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Victories give CEDAW hope in improving women’s lives November 11, 2011

Posted by Dominique Millette in development assistance, NGOs, United Nations, women's issues.
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The UN is often derided as a slow and ineffective animal. However, women’s rights expert Shanthi Dairiam had a message to deliver her audience at the George Ignatieff Theatre on November 10th : all over the world, from the grassroots up, women have come forward and used the multilateral institution as a tool to pressure their governments. “Since 1945, the UN has become the unlikely grandmother of women’s rights,” she observed.

In 1993, the activist founded the International Women’s Rights Action Watch Asia Pacific, an NGO based in Malaysia which monitors the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). She was a CEDAW committee member from 2005-08.

Among the successes Dairiam cited was that of Nepal. In 2002, the passage of the 11th Amendment of the Civil Code there granted women the long-denied right to property, divorce rights, the right to abortion and greater punishments for polygamy and rape. Meanwhile, in 2008, Morocco officially lifted its reservations against the Convention, which it had ratified in 1993. Legislation in Morocco had been updated to become more progressive in 2003.

Individual suits against flawed legislation have also benefited from CEDAW committees’ Concluding Observations. In Japan, nine women working for Sumitomo applied for mediation, claiming a pay difference with male employees with the same educational backgrounds and years in employment. They had to resort to court action. The plaintiffs used CEDAW recommendations provided to them in 2003. CEDAW then examined the Japanese government report and eventually, the judge referred to CEDAW recommendations on prohibiting indirect discrimination. The plaintiffs won their case. In doing so, they and CEDAW created an international precedent.

Of course, not all victories are clear cut and as wide-ranging as the parties concerned would prefer. With 187 countries having ratified the Convention and having to be monitored on an ongoing basis, “it is well-nigh impossible to be rigorous about monitoring,” conceded Dairiam.  Ratifying countries must report every four years. Women’s groups come as delegations to present their findings and point out areas for improvement. “Non-governmental and civil society activism… is crucial to the domestic implementation of human rights,” the lecturer stated.

There are many barriers to implementation, one of which is the “cultural” defence, for practices ranging from female genital mutilation to polygamy: “Some governments argue it’s impossible to eliminate discrimination because of culture… (but) you can condemn it, if you can’t eliminate it. Condemnation is very important. It sets the tone for the rest of the work.”

Another barrier is access to equality. This is where Canada has failed in its own obligations and has done nothing since receiving CEDAW’s Concluding Observation, centring on access to social services as a way out of poverty, which disproportionately hits women. The same can be said about the issue of part-time work around the developed world: women occupy over 90 per cent of part-time positions, without benefits, sick leave or hope of promotion. Canada’s response to CEDAW critiques of its social services distribution was to point to its federal decentralization. This defense could not be used to explain the second area of concern CEDAW pointed out – the failure of the Canadian government to properly investigate the disappearance and murder of hundreds of aboriginal women.

Shanthi Dairiam spoke at the George Ignatieff Theatre to deliver the 14th Annual Dame Nita Barrow Lecture, presented by the Centre for Women’s Studies in Education with support from the International Development Research Centre.

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Whether we can solve a problem like Afghanistan November 10, 2011

Posted by Dominique Millette in Asia, Canadian development policy, development assistance, NATO, Peacekeeping, South Asia, war.
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A former ambassador to Canada insists life has improved in his country since the NATO invasion. Can it be rebuilt – and if so, at what cost?

Remembrance Day this year will be cause for reflection perhaps even more than usual in our country. Canadian troops may have pulled out of Afghanistan, but no one is about to forget their contribution there – and Canada’s continued involvement in the country – any time soon.

Of the armed forces sent there, 158 returned in body bags. Defense spending alone has totaled at least $8 B, with some estimates placing it at up to $16 B. Meanwhile, Canada spent an average of $150 M a year for development assistance during its military deployment, with a high of 280 million dollars in 2007-2008. That amount was set to drop to $100 M per year from 2011 to 2014.

Did any of it make any difference?

According to one Afghan former official: absolutely. On November 8th, the Munk School of Global Affairs invited former External Affairs and Defense Minister William Graham to converse with former Afghan ambassador to Canada Omar Samad. Mr. Samad speaks with the zeal of the faithful, even though his diplomatic obligations are now behind him after a stint in France. “I do not consider the Canadian mission as a failure… Afghanistan today is a far better place than it was 10 years ago,” he insisted.

When Graham spoke of the disagreements he had in Cabinet with the minister responsible for development at the time, given the uncertainty of financial aid getting to where it was directed, Samad acknowledged that “corruption has become endemic, unfortunately… There was mismanagement of aid. We didn’t know how to prioritize it, or how to coordinate aid.” However, he stated that GNP and GDP in Afghanistan have quadrupled in the last ten years, while revenue collection has gone from zero under the Taliban to $2 B in the past year.

Several sources confirm the country’s rapid growth in the past decade. However, cynics might be forgiven for pointing out that the exponential increase started from a very low point; Afghanistan today remains one of the poorest countries in the world, with a per-capita GDP of $900 U.S. and a life expectancy of 45 years. The literacy rate, meanwhile, is 28 per cent – for women, only 12.6 per cent.

Does the drop in aid corresponding to Canadian troop withdrawal signal Canadian disengagement from Afghanistan altogether? To Samad, “I personally think it was a huge mistake to give an end date. It should be phrased differently… A defeatist mentality doesn’t help us. It helps the other side.”

