A Bit More Detail

Assorted Personal Notations, Essays, and Other Jottings

Archive for January 2009

[LINK] The airships of Toronto

Over at Torontoist, Kevin Plummer has another sterling post–“‘The Pride of the British Empire'”–taking a look at an obscure event in Toronto’s history. In this case, it’s Toronto’s airship craze of the early 1930s.

At daybreak on the morning of August 10, 1930, His Majesty’s Airship R-100–the British airship that had arrived in Montreal from England on August 1–made a surprise visit over Toronto. She hadn’t been expected until 9 a.m., but just before dawn the faint droning of motors announced her presence over the harbour. Milkmen stopped their carts mid-route, diners and staff emptied from restaurants, and night-watchmen all gazed skyward to marvel at the ghostly sight of the airship against the moonlit sky. Ship whistles greeted the airship and woke its passengers. Across the city, people in pyjamas rushed outdoors to witness the history-making event.

With a fabric-covered frame of duralumin, an aluminum alloy, containing fifteen giant balloons of hydrogen to provide lift–since helium was rare outside of the United States–the R-100 measured 695 feet in length and 133 feet in diameter and was said to be the largest airship in the world. Built for the British Air Ministry by the Airship Guarantee Company, the R-100 flew a number of tests around the British Isles after its launch on December 16, 1929, before crossing the Atlantic to Canada where it was greeted with a jubilant outpouring of excitement.

Dead-end technology it might have been, at the time the arrival of an airship was still an event. Go, read the rest of the post.

Written by Randy McDonald

January 31, 2009 at 7:37 pm

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[FORUM] Where should religion fit into the law, if at all?

Let’s start with Sheema Khan’s recent Globe and Mail article, one that has probably gotten quite a bit of attention from the Canadian blogosphere. She observes is that while Canadian Muslims as a group tend to closely identify with Canada, a majority–not overwhelming, but a majority still–diverge notably from the Canadian norm in one notable way.

44 per cent of Canadian Muslims believe Canada should accommodate their traditional beliefs, while 81 per cent of the general population thinks immigrants should adopt mainstream Canadian beliefs. In particular, 53 per cent of Muslims think sharia law should be recognized as a legal basis for settling family disputes, while an overwhelming majority of the general population disagrees. Of those surveyed, 55 per cent of Muslim women and 59 per cent of Muslims aged 18 to 29 indicated their preference for sharia law. Remember, this survey was conducted one year after the Ontario sharia controversy.

The sharia controversy Khan refers to relate to the controversy over faith-based arbitration in family law, a feature of Ontario family law since the mid-1990s that became controversial when a conservative Muslim group announced its plans to establish Muslim variants, with obvious implications for–most notably–gender equality. A grand cultural collision started, between liberals and conservatives and immigrants and natives and different factions of immigrants and/or natives against other factions of immigrants and/or natives, and the debate was ended in 2005 by the decision of the Ontario provincial government to do away with faith-based arbitration altogether. Muslims weren’t the only group affected–some Jewish and Christian groups also partook–but the sharia publicized the issue internationally.

Later in the article, Khan suggests that the 2005 decision needs to be revisited, that the informal courts practising sharia need to be brought into the system, and that so doing would help heal rifts internal to Canadian society.

Since 9/11, Canadian Muslims have felt increased discrimination. This has a direct impact on identity and how a minority perceives its acceptance by the majority. With the raucous, sometimes racist, nature of the Ontario controversy, many Muslims were forced to focus on sharia as a component of identity, resulting in a plurality wishing to abide by Islamic principles in matters of family law.

I disagree strongly with Khan on three grounds. Firstly, on the grounds enunciated here.

Pam Cross, legal director of Metropolitan Action Committee on Violence Against Women and Children and co-chair of the No Religious Arbitration Coalition, says there will always be people who will operate outside a regulated arbitration system. However, she says allowing faith-based arbitration in Ontario is not the solution.

“That is a concern and that would have happened no matter what the government did, because had the government decided to leave the Arbitration Act as it’s presently written, there’s little doubt in my mind that the government would have implemented the safeguards, or least some of the safeguards, proposed by Boyd in her report.

“So there would have still been people who wanted to operate outside even those safeguards. I don’t think the threat of so-to-speak back-alley arbitrations should be used to say, ‘Well, we should have regulated them.’ Whatever system of regulation you come up with, there are always people who are capable of finding a way to get around that,” Cross says.

