Archive for January, 2013|Monthly archive page

Culture at the Crossroads

Walking home from the supermarket the other night, I saw a police car blocking traffic on one of the main roads of downtown Vancouver. I thought there might have been an accident, but then I heard the sound of drumming.

Curious, I headed towards it.

A police officer stood at the next intersection redirecting traffic; behind him there was a First Nations Round Dance in the middle of the road.

I watched from the street corner, intrigued. I wanted to join in – it looked like fun – but I didn’t know what was going on. Also, I wasn’t sure how well that would go down, me being a random person from another country.

I grew up in New Zealand in the eighties; at the time, New Zealand had a population of about three million people, and sixty million sheep*. We had a lot of land, and not that many people to live on it.

Accordingly, our immigration policy was something along the lines of “You’ve heard of us? Really? Please, come in. Would you like a sheep?”

So, I went to school with Cambodians, Somalis, Tongans, Canadians, Finns… from my tiny island nation in the South Pacific, I learned about African Islam, the white nights of Northern Europe, and smatterings of half a dozen languages from all around the world.

But the culture that threaded most prominently through my life was the Māori culture.

For the last thirty years, the indigenous population of NZ has had a strong voice and a large impact on New Zealand culture. I was taught Te Reo Māori (the official Māori language) in school, learned how to twirl poi long before it became the thing for backpackers to do at full-moon parties, and grew up knowing and understanding about the Māori way of life.

I didn’t think anything of it at the time; I presumed every country was like that. Once I began travelling, I realised I was wrong.

I’ve seen aboriginal people treated many different ways in different lands, from embraced in one country, to ignored or marginalized in the next.

Now I’m here in Canada, watching as an indigenous movement catches fire.

The settlement of Canada wasn’t as brutal as south as in the US; attitudes here tended to be less “Oi! What are you doing on my new land?” and more “Hello, what would you like to trade for this shiny new musket?”

Unfortunately, this quickly lead to something called the Beaver Wars.

In my mind, the name makes me think of beavers in tiny flack hats, digging trenches around streams and poking their little beaver noses above the ramparts while they clutch BB guns in their cute wee paws. In my mind it’s really adorable.

I like my mind.

In reality, it was one of the most brutal and bloody series of conflicts in the history of North America.

As the British and French tussled for control of the trade in beaver pelts, and for Canada itself, many of the indigenous people found themselves used as proxies. The two great nations armed traditionally warring tribes, pointed them in each others direction, and then sat back to eat a croissant or smoke a cigar while the natives tried to wipe each other out.

By the time it was over, entire tribes had been driven from their traditional lands.

Over the years since, there has been a continued back and forth between the First Nations and the government over land, rights, and even who can call themselves a member of the First Nations.

And now that has culminated in a movement called “Idle No More”.

Starting only a few months ago from four First Nations women exchanging tweets, the grassroots movement has spread from coast to coast, with protests, train stoppages and border blockades across the nation.

The protests are about a bill called C-45. Among many other things (the bill is 400+ pages), the bill introduces changes that INM claim weaken First Nations sovereignty and environmental protection laws.

The changes to the Indian Act redefine how First Nation land can be leased for development, and the changes to the Environment Assessment Act means that environment impact studies are no longer required for minor development projects; but the area of foremost concern to the movement is the Navigable Waters Protection Act.

At the moment, the Act says that any development on or through water “deep enough to float a canoe” must prove it won’t harm the environment.

The act covers over thirty thousand waterways across Canada

In the new bill, only ninety-seven lakes, sixty-two rivers and three oceans in total are covered.

Oh, and pipelines? They get a free pass now; even through the one hundred and sixty-two waterways still covered by the act.

And so the First Nations have stood up in opposition, but it’s not just a First Nations protest.

As Gyasi Ross, a member of the Blackfoot tribe said:

“This has nothing to do with race or ethnicity. Native people did begin this movement — energized by Chief Spence’s sacrifice and sparked by the Four Founders’ initiative. Yet, this is anybody’s movement who wants to stand up for the Earth and women and also make a positive change in the community. That means that non-Natives are certainly welcome. We need non-Natives involved to save this Earth, to give our children and grandchildren the same quality of life that we have enjoyed. It’s about clean water. It’s about clean air. It’s about safety for all women. It’s about making a positive change in our communities”

(read the full article on HuffPost here)

In Vancouver, this lead to a Round Dance in the middle of Burrard and Nelson.

After the dance had finished, I began talking to one of the women involved. I asked her why it had taken part in the center of the street; was this a site sacred to First Nations?

It turns out it wasn’t; originally they were dancing by the side of the road, only no one was really paying them any attention.

Then a police officer came up to them.

He didn’t ask them to move on or tell them they couldn’t dance there; instead he asked if they would like to dance in the middle of the street. A simple gesture, but effective.

The police cordoned off four main blocks in downtown Vancouver on a busy Monday evening, while First Nations people from all over Canada sang, danced and beat drums in protest.

Later I found out that the round dance is a dance intended to be shared by people from all tribes, all cultures. It is a simple dance, so everyone can come together through music, regardless of their background.

So, if you’re heading home from the shops one night and you happen across a First Nations Round Dance in the middle of the road; join in.

It’s the dance is for.

If you want to find more information on Idle No More, check out their web page or facebook page. Also, if you’d like to see a cheesy eighties Māori pop hit in NZ, check out here.

*That hasn’t actually changed much.


A taxing problem

Odd fact: I am very good at my seventeen times table.

Not because I learned it in school; we never went higher than the twelve times table, and besides, most of those brain cells didn’t survive my teenage years.

Instead it comes from having worked in the bar of a hostel in Nicaragua. I had a great time, made good friends, and learned my seventeen times table.

This was because, while all of our rates were advertised in US dollars, 99.99999% of people who came through our doors paid in the local currency, the córdoba, at a 17:1 exchange rate.

As we only had one ratty, frequently-misplaced calculator between us, and long lines of bus-weary backpackers waiting to check in or order a drink, I got very good at multiplying by 17.

Three beds for two nights, at $7USD each per night? C$714, por favor. Two Cuba Libres and one cerveza grande? That’ll be C$153.

That was almost a decade ago, but I can still rattle off multiples of seventeen at the drop of a hat. Over time, I’ve come to realise that that’s part of my brain I’m never getting back for something useful. Like remembering my address.

Now, living in Canada, I’m afraid I’ll end up losing other useful brain cells to something equally pointless.

Working out 12%.

You see, for some strange reason, Canadian price tags don’t include sales tax. Those boots that you see advertised for $249? Well, that’s actually $249+12% tax. That ski lift ticket for $48? Really it’s $53.76 by the time you’ve added tax.

I’m not sure why tax isn’t included in the price. If I see a pair of boots advertised for $249, I don’t think “gosh, lucky those boots aren’t $250, or I wouldn’t be able to afford them”. Instead, I think “oh, crap. What’s 12% of $249?”

This makes for an awful lot of maths while shopping.

“Lets see, this jersey is $185, with 20% off so that’s about $150, plus that shirt that is $75 and is 15% off, added together and then with another 12% sales tax on top of that equals… Some money?” I feel like Baldrick from Blackadder learning how to add beans. Except I’m in a changing room in my underwear.

Going out for dinner quickly becomes an exercise in higher maths:

“Rigatoni Pomodoro at $15.50, a plate of garlic bread at $7.50 between three of us, and a bottle of red that was $36.50 between two of us, add 12% sales tax, then another 15% tip on top of that….. Is there any wine left?”

By the end of the meal I am so confused about how much I owe I normally just empty my wallet out onto the table and make a run for it.

Of course (this being the age of the smartphone), there is an app to work out sales tax. Except that it’s not as easy as adding a straight 12% to everything.

Yesterday I bought a bar of chocolate and a block of cheese (dietary staples in my life, as anyone who knows me will tell you). The chocolate was taxed, but the cheese wasn’t. It turns out that books are exempt from tax, but newspapers and magazines are not. Buy a song on the iTunes store and you don’t pay HST, but buy an app and it’ll cost you 12% extra. See a movie in the cinemas and you’ll pay sales tax, but rent it and you won’t.


And, if that wasn’t confusing enough, Canada also has different sales taxes across the different provinces.

If you buy a pair of boots in Alberta , you only have to pay 5% sales tax. Buy the same pair of boots here in BC and you pay 12%. Be unlucky enough to buy these boots in Nova Scotia or Prince Edward Island and you will pay a whopping 15% sales tax.

British Columbia even appears to be going out of its way to make things more complicated.

In 2010 they changed their tax system to one that levied a flat 12% sales tax on almost everything. Over the next 24 months however, they’re going to roll back to a combination of federal and provincial sales taxes.

This means that some things will be taxed 5% GST (federal tax), some things 7% PST (the provincial tax), and some things 12% GST + PST. Of course, that’s only if it’s taxed at all.

So, those $249 boots I like? Because tax isn’t included in the sticker price, I won’t know whether they’ll cost $261.45, $266.43 or $278.88 until I get to the cash register. The meal I’m ordering at a restaurant? I’ll know when the check comes whether the dessert or pasta were taxed, and if so, by how much. Buying a bottle of wine? Well, actually, that I can pretty much guarantee will be taxed.

But here’s the thing, Canada: I don’t really care how much sales tax I’m paying. On a general level, sure, but not on a per item basis. It doesn’t matter to me if those boots are taxed 7% or 5% or 75%. What matters to me is the final price; then I can decide whether I can afford them, and whether they’re worth it.

Hopefully, one day Canada will make my life easier and starting listing the full amount on price tags, but until that day comes, I’m resigned to my fate: losing the brain cells that remember my mother’s birthday to working out sales tax.

Sorry mum.

Vancouver Vice

There’s something in the air in Vancouver.

Not smog, or pollution. Not even change.

Something of a decidedly more…  herbal origin.


Walk down any street in this city and it won’t be long before you detect the distinctive aroma of pot as someone strolls past you, happily smoking a joint in public.

You could be forgiven for thinking that marijuana is legal here, but it’s not. It’s not even decriminalised.

Smoking marijuana in Canada is still very much against the law.

Yet while dope seems to be everywhere here, it’s strangely difficult to buy a bottle of wine. I live in the heart of downtown, there are numerous pubs and bars two minutes from my door, but the nearest bottle shop is a fifteen minute walk away.

So… why isn’t most of Vancouver in jail for smoking dope? And why are there no liquor stores around when you need one?

These are questions that go back to Vancouver’s very roots.

At first glance, Vancouver is a nice, clean city with shiny new buildings and very polite locals.

But it wasn’t always like this.

Located on the very edge of the wild west, early Vancouver was a  rough and lawless town. The early white inhabitants were trappers, prospectors and lumberjacks. And not the Monty Python “cut down trees, skip and jump, like to press wild flowers” kind of lumberjacks, but more the “get drunk, get into fights, then drink some more” kind.

The nucleus for the fledgling town, Hasting’s Mill was built in 1867. The first saloon was also built in 1867 (legend has it was built overnight with the help of eight men from the mill and a barrel of whiskey), but the first police station wasn’t built until 1886 – almost twenty years later.

In fact, of the first ten buildings in Vancouver, four of them were saloons.

Far from the civilised world, men outnumbered women eight to one and it wasn’t long before there were forty-five saloons, all operating twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.

The town was filled with knife fights, guns, gambling, prostitution and alcohol.

Lots and lots of alcohol.

But then things changed.

In 1885 the Canadian Pacific Railway was completed, running from Montreal to Vancouver and linking Vancouver with the rest of the world.

Shortly afterwards, the Klondike gold rush started, and Vancouver became the jumping-off spot for prospectors heading out seek their fortune.

Over the next ten years, the population exploded in an odd mix of settlers and prospectors; people looking for a better life in which to raise a family, and rough and ready prospectors who liked a drink or five.

There was no regulation on the sale of alcohol at this point; anyone could drink anything, at any time. Many saloons never closed, or if they did, it was only to change the sawdust.

Unregulated drunkenness and public drinking were becoming a very big problem for Vancouver.

It didn’t take long before the not-lumberjacks-or-prospector inhabitants of Vancouver got fed up with drunken knife fights at 3am, and began advocating for alcohol regulation. As in the US, the movement picked up momentum, and British Columbia adopted Prohibition on October 1st, 1917, banning the sale of alcohol.

It didn’t really work.

The law itself had enough loopholes to drive a truck through. Initially, it only banned the sale of alcohol in BC, so people simply ordered their alcohol from other provinces.

Another loophole allowed alcohol for “medical or religious grounds”. In 1919, doctors wrote over one hundred and eighty thousand prescriptions for alcohol. This in a province that had just under half a million people.

Along with this, saloons could still open and sell “near-beer”, beer that was 1% alcohol. Most saloons also kept bottles of real alcohol behind the counter that they would happily serve up on request.

And of course, there were the local bootleggers. At one point bootlegging was so widespread, even the Prohibition Commissioner was caught smuggling in a trainload of rye.

In fact, Prohibition was so unsuccessful, on its first day, sixty of the town’s sixty-eight saloons still opened for business as usual.

Prohibition died a quick death in Vancouver, ending in 1921 once the government realised that a) the men returning from the First World War were a bit upset about not being able to drink, and b) no one was paying any attention to it anyway.

So the government decided to bring back alcohol, but in a regulated way. They figured the sensible thing would be if they were the only people allowed to sell alcohol, and they would only sell to reputable people with a license to buy it.

This has led to some very odd laws that still exist in British Columbia. For example, all alcohol coming into the province must go through the BC government’s Liquor Distribution Board, making it illegal to drive into BC with a bottle of wine in your car. It also means that the government of British Columbia is the single largest supplier of alcohol in the province, earning approximately $800 million annually from the sale of alcohol.

And, as I’ve noticed, it also makes for a sad dearth of convenient alcohol stores.

But, back to Vancouver in the early 1920s. Apart from getting a licence and buying alcohol from the government, the only other place you could (legally) get a drink was in specially licensed “beer-halls”, halls that sold, well, beer. Unfortunately, that was all they sold. They also closed during meal times and didn’t allow women, music, dancing, food, entertainment, or standing upright with a beer.

These lasted until the late 1960s (they did eventually allow women in, although into a separate room at first).

Vancouverites, however, weren’t about to be denied a drink, and so the town quickly filled with speakeasies, blind-pigs (the blue-collar version of a speak-easy) and bootlegging.

These were so prolific that during the twenties and thirties, the mayor of Vancouver, L. D. Taylor, decided to run an “open town” policy, focusing on managing vice rather than policing it, leaving the police force free to worry about major crimes.

Given that L. D. Taylor is the most re-elected mayor in Vancouver’s history, it seems the locals were on board with this.

Unfortunately, this led to wide-spread police corruption. By 1955, it was so systemic that the Chief of Police, Walter Mulligan, fled across the border to the US at the threat of an inquiry.

After that, Vancouver spent a good couple of decades cleaning up its act. There are still some bizarre alcohol laws on the books today that hark back to those days (such as happy hours being illegal), but the Vancouver of today feels a world away from the rollicking city of vice it once was.

Until you head out for dinner one evening, and walk past a nice, middle-class couple happily smoking a joint.

Vancouverites still like their vice.

So why not just legalise marijuana?

Well, Canada wants to. In fact, of the major political parties in Canada, only the Tories are against either legalisation or decriminalisation.

In 2002, a bill was introduced into parliament to decriminalise marijuana. It was going well; it even looked like it might succeed. Then parliament broke for the session.

Over the break, Canada got a polite call from their southern neighbours, the United States Drug Enforcement Agency.

The DEA wanted to wish Canada well with their idea of legalising marijuana. Oh and by the way, the US was now going to search every car coming into the US from Canada.

Have a nice day!

So Canada, being the polite, diplomatic country that it is, came up with the perfect solution. They kept marijuana illegal, but (in Vancouver at least) simply stopped policing it.

Perhaps now that marijuana has been legalised in two US states, it can be here as well (it’s on the cards for another attempt in 2014), but until then, Vancouver has a win-win situation. Marijuana is still illegal, which keeps the US is happy, while at the same time, folks get to enjoy a quiet joint without worrying about arrest, so they’re happy.

As well they should be; half of them are probably stoned.


This was probably not a sign that prohibition was going to work


A not-so-subtle advert for bongs.
Also chocolate, for when you get the munchies later.

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