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Sunday, October 26, 2014

Nicaragua versus Honduras: One survived violent past, other still living in it

On the malecon in Managua
    There's nothing quite like the smell of tropical air. We got off the plane in Managua, Nicaragua last night and there it was, that delicious aroma of heat and humidity that I have come to associate with our new life in Central America.
      My partner and I are back here for our second round of Cuso International placements, having completed two-plus years in Honduras in April and eager to do it all over again in Nicaragua. On the rainy ride to our hotel last night, Managua looked much like Honduras's two big cities where we passed a lot of time during our time living and working in that country. But within minutes of starting into our city tour this morning in Managua, I was already seeing a lot of differences.
       Hugo Chavez, for instance. There's a huge monument to the late Venezuelan president on the boulevard heading into the centre of Managua, a reminder that we are in a country with strong socialist roots and a long history of bloody revolutions and uprisings. On a hilltop high above the city sits a memorial to the many campesinos who died trying to wrest Nicaragua from the control of the powerful Somoza family and their very good friends in the U.S. government. Honduras, on the other hand, is not a country prone to revolution or to much left-leaning political activity.
      The colorful malecon - waterfront walkway - that runs along huge Lake Managua is also very different from anything we saw in  the big cities (or the small ones, for that matter) in Honduras, where the concept of beautiful and accessible urban public space remains elusive. It will take time to gauge just how much support the Nicaraguan government provides for public amenities like the malecon, but it already appears to be a darn sight more than the Honduran government cares to pony up for.
Viva la revolucion. A painting of  Augusto Cesar Sandino,
the father of the Sandinista movement
     And then there are the children's playgrounds, which are for the most part large, well-maintained, and perhaps most importantly, not sealed off behind locked gates. Nor are there armed guards in anywhere near the quantity of our former homeland, or dramatic and depressing vistas in every direction of barbed wire, electric fencing and cement walls topped with broken glass that were so common in big Honduran cities like Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula.
      Honduras has the highest murder rate in the world, which came in at around 85 per 100,000 people in each of the two years we were there. Nicaragua's murder rate is 11 per 100,000. That is one heck of a difference for two small countries that share a border, a language and so many cultural attributes.
       I don't know how Nicaragua and Honduras ended up with such differences in their cultures around violence and crime, but even just the act of fearlessly pulling my camera out in one of the big public squares we visited today - and carrying it around boldly! In my hand! - was something I never felt safe to do when we were in Honduran cities.
    This is not to suggest that everything is rosy here. Today we passed a scratchy little collection of "houses" made out of cardboard, corrugated tin and duct tape that was poorer than anything I saw in Honduras. In the 2014 United Nations ranking of countries based on human development, Nicaragua ranks 132nd out of 187 countries, behind Honduras. It will take time to grasp what the big problems are here, but I have little doubt that they will be significant.
     For now, I'll just take Nicaragua at face value: Pleasant, warm, and friendly, with way less guns or horrific news stories detailing a constant stream of assassinations and vendetta killings. I know a lot of hondurenos who are dreaming of the day when all that can be said about their country, too. 

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

And the Cuso volunteers ride off in search of new adventures in Nicaragua....

