Thursday, 31 March 2011

Language: Burundi and the Shadow Cast by Colonialism, Past and Present

There is no better measure of the historic extent of a colonial power than the languages spoken in its former colonies. Both Spanish and English have the most native speakers, ranking number 2 and 3 on many lists of the world's most widely spoken languages, while Portuguese comes in 6 or 7.

French, while it may have been the language of culture and diplomacy for a couple of centuries, doesn't make the top ten, and often ranks about 15 or 16. And that rank may slip more since ethnic conflict in Rwanda and Burundi has set the stage for more Anglophonization in African Great Lakes region.

Both countries as well as neighboring Tanzania were originally German colonies. After World War I, what would become Rwanda and Burundi came under Belgian control, and adopted French as an official language for government and education. Tanzania, however, became a British protectorate with English holding sway.

After independence, French and the local Bantu language were adopted in both Rwanda and Burundi, but Tanzania, which had more than 100 local languages, chose to emphasize Swahili with English as the second language taught at the secondary level. The idea was to create a Tanzanian identity, and appears to have worked better than the strategies used in other newly independent countries. Kenya and Uganda, other British colonies, also opted for English, with Swahili and local languages playing minor roles in education.

But ethnic divides in Rwanda and Burundi have led to extremely bloody conflict over decades. Refugees from both countries found safe havens in Tanzania, Uganda and Kenya, where their children learned not French, but English. When peace returned to Rwanda, hundreds of thousands of displaced persons came back and pressure built to recognize English: in 2008 the language of Shakespeare replaced French in Rwandan schools.

Now something similar is happening in Burundi as refugee families--some displaced as long ago as 1972--return from Tanzania. Volunteer teachers have set up a school near the Tanzanian border where English and Swahili are the languages of instruction, and the curriculum follows Tanzanian guidelines.

I experienced the colonial language problem first hand when I attended some sessions of the UN trials on Rwandan genocide in 2001. During the breaks I talked to first to the librarian, a Tanzanian, in English, and then chatted with a reporter for a Great Lake region news service in French. The two men had interesting things to say, so I introduced them to each other, acting as interpreter since one spoke no English, and the other, no French. Then suddenly they realized that one's Swahili and the other's Kirundi were so much alike that the could understand each other. That was the point I backed out of the conversation, since there was no need for me and my two European, colonial languages.

Wednesday, 30 March 2011

First Day without Boots! Spring May be Finally Here

Well, actually I didn't wear anything like these lovely ones, just ordinary walking shoes. But the promise is there: you don't need to slog through snow and ice today.

Looking forward to seeing a little green now.

Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Who Wants Stephen Harper Negotiating the Future of Medicare?

The Canadian Medical Association Journal has an article this week deploring the "explosion" of private clinics in Canada, that ought to be required reading for center left politicians, particularly those in the NDP.

The article concludes: "The medicare blanket is shrinking...The government is letting us down.”

And things are going to get worse instead of better, if a Harper government is the one to negotiate new financial arrangements between the federal government and the provinces and territories, due to be thrashed out before 2014. Setting up a two-tier health system is almost certainly going to be on their agenda, in the name of "healthy competition" and "allowing freedom of choice."

Whether we want to let Stephen Harper and his friends to do this should be an key part of this electoral campaign.

The NDP, which is so justly proud of being the moving force behind our health care system, should bring this front and center. Doing so would make electoral points, as well as being the right thing to do.

Monday, 28 March 2011

Michael Ignatieff Meets the Voters, and Thomas Mulcair Wins

That's Martin Cauchon too, for whom the gentleman is definitely not voting.

Saturday, 26 March 2011

Saturday Photo: Last Snow Studies

The first day after the spring equinox, we had a mini-storm at twilight. As is often the case at this time of year, the wet snow fell in huge flakes and covered every surface.

The top two photos were taken as darkness came, the first with available light, the second with a flash which turned the flakes into white Christmas tree balls floating down from the sky. The third shows what it looked like the morning after, before the sun came out and melted the snow enough for it to fall the rest of the way to the ground.

Since then we've had brilliant sunshine, but temperatures cold enough to keep all the snow from melting. It may be the end of March, but the north wind is still blowing.

Friday, 25 March 2011

Will the Real Question Be: Do You Want a Coalition?

So it looks like there's no question. Canadians will be going to the polls sometime in early May. Stephen Harper and his friends know that we voted massively AGAINST them the last time around, and seem bound to head off any move for a coalition government should--as seems likely--they don't get a majority.

