Thursday, April 30, 2015

'A Sinner in Mecca' impresses at Hot Docs Toronto festival

Thousands of Muslims circling the Kaaba in Mecca,
as seen in 'A Sinner in Mecca'
I attended the world premiere last night of director Parvez Sharma's controversial new documentary 'A Sinner in Mecca.'   It played at Toronto's Hot Docs film festival.

Sharma is an openly gay Muslim filmmaker who previously directed 'A Jihad for Love.'  His new film chronicles his own personal and spiritual journey to visit Mecca, a journey all Muslims are supposed to make at least once during their lifetimes.

The CBC ran stories about Sharma and his film yesterday: 

"The Hajj is the highest calling for any Muslim," he told CBC News. "For years I felt I really needed to go, so this film is about me coming out as a Muslim. I'm done coming out as a gay man."

He videotaped his journey to Mecca surreptitiously on his iPhone and other small cameras that looked like phones since filming isn't permitted in Saudi Arabia and homosexuality can be punished by death.

"I was terrified because they reserve the death penalty for people like me," Sharma said.

Several times he had his equipment seized and video files deleted by authorities. But he persevered with both his spiritual journey and his film.

"I was there making this pilgrimage for the thousands of gay Muslims who were too scared to go to Saudi Arabia, who would feel they would never be welcome," Sharma said. "I felt I was doing it for them."

...The film's very existence has earned Sharma hate mail and death threats from angry Muslims.

The film was also denounced by the Iranian government for promoting homosexuality. The Hot Docs festival has added extra security for the filmmaker's safety and for patrons attending the three sold-out screenings."

My take on the film: it is a stunning journey documented with meticulous detail by Sharma that I won't forget.   As a non-Muslim Westerner (and non-religious person) who will never be able to journey to these locations, it was incredibly illuminating.

Sharma's voice over accompanying his visuals make clear the immense physical challenges he and others endure to make this trip, including the pushing through mass crowds circling the Kaaba (pictured above) as most try to touch it.  The circling goes on 24/7.  "There is nothing kind" about this, remarks Sharma.  Instead of being a moment of solemn prayer and reflection, it's an exhausting shoving match not for the faint of heart, it seems.   Near this holiest of Muslim sites, Saudi royalty has seen fit to allow a Starbucks franchise and various other commercial outlets to be opened. The clash between solemn religion and modern capitalist hypocrisy couldn't be more stunning.

Sharma even sacrifices a goat to fulfil his journey, the final step in his religious purification, he says. The bloody scene is awful to watch.  In the end, Sharma says he feels empty, but relieved he made the journey.  He also states the experience bolsters his desire to see a "reformation" in Islam.

Non-Muslims will see things in this film they will never otherwise see.  I'd say the same goes for Muslims as well.  As a gay man who has also struggled to find a place within organized religion, I found Sharma's journey and film to be fascinating.   I highly recommend it.

'A Sinner in Mecca' plays again this weekend at Hot Docs, and later in May will screen at Toronto's LGBT Inside Out film festival.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Could Rachel Notley's NDP be heading to shocking win in Alberta?

I watched last night's superb debate between Alberta provincial leaders.  Yes, Alberta politics has become spell-binding for political junkies this election. 

Yes, NDP Leader Rachel Notley was amazing and PC Premier Jim Prentice didn't really help his struggling campaign much, especially with his patronizing comment, "I know that math is difficult."

Wildrose leader Brian Jean looked good in his suit, but probably didn't convince many outside his base that he's premier material.  Liberal leader David Swann was decent but irrelevant.  
The reviews so far show that Notley won the debate by a country mile.  It's likely the event will add to the Alberta NDP's considerable momentum. 

Could we be witnessing a historic and shocking NDP win in an Alberta election?  A perfect storm with the right-wing literally cut in half by two parties, and a collapsed Liberal Party producing an NDP victory?  Time will tell on May 5th.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Edward Snowden, Bill C-51 and the scary growth of government surveillance

I recently watched the chilling, superb documentary Citizenfour by director Laura Poitras.  The film, which won the Best Documentary Feature award at this year's Academy Awards, chronicles in detail the 2013 interviews by Poitras, Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill with Edward Snowden, the infamous whistle blower.   It also outlines how the National Security Agency (NSA) in the U.S., in cahoots with other world governments and agencies, have expanded their spying to include virtually all human digital communications, not just on those suspected of terrorism. 

