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Feb '10

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Great Can-Lit picks for all ages

December, 2009

Former Governor General’s Literary Awards finalist Budge Wilson, author of several novels, short stories, and a prequel to Anne of Green Gables, once said she never liked the “young adult” category in fiction writing. This label implies, she says, that such a book is less worthy as literature. “Yet, all it means is that the central character is a child or that the story is told from a child’s perspective”.

This year’s GG award winner in the category of children’s literature, Caroline Pignat’s Greener Grass, is a case in point. The book recreates perhaps the most painful period in Irish history, the 1847 potato famine, when conditions were unimaginably inhumane and thousands were left to starve. The story, told by young Kathleen Byrne, is one of heroism, courage and survival.

In Sister Wife, also nominated in this category, Shelley Hrdlitschka recreates a polygamous community, here known as Unity, where young girls are married off to older men and where a strict code of behaviour overrides individual human rights.

Still in Children’s Literature, Tim Wynne-Jones’ The Uninvited takes readers on an eerie journey to an enchanting country house. The setting’s quaint charm merely adds to the sense of uneasiness throughout this gripping thriller that is also a family drama.

Alice Munro’s short stories have been compared to Chekhov’s work. In Too Much Happiness, nominated in the fiction category, Munro brings us ten stories that display her mastery of short fiction writing. Though a GG finalist this year, Munro is a three-time winner of the Governor General’s Awards.

Munro was a primary influence on a young emerging writer, Deborah Willis, whose first short story collection, Vanishing and Other Stories, was nominated this year.

Willis is an exciting and original voice in the landscape of Canadian fiction. Her handling of form is almost musical, as she sometimes tells her stories in more than one voice, in multiple time frames or alternative scenarios.

“The emotional range and depth of these stories, the clarity and deftness, is astonishing,” commented Munro on this debut collection.

Those who want to escape this reality and enter another world will be entertained and enchanted by Annabel Lyon’s The Golden Mean. In a bold leap of the imagination, Lyon explores the relationship between the philosopher Aristotle and his 13-year-old student and future conqueror of the Ancient World, Alexander the Great.

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Extinct: a wildlife species that no longer exists

Are harbour seals at risk? Photo: Mike Baird

March 2009

In the last 500 years, since the first European settlers began to arrive, over 30 species of wildlife have become extinct in Canada. Currently over 30 plant and animal species are considered to be “at risk” in this country, meaning they may disappear forever unless something is done to improve their chances of survival.

It is estimated that at least 13 of our plant and animal species have become extinct on the planet and at least 20 others are no longer found in Canada. Climate change, industrialization, pollution and the consequential destruction of the environment are some of the threats to the Earth’s biodiversity.

At this time, Fisheries and Oceans Canada is in the process of deciding whether the harbour seal population of Lacs des Loups Marins (Ungava Peninsula) should be legally protected under the Species at Risk Act.

Isolated for at least 3,000 years from harbour seals that live in the ocean, this particular populationmay number as few as 100 individuals. In the past their numbers declined because of hunting, but now hydroelectric development of their habitat is the major threat they face.

When a species is declared to be at risk, legal measures may be implemented to limit encroaching development and effortsmay be under- taken to encourage the population to thrive.

The public is invited to have a say in the fate of the harbour seals of Lacs des Loups Marins. You may comment on whether you believe these animals should qualify for protection. To do so, or for more information on species at risk, visit www.sararegistry.gc.ca or call 877-775-0848 before March 31.

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Filming with a cause

March 2009

Since the camera was invented, it has borne witness to the human condition. During the 10th Action Week against Racism, the 4th edition of the Montreal Human Rights Film Festival will present 72 films from 22 countries, continuing the 7th Art’s tradition of raising awareness among the fortunate while giving a voice to those who may not speak for themselves.

The festival, which runs from March 12 to 22, will open with the North American premiere of “8,” co-produced by Lissandra Haulica and Marc Oberon, who invited eight well-known film-makers to create a reminder of the “Millennium Development Goals.” In 2000, 191 countries had resolved to halve extreme poverty by 2015.

There will be 56 documentaries, 9 fiction films and 7 animated works presented throughout the festival, including nine recent documentaries from Quebec. Many screenings will be followed by discussions with special guests. The works will explore the impact of civil war on the people of Iraq, the conflict in the Middle East and political repression in Albania, Philippines, Chile and Tibet. Women’s and children’s rights will be highlighted as well as the dangers facing human rights workers and journalists.

Although Canada is known as a leader in human rights, it is not without its challenges, in particular regarding the rights of Aboriginal people. Canada was one of four nations who voted against the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2007. Not too shy to take a look in “our backyard,” three Quebec films will follow marginalized or homeless women in their struggle for survival. Other works will focus on gay rights, the environment and the relocation of Inuit families.

As well, a photographic exhibition featuring the work of 32 photojournalists will be held at UQAM’s Coeur des Sciences, 175 President Kennedy, and Cinéma du Parc, 3575 Park. The exhibition will feature 5200 images from 61 countries. The vernissage, free, will take place on Friday March 13 at 6pm. Info: anthropographia.org Tickets for screenings, $7, will be on sale beginning March 5 at Cinéma du Parc, 514-281-1900 or cinemaduparc.com, and at the NFB cinema, 1564 St. Denis. Info: ffdpm.com

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Trailblazers from the Caribbean had a dream

Loleta Johnson (front row, left), Lyndall Hunte (front, second from left) and Eda Tyrrell (back row, fifth from left) in a photo taken in spring 1955 at the Negro Community Centre on Coursol

Armed only with a youthful sense of adventure and a passionate desire to make a difference, sixteen young women from Barbados stepped off the plane on a wet snowy night in November.

The year was 1955 and Canada had begun the Domestic Immigration Program, offering single women age 21 to 34 from Caribbean countries permanent residency in return for one year’s work as “household helpers” in a Canadian home. Once this obligation was met, they would be free to pursue their dreams of a better life in a new land. The women had no way of knowing then of the strength of character, endurance and courage that would be required of them to realize this dream. They most likely had no idea that Canada’s immigration policies had been hostile to people of colour, deeming them unable to adjust to Canadian society and the cold weather.

A tiny Gazette article heralded their arrival the following day. It described the girls as “shy” but “vastly amused” by the reception they got from then-prime minister Louis St. Laurent and a bevy of journalists and photographers. In part it read: “For many years now, the demand for domestics has exceeded the supply in Canada. But if Canadian girls are not attracted to the job of helping with the housework, the National Employment Service found a different attitude to advertisements in Barbados.”

Loleta Johnson had heard that Canada was a place of opportunity. “I wanted to know the world, and heard on the radio that girls were wanted to work as domestics. I put my name down and got a call. They sent us to take a course in cooking and household management, which, at 23, I already knew how to do.” At the Housecraft Centre, she and other girls were timed performing chores such as cooking, washing and ironing. There she met two other women, Lyndall Hunte and Eda Tyrrell, and lifelong friendships were formed.

Domestic work, with its endless hours and low wages from which air fare (over two months’ salary) and various other items would be deducted, proved to be challenging. “When guests would come for dinner, you’d be in the kitchen long hours then up at 6:30 with the kids. I wasn’t accustomed to this big elaborate house, upstairs and downstairs, cleaning the basement, waxing and polishing and picking up all the toys.” It didn’t help that one little boy she had to pick up from school used to run away from her. “There weren’t many black people around then,” Johnson said.

The women soon discovered the Negro Community Centre, directed by Owen Rowe. It was a place that provided comfort, acceptance, entertainment and social activities difficult to find for a newcomer all alone. Some Montreal restaurants simply didn’t serve black clients and just waited until they “got the message” and left.

Looking for housing wasn’t easy in those days, Hunte recalls. “I walked the street up and down and though there was a sign for a room for rent, they told me there was no room.” Eventually a Jewish man rented her a room, Hunte said. “He was an immigrant too.”

When, after saving carefully for years, Tyrrell made an offer to purchase a house, her real estate agent counselled her not to disclose her tiny annual salary, or she would “never get” the mortgage. “I told a white lie, and got the house,” Tyrrell said of the downtown house she still lives in.

Much of the experience of the women depended on the goodwill of the families they were sent to, since there were no measures in place to protect them from being exploited, says historian Dr. Dorothy Williams. “[Domestics’] labour was owned. Between being an employer and being someone who can say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to someone’s future, there is, implicit, the threat of deportation or sexual violence.”

