Thursday, April 26, 2012

Sorry, we're all out of health care.

Contributed by Tasia Alexopoulos


The latest in the long line of Conservative cut backs is one that I don't think a lot of us saw coming.  National Defense, Health Canada, the CBC, Federal Penitentiaries. There have been a lot of surprising cuts in their quest to cut almost $5 billion in spending.

The Harper Conservatives are making cuts to the Interim Health Program, which provides "limited, temporary, taxpayer-funded coverage of health-care benefits to protected persons, including resettled refugees; refugee claimants; and certain other groups who are not eligible for provincial or territorial health insurance." The newly reformed program, which comes into effect June 30 2012, effectively ends supplemental health-care benefits, makes medications and immunizations available only in the case where there is a risk to public health or safety, and will provide health care coverage for services and products that are of an urgent nature. (you can read the entire news release here)

Jason Kenney, Immigration Minister, said in his press release that the government does not "want to ask Canadians to pay for benefits for protected persons and refugee claimants that are more generous than what they are entitled to themselves.” He's talking about dental and eye care, two things that are absolutely essential to health and are not covered by Canadian public health care.

According to Minister Kenney, this reform will also take the "incentive" away from people who "may be considering filing an unfounded refugee claim in Canada" and will "allow us to protect public health and safety, ensure that tax dollars are spent wisely and defend the integrity of our immigration system all at the same time." The cuts will save a projected $100 million dollars over the course of five years.

Because people flee to Canada to get eyeglasses, Minister Kenney, and applying for and waiting on a refugee claim is a walk in the park."There just isn't affordable treatment for cavities in my nation, I think I'll make an unfounded refugee claim in Canada!"

Does Jason Kenney really think that Canadians are so stupid that they'll fall for this? Trying to whip up fear over a "wave of refugees" flooding the country to abuse our health care system because of our "lax" immigration and refugee policy is completely ridiculous and unfounded. Canada accepts about 38% of its refugee claims. He's making it sound like people who are waiting on a refugee claim decision are basically on vacation, which is insane. Many people attempting refugee status live in constant fear of being deported, are homeless or living in shelters, have little to no money, no family, no support, don't speak english, face extreme barriers to education and health care, not to mention being the victims of crimes here in Canada.

What makes the least amount of sense(and most sense, considering the we're talking about the Conservative government)is that a decision that makes such an enormous impact on women and children seeking refuge could be made so lightly. The United Nations Refugee Agency estimates that about 47% of 21 million refugees and displaced persons are women and children constitute about 44% but both are heavily underrepresented in accepted claims. 

Canada is a signatory of the 1951 UN Convention of the Status of Refugees and until 1993 did not have a set of guidelines for dealing with gender-based claims. Because the Convention arose during the post-World War II and was heavily influenced by the Cold War it reflects very specific concerns: protecting individuals from state persecution based on their personal beliefs or identity.  Defining refugees so specifically led to the "traditional view of the asylum seeker as male" and "narrow and rigid interpretations of what constitutes persecution(Valji, Hunt, Moffett, Agenda 55 2003). Women were often overlooked or left out in favour of individual male asylum seekers, and specific persecutions that women faced due to their gender were left completely out of the equation. Understandings of gender based violence and discrimination is much more sophisticated now, but women still experience the refugee claims system much differently then men do.

Conflict and war are also much different now than they were in the 1950s and it is not always the State that people need to be protected from. People can claim refugee status for many different reasons now: race, religion, political opinion, nationality, or membership in a particular social group(such as women) or a particular sexual orientation. There are also persons in need of protection whose removal to their own country would result in a danger of torture, a risk to their life, or a risk of cruel and unusual treatment and punishment.

Despite this progress, many people are denied and sent back to their countries of origin. Even though there are guidelines for assessing cases that are not traditional, the system still depends on employees to pay attention to said guidelines and carry them out fairly. 

According to a study by Constance MacIntosh on the Canadian Refugee system, between 2004-2009 of the 135 refugee claims brought by women based on domestic violence and abuse, 98% were denied by the adjudicator. From 2005-2008 100% of refugee claims based on domestic violence were denied. The majority of the decisions were made based on women being unable to prove that their home countries could not (or would not) protect them from further abuse.

