Wednesday 26 January 2011

The Case Against School Uniforms

A few years back, my then-high-school-attending son received a detention. Not for inappropriate language or behaviour, but solely because his shirt-tail was untucked. Although I allow some room in his narration of his universe for embellishment and even, at times, truth-twisting, I believed him on this one. And that is because, over the several years previous, I had become acquainted with the Uniformists.

My children all went to public schools, and their elementary and high schools promulgated strict dress codes. From the outset, I was never completely in favour of all this uniformity. Being a child of the 60s, I was required to wear a tunic for precisely one year, which was abandoned after it was “recognized” that this “stifled self-expression and creativity.” I use quotation marks because the received wisdom in these Oh-Oh years is quite different – now, uniforms are supposed to “create an environment conducive to learning,” a sense of “community among students,” and, not least, a muting of the intense competitive consumerism that lurks among the bad memories of we who are now parents ourselves. Fair enough; the schools my children frequented were good schools, and they were fixed (fixated?) on uniforms. So I could hardly join these communities hoping to make them conform to my thinking. But that didn’t mean I couldn’t ask questions. And, with that detention fresh in my mind, the question became: How uniform is uniform enough? One of the schools insisted on a certain type of shoe, the other that white oxford-style shirts or t-shirts are no longer acceptable, only polo shirts, with the knit collars and the three buttons. There was always some newer affectation, for example that shirts be monogrammed with the school name/logo.
Our high school is blessed to have a devoted cadre of volunteers who organized and ran the uniform store, generating tens of thousands of dollars a year, all of which was spent on the kids. These monies provide many bits and pieces which are really the school board’s sadly neglected responsibility (new musical instruments, a paint job more often than once every seven years, equipment for classrooms, computers, libraries, etc., etc.) and some true luxuries (lavish graduation exercises, an unbelievable number of academic prizes for graduates, international exchange trips). So uniforms also functioned as an invisible school fee, over and above the taxes that we all contributed. Fair enough, but maybe we should be more up-front about this. Maybe, too, we should organize to demand more money from our governments, or for better use of the existing funds from our school boards.
Another thing about these uniforms really bothered me -- their monochromicity. Why should our schools be sensory deprivation zones? Why white and grey? Why can’t a shirt style be prescribed, but blue, pink or yellow versions be permitted as well, in addition to the white? I never used bleach before my kids entered school! And though it was a minor concern on balance, I regret the environmental degradation these white shirts necessitated.

The truth that surprised me most was that nearly every parent I spoke with felt blessed by uniforms: they were relieved to be delivered from daily arguments about appropriate dress, or from the need to replace each fashion fad their children Exhausted. School officials wanted the monogrammed shirts in part, it seemed, because many of the young women at high school routinely buy extremely tight, skimpy versions of the currently requisite button-down oxfords. No one ever adequately explained to me why, beyond colour and low-heel requirements, a particular brand of shoe was necessary.
Why can’t we parents face head-on the challenges that uniforms are supposed to address? If we have a problem with the sluttish dress of some of our daughters, or the exorbitance of the latest trend in jeans, we should face these issues forthrightly, not cover them over with grey flannel! Buck up, I say! Learn to say “No, that is not appropriate dress for school.” No further explanation is necessary. Our authority can be as arbitrary as “We are teaching you how to live up to society’s expectations. When you are a responsible adult, you can chose to conform or not, but at least you will know how to dress like a middle class prig.” If our kids will not obey our edicts concerning tattoos, body piercing or outlandish hair colour, are we really doing them any favours by abdicating our authority in favour of the school bureaucracy?
Finally, let me tell you about an unfortunate secret truth which lurks beneath the thrall of the Uniformists: it is the way it makes public schools and their students resemble, in the most superficial of ways, the exclusive private schools that pepper my Montreal neighbourhood. And that is a value that I do not share. We should be proud that our kids go to public schools, where all races, religions and socio-economic groups are represented and form a community, just like the real world to which they aspire. If there are improvements necessary in our schools to positively influence behaviour and comportment, let’s make these changes deep ones, not as superficial as the clothes on their backs, or colour of their hair.
My kids love their schools. And I’m grateful for all the hard work put in by the decimated custodial staff, the devoted teachers, concerned administrators and dynamic parent volunteers. I know by the middle of high school, my son shouldn’t be wandering about with his shirttail hanging out. But can you blame me if I wish the administration was more concerned with the originality of my kids’ minds, and less concerned about the conventionality of their dress? In the final analysis, shouldn’t their education be more about content, and less about form?

