Our family

Entries in Canada (7)


Memorial statue to Steve Jobs, just outside McGill University in Montreal


First pumpkin carving



Constable Michael Sanguinetti set off a firestorm recently in Toronto when he gave advice to female students on how to avoid rape. "I’ve been told I’m not supposed to say this – however, women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimised".

In response, women in Canada started to organise SlutWalk, a parade of women wearing whatever they want, because... well, because women should be able to wear whatever they damn well want without being afraid of being raped. In the words of the organisers:

'All over the world, women are constantly made to feel like victims, told they should not look a certain way, should not go out at night, should not go into certain areas, should not get drunk, should not wear high heels or make up, should not be alone with someone they don't know. Not only does this divert attention away from the real cause of the crime - the perpetrator - but it creates a culture where rape is OK, where it's allowed to happen... after all, she must have been asking for it, right?'

Because sexualisation of young girls is such a modern phenomenon

The event has now spread to the UK and Australia, for just cause - the same sentiment is frequently expressed internationally. Just recently in the UK a Tory MP, Bill Aitken, speculated that a rape victim may have been a hooker, as if that was a mitigating factor in rape. And who could forget the disgraceful comments of Sheik Hilali in Australia, "If you take out uncovered meat and place it outside on the street, or in the garden or in the park, or in the backyard without a cover, and the cats come and eat it ... whose fault is it, the cats or the uncovered meat? The uncovered meat is the problem." Perhaps there should be a SlutWalk in Texas, after the justification for an 11 year old girl being gang raped was that she "dressed older than her age, wearing makeup and fashions more appropriate to a woman in her 20s".

So the problem is women not knowing which cabs they can take without being raped?

The Guardian hosted quite an interesting debate about the merits of SlutWalk. The main point is that rape is currently treated as a natural consequence of male sexuality, with the way to stop rape being to educate women about what will and will not set off men. The threshold may be set differently, but in essence Constable Sanguinetti, MP Bill Aitken and Sheik Hilali all have an identical view of women's rights to that of the Iranian government - women must be modest to protect themselves, if they are immodest they are bringing trouble down on themselves. I was particually interested in the view of Shaista Aziz in the debate, who said that the reason she wears a headscarf is because it makes her feel safer and empowers her in her interactions with men. Something to keep in mind with the constant burqa/headscarf debates (yet another example of men deciding what women should and should not be allowed to wear).

Whatever you think of the name of the event, the intent is undeniable - women should be able to wear whatever they want, whenever they want. Dealing with the crime of rape requires making men truly understand that rape is always a crime, no exceptions, rather than constantly focusing on women having to change their behaviour. 


First-past-the-post is undemocratic

Tomorrow the UK is going to the polls for its first ever referendum, a nation-wide vote on whether to keep the first-past-the-post system or to move to the "alternative vote" system (aka, optional preferential voting).

The best argument against the first-past-the-post system is that it produces profoundly undemocratic results. As a single example, Canada just had a federal election on Monday using the first-past-the-post system. The main right-wing party, the Conservatives, gained 39.6% of the popular vote, and ended up with a majority government, with 54% of the seats. By contrast, the major left-wing parties, the Liberals, New Democrats, Bloc Québécois and the Greens, together gained 59.5% of the popular vote, but only ended up with 46% of the seats. In other words, the outcome was not determined by the will of the people, but rather by the split of the left vote into multiple parties.

Another way of looking at this is to determine how many seats a party gets in proportion to its share of votes. The Conservatives had a ratio of 1.4, the New Democrats had a ratio of 1.1, the Liberals 0.6, Bloc Québécois 0.2 and the Greens 0.1. So every Conservative vote was worth 14 times that of each Green vote - a result which cannot be described in any other way than undemocratic. Results become even more perverse if you look at Ontario, the largest province in Canada. The New Democrats got 25.6% of the vote and gained 22 seats, while the Liberals got 25.3% of the vote and gained only 11 seats. The primary vote was nearly identical, yet every New Democrat voter gets twice the representation of every Liberal voter!

In this particular case, the right-wing gained substantially from undemocratic outcomes, but that is not a general rule. For example, preferential voting was introduced in Australia by the right-wing as an effort to stay in power, because the left was unified while the right was divided. First-past-the-post benefits any large party that can dominate an ideology, whether it is left or right. The Alternative Vote system is by no means perfect, and falls short of proportional representation. But such gross distortions of democracy just do not occur under preference voting. Unfortunately, tomorrow the British people will almost certainly vote against AV. The Conservatives see the current system benefiting their survival in a largely progressive country. Elements of the Labour Party see a "no" vote as the best way of fracturing the current coalition. And the Liberal Democrats support the position, but everyone hates them at the moment anyway. So current partisan politics is going to block one of the most important reforms to British politics since female suffrage.


Moving North 

Flying from Seattle to Montreal, as Lydia and I consider leaving the United States, with its guns, extremist religion and broken social and political systems, I read Rough Crossings, and considered that people have been moving north for a more ideal society since the very creation of the US. Rough Crossings is a book about the US revolution from the perspective of slaves. The abolitionist movement had become extremely strong in the United Kingdom in the years leading up to the revolution (far more 'radical' than the movement in the American colony). Historically, slavery didn’t exist in the British Isles, and it was only when rich landowners from the colonies started to bring back slaves to London that the hideousness of slavery was brought in front of the British people. Rapidly the concept of ownership over people was discarded in the British Isles, and the campaigners shifted their focus to the international slave trade and slavery in the colonies.

Indirectly, this movement against slavery in the UK was one of the triggers for the revolution. The cry of “no taxation without representation” may have worked in the northern colonies, and some of the leaders of the revolution were primarily concerned with personal independence (for white males), but the southern colonies were never seriously considering revolt. It was only when the Governors for the colonies began to suggest that in case of revolution slaves could be given their freedom if they joined in the defence of King George that the wealthy landowners in the south gained “patriotism”, claiming that the King sought to destroy their way of life, and they needed independence to protect their wealth and property. Despite massive disinformation campaigns by slave-owners, lying that the Governor would just sell them in the West Indies for his profit, and the threat of severe torture and death for captured run-aways, over a third of all slaves in the south ran away during the revolution. They flocked to the British lines, even jumping into the ocean to reach British ships as they sailed past, all trying to enrol to fight for the loyalists. The Governors were true to their word, and provided freedom to families who fled behind their lines and men who fought in their army. When the British were defeated, these ex-slaves were the major point of conflict, the British claimed that they had been freed during the war, and should be able to leave as freed slaves to Nova Scotia with the other loyalists, while the new American Congress claimed that they were still property and should be given back. Ultimately the British won that argument, but not without George Washington personally insisting on the return of ex-slaves and even threatening to continue the war to get them.

…the whole system, the entire network of American society is one great falsehood from beginning to end… In their celebrated Declaration of Independence they [the founding fathers] made their loudest, the clearest assertions of the rights of man and yet at that time the identical men who drew up the Declaration of Independence and framed the American democratic constitution, were trafficking in the blood and souls of their fellow men… From the period of their first adoption of the constitution of the United States downward everything good and great in the heart of the American people - everything patriotic within their breasts - has been summoned to defend this great lie before the world… The people of the United States are the boldest in their pretensions to freedom and the loudest in their profession of their love of liberty yet no nation upon the face of the globe can exhibit a statue book so full of all that is cruel, malicious and infernal as the American code of laws. Every page is red with the blood of the American slave.

- Federick Douglas, the self-educated run-away slave, in London 1846.

We hear the myth of America being founded on liberty, when it is patently untrue. Immediately after the revolution Congress went to war against the First Nations, seeking to deprive still more people of freedom. The Spanish-American war was started on a pretence in order to capture Spanish colonies in the Americas. The Mexican-American war was a blatant land grab from a country they should have been treating as a sibling, having come through its own revolution for independence from colonial masters.

We hear all these myths and believe them without thinking them through. America was (and still is) behind the rest of the world in ending slavery, in granting women the vote, in ending institutional racism, in providing universal health care. We know now how far modern America is behind the developed world in allowing indefinite imprisonment and torture without trial, reserving  for itself only the right to invade countries and not be bound by international laws. We say, without thinking, America has fallen from greatness and lost its moral authority. Has it, though, ever actually had moral authority? Has there ever been a period in America’s history where it has truly led the world? Perhaps America embracing a progressive concept has never been the beginning of a movement, perhaps the point where America finally joins the rest of the world has always been instead the end of the movement. So why do we all buy into the American narrative? Is it simply because American pop culture has sunk its tendrils so deeply into each of us that we have started to take for granted the flawed premise American culture is based on?

I would be glad to join in the proud and long tradition of moving north to embrace a functioning, compassionate, society.


The defiant bastion of Europe in North America

We have just had three days in Montreal, just as a test run for a possible move, since they have already given me an offer. The salary is good and it is tenure-track, the start-up package is okay but not great - really the advantage is the work/life situation in Montreal.

Work first of all - we spent Friday getting a tour of IRIC (the Institut de Recherche en Immunologie et en Cancerologie, at the Universite de Montreal) by Claude's newly graduated PhD student, Marie-Eve (very bright, I think she'll do well in her post-doc at Oxford). I love the set-up of IRIC, it is bright and shiny, all new and high technology. The building is designed for research, and lets natural light into every part of the building. Best of all, all the students and post-docs in the building look happy, talk to each other with smiles on their faces and interest in their work.

The mouse house is great (although I cannot imagine it staying helicobacter free at the current level of entry barrier, they should really divide it into two levels) with an amazing transgenics facility and best of all - lots of empty space! This is a place I would enjoy working in.

To our unexpected delight, one of the admin staff, Robert Turgeon, happens to be President of Heritage Montreal in his spare time, and organised a walking tour around the parks of Plateau with himself and Dinu Bumbaru (key advisor to World Heritage, he was sent to assess the damage of Dubrovnik after the war). We had a very pleasant stroll, discussing world heritage and the pleasures of being in a city where people enjoy life. They then dropped us off at Little Italy, so we could visit the Jean Talon Market and have a beautiful Italian meal.

How different from the United States that fourth generation Italian immigrants still speak Italian as their first language (along with French and English, of course). Montreal is so heterogenous, with multiple groups all living together and all respecting each other's culture. And for me, cities are more analogous to ice-cream than microarrays.

We spent Saturday with Sylvie, Valerie and Loic. Sylvie and Marc are really the inspiration for me to move to Montreal. Beyond simply Sylvie encouraging me to apply, they provide an active example of life in Montreal - they are the happiest family I know. Both indulge each other's whims, they enjoy their work and throw themselves into it, but take all the time they need to play with Valerie and Loic and to be together (a difficult task indeed for a scientist).

A nice house, good food, a city easy to raise children in, this is where Montreal excels. We spent the morning playing bubbles with the kids (with the bubble trumpet we brought them from the Ukraine - they play so well together, sharing and looking out for each other), and then drove to the Old Port. There we ate crepes, walked around, tried a local ice-cream Sylvie touted as better than Ben and Jerry's, and enjoyed the blue skies and stunning architecture. Afterwards we went to one of the many festivals that grace Montreal every summer, this one "Just for Laughs". It is a street comedy festival, with the typical giant head people walking around, distorting mirrors, clowns and carnival games. Not really funny, but certainly enjoyable with everyone out and about.

We looked after Valerie and Loic while Sylvie moved the car, we didn't have the guts to tell Sylvie that while she was gone they played a game together where they licked their lollypops, tapped it on the sole of their shoes and then licked it again. It is no wonder kids bring illness. In the evening we had an extremely enjoyable dinner with Claude and his wife Claudette, an experimental psychologist at Le Meac. The food and wine was superb - a lingering dinner with great food and fascinating company, isn't that what life is about?
Sunday morning we had brunch together at Tutti Frutti, with mounds of fresh fruit. We then watched WALL-E at the movies (all movies are screened in both English and French, Valerie and Loic were quite happy to watch the English version for us), and Lydia taught Valerie and Loic how to make fairy bread before we flew out, onto our next choice.

Overall, I think we would always be foreign in Montreal. It is far more French than either of us expected before our first visit, 70% of the population speak French as their first language, and 30% speak no English at all. If I teach undergraduate at the Universite de Montreal it'll have to be in French (luckily I can teach Masters and PhD students in English). Still, it'll be a challenge and a life ambition to learn French, and it would grant any children the amazing gift of bilingualism. And Montreal is one of the best places in the world to be slightly foreign, accepting and respectful of cultural diversity. Somehow they have managed to pick up all the best traits of the English, French and Americans, and allowed all the newcomers to keep their own cultural community while embracing that of Quebec.


Our wedding

We had the most perfect weekend, a beautiful way to share the world together.

We flew up to Banff on the Friday night and stayed in the beautiful Fairmont Springs, the fairy tale castle of the Canadian Rockies. On Saturday we went on a few wildlife trips around the Montane forests of Banff. We forests are mostly Lodgepole pine and Spruce, with a few groves of Aspen. It was really interesting to hear how the flora was shaped by the geography (the harsh weather and alkaline soils blocks the growth of most other trees) and fires (Lodgepole pine cones need the warmth from fires to germinate). the previous fire suppression tactics have caused a lot of problem by building up the fuel in the forest to the point where the fire burns too hot, killing the cones, so burnt areas are turning into meadows.

The fire suppression has also given a large pine bark beetle problem. The extra meadows, however, are perfect habitat for many of the grazing animals of the Rockies. Trembling Aspen also have an interesting reproduction tactic - it is not know how new trees sexually reproduce, because all of the known Aspens grow from ancient colony root systems, springing up new trees as the grove expands. The colonies in Banff are 3000 years old, which makes them relatively young compared to Pando in Utah, which is an 80 000 year old Aspen colony of 47 000 stems.

We saw two white-tailed deer, an elk, a very close Bighorn sheep, a pair of nesting Loons (which can only live in large still lakes since their solid bones require a long smooth runway to take off), an Osprey and a bald eagle, a pika and a few very cute Colombian ground squirrels.

In the afternoon we also went in and signed for our wedding licence, affirming that we understand that marriage does not make the other person your property, and that every person has the right to a marriage free of violence.

Sunday morning was simply perfect.

"Our bride and groom have brought us amidst the beauty of these mountains to celebrate the peace and joy that they have found together. Let us gather our thoughts and good wishes as we witness and share in their formal joining in the legal state of matrimony. The state of matrimony has matured as our society has matured. From an ancient tradition, marriage has developed into an expression of joy between any two people sharing love, respect and understanding. Our couple have found true happiness in each other, and with joy they have entered a life-long companionship and will comfort and support each other with gentleness and strength. In marriage, we give ourselves freely and generously into the hands of the one we love, and in doing so, each of us receives the love and trust of the other as our most precious gift. Today our bride and groom proclaim their love to the world."

"I call upon those persons present to witness that I take you to be my lawful wedded wife. To grow with you and learn with you. To cherish you for who you are. To be a loving friend and equal partner in marriage. To laugh with you and live life to the fullest with you. You are my best friend, and you bring out the best in me. You have brought me my greatest happiness. I love you dearly, completely and utterly."

"I call upon those persons present to witness that I take you to be my lawful wedded husband. To share hopes, thoughts and dreams. To communicate fully and fearlessly. You are an amazing and extraordinary person. You have my deepest friendship, respect, trust, confidence and love. I give you my hand and my heart as a sanctuary of warmth and peace. I ask you to share this world with me."

"Having shared your vows and exchanged these rings, now by the authority vested in me by the province of Alberta, I pronounce you husband and wife."

I couldn't have been happier as I formally expressed my love at being joined with the most beautiful, generous, kind, loving and charming person I have ever meet, the truly special person who showed me all the happiness in the world, and who gives me the shared joy of special moments every day.

After our perfect morning we had a delightful afternoon visiting Lake Louise (where we saw the cutest chipmunk) and Moraine Lake (where we saw Clark's nutcracker and several golden mantled ground squirrels. On the way back to our castle we saw a mother black bear with three baby bear cubs, very cute as they clambered over rocks to keep up with mum. There won't be any new bear cubs in Banff next year, since normally the bears eat 200 000 buffalo berries every day during summer (making their scat look like strawberry jam) so that they are fat enough to nourish new bears during the winter hibernation. This year the berry crop failed, so mother bears will not express the hormones to allow the eggs fertilised in June to the wall and develop. We drove the rest of the way back to Banff along the trans-Canadian highway (which has 20 underpasses for wildlife, and 2 overpasses for bears), and then got dressed up again for a perfect dinner.

I couldn't be happier.