A Candle in New Zealand

Democracy, the rule of law, and even the truth are under attack. The bedrock of assumptions once thought immutable has turned to sand. And yet, despite troubles and the deafening drumbeats of negativism, idealism is still not naïve, hope remains wholesome, and hard work is still rewarded. We know that even a small candle can conquer darkness. Light, like love, always wins. Think about it – always. As a measure of that audacious notion, I offer New Zealand.

New Zealand is not a place that often, or ever, crosses our minds. But there it is, a nation of 5 million people, made up of two volcanic islands, about 1,500 km south-east of Australia. Earning independence in 1947, its tacit head of state remains Britain’s monarch while real power rests with parliament and the prime minister. New Zealand’s prime minister is Jacinda Ardern. She is a candle.

Having graduated university in 2001, Ardern became a member of parliament in 2008 and, in August 2017, was chosen as Labour Party leader. In a general election held just a month later, her party increased its seat count by 14 and, through negotiations with the National Party, a coalition government was formed with Ardern as prime minister. She became New Zealand’s third female prime minister and, at 37, its youngest.

A Candle in New Zealand

She had campaigned on a promise of “relentless positivity” and that’s how she is governing. Ardern is a progressive. She believes that the state has no right to dictate who people may love and, therefore, supported laws allowing same-sex marriage. She believes that abortions have always occurred but if made legal they become safer and so she supported removing abortion from the Crimes Act. She believes that people’s health and safety comes first and so she has supported efforts to combat climate change.

Last January, Ardern and her husband, who hosts a television fishing show, stood together to announce that she was pregnant. She explained that after giving birth this June, she will take a six-week maternity leave, during which time deputy prime minister Winton Peters will become PM. She will then return to office with her husband assuming full-time caregiver responsibilities.

Ardern was attacked by those who did the math and said that she must have known she was pregnant while negotiating the coalition that made her prime minister. But is being pregnant a disqualifying condition for a position of power; or any position; or anything? She was criticized for thinking she could meet her responsibilities while pregnant. But are men not applauded for courageously carrying on despite health issues that are less natural and less temporary? She was savaged for not resigning to take care of her child. But are men asked to surrender jobs or ambitions when they become fathers?

Ardern met critics with grace. She said, “It is a woman’s decision about when they choose to have children, and it should not predetermine whether or not they are given a job or have job opportunities…I am not the first woman to multitask. I am not the first woman to work and have a baby.” She tweeted: “We thought 2017 was a big year! This year we’ll join the many parents who wear two hats. I’ll be PM & a mum while Clarke will be “first man of fishing” & stay at home dad. There will be lots of questions (I can assure you we have a plan all ready to go!) but for now bring on 2018.”

Like always, mud-slingers were left with more of the stuff on them than their target. They revealed more about themselves and their latent, or perhaps blatant, dinosaur misogyny than about their prime minister. Supporters quickly overwhelmed naysayers. Their thoughts were summarized by a message from Scotland’s prime minister Nicola Sturgeon: “This is first and foremost a personal moment for her — but it also helps demonstrate to young women that holding leadership positions needn’t be a barrier to having children (if you want to).”

Ardern is helping to illuminate a path forward for girls and women everywhere who challenge the darkness of people, laws, and attitudes that shame, limit, deny, and disparage. The path is being lit one candle at a time. Emma González is a Florida high school student helping to shine a light on leaders more concerned with campaign donations than children’s safety. Malala Yousafzai was shot by the Taliban for promoting the education of young women but, after painfully recovering she resumed her fight. Chrystia Freeland is Canada’s foreign affairs minister and Jane Philpott its minister of Indigenous Services. They are among Canada’s most powerful political leaders. Freeland is working to modernize and stabilize Canada’s economy by renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement and Philpott to right generations of wrongs by bringing justice to a relationship that has never known the concept.

There are candles like Ardern and the others in your community and, if you are lucky, in your home. Let us not curse the darkness but celebrate their light.

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The Woman Who Changed the World

The crowd hushed, cameras snapped, and Senators sat respectfully still as the slight, pale woman limped slowly to the big table then, painfully, took her seat. It was June 4 1963, and Rachel Carson was 56 but looked much older. She was dying. Cancer had fractured her pelvis, taken a breast and, hidden by a dark wig, her hair.

