Dust to dust

I’m currently in Bremen, Germany, at a conference on Mediterranean migration. It’s quite a time for a migration conference, what with Donald Trump’s refugee ban, European countries making noises about paying off Libya to stop irregular migration and the shooting by an apparent white supremacist at a mosque in Quebec City (yes, Québec City!) that took the lives of six immigrants. More on that later.

But I did want to post this first. These are 12th-century bishop’s shoes from the Bremen cathedral museum. Once cloth-of-gold, now barely recognizable brownish gold dust held together by specialized lighting.

All human endeavour will look like this someday– that is, in the unlikely event it’s preserved. For every pair of preserved golden boots, thousands of slippers probably disintegrated.

So we’d better make the best of everything while it lasts.




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Townshipslaining the PM

Primarily of interest to English-speaking Quebecers…My colleague Ross Murray’s take on the Justin Trudeau Sherbrooke town hall debacle.

English-speaking Quebec does not just equal Montreal.


Drinking Tips for Teens

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau listens to a question during a town hall in Sherbrooke, Que. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press) Prime Minister Justin Trudeau listens to a question during a town hall in Sherbrooke, Que. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

Oh, hi there, Prime Minister Trudeau, or as we say here in the Townships, “hi there.”

You see, Justin (may I call you Justin? I think I may), the Eastern Townships is a pretty easygoing place when it comes to the whole English-French thing. Certainly we’ve had our battles – sign complaints, bilingual status debates, health care access. But for the most part, even during difficult times, both linguistic communities have been fairly even-tempered, dare I say cooperative.

Just ask around, and by that, I mean ask the endless stream of your political peers who have stood before English audiences over the years and reminded them of how tolerant and open this community is – as if we needed reminding from politicians, whose goal is actually to demonstrate how tolerant and open

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A big blue map!

While looking at the personal website of a potential source, I discovered this really cool embedded map app that allows you to highlight every place you’ve visited. Unfortunately, unlike the late, great Facebook “Where I’ve Been” map app, there’s no place to put places you want to go or places you’ve lived vis places you’ve passed through, and countries like the US, Canada, Brazil,the UK etc aren’t divided into provinces. But it’s still fun. I wonder what the next country I fill in will be? 😉

Ruby Irene Pratka’s Travel Map

Ruby Irene Pratka has been to: Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Belgium, Burundi, Belarus, Canada, Switzerland, Serbia and Montenegro, Cuba, Estonia, Spain, Ethiopia, Finland, France, United Kingdom, Croatia, Haiti, Iceland, Italy, Lithuania, Latvia, Morocco, Montenegro, Netherlands, Puerto Rico, Serbia, Russia, Rwanda, Slovenia, Ukraine, United States.
Get your own travel map from Matador Network.

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Word of the Month…

Happy January, ladies and gents and humans of all genders!

I’ll just leave this here…thanks Mom for sharing.



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Obligatory New Year post 2/2: Year in Review

*EDITED, Jan. 1, 11:00 p.m.*

2016 was a tough year.

Ever since the deaths of Alan Rickman, David Bowie and Prince practically coincided with the Brussels airport bombings, the Zika crisis and the Fort McMurray wildfires, everything is 2016’s fault. And this was before the Orlando gay bar massacre, Muhammad Ali’s death, Brexit, the Bastille Day truck attack and the wave of migrant deaths in the Med, some of which I saw with my own eyes.  My boss in Bujumbura, the Burundian journalist Vincent Nkeshimana (link in French), died at a point when a steady hand like his was what his community needed most. We also lost the Iwacu journalist Jean Bigirimana, presumably assassinated, and our friend Bélinda Munyana. The election of Donald Trump– a candidate who had by any measure insulted Mexican-Americans, Muslims,  veterans, women and people with disabilities, spouted bizarre generalizations about black Americans and enabled white supremacists– seemed like the twisted culmination of it all.  There were brutal crackdowns on dissent in Turkey and Burundi (link in French); the Philippines continued its scorched-earth war on drugs. South Sudan faced mass starvation. Holocaust survivor and writer Elie Wiesel, the author of “Night,” died. We lost many of the members of Russia’s Alexandrov Ensemble (better known as one of the two ensembles of the Red Army Choir), elite musicians who were as spellbinding when performing Russian folk songs like Kalinka as they were covering Get Lucky by Daft Punk , Spanish folk songs or the national anthems of visiting delegations. More than 70 people, members of a Brazilian football team and their entourage, were killed in a senseless plane crash.   Leonard Cohen and Sharon Jones passed away in the week that followed the US election, and more than a few people thought, “Good for them, they won’t have to live in a post-Trump world.” Around that time, having given up on the year already, I put together the “Loss” triptych.

