Archive for the ‘human rights’ category

Twenty years ago today…

December 6, 2009


I was a first-year student in a Quebec university. Early in the evening of December 6, 1989, I had a class in the 7 to 10 pm slot, and that was where I must have heard about the Polytechnique massacre. I don’t remember exactly how I first heard, maybe on the radio, where details were emerging in snippets of panic and disbelief. A man shot a bunch of students, then himself, in a classroom? This was years before classrooms were to become familiar but still outrageous sites of bullets and blood, and the intense shock of the Polytechnique aftermath drove my spirit into hiding, just as I suspect it did for other women students of my age. Anglophone that I was, it took me several days to even piece together that the École Polytechnique was the engineering faculty of the Université de Montréal.

When Polytechnique the movie was released in early 2009, I made a point to see it through in a movie theatre and address the residues of that shock. There were four of us sitting in the seats when it started, and only my friend and I were left by the time it was over. Harrowing, shot in black and white, and not overly graphic, Polytechnique is a sober film that deals with composite characters and documented facts. I’m glad someone had the courage to make it, if only to serve as an archival piece about what happened on December 6, 1989.

The stress, styrofoam coffee cups, typical 80s music and informal group study sessions of university exam periods felt very familiar; there were no cellphones, iPods, laptops, or PowerPoint presentations – just textbooks, course notes and acetates shown on overhead projectors. There may have been a few of those funny convex mirrors posted at blind corners, just so students could avoid head-on collisions. The photocopy machines were always busy. Knowing that this scene would soon be interrupted by multiple shooting deaths was almost unbearable.

One of the most heartbreaking moments was when one girl from the classroom group sequestered by the murderer protested his labelling them as feminists. She shouted “we are not feminists, we’re just living a normal life!” And that was when he sprayed the group with a hail of bullets, and they all fell. But it was true, they’re weren’t really feminists. Even young women engineering students of the time, a very small minority among the young men, didn’t consider themselves feminists, or trailblazers of any kind. The trail had been blazed already, you’d have been crazy to pretend you were a pioneer of women’s rights by entering any professional degree program in 1989. Anyways, we had to study hard; there was no time to learn about feminist history or gender theory. Apparently we didn’t even have time for the basics back then, we were in such a rush to fend off the competition and earn a cherished spot in a professional program or a plum internship – and unless blatant discrimination was being applied, the most serious competition was from the perfectionist drive of the other women students.

I didn’t have the same excuse, however. In the fall of 1989, I was studying literature; this was before I reoriented my study program to focus on sciences, with the goal of studying veterinary or human medicine. And in early December 1989 I was reading The Diviners, a classic novel in Canadian literature that carries a good description of what life was like for women before women’s rights were part of the landscape. One day in class we were discussing the novel, which intrigued me, but I didn’t really know what to make of it, the constant setbacks and impossibly contentious roads chosen by Morag were incomprehensible to me. My sole comment on the novel in class: “Well, she doesn’t seem very happy, does she?” I offered that up with a mix of contempt for this woman who couldn’t find her way in life, who had difficult relationships with the people closest to her, and self-satisfaction because I wasn’t a feminist, and thus rejected struggle and wilfull unhappiness.

After the class, Charles, a senior student, came straight over to where I was sitting. From his severely receded hairline and grayish temples it was obvious that Charles was older than most of us; his contributions to class discussions put the rest of ours to shame because he had the authority of personal experience to back up his opinions. He looked me square in the eyes and said “you don’t know much about the history of women, do you?” I’m not sure what I said in reply to that, perhaps I didn’t say anything at all and just looked at him with my best deer-in-the-headlights face. He gave me a very brief but pointed description of what life had been like for women in Quebec prior to the Quiet Revolution, that Canadian women had been severely limited in their personal and professional choices until something like the mid-1970s, and ended his speech by suggesting that I open my eyes and ears for the stories I wouldn’t hear from my contemporaries.

I was mildly insulted, but his words worked on me, and in the years ahead, I did pay attention to history, to what older women said when they talked about about their lives, and to the experiences of older generations. I learned about how women in Quebec had been valued for their ability to bear vast numbers of children, and that as soon as they were no longer obliged to do so, they threw off the yoke of the Church of Perpetual Childbearing and mobilised an entire society to sweeping changes – changes that were enacted while I was a child and which my generation accepted as our birthright by the time we entered university. Did we imagine that if things hadn’t always been that easy, they couldn’t have been all that different?