Carson had worked as a United States Fish and Wildlife Service marine biologist and written articles for a number of magazines. She had turned her love of the sea and outrage with what was happening to rivers, lakes, and oceans into three best-selling books: The Edge of the Sea, Under the Sea-Wind, and The Sea Around Us. Each presented disturbing ideas and scientifically sophisticated arguments without jargon, preaching, or rancour. She married her knowledge, passion, and writing and investigative skills in the creation her next book: Silent Spring.

While researching the book, Carson had served on the Natural Resources Committee of the Democratic Advisory Council where she became aware of Massachusetts Senator John F. Kennedy having initiated the Cape Cod National Seashore Act. Kennedy had read her books on the sea and then the committee report and so when he sought his party’s nomination for president, he invited Carson to join the Women’s Committee for New Frontiers.

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Photo: Rachel Carson Council

As president, Kennedy read Silent Spring pre-publication excerpts in the New Yorker magazine. He was moved by Carson’s detailing the devastating effects of pesticide use on animal and human health and invited her to attend a White House conference on conservation. The conference led to Kennedy announcing that, because of Carson’s work, he was ordering the Department of Agriculture and the Public Health Service to investigate the dangers of pesticide use and the establishment of the President’s Science Advisory Committee to study links between pesticides and health.

Silent Spring became an instant bestseller when published in September 1962. It explained how pesticides, and specifically DDT, had been around since 1874. The American army had used DDT in both world wars to delouse soldiers and that Paul Hermann Müller had won the 1948 Nobel Prize for determining its effectiveness in killing mosquitoes and other pests. Carson’s book explained how DDT was also killing fish, birds, and people. Her title warned of the day that birds would be gone and skies without song. Most shockingly, Silent Spring told of how the government, scientific community, and the companies making and selling pesticides knew of their harmful effects. But there was money to be made. And so, the evidence was ignored, hidden, and denied. Carson asked an essential question: “How could intelligent beings seek to control a few unwanted species by a method that contaminated the whole environment and brought the threat of disease and death even to their own kind?”

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Pesticide manufacturing companies Cyanamid, Monsanto, and Velsical were outraged. They attacked. Velsical threatened to sue Carson, her publisher, and the New Yorker. They even tried to stop the publication of an article about the book in the Audubon magazine. The companies paid scientists to write editorials and articles that belittled Carson and her conclusions. The National Agricultural Chemicals Association published a booklet, Fact and Fancy, that savaged Kennedy and Carson. It was argued that Americans would suffer a food shortage without DDT.

In May 1963, the President’s Science Advisory Committee released a 46-page report, Use of Pesticides. With point after well-supported point, it said the companies were wrong and Carson was right. It stated, “Until the publication of Silent Spring by Rachel Carson, people were generally unaware of the toxicity of pesticides…The Government should present this information to the public in a way that will make it aware of the dangers while recognizing the value of pesticides.”

A month later, as part of that public education process, the sick, fragile, and wan Carson took her seat before the Senate subcommittee. She briefly summarized Silent Spring’s findings and then listed specific recommendations. The government should ban aerial spraying without the permission of landowners. Citizens should enjoy guaranteed security against poisons used by companies, governments, and private individuals. Corporations making pesticides, and all those using them, should be strictly regulated. She advocated the outright banning of DDT. The government should fund and support grass roots citizen organizations and non-government organizations to encourage awareness of environmental issues.

The environmental movement was born. American companies sold 90,000 tonnes of DDT in 1963 but production decreased the next year and every year after that. It took a while, but in 1972, American DDT production was banned. Carson’s name was raised and Silent Spring was read by those advocating and then celebrating President Nixon’s Clean Air and Water Acts, the National Environmental Policy Act, the Endangered Species Act, and, in 1970, his establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency.

In his 1996 book, Our Stolen Future, Dr. Theo Colborn wrote about chemicals that interfere with our body’s hormonal system called endocrine disrupters. He credits Silent Spring with awakening him and other scientists and researchers to the dangers of manmade chemicals and noted how it was still inspiring discoveries and environmental advocacy.

Breast cancer took Rachel Carson in 1964. But her voice still echoes for Silent Spring is still read. It still inspires. It still exasperates.Silent Spring is still discussed around the world every Earth Day.

Books that matter always educate and infuriate and important authors, like important ideas, are always ignored, then mocked, then attacked, and, in time, celebrated. Books measure how far we have come and how far remains to go. As the American government appears ready to deregulate corporations and eviscerate environmental regulations, and women are leading the charge to fight the turning back of the clock on this and other issues, perhaps Silent Spring is more important now than ever.

Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring helped change the world. It may need to change it again.

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The Day JFK Visited Toronto

There was no welcoming crowd. There were no reporters. Although the 1960 presidential election was three years away, Senator John F. Kennedy had been vigorously campaigning and so he must have found his silent arrival in Toronto on that slate grey November afternoon either amusing or disconcerting.

Throughout 1957, he had been a frequent and entertaining guest on American political chat shows. His office flooded newspapers and magazines with press releases and articles he had written or at least edited. He accepted 140 speaking engagements. The herculean effort to render his already famous name even better known had spilled over the border, as these things do, and so Canadians knew of him and his ambition.

The Day JFK Visited Toronto.

John F. Kennedy (photo: historynewsnetwork.org)

Twenty female University of Toronto students certainly knew of him and were waiting. They were outside Hart House, where Kennedy was scheduled to participate in a debate. Since Hart House was opened in 1919, its lounges, library, and recreational facilities had become the university’s social and cultural hub. The impressive gothic revival building was a gift from the Massey family that had insisted on guidelines stipulating that within its stone, ivy-covered walls, Hart House would allow no studying, drinking, or women.

The first two rules were often and flagrantly broken but Margaret Brewin, Judy Graner, and Linda Silver Dranoff led a contingent hoping to end the third. They asked the Hart House warden to allow women to see the debate. When rebuffed, they gathered friends and created placards and greeted Kennedy with chants that alternated between “Hart House Unfair” and “We Want Kennedy”.

Kennedy smiled but said nothing as he was escorted through the drizzling rain and noisy protesters. Beneath its towering, dark oak-panelled ceiling the Debates Room could seat two hundred and fifty. It was packed. A scuffle interrupted introductions when a sharp-eyed guard noticed a guest’s nail polish and removed three women who had snuck in disguised as men. With the women locked out, the men inside prepared to argue: “Has the United States failed in its responsibilities as a world leader?” Kennedy was given leave to present remarks from the floor in support of the team opposing the resolution.

Reading from a prepared text, he offered that Americans did not enjoy immunity from foreign policy mistakes but that the difference between statesmanship and politics is often a choice between two blunders. He expressed concern regarding the degree to which public opinion sometimes dictated sound public policy and admitted that the United States had misplayed some recent challenges. Regardless of these and other errors, he argued, American foreign policy rested on sound principles and his country remained a force for good.

The Day JFK Visited Toronto

Hart House (photo: toronto.cityguide.ca)

The address was well written but poorly delivered. Kennedy read in a flat tone and seldom looked up. The student debaters tore him apart. Leading the team against him was a nineteen-year-old second-year student named Stephen Lewis. As a member of the four-man U of T debate team, he had competed at various Canadian and American universities and won accolades, including the best speaker award at a recent international competition. Lewis argued that the United States consistently acted in ways that violated the tenets of its Constitution and Declaration of Independence. He accused America of trying to be, “policeman, baby-sitter and bank to the world.” The audience offered good-natured ribbing throughout the debate. Cheers rewarded good points and witty rejoinders. Kennedy seemed to enjoy himself and was heckled along with the rest.

The audience gasped in disbelief when adjudicators scored the debate 204 to 194 and declared Kennedy’s side victorious. Afterwards, at a participants’ reception, Lewis and others spoke with Senator Kennedy and expressed confusion as to why a Democrat such as he would defend the hawkish policies of the current Republican administration. Kennedy startled them by confessing that he was a Democrat only because he was from Massachusetts. He agreed with the suggestion that if he were from Maine, he would probably be a Republican.

