Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Back in time: December 1989

This column was published in The Daily News in Halifax 30 years ago today, December 10, 1989. Four days earlier, 14 young women at École Polytechnique in Montreal had been separated from their male classmates and brutally murdered. Their murderer accused them of being feminists and said that feminists had ruined his life.

There were already people who were insisting that this act was an aberration, that the killer was a one-of-a-kind madman. Feminists fought that view long and hard and this year — 30 years later — it's finally been acknowledged that the massacre was motivated by misogyny and was an extreme instance of violence against women.

Meanwhile, a woman or girl is killed every three days in Canada, with a total of 118 killed by violence in 2019, according to the latest report from the Canadian Femicide Observatory for Justice and Accountability.

The only changes I've made in the column from 30 years ago are a couple of short additions in square brackets.

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December 10, 1989

On Thursday morning, distinguished lawyer and former MP George Cooper made a little joke on CBC Radio’s Information Morning. He was discussing the recent NDP leadership convention with host Don Connolly and panel mates Dale Godsoe and Ray Larkin when he decided to use a colourful comparison to express his opinion about some aspect of the race.

It’s a good news/bad news sort of situation, he said, like that old joke about your mother-in-law driving over a cliff — trouble is, she was in your brand new Cadillac at the time. I believe I detected some laughter from the others and I’d be interested to know whether the CBC switchboard lit up with outraged callers, the way it does when someone says a rude word on the air. Somehow I doubt it.

In my household, we sat in stunned disbelief, hearing a joke which would be in poor taste at the best of times but was absolutely scandalous being told and snickered at the morning after the murder of 14 women at the University of Montreal.

It wasn’t the only joke being told that day. Francine Pelletier, a Montreal feminist who was interviewed extensively on the TV coverage of the murders, said that men in the corridors at Radio-Canada were treating the massacre in a most light-hearted way, one of them remarking, “I’ve often wanted to do that myself.”

At around the same time, a young friend of mine was walking into Tim Horton’s to buy some doughnuts. There were two men in front of her carrying a newspaper with a screaming headline about the murdered women and one of the men said something along the lines of, “way to go, buddy.”

Her friends asked her how she handled this awful moment; most of them felt, bravely, that they wished they’d been there. In retrospect, we can all come up with the enviable line, the cutting quip, the perfect putdown.

She said nothing, of course. There are few women — including me — who could respond to those men. Such verbal violence is part of what renders women powerless, unable to act, not so much from fear as from emptiness, from the debilitation that results from crying out for so long and not being heard.

I’ve been told so often — all feminists have — to lighten up, to learn to take a joke. They don’t really mean anything by it, you know. This week, finally, I’ve been told by men — among others, by Peter Gzowski [the late host of CBC Radio's Morningside] and his panel on the radio, by Tom Regan [a former columnist with The Daily News] on the phone, by my husband at home — that it is time for them to do something about their violent brothers.

They know now that they must begin listening to women and they must refuse — loudly — to listen to the dehumanizing “jokes” that so many of them allow to slip by. They must disdain the views of those who keep saying that the carnage in Montreal was an isolated act carried out by a madman.

They must examine and be willing to change their political, economic and judicial systems, all of which conspire to keep women in positions of dependence. They must observe their sons — their vocabularies, the games they play, the way they’re learning to deal with anger, the things they say about little girls. They must stop undermining the mothers and, once and for all, lay to rest that age-old excuse that “boys will be boys.”

They must not simply be available to provide protection; they must work actively to create a safer world, where their sisters and daughters and mothers can live with the same sense of security that brothers, sons and fathers take for granted. They must recognize and acknowledge that the 14 women in Montreal are only the most recent to die at the hands of a man, that in 1987, almost 70 per cent of women murdered in our country were murdered by the men they lived with.

One of the buttons we brought back from the Winnipeg NDP convention — where I saw the joy and exhilaration on the faces of the women who had worked to elect Audrey McLaughlin as their leader — bears the slogan “Men of quality are not threatened by women seeking equality.” The words seem almost horrible in their irony this week but the message remains true.

And so it’s time to take another step forward, to convince men that violence against women is the fault of men and — to resurrect an old phrase — if they’re not part of the solution, they’re part of the problem.

