Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Link of the day: Pacific Islanders campaigning for a stop to Alberta Tar Sands expansion: they are on the spot, and hoping to meet the Canadian Prime Minister, to remind him of his promises

A group of Pacific Islanders who are among the first, and most impacted people by the effects of climate change, are at present visiting the Alberta Tar Sands as part of a Raise a Paddle campaign to bring attention to climate change. Operating with the support of the web site 350.org, these people have expressed maximum dismay at the sight of the Tar Sands, and are calling on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to keep to the promises he made during the Paris climate conference, when his government insisted that they would lead the way to a 1.5 per cent increase in CO2 emissions, as the first step to bringing man-made climate change under control. They  ask him to reverse his agreement to the expansion of the Tar Sands.  They ask all Canadians to bring this to the Prime Minister’s attention.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

My Log 543 April 22 2017: A new book about six stalwart NDP women whose achievements for us all deserve to be more widely recognized

First of all, to those readers who have hung in here over the years reading this blog, I want to express my apologies for having allowed more than six weeks to elapse without a word from me. I have been silenced by a number of medical mishaps that have taken me to both a French-language and English-language hospital in Montreal, where each of my two serious complaints appears to have been resolved satisfactorily. During this rather testing experience,  I have heard some remarkable testimony to Canada’s universal health care system.  This morning I was talking to a Francophone woman who was waiting for her husband to return  from a procedure that I had undergone, one comprising radiation in preparation for a whole-body  photographic examination. After we talked of the severity of such treatments, she said, “Never mind, we are so lucky to have these things available…. and,” she added, “we don’t have to pay for it.”  We then agreed how much superior our system is, in every respect, from that in the United States, which, having made a minor step forward with the so-called Obamacare, seems to be in the process of demolishing it in such a way as to leave many millions of people without any health insurance of any kind.

Book review
Working for the Common Good, Canadian Women Politicians, by Madelyn Holmes, published by Fernwood Publishing of Halifax and Winnipeg, 171 pps, $20

This is certainly an appropriate way to introduce the subject of today’s blog, a just-published book by an American-born Montrealer, Madelyn Holmes, in praise of six women politicians who have performed prodigies for Canada ever since 1921 when Agnes Macphail became the first woman ever elected to the Canadian Parliament, on the Progressive ticket, which later morphed into the Commonwealth Cooperative Federation (CCF), the forerunner of the New Democratic Party (NDP). It was the CCF, as the government of Saskatchewan, that first introduced the practice of socialized medicine to Canada (indeed to North America), and it was done under the leadership of Tommy Douglas, who (in case anyone has forgotten) was chosen by a CBC television audience as “the greatest Canadian ever.”
I am devoting this blog to this subject because, although the NDP occasionally irritates and frustrates me, nevertheless I have always considered that its very existence as a democratic socialist party is one of the determinants of the difference between Canada and the United States.  At least in Canada, the ideas of socialism have been kept alive in our political discourse, whereas in the United States the very word socialism has become terrifying for so many of their electors.
I have found in reading Ms. Holmes book that I have indeed tended to underrate the achievements of the women she features. At least one of them I considered a pathetic leader of the party, but Ms. Holmes shows that she has followed a life dedicated to working for people, and not just people in Canada, but in other countries as well. 
I also might have chosen some other candidates had I been writing her book: for example, I have always admired Libby Davies, the long-time and very effective MP from Vancouver, Rosemary Brown, whom she does mention favorably, and even I would have liked to have read about Ursula Franklin, the doughty, brilliant old woman academic who died fairly recently after a left-wing lifetime devoted to the improvement of her fellow citizens.  
Ms. Holmes discovered, when she set out to research the careers of these women Parliamentarians, that the work done by them had been more or less scuffed over even in the archives of their own party, the NDP.
One thing that does strike me after reading this interesting book is how harsh is the political life: some of these women tried unsuccessfully to win an election; others, having devoted decades to improving life for all of us, eventually were rejected by the voters: the populace, in other words, tends to be pitiless in its judgments, even of those who work on their behalf.
