By Stephanie Findlay - Friday, May 3, 2013 - 0 Comments
The murder of taxi driver Mido Macia points to increasing xenophobia in the country
Mido Macia went to South Africa in search of a better life. The 27-year-old Mozambican was working as a taxi driver in a poor suburb of Benoni, a city famous for being the birthplace of Hollywood star Charlize Theron. Macia, a tall man with a strong jaw, supported his wife and five-year-old daughter, both living in Mozambique. He was one of thousands of immigrants from across Africa who travel to the country, hoping to get a foothold in the continent’s largest economy. For some, the move is successful, but for others, tragic.
Arrested by police for refusing to move his taxi, Macia was tied to the back of a police van, dragged hundreds of metres to the police station, and died three hours later. Nine South African police officers are charged with murder; they have been denied bail while they await trial next month.
“South Africa is an angry nation,” Graca Machel, a native of Mozambique and wife of former president Nelson Mandela, said at Macia’s funeral service. “We are on the precipice of something very dangerous with the potential of not being able to stop the fall.”
By Stephanie Findlay - Friday, April 5, 2013 at 10:40 AM - 0 Comments
Violence in South Africa doesn’t put the cork in wines
For months, farms in the Western Cape, home to most of South Africa’s vineyards, have been blighted by violent strikes.Workers demanding the minimum wage be raised from $7.50 to $16 a day have torched millions of dollars worth of property in the region. Despite the wage being raised to $11.50, there are calls for another round of civil disorder.
Amid the chaos, the farms that have carried on are isolated pockets of worker satisfaction. At Bosman Family Vineyards, in the foothills of the Bainskloof mountains, the owners give workers a stake in the company, forming one of the biggest black economic empowerment deals in the South African wine industry. Approximately 250 permanent employees live in houses equipped with electricity and running water. Teachers are kept on payroll to teach the workers’ young children. Retirement residences are provided. Adama Red, one of the farm’s most popular wines, is named after Adam Appollis, a forefather to many of the workers at the 300-year-old farm.
When the strikes in the region began, workers had to be smuggled in to the vineyards. “We have a few employees that live in town—we were concerned about their safety,” says Petrus Bosman, the managing director. “So they came to work in civil clothes a few days, worked shorter hours, not going into town normal hours, to avoid conﬂict and intimidation.”
The technique worked. “This year, we did our biggest graft ever,” says Bosman. “We managed to pick by hand every bunch of grapes, in the shortest time ever, without using machines or additional work force.”
By Jonathon Gatehouse and Stephanie Findlay - Friday, March 1, 2013 at 1:35 PM - 0 Comments
From podium to purgatory: An acclaimed Olympian charged with murder
It was, by all accounts, an accident. Although not one that Oscar Pistorius was willing to take responsibility for. Out for dinner with his model girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp and a bunch of other rich, young athletes and hangers-on at a trendy Johannesburg restaurant this past January, the man they call the Blade Runner was admiring someone else’s gun, when it suddenly went off. The bullet slammed into the floor just centimetres from the foot of Kevin Lerena, an up-and-coming heavyweight boxer. “The KO Kid,” as he is known, would later explain to reporters that the pistol’s safety catch had somehow snagged on Pistorius’s pants, and that the world’s most famous disabled sprinter had been more than contrite. “He apologized to me for days afterwards,” said Lerena. But when the restaurant manager hurried over to determine the source of the ear-shattering explosion, everyone at the table denied knowledge. And none of the other patrons came forward, so the police were never called. Being a national hero and internationally recognized celebrity apparently buys one a lot of leeway in South Africa.
But Pistorius’s next gun incident could hardly be swept under the table. Early in the morning of Feb. 14, the 26-year-old pumped four shots through a locked toilet door at his mansion in a high-security gated community outside the city, striking Steenkamp three times. Minutes later, she would die in his arms.
Pistorius’s version is that he awoke in the dark, heard a noise and concluded that an intruder was in the house. Arming himself, he hobbled into the bathroom on the stumps of his legs, and when his shouts went unanswered, opened fire. It was only when he returned to the bedroom and noticed that his 29-year-old girlfriend was missing that the truth dawned.
The police contend it was premeditated murder. Neighbours saw the lights on and heard the pair fighting, they say. Ballistics evidence shows the shots were fired downward, suggesting the athlete was wearing his prostheses at the time. And he has a history of violent and threatening behaviour, including past allegations of domestic assault.
It was just seven months ago, during the London 2012 Games, that Pistorius was being feted as a global inspiration for becoming the first amputee to compete in an Olympic track event. That the seven-time Paralympic medallist wasn’t nearly as fast as the hype predicted, finishing last in his 400-m semifinal, hardly mattered. The media, and public, couldn’t get enough of the polite and modest South African who shattered so many stereotypes. So too with sponsors like Nike, Oakley sunglasses, and French designer Thierry Mugler, who had already signed the photogenic Pistorius to endorsement deals totalling more than $2 million a year. Lately, he had been tooling around Johannesburg in a new silver convertible MP4-12C Spider McLaren supercar, worth $405,000. Although, as always, he refused to avail himself of the handicapped-parking spaces.