Last year during a symposium at the Ontario Veterinary College on women in veterinary medicine, I learned that in 1972, Title IX legislation in the United States led to a massive inpouring of women students in veterinary medicine and other professional programs. It was such a vast and sweeping change that from one year to the next somewhere in the mid-1970s, there were more graduating women veterinarians in a single year than there had been in all the years taken together since veterinary programs were first created in the late 19th century. I don’t know if Canada had to enact similar legislation, but the same sweeping changes occurred here and in other countries on the heels of that major piece of feminist-inspired legislation.

By the time I entered vet college in 1995, 75% of my classmates were girls, in a profession that had once seen women excluded on the basis that we were too delicate and sensitive to study anatomy and perform many of the tasks vets had to perform. I still have a hard time imagining which ones, because I’ve done most of them, a few times with men standing helpless at my side. I’ve seen men turn a whiter shade of pale at the sight of blood and smell of pus; sights and smells that to me signal nothing more than a problem to solve.

Animal medicine has sometimes been a disappointment to me, as I’ve seen how often we use the bodies of animals as means to our own ends, with perfect callousness – as a kind of mirror to the way women were treated for so long. On the other hand, I wake up most days excited about the knowledge and skills I was allowed to learn, and couldn’t imagine my life without them.

For me, that’s been the experience of living a normal life. Too many women in different times and places have been prevented from living anything I’d consider resembling a normal life, and 14 women engineering students in 1989 were prevented from living their lives at all. It’s not ideological to observe that it was due to a young man’s anger and frustration at feminism (plus the easy availability of an automatic weapon) that women were slaughtered on December 6, 1989. It’s not the fault of feminist “ideology” that other women have pointed out that violence against women is almost uniquely carried out by angry and frustrated men; it’s not ideological to draw incredibly obvious parallels between December 6 and violence against women in homes and around the world.

Sometimes it just takes several years of personal and collective experience, while paying attention to history, to accept these hard facts.

As for myself, I finally learned to credit feminism with allowing me to live a normal life. And yes, I am a feminist, for as long as it will take.

Choosing sides

January 9, 2009

I often wonder about the different reasons that make people choose one side of an debate or conflict over another. Also, what motivates us to change our minds – or admit that we see reason on the other side and therefore must grudgingly switch over. Do some people *know* that they are on the wrong side, but protecting their own interests, preserving prejudice or wilfull ignorance prevents them from admitting it? I tend to think so.

I’ve had Deborah Ellis’ courageous book Three Wishes: Palestinian and Israeli Children Speak for a few months, but finally started to read it the other night with my kids; we’ve read 10 or so of the children’s stories so far. It’s hard reading, but we’re used to it; we were very grateful for her Breadwinner (Parvana’s Journey) trilogy, and we’ve read some difficult books about animal suffering as well, such as Black Beauty.

The book is balanced and honest. Ellis mentions that she obtained parental permission to do all of her interviews, and if any of the parents ended up objecting after the fact, she did not include those interviews in the book. She also did not include interviews in which the children were “very rabidly” against the other side, because she didn’t want that to be the legacy left by those young people. Of course, she could have changed names or not used photos, but rabid partisanship was not the overall feeling she got from the children and youth she interviewed. The Israeli and Palestinian children (both Muslim and Christian) are girls and boys between the ages of 8 and 18. Their opinions and stories have not made me wince or roll my eyes; on the contrary, they all have the mark of reality – none of them appear to be overly tinged by parental, religious or cultural influence.

Still, as one would expect from these children, the sides are very well drawn: they know exactly who they are, and what and who they are up against. They speak about not knowing any Palestinian children, if they are Israeli, and vice versa. Some of the children say they don’t want to know children from the other side, while others say they do, because then they would understand that they are not the evil people they are made out to be by the other side. At least one child remarked that the children of the other side might start out being nice, but then they grow up to be just like their parents, hating them because they are Palestinian, or Israeli.

All of the children wish the conflict would just go away and leave them in peace: to not live in fear of being blown up, say the Israelis; and to not live with constant fear, harassment, indiscriminate shootings, interminable waits in lines at checkpoints and roadblocks, and cruel and unpredictable cancellations of school, jobs and activities, say the Palestinians.

My son has listened carefully to these accounts and has become convinced that the Palestinian children have it much worse, though of course he understands the chronic fears of the Israeli children, who live in fear during every normal outing you could imagine, including walking beside parked cars that might blow up at exactly the wrong moment for you. He understands the fear on all sides, probably because real and imagined fears are a normal part of every child’s existence, even when the objective reasons to fear aren’t that high on the relative scale. Still, he’s chosen his side based on a gut instinct of what is worse, and who is bearing the brunt of the violence and daily injustice.

