Two or three times a year I come to Ottawa – usually for a conference. But the encounters always inform me about more than the topic of my visit. Last time it was an annual meeting of the Group of 78, and besides listening to Flora McDonald, we revised the group’s obsolete mission statement to reflect its current commitments. During that meeting, the monks were marching in Rangoon – or perhaps they had already been crushed, though it did not yet seem decisive. My agenda was to evoke new ideas about how to help them win. What I was not prepared for was the widespread attitude of skepticism about the value of democracy – especially since I had just been chanting with my Burmese friends in demonstrations, “What do we want? Democracy! When do we want it? Now!” To my Canadian friends this word carried some kind of negative connotation, as if the only persons calling for democracy were right-wing ideologues. I spoke up, proclaiming my own appreciation of democracy, but then I put the idea aside when I returned home. There were too many other pressing matters to handle. I needed to priorize my concerns.
Now I am on the train again, returning to Toronto after another three day adventure in Ottawa. This trip was rather more enjoyable and pretty interesting. On the train from Toronto my seatmate was a First Nations woman of 46 with a long braid,. She was reading a thick book that I took to be scholarly, but later determined was a collection of stories about fairies – little people, in which she believes. She is a researcher, nowadays studying the use of restorative justice programs for youthful aboriginal offenders. Apparently the problem is that such services are not significantly available, either on reserves and rural areas or in cities. Those that do exist actually work well.
I asked her about such programs for adult offenders. People who perpetrate very serious crimes are not eligible for them, since they are mostly sentenced to maximum security prisons. The treatment includes a period of living in the bush, finding their own food and undergoing spiritual trainings with elders. The process reduces recidivism somewhat and – what is more dramatic – changes those who offend again into a less aggressive mode. If they had initially assaulted someone, the next offence night be, say, a theft. But they don’t get a second chance anyhow. The second offence will be met with the regular punishments prescribed by Canadian law.
Another fascinating detail: There are some aboriginal communities where sex abuse is very common – up to 98 percent prevalence, In one place called Hollow Water the children took over and demanded change, There was a movement throughout the community to change this situation, and it worked. Now sex abuse frequencies are down to perhaps two or three percent. The psychology behind it is not the same as with many pedophiles elsewhere. It is a form of aggression, not sexual longing. The adults all went through a healing process where they acknowledged that what they were doing was wrong. I wonder whether that kind of transformation is possible for other pedophiles elsewhere. Pedophilia is considered almost intractable.
My seatmate shared her life story with me in some detail. She had been taken from her mother at birth, then kept in an institution for six months, then adopted by a British family who treated her very differently from their own children and from the two blond children they adopted. She started running away from home at age eight. Now she has reconciled with her adoptive parents but not those blond siblings. She and her biological siblings and grandmother have found each other. She says that the pathologies of aboriginal life in Canada basically began when the children were taken away from their parents – not just because the residential schools were harmful to the kids, but because in the communities the adults fell into despair when their children were taken away. That makes sense, though I never heard anyone say that before.
She spoke on the phone with her boyfriend, who also works in a government organization for Indians. They discussed what she called ‘Indianland” – the political goings on in the bureaucracies that are supposed to uplift aboriginal people. Listening to her concern about what kinds of projects are funded and which ones are not, I began to recall the theory of some sociologist, whose name I cannot recall, that the administration of justice and the supervision of difficult individuals becomes a permanent job, an entitlement, a role that one wishes to “own.” In a way, the officers acquire an interest in perpetuating the dependency of those whom they are helping. Then I felt a little guilty for allowing this right-wing thought to enter my mind. Still, I must admit that it has taken root here.
I stayed in a new bed and breakfast place on Besserer Street, near Heartwood House, where the meeting was held of CNANW – Canadian Network to Abolish Nuclear Weapons. I was representing Science for Peace. There were only ten or so of us present—mostly aging women. It was my first time in the group, though I did know almost everyone there. We heard presentations from a new fellow from DFAIT, who had only recently been shuffled into the job that David Da Silva had occupied this summer. He couldn’t answer many of the sophisticated questions posed by the group. Then in the afternoon we heard more congenial speakers – Doug Roche and Alyn Ware (see photo), who was upbeat. He is a New Zealander of about 40 who spends about half his time in New York or Geneva, working on nuclear weap0ons issues.
Doug was discouraged, as usual, about the sharp turn toward militarism by the Harper government. As with most committed activists, he ended his speech by reflecting on the poor level of public awareness. Again, there was talk about how hard it is to stir up citizens. I said something about using TV dramas, and it seems to have awakened everyone there. They all supported what I was saying, which has come to be rather a common reaction lately.
At the end of the day we all took taxis up to Parliament Hill to help Alyn Ware launch his new organization, ICAN. It’s an international campaign against nuclear weapons, sponsored primarily by the physicians movement. Taxis are not supposed to be able to drive right to the door of the parliament buildings, except for MPs and Senators themselves. However, Macha Mackay pulled rank, telling the guard that she is Peter Mackay’s mother. He let us through. Then, inside the building, she led me up to the office of her son, formerly the Foreign Minister and now the Minister of Defence. I was searching for a copy of the Hill Times, which I knew carried an article I had written about the Department of Peace idea. Peter’s legislative assistant gave us both copies of the paper. I had wondered whether they had changed anything beyond the title, but apparently not.
There was a two-hour long reception, attended by a fair number of parliamentarians. Setsuko Thurlow gave a talk about being a 13-year-old girl in Hiroshima when the bomb went off. She was in town to receive an Order of Canada ceremony today. I talked with Kim Kroeber, Romeo Dallaire’s administrative assistant, who is beautiful, effusive, and well-informed. I’m to contact her about Dallaire’s work for child soldiers and about a film on the subject. I spoke briefly with Jack Layton too, pointing out my article, which he said he would read. The Hill Times is delivered to each MP’s office, but is not widely available throughout the city except in a few magazine stores. It’s all about political issues. (Actually, I guess The Hill Times is available more widely than I just wrote; the fellow across from me on the train is reading it now.)
After dinner I was going to leave with Nancy Covington, the president of Physicians Global Survival, and Debbie Grisdale. Alexa McDonough was still there, perhaps because she had hosted the party, and we asked her where we could go for dinner nearby. She immediately invited us to join her in the parliamentary dining room. What a treat! I didn’t realize we were her guests, but it was an interesting conversation and a fine dinner (tortierre is French Canada’s great culinary invention).
Alexa is no longer NDP leader, of course, and no longer foreign affairs critic either, She has happily turned that role over to Paul Dewer, a new MP and the son of Marion Dewer, formerly mayor of Ottawa.. Now Alexa is in charge of development issues. She had just been to Honduras, so we talked about the Canadian mining companies there and how the government of Honduras is beginning to tell such companies that they may not come in, since the Hondurans don’t get any benefits from their activities. I am supposed to talk to Paul Dewer about SEMA, the international agreements that keep Canada from being able to discipline corporations that have destructive impacts on Third World countries. Dewer had been present at the reception and at the Group of 78 meeting last month, but I didn’t talk to him about these matters. I wanted to know the status of the legal situation so I can write about it I do intend to phone him.
At dinner we talked about two other issues: the exclusion of Americans from Canada on the basis of a list of criminals kept by the US government, and the fact that “democracy” has become a concept that only the right-wingers want to use.
Alexa had been out at the airport for several hours that afternoon, trying to meet Ann Wright, a former US Army Colonel who had quit the army in protest against the Iraq War and who was invited to speak in Ottawa. It seems that this woman was on a list of dangerous persons and therefore the Canadian immigration authorities would not let her in. They also refused to tell Alexa whether she was present in the interrogation room or not, giving “privacy” as their grounds, although Wright had specifically told them that she was waiving her right to privacy and wanted Alexa to be informed that she had arrived. The immigration officer promised to tell Alexa, but did not. Then he told Ann that he had told Alexa – a barefaced lie. She was deported.
Later I found out that the woman did have a criminal record for having demonstrated on the White House grounds, contrary to the law. To me, that slightly offset my mounting objections. I think that demonstrating on the White House grounds can be properly considered illegal. Surely there must be other places where one can demonstrate, just a little distance away. Still, it seems weak of the Canadian government just to accept whatever the US says about a person seeking admission to the country. There is apparently no way to find out whether one is on that list except to try to enter Canada and find out what they say. And they don’t always give the same answer. Some people get in on one occasion but not on other occasions.
The conversation turned to democracy again, with a peculiar result. At first Alexa sounded surprised that there are people who don’t like to use the word democracy,. She had been present at the Group- of 78 meeting last month, but had not heard the objections to the use of the term in the new version of the mission statement. She wondered what people want if not democracy and I had a hard time answering her, since it puzzles me too. But then she recalled a dispute that had arisen in the Foreign Affairs committee of parliament (I think that’s what she referred to) between the Conservatives and the left-leaning people. The Conservatives had gone along with the extremely reactionary policies of some organization that promotes democracy. Suddenly she declared that she didn’t like the notion of “promoting democracy.” Apparently she thinks that many countries – notably in Eastern Europe – have had democracy imposed on them by the Bush administration.
This conversation took place quite late, when we were the last diners in the restaurant, so I didn’t want to prolong it. I wish I’d had sufficient time to contest her assumptions that countries had become democratic under duress. Iraq, yes. But there’s a huge difference between fighting a war against a country in the name of democracy and, on the other hand, supporting a democratic opposition movement such as in Burma. She pointed out that the US itself is not democratic, but I said I’d certainly rather live there than in Burma or North Korea. Democracy is nowhere perfect, but always an excellent ideal to pursue. I hope I can get down to work writing that up in an op ed piece this week.
Today we met in Heartwood House again. The main attraction to me was a talk by Gordon Edwards, I’ve heard about him for thirty years but never heard him speak before. I learned a lot about the nuclear fuel cycle.
The group also had another conversation about the importance of cultivating contacts with the media. I said I have trouble getting published in newspapers, and couldn’t get CBC's Ideas show to accept the proposal by Sergei Plekhanov and me to do a series on nuclear weapons. They suggested that I submit it again and ask Romeo Dallaire to write a letter recommending it. That’s a good idea. They also said they want someone to take special responsibility for cultivating some media contacts. Ann Gertler suggested that every one of us should make friends with at least one person in the press. Someone mentioned Olivia Ward, who in fact did write a profile of me for the Star; I can easily contact her again. I promised to do so, since some of the other organizations have wanted me to do it and I can handle them all at once, if I can do the job at all. I can call Olivia up. I said I will take on the job if someone else will join me, and Macha Mackay offered to do so. We’ll plan an approach by telephone. Maybe she can call a former assistant of mine who lives in Halifax and works for CBC.