Kennedy was not through raising eyebrows. When leaving Hart House, a reporter asked his opinion of the women’s loud but polite demonstration. He smiled and said, “I personally rather approve of keeping women out of these places…It’s a pleasure to be in a country where women cannot mix in everywhere.”

Although his side won, Kennedy had impressed few with his speech, fewer with his confession of political opportunism, and fewer still with his flippant dismissal of women and the concept of gender equality. His brief meeting with a small group of the protesting women the next morning changed no minds. Kennedy’s Toronto flop was surprising because by 1957 he had become quite adept at handling gatherings that demanded a blend of political chops and charm.

The next time Kennedy visited Canada it would be a president. In pursuit of his Cold War goals he would ask Prime Minister John Diefenbaker to meld Canadian policies with his own. Diefenbaker’s response offered Kennedy an even rougher reception than he had received three years before on that chilly November evening in Toronto. Diefenbaker wanted Canada to be more sovereign. Kennedy wanted a satellite. And there it began.

If you enjoyed this column, please share it with others. The above is among many stories found in Cold Fire: Kennedy’s Northern Front. Published on February 2, 2016, it is available at bookstores everywhere, Amazon, Barnes and Noble,, and at Chapters Indigo right here:

https://www.chapters.indigo.ca/en-ca/books/cold-fire-kennedys-northern-front/9780345808936-item.html

A Woman’s Power

Movie lines sometimes contain more truth than a philosophy tome. Consider my favourite line from My Big Fat Greek Wedding. A mother is patiently explaining to her adult daughter that Dad is indeed the head of the family. However, she adds, “I am the neck.” I love that. I might add that women are also often the glue.

I learned this truth by unconsciously absorbing my paternal grandmother’s lessons. She was the eldest of three strong sisters, the second generation of Ukrainian immigrants escaping turn of the century pre-revolutionary violence. Her mother provided Ukrainian language lessons to other immigrant kids in Hamilton’s hardscrabble east end. One day, the skinny 15 year-old was bored and waiting for her Mom to finish when a shy pupil not much older than her approached. He whispered that she was the most beautiful girl he had ever seen, and that someday he would like to marry her. That was my grandfather. They were married for 63 years.

Her father was one of the first men hired at Hamilton, Ontario’s brand new Dominion Foundry and Steel (Dofasco). He arranged a job for his son-in-law where he worked for 42 years. Later, the Second World War saw North American women doing what many women and most men said could not be done; they fought the war on factory floors. My grandmother worked 8-hour shifts in heavy overalls and beneath a thick kerchief. She lifted, turned, and processed steel sheets. She was, in the vernacular of the day, Rosie the Riveter.

An old Dofasco newsletter shows her and other women smiling broadly and doing their bit with a patriotic passion and rugged determination to make a deeper point. There was celebration when the guns fell silent and the afternoon shift was let out early. Amid the cheers, all the women were given small paper packets containing a tiny bonus and a pink slip. She told me how that she would have liked to have kept working and, like many others, felt used and cheated.

Women Are Glue

(The three sisters and their parents, my grandmother is standing on right)

When her mother was failing, my grandmother made a promise. She would keep the family together and carry on the tradition of the large gatherings like those at the old Port Dover farm. The basement of her modest Burlington home was refashioned into a party room. Every big occasion, and certainly every Christmas, the room sang with my large and loud extended Ukrainian family. My grandmother met everyone at the door with a smile, kiss, and hug. She was a big woman and when you got hugged, you stayed hugged.

Long tables sagged under more food than even our army of a family could consume and then everything was packed away for my cousin’s band and the dancing. The adults got to drink a little too much and the kids got to stay up past bedtime as the old stories and jokes were told through Export A smoke, smiles, and laughter.

The last time I saw her was in a hospital bed. As I was saying goodbye she put her hands on my cheeks and squeezed them together and pulled me close as if I was a six-year-old again. Perhaps, in her eyes, I was. She said, “I hope you know how much I love you.” I said, “I do. And I hope you know how much I love you.” They were our last words.