Bev Akerman, formerly a molecular genetics researcher, is now a Montreal writer. The Meaning of Children, her award-winning first book is available from Amazon)

(This essay was published in The Montreal Gazette, Maclean's Magazine, March 7, 2005, in Cynthia A. Bily, (Ed.) Students’ Rights. Introducing Issues With Opposing Viewpoints. Farmington Hills, MI: Greenhaven Press. 2009, and elsewhere)

Saturday 22 January 2011

"U.S. gun lobbies: the inmates who run the asylum"


If you've spent even 30 seconds over over the past couple of weeks since the shooting of US Rep. Gabrielle Giffords ( who was just successfully moved to intensive care at Texas Medical Center) thinking about gun control, you owe it to yourself to read this fine article by Gerald Caplan in yesterday's Toronto Globe and Mail.

It's such a great piece, I wish I'd written it myself. Here are the first two paragraphs...

"Why is the United States so much more violent than Canada?

Canadians receive, even welcome, violence-based American mass culture pumped out 24/7 by the mammoth entertainment industry. Yet our society remains dramatically less violent than theirs. Take guns.

"The United States has by far the highest gun homicide rate in the industrialized world. In a study of 23 of these nations, the American rate was nearly 20 times higher than the others. Some 100,000 shootings take place in the U.S. every year, 30,000 of them fatal. In Canada, with about one-tenth the U.S. population, 190 people were killed by guns in 2006. More than a million Americans have died from gun violence, whether by murders, suicides or accidents, since Martin Luther King was gunned down in 1968."


Caplan goes on to remind us that the NRA's annual budget is $307 million and represents some 4 million members. The pernicious effect of this group's power, according to Caplan:

"Here’s the paradox you need to grasp about the NRA: Its ferocious opposition to any form of gun control is motivated precisely by the American orgy of gun violence. Because of this violence, it will maintain its relentless pressure for government to eliminate (except for children) literally every possible constraint on owning and carrying guns – and the deadlier the gun, better."


Gun violence in America: how can anyone believe that MORE guns make people safer? Aren't 300 million guns enough, if that strategy made any sense at all?

Perhaps this is all because the US public school system has failed to instill critical thinking in its students and graduates.

Or maybe it's the relentless marketing of violence and guns in the movies and other media, the 'product placement' most of us seem to ignore. Weapons are among the biggest of US--and world, especially permanent members of the UN Security Council--business.

movie violence

This is not just about the's about the corruption of the political process.


gerald-caplan photo

Gerry Caplan is a Canadian academic, public policy analyst, commentator and political activist. He has worked in academia, as a political organizer for the New Democratic Party, an education advocate, in broadcasting and African affairs and as a commentator in various Canadian media. He was educated at the University of Toronto and the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, which accorded him a doctorate in African history, according to Wikipedia.


Beverly Akerman is a Montreal writer; her first collection of short fiction, The Meaning of Children, will soon be released by Exile Editions.

Saturday 15 January 2011

RIP Stephanie Hoddinott: Sad First Anniversary of Preventable Murder

stephanie h

As part of an homage to those killed and injured recently in Tuscon, where Rep. Gabrielle Giffords still lies in intensive care, I've been re-running some of my previous gun control-related posts. This piece coincides with the tragic anniversary of the murder of Stephanie Hoddinott. This sad event occurred in Canada, a place with relatively stringent gun control, compared to the United States of gunhappy America. Still, our laws are clearly not stringent enough, as her disturbed, estranged boyfriend obtained a handgun for "target practice." Unfortunately, the target was Stephanie. And how much practice is necessary to shoot someone point blank, anyway?

Here is an revamped version of my piece, which originally appeared in The Toronto Star:


It's been just over a year since another senseless handgun-related murder, the case of Stephanie Hoddinott, a 20-year-old woman. Stephanie had a 4.0 GPA in her veterinarian technician program, was smart, beautiful, and well-loved. On January 10th, 2010, she was murdered in her home by an ex-boyfriend who had legally purchased a handgun—supposedly for target-shooting. The crime has understandably devasted her mother, Brenda Passa: “Stephanie wasn’t just my daughter, she was my sister, and my best friend.”