[. . .]

Cross says while the premier’s announcement is a victory for the coalition, much work needs to be done to ensure women have access to justice.

“I think one of the biggest jobs that we have–and by ‘we’ I mean those of us working with women but also the community, the government–a really big job that we have is to ensure that women have access to legal information so that they know what the law of Ontario, and what the law of Canada provides for them.

“So that when they are making decisions about how they want to handle their separation–do they want to go the route of private mediation or do they want to hire a lawyer and possibly end up in court–we’d like women to be making that decision based on access to full information, and that’s a very important job that lies ahead of us right now,” she says.

Secondly, as we’ve seen in such unhappy societies as Israel and Lebanon, giving religious authorities an actual stake in the legal system does only bad things, keeping the members of different denominations in line behind their religious-cum-political leaders who have a vested interest in preventing defections through intermarriage or internal dissent. In Canada, at least, the rule of law isn’t subject to divine law. Canada has done well because–not despite–of this.

Thirdly, speaking directly to Khan’s point about the alienation common to many Canadian Muslims, how can the solution to the question of Canadian Muslim isolation lie in the creation of separate, or at least parallel, legal systems? The public sphere should be open to everyone by default.

And yet. This Ottawa Citizen article quotes polls suggesting that Canadians as a rule are opposed to faith-based arbitration regardless of religion, this opposition being stronger in Ontario, Québec and Alberta, but remaining a majority sentiment throughout the country.

The only Canadian region that came close–49%–to a sentiment in favour was the North, where the First Nations and Inuit have their own conflict-resolution systems which have co-existed and/or conflicted frequently with the established Canadian legal system. Might an honest across-the-board opposition to faith-based arbitration in Ontario (and elsewhere) represent some sort of domestic cultural imperialism towards religious minorities? Does the public square requiring the shedding of faith in this circumstance, or in other circumstances? In the end, I suppose it relates to the question of how much common ground has to be shared for a pluralistic society to function meaningfully.

Your thoughts, as always, are most welcome.

Written by Randy McDonald

January 31, 2009 at 11:00 am

[BRIEF NOTE] On those political lesbians

A couple of other people have commented, at length, on this rather remarkable Julie Bindel article from The Guardian in which she issues a call to feminists–and women in general–to embrace the label of “political lesbian.” What does this mean? It comes out in Bindel’s 2005 interview with the feminist Sheila Jeffreys who started off the whole concept.

She became a lesbian in 1973 because she felt it contradictory to give “her most precious energies to a man” when she was thoroughly committed to a women’s revolution. Six years later, she went further and wrote, with others, a pamphlet entitled Love Your Enemy? The Debate Between Heterosexual Feminism And Political Lesbianism. In it, feminists who sleep with men are described as collaborating with the enemy. It caused a huge ruction in the women’s movement, and is still cited as an example of early separatists “going way too far”.

“We do think,” it said, “that all feminists can and should be lesbians. Our definition of a political lesbian is a woman-identified woman who does not fuck men. It does not mean compulsory sexual activity with women.” Although many of the more radical feminists agreed, most went wild at being told they were “counter-revolutionary”.

Further down, Bindel relates her choice of sexual orientation seemingly not to innate orientation so much as to a political reaction against a particular–if common–socially-bound pattern of heterosexual life.

When I was growing up on a council estate in Darlington, the expectation was that I would one day marry a local boy, settle down and start producing kids. Frankly, the thought horrified me. I was surrounded by men – my father and two brothers – and at an early age I had picked up on the stories of domestic violence, child abuse and general unhappiness that seemed to emanate from neighbouring households. I was also struck by the drudgery on display. While men were out drinking, embarking on fishing trips and generally enjoying their freedom, women were stuck cooking for them, cleaning for them, and running around after children. For women, heterosexuality seemed a total con.

At 15 then, having only ever had one, non-serious, boyfriend, I came out as a lesbian. Three years later, I moved to Leeds in search of the scary-sounding feminists I had heard about and, having joined a group that campaigned against pornography, finally met the RFs. They engaged me in discussions about heterosexuality in the pub, and critiquing this mainstream sexual culture made sense to me – after all, the women I had met during my childhood clearly hadn’t benefited from it. The RFs told me that, to them, lesbianism was a choice that women could make, and not a “condition” we are born with. “All women can be lesbians” was the mantra. I loved the sense that I had chosen my sexuality and rather than being ashamed or apologetic about it, as many women were, I could be proud, and see it as a privilege.