What incentives does Canada have to continue to care? Geopolitics, for one: Afghanistan is at the crossroads of several strategic states. It shares a border with nuclear-capable Pakistan, Iran, several Central Asian republics such as oil-rich Uzbekistan, and China. To some, it also shares a border with India through Jammu and Kashmir. India’s interest in the country has also been expressed in a recent $500 M aid pledge. Meanwhile, China is the biggest investor in Afghanistan, but “wants stability first”, explains Samad.

As it stands, Samad makes a convincing case for continuing aid to Afghanistan and keeping an eye on the region. The question, now as before, is how – and how much.

Has Canada missed the trade boat to China, or is it mindful of the reefs? October 19, 2011

Posted by Dominique Millette in Asia, China, exports, foreign investment, international trade, trade issues, world economy.
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China will soon lead the world in economic output, yet Canada’s exports to it in 2010 only totalled $13.2 billion. The U.S. remains our largest trading partner, absorbing 74.9 per cent of all our exports, for a total of $299.1 billion. By way of comparison, in 2009, total merchandise exports from Australia to China were valued at A$42.4 billion, an increase of 31.2 per cent over the previous year. Australia’s population is 22,546,300 and the Australian dollar is worth about $1.05 CAD.

So: why does Canadian industry seem such a reluctant bride, or bridegroom?

On the one hand, as of this year, China’s economy is second only to that of the U.S., and appears poised to overtake it within 20 years at the most. Its billion-plus population makes it the biggest consumer market in the world for cars and energy, as it opens up to every other good available in the West. China also consumes enormous amounts of natural resources for its industries; it’s now the world’s biggest consumer of iron ore, steel, cement and copper. As a result of its newfound clout, China now leads in the G20 and is gaining influence in resource-rich Africa, observes Huhua Cao, an urban geography expert at the University of Ottawa.

On the other hand, the lack of formal, independent legal protection for investors and the fusion of the judiciary with the political branch of government create a lack of impartial recourse in case of dubious dealings, whether for trade or investment. And disputes there have been, observes Charles Burton, a Brock University Associate Professor specializing in Canada-China relations. Amongst other problems, he cites the potential for fraud, lack of regulatory enforcement and of intellectual property rights, and corruption. “Canadians don’t feel their contracts will be honoured,” Professor Burton proffers as an explanation for the still-low level of Canadian investment in China despite its booming growth. There have been ongoing negotiations between Canada and China since 1994, he states, but “there’s little incentive for China to implement such changes.” The slow approach to China on the part of Canadians may be a reflection of prudence.

Then, of course, there is the human rights question and Canada’s response to Tiananmen Square and other abuses, which echoed that of every other Western country. Economic, cultural and political relations between the two countries were abruptly suspended. Since then, Chinese officials have made no secret of their irritation at Canadian attempts to lecture them on rights issues. The Consul General in Toronto, Chen Ligang, compares relations to “a bird”. The head is “political trust” and the wings, trade and cultural exchange. “Political trust is essential,” he asserts. What this trust can bring, or take away, is not difficult to extrapolate.

Another roadblock to trade, and to any negotiations surrounding it, is the language barrier. In this respect, the immigrant population has a key role to play in bridging the differences between the two economies, argues labour and industry specialist Tony Fang, a York University Associate Professor.

Professor Fang disagrees with the blanket condemnation of Chinese business practices, calling it “an overemphasis on isolated cases.” He further points out that China has only integrated itself into the global economy since 1978, the year Chairman Mao died and Deng Xiaoping announced the end of economic socialism.

Professors Cao, Burton and Fang were three of the four panelists invited as part of the launch of The China Challenge: Sino-Canadian Relations in the 21st Century. Senator Vivienne Poy and Professor Cao coedited this collection of essays from Canadian scholars, policy-makers and industry spokespersons. Held at the University of Toronto’s Richard Charles Lee Canada-Hong Kong Library, the launch additionally featured Professor Louis Pauly, a scholar of international and comparative political economy, as a panelist. The Consul General in Toronto was also an invited speaker. Sponsors included the University of Toronto Libraries, the York Centre for Asian Research and the Asian Institute.

Missed opportunities or not, one thing Canada and China have in common is their emergence from the financial crisis relatively unscathed. Yuen Pau Woo’s essay, “Canada and China after the Global Financial Crisis,” notes that Chinese relative power on the global stage has grown as a result of the American meltdown. However, it states “Canada’s relative resilience during the economic crisis has not gone unnoticed in China. For a change, we are seen by the Chinese as a bastion of financial stability and not just as a vast source of natural resources.”

Canada, Germany and the Eurozone crisis October 8, 2011

Posted by Dominique Millette in Euro-Canadian relations, fiscal and monetary issues, translatlantic relations.
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Within the stormy seas of international economic interdependence, Canada has stood out as a beacon of stability in contrast to the EU and the U.S. Its unemployment rate is two percentage points below that of the American labour market after a more-than-hoped-for gain of 61,000 jobs in September of this year.

In the U.S., the gross debt is about 98% of GDP in 2011, at $14.7 trillion, while in Canada the number was 84 % in 2010. As one source explains it, the difference lies in Canada’s structural approach to debt reduction as a proportion of GDP, while the U.S. relied on tax revenue increases which could not be repeated.

The eurozone jobless rate, meanwhile, climbed to 10 per cent in August 2011, as the Greek debt-to-GDP ratio of 166 % threatened to bring down other EU economies.

