[Update below] A Canadian Internet civil libertarian has named South Shore Regional School Board Superintendent Nancy Pynch-Worthylake “Authoritarian High School Superintendent of the Month” for placing student William Swinimer on five days suspension for wearing a shirt that read, “Life is wasted without Jesus.”
University of Waterloo computer science professor Jeffrey Shallit announced the tongue-in-cheek award on his Recursivity Blog, but his denunciation of Pynch-Worthylake’s overreaction was anything but tongue-in-cheek:
North American high schools are not places where free speech and criticism of authority are welcomed. Instead of teaching lessons about free speech, free expression, the Bill of Rights, and the Charter of Rights, principals and superintendents routinely impose arbitrary rules and punishments….
Swinimer’s t-shirt expresses a moronic and wrong sentiment, and he sounds like the typical evangelical jerk who can’t keep quiet about his own “good news.” But when he says, “I believe this is worth standing up for — it’s not just standing up for religious rights, it’s standing up for my rights as a Canadian citizen, for freedom of speech, freedom of religion,” he’s absolutely right.
Superintendent Pynch-Worthlake could have turned this into a teaching moment. She could explain that in a multicultural society there will be people who assert that their religion is the only valid one, and that’s the way life is. She could explain that the Charter guarantees “freedom of thought, opinion, and expression,” and even though she disagrees with Swinimer’s sentiment, she defends his right to express it in a non-disruptive way.
Instead, she took the authoritarian route. Shame on her.
[UPDATE] A reader who is not from the Annapolis Valley or Bridgewater writes:
It’s obvious Jeffrey Shallit does not live in the Annapolis Valley or Bridgewater, because if he did, he’d know that no matter how strongly you felt it, you’d never say anything like this: “Swinimer’s t-shirt expresses a moronic and wrong sentiment, and he sounds like the typical evangelical jerk who can’t keep quiet about his own ‘good news.’” Because the fall-out from evangelicals, of which there are many who attend Baptist, Pentecostal, and break-away Protestant churches in the Bible Belt of Nova Scotia, would not be worth it. Shallit, safe from the wrath of God in Waterloo.
Remember the Ottawa Press Gallery’s rending of garments over the “despicable” violation of Public Safety Minister Vic Toews’s privacy when Vikileaks30 revealed seamy details from the public record of his divorce proceedings—details that called into question the minister’s personal adherence to the family values he used to denigrate gay Canadians and oppose their exercise of equal rights under the law?
The view that embarrassing details from a cabinet minister’s private life are off-limits, even when they conflict with his sanctimonious public pronouncements, has suddenly acquired unanimous support among Canada’s major media organizations. Why, suppressing such details is practically a sacred duty.
Parliamentary reporters from Sun Media and the Ottawa Citizen were particularly vociferous in their denunciation of those, including Contrarian, who criticized the gallery’s conspiracy of quiescence around Toews’s hypocrisy.
Now check out the list of intervenors who successfully appealed against a sweeping publication ban this year in divorce proceedings brought by the wife of David Russell Williams, the former Canadian Forces colonel convicted of murder and rape.
I think the media were right to appeal that ban, and three justices of the Ontario Court of Appeal think so too. For the same reason, the press gallery were wrong to play down or ignore public evidence of Toews’s hypocrisy, and I take that journalistic failure as a sign that the Harper government’s bullying approach to the media has achieved some success.
[Update:] Anticipating the response of my friends in the press gallery, I will add that, of course I am not analogizing the hon. minister to a notorious sex murderer. The publication ban they successfully opposed here was not about Williams or sought by him. It was sought by his estranged wife, who must be presumed an innocent party. It covered:
- Her name, address, and contact information;
- Her photograph or likeness in any report of the divorce proceeding;
- The name, address, or contact coordinates of her employer in any report of the divorce proceedings;
- Her social insurance number, date and place of birth, and address; and
- Her assets and liabilities, except those transferred to her from Williams after February 2010.