All three women left domestic service early, eventually finding work they enjoyed. Hunte remembers what it was like looking for a job back then. “Eaton’s was not hiring black people. Simpson’s was, but had them out of [the clients’]sight. Years later, they hired [black] girls behind the counter. Many black people worked behind the scenes – you would never know.”

The Domestic Immigration Program lasted until 1967, by which time, in part thanks to Donald Moore and the Negro Citizenship Association, Canada’s restrictive immigration policy had become more open.

Antonia Sealy, a trained librarian, came to Canada in 1961, to further her education. She found it impossible at the time to find employment commensurate with her qualifications. “I was warned by my family it wasn’t going to be a bed of roses,” Sealy said, and it wasn’t. “[Working as a domestic] was the only way you could come here. They promised that you would spend a year with a family and after that you could go and work according to your qualifications. But most jobs I applied for I was told I was over-qualified or I had qualifications but not the experience in Canada. People with high expectations did not do well.”

Some women left domestic service fairly quickly; others stayed with families for decades. Hundreds sent for their fiancés and families, sponsoring and sustaining them, often doing double duty as housewives and breadwinners.

Fifty years after their arrival, these women were honoured by the NCC, the High Commissioner of Barbados, and the Canadian government. As MP Raymonde Folco wrote: “Barbados’ initiative in beginning the discussions, at a time when broad-based immigration from non-white countries was biased, paved the way – today, people from Barbados continue to make significant contributions to our country’s social and economic development.”

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Plays explore lost worlds at The Segal

If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, then truth, or one truth, lies in experience. In Sam Shepard’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play Buried Child, now playing at The Segal Centre for Performing Arts, a long lost grandson returns to his grandparents’ home – a rundown farmhouse in Illinois – in search of his past. His family does not recognize him, and the audience is drawn into a web of memory, myth and invention where truth lies in diverging perceptions.

“What’s so interesting in Shepard is the idea of conflicting realities that are equally opposing and both legitimate, rather than “good and bad,” director Peter Hinton says. Describing the work as “Gothic American Midwest drama and part absurdist comedy not unlike (Edward) Albee,” Hinton emphasizes the importance of language in theatre. “Lately we’ve been obsessed with image, on film and television. We have a fascination with images. I’m interested in theatre that returns power to language, that acknowledges myth. I love the idea of keeping your brain really alert and keeping your emotions really engaged. We live in a culture where we’re not asked to be engaged; you can turn off television; but for theatre you have to be really there in the room.”

That Buried Child follows Tennessee Williams’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is a fortunate coincidence, Hinton says.

“Shepard was a writer who flourished in the ’60s and ’70s in the tradition of Arthur Miller, Williams and Eugene O’Neill, chronicling family life in North America. The audience gets to see the progression of American drama; Shepard is of the next generation with similar issues. “Big Daddy” and “Dodge” are related in some way. You get to see how a different generation handled the “American Dream,” the shortfalls of it and some of the cracks in the exterior of that dream.”

Buried Child by Sam Shepard runs until February 22. Info: 514-739-7944.

Also at The Segal later on this month, Haunted House by Endre Farkas will be presented in a world premiere. The work celebrates the life of A.M. Klein, one of the most important modern Canadian poets.

Born in the Ukraine 100 years ago, Abraham Moses Klein came to Canada fleeing the rampant antisemitism in his country. Though there were no pogroms in Montreal, prejudice shadowed him, even in the Plateau, where he had to endure insults such as “Jew Boy.”

In this portrait of Klein, Farkas explores Klein’s poems, fiction, journals and editorials. Interweaving his own text with Klein’s, Farkas recreates the evocative multi-layered world Klein inhabited.

Haunted House plays from February 18 to March 5. Info: 514-848-9696. The Segal Centre for Performing Arts is at 5170 Côte-Ste-Catherine.

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Rendez-vous a veritable cine-feast

Those who missed the touching love story Adam’s Wall by Michael McKenzie the first time around will get another chance at the 27th edition of the Rendez-vous du cinéma québécois. Beginning February 18 and ongoing until the end of the month, many cinematic genres will be showcased, including feature fiction, documentaries, animation, short films and more.

The mission of the Rendez-vous is to promote Quebec film within the province, the country and internationally, creating cultural bridges to audiences while stimulating the local film industry. Of the hundreds of films that will be screened, over 150 will be in English or with English subtitles.

The documentary Black Wave, The Legacy of the Exxon Valdez, chronicles the 1989 massive oil spill and what happened after the media went home.

Mohawk filmmaker Tracey Deer looks at culture and identity in her film Club Native while Korbett Matthews treats us to beautiful desert images and a hypnotic soundtrack in The Man Who Crossed the Sahara, the story of Canadian filmmaker Frank Cole and his attraction to the sea of sand where he was eventually murdered.

Screenings take place at six venues: the Cinémathèque Québécoise, the NFB Cinema, Cinéma Beaubien, Cinéma du Parc, the Segal Centre for Performing Arts and the Grande Bibliotheque. Whether you go to the movies to learn or to be entertained, this celebration of Quebec cinema, the grandest to date, will not disappoint.

Info: 514-526-9635 or rvcq.com

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Black community thrilled by Obama’s election

Barack Obama becoming the president of the United States has evoked a depth of emotion around the world rarely seen in history. Montreal film-maker Laurie Gordon was in Rome on “the long night of Obama” and recalls the anticipation and electricity that permeated that city. “We were six hours ahead so everyone stayed up all night. I was in a café when they were still counting the votes and a barista came in and just said one word: “Obama!”

Closer to home, The Senior Times asked people whose work involves them in community and social justice, what Obama’s victory means to them.

Egbert Gaye, publisher and editor of Community Contact, the black community’s monthly newspaper since 1994: “I’m surprised that America moved so easily to not seeing race as a hindrance. It’s a redemption for the nation.”

Dorothy Williams, Montreal historian whose book Blacks in Montreal 1628-1986: An Urban Demography was re-issued this month. “I was watching the election on TV and realized I was standing in front of History, that nothing was ever going to be the same again. For our youth it was an absolutely life-changing event – it said to them ‘anything is possible.’” It’s a door that is never ever going to be closed again.” Dr. Williams also mentioned that there were American presidents before Obama whose ancestors included black people. “Anybody who knows about race and history knows he’s not the first black president. It’s not a secret because his blackness is visible.”

Egbert Gaye

June McGibbon, program coordinator at the Walkley United Families Association: “I heard one little boy say to me ‘Now I can be what I want to be’ To have a black president is, for this generation, eye opening. I was amazed at the young age group that followed the election right from the beginning.”

Sheila Goldbloom, retired social work professor, recipient of the National Order of Quebec and the Order of Canada. “I’m delighted. I think it provides a universal feeling of hope that we can change the system and make it work.”

Victor Goldbloom, former Quebec minister and president of the Quebec Region of Canadian Jewish Congress. Recipient of the National Order of Quebec and the Order of Canada: “It’s quite spectacular how many different elements in American society supported Mr. Obama. This is really a manifestation of the best that the United States can be. Soon we’ll see more and more people of various origins rising to positions of major responsibility in Canada.”

Dorothy Williams

Gemma Raeburn, senior auditor at the Bank of Montreal. Community activist in the black and larger community, recipient of the U.S. Martin Luther King Jr. Legacy Award: “I was originally a Hillary supporter, I would have loved to see a woman in the White House. The night Obama gave his victory speech, it was really moving to see him standing in a crowd of white people, black people, Asian people, everybody together, just applauding and crying. I pray that he does a good job.”

Dan Philip, president of the Black Coalition of Quebec, a human rights and social justice organization serving the interests of the black community. Recipient of the Rosa Parks award from the Canadian Human Rights Commission. “Certainly I had doubts like everybody else but I think it shows what you might call the maturity of American society.”

Dan Philip

Richard Best, son of WWII veteran Mascoll Best who died in action. “Obama’s victory was a healing process for the United States in coming to terms with itself and truly recognizing its diversity and dynamism.” Mascoll Best and other Caribbean veterans are honoured by a plaque in the Canadian War Museum thanks to the tireless efforts of the late R.C.A.F. Flying Officer Owen Rowe.

Luigi Marshall, community worker at the Black Community Resource Centre: “Obama represents progress for all people, not just Americans. It doesn’t changes people’s realities in one day but makes the saying you tell young people – “You can do anything” – more real.”

