What’s on your face?

21 Feb

Anger was a common (and justifiable) response to the news a few weeks back that the Susan G. Komen Foundation had defunded Planned Parenthood in the United States for what seemed to be a thinly veiled political attack on their abortion services.

But it actually made me happy.

Not because Planned Parenthood was going to suffer, but that the ruse of “Big Pink” was finally under the white hot spotlight of media scrutiny. And it wasn’t just the fact that they were denying women mammograms, a key (and controversial) method of breast cancer detection, but that instead of putting most of their funding into research for cancer cures or prevention, it was just going into more pink stuff you could buy to raise money for their charity.

Thankfully Komen have since reversed their position and re-funded Planned Parenthood, but I hope the scrutiny doesn’t stop there. Because frankly, when it comes to cancer, we don’t know a lot about where it comes from. Sure, smoking and an unhealthy diet are large predictors, but that doesn’t account for why over a third of  Canadians will get cancer in their lifetimes, and over a quarter of us will die from it.

What we need is more research and information, but what we have right now is more questions. We know from the Health Canada Whistle Blower scandal that government bodies aren’t always out to represent our best interests when it comes to our health and safety. We often need to do the research ourselves about what’s in our food, our cleaners, our makeup, our living spaces–our environment.

Unfortunately not everything comes with a list of ingredients. But there are resources out there, like the Skin Deep Cosmetics Database, which outlines the ingredients and the research on the safety on hundreds of thousands of bath and beauty products for men and women. It’s made me think twice about wearing makeup everyday, what moisturizer I use, and how to protect myself from the sun.

It’s not a perfect resource: it doesn’t include any products from LUSH where I bought most of my toiletries–until I discovered a few days ago that some of them contain methylparaben and propylparaben, endocrine blockers suspected of causing cancer. There’s limited information on chemicals, too, because the research hasn’t been done.

But being diligent about checking what you put on, and in, your body is a start. So instead of thinking pink, think research and do some of your own on what’s on your bathroom shelf or in your fridge.

Degrees of Trust: Would Your University Lie To You?

12 Feb

A masters degree: worth more than the paper it's printed on.

Few things in our society are held in higher esteem than post-secondary institutions, especially universities. There are definite downsides to formal education from the ivory tower issue, to exorbitant student fees, to the exclusion of minorities of all kinds. But degrees and certificates are recognized as important. Not only your degree, but where you earned it, is included on your resume. Heck, some people wear their univeristy colours or insignia long after graduation. It indicates you have a speciality in this field, that you worked extra hard to gain this knowledge not found in the public system, and gosh darn-it, you should be respected (and employed) for it.

But what if your degree is meaningless? What if the university, the college, or trade school lied to you about the requirements and gave you a degree you hadn’t earned? Or told you it qualified you for an occupation it didn’t?

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about this very issue for The Tyee after a group of students at a private college in the Lower Mainland alleged they were defrauded out of $50,000+ in tuition they paid to receive diplomas in Traditional Chinese Medicine and acupuncture, only to discover after graduation they didn’t meet the qualifications to practice either in Canada. One student has received a refund but many others are facing crippling debt and no qualifications or careers to show for it.

This weekend a similar situation came to light at Dickinson State University in North Dakota, U.S.A., which is being audited for allegedly granting hundreds of degrees to foreign students who didn’t meet the qualifications for graduation. Unlike the situation in B.C., these students will have the opportunity to take the courses again if their degrees are revoked, although it is unclear if that means paying for them again.

Obviously two examples do not make a wide-spread problem, and I’m sure most post-secondary institutions don’t engage in underhanded tactics to steal from students. But there are two disturbing elements  that stick out for me: the first is the trust we place in the academic sphere. Although we complain about post-secondary, whether it’s the cost, the exclusion, or the pretentiousness, we depend on academics for answers, and we trust them to aid us in shaping our future, whether that’s to be a plumber or a doctor of philosophy, and our minds. The second is that in a recession of the kind we’re still feeling the effects of–and another global financial crisis looming on the horizon–it’s hard enough to get a job already, but studies have shown people with post-secondary degrees stand a better chance of being employed. Having that rug pulled out from under you, finding out that your safety net has a huge hole in it or was never there at all, must be devastating to those who thought that they might be part of the lucky ones who manage to hang on to their jobs.

