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Recovering backpacker, Cornwallite at heart, political enthusiast, catalyst, writer, husband, father, community volunteer, unabashedly proud Canadian. Every hyperlink connects to something related directly or thematically to that which is highlighted.

Friday 30 March 2012

Stephen Harper: It’s Dangerous to Ignore Our Veterans

I have an active interest in how veterans are treated.  My grandfather, Ed Carter-Edwards, served as an Airman during World War II and actually ended up spending time incarcerated at Buchenwald Concentration Camp.  To survive, my grandpa built thick mental firewalls to disconnect from the horrors that surrounded him; when he returned to Canada, the damage was so great that he spent some time institutionalized.  Upon his release, the advice he was given by his military overseers was to keep his experience to himself; to talk about something like that would make people uncomfortable and essentially make him un-hirable. 

The more I have learned about my grandfather’s War experience, the greater an understanding I have of how it shaped him and, as a consequence, my father and myself.  It was the undying devotion of his wife and family that helped him re-adapt to civilian life, though the scars are never far from the surface.  I go to great pains to teach my son that it is not okay to absolve oneself of social responsibility; when we do that, everyone suffers.  We owe it to ourselves to be supportive of others.  It’s yet one more reason why I got into politics and why I’m such a staunch advocate for building strong, collaborative individuals for a strong, functioning society. 

If we owe ourselves a supportive society, we are indebted to our men and women in uniform who sacrifice so much, on so many levels, to give us the security we need to foster that society.  History teaches us what happens when we break that vow.

There’s World War II – there’s also Vietnam.  It was a tough war fought on questionable ground, but the men and women who put their lives on the line did so because that was the personal commitment they had made to their country; to keep it safe or die trying.  The expectation therein is that the country has an obligation back to their soldiers, not to offer a lump-sum of cash and move along, but to help those vets every step of the way.  The US didn’t post-Vietnam – a study in 2007 determined that 1 in 4 homeless people in America were vets.

We now have 40,000 Canadian veterans who served the will of government through deployments to Afghanistan.  Some of them have been horrendously, physically injured.  Every last one of them has lived, over there, in a constant state of anxiety for what might come next.  Every last soldier bears the psychological scars that are the inevitable wounds of war. 

Canada’s military puts more than their lives on the line when they don our uniform; they risk their sanity, the well-being of their families and their future, should they survive their deployments (tricky thing; if the government doesn't declare war, it impacts a soldier's benefits).  This is more than any employer has the right to ask of an employee, but like teachers, soldiers don’t serve for themselves, but out of their belief in something greater.  They also cannot speak out on their own behalf – that is the level of commitment they make by signing up to serve.  Our obligations to them, to their families and to our collective future must equally be more than contractual – it must be moral.

I had assumed Canada has learned the lesson that has played out, time and time again, globally – you need to support your vets.  If you don’t, a couple of things happen; one, they can develop longer-term illnesses, physical and psychological, that impede their ability to function in society.  On worst-case scenarios, you see violence, suicide, or great men found drunk under park benches.  Post-traumatic stress disorder is but a fraction of this.  Here in Ontario, the McGuinty government recognized that firefighters can develop work-related illnesses that can be debilitating and made the right move to provide them with the help they deserve for the job they do, protecting the rest of us.  Harper's such a big supporter of the military, right?  Surely he would proactively do right by our men and women in uniform?

Turns out I was wrong.  The Harper government has moved away from ongoing support for disabled veterans in favour of a one-time lump sum payment.  They also put the responsibility to justify disability assistance on disabled soldiers, which is a bit like telling someone who was hit by a car it's up to them to prove they were injured.  Sure, this fits within their general modus operandi of “leave people to fend for themselves” following meagre cheques in the mail for child care instead of a plan and the gutting of Canada’s census.  It’s the standard Hard Right, Hawkish approach – you need to build in a certain “moral toughness” into people by forcing them to survive on their own – selection of the fittest in a social context.  It’s also so wrong as to be dangerous.