Friday, July 5, 2019

The two lost years of Pandora

(Pandora was a Halifax feminist publication that was taken to the Human Rights Commission in the early 1990s for discriminating against a man. This is an account I wrote after the hearing for the The Canadian Forum.)

In March of 1992, the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission announced a decision in favour of Pandora, a Halifax feminist publication, which had refused to publish a letter written by a man.

"I am satisfied on the evidence before me," wrote the adjudicator, lawyer David Miller, "that women as a group have been and are disadvantaged and unequal in our society by reason of sex... It follows, accordingly, that a disadvantaged group may undertake a programme or activity which has as its object the amelioration of conditions of disadvantaged individuals or classes of individuals including those discriminated against on the basis of sex even if that results in distinctions being made with respect to the advantaged group...

"I am also satisfied that Pandora is an activity which has as its object the amelioration of conditions of disadvantage to women based on sex. I am also satisfied that Pandora's policy of maintaining Pandora as a single sex newspaper is reasonable for the purpose of ameliorating disadvantage."

In the mainstream media, paternalistic pundits all sang the same tune: right decision, wrong reason. All agreed that Pandora has a right to set her own editorial policy – although, they added, all publications owe it to their readers to publish a wide spectrum of opinion. Many of them were unable to comprehend the view that Pandora does publish a wide spectrum of opinion – all written by women.

But this was not an issue of freedom of the press. Indeed, throughout the Human Rights Commission hearing, Pandora made it plain that the only issue was the need for women-only spaces as one way of working toward equality.

The beginning

This story begins in the spring of 1990 when Pandora ran an article about child custody. Halifax resident, Gene Keyes, phoned the newspaper to ask if he could write a letter in response. He was turned down because of Pandora's clearly stated editorial policy: "...Pandora reserves the right to publish only letters that fall within the guideline of our editorial policy; letters must be written by women and be woman-positive; we do not accept material that is intolerant or oppressive."

Alas, Gene Keyes was no ordinary reader. During the '80s, he had been through a bitter custody battle, which he'd lost; he was a well-known fathers' rights activist. He defines himself – and the media were always satisfied to accept him according to his own definition – as a member of a disadvantaged group: divorced fathers who are discriminated against by the justice system. (The facts don't bear him out. In our country, most child custody is settled amicably between two parents. In disputed cases, fathers gain custody in over 50 per cent of the cases.)

In June of 1990, Gene Keyes filed a formal complaint of sex discrimination with the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission against Pandora Publishing. Although there was an attempt at conciliation, no agreement could be reached. Incredibly, the Commission decided to proceed with the case.

Pandora

Pandora cannot accurately be called a "newspaper" although it does, indeed, publish some news. In general though, it's a publication by, for and about women which asks its contributors to share their experiences and their realities with their sisters; it makes no claims to "objectivity" as the mainstream media do. It asks its women readers to become part of the publication – to write to Pandora as if they were writing to a friend.

And indeed, there is a feeling of sisterhood in Pandora, a sense that the paper is a shared activity and that the struggles described are collective, not individual. If a single mother writes about living in welfare poverty, she doesn't expect to hear someone hissing, "get a job!" If a teenager writes about incest or a grandmother writes about fear on the streets, they feel the security of a community which will understand and help.

It wasn't like that at The Hearing.

The Hearing

The Human Rights Commission hearing against Pandora was held on five cold days in January of 1992. The adjudicator, David Miller, was male. The Commission's lawyer, Randall Duplak, was male. Gene Keyes, representing himself, was male. And the system was, most certainly and unmistakeably, male.

It was an adversarial situation of cross-examinations and rebuttals. There was always the feeling that if a witness slipped up and said the wrong thing, fingers would be pointed, heads would roll.

There was something surreal about seeing this little feminist newspaper forced onto the defensive by a hierarchal, authoritarian system that she had no part in making.

To make her case that women are a disadvantaged group in our society, Anne Derrick, Pandora's lawyer, called 18 witnesses including a feminist historian, sociologists, experts on media, and past and present members of the Pandora collective. All but one of the witnesses were women. (The Pandora women appeared under pseudonyms; when the news of the hearing hit the mainstream media, death threats began showing up on their answering machine.)