I’m a bit troubled by that, because it wasn’t my goal to have him choose sides – after all, choosing sides will cause him grief at some point; so maybe it’s best to remain numb, or indifferent? Or to imagine that both sides are equally at fault, through historical miscalculations and power-grabs? Or, at a meta-level, to find some kind of universal self-satisfying explanation about how all humans are inherently vicious and will never get along unless they admit they are sinful and surrender to God? Certain religious currents instill us with this sense of helpless pessimism (I’m looking at you, evangelical Christians).

But I’m not sure anymore what the point is, because the war in Israel and Palestine has escalated in an appallingly lopsided fashion, either in spite of or because of the obvious pitiful circumstances to which the residents of Gaza have been reduced since 2005. The interviews from Three Wishes were carried out in 2002 – that’s ages ago, especially from the pov of an 11-year-old; but consider as well, that that is just slightly longer than all of World War II, and we’re still talking about it and learning new facts and analysis.

I wanted to write about animal and veterinary issues today and yesterday. And I probably will, but before I can get started on the pile of veterinary journals and articles on my desk, and sort out the events and issues I dealt with at work this week, I had to get this out.
If you haven’t already, please go to Amnesty International Canada’s site and sign the petition to tell our Foreign Minister to insist that civilians be protected and that unlawful attacks cease. Last I checked, it was up to 999 signatures.

And just to show that the sides are not so clearly drawn, read here about a massive Israeli protest against the Israeli government’s action in Gaza.

h/t: Creekside

On the use of force

January 4, 2009

I am co-authoring a modest book on cats with another veterinarian who, like me, has had experience with a wide variety of species in different clinical and research contexts. Of course, as Andrew is approaching 80, his experience goes well beyond mine. Recently, I reviewed his chapter on “training” cats so that they don’t behave in ways that could put strains on their relationships with humans, such as scratching furniture and jumping onto tables and countertops. His advice was to use the classic water-spray method that seems to have worked for some people, some of the time. As a use of force, it is a relatively gentle means, but it is a display of force nevertheless. (My son likes to say on behalf of all animals: curse you humans and your opposable thumbs!)

Several years ago, I tried the water-spray method of discipline, but ended up finding it messy and annoying, both to myself and to my young cat. For example, I usually didn’t reach the spray bottle in time (it was never put back in the same place), or I missed; and if I didn’t, I ended up with a wet, resentful cat who reverted to jumping on countertops when I wasn’t home just to prove he could still do it, if only to himself. Today, that same cat is 14 years old, and he still jumps on countertops, to get a drink of water from the tap in the sink or to evade harassment from the more energetic cats on the floor. In short, I gave up, and reasoned that the only way to have cats off tabletops was to gently remove them, over and over again, if necessary, until they tired of the exercise.

Of my three other cats, only one is prone to jumping on tables and countertops. I often find his footprints on the counter; of course this is annoying and mildly unsanitary, but I tolerate it because it’s not a huge issue in the scheme of things. In fact, in my experience most objectionable cat behaviour requires an intelligent use of resources to create solutions that benefit everyone, or gentle dissuasion. The use of forceful methods will usually produce unintended results, such as a different objectionable behaviour, or a neurotic and unhappy cat that never reaches his or her full potential for amiable companionship.

My mother often mentions to me that her cat doesn’t dare jump onto countertops, tables, or even certain chairs in the house, because he remembers being smacked for it back when he first moved into the house and was a very easily intimidated cat. The use of force worked for her. But the cat is clever. While my mother is the one who feeds and cleans up after the cat, she gets very little love in return. Cat is in love with my father, follows him everywhere and gives him all of his best attention and lovingest expressions. Cat knows that my father wouldn’t ever lift a hand against him, even if he wanted to; my father is just like that – even though he says the cat deserves a smack for waking him up at night, he would never dream of actually doing it. I guess that’s OK with my mother, because she doesn’t want cats following her everywhere or waking her up anyways.

The same principle applies with regard to the use of force in training dogs. It may produce certain results, if only because dogs have a hierarchical concept of social relationships that cats find abhorrent, so the use of force will go a certain way to ensuring obedience. However, most responsible dog trainers and experienced owners know that there are ways of training dogs without using force. They use consistency, fairness, and persuasive togetherness to get the best results: an obedient, non-neurotic and non-fearful canine companion.

