backbencher def; the term dates back to 1855. Not a Front Bench spokesperson, instead being a member of the "rank and file"; A backbencher is not a reliable supporter of all of their party's goals and policies.

Backbenchers may play a role in relaying the opinions of constituents. As backbenchers form the vast majority, collectively they can sometimes exercise considerable influence in cases where the policies of the government are unpopular or when a governing party is internally split.

Monday, 30 May 2016

Raising My Village With Sophie

So there has been much ado about how the Trudeau’s manage their personal, yet very public life in the past few weeks. Among the raised voices that range from the harshest of critics, to those who applaud their efforts and actions, there is something missing for me in all of this noise.

It’s an honest reality check on what it currently means to be a working family in this national village we call Canada and why its gone profoundly sideways.

I’m not talking about opinions on whether or not one’s Prime Minister should take a day off on his own dime during a working trip that includes 14-18 hour days to celebrate a significant personal milestone. I’m also not talking about whether or not it’s appropriate to add additional staff to help Sophie Trudeau manage the new demands of their life in Ottawa.

I’m talking about the assumption, or I’ll be as bold to say the norm, that we all seem to have adopted that the breakneck pace of  “Live to Work” is okay. For many it’s a badge of honour, a show of grit and determination, a benchmark of success. How many of us are just a little bit giddy when we lament on how “BUSY” life is? Sacrificing family is just another part of what you’ve signed on for, right?

But what if you can’t? We are told that it takes a village to raise a child. However what happens when the rest of the village has checked out for a 50-60 hour work week at best, or at worst is juggling precarious work at multiple jobs with erratic schedules?

We all know this, its not new. The village is falling apart.

In traditional societies there is an extended circle of support for mothers so that they can raise their children and contribute to the growth of their community. In this one women are looked down upon if they cannot do it all, or alternatively a mother is judged for trying to make the choice to have both family and career as if it’s a zero sum game. Increasingly for millenials it has become exactly that.

As a single mother to two young children I am constantly confronted with this contradiction in my own reality.  There is a part of me that fully enjoys my role as a parent with all of the responsibility that comes with trying to help my kids figure out their strengths and who they are (albeit without a manual).  Then there is the other part of me that enjoys my life in the workforce, meeting and collaborating with colleagues, continuing to shape my own identity personally and professionally in new arenas.

However as I try to move through that ethereal space called my “career” while riding tandem with single motherhood, I am confronted with the same message time and again.  I’ve had dear friends lovingly say “you can in theory have it all – but certainly not all at once – and maybe not right now”. There are colleagues who have raised eyebrows of my taking professional slowdowns to raise my kids through a divorce. There are the veiled questions of whether or not I can truly be “committed” to my professional responsibilities as a mother in general and as a single parent in particular. There have been times where its made me question my own value when I wanted to fully reenter the “marketplace”.

So I ask? How is one supposed to pursue their potential when the pace of work-life balancing is impossible, coupled with an absentee village of support?

The Kauffman Foundation report “Labor after Labor” outlines the barriers that many women face in reaching their full economic potential in the U.S., and its impact on the success of an economy of growth as a whole.  From gendered roles at home to perceptions of stable employment of women in the workplace. From a pure dollars worth perspective, the numbers are staggering and show how women are literally working around the barriers. With the entry of women into the workforce since the 1970s the US economy has had a $2 trillion growth trend. Between 2007 to 2012 the US charted a 27.5% growth of women owned and driver businesses. 

Even more damning writes Michelle Budig, author of "The Fatherhood Bonus and the Motherhood Penalty,"  is that “working mothers are viewed as more distracted and less productive, while working fathers are viewed as more stable because they have kids to support.”

It seems that more and more small businesses are being started by women between the ages of 20-34 not surprisingly while they are having children. In the need for flexible hours and creating their own work-life balance, women have had to become their own drivers of entrepreneurship without the same resources, mentorship, social or financial capital available to their male counterparts. In short, no economic village either.

Much of the criticism around Sophie Trudeau’s comments for help fell into two categories of debate: 1) Is it her role at all to be in need of additional staff to answer the requests being made of her in the public sphere? 2) Why should the taxpayer be burdened with the bill for additional support for her to meet a need for work-life balance in the Trudeau household? No one considered that official role or not she has value and what to contribute to those many organizations asking for her support.

