Wednesday 20 June 2012

Westmount blinks on traffic safety issues at Akiva School after parent hit by car

Aaron Akerman stands near the Metcalfe/Springfield intersection where he was hit by a car on May 22nd. With him is Alex Kuczma, part of the security team at Shaar Hashomayim/Akiva School. Green plastic bollards are newly installed. Photo: Beverly Akerman


Reported on June 18, 2012

After dragging its feet for months, the city of Westmount has begun addressing traffic safety issues at a problematic intersection near Akiva School, following a May 22nd accident in which a parent was hit by a car.

Akiva officially requested improved safety provisions at the Metcalfe and Springfield intersection four months ago, said the school's head, Cooki Levy. After witnessing several near-misses there involving children, local resident and Akiva parent Dan Wolfensohn started a crusade to improve pedestrian safety.

He’s pleaded with mayor Peter Trent and director general Duncan Campbell for a stop sign, crosswalk, and crossing guard during peak hours, amenities enjoyed by nearby Selwyn House, Saint-Léon, and Roslyn schools.

Wolfensohn calls the situation outside the school at peak periods “chaotic,” with parents double-parked or illegally parked, serious traffic bottlenecks, illegal u-turns, “delivery trucks and city vehicles speed[ing] their way up and down Metcalfe in frustration… Add to this a very busy driveway out of the synagogue parking lot with a blind turn, and we have a recipe for disaster.” Warnings and tickets hadn’t curbed the mayhem.

Westmount’s initial responses “didn’t really acknowledge the seriousness of the problem,” Wolfensohn said. But official inertia appears to have ended after a car backed into Aaron Akerman (full disclosure: Aaron is this correspondent’s brother) as he navigated the intersection with his children, ages 6 and 7, on the rainy morning of May 22nd.

Thrown to the asphalt and banged up but not seriously hurt, Akerman fired off an email in support of changes to the intersection the same day. “I think it’s a matter of luck that nothing more serious has happened,” Akerman said.

The first response Akerman received had him shaking his head: the committee wouldn’t assign a crossing guard, according to Campbell, because the intersection was “dangerous due to [poor] visibility and illegally parked cars.”

Further exchanges, however, led Campbell to inform Akerman by email of the decision “to increase the length of the loading zone on the south side of Cote Road (sic)” and install plastic bollards to enhance visibility at the Metcalfe/Springfield intersection.

On the morning June 11th, David Sedgwick, Westmount’s public security director, met the two Akiva fathers outside the school to inspect the new setup. Sedgwick, who patrolled Westmount for 25 years before becoming security chief, agreed with Akerman and Wolfensohn’s evaluation of the traffic safety conditions at the school, noting that 4 p.m. pickups were even worse. His primary goal, he says, is “to make things as safe as possible.” He’s hopeful that the improved visibility due to the bollards will be enough to tame the problem.

Neither Wolfensohn nor Akerman appeared completely satisfied, vowing to continue to press for a stop sign, crosswalk, and crossing guard if the bollards don’t do the trick.

“Our first thought is to improve visibility, and if we need to put in a crosswalk, we’ll put in a crosswalk,” Sedgwick responded. Traffic speed and volume counts had been done the previous week; the intersection is on the agenda for the traffic committee’s next meeting, June 19th.

When asked why the traffic situation had gotten so much worse over time, Wolfensohn said he thought the problem stemmed from Akiva having doubled its enrolment between 2002 and 2009. The Jewish parochial school now has approximately 350 students; another 100 or so youngsters attend the Shaar Hashomayim’s Foundation School day care in the same location.

Akiva head of school Levy says she’s “very grateful” for the new bollards. Following the accident, the school reiterated its drop-off guidelines in an email to parents, summarized here:

• Park only in prescribed “loading zone” spaces or legal parking spots.
• When backing into a parking spot, check carefully for pedestrians. Don’t rush.
• Using the designated crosswalks at Côte St. Antoine Rd. or Sherbrooke St. is safer than crossing at Springfield, which has no crosswalk.

Originally published on

Wednesday 13 June 2012

Quebec's student strike: exercise in democracy or attempt at mob rule?