Although, like all of us, these women demonstrated  occasional political weaknesses, Ms. Holmes has unashamedly concentrated on the positive aspects of their work and of their attitude to society and community. A brief listing shows how right she is:
Agnes Macphail (1980-1954), a former schoolteacher, opposed militarism throughout her life, especially set herself against the training of young people as military cadets, and warmly espoused that international disputes should be settled without resorting to war.  She never stopped campaigning for economic justice, for pay equity for women, and for the first old age pensions.  She campaigned successfully for a more humane prison system. After serving for 19 years, she was defeated in 1940, when standing for a sixth term.
Therese Casgrain (1896-1981) began as a Liberal, but joined the CCF at the age of 50. She was a tireless and successful campaigner to win the provincial vote for women in Quebec, and throughout her life campaigned for world peace. She supported the civil liberties of the interned Japanese–Canadians during the war.
She failed eight times but failed to win a seat in either the House of Commons or the provincial legislature, but is remembered as one of the most tireless workers for a better Quebec and a better Canada, carrying out, as Ms. Holmes notes, every campaign with “verve, optimism, conviction and hard work.” Though she came from a privileged economic background, she was a persistent campaigner for the rights of workers, both men and women, participating in strikes, demonstrations and endless meetings with trades unionists. She was, and is, recognized as a mentor by an army of younger women politicians.
Grace Macinnis (1905-1991) was the daughter of J.S. Woodsworth, founder of the CCF, and from 1931 she worked in support of her father in a backroom role. In 1932 at the age of 27 she married Angus Macinnis, an MP 21 years older than she, and she entered elective politics when in 1941 she became a member of the Legislative Assembly of British Columbia. Her father was a lifelong pacifist, but she supported Canada’s role in the Second World War. She did not enter Parliament until 1965, when she was 60 years of age. During her nine years as an MP she concentrated her energies on consumer protection, abortion, and the environment.  She tied her comments about the plight of consumers to the larger problem of lopsided income distribution and growing poverty among Canadians,” writes Ms. Holmes.
Pauline Jewett (1922-1992) was an MP from British Columbia from 1979 to 1988, worked in the realm of peace and disarmament, espousing an independent foreign policy for Canada, “free from the great-power dominated military alliances.” Her Parliamentary work followed a distinguished academic career, which took her to the presidency of Simon Fraser University in Vancouver. Like Therese Casgrain she had also been a Liberal party politician briefly. In addition to espousing the social democratic values she had a deep commitment to civil liberties, and was critical of Pierre Trudeau’s use of the War Measures Act during Quebec’s October crisis of 1970, when more than 400 Quebecers were uselessly arrested, and later released without charge. She espoused, and led her party to support, the concept of common security, highlighting support for the United Nations, for developing countries and measures to claim the peace dividend.
Margaret Mitchell (born in 1925) , a social worker, served abroad with the Red Cross during the Korean war, and again later in camps set up to assist Hungarian refugees after 1956. She became well-known in Vancouver for her social work, and when persuaded to stand for the NDP in 1976 she managed to defeat a Chinese Liberal MP where most of her constituents were of Chinese origin.  She served 14 years as an MP before being defeated in 1993 election. As a politician her major concerns were “unemployment, poverty, the need for  affordable housing, the high cost of living and the inequalities and discrimination  felt by women and ethnic minorities. She asked the Canadian government to issue an apology for such measures as the head tax levied against Chinese from 1885 to 1923, when the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed, preventing many families from bringing their wives and children into the country. These campaigns eventually in 2006 resulted in a government apology, with an offer of compensation to head-tax payers and their spouses who were still alive.  She was also active throughout her career in urging the need for affordable child care for working mothers.
Lynn McDonald (born in 1940) an MP from 1982 to 1988, had an historic impact on health legislation when her private members bill C-204 was passed as the Non-Smokers’ Health Ac, together with the Tobacco Products Control Act, which laid the groundwork for smoke-free workplaces, planes, trains, buses, and so on to the present day. McDonald was another social worker, who  after studying at the London School of Economics, “turned left. “ She was a sociologist with a particular interest in the societal treatment of criminals. As an academic she became a strong advocate for women’s rights, no doubt influenced by her time as a visiting professor  at Gothenberg university in Sweden. As a member she took up the cause of the disproprortionate number of indigenous people in jail, as well as redress for Japanese-Canadians, and against capital punishment.  She wrote a book on the NDP, and she was an early campaigner for the environment, focusing especially on acid rain and toxic chemicals. Following her defeat she wrote scholarly books on the social sciences and women;’ rights, a biography of Florence Nightingale, and edited a momumental 16-volume collection of the Collected Works of Ms. Nghtingale. She also  helped to found the organization Just Earth: a Coalition for Environmental Justice.
