Packing It In

Life has changed a lot in the last 50 years. Technologically, we’ve gone from hard-wired telephones and physical communication modes to an unlimited universe of advanced electronic, mobile, and Internet devices. Despite all those technological changes in our lives, perhaps our societal attitudes have evolved even more.

Think of how dramatically our thoughts about gay rights, abortion, drinking and driving, privacy, climate change, public safety and other big ticket issues have been altered over that time.

If you’ve ever watched the television show Mad Men before, you’ll know what I’m talking about. Set in the early 1960s, almost every scene in the program involves someone either a) drinking alcohol b) cheating on their spouses or c) smoking in a venue where it would be prohibited today.

What brought the last point to mind this week was a photo I noticed of a diplomat sitting in the White House with then-President John F. Kennedy back in 1962. Tucked in the very corner of the photo, sitting inconspicuously on a coffee table, is a fancy glass case loaded with cigarettes.

To anyone born in the last 20-30 years, the thought of being able to smoke in the White House, let alone an airplane, movie theatre, doctors’ office, hospital or restaurant, is something totally foreign.

Today, it is not just illegal, it’s also socially unacceptable in many circles. Ostensibly, JFK was a cigar smoker in private and his wife Jackie was a heavy cigarette smoker but, even in 1962, this was not something generally acknowledged in public. However, that certainly didn’t stop the rest of North Americans puffing away wherever they pleased.

According to a 2013 University of Waterloo report on smoking, in 1965, over 62% of Canadian men were smokers and about 50% of all adults in this country smoked, the all-time peak in tobacco usage. Today, just 16% of Canadians are regular smokers and the number continues to fall every single year.

That’s a phenomenal change in less than half a century. Pressure by The Canadian Cancer Society, the Non-Smokers’ Rights Association and a variety of other public and private organizations has led to more and more restrictions on where people can smoke and what age you can buy cigarettes, along with packaging changes and warning notices, plus a whole bunch of other deterrents.

Health concerns have become better known. Workplaces have banned smoking. Governments have systematically bumped up “sin” taxes. The list of hindrances has grown to the point where smokers are not just a tiny minority, they’re ostracized for taking part in an activity that, in addition to being perfectly legal, continues to be a massive source of revenue for government, accounting for over $7 billion in tax revenue annually.

Most politicians wouldn’t be caught dead smoking a cigarette in public, partly because they know their political careers would likely be dead, too. In July 1984, I was working in the Press Gallery on Parliament Hill and found myself at a picnic one Sunday afternoon, chowing down next to Brian Mulroney, who would become Canada’s Prime Minister just two months later. Seeing the writing on the wall, he told me how he’d quit smoking a short time before that, as he realized how difficult being a smoker would be while holding the highest office in the country.

Barack Obama made a similar decision in February 2011 after 30 years of being addicted to the weed. And I’m sure thousands of other politicians made the same commitment, partly for their health, but mostly because it’s become a habit the majority of people not only don’t participate in, but actually frown upon, especially when it comes to the people they elect.

There’s an interesting article in the November 2014 issue of The Walrus by longtime magazine writer Lynn Cunningham about her lifelong attempt to quit smoking, part of which details her spending time in the Mayo Clinic’s Nicotine Dependence Centre.

After 50 years and numerous attempts to rid herself of the habit, nicotine had become a vice she knew she couldn’t overcome without serious help. Serious enough to travel to Rochester, Minnesota and pay $5,500 U.S. for the Mayo’s eight-day cessation program.

Cunningham talks about the lack of residential treatment options for those who simply cannot quit on their own – and the similar lack of public sympathy for cigarette addicts. Unlike other addictions for which there are numerous support groups available, she says reformed smokers rarely have such avenues.

She comments on the fact that many recovering addicts, especially alcoholics, are often chain smokers who don’t even consider smoking an addiction.

And she even talks about how many popular movies have been made about the struggles of quitting alcohol or drugs – when nobody would even think of making a blockbuster about someone who quit smoking.