No matter how many warm and fuzzy videos are broadcast on Al Jazeera, no matter how they fulminate on the threat to civil liberties Bill 78 supposedly presents, having to pass “An Act to enable students to receive instruction from the post-secondary institutions they attend,” is a terrible black eye on Quebec’s student movement. #GGI represents a fundamental assault on democracy.

This isn’t “doing politics differently”: it’s an attempt at mob rule.

And if the protesters think they reflect the majority in Quebec, their arithmetical savvy is as compromised as their politics. In fact, the students’ sense of entitlement—not to mention cluelessness about what real threats to human rights look like – is yet another sign that our university system was already in serious trouble before the “strike” was even a glint in Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois’ eye.

Those outside the province should rest assured that the protests, only a few of them impressively large-scale, are largely evening affairs. We’ve lived through the War Measures Act, two referendums, and the ice storm; a few potbangers ain’t nothin’ gonna break our stride. The festival season is just about to hit –the Fringe, Festival TransAmériques, Circus Arts, Francofolies, Jazz Fest, Nuits d’Afrique, Just for Laughs, film fests – and everyone is welcome to the party that is summer in Montreal.

But that doesn’t mean there isn’t serious collateral damage:

  • New students: A mother tells me her daughter will attend Dawson College next year instead of her first choice, Collège de Maisonneuve, where the winter semester was interrupted by the strike. Classes at de Maisonneuve are scheduled to resume in August – but what if students refuse to go back? What if the fall semester, pushed back to October 1st, doesn’t go ahead as planned? “What if those who were supposed to graduate after the interrupted semester stay on and there’s no room for my daughter?” the mother worries. The more militant schools are at risk of losing students due to dropouts and transfers.

  • Untenured teachers: A woman I know teaches on a contractual basis at one of the universities affected by the strike. Unlike tenured professors, she isn’t paid if she doesn’t teach. So far, two of her contracts were cancelled; now she’s on employment insurance and seriously concerned about making her mortgage payments.

  • Intimidation: A fellow writer tells me about his partner, a CEGEP teacher whose union strongly supports the class boycott. He phoned a radio talk show to offer his opinion on the “strike.” “Whatever you do,” she implored, “please don’t use your real name.” He didn’t. And don’t get me started on the intimidation among students: shouting down dissent, refusing to hold secret ballot votes, drowning out university events with bullhorns, clashing with students in classrooms

  • Free tuition is a gift for the rich: A few years back, my son went to Brazil with Canada World Youth. That’s how I learned that free--but not unlimited--places at university end up going to rich students. Unlike the poor students who attend public high schools, those from private schools end up best prepared for the stringent, compulsory entrance exams. Even Finland and Germany, oft-cited by those beating their pots for free tuition here, have such exams. Free doesn’t mean everyone gets to go.

  • Knocking Quebec’s most serious education problem off the map: Quebec has one of the highest high school dropout rates of all the provinces; according to statistics from 2009, about one-third of Quebec boys never graduate from high school. But since the university students's street theatre shenanigans--like taking their clothes off, painting themselves red, and banging on pots--nobody’s talking about the serious issue of this potentially permanent underclass.
  • One thing is certain: this imbroglio will be solved. And I sincerely hope the government hangs tough. To do otherwise is “letting the tail wag the dog” and will ensure this happens over and over again. Which, of course it has: in 1996, then-education minister Pauline Marois proposed a 30 per cent tuition increase. Massive protests led to her backing down. No wonder she wears a red square these days.

    Remember: if we capitulate to mob rule on university tuition, the next time the forces of darkness seek to abolish a law or impose one—abortion or gay marriage, anyone? – all it should take is a few large, well-timed demonstrations.

    Beverly Akerman, author of The Meaning of Children, lost the better part of a semester when her CEGEP teachers went on a five-week strike in the late ‘70s.

    (This article was originally published on OpenFileMtl)

    Watch Bev's interview on SunTV about the student strike: 

    Monday 4 June 2012

    What women want or 'Fifty Shades' to please your lover (Part One)

    After a few action-packed high-culture days in Toronto at the Canadian Creative Writers and Writing Programs biannual conference, I arrived back in Montreal to familiar familial bedlam, co-starring my favourite swisster-in-law and the youngest of her brood, twin two-year-olds, gorgeous and--oh so luckily for all concerned, not mine--at a Mother’s Day barbeque.