     Almost seven months have slipped by since my partner Paul and I returned to B.C. from our two-plus years in Honduras. That should have been enough time to do all the things that I thought were important when we were planning our return - enough time to see all the people I wanted to see and jam in loads of family time.
     Yet Oct. 25 approaches, the date of our departure for our next Cuso International stint in Managua, Nicaragua. And I never did tick off everything on that to-do list. There are numerous friends I still haven’t seen. Walks I didn't go on. Favourite foods I didn't eat. The time just got away from me, perhaps because of the constant shuffling from one housesit to another as we attempted to remain unencumbered with household effects, but mostly because seven months is long enough to feel like there’s no need to rush, that there will be time enough to fit in everything.
     What we did accomplish was seeing two daughters through their weddings. We also gardened and pet-sat our way through nine housesits, jetted off for a week in Florida (for one of the weddings), spent a great two months in the Comox Valley hanging out with my two oldest children and their families, and ate a lot of meals with my mother. We got in our first family Thanksgiving in three years, and before we leave, will have celebrated Mom's 89th birthday with her as well.
     One of the toughest aspects of our time at home was finding work. I had been self-employed for three years leading up to our departure for Honduras in January 2012, and I guess I hadn't thought through just how long it might take to click back into my clients’ lives when I returned. I have renewed gratitude for PEERS Victoria, which welcomed me back with both friendship and paid work, and Douglas Magazine, which invited me back as a freelancer. Paul and I want to continue this exciting new life doing work for Cuso in developing countries, but it’s clear that we've got some work ahead to figure out the hard realities of the times in between.
     Unlike provinces like Ontario, B.C. has no provisions for suspending medical coverage during extended absences out of the country, so that threw us for a bit of a loop as well. There’s a three-month waiting period and a $250 fee for a B.C. resident needing to get back on the medical plan, and never mind that we were off doing good deeds in Honduras during our time away. This next trip to Nicaragua is short – four months – so we have decided to stay on the medical plan this time around to avoid another $250 penalty next spring, even though we’ll be paying $125 a month for nothing while we’re gone. (Cuso provides us with medical coverage during our time in other countries.)
     Life without many worldly goods has been a bit of a challenge, and we did end up buying a decent used car a couple of months after we got back to B.C. I suspect we would have gone quite mad without it. If your life is going to be about shuffling from one housesit to another, trust me, you will want a car to carry the rather pathetic collection of backpacks, totes and overstuffed plastic bags that now constitute everything you own. That does mean, however, that we now have a car to deal with before we leave.
     A surprising joy for me these past seven months has been bike riding. I’ve loved cycling for a very long time now, but two years of being away from it brought me back to a full-on obsession. When we looked for a suitable car, one that would fit a bike was a priority, because I wanted to take my beloved, ancient Trek everywhere I was going. I’ll really miss cycling now that we’re off again, but am comforting myself with the thought that I would have been hanging up the bike soon for the winter anyway.
My fave photo of Paul from our Honduras time,
coming back from a village on a rainy, muddy day
     As for what we’re heading into in Nicaragua, I am really looking forward to a return to living and working in Central America. I've missed the people, the language, the amazing fruit and the heat. I’ve missed the challenges of the work, which is so different than anything I’ve gotten up to in Canada.
     I will be working to resolve various business problems and improve communications on behalf of the FederaciĆ³n Agropecuaria de Cooperativas de Mujeres Productoras del Campo de Nicaragua, a union of women’s collectives set up by the Sandinistas back in the late 1990s. (Remember Daniel Ortega? Well, he’s still the man in Nicaragua.) Paul will be working with the Associacion de Productores y Exportadores de Nicaragua to find new export markets and improve business practices for small producers,
     With only four months to get our projects done instead of a leisurely two years, we will have to be on the mark from the day we arrive. But at least we are more or less fluent in Spanish this time around, and have a better idea of the cultural barriers we will face in doing our work. I've been faithfully reading nothing but Spanish novels since our return, hoping it would keep my language skills strong during my absence. I guess I’ll find out soon if the strategy worked.
     Please visit our Cuso fundraising page here, and if you can, support us with a donation to a great organization. I can’t say enough about the benefits of working with Cuso, both in terms of putting your professional skills to work for some very good non-profits in the impoverished and challenged countries where Cuso works, and for personal development. I came home from Honduras with a whole lot of skills I didn't have when I left and am a changed person, seeing with fresh eyes that which is good about Canada but also determined not to return to the over-consumption and grousing about comparatively tiny problems that are so common in wealthy, privileged countries like ours.

     To my friends who I never did get to see, catch you next spring. And stay tuned for my blogs from Nicaragua as the adventure continues. 

