How to be an Angel: A Primer for Those who have never needed one

Although I’ve written about some controversial topics and have often had my column shared widely by those both in agreement and disagreement with my opinions, I don’t think any column has been viewed and shared as widely as the one I wrote two weeks ago about my Christmas angel.

Before that, my most shared column was likely the one I wrote about the pinch of poverty.
And on both those columns, though shared widely and commented on a lot, not a single comment or item of feedback – public or private – was negative.
Ironically, at the time I was most deeply entrenched in poverty, supporting a family on an income of about $13,000 annually, I was too ashamed to write about that experience.
It’s made me question, this past week or so, where that shame comes from.
I think the first time I felt it was when I had to apply for subsidised housing with Newfoundland and Labrador Housing. When I had the audacity to complain about the poor conditions of the housing I’d been offered I was told to take it or leave it. Either you agree to leave in substandard accommodations –which you’re still paying for, though at a reduced rate – or you can have nothing. It wasn’t the words so much as the patronising voice and the dismissal of my concerns that hurt me most.
Because I was poor, my voice was meaningless. That’s the message I received again and again. And many times it was from our institutions such as subsidised housing and subsidised daycare, which were put in place to help people like me. Other times it was from institutions such as the school system, which is supposed to be an equal playing field.
In comments from the representatives of these institutions, I was taught that people like me should be grateful at all times, that the alternative is not changing the system but just not receiving the service, that one should “put up or shut up.”
I’ve always participated in programs that benefit the community – as a volunteer or advisor. I don’t think the people I worked with in these programs were always aware of my personal financial situation. In conversations with them, I was taught that people like me were uneducated or uninvolved. We didn’t want to make things better or learn how to help ourselves.
And in discussions with peers, in person or online, I hear sympathy or contempt for “the poor.” The words people would never have said individually to my face, I see and hear time and again when discussing poverty in general.
After publishing my Christmas Angel column I came across a discussion on a Facebook group where people were discussing how to best help others at Christmas. There were many comments about being careful who you give to and how people like me scam the system. A young woman trying to raise $2000 to help a family in need pay the bills they were behind on and buy Christmas gifts was told she could help at least four families with that much money and was wrong in trying to raise it for just one.
None of these people would ever dream of only spending $500 in the month of December for their bills and Christmas presents, but that should be good enough for a family in need.
Those with the most money seem to think money is worth more than it is. Anyone who doesn’t struggle to pay bills probably thinks $100 is a lot of money. Those of us who have lived on the edge can tell you it’s not. It’s a drop in the bucket.
When you’re not counting every penny, you don’t notice that it’s almost impossible to buy an item of clothing or a toy for less than $20. You just pile up your cart and whip out your card and deal with the bills afterwards.
When you regularly make choices between bills, groceries, and the needs of growing children, you know the value of each and every dollar – and frankly it’s not much.
I worked hard to earn $13,000. And somehow that makes me better than the mother who gives up on trying to get the system to help her with daycare, or who lacks the skills needed to find work or work for herself. Had I earned that same amount on social assistance, I would’ve found navigating the system easier. I would’ve been told of all the community programs that can support me – many of which insist that you must be on assistance to receive their services. But I also would’ve been disdained even more. The “lazy” poor are much worse than the working poor in the eyes of the public.
At Christmas we all feel the spirit of giving. We want to donate to worthy causes that will help less fortunate people or families. But we also want to somehow control how those who receive our kindness use it. We want to patronise them by insisting on their gratitude so we can feel gracious. We feel like if someone asks for help, we have the right to know every detail of their life to determine if they are worthy of our help.
I try to bring a different attitude to giving. I know how hard it is to ask for help, so I believe the person upfront. I give in the spirt of giving, knowing that what I give may be used by the person who receives it however they see fit. And I give with humility, not graciousness, glad to be gifted with the opportunity to give. I know how blessed I am to be able to give, even a small amount of time or money, and how the person who receives the gift has given more to me than I to them. Stripped of patronisation and feelings of worth, giving is about being human – the one thing we all have in common.
Note: This is a republication upon request of a column that originally ran in The Western Star in Dec, 2014. I own the rights to all Readily A Parent columns.

Note: I might start blogging again....


Laughing in the Face of Domestic Violence

(This column of Readily a Parent originally appeared in The Western Star on June 04, 2014)

On Thursday, May 29, our province’s MHAs proved once again what obnoxious, uncaring, asses they can all be. Yeah, I’m not mincing words on this one. I, for one, am sick of the antics of these supposed adults and the ongoing ridiculousness of the name-calling, bullying, verbal grandstanding, and general lack of concern that is often shown by our elected representatives when discussing important provincial matters in the House of Assembly.

Seriously, you could gather a cartload of monkeys and witness more decorum than we often do in our House of Assembly.