    Perhaps that’s why I felt no guilt on choosing Fifty Shades of Grey as my next great gulp of prose for ingestion, selected for its “tastes good” rather than “good for you” value.

    I was choosing for fun,
    I was choosing for play,
    I was rationalizing that, to stay in touch with readerland,
    I simply must read Fifty Shades of Grey.

    Also, I’d given it to the hubster 10 days or so earlier; far as I was concerned, I’d already gotten my money’s worth, even before cracking its spine.

    The book’s, I mean.

    A couple of weeks back, the New York Times reported that over 10 million copies of the Fifty Shades trilogy had been sold in the USA in the preceding month and a half.


    There’s something in these books, like the Twilight series that seeded them, that touches that WWW sweet spot.

    Not the World Wide Web, but What Women Want. And if we have any respect for women at all—and we do!—aren’t we are obligated, honour-bound, in fact--to try to figure out what, exactly, is going on here?

    At least, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

    Am I embarrassed or ashamed to admit I enjoyed the first two novels, number one especially? Would I be telling the world if I was?

    Let me put it this way: does it make sense to arbitrarily restrict one’s dietary consumption to caviar, watercress sandwiches, and champagne? Wouldn’t that be a bit…limiting? Some days, I might hanker for filet mignon, other times a greasy hamburger. Doesn’t mean I don’t know that meat isn’t—necessarily—good for me, or that a steady diet of it alone might make me ill.

    Well, filet mignon it’s not: Fifty Shades of Grey is the literary equivalent of the popcorn and cotton candy diet, this year’s Thelma & Louise and Twilight, all rolled up and…er, bound together. Another chance for the moralizers among us to throw up their hands in horror at The Turn Today’s Woman has taken, for the gatekeepers of Serious Fiction to turn up their noses at our lousy choices. Another chance for the snooterati to patronize us, the women who make their livings for them. Because the vast majority of books are purchased and read by women. And yet many of our fictional tastes are considered slightly…malodorous.

    FSoG is only marginally about BDSM. In essence, it’s an old-fashioned love story, with a few licks of the switch thrown in. The hero—Christian Grey--is brilliant, handsome, young, and rich beyond the dreams of avarice. He flies helicopters, sails, owns multiple homes, cars, and businesses. But he is also hugely flawed—abused and neglected as a child—and he re-enacts this damage in the boudoir. He meets Anastasia Steele, the girl-of-the-dreams-he-hardly-knew-he-had, by accident: Ana’s roommate, Kate, is scheduled to interview Grey for the university paper, but Kate comes down with the flu and Ana steps up to the plate for her friend.

    Vintage romance. Almost, dare I say it, Shakespearian.

    Grey is mesmerized (shades of Twilight) and hopes to entice Ana into becoming his BDSM submissive. Ana, quickly (but luckily, not too quickly!) seduced, is ready to sign up for a three month contract as a submissive to Grey’s Dominant.

    Until she faces the fact that, delightful as all this sex is, she wants…More.

    Of course, Grey also falls for Ana, and much of the first two books are about establishing their relationship, and working out the…er, kinks.

    But eventually, Grey is ready to abandon all his “kinky fuckery,” as they take to calling it. Until Ana tells him, essentially, not so fast, buster.

    Having read the first two books of the trilogy, let me break it down for you: Fifty Shades of Grey is all about erotic tension, the threat of discipline and punishment more than the actual acts themselves. Like all romance, it’s most potently about the yearning, with the usual massive dollops of needless complication thrown in.

    It is also clearly based on Twilight, the residue of which remains in repeated corny references to blood—throbbing, pulsing, singing through veins, heating up, etc. Not to mention the endless self-analysis, which can get old pretty quick. At least in James’ version, the reader is frequently distracted from the “whatever shall I dos?” by sex, much of it “vanilla,” in the characters’ words.

    FSoG is a sometimes hilarious melange, an homage to the work of Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum1, Stephenie Meyers’ Twilight series 2, and Helen Fields’ Bridget Jones Diary3.