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Artists transcend limitations to earn success and appreciation

Stéphane Daraiche with parents (photo: Kristine Berey)

When they were children, Serge Laflamme dreaded having to go to the hockey arena with his brother Daniel. “Children can be very cruel,” said Serge, as he recalled the kids making fun of his brother, who was born prematurely with cerebral palsy in 1958.

The neurological damage has, among other things, prevented Daniel from ever using his arms. But now Serge couldn’t be prouder of his brother, a successful artist who lives on his own in an apartment, gets around on a special tricycle and earns his living through his art.

Stéphane Daraiche was an active 7-year old whirling dervish until, in 1975, a car rammed into him as he was riding his bike, shattering life as he knew it so far. His mother Micheline Marley was there to help him as he emerged, a quadriplegic from a six-week coma and had to re-learn everything from scratch. “It took him two years to accept it,” Marley said. “He was very angry at first. We had to take things day by day.”

Along their difficult paths, both these young men discovered they had an aptitude for art. For Daniel, the breakthrough came when he saw a television show featuring a young girl without arms who used her feet to accomplish different tasks. Inspired, Daniel learned to eat and draw with his feet. Eventually, he began taking painting lessons at the Couvent Saint-Joseph in St. Foy.

Stéphane first began using a pencil after his accident in order to communicate with his family, since pronouncing words was, and still is, difficult for him. Though confined to a wheelchair and deprived of the use of any of his limbs, Stéphane learned to hold a pencil in his mouth and manipulate it skillfully. Soon the writing turned to drawing just to pass the time, and his mother bought him coloured pencils, then paints and canvas.

Daniel Laflamme demonstrates his dexterity at foot painting (photo: Kristine Berey)

Today Stéphane lives on his own in an adapted apartment. He paints images of his own design in oil and like Daniel, sells his images with the help of Canada’s Mouth and Foot Painting Artists (MFPA).

At a recent demonstration at Complexe Desjardins, admiring crowds gathered around the two artists as they built up their canvases. Stéphane was putting the finishing touches on a leaping unicorn he created out of his own imagination and Daniel was completing a robin perched on a leafy branch.

MFPA is not a charity. Its mandate is to locate and encourage mouth and foot painters and help them achieve financial independence through the use of their talent. This is especially significant considering that 52% of people with disabilities are unemployed, while only 6% of able-bodied Canadians are jobless.

MFPA Canada was incorporated in 1961. It is the Canadian branch of the international Association of Mouth and Foot Painting Artists which has 700 members in over 70 countries. The self-supporting organization is owned and controlled by member artists. It creates greeting cards, calendars and gift items such as puzzles, stationery and prints, featuring the images of the painters. The reproductions of the artists’ work are marketed through a direct mail program and provide an income to all member artists, who retain the rights to their original work as well as the net profits from all sales.

For information or to order call 866- 637-2226 or visit mfpacanada.com.

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Fraser-Hickson must fundraise to ensure future

John Dinsmore and Reverend David Sinclair (photo: Kristine Berey)

For Shannon Rose, 18, “everything began” at the Fraser-Hickson Library. “I feel really excited,” the college student said when she heard that the 123-year old Library – closed since early 2007 – will reopen next fall. “That’s where I learned to read. The library fostered a lot of the interests I have today.”

It was a beaming John Dinsmore, president of the Library’s board of directors, who gave The Senior Times a tour of the new premises at Trinity Memorial Church on Sherbrooke W, just east of Decarie, near the Vendome metro. “We are in a firm contractual agreement with the church,” Dinsmore said. “They are delighted to share space with us while serving the community.” Though the pillars of the $6 million plan are in place, the Fraser-Hickson must resume fundraising to assure its continuity.

As a first step, requiring an investment of $2.5 million, approximately 70,000 items in the library’s collection will be made available to the public in a beautiful 9,000 square foot heritage space, featuring high windows and 18-foot archways in the lower level of the church. The second phase, costing about $3 million will see the building of a 21,000 square foot extension on the Marlowe side of the church. There will still be a children’s library, meeting rooms, and a rental space for community events. Plans for a new section for teens reflect the library’s commitment to literacy and young people. A reference section will provide more computers and an emphasis on a range of electronic resources. “We have always been a library that has helped people increase their knowledge,” Dinsmore said. Parking spaces are planned and the site will be wheelchair-friendly. The library is looking to restore its membership and volunteer base.

When the library first closed, many of its 12,000 members joined the CSL and Westmount libraries. These facilities were overwhelmed during the city merger, while they were free to nonresidents. When the city demerged, these new memberships were terminated.

Those who fought to save the Fraser Hickson expressed a sense of betrayal by the decision makers at the seeming lack of political will to preserve it. Many find it a bitter irony that a library that had provided free services to Montrealers from 1885 to 2003, would not benefit from a 10-year action plan implemented just as the Fraser-Hickson had to close its doors. The plan calls for an investment of $125 million to build new libraries, renovate existing facilities and upgrade library services in the city.

“You have to realize their collection was very different,” explained CDN/ NDG borough mayor Michael Applebaum when asked why a public-private partnership was not realized. “They are a research document and history library and a City of Montreal library is more of a popular library.”

But Applebaum said the Fraser- Hickson has been a vital part of the community for over 50 years and deserves to be funded. “It’s an excellent project. The borough will support them with funding for a long-term plan. They still have to find the necessary funds but when they go to any foundation, they can say the City of Montreal backs us – that we support them re-opening can’t be questioned.”

Community support is essential to libraries, says the director of the Eleanor London CSL library, Tanya Abramovitch, but not by having people pay out of their pockets in fees. Even in CSL, where residents treasure their library, when a $5 membership fee was instituted in 2005, the registration plunged from 18,000 to 13,000. “Support for public libraries is a very long term commitment. They need the promise and support of politicians to prosper. I cannot imagine how we would survive without the support of my council. The library budget for 2008 is $2.3 million.” Abramovitch says her new book budget alone takes up over $200,000.When it comes to readers who want to read English books, regardless of their mother tongue, the Fraser Hickson is a unique and irreplaceable Montreal resource.

“We’re looking for expressions of popular encouragement,” Dinsmore says. “We have a place, we have a plan, but we still need money. Does the community want the Fraser Hickson to flourish? That is the key question.”

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Explosive Segal production raises the roof

Maggie (Severn Thompson) and Brick (Todd Sandomirsky) photo: Randy Cole

If you’ve seen the film version of Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and think you know what to expect from The Segal’s production of the same play, think again. Directed by Greg Kramer, the performance on opening night — met with a standing ovation — was a testament to the immediacy and power of live theatre.

The play’s themes of love and loss, hypocrisy and denial, impending mortality — and also truth, transcendence and hope so fragile as to hang by a thread — have been explored by Tolstoy, Chekov and Thomas Mann. It is clear why Williams is considered to be a writer of their stature. His language is musical, performed with breathtaking virtuosity by the close-knit cast. The counterpoint of relationships between the characters is flawless. The final line, echoing a phrase previously uttered by the brutal and domineering character Big Daddy — lustily played by Barry Flatman — gains strength and poignancy when spoken by his son Brick. This character’s pain, communicated by Todd Sandomirsky in every sound and movement, remains devastating and shattering — still palpable long after the last sounds of clapping die away.

The role of Brick’s love-starved wife is one of the great gifts Williams has given to women in theatre. Severn Thompson plays her with a perfect blend of vulnerability and spunk. Her brilliant smile meeting the enthusiastic audience at the end of the performance revealed how far she must have had to travel from her personal sense of self into the darkness that is Maggie.

It is a credit to Sharon Bakker’s mastery that, from the mouth of Big Mama, a now commonplace expletive still shocks.

The children, symbolizing those who unquestioningly believe what is told to them and who in their certainty may be the cruelest of all, were suitably obnoxious beyond the call of duty.

Williams had to revise the play to please earlier audiences. He believed that in time, taboos would become less ironclad and, freed from the outdated censorship code that had prevailed until 1968, the public would become more receptive to the true meaning of the work. “People today are more accustomed to scenes of sex and violence… the real theme of the play — the general mendacity of our society — is more clearly seen,” Williams, who lived until 1983, once told an interviewer.