Other observers and writers have commented on what happened when Gerry Rogers, MHA, stood to present a petition to bring back the Family Violence Intervention Court. There were some interruptions and interjections from the nut gallery during her speaking time – pretty typical for the House. But it all ended badly, disgusting in fact, when she stated that bringing back the court would not cost much. The assembled ministers chose that point to start laughing. Not tittering and ripples of giggles, hard belly laughter, the mocking kind you typically hear from a schoolyard of children intent upon an embarrassed target.

Actually, no, children don’t often do that anymore. They’ve learned to respect others and schools rarely tolerate such ridicule of other children.

What we can’t tell from reading the Hansard or watching thewebcast of the day’s Assembly is whether that laughter is directed at Rogers and her statements or at something else entirely. Evidence points to them laughing at Rogers as once she sits and her fellow NDP MHA George Murphy stands to discuss the oh-so important matter of vehicle insurance you can hear her in the background answering to comments from the nut gallery.

And yet, when Murphy stands to plea the fact that the people in this province who can afford cars, gas, registration, licenses but not insurance are not people who don’t know how to prioritise but indeed victims of too high insurance , he also has a big grin on his face and stands mid laugh.

So, is her own fellow NDP MHA laughing at her? Is he laughing at some response made to those laughing (the timeframe doesn’t suit that explanation)? Or is the laughter about something else entirely? (I asked on Twitter but he didn't respond)

Well, we could discuss that for more days than the House meets and never get an answer. Unless someone who was actually there tells the truth about what happened, exactly.

What happened, observationally, is that Rogers was discussing a socially and economically important matter and during that discussion her fellow MHAs started laughing disruptively.

What really doesn’t matter is why they were laughing. If they were laughing at her it’s more disgusting, but if they were laughing at some other, distracting event it’s just as bad. Even my kids know better than to laugh about anything during a serious discussion.  It would be interesting to speak to the parents of our MHAs to see if they were actually proud of their children on that day. Their actions were not something I would hold up to my children as evidence of adult behaviour and a proud position to strive for. The fact is, during meetings of the House, their actions rarely are something to show my children as an example of what I want to see from them. In this case, in particular though, their behaviour was abhorrent and they should apologise to the people of this province.

All of this discussion serves – perhaps intentionally? – to distract both our MHAs and our media away from the point of Rogers’ petition. A point that was ridiculed either directly or through distraction by that laughter.

Reinstating the Family Violence Intervention Court is no laughing matter and should be seriously discussed. Instead it has, once again, been swept away distractedly under a sea of other provincial concerns. And the matter still hangs in the air. The PCs may see it as a fait accompli that it has been closed and the project ended, but until our province’s women and families receive a response as to why, exactly, it was chosen for the chopping block, the discussion will continue to arise.

It seems every time the Family Violence Intervention Court discussion comes up, it is quickly ended again. Back in 2009, when then Justice Minister Tom Marshall introduced the court to the House of Assembly and the media he said I look forward to watching the court grow and seeing the positive impact it has upon our community.” He explained that it was a pilot project and that depending on the evaluation of its impact, it would grow – one suspects to other parts of the province.

According to Rogers, Premier Marshall now says that the court was ended not because it was too costly or didn’t work but that because it was favouritism for St. John’s to have the court and not other parts of the province. And yet, the project was started by Marshall himself as a pilot project for possible expansion. The budget for the first year was almost $300,000. A couple of years later it was running at close to $500,000 and maintaining. Simple math would have one surmise that to spread this court system to Central, Western, and Labrador would mean an annual running budget of $2 million. Not a lot, really, in our provincial justice budget.

Of course, simple math doesn’t work in this province. As someone who has lived many years “beyond the overpass,” I can tell you that the services aren’t already in place to simply plunk a family violence court in those areas and expect it to work. Such courts require accountability and input from several areas of justice and community services. They require a commitment to counselling for offenders and victims. And they require that those services be available on an ongoing basis.

Perhaps the reason our government doesn’t want to discuss spreading the Family Violence Intervention Court to other parts of the province is because it doesn’t want to discuss why the budget would grow exponentially as they struggled to put services in place that should already be there.

Maybe that’s not it. Maybe there’s a perfectly valid reason why they’ve decided not to expand the original pilot project. But until someone actually opens their mouth to talk and not laugh, we’ll never know.


Speak to the Y-O-U-N-G

Speak to the Y-O-U-N-G
Column originally appeared in The Western Star, Corner Brook, NL Sept 11, 2013. Warning: This column contains lyrics and information that may be troubling to some and could trigger a highly emotional reaction. Please read with caution and protection for your emotional health.