Audrey McLaughlin (born 1936) was another social worker who drifted into the NDP when she took up residence in the Yukon. In the 1960s she persuaded her husband to move to West Africa, where they taught English. This experience was a life-transforming one, as Ms. Homes notes. After bearing two children, she and her husband divorced, and at the age of 43 she moved to Whitehorse. She was elected to Parliament in 1987, joining with four other NDP  women members to create a Women’s Caucus. When Ed Broadbent decided to retire as leader, the women were determined to put forward one of their number as a candidate.  She agreed to stand, saying “I would talk about my vision of a more open party and a more inclusive, consultative way of operating.” Elected leader, she became the first woman to lead a major political party in Canada.  Her consensual form of leadership was not a great success, and in the first national election her party  was almost wiped out. She served ten years as an MP, concentrating on four dominant issues, affirmative action policies for women, .onstitutional matters, aboriginal land claims and anti-war policies. In 1991 she led her party to  oppose the First Gulf War, “no to an offensive military role for Canada, and no to a Canadian participation in an unnecessary and deadly war.”
Alexa McDonough (born 1944) grew up in a family of CCF stalwarts, was largely educated and raised in Halifax, and returned there after graduating from university and working as a social worker for a few years in the United States. Active in women’s issues, she first supported the Liberal party, but by 1974 she decided to join the NDP. She was twice defeated in attempts to be elected to the federal parliament, but she found she enjoyed knocking on doors and talking to people, and turned her attention to the provincial legislature, and in 1980 was elected NDP leader for the province. The next year she was elected, the only NDP member, the only woman, and a rookie, as she said, to the provincial legislature.  She gave notice in her first speech that she was determined to fight for home care for the elderly, affordable housing, family benefits for single parents, and meeting the needs of the disabled. She was also a determined campaigner for abortion on demand. In 1994, after 14 years of lonely battle, she stood for the national leadership of the party. Elected an MP in 1997, she served for 11 years. In her maiden speech she said: “these are the values of my party … giving our children the best possible start in life, in education and in opportunities for our young, decent pensions for our seniors, medicare for all and poverty for none, a healthy environment for future generations and strong safe, thriving communities.” After leading the party into two elections, one in which more members were elected, the second once again showing a decline, she recognized the need for “a rekindling of the social democratic imagination,” and resigned to make way for Jack Layton, who led the party to its greatest success in its history.

I have only one last thing to add: that the nation is deeply in their debt for having maintained and espoused deeply feminine, human values through all these decades, and thus improved all of our lives almost immeasurably.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

My Log 542 March 8 2017: Remarkable Wim Wenders film about Brazilian photographer who has been a witness to the worst human beings can do to each other

I have just watched one of the most extraordinary documentary films I have ever seen. It is made by Wim Wenders, the noted feature director, and it is on the life and work of Sebastiao Salgado, a Brazilian photographer whose amazing pictures from 120 countries have illuminated our understanding of the world over the last several decades.
Wenders worked in collaboration with Salgado’s son, Juliano, as a co-director, and the photographer’s remarkable wife Lélia, an active participant in his work over the years, was also involved in helping with the film, which is called The Salt of the Earth.
Anyone who has seen the mind-blowing shots Salgado made in the 1980s of the Serra Pelada, a huge open-cast gold mine in Brazil in which 50,000 workers were toiling like slaves, carrying bags of stuff up endless primitive ladders in an environment of clinging mud, will never have forgotten this most famous of the photographer’s work. In the film he is quoted as saying that he was thunderstruck when he came upon the mine, feeling as though right before him was the whole history of mankind, the building of the Pyramids, the Tower of Babel, and so on.  All that mud had to be moved up and out of the mine. If anyone fell from the ladders, they would risk taking down those coming up behind them. “I went up and down several times,” he remarks, “and I never fell. No one fell. These guys climbed it 50 or 60 times a day…All these men together comprised a completely organized world, but in complete madness.  You get the impression they were slaves. But there wasn’t a single slave. They were slaves only to the idea of getting rich.”