The play is about the destructive power of lies, but also about the possibility that a lie can be transformed — willed — into truth. Wil­liams’ 1974 ending, less literal than the sanitized movie version, challenges the audience to make the leap of faith that, perhaps, is a pre-requisite to hope. The result is a deeply moving, unforgettable, poetic experience.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof runs until November 16 at the Leanor and Alvin Segal Theatre, 5170 Côte Ste-Catherine. Tickets: 514-739-2301, 514-790-1245 or admission.com

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Universal Access benefits everyone

Gina Lacasse with colleague Leslie Bagg

Gina Lacasse feels like a very lucky person. She has a family, a job she loves at the NDG Community Council, and a solid network of friends and colleagues. The fact that she’s confined to a wheelchair for most of her day is rarely on her mind, except when something, like a dysfunctional elevator, compels her to ask for assistance. “I only feel disabled when I feel my physical limitations,” Lacasse says.

She credits her foster mom, Aline Lacasse, for recognizing her potential and her “drive beyond belief” to be autonomous. “She never asked what I couldn’t do, but pushed me as far as I could go.”

Her home on Benny Farm, adapted to her needs, brings a great measure of independence to her life. It features hallways that are wide enough to navigate in a wheelchair without scratching the walls. There are no stairs. Removable cupboards allow her to use the sink. Most important, the apartment is designed to be easily modifiable if necessary, should counters and light switches need to be moved.

Though Lacasse is happy at home, she is frustrated by not being able to help her increasingly frail mother as much as she would like. Since her mom’s residence is not adapted, it would take a group of people to lift the wheelchair and help Lacasse negotiate the entrance.

As our society ages, Lacasse believes that what used to be seen as accommodations for people with disabilities is now of necessity to older people. She says her dream is that all public and private spaces will eventually become barrier-free. “Seniors can benefit from adapting their home because their quality of life will improve. There will be less displacement; if you need a wheelchair, you won’t have to move. Physical limitation is everybody’s primary fear. I think it doesn’t have to be.”

The concept of accessibility is still a work in progress that may take three main forms: Adaptation means adding specialized equipment in certain parts of the home. Older buildings can be transformed, sometimes at great expense, to accommodate special needs. This is done on a case-by-case basis in already existing environments.

Since 2000, section 3.8 in the Quebec Building Code stipulates that new buildings must be accessible. Written with wheelchair users in mind, the needs of people with visual, auditory or cognitive impairment may not necessarily be met all the time. As well, the accommodations may be separate from what the majority of people will use, implying an unintended and subtle form of exclusion.

Universal access, or universal design, tries to meet the widest variety of needs, allowing all people to use the facilities in the same way. For example, rather than have a ramp for a few and stairs for most, a slight incline would allow everyone to enter and exit the same way. This benefits mothers pushing strollers or elderly people who use walkers as well.

It’s not easy finding an adapted home, especially an affordable one. According to Josiane Lamothe of the Société d’habitation du Québec, of the 16,074 social housing units that have been created since 2003, only 6% are adapted. At Chez Soi on Benny Farm, all 91 subsidized rental units for seniors are occupied, with 50 names on the waiting list.

Lacasse sees adapted housing as the solution that would keep an increasingly greater number of people out of institutions and also as a way to create a more inclusive society. “My struggle is personal but I’m doing it publicly for seniors and special-needs children.”

“Your first experience of yourself is in your home. If you’re severely disabled, your limitation will be directly proportional to the degree that your home is adapted to your needs.”

The SHQ’s Programme d’adaptation de domicile (PAD) can help subsidize necessary adaptations to your home. If you rent, the landlord must apply.

For low-income seniors over 65, the Logements adaptes pour aines autonomes (LAAA) may be helpful. If you rent, the landlord must consent to the work in writing.

Info: 800-463-4315

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Jeunesses Musicales concerts ideal for young and young-at-heart

(photo: Jeunesses Musicales du Canada)

Jeunesses Musicales Canada, a non-profit organization dedicated to supporting young musicians and reaching young audiences, is offering two series of concerts that are affordable and timed perfectly for seniors and youngsters: not too late at night, and not long enough to tax grandchildren’s attention spans.

The Concerts for the General Public take place early Wednesday evenings. An aperitif, included in the price, is offered prior to the concert at 5pm. The music begins an hour later. The next performance on November 12 will feature the young award-winning violinist Jinjoo Choo, in a spectacularly beautiful program including the music of Bach, Vaughan-Williams and the deeply moving yet mysterious Prokoviev Sonata No 2 in D.

There are short (35 minute) and long (55 minute) versions of Concerts for Families, both taking place on Sundays. December 21, a most unusual combination of trombone, banjo and souzaphone will be showcased, representing three penguins as they compose a song. There will be spoken text in French, though the music and movement are universal.

To subscribe or receive information on upcoming concerts, call JMC at 514-845-4108 x 221.

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Conversation with Peter Deslauriers

Notre-Dame-de-Grâce–Lachine NDP candidate Peter Deslauriers says there are good reasons to vote NDP but fear is not one of them. 

“One thing that makes me very angry is the way [other parties] play on the fears of elderly people in particular,” Deslauriers says. “It’s not hard to whip up fears. It borders on the unconscionable.” He cites Harper’s “get tough on crime” policy as one example of fear mongering: “Violent crime is in fact going down.”

The current American economic upheaval doesn’t change the NDP’s vision fiscal vision. Deslauriers suggests that though there are implications for the Canadian economy, voters keep things in perspective. “Certainly none of what I said [about NDP plans] is meant short term.”

The “big-picture” issues like climate change preoccupy Deslauriers, a retired history and economics professor. He sees the NDP Cap and Trade proposal as the most efficient way to combat fossil fuel emissions. “The environment has been neglected for 20 years. We need rigorous legislation in place,” he says, describing the NDP plan that requires multinational companies to trade a limited and gradually shrinking number of carbon credits, in effect paying for the permission to pollute and being penalized if they exceed their quota. The revenue collected would promote green alternatives over time. Deslauriers rejects critics who say the plan takes too long, saying it’s a matter of months, not years. “A lot of the infrastructure to implement a Cap and Trade system already exists. There is a carbon trading centre in Montreal at Place Victoria in the old stock exchange tower.”

He criticizes Stephane Dion’s Carbon Tax. “The Liberals are relying entirely on market forces and taxing individuals regardless of their income.” Targeting “big polluters” makes sense, Deslauriers says, since 55% of emissions come from corporations, 10% from cars and 9% from home heating. There is no danger of oil prices increasing, as these are determined by world market prices in which oil companies must remain competitive. 

Provided incentives to use greener technology, these companies may discover other savings, Deslauriers says, adding that oil companies now make $20 billion a year while polluting. “The Tar Sands in Alberta need a lot of energy to extract oil, which must be heated in order to remove it from the solid material it’s embedded in.”

Deslauriers dismisses as “nonsense” Dion’s warning that NDP intentions of rest­oring previous tax levels to large corporations —“we’re talking 22%” — would be a job killer. “Since taxes were cut, has there been a benefit?” he asks rhetorically, adding that banks made $20 billion last year. 

Deslauriers says corporations benefit from the presence of government and gave as one example the hiring of skilled people trained in the public education system. He said the $50 billion in re­venues generated by restoring taxes would enable the government to better assist people.

“It’s important to recognize we know exactly where money would come from,” Deslauriers says, citing the pulling of Canadian troops from Afghanistan as another significant source, up to a billion a year.

He says the NDP supports the military but questions the nature of the Canadian mission in Afghanistan, originally supposed to end by February 2007. “The presence of NATO troops makes things worse because we are essentially taking sides in a civil war — because that’s what’s going on there, like the Americans did in Vietnam. We know that when Americans withdrew, the total level of violence dropped and once [the Vietnamese] were left to resolve their own problems, they did.”

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Film Fest a unique window to independent film

In 2004, before Chris Landreth’s short film about Montreal animator Ryan Larkin was screened at that year’s Festival du Nouveau Cinema, Larkin gave an interview to a local journalist. The profile was headlined “With a little help from his friends, Montreal prodigy turned panhandler Ryan Larkin is ready to get off the streets and back into animation.”

At the time, Larkin, who died in 2007, talked about a new film he was planning with his friend Montreal musician Laurie Gordon, and his hopes of finding a “good creative team of computer graphic animators” to work with. The film was to be about his “happy-go-lucky” life as a street person. Now, Larkin said, he was “panhandling for hundreds of thousands of dollars” for his new film called Spare Change. “It’ll be anything but spare change, I can tell you that!”

Few, except Gordon and others closest to him, believed him at the time, as Larkin was then living at the Old Brewery mission and still dealing with alcoholism.