The film is must-see for everyone.  I have to admit I didn't fully understand the full extent of Snowden's revelations when they first came to light in June 2013.   I recall the revelations getting a bit blurred in the coverage of the attacks on Snowden's character by the intelligence establishment and his fleeing from authorities to Russia. 

But the film returns the focus back to the secret documents that Snowden revealed which proved the full extent of the NSA's surveillance program, which has grown to intercept virtually all digital communications of Americans and citizens of other countries without any safeguards for privacy rights.   Data of every email, every Google search, every Facebook post, every phone call, every online purchase of virtually every human being they can monitor is being captured using NSA technologies and partnerships with other government's agencies including the Canadian government and is being stored for future reference.   Should governments decide to target anyone, they are able to utilize their vast surveillance archive to retroactively investigate them. 

Essentially, this represents the greatest invasion of privacy in history.

In late 2013, Barton Gellman, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who led the Washington Post's coverage of Snowden's disclosures, summarized the Snowden leaks as follows:

"Taken together, the revelations have brought to light a global surveillance system that cast off many of its historical restraints after the attacks of Sept 11, 2001.  Secret legal authorities empowered the NSA to sweep in the telephone, Internet and location records of whole populations."

No doubt, the full implications of these disclosures are still permeating through the public consciousness two years later.  Many people still barely know what Snowden revealed, let alone understand it.  Thus, the vital importance of the film and why it continues to be important to hear from Snowden, as we thankfully continue to do.  

Citizenfour's interviews of Snowden flesh out a man of principle who went to incredible lengths and personal sacrifice to reveal the despicable overreach of his bosses into the lives of all of us. 

Snowden's had some critical things to say about Canada's spying regime and lack of adequate oversight, as well as the Harper government's proposed Bill C-51, which would expand the powers of the Canada's spy agency.

This past weekend saw numerous protests across Canada against Bill C-51.  This follows what seems like plummeting public support for the legislation. 

I've struggled to dissect the implications of Bill C-51, reading both good and bad about it.  Without enhanced oversight provisions, I can't help but be wary of it.   This Walrus article by Craig Forcese and Kent Roach helped me greatly with my understanding.

Justin Trudeau's decision to vote for Bill C-51, despite concerns over the bill's lack of enhanced oversight provisions, puts the Liberal Party too far on the side of the security establishment which clearly has grown too big.  Sure, the Liberals' decision to vote for it is pure politics, in response to the Conservatives' exaggeration of the terrorist threat.  In truth, there's little real difference between the Liberal position and the NDP position on C-51, except for the symbolic votes either for or against the legislation.  Both opposition parties are promising to similarly tinker with the law should either of them form a government.  The Conservatives' majority ensures they can control passage of whatever bill they wish this year.

But we need more than tinkering.  We need more than just a new parliamentary committee to keep an eye on CSIS and other government agencies after the fact (although that would be an improvement).   We need a full-scale, public investigation into this new status quo revealed in Citizenfour and how to roll it back to return some degree of privacy to our lives.  We can't trust Stephen Harper to do that as he probably approves of the NSA's abilities to spy on every Canadian.

The issues raised in Citizenfour and by C-51 are not entirely the same, but clearly they are linked.   They both deal with growing government power snuffing out individual freedoms.   We need to pull back the powers we have handed over to these forces to ensure better balance so we don't continue down this scary road.   If we continue, years from now, we'll all be horrified to see our society transformed into a police state, where lack of privacy and freedom is the norm, not the rare exception.  

The next step in this fight is to create a critical mass of awareness.  Once more and more of the public realizes that their privacy no longer exists, we will hopefully stop giving deference and support to the Harperites of the world and demand our governments roll back surveillance of our lives.   On this issue, I have to admit the NDP has its priorities right.  I can only hope that politicians like Trudeau soon catch up. 