MacIntosh writes:  "These decisions—that women were lying about their experience, or else that their state could in fact protect them—paint a picture that contradicts the trends identified by international bodies who study violence against women. For example, the United Nations General Assembly’s 2006 assessment was that the “most common form of violence experienced by women globally is intimate partner violence”  and that “it is clear that violence against women remains a devastating reality in all parts of the world, and the implementation of international and regional standards to eradicate such violence is therefore an urgent priority.” The UN essentially identifies domestic violence as a worldwide crisis that is being perpetuated by the failure of states to take effective action."

Upon judicial review, 44% of those decisions were deemed not reasonable. This extremely high rejection rate indicates that the Refugee Protection Division adjudicators were not properly considering or adhering to a set of Gender Guidelines that were drafted by the Chairperson of the Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB), which were designed to help in the decision-making where gender-based claims have been made.

For five years, almost 100% of women seeking asylum due to domestic violence were rejected and sent back to dangerous situations, where many of them are killed or face more violence for having left at all. This is in direct opposition to the Gender Guidelines that Canada has pledged to utilize. This means some people are just not doing their jobs properly.

Women and children also experience, in most cases, a heightened risk of being sexually exploited (especially in conflict or war zones). We now understand that rape has been used as a systemic tool of war and is not, as previously thought, just a symptom of conflict. Women and children(boys and girls) are often kidnapped or taken by military or rebel forces and used for sexual and physical labour.

Women also seek asylum based on personal safety issues such as forced marriage, threats of murder or disfigurement based on their sexuality or sexual identity. There has been an increase in people from Mexico seeking asylum due to drug wars in the country. A report that came out in March concluded that "as a result of government strategy, violence has escalated to levels previously unknown in Mexico, with policemen, soldiers, drug dealers and an increasing number of innocent people being killed every day." Homicides of women in Mexico are so rampant that they even have their own Wikipedia page.  Despite this,  Mexican asylum seekers are very often denied and had an 82.9% rejection rate in 2011. 

These are the women who wait in Canada for their claims decision, these are the women and children(and men) who receive basic health care on our tax dollar.  The people who may get to see an eye doctor if they understand how to access that system, or maybe get to have painful dental problems taken care of. As a signatory of UN Conventions and as a nation that has pledged to try to help refugees, Canada has a responsibility to ensure that people who are waiting are treated humanely. If Canada doesn't want to treat refugees like human beings, then we should stop accepting refugees at all. 

Why is Jason Kenney demonizing the people who are most helpless? Maybe he should be focusing on corruption in his Department instead. Remember Steven Ellis? The immigration adjudicator(and former city councillor) who told his claimant that she would be accepted if she performed sexual favours on him? He got 18 months in prison for his crime. Or what about Diane Serre, a Citizenship and Immigration manager was was "running a for profit business by accepting bribes and gifts in exchange for fast-tracking immigration." The people entrusted with making sure the immigration and refugee process runs smoothly, fairly, and legally are taking bribes and trading refugee status for sexual favours.

This isn't just a cut to save money. This is one part of the Harper Conservatives drive to make it practically impossible to immigrate or get refugee status in this country. The government introduced Bill C-31 in February which, if pushed through, will allow claimants to be "further invalidated, criminalized and endangered. The burden of the bill’s impact will fall on women, queer- and trans-identifying individuals and their families, and those fleeing from "safe" countries that are Canada's trade partners."

Bill C-31 would force refugee hearings to be expedited to 15 days, down from the previous 2-3 months. Meaning that within 15 days of arriving, refugees have to find shelter, legal counsel, interpreters, and "prepare to deliver their personal stories of hardship, loss, trauma and violence before an Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB) member at their first hearing, all in an unfamiliar environment and language."

The Bill also penalizes people who arrive in Canada through irregular process, otherwise known as "illegal", despite the fact that those people are most likely to be in desperate need of safety from persecution.  This doesn't take into account that many people who arrive in Canada illegally are unaware that they are doing so, and are promised a safe route to Canada in exchange for money. In most cases these people are forced to travel in extremely dangerous quarters and often will die before they reach their destination either from starvation, dehydration, or drowning.

Most hideously, Bill C- 31 doesn't contain a clause to prevent minors from being detained and imprisoned in Canada and can be separated from their families for any amount of time. 