“Popular culture basically doesn’t acknowledge smoking as a dangerous addiction, nor does it lend it the patina of romantic dissolution that might garner users more sympathy – or better treatment options,” writes Cunningham.

Last week, the Canadian Cancer Society said it is taking the “next logical step” by urging Health Canada to introduce plain packaging for cigarettes, according to a Canadian Press article.

It’s already the law in Australia, where cigarettes have been packaged in plain olive brown wrapping since late December 2012 and cigarette use has fallen sharply since.

The CP story says similar plans are in the works in Ireland, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and France. “Plain packaging is an important and logical next step for Canada to curb tobacco marketing, reduce smoking and save lives,” says Rob Cunningham, a senior policy analyst at the Cancer Society.

As more and more pressure is inflicted on Canada’s remaining smokers to quit the killer weed, it’s amazing to look back at the changes that have taken place since the 1960s. When the Non-Smokers’ Rights Association (NSRA) was formed in 1974, its founders had very modest goals. They hoped to convince a few people that smoking was bad for their health and, in doing so, make them consider the idea of quitting.

As Canada gets closer and closer to being a non-smoking society, the NSRA must look back and marvel at how boldly life has changed in their 40 years of existence. It’s just one example of the ways our lives in this country have evolved, but it’s a profound one.

Back To The Future

Ronald Reagan. It’s been years since I thought about the 40th President of the United States. However, in one of those odd coincidences that happen so frequently in life, I was reminded of Reagan recently after watching an Oscar-nominated movie and reading a popular 2013 novel.

The movie is Dallas Buyers Club, which tells the horrifying story about the outbreak of the AIDS virus in early 1981, coincidentally, the first year of Reagan’s administration. The film details the struggle to identify and treat the first victims of AIDS. It’s a sad, sad story of fear and prejudice and ignorance, some of which was propagated by Reagan himself.

Ostensibly, the President refused to utter the word “AIDS” in any of his speeches until 1985, during his second term in office, despite the fact that it had become an out-of-control epidemic by that time. In 1981, there were just 159 reported cases of the disease. By the time Reagan left office in 1989, nearly 90,000 Americans had already died of AIDS.

As the movie relates, during those first few years, the U.S. government dithered and delayed, eventually setting up blind clinical trials that dying AIDS sufferers would have to wait for a year to start. By then, if they were still living, they would have only a 50/50 chance of being prescribed the untested drug AZT. If they weren’t in that fortunate group who received the drug, they’d get a worthless placebo, instead.

Dallas Buyers Club relates the story of two very different victims, one an emaciated redneck played by Matthew McConaughey (who knew this guy could actually act?) and the other a flamboyant transgender male/female, played superbly by Jared Leto. The unlikely pair of victims join forces to purchase illegal, experimental drugs from various parts of the world, creating their own “cocktails” to help prolong their lives.

The other 80’s touchstone is the novel The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer. The book centres around a group of young people who come of age during the Reagan administration. One part of their lives deals with the sudden appearance of the AIDS virus and its effects on the members of the group, one of whom becomes involved with a victim of the disease.

Twenty-five years after he left office, Ronald Reagan routinely scores near the top in surveys about “Most Admired Presidents” and many still consider him to have had a greater impact on American life than almost any U.S. leader in the 20th century. His supporters point to the restoration of American morale following the Vietnam War, the great wealth accumulated by many, the collapse of the Soviet Union and numerous other touchstones that occurred during his administration.

On the other hand, Reagan’s tenure also saw the national debt soar, relations with Iran and other Muslim countries ruined, a massive build-up of defence spending, the attempted destruction of unions and, of course, the aforementioned devastating effects of Reagan’s inattention to the AIDS virus.

Added to that, in my opinion, there was a transformation of America into a less caring, more fearful, more isolated nation, one that’s only been made worse by subsequent Republican Presidents, including Reagan’s Vice President and successor, George Herbert Walker Bush and Bush’s son, George W.

