Annie, Don’t Get Your Gun

Gun control in the United States is one of those issues that, as a Canadian, I almost feel uncomfortable commenting on. It’s not my country, and so I understand that I don’t really have any say on what happens inside it. That’s up to American citizens to work out together. However, this doesn’t mean that I don’t care. I have many American friends, and I care about their safety. Also, I’m a human being, and a parent. When I hear news of mass shootings, I’m every bit as devastated regardless of what country they occur in.

When I watched Bowling for Columbine I was surprised by Michael Moore’s assertion that gun ownership rates are similar in Canada and the US. It contradicted my preconceptions, and I doubted it. I decided to do some digging of my own. On Wikipedia I found a list of countries by per capita gun ownership. On that list, the US is first with 89 guns per 100 people, and Canada is thirteenth (behind Switzerland and Finland, among others), with 31 guns per 100 people. NBC News says that there were 310 million guns for 314 million Americans in 2009, which is about 99 guns per 100 people. The National Post says that in 2010 there were 7.6 million guns in Canada, when the approximate population was 34.1 million. That’s about 22 guns per 100 people.

It seems clear that Canadians own fewer guns than Americans. Even if we didn’t, though, there are other significant differences between the two countries. Of the 310 million firearms in the US in 2009, 114 million were handguns. In contrast, handguns are tightly controlled in Canada. As restricted weapons, owners must have a special license, above and beyond the license that any gun owner must possess. In order to transport a handgun, you need authorization, and the gun must be unloaded and stored in a secure case. Carrying a concealed weapon is simply not allowed. As a result, the rates of handgun ownership are much lower on my side of the border.

gun control canada vs. united states

In order to own any type of gun in Canada, you must go through background checks and safety training to get a license. You need this license in order to purchase ammunition. Restricted and prohibited weapons require additional licensing, and the guns themselves must be registered. While you can own a gun in Canada, and I have family members who do, there are real controls in place. I wouldn’t say that Canadians are all on the same page about this, but I would say that most of us agree that the need for public safety outweighs any individual’s desire to own a firearm. And, since our constitution does not protect our right to bear arms, the result is that we have nationwide restrictions on who may own a gun, what type of gun they may own, and where and how they may carry it.

Canadian gun control laws do not make me feel as if my liberty is being infringed upon. On the contrary, the knowledge that the people I encounter on a daily basis are not likely to be armed makes me feel more free. For me, it’s similar to imposing car safety laws. I don’t think my freedom is impinged upon when I buckle up, or when I strap my children into their car seats. I feel safer, and therefore less afraid. Freedom from fear is more important to me than individual liberty at all costs. And, in the case of both gun laws and seat belt laws, I’m safer because of the controls.

The statistics support my belief that gun control laws lead to greater public safety. Deaths by firearm are almost 80% lower in Canada than the US on a per capita basis. The homicide rate is three times higher in the US than Canada. Rates of rape, robbery and assault are also higher in the US. The idea that I am somehow less safe because I’m not armed doesn’t hold up.

gun control canada vs. united states

Certainly, there are a number of factors at play here, beyond gun laws and gun ownership rates. There are cultural differences, socio-economic factors, and a whole lot of other things that influence crime rates. Although I should point out that Canadians watch the same TV shows and movies, and play the same video games, as their American neighbours. What’s more, we’ve had mass shootings in Canada, too. There’s no such thing as perfect safety, regardless of where you live. And yet, if we can bring more safety even as popular media glorifies gun violence, isn’t that worth investigating?

While I recognize that there is some complexity around guns and gun violence, in my mind it’s pretty clear that the NRA’s executive vice president was wrong when he said, “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” Gun control laws, when they’re enforced, make us safer. Arming more civilians does not, statistically speaking. I believe that the difference in gun laws explains the difference in rates of gun violence between Canada and the US, at least in part. As a result, I’m glad to see that there is now a real conversation about guns happening in America.