The young man, Jake Ferrier, shot himself in the head almost immediately afterward, lingering several days on life support before succumbing to his self-inflicted injuries.

In a letter to Mr. Harper, Ms. Passa wonders why we permit so many guns in our society, since the vast majority of Canadians are no longer required to hunt for subsistence.

What she finds hardest to understand is why, in her province, an 18-year-old isn’t considered mature enough to legally buy a case of beer, but IS permitted to own a handgun.

It only takes one pull of the trigger to separate the law abiding citizen from the law breaking criminal, she says, pointing out that Canada's handgun restrictions haven't been updated since 1930.

Times have changed, she says: “Being 18 in 1930 is not like being 18 in 2010. Children live with their parents longer; they are younger emotionally and need time to develop before dangerous weapons” are made available.

She wants Canada's Prime Minister to change the age limits for gun ownership. And she wants target shooters to have their weapons confined to shooting ranges.


“I hope no one ever has to endure what I went through,” she says.

On January 10th last year, Jake texted Stephanie repeatedly (he had texted her 40 times the day before). She didn’t respond, so he showed up at Passa's house. Stephanie's mom met him at the door to say her daughter wouldn’t see him.

He said, “Not even for two minutes?” and Ms. Passa told him, “No, not even for two minutes, Jake. I’m sorry, I can’t make her.” She shut the door.

“I liked him,” Ms. Passa says.

She feels nobody who knew him would have predicted what happened next, insisting there had been no warning signs.

But, she notes, he certainly must have lied on the Possession and Acquisition License (PAL), the form that's completed and (supposedly) assessed before a person is permitted to buy a gun.

Ms. Passa says the PAL asks several significant questions. “Guess what?” she says, “the murderer lied on his application.” Jake Ferrier’s parents were in the midst of a divorce, and he had also recently broken up with Stephanie, facts the form asked for but Jake declined to note. “People are lying on these forms,” she says.

Ms. Passa went to her daughter’s room—Stephanie was packing for Toronto where she’d just started working at U of T (the University issued a heartfelt lament of her passing).

Stephanie had plans for her life: she wanted to attend vet school, and her mother supported her ambitions every step of the way.

On that fateful day last January, her mother asked if Jake had made any threats, but Stephanie said the problem was only his incessant texting. The two women finally decided Ms. Passa would call the young man’s mother to discuss the situation. Ms. Passa decided she'd shower first.

And it was while she was in the shower that she heard two loud bangs.

By the time she threw on her pyjamas and ran to her daughter’s room, Stephanie lay face down on the bed and Ms. Passa’s boyfriend was speaking with 911.

She kept calling her daughter's name but there was no response. Turning the girl over revealed she’d been shot in the head. The 911 technician told Ms. Passa to start CPR. “I blew in her mouth--blood was coming out of her neck and the top of her head. My daughter died in my arms, to the sound of my screaming." The 911 crew arrived to find her covered in her daughter’s blood.

stephanie h

Ms. Passa is clearly devastated. She has nightmares, she cries every day. She says she herself would legally be permitted to purchase a handgun immediately, asking, “Do you think I am in any state of mind to own a handgun?”

Ms. Passa intends to do everything in her power to toughen the gun laws. She is convinced keeping guns at shooting ranges would be workable and effective. “Fighting this is the only thing keeping my will to live, that's the only thing I have left now. Stephanie is not dying for nothing.”

Prime Minister Harper, Ms. Passa wants to know, can you help her?

A Facebook page set up by Stephanie’s cousin Tyler Hoddinott, “RIP Stephanie Hoddinott,” has over amassed nearly 4,000 members.

Tuesday 11 January 2011

Gun Control is Also a Women's Issue

The interesting thing about staring down a gun barrel is how small the hole is where the bullet comes out, yet what a big difference it would make in your social schedule.

