Monthly Archives: October 2014

Leveraging the Parliament Hill Shootings

Certainly the shooting that happened on Parliament Hill on Wednesday, October 22, 2014 was a tragedy. Two men died. And one man was forced into the traumatic circumstance of having to kill another man.

It’s enough that these things happened.

But why the sudden burst of anthem singing? And why this sudden compulsion to identify an enemy? Are we a country so beaten down that we need to rise up, wiping away our tears as we vow to “stand on guard for thee”? What is going on here? Have we lost our collective minds?

What is so great about Canada?

There are some things, I suppose. It’s to our credit that so far, our rights to mobility and privacy have been so well upheld. It’s a great thing that our court rooms and parliaments are open forums. I suppose that if we are forced to define what’s meant by freedom, these things would factor in.

But in the wake of the shootings on Parliament hill, mobility and privacy are the very things that are under threat –not from any gunman, but from our own leaders, who seem to be leveraging this event into their hawkish ambitions to be the guardians of righteousness –protecting citizens from themselves for their own good. And how convenient this patriotic fervour can be in times when the government needs to drown out dialogue about an economic policy that promises to keep public services down, and to rape the natural environment in the name of protecting the wealth of the richest people in the world!

And let’s not forget ourselves. Patriotism can blind us to the fact that there are things in Canada that are not so great. Did no one see the tent city in Oppenheimer Park? Shall we simply ignore the fact that an RCMP member is on trial for perjury after causing the death of a man who came to Canada to visit his mother? Shall we simply gloss over the historic fact that for over a hundred years of our formation as a nation, our way of life destroyed the way of life of the original citizens of this “soil”? Does anybody care about the sad legacy of so many women who have disappeared on the Highway of Tears?

You may say that I’m reaching –that I’m negative. I’m not. You may say that I hate Canada. I don’t

And you may say that these terrible aspects of our nation are isolated incidents – things that no country, no matter how great, can avoid. And maybe they are.

But if that’s true, why then is the recent Parliament Hill incident NOT an isolated incident? Why, when Nathan Cirillo was shot, did we launch ourselves into vainglorious sentimentality over our downtrodden nation? Was it because he was wearing a soldier’s uniform?

And why, in light of all the other incidents in this country is he being called a hero? How can those of us who never knew him deem him to be anything? Certainly heroism can’t be ascribed to him for his job, standing as an honour guard for a statue, any more than it can be ascribed to a taxi driver. The simple fact of his murder doesn’t make him a hero. Why are we all of a sudden clamouring for a hero?

One has to ask if there would have been an attack at all if an honour guard had not been present to remind a man with radical beliefs of our newly militarized history, courtesy of Stephen Harper’s conservative government. It’s fair to wonder if the presence of a soldier in full regalia on public display was a trigger for the killer’s deluded mind.

Why do we need an honour guard at the war memorial? Is it not enough that the public can walk by the statue and pay their respect to those whose historic circumstance placed them in the midst of horrible tragedy: tragedy that didn’t stop when the guns were silenced? Do we need a spectacle to tell us how we should view this work of art, or how we should view the meaning of our dead?

Have we forgotten how terrible war is? Should it not be a thing we remember with a bit of sadness and sobriety? Is it not a disservice to engage in sudden bursts of sloppy sentimentality and vainglorious patriotism?

Those who died didn’t die for this. I know, because I have spoken to a few of those who fought and survived. For them, war was not glorious –not in the least. My grandfather feared fanaticism of any kind, including nationalism or religious zeal. He knew they were the foundations of thought on which Naziism was built. And here we have a prime minister who embraces both.

Harper’s speech after the Parliament shootings

After gunman, Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, shot and killed a Canadian honour guard at our National War Memorial, and went on a rampage into the Parliament Building, Prime Minister Harper addressed the nation in a most predictable way.

In his speech he carefully framed the events of the day as an act of war. He reminded us that “attacks on our security personnel and on our institutions of governance are by their very nature attacks on our country…”. He made sure to use the word “terrorist” (four times) and he managed to include “ISIL-inspired” in his oratory –this despite the fact that no organized group had claimed any responsibility for the “attack” (a word he used seven times) at the time of his reading of the speech.

Clearly, Harper wants to define this issue as a justification for his combat policy in going after ISIL.

Most telling was the following paragraph from the very short speech:

“In fact, this will lead us to strengthen our resolve and redouble our efforts and those of our national security agencies to take all necessary steps to identify and counter threats and keep Canada safe here at home, just as it will lead us to strengthen our resolve and redouble our efforts to work with our allies around the world and fight against the terrorist organizations who brutalize those in other countries with the hope of bringing their savagery to our shores. They will have no safe haven.”

Harper would like us to see this event as part of a broader world conspiracy of  “terrorist organizations who brutalize those in other countries with the hope of bringing their savagery to our shores” against “free and democratic people who embrace human dignity for all”. In case you missed it, we Canadians are the latter group. Apparently those savages whom Harper alleges to be our enemies don’t embrace human dignity.

Surely the gunman at the parliament building today was a radical, much as Marc Lépine (the École Polytechnique shooter) was a radical. Surely Canada should protect its citizens from violent offences and radicalism, but Harper would like us to perceive ourselves to be at war. He would like Canadians to sanction a combat role in a war against an idea –a war that can’t be won, but a war in which people will die from the “savagery” of Canadian F-18 sorties nonetheless.