The English media seem greatly concerned about this, and last night the CBC news, was peppered with "coalition," as if it were a new dirty word. But, why not? Sure would be better than Stephen Harper's Canada.

Thursday, 24 March 2011

The Triangle Fire: 100 Years Later the Lessons Still Resonate

A hundred years ago tomorrow, a fire broke out in the Triangle Shirtwaist workshop on New York's garment district. Within 18 minutes, 146 people were killed, most of the women, all of them working long hours on a Saturday in conditions that were terrible. Exits had been blocked, and many workers threw themselves from the windows as they attempted to flee the flames. Those are bodies lying on the sidewalk picture, apparently taken while the building still burned.

The New York Times has a commemorative story today, which talks about the galvanizing effect the disaster had on public opinion. Among the people who witnessed it was Frances Perkins, who went on to become Secretary of Labor in FDR's New Deal government. Before then she was instrumental in bringing in safety standards and working conditions in New York State, and she described later as "the day the New Deal began.”

The anniversary is especially important as forces in the US and Canada continue their attempt to undue much of the good that came out of the movement to correct injustices in industry. Attacks on worker protections and the right to join unions are just the latest in the movement to be "fiscally responsible" and to "increase competivity."

Nonsense. Those bodies lying on the sidewalk and the burnt-out factory space should be images that rally support for the fight against forces of reaction in North America. They also should remind workers in the rest of the world who are working in conditions similar to those prevalent here a century ago, that things can change for the better if people work together.

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

The Fighter Jets That We Have Can Do the Job: Report from the Front

Radio Canada's Middle East correspondant Ginette Lamarche reports this morning that Canadian forces are quite happy with the fighter jets they're sending to Libya. She was in Italy yesterday when the jets came back from their "escort" mission, and has quotes of the guys in charge lauding the way the jets have been recommissioned.

Of course, a major reason the four jets were sent over to fly in combat--the first time since 1999--was as act as counterweight to the criticism of the enormous cost of buying replacements for them. That the military brass are suggesting that things are quite okay as they are is extremely interesting.

So There's Going to Be an Election: Required Watching for the Campaign

James Carville and George Stephanopoulos look astonishingly young here, but then, weren't we all, once upon a time?

Now that it is clear that Canadians will go to the polls in a few weeks, may I suggest that all political junkies take a look at the excellent documentary film made about the 1992 Clinton election campaign, The War Room?

Facebook and Twitter are fluttering with messages, jokes about West Wing and Harper. It's Show Time and there area lot of folks out there ready for the adrenalin rush of a campaign. But, just as Carville famously warned "It's the economy, stupid," the guys running campaigns should remember that defining a message that people care about it is absolutely essential.

The economy has been looking up, but Harper shouldn't claim credit for it. Folks should be reminded that whatever measures the he finally took to counter the Recession were taken because of pressure from the parties representing the two-thirds of Canadians who didn't vote Conservative in 2008. Make sure that people remember that Canada's social safety net, its more stringent bank regulation, its general center left orientation are what made the difference for us.

And these are exactly the things that Harper and his friends want to get rid of. Point a few fingers, name a few names, and keep on message.

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

What to Tell Your Kids When the Shit Hits the Fan: Or Japan Explains What Happens in Simple Terms

Thanks to George Murray for passing this on through Facebook.

Very interesting, also, that at least two of the doctors who come to Nuclear Boy's aid are gaijin, that is, not Japanese. If I knew more about Japanese society, I might make some comment about spreading the blame or the fame or something....

Monday, 21 March 2011

Jonathan Franzen's Freedom: A Political and Personal Novel

This morning I finished reading Jonathan Franzen's most interesting--and very long--novel Freedom. It is probably the best fictional rendition of the moral dilemmas that are seemingly endemic in the United States, and is also a fascinating read.

Over the next few days I'm going to be reflecting on both the story and the political and social background of the story. But just to set the stage, here is one of Franzen's zingers.

On the "American experiment of self government": it was "statistically skewed from the outset because it wasn't the people with sociable genes who fled the crowded Old World for the new contientnt, it was the people who didn't get along well with others."
P. 444

The implications for American politics are great: just think of the nastiness of a lot of the Tea Party types, as well as the trouble getting cooperative or collective action started.

Note: for more about Freedom, see this post about strip mining in West Virginia which gives an update on a situation central to the novel: a case of art following life, or life following art?