As I wrote at the outset, it saddens me when people die. It saddens me even more when I believe that, with some well thought-out laws, it would be less likely to happen. This is why, in spite of the fact that I’m not an American, I continue to hold a strong opinion about the gun control debate. Too many people have died already.

Repost: Podcast on Facebook and Breastfeeding

I’m re-sharing this episode of the Podcast. My friend Gina Crosley-Corcoran (a.k.a. The Feminist Breeder) recently had her breastfeeding photos removed and her account suspended by Facebook, and I’d like to shine a light on this issue again.

Over the years there have been countless stories about mothers having their breastfeeding images removed from Facebook. In some cases, mothers even had their accounts deleted. Over three years ago, in December, 2008, I myself participated in a virtual “nurse-in”. I updated my own profile photo to an image of myself breastfeeding my daughter Hannah and changed my status to say, “Hey, Facebook, breastfeeding is not obscene!” And yet, in spite of the outcry, new stories continue to crop up all the time.

Facebook Breastfeeding Emma KwasnicaEmma Kwasnica lives here in Vancouver, and she herself has had a number of photos removed from the social networking site. She’s also had her account de-activated. Finally, it reached the point where she had enough, and she went public with her story. Media coverage followed, and as it did, Facebook took notice. They held a conference call with Emma, and issued statements underscoring the fact that they welcome breastfeeding photos on Facebook. In part, their policy regarding images depicting breastfeeding reads:

We agree that breastfeeding is natural and beautiful…Photos that show a fully exposed breast where the child is not actively engaged in nursing do violate Facebook’s Statement of Rights and Responsibilities.

The problem, according to Emma (and other mothers whose images have been removed), is that Facebook sometimes removes photos that do not show an exposed nipple that is not engaged in breastfeeding, and which therefore comply with the site’s policy. It has also locked mothers out of their own accounts without warning or recourse. Emma is trying to stop that from happening. She wants Facebook to follow its own rules and regulations. Breastfeeding is not an obscene act, and the Facebook policy agrees. It should be applied properly, and it should be applied in the same way for all users. The question of whether or not an image is obscene should not depend on whether someone else decides to flag your photo or not, and it also should not depend on who happens to be evaluating a complaint on any given day. To reinforce this message, a Facebook page called FB! Stop harassing Emma Kwasnica over her breastfeeding pics was started.

Like Emma Kwasnica, I’m one of the one billion Facebook users worldwide. The odds are pretty good that you are, too. Facebook depends on us for its livelihood. It might be free to sign up, but our presence allows them to sell ads, which make them a lot of money. We have power in this relationship to make our voices heard. To get started, listen to my conversation with Emma, find out how she’s working to ensure Facebook plays by its out rules, and learn how you can take action:

I’m working on an interview for next week at the moment. No matter what happens, I promise I’ll be sharing something worth listening to, so please tune in. Or subscribe to the podcast in iTunes, and you won’t miss a minute! Also, if you have a podcast idea, please share it with me. I’d love to hear your suggestions!

The History of Circumcision

I am the mother of a son, and many of my close friends and family members are also parents of little boys. If you are one, too, you know that one of the first questions that comes up when you give birth to a boy is whether or not you’re going to have him circumcised. After considering it, our family decided not to. Our religious tradition does not require it, and after reviewing the current medical literature on the subject, which no longer routinely recommends circumcision, we opted against it. However, I do recognize that this is the decision we made for our family. Many people in my circle made a different decision, and I’m not writing here to pass judgment on you either way.

There’s something about circumcision that I find interesting, all the same. It’s still very commonly practiced here in North America (current estimates are that about one third of Canadian boys, and slightly more than half of US boys, are circumcised). In contrast, in most European countries, the rate is well under 20%. In the UK the rate for children under 15 is around 3.8%, and in Denmark it’s 1.6%. So why the difference? Why do we still routinely circumcise a large number of baby boys on this side of the pond, when it’s fallen so far out of favour on the other?