~P.J. O’Rourke, Holidays from Hell, 1989

This post was originally published on another of my
blogs on Oct. 9, 2009. I rerun it here in recognition of the tragic shootings in Arizona, where Rep. Gabrielle Giffords lies in intensive care, in a medically induced coma. The alleged shooter sounds Jared Loughren sounds, not to put too fine a point on it, like a nutbar. He wasn't acceptable to military recruiters, he was exiled from the classroom for his erratic speech and behaviour. But hey buddy, wanna buy a semiautomatic Glock with an extended magazine? No problem!

Who can't help but conclude that the ease of procuring guns--in the USA in general and Arizona in particular--is partly responsible for this incident, leaving 6 dead so far and 14 injured? There are some
300 million guns in the USA, a third of them handguns. One hundred million guns are in private hands, the highest level of gun ownership in the world. Is it any wonder it is also accompanied by the highest rate of firearm homicide of any industrialized country? Those who believe MORE guns would make the country safer are, you should pardon the expression, off their rockers.

Do you really think another person whipping a gun out in the midst of the Loughner melee would have resulted in FEWER casualties? Only in a Vin Diesel movie...


Some 80 per cent of Canada's guns--numbering between 9 and 11 million, by various estimates--are owned by men, so perhaps by definition, gun control can be seen as a "woman's issue." And repeated polling shows a substantial majority of women support the gun registry, perhaps because we know that guns are often used to harm or intimidate women in the throes of domestic violence. Women around the world are at greatest risk of harm from their intimate partners—“the usual suspects” in such cases.

Fully 85 per cent of Canadian women who are murdered are killed by their spouse or partner, and most of those shot dead are killed with legally owned firearms.
Despite pro-gun lobby bluster, this gun violence is not just an urban phenomenon — the rate of women killed with guns is higher in rural areas because rural people own more guns. And murder is just the tip of the domestic violence iceberg—for every woman killed, many more are injured or threatened. And these “domestic violence” incidents appear in the papers almost daily. Several recent examples:

Smith AB, July 30th: Ian Jeffrey Paget kills estranged wife Joan Hanson, her daughter and granddaughter, and then turns the rifle on himself at her rural home in northern Alberta.

Kitchener ON, August 11th: Nadia Gehl is shot in early February at a bus stop close to her home. Waterloo police finally apprehend three suspects: her husband and two of his friends.

Orangeville ON, September 13th: Police investigate a murder-suicide that left a mother of two and her estranged husband dead. Witnesses say 39-year-old Heidi Ferguson, shot in the chest, sought help at a neighbour's. As she lay dying, Ferguson reportedly cried, "I've been shot by my husband ... please help me." An avid hunter and gun collector, Hugh Ferguson turned the gun on himself after a standoff with police.

Winnipeg MB, September 17th: Police are called after a 19-year-old woman is allegedly assaulted and threatened with a firearm. The woman flees the house and calls police from another area residence.

Fort St. John BC, September 30th: A northeastern B.C. man is shot and killed by the RCMP after a five-day standoff that began when the 41-year-old farm resident pursued a van carrying his wife, an unspecified number of children and a friend, and shot out the front tires.

Since the gun registry was created, close to 23,000 firearms licenses have been refused or revoked because of safety concerns. We register our cars and our dogs--not to register our guns would be criminal. No matter what the gun lobby says, gun control works. Consider the following :

· Controls on rifles and shotguns were strengthened in 1991: that year 1441 Canadians were killed with guns. By 2005, such deaths dropped by almost half, to 818.

· The number of Canadian women murdered with guns fell from 85 in 1991 to 32 in 2005. But the number of women murdered by weapons other than firearms declined only slightly during the same period of time. Again, the effectiveness of gun control is inescapable.

My son was at Dawson College on September 13, 2006 when Kimveer Gill went on his murderous rampage. I will never understand why Mr. Gill had such easy access to such enormous firepower--the fact that he managed to kill “only” a single young woman was due to the fortuitous coincidental presence of two brave and well-trained police officers. (I say “only” because, of course, for her parents, family and friends, the murder of 18-year-old Anastasia De Sousa is no small loss.) Kimveer Gill didn't need those guns and he shouldn't have had them. Why should his right to feel "big and bad" have trumped Ms. De Sousa’s, my son's, or anyone else’s safety? And so I support more gun control, not less. Please don’t let our Parliament send Bill C-391, the bill to dismantle the long-gun registry, to committee, the next step in the legislative process.