 They came from all walks of life, university lecturers, intellectuals, farm labourers, urban workers, all trying their luck, because when they hit a vein of gold in one spot, everyone working there had the right to choose one sack, and that sack might contain a kilo of gold, or nothing. “At that very moment, one’s freedom was at stake,” he said.
The importance of these remarkable pictures of this unearthly event, which appear at the beginning of the movie,  appears to have been, for Salgado, to solidify his tendency to undertake massive projects to each of which he was prepared to devote years on one subject.  The film runs through these extraordinary adventures one by one, and the result is an explanation of the human condition such as I have never before seen. It begins with him surrounded by a nearly-naked  tribe in Papua New Guinea, famous for its  tribes remote from all outsiders (they are dancing around for him, spears in hand), and then moves to a remote island far north in the East Siberian sea. Then to Niger, in 1973 where he found women standing in line for food during a drought. Lélia worked to support him when he decided to give up his promising career as an economist bound for the World Bank, and was active in distributing his photos so that after a few successful placements, they decided he should embark on his first big project, known as The Other Americas.
At the time they were in exile from the brutal military government of Brazil. “I deeply missed Latin America, so I decided to travel around all Brazil’s neighbouring countries.” It was the era of liberation theology, and he accompanied a young priest who was organizing the peasants into cooperatives and introducing them to the idea of solidarity. His first pictures were of the Saraguras, a very religious tribe of Indians, but great drinkers. Half of them would get totally drunk every weekend. “Never in my life had I met a people with such a different sense of time,” he says. “The time I spent with them felt like a century. Everything went so slow. It was another way of thinking, a different rhythm.” Among the Mixe, a group in northern Mexico, he found their production methods were from medieval times, but what distinguished them was their love of music. Everyone played an instrument: “they didn’t have to work, they could play their instruments for that.” They put him in a cold cement room to test if he really wanted to stay with them and after a few days moved him to a more comfortable place. This enabled him to get closer to them and “I really enjoyed my time there.”
This is the way the film goes, Salgado’s gentle comments illustrated by his pictures of these people most of whom seem almost mysterious in their look of withdrawn calmness. “The power of a photograph lies in that split second when you catch a glimpse of that person’s life. When you take a shot, the portrait is not yours alone. It belongs to the other person too.” The project took him eight years, during which he simply disappeared for long periods.
Finally able to return to Brazil after more than ten years of exile, he decided to learn more of his own country, so he took a tour of the northeast which occupied him for two years, photographing these people with their worn faces, and their occasionally strange, usually religious habits such as their different methods of caring for the bodies of dead children according to whether they died with their eyes open or closed. Coffins could be rented and used dozens of times. “It’s a region where life and death are very close, he observes, over shots of the coffin-renting shops. Some remarkable shots of the movement of “landless workers”, thousands of them, learning how politics was run and how it affected them. “These people have a moral force, a physical strength even though they are frail and eat poorly,” he remarks.  He portrays the area as like the Sahel, barren, and he photographs families as they give up on the land and trudge off to the cities.
Then on to the Sahel itself, that area of drought in Africa south of the Sahara, where he photographed whole populations deep in the throes of starvation. These pictures are so stark one can almost not watch them: people reduced to nothing but skin and bones, lying dead in the road, lying in piles of dead, occasionally watched from a few feet by a surviving family member. He photographs the ritual each family observes of washing the dead before burial, an imperative even where there is little water for anything else.
He records that the Ethiopian government was actually withholding food supplies from these dying people. When he returned a few years later, the government was driving these tribes out of Tigray, under brutal attack from two helicopters. They were hoping to get food when they reached Sudan, and he has a haunting picture of the people, arrived to find nothing to eat. “I must have spent two months there,” he comments. The people were in a Doctors Without Borders camp, but it had no water, and they all had to be moved elsewhere. He rode 300 or 400 kilometres in a tuck with these dying people. There was plenty of water at their destination, but that is where they died, because there was no food.  The suffering of these people illustrated by his photos, is almost beyond imagination.