Saturday, 19 March 2011

Saturday Photo: Rooftops and River in Lyon

Emmanuel is from Lyon, France, and at the moment he and Elin are introducing Jeanne to his family. Their visit calls to mind the short trip to Lyon that Lee and I made there about five years ago. At that point, E&E were just becoming a couple, and so a certain curiosity about where he came from entered into our decision to take the TGV from Paris to check the place out.

But even without that incentive, Lyon was well worth visiting. By luck we stayed in a small hotel in the Croix Rousse, the district on the top of the western side of the Rhone which was the center of the silk weaving industry in the 18th century. The views of the river were spectacular, and the ambience, great.

The Musée Gallo-romain on the top of the plateau overlooking the Saone was fascinating. It was May--the time for visits by school groups--and we were amazed to see the kids given free access to touch statues and other relics from 2000 years ago. But there are so many that apparently a little wear from young fingers is not considered a problem.

Friday, 18 March 2011

Putting out Repair Fires Today

This is what it looked like December 1, the morning after the fire. It's worse now, since all the plaster and lath in the entry, stairs, and landing have been pulled down. The hardwood floors throughout are gone too: couldn't fix them, the contractor said.

Today we've got to go make some decisions about where we go since we're parting company with the contractor, the second one that took on the repairs: they've botched things up royally. No longer post today: got to put out some figurative fires.

Thursday, 17 March 2011

Beware of More Health Care Charges in Quebec's Budget

Charging $200 for eye drops that cost less than a dollar but which are needed in certain kinds of opthamalogic exams should not be allowed, yet for the last little while that's what has been happening in Quebec.

Doctors' organizations in the province have asked for a clarification on the rules on what is allowed un the Quebec Health Act. Supposedly all medically necessary health care is covered by the provincial health insurance plan, but some doctors have been profitting from the gray area, which allows some charges related to diagnostic procedures.

Rulings would be good, but the problem is that instead of simply saying they are contrary to the spirit of the legislation setting up the health system, the government may give them a green light.

Finance Minister Raymond Bachand is bringing down his budget this afternoon, and its quite possible that he will try to sneak in more health care user charges: last year he succeeded in getting a flat head tax, but was soundly rebuffed when he tried institute per-visit charges. Stay tuned...

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Lesson from Sendai: Cutting Demand Is the Only Real Way to Cut Energy Disasters

The news gets worse and worse about the problems with nuclear reactors damaged in last Friday's earthquake in Japan. There has been much talk about whether the reactor design was a good one, as well as considerable questioning about whether the move to nuclear energy should continue in other countries.

But nowhere so far that I've seen have commentators given much thought to the reasons why countries have turned to nuclear power. That is: because the way live requires a great deal of energy.

The last year has seen one disaster after another linked to our seemingly insatiable demand for energy. Others include the drilling platform leak in the Gulf of Mexico,and the unrest around the Mediterranean where developed countries keen on keeping their oil supply lines "secure" have supported dictatorships for decades. In Quebec both wind power and shale gas projects have come under attack recently for environmental reasons too.

The only way out of this dilemma is to figure out a way to cut back our energy demands. It's about time that the focus was shifted to the reasons for nuclear reactors and deep sea drilling. Otherwise, all we will do is spend our time putting out fires--including those in nuclear reactors.

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Ice Castle for the Ides of March

The snow is melting fast. All that rain on the weekend hurried things along, and today the temperature is supposed to be well above freezing. The sun is out too, which makes one feel good to be out and about.

This photo is of the remains of someone's snow castle, which is even neater, now that the light can show through the walls.

Monday, 14 March 2011

What Demonstration Were You at Saturday? 50,000 Protesting Privatisation or 10 Students Against Tuition Hikes?

There was a big demonstration on Saturday in Montreal--about 50,000 people in the streets protesting privatisation of public services and urging that both federal and provincial governments make better choices in the budgets they're scheduled to release next week.

We were there, and thought the crowd was pretty impressive. It included a mix of ages and backgrounds, union folks, students, old fogies, single Moms. It ended up in the street in front of the Premier Jean Charest's Montreal offices after a march which saw St. Catherine street full of marchers for blocks.

But given the political situation in Montreal and the way media are organized, you'd never know it if you were tuned in or reading to the English language press. The Gazette had a two paragraph story. "10 arrested in protest against tuition hikes" was the headline. "The protest, organized by student unions but also involving other left-wing groups, marched down Ste. Catherine St. in large numbers, disrupting downtown traffic on Saturday afternoon," it said, without mentioning any of the other very serious aims of the demonstration.