However, the headline must have been prophetic, because in an eerie coincidence, Spare Change is scheduled to premiere before Adrian Wills’ film about the Beatles, composers of the classic With a Little Help from My Friends, at the 37th edition of the Festival du Nouveau Cinema ­October 9. In Larkin’s film, described as “a surrealistic journey through the extraordinary imagination of Ryan Larkin,” Larkin’s unforgettably melodious speaking voice is heard once again, in his alter ego Astral Pan, as he guides the audience through the streets of Montreal and some unlikely places. The film’s whimsical and unexpected images are enhanced by the soundtrack, created by CHIWAWA’s Laurie Gordon and Krassy Halatchev, revealing Larkin as the artist he has always been, his soul irresistibly playful and joyful.

In All Together Now, Adrian Wills chronicles the extraordinary partnership between the Beatles and the Cirque du Soleil which led to LOVE, a sold out run in Las Vegas. The project grew out of a friendship between Beatle George Harrison and Guy Laliberté, founder of Quebec’s most beloved Cirque. Filmed in London, Montreal and Las Vegas, Wills focuses on the human side of the mega-production from the first glimmers of the project to the first night performance. Archival footage and interviews offer a window into the creative processes of artists Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, Yoko Ono Lennon, Olivia Harrison, George Martin, Giles Martin and LOVE director Dominic Champagne. A great celebration, open to the public, will follow the screening of these two films.

The Festival of Nouveau Cinema brings 250 independent never before seen films to Montrealers. Formerly known as the Montreal Festival of New Cinema and New Media, its raison d’être remains steadfast. It is dedicated to fostering and promoting new approaches to film and media and to screen the best and most original new films from around the world. All genres of film figure at the festival, including shorts, feature-length films, documentaries, fiction and animation, from 60 different countries.

The Festival du Nouveau Cinema runs October 8 to 19. The Festival Info Line can be reached at 866-844-2172.

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Food for thought

Bonnie Soutar at NDG Market

October 16, declared to be World Food Day by the United Nations, is observed worldwide as a day of raising awareness and rallying support around the issues of hunger. In Montreal, that day, one out of six people, including children, will miss a meal. “It’s been the same for the last 10 years,” says Josee Belleau, coordinator of Nourrir Montreal, a committee composed of various organizations dedicated to building food security in the city. “About 15% of the population is food insecure; some a few times during the year, some all the time.”

According to the Canadian Association of Food Banks, food bank use in Canada has escalated by 91% since 1989, the first year such statistics were collected. Though the economy has improved and unemployment rates are down, 50% of lowest income households and 30% of lower middle-income households across the country experience food insecurity. The most vulnerable groups are single people, families or seniors, relying on disability or social assistance or the “working poor” — representing 16% of the workforce — trapped in low paying/temporary jobs.

Advocates say children are over-represented at food banks. At the NDG Food Depot over 3,200 people are helped each year, with 30% being below the age of 14. Exe­cutive director Michael Kay says that over the last 10 years he’s seen the same people being poorer for longer. “In very concrete terms, this deepening and broadening of poverty is: the new-born who is not given enough nutrition in the early years of life and suffers the consequences of that lack for the rest of his/her life; the normally bright child who is hungry three out of five school days and is often listless; the loving parents who develop depression because they blame themselves for not being able to provide the necessities and make ends meet; the busy senior who has to go without essential medication in order to buy food, thereby posing unnecessary dangers to his/her health.”

Food banks were set up in the eighties as a temporary emergency measure. As it becomes more evident that for the time being food banks are here to stay, the thinking about hunger and its consequences is changing as people try to understand its root causes. Statistics are kept with the reservation that they only represent the tip of the iceberg. “The research on household insecurity indicates that only a fraction of the people who are experiencing income-related food problems uses food banks,” writes Valerie Tarasuk, professor of nutritional sciences at the University of Toronto. In her foreword to CAFB’s Hungercount 2007 (a yearly survey of food bank use) she says: “We now have a very good understanding of the circumstances that render individuals and families vulnerable to problems of food insecurity. We also understand that food insecurity is a serious public health problem, linked to nutritional vulnerability. What we haven’t figured out though is how to get our political leaders to take this problem seriously enough to do something about it.”

The concept of food security is a direct outcome of the recognition that hunger is a human-rights issue that is not simply caused by a lack of food. Long term solutions are needed to persistent problems such as a shortage of full-time jobs that meet a family’s basic needs adequately, an income security system that allows many to fall “between the cracks” and the lack of affordable housing and child care.

These new solutions involve the community in activities such as collective and community gardening, group purchasing of food, cooking and nutrition activities, skills-exchange workshops, and other programs.

On each Saturday in September, a pilot project brought citizens and farmers together in several boroughs in a pilot pro­ject organized by Nourrir Montreal. “We made public spaces such as schoolyards and city parks available to citizens and food producers to provide access to healthy food for the harvest season,” Belleau said. In five boroughs 1890 people visited the market the first Saturday it opened, attracted by the proximity, the prices and the country fair atmosphere.

The Good Food Box, a collective buying group that started out in NDG but now is city wide and spearheaded by Harvest Montreal, did much of the purchasing of the food. It operates year-round to provide fresh vegetables grown by local farmers at low cost to everyone.

“We have clients from all income levels,” says Bonnie Soutar, Good Food Box coordinator. “The larger the number of people who participate, the more you can buy for your money.” Access to fresh foods is not to be taken for granted, Soutar says. “In some areas there are only depanneurs or supermarkets with very high prices.”

Now operating in 10 boroughs, the Good Food Box is great for the value conscious shopper, the struggling local farmer and the discriminating cook alike. It comes in three sizes and may be ordered in advance at a pick up point in participating boroughs.

“We are in the midst of rebuilding a real sense of community,” Kay writes in the Depot’s annual report, “one without exclusions, one that does not let its members go without food or health care, one that values the abilities and contributions of all — and also one that demands that its governments and businesses undertake their full responsibilities in relation to the general population. Attitudes and projects addressing these issues need to be furthered or created.”

For information on The Good Food Box call Bonnie Soutar at 514-582-6908.

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Foster parents needed for rescued mutts

In two separate raids on puppy mills in Quebec, 275 animals were rescued from living, and possibly dying, in squalid conditions. The potential pets, mostly dogs, are being housed at the Montreal SPCA’s emergency shelter and are receiving medical care.

Advocates have a message for would-be pet owners: don’t buy live animals from pet stores or on the Internet. “Animals from puppy mills are mostly sold online or in pet shops. If you want to stop puppy mills, don’t buy from them,” said one volunteer as she was hosing down animal cages outside the emergency shelter. Inside the shelter, other volunteers were in the midst of “processing over 100 dogs,” many of which were in need of medical treatment.

Some of the dogs, including a variety of small and large breeds, will become available for adoption within the next few days. Others need time to heal from the effects of gross neglect, and need a foster home until they become healthy enough for a permanent home. People willing to adopt, foster, or volunteer with the SPCA are urgently needed because of the recent crisis, but throughout the year there is a severe shortage of people available to help. Fostering allows another chance at life for animals that are too young or have temporary medical conditions that prevent them from being adopted.

To foster or adopt an animal rescued in the recent raids call Jenn Colahan at 514-739-4444. To volunteer call Anita at the same number. The SPCA can be reached at 514-735-2711.

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The unusual suspects

Almost daily there is a new report linking chemicals in our everyday environment to cancer, from our shower curtains to the canned food we eat. This illness has been steadily on the rise since the 1950s.

Consider these facts, published by Health Canada and Canadian cancer agencies in 2004:

  • In the 1930s, 1 in 10 Canadians could expect to develop cancer over their lifetime.
  • By the 1970s, that number was 1 in 5.
  • By 2004, 1 in 2.4 Canadian men and 1 in 2.7 Canadian women may be diagnosed with cancer.

Over 23,000 chemicals are present in Canadian industrial and consumer goods such as pesticides, cleaning products, food, personal care products and plastics. Not all chemicals in all products have been tested adequately, as even when safe levels are established for a substance, time or length of exposure and interaction with other chemicals is not always taken into account.

The good news is that as public awareness grows, the rules change. Health Canada is in the process of compiling a "hotlist" of suspected toxins. And cosmetics companies must now declare the ingredients that make up their products.