After the hearing – and before the decision – some of the women wrote in Pandora how they felt about what had happened:

"...My special relationship with Pandora as a small women's-only community was torn as I watched and experienced male definitions and bureaucracy invade our thoughts, opinions, experiences and policies. We were no longer operating on our own ground, but became vulnerable to the rules of those who were defining the agenda of the inquiry. I wished I could just jump up and scream out, `this is crazy and we're not going to take it any more...'" one wrote.

Another wrote: "...Because women have been, and are, deliberately excluded from the development of the texts and practices of the underpinnings of this society (law, medicine, religion, business etc.), we have been silenced and oppressed. Sheltered spaces such as Pandora give us a safe place to birth our own agenda, teach it, nurture its growth until we someday send it forth a mature adult who will stand beside the texts and practices to have an equal say in society..."

Still another wrote: "...We danced with the system, to their rules, in their ballroom. It was damned uncomfortable, frustrating and tiring, but we survived, elegantly..."

The aftermath

Anne Derrick, Pandora's lawyer, says this case never should have proceeded, but as it did, it becomes a very important case and decision.

"The Commission tries to downplay the importance of the case," she says, "but it is the first time in Canada such a decision has been reached. It has much broader implications than most people have considered; not only women but all other disadvantaged groups in society will be affected by it."

Derrick was not particularly surprised at the outcome. "I felt the choice of this adjudicator gave us the prospect of getting this decision. I felt he had the ability and the intellect to grasp the arguments."

Having said that, she's also not persuaded that the Commission learned anything from the hearing.

"The response we've had from the Commission about what happened after the hearing makes me say, `they still just don't get it.'"

The day after the Commission's decision was announced, Derrick and a coalition of Pandora's friends called a news conference to demand an apology for the language used by the Commission's lawyer in his final written argument. He called Pandora women and their expert witnesses "hysterical man-haters," "radical extremists," who presented arguments "beyond reason and sanity." He said the paper did not represent women but only lesbians. He noted that the witnesses for Pandora did not take their oaths on the Old or New Testaments, the Koran, or any other of the many holy scriptures provided, but were affirmed.

Women's groups and individuals rallied in defence of Pandora and her witnesses but the Human Rights Commission has been unwilling to deal with the inappropriate language used by their lawyer and considers the case closed.

Most people would agree that part of being oppressed means that you have been defined by someone else. For women, these definitions not our own, have been very dangerous, not to say life-threatening. Women have been told that sexual harassment is flattering, that rape is just good sex preceded by a struggle, that being battered is our own masochistic fault.

Pandora, still as wise but now much poorer, is back to providing a safe space for women to work on their own definitions; back to challenging those oppressive structures that are responsible for these two lost years.

And finally, Pandora is back to being by, for and about women – this time, with no arguments.

Sharon Fraser is a Halifax journalist. She testified on behalf of Pandora as an expert witness on media.

Sunday, May 26, 2019

A posthumous award for Ray's book, 2019

Ray's last book before his death, Through Sunlight and Shadows, won the 2019 New Brunswick Book Awards prize for fiction. It was presented at a New Brunswick Writers' Federation gala at the Moncton Press Club May 25.

I was very grateful to be there and to have the privilege of accepting the award as Ray's former spouse and as his literary executor. I spoke from notes and this is approximately what I said:

One of the great moments in Ray's life happened when he was a very young man living in Chatham, New Brunswick. He saw a poem by Alden Nowlan and it was the first time he realized that you didn't have to be British, or American, or dead, to be a writer. If he were here tonight, he would see so much more evidence of that early realization.

I know he would want to thank his publisher, Lesley Choyce at Pottersfield Press for making such a beautiful book. And he would thank his many friends who so willingly proof-read and critiqued and edited to make sure it was the best book it could be. He had become a lot mellower as he got older and actually allowed people to make suggestions and possible changes.

My husband, Dan, is here tonight. Dan and I were with Ray during his final hours and in the days leading up to his death, while he was still able to communicate, we could see that one of the things he was most concerned about was his literary legacy.

Because of that, I want to thank the archives at the UNB library and the archivists who worked with us for their careful and loving collection of his works.