The French media were better, with Radio Canada having coverage on Saturday.
But anybody who thinks that the Two Solitudes have disappeared, or that you get a good picture of what is going on in Montreal from reading The Gazette is sorely mistaken.

Saturday, 12 March 2011

Saturday Photo: Late Winter Morning Studies

The light coming in the apartment in the morning these days is really lovely. Hence these pictures of it streaming across the living room to shine on a shawl and a chair whose lines I like a lot.

The only problem with that is that the sun shows just how dirty the windows are. Aa soon as it warms up a bit, I can see that I'll be forced to do some window washing!

Friday, 11 March 2011

Sustainable Agriculture, and How We Should Try to Feed Ourselves.

Extremely interesting report out of the UN this week on feeding the world sustainably entitled "Agroecology and the right to food. " Haven't had a chance to read it, but given the synopsis sounds very provocative. We're eating oil, Olivier de Schutter told The New York Times. Sounds rather unappetizing, but undoubetedly true, says she as she prepares to go out and buy bananas.

More later on this.

Thursday, 10 March 2011

Instant Communication is Worse Than Small Children When It Comes to Interruptions

The radio is off, I've already answered my e-mail and now I have before me a few hours of no contact with anyone in which to write or think about writing. Wow!

For some time I've been struck by the toll that constant contact with the outside world weraks on concentration. The temptation of distraction is immense, even though I've avoided cell phones and hand-held internet devices so far.

It seems I'm not the only one. Le Devoir has a good story about the problem this morning and so did The New York Times a while back. Actually I feel as pulled in multiple directions as I did when the kids were small, and I had a hundred interruptions a minute. Very hard to get some serious work done when you're multi-tasking on a nano-second scale.

All of this to say, that I've got to sign off now and get down to business...

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

Ash Wednesday Reflection: Manaus Carnaval Is Hot and Not Only Because It's Summer in Brazil

Today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent, and devout Catholics are marked by crosses of ashes on their foreheads in special services. The cinders frequently are from the palm fronds burned after Palm Sunday of the preceeding year.

But before Lent comes Carnaval, and this year an incident in Manaus, Brazil, gives a new twist on the place of fire in Easter and pre-Easter rituals. The voice-over is in Portuguese but the images convey what's going on: a float in the big samba parade caught fire. A hot time in the old town that night for sure! The dancers on the float deserve medals for bravery.

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Jeanne Mance May Join Old Boys' Club of Montreal's Founders

Pierre, Sieur de Maisonneuve, is usually credited with founding Montreal, but on the eve International Women's Day, the mayor of Montreal, Gérald Trembly attempted to spread the glory to a woman who helped build the city along side him.

She wasn't his wife, but a lay sister who started the first hospital and “was the equivalent of a minister of finance for Ville Marie...She participated in nearly all the important decisions that marked the history of the beginnings of Montreal,” noted historian Jacques Lacoursière is quoted in The Gazette. The city has given him the task of uncovering the truth about the role she played, with an eye to giving her more recognition.

“The first historians were usually (male members) of religious orders who didn’t feel the need to pay homage to a woman,” he told The Gazette. “I would say that the history of Quebec and the history of Canada are rather sexist.”

Like the history of most places, but better late than never, I guess.

Monday, 7 March 2011

Coming up Tomorrow: New Music for International Women's Day

A good way to celebrate International Women's Day will be to attend a concert of new music composed expressly for Elin and Cléo Palacio-Quintin and Katelyn Clark.

Ten new pieces on one, old musical theme, La Folia, performed in another example of taking something old and making it new, La Chapelle historique de Bon Pasteur, 100 Sherbrooke St. East; 8 p.m., tickets $15 and $10 for students and old fogies.

Photo: Cléo and Elin.

Saturday, 5 March 2011

Saturday Photo: An Angel in Montreal

Well, actually it's a sort of Winged Victory on the monument to Georges-Étienne Cartier, a father of Canadian Confederation. A complicated man, he was a rebel in during the 1837 uprising, but moved in middle age to a much less intransigent position. The house he lived in in Montreal's Vieux Port district is now a Parks Canada site, with terrific activities and guided tours.

But it's this statue which looks east over Jeanne-Mance Park with Mount Royal in the background that I want to feature today. In some respects it shows Montreal at its best: notice the cleared steps and the flattened track where many kids have slid down on their sled or bums.

