly the result of their constitutional ambiguity regarding the separation of church and state, perhaps a more secular reasoning is required.

Researchers studying the effects of gay marriage have concluded that legalization isn’t just a matter of ethics and civil rights, but also has a significant financial impact for the country. Various scholars from the University of Massachusetts, UCLA’s Williams Institute, Princeton, and the Virginia Law Review (among others) have published papers touting the various economic benefits of same-sex marriage. From boosting government revenues through consumer spending to cutting reliance on social safety net programs (since marriage increases financial stability), the cumulative monetary influx is projected to be over a billion dollars. Add to that, a growing list of corporations that actively support LGBT rights, and the defining decision to legalize may not be in the hands of government at all but instead by a push from the business community.

As a highly developed and industrialized country, Australia has the world’s 12th largest economy and fifth-highest per capita income, beating out Canada, Denmark, and Sweden, all of which legalize same-sex marriage. Even the United States, number 10 on the income per capita list, is making significant inroads towards legalization, one state at a time. The only two other countries in the top ten with a high GDP that do not recognize gay marriage are Singapore and Qatar.

According to the United Nations’ Human Development Index, a standard means of measuring well-being based on such criteria as literacy, education, standards of living, quality of life and life expectancy, Australia ranked number two in the world. With such stellar accomplishments, Australia has a lot to be proud of … but not of this.

Those hearts breaking are not just in Australia … and not just for proponents of gay marriage. The sadness is global and is felt by anyone who believes in the value of human rights. Gay rights are human rights and the freedom to love who we want is the most human of them all.

Getting jacked by the Jackpine mine

The Conservative government’s recent decision to push ahead with Shell’s Jackpine oil sands expansion despite its own review that the project would have “significant and unmitigated environmental impacts” is alarmingly short-sighted.

The Jackpine mine is one of multiple oil sands projects that sit on Northern Alberta land where the Athabasca River runs through. The area is one of the most biodiverse wetlands in Canada, home to protected fisheries, species at risk, as well as treaty rights. It has long been the home and traditional hunting, fishing and trapping grounds of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nations (ACFN).

The expansion, which allows Shell to increase their bitumen production by 50% or 100,000 barrels per day, would require that almost 186,000 hectares (or 718 square miles) of wetlands be destroyed. The amount of land annihilated for this expansion is equivalent to the size of a small country. To give you an idea for comparison sake, the land mass of Singapore is 710 square miles, the Jackpine mine expansion is slightly larger.

Shell’s own assessment is that the area’s wetlands will be permanently lost or altered and the federal government’s review panel warned that the severe and irreversible damage would be so great that new protected areas should be created to compensate.

To that degree, Shell has been magnanimous in purchasing “about 730 hectares of former cattle pasture” in northwest Alberta to help compensate for the extra 8,500 lost hectares of wetland (for a total of 13,000 hectares used for mining and with no mention of the 185,872 hectares that will be impacted by it); a compensation package worth little more than 5%. In other words, for every one hundred hectares of biodiverse land taken for oil sands mining, Shell will compensate Canada five hectares of grassland. If you use the amount of hectares destroyed, then the compensation drops to less than half of one percent.

To be fair, Shell claims the Jackpine mine expansion will create 750 jobs and $17 billion in royalties and taxes. One wonders if the latter figure is based on the ignominious 10-15% Canadian corporate tax rate (*note* the personal income tax rate averages 25%). And 750 jobs, when there are almost 600,000 Canadians out of work (this not counting those who can no longer receive EI benefits and are now on social assistance or worse), represents an employment benefit of little more than one percent. Is this what Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq thought was acceptable when she decided that “the significant adverse environmental effects that the designated project is likely to cause are justified in the circumstances”?

Greenpeace’s position that the Harper government put the short term and negligible (*my words) interests of oil companies ahead of environmental protection and First Nations treaty rights is valid and worth noting. The Conservative party’s willingness to blindly pander to Big Oil is ethically myopic.

One tear amid a world in mourning

I was there, among the thousands that had gathered upon the lush green lawns of QueensPark to catch a glimpse of Nelson Mandela, newly released from his South African prison cell and here in Toronto for the first time. I had asked to leave work early that day so that I could experience what I knew to be a momentous occasion. Not just in a global sense but something far more personal. I wanted to see in person, this man, Mandela. A man who had endured some of the worst racism and discrimination imaginable, on a scale that made my own negative experiences around my race and colour seem small and insignificant. Yet he was able to transcend anger, hatred and resentment, in a way I had yet to achieve, to come to a place of forgiveness, to reach out to his oppressors, clasp their hand in friendship and unity and offer a new path, a new way of seeing the future. A future for the country he loved and a world that had yet to believe in him. And I climbed the tree I stood beneath, just so that I could see his face, less than one hundred meters away, to see if he truly could leave his bitterness behind. Because if he could, maybe, so could I.

I wish I could say that day changed me. That it melted away my own anger, hatred and resentment. But it didn’t. At the age of 23, my immaturity kept my heart bound. It is only now, 20 years later, that his words have taken a hold within me. There were many dark moments when my faith in humanity was sorely tested, but I would not and could not give myself up to despair. That way lays defeat and death.”  The world has lost a good and noble man. Sleep well, Madiba, you deserve this rest.