It just goes to show how completely ignorant, willfully or not, these people are of history and biology.  It wasn’t a lack of “moral toughness” that helped scale us back from a nuclear Holocaust in 1963 – in fact, it was the ingrained need to be the last man standing that landed us on the brink over those thirteen days.  “Toughness” isn’t the ability to fight back against whatever – what we want to foster is resiliency.  Instead of pursuing an evidence-based approach that looks at physical and psychological kinetics, the Tories are just going with their gut.

So, here’s a little gut-fact for you; anger is strongly correlated with obesity and heart disease.  Look at the bulldogs in the Harper cabinet – Dean del Mastro is a good example.  Look at Toronto’s Rob Ford.  Look at Stephen Harper himself.  These are angry, bitter men that aren’t connecting the dots between their waistlines and their cognitive positioning.  What this means, ultimately, that they can’t fix their problems with a one-off diet regimen; there is an entire lifestyle change required, one that will take the support of their peers and, more broadly, the society in which they exist.

Which brings us back to our 40,000 Canadian veterans of Afghanistan.  If the government plans to absolve their broader responsibility to the long-term well-being of these men and women, they are going to have problems reacclimatizing to civilian life.  Full stop.  That means broken families (and impacted children), dysfunction at work and potential long-term unemployment and the acting out socially of the symptoms of their PTSD, etc.  None of this will be their fault but they, along with society, will have no choice but to bear the consequences of Team Harper’s un-front negligence.  This helps our broader internal and external security goals none at all. 

Another thing to consider; Canada’s military brass, like director-levels everywhere, is largely made up of baby boomers.  When they retire, who will replace them?  Those same vets whose PTSD did not get adequate short-term treatment.  Almost 1 in 4 Canadian veterans of Afghanistan suffer from mental illnessThink about what that could mean for the future of Canadian military decisions for a second.

What’s maddening about this is that Stephen Harper gets the impact of mental illness; his biological grandfather suffered depression and likely committed suicide as a result.  There is an unfortunate social stigma around mental illness and suicide; if I read Harper right, his internal fears about self-control, exacerbated by his frustration with some control-removing Liberal pollicies like the NEP, have largely shaped his Machiavellian, firewall, control-freak nature and policy development.  His anger management issues fit that context perfectly.

Caught in a cycle of recrimination, Harper is perpetuating the mistakes of the past – mistakes we can ill afford at a time when the global economy is crumpling and very real international threats, including the rise of ethnic violence in Europe, are building.  Now is the very worst time to hide behind walls – from the top down, Canadians must be open with and supportive of each other.  Stephen Harper needs to set a positive example by seeking help to conquer his internal demons; it will take a lot of courage on his part, but as Prime Minister, it’s his job to pave the way.  There are precedents to this; there’s a reason why Australia is a leader in mental health promotion.

It takes guts to make oneself so utterly vulnerable, particularly when one has worked so hard to foster a political culture of vicious personal attacks.  True strength doesn’t come from without, however, but from within.  Harper can internally justify taking such a brave risk by saying he’s not doing it for himself; he’s not even doing for his Party.  He would publicly own up to his insecurities and seek help in remedying them on behalf of our soldiers.  Harper would also have mountains of evidence-based reasoning in his favour (some of which can be found in the left-hand column of this blog).  In so doing, he would then empower himself and society to face the elephant in the room and start doing right by our veterans.

After all, they do the same for us each and every day.

Thursday 29 March 2012

What Motivates Political Staff?

People who work in politics slug through long, hard hours under incredible strain, are periodically thrown under buses or referred to as “dead wood” – plus, they’re assumed to all be Machiavellian egoists.  Is the trade-off of access (money really not so much) and influence worth it all?  Not really, no.  You can only push yourself that hard if you feel like you are part of something larger than yourself. 

We can tell ourselves it’s about the money, power, whatever.  That’s an accepted line.  What political junkies get off on, however, isn’t what they get back – it’s what they contribute to.