There was plenty of grumbling that "real Canadians don't live as the Trudeau's do". You're right they don't. None of us live at that level of public service. However that doesn't mean its okay that Canadians in general live in this imbalance - and by voicing it the Trudeau's don't think so either.

In many societies the role of NGOs and charitable organizations fill a tremendous gap in funding for social services, supportive health services, education, culture, welfare and more.  This “third sector” of volunteers and fundraising is often the most important bridge between public and private support for our communities. The voices of influencers and activists who we ourselves admire for their dedication and vision are often the drivers of our support.

If Sophie Trudeau, who has for years backed such groups as Plan Canada, wishes to expand that role, the simple math is that the cost of a staff member, even if on a taxpayer’s budget line, pales in the fundraising capacity of what her time and dedication can give. 

The simple answer is that unveiling the strains that every family faces in this country in finding a work-life balance by openly talking about it will advocate for new ways to change it. It can create the bridges needed to fund and support it not only from government but from all sectors of society, from how we view work to how we value it in every family structure.

So if it means that in this village, raising my children mean’s raising the Trudeau’s too – I’m fine with that.

Wednesday, 4 November 2015

November 4 – Two Decades Two Leaders Two Countries

I am always fascinated when the two worlds that I live in – Israel and Canada converge.  Sometimes they collide bringing forth startling contrasts and similarities that leave me stunned.

Today I watched change happen amidst the faces of the crowds at Rideau Hall with the ushering in of a new Prime Minister and a new era in Ottawa. Justin Trudeau, young, offering hope and real change is the son not only of a Canadian Prime Minister. He swept the country up into his embrace that he is a son of Canada. With him he brings a message of a Canada that is multicultural, inclusive and tolerant. We witnessed the democratic process in action and with Trudeau’s swearing in his vision of Canada rang clear through his Cabinet. His response to the media of why this group diverse of leaders? Because it's 2015. The country breathed a sigh of relief - the wait was over.

20 years ago on November 4, 1995 I was living in another country. Swept up by the hope of peace and change under leadership of Yitzhak Rabin I had moved to Israel only months before. Just over a year earlier I had met him at a conference where he asked me “Why are you fighting for Israel here? Come home.” And I did. Yitzhak Rabin was brought back into power in 1992 on the slogan “Israel is waiting for Rabin.” Israeli born and a member of the young guard, he was first elected in the 1970s. His “comeback” at the head of the party in the early 90s was as a leader, protector, and one of “us”. He was a Sabra with a true vision of bringing back stability with the values of a welfare state with neo-liberal principles that would flourish under a new mandate for peace.

Like young Trudeau, young Rabin did not always have a stellar record as a politician. Each came into power with a few hiccups in their past. Nevertheless when the time came for speaking to the heart of the people each of them knew how to connect to the hopes and the dreams of a nation. Rabin captured the heart of Israelis with his no-nonsense quiet statements and a genuine desire to create a better Israel even if it would be difficult. In 1994 having won the Noble Peace Prize he stated “There is no painless way forward…but the way of peace is preferable to the way of war.”  On this day twenty years ago everyone held their breath in hopeful anticipation for peace at that rally, today a nation sighed in hopeful relief for change.

On November 4th 1995 in Israel the nation held its breath and then burst into a cry of horror. In truth, Israel had been holding its breath for months. The pains of making peace were at times nearly unbearable from ongoing terror attacks by Palestinian opposers to peace, to the spiralling rhetoric of incitement from the ultra Nationalist camp. Each side of extremists desperately tried to derail the Oslo Accords at every stage of the efforts at agreement.

Nearly a month before the deadly rally in Tel Aviv ultra Nationalists from the religious right cried out and gathered again and again with images of Rabin dressed as a Nazi SS or as Arafat. Benjamin Netanyahu along with the Likud leadership addressed the masses at Zion Square in Jerusalem weeks prior, while looking on at a sea of posters declaring Rabin was in the “crosshairs” of a sniper. All the while they demanded that Rabin did not have the consensus of the nation. Hateful rhetoric on signs shouted that he had committed crimes against the Jewish people and had blood on his hands. Dead doves were sent to his office. Rabin expressed concern that the level of incitement that had engulfed the country in shouts of anger would lead to dangerous actions. It is haunting now to watch an interview with him just weeks before where he voices his concern and frustration.

20 years later Benjamin Netanyahu is Prime Minister and the level of incitement has lead to dangerous actions that are incomprehensible to those of us who live quiet lives here in Canada. In the last two months the “Stabbing Intifada” of brutal knife attacks and deaths has escalated since September with over 800 violent demonstrations, 75 terrorist attacks against civilians and over 11 Israeli’s dead, with tens more critically wounded. It has lead to Israeli Arab youth stabbing senior citizens, Palestinian Arab teens stabbing Jewish 13 year-olds on bicycles, and Jews stabbing other Jews and mistakenly lynching an Eritrean immigrant out of fear.

At the same time the “Price Tag” movement of Ultra Nationalists from the religious camp have been wreaking a path of incitement and terror that has been escalating under the Netanyahu government for years. From spray painting Arab buildings and mosques with their slogans to increasing their attacks to burning olive trees and vehicles, torching churches and homes. From 2008-2012 there were nearly 100 attacks with 2013 seeing a spike of over 120 in one year. In 2014 there were 78 such attacks including against the Jewish-Arab coexistence Hand in Hand School in Jerusalem.  In July 2015, 18-month old Ali Saad Dawabsha was killed as his house burned.

On November 4, 1995 in Israel I held my breath. Just moments before in his last speech Rabin told the crowd of over 100,000 "Violence destroys democracy. This is not our way." And then violence took him. I waited with dread to know who had stolen my hope? Who had taken my leader, my father, my friend? His assassin believed in a distorted understanding of religion that Rabin was a “rodef" someone who is chasing another with intent to kill, and that the law "din” made him a pursuer or justice in stopping Rabin and by way of his murder, preventing the government from giving away Jewish lands. What his assassin stole that night was not only Rabin’s last breath, but also the hope of a nation that wanted change, a different way of looking at our small slice of reality. His assassin's actions were the price of every hateful word that was cheered at every rally that came before that night. Rabin's was the price of incitement. Both then and now, this is the price when hatred is uttered with every breath instead of hope. 

The Israeli rapper E-Z sings “ I am living between those who have lost hope and those who have lost their minds.” Both nations are holding their breath today in terror and in anger.

So today 20 years later on November 4 2015, I hold my breath in two places at once. Each of these leaders hold messages of hope and of change. I'm left breathless in my memory of a leader who gave me hope that has left an indelible mark that violence and vitriol is not our way, that Israel can have a future in peace, and to keep compassion as my driver for wanting to do better.  And I let out a breath of excitement today for new a leader in Canada who has inspired a generation to choose change too, to do better as "this is what positive politics can do". 

Thursday, 22 October 2015

How Mental Illness Stole My Nephew's Last Hug

This piece was originally published in May 2014. See CTV’s W5 on Saturday October 24, 2015 7pm for a full profile on Borderline Personality Disorder and how the Mental Health system in Canada is and isn’t addressing it. A special thank you to producer Chad Derrick for bringing this issue to light and love to my brave brother in-law Larry Zeligson for sharing Ben’s story.

"We are sold out of hugs at the Hug Store today auntie" those were the words of my then six-year-old nephew nearly a decade ago. He giggled with delight to see my reaction.  "Sold out? How come? Don't you always have a full supply of stock? " "Nope" he dug in - "you need to make a delivery." Our imaginary truck quickly dispatched ten thousand hugs. "Can I buy some now please? About a dozen?" Nope - I need to keep them, I'm afraid I'll run out". No amount of explanations of endless lifetime supplies of love could convince him otherwise. He had to maintain his reserves he explained, his anxiety clearly on display and rising, what if there was a war?

Ben Zeligson had an infectious laugh and a smile that lit up a room. His "orange" hair matched his bright eyes and his fiery curiosity about anything and everything around him. My nephew was by all accounts an exceptional young man filled with strength of character and kindness that left an impression on anyone who met him. His signature warm hugs in greetings and departures accompanied him with every step.

Ben was brave and strong for all the right and wrong reasons. He fought to keep his illness out of his public life to become an outstanding student, a loving cousin and friend, a leader among his peers and a champion of all that is good. He fought against his inner anger and loneliness; he fought against himself, his fears both internally and externally for years. He fought to keep it hidden, fought his family and fought treatment. But while all of these battles were raging inside of him and conflicts with those closest to him struggling to get help, the health system that should have fought for him in this tragic war did not and could not. It was a system that floundered rather than helped. Over and over the family was told that it would have to wait for the "real crisis" to present itself in order to take action, that he wasn’t old enough for the crucial assessments that were needed.

And then the unspeakable happened; our beloved red headed boy lay down and stopped fighting. On April 6, 2014 my nephew shut the door to his bedroom and shut out the world forever. Ben struggled with mental illness for most of his young life and lost his battle with it this past month just after his 15th birthday.

Early diagnosis of mental illness in children is a reluctant journey as developmental changes shift and bend. Health workers are disinclined to place labels and give names to behavioral patterns and indicators. Families are willing to find other reasons early on, from hot headed tempers, to high strung or anxious personalities, family circumstances such as divorce, or external social factors such as bullying can come into play.

However what if the struggle is internal? What if family histories show otherwise? With diagnosis not taking place in many cases until age 10 or older there is little time and there are few options available for those who do not have the financial resources for private assessments and intervention. Mental health care currently works for children and youth once the crisis is in full force.

For Ben there were early signs but few options because the battle was behind an exhaustively controlled set of outside and inside behaviors that were only revealed to those closest to him. He saw his first social worker at age seven. At the time private costs and assessments were the only option to find answers that were unclear.

As he got older there were signs of deeper struggles. His father described Ben as having "two personality platforms" for public and private. Told by health care workers that he couldn't be helped until he was willing to help himself, there were again few options, and many referrals. Lots of intake questions but no diagnostic results and even fewer treatment options.

When Ben unveiled in his death how deep his pain was, the light was harsh and tragic. His pain was visceral to all of us now. We were left grasping for the “why” and to put the pieces together of understanding a system that didn't work in his crisis.

How can a highly functional and exceptional child threaten suicide for 18 months and have it fall on deaf ears at ER? Bound by questionnaires and criteria intake teams are painfully limited under the terms of the Mental Health Act to advise families and make gut instinct judgment calls. The current system and terms of the Mental Health Act are a Catch 22 for youth. How can any child at age 14 who is struggling under the burdens of illness and social stigma be expected to be fully aware of the consequences of refusing treatment and not have access to proper diagnosis?

After much research and consultation with health care workers in other systems, Ben’s father believed that he had undiagnosed Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD). BPD is a serious mental disorder centered on the inability to manage emotions effectively. The symptoms include: fear of abandonment, impulsivity, anger, bodily self-harm, suicidal ideation, and chaotic relationships. BPD carries distinctive traits including consistent presentation in families with histories of mental illness, refusing treatment, highly functioning, self loathing of the rages it brings on and most frightening of all, a high rate of suicide. There were red flags seen within the confines of the family, but in the health care facilities that regularly met with Ben they only saw the outside persona of control, refusal, and the legal barriers to treating him.

From the beginning the system failed Ben. First, it did not diagnose early, as currently BPD is not tested for until age 18. Second, it allowed him to refuse treatment at age 14 when markers indicated the illness was likely present. Third, by not allowing access to the tools that can help with BPD due to his age he was locked out and made to wait. A child at age 14 has to consent for treatment under the Mental Health Act and their decision is treated with the same weight as an adult’s. Comparatively we do not let our children behind the wheel of a car until the age of 16 and then only to a series of graduated licensing levels with the guidance of adults in order to drive a vehicle.

Ben did refuse treatment options and most would not have addressed what his father believes to have been his “true” illness. Instead of better intake and alternate solutions to allow him to trust the process, there was an endless search for help bounced by a system of referrals from Sick Kid’s ER, to Hincks-Dellcrest to Sunnybrook and back. The gaps in the system were evident. He was too young for CAMH, who only allow for intake at 18. CAMH has the critical assessment tools for BPD and extremely limited access to its treatment through Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (there is a one year waitlist for assessment). Apparently mental illness and BPD in particular, has a coming of age start date, although the evidence of broken families and data shows otherwise.

The health system’s crisis mode protocols for youth simply do not work.  My conversations with health care workers from nurse practitioners for trauma at Mt Sinai Hospital, to General Practitioners, and social workers, have all come to the same conclusions: the current system harms more than helps young patients, and there are insufficient resources available and too little is often done too late.

A report from 2010 by the Office of the Provincial Advocate for Children and Youth for Ontario supports these views and goes further to quote that at least in Ontario currently "there is really no such thing as a children's mental health "system" {but rather} Dr. Stan Kutcher commented, "We have a non-system of non-care".  The report goes on to review accessibility, service availability, children's rights and protections. It addresses the mental health needs in children and youth as far greater than the current acute care system can handle. It calls for creating one that can start earlier in developmental stages and allow for intervention far sooner for better prevention and long term health care needs. It is a sobering read.

And if that was not enough to help us fuel a substantive conversation on kids' mental health and what we need to move it forward, here is a jarring statistic that will shed some light into where our efforts are currently placed:
·      1 in 4 Canadians will experience cancer in their lifetime.
·      1 in 5 Canadian children will experience some form of mental illness in childhood and youth.

In Ontario alone nearly 40% of government health care spending is on cancer while funding for children's mental health services equals about 1% of the total health care budget. There are some 500,000 children in the province who need it. It is estimated that about 2 to 6% of the population is afflicted by BPD.  It is more common than schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.
Ben was too young to bear his battle on his own. The decision to discus this publicly came from the belief that striving for mental health and struggling through mental illness should not only come to life because of tragedy.
Mental illness is never an easy subject. It's slowly emerging in open discourse to shed some light on what has been hidden for years in the dark corners of families with whispers, deeply buried grief, and anger as they bear the role of witness and carry the burdens that come with the anguish of their loved ones’ suffering. We can't just talk; the conversation should be with tools of support that can carry through the darkest days of the illness and into the light of help. We lost the battle with Ben, but we can chose to fight differently going forward. By speaking out and making changes we can give others the last hug he so desperately needed.

Postscript: On October 19, 2015 Canada chose to elect the Liberal Party and Justin Trudeau to govern. A key piece of their Health Platform is making high quality mental health services available to those who need them. #TeamTrudeau this is a call to action.

For more information on BDP and how the current system is failing our youth please go to that is working to break the barriers and stigmas related to BDP both in the public and educational settings and in the health care system.

For a recent piece about Ben written shortly after he left us click here.

For more information on Children’s Mental Health in Ontario click here.

Wednesday, 21 October 2015

An (Alternative) Jewish Response to the Morning After Canada Saw Red

The morning after Election Day I opened my Facebook feed to a comment from a friend and fellow parent that their son was being bullied at their Jewish Day school for their parents not voting Conservative. Theyre telling me Trudeau hates Jews and will send us away. My nearly 11-year old daughter received similar sentiments from friends saying Your mom is wrong. Shes going to ruin Israel.

Political debate is a big topic in our house. Whether its who rules the radio in the car, or why occasionally Im the dictator to get us out to school in the morning.  We also talk about governance from driving by Queens Park to discussing Parliament Hill. From who is in charge of what, to equality and respecting others here in Canada and elsewhere. We share thoughts and gut feelings about Israel. From human rights and who we live with in Israel that arent Jewish but also citizens, to who Palestinians are and whats right with what they want and whats wrong with how they go about it.

I returned to Canadian winters from Jerusalem nearly a decade ago to the initial surprise of a Conservative government that was outspoken in its support of Israel. The Jewish community cozied up to this idea like a warm fuzzy blue sweater they could wear proudly.  Over time for many of us in the community the initial warmth wore off and the sweater started to itch, for some it never fit.

But the leadership of the community wrapped itself up in blue. It abandoned almost all pretenses of multi-partisan relationships in the thrill of having a close ear at the power centre. The Conservatives tested the waters of wedge issues and divisive politics in our backyard and started a rift in the community that is now being played out not only at political debates, but on our childrens playgrounds.

The Harper government saddled up and opened its blue sweater for the Jewish community to cuddle into without question. For nearly a decade this government took its cues from the right-wing leadership in Israel to stand still, demand peace and stability while doing nothing to change the status quo on the ground for Israeli citizens both Jewish and Arab. It did little to engage Palestinian leadership or Palestinian society to consider another way or that there would be support from Canada if they did. Arguably the Canadian government gave a nod to the Netanyahu governments attempt to create second-class citizens through the Nation State Law that triggered an election and followed suit here with such bills as C-24 and C-51. It took a page from Netanyahus playbook of the fear of Israeli Arab support for the Left on election day in early 2015 and translated it into wedge politics and fear mongering over the niqab, creating a maelstrom of debate over an article of religious clothing worn by some 300 Canadian women out of a population of 35 million.

Our leadership chose to get comfortable with a government driven by secrecy and division, managing power bases in different corners rather than seeing itself in service of its citizens. We were one of many communities pegged as being a single-issue constituency from a strategy perspective. The Jewish community chose optics of Israel support with grand speeches and deflection of issues on international stages whose sum was mostly diplomatic rhetoric and sabre rattling. Canadas foreign policy legacy as a peace builder for rapprochement and trust building was kicked to the curb for cheerleading events in the Knesset. Canada is not Israels only ally. It does not provide it with weapons or aid packages, it does not go to bat at the table with Israels foes to attempt to create a better neighbourhood for the only democracy in the Middle East to live in. In great part because this government chose not to. It chose to disengage on the world stage, and so did we in making our presence heard in all Canadian political forums.

For many in the Jewish community the Conservative sweater became unwearable in the face of discomfort with Netanyahus policies. And yet the Jewish community leadership here sat back did little to hear or promote multi-partisan support even when it was spoken loud and clear by the NDP or Liberal Parties. It didnt encourage us to listen when Trudeau resolutely stated #EnoughisEnough regarding BDS on Canadian campuses or that support for Israel is a moral imperative not a partisan one. When Mulcair spoke openly against BDS and made clear the party position on Palestine, the Jewish community leadership gave it a skeptical nod and no comment.

Leadership and a passion for values starts at home. As a member of the Jewish community here in Canada and as an Israeli citizen teaching my kids Jewish and democratic values it starts with what I can offer them as examples of leadership from my community and our government representatives.

I have spent the better part of three months working on the campaign of a Liberal candidate in a key Jewish riding. During that time there was little engagement or debate with others in my community on the values of the Liberal platform or what the constituents of the riding Jewish and non-Jewish needed from their representative. Instead on many occasions myself and other hard working volunteers were called Anti-Semites, my candidate was declared a traitor and the leader of the party a terrorist who consorts with Iran.

It would be easy to say that the Conservative party under Stephen Harper used his principled brand of Zionism to support Israel as much as it was about domestic advantage in a small but wealthy key constituency. Its simple to say that Harper hijacked Jewish Zionist identity in Canada. However it goes much deeper into the roots of leadership of our community. We got lazy under the cozy sweater we were offered and stopped making Israel a priority at every table. Instead we curled up on the couch, drunk on support that became intertwined with whiffs of overt vitriol amongst community members and at times laden with comments that bordered on intolerance at best and racism at its worst. Many a day I felt almost bullied into silence for having the values that I hold dear both living in Canada and Israel.

We can and must do better. As a Jewish community we have benefitted and thrived in an open, multicultural and democratic society. As a community we have a responsibility to put Israels interests at the forefront of our political involvement with the government of the day like any interest group in Canada. But just as we need to station our interests firmly in the political playground that is Canadian politics we need to do it with the understanding that the more groups we engage with the stronger our voice can be heard. We have to talk but we also have to listen. We are a community embedded in strong values of equality, diversity, empathy, compassion and respectable debate. We are a people whose values include rising to the call to action and pursuing ways of peace. These are Canadian values too.

The fuzzy blue sweater didnt fit me or many others in our community.  Its up to us not to bemoan the change of government but rise to the opportunity to be rodfei shalom  רודפי שלום (pursuers of peace) for the land that holds our hearts in the East from here in the true North. Its up to us set an example of integrity for our community and for our children of what leadership and advocacy is and what we can do when empowered for the greater good.