Valentine’s Day: don’t just complain, subvert and reclaim!

14 Feb

Maybe you’re one of those people who, for whatever reason, finds Valentine’s Day annoying. In my adult life I’ve spend few Valentine’s Days single, so I never had any reason to feel left out of anything. My inclination was to have a lukewarm attitude towards the holiday.

The thing with Valentine’s Day though is that it’s pretty hard to maintain an un-polarized opinion. I came to resent having a certain style of “romance” pushed on my relationships by either popular culture or well meaning friends & coworkers. Grand roses-and-jewelry romantic overtures were never my style, so it got annoying when folks would say “don’t listen to her when she says she doesn’t want flowers. Women ALWAYS love flowers!”

Ugh. With that kind of social pressure, indifference or tolerance easily turns into outright loathing.

Last year, I spent Feb 14 with my partner in Havana. That in and of itself probably leans toward conventional romance, but on the contrary it was a real treat to experience a non-corporate, non-couple-focused Valentine’s day. People gave flowers or small tokens to everyone in their extended family, young people dressed in their finest and hit the bars and clubs together in groups, and folks would wish everyone they passed on the street a happy Día del Amor. The atmosphere was festive yet relaxed with lots of queer visibility especially amongst the younger set. It would warm the heart of just about any anti-Valentine curmudgeon.

So for this year, I’ll seize some of that spirit. There are plenty of reasons to be weary of Valentine’s day in North America with its sugary, consumerist, hetero-normative trappings, but it’s so much more fun to subvert and reclaim Valentine’s Day. So whatever your relationship status, here are some things you can do today that will just make life better overall today and every day:

1. Rethink gender and sexuality. Straight is not our default setting. Gender is not a binary.

2. If you have children, keep #1 in mind and speak openly and non-judgementally with them about healthy sexuality. Steer them towards good educational resources. 

3. Support comprehensive sex-positive education in our public schools. This might mean letters to the editor or speaking up at your next PTA meeting and calling out that moralistic loudmouth on their bullshit.

4. One size does not fit all, and monogamous marriage-track relationships are not for everyone, nor should they be considered the ideal and only way to have a healthy relationship. The sooner we all figure this out, the fewer hearts will be broken and the happier we’ll all be.

5. Practice enthusiastic consent with your sex partner. Open, respectful, ongoing communication is essential to healthy relationships and to challenging rape culture.

6. Examine your expectations. There’s a huge difference between putting effort in, and feeling pressure to have the perfect day. Relax already!

7. Just one more day and all that chocolate goes on sale.

8. Look to see if there are any drag shows happening in your community. Drag is THE BEST.

9.  Steer clear of people who whine that “nice guys like me never get women because chicks only like jerks”. Likewise, if you’re one of these “nice guys”, just stop. You sound like an idiot and this kind of guilt trip is indicative of jerk behaviour, the opposite of nice.

10. Act in solidarity with Colombian flower workers – mostly women who endure long hours, low wages, sexual harassment, and unsafe & unhealthy working conditions to make sure you have roses for Valentine’s Day. Oftentimes they get fired or endure death threats for trying to form a union in their workplace. Sign this letter to the Colombian minister of labour demanding justice for workers.

11. Support feminist, queer-positive, educational sex shops. I love Halifax’s Venus Envy, and visited the excellent Womyns’ Ware in Vancouver. Steer far far away from shops that stock things like racist porn and unsafe products.

12. If there is a production of the Vagina Monologues in your community and if you’ve never seen it before, check it out. Put it on your bucket list of things to do before you die. A lot of V-Day events happen on the 14th, but here in Sydney NS there will be a March 8 production for International Women’s Day with yours truly performing a monologue. (keep an eye out for forthcoming details).

Do you have anything to add to the list? How do you plan on celebrating or ignoring Valentine’s Day today?

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Three Canadian political parties at a glance?

13 Feb

You probably recognize this 1939 British propaganda poster, issued at the start of World War II to keep up morale amidst the looming threat of invasion. It’s been enjoying a comeback in the last couple of years, both on the streets and internet meme-land.

Here’s a recent anti-protest spinoff in reaction to the 2011 riots  in London.

…and my personal favourite, of Canadian inspiration in honour of Jack Layton & the New Democrats:

Obviously it’s only the last poster whose colour deliberately corresponds to the NDP. But thinking about the three major Canadian political parties and their respective colours, I was more than a bit amused at what each poster asks us to do. There’s definitely something to the politic behind each call-to-action or inaction. What do you think?

[edit: H/T to Matt Campbell for finding the orange one for me. I saw it crop up on folks’ facebook & twitter profiles in tribute to Layton after his passing, but I had a hard time finding it recently. If you know the origin, do let me know!]