It's a boy!
When we found out we were having a boy, we had to make a decision about circumcision

For the answer, you need to look at the history of circumcision. Throughout the 17th, 18th and most of the 19th centuries, circumcision was rare in North America. There are a few factors that combined to cause Americans to consider circumcision not so much a cultural practice as a medical necessity. One of the first shifts is often credited to Dr. Lewis Sayre, who, in 1870, apparently cured a child’s paralysis by circumcising him. He became convinced that a constriction of the foreskin could cause all kinds of problems, and he lectured widely on the subject. Many other doctors became convinced as well, and within 20 years the foreskin was blamed for a wide variety of medical problems, including insomnia, chronic indigestion, rheumatism, epilepsy, asthma, bedwetting, insanity and cancer.

The Victorians were also big on cleanliness, and as germ theory caught on, circumcision also became more popular. The idea was that by removing the foreskin it would be easier to keep the penis clean, and therefore it was good for the health. Plus, with increasing cleanliness on the part of doctors, there were fewer complications from the procedure.

However, the argument for circumcision that seems by far the most bizarre to most people today, including me, comes out of puritanical Victorian ideas towards sex. There was a widespread belief that masturbation could lead to masturbatory insanity. The idea was that circumcision could provide a cure. John Harvey Kellogg, of corn flakes fame, was one big proponent, and he advocated that the procedure be performed without using an anesthetic. The idea was that the pain, both from the immediate procedure and then afterward as the wound healed, would put an end to any ideas that a boy might have.

Teeny tiny little toes
After Jacob was born, I was glad to not have to deal with circumcision

Many of the same factors that caused circumcision to catch on here in North America were also present throughout the English-speaking world. While circumcision never really caught on in Continental Europe (hence the extremely low rates in countries like Denmark), it was routinely practiced in the United Kingdom. So why are the rates so different today? In 1949, the newly-formed National Health Service removed circumcision from its list of covered procedures in the UK, following a study by Douglas Gairdner. Here in Canada, the health care system didn’t follow suit for some 45+ years. British Columbia was the first province to stop covering circumcision, in 1984. The last Canadian province to stop covering the procedure was Manitoba, which only removed it in 2005.

I don’t know what things are like in the UK, but as a Canadian who is used to having all my medical procedures fully covered, the idea of paying several hundred dollars out-of-pocket for a medical procedure feels foreign to me. While I do pay some monthly medical insurance costs, those are low, and I never have to pay anything beyond that to access medical care. Whether I’m having a baby, rushing to emergency room, or visiting my doctor, it’s all covered. I suspect that the fact that circumcision isn’t covered has contributed to the lower rates in the UK, and the dropping rates in Canada. In the US, where paying for medical care is the norm, I would expect that this would be less of a factor. That’s only my guess, though.

I’m happy to say that my son hasn’t had any problems, and I don’t regret our decision not to have him circumcised at all. It was the right choice for our family. While everyone else has to make the decision for themselves, it’s interesting to me to see how geographical and historical factors have impacted that decision, and will undoubtedly continue to impact it for as long as people are having baby boys.

Environmentalism and Identity

It’s Enviro-Mama Thursday here on, and today I’m thinking about environmentalism and identity.

I am a sucker for certain kinds of products. Wooden toys. Handmade items – especially if they’re made locally, or I know something about the person making them. Stainless steel straws. Sweatshop-free clothing made with eco-friendly fabrics. In short, all the kinds of things you would expect a crunchy granola mom such as myself to enjoy buying. And when I buy something new and sort of expensive, my husband can’t resist pointing out that I’m paying extra because it says something about my identity. When I choose wooden toys for my kids, for instance, I’m not just buying them because I like them, but because I want to be the sort of mother whose children play with natural, open-ended, wooden toys.

