My Reply to Mr. Woodworth

Mr. Woodworth,

I think you’ve misread what I said. I did not say that a fetus is not a human being unworthy of respect or dignity. I agree that it is. However, you as the sole owner of your body, have the absolute right to deny the resources of your body to any other individual, even if that denial will result in the death of the other person. You cannot be forced to donate a kidney, even if, for lack of your kidney, the other person will die. By insisting that a fetus has equal rights with its mother, you are in essence denying that same bodily autonomy to the mother: the right to deny the resources of her body to another human being. You’re at liberty to believe that to be an immoral choice, just as you’re at liberty to believe that the person who refuses to donate a kidney is making an immoral choice. But our law says that the choice is nevertheless theirs to make, because the dividing line is their control over the resources of their body, irrespective of another person’s need to make use of the resources of that body.

The other issue is the legal definition of a person, which is separate from the moral definition of a human being. When the law describes someone as a person, the law then has certain obligations towards that person, including following up on their deaths. If the law describes a fetus as a person, what happens if the pregnancy results in a stillbirth? Is the mother then guilty of manslaughter because her body or the processes of birth or simple birth defects resulted in the death of her fetus? What you’re proposing – the recognition of a fetus, not just as a human being, but as a person under the law – would logically lead to the conclusion that miscarriages would be followed by a criminal investigation, which indeed has already begun in states where legislators are attempting to use child-protection laws as a back door to criminalizing abortion. How would you propose that the Office of the Registrar-General record a fetus’ existence, since the first legal recognition of a child’s existence is the registration of its live birth? Are there now custody issues involved for a fetus when its mother travels, issues which might further affect her democratic right to freedom of movement and association? Is she a criminal for have a glass of wine or medicating a cold? How exactly would Child and Family Services go about removing a fetus from the custody of its abusive mother?

You’re proposing to add a layer of regulation to pregnancy and birth that could logically lead to the criminalization of, not just abortion, but miscarriage and a whole host of behaviours during pregnancy; you’re creating a bureaucratic nightmare; and you’re still trying to deny that recognizing fetus as legal persons (note the difference between that, and accepting that they are human beings) will perforce have a negative impact on the mother’s human rights and freedoms on any number of levels. I don’t understand how you plan to justify the encroachment on the mother’s rights when you grant the same rights to her fetus.

If your real goal is to provide as much human dignity as possible for Canadian fetuses, I have some good news for you: it’s entirely possible to lower the abortion rate significantly from what it is in Canada. Finland and Sweden both have abortion rates that are about half of Canada’s, which I’m sure you’ll agree means a great deal more dignity for those fetuses. What do they do differently? They have national daycare programs, first of all, so low-income mothers aren’t faced with the prospect of being unable to afford daycare so that they can work, and unable to work without the daycare. They have excellent programs for training young people in jobs, including supports for parents to get that training, so that people have a livelihood with which to support their families. And they have excellent sexual education in schools, on the grounds that people have a right to know how their bodies work and will make much better choices for those bodies when they know all the ramifications. This last is the only one of the three that Canada does an adequate job of.

I also have some bad news for you: the research worldwide indicates that making abortion illegal through any means does not actually result in fewer abortions; it simply results in unsafe, backroom abortions, where women die. If rights are granted to a fetus, the result will be the deaths of about the same number of fetuses, and a fair percentage of their mothers as well. That doesn’t sound like human dignity to me.

Pro-life ought to mean more than pro-birth. It should mean supporting people of all ages to live in dignity. Your government cancelled plans for a national daycare program, cut old-age security for my generation, and is cutting back on EI; these actions do not mesh with a pro-life position that seeks dignity for all.

I appreciate the opportunity to dialogue with you on this matter. Twenty years ago, I believed exactly as you do. Then about four years ago, I found myself in the position where a pregnancy might have killed me, had I not aborted it. I didn’t get pregnant during that period, and I’m very glad I didn’t have to make that choice. But contemplating that possibility led me to change my mind: I believe so strongly in human dignity that I cannot countenance a desire to restrict a woman’s dignity by restricting her choices during pregnancy.