Although I don’t believe this is a widespread issue in North America, it’s happened enough that diligent post-secondary ombudsmen or watchdogs are needed. In British Columbia we do have the Private Post-Secondary Career Trainings Institute Association, for example, but with a board of directors made up of members of the private post-secondary industry, it raises questions of bias in the decisions they make. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t believe there is a provincial body for public post-secondary in B.C., nor a national body for Canada or the United States. Fake degrees and post-secondary fraud is not something that should be caught after convocation, it needs to be caught and punished before students even pay their tuition.

Only the gutless fear the godless

6 Dec

A new study released last week revealed religious people distrust atheists more than any other other religious group, homosexuals, and (gasp) feminists. In fact, they viewed atheists to be about as trustworthy as rapists.

The study, conducted by University of British Columbia doctoral student Will Gervais, asked 350 American adults and 420 UBC students a series of questions to determine the definitions of an untrustworthy person. Atheists came out as one of the least trustworthy.

This isn’t the first time atheists have taken a hit in recent years. In 2007 a Gallup Poll conducted in the United States revealed Americans were liklier to elect a Muslim, homosexual, or female president before they would elect an atheist. And there have been numerous studies claiming religious people are nicer, healthier, and happier than those who don’t believe.

The lack of tolerance these opinion polls show people have towards atheists is upsetting enough, but it hits close to home for me: I was raised by an atheist (along with a lapsed Catholic and an Anglican); my sister’s an atheist; many of my friends are atheists. Personally I identify as agnostic atheist, which in some circles makes me the subject of even more scorn, but given my lack of belief I’m lumped in with the reviled and untrustworthy all the same.

The argument cited in the UBC report is that the religious people surveyed believe people will only be good and moral if they think God is watching. That’s the same reason given for religious people being nicer, too. But I’ve never committed a mortal sin, I donate to charity, I say my please and thank yous, and I care about the plight of my fellow human beings, not to mention other living creatures, not because something is watching me, but because to me it’s right. And I know I’m not in the minority.

But the best argument against a mass distrust of atheists–other than being prejudicial and unfounded–came from a friend, also an atheist, who broached this topic with a religious colleague who agreed that atheists were untrustworthy. What if, he asked, God were to change its mind, and everything we consider good and moral was now considered bad and evil, and vice versa? Would she change her behaviour? Maybe, she said. How is that the moral high ground?

One person obviously cannot be taken as proof that all religious people are sheep. Indeed, despite the horrors humans have, and continue to, inflict on one another in the name of organized religion, I don’t believe people who subscribe to a particular religion are stupid or immoral. But in our increasingly secular society, and with atheism on a slow rise, it’s becoming more and more likely that you’ll have to live with atheists: they’ll be your neighbours; your colleagues; your friends; even your family. It’s time to put these ridiculous fears and biases to rest and show tolerance to your godless peers.

Who cries for poverty?

28 Nov


Photo from John Biehler's Flickr stream.

November 23 was the National Day of Remembrance for Road Crash Victims, and the B.C. government marked the event with a presser to announce a 40 per cent decrease in drunk driving deaths since they introduced tougher drunk driving legislation. Speaking about drunk driving victim Alexa Middelaer, who was four years old when she was hit and killed by a drunk driver, Premier Christy Clark teared up in front of the cameras.

It is indeed sad that Alexa died, especially so young. But there were no tears in front of cameras from the Premier on that day when First Call: BC Child and Youth Advocacy Coalition released their 2011 Child Poverty Report Card, showing B.C. as having the highest child poverty rate after taxes for the eighth year in a row.

To be fair, these numbers aren’t Clark’s fault. Statistics Canada only releases the income information First Call needs two years after the fact, so these statistics are actually from 2009 when the recession was still happening. The measurement methods themselves are also controversial: the Low-Income Cut Offs, before and after tax, measure low-income based on cost of living in communities of a certain population, thus not taking into account students, people who don’t pay taxes, or cities of similar size that have different costs of living (think Montreal compared to Vancouver).