Wearing my linen jacket in November because I am a rebel
My sweatshop-free, made in Vancouver, eco-friendly linen jacket

My husband isn’t wrong. The truth is that many of our buying decisions focus around our identity. Think about computers, for instance. Apple has become amazingly successful, in part, because their customers base part of their identity around that brand. I say this without malice as someone who is totally addicted to my iPhone. Still other people base part of their identity around their insistence that they will never buy any Apple product. I say that without malice as a dedicated PC user. There are a whole lot of products that we consume because we identify with the brand, or we want to be the sort of person who uses this thing. Cars. Exercise equipment. Free trade coffee.

This kind of identity-based decision making has implications in a whole lot of areas. For instance, there was once a time when a significant majority of adults smoked. Now a very small minority of people smoke. In part, of course, the change is due to increasing knowledge about the negative health effects of smoking. But I would argue that an even bigger part of it is how we view smoking, and how it impacts our decision about whether or not we want to be smokers. At some point, the peer pressure to do something, or not do something, becomes great enough that we all change our behaviour.

Mom and Jacob
Cementing my hippie mama identity by babywearing at the farmers’ market

Identity-based decision making also has implications for the environmental movement. Do you consider yourself an environmentalist? Apparently, you’re more or less likely to answer yes depending on your education level and where you live, independent of your own individual personality. If you live in a community where everybody recycles and composts and takes transit, you’re more likely to do the same thing. If you live in a community where nobody recycles or composts or takes transit, you’re less likely to do those things yourself.

The World Wildlife Fund produced a book called Meeting Environmental Challenges: The Role of Human Identity. In it, they discuss the two main strategies the environmental movement uses to create change: engaging governments, businesses and other groups; encouraging individuals to change their behaviour. However, they argue that the most effective way of creating change may be a third way: identity campaigning. The idea is to focus on the aspects of an individual’s identity that lead them to advocate for greater change or engage in green behaviour themselves. In short, they want to help us come to think of ourselves as environmentalists, for the sake of the planet.

Working on a Halloween costume
I want to be the sort of person who sews stuff for my kids

I am not launching an identity campaign. However, it occurs to me that whenever we make changes, we’re adding to the momentum of the movement. As more and more people refuse to buy toxic cleaning products, for example, the more awareness is raised and the more alternatives become available. We start thinking of ourselves as the sorts of people who don’t use toxins in our homes. The same thing happens when we talk about the farmers’ market, and our friends decide to check it out. We’re creating a shift in identity, which creates a shift in behaviour.

I love the idea of voting with my dollars when I’m buying food, or anything else. But this is more like voting with my behaviour. I’m changing my identity, and the more people who join me, the more the change will spread. That makes me feel hopeful, which is important when you consider all the environmental problems we’re facing. We can use all the hope we can get.

Election Night Bingo

I’m writing this post on the day it will be published, which is unusual for me. But last night was election night in the US, and I was glued to my TV watching the coverage. I couldn’t tear myself away to write. It was the culmination of months – no, years – spent watching The Daily Show, reading The New York Times, and just generally taking interest in how politics functions in the US. What are the latest returns in Florida? Have they projected a winner in Ohio yet? When will Obama give his victory speech? I had to see it all.

As I watched, I heard a number of phrases repeated over and over. I am far too straight-laced to participate in an election night drinking game, but there would have been ample opportunity to become completely inebriated. It seems that election coverage follows a very predictable pattern, and with hours and hours of airtime to fill, and new people tuning in all the time who need updates, it’s no surprise that it can get a little bit repetitive.

election night 2012

Election Night Bingo

After last night, I’ve identified a few phrases that would make for an excellent game of Election Night Bingo. I may save them for 2016:

  • Let’s look at the big map.
  • Too close to call.
  • It’s all about Ohio.
  • Let’s go county-by-county.
  • Steel belt.
  • We have a reporter on the ground in [insert name of county where nothing is actually happening]. Let’s go there and find out what’s happening.
  • Red state.
  • Blue state.
  • Demographics.
  • Let’s compare that to 2008 / 2004 / 2000.
  • Reports of long line-ups.
  • Exit polls.
  • We’re just seconds away from another projection.
  • It’s not over yet. and/or There are a lot of votes left to count.
  • Immigration.
  • Health care reform.
  • The women’s vote.
  • The African American vote.
  • Stronghold.
  • Battleground.
  • Electoral college.
  • Popular vote.