The archivist who helped us clear out Ray's apartment was amazing. It was like watching someone panning for gold and pouncing regularly on what was obviously a nugget for her. Pure gold. Ray wrote always and everywhere. He left behind countless notebooks packed with writing that was almost illegible to anyone but him. A scrap of paper on his kitchen table might have been a grocery list or it might have been a list of synonyms — a search for the perfect word. Notes scribbled in the margin of a sports magazine left in his bathroom might be the perfect scrap of dialogue he was looking for.

Christine gathered and filed every one of them and when I was able to tell Ray about the process — he was already in palliative care — it seemed to bring him to a place of peace.

Ray's funeral was held in the church of his childhood and he's buried just a stone's throw from the house where he was born — the house and the church that figure so largely in this very book.

It seems a fitting ending — full circle, in fact, and I think he would see this as a perfect conclusion to this part of his story.

He left some unpublished work so there will be a sequel — I'm his literary executor so I can say that — but talk of that is best left for another day.

Thank you all, so much, for this wonderful honour.

Dan didn't want to be obtrusive while I was speaking — which I think was very considerate — so he shot the pictures from his only possible angle.

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Fire! Noise! Music! how much excitement can you take?

Today, March 19, is the feast day of St. Joseph. He's the patron saint of Canada and of many worthy causes but nowhere is he more revered and celebrated than in parts of Spain. In Valencia today, a days-long festival will come to an end with fireworks, parades, lots of music and finally, bonfires throughout the city as massive statues built for the occasion will be set ablaze.

This is the statue in Valencia's main square and it will be the last one to burn tonight. It will be sometime around or after midnight their time — sometime after eight here in Atlantic Canada. (They haven't set their clocks ahead.)

The festival is called las fallas, literally "the fires."

I was once in Valencia for las fallas. When I got out of bed on March 19, I thought I had awakened in hell. The cacophony was deafening. I looked out the window and the air was filled with smoke. People were crowded into the streets, laughing and singing with bands that were playing in most neighbourhoods. We went out and joined the ruckus and got swept along in an almost helpless state; it was impossible to fight against it. I noticed at a certain point that many people were wearing earplugs, an excellent idea although too late for us.

There were firecrackers going off everywhere but also day-time fireworks. You couldn't really see them but seeing them was not the point. You could definitely hear them. Bars and cafés and restaurants were open and doing a grand business selling mountains of paella and gallons of wine and beer.

We followed the crowd and saw lots of the crazy statues before they went up in flames. As so many of the festivals in Spain do, the symbols incorporate a lot of religion and politics and they're often viciously satirical. Trump shows up a lot this year.

Here he is in the company of Franco, Stalin and Hitler. We will probably hear the cheering from here as this one burns.

I'm going to watch the main statue burn on the webcam from the Plaza del Ayuntamiento (Town Hall Square). As I write this, they're already making the pre-burning preparations.

We survived it, being there in person, and I have to say it was very exciting even though in many ways, it was pretty scary.

Join me at the webcam though. I recommend it!

And tomorrow, the first day of Spring, the neighbourhoods will be back planning and drawing and collecting materials to get started on their statues for next year!

Monday, November 26, 2018

Finding the origins of Ray's spiritual growth

Ray Fraser 1941 — 2018: writer and poet, story teller and singer

A few days before he died — he was in palliative care at the Everett Chalmers Hospital just before a move to hospice care in downtown Fredericton — Ray told me that the doctor had been in and offered him the option of an assisted death. He asked me what I thought of that.

I told him it didn't matter what I thought. What mattered is what he thought.

"I don't think the Catholic Church thinks much of it," he said, with a wry smile.

I said it was a very complex issue and it often took the Catholic Church a couple of centuries to reach a fixed conclusion on this kind of thing. That amused him.

He dozed off then and it didn't come up again. I didn't want to bring it up because I didn't want to sound as if I were trying to influence his thinking or to push him into a decision he didn't want to make. Or an opinion he didn't want to have. I did, however, make a point of telling him that if he wanted to talk about it again, I didn't mind but I'd wait for him to bring it up. It never came up again. After his move to the hospice, it was no longer an option and that was okay because I think everything had been said that was going to be said.

After Ray's death, when I was back home at my own computer, I was going through past emails, looking for addresses, people to be contacted, dates of certain events. I came across an email from myself, written on March 2, 2016:

Did you read this? It’s quite an astonishing story and much of it is about Al Purdy. I’m still trying to get my head around it.