2016 took on a strange sentience around the time of the elections, and became everyone’s whipping…year? Transferred from a job you liked to a job you hated? Blame 2016. Lose your job? Blame 2016. Get ripped off? Blame 2016. Your significant other leaves you? Blame 2016. Your cat dies? Blame 2016. Get mugged? Blame 2016.  Incidentally, my cat did die in 2016, and I did get mugged, and I’d forgotten about that, amid everything else.

It was the year of Standing Rock, of Black Lives Matter and of the Bernie Sanders splash. Hurricane Mathew devastated Haiti, confirming that island nation’s status as the republic of Can’t Catch a Break. An earthquake obliterated an Italian town. Fidel Castro died. We lost John Glenn, the astronaut, and Gene Wilder, the face of Willy Wonka.  I haven’t read a single article that includes all the deaths of prominent people this year (although this, from the BBC, does come closest, including people  I hadn’t even thought of, such as the inventor of the disposable diaper ). Prominent people and ordinary people met sad ends in distressing numbers. By the time the Berlin Christmas Market truck attack  rolled around, people had gotten so grimly used to this wanton violence that it wasn’t even on the front page of every paper. Al Jazeera considers empathy for refugees as probably the year’s most significant death. The grinding Syrian conflict reduced the world’s oldest continuously inhabited city, Aleppo, to dust (and if you only have time to click one link here, see these before-and-after photos). George Michael, Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds passed away during Christmas week– lest anyone dare to think 2016 was done with this nonsense.  Iconic Toronto discount store Honest Ed’s  shut its doors, leaving a gaping hole in Toronto as far as a lot of people are concerned. And now they’re telling us that 2016 will be a second longer?

True to form, as 2016 was burning itself out, nearly 40 people were killed in a terror attack in an Istanbul nightclub.

On one level, ascribing living-being status to a year is silly, part of the same search for patterns that makes people see dragons in clouds or a crucifix in a potato (link in French). On the other hand, a year has an end date! Sunday, we sleep it off, and Monday, we start fresh.

John Oliver’s exploding 1812 Overture salute to 2016 describes how many of us, myself included, feel about this year. It was a rotter. A lost job, the end of a contract I liked, getting mugged in Winnipeg, repeatedly disability-shamed in St-Boniface, snubbed in Montreal and ripped off in Quebec City, a ridiculous lawsuit against a site I love to write for, a lot of loneliness and questions. On the other hand, it did have its bright spots. I got over the hump of 1000 Twitter followers– that’s got to count for something. It was an Olympic year, and I spent evening after evening watching hypnotic gymnasts, synchronized swimmers and track-and-field athletes. Burundi was in the news for something other than strife as Francine Niyonsaba won silver in the 800m!  I did get to work in the Med with SOS Méditerranée, probably the most life-affirming job I’ve ever had and ever will have. I even appeared on PBS NewsHour defending asylum seekers — couldn’t have seen that coming! I went to Puerto Rico. I interviewed the writer Yann Martel, the poet Ketty Nivyabandi, and Syrian refugees. I broke into Vice, Canadaland and the Huffington Post, and became one of the go-to freelancers covering disability and homelessness. I attended Leonard Cohen’s impromptu vigil. I didn’t meet my Person with a capital P, but I met some lovely people. It was a tough year, but not a total loss.

Depending on how your 2016 went, you may not want to go back over this year. If you do, have a look at these.

The National Post’s snarky lookback, in rhyme and cartoons, at 2016 in English Canada (did I mention we lost Rob Ford, René Angélil, Gordie Howe and Mauril Bélanger?)

Radio-Canada’s own snarky lookbacks, in the form of a very irreverent 1-hour TV special known as le Bye-Bye (link in French, may be geoblocked) and the inevitable satirical year-in-review led by Infoman (ditto). No matter how you feel about our politicians, you really should admire their sportsmanship…

Le Devoir’s Year in Pictures in Québec, Canada and the world (text in French, but who really needs text, right?)

ABC News’ World in Images,  which combines the tragic (aftermath of the Nice attacks, migrants swimming for their lives in the Med) with the reassuring (migrant kids, too young to grasp the magnitude of what their families have gone through, playing blanket toss in a field in Macedonia. The New York Times year in review also includes some beautiful shots from around the world, from the epoch-making (Trump’s and Hillary’s supporters’ faces on you-know-what night, a Cuban soldier mourning the death of Castro) to the quotidian (a Cuban grandmother sweeping out her front room in just the right light).

Getty Images’ wrenching video look at the triumphs and tragedies of this year.  including the moments that gave us hope in 2016.  Here are the stills. 

Huffington Post chose to commemorate the year by showcasing off-the-beaten-track photoessays from minority photographers, many of which have nothing to do with world news (refreshing, hmm?)

I’m not necessarily a Barack Obama fangirl, but for some reason this photoessay of his last year in office, capturing him in and out of work mode, playing with kids and dancing with strangers, stepping out of Air Force One and getting coconut milk all over himself, fascinated me. Right this way to see Barack Obama, the person.

This New Yorker feature on Leonard Cohen, written just before the release of his final album, is probably the year’s best piece of English-language journalism.

I wrote this post in early December about attempts to stop the world from falling apart— please donate money, time or supplies to one of the listed causes if you can!

If you’re a fellow secular humanist, you’ll enjoy the year in science and society as reviewed in this Seth Andrews podcast (if you’ve never listed to Seth Andrews but you are a secular humanist, just follow the link and trust me).

On a lighter note, Huffpost’s video montage of dancing cops, CBC-watching moose and Mounties cuddling beavers will make you hate 2016 a little bit less, eh.

The Onion’s contribution to the deluge of summaries…Worst Things We Spilled on Our Shirts in 2016— this will not end well, but it’s a quick, harmless laugh when you need it most!

And, because we all need it and you deserve it after reading through to the end, all the good things that happened in 2016.

There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in. Over and out.

(Photo credits: Top: photos-public-domain.com. Middle (Francine Niyonsaba): Facebook. Bottom (Leonard Cohen): Rama via Wikimedia Commons


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Obligatory New Year post 1/2: Les résolutions

It’s that time again– the resolution post! It’s out there on the Internet, which means it must be true.
I resolve to:
Stop drinking for at least a month, effective Jan. 1
Find a better-paying, steadier contract.
Write at least one piece or dossier that I can be really, really proud of. I don’t know if I can make it quite this good, but I might as well try 🙂
Work on Kreyòl, Arabic and Russian
Improve time management skills, resist the temptation to do 10 lengthy interviews for a 700-word, 75-dollar piece.
Once time management skills have improved, hopefully I can volunteer more and exercise more!
More writing, more research, more focus, less mindless flitting around the Internet.
I also resolve to put the obligatory Year in Review post up tomorrow morning!
Well, those are my resolutions, what are yours? Perhaps to stop lurking on blogs and finally say hello in the comments? I’d love to hear from you!
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ignorant isolated inhuman

Not everyone gets to spend a nice warm dry Christmas on land. The Aquarius and our colleagues Proactiva OpenArms (link in Spanish) are assisting the boat groups that have the misfortune to be sent out in this weather. Here’s my successor René Schulthoff‘s able response to those who think saving human lives is somehow controversial or even criminal. Also a shoutout to my wonderful Ghanaian sailor friends Ed Akyianu (holding baby) and Francis Mensah (in red work suit) who have, along with their captain and officers (not pictured) transitioned wonderfully from hauling cargo to hauling the most precious of cargo, human beings. Safe passage now.

Please help the Aquarius if you can (link in EN, FR, DE, IT, AR). We are the only full-capacity civilian rescue ship operating in the Mediterranean this winter, despite an unprecedented succession of rescues. In the past, winter has been low season– not now. People are still out there.


It is difficult for me to understand comments on twitter or Facebook of some. Difficult to digest that some people react in an extremely nasty ugly and radical way on our tweets about 112 children women and men rescued on Sea. I don´t get and I will never get it and understand such ignorant and inhuman comments on our tweets or on Facebook.

How far away from reality are these people commenting with hate when humans´lives were saved? Is it their own fear that is reflected or the knowledge that they simply don´t know nothing and do not understand nothing in this world? Is it the selfishness of theses individuals protecting what? Is it their isolation in their small world, never being further than the last street sign of their city or village or country?

Most of the humans we rescue here on the Mediterranean – children women men –…

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