In the mean time, watch Citizenfour and look forward to more films on the subject that can continue to pierce the public's awareness.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Michael Coren is my new hero

I really like the new Michael Coren, who's undergone a mellowing that looks very good on him.

Watching him debate the horrible Charles McVety in this Power & Politics debate this week on Ontario's new school curriculum was immensely enjoyable.

So I'm happy to post it here:

Sorry, religious conservatives, Canada is a secular country

I'm immensely pleased with this Supreme Court ruling yesterday.   It has struck me as wrong for decades that we continue to recite Christian prayers at public council and legislative meetings in this diverse and secular country.

Chantal Hebert nicely sums up the issues in her column here. 

Hebert writes: "The recitation of a prayer remains a fundamentally religious act, a fact about which the court had this to say: “. . . the state may not, by expressing its own religious preference, promote the participation of believers to the exclusion of non-believers or vice-versa. (. . . ) A neutral public space free from coercion, pressure and judgment on the part of public authorities in matters of spirituality is intended to protect every person’s freedom and dignity, and it helps preserve and promote the multicultural nature of Canadian society..." 

"In paragraph 74 of the judgment, and almost as an aside from its core narrative, Justice ClĂ©ment Gascon writes: “I note that a neutral public space does not mean the homogenization of private players in that space. Neutrality is required of institutions and the state, not individuals.”

Those who suggest that Canada is a Christian country by heritage and therefore that should trump other religions today are wrong headed.   To them, I have a simple message: Canada was originally 100% Aboriginal.   The Europeans and others who brought Christianity here did so centuries afterwards.   Christians have no more right to dominate public spaces today with their practises than any other religious group of immigrants like Muslims or Hindus.

We are all descendants of immigrants to Canada, if not immigrants ourselves.   Even Aboriginal Canadians are descendants from the very first immigrants to this land.   Plus we are a country that respects the clear division between church and state.

Those religious folks tend to resent it when they perceive the state encroaching on religious freedom.   Yet many of those same folks continue to demand that their religions encroach on the state (such as with public funding for Catholic schools in Ontario, or Christian prayers at the start of city council meetings, or conservative religious censorship of public school curriculum.)

I'm sure we'll all hear incessant grumbling about how Canada is a Christian country from those with a warped perspective of history, and how this ruling is unjust.  Canada was a Christian country when the Christians took it over and imposed their religion on the entire populace.  But now in these secular times, such old practices need to be curtailed.

A moment of silence at the beginning of legislative sittings would be most appropriate from now on.   But no spoken prayers.

Friday, April 10, 2015

I hope local, longtime Liberal Marco Mendicino wins Eglinton-Lawrence Liberal nomination over Eve Adams

Sorry, federal Liberals and Trudeau inner circle members, sorry Tom Allison and others, this idea to let Eve Adams run for the nomination in Eglinton-Lawrence was a huge mistake.  She's a bad fit in a riding that is ripe for the taking. I have to agree with Mike Colle on this one.

Adams ought to pull out entirely and now consider running for the nomination in Oakville-North Burlington, vacated recently due to the tragic death of Max Khan.  That's the new stomping grounds she tried to represent when she was still a Tory.   It would make a bit of sense for her to run there, not inner city Toronto where she has no roots.

I really hope this doesn't go down the way it's been going down.

There is a great local Liberal running for the nomination: Marco Mendicino, a longtime resident and lawyer who was a prosecutor on the Toronto 18 terror case. 

This article by Jane Taber nicely sums up the state of the race.  Of particular note is the last paragraph: 

"Stephen Harper’s Conservatives, meanwhile, are watching the Adams saga unfold with some amusement. Privately, they are hoping she will win the nomination, believing Joe Oliver, the incumbent MP and Finance Minister, would easily beat her in the federal election."

Conservatives in Ontario and Alberta go topsy turvy...

With yesterday's dropout by Monte McNaughton, the Ontario PC leadership race is down to just two: mainstream Tory Christine Elliott, who has represented the provincial riding of Whitby-Ajax since 2006, and the vaguely social conservative Patrick Brown, who has been the federal MP for Barrie since 2006.

I'm glad to see the underwhelming McNaughton go.  His main strategy in this leadership race seemed to be to recruit social conservative bigots to his cause, showing up at anti-sex ed curriculum rallies and arguing that "especially Kathleen Wynne" is not qualified to make decisions she was elected to make.  He later backtracked claiming his loaded words didn't mean what everybody thought they meant.  Back to the obscure opposition backbenches for you, Mr. McNaughton.   

It's true that Christine Elliott isn't the most dynamic personality, but she does embody great life experience and, dare I say it, integrity.  She'd be a dignified and worthy adversary for Kathleen Wynne in 2018.

Patrick Brown, on the other hand, strikes me as a wannabe, the kind of young Conservative who makes me cringe when he opens his mouth.  So much entitlement, so much arrogance, so little understanding.  He's done nothing outside of the political world his entire young life.

But success in politics isn't about merit, integrity and accomplishment; it's about signing up members, schmoozing, working rooms and "appearing" to be the best candidate.  At least at the party level, of course.

If Brown's team has signed up 40,000 new members, as they claim, and he wins over the smattering of members signed up by McNaughton, Brown might have a shot on the single ballot happening May 9th.  We shall see.

If they choose Brown, the Ontario PCs will be setting themselves up to lose again.  They won't be reaching outside of their traditional demographic.  They already have the votes of guys who look like Brown from central Ontario.  Up against a giant like Wynne, Brown's mousy arrogance will make Tim Hudak look like a statesman.  And the Liberals will likely be on their way to almost certain re-election, unless Andrea Horwath can figure out a way to come up the middle and challenge the Grits.  But Ontario will get worse government, as majority governments with little chance of losing get arrogant and sloppy, and we definitely don't need more Ontario Liberal arrogance and sloppiness.

Speaking of arrogant and sloppy majority governments, things could be changing in Alberta where longtime Progressive Conservative dominance is again being threatened in an election set for May 5th. 

New polls put Jim Prentice's PC government in second or third place at around 25%, neck and neck with the surging Alberta NDP, with the Wildrose Party under new leader Brian Jean on top at 31%.   The struggling Alberta Liberals are stuck at 12%, with the upstart Alberta Party (AP) at about 5%. 

This trend of PCs tanking in the early weeks of Alberta election campaigns speaks clearly to the Alberta public's pent-up desire to give their 44-year-old government the boot.  Healthy democracies switch governing parties every 10 years or so, unless the opposition screws up royally, which only delays the defeat until they get their acts together.

However, Alberta is a special case, where the mainstream is so far on the conservative right, that Liberals and New Democrats have rarely competed for power.  The only recent exception was 1993 when Liberal Leader Laurence Decore won 40% of the vote against Ralph Klein's PCs at 45%.  Since then, the Alberta Liberals have been dying on the vine, unable to mount a competitive threat.

The Wildrose came close in 2012 but ended up with only 34% of the vote after some of its kooky, far-right bigot candidates started talking about gays dying in lakes of fire.   Wildrose imploded last year when leader Danielle Smith and 10 other MLAs crossed the floor to get a taste of power.  That taste was short-lived for most of them, including Smith who lost the PC nomination in her own riding.

But the new strength for Wildrose in these early days in 2015 shows there is still much conservative anger at the establishment PCs.  If new leader Brian Jean can run a decent campaign, hit the right notes and inspire his base to take a chance, he might end up winning the votes currently parked with him, which would be devastating to Jim Prentice's fortunes.  

The surging NDP also speaks to the pent-up desire of Alberta progressives to finally have a champion.   Their new leader Rachel Notley is connecting with voters and looks poised to sweep most of Edmonton.  It's amazing what some good organization can do for a party to make it viable.  And the polls showing them in the mid-20s, up from 10% in 2012, indicate that progressives are embracing them. 

