Saturday, January 23, 2010

My Haitian Connection

(Originally written for Root Issues in the Barrie Examiner)

The news from Haiti is particularly poignant for me. For more than half my life, I've been a foster parent to a series of young boys in that destitute nation.

I began when I was only 16. I discovered the biblical idea of tithing - giving 10% of one's income to good works - and made that commitment for the earnings from my part-time jobs. I didn't trust my money to organized religion, with the scandals that seemed always in the news, so I chose a charity I trusted.

I signed up and never looked back. Twenty-seven dollars a month was a lot for a teen, but my job pumping gas provided enough.

My first "son", Jean Phenice Raymond, was only a year younger than me, so I thought of him as a foster-brother. He lived in Jacmel, hometown of our own Gov. Gen. Michaƫlle Jean. A few years later, Jean Phenice turned 18, too old for Plan, so I was assigned another: Jonas Gelin, four years my junior.

After he, too, graduated, his own much younger brother, Evens, became my next foster "child." Their family lived in Croix-des-bouquets, a community just east of Haiti's capital Port-au-Prince.

When Evens in turn outgrew Plan in 2004, my monthly support shifted to another family, that of Valdrist Petite Frere in Sibert, a little to the north-west. Finally my foster child was actually young enough (or really, me old enough) to be my own child, had I become a father in my 20s.

Through lean times at university and then working overseas to pay off student debt, I never lapsed in my monthly support, even as inflation brought the amount up to today's $35. No matter how tight finances were, things for me were infinitely better than for those I helped, and I was glad to be able to give them a chance at a better life.

Plan is not a direct handout to children; the money also provides community support through basic facilities like water and latrines, health and vocational training, and building and maintenance of schools.

You may recognize the names of these boys' towns, because they are near the epicentre of the earthquake. Towns near Port-au-Prince have been shaken to rubble, and Canadian troops are experiencing firsthand the chaos of Jacmel.

I don't expect to hear for several weeks the status of Valdrist or his family. I can only hope they are relatively unharmed, and still housed. I have lost touch with my previous foster children over the years, so I don't know if they still live in their hometowns.

Certainly, the employment situation there was not good, so they may have left seeking work. But since employment elsewhere in Haiti isn't much better, they had hoped to establish small businesses or farms where they grew up.

One of the main goals of Plan is to create sustainable, self-sufficient communities as an alternative to the migration of landless, jobless poor.

It breaks my heart to know that so much of the facilities my donations built over decades were destroyed in mere minutes last week. It hurts even more that the lives improved may be scarred forever - or ended.

Canada will match all individual donations to Plan and other qualified charities up until Feb. 12, so my family will send extra support this month, even though it is a lean time for us, too. At least we still have a roof over our heads, clean food and water, and good schools for our daughters. I hope that, with our help, my Haitian "children" will someday have the same.

Learn more about Plan International at

Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is a teacher, father, volunteer, and politician.

A-bus-ive Transit

This is a letter to the editor I wrote for the Barrie Advance. (For some reason, it also ran in the Alliston Herald).

It was in response to this story in the Advance, which was also covered more briefly by a letter to the editor in the Examiner. My letter was printed alongside an editorial which essentially reinforced my points.


Kudos to The Advance for giving full-page coverage to the plight of mother Joelle Fournier, who experienced great frustrations simply trying to go shopping with her young children using Barrie Transit.

This isn’t the fault of drivers, but a lack of vision in our transit thinking. Public transit was mainly designed for commuters: to carry students to class, and workers to their jobs. It’s not as well suited for other functions.

If you need a bus Sunday, it may run only half as often, or not at all, because most people don’t work or study on Sunday. If you need to get home late at night after having a few too many at the bar, service may have ended for the day.

If you are travelling with young children in a stroller, you’re obviously not commuting, so transit isn’t designed for you. Ditto if you are shopping and want to get several bags of groceries home.

And heaven forbid you try to do both: go shopping with young children in tow.

Our bus system was not designed to replace the car, only commuting. Yet we use our cars for so many more things and those who don’t drive need transit for more reasons. We need a system that accommodates children, families, and seniors.

As a society, we must re-evaluate our entire thinking on public transit and find ways for it to replace more of the trips now requiring a car.

Erich Jacoby-Hawkins
Barrie Green Party

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Latest prorogation is an insult to our democracy

(Written for the Root Issues in the Barrie Examiner)

A smart man once said: “When a government starts trying to cancel dissent or avoid dissent is frankly when it’s rapidly losing its moral authority to govern.”

By proroguing Parliament, the Harper government continues to show contempt for our democratic process. It continues a pattern of avoiding the valid criticisms of question period or awkward demands of investigative committees.

A number of serious issues face Canadians, including our role in preventing or enabling torture in Afghanistan, an economy entering a long, tough, jobless “recovery”, and travel security which clearly isn’t up to the threat of terrorism. Issues such as these must be handled by our elected officials. Yet those officials have all been sent home, essentially on paid vacation, in one of the longer prorogations in Canadian history.

Conservative mouthpieces like Monte Solberg or Patrick Brown would have you believe that this is normal, and an MP’s role in Ottawa is only a minor, almost inconsequential aspect of his job. Far more important, they tell us, is the work done in the riding. I would beg to differ. There is little value in MPs showing up to hand out oversized cheques for photo-ops. New facilities and businesses will open regardless of who cuts their ribbons. Such ceremonial actions are mainly of value to the incumbent, as a way to indicate that he’s engaged with the community, so you’ll re-elect him.

A century ago, prorogation gave MPs a chance to catch up on local issues. But today, MPs have plenty of opportunity to keep up to date with the needs of their voters. As a “perk”, they receive 64 free round-trip flights from Ottawa per year, and unlimited VIA travel. Our own MP has no trouble spending the week in Ottawa and getting back to Barrie for beers at the Queen’s *on a Friday night. And that’s just when Parliament is sitting. There are already many months of the year, Christmas/New Year’s and all summer, when MPs are on recess. More than enough time for them to keep up with what’s happening at home.

But the core of representative democracy isn’t electing someone to represent government to us, big scissors and giant cheques in hand. It’s about representing us to government. We choose our representatives to oversee the legislative process and manage the government on our behalf. Without them, government becomes unmanaged bureaucracy or dictatorship. Our MPs can’t oversee government if they are locked out for months at a time.

The pretext for this shutdown is to allow for “recalibration” on the economy and a break during the Olympics. Again, I don’t recall electing our MPs to watch Olympics from VIP seats, and I am stunned that our government can’t handle the economy while Parliament sits. They can’t walk and chew gum at the same time either? A government generally prorogues having passed most of its agenda. This government hasn’t gotten through even half of it, with most of their much-vaunted crime bills still outstanding. (Just last week our MP’s crowed about the government’s great dedication to fighting crime – as Harper trash-canned over a dozen crime bills.) Clearly this prorogation is a cowardly run for cover, not a “recalibration”.

If this upsets you as much as it should, visit or email and join hundreds of thousands of Canadians expressing their frustration. Attend the democracy rally in Fred Grant Square on January 23. Show that real Canadians care about democracy more than Mr. Harper or his servants.

By the way, the man who made the statement above about losing governing authority through avoiding dissent… was Stephen Harper (April 18, 2005).

*this comment was censored out of the print edition

Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is a teacher, father, volunteer, and politician.

Update: Deborah Anne Butt liked my article enough to quote me twice in her own letter to the editor.