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Heart ache.

Massive flooding is threatening human lives, homes, wildlife and the ecosystem, and essential human services like healthcare in Ottawa, Gatineau and surrounding communities.

Although many feel the military support did not come soon enough or with as much human power as needed early in the crisis, and likely still now, I want to say this is one of the very few kinds of military service I can throw my full support behind. All the rest is so complicated but it’s beautiful to see an engine of power being used for something other than violence.

Our Canadian neighbors will need our support in the coming weeks, and financial donations to organizations like the Red Cross provide far less logistical problems than donations of goods.

We have access to many resources to support the individuals effected, and although not nearly perfect, the care for safety of the residents of these Canadians communities is a privilege many developing nations in poverty situations simply can’t provide (current flooding in Bangladesh, as just one example).

And this particular instance of flooding demonstrates my deep concerns about rising global temperatures. I don’t have any clue how others could view this, along with the enormous amount of other examples, and come to any other conclusion than knowing with complete certainty that we are personally and collectively culpable for putting our world into a MASSIVE state of crisis that threatens the continuance of all Life on our Mother Earth.

I held an atlas in my lap
ran my fingers across the whole world
and whispered
where does it hurt?

It answered
everywhere
everywhere
everywhere.

– Warsan Shire, from “What They Did Yesterday Afternoon”

I just happened to be at the hospital yesterday when one of my clients, who has Down Syndrome, was there as well.  As I was in the hall at one point, two paramedics with another patient passed me and I heard one say “[her name] is still here, we brought her yesterday” and the other said “who?” and he said “platypus” and they laughed.  It was only a fleeting moment but it hurt me so much for her sake.  No one else heard, and they had no chance of knowing I would pick up on what they said, but I still felt like, no way, not ever, should you call my dear friend and client that name.  It was clear from their laughter that it was meant in a derogatory way and not an endearing way.

I wish I had turned around and said “I know who you are talking about, I care about her very much, please don’t use hurtful nicknames for individuals with Down Syndrome, or really anyone, even when you think no one is listening.”

And if I could have I would have said “you can refer to her as the woman with Down Syndrome, or by a physical description that is not demeaning, or even better her name.”

Sometimes we say these hurtful things because we don’t know how to talk about, or connect to, someone else’s difference.  For the record, it is okay to say “the person with Down Syndrome” it is not okay to say “the down syndrome” or any other version that belittles her exist as a HUMAN to a DIAGNOSIS. Down Syndrome is an accurate feature of her identity, it’s not an insult, but it’s also not her whole identity. Recognize this.

But I didn’t say any of this. I felt shocked and sad and kept walking and then the moment was passed, but the feeling has lingered.

I’m sure we all have moments like this. The world doesn’t always understand how to treat people who are different and “don’t fit” or why we love them the way we do (and sometimes even we forget and need a helpful reminder).  We may not relate and we may not understand, but that is not an excuse to be cruel.

So this is a reminder: please let’s try to speak up when you witness someone being hurtful about another person (even if that person is not present) and for **** sake, don’t be the one to mock or hurt someone for their difference, whatever it is, even if you think no one can hear you.

All of this made me think of a seventeen year old girl I met in the spring, named Renate Gritter, who shared this incredibly powerful spoken word poem about having Asperger’s Syndrome, and the way the world has treated her.  I realize it’s not the same as what happened with my friend and client but it is related, so please watch this and feel the same joy and fierce allyship I felt when I first heard it! (and forgive that it is sideways).

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RjNkPR2VheM

 

Today is huge.  There are reports that the military ruler of Burma has signed Aung San Suu Kyi’s release order!  She may be released at 5pm tomorrow evening (6am on Saturday morning in Ontario).  This is a complicated process, and will be great cause to celebrate if she is released without restriction on freedom of speech or movement (which is very uncertain).  And cause to remember the other nearly 2,200 prisoners of conscience being held in Burma.

With the ‘democratic’ elections held last weekend, are we beginning to see cracks in the military junta’s foundation? Or has the ‘vote’ strengthened their grip on rule in Burma?  It could be that the military will just release and re-imprison Suu Kyi like they have done countless times in the past.  But I choose to have hope that things are beginning to change.