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

Sex workers and victims alike betrayed by Canadian government


   As much as I like to gripe about Canada's government, there are only a handful of decisions over the years that have really stood out in my mind as betrayals of what I think it means to be Canadian.
    One was free trade, which followed the U.S. into a downward spiral of lower wages, part-time work and a dwindling list of goods that could be honestly considered to be "made in Canada." While it may have made things better for developing countries, it has been one of several factors adding to the growing divide between rich and poor.
    Another was the revamp of coastal fisheries regulation. Ham-handed, poorly informed and hopelessly politicized, it destroyed the economies of communities up and down the B.C. coast, destroyed resources as small operations were replaced by corporate fisheries, and turned once-independent coastal fishermen into wage workers on rich men's boats.
    And another came this week, when the Conservatives pushed through Bill C-36, a new anti-prostitution law that ignores all evidence to the contrary (not to mention a Supreme Court of Canada ruling) and increases the criminalization of the sex industry.
    There is not a shred of research or anecdotal experience that it's possible or even desirable to abolish prostitution by criminalizing buyers. Nor does the government have any idea how many Canadian sex workers are victims desperate for rescue, compared to how many are regular people earning a living, whose ability to do so has now been made considerably more risky by the need to move deeper into the shadows to protect customers from arrest.
    The country known for pioneering the so-called Nordic model, Sweden, in fact has not a sniff of baseline data to even be able to gauge the effectiveness of such laws, as a former Swedish policy maker noted at a symposium in Ottawa last month. Meanwhile, New Zealand - where adult, consensual sex work has been decriminalized since 2003 - has much evidence that decriminalization has increased equality for sex workers without leading to any of the dire scenarios of increased violence and community decay that abolitionists predicted.
     Anyone who contemplates the issue logically for even a few minutes would conclude that the Nordic model can only increase danger significantly for those working in the industry, as even victims awaiting rescue benefit from a safer place to work in the meantime, Somebody please tell me, how does criminalizing the work help anyone, most especially the supposed "victims"?
      But the Conservatives were hell-bent on gaining support from those driven to oppose sex work for ideological reasons. And so they sold out the tens of thousands of Canadians who work in the industry.
    It's a shameful, profoundly sad day for Canada. Nothing will be made better with this bad law, and much will be made worse.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Justin Trudeau's stand on decriminalizing still a work in progress

  While I keep my distance from politics, I've somehow ended up on the federal Liberal email list and have been receiving messages urging me to donate to Justin Trudeau and seeking my thoughts. With the heartbreak of Bill C-36 and the further criminalizing of sex work hanging over me, I seized the opportunity to respond to one of the messages to feel out Trudeau's position on decriminalization. Here is our exchange so far.

My response to the Liberals' email asking for my thoughts:

I would like to see Justin Trudeau come out with a clear statement around decriminalizing the work of adult, consensual sex workers. I am a passionate activist on this issue of human and civil rights, and will support the candidate who supports an end to C36 and understands that decriminalization is the best way to reduce risk to sex workers, decrease stigma, and ensure civil equality to a population of workers who are discriminated against and silenced. 

Their response to me a few days later:

Dear Jody,
    Thank you for writing to us about the Conservatives’ recently proposed prostitution legislation, Bill C-36.
    The Liberal Party of Canada opposes this legislation. We have serious concerns that Bill C-36 fails to comply with the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the requirements outlined by the Supreme Court of Canada in the Bedford decision. We are also concerned that this legislation fails to adequately protect the health and safety of vulnerable people, particularly women.
    We have called on the government to produce evidence of the legal opinions it sought in drafting this legislation, however, the Conservatives continue to refuse to release this information. They have also refused to submit this legislation as a reference to the Supreme Court of Canada in order to determine its constitutional validity.
    Given all of these concerns, we remain troubled the legislation will not actually make life safer for sex workers.
    Thank you again for contacting us on this important issue. It is through dialogue with Canadians like you that the Liberal Party of Canada can continue to develop policies that reflect the values of Canadians.
    Kind regards,
    James Cano
    Liberal Party of Canada

And my response back to them, sent today: 

    I really appreciate that someone took the time to respond to my query. However, I urge you to make your platform just a bit more specific around WHAT you will do for sex workers. For instance, I am unclear whether you would support decriminalization of adult, consensual sex work, or if you still like the idea of further criminalization but believe that C-36 isn't a good law for doing that. I feel this is one of the most important civil and human rights issues in our country right now, as tens of thousands of consenting adult sex workers work in the shadows without our support, without the same access to civil and criminal remedies such as police, courts, contract law, employment standards, workers' comp.  