Then to Mali  in 1985, another drought, only women and children left, because the men had gone to west Africa with as promise to send aid, “but few of them returned,” he comments. Here, Doctors Without Borders did great work, brought the people through, so that famished, malnourished  children “in two or three weeks recovered completely.” He returned to the Sahel over and over again, and the book of his photos edited by his wife drew attention to the conditions there.
One by one, the film goes through these major productions with this determined, gentle and unremitting artist. Workers, took him to 30 countries, and six years to complete. From 1986 to 1991, “I wanted to pay homage to all the men and women who built the world around us.” He travelled to the four corners of the world, photographing steel workers in the Soviet Union, ship-wreckers in Bangladesh, going to sea with fisherman in Galicia and Sicily, observing tea pickers in Rwanda, and so on.
In 1991 he determined he had to photograph the hellish inferno created by the withdrawing Sadaam Hussein’s troops when they fired hundreds of oil wells. He shows here some firefighters from Calgary, among the hundreds from all over the world who turned up to bring the wells under control. Next in a chapter they called Exodus he dealt with the army of refugees from India, Vietnam, Iraq, South America and elsewhere, but repeatedly he returned to Africa, the continent that had caught his imagination.
He was doing his project on the displacement of peoples when the Rwanda genocide broke out, which began a huge exodus of people to any neighbouring country. “I was one of the first to arrive (in Tanzania)…. .the catastrophe was everywhere.” The roads were full of people, fleeing with whatever they could carry. .”We headed in the opposite direction, towards the border. I entered Rwanda and it was terrifying, the number of dead bodies I saw on that road… It was 150 kilometres by road to Kigali, 150 kilometres of dead bodies.”  He turned back, went into the camps where he remarks that “hell was taking the place of paradise,” a megacity springing up on this beautiful savanna, where a million people gsthered within days.
Next came the Yugoslav war, to show that “violence and brutality are not the monopoly of remote countries…..violence was  everywhere, but what disgusted me the most was to see how contagious hatred was.”  The whole Serbian population of Krajina was expelled, evicted from their homes overnight, with no place to go, having their next-door neighbours shooting at them. In camps there were only women, children and older men. The younger men had all been held and murdered. This happened “among people with a European standard of living, a European intellectual level, a European infrastructure, and they lost everything.
“We are a ferocious animal, we humans are terrible animals. Here in Europe, in Africa, in South America, everywhere, we are extremely violent. Our history is a history of wars. It’s an endless story, a story of repression, a tale of madness.”
Then to the  Congo in 1994, another catalogue of brutality and killing. where in a few days the Goma region received more than 2,000,000 people, all fleeing some disaster or another, Hutus who had fled Tutsis, Tutsis who had fled Hutus. Cholera was spreading and people began to die like ants 12,000 to 15,000 died every day.
“I was taking photos of these piles of corpses… Everyone should see these images, to see how terrible our species is. When I got out of there I was ill, I didn’t have any infectious diseases, but my soul was sick.”
On a return visit to Rwanda he went to a church where people had believed themselves to be safe, but were massacred anyway, a schoolroom, laden with decaying bodies. Two years later, some 2 million Rwanda refugees were still in the Congo, and 250,000 of them in a column left the city and entered into the Congo forest “We lost track of them. Everyone knew there were 250,000 lost people. Nobody knew where they were. Six months later they began appearing near Kisangali. The UN took a train there to drop off supplies, but he stayed. “I spent three days with these people, who kept arriving, columns and columns of them,  to think that when they left there were 250,000 of them and only 40,000 made it here. 210,000 people were missing. Then they were expelled again, from Kisangani, setting out again for Rwanda. People began to be delirious, to lose their minds, driven to madness by their experiences, and he adds: “In fact, these people who were expelled were never heard from again.”
What he says next is like a  summary of all his experiences: “That was my last trip in Rwanda. When I came out of there, I no longer believed in anything, in any salvation for the human species. We didn’t deserve to live. No one deserved to live.”
Back at his father’s farm he found a denuded lands cape. His wife suggested they should replant the forest: so they began to do it, and in ten years a “full-blown miracle” occurred. The farm, full of trees and bushes and plants, and all of the returned animals from the past that had left,  has since became known as the Instituto Terra, and is now a National park.
This film is about a man who has witnessed the worst that human beings can do to each other, and it has driven him to desperation.
The Salt of the Earth, released 2014, 110 minutes, available through Netflix….