Now, he is suddenly notorious. Within hours of his arrest, M-Net, a South African TV broadcaster, starting pulling down Pistorius’s image from its billboards. Nike, Oakley and other sponsors have all cancelled their contracts. His bail hearing—where, unlike in Canada, all the evidence could be published—quickly degenerated into an O.J. Simpson-style legal circus, much to the delight of the crush of international media packed into Pretoria Magistrates Court. (An electrician was kept on standby, lest the straining air-conditioning system short out and plunge the building into darkness.)
With his father, sister and brother sitting behind him, Pistorius wept frequently during the week of hearings. Yet Steenkamp’s family, who stayed away, complained that, beyond a bouquet of flowers, he has shown no inclination to explain himself to them. In a two-hour oral ruling delivered Feb. 22, Desmond Nair, the chief magistrate, found fault with the sloppy police investigation of the killing (the lead detective has been removed from the case after it emerged that he himself is facing attempted murder charges for indiscriminately firing his gun at a minibus during a car chase). But Nair also underlined the wide gaps in logic in the runner’s tale of how he came to kill his girlfriend. Still, before setting Pistorius free on $115,000 bail and under condition that he surrender his passport, abstain from alcohol and possess no guns, Nair granted one of the country’s most famous sons a further favour, clearing photographers and camera operators from the room. The click of shutters and flash bursts every time he stood in the dock was too distracting and humilitating, the magistrate said, as though Pistorius were “some kind of species the world has never seen before.” It was as if the judge hadn’t been keeping up with the news.
There was one rule above all others in the house where Oscar Pistorius grew up: no one was allowed to say “I can’t.” It applied to his older brother, Carl. It applied to his little sister, Aimee. And it applied, surely a little unfairly at times, to Oscar.
After he was born without fibula, the main weight-bearing bone, in both his legs, Oscar underwent a double amputation just below the knees at the age of 11 months. It wasn’t the only route—a series of reconstructive surgeries was also an option—but it was the one his parents, Henke and Sheila, judged to be the surest path to a normal life. So Oscar learned to walk on his stumps, began running on his first set of prostheses at 17 months, and has never really slowed down since.
By Stephanie Findlay - Monday, January 28, 2013 at 10:00 AM - 0 Comments
Debate rages after a writer implores white South Africans to be politically silent
White people should “just shut up and listen.” That’s the idea behind white South African writer Gillian Schutte’s recent opinion piece, “Dear White People,” which is being hotly debated in South Africa. In it, she advises white South Africans to “wake up and smell Africa with a fresh white nose,” reflect on what it means to be “born into unearned privilege” and stop “telling everyone who is not white how to behave, what to think and when to say what.” Schutte’s post, published online by South Africa’s Mail & Guardian newspaper, is rekindling the so-called “whiteness” debate in the country—that is, how to be ethical and white in post-apartheid South Africa.
Schutte’s controversial opinion that whites must be quiet is rooted in a theory promoted by a group of mostly white South African academics known as the “anti-racists,” who say the best way to deal with white privilege—sometimes called “whiteliness”—is to be politically silent. Continue…
By Stephanie Findlay - Thursday, January 17, 2013 at 11:37 AM - 0 Comments
Why legalizing the rhino horn trade could prevent extinction
A group of mathematicians, frustrated by South Africa’s inability to stop rhino poaching, is creating an “optimal management strategy” to save the white rhinos. At an annual math conference, held last week at Johannesburg’s University of the Witwatersrand, an international group of academics—from Oxford University to the Indian Institute of Technology—began work on the vexing problem. Though the government tightened hunting regulations in 2009 and deploys military aircraft to hunt poachers, poaching has only increased. Today, rhino horn, a prized medicinal ingredient in Asia, sells for $100,000 per kg.
In designing the model, the value of a poacher’s life, the cost of keeping a white rhino safe, and the worth of rhinos for tourism must be taken into account, says conservation economist Michael ‘t Sas-Rolfes. Their recommendation, expected by year’s end, may be controversial. Legalizing the rhino horn trade to reduce poaching is being considered. Ecologist Norman Owen-Smith believes a rhino policy recommendation based on numbers can help where military might and bunny-hugging platitudes have failed. “Clear logic can help cut through emotion.”
By Stephanie Findlay - Friday, January 11, 2013 at 3:18 PM - 0 Comments
Workers say they are sick with silicosis
More than 30 gold companies in South Africa are facing a class action lawsuit on behalf of 17,000 former miners who say that, as a result of their work, they are sick with silicosis, a debilitating, irreversible lung disease. The mining companies may be liable for as much as US$100 billion, according to Bloomberg News. The lawsuit comes at a difficult time for the mines, which saw massive drops in profit last year due to labour disruptions.
Class action lawsuits are unusual in South Africa, which does not have a long history of this type of litigation. In November 2012, a class action lawsuit was successfully brought against companies found guilty of running a bread cartel—“a seminal judgment,” says Wouter De Vos, professor emeritus of law at the University of Capetown. “The miners’ case will likely be the most important case to follow.”
Lawyer Richard Spoor, who filed the silicosis suit against some of the country’s biggest mining firms—including AngloGold Ashanti and Harmony Gold—says the number of plaintiffs is increasing by 500 people a month. “People in South Africa can’t afford litigation,” says De Vos. “Class action is the only means to give them access to justice.”
