Monday, August 29, 2005

Headline Ambiguity in Political Volatility

It's so easy to become paranoid about the character-maligning insults that The Province newspaper may be willing to heap on BC teachers who are stepping up their campaign for better teaching and working conditions in BC after having their legislated non-contract contract expire 14 months ago.

Today in the paper [see below] we read that a BC man teaching in Taiwan may face the death penalty if found guilty of drug smuggling. Beyond the odd, irrelevant or demeaning epithet Ethan Baron heaps on this man, "the lanky, laid-back Canadian," the title of the piece is cause for concern.

"BC teacher may be facing death penalty" certainly sounds like a BC teacher could face the death penalty. True, this man is from BC and teaches in Taiwan. He, however, is not currently registered as a BC teacher with the BC College of Teachers.

Perhaps it was just a convenient headline wording. Technically, he is a BC teacher. But in a climate of tension between BC teachers [in the BCTF] and the provincial government [with their neoLiberal privatization agenda] and their media/communications lackeys in CanWest, the headline has more political currency than what the story merits. Context is important. CanWest gets a dig in.

But then again, bias is a tricky thing. Mine opposes the government and supports the teachers [and generally public sector unions in BC]. CanWest is coincidentally or intentionally in league with their ideological unregulated free marketeer counterparts in Campbell's neoLiberal government. But then I read NYU Journalism professor Jay Rosen's fascinating piece about disillusionment in journalism education based on a panel discussion he attended called "Things I Used to Teach That I No Longer Believe". In Rosen's piece he laments the degraded professionalism of journalism, including this:

"For many years I taught in my criticism classes that pointing out bias in the news media was an important, interesting, and even subversive activity. At the very least an intellectual challenge. Now it is virtually meaningless. Media bias is a proxy in countless political fights and the culture war. It’s effectiveness as a corrective is virtually zero."

In light of this insight, I question the value of the media or a free press at all, especially when another idea Rosen laments is this:

"Alas, I used to teach that the world needs more critics; but it was an unexamined thing. Today I would say that the world has a limited tolerance for critics, and while it always needs more do-ers, it does not always need more chroniclers, pundits, or pencil-heads."

Here's hoping Vista is not a land of mere pencil-heads. At least we don't pretend to be journalists.

B.C. teacher may be facing death penalty
Man, 28, arrested on trafficking, smuggling counts

Ethan Baron
The Province

Monday, August 29, 2005

A teacher from B.C. is facing the death penalty in Taiwan after being arrested for allegedly smuggling and trafficking cocaine.

Mathieu Forand, 28, was arrested Friday night and jailed. He was allegedly found with cocaine, ecstacy and marijuana.

Friends in Taiwan said the lanky, laid-back Canadian teacher was throwing a party in his home in the Neihu district of Taipei at the time of the raid, and guests were arrested as well.

Forand may have signed a confession to drug crimes so his visitors won't be caught up in the prosecution.

"From what I've heard, he's signing things without knowing what they are, without having them translated," said Forand's father Peter of Port Moody, who learned of his son's arrest yesterday. "What I've heard is he's done some of this without legal assistance. That's a problem."

Forand's friends in Taiwan said authorities kept him up for nearly two days while trying to get him to sign documents in Chinese.

Taiwan is one of 58 countries worldwide that impose capital punishment, and drug crimes are subject to the death penalty.

In January, Taiwan's parliament ratified a criminal code overhaul that will phase out capital punishment.

Taiwan executed three people last year, down from 32 in 1998 and 24 in 1999, according to Hands Off Cain, a group opposed to the death penalty.

Friends of Forand told The Province that the prosecution is pushing for the death penalty or 25 years in prison, and that Forand's lawyer is arguing for a sentence of 10 to 15 years.

The Taipei Times said Taiwan Coast Guard agents spotted a Taiwanese-American man leaving a building, allegedly after buying drugs, then used the man as bait to snare Forand.

Friends said Forand was reportedly caught with one to five kilograms of cocaine.

Authorities allege he was the kingpin of a ring that smuggled drugs into Taiwan inside textbooks and sold them in pubs, nightclubs and over the Internet to foreign and Taiwanese students, the Taipei Times said.

His friends said they thought it unlikely Forand would have been involved in smuggling.

Cocaine commands a much higher price in Taiwan than in B.C., a friend of Forand's said.

Forand has been teaching English in Taiwan for several years. His arrest shocked his parents.

"It's out of character," his father said. "I don't know what he was thinking, or why he wasn't thinking."

A friend who also taught English in Taiwan said the case has already gained a high profile in the media.

It will likely become a flashpoint for racial tensions, with outraged Taiwanese calling for severe punishment.