As I said, they were right to seek to overturn this ban. They were wrong to treat a family-values thumping, gay-hating Harper cabinet minister with kid gloves.
On his Green Interview website, Silver Donald Cameron imagines how an innovative, creative mayor might have responded to OccupyNS: He starts by quoting the late Allan O’Brien, mayor of Halifax from 1966 to 1971.
The Mayor has very little actual power – but he has the power to bring people together, to encourage action on matters that he considers important. He has the power to influence the public agenda. He has access to the press. And if you use those powers strategically, you can accomplish quite a bit.”
Imagine if Peter Kelly had that kind of awareness, that sense of direction, when he looked out the window in the middle of October. Imagine if he’d gone down there with his eyes and ears open. Who are you? Where do you come from? What do you do? When I asked those questions, I found I was talking with some very interesting people. An education graduate from St. Francis Xavier University who was playing a mad scientist in a children’s theatre. A sustainability consultant. A young boutique farmer. A Mi’maq veteran. A postal worker. A filmmaker.
Okay (the Mayor might have said), let’s not talk too much about things that are clearly national or provincial. What are the things that municipal governments actually can affect? Food? Maybe we need an innovative urban agriculture policy. What do you think such a policy might look like? Homelessness? Let me get a couple of property developers and someone from the province down here, and let’s brainstorm a little. Tell me about youth unemployment. Say that again, will you – there’s an organization in Winnipeg called Build that trains street people to do energy refits? Fascinating. Let’s get someone from Winnipeg down here to talk about that. How can I reach them? (Answer )…
What if the Mayor had treated the occupiers respectfully, as though they were actually citizens whose voices deserved to be heard, whose ideas might have merit, whose concerns might reflect the concerns of other citizens? What if the city had welcomed the arrival of new ideas, new insights, a passionate commitment to a better future? What if the Mayor had paused to reflect that the young people among them were not aliens or monsters – or bums or dregs or scum, as they have been called by adult commentators who should know better? These are our own children, brought up in Dartmouth and Moser River, Blandford and Fairview. What if the Mayor had contemplated the possibility that those young people probably are the future?
What if the Mayor had acted not as a short-sighted enforcer of petty bylaws, but as the wise, patient leader of a functioning community?
If he had acted like that, Peter Kelly would have taught the occupiers that civic engagement actually works, that change is possible, that older people can and do welcome the energy of youth in the quest for a better tomorrow. Instead, he taught them the exact opposite – that their concerns are not of interest, that their involvement in politics is not welcome, that civic leaders cannot be trusted, that violence is just fine as long as it’s the police who start the brawl.
If Peter Kelly had found a fresh, positive way to engage with Occupy Nova Scotia, the news would have gone around the world – just as the news of the eviction has gone around the world. Other cities that are also trying to figure out what to do next would have taken note. Halifax would have looked like the thoughtful, creative community that it is. And Peter Kelly would have been a hero, a prime contender for higher political office had he chosen to pursue that.
Like I said, history just tossed Kelly the political opportunity of a lifetime. He blew it. And we are all diminished by his failure.
Sounding old before her time, Marilla Stephenson follows up the Chronicle-Herald’s ringing endorsement of the status quo with a ringing endorsement of middle class sensibilities. The protesters just had to go. They just had to. There had been an overdose in Vancouver or something. Enough is enough.
To this we respond:
You walk into a room
With a piece of paper in your hand.
You see somebody naked,
And you say, “Who is that man.”
You try so hard,
But you just don’t understand.
Do you, Mrs. Stephenson?
With apologies to Robert Allen Zimmerman.
Cartoonist Bruce MacKinnon, on the other hand, gets it right.