I really want to believe that this is the beginning of us seeing the Junta’s power start to crumble. I think they wanted the vote to make it seem like their power is legitimate… but this is such a critical moment. Maybe we’ll see another uprising from the people of Burma, like the protests in 2007 or 1988, especially if Suu Kyi isn’t released unconditionally.  And maybe we’ll see enough international attention and pressure to bring about change and a democratically elected leader.  It was four years from when Mandela was released to his election.  Change takes time.  But we might be witnesses to the beginning of something incredible.

Today I will light a candle as a prayer for Aung San Suu Kyi and the Burmese people, for the 2,200 prisoners of conscience in that country, for the Karen people and other ethnic minorities, for hope and peace.  Please join me by lighting a candle, saying a prayer, imagining freedom and justice for the Burmese people.

“When I despair, I remember that all through history the ways of truth and love have always won. There have been tyrants, and murderers, and for a time they can seem invincible, but in the end they always fall. Think of it–always.” – Mohandas K. Gandhi

I’ve included Amnesty International’s email below which has links to take action on Suu Kyi’s behalf.

Peace.
——————————————————————————————–

From: Amnesty International USA

Subject: We’ll know Suu Kyi’s fate within 24 hours.

Dear Ashley,

We’ve been waiting for this day for so long – the release of democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi. Suu Kyi could be set free as early as tomorrow, November 13.

Our anticipation is high, but we’ve also been here many times before.

In fact, Myanmar’s rulers could decide to tack arbitrary conditions on to Suu Kyi’s release that bar her from any and all future political activity. That is, if they decide to release her on this date at all – she could be held until February 2011, depending on when they actually dated the start of her 18-month term of house arrest. No one knows for sure.

Don’t let Myanmar’s rulers change the rules – ensure that Aung San Suu Kyi is freed tomorrow.

Less than a week ago, Myanmar’s military party swept the country’s first elections in more than 20 years amid heavy criticism and allegations of widespread fraud. As a result, thousands are fleeing the region as violence erupts.

The growing tension puts Suu Kyi’s release date even more at risk of falling under the regime’s capricious judgments.

But releasing Aung San Suu Kyi, while still blocking her rights and freedoms, would be a flat-out violation of all laws, rules and basic respect for humanity.

Suu Kyi’s freedom should have never been stolen in the first place.

Tell Myanmar’s rulers that Amnesty International is keeping track and according to our records Aung San Suu Kyi’s unconditional release is long overdue.

But we continue to hope because we’ve seen change happen before in places with appalling human rights records.

It was the tenacity of Amnesty International supporters that helped lead to the release of the two American journalists in North Korea. Our vigilance strongly contributed to the release of Musaad Abu Fagr, a blogger in Egypt. And it was our unwavering hope that helped lead to the release of Ma Khin Khin Leh, another one of Myanmar’s more than 2,200 political prisoners.

We can build this fire again for Aung San Suu Kyi, but we need your support now.  That’s the kind of light we need for Suu Kyi. That’s the kind of light we need for every last prisoner of conscience in Myanmar.

Thank You,

Michael O’Reilly
Senior Campaign Director, Individuals at Risk
Amnesty International USA

P.S. Aung San Suu Kyi and Su Su Nway, another prisoner of conscience in Myanmar, are featured in Amnesty International’s Write for Rights, the largest and most powerful global letter-writing event. You can continue to shine a light for all prisoners of conscience in Myanmar by signing up to Write for Rights.

This is Beatrice.  She lives in Ghana.  She owns a small shop where she sells sewing supplies.  I lent her money through Kiva so that she could grow her business and keep her children in school.  So far, she has repaid 75 percent of her loan and will have paid it all back by June 2010.  When she finishes repaying the loan, I will use it to help another person somewhere else in the world.

You could too, if you wanted.

http://www.kiva.org

On the eve of the Opening Ceremonies, I’m going out on a limb.

In 2006, I cheered as the Canadian women’s hockey team claimed gold in Italy.  I felt my heart swell with pride for our nation, for our women, for what is possible. I may have even cried a little bit.