I have no training in diplomacy, political science or even human psychology, but even so it has always been obvious to me that the use of force is nearly always a missed opportunity and a tragic mistake that produces unintended consequences. I know this is the case with kids and spankings; I have always detested the very idea of using slaps or spankings to teach them obedience or as a punishment. Humans are animals, and animals do not respond well to the use of force, in any context – even when human reason or religion proclaims that it is for their own good.

The current Israeli offensive in Gaza has reminded me of the tragic uselessness of force. Simply put, there is simply no way that the Israelis will achieve anything remotely positive from bombing and marching into Gaza, no matter how often they repeat their message that this is about subduing the threat of Hamas or ensuring future security for Israeli citizens. The use of force is always a mistake. I would’ve hoped that the accumulated experience of decades – millenia in fact – in the Middle East would have taught them otherwise.


January 3, 2009

In the eleven years since I first put baby to breast, the issue of public breastfeeding (or more specifically, breastfeeding in public spaces that are actually owned by various entities) has come into the news a few times. During the two years when I was actually breastfeeding (1998 and 2002, to be precise), I was blissfully unaware that this was all about breastfeeding rights for mothers. Naively, I had presumed it was all about eating rights for babies. Thus armed, I proceeded to feed my baby from the breast in restaurants, hotel lobbies, airplanes, parks, museums, beaches, offices, and pretty much anywhere I happened to be at the time with my hungry babies.
The thing I loved best about breastfeeding was the convenience. No bottles to heat, no worries about spoilage, nothing to store and nothing to discard, and no crying baby waiting while the bottle was prepared and heated.
Not once did I ever catch a glimpse of disapproval. At the time, it didn’t even occur to me that anyone could be offended by breastfeeding; however, it often occurred to me that people might be annoyed by a squalling baby, therefore I obviously wasn’t completely insensitive to other people’s physical well-being (as infants, my kids were loud and persistent criers when they got down to it; it was best not to let them get worked up in the first place).
Some of my best memories of breastfeeding include the genuinely approving looks I got from elderly men and women as I breastfed in malls and restaurants. Seniors spend a lot of time in malls, and as a young mother, so did I – for the logical reason that we both needed a place to walk and sit out of the cold and snow (I had winter babies). We happily shared that space, and nobody ever got more than a very quick flash of breast flesh, if at all. They’d have to have been sitting nose-to-nose with my baby to get a glimpse of areola.

So eleven years later I am wondering what all the fuss is about, and why breastfeeding mothers are labelled (by some) as lactivists if they reasonably insist on their right to feed their babies in public. I would have hoped that by now, this right would have become completely uncontested.

As for Facebook and its “standards of decency”, it is apparently only photos of the entire breast with baby attached that provoke dispute and deletion. I think it should be understood that women who post these photos are doing so for some very excellent reasons. Some may live in places where public breastfeeding is not an uncontested right, which was not my experience.
In humans, breastfeeding is not an instinctive behaviour (sucking is both an instinctive and learned behaviour in babies – like all mammals, human babies are definitely hardwired to suck, but many babies have to be taught to suck in such a way that is not painful or damaging to the mother; in some babies that can take a few seconds, others – like my firstborn – need a few days to catch on, ow.) For mothers, breastfeeding is a learned, cultural behaviour. In Western culture, breastfeeding was all too often an undertaking that was shifted to women of a certain class, wet nurses, who became experts at it and passed along the know-how within their own culture. Often, these wet nurses had to share their breasts with the babies of upper-class women who were breeders but not feeders. But with the democratisation of our culture, eventually breastfeeding came to be encouraged in all women. Of course, I’m skipping over a lot of history here, including the advent of formula in the 1930s, which many women , who had hung on to the old prejudices, figured would save them from having to learn to breastfeed their infants.
So all of that to say that breastfeeding can often be difficult for the average woman to learn and adapt to. It hasn’t gotten easier for women since the 70s, because each individual woman has to understand the mechanics and principles involved, plus she has to understand her own milk production in synch with her baby’s growth and appetite. It can become all-absorbing, a full-time job in fact, at least for the first few weeks and months. After about one month or so, if milk production is adequate (it isn’t in all women, a fact that complicates breastfeeding even further) breastfeeding suddenly becomes the easiest thing in the world, and if all goes well, one suddenly realises its matchless advantages.

So I can understand why women are presenting photos of their breasts on Facebook. This is the image they are projecting of themselves, at this point in time, because breastfeeding has become their world, their singular occupation, and they may even have important information or tips to share with others. It’s like an icon – there is knowledge behind that image.