I could literally go on all day. But I’ll stop, before the election night flashbacks get too bad.

What about you? Did you watch the election coverage last night? What words or phrases would you add to my bingo sheet?

Casting a Vote for Hope

Today, as anyone who lives within earshot of a television likely knows, is Election Day in the US. And it’s not just any Election Day – it’s a Presidential Election Day. While my fellow Canadians and I either watch with interest or do our best to ignore it, our neighbours to the south are choosing the next leader of the free world.

As an outside observer, I have a number of opinions on the US electoral system. Like, say, the Electoral College. What’s up with that? But mostly, I choose to see hope. I’ve watched my friends as they write about the election on their blogs, tweet about the issues, post on Facebook and take Instagram photos of political signs and slogans. What I see are people who care. People who are engaged in the process, and working to make a difference.

Voting can easily feel like a futile act, when you’re one of tens of millions of people casting a ballot. While there are those examples of elections that were lost or won by the thinnest of margins, the reality is that most of the time, any one person’s vote doesn’t make a huge difference. It’s even more stark when you’re casting a vote that you know will not be on the winning side. Why drag yourself down to the polling place to stand in line and then lose? Wouldn’t it be easier to just order in pizza and set yourself up with a Harry Potter marathon?

voting election day hope

And yet, people vote. In the United States, in Canada, and all over the world, people vote, sometimes risking their own personal safety to do so. We show up, and we mark our ballots, in an act that is simultaneously miniscule and deeply profound. We do it because we refuse to surrender our voices. We do it because we know that together, we can make a difference. We do it because we believe that participating in a democracy matters.

Tonight, I will be one of the Canadians who is glued to my TV, eagerly watching the returns come in. Like every election that I have watched, I know that this one will move me to tears. The thrill of victory and agony of defeat are laid out in stark relief. But mostly, I will be crying tears of hope at the wonder of countless people of all kinds, giving up their time and showing up to vote. I may not agree with all of their political views, and we may not support the same candidates. But in a polling booth, everyone is equal, everyone matters, and everyone is working together to create a government. You don’t have to see eye-to-eye to see how amazing that is.

So, please, if you are one of my American friends, take the time to be hopeful and vote. It will be the very best thing you could do with your day.

Amanda Todd, Anonymous, and Maternal Rage

It’s rare for me to feel as fired up as I do right now about a blog post. I’m going to try to cogently lay out my feelings about the Amanda Todd suicide – an event that happened in my own backyard. I’m not sure I have a whole lot to offer to the discussion. As a child I wasn’t bullied, and I don’t believe I acted as a bully. I’m not an expert on bullying or cyber-stalking, and I’m not an educator. But I am a parent. As someone who’s trying to sort it all out, I feel a strong need to talk about it all in this space. I hope you’ll take the time to join in and share your thoughts as I share mine.

Amanda Todd’s story has hit close to home for me. If you don’t follow the news (and I wouldn’t blame you), I’ll give you a brief synopsis. One week ago, on October 10, 2012, the 15-year-old girl took her own life. She was driven to this following years of bullying, online and in real life. In September she posted a video to YouTube, which tells her story. I was only able to get through half of it, before I was crying too much to continue. It explains how one brief event, which she viewed as a mistake, led to years of stalking, even as she moved schools.

