Minding Our Manners

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I’ve noticed in these last days leading up to Christmas that many of us have dispensed with our manners. Whether walking down the street, driving in the car, standing in the grocery line-up, or working out at the gym, people everywhere seem to be more focused on their own agendas rather than considerate behaviour.

Manners have an interesting history, particularly if you read English literature. One of the most well-known critics of ill-used manners was Jane Austen (1775-1817). Austen’s novels were known for their satirical outlook on the customs of fashionable English society at the turn of the nineteenth century. In Persuasion, one Austen character quips, “Good company requires only birth, manners and education and, with regard to education, I’m afraid it is not very particular.” The false pretenses that guided the manners of many of Austen’s upper class protagonists were frequently critiqued in her writings.

Later in the century, British Victorians were obsessed with manners. Books on etiquette abounded during a time when proper behaviour denoted social standing and class. Novelist Charles Dickens (1812-1870) was a master at capturing on paper the hypocrisy of those who feigned to be mannerly but whose actions were often at the expense of others. He frequently cast the socially respectable characters in his novels as contributors to the tyranny experienced by the poor.

Today, somewhere in between hypocrisy and the absence of manners, there is probably a place for making the comfort of others a consideration in our daily lives. Exhibiting good manners can transcend the barriers that separate us. It is a simple way to connect meaningfully and respectfully with  strangers, even if it is for the briefest of moments.

So, this Christmas give up that space in the mall parking lot; stand aside for someone trying to negotiate their wheelchair through the crowds; be appreciative to service workers; consider others’ space when walking down the street; drive less aggressively; buy someone who is in need a cup of coffee; hold a door open for an elderly person; and slow down, not just at Christmas but year round. Otherwise, you may miss the opportunity to make someone’s day.

Women’s “Firsts” – History Provides Context

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Recent revelations that Albert Einstein advised Marie Curie in a letter to ignore the “reptiles,” the journalists who printed “hogwash” about her personal life, have made for fascinating reading. Einstein’s letter to Curie was a beautifully written piece of encouragement that reminded Curie that her intellect was most important.[1]

Einstein recognized brilliance when he saw it; Curie was an incredibly gifted scientist. She was the first woman to obtain a doctorate in a scientific field in France (1903), the first female professor at the Sorbonne (1906), and the first woman to receive a Nobel Prize (1903) for Physics. In 1911, she received a second Nobel for Chemistry, the first and only person since that time to be recognized in two different sciences.

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Albert Einstein and Marie Curie (Photo source: NobelPrize.org)

Being a brilliant and successful scientist was not enough however, because Curie was still a woman. When she crossed the gendered boundaries of appropriate feminine behaviour by entering into an affair with a married colleague who was estranged from his wife, Curie was vilified in the press. She was accused of sullying the name and reputation of her late husband, Pierre, prompting Einstein to write his letter.

When members of the Nobel committee tried to discourage Curie from accepting her prize in person because of the negative publicity surrounding her private life, Curie responded, “The prize has been awarded for the discovery of radium and polonium… I cannot accept that the appreciation of the value of scientific work should be influenced by libel and slander concerning private life.”[2] Curie quite wisely insisted that her scientific work was separate from her personal life and picked up her prize in person.

History is filled with women who have achieved groundbreaking firsts. When the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) decided in 1974 to hire women for the first time, they did not want any one woman to claim that she was “the first” female Mountie. The police force may have had a number of reasons for this approach, but the official reason was that they did not want the pressure of being “the first” placed on one woman. It was a paternalistic attitude that was based on the assumption that a woman would be unable to handle the media’s intense scrutiny.

As a result, all thirty-two of the first female members of the police force were sworn in together at exactly the same time across the country’s five time zones. It too, was “a first,” a decision that has never been repeated in the history of the RCMP. It was just the beginning of the unprecedented attention on the women, both inside and outside the RCMP, who dared to transgress gendered boundaries that would influence their working lives on a daily basis.

Our fascination with the correspondence between Einstein and Curie a century ago probably has a lot to do with our familiarity with the ongoing issues over gender that exist in our society today. But it also serves as a reminder of the importance of considering context when we think about the accomplishments of women in history.  Then we will more fully understand the significance of their achievements.

[1] http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-2867236/Don-t-read-hogwash-Newly-unearthed-letter-enraged-Albert-Einstein-Marie-Curie-1911-advises-female-scientist-ignore-critics.html

[2] Ibid.

Giving Tuesday – A National Day of Giving

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In the wake of Black Friday and Cyber Monday, I’m overloaded with the continuous demands placed on me to spend money. The commercialism associated with gift-giving appeals to the side of us that values self-gratification before the needs of others. Advertisers and retailers are well aware that in North America more altruistic pursuits are often secondary on our list of priorities.