As the leader of a nation, his attitude, which plunges us into a world of “us” and “them” thinking, should also be thought of as radicalism, misguided and dangerous.

Another shot at American schools, and another “solution”.

I have seen many articles decrying the way education is delivered in America, for example this one by David Edwards, entitled,

American Schools Are Training Kids for a World That Doesn’t Exist

Edwards starts off by asking, “Are Americans getting dumber?” He laments the decline in math, reading, and literacy skills in America compared to other countries, and identifies an education “crisis”.

Then he goes on to imply that the traditional school model separates learning from doing. And from here he offers a solution: “Maker” workshops.

Maker workshops are all-day workshops in which a class identifies a large societal issue (for example, difficulties that might be faced by an aging population). The class is then divided into small groups which collaboratively tackle a specific problem related to the overall issue (perhaps the problem of lifting heavy pots on a stove), and then seeks to invent a device that will address the problem.

The group is given a kit with which to construct a prototype model. The kit contains items like pipe cleaner, thumb tacks, paper plates, plasticine, plastic bags, cardboard, bailing wire, and other things. In addition, some construction materials and tools are made available.

I have attended a Maker workshop. And don’t get me wrong, without any qualification I can say that the workshops truly are wonderful exercises in creative thinking, collaboration and skill building. But as much as the experience offered many educational benefits, it could never replace what I learned over 35 years ago in a grade 8 class called “industrial education”, which was a rotation of woodwork, metalwork, and drafting. Nor could it ever come close to being able to match the depth of conceptual learning that took place in science classes in which the supplementary labs ensured that the theories taught had a chance to be played out in hands-on practice. In fact, I dare say that this old liberal arts teacher got much more benefit out of the Maker experience having first attended those science and industrial ed. classes all those years ago.

The real problem in education is not pedagogical; it is, rather, our society’s lack of financial commitment to producing an educated population. The problem has two branches. First, and most critical, is the brutal cycle of poverty that kills both attitudes toward education, and access to it. Poor kids do poorly in school.

The second finance-related problem is our never-ending search for business-model efficiencies, leading us to cut more and more laboratory and practical courses and to promote more online courses and larger class sizes in theoretical subjects.

What’s worse is that while schools reel under this financial strain, headlines like the one announcing Edwards’ article, whether by design or not, is just the kind of language that policymakers like to use as justification for dismantling public education in favour of a private model that leaves the most vulnerable students out in the cold.

Maker workshops have their place. They create scenarios that allow students to “discover”, to share ideas, and to learn how to collaborate in construction, as well as find out what works and what doesn’t work in design. Maker can encourage people to dream up new inventions. But Maker is far from a solution to declining math and reading skills –the problem articulated at the beginning of this article. And in order to integrate any theoretical depth (for example, understanding of electrical current flow), the students need to get to a classroom. We simply can’t afford to integrate concept-teaching into each student’s individual Maker experience.

Meanwhile, if you want to teach a kid to build a house or a car, you’re not going to be able to do it by giving him a bunch of straws, duct tape and plasticine. No doubt our tech courses should reflect changes in technology, but the way education is delivered in these courses is still relevant.

But try to find a school that offers both high level theory courses and technology courses at the same time. The private charter model leads schools to specialize: in sports, in fine arts, in university transfer, OR in technology. Whereas individual public schools used to offer all of those things, now they are not able to. It is the current new thinking about education that separates learning from doing, and not the traditional public school model. What we really have is a funding crisis.

The fact that BC Liberal voters must face.

If you voted for a BC Liberal candidate in the last election, here’s what you voted for:

You voted for a group of people who got together behind closed doors and cooked up a sleazy strategy to provoke teachers into a strike in order to help the themselves get elected.

They WANTED teachers to strike.

They WANTED schools closed –kids to stay home.

And they took every opportunity to humiliate good women and men, shaming them, and forcing them to go without pay for their principled stand.

They did this (so the BC Supreme court found) so that teachers would look bad and they would look good. Their behaviour had all the baseness of a high school mean girl who makes up rumours about her rivals in order to win the title of prom queen. Their action was actually that depraved.

The BC Liberals did this to me and my colleagues. They used us and the children that we teach. They had all the power and they used it to beat us down.

This is the party supported by business. Is it safe to say, then, that theirs is the mentality of business people: this mentality that winning trumps all other things and ethics be-damned?

And can we assume that you, who support the BC Liberals, would call this behaviour “cleverness” –this behaviour that the rest of us call “sleaze” –this behaviour that religions associate with the devil –this insincerity, trickery and treachery?

If you vote for these people, knowing what you know about them, look at yourself, at your willingness to embrace sophistry (you do know what sophistry is, don’t you?). Face the ugly fact of your quickness to put what’s profitable ahead of what’s right. You are a disgraceful excuse for a human being.

Message to the Boss

Hi Gerald:

I’ll be late

for work. I’m

at Granville Station. There’s

a guy down here busking violin.

You can’t imagine how

beautiful it sounds. It’s sad

and lovely, and

the notes are echoing around the platform.

I’m gonna stay a while and listen. In fact,

I don’t know

if I’ll be in at all today.