Amanda Todd attended school in the same district as my own children. The high school she was last enrolled at is about 10 minutes from my house by car. I’m sure that I know someone who knew her, or who knows a member of her family. The proximity, if nothing else, has only driven home the point that no one is immune. This could happen to one of the girls in my daughter’s class, if not my daughter herself. By the same token, any of the kids I see at drop-off and pick-up every day could engage in bullying behaviour, and likely at least some of them will during their school careers. Both of those roles carry a lifelong burden. That’s sobering and scary to me as a parent.

Anti-Bullying Artwork
Photo Credit: artworksbytb on Flickr

I don’t know what could have been done to prevent Amanda Todd’s bullying and suicide. I believe bullying is a complex issue, with no single clear-cut answer. Of course, I speak with my children about bullying, and do my best to teach them to be kind and caring individuals. I know there are programs in place in schools, and I’ve watched teachers respond to name-calling and hitting. I think they’re doing the very best they can. Could they do better? I’m sure they could always do better – but they need tools and resources and community support. Parents do as well. There’s no single person or organization that we can point the finger of blame at in this situation.

Having said all of that, when I heard yesterday on the radio that Anonymous had outed the man who was allegedly Amanda Todd’s stalker and primary tormenter, I reacted strongly. The person Anonymous named is a 30-year-old who lives in a community that neighbours mine. The story is that he coaxed Amanda to flash her breasts on a webcam, then contacted her later and threatened to publicly expose her if she didn’t ‘give him a show’. When she didn’t comply he used Facebook to share images with her classmates at several schools. He threatened her physically and shamed her publicly, and her classmates joined in. While the identity of the individual is still in question, the events are not – this is what someone did to Amanda Todd. Once again, a young woman is sexually victimized, and she faces the blame for it.

Obviously, I have no way of knowing if Anonymous is right about this guy. But let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that they are. By all accounts they’re kind of good at this. Plus, my reaction upon hearing the radio story came from the place of imagining it to be true. When I heard it, my heart caught in my throat and I was angry. This is an adult man. He preyed on and tormented a young girl. He posted images that could only be called child pornography. This makes him not just a bully, but a criminal on several counts.

Photo Credit: Dan Morrill on Flickr

I am what you would call a bleeding heart liberal. I believe there are complex economic and social factors behind most crimes. You won’t generally find me advocating in favour of tougher sentencing or bigger jails. I also don’t believe that vigilantism is an appropriate response to crime. As a society, we need the protections and framework of the law and the justice system. We need to honour everyone’s rights, not so much because criminals deserve it, but because if we expect our own rights to be honoured we must not violate those of others. You won’t see me going after the alleged perpetrator online.

In spite of my bleeding heart tendencies, this time I can’t make the case for mercy. This time the mama bear inside of me is angry, and I am filled with maternal rage. When you start preying on children, I lose my capacity for sympathy. I want not just justice, but vengeance. It’s not mine to give, but I can’t express in words how furious I am to think about what this man allegedly did. If he is in fact the person who stalked and tormented Amanda Todd I don’t want him walking the same streets as my children – or anyone’s children. Whoever did this must not be allowed to hurt anyone like this ever again. I hope that the justice system prevails, and the culprit is found, whether it’s the man that Anonymous pinpointed or someone else.

When I became a parent, I was forever changed. One of the ways that I changed has to do with the way I view crimes against children. While I’ve always found them horrifying, now I find them enraging. My conciliatory nature evaporates, and I want someone not just to pay for what they did, but to suffer for it. I think not only about the child in question, but about that child’s family. Amanda Todd had a mother, and she will never be the same again. On her behalf I am angry, and I am sad. But mostly I hope against hope that we can do better next time. I think we’ve all had enough pain already, and I want it to end. I know that’s a tall order, but it’s what I’m pulling for. I don’t want to spend any more time shaking as I listen to the radio my car, filled with all the maternal rage I can hold.

Do you find that your reaction to certain crimes has changed since you had children of your own? How do you talk about bullying with your own children? And how has the Amanda Todd case impacted you?

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