Germany remains the locomotive of European growth, with an economy 500 times that of recent EU member Malta. With its population of 82 million, Germany outweighs the 10 million people total brought in by the five latest members. Several German officials within the European Central Bank (ECB) and within the Bundestag itself have voiced dissatisfaction at the need to bail out Greece and perhaps other failing economies.**

However, as visiting speaker Harald Leibrecht explained at the Munk Centre for International Studies on October 6, Germany has little choice but to agree to EU assistance. “We have to save Greece, I’m convinced of that”, he agreed, even at the cost of a haircut which some have estimated could be 60 % of existing bonds. Mr. Leibrecht is the Coordinator for Transatlantic Relations of the German government, as well as a member of the Bundestag. “This is uncharted territory for all of us,” he said, adding that German voters are “simply staggered by the billions of euros we are required to provide.”

He compared Greece to the Lehman Brothers, the U.S. financial institution belatedly recognized as “too big to fail”. However, one wonders whether the more apt comparison might not be Goldman Sachs, which was bailed out, to the tune of $12 billion and to the chagrin of many in the U.S. population.

“The EU is a strange club. You can become a member but there’s no way out,” mused Mr. Leibrecht, noting that European unity is nevertheless not in question. Going back to the DM would be “easy, but would not solve our problems”. In the case of Greece, which represents only 2 % of the EU economy but could spread contagion to others, “we can only decide between two evils,” he said. However, he observed that Greece has always been a strong part of Europe. As for the domino effect, the German representative argued on a more optimistic note that Portugal and Ireland “did their homework.”

Concerning world economic stability, “I know our discussions are followed closely here in Canada”, since a failure of the eurozone would affect the whole world, acknowledged Mr. Leibrecht. “Europeans admire that Canada is much less affected by the financial crisis than the EU and the U.S.”, he observed.

Indeed, our regulatory culture has helped our banking system avoid the worst of what hit both the American and European banks. Even though the four pillars of financial transactions – banks, trusts, insurance companies and brokers – went through deregulation at the ownership level in the 1980s, this did not have the same effect as the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act in the United States. In short, the Canadian financial sector remained conservative, with lower debt-to-asset ratios than its American counterparts.

What remains to be seen, of course, is to what point Canadian voices are genuinely heard at G20 and G8 summits and meetings. We have much to say. The key is to parlay words into collective action.

To Harald Leibrecht, Canada and the EU are closer to each other than any other partners on many positions, but have yet to make full use of this. “What I’m a bit anxious about is the way EU members internally and with North American partners are not taking decisions together.”


** Update: most recently, the Bundesbank has been reported as objecting to any haircut whatsoever for Greece.

Translators and interpreters help save lives. La traduction et l’interprétation au service de l’humanité. October 5, 2011

Posted by Dominique Millette in Canada, cultural industries, Disaster aid, Disaster zones, Language industries, NGOs.
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Whether in disaster zones or aiding NGOs carry out their crucial tasks, linguists play a crucial role in ensuring communication flows freely for those in distress.

To highlight this lesser-known aspect of the business, Glendon College in Toronto invited two guest speakers in honour of International Translation Day on September 28: Henry Dotterer, founder of the online translation agency Pro-Z and board member of Translators Without Borders; and Lola Bendana, president of the International Medical Interpreters Association (IMIA).

Two Canadians have founded or helped direct organizations to do just that. Lori Thicke, a Torontonian working in Paris, founded Translators Without Borders in 1993 after Doctors Without Borders (MSF) approached her for a quote. She decided to provide the humanitarian work for free. As Henry Dotterer tells it, MSF answered they had a budget to pay the work. Thicke replied that the money could be used to provide more vaccine, which was the subject of the work to be translated.

Since that time, TWB has attracted 678 volunteers to its database. Translators are screened through a rigorous testing process before they gain admission. After that, it’s up to the humanitarian organizations and volunteers to find each other and agree on projects. Amongst the NGOs served are Oxfam, MSF, Zafèn, the Make-A-Wish Foundation, Enfants du monde and GoodPlanet. After the earthquake in Haïti, volunteers helped translate documents on how to manage clinics where amputations are performed; and how to treat shock and trauma. TWB supports about 40 active clients. Its next mission: to expand into Africa and help build the translation industry there, for local languages as well as better-known ones.

Meanwhile, Lola Bendana, the Toronto-based president of the IMIA, helps coordinate efforts to reach out to disaster victims worldwide. The IMIA is an advocacy organization founded in 1986, representing 70 languages, 2,000 members and 11 countries and dedicated to professionalizing medical interpretation. A Glendon College English-Spanish translation programme graduate, Bendana usually opposes the idea of translators and interpreters working for nothing. However, humanitarian work is a crucial exception. Through its Disaster Relief Interpreter Database, the IMIA puts volunteer medical interpreters in touch with NGOs and other organization working in natural catastrophy zones.

The initiative was born from the Haïti earthquake in January 2010. For seven weeks, the Comfort Hospital Ship ministered to patients; however, the first volunteers were non-professionals who did not have any in-depth knowledge of medical terminology, which proved problematic. As a result, the Red Cross approached the IMIA for help. The earthquake and tsunami in Japan in March 2011 provided another unfortunate opportunity to lend assistance, as Japanase IMIA representative Kazumi Takesako organized a group of volunteer interpreters and reached out to translators as well. The latter were needed to help with documents concerning nuclear problems at the Fukushima plant. Takesako had vowed to prevent tragedies such as the case of a mother in a previous earthquake who lost her baby

Interpretation can be wrenching for other reasons. Bendana is of Nicaraguan origin and was studying in Costa Rica when she was sent to the border to assist Nicaraguan refugees. Her professors had advised all student interpreters to explain to the refugees they should lay out the political reasons for their asylum claims. However, the refugees would say they had trouble feeding their children. They feared being killed if they told the truth: not being allowed to work and having parcels of land confiscated, Bendana said.