In 2008, I hesitated as reports from Amnesty International claimed 1.5 million people were being displaced by the Beijing games.  After hearing a presentation by classmate Dave McCallum on gentrification in our Justice course, I began to wonder whether the development and investment that goes into a host city really is a positive thing.

In 2010, I began to research.  What I have found has hurt, dumbfounded and angered me.

For many Canadians, indeed many people around the world, the Olympics represent athletic excellence, national pride, unity and some even say peace.  CTV broadcast one advertisement that beckoned Canadians to embrace “the spirit of competition and celebration of excellence. Show the world you believe.”

But we must consider this question, what exactly are we being asked to believe in?

As I began to research, I found that (of course) I was not the only one hesitant about Vancouver 2010.  In fact a whole resistance movement has been working since 2006 to protest the Games.  A quick online search revealed many opinionated posts, some informative, some cynical, some down-right negative.  The media and corporate sponsors would like to wash over all the claims of these articles as the views of a few extreme radicals.  And perhaps they are right.

But there are some facts which I believe cannot, should not be ignored.

The Olympic Games guzzles millions, even billions of tax-payer dollars.  What is the long-term benefit of these dollars?

Vancouver has had an ever-increasing homelessness crisis.  The Games enable police to criminalize poverty, clearing the streets of pan-handlers and making it illegal to sleep outdoors.  And yet, the city has cut budget spending on affordable housing, social service programs and shelters, in order to fund the Olympics.

With the Olympics, there is always a swell in tourism.  Some say this is good for the local economy.  But local businesses owned by members of the community have been forced to close their doors, to allow the money of the tourists to filter straight into the pockets of the corporate sponsors.  The local business owners of Vancouver will not be benefiting from the Games.  Coca-cola, RBC, Petro Canada, McDonald’s, Bell and a host of other sponsors will.

With a swell in tourism comes a swell in prostitution.  To meet this demand, human trafficking in Canada has increased.  The majority of women targeted by human trafficking in Canada are Indigenous Women.  These women will not benefit from the Games.  The traffickers will.

The local arts in Vancouver have suffered.  I read of a series of murals, painted by 16 local artists in 2007, that were washed over with the Olympic colours.  Local residents stenciled these words across the wall in protest: “With glowing hearts, we kill the arts.”

There are a myriad of other problems associated with the Olympics, including severe degradation to local ecosystems and the production of 3.7 million tons of carbon emissions.  My friend Luke Wilson is speaking at UBC today on this issue.

So these are some of the costs of the games.  What are the benefits?

A sense of national unity.  International competition.  Pride.  One friend commented that seeing athletes triumph fosters a sense of discipline, teamwork and unity that we can apply to our lives.  And she may be right.

Of course in my research, I came across the opinions of those who believe the benefits are worth the costs, or that the costs are exaggerated by naysayers and extremists.

In response to some of the negative impacts of the Games, my friend Shannon Pringle raised a few important questions.  She wrote,

Why must we always “through the baby out with the bath water?” If we opposed everything where injustice and corruption were present what would we have left? Why must we focus solely on the bad things and completely disregard (not even consider) that society benefits greatly from events such as the Olympics? Is not possible to support the Olympics in ways that do not proliferate the injustice it may cause? What about all the “regular Joes” that will benefit from it? The jobs that have been created? The volunteerism? The people who work in the tourism industry? The kids who are inspired by the hard work and dedication of the athletes? The local musicians and artists who have opportunity to showcase their talents?

And Kendall Kadatz also responded with some important considerations.  He asked,

What have the games done for international relations? Is there a positive trickle down effect of the pursuit of healthy activities for the human body as a result of the games?

These are all very good questions.  And with any issue, there are no simple answers.  I take Shannon’s challenge seriously.  Is there a way to consider the benefits of the Games, to support them, without supporting the injustices that are involved in the production of such a large event?