For now a consumer's best defense is to read the label. Here are a few substances to avoid, from the Cancer Smart Guide published by Vancouver's Labour Environmental Alliance Society and available locally from from Breast Cancer Action Montreal:

  • Bisphenol-A, an endocrine-disrupting chemical present in plastic bottles and containers identified by the number 7 in the recycling triangle symbol on the bottom.
  • Benzyl Violet, also listed as Violet 2 or 6b, is a colouring in various products including nail treatments, and a possible human carcinogen according to the International Agency for Research on Cancer.
  • Coal tar derivatives, present in products such as hair dye.

Although the link between dark hair dyes and cancer has been debated, a study published in the International Journal of Cancer (2004) stated that "in women, use of rinse-type hair dye was associated with a modestly elevated risk of bladder cancer." According to the Cancer Smart Consumer Guide, a 2001 California study found that longer-term use of hair dyes increased the risk of bladder cancer in hairdressers, who were five times more likely to develop the illness after working for 10 years or more.

More info is available from the Breast Cancer Action Montreal website at bcam.qc.ca or by calling 514-483-1846.

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Exciting season begins at The Segal

Human relationships in all their intensity, laughter and sometimes tragedy take centre stage this season at the Segal.

Christopher Hampton's adaptation of Dangerous Liaisons, based on an 18th century French novel about "lust, greed, deception and romance" launches the season this month.

A pair of former lovers attempt to seduce and manipulate others around them. But when virtuous Mme de Tourvel becomes the focus of the Vicompte de Valmont's attentions, predator falls in love with prey, with fatal consequences.

October's offering will be the Tennessee Williams classic Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, directed by Greg Kramer. This is the third production in a series of Williams' plays mounted by The Segal. "One of the key aspects of our theatre's mandate is to produce classics that remain socially relevant today," says Bryna Wasserman, Artistic Director.

The season continues with the February production of the Pulitzer Prize winning drama Buried Child, by Sam Shepherd. A long-lost son, Vincent, and his girlfriend return to meet his Norman Rockwell-esque relatives. But bliss is only on the surface in this painful portrait of a disintegrating and dysfunctional family.

March will bring director Diana Leblanc to The Segal in the production of Tryst, a psychological thriller by Karoline Leach about a homely seamstress consigned to the backroom of a London hat shop in Victorian England. With no future to speak of, she falls into the arms of George Love, seducer and robber of desperate old maids. "This is as entertaining a story as you'll encounter," Wasserman says.

As a change of pace, in April, Manitoba Theatre Centre's Artistic Director Stephen Schipper will return for Joe Dipietro's endearing and warm-hearted comedy Over the River and Through the Woods.

"Dipietro wants to know why each generation makes sacrifices for the next, why no future generation can ever fully appreciate those sacrifices, and how both generations can find a balance between holding on and letting go."

In June the Yiddish Theatre will host the first ever International Festival of Yiddish Theatre.

"My mother founded a Yiddish Theatre in Montreal 50 years ago this year and the festival is an opportunity to celebrate this historic milestone," Wasserman says.

The Segal's Yiddish Theatre contribution will be a unique Yiddish version of The Pirates of Penzance by Gilbert and Sullivan.

Info: 514-739-2301or segalcentre.org

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Nascent academy entertains possibilities

Gisele Rucker and George Doxas, Music Director of the academy

When 16-year-old Ryan Cons took a Media Workshop course at the brand new Academy for the Performing Arts at the Segal Centre, he discovered it takes a lot more than a state-of-the art camera to create a video worth watching.

"We learned to handle the camera to add ambiance to a scene, and how to do interviews, how to zoom in and create special effects, and how to be in front of the camera." Cons says he learned to see with a critical eye. "My teacher, Paul Shore, used to say, 'You don't want to go to a movie with me because I'll criticize everything.'"

As well, the novice filmmaker had to confront the agony of editing, which he says he found the most challenging. "A movie's made with many takes. Editing is basically taking out stuff that's not important."

It's too early to say whether Cons will become a filmmaker. But one thing is certain: his appreciation of film will have grown immensely.

"Research has shown that performing arts education has significant impact on children," says Gisele Rucker, director of the Academy, as she describes the new lineup. "It allows them to achieve greater academic success and develops self-confidence and resilience." She says another goal of the Academy is to make the arts accessible to the community by keeping the fees affordable and not requiring previous knowledge. Besides the Media Workshop program, there are courses offered in Circus Arts for children (2-13), Theatre Performance (9-17), Theatre Production (high school students) and Music (2+).

There is a practical music session offered to preschoolers, featuring elements from the Kodaly and Orff methods. There are courses in drums, saxophone and guitar, and jazz and rock combos, as well as two music history courses for adults. All courses are taught by professionals experienced in working with kids.

She doesn't have to stretch her imagination too far to see the Centre becoming a foundation for the future. In her thirties she joined the Yiddish Theatre, met her future husband there and years later brought her son to join the cast.

Everything is possible. Rucker speaks of bringing the arts outdoors, perhaps involving the neighbourhood with performances in the park. "We want to provide a safe place to explore and take risks artistically, where students are allowed to dream and play."

"We've just begun, this is a new voyage," says George Doxas, director of the Music Program, who has four decades of instrumental, choral and Big Band Jazz teaching under his belt. He speaks of kids "getting in through the ground floor" and evolving with the Centre through the years. "Once we have a group of kids who know something, we'll streamline the courses."

The future, vast and limitless, still lies ahead. "The exciting thing about working here is that there's a long-term vision," Doxas says. "This kind of commitment makes everybody want to do that much better."

To register, call 514-739-7944. For more information, call Kasia Leskiewicz at 514-739-2301 x 8379.

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Epona Foundation: smoothing the ride through life

Savana riding (photos: Andrew Soong)

The boys are understandably nervous meeting the lady reporter. They know they are being interviewed about Epona – an organization that keeps kids in school by offering them free tutoring and horseback riding lessons, and they're not sure what to expect.

Initial questions are answered by typical teenage nods and uh-huhs.

But when the conversation turns to horses, Kenry, 13, and Justin, 9, become surprisingly articulate, even eloquent – eager to share their vast knowledge of horsemanship.

"You brush the horse with a curry comb, with a circular motion then use a brush to remove all the dirt," says Kenry, explaining how to gently lean on a horse before attempting to lift his hoof to clean it. "You use four fingers to check that the girth is not on too tight," says Justin, describing how to comb a horse's mane so it doesn't get caught in the bridle. Their knowledge is impressive. Red and blue ribbons, won in a competition at Ormstown, hang proudly in the living room. Their mom, Gloria Julian, says the boys' marks have gone up and believes the confidence gained at Epona has transferred to their studies. Kenry agrees. "My work is getting better. My teacher says I'm a good student to teach."

Front to back: Tanae, Savana, Kiki

The bottom line at Epona is academic success, says Peter Desmier, a youth worker at Batshaw Youth and Family Centres for over 30 years and founder of the four-year-old Epona Integrated Riding Foundation. "One thing I've noticed about kids living with a great deal of stress is that their education suffers," Desmier says. "The whole concept of Epona is working with kids over a long time to develop a relationship so they graduate."

To help "at-risk" children, Desmier drew upon an experience from his own childhood. "I spent a summer feeding, cleaning, putting out to pasture, doing everything involved with horses, except riding. We would spend hours brushing and taking care of the horses. It was magical."

When Desmier finally decided to return to riding, he met Jackie Poirier of Free Spirit stables – a like-minded person who had been contemplating starting a riding facility "for kids who would never have an opportunity to ride" – and Epona was born.

Kenry with his tutor

"I knew the first kids' parents through social services and other programs in the community," Desmier said. "Now they're being referred from school boards and our website."

The other Epona programs partner with community organizations to help kids 5-18, including Stay-In-School (tutoring), Literacy, and Mentoring programs, where Epona graduates return to tutor younger kids and earn riding time in the process. Epona works with parents and within the schools.

Dawson student and Epona mentor Atiba Howell, 18, doesn't yet know whether he'll go into law or police work – but he knows he'll devote over four hours a week as a volunteer tutor with Epona in the long term. As one of the first Epona riders, he describes himself as having felt shy and isolated. He recalls his encounter with the first live horse he'd ever seen. "When I saw the horse's size I said to myself, 'Okay, buddy, you're not going on one of those!'" As he learned to send the right signals to the 1000-pound animal, he realized his mare "Griffin" wouldn't "just warm up to anybody" but liked him especially. So did everybody at the stable. "Eventually I thought it was really cool. Everybody's really nice and you never feel left out when you're there." Howell believes his schoolwork would have been fine with just tutoring. "Without riding I would've had the grades. But with Epona I actually got the courage to speak."