Friday, 4 March 2011

Women's Day Coming Up, Highlighting Need for Day Care Places, Better Parental Leave

Our sweetheart Jeanne has been on a list for day care since before she was born. She's a bit more than six months now, and Elin would prefer to wait a while longer before placing Jeanne in day care. Emmanuel has actually been able to take some parental leave too. But in order to have a place when they're already to go back to work, they had to start the day care process very early.

Quebec has a network of publicly funded day cares charging $7 a day, and there are tax credits for day care expenses if you must pay more in a private day care. Sounds good, but the waiting lists are horrific: Le Devoir reports this morning that each center has several hundreds kids waiting for a place. To be sure, some of that is duplication. I'm pretty sure that parents sign up at several places, in hopes that they'll come up lucky at one at least.

Elin was not quite three when the Garderie Querbes opened, one of the great wave of day care centres opened in the late 1970s to respond to the need for quality early childhood care. At the time women were increasingly choosing or were forced to go out to work when their children were small. Since then Quebec women have taken a larger and larger place in the workplace and society in general, to the benefit of us all.

Next Tuesday is International Women's Day, a good time to remember that we need the promote the energy and talents of women. Good child care and mechanisms to allow fathers to take part in the rearing of children like Canada's parental leave system, run through Employment Insurance, are essential to doing that.

BTW, next Tuesday is when Elin and friends are giving a concert of works created for them--three young women who are making careers of music in a world where the sky should the limit.

Thursday, 3 March 2011

Good News from the Arab Spring Revolutions: "When Women Change, Everything Changes"

There's a hit counter on this blog, and one of the posts that continues to get lots of hits is one I did about the Muslim women and the veil in July 2009. "When a Veil Is Not a Veil: Fashion, Modesty and Evolving Rules" concerns the way many Muslim women arrange to look pretty and fashionable while following rules of modesty, and the way many non-Muslim women over time have worn veils in the same way and for similar reasons. "Fashion trumps all!" is the way I ended the post.

I might have added that wearing a veil does not mean a woman can't get involved in politics, and I was heartened to read Naomi Wolf's article "The Middle East Feminist Revolution" reprinted in The Globe and Mail. In it she writes: "The role of women in the great upheaval in the Middle East has been woefully under-analyzed. Women in Egypt did not just “join” the protests – they were a leading force behind the cultural evolution that made the protests inevitable. And what is true for Egypt is true, to a greater and lesser extent, throughout the Arab world. When women change, everything changes, and women in the Muslim world are changing radically."

This is good news. It is also news that is not particularly new in the sense that studies over the last two decades have showed that literacy rates among women correlate remarkably with such things as lower birth rates and infant mortality rates. Ismaili Muslims even say that if you can only educate one of your children, make it a girl because she will pass on values and culture to the next generation.

Maybe the thing to say now is: "Education trumps everything."

Wednesday, 2 March 2011

Ordinary Taxpayers Are Footing Half the Bill for Federal Expenses, Le Devoir Says

A great story in Le Devoir this morning about how ordinary taxpayers have become the "cash cow" for the Federal government. Did you know that in 2010 for the first time you and I contributed more than 50 per cent of Federal government revenus? And this at a time when the contribution of corporations dropped by 11 per cent.

This January the tax rate for corporations dropped from 18 per cent to 16.5 per cent, and the Conservatives want to drop this even lower, to 15 per cent next January. I'd like to hear some honourable members cry "Shame, shame" as they are said to do in Hansard.

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Doctors' Diagnosis: Real Cost Driver in Health Costs Is the Private Sector

Between now and 2014, the Canadian federal government, the provinces and territories will negotiate a new arrangement for financing health insurance. The battle lines are already being drawn, and the prophets of disinformation are pushing hard at the line: we can't afford our system, we need to privatize. Their aim is to rewrite the Canada Health Act which is supposed to guarantee our system of universal access to medically needed health care.

But perhaps the fight will be a real one. In the last two weeks two groups of doctors have racheted up their campaigns in favour of a public, single payer system. The first was Médecins québécois pour le regime public, which presented a fine program at their annual general meeting in mid-February. The second is Canadian Doctors for Medicare, whose excellent report "Neat, Plausible and Wrong: The Myth of Health Care Unsustainability" of is now available on line.

It's worth reading in its entirety, but suffice to say here it details changes in health care expenses in Canada and sums up: "If Medicare costs are stable, and public sector costs are rising slowly, why are total health care costs increasing rapidly? The real cost driver is precisely the thing that critics of Medicare tout as the solution: private health care."