    It’s also often incredibly shallow and occasionally dumbfounding to this long-married middle-aged woman (what is she on about with all this talk of the way Grey’s jeans hang from his hips?? If anyone out there has half a clue, would they please enlighten me? Please send pictures!)

    As well as Twilight, I kept thinking Taming of the Shrew, though it’s a good long while since I’ve seen or read the Shakespeare. There is a Katherine in FSoG, but she isn’t the heroine. Besides, Ana isn’t a shrew. A beautiful twenty-two year old virgin, in this day and age, who not only has never had sex, but has never even held hands with a man before? Most surprising of all perhaps, in this Apple-heavy escapade, is her lack of a laptop. But perhaps even the oft-repeated Apple references are symbolic rather than product placement.
    Or maybe not. (Maybe they're just symbolic of Twilight, come to think of it!)

    If I had to pick a fairy tale that FSoG most resembles, I’d choose Beauty and the Beast. And what a mouth-wateringly lovely Beast he is, if you’re into the young, drop dead gorgeous, self-made millionaire type, trying simultaneously to feed Darfur and wrestle a Tragic Secret Past to the ground. Is it any wonder complications ensue? Fifty Shades is nothing if not formulaic romance, albeit with a riding crop and a couple of pairs of lined handcuffs thrown in for frissons.

    Oh and clambering. Lots and LOTS of clambering. I start tracking the word after it appears twice on p. 177 in book one, underlining recurrences on pages 353, 355, 361, 368, 444, 455, 469, 476, and 491.

    Note to fledgling authors: avoid this and similar marquee words—“clattering” is another that comes to mind--like the plague.

    Also, train yourself to avoid clichés such as “like the plague” like the plague.

    E.L. James employs numerous literary references, perhaps to trick us into imagining this is higher-brow fiction than it is. Sort of like giving the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles the names of Renaissance painters. Or maybe this is just more of the Twilight fan fiction motif, with Tess of the d'Urbervilles subbing for Romeo and Juliet.

    It is often guffawingly funny, sometimes unintentionally, as with Briticisms like “rucksack” and “sidelight” (which I think might mean night table lamp), which are corrected in the second volume in the series, as is the clambering, unfortunately. But there are many times when, I am convinced, James is intentionally hilarious.

    “Grey—you’re on my shit list and I’m watching you,” BFF Kate at one point hisses at our gorgeous but sadly warped stud muffin.

    Then there’s this moment near the end of the first book, as Christian prepares Ana for her sophomore sexploits in the Red Room of Pain (p.487, James’ emphasis):

    “I am going to tie you to that bed, Anastasia. But I’m going to blindfold you first and,” he reveals his iPod in his hand, “you will not be able to hear me. All you will hear is the music I am going to play for you.”

    Okay. A musical interlude. Not what I was expecting. Does he ever do what I expect? Jeez, I hope it’s not rap.

    It is to laugh out loud.

    There’s even a character introduced as Mr. J. Hyde near the end of book one.

    “You’ve got to be kidding,” snaps my inner cynic. “Mr. Jekyll N. Hyde, I presume??”

    Mercifully, though, the character’s name is Jack, sans N. I know immediately we’ll be hearing more of him in book two (he’s Ana’s new boss, an editor at the small literary publisher where she’ll be a paid intern. Another joke, methinks). And I can’t quite put my finger on it, but something tells me he may be a bit of a villain.

    Bottom line: it may lead to a smidge more sex in suburbia—and who could really be against that?—but I’ll wager Fifty Shades of Grey isn’t nearly the threat to the morals of America some are suggesting. Given the mainstreaming of porn the past couple of decades and that our kids witness tens of thousands of violent fictional murders before attaining the age of majority—Brad Pitt recently saying he’d have a harder time with his kids seeing him portray a cinematic racist, “than someone who would shoot a guy in the face”--it seems a little weird to be “oh my-ing” about a smattering of soft core sex.

    E.L. James clearly had fun putting it together, so why can’t we simply just lie back and think of England? Why can’t we just swallow it all down in the spirit in which it is offered: as a bit of a lark, Ana in chains having a wee bit of a romp with her Sir Galahad, aka the King of Pain?