Erin the Optimist

A letter from Stephen Woodworth, MP

Dear Erin the Optimist,

Your recent email states “the issue has never been about whether a fetus is a human being”. I understand that you are preoccupied with the issue of abortion, but surely you are not so arrogant or so enamoured with tyranny as to dictate to me or anyone else that we cannot be concerned with other issues.
Whether or not you recognize it, our law (in subsection 223(1)) does in fact create an issue about whether a fetus is a human being. Subsection 223(1), which was the sole focus of Motion 312, falsely and fraudulently decrees that a child is not a human being until the moment of complete birth.
Perhaps that was excusable when we lacked the science and understanding to know it was false. However, with the knowledge that a child is actually a human being before birth, a legal decree which falsely denies that reality is corrosive to democracy.
You might believe that it is irrelevant that laws should honestly reflect reality. Permit me to stand up for the principle that it is highly important to a democracy that laws must honestly reflect reality.
You might believe that it is irrelevant that civilized democracies in the last century agreed that every human being possesses equal worth and dignity. Permit me to object to the abandonment of principles of universal human rights as undermining democracy itself.
Do you really believe that you cannot justify abortion except by pretending that a child is not a human being until complete birth? Do you really believe that when the claims and interests of two or more people conflict, it is acceptable to strip one of them of all human worth and dignity? Or to declare that some people are more equal than others?
Permit me to insist that democratic justice demands that, however we resolve conflicting claims and interests, we must start on the basis that everyone possesses equal worth and dignity.

Every tyrant in history has desired to strip those who stand in his or her way of equality under the law and of all worth and dignity. If you cannot justify your position on any other basis than that, I say the sacrifice is too great.
No agenda or preoccupation with abortion or anything else should blind us to the over-riding importance of democratic ideals such as the necessity for laws to honestly reflect reality, the defence of the equality and the worth and dignity of every human being, and the benefits of respectful dialogue.
I am grateful to you for allowing us this dialogue, which affirms at least our agreement on the third of those democratic principles.
Stephen Woodworth
Member of Parliament
Kitchener Centre

Stand up to bullies by. . . being a bully?

Today was one of the fairly-frequent Bullying Awareness Events that school boards across Ontario (and presumably in other provinces) participate in. The idea was to wear pink, to celebrate the students in Nova Scotia who stood up for a bullied new student by showing up dressed in pink, the day after the new student had been bullied for wearing that colour. It’s a heartwarming story of solidarity and support and I’m very glad it happened.

I’m far less happy with the Wear Pink days that have come out of it.

The joshing in the hallway after school on Tuesday – when the principal was ensuring that everyone was in possession of one of the t-shirts she’d ordered for us, whether or not we chose to wear it – was uncomfortable. There were comments about masculinity draining away; comparisons of the colour to bubblegum, girl toys, and a certain stomach remedy that shall remain nameless; a little bit of hand-flopping of a quote-unquote fabulous nature; and general tomfoolery that had the effect of highlighting the fact that everyone there was presumably straight and such wonderful people for making this gesture. (I’m leaving aside, for the moment, the fact that their perceptions of everyone’s hetero status were incorrect.)

Then there was the reaction of the male students to being asked to wear pink. First, the request was softened to include red; then, the only boys who actually wore pink were given a jokingly wide berth in the hallways; and finally there was some pointing and laughing at the teachers who wore pink (notably, only at the male teachers.) Despite the teachable moments, the whole affair left me with a bad taste in my mouth.

The fact is, by creating an anti-bullying event that involves so much pink, we’ve effectively set up another inflexible cultural binary. Those who wore pink today were virtuous, standing up for those who were bullied, while those who did not were open to censure.

We did not challenge the association of the colour pink with femininity, gayness, or trangender issues.

We did not challenge the prevalence of the messages in our culture which encourage girls to feminize every aspect of their lives to the point where boys cannot participate on an equal footing without being accused of giving up their masculinity.

Meanwhile, boys who so much as dabble in pursuits dubbed “girly” are ostracized by their peer group. To teenage boys, nothing is worse than a boy who is not masculine – and we have not challenged that perception with this event.