I could explain this to you from an economic perspective, a societal perspective, even a biological perspective.  But I don’t need to.  There’s one phrase that sums it all up neatly:

The best leaders are the ones who empower us to do just that and never waver from the same vision that inspires their team, or their constituencies - together, we are more than the sum of our parts.

On Teachers, Sick Days and Education Reform

I have this unfortunate belief that, as a person in society, I have a responsibility to try and make the world a better place.  It's why I got into politics.  My overarching imperative has always been the same - bring people together in non-confrontational ways and encourage the kinds of discussions that lead to win-win solutions.  That's it.

I have never sat in on the collective-bargaining process, so it's a guess when I picture two groups locking horns, looking for what's best for their individual tribes.  In small "p" politics, which we each engage in every day, it's about positioning, allies, wedge issues and traction.  What gets lost in this type of interaction is the public good.

Every single teacher I know understands that our economy is in rough shape; they have an equal belief that we need strong education to nurture the right tools in our children so that they can make the world better.  Money is not an issue for these teachers - they want to live comfortably, like everyone, but what gets them out of bed in the morning is the lives they touch every day.  In fact, a huge part of what motivates them is the desire to ensure each of their kids has the chance, in turn, to live comfortably.  These teachers are willing to take pay freezes, even for four years, because they understand the economy is tight and there's no more money.  They do worry about new teachers, though, who might have a bit more trouble with bills. 

What matters most is that they have the resources they need to do the job well and the accommodations, like sick leave, that let them be 100% every day they're in front of a class.  The length of the school year could change; all that matters is that when they're not well, their students aren't negatively impacted.  It's really not that much to ask.  Since they are flexible and public-good oriented, there's a real opportunity here for creative structural reform, which is long overdue anyway - we can't keep relying on a 20th or in some cases, 19th Century model of education in a 21st Century reality.

I hope that the collective bargaining process starts with the end goal in mind - strong, healthy and accommodated educators for a strong, accommodating education system helping our youth become the best they can be.  We desperately want our youth to have the opportunities that elude some of us now; therefore, we need our teachers at their best.

Again, for everyone - it's not about "what's in it for me" but rather, how can we move forward together.

From a Teacher on Why Sick Days are Important

It's a well-written piece.  While there is a lot of attention paid to teachers and their compensation, the key thing is - they educate our youth.  You don't incite stellar performance by bullying or impeding your workforce, which is doubly true when it comes to teachers.  They're not out to squander public dollars; like politics, the only real reason to get into teaching and take the hate that goes with the position is because you believe in what we do.

We need to follow the model teacers set, not disregard them.

From Warren Kinsella's site:

Mike Foulds says:
With all due respect, if your best source to form your opinion is your buddy’s wife’s experience you may not be fully informed.
I don’t complain about my salary. I’m not complaining about my pension. I’m not complaining about my sick days.
When two sides are negotiating and one side says “We’ll meet to negotiate but if you don’t like what we are offering we will force it upon you” that is bullying – pure and simple.
As to the details of my renumeration: you probably have made up your mind but I’ll give it a shot:
1) 20 sick days a year is based on the fact that I work directly with as many as 90 adolescents a day, indirectly with 1000 adolescents, and they are germ factories whose parents send them to school with colds and flus because they have no other choice. That works out to 2 sick days a month of work for a teacher. If you are a parent you have probably experienced having a cold or flu while trying to parent – multiply that by the number of kids I am responsible for as a teacher. The gratuity is for us not using as many sick days as we are given. It is paid out at .50 on the dollar for a max of 200 days. That means we are saving the province money every year by not using them and they pay us back at .50 on the dollar. It generally equals what a business person with the same credentials and experience would receive as a severance package upon retirement. We do not have short term disability – we have a sick day bank.
2) I don’t have a choice about the school year. It is set by the boards and the province. I do not want Christmas off – I am not Christian. I am forced to have it off. It is not a workers fault when their business is closed that they can’t work. I might prefer a longer work year and the added pay to work those extra hours. Many new teachers are desperate to teach summer school to make up for their meagre entry level pay.
3) I’ve worked in manufacturing – I made more, had a pension I didn’t pay half towards, had equivalent benefits, could take my vacation when I chose, and didn’t get saddled with student debt to be able to do it – I worked more hours was the only negative. So please spare me that comparison- I don’t need to ask my buddy whose wife worked in manufacturing to understand it.
And my last point: if your house burns down you don’t go and burn your neighbours house down so you’re equal, if I have my wallet stolen I don’t call the cops and ask them to take yours too- this is not a race to the bottom. I campaign hard for fellow workers in this province to get the benefits and working conditions they deserve. My pension, wages, and sick days did not cause this crisis. Why should I lose them to cure it? Attack the culprits who are raking in the money not your fellow workers.
Dalton and Duncan have decided to paint public sector unions as the bad guys and ask us to bear the brunt of the mistakes made by corporations and banks in 2007-08. We didn’t cause it and neither did you.
Best regards.