Justin has learned a lot about horsemanship

Desmier instructs his staff and volunteers to ensure the kids feel "it's about them" and asks that they wait for and greet the kids warmly as the bus rolls up to the stables. "This is such a simple yet powerful gesture. It would be a missed opportunity if neglected," he writes in a memo to his staff.

When Sandra Permanad's children Jamal, 9, and Gariba, 7, joined Epona's tutoring program, her young family was going through turbulent times. To make matters worse, her French was not strong enough to help her older son with his schoolwork. She says she had been too stressed to play with them, and Epona in their lives was a godsend, since the kids came home from the sessions smiling. "It really made the load lighter," she said. She fiercely believes in the value of learning.

"Without education you're nothing. Whatever you want to do you're held back."

She wants for her kids nothing more and nothing less than all loving moms want. "I want them to have a good education and a good job."

Epona has a dedicated group of seniors who help with the fundraising that the organization depends on to survive. All volunteers are welcome. For information or to donate call 514-421-7433 or visit eponafoundation.com.

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Uncovering the rest of the iceberg

In early January, a Montreal senior took a fall and had to be taken to hospital by ambulance, where a nurse stitched up her wound. However, the cut soon began to bleed and though it was re-stitched, it did not heal properly.

In a letter to The Senior Times, Lisa N. (not her real name) describes several encounters with medical professionals at various clinics and hospitals where her pleas to have her injury looked at went unheeded. She was scolded, “patted on the head,” told to check her blood pressure and sent to another institution. At one clinic, she writes, “the doctor was very rude and did not even look at the wound. I was embarrassed that the doctor would ridicule me and not even look.”

It was not until two weeks and several visits later that a nurse responded to her request to have her injury seen. “She finally checked the wound and told me that it was smelly and infected. She cleaned it and had me come back the next day to see the doctor, who put me on antibiotics. I’m very upset that the nurses and doctors would not take me seriously.”

Treating seniors like children and ignoring their specific requests is one subtle form of elder abuse. Other forms may be more dramatic, as expressed in a collective formal complaint by family members of residents in a long-term care facility: “The caregiver-resident ratio reflects chronic understaffing. It appears that the residence is aiming to provide the lowest-cost care for the least amount of care time. Bells often go unanswered. Residents are left sitting for hours in front of the dining room. Residents wait for food, wait for toileting, go un-bathed and are isolated and neglected because of inadequate staffing. (One of our ill parents had to call his daughter in Toronto to beg her to phone the staff on his unit so that they would reply to his call bell, as his need to urinate went so long unattended).”

The letter goes on to say that the facility is “a terrible place to die” as the inadequacy of medical care causes “preventable pain” to the palliative care patient.

Though the situations described in these testimonials are dire, the fact that they were expressed is reason to feel hopeful, says Helen Wavroch, executive director of the Réseau Québecois pour contrer les abus contre les ainés.

“Because of public awareness campaigns, people are talking about it more and we hear of more cases. Statistically, we’ve had 150,000 cases a year. We’ve always said that that was just the tip of the iceberg, those who come forth. But how many are too afraid, or shy and don’t want to deal with it publicly? If now we have 200,000, I think it’s the same 50,000 that were silent the year before.”

The National Seniors Council on Elder Abuse estimates that in Canada 4-10% of seniors experience some form of abuse, with financial abuse being the most prevalent and much unreported abuse taking place in the home.

Which is why, in June, to mark World Elder Abuse Awareness Day 2008, the CSSS Cavendish (Health and Social Service Centre), NDG Community Committee on Elder Abuse, NDG Senior Citizens’ Council and Extra Miles Friendly Visiting Program organized activities to entertain, inform and empower seniors. The event featured workshops on telemarketing fraud, Alzheimer’s Disease and the Impact of Elder Abuse on Society.

CSSS Cavendish includes the CLSC René Cassin, CLSC de NDG–Montréal-Ouest, the Richardson Hospital and the Henri Bradet Residential Centre, a long-term care residence. It serves 117,650 people and has the highest percentage of people over 65 on its territory, 19.2% compared to 15.3% on the island of Montreal.

The CSSS features several programs and services for seniors such as homecare, the Elder Abuse Info line, and the Care-Ring Voice tele-workshops for caregivers. It must also provide front-line services to the rest of the population.

Francine Dupuis, Executive Director of the CSSS Cavendish, says that since the government stated that homecare is a priority, things have been easier, but that essentially the organization is underfunded. “You want people to stay in the community for as long as possible, but there is never enough money to meet the demand.”

Part of the problem, she explains, is that her organization does not get to keep all the funds it receives. “With the new budget we receive a little more but 50% goes to other areas outside Montreal because historically they were receiving less. It will take several years until things even out.”

Dupuis says the government doesn’t allow for the complexity and uniqueness of Montreal’s problems. “It may be true per capita but in Montreal there are complex problems that are more acute, and we should be allowed to keep every penny of development budget that we are allocated.”

A recent study by the Agence de la Santé et des services sociaux revealed that of 10,808 respondents, including those living at home or in a public long-term care centre and their caregivers, 95% were satisfied with the services they received from Montreal’s 12 CSSS.

Meanwhile, the waiting lists get longer and the variety of services offered decreases, notes Dupuis. “Do I give more services to a few or less to a larger number of people? It’s not easy to decide because you’re always penalizing someone. We make these decisions every day.”

If you experience or suspect elder abuse, call the Elder Abuse Info Line at 514-489-2287.

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Redemption through foolishness: The Wise Men of Chelm

Long before the rise in popularity of alternative medicine, it was known that laughter is good for the soul. In Jewish culture, humour has been more than therapeutic – in a very real sense it has been a lifesaver. Perhaps the suffering that underlies the humour that makes one laugh from the depth of one’s soul – the kind of laugh that draws tears and provides an incredible feeling of relief and rejuvenation when it’s spent – is also the source of its strength.

In Freud’s Wit and Its Relation to the Unconscious he notes: “The occurrence of self-criticism as a determinant may explain how it is that a number of the most apt jokes… have grown up on the soil of the Jewish popular life. They are stories created by Jews and directed against Jewish characteristics… I do not know whether there are many other instances of a people making fun to such a degree of its own character.”

From Wednesday, June 11 to Thursday, July 3, the Dora Wasserman Yiddish Theatre will present The Wise Men of Chelm, a collection of stories culled from Eastern European Jewish Folklore, set to music by Eli Rubinstein and directed by Bryna Wasserman. Chelm is a mythical town populated by foolish people and thought by some to be the home of the famous schlemiel, that stock character of Jewish anecdotes. While the main characters are foolish, they convey the lasting wisdom of being able to laugh at oneself.

Supertitles make the original Yiddish easy to understand for everyone.

Showtimes are Monday to Thursday at 8 pm, Saturdays at 9:30 pm, and Sundays at 2 pm and 7 pm (except Sunday, June 15 at 1:30 pm). $25 - $47 (group rates available).

Info: 514-739-7944 or segalcentre.org

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Festival Lanaudière - music and so much more

Festival performers (photo: Baptiste Grison)

Montrealers must count their cultural blessings. Just as the greatly anticipated Jazz Fest winds down, another international music festival dedicated to classical music opens, less than an hour away from the city.

Now celebrating its 31st season, the Festival Lanaudière has presented indoor and outdoor concerts performed by international artists in its spectacular Amphitheatre and beautiful heritage churches, some of which date back to the 17th century. Though the festival’s program has blossomed from eight concerts in 1977 to 26 this July, the organizers’ vision – to create “a place where a large audience can listen to beautiful music performed by the greatest musicians” – remains intact.

This year an array of activities are geared toward young people making the festival an ideal opportunity for families to spend time together and build a lasting love of music in their youngest members.

The festival begins Saturday, July 5 with a resounding rendition of Carmina Burana, Carl Orff’s greatest masterpiece that grandchildren will recognize as the unmistakable inspiration for the soundtrack of the video game Final Fantasy I. The score calls for four choirs and a symphony orchestra – 200 musicians performing together.

Opera lovers won’t want to miss the 150th anniversary of Puccini’s birth, which the festival will honour with performances of his great arias, from La Boheme, Tosca, Madama Butterfly, and Turandot on Friday, July 11.