I had a student a few years ago who did not fit the gender binary in grade four; he’s in grade ten now. He was sheltered, naive, and effeminate, and he got teased mercilessly. That was the first year I gave my now-standard lecture about respectful use of the word “gay” and how thou shalt not bully students on the basis of perceptions of gayness in my classroom. I wonder: if he had happened to come visit his old elementary school on Tuesday afternoon, what would he have seen? Would he have seen a bunch of basically good men, people who do their best to be welcoming and friendly and without bias, who were being asked to wear something that made them uncomfortable and were dealing with it through humour? Or would he have seen more examples of the heteronormative hyper-genderized culture that has been bullying him since before he knew what “gay” actually meant?

And if he’d seen the latter, what exactly would our wear-pink day have accomplished?

The bullies are in Parliament

I deal with a lot of schoolyard bullies in the course of my job. I’ve seen every type, from the girls who bully through social exclusion to the traditional physical intimidation bully to the one who uses the teacher to do their dirty work while coming up smelling like roses. I like to think I’ve gotten through to a few of them, convinced them that what they were doing was a bad deal and they should stop. I like to think I’ve made my classrooms a better place for my students at least some of the time.

I’d like to get my hands on the bullies in the Harper Government for a few lessons.

First target: environmental groups. Since anyone who opposes the oil sands is by definition a radical environmentalist, it makes sense to find out what these people are up to and where they’re getting their money, right? Well, of course, even if that means devoting $8 million to ferreting out their secrets. But the same doesn’t hold true for the people in favour of the pipeline. They can buy all the political goodwill they want and nobody bothers to point out that most of their funding comes from Texas. They aren’t a charity, so it doesn’t matter.

It’s like telling on your seatmate for some minor infraction until the teacher has no choice but to punish them. The best part by far is that your seatmate will look like sour grapes if he points out that you did it, too.

Second target: the CBC. So the CBC doesn’t spout enough Conservative talking points? It supports useless luxuries like the arts? It still occasionally runs op-ed pieces that aren’t filtered through the Conservative party first? It must be cut!

Third target: Elections Canada. Election fraud? What election fraud? You accuse us of fraud, we’ll cut your budget and claim it’s because you’re overly liberal and biased against us! You won’t be able to afford the type of investigation you want to do once we’re done with your budget! See also: You tell the teacher what I did to that little kid, and I’ll steal your lunch money!

Fourth Target: The First Nations Statistical Institute. This one is buried deep on a table of cuts. The First Nations Statistical Institute is basically Statistics Canada for First Nations populations. The cut totals $5 million. Their budget? $5 million. Because heaven forbid those pesky Inuit actually have real statistical information to back up their requests for help for things like adequate housing and potable water.

We used to be a nation that based decisions on sound statistical and scientific analysis. The reason our scientists so often produced such excellent work was that they were publicly funded and therefore lacked some of the conflicts of interest engendered by, for example, pharmaceutical company grants. It seems now that this government sees information as the enemy and its public dissemination as akin to treason. Of all the things which scare me about this government, its fear of science and sound analysis tops the list. On what basis are they making decisions, if not that? How will we, or for that matter anybody, hold them to account, if the information we need is never gathered or analysed or communicated?

Online voting

I have never supported online voting.  The NDP Leadership Convention’s experience is one of several reasons.

For those who have not read the news, the online vote was subjected to a ddos attack. That’s when thousands of computers are used to deny an online service by keeping the server too busy. (There are other ways to do a ddos attack; this is the one that was used last Saturday.) The result: thousands of NDP voters were unable to vote because they couldn’t get onto the website in the amount of time they had to do so. There are reports of people spending two hours with each round of voting, just trying to cast a ballot. I ended up being very glad I’d voted in the advance poll.