By Stephanie Findlay - Friday, January 11, 2013 at 2:53 PM - 0 Comments
A vaccine creates controversy in Calgary, is accepted in Pretoria
Death by cervical cancer is “horrible,” says Leon Snyman. “It’s not a disease that kills you quickly.” For the past two years, Snyman, an adjunct professor of gynecology at South Africa’s University of Pretoria, has been inoculating adolescent girls with the human papilloma virus (HPV) vaccine, a preventative treatment for cervical cancer. Snyman says the vaccine has been greeted with enthusiasm: roughly 70 per cent of girls are choosing to be vaccinated. “People are not afraid of vaccines,” he says.
He’s having a far easier time than Juliet Guichon is. For the past four years, the University of Calgary bioethicist has been fighting to overturn the Calgary Catholic School Board’s ban on the vaccine, which targets strains of the virus most often contracted from sex. In November, the ban was overturned. But Guichon has found victory “sort of bittersweet,” she says. “Although we’ve succeeded in opening the door to the vaccine, it’s a shame it had to take this long.”
As many Catholic school boards in Alberta, Ontario and the Northwest Territories continue to ban the HPV vaccine, the Canadian government is helping fund what could be one of the largest rollouts of the vaccine in the world. Canada has committed $225 million to the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation (GAVI); in Tanzania last month, it announced the launch of a pilot run of the vaccine in sub-Saharan Africa with a goal of vaccinating more than 30 million girls. Continue…
By Stephanie Findlay - Monday, December 17, 2012 at 11:03 AM - 0 Comments
SABMiller sells Impala as healthy alternative to moonshine
The era of home brew in Africa may be coming to an end. SABMiller, the world’s second-largest brewer, is wooing the continent’s illegal drinkers with dirt-cheap beer. In Mozambique, the brewer has released Impala, a beer made from cassava, the milky root used to make tapioca. At 70 cents a bottle, Impala is significantly cheaper than its malty cousins, priced at a dollar, making it affordable for the country’s rising middle class.
Zsuzsa Szilagyi, an alcohol analyst for Euromonitor International, says companies like SABMiller are looking for niche markets. “The African beer market is highly consolidated,” she says, so there’s a “big fight” for new markets.
SABMiller, founded in Johannesburg in the late 1800s, is battling with other beverage companies such as Heineken and Diageo for Africa’s growing population of beer drinkers. Impala was pitched as a healthy alternative to illegal alcohol made from sorghum—a starchy grain—and corn. (Methanol and battery acid have reportedly been included in the moonshine recipes.) The Mozambique government is giving the beer a break on taxes, seen as a way to give the economy a boost by employing farmers to produce raw cassava. One year after its 2011 launch, nine million bottles of the brew have been sold. In Uganda, the company has had tax breaks for years with Eagle beer, made from sorghum.
By Stephanie Findlay - Wednesday, December 5, 2012 at 10:57 AM - 0 Comments
As the gap between rich and poor widens, popular dissatisfaction—and with it dissent—is rising
Three decades ago, Cyril Ramaphosa, now a businessman and political heavyweight, was one of the most acclaimed anti-apartheid leaders in South Africa. “My biggest regret is that I have never been a miner,” Ramaphosa, then the general secretary of the National Union of Mineworkers, told author Julie Frederikse in a 1985 interview. “The miners represented to me the utter degradation of man, and I wanted to experience that so I could do something about it.”
He is not so sympathetic now. Following the Marikana massacre in August, when at least 46 striking Lonmin miners were killed by police, Ramaphosa, a director of the firm, was ridiculed for offering $220,000 for funeral expenses to the families of the deceased, and nothing more. Ramaphosa is expected to testify at a public inquiry of the Lonmin events. The next month, Ramaphosa—who is ranked No. 21 on Forbes magazine’s 2012 list of richest Africans, with a net worth of $675 million—confirmed that he had bid $2 million at an auction on a buffalo cow and calf for his game farm, Phala Phala Wildlife. Continue…
By Stephanie Findlay - Thursday, November 1, 2012 at 10:35 AM - 0 Comments
Forbes & Manhatten Coal, a Toronto-based company, suspended operations at its mines in South…
Forbes & Manhatten Coal, a Toronto-based company, suspended operations at its mines in South Africa after two workers were killed in strike-related activity.
A report from Dow Jones Newswire quotes a police source who says security officers shot the workers Wednesday, after a protest of about 100 people dispersed and some workers attempted to storm an armory containing mine explosives.
“In order to ensure the safety of all our employees and to safeguard our assets, we have taken a decision to suspend all operations until such time as deemed safe and appropriate by management and the board,” Forbes & Manhatten Coal chief executive Stephan Theron said in a statement posted on the company’s website.
Violent strikes have spread across South Africa’s mining industry, shutting down production at platinum, ore, gold and iron plants. In August, police shot 34 miners dead at Lonmin, a platinum mine, an act described as the worst violence the country has seen since apartheid ended. The Forbes & Manhattan Coal workers have been striking since Oct 17.
By Stephanie Findlay - Tuesday, October 16, 2012 at 10:27 AM - 0 Comments
After a strike left 34 dead, one mining firm increased wages by 22 per cent. Could the deal be contagious?