For those who never supported Reagan, he’s considered a B-list actor (one who co-starred with a chimp in the “classic” Bedtime for Bonzo), an eccentric geezer, and a dunderheaded buffoon who championed absurd projects such as the cartoon-like Star Wars defence program, which would have seen billions or trillions of dollars spent trying to shoot enemy missiles out of the air. It also led to the President’s popular nickname, Ronnie Raygun.

Rather than looking at him like a friendly, doddering old uncle, they see him as a mean-spirited tool of the rich and powerful who gave generously to the wealthy through his failed Reaganomics program, a simplistic economic system that anticipated a trickle down of wealth to the poor and middle class, something that never happened.

Instead, Reagan’s policies sowed the seeds for an America where the rich got richer, the gap between the haves and have-nots widened, mistrust of foreign countries grew and fear became the norm in American life. It also paved the way for creepy characters like the Bushes and Dick Cheney to build on their own wealth and power at the expense of average citizens for much of the last 30 years.

In the movie and book’s descriptions of living with the AIDS virus, Ronald Reagan’s true colours shine brightly. During his tenure, the primary goal in life was to accumulate great wealth, at the same time ostracizing those who were different, promoting fear, buckling under to the religious right and ignoring anyone who didn’t fit into the President’s narrow definition of what it meant to be an “American.”

In Reagan’s United States, the AIDS virus was considered to be God’s punishment for those whose lives didn’t conform to what was considered “normal.” It was a tragic, despicable view that ended up killing tens of thousands, many of whose lives might have been spared if Reagan had kept his eye on the physical health of his country, rather than just its wallets.

A friend reminded me last week of a quote from an unknown source that says, “People were created to be loved. Things were created to be used. The reason why the world is in chaos is because things are being loved and people are being used.” Too true.

Put on as many pairs of rose-coloured glasses as you want. No matter how hard you squint, you can’t hide the fact that this popular president did so little to help average citizens, as well as the weak, the poor, the sick or the challenged. Instead, he promoted the stockpiling of wealth for those who were already well off – at the expense of the people who truly needed his help and compassion. In my mind, that’s nothing to be admired.



Read All About It

I’ll be the first to admit, I’m not a huge fan of the CBC. To be honest, I can’t even remember the last time I turned on either CBC Television or Radio. How about you? I imagine if you enjoy hockey or The National or some of CBC’s radio programs, you can count yourself as a supporter. Certainly, I’m not an advocate of disbanding either service, as it’s always nice to know they’re there if you ever need or want them.

On the other hand, I receive several daily news summaries from CBC in my email, which help give me their perspective on what’s going on in the news, arts, etc. So, it’s not like I’ve shut the Corporation out of my life entirely.

There’s one initiative they’re involved with that does excite me, however. It’s called Canada Reads and it’s been operating on CBC Radio since 2001. Each year, the program covers a different theme and involves narrowing down a list of Canadian books that listeners and a panel choose as best representing that theme.

For Canada Reads 2014, they’re looking for the one novel that could change the nation or, perhaps, even the world. A long list of 40 books chosen by Canadians was revealed last October 24th. People voted to narrow that number down to a Top 10.

That list was given to the 2014 panelists, who have the task of defending their choice during a series of debates that air on CBC Radio and CBC-TV from March 3rd to the 6th. They’ll also be streamed online. One at a time, the panelists will narrow the list down until only the winner remains.

In the past, I’ve only glanced briefly at the nominees. However, this year I seem to have a little more invested. That’s probably because I had already read two of the five novels and was actually reading a third at the exact moment when the list was released. Since then, I’ve completed a fourth.

So, who are these mysterious nominees?

In alphabetical order by author, the first is The Year Of The Flood by Margaret Atwood, who is by far the most famous and recognizable name on the list and generally regarded as Canada’s finest novelist. This is the only one of the five books I haven’t read, as it’s in a genre, science fiction, that I have a lot of trouble getting my head around. Atwood’s book about a future world that emerges following a manmade pandemic will be defended by Stephen Lewis, a longtime leader of Ontario’s NDP, but now known as one of Canada’s most prominent philanthropists.