A Canada Foreign Affairs spokesman said his department was aware of Forand's arrest. Forand's father contacted Foreign Affairs yesterday but was denied information. "Because of privacy legislation they can't tell me anything until they get clearance from [Forand]," he said.

Sunday, August 14, 2005

Crystal meth minimums more important than maxes

On the plus side, the federal government appears to now recognize that met amphetamine is seriously bad stuff. Health Minister Ujjal Dosanjh, Justice Minister Irwin Cotler and Public Security Minister Anne McLellan announced increased maximum penalties for the production, trafficking, importing or exporting of the so-called "poor man's cocaine" to life in prison.

Big deal.

It may have sounded like an apt response to a growing crisis with a deadly narcotic (a Schedule I now, thank you). But the newest announced legislation, not yet enacted into law yet, by the way, and can't be before parliament resumes from its much longer-than-the-average-Canadian vacation, still suffers from that most Canadian of legislative hurdles: too much judicial discretion. In short, a maximum sentence is only effective as a deterrent if it is ever applied. In Canadian courts, maximum sentences are the exception rather than the rule.

Existing laws allowed for maximum sentences of seven to ten years for the distribution of this deadly street drug. But try to find even a small handful of cases where the maximum penalty was applied to producers or distributors, even for repeat offenders. Indeed, in a great number of convictions conditional sentences, mostly involving some form of house arrest, have been the norm.

Which is not to suggest the courts are not doing their job. They are, at least to a point. Sentencing principles in legislation, all legislation, requires courts to consider all options other than incarceration. It could be argued the courts too often fail to consider prison time as an appropriate response to the conviction but the reality is, our legislation lacks the teeth that would require judges to enact stiffer penalties.

Life in prison as a maximum penalty leaves a great deal of leeway for a judge: anywhere from no time to twenty-five years fits the bill. But if the political will could be mustered to write sentencing requirements at the lower end of penalties, judges would be required to follow penalty guidelines our elected legislators are entirely entitled to enact.

Opponents of minimum sentencing say the purpose of our correctional system - as implied by its title "Corrections Canada" - is rehabilitation; minimum sentencing, it is argued, is about punishment. But minimum sentences need not be draconian: no one is suggesting minimum sentences of life in prison.

But increasing the maximum potential sentence is an entirely ineffective tool if the judges can't - or won't - apply the penalty parliament has given them the right to employ.

The only way we're going to see an increased penalty for the most serious offenders is if parliament requires the courts to use them rather than simply making it available as an option.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

The Roma: Victims of Toxic Discrimination

The Roma: Victims of Toxic Discrimination

-Ameena Mayer

The story is not new. A group of people stands out due to their colourful traditions and unique way of life, and the dominant culture sees their differences as threatening and primitive. Indeed, Palestinians and North American First Nations are both protagonists within this mired plot that normally climaxes in expulsion and extermination. Pushed into small pockets, both groups are internally displaced persons unprotected by international law and are considered invisible by governments insofar as their right to basic needs mandatory to the survival of any tangible human presence is continually ignored. But there is yet another character in this horror tale, whose distinguishing trait is that it remains largely unknown by the world, despite the fact that it is presently fighting for its life: the Roma.
Originally from northern India, the Roma started migrating westwards in 224 CE. Possessing a history of unwarranted persecution, they were victims of the Renaissance Christian genocide against witches, were enslaved throughout Europe from the 14th to 19th century and were killed during the Holocaust. Today, they face abuse and segregation conditions in Europe not unlike those that African-Americans once faced (and still do) in the US. The subplots within the masterpiece are hair-raising: Romani women sterilized to reduce birthrates, police sexually assaulting Romani women in public and innocent Romani men incarcerated and tortured.
But it is the plight of the Roma in Kosovo that is perhaps the most Draconian. Facing more blind hatred there than anywhere else in Europe, Roma populations have been living in lead-poisoned camps since the Kosovo conflict in 1999. There, the soil, air and water, toxic with lead from years of processing the substance on site, are leading to infertility, neurological disorders, birth defects, stunted mental growth and death. Affecting those under the age of six the most, lead poisoning will wipe out an entire generation of the Roma if populations are not relocated immediately. Sickeningly, the UN knew the camps were contaminated in 1999, stating that the Roma would be there for only 45 days. According to Paul Polanski, an activist for the rights of the Roma, a well-qualified doctor confirmed five years ago that the land was a deathtrap, but the UN insisted he keep this a secret and that it would only provide assistance if there was an AIDS or TB epidemic.
So what is the title of this chapter in the story: ‘old-fashioned discrimination’, ‘ethnic cleansing’, or ‘full-blown genocide’? Why is it that the Serbians and Albanians got compensation from the UN after 1999 while the Roma got a death sentence? Why are the Roma not included in Kosovo’s official population count? And why, in a comparatively wealthy continent, are the Roma experiencing a quality of life close to that of Sub-Saharan Africa? Indeed, Polanski shows the link between the bloodletting answer to these questions, namely discrimination, and lead poisoning in the following extended metaphor:

What about the big dusty
Slag heap behind us

Come here
When it’s windy

The red wind
covers all your clothes
in red dust

stops you breathing

Requesting that the government grant the Roma asylum in Canada and spreading the word about the situation are ways we can prevent the Roma’s story from ending in their permanent invisibility.

Works Cited

EuropaWorld. “Living Standards for Europe’s Roma Comparable to Sub-Saharan Africa.” 17 Jan, 2003. 8 Aug, 2005.

Mandel, Ilanna Sharon. Interview. Vancouver: 7 Aug, 2005.

Polanski, Paul. “Red Wind.” UN-leaded Blood. Czech Republic, 2005. 43

Refugees International. “Kosovo Lead Pollution Requires Immediate Evacuation of Roma Camps.” 15 June, 2005. 8 Aug, 2005. content/article/detail>

“Internally Displaced Persons (IDP’s).” 2004. 8 Aug, 2005.

Robinson, B.A. “The Religion and Culture of the Roma.” July, 1998. 8 Aug, 2005.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Lawrence of Urbania arrives at the patronage well

In the right light it shimmers, its red velvet chamber casting a starry mirage in the eyes of yearning pork-barrel feeders. A shiny black steed approaches from the west, its triumphant occupant alone in the back (for of course he has a driver), his Fedora low across the brow with only the occasional nod to passersby he hopes soon will come to see him as important as he sees himself. He glides to a halt on Parliament Hill, welcomed with open arms by He who need only a whim to fill vacancies in the vaunted upper chamber: "Hello Larry!"

Dear God. Just what we needed.

As if he needed anything else to reduce his credibility, Prime Minister Martin announced his newest slate of inductees to that granddaddy of political patronage, the Canadian Senate. At the top of the list, Vancouver's own departing mayor, Larry Campbell.

That's right, the same Larry Campbell who nigh but a month ago announced that politics just wasn't for him. Among his reasons for not seeking re-election, despite an inexplicable approval rating in the seventy percent range, were his distaste for partisan politics, his frustration at the glacial pace of public policy initiatives and his growing impatience for meetings, meetings and more meetings.

Uhm, Your Worship? Has anyone explained just what you'll be doing in the Senate on those rare occasions you're expected to show up and do the people's work? It generally has to do with partisan politics, reviewing glacial-paced public policy initiatives and meetings upon meetings. But at least you get a pay raise, free travel, nearly limitless hooky days and taxpayer-funded haircuts. And hey, you don't even have to bother getting elected.

Which, of course, is where Martin's credibility takes a beating on his most recent appointments. To be sure, he did appoint a couple of former Tories to give the impression these were not all plum pudding appointments for political friends. Ironically, if there has to be a federal senate - a questionable premise at best - appointee and former Tory Hugh Segal is likely the most qualified of the bunch to bring some expertise in federal governance to the house of sober second thought, though certainly Liberal Dennis Dawson brings MP experience. Oh, and he's from Quebec; let's not forget that.

For all Martin's talk of abolishing cronyism, appointing people based on merit and changing the way business is done in Ottawa, senate appointments are the most glaring examples of same old, same old.

Traditionalists love to argue the constitution does not permit elected senators, a notion that is categorically untrue. For if senate appointments are the Prime Minister's prerogative, he could simply choose to appoint senators elected by the people: no constitutional amendment required. At the very least, if he lacks the power to rid us this revenue-sucking beast, Martin could open the appointment process in a manner that would allow greater scrutiny of those we're inviting into the upper house. Parliamentary committees could examine and recommend candidates based on criteria set by elected representatives. Even if the final say remained with the PMO, elected officials could at least narrow the field to a screened group of candidates who would best do the job.

But that, of course, requires a Prime Minister confident enough in his own leadership not to need to clutch desperately at whatever vestiges of power he can. Is Larry popular in Vancouver? Yep. Could that help the PM's electoral fortunes there? Maybe. Good enough.

For Da Vinci fans, at least it looks like we'll have teleplay fodder for years to come: when Da Vinci's City Hall finally runs its course, as Da Vinci's Inquest did after seven years, you'll know what you'll be watching next.

For the rest of us, we'll be paying for Larry's new job for years to come.