    If the Liberals are looking for more information and research to help them take a firm position on this issue, here are some links that I think have great sources of information. The first is the site of a very large research project going on right now in Canada, which involves subjects who are connected to the sex work industry in a variety of ways. The second is the site of an organization I work with from time to time and am very closely tied to, Peers Victoria. The third is the site of Maggie's, a Toronto sex worker organization that has collected some excellent resources. The fourth is the site of Stella's, a Montreal sex worker organization. 

    There's so much more information I'd be happy to connect you to, from all around the world. This is an emotional issue, but the research around it is very clear. Nothing improves - for sex workers or the communities they live in - through criminalization. Yes, bad things happen to some sex workers, but how does any of that improve by criminalizing the work? The question is not whether we'd want our children to be sex workers (we activists are constantly having that question thrown at us), it's what kind of a work place and safety structure we'd want for them if they were doing this work. 

    Please take a clear stand on this issue as one of human and civil rights. The Liberals stand a very good chance of forming the next government. Be brave, humane and evidence-based, and support a decriminalized workplace for adult, consenting sex workers. 

And what will they say next? Stay tuned. 

Friday, September 19, 2014

My secret crush: Vince Ready

Cartoon in the Ubyssey by Indiana Joel
     Earlier this week, somebody with a sense of humour and an obvious knowledge of B.C. labour history swapped a photo of  mediator Vince Ready for the saintly image of God in the Wikipedia entry on God. Vince Ready - our homegrown Holy One.
    Once bickering parties in a labour dispute learn that Ready has been called in to help them reach a settlement, you can practically hear the collective sigh of relief as everyone starts thinking about getting back to work. I'm sure Ready has all kinds of skills as a mediator, but at this point, after so many high-profile settlements between employers and employees otherwise predisposed to fight each other to the death, just the mere uttering of his name seems to signal that labour peace is coming soon.
    His latest loaves-and-fishes act involved the B.C. teachers' strike. But any long-time B.C. journalist such as myself knows that's just the most recent in a long string of successes. I suspect that part of his secret is that he never gets involved until both sides are wrung out and quietly wishing someone would just come along and help them save face, but he must have some extraordinary people skills as well.
      I've had a crush on the guy for more than 20 years. My one and only face-to-face encounter with Ready was in the lobby of the Harbour Towers Hotel, where he was mediating between the provincial government and whatever big union was furious with them at that time. I introduced myself to him as a reporter for the Times Colonist. He smiled that charming smile of his and said yes, he'd followed my work for years, and it was a pleasure to finally meet me.
     Even in the moment I didn't believe that he had any idea of who I was. But what did it matter? Vince Ready cared enough to flatter me with a fake story about how he'd been noticing my byline, and I swooned like a school girl. If he uses that same charm during mediation, I can see why everyone caves.
     After that, I became an avid observer of any labour dispute that Ready was called into, and how they always seemed to rapidly end in a settlement. I even tried to convince him to let me follow a mediation of his for the newspaper, a request that I now admit might have had something to do with me also finding him very good-looking. Back in those days and perhaps still, he presented as a blue-collar guy in a good suit, a look that I hadn't known I was partial to until swooned by him that day at Harbour Towers.
    At any rate, he said no, and I've never laid eyes on him again. But Vince, I think of you whenever a labour dispute turns protracted - which, in B.C., means you're never far from my thoughts. Thinking back on that distant day at the hotel when I (briefly) considered whether I should make a play for you,  I couldn't have imagined there would come a day when I would say this, but thanks for getting my grandkids back to school.