The article I linked to was from Toronto Life and was written by John Hofsess. John was a right-to-life activist and before his own death (by assisted suicide), he had facilitated the deaths of eight people, including the poet Al Purdy.

I thought the story would interest Ray because we knew Al Purdy a bit back in the Montreal days and also because he liked Al Purdy's poetry. Ray had started a literary magazine (the infamously-named Intercourse) and he had well-known, high profile contributors — among them, Leonard Cohen, Elizabeth Brewster, Alden Nowlan, Irving Layton and yes, Al Purdy. Ray not only liked Al's poetry but he liked the tough-guy persona that Al affected.

We met him a couple of times at parties where he would usually be the centre of attention — except for the time when he and Margaret Atwood showed up at the same party. She had just won the Governor-General's Award for poetry and Al appeared to happily relinquish the centre-of-attention position to her — for that one time anyway.

Ray's response to my email and to the Hofsess article about assisted death held much more significance for me when I read it last week — a month after we'd talked about it in the hospital — than when I read it two years ago. He wrote:

Interesting. I think a body should do his time and leave when he's meant to, speaking for myself. Although if you turn into one of those brain dead vegetables in old folks homes it might be nice if someone shot you.

All the pain I've known so far has had a lesson in it. As the saying goes, "Pain is the touchstone of spiritual growth". You find things out that way you wouldn't any other. And none of it is needless. That's so far, and so far has gone on for quite a while.

"So far" for Ray amounted to 77½ years.

In a subsequent note, perhaps having re-read the article, he said it struck him that "Hofsess is more an egoist than an altruist." And concluded, "Anyway, I think if you live right you'll probably die right."

I'm thankful that it ended easily for him but I know that "living right" doesn't always guarantee an easy death. Far from it.

The only guarantee is that there are no guarantees.

Even still, I find something comforting in his words that turned out to be prophetic — for him — and displayed a profound belief in some of the origins of his spiritual growth.

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

A sweet little cat says good-bye

Our dear Junior cat is gone now. He left yesterday, April 30. I didn't accompany him on his final journey. I petted him and told him to be a good kitty. Dan was with him all the way.

Junior's prognosis was never encouraging from his initial diagnosis on March 2. He put up a good fight, as we did and as his friends and admirers and caregivers at the Atlantic Cat Hospital did — Dr. Julia and all the dedicated staff.

In the end though, we couldn't ask any more of him. I knew it was up to me to make the final decision and I knew he would let me know when it was time. His world had become very small and he wasn't eating enough to sustain his strength. He needed help with some of his everyday motions and he was losing interest.

Junior was 12 years old. He was born at the SPCA where Dan and William went and chose him. He chose them really. He was so vocal in his demand to be chosen that they couldn't ignore him. He was so young when he joined us, he still had the blue eyes of a little baby kitten. He was too tiny to climb the stairs. I carried him up at night and put him on the bed. During the night, he would find me and burrow into my hair at the back of my head. He would gently knead and purr and yes, suck a little bit, thinking he'd found his proper Mama. The back of my head didn't suffice, unfortunately.

He and Grizzly grew apart over the years and didn't really like each other but it was clear they liked each other at one point.

He got his name because to a casual viewer, he and Grizzly looked somewhat alike so to allay confusion, we just decided they would be Grizzly and Grizzly Jr. And so Junior he was.

We would have liked him to be an indoor cat but no such luck. He turned out to be the most outdoorsy cat of them all. Even in the worst winter blizzard, he would wait patiently until he heard Dan or William shovelling the deck and that would be his signal to demand the door be opened. They would make him a little path and he would go down one or two steps and then scoot under the deck where he apparently had his own designated restroom. In all the time we lived with a backyard, I think he only condescended to use a litter box a handful of times and clearly found the whole idea quite distasteful.

He was definitely a lover of Nature.

I suppose he found it hard when we moved to an apartment and his outdoor days were over. We couldn't let the cats out on to the balcony because we live quite high up and couldn't take the chance. He became contemplative and enjoyed spending time on the high perch where he watched the comings and goings of pigeons and wished he could get his paws on them.

