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July 1 2017 |

This is the Canada I grew up in:

Across the street from my house there was a forest that I could (although wasn’t supposed to) walk through to get to my school, where I had kind teachers who looked out for my well being.

I had friends of different backgrounds and origins and we bonded over shared interests and video games.

I was taught police were a source of safety and in my few personal interactions with them, have never had reason to believe otherwise.

I was taught everyone is equal and deserves to be treated with respect.

I was loved.

* * *

Over the past decade or so, I’ve learned that my Canada is not everyone’s Canada.

Or worse, that my Canada is at the expense of other people’s Canada.

That the park where I go to celebrate Canada Day was home to the Lheidli T’enneh, whose homes were burned to make way for the railway that led to the creation of the city I call home, the city where I’ve been able to lead such a blessed life. A city where, looking back, my diverse group of friends didn’t include a single Indigenous person despite having a higher-than-average proportion living here.

A city where it wasn’t until university that I learned anything more than a cursory knowledge of Canada’s relationship with Indigenous people and until after that that I learned the original name of the land I grew up on.

* * *

I feel no guilt for this, but I don’t take pride in it, either. If I don’t deserve blame for residential schools or forced relocations why should I take credit for Suez or the 1972 Summit Series? I had nothing to do with any of it.

What I do have are my values and the ability to choose how I move forward with the knowledge I gain from my every day on earth. I am grateful I was born here, but I’ve come to realize that the mere act of being born here does not afford you all the blessings I’ve been given.

A great many other factors beyond my nationality have shaped who I am and what I’ve been given. And some of the factors that produce good outcomes for me create bad outcomes for others no less deserving.

“Canada” is not some magical entity that is automatically virtuous and good; indeed, there is a great deal of evidence to the contrary. Like any country, the extent to which Canada deserves praise rests at the feet of individuals who fought and struggled for something better than what was already in existence, often with the consequence of being accused of being ungrateful for what they already have.

* * *

The other day I had a group of elementary school kids visit my workplace. On my wall I have a poster with the image of the park I go to celebrate Canada Day and the words “Lheidli T’enneh” on it. The kids recognized the words and what they meant– something I had no knowledge of when I was their age.

That knowledge was achieved by people asking for the original name to be restored, asking the rest of us to confront some truths about this city’s past. For their efforts, they endured racism, accusations of asking for handouts, accusations of being stuck in the past, accusations of not being grateful for what they have.

It wasn’t comfortable.

Now these kids are growing up in a different version of Canada than I did. Unfortunately, we already know their version is not universal, either. Across the country there are still stark gaps in the way the Canadian story plays out depending on where you’re born and who you’re born to.


* * *

I wish the Canada I grew up in were the same Canada everyone grew up in. It’s tough to imagine a better life and I am extremely grateful to have it. But I won’t mistake my good fortune for the good fortune of everyone. I won’t let my own personal happiness cause me to demand everyone else shut up and be happy, too.

If you believe something is perfect or even good enough, you have no incentive to make it better. Being dissatisfied with the status quo is a necessary component for improvement.

The challenge is whether we can live up to the ideals we set ourselves up for. The real challenge is whether we have the strength to admit when we aren’t, and are ready to take the steps to change that even- or especially- when it’s uncomfortable to do so.

* * *

Today, I plan to canoe down a river to the park where we go to celebrate Canada Day. I’m going to eat some food prepared by the multiculturalism society and get some bannock and then watch a band that combines bhangra, hip-hop and Celtic music. I’m going to be grateful for the Canada I have, and to the people who struggle to make some version of my childhood and my life something accessible to everyone. I’ll reflect on what part I play in that struggle, as a help or hindrance, on my values and whether I live up to them, and what I can do better – even if it’s uncomfortable.

* * *

I know this isn’t especially revolutionary or original thinking but it’s where I’m at in my understanding of the country. As I’ve gotten older I’ve treated birthdays as times for reflection as much as for celebration and I feel Canada Day can be the same. Canada doesn’t have feelings. Canada doesn’t care if you celebrate it or not. Canada is another trick of the human imagination, conceived of and sustained by stories- “this is who we are, this is what we stand for.” It’s about a community of people coming together and saying they belong to something bigger. So let’s think about how we can live together better.

Have a good day.