The second nominee, The Orenda by Joseph Boyden, is also the most recent, having been released last September. Boyden is probably my favourite current Canadian novelist and this is an interesting and controversial book set during the early history of Canada and involving the crossed paths of three characters: a Jesuit missionary, a Huron elder and a young Iroquois girl. It’s been attacked by segments of the religious community, the native community and just about everyone else, so you know what you’re getting into. And there’s a lot of violence, so be forewarned. It will be defended by Wab Kinew, a journalist, aboriginal activist and hip-hop artist.

Next on the list is Esi Edugyan’s Half-Blood Blues. It’s not often I remember exactly where I was when I read a book but, in this case, I recall being on vacation in the sunny south and absolutely loving this novel, which tells the story of young, black German jazz musician’s disappearance during World War II. It’s written in a “jazz language,” if that makes sense and is a wonderful piece of literature that deservedly won the 2011 Scotiabank Giller Prize. Two-time Olympic gold medal winning runner Donovan Bailey will defend the book.

It’s been a long time since I read Cockroach by Rawi Hage, but it’s managed to stick with me pretty well because of its dark, unsettling nature. It captures the life of a recent immigrant during one bitterly cold month in Montreal. The lead character, who imagines himself a cockroach, lives on the edge of society as a petty criminal eking out a marginalized existence. While searching out some summaries of the book, I noticed it was described as a black comedy for teens and young adults, but I’m not sure it’s a book that youngsters would necessarily be drawn to. In any case, it will be defended by comic, actor and writer Samantha Bee, who’s been a correspondent on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart for more than a decade.

Finally, there’s Annabel by Kathleen Winter, which I just finished reading a couple of weeks ago, so I can offer a very fresh perspective on it. This is a heart-wrenching story of a child who is born hermaphroditic (both boy/girl), but raised as a boy, with disturbing and sad results. It’s a book that has moments of both extreme tenderness and ugly brutality, but one I also think will remain with me forever. Sarah Gadon, a young Canadian actress who’s starting to make a big name for herself in Hollywood (with five movies set to come out in 2014), will champion Annabel.

It will be interesting to see how each of the celebrities defends the book they’ve chosen. It’s one thing to enjoy a novel, but to debate how that book might change Canada or the world is something entirely different. Excluding Atwood’s book, which I haven’t read, I’d lean towards either Boyden’s or Winter’s, mainly because the issues of native rights and sexual equality will continue to play huge roles in our country’s future.

In any case, the choice in this battle of the books will be an interesting one, as each of the novels speaks in an entirely different voice and, without a doubt, definitely has the potential to change Canada. Read on!


13 Biggest Regrets Of 2013

New Year’s resolutions. We make them. We break them. We bend them. We shape them. Instead of resolutions, I prefer to look back on the previous year and think about what I could have done differently – ways I can make myself a better person. It’s probably a fool’s errand, but it gives me a stick to measure my life’s progress, even if I don’t like what I see down the road.

In that spirit, here are 13 regrets from the past year – and my weak attempts at why I think I can do better in 2014:

1) Working too many days: There’s a reason this is number one on the list. It’s because most of the other 12 items flow from this one issue. During the first 11 months of the year, I worked 316 out of a possible 334 days, taking off just 18 days – or about 1.5 per month. Not only is this bad for my home life, it also affects my ability to tell stories properly and cover what’s important in our communities. Something’s got to give. When there’s no balance between working and not working, life becomes a runaway train.

2) Not listening: There’s an old expression, “going in one ear and out the other.” People tell me something – whether it’s my wife, the people I’m interviewing, or even the annoying telemarketer trying to sell me a cruise to the Bahamas – and I nod my head, write it down and swear it will never leave my mind. Then, five seconds later, it’s like it never happened.

3) Being too long-winded: If you’re reading this, you know what I mean. Considering one of my jobs is “Editor,” I realize I do a pretty poor job of telling stories briefly. Write tight, Nixon.

4) Neglecting my friends: I have the most loyal friends in the world. Also the most patient, forgiving and undemanding. If you’re one of them and happen to be reading this, please accept my blanket apology for all the emails, letters, or phone calls I was supposed to return. Mea culpa.