Lots of reaction to HRMs forcible eviction of the Occupy Nova Scotia protesters. The best piece of actual reporting comes from a blog post by Bethany Horne, news curator for the recently launched indie website Openfile Halifax. A recent King’s grad with a progressive sensibility, Horne didn’t flinch from describing some of the incipient problems at the encampment:
[I]f the events of November 11 hadn’t happened, I’m not sure how much longer the gathering would’ve lasted. At the November 9 general assembly, tensions were high. The camp’s reputation for accepting anyone, giving them shelter, food and a makeshift community was attracting more people who needed help than people who were able to offer it. People who are homeless used the facilities at the camp: the medical supplies, the food, the kitchen, the common “hang-out” area. People are homeless in Canada for many reasons, but there is usually an addiction in their past or present, or a mental health issue. Homeless youth are usually fleeing the addictions or abuse in whatever house they escaped from.
This community of needy people became a sometimes violent place. There were clashes. The healthiest residents, from luckier backgrounds, who were there because of strong political convictions, were being attacked, a lot of times by the residents of the camp who were frequently in need of help. Either the healthy help-givers were not helping the help-needers enough, or they had made some mistakes that tend to happen when you’re overworked and only human. On Tuesday night, many Occupiers had been sick, throwing up in their tents. Sanitation had become an issue. Too many people eating, not enough people doing dishes, or not doing them well enough. Some people had been threatened, verbally or with weapons, and due to weariness some key political organizers had taken to spending more time away from the camp than at it.
In effect, Utopia was already being saddled with the ‘problem people’ our general society has major challenges assimilating. They had to host the rejects we sweep under the rug into jails, homeless shelters and the foster system all over the country.
That retreat away from the square and to the park had already affected the morale of the camp in more ways than was acknowledged to the press. The space was bigger, and camp had been allowed to spread out more. Divisions that already existed were allowed to geographically materialize. The centre of camp life was the paved square at the head of the park, facing the busiest pedestrian corner in the city. The living quarters of the Occupy camp sprawled South, down a narrow and long green space bordered by a much quieter street, residential towers, and a hospital. The deeper into the camp you went, the further away from the public. That’s where kids went to do drugs, and where it felt a little dangerous walking past sunset.
Predictably, many OccupyNS critics took this honest reporting to mean Horne supported the eviction, which she obviously did not. But she had the gumption to report problems on the side of the issue that drew her sympathies, and for that, good on her. The Chronicle-Herald and others could learn from this example of integrity.
Contrarian reader Dana Doiron writes:
I remember listening to Peter Kelly giving early warning that the occupiers would have to leave the Grand Parade to accommodate Remembrance Day and seasonal activities. He spoke of respect for the rights of the occupiers and the importance of dialogue on issues confronting us collectively. I was impressed with his search to accommodate the occupiers elsewhere and then with the assistance provided to relocate them to Victoria Park.
I visited the assembly at Victoria Park and was pleased to see the civil interaction with other Haligonians and, particularly, with police officers.
I also heard the Mayor of Montreal speak last week about the difference between the Arab spring and Montreal where the respect the rights of individuals to gather to address common problems would trump inconvenience and appearances. I was proud that Halifax and Montreal at least, were united in civility and mindful of priorities.
That went down the drain on Friday. The fact that the vote to evict was unanimous will probably make it easier at election time: almost anyone but the incumbents.
HRM District 14 Councillor Jennifer Watts has issued an apology for her role in Saturday’s forcible eviction of Occupy Nova Scotia. She still believes the parks bylaw trumps Charter guarantees of free speech and the right to assemble peacefully, but she now regrets the Remembrance Day timing and the failure to explore alternative resolution methods. Her silence on those issues, “was a serious error in judgment on my part for which I sincerely apologize.” Full text here.
The Halifax Chronicle-Herald and AllNovaScotia.com, ranking arbiters of mainstream opinion in Nova Scotia, lent editorial support Monday to Mayor Peter Kelly’s forcible police removal of peaceful Occupy Nova Scotia protesters.