Filed under: Best Of, Canada

The urban/rural divide and a more inclusive Canada → 

June 11 2017 |

I think about the urban-rural divide in Canada a lot. I think there are big implications to the fact that, as pointed out in the Globe and Mail:

“There are more people in Greater Vancouver than in the rest of British Columbia. Half of Quebec’s population lives in Greater Montreal; more than half of Albertans live in Edmonton or Calgary. The Greater Toronto Area has as many people as the three Prairies provinces combined.”

For all the talk of Canada as a northern country it is actually a country primarily of people in large cities, the rest of us are outliers. And we are declining. From Sean Speer and Jamil Jivani in Policy Options:

Their piece also points out that this divide is actually more pointed than the United States, whose population is more evenly distributed and whose recent electoral politics have very much centred around urban-rural divides.

The real question, I suspect, is whether or not Canadians outside urban areas wind up feeling resentful of cities in a way that translates to the way they vote– and if that even matters, given the electoral clout urban areas have over the rest of the country.

Why aren’t scientists verified on Twitter?

June 10 2017 |

A few weeks ago, I noticed a hashtag floating across my Twitter feed: #BillMeetScienceTwitter. Here’s what it looked like:

Hi @BillNye I'm Sarah and I studied the ecology of the tick-borne Lyme disease emergence in Canada. :) #BillMeetScienceTwitter

— Sarah Leo, PhD (@sstleo_87) May 19, 2017

Hi @BillNye I watched u as a kid & now I'm getting a PhD studying crows. Specifically how/why they respond to 💀crows #BillMeetScienceTwitter

— Kaeli Swift (@corvidresearch) May 19, 2017

Hi @BillNye , I'm Carl, and I study how binary black holes form and create gravitational waves in star clusters #BillMeetScienceTwitter

— Carl Rodriguez (@aCarlRodriguez) May 19, 2017

Hi @BillNye! I'm Robyn, a historic archaeologist in NFLD! Using stats & arch, I'm looking for lost 1600s graves #BillMeetScienceTwitter

— Robyn S Lacy (@robyn_la) May 19, 2017

Super cool, right!?

I followed about a dozen people doing research I thought looked interesting and it has been great seeing their work in changing how we understand the world pop up in my feed alongside the latest political news and hot takes.

I also noticed something almost all of these accounts have in common: none are verified.

It's interesting that people like me get blue checkmarks but working scientists and researchers do not#BIllMeetScienceTwitter

— Andrew Kurjata (@akurjata) May 20, 2017

If you don’t live on Twitter you may not know what I mean. If you look at my profile, you’ll see a blue checkmark beside my name. This is something Twitter gives certain users to verify they are real.

Here’s what Twitter has to say about who gets verified:

“The blue verified badge on Twitter lets people know that an account of public interest is authentic.”

“An account may be verified if it is determined to be an account of public interest. Typically this includes accounts maintained by users in music, acting, fashion, government, politics, religion, journalism, media, sports, business, and other key interest areas.”

Notice who isn’t on there?

Scientists and, more broadly, academics.

I find this curious. Surely if fashion, acting, music and l’il ol’ me are considered “an account of public interest” people researching climate change and the nature of time and space are, as well?

Twitter backs away from the idea that “authenticity” = “authority” but it definitely drives audience. In the weeks after I received my checkmark, I received dozens of new followers. And I do think it’s fair to say that checkmark does signal some level of “this is an account worth following.”

I think it’s a message about Twitter’s priorities- and ours as a society, more generally- that someone who got famous off of trafficking in conspiracy theories gets a blue checkmark while people who specialize in constitutional law or Arctic ice shelf research do not.

I’m verified because I was on a batch-list of people working for an established media organization. Surely Twitter could offer the same to academic institutions or peer-reviewed journals?

Twitter: meet science twitter.

Filed under: social media

Dear fellow journalists, please stop sharing that ‘scientific study’ about us having low-functioning brains and drinking too much

May 22 2017 |

Over the last few days, I have seen a lot of journalists sharing stories reporting on a study purporting to have found that journalist’s drink too much, are bad at managing emotions, and have lower-than-average brain function:

Mostly it’s self-deprecating, with people adding little comments like “explains a lot” or “I didn’t know they were studying me!” But just because it rings true and makes you laugh, doesn’t mean it should be reported on as science. And that’s exactly what’s happening when a bunch of journalists with blue checkmarks start sharing the study uncritically and adding words like “science” and “can’t argue with facts!”

The study is published on a personal website

So let’s take a look at where this study came from. Is it a peer-reviewed journal? A well-respected academic institution?

No, it’s a joint release from the London Press Club and “Tara Stewart: Neuroscience. Leadership.” The actual study is in on her personal website.

It is based on a tiny sample size, virtually no control group and old wive’s tales

When you get into the study, you find it was originally going to be on 90 members of the press club. But:

“Ultimately, failure to complete all the elements in the required time limit meant that a total of 21 participants completed every element, and a further 10 completed some elements of the study.”

I’m no neuroscientist, but 21 self-selected individuals does not seem like a great sample size to be drawing wide-ranging conclusion on journalists around the world who have different work environments, cultural norms and backgrounds that can also affect your resiliency, sleeping patterns and “CEO part of the brain” (a phrase that comes up in this study a few times).

A little further on, we learn journalists are dehydrated because in this self-reporting study, most didn’t drink at least 8 glasses of water a day. Never mind that there have been numerous scientific studies indicating that benchmark is an old wive’s tale.

As for the control group placing journalists “below average”? Turns out it’s bankers, telecom groups and sales teams that the author has run as part of the paid services she offers to corporate groups hoping to “to achieve a competitive edge by understanding and improving the physical condition of their brains.”.

There is no indication of the study’s weaknesses- standard for actual science publications

I looked for the section indicating the weaknesses in the methodology, areas for further review and comments about how we shouldn’t take this as gospel– standard fare for any actual scientific piece. There was none. No warnings, no cautions, just a nicely packaged piece ready for distribution to media.

What’s being sold?

A standard question I’ve been taught to ask whenever presented with a study, survey or research is who stands to gain from this? So let’s ask a few questions about this one.

The study came from the personal website of it’s author. What’s on offer there?

And what does the press release about the study say about her?

If I were to be cynical, I’d point out that by putting out a study on the minds of journalists, Swart has managed to get her name in numerous media organizations with a story that is being shared onto the personal Facebook and Twitter pages of countless journalists around the world.

Why does this matter?

Again, haha, I get it, we drink too much coffee and alcohol and are stressed out! And now science proves it!

Except it doesn’t.

Journalism is the primary way most scientific information gets disseminated to the general population, be it through quick news articles recounting study highlights or more in-depth areas like Popular Science or Quirks and Quarks.

Even when it’s for something ~fun~ and ~silly~ we should turn on our skeptical minds and try to educate both ourselves and the general public about how to tell the difference between good and bad science and studies, their shortcomings, and ways to properly evaluate information. That includes asking questions about where information is coming from, whether it was peer-reviewed, sample size and whether something is being sold.

As journalists, we need to avoid confirmation bias- even if it’s about ourselves.


Filed under: journalism

representation and free labour

May 19 2017 |

For a while now, but especially over this past week, I’ve been thinking about the free labour I and others in the media ask of people in what can broadly but inelegantly be defined as “diverse communities”: Indigenous, LGBTQ+, Muslim — basically members of traditionally underrepresented and/or marginalized populations.

Here’s what happens: something affecting or involving that community occurs and journalists across the country start flipping through our memory banks of smart people with an informed perspective to talk about it. Often this isn’t to promote a passion project. This is to defend their own humanity.

In arenas of politics or business or the arts there are often people who are paid to think about these things and occasionally talk to media on behalf of articulating their perspectives.

Broadly speaking, that’s not the case when it comes to groups like those I mentioned above, and that’s the result of a whole host of systemic issues that stretches beyond just the media, but definitely includes the media. And so the people who are representing those groups in the media might pop up again and again, but still have to have another job to actually put food on the table.

When I or anyone else reaches out to them to talk, we’re asking for free time and free labour. This is, of course, what I do for anyone I want to interview, but when it’s someone that gets turned to again and again and again simply because they are willing to speak on behalf of who they are — as opposed to the company they represent or the political party they are trying to get elected — it feels like more of an imposition.

Of course, the tradeoff is if we *don’t* call, those sorts of voices don’t get heard when they should because, factually speaking, they are underrepresented in traditional positions of power and visibility.

So there’s some thoughts I’m having. If you are a person in media or one who is frequently contacted by media, I’d be interested in hearing yours.

Filed under: journalism, personal

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There are messages everywhereIf you don't walk in random places you don't see stuff like thisOn the side of the old RCMP building in Prince George. #graffiti #cityofPGInteresting.#cityofPGMy office buddy is cuter than yours