So Minister Kenney wants Canadians to believe that he's saving our money for us, that Canadians don't want to spend their hard earned tax dollars on refugees and (more so) that we shouldn't have to. But this cut is really just another example of why so many of us were scared of a Conservative majority. Do Canadians really want to have an immigration/refugee system more akin to that of the United States'? Do we , on one hand, give lovely private health insurance policies to bureaucrats with our tax dollars but on the other hand we want to deny the neediest people in the world the basic human right to health care? We pay for Stephen Harper's $45'000 trip to New York City, his Broadway tickets and baseball games. And Bev Oda, well the first thing out of her mouth during any diplomatic trip apparently is "MAKE IT RAIN!" We pay for Oda's limousines and luxury hotel stays, but Jason Kenney doesn't think we should have to pay to have refugee children immunized?

A Canada that doesn't support basic human rights is not a Canada that I can be proud of and I just won't accept that it reflects what tax payers want. Does hoarding our resources so that we can spend them on fighter jets later on make us a better nation in the eyes of the Conservatives? When we as a country contribute to many of the reasons that people are refugees in the first place, we have to take responsibility for it. We have to remain compassionate and clear headed, not fearful and prone to scapegoating. I don't mind paying taxes so that people who have nothing, who are trying to find safety in Canada, can have a bit of health care while they wait. But, I guess the Conservatives would like us to believe that other taxpayers would rather spend that extra $100 million over five years on the fanciest glasses of orange juice for the most useless politicians. Jason Kenney can say he is "defending the integrity of our immigration system" all he wants, but every day that man sits as Immigration Minister is another day of corruption and regression.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Because nothing screams "Summer" like a lifeless zombie.

It just hailed in Toronto, but it's summer somewhere! And that means it's time to buy summer dresses.

My friend Adele posted the Joe Fresh website on her Facebook a little while ago and pointed out this lovely model:

Adele pointed out that she doesn't mind when models are super skinny and I tend to agree. I don't mind skinny models at all, what bothers me is the lack of diversity in modelling. I want to see skinny models because there are skinny girls in real life. I also want to see models that aren't skinny because it seems like selling women's products(And men's products) should be less of a fantasy land and more based in reality. What Adele didn't like, and what I don't like, is the fact that this model looks like she has one foot in the grave. 

The skinny factor doesn't matter, what really matters is all of these little "make the models look skinner" tricks: rolling their shoulders in, hunching over, the old stuck out broken hip. Paired with the fact that she looks like she can't support her own body weight and you have a pretty standard and boring shot of a model. How does this sell a summer dress? 

"Ladies, for only $30 you can wear this dress while you lay in the shade at the park, watching other people eat and play." 

"This dress is a great choice, for the MORGUE."

"Nothing compliments the coroner's slab like this seasons'  oranges and yellows!"

Ads like this are what give skinny models a bad name. Joe Fresh is supposed to be for normal people who have normal jobs, people who shop at Loblaws. This model not only looks abnormal, but she looks like she died right before the shoot took place and to save money they just propped her up in the outfit.

Gross, Joe Fresh, gross.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Don't save High Park Zoo.

If you google High Park Zoo today you'll likely see what I did: thousands of "Embattled High Park Zoo saved by last minute cash donation." The complete and total lack of original journalism or counterarguments aside, High Park Zoo had its budget cut in February and was basically screwed.

People who wanted the zoo to remain open have been fundraising, mainly through the Toronto Parks and Trees Foundation, and have raised about half of the original budget. Add a private funder, The Honey Family Foundation, who offered to match donations up to $50,000 per year and you've got a saved zoo!

For those of you who may not be familiar with the High Park Zoo, it's basically a bunch of enclosures (that date back to the 1890s, when they were used to hold captive deer) with animals like a yak, llama, bison, peacocks, and various other creatures. It's a free attraction and, according to the website, is very popular.

I don't want to rain on everyone's parade but it feels like this last minute redemption raises more questions than it answers. Let's start with non-animal related questions. The animals are cared for by Parks, Forestry and Recreation but it's almost impossible to understand whether or not the budget cut affects those individuals' jobs. I'd love to have an old budget breakdown for previous years and see how the funds were used and who administered them. Is that $114,000.00 used solely for animal care or does it also cover salary? Also, as with all services that get shifted from Government to Community, how can any institution run with uncertain funding?

Who are the Honey Family Foundation? There is no website for this Foundation, no link, no information, nothing.  In the Canada Revenue Agency Charities Directorate there is a "Honey and Leonard Wolfe Family Foundation" but that's about it. Even Private Foundations have to be registered with the CRA, so where is this mystery money coming from?