Spain Honours Canadian Veteran of the Spanish Civil War

26 Jan

Canada has been reluctant to recognizing the Canadians who volunteered to fight against fascism in the Spanish Civil War, so it’s nice to see this news piece about Spain granting citizenship to the last surviving Canadian brigadista (hat tip to Tony Tracy for bringing this to my attention):

Standing shoulder-to-shoulder, Mr. Paivio and several fellow prisoners raised their fists in a show of defiance. But a sudden stroke of luck saved his life. In fact, Mr. Paivio came out of the war unscathed. Today, he is the last surviving Canadian brigadista – one of the men and women who came from around the world to defend Spain’s fledgling republic from the fascism of General Francisco Franco.

More than 1,500 Canadians joined these International Brigades, but for decades they received little recognition. They had fought in a conflict in which their government took no part, and most were committed socialists, viewed with suspicion during the Cold War. Even today, their contributions to one of the 20th century’s great battles against tyranny is often overlooked here.

It’s hard not to admire the international effort put forward by so many volunteers. I have many mixed feelings about how the Canadian State remembers its participation in past wars (World War I being an especially brutal imperialist war) but a couple of years ago when I was editor of the CBU student newspaper Caper Times, I wrote an editorial making the case for Spanish Civil War brigadistas to be officially recognized alongside veterans of other wars:

Franco’s authoritarian coalition was given material support by Nazi Germany and fascist Italy, yet few reliable sources of official aid went to the beleaguered Republican side of the fight. Canada, the United States and other governments signed a pact of non-intervention.

The efforts of the volunteers were made tougher when the Canadian government passed the Foreign Enlistment Act, making it illegal to volunteer in the Spanish Civil War or any other foreign war. The government even at times refused to issue passports to citizens suspected of travelling for that purpose.

Most volunteers with the Mac-Paps were over 30 years of age, and were typically working class individuals of a variety of political affiliations. At approximately 1600 Canadian enlistees, only France’s population yielded a greater proportion of volunteers.

For music geeks, the folk songs that came out of the Spanish Civil War are some of the most stirring and beautiful politically-charged pieces. I love this version of Si Me Quieres Escribir performed by Pete Seeger and the Almanac Singers:

Ken Loach also directed a brilliant film roughly based on George Orwell’s accounts of the war. It captures some of what brigadistas experienced on the front lines. Loach is known for playing up the highly political aspects of his subjects, but what I love about his films is how they resonate emotionally. The heartbreak of the brigades’ losses sticks with you.

(in Spanish, sorry for non-speakers. But it gives you the flavour)

(Another) Colombian Trade Unionist Murdered.

25 Jan

Another trade unionist in Colombia was murdered this past week.

Dave Coles, president of the Communication, Energy and Paperworkers’ union of Canada, released a statement condemning the murder. He also made a point of demanding that the Canadian government cancel the Canada-Colombia Free Trade Agreement until Colombia upholds its international obligations to uphold human and labour rights:

The president of one of Canada’s largest unions, the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada, says both the Colombian and Canadian governments need to act now to denounce the latest murder of a trade union leader in Colombia.

Maurico Redondo and his wife Janeth Ordóñez Carlosama were murdered by two gunmen in their home in Putumayo on January 17, leaving their five children orphaned.  Maurcio was a provincial leader of the Union Sinical Obrera (USO), and both he and his wife were activists in a community group that advocated for better working conditions, environmental stewardship and labour and human rights in the booming oil and natural gas fields of south-western Colombia.  The murders followed telephone threats to three other USO leaders and a bomb threat at USO’s regional office in Orito.

“Once again we see that activists for decent work and decent communities continue to be targets in Colombia,” says CEP President Dave Coles.  “We mourn the deaths of Maurico Redondo and Janeth Ordóñez and call on Colombian authorities to bring those responsible to justice.  We also call on the Canadian Government to cancel the Canada-Colombia Free Trade Agreement, until the Colombian Government meets its international obligations to respect labour and human rights.”

This is important to me. There are dear friends in Colombia who sacrifice so much and risk their lives on a daily basis to do the work they do.

When the Canada-Colombia Free Trade Agreement was up for ratification, I was a little too confident that the powerful testimonies from Colombian activists (and the rich social movements and organizations that they represent) would be enough. And–perhaps naively–I was convinced that with the Conservatives in a minority government situation, that it wouldn’t go through. Surely the hard work of so many would not be in vain.

When it passed, I was crushed. It was perhaps the biggest, heart-wrenching failure of hope in our parliamentary system that I have ever personally experienced. I thought of Colombian union activist Liliany Obando, who is to this day still in prison for the trumped up accusation of “inciting rebellion”, who had been so driven in her work with FENSUAGRO – the Colombian union of peasant farmers & farm workers, and who fearlessly denounced the terror and oppression that the government and paramilitary thugs inflicted on the working class in that country for so many decades. Lily had been such a warm, gracious host and friend when I was in Colombia to help with some research. Upon saying goodbye before our return to Canada, I briefly imagined seeing Lily and our other friends if we returned in a year or two. It was the next summer when she was arrested.

When the Conservatives won their majority, many of us found it a hard pill to swallow, but I could only reflect on how it had been much more painful to read Bob Rae’s memo stating that Liberal MPs would be supporting the trade agreement with Colombia. Any bitter tears had already wept–and it certainly wasn’t the only disappointment in the minority opposition. The Harper Majority nearly two years afterwards was simply a grim reminder that we had much work ahead of us.