As stated above, the Alberta Liberals have been in slow motion collapse since the 1990s.  In 2012, their vote fell to 10% under former PC-turned Liberal leader Raj Sherman.  With polls showing the NDP surging, even I would vote NDP if I lived in Alberta (unless, of course, I lived in Edmonton Centre where Liberal Laurie Blakeman is seeking re-election, or Calgary-Mountain View where interim Liberal leader David Swann is running, or Calgary-Elbow where Alberta Party Leader Greg Clark is running.)  Three of the 5 Liberal MLAs aren't running again and, with the party still weak, it seems unlikely decent new candidates in those ridings will hang on to them.  But we shall see how the rest of the campaign goes.  David Swann is a decent guy with a great record of advocating for the environment.  If Jim Prentice's PCs do indeed collapse on voting day, the Liberals might be able to save some of their seats and perhaps even win a couple more. 

It's always seemed to me that Alberta's conservative political tradition made it virtually impossible for either the Liberals or the NDP to seriously compete for power.  Thus, if progressives wanted a real chance at winning there, they need to unite under one new banner, perhaps something like the Alberta Party.  But the AP has yet to make a breakthrough that would make that possible.

Instead, it's the Alberta NDP doing well this time.  The NDP may end up winning a dozen seats in Edmonton with a few seats here and there around the province.  But ultimately, the NDP will only ever be advocates from opposition in Alberta, who are we kidding?  Albertans will never elect an NDP government.

Thus if progressives want to actually win there, they've got to form a new coalition.  There is already serious talk between the Liberals and the Alberta Party and the Greens.  Laurie Blakeman is running under all 3 banners in Edmonton Centre, which just might save her skin against the NDP.

But the stubborn NDP will likely kibosh any such efforts at progressive unity and doom Albertans to conservative government for decades to come.  

Friday, April 3, 2015

Religion is a drug best served with moderation and skepticism...

On this Good Friday, when all North Americans (and many others in the West) get a statutory day off - a privilege not extended to any other faiths, yet some Christians still say they feel like victims of unfair treatment - I'm reflective upon the role of religion and faith in our society.

Canada is a country of great moderation, secularism and pluralism I am proud to call home.  I'm glad to say the vast majority of Canadians decades ago threw off the shackles of social conservatism.  Debates about women's rights, abortion, same sex marriage, equality and many others seem to be completely settled here.  Attempts to revisit those questions invariably go nowhere, even though an unhappy few still unsuccessfully try to champion those old causes.  More often than not, they do their own causes more harm, like when anti-abortion activists circulated postcards recently to try to hurt Justin Trudeau. 
Most Ontarians recently responded with shrugs and "It's about time!" to the long overdue school curriculum revamp, despite cries of opposition from religious fanatics, who mostly misrepresented the changes to try to attack them.   Some social conservatives continue to make noise against it with the help of some misguided Conservative leadership candidates, but it seems Ontario's tenacious premier Kathleen Wynne will be more than happy to face them down.  These days, siding with secularism and pluralism in Ontario is a political winner. 

Am I complacent now in Ontario?  It's hard not to feel a little secure when we re-elected our openly lesbian premier last year.  There has been much progress.  But of course, instances of homophobic violence and discrimination do still occur.  But it does seem that homophobia in the culture continues to decline.  The culture shift seems to be permanent.

That's why when I look at other countries like the U.S. or Brazil which still debate these questions, I am confident that eventually they too will achieve the kind of peace that we have mostly won here in Canada. 

Why has Canada progressed this far, while pockets in America and other countries still resist full equality?

The answer is simple: Religion.  Fundamentalist or conservative religion to be precise.

To me, religion is like a drug.  And not all drugs are bad.  Caffeine is a drug.  Sugar is a drug.  Red wine is a drug.  Money is a drug.  Marijuana is a drug.  Heroin is a drug.

Of that list, I'd only advise against trying heroin.  Why?  Because it seems heroin can't be enjoyed in moderation.  It's an "all-in" experience, and one that easily becomes addictive.

To me, fundamentalist religion is like heroin.  It's "all-in".  Followers of fundamentalist religion - be they Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, or whatever - are so desperate for some kind of perceived salvation that they cling to sets of beliefs that "guarantee" it.  Of course, those sets of beliefs often compel them to do strange things, wear certain clothes in public, and also impose their values on others, like recently in Indiana and other U.S. states.  Sometimes, those beliefs are so extreme that they turn believers into murderers, like we saw this week in Kenya.  