With the Beijing Olympics in 2008, there was a lot of emphasis amongst human rights activists on using the Olympics as a platform for raising awareness of various human rights issues.  Perhaps that is possible with the 2010 Games too.  Perhaps we can use these Olympics to draw attention to the injustices that still occur in our own nation, and the things that are being done about them.  Bill C-300, for example, which addresses corporate accountability for overseas mining and development by Canadian companies, or Bill C-268 which ensures a five-year minimum sentence for the human trafficking of minors in Canada.  Amnesty International is still campaigning on behalf of the Lubicon Cree tribe in Northern Alberta, who are losing sacred native land to the oil development.  Though I don’t see a whole of attention on these important issues in the media.

So I’m left wondering if there are some more positive ways we can gain the benefits of an international event like the Olympics without some of the baggage that comes along with it.  As Shannon asked, is there a way to support Olympic spirit without ignoring these important concerns?  I think it’s a question that has the potential to keep me up tonight.

But wouldn’t it be so incredible if we could find our national pride in something that mattered more than sport?  Wouldn’t it be great if we didn’t have to buy it from corporate sponsors? We could funnel all that cash into ending human trafficking, or poverty in Canada, or dealing with the climate crisis.  And we would be showing the world what is possible.  We would be showing the world the power of you and I.  And it would matter.

I just finished watching another documentary.  This one, sent to me by my friend Margaret, is done by a group of creative performance protesters who travel across America as Rev. Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping.  Yes, some Christians are bound to be offended by this, but I think it’s become apparent that shocking messages are the only ones that get through to a culture so numbed by advertising and entertainment.

The documentary is called What Would Jesus Buy? and you can watch it free online (90 mins).  In fact I hope you do watch it, even if you just watch a half hour or so, especially before you begin your Christmas shopping this year.

My favourite line: “you don’t need to buy a gift to give a gift.”

I feel anxious and unsettled most years as the Christmas season approaches, and particularly in those first few weeks following December 25th.  This is the earliest it has ever set in for certain.  The anxiousness comes from recognizing that as much as I try to be conscious of my consumerism, I am as much a product (yes, a product) of my culture as the next person.  I am sucked in by the advertisements, the discounts and the cheap and dirty happiness that shopping offers.  Of course we all know, this happiness isn’t real.   But are we doing anything to change that?

I attended a church service last Sunday, something that I don’t do very regularly, and noticed that on my seat was a little flyer advertising a Ten Thousand Villages Sale.  I love Ten Thousand Villages.  I love supporting artisan groups from developing nations with living wages.  But I was so disturbed by the headline on the flyer: “O Come All Ye Shoppers”.

I don’t want to be part of your target market.

When I was 17, I spent a week before Christmas in Nicaragua with Operation Christmas Child (the organization that collects gift-filled shoeboxes for kids in developing nations).  I was amazed to see the plastic Santa Clauses adorning the stores in the capital city, a city where huge numbers of children will wake up on December 25th, with no gifts, maybe even no food.  Like every other day, the children at La Chureca (the city dump) will sort through garbage looking for anything they can salvage or sell.  Exposed to dirty needles, toxic smoke from burning garbage and wild dogs, not to mention whatever disease float in the water that runs off the heaps of trash into their drinking water.

How can we tell our children that Santa brings gifts to children all over the world?

We need to be reminded that Santa is a lie.

Last year I celebrated Advent for the first time.  I am still very new to the tradition and am looking forward to rediscovering it in new depth this year.  I am looking forward to enjoying family holiday traditions (and maybe even starting some new ones) with my parents and my brothers, my sister-in-law and my niece.  But I think I will have to apologize to them because I can no longer participate in the consumerism of Christmas.

In the celebration of Advent I find hope.  In Advent I find a real acknowledgment that we, humanity, are lost without a saviour.  A saviour who, I think, would have nothing to do with the man in the red suit, placed into our imaginations by Coca-Cola, who’s only role is to convince our parents (or us) to buy, buy, buy.  In the celebration of Advent, I find giving.  Giving of ourselves instead of our credit cards.  In Advent I find time for remembrance and reflection, for gratitude and my family.

I am looking forward to the season of Advent, to learning more about its celebration and traditions.  I hope you’ll let me share them with you as I learn.