I’m not going to rant, because I’m tired of ranting. Ranting does nothing. It makes me feel better momentarily, like crying when you’re upset. But without the thing that upsets me changing, neither crying nor ranting will resolve the issue.

People like me talk and write a lot about issues like this. The problem is that we are only listening to each other. The people who need to hear us don’t because they brush us off for “over-reacting” or being “too feminist” or “too serious.” Trust me, I’ve heard those phrases a lot.

So I’m done ranting. Instead I’m going to present some facts.

The  Canadian news scene exploded last week with revelations of a chant at St. Mary’s University Frosh week that promoted rape and underage sex. Well, actually, explosion is an overstatement. There was a lot of attention, but the tough questions, the ones that should’ve been asked, weren’t. My first response was “how long has this been going on? Have their been previous complaints? Was the university administration aware of this?”

The media’s first response was to treat it like a he said/she said issue and get feedback from students on what they thought. A big part of the response was sympathy for the student union that allowed this chant and the punishment and stigma they were now facing. The excuse? The chant had been around for ages and they just never thought about it.

I’m not going to rant, I promise.

The lyrics of this offensive chant make it difficult to believe their story. How anyone could say the words:
 Y is for your sister,
O is for oh so tight,
U is for underage,
N is for no consent,
G is for grab that ass
 without thinking that maybe what they were saying was inappropriate is entirely implausible.

They knew it was offensive. That is why they took such joy in chanting it. The video of the incident at Saint Mary’s University shows that this was a celebratory, revelling chant.

Later, students at UBC also performed the same chant at their frosh week activities. Except their last line was “G is for go to jail.”

Let’s examine that shall we?

Nova Scotia premier Darrell Dexter said he couldn’t believe students would chant something so bad, especially in their province where they are well aware of these sensitivities.

However, facts and statistics gathered by a local Halifax women’s centre tell a different story. The Avalon Centre  has gathered Statistics Canada and Department of Justice stats on sexual assault, reporting, and sentencing in Nova Scotia.

They report that in 2007 (the last year of reliable published numbers):

  • Nova Scotia had a reported sexual assault rate of 75 per 100,000 people compared to the national rate of 65 per 100,000 people. 
  • Only 30% of reported sexual assaults had charges laid. This percentage was the lowest of all the provinces and territories. The national average was 42% 
  • The acquittal rate for sexual assaults in Nova Scotia was 13%. The rate was only 6% for other violent offences.
  • The rate of police-reported sexual assault in Halifax Regional Municipality (HRM) in 2007 was 87 per 100,000. There is an average of one sexual assault reported every day. 
  • Only 22% of sexual assaults reported in HRM had a charge laid. In comparison, 49% of other violent offences reported had charges laid during that same period.
According to Statistics Canada, 88% of rape goes unreported. So looking at the Nova Scotia statistics under that additional lens, we can see – generally speaking - that in Halifax alone there are about five rapes a day, with only 1 of those being reported.

Each week, of the 7 reported cases, only 2 have charges laid. At the end of the month, of the 8 offenders charged, 1 is acquitted. So after a month of 150 rapes, 7 rapists face possible sentencing. That’s just in the Halifax area. However, even then, 41% of those convicted (as compared to 10% of those convicted of other violent crimes) will receive conditional sentencing only.

So, 150 rapes means 4 rapists go to jail. And that’s just in Halifax.

While the chant that’s been repeated at UBC for over 20 years, according to student reports, ends in “go to jail,” most rapes don’t end that way.

Most end with terrified, intimidated, broken women and men trying to reclaim their lives while their rapists live free, chanting and having fun. And when their rapists are charged and go to jail, they, like the student leaders who support their activities through their chants, get sympathy for the unfair punishment they face.

How a chant can be sung at a university for over 20 years and the administration not be aware of it, I don’t know. I suspect they were aware and chose to do nothing, just as Premier Dexter must be aware of the rape statistics in his province and chooses to not talk about them.

Just as, here at home, the Engineering facility at Memorial is perfectly aware of a sexually offensive and inappropriate mug created by their student society to celebrate back-to-school. A mug featuring a provocative cartoon pose of a woman with the phrase “If she’s thirsty, give her the D(day)” is a play on the phrase “if she’s thirsty give her the D(dick).” The students here at Memorial are facing the same kind of “discipline” the students at Saint Mary’s and UBC face: issue an apology and learn some sensitivity.

It takes time to reform our justice system and time to change a culture, but none of it will happen until we change our mindset. Currently we’re working and living in a rape culture that excuses and even mocks sexual assault. The only way to change that is to start with our young. Instead of ranting at each other about how horrible it all is, we need to talk to our children, calmly and reasonably, to show them how they can change this.

I wish these student’s parents had done that. But they didn’t. It’s our turn now. How will you keep your sons and daughters from following in their footsteps?