Wednesday 28 March 2012

Good On Lisa Raitt: Addressing Occupational Mental Health and Safety

"Too often people just suffer in silence. As Minister of Labour, I'm looking at a range of policy and program options to better address mental health challenges in the workplace."

  - Lisa Raitt, Canada's Minister of Labour

It's happening.  Slowly, agonizingly so, but as the idea of cognitive labour and mental fitness starts to gain hold, it's gaining momentum.

I have predicted elsewhere that a broad-based move towards mental fitness promotion, particularly as it relates to work and work performance, is on its way.  It has to be; the nature of labour (not to mention society) is shifting from repetitive, physical and quantity-based to creative, cognitive and innovation-based.  Just as work design at the end of the 19th Century impeded production by fostering sickness and injury, today's work design and motivational tools actually impede the type of production the market is looking for.  We need a proactive mental fitness strategy if we're to keep moving forward.

The Industrial Revolution fostered the labour movement, which in turn sparked the introduction of workplace health and safety and benefits like health care and sick leave.  It was good business, but it also had the advantage of improving productivity and employee satisfaction.  The Knowledge Economy similarly relies on cognitive function in new, demanding ways - to help people realize their full potential (providing greater returns for their employers), we have to start accommodating mental health.  There's a reason why we have a recognized mental health crisis now, when cognitive labour is in demand.

There's only one way forward and that's to break down the stigmatic silos around mental health, which in turn means re-evaluating the way we understand what the mind is and how our biology, environments and accommodations impact mental health/cognitive function.  It will be a challenging process that will make many feel uncomfortable, but it's the right thing to do from a policy, performance and moral perspective.

This goes beyond personal interest, beyond partisan interest, beyond mandate and even the limitations of ability we set for ourselves to this notion of something called the public good.

Lisa Raitt sums it up nicely: "Let's think beyond duty. Each and every one of us has a role to play in creating workplaces where diversity and special needs are accommodated and respected."

Kudos to people like Lisa Raitt, but also Don Drummond, Michael Kirby, Kevin Flynn, Christine Elliot, Gerrard Kennedy and the countless people who work and live with mental health challenges every day. 

Let's move forward together; more importantly, let's make sure we leave no one behind.

Am I hopeful?  Certainly - but that's because I understand the way cognition produces hope.

We're finally connecting the dots between stigma, mental health, health care, social growth, diversity, education, service delivery and innovation.  It's a good time to be alive.

UPDATE:  It should come as no surprise that Lisa Raitt has personal experience with mental illness.  This isn't an ooh-ahh, we must look at her differently thing; if she had diabetes, or developed cancer, or caught a cold, we wouldn't stigmatize her.  Nor should we now.

Sidebar - there's a funny thing where people advocate for causes that they know - I sit on the Board of Directors for an organization that helps children who are deaf or hard-of-hearing and the vast majority of my co-Board Members have deaf family members.  As mental health/mental fitness becomes more normalized, I think we're going to see an increase in proactive advocacy, which is how it should be.