    If my own experience is anything to go by, what these millions and millions of mostly married North American women may want is the opportunity to read, talk about, and experiment with the more than fifty shades to please your lover.

    1Joe vs. José, Taylor vs. Tank, the feistiness and clutziness (but no cars are destroyed in the commission of this novel), the many cars in the condo garage (visions of Rangeman enterprises), all that body wash talk--Ranger uses Bulgari

    2All the talk of alabaster skin, the references to blood e.g. singing in the veins, the deep dark secret, the hero’s father’s name: Carrick vs. Carlyle. The fact that one of his parents is a doctor.

    3That email really boosts the page count, doesn’t it?


    Want more Bev? Watch this interview about her book, The Meaning of Children, now available on

    Luka Magnotta, Out of the Blue, and why I believe Jan Wong is still out to lunch in the land of denial

    I’d always followed Jan Wong’s career because I found her writing consistently interesting: her books about China and her tragic flirtation with Maoism—now there’s teenage rebellion carried to extreme—her work as a journalist there during the Tiananmen era, her articles about going undercover as a domestic worker, the occasional “Lunch With” columns, etc. etc. etc.

    And then there was her work about the Dawson College shooting.

    My son was at Dawson College on Sept. 13, 2006--a date “that will live in infamy” in my overloaded cranium, I’m afraid--and I’ve written about the Dawson shooting, too. But my slant was on the necessity for more and better gun control—Lepine, Fabrikant, and Gill all managed to legally purchase their lethal weapons—why were guns so easily available to these men?

    Unlike Jan Wong, I didn’t give a rat’s ass about the “why” of the shootings:

    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.”

    But I’ve always had a feeling there’s something wrong with Jan Wong’s approach to the world, something I couldn't quite put my finger on, but something that made me uneasy nonetheless. Maybe she’s the sort of person who would be great in a war zones or in places undergoing great upheaval, but who can’t make a go of it in the quiet of everyday life in Canada. Too bristly, always looking for a way to make misery out of nothing.

    A person obsessed with the notion that the main point of journalism is to afflict the comfortable.

    In which case I doubt I will ever be a journalist, because I believe most people are fundamentally good, even if they’re comfortable (though look how far that attitude got Anne Frank…or Blanche Dubois!).

    When shots rang at Dawson, the third-generation Montrealer was the logical go-to for a big feature. Under tight deadline, Wong observed that the Dawson shooter, and the shooters at the École Polytechnique and Concordia, were children of immigrants. All three, she wrote, “had been marginalized in a society that valued pure laine,” argot for “pure” francophones: “Elsewhere, to talk of racial ‘purity’ is repugnant. Not in Quebec.”

    …[Wong] still contends she was misunderstood. She fishes in her knapsack for a piece of paper with the contentious paragraph. “Everybody is saying I said they shot people because of Bill 101. Where does it say that? I never said that!”

    Let me make an admission here: unlike Anne Kingston, or Wong’s laudatory apologist Heather Mallick (who, unbelievably, is mentioned in the Out of the Blue preface and still managed to get a column published in The Toronto Star about Wong’s new “workplace divorce memoir”), I am not Jan Wong’s friend; I’ve never met her. However, I am both similar to and different from Jan Wong: a non-pure laine third generation Quebecer, albeit one who never left Quebec.

    And, seriously, Wong as the go-to person? Why didn’t they use a Quebec-based journalist? Surely The Globe and Mail had some….

    I found the episode as facilely presented in the above articles, and on Wong’s website and youtube video , very disturbing, and not at all as I recalled it. I know I was hopping mad about Wong’s article when I read it at the time and remember firing off an infuriated letter to the editor in response.

    So from the bowels of the internet, I pulled up the article Wong wrote about the Dawson College shootings.

    Wong makes it sound like the origin of the uproar was a single sentence in the 3,000+ words of her 2006 article. But the truth is, she spent over 400 words on this whacko analysis: not a throw-away sentence but a major integral part of her piece. Her thesis is clearly that Quebec’s emphasis on ethnic/racial purity is profoundly alienating and is part of the explanation for Kimveer Gill’s—and Marc Lepine’s, and Valery Fabrikant’s--murderous rampages.