Though our Prime Minister may refuse to face it, rifles and shotguns are the firearms used most often to threaten women and children, and the weapons of choice in the murder of police officers. Look, for example, at the 4 Mounties killed in Mayerthorpe, AB. And the only charges levied in that case were against the gun providers, who were traceable only because of the gun registry! When Mr. Harper talks about law and order one day, and laxer gun control the next, I'm not sure whether to laugh or cry. Contact your MP on this issue. Don't let Mr. Harper play fast and loose with our children's lives.

Sunday 9 January 2011

The Solution is Simple: No More Guns

(To mark the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, still in critical condition--and the murder of 6 others, with 13 more injured--here is a re-issue of the first article on gun control I wrote, published in The Montreal Gazette, Sept. 19, 2006, following the murderous rampage/suicide of Kimveer Gill the previous week):

I am the mother of a Dawson College student, was friendly with a beloved husband and father killed at Concordia University 14 years ago, and worked in a non-traditional occupation - molecular genetics research - when the Ecole Polytechnique massacre took place. My husband, Russell Copeman, is a provincial politician who spends much of the year at the National Assembly in Quebec City, where three were killed and 13 wounded by a deranged Canadian soldier in 1984. And so I feel myself uniquely placed to respond to the events of Sept. 13.

My response is not to launch a fruitless inquiry into the "root causes" of this catastrophic occurrence. I couldn't care a whit whether the perpetrator of last Wednesday's atrocities was refused academic admission to Dawson College, whether he was bullied as a child, either in school or at home. I think it's irrelevant if he grew up with a chip on his shoulder because of some imagined slight, or even if he or his family suffered in the past from some form of persecution, be it real or imagined, in Canada or elsewhere.

To me, there can be no mitigating factors for murder, whether the locus of attack is a college campus in downtown Montreal, a nightclub in Tel Aviv, a skyscraper in New York City, or some parched crossroads among the rubble of Afghanistan. Murder is murder is murder. Each one should fall under the rubric of "hate crime."

When 14 young Montrealers, full of hope, ambition and promise, had their lives snuffed out because they had earned the privilege of studying engineering while another could not, many people I knew, especially women, insisted the "root cause" of this crime was our society's oppression of women, an opinion at which I scoffed.

When gun control was trumpeted as the panacea to these horrible killings, I was skeptical. I bought the argument that gun control penalized the law-abiding, rather than the criminals. I was sensitive to the position that people living rural lifestyles needed firearms as part of their daily lives, a situation unimaginable to me, given my urban existence.

Well, I am skeptical and sensitive no more. Last Wednesday was the drop that made the glass overflow, as we say in Quebec. The balance has shifted. I realize more clearly now that my choice must be to care more for the potential victims than the potential perpetrators.

So that's my response to the Dawson killings: No more guns. It's as simple as that. Because no one can accurately predict who among us will become unhinged enough to explode in bloody slaughter, I believe that guns should be unavailable to the public.

I don't trust psychiatrists - much less gun-registry officials - to ferret out what lies deep in the hearts of men. After all, Concordia administrators, some of whom had equipped their own offices with locks and panic buttons because of Valery Fabrikant's continued harassment, consulted a psychiatrist about the demented professor before his murderous rampage. I saw the same psychiatrist on television last week, hovering in the background following the Dawson shootings.

According to journalist Morris Wolfe, the psychiatrist had deemed it "unlikely" that Fabrikant, a professor repeatedly denied tenure, would become violent ( /essays/fabrikant.html).

So if a trained psychiatrist with an abiding interest in severe and chronic psychotic illness, confronted with a man he himself has diagnosed as having "a personality disorder" cannot foresee the coming explosion of rage, all the administrative screening in the world won't be able to keep legal guns out of the hands of loonies. The solution that's clearest to me is to make guns - both legal and illegal - impossible to get.

And so, as a mother, a woman, and a sentient human being, I'm telling Prime Minister Stephen Harper and the entire government of Canada to wake up and smell the coffee: If you persist in your intended dismantling of the gun registry instead of making it harder for people to own guns, there will be hundreds of thousands of us marching in the streets of Montreal. I guarantee it.