What isn’t in doubt, however, is that people are still slipping between the cracks in our society.  Just over 90,000 people in B.C.  used food banks in March 2011. That’s down 4 per cent from last year, but still 15 per cent higher than the number of people who used them in 2008. As of May 2008, there were over 13,400 people on BC Housing’s wait list for social housing, and no new social housing units have been announced since 2008–this is in stark contrast to the 1,000-1,500 new social housing units that were opening every year in the early to mid 1990s.

Despite a lack of tears, genuine or not, from Premier Clark over poor families in this province, she has time to turn her government’s track record on poverty and homelessness around. She’s already raised the minimum wage, though it could be much higher, and announced a new pre- and post-natal nursing program to help mothers at risk (although that, too, has caused controversy). Here are three suggestions for what else she can do to bring the people of this province on track:

1) Start building non-supportive social housing, too: The latest bout of social housing announced in B.C., the eight sites in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, were all single room occupancy hotels with costly social services. These rooms are needed, and in fact we could use more of them, but they don’t help families of more than two people, or single people who don’t need drug, alcohol, or mental health treatment. Plus, residents who graduate from these treatment programs will need housing they can transition into when their treatment is over.

2) Make an anti-poverty strategy: B.C. and Manitoba are the only provinces left that haven’t made a comprehensive plan to bring up and keep their citizens out of poverty. The B.C. Liberals insist that they have one already, it’s just not called that. They have no documented proof of the different ministries working together to battle poverty, through education, housing, and employment strategies, and I think we’d all feel a lot better if we knew the ministries were working together on this and had a goal in sight.

3) More funding for education: We keep hearing about how education under the Liberal government is the highest it’s ever been. Of course it is–if it wasn’t, we wouldn’t be able to pay for any of the supplies or programs that have increased in cost over the years. This doesn’t mean the percentage of money put into education is the highest ever, and the BC Teachers Federation maintains that at least $336 million was cut in 2001/02 when the government illegally introduced Bills 27 and 28 to change class size and composition in B.C. We could use that funding to increase early childhood education access; or we could use it to build more schools where students are taking classes in portables; or to buy art supplies where teachers are paying out of their own pockets for paint. It’s a widely cited fact that children who have access to education not only grow up to make more money than those who don’t graduate or go onto university or college, but that they’re engaged more in their society: they vote, they’re healthier, they stay out of jail, and they live longer.

The government will fire back that in these tough economic times, we can’t afford these programs. But governments always have access to money: taxes. Yes, the HST was wildly unpopular, and perhaps not the fairest method of taxing citizens. But why not take another look at income tax–the highest income tax rate in B.C. is 14.7 per cent, only 9.7 per cent higher than the lowest. We could and should expect more from our wealthier residents. I’m not advocating for taxing them into poverty, or even the middle class, but if this government is serious about putting “Families First,” we need to do more than just raise the minimum wage and build some SROs in the Downtown Eastside: we need to put our money where our most vulnerable are.

Long time, no blogging

21 Nov

I’m not going to pretend that my lack of blogging these past seven months was due to anything but laziness on my behalf, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t been keeping busy . As most of you probably already know, I wrapped up a six-part series this fall for The Tyee Solutions Society on successful practices in Aboriginal education called “Successful Practices in First Nations Education” (my creativity was tapped out, okay?). It involved trips to Haida Gwaii, the Adams Lake Reserve, and Kamloops, thus crossing off some of the key places I wanted to visit in this province and getting paid to do great work while I was at it.

The series ran in full on The Tyee’s website, with single stories also running in the BC Teachers’ Federation magazine Teacher, and Aboriginal websites and blogs like the First Nations in BC Portal. I also produced some companion pieces for CBC Radio’s Daybreak North show.

Today The Tyee posted what might be the last element of the series, an audio slide show on Chief Atahm Immersion, a Secwepemc-language school for Kindergarten to Grade 7 students on the Adams Lake Reserve near Chase, B.C. I might have a little more water left to squeeze from this interesting stone before Christmas, so stay tuned.

Take a look, and let me know what you think:

The Self-Conscious Cyclist

19 Jun

Cyclist on the Dunsmuir bike lane. Photo by Dylan Passmore.

A recent article in The Tyee about the so-called “War on Cars” cities such as Vancouver are accused of declaring by creating designated bike lines got me thinking about why more people aren’t cycling. The City seems to think it’s because people don’t feel safe enough, and while I admit it can be downright nerve wracking to cycle in this city, that’s not the reason I choose two feet over two wheels.

It’s because I feel embarrassed.

Frankly speaking, I’m out of shape. Yes, any destination that takes less than an hour to walk I’ll go by foot, if time allows, and I don’t own a car. But once I get on a bike, even the slightest of inclines leaves me panting for air, sweat streaming down my face, muscles screaming. For the steeper hills, I just get off and walk.

I believe in cycling. I’d really like to be one of those people who can bike everywhere, smug in the satisfaction that I don’t need a car or a bus pass (and that I have fabulous thighs).

But I’ve never been in shape. I’ve tried, sort of. I remember one summer when I was in elementary school promising myself that I would use my step-moms work out tapes every day to lose those extra pounds. That got old pretty quick. In more recent years I’ve joined gyms, tried yoga, taken up swimming, and even started dancing lessons. But while I’ve lost weight, and gained some muscle tone, I’ve never been “in shape.”

I’ve always made excuses for not taking my bike: I live on a big hill, I don’t have keys for my bike lock, I don’t have the proper clothes (I tend to wear a lot of skirts/dresses, and the one pair of jeans I do own are uncomfortably tight enough without sweat streaming down them). I’m always waiting for the perfect timing, and always making excuses as for why it’s not right now.

But last Wednesday I decided to throw caution to the wind and, as Freddy Mercury put it, “get on your bikes and ride!” I’d moved closer to work (albeit still on a hill), found my lock keys, and improvised on the clothing dilemma: I wore a pair of blue undies over my red tights, under my skirt. I was hoping that if my skirt flew up people would think I was wearing (really) short shorts. Or that I was a superhero.

Going to work was fine: it’s either downhill or flat most of the way. Going home was another story. I made all the way from Georgia and Main to Commercial Drive when I finally had to stop. While I stood there panting, gulping water to get the coppery taste of defeat out of my mouth, at least 10 other cyclists whizzed by me, their well-toned bodies carrying them forward with ease. I was sure they were staring at me, judging my inability to keep up.

I was really embarrassed. Much more so when the old man sitting on a park bench near me finally piped up after about two minutes and said, “Nice day for a ride, isn’t it?”
I agreed, and, after a beat, explained to him why I was stopped: out of shape, first day on a bike in at least nine months, blah, blah, blah.

“At least you’re keeping at it,” he offered.

And he’s right. I may be out of shape, but I’m not dead yet. It’s never too late to get back on your bike and ride again, and while it has been four days now since I last rode, I’m planning on getting astride my blue and silver stallion (okay, Clydesdale) again tomorrow. Hopefully walking my bike one less block than last time.

Cultural differences, local similarities

8 Apr

A clip from the the doc God Grew Tired of Us—about a group of Lost Boys from Sudan who relocate to the United States— was sent to me yesterday through a BC Teachers’ Federation social justice listserv (not actually this clip from above, since I couldn’t get it to embed, but there are similar themes in both). I was struck while watching it by some of the similarities I see with the immigrant population of Vancouver. I don’t think we have a large Sudanese diaspora in Vancouver, but a large percentage of this city’s population are immigrants, and there’s undeniably some unease about this amongst some of the “native” Canadians.

I’m not saying I’m a Stephen-Colbert-like saint who doesn’t see race or has never thought another custom was weird. But when I hear others griping about people who “refuse” to learn English, or eat pig uterus, or refuse to uncover their hair in public, I think it’s important we look at ourselves and our own culture: we eat fried sliced potatoes from bags; can’t function without access to electricity, indoor plumbing, cell phones, or internet; fear strangers enough to ignore people who smile or say hello to us on the street. These customs aren’t unique to us, but there are certainly people coming to live in Vancouver that just don’t get them or us, like we don’t get them. Something to ponder the next time you make a mass generalization (as we all do) about another culture/race/ethnicity in Canada.