Here is why it's important to know where your money is coming from: many Charities and Foundations donate or invest money in things we may not agree with. A prime example is donations and investments in Israeli organizations/institutions/causes. Because many people don't agree with Israel's stance on Palestine and actively boycott anything to do with Israel, having money from a Foundation that supports Israel contribute to the reopening of a public zoo may be a conflict for some. As well, what kind of permissions or rights does such a large investment give to the Foundation? Naming Rights?Advertising Rights? If the zoo seeks out corporate investors then will it become the Pepsi Zoo?

Sarah Doucette, the City Councillor for Ward 13(High Park) says that the Honey Foundation donation gives the zoo time to "get more corporate donations and build [their] business plan."I would love to know why the High Park Zoo doesn't already have a business plan as well as an emergency contingency plan. For something that's been operating in one way or another since the 1900s the Zoo doesn't seem very prepared, which is a bit concerning where animals lives are involved.

So, there's that.

I know people are very sentimental about the zoo. It's a free place to take kids, it's been around forever, people's parents and grandparents went to the zoo. But sentiment and emotion can't really be our number one motivator when we're talking about creatures in captivity.

In one article, Sarah Doucette talks about visiting the zoo with her children and feeding the animals."She’s been “slimed’’ by gentle Jasper the bison, who shows his gratitude for awesome ungulate treats with dollops of drool." Of feeding the animals she says :“You can get up-close and personal with the animals here . . . they’ll smell you and breathe you. When I fed Jasper . . . he was so gentle.’

That the zoo is educational for children and offers them the opportunity to see animals "up close and personal" is a very popular argument for staying open, but I really question anyone who thinks that it is educational for a child to feed a bison. Encountering animals in captivity is not education, it teaches children that animals are there for their entertainment and enrichment. It teaches children that animals can and should be 'tamed', hand fed, touched, and photographed. I understand that wild animal encounters are few and far between in the City of Toronto but if you raise your child in a city chances are it won't see a bison.

I grew up in a remote area of Northern Alberta (where we didn't have a zoo). In the summer time bears were a regular fixture and the most important lesson I learned, which was hammered into my head in Grade 1 by my teacher whose husband was killed by a bear, was that wild animals are not toys and they first and foremost need distance from humans. Bears, our teacher told us, were not like teddy bears and resisting any temptation to touch or get close to them would probably save our lives. You don't want animals to "smell you and breathe you", wilderness and wild animals aren't a romance novel! We've driven animals to the brink (and beyond) of extinction because we want to be up close and personal with them.

Bison have been reintroduced in Alberta and roam in several parks. Knowing that a bison can kill you ensures that you won't pop out of your car when you see one and try to get near it. Bison are huge, roaming animals and I really can't imagine what keeping one in a paddock in the middle of a city teaches children.

Why not focus on teaching children about creatures that exist naturally in the GTA? Deer, coyotes, raccoons, opossums, squirrels, skunks. High Park is gigantic and has so much wildlife in it, making it a perfect place for city kids to interact in healthy ways with animals. Hey, look, swans. Geese. Ducks. Instead of letting our kids feed these animals and chase them around, why not have a program that help kids understand observing without interfering? I once saw a group of children feed an entire loaf of bread to a Canadian Goose and try to pet it. Parents: geese can bite your child. Geese will bite your child if their are gosling around and you get too near them. There are educational opportunities abound in High Park without the zoo, and maybe it would be beneficial to focus on those.

And the most hated argument of all: should we really be keeping animals captive in Zoos or urban farms? I don't believe we should. The bison is a great example of why-what exactly is the purpose of keeping an animal that is born to migrate large distances in a small enclosure? I haven't been able to find an accurate list of the animals kept at the zoo but a few of them say that there are Capybara and Wallaby kept there, neither of which are found naturally in Canada. If there isn't proper and sustainable funding for the kinds of high quality care and habitats these animals need, then the zoo shouldn't exist, period. Is it humane to keep these animals? I would say that it isn't, but we all have different standards of what counts as humane treatment.

I can't be the only one who doesn't think this last minute donation is a reason to celebrate. Maybe the High Park Zoo should use this money to create a plan to return their animals to wherever they're loaned from or to the appropriate habitats safely and with the least amount of trauma possible and use the space for something else.

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