I just wish the 12-year-old boys who run Facebook would grow up more quickly and realise that breastfeeding photos are neither sexual nor “disgusting”. I predict that if they don’t realise it by themselves, they will be shamed into it by some very determined mothers.

To help them on their way, I’d suggest they read Marilyn Yalom’s wonderful book, A History of the Breast. It will make them think about breasts in more interesting ways than they have yet imagined.

When will police conclude that Tasers are cruel and useless? This vet wants to know.

December 12, 2008

The Globe and Mail reports this morning that the Mounties will not be charged in the death of Robert Dziekanski.

Honestly, I’m not sure what to think of that decision by the B.C. criminal justice branch. Even though it’s obvious that Dziekanski was murdered, and his mother should receive acknowledgement of that, and some kind of compensation (though nothing will compensate for the loss of her son); I’m not sure the most appropriate course would be to charge the Mounties who used the Taser on him. I believe that the responsibility for his death lies higher up, with the “deciders” who thought it was a good idea to introduce Tasers in the first place. Cattle prods for humans, eh. If it hadn’t been in the news for the past several years, I wouldn’t believe it – I thought these methods were only worthy of concentration camps.

The guys who introduced Taser-like devices to this poor world supposedly had experience with cattle. Well, I worked for a while as a large animal vet, mainly with beef and dairy cows. Among the many tools I was instructed to purchase when I started out was a cattle prod. It looked like this:

Essentially a low-tech Taser prototype, discharging 60-80 volts of electricity when applied directly to the skin (holy moly, Tasers discharge 50,000 volts!? Hello, human doctors? could we have a word with you on this?) Even the relatively small voltage of my cattle prod was not something I ever tried on myself, as I’m a bit of a wuss that way – I’ve been inadvertently shocked by touching electric fences, and other cow-control accoutrements in barns and trust me, it’s an unpleasant experience.

The principal use of the prod, I observed during my rotations, was to get cows to stand up when they were too “stubborn” and didn’t respond to shouts, kicks pushes or slaps on the rump. I observed that the older vets tended to use the prod more frequently than the younger ones, and that women vets almost never used them. When I entered practice, I kept the prod in my tool chest with 2 double-D Energizer batteries, but never used it, though I did once or twice as a student, under instructions, and yes, it felt wrong. At some point, I removed the batteries to use in a much more useful tool (a flashlight) and never replaced them in the prod.

The main problem with the use of the cattle prod was that, in addition to being a cruel and painful method, it didn’t address the underlying problem. If the cow did not rise upon gentle prodding or encouragement, it was because she couldn’t – due to pain, weakness, metabolic disease, a fracture or sprain, a slippery floor, or not enough headspace because the chain around her neck prevented her from moving forward. A “downer” cow cannot be ignored – if she stays down too long, then she will never get up again due to muscle damage – but the prod was never a solution to that problem, not even “for her own good”.

Another use of the cattle prod is to goad cattle to go where you want them to go, when they are balking. I don’t remember ever seeing it used that way, likely because Temple Grandin’s work on cattle had already come into vogue, and we were more interested in using gentler, more effective methods of solving problems. The cattle prod makes the animals more skittish, nervous, and prone to accidents and injury. Not in the best interest of vets or farmers.

So imagine my surprise when a “method of control” that was on the point of passing into the annals of veterinary history in the early 2000s was introduced as a method of controlling humans. Le monde à l’envers.

I don’t know how I can state it more plainly. Cattle prods, like Tasers, do not achieve the desired ends, and all too often cause “adverse events”. Once veterinarians started to realise that cows had very good medical reasons for not rising on command, the use of the prod was seen as retrograde; a tool that at best is useless, and at worst is cruel and harmful. Essentially, if you use it, it’s because you are too lazy or incompetent to figure out what the real problem is.

Yes, sometimes humans freak out and act stubbornly, violently, aggressively, and are a danger to themselves and to others. However, until Tasers entered the police arsenal, I had assumed that these professionals, dealing with with fellow humans, could come up with techniques such as, oh I don’t know, verbal communication? Judo? Physical isolation or “time-out”? Removing bystanders from the scene so they are not at risk? Or maybe other creative methods to defuse these situations; hell, it’s not my responsibility to come up with them, but I’m sure they exist.

Tasers will pass into the annals of police history, it is just a question of time. However, how cruel and stupid are these deciders and manufacturers going to look several years from now? How many humans with diabetes, mental illness, with other medical problems or under extreme duress will have to die in the meantime?