(I recognize and respect that everyone has different values and opinions about what Christmas means.  I don’t mean to offend anyone or belittle anyone’s traditions, especially my own family’s.  I do hope to cause all of us to think about whether we need to spend money to show love, or to celebrate Jesus or family.)

The mall across the street from my house put up their outdoor christmas decorations this week.  Isn’t it a little early to be diving into the consumerism of December 25th?  Yes, yes, I know Christmas is about so much more than shopping, but if are highest priorities are what we put the most time, energy and money into, than I think it’s safe to say that most North Americans put more into shopping for the Christmas season than they do on any of the other stuff (family, love, peace, hope, service to others).

I was intentional when saying service to others rather than giving to others because it’s too easy to get confused and think that giving requires spending money and the acquiring of material possessions.  I think there is a better form of giving, one that requires time and energy and sometimes stretching beyond comfort levels.

This video does such a good job of saying what I mean (and is actually where I started gleaning these thoughts from):

Consumerism ≠ Meaning

If you’re looking for a great alternative to buying more material possessions for someone who already has more than they will ever need (such as myself), consider Kiva gift certificates!  (Follow the link and click Kiva Gifts, near the top of the page.)  The idea is that you give a friend or family member a gift certificate that lets them lend the money to an entrepreneur in a developing country.  The entrepreneur uses the loan to grow their small business, and when the money gets paid back (usually in 6 months – 1 year) your friend can choose to reloan it to someone else or withdraw the money and use it for something else. (I personally like the reloaning option).

And if you haven’t heard of Buy Nothing Day, take a look at this website and consider re-evaluating your Christmas shopping and gift-giving plans.  (After working at Canadian Tire over one Christmas season, I realized the amount of money we spend on decorations is completely mindboggling! Surely we can think of things our money should go to more than another box of decorations.)  Maybe you don’t want to have a complete Buy Nothing Christmas, and that’s okay, but if you can, start looking for some things that you normally would spend money on that you don’t necessarily need this to buy this year.  I’m sure everyone can find gifts to give (and to ask for) that are based in something other than material want.

So if you know me at all, you know that these two words are often on my tongue, usually followed somewhere with a question mark.   I continue to wrestle with the questions of justice and hope.  What is justice?  How are we involved in justice, and injustice?  How can we hope for justice in a world that seems inherently driven by greed, fear and complacency?  How can we continue to cultivate hope against overwhelming odds?  Really, I could go on and on.

I just got home from having coffee with two new friends, Jay and Michelle (www.hopeforthesold.com).  First, its refreshing to find that there are other people out there in the world worth knowing.  After university, when everyone scattered across the nation (or more accurately, everyone moved to Vancouver) and I came home to find most of my old friends are now in other places, I started wondering whether I would be spending a whole lot of time thinking through stuff on my own.  Which is tough for a person who processes best through discussion, such as myself.  Hence the need for this blog.  But clearly, this is a tangent.  Suffice it to say there are people out there, even in this area of Ontario, worth knowing.  And I’m gonna find them.

So Jay and Michelle are back recently from a cross-country road trip which took them from one place to another researching, interviewing and filming footage for a documentary they are putting out on human trafficking.

Say what?  Human trafficking – which I learned is the third (or maybe second now) largest industry in the world.  Next to weapons and drugs.  The buying and selling of human lives.

But I thought slavery had been abolished in the 1800s.  International Justice Mission (www.ijm.org) states:

Today, millions of lives around the world are in the grip of injustice.

More children, women and men are held in slavery right now than over the course of the entire trans-Atlantic slave trade: Millions toil in bondage, their work and even their bodies the property of an owner.

Trafficking in humans generates profits in excess of 12 billion dollars a year for those who, by force and deception, sell human lives into slavery and sexual bondage. More than 2 million children are trapped in forced prostitution.

Did you catch that?  More people are enslaved TODAY than the combined number of slaves bought and sold during the trans-Atlantic slave trade.  More women and children are trapped in forced prostitution than the number of Africans who were forced to work on cotton plantations in the South.

And this isn’t just a third world problem.  The largest ‘consumers’ of sex tourism are North American men.   The domestic trafficking of aboriginal women in CANADA for the purpose of sexual exploitation is still rampant.

So what can we do?  Where do justice and hope meet?  I think it’s in a number of places – to begin awareness, advocacy and education.  Awareness of injustice must be forced into the minds of the public if we are going to see anyone stand up and demand change.  Jay and Michelle reiterated again and again that as long as there exists a demand for it, human traffickers will continue to supply.

And the demand will continue to exist as long as we remain ignorant and complacent to reality.  Remember that quote from Edmund Burke? “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men [and women] do nothing.”

So what can we do?  I think what I am really starting to understand is that justice and hope meet in the individual.  The individual who refuses to turn a blind eye to systematic injustice.  Because the individual has power to do something.  Maybe not everything, but something. Because justice begins in small places, in small ways.

And justice and hope meet in the individual who is changed because of that one individual.  Maybe that person is someone who will now advocate on behalf of the victims of sexual exploitation.  Or maybe that person is someone who will get involved at a street level, working with women involved in the sex trade, whether by force or by ‘choice’, offering them hope and maybe even a way out.

And maybe that street worker won’t be able to save everyone, but maybe he or she will be able to give hope to one individual, to help one girl see her own worth, and to find a way out.  One individual.

I think that is a good place to begin.

If you’re looking for more info and ways to get involved, go here: http://humantrafficking.change.org/.

For an in depth look at domestic trafficking of women in Canada, go here:

http://www.cncew.ca/Publications/MicrosoftWord-CNCEW_Trafficking_Discussion_SJS.pdf

This excerpt is from a speech by Elie Wiesel (who describes the horror he faced as a Jewish concentration camp prisoner in his book, Night) was given in 1986 as he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize. You can find the speech in its entirety here: http://www.pbs.org/eliewiesel/nobel/index.html

I remember: it happened yesterday, or eternities ago. A young Jewish boy discovered the Kingdom of Night. I remember his  bewilderment, I  remember his anguish. It all happened so fast. The ghetto. The deportation. The sealed cattle car. The fiery altar upon which the  history of our people and the future of mankind were meant to be  sacrificed.

I remember he asked his father: “Can this be true? This is the  twentieth century, not the Middle Ages. Who would allow such crimes to  be committed? How could the world remain silent?”

And now the boy is turning to me. “Tell me,” he asks, “what have you done with my future, what have you done with your life?” And I tell him that I have tried. That I have tried to keep memory alive, that I have tried to fight those who would forget. Because if we forget, we are guilty, we are accomplices.

And then I explain to him how naïve we were, that the world did know and remained silent. And that is why I swore never to be silent whenever wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Wherever men and women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must — at that moment — become the center of the universe…

There is so much injustice and suffering crying out for our attention: victims of hunger, of racism and political persecution — in Chile, for instance, or in Ethiopia — writers and poets, prisoners in so many lands governed by the Left and by the Right.

Human rights are being violated on every continent. More people are oppressed than free. How can one not be sensitive to their plight? Human suffering anywhere concerns men and women everywhere. That applies also to Palestinians to whose plight I am sensitive but whose methods I deplore when they lead to violence. Violence is not the answer. Terrorism is the most dangerous of answers. They are frustrated, that is understandable, something must be done. The refugees and their misery. The children and their fear. The uprooted and their hopelessness. Something must be done about their situation…

But I have faith. Faith in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and even in His creation. Without it no action would be possible. And action is the only remedy to indifference, the most insidious danger of all. Isn’t that the meaning of Alfred Nobel’s legacy? Wasn’t his fear of war a shield against war?

There is so much to be done, there is so much that can be done. One person — a Raoul Wallenberg, an Albert Schweitzer, Martin Luther King, Jr. — one person of integrity, can make a difference, a difference of life and death. As long as one dissident is in prison, our freedom will not be true. As long as one child is hungry, our life will be filled with anguish and shame. What all these victims need above all is to know that they are not alone; that we are not forgetting them, that when their voices are stifled we shall lend them ours, that while their freedom depends on ours, the quality of our freedom depends on theirs…

Our lives no longer belong to us alone; they belong to all those who need us desperately.

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