The problem here is that it’s possible the outcome was changed. Since the overwhelming majority of votes cast on the last two ballots were cast in advance of the convention, there was no opportunity for momentum to grow behind a candidate during the convention itself. How might that have been different? Nathan Cullen was thousands of votes behind Brian Topp going into the third round of voting. What if he’d caught up? He would have knocked Topp off the ballot, and then the “anyone but Mulcair” folks in the Topp campaign would have thrown their support behind Cullen. It might have led to Cullen winning. It’s possible it wouldn’t have been enough to topple Mulcair anyway – but we’ll never know.

This was a leadership convention. It was quite clear going into Saturday’s vote that Mulcair had a significant lead. I suspect it would be much harder for party members to accept the results if that had not been the case. In any case, it’s not like this is a general election, right? The right to vote in it was granted by the party, not by Elections Canada, not by democratic tradition. Most parties even now do not have a one-member-one-vote system.

But the fact that the election could be hijacked in this way, causing delay, frustration, and a remote possibility that the outcome was changed, is a powerful argument against online voting in general elections. There is no way to maintain the privacy of the public and make an online election safe from these types (or other types) of attacks at the same time.

If we are to safeguard our electoral system, we must insist that we keep our paper ballots. It’s not perfect – witness the Robocall scandal as evidence – but it’s better than this.

We’ve come a long way, baby?

Over the last few days, some thoughts that surfaced at the convention have percolated.  The beans poured into the coffee grinder when Nathan Cullen brought his wife and two adorable toddler twin boys up to the stage at the end of his speech.  I forgave him quickly for the photo-op; how can one avoid the temptation to show off twin babies, especially when they’re being so well-behaved and cute?

The beans got ground down a bit when Brian Topp brought his family up too.  By the time Mulcair brought his up, I was pouring water into the coffee maker’s reservoir and turning it on.  When Singh rhapsodized in his cartoon intro about his wife, who had given up a career using her PhD in Punjabi literature to come to Canada with him, I nearly threw my mental coffee pot across the room.  His turbaned son playing a Nova Scotian jig on a fiddle was adorable (and musically very talented) and that boy was one of the few people of colour on the stage during the leader’s speeches, but in this respect he was still part of the same trend to photo-op a heteronormative family.

I find the absence of the women from the family photo-op trend to be as fascinating as it is revealing.  Ashton, I believe, could have gone Cullen’s route.  I think that baby I saw her with a few times is hers.  I have no idea whether Peggy Nash has children or is married, because she didn’t advertise either their presence or absence in her political life.  Is this because a man with a family behind him is supported and complete, while a woman with a family behind her is compromised in her time and possibly her values?  Certainly Nash was not above using introducers to address perceived weak spots in her candidacy; one need only look at the three university students who got elected last May in the Orange Crush and introduced Nash on Friday to see that.  (The absence of Ruth Ellen Brosseau from any of the introductions, or indeed any significant role in the convention as far as I could tell, was also telling.  Apparently the beating she took in the media last May actually worked – the party is keeping her profile low.)

There was one other troubling aspect of the family photo-op: it served to highlight the fact that, even in the NDP, the party of social justice and equality, there are no candidates for the leadership who belonged to the LGBTQ community, or at least, none who were willing to photo-op that for Canadians.  I was hearing rumblings of discontent from the people around me.  I was not the only one who did not see their family represented on that stage.  The single woman who moved to Winnipeg because her closest relative, her niece, lives there, pointed out that the emphasis on families was marginalizing to the single and the childless.  It was pointed out over and over again that New Democrats had the most female caucus in history – 40 female MPs out of 103.  It’s dramatically more than the Conservatives, but still well below true equality – and nobody is advertising the number of LGBTQ people in the caucus.

People of colour were conspicuous in their absence.  Martin Singh, who is a Nova Scotian for many generations on both sides of his family, is as WASP as I am, but having converted to Sikhism and married an Indian woman, he represented the immigrant community on that stage.  Niki Ashton highlighted the fact that she was the child of Greek immigrants and speaks fluent Greek, but the days are long gone when Greek Canadians are seen as interlopers.  Nobody looking at her would have pegged her as not Canadian enough.  Again, Nash’s cadre of barely-twenty-year-old MPs included the most visible people of colour with actual election wins under their belts.

I believe the emphasis on families was Jack’s doing, because he was very much a family man himself.  (For the record, I respect the deep love each of the candidates has for their families and I’m in no way knocking that.  It is what it is.)  I also suspect that it was done deliberately to prevent the Right in Canada, as represented by the Conservatives, from usurping the Family Values talking points.  Their Republican counterparts down south have definitely pulled off that coup and it’s been one of the bigger disasters for the Democratic party.  Nevertheless, Jack was fighting for my rights as an LGBTQ person for thirty years before I knew I needed them.  Where was that push at the convention?

If the leadership convention proved anything about the equality agenda, it proved that we aren’t there yet; not in the NDP, and not in Canada.

Some thoughts on the education aspects of Ontario’s budget

These are initial impressions only.  I haven’t gone in-depth.

First, on the issue of workers paying more into their pensions: teachers already pay 11.2% of their salaries (at the elementary level at least) into their pensions.  I’ve never seen a private-sector RRSP that suggested anything higher than 10%, and I’ve seen several that suggested only 5%.  I resent the potshots about employees paying more than that.  Our pensions are an earned benefit, bargained for over decades in exchange for lower salary increases.  To imply that teachers are greedily feeding at the public trough is unfair and prejudicial.

Second, on an issue that did not show up directly in the budget at all: can we finally start having a productive discussion in this province on the role, cost, and benefit of EQAO testing?  That testing costs a fortune, first for the people who spend the whole year writing and publishing it, then for the material cost of its administration, and finally for the teachers paid to mark it during the summer.  What do we get for that cost?  A lot of stressed-out kids and teachers, and information that mirrors what teachers already knew about their students from less-intrusive methods that actually helped them teach.  There are other ways to get accountability that really is accountable.  EQAO isn’t, because the students aren’t compared to their own earlier scores, so they’re not measuring students’ progress.  Instead, groups of students are measured against other groups of students, with no reference to their strengths, weaknesses, learning differences, or state of mind at the time of the test.  But this potential area of savings – something that would go a long way towards placating teachers – was ignored in this budget.

Third, on the issue of threats of layoffs: I have to hand it to Mr. McGuinty.  After getting everyone upset at the Drummond Report, which advocated things like cutting non-teaching staff by 70%, to then turn around and give that as the THREAT of what happens if the collective bargaining goes south, is a lovely bit of governmental bullying.  (On the issue of those layoffs: Mr. Drummond clearly hadn’t set foot in an actual school since he graduated from one himself.  Teacher-librarians were listed in the report as non-teaching staff, which doesn’t reflect the way schools are organized at all, since teacher-librarians are usually prep-coverage teachers teaching full schedules.  School psychologists – that is, the people who diagnose learning disabilities so that struggling students have a shot at school success – were also on that list.  We’re already down to the bare minimum number of educational assistants needed to keep our special needs kids safe, and well below what they need to actually learn.  It was a threat that would have taken Ontario schools back to the 70’s, but with added legislation in place to reflect the realities of an integrated, multilingual, differentiated school system.  Which is to say, it would have made us look like most American public schools.  A worse fate I cannot envision.)

I think the budget could have gone further in encouraging school boards to cut specific programs that amount to non-teaching staff, and absorbing the teachers currently engaged in those back into the regular teaching force.  That would see a reduction in openings for new teachers but no actual layoffs.  In my own board, this would include the Literacy Improvement Project Teachers, a cadre of specialist teachers who serve up to four schools each – most serve one or two schools – and have as their job description supporting teachers in their teaching of literacy, taking small groups of struggling students for intensive and targeted reading instruction, and working with the grade three and six teachers on issues relating to EQAO.  I am astonished that funding for these teachers is not being phased out at the provincial level.  Really, the job the LIPTs were formed to do has been done.  At least two-thirds of their daily schedule is gravy within the school, which means they could be absorbed into a beefed-up special education budget at significant savings.  This shift could be accomplished through attrition over two or three years with little effect to classroom results.

Instead, the budget picks a fight with unions while paying lip service to collective bargaining; it attacks teachers’ earned benefits, especially pensions but also sick benefits through contract offers; and it completely fails to address the ineffective, expensive, and invalid testing going on in Ontario’s schools.

The irony seems to be that it will be Horwath’s NDP which allows the budget to pass, rather than the right-wing Conservatives from whose playbook many of the measures come.

An Open Letter to Mr. Mulcair

A year ago, I was exactly the kind of voter that you will need to court to win the next election.  I was left-leaning but undecided.  I voted for a different party for each election, based on a complex interplay of reasons; strategic voting, policies, personalities of leaders, and personalities of candidates all played a role.  I was willing to consider any party that might be able to beat the Conservatives, whose agenda I find to be divisive and mean-spirited.

I came to the NDP after the last election for two reasons.  The first, like so many people, was Jack Layton.  In addition to charisma, there was the intense commitment to social justice, and to moving Canada forward while leaving nobody behind.  That, I felt, was the essence of the New Democratic agenda: that gains for our nation were not gains unless everyone benefitted from them.  It stood, and stands, in stark contrast to the radical individualist perspective offered by the Right.

The second reason was the realization that my methods were not accomplishing anything.  I wasn’t working to build anything myself.  I wasn’t throwing in my lot with any one group and working to build it into what I wanted it to be.  I was letting others do the work, and then grazing at their buffet.  I was following in the great Canadian political tradition of the undecided voter. With only a small percentage of Canadians belonging to a political party, and an even smaller percentage participating actively in one, I was in good company.

I decided that this approach didn’t meet either my expectations for myself, or my needs.  I decided not to be the person who let other people decide how she would be governed; I needed, to quote one of the world’s great activists, to be the change I wished to see in the world.  So I joined the NDP.  I got involved in the riding association. I attended the Leadership Convention. I stood in your bleachers on March 24th and cheered and chanted in two languages.  I sang a Habs olé, denying my family’s traditional Maple Leafs roots.  I answered the appeal and went to your call centre to pull out the vote.  I celebrated when you were elected.

And then I watched as the media pundits and bloggers across the country pontificated on the NDP’s shift to the centre and what it meant.  I’m sure, Mr. Mulcair, that you’ve read some of the same articles.  They’re saying you’re moving the party to the centre.  Some are saying Jack did the same thing.  Some are lamenting the demise of a strong left.  I read it all, and I decided that they’d missed something.

In fact, they’d missed something game-changing.

I voted for you because I believe you to represent the left both as it is and as it needs to be to grow.  I felt that you understood what the strong union candidates, excellent and caring people all, did not: that the rhetoric of our unionized past was alienating people who ought to be able to find a home in the NDP.  But a shift in rhetoric does not equal a shift in values.  We can appeal to the social justice voters who do not see themselves in the rhetoric of the unions, but nevertheless have a lot to gain from their tradition: the professional civil service voters, the non-unionized support service voters, the small business owners and family farmers and fishers, and all those Canadians from all walks of life who have lost trust that their government has their back.

I need something from you, Mr. Mulcair.  It’s something I believe you were going to give me anyway, and that’s why you got my vote.

I need you to be the point person for a strong and united left.

I need you to stand up for social justice, not just for the most downtrodden but for the people in the middle who are so often alienated and bitter about politicians, neither far enough down to need a boost nor far enough up to benefit from the cronyism and pandering to big business that have marked our government for my entire adult life.

I need you to be the face of the Left which once ensured that these people would not lose their homes trying to pay for a doctor, and I need you to be the arm of the Left which will ensure that these people will not lose their homes paying for chemotherapy.

I need you to fight for the rights of the employees in offices who are earning the same dollar amount that their parents earned twenty-five years ago, as surely as you filibuster back-to-work legislation for Canada Post.

I believe you will do this.  I have a great love for this country, and great hope for its future.  I am optimistic that together, tous ensemble, we can get the job done.  I voted for you because I believe that you want what I want for this home we both love.

I’m what you need those undecided voters to become.  I’m a supporter who will put my money, my time, and my heart into your cause if I believe in it strongly enough.  I’ve been told you’re a man of your word.  We’re listening.  Will you give us your word?