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(This piece was written and published a number of years ago. When the late Peter Gzowski was hosting Morningside on CBC Radio, he asked listeners to send him something about Christmas for his Christmas Eve program. I sent this and he read it to end his program that day. Years later, I read it myself on Christmas Eve, on the CBC Radio Mainstreet program that covered the Maritimes. I was hoping to give you a link to hear me reading it but I couldn’t find it so I’m afraid you’ll have to read it yourself. I hope you enjoy it and I wish you all the best of the Christmas season.)

In the mid-‘60s, I was a student in Montreal. One year, my schedule made it impossible for me to leave for home before December 24 so there I was, deciding whether I should spend much of Christmas in a little room in residence or whether I should spend it on the train. I decided in favour of the train.

I was very familiar with Montreal’s Central Station and always looked forward to the atmosphere there in the few days leading up to Christmas. There would always be a big raucous crowd at the far end of the station. Mostly everyone would be carrying shopping bags filled with wrapped gifts; there would usually be a couple of people with guitars and there’d be lots of excited children. When that big white-on-black sign was rolled into place listing the destinations — Trois Rivières, Québec City, Montmagny, Rivière du Loup, Rimouski, Mont Joli, Campbellton, Bathurst, Newcastle, Moncton, Amherst, Truro, Halifax and Sydney — there was a cheer and a good-natured crush as we all prepared to go down the stairs and board the Ocean Limited. These were eastern Quebecers and Maritimers going home for Christmas.

It wasn’t like that on that Christmas Eve. The station was dim and quiet, the way airports are late at night. There was a straggling handful of us waiting to board; we were subdued and cheerless.

It was late evening when we got on the train but even still, most of us gravitated toward the club car and soon began to talk. We exchanged stories of who we were, where we were going, why we were travelling on Christmas Eve. Some people were in my situation — they had worked up until that afternoon. One young couple had planned to stay in Montreal for Christmas and had decided at the last minute that they couldn’t bear not being home.

We talked about who would be meeting us at our various station stops and about little family traditions we were missing by not being home tonight. By the time we went off to our berths and roomettes, we were feeling quite warm and cheerful, the way you do when you’ve made new friends.

When we congregated in the morning — a sunny Christmas morning — in CN’s dining car, we were already rolling through the impossibly white snowy Québec countryside along the St. Lawrence River.

It was then that we began to lose some of our crowd and we established an instant tradition: at each station, as someone was leaving the train, all the rest of us would gather around the door to wave to the family on the platform and to sing a rousing chorus or two of “We Wish You A Merry Christmas.” We just kept waving and singing until the train pulled out.

By the time we were crossing the Gaspé peninsula, heading towards northern New Brunswick, we were having a real Christmas dinner, drinking toasts to each other and to our crew and acknowledging that so far, believe it or not, we were having a pretty good Christmas.

By mid-afternoon, our numbers had dwindled and as we approached the broad sweep of the Miramichi River valley, I began gathering my stuff together to be the next one to go. At the Newcastle station, I was waved and sung off the train by fewer people than there’d been earlier but with no less enthusiasm. My mother and father and I stood on the platform watching the train out of sight as it continued on toward Moncton.

The five-mile drive to Chatham was a merry one as I reported all the details of the trip. Everyone — including me — was surprised at the exuberance of my mood, everything considered.

There was one more surprise. Although both towns had the quiet empty streets and the unmistakeable atmosphere of Christmas Day, in our own house, the calendar had been set back. They didn’t want me to miss the special feeling of Christmas eve so the presents remained wrapped under the tree, the mince pies were on the counter ready to be baked, and the turkey was still in the bottom of the fridge, ready to be roasted with all its trimmings on Boxing Day.

When I’d left Montreal the night before, I had resigned myself to having no Christmas at all. I ended up having two Christmases — which turned out to be much more satisfactory.

(Continued from here.)

bleeding hearts cropped for web

(When I was having my website made, I sent the designer a number of photos of flowers in our garden. I thought this one had a particular symbolism when it comes to me. Maybe I was thinking of this very post.)