There is a way to take back the holiday season and to refocus our energies on what is really important. Giving Tuesday, December 2 is a national day of volunteering and giving back to our communities.

The need is great. According to Global TV News, 30,000 people in Canada are homeless. Children represent 36% of food bank users in this country. One in seven children live in poverty in Canada, despite goals set by politicians in 1989 to eradicate child poverty by 2000. Visit http://globalnews.ca/news/1699146/16×9-25-years-later-canadas-child-poverty-rate-remains-unchanged/ to watch Global TV’s video on poverty in Canada.

You can give back by volunteering or by making a financial donation to one of the many charitable groups in Canada who are in need of finances to conduct research, heal disease, provide clothing, treat PTSD, feed children, drive a senior, supply drinking water, buy toys, cook a Christmas dinner, or to simply keep in operation.

Follow the Giving Tuesday link to find a charitable organization in Canada that needs your financial help http://givingtuesday.ca/. Or visit http://nightshiftministries.org/.

Wherever or however you give, I hope that you’ll give back in some way this holiday season and throughout 2015.

The Right to Vote: Freedom from the Grille

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Tomorrow British Columbians go to the polls to vote in their municipal elections. Unfortunately, many people will not bother to cast a ballot. It seems that fewer and fewer people consider the importance of this privilege.

If you think that casting a ballot is unimportant, especially if you are a woman, consider this: In England during the construction of a new House of Commons following a fire in 1844, a debate ensued amongst parliamentarians over whether accommodation should be made for women in the new building. Previously, women had been allowed to peer down a ventilation shaft if they wished to hear the debates or catch a glimpse of the proceedings taking place.

After much debate it was decided that a ladies’ gallery should be built, an innovation that included a large brass grille placed in front of the seating area as a compromise to those members who were opposed to exposing women to the workings of government.[1] Women visiting the House of Commons were confined to listening to debates from behind the grille which concealed their presence and obscured their view of the proceedings. Over the decades, the gallery’s ironwork became a potent symbol of female oppression.

In October 1908, suffragette Muriel Matters protested parliamentarians’ refusal to grant women the right to vote in a unique way. Matters chained herself to the grille in the ladies’ gallery, managing to deliver a speech to the House of Commons before the chain was cut and she was forcibly removed. Matters was charged with disorderly conduct and imprisoned for her actions. Although it would be another ten years before English women were finally enfranchised, Muriel’s protest contributed to a growing awareness of women’s lack of rights as citizens.

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Muriel Matters. Source: The Muriel Matters Society Inc.

On November 15, let’s honour suffragettes like Muriel Matters who were willing to give so much for your right to cast a vote in an election. Although you may think that your vote doesn’t count for much in the larger scheme of things, the fact that you can vote, and run for office, should be enough motivation for you to make your way to the polling booth.

[1] Ray Strachey, The Cause (Port Washington, N.Y.: Kennikat Press, 1928), 361.

Harassment in the Workplace – This is 2014

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Justin Trudeau’s expulsion of two MPs from the Liberal caucus for misconduct toward two female MPs is yet another reminder that harassment in the workplace is rife. Even at the highest levels of government where human rights laws designed to protect Canadians are crafted, no such standard exists for parliamentarians.

While politicians, pundits, and journalists seem surprised that harassment is still a part of the workplace – after all, this is 2014 – it appears that the problem is not going away soon. The fact that it is against the law does little to deter the practice. From the halls of parliament to the flight decks of Air Canada’s aircraft, harassment in the workplace, especially toward female employees, is still considered an acceptable practice.

Why? Because despite legislation and official policies harassment is all about power, both personal and organizational. There are plenty of reasons why women who make accusations of harassment want to remain anonymous. But the main reason is a fear of retaliation. Fear is what every harasser counts on to maintain his or her dominance and control in the workplace without consequences. The fear of retaliation is what creates an unsafe work environment for those who speak out.

It is time to stop being surprised that harassment is still taking place. This is 2014 but we have a long way to go to end the practice. It is time for all of us to stand up to harassing behaviour when we encounter it. It is time to stop laughing at insults, repeating racist comments, engaging in sexual innuendo, and sending emails that demean others. And it is time to stop displaying pornography in the workplace. It is up to each of us to play an active role in challenging those who engage in the behaviour. Only then will the rights of every person to work in a harassment-free environment be realized.

Uniforms, Misogyny, and Halloween

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Ben Pugh, the editor of uniformstories.com, has compiled a series of photographs from the internet depicting little girls, teen girls, and adult women in what he terms the “evolution of the uniform-related Halloween costume.”

Tagged as “Military Humor,” the subtitle of his article was “Age x Available Fabric + Boobs = I Love Halloween.” That was on the first day it appeared online on October 9, 2014. Since then, a revised version omitting the subtitle has appeared. But the photographs remain.