Tuesday 27 March 2012

Knowledge Going Viral

   - Cobb, Inception

There is knowledge out there - information that can broadly inform decisions at every level of society in an integrated way that has never been done before.  Not everyone wants the minutae of this information shared; it can be costly to provide, even more costly too lose control over.  In the short term.

In the long-term, we all gain from an informed society that utilizes evidence-based planning and learns from the past, both mistake and successes, in planning the future. 

It doesn't really matter what individuals think, now.  The technology, access and will to spread the wealth exists.  You can't stop the signal.

Politics: The Snake Eating Its Tail (UPDATED)

One of my favourite visual metaphors is the Ouroboros, the snake eating its tail

It's such a perfect image, reflecting the cyclical nature of, well everything (economics - boom and bust; political parties -  boom and bust; the building and decaying of the middle class, of the ideological spectrum, of openness and xenophobia, they all go in circles).  We think in spectrums, but our society functions more like a wheel, or perhaps a gear.

The Ouroboros also demonstrates how new things don't replace old ones, but rather emerge from them.  It's social evolution, creative destruction, whatever you want to call it - the old begets the new which cannibalizes the old and the cycle repeats.

You can see why I love the picture above, probably snapped by someone's iPhone from the gallery.

And the cycle continues...

I note the "and the left" part.  For those looking for ground to stand on, I wouldn't recommend careening too far after that pendulum, 'cause it's just going to swing right back.  The best place to be, as always, is smack in the centre.

Moving Forward: The Ontario 2012 Budget

My arm is still on the mend after I was run into by a car, so I can't give you a lengthy version of my take on the Budget or how we can move forward (together, btw).

The quote above neatly sums it up, however, along with these previous posts:

  - "Separate but equal" is not a good model for efficiency, especially when the tech and knowledge  exists to benefit everyone in shared settings as often as is possible.

Don Drummond summed it up nicely:

Monday 26 March 2012

Pedestrian Impact: A Tale of Two Drivers

The Negligent Driver

I haven’t been on my blog or the Internet in general over the last few days.  Here’s why: on Friday, March 23rd at 2:40pm, I was hit by a car at the corner of Wilson Heights and Sheppard; I did walk away, but my blackberry wasn’t so lucky. 

Now for the details.

At about 14:40, I was waiting on the North-East corner of the intersection for the bus to Downsview subway station.  After waiting for quite a while, I decided it would probably be quicker to walk to Downsview; when I had the light, I started walking South.  As I reached the third lane, I saw the bus finally pulling down the road to my left, East; still having about 20 seconds on the walk sign, I turned around to head back.  It was then that I got ploughed into by a minivan, taking the full force of the impact on my left side.

Two things stood in my favour; one, the driver hadn’t had much time to accelerate between waiting at the light on the North side of Wilson Heights for a left turn onto Sheppard; by the severity of the impact, I’d guess he’d hit about 40kph when he struck me.  The second thing going for me was that I’m pretty nimble; I hit the hood and bounced off, but managed to land on my feet.  That’s not to say it didn’t hurt, a lot, or that the impact didn’t leave me shaken.  If it had been someone else, though, it could have been a lot worse – a head hitting the ground at that speed could have led to a concussion and some nasty wounds.

When a driver hits a pedestrian, as I understand it, there are certain legal obligations on their side; to call the police, to provide insurance information, etc.  The guy that hit me did none of those things.  In fact, he didn’t even get out of his car.  I had to walk around to the driver’s side myself.  Sitting there from his seat, he looked at me and asked, “Are you okay?”  I responded that no, I wasn’t; I’d just been hit by a car and it hurt. 

And that was it.  I had to push him to get his name – first is Ryan – and a phone number.  Ryan looked to be late-30s to early 40s, by no means a young kid.   He scrambled to find a paper, ripping a piece off of a MacDonald’s wrapper.  He scrawled his name and number in such a way I had to get him to repeat it.  I wrote down his license plate, too, and then said I was late in meeting my wife and that I would be in touch.  He shrugged and drove off.