She told the doctor that she wanted to go home and he said only when she could walk the hallway and was completely off morphine. He didn’t know her very well. She did both the next day. She arrived home and within 45 minutes she was gone. This last act said everything you need to know about her strength.

That Christmas, there was no party. Everyone was too sad. She wasn’t there to push us through our grief. There was never another party. First the extended family and then some even closer drifted further. The glue was gone.

No family is perfect. Scratch the surface of any family and amongst the litter of love and happy days glowing like Facebook postings, you’ll find scars and unhealed wounds. Despite this fact, family, no matter how defined, constructed, or shifting, is sanctuary. Family is what reminds us of who we are when we sink too low or fly too high. Family is what affords us the courage to carry on when we’d rather quit and the reason and confidence to venture forth in the first place.

Every family has one person that acts as glue and holds it all together when so much seems determined to tear it asunder. Because most men, like me, are dullards about such things and too often too self-absorbed, the job usually falls to women. They are the miraculous caregivers who become the bond between people and generations. They love without judgement. Their lives and the values that guide them become their silent advice. They kiss your cheek or kick your ass or just sit and listen, and then listen some more.

They are the women who only those with enough love can see for who they truly are. Bless these women. They, like my grandmother, are the angels among us now and forever.

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For Men: Ten Things I Know About Women

As one of four boys, I grew up in a male world. I lived with more young men in university before marrying the girl that had left me gobsmacked in high school and with whom I remain hopelessly in love. Then came a daughter, a granddaughter, and then another granddaughter. My world is now female. So as a refugee from the Planet Testosterone, I humbly offer to men willing to pause and consider, all I have come to know for sure about women:

  1. Shut Up: When a woman is relating a problem, she does not want you to present a solution. The chances are good, very good in fact; that she already knows what she will do but only needs to solidify it in her mind by talking it out so shut up and listen. This seems to begin when women are about age 5.
  2. Speak Up: It may seem contradictory, but while shutting up, make affirming sounds. Men don’t naturally use them and don’t need them with each other but women do. Saying “ah” “oh” “mm” or any in a range of affirming sounds will do. Skip the affirming sound and be accused of not listening, even if, perchance, you actually are.
  3. Drop the Toilet Seat: Pity the man who forgets this rule. Enough said.
  4. Use Your Words: The average woman has 30% more Foxp2 protein in her brain than the average man. This protein feeds the brain’s language center. It results in women speaking about 20,000 words a day, or 13,000 more than men. So in the evening, men need to dig deep, even when they have probably already used up all their words.
  5. You Will Never Understand Shoes: Most women love shoes. Most women love shoe shopping. Most women love having more shoes than they can ever wear. You will never understand it. Never. Don’t try.
  6. There are Blue Jobs: Even Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem would stand aside to let a man do certain tasks. The jobs often involve garbage, grass, mice, bats, and dead things the cat dragged home.
  7. Men Are Wrong: In a time of conflict men should begin with, “I’m sorry. I was wrong.” The chances are that he was, even if it sometimes takes tears or years to realize it. If a man is standing alone in a forest, he would still be wrong.
  8. Women are Magical: Consider growing a human being inside of you. Consider the act of giving birth. Consider feeding another human being from the milk your body produces. Now think of anything a man can do and whether it compares to anything remotely as mystical or breathtakingly wonderful.
  9. Women Are Beautiful: Women – all women – are works of art. Men’s lumpy, hairy, smelly bodies are utilitarian locomotion devices to be endured, covered, and forgotten. Get over yourselves because women already have.
  10. Women are Smarter: The human brain is split into two hemispheres with each side responsible for particular functions. Women’s brains have far more neural pathways between the right and left sides. This fact allows for far more connections between logic and emotion and present and past and to read faces and situations infinitely quicker and far more accurately than men. Go to a party with a woman and she will have everyone figured out and the dynamic of the room nailed while you’re still looking for the bar.

Living in my women’s world has made me a better man. I applaud that women now lead 22 countries. Perhaps if more women were in positions of political, economic, and social power we would have a better world. Scratch the word perhaps – that’s another thing I know for sure. Then again, I’m a man, so I’m probably wrong.

KenzieAndGrandpaIMG_1240

The author, happy in his women’s world, being directed as to what to do next.

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