In my last entry, I wrote this:

When I first started to write these entries, I hadn’t intended to include so much detail about the robbery. I intended to mention it, in passing, to provide myself with some credibility when I began to write about how the justice system works and when eventually, someone would assert, “That’s easy for you to say; nothing like this has ever happened to you.” I needed to show that, even as a “victim of crime,” I was capable of looking at the justice system with an objective eye.

This is the part — part five — I was thinking about from the beginning.

I was thinking about prisons. I’ve been thinking about them even more than usual, every time anyone in the Harper government talks smugly about being “tough on crime”. Their planned policy is to build more prisons, put more and more people inside, keep slashing resources until conditions become even more deplorable than they are now and then announce their privatization strategy. They will then turn over the whole operation to some sleazy business outfit and prisoners will become the latest unfortunates to be sacrificed on the altar of profit.

I can’t resist, right here, pointing out the kind of corruption that can result in a system where prisons are privately owned.

As scandals from Wall Street to Washington roil the public trust, the justice system in Luzerne County, in the heart of Pennsylvania’s struggling coal country, has also fallen prey to corruption. The county has been rocked by a kickback scandal involving two elected judges who essentially jailed kids for cash. Many of the children had appeared before judges without a lawyer.

Prisons are already places of anger and despair, of rage and violence. More and more prisons will not make us safer; on the contrary, they will release even greater numbers of people who have no vested interest in the society which has isolated and brutalized them.

It is so unimaginative and so barbaric to keep confining people to these violent spaces that I believe it is high time we started to look for humane, workable and effective ways to deal with miscreants so they can truly be incorporated back into a meaningful role in our communities.

Yes, there are people who should be in prison — those people who are a danger to others must be isolated but even they should be treated with human dignity.

But others . . . For example, the day Garth Drabinsky was sentenced to prison, I asked myself, in all seriousness, “Who is going to benefit from this prison sentence? Drabinsky isn’t, nor are the people he defrauded. Nor is greater society. Then who?”

The answer is no one, of course. Just as no one will benefit from the prison sentences doled out to all the other criminals who stole money from their companies, their clients, their customers — including the highest profile Canadian among them, Conrad Black.

Which is not to say there shouldn’t be retribution. It seems that Conrad Black is showing himself, in prison, to be a gifted teacher. He’s enjoying it and learning humility and humanity while teaching people who have never had his vast advantages. Why shouldn’t he have been sentenced to that? To have been sent to a community where he’s needed, to live among the people there, to work for minimum wage at a job that will produce positives, not negatives, in all directions?

Conrad Black and Garth Drabinsky are the privileged and white-collar versions of the petty criminal we deal with on a daily basis.

The young man who robbed me grew up in a large chaotic family in the North End of Halifax. My husband’s aunt is a retired teacher who taught him and remembers the whole family. The parents in that family did — as all parents do — the best they could given the resources, both personal and monetary, they had to work with. But the children had little structure and no disciplined direction to shape their behaviour. The attractions of street culture, with its dangerous underside, seem much more attractive under those circumstances.

We failed that boy long before he robbed my house — and all the other houses. We’ve known for so long the significance of early childhood development and its importance in influencing “everything from behaviour to mental and physical health” — according to Dr. Fraser Mustard, who did ground-breaking research on the subject years ago.

Starting with our young children is only a beginning — but an essential beginning. But we seem to have no imagination about how to deal with those who are already grown up and are offenders against the law. We pay lip service to rehabilitation but don’t really demand that the system follow through. In fact, often after a mob scene at a courthouse where an accused is being brought to trial (and which makes me turn cringing away from the TV), we are content to throw people into prison and never give them another thought. We treat people in prisons as less than animals, all the while making jokes about on one hand, the sexual violence inside and, on the other hand, the enviable life the prisoners are living in the entirely fictional lap of luxury .

It is an awful thing to lock up non-violent offenders, to feed their anger and nurture their alienation and minimize their humanity. They will, without doubt, find a community in prison and they will get out — and yes, they’re going to get out — much more dangerous than when they went in. This is so true that it’s pretty much a cliché and yet too many people put this certain knowledge aside and allow the Harper government to use misinformation and false assurances of security to push ahead with their tough-on-crime agenda.