5) Missing stories: In my full-time job at two small town newspapers, this is probably the biggest complaint I receive. I’m not talking about the “You missed covering my five-year old’s clarinet recital” variety, although we get plenty of those, too. I’m talking about the legitimate, newsworthy stories that, somehow, elude us. Those are the ones we really feel bad about – and also the ones we count on you to help us with. Contrary to popular belief, we’re not psychic, we don’t have some hidden news source, and things happen right under our noses we don’t even hear about. If you’ve got news, we trust our readers to tell us about it.

6) Not fixing my house: I’ve written about this before and, let me tell you, it’s not getting any better. This is probably one of the major victims of the “working too many days” syndrome. My poor house.

7) Not remembering names: Perhaps it’s just a variation on “not listening,” but when I meet someone for the fifth time and still can’t put a name to a face, it makes me think I have some rare medical condition that prevents me from being able to remember names. To the hundreds of people this happened to in the last year, I truly apologize, what’s-your-name.

8) Not following up on stories: They say “the squeaky wheel gets the grease” and that’s never truer than with news stories. I have such great intentions about following up on stories I’ve heard about, but as each week begins to snowball, the lesser items get buried deeper and deeper in the pile. Many people have discovered that whacking my head with a 2×4 is the best way to get me to do something. Painful, yet effective.

9) Bad eating habits: Maybe this is my way of saying I need to go on a diet and, therefore, just another typical New Year’s resolution, but working and driving so much has destroyed my ability to eat properly. How my stomach is still in one piece (or however many pieces it’s supposed to have) is an unsolvable mystery.

10) Breaking promises: As a person who prides himself on being reliable, honest and trustworthy, when I fail to follow through on something, it’s very hard on me – and something I vow not to do again – every single time I do it.

11) Falling behind on housework: Similar to “not fixing my house,” but probably even worse. Exhibit A – the unraked leaves in our backyard. And that’s just item number one on the world’s longest list.

12) Failing to stop and smell the roses: This can be combined with not learning how to relax. As the world flies by and the years pass more and more quickly, I realize every day how much of life I’ve missed – and is now lost forever.

13) Not spending enough time with my family: I talk a lot about my lovely wife and my three amazing kids. In reality, however, you’d be shocked to know how little time I actually spend with them. I could make a thousand excuses, but they’d never be enough to undo my neglect. Quite simply, I just have to do better. The 12 other regrets on this list are nothing compared to how I feel every time I let these four people down, because the rest of life would not be worth living without their love.

Becoming a better person is never easy – and having regrets isn’t the same as living your life the way it should be lived. Will 2014 mean an improved Eric Nixon? Only if I want it to be and work harder at making it happen. If that doesn’t occur, you’ll be forced to read my FOURTEEN biggest regrets this time next year. And, trust me, nobody wants that.


The Most Boring (And Potentially Important) Story You’ll Read This Year

Pension reform. Have you stopped reading yet? Have your eyes begun glazing over? Have you already gone to the refrigerator to find something to snack on? If so, then, like me, you probably haven’t been paying attention to the issue of pension reform in this country. The fact is, the changing demographic make-up of Canada is about to have a serious impact on the future of all our pension systems. So what? Well, whether you’re about to retire – or have another 40 years left in the workforce – it’s going to affect you in ways you’ve never imagined.

First things first. The Canada Pension Plan is in decent shape, at least for the time being. Far from being the basket case it was in the early 1990’s, the system is in no danger of collapsing – for the moment anyway. The reason is that the Liberal government at the time and, specifically, finance minister Paul Martin, made massive changes to the system, which would have been bankrupt by now if things had stayed on the same course.

Similarly, Stephen Harper’s government has now introduced measures to gradually raise the age when Canadians can begin receiving their Old Age Security (OAS) benefits and Guaranteed Income Supplement (GIS) to 67 from 65, which helps bolster that part of the retirement pie. The government gave four reasons for the changes.