Fledgling ornithologists will enjoy learning that the great composer Olivier Messiaen loved birds so much that he actually recorded their songs and wove them into his music. All the music performed on Saturday, July 12 will be devoted to birds, and will include Messiaen’s Oiseaux exotiques, Stravinsky’s Firebird, and Saint-Saens’ Le rossignol et la rose. Afternoon activities are free and will include a sound installation by Oswaldo Macia, an open rehearsal of the night’s concert with commentary, and an onsite exhibition of birds of prey. The evening concert will be accompanied by the winning entries in the bird photo contest organized by the Festival and the Regroupement QuebecOiseaux.

Little astronomers can be fascinated by projections of NASA photos on a giant screen on Friday, July 18, accompanied by Gustav Holst’s orchestral suite The Planets, with Jean-Marie Zeitouni conducting the Orchestre Métropolitain du Grand Montréal.

Starting Sunday, July 6, outdoor concerts for the whole family include the famous London vocal quartet Cantabile, swing from the 40s by The Easy Answers, and Romeo and Juliet in the passionate universe of the Tango.

On Saturday, July 19, a day declared by Festival Artistic Ambassador Alain Lefèvre as “a day of piano and youth,” everyone under 25 will be admitted for free to hear Lefèvre and his confrères push the limits of piano playing in performances of concertos for two, three, and four pianos with eight virtuosos taking part. To engage the “pianistically reluctant” free hot dogs will be served, compliments of Maple Lodge Farms.

Other treats include tourist outings along the St. Lawrence, featuring a boat trip to the Lac-Saint-Pierre Archipelago, a unique nature reserve recognized as a biosphere by UNESCO on Sunday, July 7, and a dinner cruise on Friday, July 11, going from Montreal’s Old Port to the pier in Saint-Sulpice, where guests will board a luxury coach for the Amphitheatre.

For those who don’t want to drive, a shuttle service to the Amphitheatre, the Festival Express, leaves from downtown Montreal.

Info: 450-759-7636 or lanaudiere.org

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Butterfly watching at the Botanical Gardens

It's hard to believe they're bugs and even harder to believe that without them we're lost. Flamboyant, enchanting, mysterious and delightful, some with a wingspan greater than a man's open palms, they live out their short and glorious life in an artificial universe — right here, in the land of sleet and snow.

This year's Butterflies are Free exhibit, in its 11th year at the Botanical Garden of Montreal, will feature for the first time over 90 species of butterflies native to Africa, Central America and Asia. Until April 27, visitors can see about 2,000 butterflies at any given time, with up to 100 newly hatched butterflies released each day.

"In a natural environment, you would never see so many butterflies or so many species all at once," says the Garden's communications officer Francois Ouellet. In his two trips to Costa Rica, he came across only two such exotic creatures. "This environment is man-made, but it's spectacular."

Displaying countless iridescent hues, the butterflies emerge from their temporary tombs — their cocoons — gathering the strength to fulfill their mission to survive as a species.

The breathtakingly beautiful markings on their wings are not purely aesthetic, but also weapons of self-defense, warning potential predators of the butterflies' toxicity.

Their Latin names are impressive: Caligo eurilochus, Morpho helenor, Ideopsis juventa... but a child's imagination will respond more to common names like Clipper, Wood nymph, Owl butterfly and the Great eggfly bolina.

"Butterflies are ambassadors," says Pierre Veilleux, one of the Garden's technicians. He explains that while people fear what they do not know, the sheer beauty and fragility of these winged creatures awakens their curiosity regarding other insects as well. "Butterflies create a reconciliation between the human and insect world."

Veilleux's job is not easy. He must receive and maintain the cocoons, carefully packed and transported in temperature-controlled conditions, and see them through their life-cycle, releasing an allotted number every day.

He guides groups of schoolchildren through the greenhouse, pointing out which plants the butterflies feed on. He must also replenish these as needed, keeping "backup" plants ready. "Some of the plants may be beautiful, but they may be sterile. The butterflies know the difference."

The insects in the display were purchased from several butterfly breeding farms that provide economic support to communities while offering protection to wildlife. One such supplier, "Kipepeo" in Kenya is maintaining a forest of over 40,000 hectares with over 250 butterfly species.

Through Veilleux's presentation, visitors come to realize the profound interdependence of all living things and the importance of preserving biodiversity. "When the children understand which plants the butterflies need to survive, they realize they need to protect plants too," Veilleux says. "First comes respect, then the urge to protect."

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Seniors “cautiously optimistic” following consultations

Marguerite Blais, Quebec minister responsible for seniors (photo: Kristine Berey)

From her more than 30 years in radio and television, Marguerite Blais, Quebec minister responsible for seniors, knows that seniors' issues are not the most popular of topics. She says keeping her program on the reality of aging running in 1979 — something she managed to do for 6 years — was a real challenge. "Nobody wanted to hear about that," she recalls. "It would have been good then to adapt society to aging. They thought 2000 was far away, but it was not."

Now in her ministerial role that she says fits her "like a glove", she is determined to give the seniors the attention they deserve. Last August, in an unprecedented gesture of genuine respect, Blais brought the government to seniors across the province in a series of public consultations on seniors' living conditions. From last August to November, accompanied by retired McGill social work professor Sheila Goldbloom and Dr. Réjean Hébert, dean of the Faculty of Medicine of the Université de Sherbrooke, Blais asked seniors in 26 cities to express their needs and their concerns.

The response was positive, with over 4,000 people expressing their views. Groups working on behalf of seniors presented 267 briefs, and 3,375 calls and emails came pouring in.

The completed report on the consultations, Préparons l'avenir avec nos ainés, (soon to be translated) confirms what many already knew — seniors want to remain independent and do not wish to be segregated or discriminated against. When they do need care, they want to retain their dignity and the right to a decent quality of life.

Sheila Goldbloom is satisfied that seniors were heard. "The results of the consultation are reflected in the budget."

On March 19, when Blais unveiled the government's response to the report, she announced several immediate and long-term measures that addressed the most urgent issues, including more funding for home support, help for caregivers, better training for staff and improving the food at long term care centres. Next year, an action plan to combat abuse and neglect will be released and both private and public senior residences will need certification by January 2009. As well, a campaign will be launched to combat ageism, in French on television and in English on the radio, acknowledging seniors' contributions. Far from being a burden to society, seniors' volunteer work represents about $3.1 billion a year and their tax contribution stands at $2.2 billion a year, based on a 2006 study.

Blais is the first to say that these measures are only a beginning and believes that the welfare of seniors is everybody's business. "We have to do things every day to make sure seniors have a voice," she said. The government will be working closely with community organizations advocating on behalf of seniors, Blais said. "They are important partners."

Information kiosks and telephone access to services to seniors are in the works, with a Carrefour d'informations being planned in conjunction with the Cummings Centre sometime next year. "We are pushing for anglophone seniors to have services in their own language," Blais said.

Helen Wavroch, executive director of the Réseau Québecois pour contrer les abus contre les aines (RQCAA), a group that works to prevent elder abuse, hailed the government initiatives. "This is a minister who has managed to make things move," she said. "I felt there was, for the first time, a definite will and desire on behalf of the government to correct some of the wrongs that exist in the senior community." She disagrees with those who claim the measures didn't go far enough. "I know what Minister Blais has accomplished. She had to negotiate with her counterparts in government and get the other ministers involved in actions concerning seniors. Now that the ball has started to roll, it can't go back. That's what excites me."

When asked if he was happy at the announcements, Norbert Rodrigue, of the Association Québecoise de défense des droits des personnes rétraitées et pré-rétraitées (AQDR) answered "I cannot be unhappy." But he added that the issue of abuse and neglect is a great challenge that must be met.

Diane Lavallée, Québec's Public Curator responsible for the protection of 11,500 citizens who are incapacitated and have no family, and for the support of 11,200 legal guardians of other non-autonomous individuals, felt the announcements clearly demonstrated the government's intent to improve seniors' quality of life. But Jacqueline Racicot, in charge of communications for the Public Curator's office, says it's important to remember that not all those who are unable to care for themselves are seniors. "All private residences, including those that house and care for persons who are not necessarily elderly but are incapacitated must also follow the strict criteria for care and housing."

Herb Finkelberg of the Cummings Centre said that the Centre's interactions with Blais were extremely positive. "We remain cautiously optimistic and we'll be following the issues very closely."

In various capacities Blais has advocated for seniors, youth and the poor for many years. She has also written two books on the culture and history of the deaf community. When asked what struck her most at the close of the consultations, she answered, "I learned that we don't love enough." To the suggestion that society's lack of compassion is nothing new, she says, "Yes, but I'm in a position to say it louder."

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