The Herald, in a bracing throwback to its days as the fusty Old Lady of Argyle, approved the eviction in every detail: violence, secrecy, sneakiness, double-dealing, rights-violation, and even Remembrance Day timing. AllNS tried to have it both ways. A commentary* by former-Managing-Editor-turned-United-Church-minister Kevin Cox quibbled with Kelly’s timing and secretive decision-making, but endorsed His Worship’s position that a vague and rarely enforced municipal bylaw should trump Sections 2. (b), (c), and (d) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
In a letter AllNS published this morning, Halifax Filmmaker John Wesley Chisholm pointed out that Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi had reached the opposite conclusion, “saying the Charter of Rights prevented the city from arbitrarily forcing out the protesters — even if they’re breaking a city bylaw.”
Halifax officials, Chisholm wrote, took a big gamble with taxpayers’ money, risking hundreds of thousands and perhaps millions on a possible court defence of
the notion that these protesters’ use of tents to camp out in a public park was so egregious, so outstandingly shocking to our community’s values, of such a danger to public safety, so offensive to our public interests, that it justified a police action to deny their rights and freedoms to assembly and protest under the federal law on which our civil society is based..
Even by the smug standards of Halifax’s establishment media, this was a shabby performance.
*Access to AllNS is by paid subscription, and its flash-based web structure makes it impossible to post accurate links.
Here are the events that led to today’s arrests in Halifax.
- A group of protesters exercised their right to assemble peacefully and petition their government for redress of grievances by camping out in the Halifax Parade ground.
- City burghers found the demonstration unruly, distasteful, and inconvenient. Seizing on the central role the Parade Grounds traditionally plays in Halifax’s Remembrance Day observances, Mayor Peter Kelly demanded the protesters vacate the area before November 11.
- Showing more strategic accumen than one might have been inclined to expect, the OccupyNS protesters negotiated respectfully with veterans’ groups and HRM officials, and voluntarily withdrew to Victoria Park, a few blocks away.
(A parenthetic note seems warranted here: For those unfamiliar with Halifax, Victoria Park scarcely merits the designation. It’s more of a grassy verge than a full-fledged park, a walkway whose round-the-clock use by protesters, however scruffy, should not have made any city official’s list of top-10 concerns. Peace, order, and good government-wise, it was a non-event.)
- On Tuesday, Mayor Kelly and HRM Council met behind closed doors and voted on… something. Maybe they voted to evict the protesters, as Kelly claimed. Maybe they voted to serve them with an eviction notice, as Dawn Sloane claimed Friday evening. Mere citizens cannot know who’s telling the truth and who’s confabulating because there was no mention of the protests on the council agenda, and the city’s elected officials acted, as is their wont on important and controversial matters, in secret and unaccountably. As the Coast’s Tim Bousquet reported, the vote, if it happened, was not confirmed in public session, as required by law.
- On Friday, having made so much of his reverence for the solemnity of Remembrance Day last week, Kelly ordered – or at the very least, allowed – the eviction to proceed, with only cursory warning. Police forced protesters out of Victoria “park,” arresting those who failed to co-operate, and confiscating their tents and paraphernalia.
What harm were the OccupyNS protesters doing that could conceivably justify their violent eviction? City officials made a few, feckless attempts to conjure up a rationale. Kelly claimed the protests had cost the city $25,000 extra police and trash removal services, then abruptly upped the estimate to $40,000. The roundness of the numbers suggests they were plucked from the mayoral navel with as much accounting acumen as Kelly applied in the past the the use of city parks for big name concerts.
City officials claimed an ordinance required city parks to be vacated overnight, but pedestrians routinely use the grassy walkway at all hours of the day and night. Critics were quick to point out that Kelly’s administration tolerated an encampment at Seaview Park for months on end, before eventually conceding that the protesters had a point and negotiating a settlement of their grievances.
Carrying out the forcible eviction on Remembrance Day was tactless, and added insult to injury, but it’s a side issue. The core principle here is the right to petition for redress by peaceful assembly. That’s what our vets fought for. The city has sacrificed these Constitutional pillars in the name of an obscure and petty municipal ordinance, and a stuffy concern for orderliness. Is it any wonder Halifax, which could be such a great city, wallows instead in mediocrity?