Might I go on the record as saying that choosing your sexual orientation for political reasons is a waste of the sexual fluidity that exists in a goodly number of people to a greater or lesser degree? I’d always thought that the whole point of coming out was to let people express their sexual and romantic inclinations without regard for political or cultural convention whether hegemonic or counter-hegemonic. I know that I’m not a woman and can’t testify from lived experience, and I can imagine that gender relations can stand to be reconstructed on healthier lines on a broad scale and in some particularly, sure, but rejecting the very possibility of heterosexuality? At all? Because it’s politically and/or culturally inconvenient? I may as well start trawling for a girlfriend, then.

Written by Randy McDonald

January 30, 2009 at 7:37 pm

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[BRIEF NOTE] Tamil protests in Toronto

CityNews carries a complete report of the day’s events.

It has been an extraordinary day in the downtown core, a spectacle rarely if ever seen in this city. The cause: a day long downtown-wide massive protest by Canadian Sri Lankans, designed to attract attention to what they call acts of genocide in their homeland.

The human chain demonstration stretched from Bloor St. to University Ave. and Yonge St. and snaked all the way to Front.  

But it was at that final destination that the crowds truly tried to make their point. As many 5-10,000 people wound up at Union Station, causing such an overwhelming sea of humanity that police were forced to close off the roadway for a time.

Mounted units, traffic cops and even the RIDE spotcheck command post were all called into action while chaos prevailed around the transit hub. The assembled multitude was peaceful, a remarkable achievement for such a large gathering, but it was inside the typical transit hubs where chaos reigned.

Police were able to finally open a small corridor to allow pedestrians and travellers to get through.

A man named George was one of those caught in the gridlock while attending a library convention downtown. He didn’t seem to mind the inconvenience it caused. “I’ll support the protesters, it’s a good cause,” he confirms. “But, you know what? There’s thousands of people that have been affected.”

But while police did their best to clear the way, when commuters finally did get down to Union Station it was hardly clear sailing. It was so crowded in the subway the line waiting to get in stretched all the way back to the area where passengers pay their fares.

And it was almost as bad uptown. Busy Bloor Station was so filled with passengers, the TTC was forced to stop all its trains before they entered the station to ensure safety.

It was a long day for authorities, who were hopping since the protest began earlier in the morning. Drivers were also affected, as the protestors kept to the sidewalk but provided an endless visual distraction for blocks.  

It was an amazing sight, all the more so because it stayed so peaceful. “There are probably thousands, tens of thousands of Tamils here all trying to bring some attention to their cause,” confirmed CityNews reporter Francis D’Souza at the height of the madness. “You can see them on the street corners here trying to hand out pamphlets just to let people know what they’re actually talking about.”

He believes they more than achieved their aims. “Their message is ‘stop Tamil genocide in Sri Lanka.’ If that’s what they wanted, that’s what they’re getting right now. Because the hundreds of thousands of commuters who use Union Station every day are trying to get through and listening to their message.”

How busy was it at the height of the protest? D’Souza reveals he was forced to get out of the CityNews vehicle and walk to the scene. His cameraman and all his equipment didn’t get through the gridlock until 25 minutes later.

The protestors had promised their massive march would end at 6pm. True to their word, as the dinner hour struck, the crowds slowly began to disperse and left the area, creating yet more headaches for an already swollen public transit system.

By all accounts, the protests have ended peacefully without any untoward events. (That sound you hear in the distance is the collective exhalation of relief made by Toronto politicians and Canadian police.)

Written by Randy McDonald

January 30, 2009 at 7:04 pm

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[PHOTO] Welcome to Yankee Stuff

Welcome to Yankee Stuff
Originally uploaded by rfmcdpei

This is a photo I took this summer past of Yankee Stuff, a store that–as Torontoist’s Jamie Bradburn puts it–stood out for “proudly displaying the red, white, and blue (and several small Canadian flags) on Bloor Street in Korea Town,” promising “”Winners Quality at Ed’s Prices… THAT’S WHY CRAZY PRICES!” (“Ed’s” refers to “Honest Ed’s,” the nearby huge discount/bargain store).

After seeing a 50% recession sale on all items, Bradburn returned after Christmas to the store only to find that, “based on the wrapping paper covering the display window, the recession had claimed another victim.