    So I’ve been wondering when she’ll see fit to ascribe alleged cannibal killer Luka Magnotta’s rampage on Bill 101 and Quebec racism, too? Or maybe it’s our lack of acceptance of alt lifestyles that pushed him over the edge? Oh wait—Quebec is a Canadian leader in acceptance of gay lifestyles, so maybe that won’t wash. What about the psychology behind the Robert Picton, Homolka-Bernardo, or Russell Williams affairs? Any zany thoughts on the psychosociality of those criminals? Either she’s learned her lesson (though she denies it) or it’s only in Quebec that such links occur.

    I remember reading Wong’s 2006 article and thinking both she and her editor deserved to be fired over it. It read like the ravings of some anglo-Quebec dinosaur from the Equality Party, not the purview of Canada’s newspaper of record.

    I’m no great friend of the Société Saint Jean Baptiste--or of Bill 101--but I believe the fury that rained down on Jan Wong and The Globe and Mail as a result of her article was deserved, if in some measure disproportionate. Self-inflicted, even.

    And if anyone in the article deserves to be skewered as racist, surely it was Jan herself:

    For security reasons — security of the equipment — that is, the computer lab had three vast windows that looked onto the hall. All 50 or so students hit the floor, everyone that is, except for a couple of students who continued working at their computers. Were they Asian?

    “Everyone asks me that,” says Alex laughing, much later, from the safety of his home. “One was a white guy who was writing an essay. The other was a black guy who was searching the Internet.” 
    Maybe she thought she was being funny, or that this was QED--highlighting Montrealers’ racism.

    I haven’t read her new book, Out of the Blue, but if the premise is that her depression came “out of the blue,” I’m afraid Jan Wong is still out to lunch in the land of denial. And I’m not talkin’ Egypt here.

    Jan Wong’s depression sounds to me to have been pretty well self-inflicted, and I say this in sorrow and as a person not wholly unacquainted with depression. That The Globe and Mail used whatever pretext it did to fire her—and, eventually, editor Edward Greenspon--doesn’t surprise me. The article should have been rejected or those damning 400 words altered.

    Wong’s book-long skewering of The Globe for firing her reminds me of the standard definition of chutzpah: a young man who murdered both his parents throwing himself on the mercy of the court because he's an orphan.

    It was about her judgement. It was about her editor’s inability to save her from herself.

    Maybe Wong's editor Edward Greenspon should have borne the brunt of the ire. Her writing crossed the line. As a seasoned journalist, a deadline doesn't qualify as an excuse when the result is provincial character assassination. It was her editor's job to rein her in, to correct her lapses. Another epic fail. Her remarks revealed an appalling ignorance of and lack of respect for the evolution of Quebec society over the past 30 years. Not to mention the sort of pseudo-intellectualizing that would have been shot down in a CEGEP termpaper. If there was still a CEGEP term, I mean.

    I'm sure The Globe and Mail would’ve had a hard time printing an article--even one of "analysis" or "opinion"--that baldly asserted Marc Lepine's murderous instincts were the result of his Algerian Arab heritage. How, then, could it justify tarring an entire neighbouring community of millions of people?

    A former colleague puts it another way: “The instincts that led her to Maoism in her early years never left her personality.” 

    Yeah, I'll say.

    And if you think this post is hard on her or if you’d like to really see Wong skewered, you should read  this Warren Kinsella’s blog post which starts with “What a load of deepest Annex bullshit” and proceeds to this conclusion:

    Jan Wong is scum. She is human garbage. I was delighted to hear that the Globe eventually severed their relationship with her. And I am equally delighted that she continues to drown in her own bile, and her own irrelevance.

    As long as I live, I will never forgive Jan Wong for what she did to our family.  May her misery be long and deep.

    Kinsella’s diatribe links to the origins of his problem with Jan Wong in the piece “Eat this Jan Wong.”

    Friday 1 June 2012

    More about the Quebec student "strike": Sun News interview

    After my article in The Montreal Gazette appeared, I was contacted and invited to appear on Charles Adler, a talk show on Sun News TV. Thanks to Mark Bonokoski...

    Here's the interview: