December 20, 2009
December 3, 2009
November 29, 2009
The tradition of lighting Advent candles (or wreaths) didn't arrive in Sweden until the 1870s, and didn't become widespread until the 1920s, though candles had been integral to seasonal celebrations for centuries. Today electric Advent candlesticks with seven candles in a pyramid shape dominate, and seem to change the entire country's appearance overnight, displayed in practically every home, institution, and workplace from the beginning of December (occasionally earlier) to St. Knut's Day.
Originally referred to as julljusstakar, "Yule candlesticks", to avoid confusion with the live candle variety, they are a fairly recent addition to the season's decorations. The very first electric Advent candlestick was constructed (but not patented) in 1934 by Oscar Andersson (1909-1996), an employee at the Göteborg warehouse of the Dutch electronics firm Philips.
Towards the end of 1929, Philips introduced electric Christmas tree lamps in Sweden. Many of these lamp-sets, designed for 120 V common in urban centres at the time, were returned 'defective' to the Philips warehouse, having been subjected to 220 V in rural areas. Tasked at the warehouse with salvaging the functioning lamps from these sets, Mr Andersson - a technical gymnasium graduate – had the idea to mount electric Christmas tree lamps on an ordinary wooden candlestick (purchased at Grand Bazar for 2 Swedish krona, or roughly 53 cents – the equivalent of C$ 8.80 today).
Displayed in the window of his parent's apartment on Karl Gustav Street in the quarter of Landala, the approval Mr Andersson's invention garnered among passers-by encouraged him to present the electric Advent candlestick to his supervisor. Savvy to its potential, the supervisor brought the contraption to Philips' Stockholm headquarters, where initial scepticism eventually turned into an agreement to manufacture a trial run of 2000 electric candlesticks for the 1939 Christmas season.
Marketed as a “fireproof,” safer alternative to live candlesticks, the Philips Candlesticks were completely sold out (at 13 krona apiece, or roughly C$ 3.38 – equal to C$ 44.39 today) before Christmas Day that year. Mass-production commenced once WWII ended, and the material shortages caused by it were rectified. By the mid-1990s, around a million electric Advent candlesticks were sold in Sweden annually and could be found in just over 90% of Swedish households.
Intriguingly, the advent of the electric Advent candlestick largely altered its function from a symbolic, religious one, to a practically secular, illuminating one – pleasantly dispelling the darkness for believers and non-believers alike over the past 70 years.
Note: this article originally posted on November 29, 2008.
November 23, 2009
Today, violence directed at women is one of the most common violations of human rights. One in three women will be beaten, coerced into sex, or otherwise abused in her lifetime, most likely by a man she knows. One in five women will be the victim of rape or attempted rape in her lifetime. Half of the women murdered around the world each year are killed by their current or former husbands or partners. Women aged 15 – 44 are more at risk from rape and domestic violence than from cancer, malaria, traffic accidents, and war.
In Canada, 51% of women over the age 16 will be subjected to an act of physical violence in their life time. They are five times more likely than Canadian men to be seriously injured or killed by their partner, and hundreds are murdered each year. Aboriginal women in Canada are five times more likely to die as the result of violence than other women their age. In the EU, between 40% and 50% of women report some form of sexual harassment in the workplace. Between 500.000 and 2 million people – the majority of them women and children – are sold annually into prostitution, forced labour, slavery and servitude.
According to Amnesty International, an estimated 130 million women and girls alive today have been subjected to female genital mutilation, while 2 million girls are at risk each year. This particularly sadistic practice is common worldwide, not merely confined to ingrained pockets of ignorance and superstition, as are the thousands of “honour” and dowry killings committed each year by some of the world’s most ignorant and uneducated inhabitants.
November 18, 2009
The Convention on the Rights of the Child was signed on the same date in 1989, and has since been ratified by 193 states. Though only two – Somalia and the USA – haven't ratified the Convention, many of those that have (including Canada) haven't fully implemented the Convention in domestic laws, or have done so with numerous reservations. (The Optional Protocol on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflicts has only been ratified by 130 states, while the Optional Protocol on the Sale of Children, Child Prostitution and Child Pornography has only been ratified by 135 states.)
This year the 20th Anniversary of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child - Celebrating Children's Rights is the theme, meant to raise awareness of the fundamental rights to which children are entitled. In Canada, we may also be reminded that November 24th (four days after National Child Day) will mark the 20th anniversary of the unanimous parliamentary resolution to end child poverty. Especially as Canada's child poverty rate - despite decades of unprecedented economic growth - currently stands at 9.5%.
November 11, 2009
On November 11, they were almost halfway, having left Québec nearly two weeks earlier. Volunteers from all across Canada, heading for a theatre of war on the other side of the globe. For some of them, who'd barely traveled outside their home province, it may as well have been the end of the Earth. For some of them, it'd be the last place they'd ever go. They had signed up to defend peace, justice, progress, and civilization itself, against an enemy who — they'd been told — threatened all with his backward religious zealotry and militant aggression. They were the vanguard, the first 1,019 Canadians out of 7,368 (including 12 female nurses) who'd fight for the British Empire in South Africa over the next two and a half years.
The Second Boer War, known as the South African War in Canada, began 110 years ago. Canadians' awareness of this conflict, its causes and consequences, isn't particularly acute — though given our current involvement in Afghanistan, and the parallels between the two conflicts, we could do with a reminder. Especially as we once again find ourselves governed by reactionaries hellbent on reshaping the identity of our nation to one that better suits their jingoist stance — as evidenced by the current Conservative governments new, revised citizenship guide, and its greater emphasis on Canada's military history. Though don't rely on it for mention of Canada's "adventures" in South Africa, given that our exploits there aren't much to brag about.
That war was precipitated by the British Empire, having already annexed the Natalia Republic (today's KwaZulu-Natal) in 1843, setting its eye on the remaining independent Boer republics of the Orange Free State and the South African Republic (Transvaal). Situated between the Orange and Vaal rivers, by 1870 the Orange Free State had yielded impressive diamond deposits, while the Transvaal, north of the Vaal river, was the destination of the Witwatersrand Gold Rush in 1886, following the discovery of the largest gold-bearing deposits in the world. The South African gold may not have been as pure as that produced in Australia and Canada, but it was a lot easier to extract. As for diamonds, they wouldn't be discovered in Australia and Canada until a century later.
The only obstacle between the British Empire and this new sources of wealth were the Boer (black South Africans certainly didn't count). The Boer, descendants of Dutch, German, and French settlers were weary of the influx of mainly British prospectors into their states, and — having gained their independence — certainly not interested in becoming British subjects. The situation came to a head when British colonists launched a disastrous raid into Transvaal towards the end of 1895. Though ostensibly a private enterprise, it had been backed — until the very last moment — by the British government. The Boer successfully repelled the raid, but their predicament was exacerbated further by an unexpected expression of support from the German Emperor.
To the British this was simply further evidence of German meddling in "their affairs", and a perfect pretext for full-blown conflict. As British troops began assembling along their borders, the Boer gambled on a preemptive strike, launching an offensive in October 1899. However, by January 1900, colonial reinforcements from Australia, Canada, and New Zealand, gave the British the upper hand, and by September 1900 the Boer republics were overrun. Refusing to surrender, the Boer engaged in a protracted campaign of irregular warfare, lasting until May 1902.
Canada's Prime Minister, Wilfrid Laurier, initally attempted to steer clear of a conflict which had no bearing whatsoever on Canada's national interests. But a majority of English Canadians were rearing for a jolly good "adventure", with the sole opposition emanating from Québec, and a few vocal English Canadian labour unions and farmers' groups. French Canadians in particular were not only worried of setting a precedent for involvement in future conflicts, but could also sympathise with the Boer — small nations struggling for independece in a sea of Anglos. Laurier eventually bowed to pressure, and agreed to a compromise which saw Canada provide volunteers, equipment and transportation in lieu of conscription.
Though Canadians had participated in the Nile Expedition of 1884-85, this was the first time large Canadian contingents participated in armed conflict abroad. Many signed up beliving they'd fight alongside other Canadians, commanded by Canadians even. As it turned out, the Brits called the shots from beginning to end, minding to quickly get out of the way once the actual shooting started. A scenario Canadians would experience for much of the First World War as well. As it happened, the first significant British victory of the conflict was won by Canadians, in the Battle of Paardeberg. Though as wreaths are placed at the South African War memorial in Toronto, the Boer War Memorial in Montréal, and other points of rememberance throughout Canada, let's remember that this particular "victory" — like most of them — was the result of pure luck.
Having experienced their worst day of losses during the entire conflict (8 dead, 60 wounded) in their very first combat, and bungled a nighttime sneak attack which saw most of the Canadian battalion retreat, two Canadian companies managed to convince 4,019 Boer men and 50 women (roughly 10% of the Boer army) to surrender. The battle could've easily gone the other way. Today there aren't many obvious reminders of this specific conflict in Canada, beyond its most infamous commander — Horatio Herbert Kitchener — being the namesake of many a street, park, school, and public building throught the country, even a city in Ontario.
The Mennonite community once known as Berlin, was violently intimidated to change its name after the racist Field Marshall's death in 1916. No German name would be tolerated by the rabid pro-Empire Anglos — despite the fact that the conflict fought at the time was (ostensibly) against German Emperor Wilhelm II , the first grandchild of British Queen Victoria. But Kitchener is perhaps best remembered as the mustachioed Big Brother staring down from a recruitment poster — like a British Stalin — intimidating citizens of the Empire to go get killed in the First World War, the pointless conflict which spelled the end of the era of empires. (Though we're often told to revere those fallen in that war for their sacrifice to peace and democracy, let's remember none of the participating nations were democracies in any modern sense of the word.)
What is less known is the tactics Kitchener employed in 1900, once the British offensive had failed to subdue the Boer. Apart from a "scorched earth" policy, which saw the devastation of Boer farms and ranches, their livelihoods and livestock destroyed, as well as using Boer prisoners as human shields to protect trains, Kitchener also turned refugee camps into concentration camps. Though similar camps had previously been established in the Russian Empire prior to the first partition of Poland, in the USA to concentrate Native Americans, and by Spain in Cuba and the Philippines, Kitchener's concentration camps are distinguished for being the first to actually be termed such.
The internment of Boer women and children in 45 tented camps (and an additional 64 for black South Africans of various ethnicities who lived in the two independent Boer republics) was meant to deny the Boer "guerillas" access to supplies, food, and shelter. Those interned also served as a means to extort: families of Boer men still fighting received smaller rations than others, causing mass starvation. Combined with poor sanitation, lack of food soon made diseases — measles, typhoid, dysentery — endemic in the camps. Shortage of medicine and medical care quickly led to large numbers of deaths.
According to the Canadian War Museum's resident historian Cameron Pulsifer, any comparison of these camps with the more infamous ones established by the German Nazi-regime is "grossly exaggerated and unfair". An opinion that easily calls into question the point of said museum. Whether or not the British — with ample help from Canadian volunteers — had intended to perpetrate a genocide is beside the point. They waged a war on two independent states for the purpose of annexing their territories and forcibly assimilating their populations. Regardless of the stated intentions, the end result ultimately speaks for itself: nearly 25% of the Boer population, 50% of all Boer children under the age of 16, and an estimated 12% of the black South African populations died in Kitchener's camps.
Starvation, disease, and exposure killed 27,927 Boer — of whom 24,074 were children — and 14,154 black South Africans. Though as no attempt was ever made to keep records of black South Africans, their deaths were likely underestimated. As many as 22,000 of the nearly 107,000 black South Africans interned may have perished in the camps. By comparison, only some 3,000 Boer men were killed in actual combat. Additionally, of the nearly 28,000 prisoners of war taken by British forces, some 25,630 were sent to prisons overseas. While not as purposeful as the Holocaust, it's a genocide that's left a lasting effect on the demography and quality of life in the region.
Why does this matter to us now? Because Canadians participated fully in these genocidal actions, taking active part in the "suppressive" policies during the entire duration of the war. Military fetishists like Pulsifer and his fellows at the Canadian War Museum may lack the courage to admit it, but not one among all these people — men, women, children — ever posed a threat to Canada in any way whatsoever. The Canadian War Museum's obfuscation of the atrocities and war crimes committed by Canadian volunteers is disingenuous and dishonest.
Ironically, once awareness of the appalling conditions in camps had been raised, primarily by Emily Hobhouse, Kitchener allegedly issued a "take no prisoners" order to prevent overcrowding. This only came to light during the court-martial of three Australian soldiers — one of whom happend to be folk hero Harry "Breaker" Morant — put on trial for executing Boer prisoners. Kitchener denied ever issuing the order, promptly signing the death warrants of the Australians. This didn't prevent Canadian scouts from wearing black feathers to indicate they'd shoot any Boer captured under arms. And what do we have to show for our participation in this "grand adventure"? 267 Canadians killed in action, 252 wounded, three Victoria crosses, one scarf crocheted by the Queen, and a springbok on the cap badge of the Royal Canadian Dragoons.
Though the legacy of the Second Boer War also taints the dress uniform of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, whose distinctive Stetson hats and Strathcona boots were first officially sanctioned for use by Canadian South Africa volunteers. Canada also "gained" a Minister of Militia and Defence in South Africa veteran Sam Hughes — a reactionary hothead who not only helped convince Prime Minister Laurier of the necessity of getting involved in the South African war, but would go on to whip up nationalist fervour in the build up to the First World War, goading Canadians to yet again sacrifice themselves in a foreign conflict that had little to do with them.
As we're asked by our parliament this year to pause for two rather than the traditional minute of silence on Remembrance Day, let us remind ourselves of the chauvinist forces that are in fact one of the leading sources of conflict in our world. Let us remind ourselves how easily we can be decieved to lend our support to armed aggression in far away places, against people we don't know and have never met, who pose little — if any — threat to us.
As the martial sentimentalists in our current government and in our society attempt to institutionalise militarism in our country, to ritualise rememberance ceremonies, and imbue them with chauvinist platitudes and historical revisionism in order to turn future generations into willing recruits, let us remind ourselves that in 1899, the (Liberal) government of Canada claimed the overseas expediton to South Africa would not be a precedent. Time has clearly proven otherwise. It is in our power to change that.
November 9, 2009
(The first one to do so was in fact Romanian physiologist Nicolae Paulescu, though his pioneering efforts are largely ignored due to his rather virulent anti-Semitism.)
Although recognized since antiquity, diabetes was only understood at the beginning of the 20th century, when research led to an effective treatment – insulin injections. Prior to that, receiving the diagnosis was a death sentence. However, there is still no practical cure, and while 285 million people will be living with diabetes in 2010, their number is expected to reach 435 million by 2030. Nearly 95% of them will have to deliver their own care.
Though one of the most common chronic diseases of childhood, diabetes is often misdiagnosed or not diagnosed at all. If undetected, among children the disease can be fatal or result in serious brain damage. Currently an estimated 440,000 children live with diabetes worldwide; 70,000 children under 15 develop the disease each year (that's almost 192 kids each day).