What is the cure for these fundamentalists?  I'd say moderation and skepticism.

I grew up in a Roman Catholic family.  My parents were so-called "smorgasbord Catholics."  Sure they believed in the basic concepts of the Catholic faith involving Christ being the Son of God, who came to Earth to show humanity how to live and how to face death, with a glimpse of eternal life, etc., etc.   But their faith was fluid.  It allowed for skepticism.  It evolved when my parents learned new things or read new ideas, like 'The Pagan Christ.'

Such an open-minded approach to religion is just fine, in my books.  Sure, you can attend mass every week if it gives you a sense of community and ritual.  I can appreciate such needs.  If you also refuse to impose your religion on others, then I think that's wonderful.  These are people who are using the drug of religion in moderation.  They are healthy.  And there is much good that religious people can do in this world, including helping their fellow human beings. 

I am not a religious person. I am agnostic.  I decided long ago that all organized religions were inherently corrupt and fallible.  Adherence to any one religion is misguided, in my estimation.  I simply cannot tolerate the injustices still rampant in most of them (including the discrimination of the Catholic Church.)  I don't judge those who still need a religious outlet in their lives, but only if they oppose discrimination and embrace real equality for all human beings.   

While I've embraced the secularism of our society, there's no doubt that my religious upbringing formed a foundation for my beliefs.  I'm not some boat flailing in stormy waters without a sail.  I do think there is much good in the story of Jesus Christ as a role model.  But I consider the story to be fiction.  Like all religious stories about saviours.

My firmest spiritual belief: human beings can never know the absolute truth of the universe.

Religions try to offer that absolute truth to their followers, but the dogma they provide is mostly false. 

Sure, it's healthy to learn about various religions and ideas.  Perhaps even follow one or two from time to time.  But it's best to allow your beliefs to continue to evolve with new experiences and information.  And not tie yourself to one religion for life. 

In the mean time, I find it best to borrow from the Christian tenet: love your fellow human beings as yourself.  That's an idea I and all of us can most definitely live with. 

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Patrick Brown urges ‘greater market access’ for

On all levels, this is wrong.  

The CEO of a major news media organization, like Paul Godfrey, who runs Postmedia Network Inc. which includes the National Post, should not be endorsing political leadership candidates or parties.

This is different, of course, from newspaper editorial boards endorsing one political party in an election campaign as that support is temporary and, often times, tepid or qualified.  Godfrey's move today seems to communicate an overt and permanent affiliation with the Ontario PC Party that undermines the objectivity of his business.

Now when Postmedia reporters or Sun Media reporters cover the PC race, not to mention Ontario politics should Brown win his party's leadership, they'll have to wonder if Mr. Godfrey approves.

You can even sense the awkwardness in the lead sentence in the National Post's "story" on their boss's move today: 

"Businessmen Paul Godfrey and Derek Burney announced their support Thursday for Patrick Brown in the race for leadership of the PC Party of Ontario Thursday."


How about: "My boss here at the Post announced his support for Patrick Brown today...."
True, it'll make those cynical about media even more cynical.  Now we can even more officially write off Postmedia and Sun Media (which Postmedia recently bought) as the propaganda wing of the Conservative movement in Canada.

And yet it happens.  And Patrick Brown, the MP for Barrie not good enough for federal cabinet since his election in 2006, accepts it.   It was interesting coupling today's announcement with stalwart Tory Derek Burney's endorsement, perhaps done only to distract from the strangeness.   This is yet another example of why Brown's leadership bid continues to make me feel icky. 

My friend and fellow blogger Nancy Leblanc succinctly raises various concerns with this in her post today, including the perceived conflict of interest in a media CEO endorsing a political candidate, and the importance of journalistic objectivity.

Leblanc also writes: "Further, Godfrey's endorsement of Brown cannot help but be viewed without considering Godfrey's recent history with the Wynne government. Recall that in the spring of 2013, he was removed from his position as Chair of the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation. That history informs his announcement today and bolsters a perception of an adversarial political context."

Democracy in Ontario just took a big step backwards today.