First, Canada’s population is aging rapidly. Over the next two decades the combination of baby boomers hitting retirement age and longer life expectancy means 25 percent of the country’s population will consist of seniors by 2030, compared with just 14 percent in 2010.

Second, because of the rising number of seniors, OAS payments will increase over the same 20-year time frame to $108 billion from $38 billion, or about 21 cents of every federal tax dollar from the current 13.

Third, with the increased payments required, the burden to fund the system will fall increasingly on younger Canadians. Right now, there are four working-age people for every senior. By 2030, there will be just two working Canadians for every senior. That will not only affect workers’ lifestyles, it will also hamper their ability to save for their own retirements.

Finally, the Canadian labour market is going to have to adapt quickly due to the huge number of retirements. If labour can’t pick up the slack, it will have a huge impact on the country’s economic growth and our ability to fund social programs, especially those for seniors.

With the latest changes, a Band-Aid has been applied to the OAS and GIS, but nothing has been done to fix the most glaring problems, which are the CPP and the decline in private sector pension plans. For the time being, the CPP is adequately funded. The problem is, benefits from that plan max out at only about $12,000 a year. Add in OAS and GIS and it doesn’t equal much of a retirement plan, especially if that’s all you’re counting on in your golden years. What else do you plan to live on?

The bare minimum most retirees can survive on is 60% of their working salaries, while most require much more if they want to live even somewhat comfortably. As reported in the Globe and Mail, a report from CIBC earlier this year says, “5.8 million Canadians face a decline in living standards of more than 20 percent when they retire. Those born in the 1980s can expect a drop of 30 percent.”

In the past, most of the difference between working income and retirement income was made up by pension plans, especially “defined benefit plans” that guarantee retirees a payout equal to a certain percentage of their best earning years. While public sector employees still enjoy those plans, most private companies have opted to switch to “defined contribution plans” where your retirement fund is made up of the contributions you and your employer make plus whatever growth you can accumulate. In other words, there are no guarantees about what you’ll be paid out when you retire and, typically, they’re much less lucrative.

Even worse, many companies have abandoned pension plans altogether – or their existing plans are so underfunded that the benefits people once expected are now gone forever or will likely be cut back severely by the time retirement arrives. Currently, less than a quarter of private sector employees even have a pension, versus 87% of public employees.

To be blunt, if something isn’t done now to address this issue, millions of Canadians will be retiring in the next 20 years with virtually no pensions, no RRSPs and no savings of any kind. As The Walrus magazine stated in an article from its September 2013 issue: “This cohort faces the very real risk of an impoverished old age that will inflict extreme fiscal pressures on social programs and health care while starving other public services. Those without decent pensions will have little choice but to keep working if they want to avoid poverty.”

It’s probably too late for many of the millions of retiring baby boomers to address the problem if they haven’t already planned ahead. However, for anyone in their 50’s or younger, new solutions need to be found – and very quickly. There are plenty of options, some voluntary and some mandatory. One would be an enhanced CPP where individuals can supplement their required contributions. Another is a Pooled Registered Pension Plan, which is similar to the enhanced CPP, except it’s administered by employers, although companies themselves don’t have to contribute. There’s already a federal framework for this and Quebec recently introduced its own version called the Voluntary Retirement Savings Plan.

The problem with voluntary plans is that they’ll likely only be used by people who are already good savers and invest regularly in RRSPs, TFSAs and other similar vehicles. For the millions who don’t have the discipline to do so, mandatory options seem to be a better solution. But, who would administer such a plan – the government, employers, or a totally separate entity?

In the article from The Walrus it talks glowingly about the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan, the world’s best-performing retirement fund and one that currently has assets of $130 billion. Teachers are forced to invest a certain portion of their salaries in the fund and can’t withdraw anything until their normal retirement age, unlike RRSPs, which people can borrow against. In return, however, they enjoy a lucrative pension that most of us would kill to enjoy (hence the article’s title, ‘Pension Envy’).

Where does the solution lie and which options are most practical for the average Canadian? That’s the dilemma, one that was supposed to be on the front burner of federal Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, but seems to have fallen through the cracks. According to the Globe and Mail, the issue was scheduled to be debated by Flaherty and the provincial ministers in June, but nothing seems to have come of that.