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Que ce soit dans les zones de catastrophe ou en aidant les ONG à effectuer leurs tâches essentielles, les linguistes jouent un rôle indispensable au niveau de la libre communication entre les personnes en détresse et les organismes de sauvetage.

Afin de mieux faire connaître cet aspect de l’industrie, le Collège Glendon à Toronto a invité un conférencier et une conférencière à l’occasion de la Journée internationale de la traduction le 28 septembre : Henry Dotterer, fondateur de l’agence de traduction en ligne Pro-Z et membre du conseil de Traducteurs sans frontières; et Lola Bendana, présidente de l’association internationale des interprètes médicaux et médicales, la International Medical Interpreters Association (IMIA).

Deux Canadiennes ont soit fondé, soit aidé à diriger des organismes à faire exactement cela. Lori Thicke est Torontoise basée à Paris et a lancé Traducteurs sans frontières en 1993 après que Médecins sans frontières (MSF) l’ait approchée pour qu’elle leur fasse un prix. Elle a décidé plutôt de fournir le travail humanitaire gratuitement. Comme le raconte Henry Dotterer, MSF a répondu qu’on avait le budget pour le travail. Thicke a répondu que l’argent pourrait servir à fournir davantage de vaccins, le sujet même du travail à traduire.

Depuis, TSF a attiré 678 bénévoles à sa base de données. On évalue des traducteurs à l’aide d’un rigoureux processus d’examen, après quoi il en revient aux organismes humanitaires et aux bénévoles de se retrouver et de s’accorder sur les projets. Les ONG qui profitent du service comprennent Oxfam, MSF, Zafèn, la fondation Fais-Un-Vœu, Enfants du monde et GoodPlanet.  Suite au tremblement de terre d’Haïti, des bénévoles ont aidé à traduire des documents sur la gestion des cliniques où on effectuait des amputations; et sur le traitement du traumatisme et du trauma. TSF appuie environ 40 clients actifs. Son prochain défi est d’offrir davantage de services en Afrique et d’aider à y bâtir l’industrie de la traduction, tant pour les langues locales que pour celles qui sont mieux connues.

De son côté, Lola Bendana, la présidente torontoise de l’IMIA, aide à coordonner les efforts effectués pour rejoindre les victimes de catastrophes partout dans le monde. L’IMIA est un organisme de revendication, fondé en 1986, voué à la professionnalisation de l’interprétation médicale. Il regroupe 2 000 membres de 11 pays parlant 70 langues. Diplômée du programme de traduction de l’anglais vers l’espagnol du Collège Glendon, Bendana s’oppose habituellement à l’idée du travail gratuit pour les traducteurs et interprètes. Cependant, le travail humanitaire est une exception fondamentale. Par le biais de sa base de données d’interprètes pour le secours des personnes sinistrées, l’IMIA permet aux interprètes médicaux et médicales bénévoles de communiquer avec les ONG et autres organismes oeuvrant en zone sinistrée.

L’initiative est née du séisme haïtien de janvier 2010. Pendant sept semaines, le navire hospitalier Comfort a soigné les sinistrés; cependant, les premiers bénévoles n’avaient pas de formation professionnelle et ne connaissaient pas la terminologie médicale, ce qui a occasionné des ennuis. Donc, la Croix-Rouge a approché l’IMIA pour demander de l’aide. Le séisme et tsunami au Japon en mars 2011 a fourni une autre malheureuse occasion de prêter secours : la représentante japonaise de l’IMIA, Kazumi Takesako, a organisé un groupe d’interprètes bénévoles et a également demandé l’aide des traducteurs. Ces derniers étaient nécessaires à la traduction de documents concernant les problèmes nucléaires à l’installation de Fukushima. Takesako avait juré d’empêcher les tragédies futures semblables à celles d’une mère qui avait perdu son enfant au cours d’un séisme antérieur, parce que les secouristes ne voyaient pas le bébé et ne comprenaient pas ce qu’elle disait pour les avertir.

Le métier d’interprète peut s’avérer déchirant pour d’autres raisons. Bendana est nicaraguayenne d’origine et faisait ses études au Costa Rica lorsqu’elle a été envoyée à la frontière pour venir en aide aux réfugiés du Nicaragua. Ses professeurs avaient avisé tous les interprètes aux études d’expliquer aux réfugiés qu’ils devaient donner des raisons politiques pour leur demandes d’asile. Cependant, les réfugiés disaient qu’ils éprouvaient des difficultés à nourrir leurs enfants. Ils craignaient se faire tuer s’ils disaient la vérité : soit qu’on ne leur permettait pas de travailler et qu’on leur confisquait leurs lopins de terre, a dit Bendana.

TIFF and the political economy of Canadian film September 28, 2011

Posted by Dominique Millette in cultural industries, film and global distribution oligopolies.
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To many, the Toronto International Film Festival is now second only to Cannes in terms of importance and star power. It may in fact be gaining ground on its venerable French rival. The dizzying array of Hollywood mega-celebrities on hand each year appears a testament to the fact: from Madonna to George Clooney, Gerard Butler to Francis Ford Coppola, there are enough famous artists for the 2011 edition of the Festival to fill the pages of every paper and magazine.

This is part of the conundrum. A glance at blogs, newspapers, magazines and television crews covering TIFF shows the vast majority of comments and interviews are devoted to Hollywood blockbusters and film stars, none of which really need the publicity given the size of the prints and advertising budgets at their disposal.