The use of images of children and women dressed in costumes as police, military, and emergency service personnel is troubling on a number of levels, especially since the adult women are scantily clad and photographed in sexually suggestive poses. The images exploit and objectify and send the message that women are not legitimate figures of authority but sexual objects.

Pugh’s article is evidence of the persistence of misogynistic attitudes toward women in law enforcement and the military, even decades after women’s rights in the workplace has been legislated. I’m not sure what link, if any, Pugh has to these occupations other than his purported interest in uniforms. But his montage is evidence that women working in these occupations experience sexual harassment and sexism on an ongoing basis, both inside and outside their place of employment.

Pugh’s disingenuous tribute to women in uniform does nothing to honour the brave and committed women who work to serve him, his community, and his country on a daily basis. His sexist portrayal is not humourous as he insists; instead it is demeaning and disrespectful to the women who go to work every day not knowing if it will be their last.

It is very likely that one day in the future Pugh will need assistance of some kind from an emergency services worker or a police officer. I sincerely hope it’s a woman in uniform who answers his call.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and the RCMP

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The suicide of Corporal Ron Francis of the RCMP was a tragic loss. As a veteran police officer of twenty-two years, Francis struggled with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), a “condition,” according to the RCMP, that “took over and consumed him.”[1]

The RCMP is not alone in struggling to cope with a growing number of its employees being diagnosed with PTSD. Francis is just one of the twenty-three suicides committed by Canadian emergency responders since April of this year. The rate of PTSD among emergency workers is over double that of the general public, a startling statistic that reflects the stress and strain emergency personnel experience on a daily basis.[2] Emergency responders are hired to clean up society’s messes, which is why PTSD is a problem all of society must own.

But the nature of the duties being performed by emergency personnel is not all there is to the problem. For many police forces in Canada, police culture is an important contributor to the increase in PTSD diagnoses. Codes of masculinity within the RCMP, for example, continue to inform the heroic image of the police force. As a male-dominated organization whose members “always get their man,” Mounties are still considered ideally masculine men who serve as iconic representations of the nation. There is little room for Mounties who do not meet the standards and traditions that have dominated the police force for 140 years.

These codes are reinforced as early as a Mountie’s time at the training academy. There, cadets are trained to suppress their emotions, a demeanor that is equated with professionalism. Historically, cadets were also trained to apply group pressure to the weakest link in their troop, usually a member struggling to meet the demands of the force’s rigorous training program. It is not surprising, then, that an RCMP officer diagnosed with PTSD at the detachment level is viewed as a weak link whose ability to protect the public, and his or her co-workers during dangerous situations, is suspect.

The response by Assistant Commissioner Roger Brown to Francis’s PTSD as an unfortunate condition that “consumed” him minimizes the complexities of a systemic problem within the police force. While the RCMP trains its police officers to be the best they can be physically, little is invested in training them how to be psychologically resilient.[3] As a result, few Mounties are prepared for coping with repeated exposures to psychological trauma over time, a circumstance that makes the passing of Corporal Ron Francis all the more tragic.

[1] Kevin Bissett, “Death of Mountie Who Shed Light on PTSD a Terrible Loss, RCMP Says,” October 7, 2014. http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/natinal/death-of-mountie-who-shed-light-on-ptsd-a-terrible-loss.

[2] Mark Gollom, CBC News, “Why Emergency Services Need a ‘Culture Change’ to Deal With PTSD,” September 29, 2014. http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/why-emergency-services-need-a-culture-change-to-deal-with-ptsd.

[3] Dr. Ken Welburn quoted in “Why Emergency Services Need a ‘Culture Change’.” Ibid.

Female Mounties: Celebrating Forty Years

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September 16 will mark forty years when thirty-two women from across Canada were sworn in as the first women to join the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP). The swearing-in ceremonies were the first step in a long journey toward their acceptance as police officers. While they were considered equal on paper, the women had to work hard to prove themselves as police officers.

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The challenges they faced began early in their careers. During their training at the RCMP’s academy in Regina, Saskatchewan, the women came under criticism. Some people questioned whether female Mounties would be putting the lives of male police officers in danger because they lacked the brawn and physical stature they thought was necessary to handle violent situations. Mountie wives were resistant to the idea of attractive young women riding alone with their husbands in a police cruiser. Rumours spread throughout the RCMP that the women looked more like football players after all of the physical exercise they underwent during training. And the women were devastated to learn that they would not be wearing the same uniform as male Mounties, a decision that set them apart as different from the men from the outset.

Many Canadians struggled with women’s changing role in society. They assumed that women working in a male-dominated occupation wanted to be like men. Few people realized that the first female Mounties had no intention of being like their male peers. They joined the RCMP for a number of reasons. Some wanted a new and challenging career. Others wanted job security and better pay. Many were eager to join an organization steeped in the history of the nation. Five of the first women were carrying on the family tradition established by brothers and fathers who were also police officers. Still others had altruistic reasons for joining, fulfilling a strong desire to help people. Not many people understood that the first female Mounties wanted to define themselves as police officers on their own terms.