A study has been done which looks carefully at the roadmap the government is following as it pursues its wrongheaded path. The report on this study is eye-opening and worth reading and I recommend it.

I would like to think there is another more compassionate and more effective way of dealing with lawbreakers.

(There is one more entry in the series, In pursuit of justice, and I will post the conclusion to those thoughts and observations a little later in the week. For today, December 6, 2009, I wanted to acknowledge the 20th anniversary of the murder of 14 women at École Polytechnique in Montreal.)

In 1989, I was writing a feminist column for The Daily News in Halifax. As I read those columns 20 years later, I am disheartened to find that too much has not changed, that many of the columns are as relevant today as they were when I wrote them.

Case in point: This column was first published on Sunday, December 10, 1989. The only changes I’ve made today are in square brackets or are added links.

On Thursday morning, distinguished lawyer and former MP George Cooper made a little joke on CBC Radio’s Information Morning. He was discussing the recent NDP leadership convention with host Don Connolly and panel mates Dale Godsoe and Ray Larkin when he decided to use a colourful comparison to express his opinion about some aspect of the race.

It’s a good news/bad news sort of situation, he said, like that old joke about your mother-in-law driving over a cliff — trouble is, she was in your brand new Cadillac at the time. I believe I detected some laughter from the others and I’d be interested to know whether the CBC switchboard lit up with outraged callers, the way it does when someone says a rude word on the air. Somehow I doubt it.

In my household, we sat in stunned disbelief, hearing a joke which would be in poor taste at the best of times but was absolutely scandalous being told and snickered at the morning after the murder of 14 women at the University of Montreal.

It wasn’t the only joke being told that day. Francine Pelletier, a Montreal feminist who was interviewed extensively on the TV coverage of the murders, said that men in the corridors at Radio-Canada were treating the massacre in a most light-hearted way, one of them remarking, “I’ve often wanted to do that myself.”

At around the same time, a young friend of mine was walking into Tim Horton’s to buy some doughnuts. There were two men in front of her carrying a newspaper with a screaming headline about the murdered women and one of the men said something along the lines of, “way to go, buddy.”

Her friends asked her how she handled this awful moment; most of them felt, bravely, that they wished they’d been there. In retrospect, we can all come up with the enviable line, the cutting quip, the perfect putdown.

She said nothing, of course. There are few women — including me — who could respond to those men. Such verbal violence is part of what renders women powerless, unable to act, not so much from fear as from emptiness, from the debilitation that results from crying out for so long and not being heard.

I’ve been told so often — all feminists have — to lighten up, to learn to take a joke. They don’t really mean anything by it, you know. This week, finally, I’ve been told by men — among others, by Peter Gzowski [the late host of CBC Radio's Morningside] and his panel on the radio, by Tom Regan [a former columnist with The Daily News] on the phone, by my husband at home — that it is time for them to do something about their violent brothers.

They know now that they must begin listening to women and they must refuse — loudly — to listen to the dehumanizing “jokes” that so many of them allow to slip by. They must disdain the views of those who keep saying that the carnage in Montreal was an isolated act carried out by a madman.

They must examine and be willing to change their political, economic and judicial systems, all of which conspire to keep women in positions of dependence. They must observe their sons — their vocabularies, the games they play, the way they’re learning to deal with anger, the things they say about little girls. They must stop undermining the mothers and, once and for all, lay to rest that age-old excuse that “boys will be boys.”

They must not simply be available to provide protection; they must work actively to create a safer world, where their sisters and daughters and mothers can live with the same sense of security that brothers, sons and fathers take for granted. They must recognize and acknowledge that the 14 women in Montreal are only the most recent to die at the hands of a man, that in 1987, almost 70 per cent of women murdered in our country were murdered by the men they lived with.

One of the buttons we brought back from the Winnipeg NDP convention — where I saw the joy and exhilaration on the faces of the women who had worked to elect Audrey McLaughlin as their leader — bears the slogan “Men of quality are not threatened by women seeking equality.” The words seem almost horrible in their irony this week but the message remains true.

And so it’s time to take another step forward, to convince men that violence against women is the fault of men and — to resurrect an old phrase — if they’re not part of the solution, they’re part of the problem.

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