Time is wasting and the issue isn’t going to disappear. In fact, as the number of retiring baby boomers starts to snowball in the coming years, the problem will become more and more acute. Who is going to pay for 30-40 years of retirement for those people who are barely making ends meet right now when they’re still working? Their children? The dwindling number of working Canadians? The Tooth Fairy?

Pension reform may not be a particularly exciting topic for the average person. But it’s something we’re all going to have to deal with sooner or later. We’d better hope it’s sooner – or we’re all in very serious trouble.



This Is Not Bullying

Another week, another horrific story of “bullying.” That word is in quotation marks for a reason. The recent death of 17-year-old Rehtaeh Parsons goes so far beyond any traditional definition of bullying that it’s almost impossible to make any comparisons. And it leads a person to believe the world is going down some horrific path from which we’ll never return.

Sometime about 18 months ago, it’s believed this bright and beautiful young woman from Nova Scotia was savagely raped by four violent thugs. As brutal as that is, Rehtaeh’s nightmare had just begun. The offenders posted pictures of the sexual assault online and emailed them to others, boasting about their twisted triumph. From there, the story went in a new, disgraceful direction with schoolmates and others harassing, belittling and ‘bullying’ this young victim until she believed there was no way out except to take her own life.

And now, too late, there are plenty of people pointing fingers, without any real answers about what needs to be done. Prime Minister Stephen Harper put the death in perspective by taking the whole matter out of the realm of mere bullying. In a statement that was widely reported by several media, including the CBC, he said, “I think we’ve got to stop using just the term bullying to describe some of these things. Bullying to me has a kind of connotation … of kids misbehaving. What we are dealing with in some of these circumstances is simply criminal activity. It is youth criminal activity, it is violent criminal activity, it is sexual criminal activity and it is often internet criminal activity.”

Harper is absolutely correct. Even in its broadest definition, it’s incomprehensible that Rehtaeh’s story falls under the category of what most people consider bullying. If you have any doubts about this, you should take a few minutes to read the heartbreaking blog post made by Rehtaeh’s father, Glen Canning, the only statement he’s made about her death.

“The worst nightmare of my life has just begun. I loved my beautiful baby with all my heart. She meant everything to me. I felt her heart beating in my soul from the moment she was born until the moment she died,” he writes. “The life I had with my daughter was a rare thing. It was wonderful, it consumed me. I was defined by it. It made my life rich and beautiful. She was amazing.”

This is a man who believes the entire community let his daughter down. And he’s right. In addressing Nova Scotia’s Minister of Justice, Canning says, “Rehtaeh Parsons thought the worst outcome for her case would be no charges against the men who raped her but we all know better. The worst thing that could happen would be charges. That they would be found guilty, and that Rehtaeh would sit on a court bench and listen in utter disbelief as they were given parole, or a suspended sentence, or community service. All for completely destroying her life while they laughed.”

Canning is in disbelief that his daughter is gone while the people who helped contribute to her death still walk the streets. “They took photos of it. They posted it on their Facebook walls. They emailed it to God knows who. They shared it with the world as if it was a funny animation. How is it possible for someone to leave a digital trail like that yet the RCMP don’t have evidence of a crime? What were they looking for if photos and bragging weren’t enough? Why was this treated like a minor incident of bullying rather than a rape?”

Someone needs to answer Canning’s questions and those of others who have lost children to the escalating violence that all gets wrapped up conveniently in the blanket of bullying. This is not one person’s crime. This is everyone’s responsibility.

As Canning puts it, “My daughter wasn’t bullied to death, she was disappointed to death. Disappointed in people she thought she could trust, her school, and the police. She was my daughter, but she was your daughter too.”

No one can help Rehtaeh Parsons. Or any of the other young people who are gone because they believed there was no way to survive a life where ‘bullying’ was tolerated or ignored or dismissed. But, perhaps we can all help the next Rehtaeh before it’s too late. Maybe a good start would be to stop calling it bullying and come up with a word that’s more appropriate. Harper calls it “criminal activity.” Some might even call it “murder.” Call it whatever you want. It just has to end. As Glen Canning says in his statement: “For the love of God do something.”