Earlier this week, various blogs and media outlets reported that Beijing was experiencing frightful levels of air pollution. To document the crisis, China hand James Fallows cited what he called “the indispensable (and highly controversial)” Twitter feed @Beijingair, which produces hourly readings of fine particulate matter (PM2.5) in Beijing. On Monday, @Beijingair showed readings in excess of 300 µg/m3, contributing to conditions the US EPA characterizes as “hazardous,” and warranting “health warnings of emergency conditions.”
What caught my attention was Fallows’s assertion that the @BeijingAir feed is “the only known source of PM 2.5 readings in China.” That is astounding: one PM2.5 meter for a nation of 1.3 billion people. By contrast, Sydney, Nova Scotia, population ~27,000,* has seven instruments that monitor PM2.5.
Bear with me for a brief technical digression. PM2.5 is a measure of the concentration of airborne particles smaller than 2.5 microns (millionths of a metre)—tiny particles that can find their way deep inside people’s lungs. It’s the air quality scientist’s indicator of choice for air pollution most likely to damage health.
To confound matters further, Sydney’s closely monitored air quality appears to be quite good. Here is the most recent publicly available data, from a 24-hour sample collected on October 12.
Each column represents a different monitoring station, each of which has two types of monitors. The highest reading among them was less than 1/1ooth of that registered this week in Beijing. These monitors run for 24 hours once every six days, a schedule that coincides with Canada’s National Air Pollution Surveillance (NAPS) network. A seventh Sydney-based unit operates continuously and contributes data used to calculate Environment Canada’s Air Quality Health Index (AQHI), but the PM2.5 results are not reported separately.
This appears to be a clear case of underkill in Beijing, where much better data is warranted, and I would argue, overkill in Sydney, where air quality has been unremarkable by North American standards for the last two decades. Over-measurement in Sydney reflects the public panic over the Tar Ponds cleanup in the late ’90s and early ‘oughts. A few environmental activists persuaded residents that air-quality impacts from the Tar Ponds were putting their health at risk, a falsehood Environment Canada has been loathe to correct. Ironically, back before Sydney’s coke ovens closed in 1988, the city’s air likely did pose a health hazard, but went largely unmonitored.
The relative hazards of air quality in China vs. Nova Scotia show up clearly in this NASA map compiled from satellite readings of average PM2.5 levels around the world between 2001 and 2006:
I would ascribe both conditions — Sydney overkill and Beijing underkill — to the politicization of environmental monitoring. Back when Sydney’s polluting steel mill and coke ovens were the largest employer in a region short of jobs, few people wanted to hear about associated environmental concerns, and government was content to turn a blind eye. Similarly, the Chinese government is reluctant to highlight the environmental costs of its spectacular economic growth (although, as Fallows often points out, its environmental record is not so indifferent as some in the west assume).
In subsequent posts on Beijing air monitoring, Fallows has subtly adjusted his claim about @Beijingair’s putative uniqueness in China. He now describes it as “the only public readings of PM 2.5.” The controversial feed is based on an air monitoring unit on the roof of the US Embassy in Beijing. Official chinese annoyance over it was the subject of a Wikileaks cable, and may have contributed to the Chinese government decision to block access to Twitter in 2009. There are welcome early signs, here and here, that China may soon begin more appropriate monitoring. I would be surprised if they are not secretly monitoring PM2.5.
My point here is that citizens should take care to view environmental hazards in context, and always remain mindful that any chemical hazard is proportional to dose.
*Sydney no longer exists as a municipal unit, having been amalgamated into the Cape Breton Regional Municipality in 1995. Wikipedia puts the “Sydney area” population in the 2006 census at 33,012, but this is suspiciously high. I was unable to ferret out local population numbers from StatsCan’s online census information, but will be delighted if readers can steer me to them.