William is out-of-town but he said an affectionate farewell before he left, knowing that Junior wouldn't be here when he returned. When we talked on the phone later, William said, "I think he knew that he had a good life."

And insofar as cats give much thought to the quality of the life they're living, I guess William is probably right.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

The Santa Claus Years

I was a fervent believer in Santa Claus. When I was seven or eight years old, growing up in Chatham, N.B., a kid at the White School in Chatham told me that there was no Santa, that the stories about him were all lies and the presents he supposedly left were all bought by my parents. I scoffed at her. Scoffed! She might as well have told me there were no stars in the sky.

I saw plenty of Santas when I was a little girl: we used to go to the old Opera House on Wellington St. in Chatham for a visit with Santa. We sat on his knee and told him what we wanted for Christmas. He said, "Ho ho ho," and gave us a small paper bag of hard candy. This happened again at the Sunday School Christmas concert in the United Church hall and at other public events around the town.

I was never fooled for one minute nor was I bothered by these little ceremonies. I was as polite as I could be, saying, "Hello, Santa," and listing off my heart's Christmas desires. I always thanked him and walked away.

Never once though did I believe that any of these fellows was really Santa. I didn't even believe that they were — as some people posited — some kind of official "helper." I knew they were just guys from around town, playing the part of Santa, and that was fine with me. I didn't give them a second thought. I only believed in the real Santa.

Many of my ideas and impressions of Christmas came from a book that came out every year at the same time as the decorations and the special candles. It may have looked like this:

although by the time I was able to remember it, the hard covers were gone and it was a little ragged around the edges. The book had poems, carols, drawings and stories at least two of which were almost unbearably sad: The Little Match Girl and The Happy Prince.

There were things in the book I didn't really understand but they created a Christmas image that stays with me to this day. Many years later, my husband found a similar book which now comes out every Christmas in our household. It has all the old favourites and reading The Happy Prince can still bring tears to my eyes.

In those days, little girls wore long brown ribbed stockings. They were held up by garters that were attached to an undergarment called a waist.

The stockings went all the way up and they had some "give" so they could easily accommodate lots of goodies and these were the stockings we hung on Christmas Eve. We hung them in the archway between the living room and the dining room and after the ritual of choosing a selection of cookies and fruitcake and making a cup of tea for Santa, off we went.

The magic of Christmas morning has never changed for me. When we crept down the stairs and peeked around the corner, the first thing we saw was fresh snow that had been tracked across the living room carpet. That was our first clue that he had been there. A few more steps and we could see the lovely array of presents and the fat bulging stockings. Our father would have stoked the furnace, our mother would have started the Christmas music — and those stockings beckoned.

The stockings always included small toys and books, maybe a hairbrush and comb and barrettes, maybe some perfumed bath powder. I mostly remember the wax paper packages of fruit and candy though. Of course, the legendary orange was always in the toe. But at regular intervals throughout the stocking, there would be bunches of grapes, a banana, an apple — always a Red Delicious called, in our house, a Christmas apple or more often, a Santa Claus apple.

There were also wrapped packages of hard candies and of peppermint-cream-filled chocolates. There were those once-a-year specialty sweets: barley toys and ribbon candy.

And — as sure as Christmas had arrived — there were Ganong's chicken bones. They were as much a part of Christmas as the turkey and the tree and they still are at our house.

I remember some of the big presents over a number of years — the toboggan, the sled, the skates, all the dolls. I have a special memory of the dollhouse. How I loved sitting at its back open wall, spending hours moving the family members and their furniture around from room to room, imagining interesting lives and activities for all of them. This was in the days before everything was made of plastic and my dollhouse was made of tin. It was simple but wonderful.

But as we're so fond of reminding one another — and especially reminding the children — it's not the gifts we remember, it's the magic. The magic for me was all about Santa Claus. I know there's some controversy these days about whether it's good to deceive your children by letting them believe in Santa. I don't think anyone could have stopped me from believing in Santa so it was never an issue for me.

I believe in him still. Nowadays, when I creep down the stairs on Christmas morning and see the fat, bulging stockings, the old magic returns and I feel the same way that I did all those years ago. It's even more interesting and magical when you consider that I filled those stockings myself, before I went to bed.

Have a happy and blessed Christmas and a wonderful 2014.