Never once did he give the slightest hint of remorse; he never apologized, did not fulfill his legal obligations and didn’t seem to even recognize any moral obligations on his part.  I called 911 when I got to the school where my wife works, then went to the nearest Emergency Room.  The officer who took my report made it clear who was at fault – the driver.  He encouraged me to look into insurance for sustained injuries.  He also made it clear that the driver had neglected his responsibilities.  From there, the officer went to the address connected to the license plate.  Without going into too much detail, Ryan’s dad answered the door and initially refused to cooperate with the officer.  The dad is a lawyer with five cars in the driveway.  By the time the officer got back to me, it was clear he’d been given a lawyer’s talk and was suggesting I settle without going through insurance.  He said the father had not been helpful at first because “he was trying to protect his son” but everyone came around in the end.  

A bit later, I got a call from Ryan, saying that he guessed he had to “settle up” and write a cheque to cover my damaged phone, which had been on my hip and taken the full brunt of the impact.  Settle up – like it was a business deal.  Again, no apology, no hint of responsibility on his part.  He wanted to make sure his end was covered; I was simply an inconvenience to his Friday evening.

From a legal perspective, I didn’t find some way to call from the accident scene, I didn’t go out and find witnesses (nor did anyone come volunteer at the time), etc.  A good lawyer, which I’m sure Ryan’s dad is, can probably find all kinds of ways to make sure his son walks away from this incident without a legal scratch.  Meanwhile, my shoulder aches, my mobility is limited and, again, I was hit by a car; the body and mind have a lot going on in the minutes and hours after such an impact.  If you’re really hurt, as I was, you’re focus is not on building a case.  For the injury itself, there’s no telling what the long-term damage might be.  Ryan gets to walk away – I don’t.  I can’t pick up my son now, do the dishes, even put on a shirt without help or some sharp pain. 

The Responsible Driver

The ironic thing is, I myself was witness to something similar back in the fall.  On a cold, blustery day, I was at the intersection of Dufferin and Overbrook, North-West corner, waiting for the light to cross East.  A man, hunched against the cold, shoulders hunched and head down, was muttering to himself.  This fella had ear phones on and was oblivious to the world.  He passed beside me, to my right – and walked out into a moving car.  Steve, the guy who was hit, fell into the hood then went down onto his knee in the road.

From a bystander’s perspective, I had an impartial view of the situation; the driver had likely looked both ways, missed Steve as he walked behind an obstruction (me) on his way to the road.  Steve had his head down, music playing and had not even noticed the car.

At the moment, though, none of that mattered.  The driver immediately got out of his car and came over.  “I’m so sorry, I didn’t see you!” he said.  “Are you okay?”  He helped Steve get to the corner, drove around the block to come back and park and eventually drove Steve to a hospital.  As a witness, I took it upon myself to give them both my contact information; I eventually received a call from the officer who took the report.  While I have no idea what happened from a justice perspective, what matters from a moral perspective is that the driver did everything he was supposed to and more; as a private citizen witnessing the event, I took it as my civic duty to provide assistance to both parties ensuring the facts were understood and carried out.

Ethics Matter

I have respect for the driver that hit Steve; an error happened and regardless of culpability, that fellow made the effort to do what it right.  That will work in his favour; Steve got the treatment he needed; I was happy to contribute in an unbiased fashion.  Looking for ways to support each other, even in adversity, is what moving forward together looks like.

I have zero respect for Ryan; his behaviour shows a real immaturity that makes me question not just him, but his family and the environment in which he was raised.  The dad’s initial refusal to cooperate “to protect his son” when his son had hit another person with an SUV told me pretty much all I needed to know.  The sad part is, I really think Ryan will see his eventual charges as being unfair, because he doesn’t understand what moral responsibility means.  If he’d shown some attention to others in the first place, the whole situation could have been avoided.

Little stories like both these tales play out every day, all across society.  It’s why the 99% are bitter at the 1% and why the 1% feel that the plight of the 99% has nothing to do with them.  The more we can educate the Ryans of the world to take care a bit beyond themselves, the better off – and less vindictive – we’ll all be.