The lesson? Be careful of naming your sale after an economic event, as said event may come back to bite you.”

Written by Randy McDonald

January 30, 2009 at 7:45 am

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[LINK] Some Friday links

  • Broadsides’ Antonia Zerbisias reports that, already, some people are criticizing Michelle Obama in … suspiciously charged ways.
  • Centauri Dreams reports that astronomers have taken the first infrared image of a planet, this one being a gas giant that swoops amazingly close to its primary and superheats portions of its atmosphere. And we know which portions.
  • Daniel Drezner lets us know that Jessica Alba knows more about the history of the Second World War that Bill O’Reilly. Seriously.
  • Paul Wells shares the exciting news that “[t]he era of federal-provincial bickering is over. It is now the era of federal-provincial open threats,” what with the Quebec finance minister warning the Conservatives to be careful because, you know, if federal elections come …
  • Joe. My. God. reports that a spokeperson for the Roman Catholic Church in Scotland said that gays shouldn’t adopt because they die early. Sigh.
  • Over at Passing Strangeness, pauldrye writes about the Republic of Ezo, an attempt by progressive feudal lords in Japan at the beginning of the Meiji period to make the northern island of Hokkaido an autonmomous state.
  • Slap Upside the Head reports that at least one American conservative thinks that GLBT folk want to join the military because they want to have sex, with heterosexuals of course.
  • Windows on Eurasia reports that Moldova may be about to leave the largely irrelevant GUAM group and that Russian oligarchs really like blogging.

Written by Randy McDonald

January 30, 2009 at 7:32 am

[LINK] “Toronto church leader denounces atheist ‘attack ads'”

Atheist bus ads are finally making it to Toronto.

The Toronto-based Freethought Association of Canada won approval yesterday from the Toronto Transit Commission to place ads on buses and inside subway cars that read: “There is probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.”

Charles McVety, president of the Canada Family Action Coalition, which fought against the legalization of same-sex marriages, said his group has not decided whether it will formally complain about the ads once they appear.

“On the surface, I’m all for free speech. … However, though, these are attack ads,” Dr. McVety, president of Canada Christian College in Toronto, said in an interview yesterday.

[. . .]

The ads coming to the Toronto transit system are identical to those used in a recent campaign in Britain. After raising more than $26,500 in donations in just a week using a website called atheistbus.ca, the Freethought Association now plans to use the funds to place the ads on buses in Calgary and Halifax.

Katie Kish, the Freethought Association’s vice-president, denied the ads are an attack on religion. She argued that they are meant to inspire dialogue.

“It’s not meant to be any sort of rude or inflammatory thing toward people,” said Ms. Kish, a York University student with a radio program heard on campus stations. “It’s meant to grab attention, and then, from that attention, comes discussion. And that’s what we want out of it.”

[. . .]

Brad Ross, a spokesman for the Toronto Transit Commission, confirmed yesterday that staff have decided the ads do not violate any of the TTC’s rules. But that decision could be reviewed if complaints arise.

“Disallowing the ad may be a violation of the Ontario Human Rights Code and potentially a violation of the Charter … so we have to look at it from a legal basis,” Mr. Ross said. “We don’t feel that there’s any grounds to disallow the ad.”

I’ve seen evangelical churches’ advertisements on buses, quoting the Bible and promising salvation conditional on this belief. If the TTC’s buses carry this sort of ads, they may as well carry all the ads of this sort if the money’s in it.

Written by Randy McDonald

January 29, 2009 at 5:14 pm

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[LINK] “Are the Tamil Tigers being declawed in Toronto?”

That’s what Anthony Reinhart wonders in The Globe and Mail today.

The question now, as the rebels sit cornered and facing military defeat by the Sri Lankan army, is whether Canadian Tamils will keep supporting a diminished Tiger insurgency, or abandon the rebels for a more peaceable approach to a government many deeply mistrust at best, and accuse of anti-Tamil genocide at worst.

“They are in a panic over what to do,” Mr. [Lenin] Benedict said, estimating that “99.9 per cent” of Toronto’s Tamils support the Tigers’ goals, if not always their methods. Many are “in a state of shock” over the Tigers’ rapid loss of power after 25 years as the Tamils’ self-proclaimed representatives, he said, and are awaiting instructions from a rebel leadership that is, to say the least, preoccupied.