Despite the opposition, the first women to join the RCMP proved the naysayers wrong. The late Superintendent W.F. MacRae, in charge of recruit training at the academy in 1975, said it best: “There is absolutely no reason why women cannot do police work. People say you couldn’t send them here and there. What they are talking about is muscle and muscle is only a small part of the job. No one ever questioned the courage of the female.”[1]

Forty years later, he proved to be right. Congratulations to the women of the RCMP.

[1] Quoted in Colleen Slater-Smith, “Troop 17 Graduates,” The Leader-Post (Regina), March 3, 1975.

Throwing Like a Girl

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The photo of Little League pitcher Mo’ne Davis on the cover of Sports Illustrated last week has caused quite a stir. The thirteen-year-old made history as the first ever little leaguer of any gender or race to appear on the magazine’s cover. Davis, who can pitch a seventy mph fastball, is helping to change how we view women who are professional athletes.

More than one journalist has noticed the difference between Davis’s photograph and the sexual representations of women who usually grace the cover of Sports Illustrated. But buried in all of the debates about women and sport lie biological arguments about women as “the weaker sex.” It is an idea  rooted in the 18th and 19th centuries when middle- and upper-class girls and women were taught to refrain from physical activity, thought to be a hindrance to reproduction. During an age when land, money, and titles were handed down though male heirs, primogeniture was an important part of the maintenance of the power and values of the upper classes. Motherhood was viewed as a woman’s highest calling and any activity that might disrupt her “natural” reproductive function was viewed as dangerous and foolhardy.

This belief carried over into the twentieth century. The idea of women as the weaker sex was reinforced in 1966 by Erwin Strauss, a respected neurologist whose research helped to pioneer anthropological medicine and psychiatry. Strauss noticed that the posture of young boys and girls differed when they threw a ball. He concluded that the weaker muscle power of girls accounted for this difference. But he also explained it in gendered terms, as being the result of their “feminine attitude” toward the world and the space around them. As political scientist Iris Young noted in her study of Strauss and his work, girls were thought to throw differently from boys simply because they were feminine. 

In this century, the phrase “throwing like a girl” continues to be used as an insult. But it has also morphed into an urban myth of sorts, at least according to the hosts of the Discovery Channel’s popular television show, Mythbusters (discover.com/tv-shows/mythbusters). In a segment titled “Throws Like a Girl,” hosts Adam and Jamie tackle the “cultural generality” that men throw better than women. Their experiment used eight men, women, boys, and girls, who were requested to throw a fastball at a target first with their right arm and then with their left. The result was that there was no measurable difference between the way men and women threw the ball when using their left arm, proving that the ability to throw a fastball comes down to practice and training, not physiology.

But of course, Mo’ne Davis knows that. The trouble is that many watching her career don’t, which is why she has garnered so much attention for her talent and surprise at her achievements. It is a very good thing that she doesn’t throw like a girl.

Giving Back

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Giving back to your community is not always about donating money or even volunteering your time. While those things are extremely important, we can also be creative when thinking about how we give back. Giving back can take many forms. Take my interaction with Margo, for example.  

Margo was standing in the middle of a coffee shop in Whalley with tears streaming down her face. I asked her if I could help. She explained that she thought that the elderly couple seated behind me were her parents. Since she hadn’t seen them in years, she was unsure.  

At my urging, she approached the man and woman and asked if they were her father and mother. Clearly surprised by her question, they answered “No.” The elderly man dismissed Margo as one of the many panhandlers who frequented the shop and pestered patrons for money.  

But Margo didn’t ask them for money. She appeared so vulnerable and childlike. Perhaps it was her tears. It seemed to me that there was more to Margo’s story.  

I was right. Margo wandered outside the shop and into the middle of the busy street shouting at the traffic she was now responsible for stopping. One angry driver shouted back, telling her to get off the road and out of his way. A passerby gently coaxed Margo back into the coffee shop. He was a calming influence, taking the time to talk with her and keeping her seated at a table. 

As I left the coffee shop, I said goodbye to Margo and her friend. She wanted to know my name before asking, “Are you my mother?” She began to cry when I said no. When I asked her to smile for me instead, she produced the biggest and most beautiful smile as we said our goodbyes. 

My interaction with Margo was a good reminder that people’s lives are complicated. Things are not always as they seem. Margo was not a panhandler, nor did she appear to be homeless or on drugs. But she was clearly struggling with mental health issues.  

We don’t always know how to respond to people like Margo. It is difficult to meet their needs and solve their many problems. But giving back means that we can simply treat them with respect and dignity. When we are compassionate toward people in need, we touch their lives and they touch ours. Today, Margo touched mine.