Who does need this publicity? Oh, yes: Canadian films (in addition to their independent foreign equivalents). Then again, so does TIFF itself. In attracting the big names and joining the big leagues, the Festival has become more and more financially viable and now has more capacity to make a difference for Canadian filmmakers… but in courting Hollywood bigwigs, it has to give them something back. That “something” is a platform that, in generating its own heat, inevitably crowds out the less stellar participants.

The result is either a vicious cycle or a virtuous circle, depending on where you stand. Hollywood can and will pick up independent product; its stars and directors come from all over the globe, so one cannot speak of being “shut out”. Yet, this very transnationality precludes most localization save for American references. Toronto and Montreal become New York or Chicago. The occasional blockbuster or epic will take place in China or perhaps the Congo. However, the majority are set stateside.

Despite 34 features screening at the Festival this year, Canadian programming itself is still the wallflower at the dance compared to its more glamourous Hollywood counterpart. In addition, the vast majority of films entered as Canadian are coproductions. True, foreign films have a pride of place at the Festival, and rightly so, that they simply can’t garner at other times of the year. There may be French, Jewish and Native film festivals in Toronto; however, the exposure they get is clearly not the same as any film can get at TIFF. The mere fact of being chosen for the festival is a badge of merit for most. This is why the relative obscurity of Canadian features in Canadian media at this time of the year is a shame.

Journos and newspaper publishers alike, along with television managers and their ilk, will argue that they give readers and the audience what they want. It’s a circular argument, and easily belied by the most elementary knowledge of economics and differentiated product neo-marginalist theory. How do you know what people want? They ask for it. Most will shrug their shoulders and end it at that. However, there is a deeper question which we must ask: why do people ask for one kind of entertainment and not another? Answer: because it’s what they know.

It stands to reason that no one can possibly ask for something they know nothing about. In basic economic theory, perfect information is a sine qua non condition of a competitive marketplace. There can be no proper competition without full information. Prints and advertising are information. So is media coverage. Every article and interview is free publicity for the recipient, allowing information about the product to be disseminated to the potential audience.

Therefore, the constant and fulsome media coverage granted to Hollywood superstars does indeed reinforce the impression that their films are the ones to see before all others.

Information as a crucial component of film marketing is shaped by the nature of film as an economic product. By definition, cultural products behave exactly like differentiated products. This means they rely on branding to reach an audience. Films can’t be sold in the same way as wheat or petroleum. To buy a film is to consume it entirely. There are barriers to entry and those barriers have to do with unsubstantial things such as image as much as, or more than, standard economic characteristics such as economies of scale.

Marketing a film is always a shot in the dark, even with generous funds available for prints and advertising. The 1980 Hollywood film Heaven’s Gate is a classic example, losing $40 million even after a recut and rerelease. At the other end of the marketing and distribution/exhibition scale lies the practice of four-walling, whereby a distributor rents out a theatre for a flat weekly fee and retains all resulting earnings. This type of strategy has been used successfully for niche films such as Spike Lee’s early work and My Big Fat Greek Wedding by Nia Vardalos. Another kind of grassroots marketing is targeting the audience by demographic category. This method worked relatively well in the case of the 1990 Canadian film The Company of Strangers, about a group of seniors stranded when their bus broke down. The producers created buzz through organizations and venues frequented by seniors, also offering screenings in targeted locations.

As it happens, TIFF does that type of grassroots marketing. It’s called Film Circuit, and it actually started in Sudbury, Ontario, in a small festival called Cinefest, founded by a guy called Cam Haynes. Film Circuit brings great indie films to people who might not otherwise have a chance to see them, in locations where foreign and Canadian films are usually shut out of local theatres (unless they’re called Porky’s). It’s a terrific initiative and I’ve always felt Haynes was a genius. However, it just doesn’t get enough recognition; i.e., publicity.

So here we are again. Okay, we can’t expect the New York Times to get excited about Canadian cinema. But what about right here? Earth to Canadian media: hello there. Canadian cinema exists. Would you mind, please? I’ve got nothing against George Clooney, but you know Pascale Bussières might have made just as good of a cover on Hello magazine Canada.

Canadian women covering war — twice the battle, half the sky March 23, 2011

Posted by Dominique Millette in Journalism and foreign affairs, media coverage of war, war, women's issues.
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Since CBS News Chief Foreign Affairs Correspondent Lara Logan revealed her February 11 assault in Egypt in Tahrir Square, both discussion and backlash have emerged about what women face as reporters in war zones. Canadians are no exception. During a Ryerson Conference entitled Women in the Field: Changing the Face of Journalism, foreign correspondents from leading national media revealed their own stories, impressions and feelings. “Reporting in Risky Situations” was one of three panels on the situation of women in Canadian media.

Gillian Findlay, now host of CBC’s the fifth estate, has covered stories in conflict areas such as Somalia, the former Yugoslavia, Chechnya, Iraq and the Near East. In 1998, she was in Bagdad. Iraq was the target of bombings pursuant to sanctions against the regime of Saddam Hussein. Unrest swept the capital and Findlay went to work. The security rule was for the crew to stay together: not an easy task in the middle of a mob. As the correspondent stopped to talk to the translator, the cameraman signaled that he would go ahead. “Before I knew it, I was alone… blonde and female in a sea of young Iraqi males”, recalls Findlay. She soon started feeling hands groping her, becoming more and more aggressive. Completely surrounded, the reporter saw no way out. “For the first time, I was truly afraid”, she says. Eventually, the Iraqi fixer for the crew came to the rescue with a big iron bar and dragged her out of harm’s way.

Shaken but unhurt, Findlay kept the incident to herself until the Logan story brought the memories back. “I decided very quickly I didn’t want people to know and certainly didn’t want my bosses to know.” Still young, with two young children at home, she didn’t want to give anyone reason to question whether she was up to the job, she admits today. With the Lara Logan story came the revelation that she wasn’t alone.

Canadian women who work as foreign correspondents not only bear the burden of gender difference, but face the same hostility against foreigners as their male counterparts. Globe and Mail reporter Sonia Verma had her own mob encounter while seeking out pro-Mubarak demonstrators in the wake of the Logan assault. The crowd starting moving toward them. As Verma videotaped the demonstration with her iPhone, men started to hit her with sticks and punch her. Her colleague Patrick Martin headed toward her immediately and security guards from a nearby building came out, shooting in the air. The janitor let the two reporters in, putting his wife and children at risk. “The crowd was outside, chanting for our deaths”, Verma recounts. The crew thought of escaping but was advised to stay in and wait until the crowd dispersed. “These people were right in my face and I could see how much they hated me”, recollects the journalist. Back at the hotel, unable to sleep, she took a bath and, as she stepped out, saw the many large bruises covering her back. Adrenaline had kept her from feeling the blows.

Meanwhile, popular and even media reaction to women assaulted in war zones has ranged from sympathetic to antediluvian. Here in Canada, one of the worst came from Toronto Sun columnist Peter Worthington, who opined that mothers had no business leaving their children behind to go get themselves raped and beaten abroad. He made no mention of fathers taking risks. When Verma first heard of the column, “I thought it couldn’t be true”, she says. “I read it and my face was getting red. It was hitting all my buttons.” In the end, her husband wrote a letter in response which garnered widespread attention.

Nevertheless, Sonia Verma’s life as mother and war correspondent seems to epitomize the challenges women face in such situations. Reporting on foreign affairs was her lifelong dream and she pursued it tenaciously. While pregnant with her first child, she revealed nothing of her condition and went to Gaza, covering gun fights there. Three months into the pregnancy, she fell asleep in the car as the bullets flew all around. Verma remembers heading for the riots in the old city, where people were using tear gas. Her fixer chased her out, she says, saying tear gas was bad for the baby. Once her child was born, the journalist stopped breastfeeding at three months in order not to jeopardize travel chances. When her children were three and 18 months old, she was taking assignments in Afghanistan. “These are my choices,” she points out. “I don’t need to justify my choices to anyone.” The guilt lingers for all mothers, however. Difficult as it is, “I love my family, I love my work and I’m not willing to give up either one of them”, she declares.

Despite the risk and sacrifice, being a woman abroad can open doors closed to male reporters. Michelle Shephard, national security reporter for the Toronto Star, asserts “I’ve never had a story where men wouldn’t speak to me”, not even Islamic fundamentalists with connections to al-Qaeda. Meanwhile, she has always had access to women and their stories. One example she gave was from a Northern refugee camp in Kenya, where a young woman had been stoned to death. All her friends spoke to Shephard, but were uncomfortable around the male photographer. Moreover, being underestimated because of gender can work out to a reporter’s advantage. Once, in Waziristan, “generals were not taking me seriously,” she recalls. They let their guard down and gave her more information.

Overall, the women on the panel were very clear: women prove themselves as reporters every day under the same conditions as their male colleagues. Not to send them out to war means losing half the story.

Why we need gender-specific refugee policies in Canada July 12, 2010

Posted by Dominique Millette in refugees, United Nations, women's issues.
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I was reminded of how women are so much more in need of asylum than their male counterparts (who already need it far too much in our world) by the story of Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, recently granted a temporary stay of execution by stoning for adultery in Iran.

The stay is temporary. She could still be executed, probably by other means. Apparently, women are more often liable to be stoned, and buried to the chest, deeper than a man would. It should, therefore, come as no surprise that women die more often than their male co-accused from accusations of immorality.

This story highlights the sad fact of the abuse of women on a worldwide scale, in ways even more atrocious than we allow in our own culture. Just today, another story surfaced about a women’s protest against such unfairness in Bangladesh, where a young woman was whipped 101 times after being raped and becoming pregnant. Her rapist was pardoned. The country’s judiciary there has declared such community sentencing, issued from fatwas, as illegal. It doesn’t stop them from being carried out.

Likewise, multitudes of women face domestic violence around the world without any enforcement of already-existing laws. It may be bad here. It’s worse in other countries. The women who suffer from such policies, or from lack of enforcement of any laws meant to protect them, deserve refugee status. This should include women refused any hope of justice for rape, or subject to rape without any hope of state protection. Such a definition could enable women from Haiti, for example, to come to Canada to escape the horrors they face right now.

The issue of state neglect as a violation of human rights is not new. We’ve come a long way since the definition of refugees was first crafted by the U.N. in 1950. Today, for instance, the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) recognizes clearly that domestic violence is a form of persecution.

Indeed, when governments fail in their duty to protect citizens, through systemic prejudice such as sexism, anyone who seeks protection in another country is a legitimate refugee. This recognition is especially important not only to the rights of women, but also to sexual minorities. We must be vigilant in ensuring that our governments apply this standard to all incoming refugees who fit the description. And more than that, I would say: we must advertise our countries as havens for those who so desperately need one.

A look at the situation of migrant workers in Canada before the G20 summit June 21, 2010

Posted by Dominique Millette in G20, international labour movements, labour export, migrant workers, remittances.
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Fact: agriculture tops the list when it comes to workplace fatalities in Canada. Yet, in Alberta, migrant workers aren’t covered under the Occupational Health and Safety Act – and in every Canadian province, all foreign workers are vulnerable to reprisals if they protest unsafe conditions. Meanwhile, both Alberta and Ontario prohibit unionization of migrant agricultural workers.

As Toronto gears up to host the G20 summit with what former Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin was instrumental in designating the world’s most powerful economies in South as well as North, many voices beg to differ on who should decide the fate of the world. Among the most dispossessed of these voices are some representing those who labour to produce what the world eats, or otherwise consumes. Migrant workers are now a fixture of North-South value transfers, their flight serving to palliate lacunae in employment opportunities within their home countries as their low-cost, easily manipulated labour fills the gaps in host economies.

As one of those hosts, Canada has allowed employers to benefit from migrant work for over 40 years. The federal government administers the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program (SAWP) and the Temporary Foreign Workers Program for Occupations Requiring Lower Levels of Formal Training (TFWP). The number of workers involved, most of them from Mexico and the Caribbean, has jumped from 5,000 in 1978 to over 20,000 by 2006. Tied to a single employer, these workers are vulnerable to deportation should they speak up about health and safety violations or substandard living and working conditions. None of them are eligible for overtime, holiday premiums or vacation pay. They also have Employment Insurance premiums deducted from their paychecks, but very few know of any opportunity to receive benefits.

This is something the United Food and Commercial Workers Union Canada (UFCW) is working to change. Since 2002, the union has provided information to workers through support centres. In 2008, it created the Agriculture Workers Alliance which now operates nine agricultural worker support centres across Canada, helping to file health insurance and prescription claims, intervening in repatriation and helping with tax forms, workers’ compensation, vacation pay, and parental benefits.

To counter the G20 summit agenda, the UFCW held the No Rights, No Rules: Migrant Workers in a Globalized World conference, in English and Spanish, in Toronto on June 20. One panel outlined the global situation and the general situation in Canada; the other panel let workers tell their stories.

As UFCW president Wayne Hanley pointed out from the start of the conference, the union’s slogan is “if you’re good enough to work here in Canada, you’re good enough to stay here.” Stan Raper, the national representative from UFCW’s National Organization Department, observed that some agricultural workers don’t want to stay in Canada and be residents. “I understand that,” he said, “but why not give them status so they can come and go as they please?” He compared the existing visa system to slavery, under which whoever isn’t “a good boy” can be deported.

At present, only residency status can end this vulnerable state. However, activists such as Max Correa, Secretary General of the Mexico-based Central Campesina Cardenista, believe the true solution is genuine free movement of labour, accompanied by genuine guarantees of workers’ rights, to go with the free trade of goods and services under NAFTA. He pointed out during a videoconference interview that many migrants are forced to leave their land as a result of the devastation and pollution wrought by Canadian mining companies.

NAFTA, however, won’t help anyone from outside North America. Filipino activist Marco Luciano outlined how migrant worker programs affected his own country of origin. Filipino migration has occurred since Spanish colonization hundreds of years ago. In the early 1900s, large numbers were sent to the Americas to work in plantations. By 1929, 18 % of Hawaiians were Filipinos, working as fruit pickers and farm workers. During the Great Depression, thousands were deported. Some workers stayed in California to pick grapes for vineyards, others went as far as Alaska.

In the Philippines proper, 75 per cent of Filipinos depend on the land, most of which is owned by a few landlords. Produce tends to be cash crops such as flowers, pineapple and asparagus rather than subsistence crops such as rice. Farm workers are the lowest paid of all. The only urban sources of income are factories, garment shops and export processing zone companies owned by multinational corporations.

Luciano observed that the Filipino government acts as a broker for international interests: with the export-oriented, import-dependent country subject to massive unemployment, the government has endorsed a labour export policy which provides an outlet to diffuse social unrest, addresses the unemployment problem and brings foreign currency through remittances totalling $18 billion in 2009. In that same year, one million Filipinos left their country as migrant workers, at the rate of 3,000 per day. Canada is host to the lion’s share of these: 400,000, 185,000 of whom come to the GTA. The systematization of migrant worker exports has been practically enshrined by the Global Forum on Migration and Development, which touts remittances as foreign aid and migration as a tool for development.

Angela Rankin, who visits agricultural migrant workers in Canada and counsels them on their rights, spoke of the living and working conditions she witnessed on farms in Ontario. In one instance, there were 20 beds in a single room. In another, workers were forbidden to shelter from the rain during downpours and thunderstorms. She informed the audience many workers were afraid to come to the conference for fear of being deported. “At the end of the day, without them, we would not have anything to eat,” she pointed out.

Of the workers who spoke about their experiences, many remained anonymous, fearing reprisals, as moderator Sonia Singh explained. Many face fraud upon arrival in Canada. One male caregiver paid $8,000 USD, only to discover his employer did not exist. The agency which had promised him work told him he would have difficulty getting a job because he was a man. Finally, after several months, he found work in construction, which he had never done before. However, this caused problems with immigration authorities. He is now awaiting a ruling on his case.

Another worker came in from Jamaica to work as a chef in a resort in Northern Ontario. After three months of training, 20 people in her group were told their contract was terminated. They lost their $1,000 fee and had to pay their airfare back home. Then, she discovered the work she obtained was only part-time and occasional. The mother of four children was left with paychecks of no more than $100 a piece in some cases, in addition to having to pay rent. The group had no means of going to the bank or buying food. “This country has not been good to me,” she observed. Soon she will be returning home.

One live-in caregiver described her extensive experience in Singapore, Hong Kong and Canada. Caregivers are overworked, maltreated and underpaid, as well as often subjected to sexual harassment. Workers are separated from their families for years, facing isolation and potential alienation.

Even though it is now illegal for agencies to collect placement fees from live-in caregivers coming to work in Canada – a legal provision that has yet to be applied to other migrant workers – many still pay because of the crushing poverty and unemployment in their home countries, as Gina Bahiwal testified on behalf of the Underdog Project. “Most of us are college and university graduates. We expected to live in a nice house, at least a comfortable house”, but the building in which she was housed by the agency was old and dilapidated, she explained. There were nine people living in a three-bedroom apartment and six to eight people in a two-bedroom one. Workers were not free to join organizations or to meet with other Filipinos in Canada. The agency tried to frighten workers by threatening not to renew work permits. “People were afraid of losing their jobs, not being able to feed their families”. Two weeks ago, the agent brought contracts and said that without cash, there would be no copy of the contract. People paid, but got no receipts and no copies of any contracts. “We want these abuses to stop. We are here for them, speaking on their behalf”, said Bahiwal.

In short, some victories have been obtained in law, but to have these enforced and respected is still another matter. One obstacle is the lack of information workers have before coming to Canada, and in some cases after their arrival. Organizations such as the UFCW and the AWA seek to redress the balance.

Pre-G20 in Toronto: the real deal on maternal health June 20, 2010

Posted by Dominique Millette in Canadian development policy, Canadian maternal health policy, development assistance, G20, health policy in developing coutries, women's issues.
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What does it take to really help mothers stay healthy? An Amnesty International presentation on maternal mortality in Peru in the context of Millennial Development Goals, part of the People’s Summit held in Toronto June 18-20 to counterbalance the upcoming G20 forum for the world’s richest economies, provided some answers.

In Peru, the to-do list is likely longer than Canadian International Co-operation Minister Bev Oda’s. There’s a need for social change to empower women’s decision-making, roads for people to get to health centres, bilingual people fluent in Quechua and English and… perhaps to start, a budget for the Maternal Mortality National Plan. That’s right: with one of the highest maternal death rates in the Americas at 185 per 100,000, Peru has allocated no money at all to improve the situation. Meanwhile, U.N. estimates of maternal mortality are closer to 240 deaths per 100,000. Why the discrepancy? Ruth Mier y Terán Moscoso, responsible for campaigns and training in the Peruvian section of Amnesty International, points out the government has a vested interest in keeping maternal mortality rate reports as low as possible. Bigger issues, of course, need bigger solutions, which cost more money.

Presumably, this is the kind of problem the Harper government in Canada intended to solve, and should solve, with its maternal health initiative for developing countries, $1 billion over five years, which initially excluded any sort of birth control funding and still excludes abortion services. There’s just one thing: women need to control more of their lives, and their governments, for any real progress to happen.

Each year, some 500,000 women worldwide die during pregnancy or while giving birth and nine million children die before they reach the age of 5, according to Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) statistics. About 2.5 million teenagers have unsafe abortions each year and tend to be more seriously affected by complications. That’s just the start of issues recorded during the World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995, as noted by Amnesty International Women’s Human Rights Campaigner Lindsay Mossman. At the heart of maternal health is the need for the mother to have the capacity to make independent decisions about her reproductive choices, from age of marriage to contraception use. Once this is secured, mothers need access to care.

Marrying young puts mothers at risk. Women from 15 to 19 are twice as likely to suffer complications from pregnancy. Women under 15? Five times as likely. Choice is crucial. In Peru’s rural communities, the hardest-hit by poverty and lack of health care, choice is something women don’t have, explains Mier y Terán Moscoso. The power of women is an issue, as only men (with the exception of widows) have the right to vote in local assemblies. Women have no choice about having children, she says. It depends on the husband.

At the systemic level, abortion is currently illegal in Peru except to protect the health of the pregnant woman. Whoever seeks an abortion without being at risk faces two years in prison and the doctors performing it, four years. Ambiguity over what constitutes a health risk makes doctors hesitant to perform any abortions at all, says Mier y Terán Moscoso.

Meanwhile, rural areas are the hardest hit by a lack of access to health care, with subsequently higher maternal death rates. Eight out of ten communities in Peru rated as extremely poor are in rural areas. Many have indigenous populations and 40 per cent of indigenous people have no identity papers, which must be obtained in Spanish. Therefore, they have no access to universal health care. Physical access is also a problem: 51 per cent of all communities have no health centre at all. Half of those who do have only a first-aid post. And while the government has paved roads for exploration of mining and oil rights, many rural communities with human beings as their only resource have no roads at all.

Meanwhile, when doctors do appear, they may face extremely difficult conditions, working very long hours. They do not speak indigenous languages, so that in the absence of interpreter services, they won’t be able to communicate with patients. Women in rural indigenous communities are less likely to speak Spanish than men. For this reason, they may also face difficulties in taking medicine as prescribed. As a result of all these factors, only 36 per cent of women in rural areas go to a health care centre or see a health care professional.

Therefore, the picture of health goes beyond the wish or intention to provide services. Empowering women helps take away much of the risk of pregnancy and birth. Helping communities gain access to health care can involve more than training or hiring doctors, and may involve substantial investments in infrastructure, as well as cultural training to better harmonize accredited practice with traditional care and customs. And, of course, once the children are born, they matter, at the very least, every bit as much as when they were in the womb. Healthy mothers are the main part of the development solution.

Toward these ends, Amnesty International has produced a report entitled Fatal Flaws – barriers to maternal health in Peru. The Canadian Chapter also has a wealth of information about the issue worldwide on its “End Maternal Mortality” blog.