If the notion of an entire expatriate community in Toronto taking its cues from a militant force overseas sounds like an exaggeration, Mr. Benedict insists it is not and he’s not alone. Elusive though it’s been, the promise of a Tamil homeland has been exploited so effectively by the Tigers that they enjoy “total control of the community,” he said.

[. . .]

Comments like these echo findings of a joint police operation in 2006 in which Tiger documents were seized from World Tamil Movement [WTM] offices in Toronto and Montreal. The raids closely followed the federal government’s ban on Tiger fundraising in Canada, which the WTM – also now banned – had allegedly conducted for the Tigers. A Human Rights Watch report at the time also documented the Tigers’ use of coercion to secure donations from Tamils in Toronto.

The seized documents suggest the Tigers view the entire Tamil diaspora as an extension of the rebel group, and Toronto as its “Canada branch.” A manual from the rebel group’s “international secretariat” spells out how to operate foreign branches, and includes a directive to “make all necessary steps to receive monthly financial donations from each one of the Tamils of those who are living in every country.”

It urges diaspora officials to enlist the support of all Tamil community groups – students’ federations, women’s groups, arts and cultural clubs, sports groups, educational centres and “general associations of Tamils” – and hold each to account for contributions.

[. . .]

“It’s cracking,” John Thompson, head of the Mackenzie Institute, a Toronto-based public-policy think tank, said of Tiger support. “And I think if the war in Sri Lanka ends or the [Tigers are] broken, it’ll crack a lot further, but it hasn’t disintegrated yet.”

Mr. Thompson, who has spent nearly 15 years studying the rebel insurgency, said Tiger collectors have been running into more closed doors in Toronto as a result of the federal ban. While many still give willingly, “some of these families have been paying war taxes for decades, and they’re tired of it,” he said. There are other signs, he said. Moderate Tamil politicians have been visiting from Sri Lanka “to speak to Tamils and say, ‘Look, there are other options besides the Tigers,’ ” while police, emboldened by the ban and growing co-operation from disaffected Tamils, have stepped up efforts to soften Tiger sympathies.

Most recently, members of a joint federal, provincial and local anti-terrorism force targeted Heroes’ Day, the Tigers’ annual Nov. 27 commemoration of war dead. Normally, the Tigers press Tamil shopkeepers to close for the day, and oblige people to attend. This time, police leaned on the Tigers, photographing licence plates at participating banquet halls. They even mounted the official platform and started “flipping the caps off the [heads of] uniformed Tigers onstage,” Mr. Thompson said.

Authorities would not be so audacious, Mr. Thompson said, without high-level political support and backing from within the Tamil community.

For his part, Mr. Benedict moved last year to carve out space for moderate Tamil voices. His fledgling group, the Canadian Democratic Tamil Cultural Association, aims “to foster friendship and understanding with other Sri Lankan communities and the Canadian mainstream.”

Written by Randy McDonald

January 29, 2009 at 4:29 pm

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[MUSIC] Annie Lennox, “Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye”

Annie Lennox’s cover of the Cole Porter song “Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye”, taken from the 1990 AIDS fundraising album Red Hot and Blue, is perhaps her most beautiful song.

The sound of her full voice against the sparse piano and Paris cafe accordion sends chills down my spine.

The music video is also interesting, filmed by Ed Lachman. Iconic British director Derek Jarman was originally slated to direct, but his HIV/AIDS-related illness forced him to withdraw, but not before contributing the home movies shown in the music video, old movies of him and his family, taken by his father. Lennox later performed the song in a cameo in Jarman’s 1991 movie Edward II.

Written by Randy McDonald

January 29, 2009 at 10:53 am

[PHOTO] Yorkville and the Village Rock

Yorkville and the Village Rock
Originally uploaded by rfmcdpei

The downtown district of Yorkville is known as much as the bohemian 1960s home of musicians like Joni Mitchell and Neil Young as it is for its current status as an upscale shopping and dining district. What isn’t as well-known is the existence of its Village Rock, a huge stone a billion years old and massing 650 metric tons that was taken from the Canadian Shield in Ontario’s cottage country district of Muskoka in 135 pieces and reassembled in situ. This picture, taken on a balmy late summer evening, gives a size as to the Village Rock`s heft. In afternoon, it`s a perfect place to enjoy the sun, all stretched out.

Written by Randy McDonald

January 29, 2009 at 10:34 am

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