First, the miners went on strike. Work stoppages swept through South Africa’s platinum, gold, diamond and chrome mines. Now, truckers are off the job, and a municipal workers’ union is poised to walk off, too. The frequency of strikes has spiked since Aug. 16, when police opened fire on workers who had gathered outside a platinum mine in Marikana, killing 34.
In the wake of the incident, Lonmin, a global platinum-mining firm, settled the conflict with a 22 per cent pay raise. Strikes have spread beyond mining. Toyota recently reported a four-day shutdown because of labour disruptions at its factory; and Shell said last week it could not honour fuel-delivery contracts around Johannesburg because of a truckers’ strike. At a city supermarket in the city, the price of apples has jumped 27 per cent since the truck drivers’ strike began.
Last week, Anglo American Platinum Ltd., the world’s largest producer of platinum, fired 12,000 striking workers. The company claims to have lost US$80 million in revenue since striking started. The miners were demanding a monthly salary of $1,800—more than double what some now earn.
The country’s economy has taken a walloping as a result. Moody’s Investors Service cut the nation’s bond rating last month by one notch—from A3 to Baa1—the first downgrade since apartheid. The credit agency cited the government’s inability to deal with economic and political challenges and the challenges posed by “relatively high labour costs despite high unemployment.” The rand, the country’s currency, fell to a 3½-year low against the U.S. greenback. It now takes nearly nine rand to buy one dollar. The strikes have highlighted a growing feeling of inequality in South Africa; many believe the African National Congress government has done much for an elite few and very little for average South Africans.
President Jacob Zuma’s response to the crisis has been criticized as tepid. “We should not seek to portray ourselves as a nation that is perpetually fighting,” Zuma said last week. “We must create a climate of constructive social dialogue, which South Africans are known for.”
Perhaps he is distracted. Zuma, who is running for re-election to the ANC presidency in December, is facing an investigation after spending millions of taxpayers’ dollars renovating his private residence in KwaZulu Natal, complete with a helipad and two Astroturf soccer pitches.
Strikers, meanwhile, have turned to shows of violence, an apparent negotiating tactic, to up their pay. Union leaders publicly condemn it, but non-striking workers, known as amagundwane—a Zulu word for rats—have been targeted. Despite an order issued by a Johannesburg court to stop attacks associated with the transport strike, trucks continued to be torched and stoned last week. In one incident, three people, including a child, were injured. In Cape Town last week, Gary Stewart, a trucker, died after being removed from life support; he’d been hit by a rock thrown by strikers.
How are the mining companies responding? Platinum executives are holding 16 bargaining sessions throughout October with the goal of creating a centralized collective bargaining process to avoid further strikes. “The opportunity should be taken to vent or to show displeasure or anger or resentment with the conduct of other parties around the table,” said talks facilitator Charles Nupen—even “if we get a bit of sweat on the walls.”
Whether there is room for negotiation is questionable. Platinum strike leader Evans Ramokga says the firm will hire new employees “over our dead bodies.” As Tanya Venter, a professional mediator who is working with the striking workers says, “It has shocked our country to the core.”
By Stephanie Findlay - Wednesday, September 14, 2011 at 11:00 AM - 14 Comments
Fed up with ineffective policies, parents are suing for millions
In 2009, Daniela Cervini, a Toronto-based lawyer, was approached by a group of parents whose children were bullied at an elementary school in Owen Sound, Ont. For years, the parents claim they had been trying the prescribed channels—meetings with vice-principals, principals, police, board superintendents—with what they perceived as no results. They turned to litigation, “just because they weren’t being heard,” says Cervini. This year, four claims were ﬁled in Ontario Superior Court against the Bluewater District School Board involving three schools, five teachers, three principals and one vice-principal. All are for gross negligence—the failure to protect students from bullies. Each lawsuit is for $8.5 million, well above the $1-million standard in personal injury claims. Together, at $34 million, the Bluewater suits are the biggest of their kind in Canada. As Cervini puts it: “You hear so much of this talk in the media and current culture of zero tolerance and bullying. It would seem that the schools have this under control. They don’t.” She expects them to deny the allegations; so far they have filed only a notice of intent to defend.
Bullying lawsuits have appeared in Vancouver, Winnipeg, Ottawa and Waterloo, Ont., as parents turn to the civil courts for justice. And while policies may be consistent in some school districts or provinces, how effective those policies are remains open to debate.
Bullying may have found its way into Ontario courts because the province’s approach has been more focused on discipline. “The easy fix to school boards seems to be you just suspend a kid that did the bullying, which doesn’t fix anything,” says Martha Mackinnon, executive director of Justice for Children and Youth, a Toronto-based legal-aid clinic for children. In Ontario’s initial anti-bullying legislation, the Safe Schools Act, vice-principals and principals were recast as police, required to conduct formal investigations of bullying complaints and penalize offenders according to a gradated system. It’s also known as the “zero tolerance” act.
By Stephanie Findlay - Wednesday, August 24, 2011 at 9:40 AM - 0 Comments
He grew up by the often perilous waters of Newfoundland, and once saved a cousin from drowning
Christopher Michael Sheppard was born on a wet, snowy, windy morning in Bay L’Argent, Nfld., on Feb. 6, 1978, to Rupert Sheppard and Patricia “Pat” Baker, the middle of four children. (Two years later, the couple would lose their second daughter Ruby to health complications.) Pat, whose father was a deep-sea fisherman, was a homemaker. Rupert, who grew up with 14 brothers and sisters, worked, among other jobs, with CP Rail in Ontario and the Canadian Coast Guard in Newfoundland.
Toddler Chris had a shock of shaggy, dark brown hair, like his dad, and emerald green eyes, like his mom. His grin was infectious. “Chris was a bit of a rambunctious fellow,” says Rupert, “but if he couldn’t make you smile throughout the day, then girl, you had a glass jaw.” Older sister Ann-Marie, Chris, and younger brother Jamie made an inseparable trio. “They had their little toughs every now and again,” says Pat, “but one protected the other.”
The Sheppards’ early stomping grounds were in Harbour Mille, an 18th-century fishing village on Newfoundland’s southeast shore. Days after school ended, the family would pile into their bright yellow wooden boat for the 20-minute ride across Fortune Bay to the cove where their small log cabin stood. “Me and my brother would be curled in the bow of the boat with a blanket over our heads and there’d be 14-foot waves,” says Jamie. “It was lots of fun. Giggles left, right and centre.”
By Stephanie Findlay - Tuesday, August 16, 2011 at 6:03 PM - 0 Comments
“A Christian death is not about having this big fancy casket”
In December 1889, Benedictine monks established a monastery in the pine forests of southeast Louisiana, 65 km north of New Orleans. At Saint Joseph Abbey, as it’s known today, the monks have long run cottage industries to help pay the bills. More recently, they’ve started manufacturing funeral caskets—a venture that prompted the Louisiana funeral industry to complain they were unlicensed vendors.
The monks wanted to craft simple “monastic” caskets, as well as slightly less simple “traditional” caskets. (Both models are customizable for crypts and mausoleums—the way to bury the dead in the land of the bayou—and priced below the national average of $2,200). But before they could deliver their first casket, they received a cease-and -desist letter from the Louisiana State Board of Embalmers and Funeral Directors—a Louisiana law prohibited the sale of caskets except by licensed funeral homes. Rather than turn the other cheek, the monks went to court. Last month, a judge ruled in their favour, saying the law was unconstitutional. The monks now hope to sell 10 caskets a month. “A Christian death is not about having this big fancy casket, but going out simply,” says Abbot Justin Brown. “We come in with nothing—we go out with nothing.”
By Stephanie Findlay - Friday, August 12, 2011 at 9:00 AM - 5 Comments
Public schools that recruit high-paying international students create, some say, a two-tier system
Last year, Patricia Gartland, who works for a suburban Vancouver school district, brought in $16 million selling 1,700 B.C. classroom spots to foreign students, largely from China and South Korea. Gartland, who started her job as director of international education with the Coquitlam School District in suburban Vancouver over 10 years ago, has made the program in Vancouver one of the most extensive in Canada and the envy of the scores of districts across the country looking to cash in on the growing market for international students.
With international students paying $10,000 to $14,000 to attend Canadian schools, public school administrators across the country are setting up for-profit international student programs to compete for their dollars. One 2009 study estimated some 35,000 foreign students in the K-12 system contribute almost $700 million annually to the Canadian economy—a win-win for students, who get an invaluable leg-up when applying to North American post-secondary schools, as well as district administrators, who make up to 50 per cent profit on the tuition.
International student programs aren’t new to Canada, but at the K-12 level they’re rarely talked about, although most provinces have had programs for at least a decade. No province has been more successful at bringing in international students than B.C., with some 9,000. Capitalizing on the demand for a Western diploma and an English-language education, B.C. schools compete with Britain, the U.S. and Australia to recruit students overseas. School districts send staff abroad to meet foreign school officials and to attend trade shows. Domestically, the districts liaise with the Lower Mainland’s tight-knit Chinese and Korean communities, looking for overseas relatives. Once in Canada, the students live with extended family or billets. The students are offered supplementary language classes in tandem with regular studies, though eventually most opt for the standard curriculum.
By Stephanie Findlay - Thursday, July 28, 2011 at 12:20 PM - 0 Comments
Why Toronto has emerged as a global centre of mascot costume-making
Mascots often define a brand. Just think of Kellogg’s Tony the Tiger or Kraft’s Kool-Aid man. And if you see one in person, there’s a good chance the costume was made in Toronto, where a thriving industry has emerged selling to clients around the globe. “Toronto is the mascot mecca of the world,” says Christina Simmons, president of Loonie Times Inc., one of the half-dozen mascot companies in the city.
Why Toronto? “I think we just put more TLC into them,” says Simmons. Unlike mass-produced mascots made overseas, Toronto’s mascots are conceived by bona-fide artisans. Take Sugar’s Costumes Studio, founded in 1980 by Peter deVinta, an Italian immigrant who comes from a long line of tailors. (His father, Joseph, now 91, was a master tailor in Italy who worked for top military generals.) A medium-sized firm, Sugar’s makes upwards of 400 mascots a year. Some are famous, like the Blue Jays’ Ace, and others obscure, like the Calvary Chapel’s California Nuts for Jesus: PJ, Al, Wally and Hazel. DeVita just shipped Nahkool, a date palm tree and mascot of a town in Bahrain.
The companies hire from nearby schools, like OCAD University and Seneca College, who pump out sculptors, designers and sewers. “When you’re making a custom character like the Honey Nut Bee, you need a fashion design graduate so they can do the pattern drafting and do the math to look like the design,” says Mike Chudleigh, president of 1-800-Mascots, another local firm.
By Stephanie Findlay - Friday, July 15, 2011 at 9:40 AM - 0 Comments
An Iraq war veteran’s death at an amusement park raises serious safety issues
Late last week, Sgt. James Thomas Hackemer, a 29-year-old Iraq war veteran who had lost both legs in combat, died after falling out of the Ride of Steel roller coaster at Darien Lake Theme Park in Genesee County, N.Y. Though the park website stipulates passengers must be taller than 4½ feet, and that those “with certain body proportions may not be able to ride,” this accident wasn’t the roller coaster’s first.
In 1999, one day after the Superman: Ride of Steel rollercoaster opened (Superman was dropped from the name in 2007), a 37-year-old man was thrown from his seat and hospitalized with minor injuries. Park officials said his weight—in excess of 300 lb.—was probably to blame. Elsewhere, in 2001 on the ride at Six Flags New England in Springﬁeld, Mass., 21 passengers were injured, some with broken noses, after two cars collided. Then, in 2004, an overweight man who had cerebral palsy fell out of the same Superman: Ride of Steel roller coaster and died.
Rose Ann Hirsh, author of Western New York Amusement Parks, says that the few accidents that happen on roller coasters are less likely to be due to mechanical failure than a result of human negligence. “I wish he had thought twice before he did it, and I wish Darien Lake had thought twice about it,” says Hirsh of the Hackemer tragedy.
By Stephanie Findlay - Wednesday, July 6, 2011 at 7:00 AM - 0 Comments
On his own from the time he was eight, he hadn’t seen his brother in more than three decades
Terry Lee Pettigrew was born in Brandon, Man., on Sept. 7, 1952, the third of seven children, to Marvin, a brakeman for the Canadian Pacific Railway, and Helen, a nurse. In search of employment, Marvin moved the family “like gypsies” across Canada, all the while teaching his boys to play board games, fish, skate and camp. Seven years later, seeking permanence, the Pettigrews returned to Brandon, Marvin’s hometown.
Terry was a happy-go-lucky toddler like his older twin brothers, Garry and Larry, but couldn’t leave his terrible twos behind. As he grew, so did his temper. One day, when seven-year-old Terry was playing with the neighbourhood kids, he got hold of a small camping hatchet and in a fit took after one of his friends. Soon after, he threatened a different kid, this time with a rock. Marvin and Helen were at their wits’ end. They called social services, who advised them to place Terry in a group home. “That was about the only recourse I had, was to do something terrible to get something good done,” says Marvin. “Awful thing to have to do to get help, isn’t it?” Terry was eight when he moved into the home, where he stayed until he was 18. During that time, he didn’t see his parents once, and, even years later, never spoke with them about his time there.
But if Terry went in troubled, he came out smiling. With his twinkling blue eyes, straw-blond hair and lithe frame—he stood about five-feet-eight-inches tall—Terry took after his mother’s side: in his early 20s, he was the spitting image of granddad Harold Edward Appleyard, a jockey. After some stints up north working the oil rigs, Terry took a job as a groom at the Calgary Stampede race track. There, he met Bud Keizer, owner of a horse transport company in Calgary, in the late ’80s. “Some horses were very, very hard to handle,” says Bud, “he just seemed to do it without any problems.” For the next decade, Bud hired Terry as a truck driver transporting horses across Canada and the U.S. Often, Terry would have dinner with Bud and his wife, Patty. “I tried putting weight on him but boy could he eat,” says Patty. (Terry loved Patty’s fried chicken and befriended her two Maltese dogs). “I like people who like animals,” says Patty, “I think there’s a kindness to them a lot of people don’t have. He had a big heart, Terry did.”
By Stephanie Findlay - Monday, July 4, 2011 at 2:26 PM - 1 Comment
Inmates in B.C. are working to establish Canada’s first-ever prisoners’ union
In January 2010, a 50-something inmate serving a life sentence at Mountain Institution, a medium-security prison in Agassiz, British Columbia, polled his fellow prisoners to see if they were in favour of starting a labour union. Over 76 per cent of the inmates said yes. By March, he and a core group of 14 inmates at Mountain had drafted a constitution for the union and have been working towards certification ever since. If the inmates are successful, the union will be the first of its kind in the country.
It’s not surprising the movement is happening at Mountain, given its unique status as a work-focused prison where inmates must have steady jobs. As of 2007, there were 449 inmates at Mountain–the majority of whom work in one of four industries: textiles, manufacturing, construction, and prison services, such as printing and laundry. They’ve only recently met their first hurdle: getting 51 per cent of the prisoners to sign up. This is usually a routine affair, but represents a problem inside a prison, where inmates have been denied the right to assemble.
In a press release, the prisoners said their proposed union would raise issues that “plague the prison population as a workforce,” including workplace safety, access to vocational training, and pay, which hasn’t been adjusted to inflation since 1986. The union tactic comes in response to a dysfunctional inmate grievance system that is overloaded, understaffed, and inefficient. According to the Correctional Investigator’s office the volume of complaints has grown from around 20,000 in 2005-06 to over 28,000 in 2009-2010
A 2010 review of the complaints and grievance process by David Mullan, a constitutional lawyer and professor emeritus at Queen’s University, found “serious problems” with the current system. A routine grievance can take over 150 days from its initial filing to be resolved, in part because of improperly trained staff. (Mullan says staff do “little more than [process] paper.”) And the system is tied up by “frequent users”–serial grievers, determined to bog down the process. In 2008-09, Mullan found that in some institutions, just a dozen offenders accounted for 11.3 per cent of all submissions. Canada’s prisoners’ rights movement dates back to the 70s, when a series of brutal uprisings and violent deaths spurred an overhaul of prison legislation, including extending the vote behind prison walls. Since then, a series of legal reforms that have guaranteed rights to prisoners, notably the adoption of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in 1982 and the adoption of the Corrections and Conditional Release Act in 1992, which includes the inmate grievance policy. In many respects, Canada’s commitment to prisoner’s rights is admirable.
But just because something is written, doesn’t mean it’s enforced, cautions Allan Manson, a criminal law professor at Queen’s University. “The problem,” says Manson, “is enforcing compliance with the act and that continues to be a problem today.” There are statutory standards, he says, “but prisoners have to be able to force compliance. And given the obstacles to judicial remedies and cost of litigation, there hasn’t been a crucial mass of judicial scrutiny that will keep penitentiary officials in line.”
The Correctional Service of Canada wouldn’t speculate on the impact a union might have on the federal prison system and pointed out that inmates already have a say in their treatment. “Each institution has an inmate committee which is formed to allow inmates to identify issues, including work-related issues, affecting them and to raise them with wardens and institutional staff,” CSC spokesperson Jean-Paul Lorieau wrote in an email to Maclean’s. “So far no union has been formed, and we do not have any further comments on this issue.”
In the meantime, Mountain inmates and Natalie Dunbar, a Vancouver-based criminal lawyer who’s been serving as a liaison between the prison and the outside world, continue to organize. While the process is slow, Dunbar is optimistic. She says a prisoners’ union could “change the dynamic” between guards and prisoners for the better. “Prison staff are unionized and they have issues they have to deal with and believe it or not some of the issues intersect with prisoners issues.” Ideally, Dunbar says prison labour unions will propagate across the country: “Mountain would be local 001 and hopefully Kent would be unionized, then places throughout BC and then Canada.” Though, until then, “it’s baby steps,” she says. “We just want to get the application in at Mountain.”
By Stephanie Findlay - Friday, June 17, 2011 at 11:30 AM - 16 Comments
Nestlé’s new product is raising the ire of breastfeeding advocates
Ever wish you could feed your nursing babe by simply pressing a button? Nestlé has the product for you: BabyNes, a single-serve baby-formula machine that resembles a single-serve coffee maker. The US$297 contraption makes formula out of a range of capsules (costing roughly US$65 for a 26-pack) to feed infants up to three years of age. In May, BabyNes went on sale in Switzerland and is expected to launch globally next year. “We think this could be as successful as Nespresso,” Martin Grieder, director of BabyNes, told Fox News, referring to Nestlé’s capsule coffee system. Nespresso is its fastest-growing brand—sales increased 20 per cent to US$3.55 billion in 2010.
Predictably, breastfeeding advocates are unimpressed, accusing the food giant of undermining the World Health Organization’s guidelines recommending breastfeeding for the first six months. But Nestlé prefers to highlight the technological genius of its product. As Grieder puts it: “This is a game changer.”
By Stephanie Findlay - Friday, June 17, 2011 at 10:55 AM - 5 Comments
Australia is turning its cross-hairs on gassy camels
A dead camel in Australia may soon pay off in carbon credits. Down under, where feral camels are running rampant in the rangelands and producing unholy amounts of methane, the government is proposing an official camel cull to help combat climate change. There are 1.2 million feral camels in Australia, and with few natural diseases and no natural predators, the population is expected to reach two million by 2020. One camel emits an estimated 45 kg of methane a year—the equivalent of a metric tonne of carbon dioxide. (In contrast, a passenger car emits about 5.2 metric tonnes annually.)
Under the proposed new regime, expected to become law this summer, accredited marksmen will be able to shoot the animals for carbon credits. “Potentially it has tremendous merit, because feral camels are a dreadful menace across the whole of arid Australia,” said Mark Dreyfus, Australia’s parliamentary secretary for climate change. Camels were first introduced to Australia in the late 1800s to work in the outback. Today, in the age of planes, trains and automobiles, the humped beast is just an exotic pest—albeit a gassy one.
By Stephanie Findlay - Wednesday, June 15, 2011 at 9:10 AM - 15 Comments
Echoing Arizona, Georgia passed a tough immigrant law. Now it finds itself desperately short of farmhands.
Following in the controversial footsteps of Arizona’s lawmakers, the ruling Republican party in Georgia introduced beefed-up immigrant legislation earlier this spring. The bill, HB 87, empowers police to question the immigration status of criminal suspects and demands business owners use E-Verify, a federal database, to check a prospective employee’s immigration status. HB 87 will take effect July 1. But, just as in Arizona, a class-action lawsuit was filed against the legislation: last week, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), along with several rights organizations and individuals, challenged the law in federal district court. “This legislation turns Georgia into a police state,” says Azadeh Shahshahani of the Georgia chapter of the ACLU. Even Carlos Santana weighed in on the national debate: “The people of Arizona, the people of Atlanta, Georgia, you should be ashamed of yourselves,” said Santana earlier this month at Major League Baseball’s annual civil rights game.
Along with opposition from civil rights groups, leaders of the agricultural industry—one of Georgia’s largest—are protesting the bill. Charles Hall, executive director of the Georgia Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association, says migrant workers have “heard horror stories of people being harassed, being deported, being stopped at a licence check.” As a result, says Hall, farm workers are bypassing Georgia, causing a massive labour shortage in the state and sending the $1.1-billion industry into a tailspin. Hall reports farmers are experiencing labour shortages of up to 50 per cent, and estimates that a quarter of Georgia’s crops will go unharvested—representing some $300 million in lost revenue.
Although Georgia’s unemployment rate sits at 9.9 per cent, Hall says hiring domestic workers isn’t an option. “If we could get domestic workers to do our field work, we would,” he says, “but they’re not available.” Domestic workers might work in the cooler packing houses, but not in the fields. “It’s back-breaking work,” says Hall.
By Stephanie Findlay - Monday, June 6, 2011 at 10:30 AM - 0 Comments
Elvis is a hero to most in Hungary
On Wednesday last week, Budapest’s city council voted in favour of naming Elvis Presley an honorary citizen. Presley endorsed the hard-fought but unsuccessful 1956 Hungarian uprising against the Communist government when, on Jan. 6, 1957, he appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show and performed the gospel song Peace in the Valley in dedication to the Hungarian rebels. It was the last song of his set and would be his last time ever on the Sullivan show. “The reasons for honouring Elvis are not sentimental but political,” said István Tarlós, mayor of Budapest, according to the Guardian. Indeed, Sullivan collected donations from the TV audience, in the order of some 25 million Swiss francs, to donate to a Hungarian relief fund.
The honorary citizenship isn’t Hungary’s first commemoration of “the King.” Earlier this March, Budapest also named a park in his name, part of a nationwide effort to remove names given during the Communist era. It’s perhaps understandable why war and peace were on Presley’s mind. Two days after his Sullivan appearance, the Memphis draft board announced that the 22-year-old would inducted into the army.
By Stephanie Findlay - Monday, June 6, 2011 at 10:05 AM - 0 Comments
Where have all the girls gone?
When it comes to girls, China gets the bad rap. But it’s not the only country with an overwhelming preference for boys. The 2011 Indian census revealed that there are 7.1 million fewer girls than boys aged under seven. The sex ratio in that age group is now 914 girls to 1,000 boys, the lowest since records began in 1961. And a study released last week concluded the growing gender imbalance is a result of selective abortion of female fetuses.
The study found that selective abortion of Indian girls, especially for pregnancies after a first-born girl, has increased substantially over the past 10 years. It used to be that the phenomenon was restricted to a few northern Indian states, but it is now common throughout India’s population. Prabhat Jha, a University of Toronto professor and author of the study, says the abortions are consistent with the country’s economic development: as fertility drops and a preference for sons continues, families with the means to select the gender of their child will do so. Jha says the repercussions of the skewed ratio are glaring. “In the hardest hit places of India, they’re importing brides,” he says. “There just aren’t enough women.”
By Stephanie Findlay - Wednesday, May 25, 2011 at 9:30 AM - 2 Comments
An Ontario town is proposing a sanctuary for cats to deal with the growing feline population
Last year, when Carla Leardi joined the Cat Assistance Team (CAT), a non-profit volunteer group in the small southwestern Ontario town of Amherstburg, friends wondered why. After all, Leardi, an owner of two dogs, doesn’t have a cat. But the fortysomething office assistant considers herself an equal-opportunity animal enthusiast. And she was quick to take on CAT’s biggest task: dealing with Amherstburg’s proliferating cat population—a problem that’s more than a little gross. “One gentleman,” says Nancy Greenaway, a board member of CAT, “complained because his very expensive hockey equipment had been sprayed.”
Leardi’s solution is a “cat sanctuary.” She’s proposing that CAT’s volunteers build and maintain a fenced-in site for the local herd. Each feline would get a “cat condo”—a small house, complete with linoleum floors, straw and a shingled roof. The plan, says Leardi, is more cost-effective than the $50,000 it would cost to trap and euthanize all the town’s approximately 100 wild cats. By comparison, neutering a cat costs about $200, shelter is $400, and food is about $5 a month. It’s also, she says, simpler than introducing and enforcing stricter animal bylaws. (She uses Ottawa’s Parliamentary Cats, a similar residence behind Parliament Hill, as an example).
In April, CAT met with the town council and requested a piece of land and $10,000 to cover start-up costs for a 20-cat colony—donations and fundraising will cover ongoing needs. The idea was well received, says Greenaway, and CAT hopes it will be approved soon. “People are starting to say ‘how can we help?’ ” she says. “And it’s not only the people that want to get rid of the cats and have threatened to poison them.”