Equality For Women? Not When It Comes To Violence

How did you celebrate International Women’s Day earlier this month? International ‘What?’ Day, you ask? Apparently, you’re not the only one who didn’t attend all the parades, do all the dances and enjoy a day of celebration. Seriously, there are so many holidays and special days, it’s understandable that International Women’s Day may have zipped by without you even noticing.

If you think this is one of those ridiculous ‘made-up’ events like Earmuffs Day (March 13th) or Lips Appreciation Day (March 16th), you couldn’t be more wrong. Originally called International Working Women’s Day, it all began back in 1909 and has been celebrated ever since, with the United Nations General Assembly officially designating March 8th as an international day to celebrate women’s rights and world peace back in 1977.

During the century of celebration, there have certainly been many changes in the lives of women around the world in terms of economic, political and social advancements. On the other hand, there’s still a long way to go, especially in many underdeveloped countries or those where ultra-conservative religions control the power.

But, how about back here in Canada? Should we all be collectively patting ourselves on the backs for how far we’ve come and how much we’ve achieved? Perhaps we should hold off on celebrating quite yet.

In terms of earnings, the median full-year, full-time wage for Canadian males in 2008 was $50,600, while women’s pay was just $38,600 – 76% of their male counterparts. That’s according to Statistics Canada numbers used in a 2010 survey by the federal government. If it’s any consolation, the situation has improved slightly since the government studied the issue back in 1978, when women earned only about 62% of the median income of men.

On the other hand, if you assume it’s just as bad in most other countries, you’d lose that bet. Canada has the fourth worst gender gap in median pay among 22 surveyed countries, trailing just Korea, Japan and Germany. In some countries, including New Zealand and Belgium, the average woman earns 90% of her male equivalent.

On the political front, the situation seems to be improving in this country. In 2011, we elected more female Members of Parliament than ever before, 76 in total, which is up from 69 in the 2008 election. This includes one female party leader, Elizabeth May. Of course, May leads a party of one in the House, so it’s not like she gets a chance to wield a whole lot of power.

And, of the remaining 75 females, only 28 are in the ruling Conservative’s 167-member caucus – less than 17%. It’s probably much easier to get yourself heard if you belong to the NDP, where 40 of its 102 members are female, nearly 40%.

Socially, Canadian women appear to fare better than they do in many countries. However, that doesn’t mean there aren’t a whole lot of issues that still need addressing.

For instance, Canada’s theme for this year’s Women’s Day was “Working Together: Engaging Men to End Violence against Women.” According to the Status of Women Council, “As this theme suggests, violence against women affects us all, and everyone – men and women – must be part of the solution.”

Referencing a brief prepared by the White Ribbon Campaign for the Council, over half of Canadian women have experienced at least one incidence of physical or sexual violence since the age of 16. Furthermore, “Every minute of every day, a Canadian woman or child is being sexually assaulted.”

The report goes on to note: “In 2009, victims of spousal violence were less likely to report the incident to police than in 2004.” Only 22% of victims said the incidents were brought to the attention of police. And, despite the number of homicides in Canada dropping over the past several decades, women are still three times more likely to be murdered than men.

Add it all up and it’s obvious that violence against women is one area where there’s no equality with men. But, at least it appears that men understand there’s a problem. In a survey by the White Ribbon Campaign, 75% of men said it was very important to speak out about violence against women. And two-thirds of the men surveyed said they felt they could be doing more.

Canada’s Women’s Day theme is in sync with that of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women, which has called for the “elimination and prevention of all forms of violence against women and girls.”

Returning to the original question, even if you never managed to mark International Women’s Day on March 8th in any specific way, it’s never too late to do your part. As the Status of Women Council said, it’s time for all of us to “reflect on the impacts of violence against women and commit to helping end it.” An end to violence. That’s something we can all celebrate, any time of the year.