Saturday 8 January 2011

Suicide and its Survivors: When People We Know Kill Themselves

(My first commissioned professional article, Originally published in The National Review of Medicine issue of January 30, 2004. I reproduce it here because suicide remains an issue close to my heart. If you know of someone struggling with depression or suicide--or close to someone who is--please reach out. In Montreal, please contact Suicide Action Montreal, tel. 514-723-4000 or 1-877-277-3553. Outside Quebec, you can find helplines at  Remember: concern and compassion work wonders. Godspeed.)

Eli Puterman is an engaging young man with a ready smile. Currently studying clinical psychology at the University of British Columbia, he was 22 when his partner committed suicide. Stephane was found in a field behind Eli's parents' home, clutching a photo of Eli. He expired in hospital of an overdose and hypothermia. Eli had just terminated their year-long relationship, several months after having found Stephane in their apartment, the veins of one arm slashed. 

Although news to Eli, Stephane had made several previous suicide attempts In the aftermath of the suicide, no counselling was offered or suggested. Says Mr Puterman: "one of the doctors was the only [person] to acknowledge that I was the partner, the boyfriend. He was the only one who asked me how I was doing, put his arm around me to see if I was okay. And let me speak for a bit. I was destroyed for awhile. I was a zombie. I had a friend, a psychologist, who called me once a week to make sure that I was okay, to see if I had gone into therapy yet. Finally she said to me 'What are you waiting for?' It took about three months for me to get into therapy. I didn't want to. I kind of thought that I should, wasn't sure, felt I could cope on my own. Therapy was the best thing I ever did in my life, to reach out and talk about it." 


Caroline Smart is a facilitator with the self-help group Family Survivors of Suicide (FSOS). Many of the people she encounters had no idea that their loved one was wrestling with death; half of suicides succeed on their first attempt. "I often recommend the Kubler-Ross book On Death and Dying to our survivors, because they go through the same sort of grief process dying people experience", she asserts, referring to shock and denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. The double stigma of suicide and mental illness differentiates the grief of survivors, however. Some survivors experience guilt-tinged relief, liberated from the stress of caring for or coping with a mentally ill person. 

After the first unsuccessful slashed wrist attempt, Eli had Stephane admitted to a local hospital. After three days he was discharged. What Eli interpreted as the system's callowness has plagued him ever since. "... they let him go. There was no follow-up interview. There was nothing! And I freaked out. I begged every single person in his life except for his family -- he didn't want his family -- to take him in, because I couldn't take care of him. And no one wanted to. Everyone had helped him already, they were tired of helping him."


Several years later, Eli was asked to facilitate a teen survivors group. He told them, "Many people feel guilty after somebody has killed themselves; they think 'I should have been the person who brought them to the hospital. I should have been the person who made sure they went to see a psychologist or a psychiatrist'. Everyone I know who has survived a suicide has tried to help the person who committed suicide. Everyone has tried to talk to them and to convince them to get help." 

Systematic study of survivors is in its infancy; Dr. Gustavo Turecki of the McGill Group for Suicide Studies hopes to develop a centre to support families and treat pathological bereavement. His multi-disciplinary group focuses on genetics, molecular biology of the brains of suicide completers (e.g. dense microarray gene expression studies) and clinical studies (e.g. psychological autopsies, family studies). Currently, support for survivors is mostly provided by self-help groups such as FSOS. 

Declares Caroline Smart: "We get people, sometimes, after 30 years; they have only just decided to talk." McGill's Social Work Faculty created the group in 1988, spurred by parent-survivors. It meets bi-weekly, from September to June. Catholic Family Services provides non-denominational referral backup, helping too with administration and planning. Survivors share their experiences, or simply listen. Self-expression, in many forms, is strongly encouraged. FSOS has semi-annual open meetings, and has organized other events, such as a vernissage of survivors' artworks. 

Meeting those who have managed to continue meaningful lives following suicide is a great comfort to the newly bereaved: "It shows them they can go on, and go on to have good lives, too." Caroline, a survivor herself, notes that invited speakers suffer from a credibility problem unless they too are survivors. Often what clients need most is to tell their stories. "We are trying to get the word out . . . we do get referrals from a number of sources already but don't feel that our name is out there, the way it should be," she says.