Critical Remembrance: two songs for November 11

9 Nov

One interesting thing about Remembrance Day is that the solemn ceremonies seem like the exact opposite of protest and radical critique. But as November 11 approaches, two songs from the Cape Breton Protest Songs project strike me as very relevant to remembering what it was like for veterans and their families in the time period immediately after the war, when this “history” was still very fresh in everyone’s heads.

“The Applicant” is one such song. The poem itself is by Dawn Fraser, and local musician Vic Tomiczek gives it a beautiful, heartfelt treatment with his arrangment. You can stream the song from the site here, where you can also read the lyrics and a bit more about the experiences of World War I veterans in the 1920s.

This was a time when being a veteran was something of a stigma, and society was likely at a loss for how to deal with so many young men who came home as broken shadows of what they used to be:

It’s very kind of you, Mum, to call to see my Dan.
Since he came back he seems to be a very wreck of man;
I think it must be German gas, still inside his head,
He talks of places back in France and lads that now are dead.

The second song is more about the experiences of young women in the same time period. The Old Song Resung tells of lack of access to birth control and family planning, children growing up in poverty, and the lack of opportunity for those children when they grow up. This one is arranged and performed by Breagh MacKinnon and contains some of the most haunting lines on the album:

Johnny’s a drummer and drums for the king,
(A bullet left Johnny a sodden crushed thing!
But Johnny knew glory and mother knew pain
Besides she’s expecting a baby again.)

On the CB Protest Songs project itself:

There are simply too many good things to say about this project, and it warrants its own blog post later. But by way of brief introduction, a local assortment of mostly young musicians were given song lyrics and poems that dealt with the lives and labour struggles of Cape Breton workers in the 1920s. The result is a truly remarkable album, which you can read more about here.

Will Nova Scotia require Transgendered people to give fingerprints when applying for a name change?

8 Nov

So the Nova Scotia provincial government wants to get a criminal background check for folks wanting to get their name legally changed. This would involve prospective name-changers submitting a set of fingerprints.

Justice Minister Ross Landry claims that the pending legislation around this would not apply to children, or to people who want to change their name through marriage. He also assured that the fingerprints would be destroyed after the background check cleared.

I have yet to find any mention or consideration of transgendered folk in all of this.

Nova Scotia is not a friendly place for people in transition. It’s one of the provinces that doesn’t cover the costs of sex reassignment surgery, putting a significant part of the transitioning process out of reach for a lot of people. Even aside from costs, many medical professionals have along way to go in terms of dealing respectfully with Trans patients.

Canada also doesn’t explicitly protect Transgendered people from discrimination, disturbing in the context of transphobic discrimination and violence.

Maybe I’m being presumptious, but I can’t imagine that anyone would be thrilled at having to add yet another layer of hassle and humiliation to the transitioning process.

Any thoughts, Trans advocates? Any good online resources on Trans issues?

Composer of “Cape Breton Lullaby”: yet another Atlantic Canadian socialist

8 Nov

Oh boy it is just SO FUN when you learn of little tidbits like this one:

Mom’s choral group Coro Cantabile is working on “Cape Breton Lullaby”, a local much-loved celtic standard.

After one of her recent practice sessions, mom drew my attention to the fact that the composer Kenneth Leslie was a character with strong identity as a Christian Socialist whose C.V. includes things like producing a broad-circulation anti-fascist comic.

One quick google search later, et voilà, a biographical essay on “God’s Red Poet”:

Leslie held strong left-wing convictions to which he gave vigorous expression not only in his poetry and his personal letters but in a remarkable public career as a crusading editor and political activist. Although one critic has suggested that he tried to “juggle” too many interests and occupations “to remember to be a first-rate poet,”2 his religious and political values seemed to demand multifarious expression, and his careers as editor, activist and poet were for many years almost completely integrated: “Good poetry’s good propaganda,” he wrote, and professed a low regard for “poets whose lives weigh lighter than their words,” considering them “word-men only, not fit to be named / With the great healers of men’s selfmade wounds.” He defined the poet’s function as essentially a political one: “to disenthrall / The world from all these hitlers great and small,” and identified poetry with the “hammer blows that build men’s homes.”

If you have a couple minutes, it’s worth the read for the odd little anecdotes about Leslie’s life. One of his marriages was to the daughter of Halifax Candy Manager James Moir, who in turn tried make Leslie into something resembling a respectable businessman. The results of Moir’s efforts seemed to be middling at best, though Leslie apparently enjoyed playing the stock market and wasn’t bothered by how this contradicted his professed ideology.

On Leslie’s famous song: most (if not all) contemporary arrangements of Cape Breton Lullaby use Leslie’s lyrics set to a different melody.

The best-known version is probably Catherine MacKinnon’s, though my favourite rendition is by Teresa Doyle – the mournful small pipes and haunting vocals take me back to summertime nights camping along the cabot trail. This video is probably similar to how mom’s choral group will perform this number: